Thursday, January 07, 2010

“Last Orders”: An Original
Gus Dury Story, by Tony Black

(Editor’s note: We have a real treat for you today. To coincide with the debut of Loss [Preface Publishing], Australia-born Scottish author Tony Black’s third novel featuring Edinburgh newspaper reporter-turned-part-time private eye Gus Dury, The Rap Sheet is hosting Black’s never-before-published Dury short story, “Last Orders.” Like his first two novels, 2008’s Paying for It and last year’s Gutted [just released in paperback in the UK], “Last Orders” is a tough little yarn packed with characters not wholly good or altogether predictable, and a spare writing style that serves the plot well. When not penning the Dury series, Black still works as a part-time reporter. He’s also a frequent contributor to the e-zines Pulp Pusher and Shots.)

There was something about this prick, got me thinking.

I took a look at his shoes, brogues. His type have a name for the color, oxblood. Oh, yeah. I wear Docs, same color, I call them, cherry. Go figure.

He strolled over. “Mr. Dury, I have something to say and I will not ...”

He stopped flat.

I put the bead on him. My hand went up, slowly.

“Yes ...” It was a question, really, the pause told me. Like I needed the nod too, that I clocked as--affectation.

“Call me Gus, I hear the mister in there, I think you’re after money, or worse, mistaking me for my old man.” The bold Cannis Dury, not a man you’d like to be confused with. Trust me on that. I know.

He looked to the ceiling. Huffed. Was that a tut? I let it slide.

I stood.

He said: “A-hem, are you?”

“Leaving? Oh yes.”

“But we have business.”

“You think?”

That was when I noticed the tweed cap in his hands. He twisted it. Like he was wringing the neck of a pheasant on his country estate. It boiled my piss. I’m working class, c’mon, it’s in the contract.

I reached the street in a heartbeat, as they say Stateside, tugging the zipper on my denim jacket. I know, I know, sacrilege: buttons are the thing for denim--go tell Mr. Wrangler. These days, fashion, the whole world ... don’t get me started. No, really, don’t.

The hand on my shoulder told me I’d been followed out. That, I did not like. Too close to keeping tabs. Or worse, control.

“I have a daughter and she is no longer contactable through the proper channels,” he said, a pause, then, “Gus.”

The proper channels ... he spoke of his daughter like he was some ponytailed ad man at a PowerPoint presentation.

I eyeballed him. “And this is my problem, why?”

I sensed his distaste at the way I talked, not my accent, though that was bad enough--heavy on the Leith--what got him was what riled teachers in school, made them say, “The temerity!”

He looked skyward. Wanted to bolt, turn on his heels, throw up his hands. Days of Empire, I’d be flogged where I stood. But this was 2010. Say you want a revolution--bring it right on.

He checked himself, two yellow tombstones bit down on his lower lip. His pallor was gray as concrete. He spoke, slowly, “I believe you are a man of some ... reputation.”

I allowed myself a blink. But, no more.

He went on, “You have, I understand, some background.”

“Background?”

“I took the liberty of, oh what’s the demotic? ‘Checking you out.’”

The hand again. I blocked his words. Funny how, you’re in a situation, you act out old habits.

“And how did you manage that?” I said.

There was a spit of rain in the air, threatened more of the same. Edinburgh, could be coming down in stair rods inside a minute. He sussed this too. “Mr. Dury, can we return indoors?”

His face changed shape. I’d seen the look before, what the Scots call, thrawn. I thought, fuck the oxblood brogues, if he’s buying, then ...

Truth told, it was close to last orders anyway.

* * *

There were one or two old soaks propping up the bar, bluenoses with tractor tracks cut in their brows. Rough’s the word. Knew I’d be there soon enough myself, but was there a point in hastening it? You bet. Ordered up a Guinness, pint of, and a double whisky chaser.

“A malt?” said oxbloods.

“Is there another kind?” Like I was settling for a blend on his time and dime.

We collected our drinks, headed for the snug. I felt like sparking up, had a pack of Rothman’s raring to go, but the smoking ban had me beat to the punch.

