It had been a long day. Possilpark, its sullen streets lined with hard as nails tenements, looked gloomy in the constant rain. They had trudged around as popular as Jehovahs witnesses, leather folders clutched against water-streaked raincoats. At every door they had met the same reception. Shaking heads and hostile faces. Now he could feel his trousers cold and damp against his shins and he cursed his altruism. Door to door enquiries were for Detective Constables. Detective Sergeants at a push. He stole a glance at the morose young detective at his side. The DC caught his eye and, with a jutting movement of his chin, pointed towards the building before them.
“Last one boss.”
The DI looked up. They had reached a three story tenement, its facade made of grey harled cement blocks. It looked as rough as all the others. He scanned the building for life but could see nothing beyond the grimy windows and their nicotine stained curtains. Traffic roared past on the Balmore Road and he could feel the roadside spray join the saturated air around him. He nodded at the DC and they trudged up the stairs into the urine stained common close. Each consoled themselves in cloistered thoughts that, after this, they would pack it in.
The ground floor flats were occupied, their occupants intimately known. And not in a good way. The verbal exchanges were brief and the occupants had avoided profanity. But it had been a close thing. In any case, they’d heard nothing. Nor had they seen anything suspicious. It was apparent that the council double glazing possessed heroic sound proofing qualities, for the DI had seldom known so many hear so little. Neither the exotic sounds of large calibre weaponry, or the screech of energetically driven cars as they had made off into the night. They had, however, noted one of the upstairs neighbours to be a bit restless at night and could the officers counsel them to keep the noise down.
They climbed to the first floor. To their left, an empty flat, a metal shutter fitted over the door. The other, on the right, was occupied, it’s freshly painted black door had a silver metal name-plate. It looked polished and cared for. Plant pots filled with pansies sat on either side. They looked incongruous compared to the peeling paint of the close and the cracked windows on the landing half a flight below.
The DI pressed the large plastic door bell. The faint sound of chimes could be heard within. Although there were no obvious signs of life, the DI saw that the light within the spy hole had dimmed. A voice called out from the other side.
“Who is it?”
The DI spoke with his best official, but friendly, voice.
“It’s the police.”
Silence. He could not be entirely sure, but he had the uneasy feeling that he was being watched by the disembodied voice. He took out his police warrant card and held it to the spy hole.
“My warrant card.”
There was the sound of a chain being jangled and of metal slid along metal. The DI heard a key turning in a lock. Then another. And another. There were four. The DI followed the sounds of turning keys downwards. After a pause the door opened to reveal a thin old man in his late 70’s. He was dressed in a black crew necked sweater. A faded blue shirt poked above the collar. He wore neatly pressed black trousers and his hair, shocking white and cut severely at the back, was combed in a side parting. The old man looked up at the DI. His eyes darted up and down. They danced to the side, taking in the DC before returning to the DI. They were bright eyes. Blue and alert.
“Saracen CID. Door to door enquiries for a wee incident that happened last night. Mind if we come in?”
The old man winced.
“Ah thought it was about ma upstairs neighbours. Been having a hell of a time.”
He paused and then, with a sigh, stood to the side and waved the officers in.
“Ye best come in then.”
The officers wiped their feet and walked down a narrow hallway. It led to a tiny sitting room, sparsely furnished but clean. The DI took in his surroundings. A portrait of a jade woman hung on one wall. On another, three porcelain ducks flew in a ‘V’ formation. A wooden dresser stood underneath. On it sat a porcelain donkey, head bowed, pulling a cart laden with a giant decanter. The decanter was filled with a plum coloured liquid. A foreleg was raised as the donkey strained to make headway. It was clearly going nowhere. The DI recognised a kindred spirit.
“Would you like a cup of tea constables?”
The DI bristled. He was CID. Not a mere Constable, but he let it pass.
“No thanks. We’ll not take up much of your time. Just a routine enquiry.”
The DI was sure the old man would have nothing to offer. He speculated that he was half deaf and short sighted anyway. A ‘negative’ statement and they’d be on their way. The old man indicated a sofa for the officers to sit in, as he reversed into a high backed orthopaedic chair. He looked at both officers with a shining face.
“Well. Here I am. How can I help Saracen’s finest?”
The DI began to explain, but got no further than his personal introductions when the quiet was split asunder by a volcanic eruption from the flat above them. A thunderous succession of uncoordinated banging noises, so fierce the ceiling light lurched and jiggled in response.
The officers looked to the ceiling more in expectation of it collapsing, than in any attempt to refine the source of the calamity. It was unceasing. After a minute the tempo and volume increased. A new metallic note was added. A clanging of metal on metal joined a fusillade of cannon fire.
The DI turned to the old man, who was sitting with a look of profound resignation. He sought an explanation but though he could see the old man’s mouth move, not a word was heard above the din. He leaned closer, their faces now a few inches apart. He was conscious that he was now shouting, but he could no longer hear his own voice.
