The murderer stood on Beattie’s doorstep. The night beyond him was dark and wet and rivers of water ran down his face, plastering long strands of hair to his forehead.
“I need your help.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the man seemed to realise how pointless they were. He reconsidered, gave Beattie the benefit of what he supposed was a conspiratorial grin; what appeared on his face was certainly sly enough, and tried again.
“I have need of your services.”
“And why else would you be here.” Beattie inclined his head and turned back from the doorway. The man closed the door at his back and followed Beattie, down the dark hall to the sitting room. He caught the towel that Beattie threw at him and gratefully wiped the water from his face and hair. He sat himself down on one of the easy chairs and watched Beattie’s look of disapproval as a pool of water immediately began to form on the stripped wooden flooring.
“What if I said I was out of the game now? That I retired with your old man?
“I would say that the game wasn’t one you could get out of. People like me know too much about what the game was.”
Beattie was surprised by none of this. There had been a brief time of hope after Mister Gilbert’s sad demise but the son had always been the sort of loose end he couldn’t quite avoid contemplating. He remembered the son’s frightened face the first time Gilbert brought him along when he done the deed. Why would anyone want his fourteen years old son to experience something like that, but Gilbert was hard to the core and wanted his son to take over the business when he was through.
Beattie could have told Gilbert at the first time of asking that it wasn’t going to happen. One of the things Beattie respected about Gilbert was that he wasn’t a frequent visitor and didn’t pressure the situation. Gilbert’s business being as it was he would still call on Beattie’s unique services every couple of years or so and those latter times, the son was always present. Things didn’t get any better for him; the last time the boy had been physically sick in the basement. Gilbert looked embarrassed, the first time Beattie had ever seen that expression on his face; he didn’t think it was a look many people would have witnessed. “He takes after his mother; she was always a soft one.” The fondness in his voice reminded Beattie that Gilbert’s wife was one of the few deceased acquaintances of the old man that he hadn’t been introduced to, post mortem.
The boy’s lack of appetite had been Beattie’s one hope of a peaceful retirement yet here he was, less than six months after his father’s death, on his doorstep, soaking wet.
He sat down himself and looked across at the boy. He was still leaning forward in the chair, his whole body tensed, while water continued to gather at his feet. Beattie would need to take a cloth to that once the boy had gone. The boy was very close to panic. It occurred to him that this wasn’t the result of a business event. Which brought another thought to Beattie’s mind.
“Your father always paid well for my services.”
The boy jumped, almost as though he had been struck. “I have got money. Don’t worry about that; I’ll see you get paid okay. Whatever the going rate is.”
Did he think Beattie did this as a matter of course for anyone who happened by? There was no going rate; Gilbert had been Beattie’s only customer. Gilbert paid Beattie a handsome retainer, as well as paying for his services when required to stop him losing interest between times, because his needs were so infrequent.
Still, he nodded. The younger man took this to be a sign that he could rush ahead. “Right, I’ll go and get it.” He made as if to rise from the chair. Right there, he was ready to go.
Beattie shook his head. “S’not how it works.”
Panic suddenly and he was on his feet now, shaking as he leant over Beattie who still sat. “There’s no time. This has got to be done now. I can’t hold on to it.”
“S’not how it works.”
Beattie waited, again. Eventually the other man tired of standing there, getting nowhere, and walked over to the door. Then he went to his seat and sat down.
“So how does it work?”
“What would happen was that your Dad would ‘phone me, usually late at night, once I think early morning, but otherwise late at night. That was normally when these things took place, how they were arranged. Anyway, early morning or late at night, it didn’t matter, as long as I had time to set things up. There’s one or two things I have to do, away from here, so that things go properly. I would attend to those and then the next evening he would come round and we’d get the thing done.” Beattie made a washing motion with his hands. What Beattie didn’t say was that the first contact from Mister Gilbert normally came before the package was even available. A reasonably cryptic reference, as Gilbert had respect for Beattie’s sensitivities, possibly something about, “One of Charlie Nixon’s boys overstepping the mark or Charlie needing to take a loss.” Something like that, always with the correct measure of regret at what he would have to do, and always one of Charlie Nixon’s men, never an innocent.
Beattie had never met Charlie Nixon, had never even seen the man; Gilbert kept him well away from his business rival. All he had was Gilbert’s description of the man’s dead eyes and his soft hairless skin. The way Gilbert described him made Beattie ask if he preferred boys. Gilbert said he’d thought about it but as far as he could see the only creature Charlie showed any affection for or interest in was a big poodle that was often by his side. Gilbert and Charlie, and their teams, had wrestled for control over the south of the city for thirty years. Now Charlie had it all.
“So tomorrow night then.”
“Gimme a sec.” Beattie finally got up from his chair and went over to a writing bureau. Opened the lid and rummaged briefly before finding a small book. He examined it briefly. “We would be better being a bit lateish. Not my preference. You be outside the door, you remember where to come?” A nod in reply. “About two thirty, okay?”
