BY ROB MCCLURE
The sky was the color of fish blood. Regis stuck his head out the café door like a badger emerging from its set. Mills watched him approach the snot-green rental Honda with that bopping walk like his left leg had been ripped to shit by a bear. Regis threw himself into the driver’s seat and sniffed. ‘This one got a smell.’
‘It was fine till you got in,’ Mills said. ‘But let's assume it's coincidental.’
Regis turned on the radio, which burbled like a coffeemaker on the fritz.
‘It’s an Internet thing. I forgot the password.’
‘Jesus.’ Regis commenced adjusting the crotch of his jeans.
‘If you don’t mind me inquiring, what is stuffed down your trousers?’
‘I assume it is either a gun or you have acquired a permanent hard on. And I’m honest to god not sure which I find most disturbing.’
Regis sheepishly laid the gun on the armrest. A Bersa Thunder 380. Mills picked it up, despite knowing where it had been. ‘We don’t need a gun for this gig. You retarded?’
‘Don't use the R word, Charlie. That's offensive. I know a whole lot of retards would be very offended by that.’
‘Your average retard is too retarded to get offended by anything you say to him. This is how come your standard retard is a jovial fucker. Nothing bothers him.’
Regis nodded at the gun. ‘It’s not that deep, man. Better safe than sorry.’
‘In your case, it’d be sorry. You’re liable to blow your own balls off.’
‘Man don't do dem tings,’ Regis declaimed, studying the grey pavement. Big treacle drops splattered. ‘Fucking hell,’ he sneered. ‘Rain.’
The car roof rattled and pinged.
There were only two seasons in Glasgow: June and winter. White hail was frying on the grass verge now, an apocalyptic scene.
‘I was watching this documentary about how ships are put together,’ Mills announced. ‘Totally riveting.’
The street a forbidding grey. Everything mud-grey. The sky. The pavement grey, and grey the granite buildings.
‘Still seeing the one with the legs?’
‘Nah, we consciously uncoupled. She gone back to Brum.’
‘With another bloke?’
‘No, the fucking circus.’
Mills was about to say she was used to hooking up with clowns, but decided against it.
‘Her parents didn’t appreciate me.’
Mills struggled with his composure. ‘You don't say?’
‘Her old man says how he wanted me to hurry up and murder her so the family could get to grieve properly.’
‘That's harsh. That's toxic masculinity that is. I read about that. I liked looking at that girl some though. She had the longest legs in the world.’
Regis stared. ‘Yeah, some days they went all the way to the ground.’ He didn't speak for a while. ‘She's doing bits up there, but seeing this clapped individual.’
Mills shook his head. ‘Last serious relationship I had, I was treated like a piece of meat.’
Regis regarded Mills expectantly.
‘The bird was a vegan and refused to touch me.’ Mills wiped clean a pair of spectacles. Regis watched him huff on the lenses.
‘I didn't know you wore specs.’
Regis slapped the steering wheel. ‘Christ, you’re fucking trying.’
There followed silence.
‘What's he like then?’
‘Twisted little homunculus. I’ve scraped meaner off the bottom of my shoe.’
The occupants of the tenement came and went. Some pedestrians looked like their clothes had woken up that morning and swallowed them.
Mills unrolled a Daily Record. His wire-rims gave him a scholarly appearance.
‘Seen Cal Dury recently?’
Mills sighed. ‘No. Why?’
‘Drowned himself in the Thames.’
Mills lowered the newspaper. ‘There's one good reason I haven't seen him then.’
‘They dragged him out bloated and wormy.’
‘I wasn't looking for him anyway.’ Mills yawned and returned to his tabloid.
‘Just as well, since you wouldn't find him,’ Regis offered. ‘With him being dead. Did you know Cal was half Romany?’
‘I did not.’ Mills peered over the top of his spectacles. ‘Did he live in a caravan then?’
‘I went to that death celebration thing at his house before the funeral.’
‘You mean a wake.’ Mills closed his eyes in exasperation.
‘So, the gypsies leave the windows of the bedroom open so his soul could get out, and put this big sheet over the mirror so it wasn’t confused.’
‘Why would the mirror get confused?’ Mills pressed his lips into a dry smirk.
‘Not the mirror. The soul. The soul it is what gets confused by the mirror.’
‘Because it sees itself and gets a fright,’ Regis speculated, wildly.
‘Like what happens when you look in the mirror?’ Mills ceased laughing, pointed at the rearview. ‘We got us action.’
A woman carrying a beige leather shoulder bag came out. Her lipstick so dark it seemed black against the paleness of her face. She wore strapless heels and her jeans hung low on her hips and there was a reckless tattoo at the base of her spine that drifted up her arse as she swayed by their car. A scarlet scarab. Plum nail polish on the end of long be-ringed fingers.
