BUY ME A DRINK AND I’LL DANCE LIKE A GERBIL - ALASTAIR MCINTOSH
Everyone knew Sammy Bloom. He was the wee old guy who sat in the corner of The Gauntlet from opening time until he was too drunk to stand up. Then he would stagger off home – wherever home was. His party piece, performed before he was too drunk to stand, was a jerky, shuffling dance across the linoleum floor. Someone had once likened it to the hamster dance seen on the Internet. Sammy Bloom was not familiar with the Net, but thereafter would ‘dance like a gerbil’ for whoever bought his last drink.
No one knew much about Sammy Bloom. Joe the Bookie said that Sammy had once been an accountant, until the pressures of business had driven him to drink. Crazy Horse Browne had a similar theory – but thought Sammy had been a doctor. No-one knew the truth but everyone agreed that Sammy had fallen a long way.
Stevie Magee wasn’t a regular in The Gauntlet. He was from a different, darker, part of the city, but had come to this bar looking for some privacy for his meet. He was cocky and hard and swaggered through the frosted glass door as if he already owned the place.
The regulars looked up from their beers at Magee’s arrival. They didn’t know him, but they all knew what he was, and the heads dropped again, concentrating on their drinks.
Only Sammy Bloom paid Magee any attention, unsteadily lurching across the room to where Magee sat beneath a poster advertising a Country and Western night six weeks past.
‘Buy us a drink, pal. Go on, Ah’ll dance like a gerbil, so Ah will.’
Magee shook his head. ‘Away wi’ ye, auld yin. Ah’m busy.’
Sammy sniffed, and returned to his bench, just as the door opened and the second stranger of the day arrived.
Chic Robson wasn’t local, either. He had come from further afield than Stevie Magee, driven the forty miles from Edinburgh for this meeting. He cast a critical eye over the regulars. Magee gave a brief nod from his corner seat and Robson with tight-lipped acknowledgement joined him.
‘Bit of a dump this, Stevie.’
‘It’s quiet, Chic. Nobody knows us here. We’ll no’ be bothered.’
‘Hey, pal.’ There was Sammy, at Robson’s shoulder. ‘Buy us a drink and Ah’ll dance like a gerbil.’
Robson’s look was scathing. ‘Piss off, you old bampot.’
Sammy snorted, gave Robson a stare which could be called evil in one less inebriated. ‘Just tryin’ to be friendly, pal.’
Robson turned back to Magee. ‘Jeez, Stevie, you know how to choose your pubs. Have you got it?’
Magee nodded, drained his glass before answering.
‘It’s in the motor, out the back. You got your own wheels?’
Robson gave a laugh sounding like a snarl. ‘Whit? You think I came on the train? C’mon, let’s see it.’
The two men rose from their seats and left The Gauntlet as abruptly as they had arrived. Only Sammy Bloom watched them go.
The killing made the evening paper the following day.
‘GANGLAND FIGURE FOUND DEAD IN CAR’ screamed the headline.
The story went on to report that Charles ‘Chic’ Robson, 38, had been found shot to death behind the wheel of his top-of-the range BMW parked on wasteland in the north of Glasgow. Robson, the newspaper went on, was a well-known Edinburgh businessman alleged to have links to that city’s gangland underworld. Mr. Robson had recently been acquitted of charges relating to the supply of illegal drugs at Edinburgh High Court.
Jack Fulton, Strathclyde Police Serious Crime Squad, tossed the file onto the desk of Gordon Cattanach.
‘Take a look at this one, Gordon. Edinburgh gangster killed on our turf. Don’t like it at all. If those guys are going to have some sort of gang war, they should be holding it on the east coast. Can you and Kenny get out to the locus and ask a few questions?’
Fulton picked up the file again, looked briefly at Robson’s photograph before handing the papers back to Cattanach. ‘I’ve seen this face before somewhere. See what you can dig up, Gordon.’