The pint of dark settled a craving, tasted like old memories. I was heading for the wee goldie when himself removed his scarf, revealed a dog collar.

“You’re Church?” I said.

“I am, yes, Church of Scotland ... that makes a difference?”

The short answer was, “Yes,” the easy one was, “Should it?”

“That would be an ecumenical matter.”

I picked up my pint again, supped, said, “I believe you’re right ... can we skip it, get down to business?”

“Indeed.”

His name was Urquhart. A Church of Scotland minister from the North; the trip to Edinburgh had left him, he said, “Unsettled.”

“How come?”

“I have what you might call, no good reason to be here.”

Hadn’t we all, played him with, “Should I get my coat?”

“No. No. Please, if you’ll indulge me, Mr. Dury.”

“Gus.”

“Of course ... Gus.”

He played with the lid on his mineral water, Highland Spring, still. Sparkling just too exciting an option. “My daughter ...”

“Yeah, you mentioned her.”

“I’m afraid, she has, erm, well ... it’s rather embarrassing, gone missing.”

Embarrassing? Somehow, that didn’t seem the right word. A daughter gone from home was a cause for sleepless nights, not a cause for losing face. I eyed him cautiously over my pint, gave him some more rope.

“She got herself mixed up with the wrong crowd some time ago, my parish is a very poor community, we once had mines but they are long gone and I’m afraid in their wake came some rather extreme views.”

I knew pit communities had it tough after Thatcher, they lost their livelihood so the old bitch could prove a point. Some got paid off, a few grand to piss up the wall, called them six-month millionaires.

“Extreme?”

“Well, yes ... anarchists, Mr. Dury.”

“Go, on ... ”

He poured out his mineral water, drank deep, he had quite a thirst on him, I knew the territory. “My daughter, Caroline, she was a very willful child and ...”

“Whoa, back up ... was? What makes you think we’re talking past tense here, Minister?”

He bridled, removed a handkerchief and wiped his palms. “A figure of speech, I have no reason to believe ... I mean, I have nothing to go on, Gus, that is why I have come to you.”

I’d say one thing for him, he had my attention. These days, my situation, wedded to a bottle of scoosh and 40, scrub that, 60, smokes a day, that was no mean feat. I pressed him for some details, jotted them down.

“I’ll need five-hundred in advance and another five when I conclude.”

“Conclude?”

“That’s right ... I don’t have a crystal ball, Minister. I go digging, what I find is what I find. What I get, is a grand for my trouble. We understand each other?”

He nodded, took out a checkbook.

“Cash.”

“I’ll have to go to a bank.”

“Then, let’s.”

I drained my pint.

On the way out the door, Urquhart placed a hand on my elbow, spoke softly, “One more thing, I neglected to mention ...”

“Yeah?”

“My daughter, I believe, is ... with child.”

* * *

Papers had been full of scare stories coming out of the hospitals. We had a power of superbugs rampaging through them. Resistant to treatment, the red-tops said; was the new plague. I’d watched a documentary about the issue, doctors were in the clear, so were nurses, the blame was being planted firmly at the feet of ... immigrant workers. I’d been a hack, knew a beat-up story when I heard one. Everyone needs a scapegoat: Welcome to Scotland, scapegoats a speciality, we’ve a history littered with them.

I traipsed through the main doors of the Royal Infirmary and looked for the maternity ward. Figured a young girl--Urquhart had said she was barely 18--wouldn’t be too hard to find. Women were having kids later and later, right? Wrong. They had a ward full of them. Gym-slip mums they called them in my day. Christ knows what they called them now ... Britney had kids, last I looked, was probably the fashion. Me and fashion, we don’t get along.

I grabbed a nurse as she passed me in the corridor, “Hello, there ...”

Eyed with suspicion, got, “Yes.”

“I was wondering if you might be able to help me.”

Now I got the full head-to-toe eyeball. “Visiting hours are 4 till 6.”

