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A good start to a novel (shortlisted CWA Debut Dagger)?


“Get yourself up, di’ye hear?” Ma Moore’s brogue booms from the foot of the stair. “

I don’t know why I bother,” she says to someone else. “He’s been up there since Hogmanay, four days talking to himself, no bloody life.”

A shiver courses up my arm, the one hanging out of the bed, fingers like ice; the rest wrapped in a cocoon of blankets and coats, tight like a mother’s shawl.

“Just leave me in peace,” croaks from beneath the clothing-bank. “I’m sick.”

“A bloody cold, Murphy,” she bellows. “Sick me arse.”

My head peeps above the coats to look through ice covered window. “Typical Glasgow night, dreich as sleet, cold as death, unforgiving as spite. I’m staying put.” The head submerges again.

“They delivered your booze,” Moore says. “That’ll get him up.”

“My order’s arrived?”

The coats lower revealing my face. Extricating from the humpy, I shimmy my legs from the bed, sit up, and put the back of the hand to the brow, followed by a thermometer pushed under the tongue. “Feckin’ flu, no doubt.” The bedside lamp grasped turns a harmless dark space into a danger zone. Reality kicks in as the shambling wreck gets onto its legs, lifting a coat or two from the bed to rewrap it. The lino is cold on its bare feet as it slips on the worn sheepskin slippers. I straighten the half shape to orient by the light giving shadows.

The thunder rumbles again. “Do you bloody hear me, Murphy? Are you coming down?”

She’ll send him away, she’s done it before.

“Just pin him down long enough for me to get there,” returns, fumbling with my trousers to find a crumpled twenty. “Be easy for you, ex pro wrestler.” I stack another coat over my shoulders and shuffle through the sitting room. “Head scissors used to be her trademark.” I get into the hall, then to the door of the flat, exposing only enough skin to turn the key and open it. “Don’t send him away, you’ve done it before. I don’t want to go to Oddbins in this weather.” I push back the rolled-up draught-blocking rug with my foot and go out to the top of the stairs. “Been bloody conned,” I carp. Moore is down there, right enough, but so is Paula, my erstwhile colleague in crime, and one time spouse. “Just what I need, the thought police.” To me, DCI Paula MacInnes, Glasgow Pitt Street, appearing at my door always meant, “Big feckin’ trouble.”

“And a Happy New Year to you, hermit,” she says, in that smart-cop-brass necked-kind of way. “No’ answering your phone these days, nor your door intercom?”

“Might’ve done so, had it been a nice kindly woman, no’ an annoying bad-hat like yourself. Why’re you invading my privacy?”

“Privacy? Hibernation, you mean.”

“What I do in the comfort of my own home is my affair.” I rest my elbows on the bannister wishing it were a bar. “Comfort being a generous term,” I lob. “Anyway, I may have the flu.”

Ma shakes her head. “And who did you catch it from, the close cat?”

“Why are you here, Paula?” he asks.

“Just a multi-fuckin’-murder,” she says, in the way I well remember.

“Oh, fine,” I say, sweeping my coat around like a Shakespearian actor’s cloak.

“Not wanting to hear the gory detail?” Paula winks at Ma Moore.

I turn to head back to the flat. “Not the least bit interested.”

It doesn’t stop her though. “There’s a psycho in Glasgow,” she says with sufficient gusto.

“There’s one here too.” I nod towards Ma.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Moore gives one of those faces.

“He’s one of yours,” Paula says.

“Nothing to do with me.”

“This guy does it in groups.”

“So do swingers.”

“On the hill in Kelvingrove Park, an elderly councillor, her husband and her son.”

My ears perk up. “Three, when?”

“Couple of hours ago.”

“It’s not my stuff no-more.”

“I need you there wi’ me.”

She wants you there wi’ me.

“Paula, this shrink retired on health grounds, mind?”

“I mind.”

She waits for it.

“Not that our breakup had anything to do with it, oh no.”

“Murphy, we need to get over there; right?”

There’s no contest between the park and my bed. “I’m ill.”

“Aye, a walking liver disease. Your car’s waiting, sir.” The woman with no sympathy for my sorry state.