Cattanach leafed through the slim file. There was a little background on Robson – several convictions in his youth, nothing recent, now believed to be running a mini-cab business as a money-laundering front for the Walker family, one of the big players in the Edinburgh crime scene. Prime suspect – the Walker’s family’s opposition, one Martin Harley. He glanced across the double desk at DC Kenny Peden.
‘Found near The Gauntlet. Real spit and sawdust local. Get your coat, Kenny, we’re going to the pub.’
The door of The Gauntlet swung open at Cattanach’s hand, as he and Peden stepped into the pub. In the far corner, beneath the tatty Confederate flag, the door leading to the toilets swung shut with a bang. Cattanach looked around suspiciously. Usual collection of regulars.
‘Have you been in here before, Kenny?’ he asked his companion loudly.
‘Then I’d better introduce you to some of the residents.’
The regulars at the corner table both looked up sourly at the detectives’ approach.
‘Afternoon, gents. How’s life? I’d like you to meet my pal Kenny. That’s Mr. Peden to you, of course. Kenny, this is Mr. Joseph McQuade, otherwise Joe the Bookie, he’ll take a bet on the number of plooks on your arse. This is his friend Mr. Malcolm Browne. Even Mr. Browne’s mother prefers to call him Crazy Horse.’
Joe the Bookie’s lip curled and he turned back to his beer. Crazy Horse stared blankly.
‘You boys know anything about the fella who was shot out the back? The Edinburgh guy? Someone said he was in here yesterday afternoon.’
‘Nothin’ at all, Sergeant Cattanach,’ Joe replied without raising his head.
Cattanach nodded at the expected reply.
‘How about you, Mr Horse?’ Peden asked. ‘Or may I call you Crazy?’
Crazy Horse laughed harshly. ‘Aye, the auld wans are the best, son. Naw, never saw that boy. Don’t think Ah was in here yesterday.’
Cattanach’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. ‘Now that I don’t believe, Malky. Kenny, see if someone’s in the bogs, will you?’
Peden stepped through the door leading to the toilets. Cattanach remained standing over the regulars until his colleague returned.
‘Nobody there. There’s a fire exit, must have slipped out the back.’
Cattanach looked back to Joe the Bookie. That individual gave a non-committal shrug. ‘Och, that was jist an auld wino. Sammy Bloom.’
Cattanach gave a curt nod then indicated the door to Peden. Once outside Peden glanced back at the mailed fist on the sign above The Gauntlet’s shabby door.
‘I suppose we go looking for this old wino now do we?’
‘No, we don’t,’ Cattanach told him. ‘We leave Sammy Bloom to the gaffer.’
Peden frowned. ‘How so?’
‘Sammy Bloom was a sergeant, with us and with the Met - Special Branch. He may be an old alky now, but he used to be one of us.’
Fulton rattled the letter-box of the grubby flat door several times before a voice replied. ‘Piss off, whoever you are.’
‘It’s Jack Fulton, Sammy. Open the door.’
The door swung open. Sammy Bloom stepped aside to let Fulton enter, his haggard features downcast. At least, Fulton noted, Sammy was still sober.
‘Kettle on, Sammy? Surely you were expecting me.’
Sammy nodded. ‘Inspector Fulton. Aye. Soon as I saw your bag carrier and his wee pal coming into The Gauntlet I knew you’d be round.’
Fulton followed Sammy into the dingy flat, its shabby furniture, peeling wallpaper and dirty curtains the decor of a ruined life. His nose wrinkled involuntarily at the mix of sour, stale kitchen and lavatorial smells.
‘It’ll be about that murder, I suppose. Chic Robson.’
‘What did you see, Sammy?’
Sammy sat down heavily on a sagging, stained couch, picked up a lit cigarette from an overflowing ash tray and drew on it before replying.
‘I saw him meet a wee villain by the name of Stevie Magee. Magee’s no’ from round here, but I’ve heard his name before.’