“No, sorry, I’m not visiting. I’m just looking for someone.”

“Looking for someone?”

“Yes, a girl ... name of Urquhart, about 18.” I knew the chances of her using her own name were slim to none, but chanced it.

“Are you a relative?”

Fuck it, the boat was out, I pushed it further: “Yes. I’m her brother.”

I knew at once she wasn’t buying it. I was only in my 30s, but the sauce had added a few years to the dial of late.

“Do you have any identification?”

I stalled, “Can I show you a picture?” Urquhart had supplied a photo, a few years old I’d say. Caroline was still in school uniform, one of those dreadful posed, say cheese numbers that everyone has tucked away in a sideboard at their parents’ home. Not me, though. What I have tucked away at my parents’ home is ... skeletons.

The nurse took the photograph from me, looked at it, said, “This girl has red hair.”

“Yeah?”

“And blue eyes.”

“You caught that.”

“If you and her are related ... I’m a monkey’s uncle.”

I snatched back the picture. “Are you in charge here?”

“I’m the ward sister.”

“Well look, sister, this young lass is missing, her father is very concerned and if I don’t find her soon who’s to say what might happen to her.”

Hands on hips, I got hands on hips from her. “I’m calling the police.”

“Y’what?”

“If you’re not off this ward, and out of this hospital, in the next 30 seconds, I’m calling the police.”

I pocketed the photograph. Turned, fired out, “Nice bedside manner you have there.”

A finger pointed to the door.

“Out!”

“Don’t worry, I’m gone.”

Felt a torrent of abuse at my back, caught the words, “come in here stinking of drink” and knew I’d reached the end of one line of inquiry.

* * *

Before I got my jotters from the paper, I had a helper. Not quite an assistant, more a Girl Friday. Amy was work experience, had a thing for old movies with journalists cracking big stories. Had a thing for old journalists too, but that’s another story. I caught up with her in Deacon Broadie’s pub on The Mile.

On any given day of the week, Amy, you can bet your hat, is dressed to impress. She sauntered in, white mules, white jeans (skintight), and a pillar-box red crop top that showed a stomach so flat you could eat your dinner off it. The diamanté stud in her navel, you could argue was over the top ... but who’d listen.

“Gus boy, how do?”

“Mair to fiddling’.” That’s a Scots spoonerism for you, does it have a meaning? Does anything?

Amy settled herself at the bar, ran her fingers through long black hair. She was a showstopper, men’s eyes lit up like Chinese lanterns all about the place.

“I need your help?”

She ordered a rum and coke, fastest service I’d ever seen. “Yeah, help with what?”

“A case.”

A smile. Wide, a from-the-heart job. “Great!”

“Calm down, I wouldn’t get too excited about this one.”

“Work’s work ... beats staying home watching Antiques Roadshow.”

“Maybe not this one ... I warn you, I don’t see much scope for excitement.”

“I’m an excitable girl! Try me.”

I gave her the details. My main concern was just what was behind Urquhart’s tale.

“You think he’s hiding something?” said Amy.

“Dunno.”

“He’s a minister, though.”

“There’s no sin but ignorance.”

“Is that a quote?”

“Sure is.”

* * *

I stood in the carpark of the Royal Infirmary. Couldn’t believe I was about to do this. Had to call and double check.

“Fitzsimmons, please?”

“Inspector Fitzsimmons, connecting you now.”

Fitz the Crime and I went way back. In my time on the paper, I’d kept a couple of his indiscretions out of the headlines. Plod tends to turn a blind eye to its own lot’s peccadilloes, but seeing them in print is a whole other matter.

“Hello.”

“Fitz, I wanted to check ...”

“Dury, by the feckin’ cringe, what in the name of Christ are ye doing calling me here?”

“Calm down, man, all I want is a little confirmation.”

“By the holy, it’s my bollocks in a jar yeer after! I’m certain of it.”

I let him settle, grab a hold of himself, said, “It’s definitely the blue Micra, L89 KLP?”

