Brief Encounter

The following five days were spent in bed. Alec had swallowed the contents of the canal during the rescue of the boy and a bout of gastroenteritis followed. It took another week before he could reasonably claim he’d recovered and it was a thinner Alec MacKay who reported at Corsair Street in time to begin a week of night shifts.

To his surprise there were smiles and affirmative nods as he entered the changing room. A shout of ‘here’s Marine Boy’ and laughter among the clanging locker doors. There’d been some banter with Ricky about figure skating and though he’d balked at the comparisons with Torvill and Dean someone in the muster hummed the Bolero anyway. It was funny and he laughed at the image it created.There was a brief chat with Harkness. Something about the finest traditions of the service and being mentioned in dispatches at headquarters. There’d likely be a commendation. Alec couldn’t think of anything to say other than it had been spur of the moment and he was glad it turned out ok, but deep inside he hoped it would come true. It would be a bulwark against anything malicious Fitzpatrick had to say about him.

He was re-united with Ronnie for the week. Duncan Stewart was on annual leave and the arrangement was presented as a chance to ‘ease yourself in’ before he took up his beats again. But Alec was torn. He’d got used to the autonomy, the freedom to do as he pleased and being under Ronnie’s wing felt like a step backwards. He consoled himself with the positives, a few days in familiar company and the chance to sense check Ronnie’s opinion of Harkness. The reservation could survive without him.

It wasn’t a seamless experience; the first few hours were awkward. Alec no longer considered himself ‘the boy’ and the events of the past few weeks had instilled a sense of confidence that stood out in Ronnie’s company. He was first to answer the radio and Ronnie bristled at the impertinence of someone younger in service deciding what calls they took. Alec chafed at Ronnie’s insistence that these were his beats and that he decided where they went. And so it was that Alec found himself having to accommodate Ronnie, as much as Ronnie had to accommodate him. His old tutor still entertained with the occasional war story and funny anecdote but Alec had stories too, and opinions. The latter were greeted with silence on the first night but their temporary arrangement somehow settled into something workable, no doubt helped by Alec’s ability to approach each call as his own man, allowing Ronnie to sit back and relax.

All the same, it took several nights before Alec felt confident enough to broach the subject of Harkness. The chat with Charlie and Stevie had shown that nothing could be assumed, that he should tread carefully, but with retirement approaching the old cop surely had an interest in avoiding controversy of any kind.

They were walking along an abandoned railway track, one of many that had intersected Glasgow before the Beeching cuts, and whose disconnected sections were all that remained of an integrated network that once trundled through the congested landscape of houses and factories to the centre of town. Most of the route had since been swallowed up by a city desperate for housing, but the parts that remained had grown wild, their steep embankments flanked by tall trees and rhododendrons; perfect escape routes for house-breakers and short cuts for wily old cops. They’d climbed through a gap in the wall behind The Crescents and made their way towards Corsair Street past upmarket townhouses and new build apartments before reaching an elegant sandstone viaduct that spanned a deep gorge whose steep sides were filled with beech and sycamore.Alec peered down at the river far below, it’s dark waters tumbling over stepped ridges in the rock, the trees draped in a fine mist. In the distance, the orange glow of streetlights and a random array of tower blocks. It was civilisation of a kind, but here, suspended above the wooded gorge it felt like he’d a bit of wild countryside to himself. As good a spot as any for conspiratorial conversation.

“New Inspector’s causing waves.”

A grunt. A response Alec knew well enough to indicate a reluctance to comment but a cautious signal to proceed.

“Said I’d get a commendation for the canal thing, so I guess his heart’s in the right place.”

A sideways look and a raised eyebrow.

“Thought I’d taught you better than that.”

A bite.

“Yeah — tryin’ to give him the benefit. Charlie and Stevie are pissed off. A few others too.”

Ronnie continued his slow advance along the track neither looking one side or the other, eyes fixed on a distant objective. After a few seconds of rumination he declared his hand.

“Don’t get on the wrong side of that guy. If you’re no’ on his bus, yer under it.”

Alec shook off the image of Harkness driving a bus. He seemed genuine enough about the commendation, but maybe it was just talk, something to keep him sweet. The downside of being a probationer was that his prospects were tied to the peccadilloes of the supervisors above him and in a force filled with people as randomly variable as Strathclyde Police it was lucky dip if you got a great gaffer or a shite one. Alec had no doubts what ticket he’d drawn and he’d no intention of being played like a fish.

“Hear what yer sayin’, but I’m no’ happy with him being a witness in my cases if he’s done bugger all to justify it.”

Ronnie turned in his tracks and faced him. The old cop pointed a finger at Alec’s heart as if the answer lay there.