Just then, the mayhem ceased. The silence was profound. The DI was conscious that he was now in kissing proximity with the old man and sat back. He looked around the room, as if to check it was still there. One of the ducks had swung on its nail and was now pointing, beak downwards, towards the decanter. The DI felt that the duck had the right idea.
The old man pointed a nicotined stained finger upwards.
The DI was a man who thrived on small details, but this explanation failed to reach even the low bar he had set for himself.
The old man wafted his hand back in the direction of the ceiling.
“Gypsies. Moved in a week ago. Been bastardin’ murder ever since. No rhyme or reason. No tellin’ when it’s going to start. I’ll be sitting here with ma Daily Record and then…that. The Battle of El Alamein.”
The DI looked up once more and saw a network of fine cracks all over the ceiling.
The old man nodded.
The DI prided himself on a rich imagination. He pictured swarthy itinerant travellers with gaily painted caravans. They were gathered around a camp fire, their faces enraptured by kinfolk playing folk songs.
“That’s some racket for Gypsies. I’d have expected to hear violins.”
The old man was impassive. It was clear he did not do jokes. The DI however, was a man of singular purpose. A laser straight tenacity in the pursuit of his goals. It was written in his annual appraisal. He was proud of that. It didn’t suggest inflexibility to him one little bit. He looked over at the DC. A man who could see what was coming next.
“I’ll go up and see what that was about boss.”
The DI returned to his original purpose. Some stock questions and he’d be on his way. He could taste the hot coffee at the office. Feel the warmth of the electric fire in his room. Hear the sounds of classic FM on the radio. To the DI’s satisfaction, the old man had witnessed nothing. He filled in the form and was obtaining the old man’s signature when they were disturbed by the return of the DC.
“All sorted then?”
The DC looked morose.
“Not quite boss.”
The DI scanned his face for clues. There seemed to be traces of shock mixed with confusion. It was not a good look.
“Care to illuminate?”
The DC shook his head.
“I think you need to come upstairs and see for yourself.”
The DI looked at the old man. There was a smile of grim satisfaction where once there had been sour resignation. As he stood up, the DI caught sight of the duck. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed as if it had edged closer to the decanter. He remembered the black heart rum in his desk. He made a mental substitution for the coffee.
“Ok. Lead on Macduff.”
The DI followed the detective up the stairwell. The stairs were clean, but chipped and scored in various places. When they reached the top, the DI saw that, as below, one of the flats had been vacated and secured with a metal door. They stood at the entrance to the other. Its door was slightly ajar. The DC stood in silence and, with his right arm extended, ushered the DI in.
The DI pushed the door open. Two men stood on the bare floorboards of a short hallway. They were swarthy and coal eyed, each with a head of thick black hair. Eschewing traditional peasant dress, they had elected to wear bright blue industrial overalls. Their muscular arms were covered in oil and grease. Between the officers and their silent onlookers stood two doors, one on either side of the hall. The DI looked at the DC and raised one brow.
“This way boss.”
The DC took two steps inside and stopped at the door on the right. The silent men were motionless. The DI was conscious of an undercurrent of tension and the absence of speech unnerved him. The watchfulness and lack of emotion was unusual. As if reading his mind the DC spoke.
“I’ve told them to stand there and say nothing boss. Got some bullshit that wasn’t worth repeating and honestly, the questions can wait. If you could just open this door here…”
The DI pushed the door open and looked in.
It was a tiny room. Shorn of furniture, carpet and curtains. Bare walls and bare floorboards. A light flex dangled forlornly from the ceiling, a dusty lightbulb at its end. The DI, familiar with TV makeovers, pictured a cosy teenagers bedroom with a single bed, IKEA wardrobe, boy band posters and the feminine smell of deodorants. It was a reassuring image.
It was hard to square with the two large ponies standing there.
“Yes boss. And if it’s of any interest, I think the one on the right is bonniest.”
The DI had to agree. The Piebald one reminded him of Saturday mornings with his daughter, watching ‘My Little Pony’. The other, a dark brown specimen, looked altogether more business like. The DI stared at the ponies. They stared back. One snorted and stamped a hoof on the floor. The DI took this to be a confession. The other flicked its tail at imaginary flies.
The floor was covered in tarpaulin in anticipation of the inevitable mess, but it was clean with a scattering of fresh hay.
The ponies looked healthy and well groomed. The DI tried to picture the effort required to feed and exercise the beasts. A clandestine affair that the Great Escape tunnellers would have been proud of. It seemed inconceivable that ponies, led nightly from a Glasgow tenement block and galloped along the streets of Possilpark would have gone unreported. But then a great many things went unreported in Possilpark. Given the epic consumption of psychotropic substances in that area, the DI had no doubt that it would be put down to a particularly exotic trip.