‘That’s the secretary,’ Regis observed. ‘Got a cheapo tramp stamp. Classy not.’
‘He’s sent the help out so he can do business. Let’s go help by disrupting his business. Every business needs a good disrupting.’
Mills lifted the tan briefcase out of the back seat.
The converted three-storey tenement was of squared-and-snecked red sandstone with polished ashlar dressings. The interior hallway had been a checkered cream with honey-colored ceramics and green dado but the color scheme had seen better days.
‘You first,’ Regis said, ushering Mills in. ‘Age before beauty.’
The passed-out drunk recumbent at the top of the stairwell caused Mills to recall the old saw that it was never hard to find a drunk man in Glasgow if you knew where to look: which was right in front of you. Mills coughed a few times and then shook the dreamer out of his stupor. ‘You need to leave, mate. You can’t be kipping here. It’s not seemly.’
On the third floor the walls were of peeling yellow and there was a pungent guff on the landing. The frame had been painted once a plain chocolate brown with a leaven of snot-green trim but the ancient oil-base was buckling and crinkling away from the wood. Into the door was screwed an off-center metal plate: Kenneth Capocci Detective Agency.
‘Don't do that,’ Mills said. ‘It's stupid.’
He booted the door in and they entered an anteroom the size of a broom closet where the secretary's station was and proceeded with alacrity into the main office.
‘Who the fuck ur youse?’ The little man had acquired such demeanor as is appropriate to a cornered rodent. Capocci was something, worse than the photographs. It looked like he’d had half his face carved off by a diseased butcher. He was being worn by a blue shirt and black slacks combo, yellow socks the color of sick and those fancy specs shade in the sun. He was shooting for a suburban dad look but it was like someone had shaved a monkey and kicked it through Banana Republic.
Everywhere piles of folders. The fusty filing cabinets spilling with many such folders and the ledgers propped on the empty bookshelves thick with documents extracted from similar folders. There were folders inside folders, which were also inside folders. They'd never find that fucking binder here.
‘You could use a cleaning lady.’
Capocci’s eyes were the size of blue plunker marbles and shimmied between the intruders. He pointed his desk stapler at them like it was a gun.
‘What you going to do with that?’ Mills asked. ‘Staple me?’
‘Whit is it youse want? Ah huv an important meeting in a minute.’
The only sound from a small white plastic fan's meaningless rotation. It was clotted with dead bugs and wasn't making the air in the room less humid, just a little livelier.
‘Ah didn't say youse could sit doon.’
‘He has a nasty speech impediment,’ Regis said. He picked up a brass bell from a bookshelf. A Hawaiian dancer in a hoop skirt. It rattled hollow. The clapper inside the skirt had rusted. Regis threw it in a bin. ‘It’s his foot. He keeps sticking it in his mouth.’
Capocci attempted a smile. ‘Am ah supposed tae be scared oaf you two chanty-wrastlers? Strutting in here gallous as peacocks in heat. Ah'd be mair scared oaf Laurel and Hardy. He sat carefully, as if his chair was made of icing. ‘Whit is it you want?’
‘There's been talk of a binder making the rounds.’
‘Ah've no heard that talk. Did you cunts overhear this in wan of the brothels ye frequent? Did ye pick the info up ower at Blytheswood Square?’
‘Oh, Mr. Capocci.’ Mills eased open the briefcase, locating inside what was needed for the task at hand. ‘You've fucked up righteously.’
Entering the anteroom, carrying a hard drive and an assortment of plausible documents, they were disturbed to discover the drunken man seated on the carpeting under the lintel of the splintered office door. He gazed around, addled but curious.
‘Didn't we tell you to get out?’
‘Ah couldnae move mah feets.’
‘Is that right?’
‘Matter of fact ah still can't. Ah think ah crawled in here. Ah do not recall.’
‘Fucking hell.’ Mills looked at Regis who nodded at the briefcase. ‘Maybe,’ he agreed. He examined the man sprawled like an invertebrate. ‘What's your name?’
The drunk man had the appearance of a petrified thing and his mouth opened and closed in the fashion of a beached fish.
‘What's your fucking name?’ Regis repeated.
‘What do you do for a living, McArthur?’
‘Ah'm a cable installation technician, currently unemployed. It is no a good time tae be a cable installation technician. Everyone is cutting the fucking cord.’
‘Why are you here?’
‘Because mah missus is screwing the Vodaphone man is the reason.’ McArthur’s eyes really were two cherries floating in buttermilk. ‘She’s a fucking strumpet so she is. Mr. Capocci was interrogating their fornication but theday he told me tae fuck the fuck off.’
‘Why is that?’
‘He said ah was pissed as a newt and incapable oaf speeching. Ah had a few ales at a local hostelry. Ah wis upset.’ McArthur reached up to grip Mills’ sleeve. ‘Ah found a rubber johnny in the waste disposal mixed in wi bits oaf cucumber.’