“That is entirely up to you. We’ve all got to pick our own way, but if you want my advice, and I think you do, then you’ve got to bend with the wind from time to time.”

“That’s what Stevie said.”

Ronnie gazed up into the night sky as if picturing Stevie using those words, testing them in his head to see if they rang true. He looked wary and Alec belatedly realised how much a test of trust this was. Speaking ill of a gaffer in the wrong company was a sure way to find yourself in deep trouble.

“S’ok Ronnie. I guess Harkness will move on soon enough. I’ll keep my head down.”

Alec met Ronnie’s probing gaze head on and smiled. Ronnie looked unconvinced, but as he opened his mouth to speak there was a shout from the other end of the viaduct and for the first time Alec noticed two shadowy figures on the far side. There was another shout, too far to make out the words but it sounded like someone in distress. Alec quickened his step but immediately felt a hand on his shoulder.

“You might be a beat man, but yer no a Jedi yet.”

Alec stopped.

“Sounds like somebody in trouble.”

“Aye, but not the kind you’re thinking. That’s two cops there.”

The shouting had subsided into a kind of call-and-response. There was a third voice but Alec couldn’t see where it came from. As he edged further along the viaduct the figures grew more distinct. They seemed to be fascinated with something over the edge of the parapet and they spent their time looking at it so completely they seemed unaware of his approach.

Another shout, the familiar nasal band-saw of scheme Glaswegian. There was anger in the voice, and an additional harmonic of fear that bordered on hysteria.

“Ya fuckin’ mad bastards. Get me up!”

It was answered by a Liverpudlian voice, unnaturally reasonable and controlled. Ricky.

“Wouldn’t want ye to fall, but ye haven’t told us, and ma fingers are getting tired.”

The response came from the other side of the parapet.

“Pleeeeease. Ah’ll tell ye when ah’m back on the bridge.”

Alec could hear a tsk tsk in response and then the broad Ayrshire lilt of Sandy. The same reasonable tone as Ricky but with added brutality.

“No one knows yer here Frankie. Wan wee slip and down ye go. A wee accident.”

Frankie’s voice rose up an octave.

“Ye’s widnae dare. Ye’s widnae fuckin dare! Let me up ya cunts — ah’ll tell ye!”

Alec edged a little closer to the crouched figures. Their police hats were tipped backwards and each had a leg in a tight embrace, their chests pulled onto the parapet by the weight of the body, knees braced against the stonework for support. A pair of trainer clad feet, hooked over their broad shoulders, occasionally waggled as a disembodied voice rose from the dark depths beyond. It was crying now.

“Please. Honest to god. Ah don’t want to die.”

Ricky looked down a length of one leg as if aiming down the barrel of a gun. His voice sounded laboured.

“The name Frankie. Give us the name.”

There was the sound of the river deep in the gorge and then the voice, thin and hesitant.

“Zippy…Zippy Morrison.”

“Willie Morrison? Bendyke Street?”

Silence. Sandy and Ricky exchanged a look and then lowered their prize with a jolt. There was a scream.

“Fuckin pricks!”

Sandy chuckled.

“Sorry Frankie…fingers getting sweaty. Answer the question.”

“Willie Morrison — Bendyke Street — pull, me, the, fuck, up!”

Ricky and Sandy began hauling up the figure of a skinny young man. It wasn’t an easy task. Somehow he’d been lowered backwards and there was no way he could assist in his ascent. As he reached the top of the parapet his back scraped across the stonework to a cacophony of curses until his shoulders cleared the topmost edge and he collapsed with a grunt on the stone chippings. Sandy and Ricky stood above him, breathing laboured, plumes of vapour rising into the air. It was only then Ricky looked up and put on his best grin. If he’d been surprised by the company he was doing his best to hide it.

“Wondered who that was. Come to see how it’s really done?”

Frankie pushed himself into a sitting position, his back to the parapet, knees pulled to his chest. In the diffused light of the distant housing scheme Alec saw the fear in the young man’s face. There was no doubt that he’d been convinced Ricky and Sandy would’ve dropped him and he sat in furtive silence watching his tormentors, searching for clues as to what would happen next.

Ronnie looked down at him with mild interest.

“Still dealin’ smack Frankie?”

Frankie scowled in return.

“Never touch the stuff.”

Sandy kicked him hard in the thigh.

“That’s for telling a lie ya wee bastard.”

Frankie scowled up at Sandy and rubbed his thigh but said nothing.

Ricky peered I to the darkness around him, as if making sure there were no witnesses to his little escapade. Alec could almost see the wheels whirring in his head as he worked out his next move. After a brief pause he smiled, jerked a thumb toward the figure at his feet and began began talking as if he was a children’s TV presenter.

“Frankie here works in an ice cream van, don’t you Frankie?”