The two men didn’t shake hands or even acknowledge that the brief meeting was over. The murderer got up, and walked down the hall. Back out into the dark rain without looking back. Beattie watched him go.
Beattie was under water. Not drowning but not breathing either. Just suspended there, with tendrils of the hair he hadn’t possessed in years floating up in front of his face. It was the sort of dream where you knew you it was a dream you were in but you still couldn’t get out of it. Above him, out of the water but drowning more than he was, a dozen faces hung, caught motionless in their own still water. Each of them looked down at him and asked why; why have you made me disappear?
He opened his mouth to explain, to answer the allegations, but this was always when the water rushed in. He woke up choking and coughing. The pillow was wet under his mouth. The dream was gone but the dread was still with him. Where was the excitement he used to feel when he was about to do a job for Gilbert?
The heavy rain of the night before had abated to a sullen drizzle by the time Beattie left his house next morning. The dread of the night before had also declined, in his case to a lingering unease. He wore a long overcoat and carried a canvas bag in his hand. He crossed the river and walked through Glasgow Cross, past the Tollbooth and continued up High Street towards the Cathedral. Just south of the great church, he cut through the square and crossed a bridge that led to an ancient graveyard. Instead of entering the cemetery he turned to his right and went down a set of wide steps towards the roadway beneath the bridge. He walked back down beside the road for several yards until he came to a set of stairs, almost obscured by bushes. Checking in all directions that no one was walking near to him, he quickly descended the steep stairway. An old steel door was set into a stone wall at the foot of the stairs. Beattie opened this with a key and re-locked it behind him. He didn’t want anyone following where he was going.
A set of iron rungs in front of him led further downwards. As he slowly descended, now testing each rung before trusting his weight to it, a caution he could never remember observing previously, he could clearly hear the roar of rushing water from last night’s rain.
His foot reached for the next rung, found there was no more and instead encountered the concrete shelf that ran above the watercourse. He left the ladder and pulled a torch from his bag. The light displaced total darkness and showed the water running clean below his feet. Above a curve of brick showed the culvert that supported the road above.
He began to follow the water downstream. This was the Molindinar Burn, an almost mythical water feature in the Victorian city. Running between the Cathedral and the city’s graveyard, this was Glasgow’s River Styx, separating the metropolis from the necropolis, the city of the living from the city of the dead. Beattie had just walked across the Bridge of Sighs, dating back to before the river was covered over to form the roadway.
Beattie felt slightly more cheerful now that he was underground. A solitary rat ran across his foot as he continued downstream. The red brick above his head was replaced by concrete as he entered a more modern section of the culvert. In front of him the single tunnel split into two. The vast bulk of the water headed off to the left, as it normally did, except when Beattie needed it to go right. He took a large metal tool from his bag, like a crowbar but machined at one end. This fitted into a mechanism at the mouth of the tunnel to the left. Beattie began to push on the tool, eventually leaning on it with all his weight. Gradually, something began to move; a paddle underwater changed direction and began to divert a quantity of water. When Beattie judged it sufficient, he stopped. He wiped the tool down and put it back in his bag. With the reduced flow of water he was now able to continue down the left hand tunnel. Touch slimy underfoot though, he still didn’t want to slip into the water that remained.
Fifty yards further on, another set of rungs in the wall and Beattie was once more above ground. He slipped onto Duke Street and began to walk briskly back towards the city centre. The rain had stopped for the moment although the clouds were still heavy overhead.
Beattie took a small parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with string from his canvas bag and held it in his hand as he cut through a courtyard close to the merchant city. At the far end of the courtyard there was a double set of doors, painted green. One side was open; nevertheless Beattie checked the lock as he went through. There was no sign of it having been updated or changed. Inside the door a man in a boiler suit was putting up a stepladder. Several fluorescent tubes lay on the floor beside him, still in their cardboard boxes. Beattie waved his parcel at the man.
“Can I leave this for Frank?”
The man looked at him. “Frank’s gone. That’s why I’ve got to do this stuff.”
“What happened to him?”
“Cut backs.” The man laughed suddenly. “I suppose they found out that all he did was sleep all night in his room there.”
Beattie shrugged his agreement. He knew from experience this was true. “So what do they do now?”
“Some contractor or other. They just drive by from time to time. Give the doors a rattle. You wanting to leave that with anyone else?”
“No, you’re okay. Just something I borrowed a long time ago.”
Beattie walked down to the riverside and peered over the railings. He fancied he could see an extra bit of disturbance where the burn entered the river deep underwater. The river was running fast and high today so it was difficult to be sure. After that he went home.
Just after one o’clock the following morning, Beattie left his house and walked across the river. The rain had cleared away altogether and the moon was visible through the lighter clouds. Beattie could still smell the rain beneath the city streets. He was feeling good now, some of the old excitement finally coursing through his veins. Part of it was being out and about at this hour, while the city slept. Sleep had come easily to him earlier in the evening and now his senses were fully alert.
Cutting through the courtyard off the Trongate as he had done earlier in the day, Beattie found a sheltered doorway, not the one with the green doors, and slipped into the shadows to wait.