“What’s it to you,” I say, defeated. I go back inside, but not before a defiant thrust. “Aw shit, be good to get the fuck out of this igloo—” I shiver as the coats fall to the floor as I put on a shirt. “—into a warm bar.” I struggle with the Docs. “Where I can find some feckin’ privacy.” The last word ricochets down the stairs.

I sit, take a breath and span the room. I raise my eyes to look, as if it’s the first time I’ve noticed the mess. I’ve been here since my last high, since I hit rock bottom. Self-produced paintings adorn the walls: a tiger, a great white, a mosquito – killers all, remnants of an old hobby and a retreat from a stressful profession. Scattered books and textbooks mainly, lie across the floor; remnants of a life of analysis. An old winged-back chesterfield chair, like myself that has seen better days, takes centre stage. A drained glass lies on its side on the table, flanked by a platoon of empty bottles, to remain in attention until my weekly environmental health sojourn, forestalling an invasion of flies, rats… social workers.

“Forty-nine-year-old, divorced, ex-professional man, living in a shitty Partick pied-à-terre, and that’s why I talk to myself.”

They raise their eyes simultaneously.

“You’re a Doctor, Murphy,” Paula lobs back.

“Aye, but not the medical kind, not of the body—”

“You’re a doctor, the mind, how it works, a PhD.”

“Erstwhile, failed psychologist. I know my worth.”

I was a psychological adviser, with an ability to track those who left something of themselves behind: patterns, characteristics, sometimes clues. Men with distinctive ways and traits, types so dissimilar to their normal fellows, that the broad indiscernible road, in ever diminishing breadths, often became a well-worn path.

Though it was never enough for me to find the man and establish who he was, I needed to know why: why he did what he did. So much so it made me sick, sick of it and him too. My men fell into similar patterns: been caused pain - will cause pain; been controlled, exploited, manipulated - will control, exploit, manipulate; no one cares for me - I don’t care for others; people hate me - I hate them back; life hasn’t given me anything - I’ll take what’s mine by right. My job became a drudge. Then simultaneously, my illness and the voices arrived, invading me, tormenting me.

“It drove me mad.”

“It made you bad, Murphy.”

I had always hoped there would be one in particular, one who would interest me more than the others. But this one who could get to me, get into me, damage me. I feared this, but so great my interest, my perverse interest, I… wanted him.

“Me, bad?”

“You were on the crest of a wave, in the Polis, wi’ me.”

“I became ill.”

“You became… different.”

Shoes tied and jacket buttoned, I mosey down towards these sentinels of my sure destruction. “I am not up to this.” I pull my scarf from the coat rack, wrapping it python-like around my neck. “I just hope you’re no’ taking the piss.”

“The car’s out there, hon.” Paula fears a last stand at the door. “Just get your body into it.”

I realise the futility of an argument. “Yes, boss, abso-feckin’-lutely.”

“I see you’re in your working gear; you going begging?” Ma asks.

“It used to be a white suit.”

“Before it was a tablecloth in a curry house.”

I scowl at her and notice Paula’s wellies, replacing her customary Prada heels.

“Guess we’re going to look at corpses.”

“And where do we normally find them, Murphy?”

“Parks, gardens, lochs, woods….”

“Right.”

Ma holds open my black Crombie, awaiting my arms, then adds my Derby tweed bunnet, an Oxfam purchase. “I’ve been worried about you,” she says, through cig gripping lips, then folds her arms in a wee-washer-woman-way.

“I’m alive, alive oh,” I say. “From Glasgow’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty, shame about you.”

I get in the back of the car, pulling the door behind me. A uniform is behind the wheel as a group of weans gather around the car. “Check your wheels,” I say.

“Just your reputation for being a fool, Murphy?” Paula says from the front.

“Aye, right, dear,” I say. “In this place, a polis car equals entertainment.”


Klaxon blaring, the car batters through early evening traffic, heading along Dumbarton Road. I’ve been on these journeys before. Courtesy of the ever-resourceful Glasgow cabs, I’d always slow my arrival at an incident to just behind the paramedics. “I’m no good at stemming blood,” I’d often say.

On route, I’d be on my mobile to Alan, my social worker chum and the leader of the major incident team. He’d a sure and trusted diary, to track the team through wives, liaisons, hotel receptions, and pubs for professionals… professional boozers more like

I close my eyes, push my head back and cover my face with my bunnet.