A nod from Frankie. A nod from Ricky. Ronnie stared at Frankie as if the news was a thunderclap of some kind, but Alec was confused. Working in an ice cream van was no crime as far as he knew.

Ricky continued in his best Jackanory voice.

“Frankie’s route is Summerhill.”

At this Ricky turned and pointed beyond the desolate scrubland at the end of the bridge to the jumbled skyline that was the Estate of the Isles.

“But the best bit for our Frankie, is the estate and the reservation.”

Alec knew the ice cream van. An Italian sounding family from somewhere in the north of the city, their name painted in fifties style pastel coloured signage along the sides and back of the van. The chime ‘Whistle While You Work’ echoed among the tenements twice a day, afternoon and evening, kids and teenagers queuing for ice cream and crisps. Alec looked down at the gaunt face of Frankie who was digging his heels into the chippings. He looked a very unlikely ice cream seller.

Ricky gave the sole of Frankie’s foot a prod with the toe of his boot.

“Frankie loves his wee job, don’t you Frankie? Nice wee earner.”

Ronnie had stepped forward for a closer look. He looked angry.

“How long you worked for Donatelli?”

Frankie shrugged.

“A couple a months.”

Alec had no idea what was going on, or where the conversation was heading, but so far there was absolutely nothing to explain why Ricky and Sandy had threatened to drop a young man off a bridge. He’d been about to say as much when Ricky, timing impeccable as ever, supplied the first clue.

“Tell the officer what yer selling the kids Frankie.”

Frankie looked from Ricky to Ronnie, thin mouth twisted into a sardonic smirk. Now that he was back on terra firma his true nature had resurfaced.

“Fuck off. Ah sell the weans ice cream.”

Another kick from Sandy, this time his army boot connected with Frankie’s ribs and he rolled onto his side cursing. Alec watched in horrified fascination. It was as if he’d travelled through a portal into a parallel universe and in stepping onto the viaduct had left Strathclyde Police behind and entered a banana republic, one where the local criminals were routinely tossed over bridges. The old worries resurfaced; that Frankie would inevitably complain and have the cracked ribs and bruises to prove it. He looked about him, convinced that some onlooker was taking notes somewhere beyond the gloom and that he’d be viewed as an accessory. He wondered if now was the time to intervene and put a stop to it. Ronnie had no such worries. His attention was solely on Frankie.

“You’re the prick selling smack to the weans aren’t you?”

A smirk from Frankie who tried to hold Ronnie’s gaze but failed. Ronnie smiled his grim smile.

“Ah’ve got teenage junkies on my beat thanks to cunts like you. Houses broken into, mammies in tears.”

Frankie stared off into the night and shrugged. He couldn’t give a fuck.

Sandy and Ricky stepped back to give Ronnie free rein and Alec understood now why Frankie was of such interest. From the initial shock of seeing two cops dangle a man over a bridge parapet he began to see things in an entirely different light. He thought of the early morning ghosts on the reservation and his heart shrank at the memory of how young they were. Here was Frankie, small time dealer, a nobody compared to the bigger fish in the flats and tenements across Summerhill, but saw himself as a specialist with a niche clientele and it shocked Alec that there no limits, no boundaries in this trade. Get ‘em young, get ‘em for life, however short that life would be.

Ronnie pulled Frankie to his feet. As he adjusted his tracksuit bottoms he looked at Ricky and Ronnie, eyes darting side-to-side like a hunted animal trying to guess the next steps . Ronnie shrugged as if to say he’d had enough. Ricky, hands in pockets, nodded his head sideways at the distant housing estate. His voice had returned to its normal state of languid boredom.

“Right Frankie, fuck off. Don’t let me see you hangin’ round here again, or I might drop ya next time.”

A dark cloud passed over Frankie’s face. A look of primal loathing had replaced the nervous look of moments ago. Alec was amazed at how many changes of emotion Frankie possessed and how quickly he changed from one to the other. He spat at Ricky’s feet.

“Ah’ll do what I want, when I want. Maybe I’ll just go up to Corsair Street and tell ‘em what you did.”

Not for the first time, Alec was caught out by the speed of Ronnie’s reactions, of how a middle aged fat man could still strike like a snake and before Frankie had registered the movement Ronnie had him by the face, the momentum of his vast bulk carrying them onto the bridge parapet, Frankie’s torso over the abyss, Ronnie’s meaty hand squeezing Frankie’s face so tight his lips puckered into a tortured approximation of a kiss, his rotten yellow teeth bared like a snarling dog.

