By Duncan Harley.
The story so far.
Cody’s gran, señora McLaughlin, has died in far off Santa Cruz at an undisclosed old age and her family have gathered round to say goodbye.
At great expense the old woman’s ashes are brought home after a family whipround.
Following the graveside ceremony, the mourners take time to reflect on her legacy in a clan gathering at the local pub. When the tab runs out, only Danny and Rob are left.
Danny has kept his face hidden throughout the proceedings.
- Why the balaclava?
- It’s a long story.
- How long? I mean, what happened Danny?
The balaclava’d Danny had almost had enough. Persevere or not? he thought. Talk to the man or ignore him? Ach, give peace a chance. What could possibly go wrong? At the end of the day he could always just get up and leave. That is if his legs would carry him through the door.
Aware that he had probably drunk far too much to make that much sense, he began to talk.
- Ach, good funeral eh? Nothing quite like a good send-off is there?
- Maybe. Depends I suppose.
- Depends on what? Ha ha, nobody was there eh! Ashes to ashes perhaps?
- You always were a joker Danny. Ashes, cricket, the crack of the ball against the wicket. All good, all good.
A good funeral indeed. Mrs McLaughlin’s ashes had been interred in the family lair. If indeed they were her ashes. Who indeed could tell the difference between las cenizas de la señora McLaughlin or indeed anyone else’s ashes. The graveside box could have been full of cremated donkey remains for all anyone knew.
- So what’s the balaclava about then?
- Christ, is that all you want to know? I mean for god’s sake, can’t a man wear a wee disguise if he wants to? I mean, what’s the problem? It’s not as if I’m a bank robber or anything.
Now, you’d have had to be blind not to notice Danny’s disguise. A hoodie is one thing but a balaclava is quite something else. Facial recognition was quite out of the question.
In his day, Danny had been quite a catch. The ladies were on to him big time. Good looking, smartly-dressed and his dad owned the local garage. His mum owned the local dress shop. I mean, what more could a lady want? But to enhance his looks with a woollen balaclava was right out of character.
- Aye, the balaclava. Sore point indeed. Sorry I asked. To change the subject completely, how are your verrucas?
Danny had been pals with a few folk in his time. Most had let him down. Most were hangers-on who, when the good times were plainly over, had let him down big time. First the strippers, then the repo business then the jobbing joiners. Quite a story indeed.
Maybe a wee snort between friends would help him open up.
- Of course Danny, if you’d rather not say too much, that’s absolutely fine, you understand. At the risk of repetition, what’s your pleasure? Today we have on offer some white, a few small bags of an off-white dolly mixture, plus some other more euphoric colours should sir require. This stuff may blow your mind big time, all rights reserved of course, and should sir feel unwell, we urgently advise the calling of a G-DOC or similar. All rights reserved, of course, yet again.
Care to partake? Of course we completely understand if sir is as happy as sir appears to be already…
All good, all high and all slightly mad if you know what I mean. After a wee white snort Danny did indeed begin to open up.
- See all that pillar of the community stuff, the “she was a fine woman” and all that?
- She was a lady of the night if you ask me. Not shameful, you understand, just difficult times. Plus Jessie lied about the rock cakes. He was only wanting to be a part of the oration. There was never any budgie, that was all made up as well.
- Your point Danny?
- No point really, just saying. That was out of order. Sorry. Won’t mention it again.
- No worries Danny, hard times indeed. The balaclava?
Now, a year or so back, Danny’s long-time school pal had retired from the police. Not one to retire gracefully, he kept tabs on some acquaintances who belonged to the governmental services. At the rank of Inspector, McAllister had done well. From a poor background point of view, he had done really well. Not only that, but he’d kept his hands squeaky clean throughout his time in the force. No unfortunate incidents in the cells and no hint of misconduct had marred his unblemished career.
As a result, it was really no surprise when he received a phone call from an ex-colleague just a month or so after the retiral party. Would he be interested in some part time work? Just a little matter of surveillance you understand, nothing strenuous. Absolutely no personal risk involved. Payment in cash. Just a couple of days a week. Easy money.
In no time at all, McAllister found himself back on the force as an unofficial contractor to HM Customs and Excise.
The couple of days a week turned out to be a couple of nights a week, sitting in an old van in Fraserburgh and Peterhead. The little matter of surveillance involved monitoring the harbours and bars for unusual activity involving the supply of class A substances. The “easy money” bit was true though, at least for a while.
- Are you free a couple of nights a week Danny for a wee easy job? Well paid, you understand, no risk – plenty of cash plus, of course, expenses and professional training will of course be provided.
So that was how Danny got involved. The training duly took place over a couple of weekends.
How to take detailed notes using a voice recorder. What type of vehicle to use, vans are best, no-one will notice you and you can observe from the back without being seen. When shooting video create definite borders between clips by placing hand over camera at the end of each segment.
Make sure a time and date stamp appears on the footage. Always obtain a panoramic video shot of the location and any persons or vehicles, for use as verification that the person being observed was there. Don’t do surveillance by yourself. It isn’t a single-person activity and always keep a roll of toilet paper and an empty plastic jug in your vehicle at all times, stakeouts can last for hours.