“Aye, just you take a nap,” Paula says. “You’ll need it.”

Twenty-odd minutes later, the car pulls into the park and stops. Paula opens the door from outside. “Get these on,” she orders, passing in a fluorescent jacket, a hardhat and a pair of wellies.

“Like a mammy wi’ a wean in the rain.”

“No lip Murphy, I don’t need it.”

I nod. It’d only confirm her long-term dominance of me. She introduces DI Ronnie Paterson. He ate all the pies, I think. He’s to be my aide, again ‘no lip’.

Then the walking begins. I don’t need this, albeit I pride myself in having run these paths numerous times in my earlier life. “The old knees are no’ so good these days,” I groan, puffing white frosty breath into the dark.

Paula leads like a girl-guide leader heading up Ben Lomond. “Keep up,” she calls, forging ahead, fit and thin. Ronnie and me falling behind, fat and feeble. This is a bitterly cold night in the city, so say my ever-freezing feet and other protuberances. After ten minutes or so of slog, she points, “up there, on the flat bit at the top, by the floodlights.”

“Who, what?” I ask, hearing the hubbub. I am in no mood to socialise.

“The usual: paramedics, the local polis, firemen, the dog walker who made the first call, some others, and who the fuck else.”

“Fine, thanks,” I reply, wishing I hadn’t asked.

We crunch through icy, boggy ground, moving closer to the lights. From Ronnie’s puffing, I wonder if his rotund body would give up on him and he’d expire right there and then. Then, as if to confirm I am well out of my depth, I slip and slide down the side of an incline. Ronnie grabs for me, but his fingers rip from my coat as I fall.

My fall becomes a toboggan slide halted by an uncomfortable bush. “What the fuck am I doing here?” I get on my hands and knees.

Paula reaches me first. “You alright?” she asks.

“Oh, just hunky-fuckin’-dory,” I reply, sitting in the icy mud.

“I knew this was a ridiculous idea,” says Ronnie, helping me to my feet.

“He’s fine, he’s used to being on his arse,” says Paula, with the concern of a Glasgow bagman.

“Thanks.” I turn to the sound of groaning. “What’s that?”

That is why you’re here,” Paula says.

Ronnie smirks. “We hear you’re good wi’ auld wumen.”

Paula leads me to her. “She’s a city councillor, a kind of mother figure in the council.”

“Coonty councillor and clapped out counsellor, perfect match,” Ronnie says.

I shake my head. “Is that the best you got?” I turn to Paula. “What do you expect me to say to her?”

“Just do what you do,” she says. “Talk to her.”

“Take me home, I’m ill.”

“Listen, you’re here, she’s dying, you need to talk to her.”

“You brought me here to talk to a dying old woman. Why isn’t she in hospital?”

“Listen, Murphy,” she says, into my face. “The medics say if they move her she’ll die on the spot. You’re an incident counsellor. This is what you—”

“Did.”

“Do.”

“I have to do nothing.” But I’m going nowhere without a taxi. “You’ll get me out of here?”

“I will, when you do this. We need what she can tell you.”

How to exploit this once-was professional, emotional blackmail and ego stroking in equal measure.

“OK, but don’t expect me to do anything else. No more, you got it?”

“I got it.”

I move forward to ‘talk to her’, so say the blue serge brigade who have a problem talking to victims.

“Hello Mrs, how you doing?” I say, leaning over her.

She turns slowly to look me in the face. “Well, I’ve been better, son.”

Silly question gets silly response. “Sorry, I was just wondering…”

Her highland vowels merge with the scots. “I do not feel very much. I do not need a doctor to tell me I am done.”

I edge closer to her and as softly as my gruff voice will produce I ask her name.

“Máiréad Morrison,” she says, grasping my arm, trying to pull me to her, like an old lady trying to put ten pence in a wean’s pocket. “My husband and son, they are safe?” I grip her hand gently to say they’re not. “Now, listen to me, I need to tell you,” she says.

“I’m listening Máiréad, take your time.”

She looks at me as if to say she has little time. “There were these men,” she says, “but one of them, this man.”

“I’m no’ the polis, Máiréad. You don’t need to tell me anything. I am just here to—”

“Yes, I know, that’s good, but listen to me.” She’s anxious to get it out. “They came to our house, when we were having dinner, three of them. Two of them had guns, told us to get into our coats, and forced us into a van and brought us here. ‘Get out and kneel down,’ they said. Then he came around to the front and stood over us. He was just looking down on us. She stops, her face grimacing with the pain. “Then he said something, in Gaelic.”