Alec moved to grab Ronnie but hesitated. Frankie was so far over the drop that any intervention could tip the balance the wrong way. Ronnie’s large bulk was pressed onto Frankie’s thin frame, his free hand on Frankie’s shoulder so that there was no way the man could push himself back to safety. Ricky and Sandy had their hands out in anticipation of the unthinkable, but Ronnie was oblivious, focused solely on Frankie, his head inches from Frankie’s face whose eyes bulged as if the pressure on his cheeks were squeezing them from their sockets.

“Listen cunt. Take a step inside that office, or speak to anyone and I will personally hunt you down. I’ll bring you here and toss you in that fuckin’ river and no one, and I mean no one, will give a toss that you’re gone.”

Frankie’s feet scrabbled across the broken ground trying in vain for some sort of purchase but Ronnie continued in his calm surreal tone.

“And if I see you in that fucking ice cream van just once I’ll give you a ‘99 you’ll never forget.”

Whether it was the imagery, or the situation, Alec had to turn away at that point and hide the grin. Ricky and Sandy were staring at the ground as Ronnie relinquished his grip and eased Frankie back onto the track.

Ronnie had taken a step back but he looked ready to go again. Frankie massaged his jaw before raising his hands in a show of contrition. Alec could see that he was shaking but trying his best to control it.

“Ah wiz only jokin.”

Ricky smiled.

“We do the jokes around here Frankie. Now, fuck off before my colleague here does something he’ll never regret.”

Frankie took a look around to make sure no one had any objections, then squeezed past Sandy and hurried towards the scrubland and the housing estate beyond. After a few yards he broke into a jog and as he disappeared among the trees Ricky looked at Ronnie with keen interest.

“Thought you were going to throw him over for a second.”

Ronnie looked sour and grunted.

“For a second, so did I.”

Sandy grinned.

“Doubt we’ll see him for a while.”

Ronnie stared at the distant scrubland and shook his head.

“He’ll be in that van tomorrow. He doesn’t give a toss.”

As if that was all the explanation that was required Ronnie broke the spell and announced that they were overdue their tea break. Ricky talked about where he and Sandy were headed next and they all parted as if nothing much had happened other than a chance rendezvous in which banal pleasantries had been exchanged.

But the encounter had made a deep impression on Alec. He’d witnessed a man being threatened with death in order to extract information and he was worried about the repercussions. But more than anything, the incident on the bridge gave shape to something that had hovered on the edge of his thoughts ever since that first day on the reservation. That he was much more than an impersonal observer and recorder of facts. That there was no such thing as detached neutrality. The stuff they’d taught at the police college was bullshit. It was very personal indeed. How could it be otherwise when every day you wrote down the misery and despair of others and heard in their voices the hope that you’d do something about it?

Alec pictured the huddled groups at the ice cream van, the furtive looks as the teenagers peeled away and disappeared through the common closes. He’d written it off as the same furtiveness he’d seen elsewhere in Summerhill, but he now saw it for what it was and his loathing grew towards Frankie and all those like him. It angered him that a snake like Frankie was getting away with it right under their noses.

The talk was of a heroin ‘epidemic’, that the genie was out and no-one could find the stopper, let alone put it back, and with it a growing sense of impotence, their efforts restricted to warrant enquires and shaking down small fry for information that went nowhere. The big fish had gained respectability through fancy lawyers and no one could touch them anymore. But Frankie wasn’t a big fish. If they knew he was dealing smack from an ice cream van why hadn’t he been caught?

Ronnie, still hot from the confrontation, was happy to explain.

“He’s been turned twice in the past month. Fuck all found. The Donatelli’s are pals with local councillors. Next thing there’s letters flying about with claims of harassment and the Div Comm gets the gypsies warning to lay off.”

“And that’s that?”

“Yup. That’s that. Frankie thinks he’s one of the untouchables. A couple of more years and he’ll be breaking into the big time. It’s how they all start.”

They found a hole in the boundary fence and navigated the streets of ‘The Isles’, the rabbit warren of passages and paths deserted and silent. In a few more hours the sun would rise on another grey morning and the junkie parade would start again. Alec’s thought’s drifted to the reservation. He felt protective of it, that it was down to him to make a difference, to leave it a better place than when he started. As he climbed the steps to Corsair Street he vowed that he’d do whatever it took to put people like Frankie where they belonged and in that moment the seeds of his own addiction were sown, that there was honour at least in throwing yourself at the wall, even if there was little chance of breaking it.

© Brian Cook and The Absentminded Scribe Blog, 2020. 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 story.

6 thoughts on “Brief Encounter

  1. Yet another great chapter, I worried when I heard the author acquired a hellhound that he may have lost focus, but if anything I find his writing has matured, really looking forward to the release of the full book.

    I for one will be placing it in a prominent position on my bookshelf on my next zoom conference call, keep up the good word Sir.

    Liked by 1 person

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