‘What do you think you might have seen today, Alex?’
‘Nothing at all?’ Regis barked.
‘Aye,’ said McArthur. ‘Sweet Fanny Adams. Ah definitely didnae see youse playing fitba wi no poor cunt’s heid and chibbing him wi’ a knife. That's whit ah didnae see.’
‘What do you do in a situation like this, blud?’ Regis asked Mills.
‘You adapt.’ Mills studied the man spread across the carpet like an eastern pasha. ‘But Alex, you did see something.’
‘Ah saw fuck all. Ah am blind as a mole so ah am.’
‘You’re not paying attention. Pay attention. Be a smart alec, Alex.’ Mills hunkered. ‘You saw a man here, about 5'10'' he was. Early 40's. Medium length brown hair.’
‘Ah did?’ McArthur was befuddled.
‘He had a knife.’
‘Ah think ah hear you.’
‘What was it that you saw again then, Alex?’
‘This wee man aboot 5 foot ten, early 40's, medium broon length hair.’
‘That was quite good. But if the man is five-ten, he’s not wee, with me?’
‘Everything is relatives.’
‘You think his name might be John. Reason being Mr. Capocci told you he was waiting to meet a man called John.’
‘You don’t remember?’
‘That wis his name.’ McArthur nodded. ‘John. Like the Apostle, eh? The fisherman.’
‘Peter was the fisherman.’
‘John went fishing fur fish as well. He wis the brither. They hud a boat. A fishing boat it wis.’
‘It doesn't matter,’ Mills said, exasperated. ‘Christ.’
‘Aye, he wis there as well. Walking oan the watter.’
‘And nets?’ McArthur was excited now. ‘They must huv hud nets as well. Fur catching the fish in when they fished.’
‘First-rate fucking witness, bruv,’ Regis noted.
Mills yanked McArthur to his feet and reinserted him within his Italian army surplus jacket. His limbs could be manipulated only with great difficulty. Mills extracted a wallet and opened it. ‘You got your name right at any rate,’ he said. ‘Well done.’
‘You ur no totally blootered if ye can lie oan the floor withoot holding oan.’
‘I'll have to remember that.’ Regis dusted off McArthur’s collar with his palm. ‘You looking fresh now, chief.’
‘Yir black,’ McArthur noted.
‘I told you he was observant,’ Mills said. ‘One more thing, Alex.’
Mills waved McArthur’s license. ‘I hope you’re not thinking of driving today,’ he said.
‘Nut.’ McArthur pressed his knuckles into his eyes. ‘No very far.’
Mills entered the address in his phone contacts and slotted it back in McArthur’s pocket. ‘If you breathe a word, we will find you. I swear on the bible. On all the fucking Apostles, fishermen or otherwise. I will find you and cut off your balls, Alex, and this man here will come and remove your wife’s head as well, for symmetry. You wouldn’t like that, Alex, would you? You like your balls, don’t you? And you love your wife, right? You don't want her headless, do you? Despite her being a skank?’
‘Man can't get no head from a headless woman,’ Regis noted.
‘Ah do.’ McArthur's face a desolation. ‘Youse ur jist hallelujahs tae me.’
‘Them as well.’
The killers returned to their car. Regis wheeled the heater up full blast, flapped his hands under it. ‘We should have taken care of that wasteman. He’s loose ends. You got moist.’
‘He was drunk as a skunk. You think the police will believe anything he says? Worst-case they waste time with a witness sozzled out his gourd. Best case, he rambles on about this other man.’
‘I didn't like you swearing on no bible. Bad luck. You Church of England?’
‘No,’ said Mills, seemingly shocked. ‘I’m religious.’
‘Catholic?’ Regis was surprised. Do you go to those confessionals?’
‘No.’ Mills shook his head. ‘I got all those Baptists to die for my sins anyway.’
It commenced spitting, splat on the windshield, dank drizzle descending, windows steaming up, blisters of rain popping on the bonnet.
‘The rain falls on the just and the unjust the same.’ Mills studied dripping green shop awnings. ‘Except of course the unjust have made off with the just's umbrellas.’
The hunched man came along the street, collar up and head down. He was looking at his phone, following map directions. Sad how we did that now. He was 5'10'' and in his early 40's, light brown hair. He gazed up at the tenement frontage, and entered. McArthur staggered out the front door as he was going in.
Their call to the police made, the Accord pulled onto the M8 ramp. Mills looked at the sluggish grey Clyde beneath them and then off across the bridge at the Kingston Quay. ‘Little fucker squirted blood all over my good trousers,’ he muttered.
© No Mean City, 2023, Rob McClure
Rob McClure is a Scottish writer. His novel, The Scotsman, won the Black Springs Crime Fiction Prize and is forthcoming in 2023.