“In Gaelic?”

“Yes, I have Gaelic, I know it was. Highland, I think, or the islands maybe?”

“What did he say?”

“‘In ainm an athar.’ She made a mini sign of the cross. “‘In the name of the father’. Then he turned to me and looked into my eyes, with his eyes, dead eyes, and a funny grin, but not funny if you know what I mean. And then he said ‘brathadair,’ that means traitor; traitor, what would he mean by saying that?”

I shake my head as I see a flash of pain shoot through her.

She presses closer to me, her voice dimming in my ear. “He nodded to one of the men. He came behind me and hit me hard on the back, then he kicked me over the side of the slope, down here. I called out to the others, but there was no reply and I couldn’t get up. Then the police arrived. It was dark and cold. I was scared son, really scared.”

“I’m sure you were, darling.” Blood oozes from a hole in her coat.

As I look down upon her, her soft tones remind him of my mother, dead three years. I sit there holding her hand, her fingers growing cold in mine, the chill ascending her arm. The paramedics move in, to do what they can, but they have no chance. The tears well up in my eyes as the pain builds up in my heart. I can’t stop them, the tears flow down my face, dripping off my chin. I feel the pain of the old woman in my head and in my heart. The darkness descends in my mind and my soul, as I sit there cursing whatever brought us together.

Paula joins us. “She makes the full house,” she says.

I sort out the old lady’s hair. “She is the ace of hearts.”

She looks at me quizzically. “The husband and son are up there, side by side, shot in the head.”

“What do you care?”

“What do you mean?”

“The way you deal with this.”

“We have a job to do, Murphy.”

“Aye, a job to do.”

“You alright, hon?”

“Oh, just dinky-fuckin-doo.”

Ronnie helps me up to the path. I catch my breath. My mobile goes off, ‘Alan’ on the screen. I hold the mobile tight against my right ear, blocking out the whistling wind with my hands.

“Hi, Murph,” Alan says. “It’s good to have you back.”

“I’m not back. It’s not official.”

He’s unconvinced. “Well, we’ll see,” he says. “We’re in a marquee in the car park, with some of relatives and friends.”

“How’s it there?”

“I’ve just talked to her daughter. They were taken when she was out of town. She’s, you know—”

“I know.”

“Her parents and brother?”

“Murdered.”

“Sure, Murph. Anything else, the circumstances?”

“Not my business, you know that.”

“You OK?”

“Just dandy.”

“Sure?”

“Alan, with the greatest of respect, you’re no’ my social worker.”

“Aye, sure, Murph, just phone me later, right.” He switches off.

We return to the comfort of the car park, but the paparazzi is getting through. Paula’s team is yelling above the din, trying to maintain the cordons. Photographers or parasites, my mind flashes to stills of war correspondents taking pictures of victims being shot. Take the pictures, tell the world, or put their lives in danger. A picture is as good as any evidence from witnesses.

I light up and cough, drawing in cold air mixed with smoke. I look up towards the scene. “They’ll be off to the mortuary for forensics, a final family get-together,” I expel with the smoke.

Ronnie arrives and escorts me to the Police trailer. Paula’s there delivering a statement to a BBC Scotland camera team. She’s expressing “deep shock at the heinous and brutal murder of Máiréad, John and Alexander Morrison.” She’s offering “sincere condolences to the family and friends of Councillor Morrison.” She’s in full flow in her best presentational voice. “The investigation is at a very early stage in establishing the circumstances and finding those responsible for their deaths.” She stops to show respect. “Our detectives are carrying out enquiries and gathering details. Anyone with any information is asked to call Police Scotland or alternatively, Crimestoppers, using the usual numbers or online. Anonymity will be protected.” She finishes her statement and makes her way to me.

“What’s the Council saying?” I ask.

She lights up and talks through the smoke. “Well, Muir released a statement from the City Chambers. He expressed deep shock. Máiréad was a respected Councillor, an ambassador for the highland subgroup on the Council.”

“The community’ll be devastated.” I see she’s too tired to enter into a discussion over ethno-politics. “You look well and truly knackered.”