From time to time the beam of light from a car’s headlights would flash across the walls of the buildings surrounding the courtyard as a vehicle turned in the street beyond and once, the sound of voices in the tunnel leading into the courtyard caused Beattie to shrink further into the doorway and prepare to shield his face with the collar of his coat. Two voices, loud, then they stopped and Beattie could hear the sound of streams of water hitting the cobblestones. Just two drunks, relieving themselves on their way home.
At half past two exactly, a car pulled into the courtyard. Beattie emerged from the doorway and waved the vehicle to a spot clear of where they were going.
While the other man was parking the car, Beattie used a key to open one of the green doors. The other man had the back of the car open and was pulling a body bag awkwardly from the boot. Beattie nodded his approval. At least some of Mister Gilbert’s craft had rubbed off on the boy. He wondered if the bag was from Mister Gilbert’s stock. He always took the bag away with him but told Beattie he burned each one individually, in a fire along with waste from his large garden. It was little details like this that made working with Gilbert worthwhile. Like the way he would always arrive on time, in his black Volvo estate, with the tinted side and rear windows. At this point Beattie would walk towards the black Volvo and together they would carry the body through the green doors and into the building, all the while listening for any movement from the inevitably sleeping Frank.
No Frank tonight. He found he rather missed Frank. A quick listen outside the watchman’s little room, heated by the single bar of an electric fire, a radio playing and gentle snoring, helped along by a half bottle of whisky someone had left for him earlier in the day.
He didn’t feel like going over to the car and helping the boy either so he waited by the door. As it turned out his help didn’t seem to be required anyway. The body bag was floppy and awkward to carry but looked smaller than normal and didn’t appear to be too heavy either. Beattie wasn’t sure he liked what any of that might mean.
He waited while the boy manoeuvred his burden past him then re-locked the green doors. The boy seemed to know his way and Beattie followed him. The corridor was suddenly flooded with light. Beattie caught the boy and pulled him to the floor.
“What is it?”
“Security, they won’t come in. Did you lock the car?”
The doors did actually rattle. How did the man in the building during the day know they did that?
The vehicle eventually moved away. They didn’t go near the car. The two men got up from the floor. Beattie led this time, the man following with his burden, which Beattie still hadn’t touched.
Through another door and concrete steps led down to the basement. It was cold here and dark; Beattie had his torch out again to light the way. The floor was flagstones; through into another room and one of the flagstones had an iron ring embedded in it.
Another tool from Beattie’s canvas bag; a short metal pole with a hook on one end. Beattie used it to hook round the ring and heave the flagstone upright; he flipped it over silently. He shone the light of his torch down onto the rushing torrent of water below; which they could both clearly hear the roar of in the small room. ‘I did this,’ he always thought to himself, when he looked down there.
He turned back from the hole in the floor. The boy had set the body bag down at his feet. With Mister Gilbert, there was always a curious intimacy to this moment, an intimacy that Beattie was sure wasn’t shared with anyone else.
Mister Gilbert would kneel down now, almost reverently, beside the body bag the two of them had carried this far, and then after a moment’s silent meditation, would begin the careful process of unzipping the bag. A man’s body would be revealed, normally well dressed, in a dark suit and tie. The way business was carried out in those days. The cause of death would normally be apparent on the forehead or the chest, or more occasionally about the neck. Mister Gilbert would give them a brief epitaph. “A good man, I wished he had worked for me,” or perhaps, “This one over stepped the mark,” and once, more cryptically, “Too fond of the horses.”
The boy didn’t inspire the same feeling of intimacy as he quickly tugged at the zip that bisected the bag. It stuck several times in response to his hurried treatment, but he finally completed the exercise and pulled the bag apart to reveal the body within.
Beattie found that he was spellbound, nevertheless. This hadn’t been a neat, well-organised demise of the kind he was used to. The body was damaged in several places, like it had been savaged by something.
“Aw, Jesus, what are you doing with this here?”
“Will it go okay? I mean with the lack of weight and everything.”
“Well you could have told me. That would have helped. Jesus Christ.” He found himself looking at the boy with surprising affection. “What are you doing here with this? You could have called a vet, for heaven’s sake.”
“It’s Charlie Nixon’s.”
“What are you doing with Charlie Nixon.”
“Nothing, I mean nothing deliberate. He wanted some papers of Dad’s. Wanted them a lot; with threats of violence. I wasn’t going to argue. I gathered them up and took them over to his house. Scary experience. Then on the way out of his drive, in a hurry. Flung it in the back of the car and scarpered. If he ever found the body, and he would, he would know it was me.”
“Aye, he loved that dog.”
Both men were laughing as the big poodle’s hairy and blood stained body hit the water.
“Son, I’ve always wanted to fling a live body down there. Do you know what I’m getting at?”
“I won’t be back, Mister Beattie.”
Born and brought up in Glasgow, Alan Brough now lives in Argyll. He is the author of many short stories, both published and unpublished.