‘You always kept your ear close to the ground,’ Fulton acknowledged. ‘Learnt a lot from you before you went to the Met. What’s Magee’s angle? Drugs?’
Sammy shook his head. ‘Magee’s an ex-soldier. He deals in guns. Robson was through to pick up a gun.’
‘D’you know what Magee was selling?’
‘Browning 9 millimetre. Ex-Army.’
Fulton looked around the flat. Each time he came here it seemed that Sammy Bloom, his one-time mentor, had slipped a little further.
‘Robson was killed by a 9 millimetre,’ he observed, almost to himself. ‘Sounds like the Edinburgh boys are tooling up for a war.’ He looked back to the old man. ‘You need anything, Sammy?’
‘No’ me, Jack, I’m doin’ just dandy.’
‘Fair enough. Look after yourself. Keep dancing.’
Twelve police officers burst into Stevie Magee’s flat at six o’clock the following morning. Cattanach stepped over the broken door to find the boys with the guns already had Magee face down on the floor, restraints tying his hands behind his back.
‘Didn’t put up much of a fight,’ the officer holding Magee down remarked. ‘Seems a bit spaced. Maybe he’s taken something.’
One of the armed officers stepped out of the kitchen holding up an evidence bag. It contained a Browning 9 millimetre handgun.
‘Found it under the floorboards beneath the sink.’
Magee lifted his head and shook it vigorously. ‘Youse planted that! That wisnae there yesterday, man!’
Cattanach laughed drily. ‘Aye, that’s what they all say, Stevie. If that’s the gun that killed Chic Robson, you’ll have to come up with better than that.’
Peden had followed Cattanach into the flat. He had picked up Magee’s mobile from a bedside chair and was flicking through its directory, checking the numbers against a list.
‘Here we go,’ he announced. ‘Martin Harley’s mobile number.’
‘Whit?’ Magee’s voice rose in indignation. ‘Martin Harley fae Edinburgh? Ah don’t know him! Someone’s doin’ me over here, man!’
‘Tell it to the judge,’ Peden grinned, as Cattanach began to caution Magee.
Magee just moaned. ‘Jeez, man, whit wis Ah drinkin’ last night? Cannae remember a thing.’
At the station, Fulton was pleased with the result. News had also come through from their counterparts in Edinburgh. A raid on Martin Harley’s business premises had come up with more illegal firearms. Harley was clearly arming himself in anticipation of retribution from the Walkers for the killing of their man Robson.
A raid on the Walkers had come up empty-handed – but there would always be a next time.
‘A good start to the day then, Boss,’ Cattanach said. ‘Thanks to your old mucker Sammy Bloom.’ He paused for a moment, realising that to say more would be entering sensitive territory. ‘You never did say how Sammy got into that state. I hear he used to be one hard wee man.’
Fulton sighed. ‘He was that, Gordon. He was Army himself, before he joined the Force. SAS, in Belfast in the Seventies, some said, tho’ not Sammy himself of course. He kept that part of his life quiet. He was here a few years, was a firearms instructor, did some undercover, and then got tapped by Special Branch. Then about ten or twelve years ago it all went pear-shaped. He had a daughter. Chrissie, just nineteen, at Edinburgh Uni. She got into bad company. Drugs. Died of an overdose. Sammy blamed her boyfriend, he was bad lot a few years older than her. Sammy went for the guy at her funeral, I had to pull him off myself. He took to the bottle after that, and that was pretty much...’
Fulton’s voice tailed off. He reached forward for the Robson file and suddenly to Cattanach it seemed as if his inspector was moving in slow motion.
Fulton stared hard at Robson’s photograph. When he spoke again, it was very quietly. ‘I knew I’d seen that face before. Och, Sammy, Sammy, what have you done?’
BIO: Alastair McIntosh is a crime fiction enthusiast from Scotland. Currently working as a lawyer his aspiration is to be the next John Grisham.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago