There’s Always Someone
He took one last look. It was raining and a cold wind made the lampposts sway and judder. The street was empty. The Sergeant had gone and there was only a dry rectangle against the kerb to show where the police car had been. Harry closed the door and retraced his steps along the hallway.
It was pitch black, save for the thin beam of his maglite. Feint outlines of picture frames and photographs slid past his shoulders as he walked down the hall. The old man had not replaced the spent light bulbs. There was no light in the house other than a table lamp in the sitting room. And it was cold. A damp insidious chill that clung to his face and hands. It had seeped into every nook of the ground floor flat. It was the reason the old man’s body had not decomposed and he was grateful. Mr Carmichael hadn’t been seen for weeks. Had it been summer it would have been a different story.
He passed the bedroom door. An orange glow from a streetlight shone through the thin curtains and Harry could make out the rough shape of Mr Carmichael. Stick thin and ramrod straight on his bed, a candlewick blanket pulled over his head. The casualty surgeon had examined the corpse. A suspected heart attack, long history of angina, no suspicious circumstances. Harry had made his rounds of the neighbours. Next of kin unknown. No friends, no visitors. Now, with little else to do, he settled down to wait for the undertakers. They would take away the body. He would lock up and return to the station.
He wondered if the old man had lived a good life. There would be a story to tell, but there was nothing to base his imagination on. Only the outline of an old man under a candlewick blanket. He mumbled some words of respect and walked into the sitting room. It was lit by a small table lamp. It’s shade, stained yellow from decades of cigarette smoke, produced a wan light. Two old chairs and a coffee table huddled around an ancient gas fire, the table surface marked by the concentric rings of whisky glasses. At its edge sat an empty tumbler and an empty bottle.
He swung his torch around the room. The beam scanned a tormented sea of clothes and books. Waves of junk broke against islands of cardboard boxes. The rest of the flat was similarly chaotic. Harry pursed his lips at the prospect of searching it, but he had to find Mr Carmichael’s birth certificate and valuables before locking up. The old folks didn’t trust banks and hid their cash at home. Somewhere in the chaos was a small sum of money and though Lambhill was a sleepy hollow, the neighbouring Ruchill and Milton were not. The flat would be broken into within the week.
He removed his raincoat and tossed it over the nearest chair. It would be a dull job, but he was resigned to it. He would get the shitty jobs until someone younger came along. Still, he thought, an extra pair of hands would have been welcome.
Harry chose a corner at random. He pulled at piles of old coats and began to search through the tea crate that sat underneath. It was filled with old sci-fi paperbacks and westerns. They smelled musty and sour. There was another box next to it. As he began to examine this he heard a knock at the door.
He reached for his hat and strode along the hall. He put his hat on as he reached the front door and swung it open, expecting to see the Sergeant on the other side.
His heart dropped. It was Alan. Over Alan’s shoulder, Harry could see a Sherpa van parked against the kerb. Danny was in the drivers seat, his window half open, the clacking sound of the diesel engine barely noticeable above the wind. Alan smirked and his right hand teased at the end of a long black moustache.
“Look Danny. The boy is on parade.”
Harry felt his face go hot, but he kept his mouth shut. Alan was a senior cop and he was a probationer. Inside the van, Danny wound up his window and climbed out. Harry was about to call out a welcome when he felt Alan brush past him into the hall. Harry could make out sheen of his brylcreemed hair as he disappeared into the flat. His disembodied voice called out from the darkness.
“So. Where is the old fella?”
Harry followed him. He felt protective of the old man and resented Alan’s casual intrusion. He felt an obligation to answer him anyway.
“Bedroom. On the left.”
As he walked down the hall, he heard the front door snick shut and knew then that Danny was inside too. Harry walked on and caught up with Alan in the doorway of the bedroom. Harry had expected some questions about the old man, but Alan gave the corpse no more than a cursory glance, his torch beam sweeping across the furniture.
“These old folks stash their money close by. Usually the bedroom. I take it you’ve searched here?”
Alan had an unerring ability to make him feel stupid. Now that he’d asked the question it seemed obvious that this is where he should have started.
“Was just about to.”
It sounded lame and he knew it. Alan looked at him with a cocked eyebrow and called out.
“Fung hasnae searched the bedroom Danny. We’ll start here.”
Harry felt his fingers curl. Fucking Useless New Guy. A retort was forming on his lips when he felt Danny tap him on the shoulder. His voice low and soft.
“Don’t listen tae him. He’s a fuckin useless OLD guy. He’s only here cos he’s been telt tae.”
Harry nodded and felt the tension ebb. Danny was alright, the only other Roman Catholic on the shift. Harry was uncomfortable associating with the religious divide, but he appreciated the kindred spirit ethos that Danny offered.
“He’s an arsehole Danny. I don’t like him poking about.”