The DI looked round at the two men. They had not moved, but their faces now wore expressions of keen interest. The DI had taken it well so far. There was a look of ‘thanks for popping by officer, but we’ve got to get on…’ The DI wanted very much to get on too. He opened his mouth to speak, but was stopped by the raised hand of the DC.
“Not yet boss. This way.”
The DC gestured toward a doorway at the end of the hall. The silent watchers stood aside, their faces a unified picture of disappointment. The DI wondered what was next. Perhaps they were running a small zoo. As he passed the room to his left he imagined a tropical rainforest enclosure. Maccaque monkeys eating paw paws amongst kaw-ing parrots and flying foxes.
He listened at the door as he passed. There was a merciful silence.
The DC stopped at the last door and gestured toward the DI to open it. The DI took a deep breath and pushed it open. He braced himself for herds of buffalo, breath steaming in a winter prairie. He’d have settled for springbok, leaping majestically through the Serengeti. Or llamas. He liked llamas.
He would never be sure how they had smuggled it in. It was colossal. Its uppermost parts grazed the ceiling and he calculated that it weighed several tonnes. Clearly the men standing beside it agreed, for they had positioned it on a platform, underpinned by several railway sleepers to spread the load. The men stood, one on either side. They were identical to the men in the hall, down to the blue overalls and grease smeared arms. Like the sentinels in the hall, they stood silent and watchful. The DI was certain that he had stumbled upon a group of genetically modified oompaloompas. He looked forward to the singing.
His eyes were drawn back to the centre of the room. He did not doubt its origin. It was stamped onto one side of the monstrous beast. The DI knew his history. The monster would have propelled goods and people over vast distances, once upon a time. It had probably never missed a beat. Now, hulking there in the drab confines of a Glasgow tenement flat it had returned to its place of origin. It was, the DI thought sadly, not the most appropriate place for a ships engine.
No one spoke. The silence was impenetrable. Around the base of the engine, lay assorted tools and buckets of thick black oil. Each of the men held enormous monkey wrenches, which in other circumstances would have heightened emotions in the DI. He turned once more to the DC who was showing an admirable level of clairvoyance.
“Don’t ask boss. Apparently they are doing a favour for some friends.”
“Who’re the friends? Fucking P&O?”
There was an ominous creak. Like the distressed timbers on an old sailing ship. The officers and the oompaloopas looked at the ships engine.
The creaking stopped.
“Right. They’re going to have to get this lot out of here. And pronto.”
The DI looked back through the doorway. The ponies were one thing, but he had no idea how the ships engine had been brought in. The doors were three feet wide. The ships engine was at least three times that and significantly taller than the doors. He looked at the window. They were intact and no bigger than the doors. He instinctively scanned the ceiling. It would not have surprised him to see it lift off and reveal a tower crane. He pictured more ommpaloompas, dancing along its boom, like demented Berkeley Babes, linking arms, kicking high and singing the ‘Ship Engine Song.” Vast herds of horses galloped around its base, oompaloompas riding Cossack style to the sound of traditional gypsy music.
The DI thought hard. It was mostly of mountainous paperwork and gallons of black heart rum, but he was not a man to accept a challenge when it could be sidestepped altogether. For no reason than it was on the way out, he addressed the two men in the hall.
“Right. Here’s the script. Get that engine and the Possil Riding School to fuck. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Tonight. Do that, and this goes no further.”
The silent men nodded. Not a word was spoken, but the DI, a man on intimate terms with human nature, knew the look adopted when a good deal was on the table. He had no doubt that some other venue would be available. It would result in an equal amount of chaos, but in his book expedience triumphed over principle every time. A problem to be solved later. By someone else.
He left the room and passed along the hallway. He remembered the closed door, but resisted the urge to open it and walked out onto the landing.
Behind him, the ponies whinnied and stamped their feet. He did not look back. It was, he decided, better that way.
The DI and the D.C. passed the old man’s flat. He was standing in his doorway, a look of anticipation on his face.
“Well constable. Did ye sort thae bastards oot?”
The DI paused. He was normally bestowed of an extensive vocabulary but at that moment, he was finding it difficult to find the right words. He had learned through bitter experience that it was best to use as few as possible in these situations.
“All sorted sir. There might be the odd noise this evening, but it’ll all be fixed by tomorrow.”
The old man smiled beatifically.
“Would you lads fancy a wee sherry? I’ve got some in the decanter…”
The DI thanked the old man but shook his head. He had something else in mind. He bid the old man farewell and descended the stairs. As he stepped out into the sodden street he suddenly felt weary. He looked at the DC.
“Fancy a drink?”
The DC grinned.
“I think we deserve one boss.”
Yes the DI thought. After all, it had been a long day.
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