“And you look like shit.”

I wipe my coat and muddy trousers. “I need a drink, you on escort duty?”

“Well, Daniel Craig asked me earlier.” She looks around. “But, as you know, I’ve a soft spot for the afflicted.” She sits on the stair of the trailer and changes out of her wellies into her Pradas. “We’re no’ going to catch the killers here, Murphy.”

“Not in those shoes, Paula.”

“Ronnie, take over,” she instructs. His look says, ‘Aye, on you go, leave it all wi’ me.’ “OK, let’s get out-ta here,” she says.

We weave through the cordons, the line of media and the onlookers; or the ‘disaster tourists,’ as she puts it. We get out onto Kelvin Way. Some people look stunned, locked in, refusing to move; like rabbits in headlights, fearing they’d miss something. We walk to the Lis Mor Bar, only minutes away at Partick Cross. Approaching twelve, the bar is still open.

She reaches the bar first. “Whisky, doubles, two of?” No messing. “OK with you?”

“You know me so well.”

“Whisky of the month, please, doubles?” The bar man nods.

“No ice, waters it down,” I add.

“Delivered, we down it in seconds and order the same before the barman has the chance to put the bottle back on the gantry. It’s obvious to all there we’re from the ‘murders in the park’; something to do with my filthy clothes and our desperate need to get rat arsed.

“So,” I say, “you drag me here, out of my bed. If you wanted a wee bevy, you just needed to ask.”

“I knew you’d be good with the old lady, that’s why.” She slurps two mouthfuls at once. “You’re a useful man, when you’re not depressed, high or pished that is.”

“Depressed and high permitting; but sober, when did that ever matter to you?”

She taps varnished nails against the side of the glass. “I need you sober this time.”

“Look,” I say. “I used to do profiles and therapy, but this is something different and I’m no’ doing it.” My tone is loud enough for the locals to tune in.

“I haven’t asked you to do anything. Being here’s good enough for now.” She looks at me full in the face for two seconds. “You were a bastard, do you know that, a bastard,” she says. “And keep your voice down.”

“I had an illness.”

“You were a drunk.”

“So why are you here. Fuck, come to think about it why am I here?”

“I couldn’t let you die in your hole, Murphy.”

“My hole is quite appealing after tonight’s escapades.”

“I felt responsible, after the breakup. Not that I’m not still bloody angry at your… behaviour.”

I stay quiet for a while, then, “Paula…”

“Please Murphy, no reconciliation,” she replies, groggily. “I need my wits about me before I commit myself again to a booze bag.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.” I drink the last of my glass and see the scorn on her face. “It sorts out my thoughts.”

“Aye sure, been there.”

“Paula, I can’t do this again.”

“What can’t you do again? Us? Me neither.”

“I meant this.” She knows what I mean.

“And what did I ask you to do, Murphy?”

“Talk to the old woman.”

“Right, and what did she say?”

The school-teacherliness pisses me off. It always did. So much so I could have blanked her, but I have to recount Máiréad’s story about the two men with the guns and the other who said ‘the name of the father’ and ‘traitor’ in Gaelic.

“Good, Murphy,” she says, “Now, tell me what I don’t know.”

This challenge gives me a sense of value. It courses across my synapses, stirring me. Something I haven’t had for a while; like an addict’s hit triggering my spiel.

“Well, you will listen to me then,” I say, professorially.

“Here we go,” she says. “Go on.”

I intend to. “Right, this usually hinges on…,” with the assistance of my fingers, “one, the modus operandi; two, the signature; and three, the victim. That is, A, why did he do it? B, what was his mark? And C, why did he choose her, them?”

“Great Murphy, sounds like the old crap you used to talk.” She cools my jets. Her mobile lights up. She answers it. “OK, I’ll be there, soon.”

I shake my head. I know she’ll be off, as she does.

“I need to go,” she says.

“I don’t,” I say, signally to the barman for more.

She gives me a look that says ‘been there’.


I get back at my flat to hit the bottle, with purpose. My illness, though much improved, left residual hallucinations, voices, intractable symptoms. My medication helps, but the drinking prevents it working properly. “I’m self-medicating,” I say to myself, as an excuse to drink. Ironic given I could get rid of the symptoms if I followed the rules set by my consultant psychiatrist, like taking my tablets. I intend locking himself away for a ‘medicinal’ binge, prescribed by a late night Sainsbury’s on the way home. My adventures in a freezing, wet park leave me with a mother of all colds. Still a hot toddy of whisky, hot water and sugar, will be a combined medicine. I wrap myself up in my old tatty robe, which like myself has seen better days. I perch over my halogen heater while sipping the liquor slowly from a cup, stirring it occasionally with a spoon. I sniff, snort and cough in succession. “The flu, no doubt,” I voice into the cup.

Just then Paula phones. “We found a note in the pocket of John Morrison, the father, in Gaelic.”

“Do I really need to hear this tonight?”

“Shut up, you know I have some Gaelic.”

“All swear words as I remember.”

“I also have a phrasebook. Let’s see, In ainm an athar …, the same as you got from Máiréad, and marú,’ which means ‘slaughter’. ‘Slaughter in the name of the father,’ Murphy.”

“Paula?”’

“What?”

“You’re not hearing me.” I cough. “This isn’t for me.”

“Just humour me. You’re between projects. You got a cold?”

“The flu.”

“A cold.”

“Something to do with me being dragged up the park on a Baltic night.”

“You sound bad, you want me to come over.”

“Nice idea, but you’ll catch it.”

“Slaughter in the name of the father, Murph? A message or a statement of intent?”

“Both,” I say with a slurp of the toddy, followed by a sneeze.

“Both, fantastic. Right, we’re taking you on, in a temporary capacity.”

“Paula, this is serious. I don’t, I can’t do, serious.”

“Murphy, listen to me,” she says. “There’s the official investigation, which is my bag. Then, there’s the other, the unofficial, and that’s yours, less serious. Fancy it?” She waits a bit. “Murphy, you can give us something, you know the minds of these people.”

“These people; you’re jumping to conclusions, are you no’?”

“We’ve over a hundred detectives allocated, but you know more about mega killers than anyone in the country.” I coory closer to the heater. “You’re the man to explore the man with the Gaelic.” There’s a pause to replenish the Pinot. “We’ll do the investigation on the crew that did the dirty deed. There’s a big push to bring these guys in, but the Gaelic man’s for you.” Another pause for a slurp. “It’s your chance Murphy, to get back, back. Come on. You’re on the case. Right?”

“To go back to the who and the why would do my head in.” The days when I tortured myself with these demands remain so real for me. “It’d take me back to where I was, and I can’t risk that, you know that. It’d kill me.”

“It would help you, give you purpose.”

“I’ll think about it.” With that, she’s gone.

I pull the halogen heater, the table, the old winged armchair, and the equally old standard lamp, close. On the table are my necessities: a whisky bottle, my whisky toddy, cigs, ashtray, kitchen roll, and a glass. I light up and stare blankly into the dark. By the fourth glass, the alcohol is suppressing the cold; the sneezing and coughing are replaced by my raving. I’m talking to myself and to my pictures.

“Predators,” I slur, pointing my glass toward the pictures, “continually seek out new ways of killing, taking prey, becoming increasingly inventive; success based on learning what works.”

This ‘how people kill’ kindles my interest in a way which finding out ‘why people kill’ doesn’t. I’m stirred by the signatures of prolific killers of the natural world.

The rant arrives. “Orca use waves to wash seals off ice flows into the sea to be taken. Lions stalk and suffocate prey. Crocodiles kill with patience and camouflage. Dolphins corral fish into the head of lochs, with no way out, sometimes driving fish onto muddy banks for capture. Golden eagles come in from the sun to snatch fish from the loch. Only man makes his own species kill. Man’s ingenuity on how to kill knows no comparison in the natural world. We perfected it.” You could hear me thinking. “‘He nodded to one of the men,’ Máiréad said. The Nazis used proxies. They got fellow prisoners to shoot the Jewish prisoners instead of doing it themselves. They were told if they didn’t do it they’d be shot as well.” I drain the last of the bottle in the glass and squash my cigarette into a pile of butts in the ashtray.

I know, though, this would not be a normal investigation. According to Paula, this requires an expert on the mind of a man who would utter those words that fateful night. The expert sips the last of the whisky from my glass. It has the desired effect as I slump deep into my old armchair and fall asleep.

tom o. keenan