“Jeez, didn’t I tell ye it was?” The Jamieson we’d tanned over lunch was rising in him, brought out some more Irish. “It is her and that’s that ... why are ye doubting me?”

I could see the nurse by the car, she was chatting with a young lad of about 20, the blue shirt a giveaway that he was also a member of staff.

“It’s just I have her in my sights, and well, we’ve already spoken and she was none to keen on filling me in.”

“Dury, I have no such qualms, I will gladly come down there and fill ye the feck in if I hear one more word out of ye. I cannot believe you would call ...”

I hung up.

If this was our one, there was no choice. I let her wave off her coworker and headed for her car.

The Micra had central locking, I opened the passenger door and got inside.

“Hello again.”

She looked, there’s a phrase, shook. “What are you doing here?”

“Don’t worry, I’m no mentaller. I want to talk to you about Caroline Urquhart, and don’t play coy, I know you treated her when she came to the Royal.”

“Get out of my car.”

“Look, lady, I don’t care what you think of me but that girl and her baby need help. Now, either you’re going to be the one to help her or we’re relying on someone else out there being a very good Samaritan.”

She fiddled with the keys in her hand. She looked at me, in the eye, then averted her gaze back out towards the hospital carpark. A sigh, “I haven’t seen her in weeks.”

“How many?”

“Two, three ... maybe a bit longer. She’s due, you realize.”

“What, now?”

“Very soon. I have to admit, I’ve been a bit worried, she gave us an address for a place down in Leith and I went there, twice now, but it’s boarded up. I don’t think anyone is living there.”

“Did she have any associates?”

The nurse’s top lip twitched uneasily, she looked out the window again, “There was a boy, erm, he was a bit ... rough.”

“How do you mean?”

“Rough, rough. He was tattooed from head to toe and I think he had beaten her.”

“Beaten?”

“There was a black eye once and a few cuts on her face.”

“The baby?”

“Healthy. I think the child was fine, it was just male dominance issues.”

“Backhanders.”

She nodded.

“This guy, you know anything about him?”

“No. I don’t think he had a job. I think he was wary of Caroline coming to the hospital. I know he had told her that he thought we suspected he beat her and ... look, I really can’t tell you any more.”

I took out my notebook, “Just let me have the address and I’ll be on my way.”

* * *

I grew up in Leith. Parts of the place, now, I hardly recognized. There were chrome and glass eyesores springing up every week, it seemed. When my brother and I were young enough to go bikes we played boneshaker over the cobbles. I couldn’t see any kids nowadays doing that, unless you can get it on the Nintendo Wii.

I found the address quickly. This part of town, the developers had left well alone. Give them a few more months, there’ll be bulldozers in. Then the chrome and glass.

The stairwell was covered in graffiti. Tagging mainly. You get your school of thought that this kinda thing ruins an area; me, I say, how much worse can they make it? Scrubbing it off’s only turd polishing.

The landing smelled of piss. Even with all the windows panned in, the piss was still rank enough to make me want to chuck. I stuck my face behind my jacket and waded through the detritus of aerosols, needles, and White Lightning bottles. The address was the last in the line. I wondered, end of the road?

I could see why the nurse would think nobody lived here. Like she would? Uh-uh. I pressed on the door’s windowpane, there was no movement, it wasn’t opening up. Looked in the letterbox, a blast of damp, but also, I was sure, some movement.

I banged on the door.

Nothing.

Tried again.

A clang of, was it, a door?

I hollered in the letterbox, “Caroline, is that you? My name’s Gus, Gus Dury, your father asked me to find you?”

I put my ear to the slot.

No movement anymore.

I knew there was someone in there. Toyed with the idea of putting my foot to the door when, suddenly, a whoosh of stale air as the glass pane came through. I caught a set of wooden step ladders in the mush.

I fell back. My back smacked off the concrete landing just as I saw a blur of shaved head loom over me and cosh me across the face with a heavy pot.

Next thing I saw was the dancing canaries.

* * *

“Hello, can you hear me? Hello ... hello.”