Alan had began to rummage about the bedroom, opening cupboard doors and pulling shoe boxes off the shelves. With the body a few feet away, the casual approach made Harry feel uncomfortable. It was doubtful if Alan could hear them talking over the clatter, but Harry kept his voice to a whisper.
“Did the Sergeant send you?”
“Aye, and yer man is pissed off at having to leave his cosy wee howf at the old folks home.”
Harry knew Alan was lazy. He’d spend all night in the kitchen of the local old folks home if he could get away with it. He imagined the Sergeant getting a kick from sending Alan to help him. It helped to explain the sarcasm. Danny winked and eased past into the bedroom.
“Right Al’. Let’s do this right. I’ll work in from one corner and the boy here can work in from another. That way we’ll no’ miss anything.”
Alan paused. Danny had only six months more service, but it was six more and that meant something. He delegated the cupboard to Harry who began to examine the old shoe boxes, while Danny and Alan searched to his right. The boxes contained old documents, letters and photographs. To Harry, they were little stepping stones across a river of life. As he worked his way down the shelves he found a birth, marriage and finally, a death certificate. He looked through them under the torchlight. Francis Carmichael. 79. Born in Portree. Married once. No children. Wife dead six years. The end of the line. He read them out, his voice sounding disembodied in the gloom. It felt poignant with the old man lying behind him, but Danny and Alan ignored him, intent on the task.
“No sign of any money.” Said Danny.
Alan didn’t look up. He had moved from the cupboard and was hunched over an old dresser, pulling out the heavy mahogany drawers and sweeping the clothes from side to side.
“Keep lookin’ guys. I can smell it.”
Danny raised an eyebrow and jabbed his head at Alan in his trademark ‘get the state of him’ look. Harry smiled at the conspiratorial cockiness of it. Alan, oblivious, continued to rifle through underwear and folded shirts, working his way down through each drawer.
Alan stepped stepped back and stood triumphant, his torch aimed at the bottom drawer.
“Gentlemen. I have struck the motherlode.”
Harry stepped closer and in the bright beam of the torch saw tiny polythene bags bundled in serried rows. In each one he could see the rough outlines of banknotes bound by elastic bands. There were more than he’d expected. Alan stepped forward, pulled the drawer out of the dresser and shone his torch into the void beyond.
“And there’s more…”
Danny joined them. He kneeled on the carpet and shone his torch in the direction of the find. In its peripheral glare, Harry could see a gleam in Alan’s eyes and his fox like grin.
“The auld fella must have robbed a bank once. There’s a few thousand there at least.”
Harry peered in. More bundles of cash, bound tight by coloured elastic bands. It made him think of the old man sitting on his own, rolling up each bundle with careful precision. It was a sad image. Like an old shoemaker from a Grimms fairytale. Danny was the first to react.
“Right. Let’s get all of this into the sitting room and get it counted. This might take a while…”
They gathered up the bundles. It took several trips, crossing the short space between bedroom and sitting room, their arms crossed over, the bundles of cash like swaddled babies. Harry hadn’t seen this much cash in all his life. When the coffee table was overwhelmed, they placed the rest underneath. After the final bundle had been deposited on the floor, they stood around the table. Now that he could see how much the old man had hidden, Harry began to realise how daunting a task it would be to count the money and record it. He looked at Danny.
“Should we count it at the office?”
It was Alan who spoke first.
“Nah. Here. Less chance of being interrupted.”
Alan stood in front of Danny, his back turned to Harry. It was clear that this was to be a matter between senior cops. Harry felt like an Edwardian servant in the presence of his masters.
“The boy should get back to the office. He’s got his report to do and we can take over from here. The ‘shell’ is en route here… we can lock up after they’ve taken the old fella away.”
An unnatural bonhomie had taken hold of Alan. It struck Harry that it was out of character for him to be so generous. It was evident that Danny felt the same way.
“It’ll need the three of us Al. There’s too much for two.”
Alan turned back to the money. The smile had disappeared and he looked petulant.
“We better get started then…”
They sat around the coffee table. Alan found an old pouffee and drew it up close. Danny brought the lamp nearer and they put their torches on the floor pointing upwards to cast some light into the room. It had the effect of lighting their faces from below. As Alan unwrapped the first bundle and began to count, Harry felt he’d joined a late night card school. The notes were old, but dry and Alan counted them out with crisp efficiency. Harry and Danny remained silent and, as the notes piled up, Alan’s monotone voice filled the little room.
“Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, one hundred.”
As each hundred was reached, Alan laid out the rectangle of notes to one side and started again. When he had reached the next hundred, that rectangle was laid across the previous at right angles. On he counted until a criss-cross tower of notes formed. He stopped when he reached one thousand and began again with a new pile.
Alan was as quick as a croupier. The towers multiplied. Danny sat back, his face now in shadow, but Harry could see the concentration on his face. It occurred to him that no one was recording the total as it mounted. He reached for his notebook. Alan, his face still downcast, eyes locked onto the money, spoke.
“You’ll no’ need that notebook quite yet…”
Harry stared at the top of Alan’s head and wondered if there were eyes hidden there. They all knew the importance of recording the seizure of money. Harry looked over to Danny for confirmation, but he said nothing. His face displayed no emotion as he continued to watch Alan count.
“Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty…”
Harry brought his notebook out anyway. Alan’s little aside had irked him. He vowed that he would not leave the flat until every last note was accounted for. But not just yet. Something was afoot and he wanted to see where this was going. He concentrated on the count. The metronomic sound of Alan’s voice was hypnotic and it took him several minutes to see that he was counting the money into three distinct groups. Harry counted the criss cross towers. There were five towers in each pile. Five thousand pounds. Fifteen thousand pounds in total. He looked at the remaining bundles on the floor. It was a rough guess, but he felt sure that there was another ten thousand to be counted.
“..sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, one hundred.”
Alan finished the last of the five thousand pound piles and looked up, his dark eyes bright. He leaned across the table towards Harry with the trace of a smile.
“No next of kin eh?”
Harry shook his head. The room felt cold and he found himself hunching his shoulders in response. There was something rapacious about Alan’s demeanour he did not like, but he briefed him anyway.
“No children. Wife died years ago. Neighbour said he lived alone and never had visitors.”
Alan shook his head in sadness. When he spoke, it was slow and deliberate.
“Get that a lot…Last years spent alone. No one to leave their money to…Ends up all going to the government…Total waste if you ask me…”
Alan sighed and looked down at the money. His shoulders hunched, hands clasped, face hidden.
“Five thousand in each pile. I reckon there’s another fifteen on the carpet.”
Alan looked up at Danny. His voice, velvet soft and measured.
“Nobody would miss any of this would they?”
Harry understood the implications of Alan’s comment. He was young, but he wasn’t stupid. Five thousand each. In their pockets and away. The rest counted out, recorded and lodged. Enough to be credible. No one would know. No one to claim the money. No one to show up at the station, days later, shouting ‘where’s the other £15,000?’ He felt his heart beating faster and he no longer felt the cold. He looked at Danny, staring at the money, his brows furrowed. The words came suddenly to Harry. He felt compelled to say something before Danny responded. It was stick or twist.
“There will always be someone Alan. A neighbour. A friend of a friend. A distant second cousin. Stories of a miserly old man who kept a treasure hoard.”
Alan sneered and shrugged his shoulders. He waved a hand over the money. There was jokey tone to his voice, but it had an edge that Harry could not place.
“There’s nobody. Just a pile of notes that’ll take hours to count, pin to a card, record in a book, put in a safe. And for what? Bugger all. Goes to the tax man. Nobody benefits.” He turned to Danny. “Tell him.”
Harry wasn’t going to let Danny speak. He wanted to face Alan down. One on one. His stomach churned at having to stand up to Alan. He didn’t want the added burden of taking Danny on too. He tried to keep his tone of voice light and conversational.
“What would it buy you Alan? A new car? A sofa and a washing machine? For that, you get the worry that there might be someone after all? The day you come to work and there’s two senior detectives wanting to interview you?”
Harry looked at Danny. He tried to maintain an air of jocularity. After all, no one had suggested anything concrete yet, but he was conscious of a tension in his voice.
“How much do you get paid? Four times this. That and more for the next twenty years. And a nice pension after it’s all done. Who would gamble that?”
He waved his hand at the money, just as Alan had done. He had expected a sarcastic response. An escalation of some kind. But the room was silent. Danny and Alan looked at him without comment. A game of poker and Harry had called it. He felt as if he was being weighed and assessed. Danny sat forward. His face lit by the lamp. He looked at Harry for a moment before turning to Alan.
“The boy’s right. Let’s count it out and get down the road. There’s a cup of tea waiting for us at the old folks home.”
Alan sat back and sagged into his chair. He reached into his tunic and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He lit one and took a deep draw, the end glowing bright. As Alan exhaled a long contrail, a smokers satisfaction on his face, he looked at Harry, his hands palm outwards.
“Better get that notebook opened FUNG. You’ve got some counting to do…”
With that he stood up, reached over for his cap and left the room. Danny leaned a little closer over the table.
“You did well. Give me a shout on the radio when you’re done and I’ll give you a lift back to the office. And I’ll corroborate the money.”
Danny stood up. Harry could hear the front door opening and Alan calling Danny to hurry up. Danny put on his cap and, as he walked to the hallway, he turned around one last time.
“And you’re dead right. There’s always someone. Always…”
© Brian Cook and The Absentminded Scribe Blog, 2017. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Cook and The Absent Minded Scribe Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.