There was a talk on passive self-defence and the defusing of potentially violent situations which concluded with the helpful advice “if in doubt about your personal safety, the best thing to do is leg it as fast as you can.”
So began Danny’s new career.
The first few weeks were uninvitingly boring but profitable. Nothing much happened. Two nights a week, Danny and McAllister picked up a van from the Custom House car park in Guild Street and drove to various north east ports.
The first job involved the small but packed marina at Findochty harbour. Situated some four miles from Buckie and on the shores of the Moray Firth, a more unlikely location for the smuggling of drugs could in all probability not be imagined.
A one-pub town, Findochty boasts a population of eleven hundred souls who attend six churches including those of the “closed” Plymouth Brethren and, of course, that Salvation Army. Deserted at most times of day but with the distinct air of eyes behind windows looking out at anything which moved, the excise men would have been better enlisting locals for the surveillance instead of the two men in the red van.
- Operation Moravia. What kind of name is that? Looked it up on the ‘net before we came out. Czech Republic, famous for its cabbage market and the National Salon of Czech Republic Wines. Somebody’s probably been their holidays there. Probably as deserted as Findochty is on a Sunday morning eh?
- Aye, you’re right there. Two more hours, then off home. Can’t wait. Pass the jug.
A weekend in Buckie followed, again with nothing to report. Then came Fraserburgh.
Operation Moravia had concluded with some arrests in Dufftown and Elgin. McAllister had been asked to look out for amateurs moving into vacant territory to fill the vacuum left by the arrests. Men who looked out of place, expensive vehicles parked outside clubs and pubs late at night. Men in suits carrying briefcases. In short, anything unusual in a busy harbour town.
The first few nights were fairly uneventful. A few drunks, a few minor fights and the usual comings and goings. Nothing much to report and nothing too much to film. The instructions were to record number plates for later analysis and, if possible, take photos of the vehicles in the harbour area.
Facial shots of drivers and passengers were also required, providing this could be done from inside the van. On no account were either of the men to leave the vehicle, and if compromised in any way, they were to drive off and avoid any potential confrontation.
- There’s that car again. Third time it’s been round past. Red BMW, two guys in front, might be one in back.
- Got it, what do you think?
- Odd, slowing down just opposite, then off again. Maybe just youngsters. Get a photo if it comes round again.
A few minutes later the BMW appeared again. This time it stopped twenty yards away from the front of the van with its lights off. Three hoodied men got out slowly, as if in no particular hurry. They walked leisurely up to the front of the van and McAllister realised that one appeared to be carrying a small axe.
As the pair watched in disbelief, the man swung the axe and the driver’s side window disintegrated in a shower of splinters, allowing a blast of cold damp November air to flood the interior of the van. The second figure pulled out a small yellow canister and the unmistakable smell of lighter fluid filled the confined space.
- Must be freezing in there pal, here’s a wee present from the Broch to heat you up a bit. Next time you might end up in the harbour. Take a wee hint.
There was a soft whooshing sound accompanied by a blast of heat.
- Jesus, get the fuck oot.
Danny hurled himself at the now partially open back doors where McAllister, having seen what was coming, was standing with a jacket in front of his face shouting something unintelligible.
The stench of burnt hair filled Danny’s nostrils. He hadn’t smelt that since the day his cat nearly caught fire in front of the electric heater a few winters ago. He picked himself up and looked around only to find McAllister standing laughing at him.
- What’s the joke? Have they gone? What’s so funny?
- Your hair’s burnt off on the one side and you’ve only got one eyebrow. Aye, they’ve gone, it was just a friendly warning.
- Friendly? Could have killed us both. Get me out of here fast before they come back.
With that, Danny’s short career as an undercover investigator came to a fiery end. He collected his cash for the job and hid in his flat for a week hoping that the missing hair would grow back in.
Each day, he checked the mirror for signs of regeneration, each night he applied hair tonic bought for him by a sympathetic neighbour.
On the Friday following the Fraserburgh episode, Danny’s phone rang. It was Cody’s sister Annie calling to inform him about her gran’s demise. Could he come to the funeral?
Now Danny had always had a soft spot for Annie. Just friends, platonic you understand, but good friends. He told her about his predicament, about how half of his head resembled a burnt mattress, about his missing eyebrow, about the hair tonic.
- So what did she say?
- At first she just laughed, guess she didn’t believe me. Then she came round for a look and laughed some more. Said it might take months to grow back in and that I couldn’t hide in the flat forever. Suggested the balaclava idea. Winter after all, who would think it odd? Need to wrap up warm and all that.
- Ah right. Well good for you, well done. Must have taken a lot of courage to walk into Guy’s with that on and no shotgun.
Another round was duly ordered, plus some crisps and a couple of cheese toasties. The wee dried-up funeral sausage rolls were long finished. When the toasties came, the two of us munched in silence.
Then, all of a sudden the bar door flew open and a white hoodied figure marched quickly in. Pistol in hand, he walked straight up to Danny and raised his hand in line with Danny’s head.
“This is from McAllister” he said, then pulled the trigger.
(To be continued)