My head felt like Chewbacca had taken a dump in there. I was still on my back as I opened my eyes to find a young girl looming over me with dark panda eyes.

“Can you hear me?”

“Yeah. Just, maybe lower the volume.”

“I’m sorry. Are you OK? Can you move?”

I tried to steady myself, “I think so.”

“Would you like to come inside?”

I got on my feet, knees caved. The girl, heavily pregnant, put an arm around me. “Can you manage, this?” I said.

She smiled, a sweet smile, real heart-melter. Wondered why anyone with a smile like that needed to live in a place like this.

She sat me on an old crate, an orange velour cushion the only concession to comfort.

“You would be Caroline?”

She brought me a wet cloth, said, “We’ve no ice.”

“You’ve not much of anything.”

She gripped her palms, looked at the floor.

“Caroline, your father ...”

She turned away. “Don’t. Don’t say his name to me.”

I tried to regain control of my balance, stop the room swaying. “Look, he’s worried about you.”

“No he’s not.”

“Sorry?”

The sweet demeanor vanished in a second, she turned, rushed towards me but seemed suddenly cut down in her tracks. She bent like a hinge, gasped.

“Are you OK?”

Breathless, “I think the baby’s coming.”

“Oh, fuck.”

A shriek.

Pain.

“You’ll have to help me.”

“What? I mean, how?”

Another shriek.

She fell to the floor, started to scrunch up her eyes.

“Help me, please!”

* * *

At the hospital we went our separate ways.

“Will she be OK?” I asked as they wheeled Caroline away.

No answer.

Some bright spark put a wheelchair down for me, motioned “in.”

“No chance. I walk fine.”

Got two steps and the knees went again. Had been running on my last reserves of adrenaline.

“Like I thought, that gash tells a different story,” said the paramedic.

I touched my head, felt blood on my fingertips. It had soaked all the way down into my shirt collar and into my waistband.

“Looks like you took quite a clatter.”

Wanted to say, “No shit, Sherlock.” Went with, “Yes, quite a clatter.”

They spent an hour or so patching me up. Had stitches and a nice head bandage to complete the look.

Amy brought in the news: “She had a little girl.”

I tried to smile, but my head hurt too much, even on the codeine. “Great, she’s OK?”

“Chirping away like a budgie.”

I sat up. “Do tell.”

Amy had on her shit-stopping seriousness look. “It’s not pretty.”

I motioned to my head, “I look like someone who needs sugar-coating?”

Amy stood up again, looked agitated. She took off her coat and placed it over the chair by the bed. “Well, I checked out our Minister ...”

“And?”

“Well, let’s just say you were right to have your suspicions. He’s in line to be the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.”

“That’s a big gig.”

“The biggest, comes with the Right Reverend title ... you could see why he has Oscar-night nerves.”

“He does?”

Amy put her arms round her slim waist, hugged herself. “Gus, I feel strange talking about this, but, Caroline said some stuff when she, well, after the birth, I think she was still under the drugs, but ...”

I sat up in the bead, motioned her closer. “Look, if there’s something I need to know, you’d better just spit it out.”

Amy started to cry. She was a tough lass, I’d never seen this before.

“Hey, what’s the matter?”

She put her hand to her mouth. “Caroline says ... he’s the father.”

I slumped. “What?”

The dam had burst. “She says he raped her. She hates him, got into trouble at home and got into this neo-Nazi crowd because she thought it was about as far away from what he stood for as she could get ... Gus, it’s too sad for words.”

I couldn’t listen to anymore.

“Give me my phone over.”

“You can’t use a phone in hospital.”

“Fuck it. Give me it.”

She passed me the mobi; it smelled of fags, Benson’s.

I dialed Urquhart, he answered on the second ring. “Hello, Minister, this is Gus Dury.”

“Oh, hello, you have uncovered anything?”

“You better believe it.”

“Well, that’s wonderful news.”

“Is it?”

“Well, yes, I-I ...”

“Not so fast. I have found your daughter, but let’s just say I’ve run into a few extra expenses along the way.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Understand this, the price is now two thousand in cash by his afternoon.”

“What?”

“You heard, Minister ... you ever want to hear that Right Reverend bit upfront then you’d better be where I first met you on time.”

I cut the line.

* * *

I took Amy, not as back-up, or decoration, but because she set the tone I wanted. She had--edge.

Urquhart was sitting in the snug with a bottle of Highland Spring. Still.

On our approach he stood up, eyes lit on my bandaged head, then shifted. “Who is this?”

Amy looked him up and down, she blew out her Hubba Bubba, popped the bubble fast. Sat right up front. Urquhart had a view of her cleavage most men would have paid money for, but it set his nerves jangling.

“You don’t ask any questions, Minister,” I said.

I nodded to the barman, “Rum and coke, twice.”

There was silence around the table. Amy eyed Urquhart with derision. Once in a while she’d blow out another bubble, just to put the knife in him.

“Could you stop that, please?” said Urquhart.

“Why?” said Amy.

He clammed, mumbled, “It’s vexatious.”

Amy fluttered her eyelashes, leaned forward, close enough for the minister to scent the Hubba Bubba on her breath. “If someone says stop, do you always stop, Minister?”

“I beg your pardon?”

A smile, wide white teeth, “No never.”

Our drinks came.

The barman left.

I spoke, “Now, let’s get down to brass tacks. The cash.”

He ruffled, “I think I shall have my side of the agreement fully realized before I part with any ...”

I raised a hand, “Hold it right there.”

Amy slurped rum and coke through a straw.

The minister shuffled on his seat. “I have had quite enough of this performance, Mr. Dury! Now, I engaged your services to locate my daughter and I demand to know what progress you have made towards that end.”

“The money.”

Silence.

Amy leaned forward, yelled, “The money!” She slapped her hand on the table, yelled again, “Now!”

Did the trick.

He produced a long manila envelope from the inside pocket of his Barbour jacket.

I opened the package, peered inside.

“There’s no need to count it, it’s all there.”

It looked about right. I peeled out two fifties, gave them to Amy, said, “Here, you’ve earned that.”

She took them greedily, sat them under her glass; returned eyes to the minister.

I resealed the envelope, handed it back to Amy, said, “Take this to Caroline ... that girl deserves all the help she can get for making a fresh start.”

Urquhart’s face reddened, “Now look here, I paid you to find my daughter.”

“I did.”

“Then, where is she?”

“I never said I would tell you that.”

He made an O of his mouth, fumbled for words; we have a phrase in Scotland, “Are you catching flies, Minister?”

“I-I can't believe this ... you have swindled me!” He rose, went to do up his jacket. “I’m not standing for this,” he said.

I motioned, “Sit,” patted on his chair, “unless you’d like me to fuck up your chances of becoming Moderator once and for all.”

His eyes widened. He lowered himself, slowly.

Amy sighed, blew another bubble, got up to leave.

“I’ve seen all I can stomach,” she said.

Urquhart lowered his head, looked into his palms. “What has she told you?”

I tipped up my glass, drained it. “Everything.”

“She lies, you know.”

“Will the DNA?”

He turned to me, quickly.

“Didn’t think so.”

I stood up to leave, moved towards him and lowered my mouth to his ear, “If I ever hear you have been within a country mile of that girl, I will personally preside over your crucifixion. Do you understand me?”

He said nothing.

“Is your hearing off, I said do you understand me?”

Nods. Rapid. “Yes, yes, I understand.” He took out his handkerchief, pressed it between his hands, then carefully began to fold it away again.

I moved off, left him staring at the tabletop. As I walked, I expected him to ask about his daughter, either one. He stayed silent.

At the door, my heart pounded. I turned, thought I might see a broken man, in tears perhaps. He was pouring out the mineral water. Face, stone.

2 comments:

Paul D. Brazill said...

What a treat! Beut of a punchy tale.

Gerard Brennan said...

Oooof. That was a heart-breaker.

Cheers

gb