A skinny man worked away at the glasses and bottles behind the bar, cleaning and tidying them into some semblance of order. Just shy of six foot tall, and with one slightly lazy eye, a flare of bright colours spread upward as a tattoo on his neck peeped above his white shirt collar. He was called Russell. That was not his real name of course, but years before he had got horribly drunk and fallen into a bush which he unsuccessfully, and noisily, tried to struggle out of. Hence Russell.
There was something feral about him, untrustworthy. Mack knew him, of course. The way a drinker knows the man serving him from behind the bar. Acquaintances for a couple of hours from time-to-time perhaps, but never genuine friends.
Russell paused for a moment from his toils and sniffed as he rotated his left index finger around the rim of his left nostril. Finally, he felt something and brought his thumb into play. The pincer movement succeeded, and he grasped something. He pulled sharply and winced, lifting his haul away to focus on it and examine it carefully. A hair. Satisfied, he cast it to the floor, rubbing his fingers together to clear them of any incidental debris.
‘Enhancing the customer experience?’ asked Mack, watching him.
‘Uh?’ Russell had been so absorbed that he had forgotten about Mack perched on a stool against the bar in front of him. ‘What?’ he grunted.
‘If you don’t know mate, I can’t tell you.’
Mack smiled wryly. Then returned his attention to the television above the bar. A dull lower league football match played out there, offering even less interest than Russell’s nose. His eyes followed the little figures on screen, but his mind wandered wider, seeking something worth concentrating on. He looked around the bar and sniffed. A heady mix of last night’s stale booze and desperation.
It was a village bar deep in the Antrim countryside, on the furnishings of which a great deal of expense had been spared. Dull interior light, the feel of sticky carpet floor tiles. A bar ripe for gentrification.
Once, many years ago, this had been someone’s front room. They had served drinks from barrels on one side of the room. Memories of malodorous farmers and old tobacco had clung to it once like the dirty gilt on its ceiling. Even the bit of marble still left on the bar had turned a yellowish brown with age. Then the whole place had been cleaned up after many years when smoking was banned in bars and restaurants. Places like this were disappearing fast.
Mack was in his late forties, six feet tall. His hair was brown, salted with a tinge of grey. Just a hint of ginger about his facial stubble. Casually dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. There was a glumness about him, like a man with a hangover - but he did not have one. He had a pint of lager in his hand - half full, or half empty depending upon your view. He was a few pounds overweight - above his fighting weight as he liked to say - and had never been a pretty boy. However, he did have the looks that still occasionally encouraged glances from women across crowded rooms - looks that had once left bedroom doors ajar.
He had been in a spot like this too often before. Drinking alone in a bar. Spending most of his forty-something years living with the results of lazy decision making.
‘Your wife’s over there, why don’t you go over and piss her off, as usual,’ asked Russell.
‘Stella? She’s my “ex-wife” smart-arse.’
There were several tables around the bar that were occupied. He looked across, surreptitiously. A couple of old boys sitting with their pints on the table, amplifying their prejudices between themselves.
Two women sat at another of the tables. They had been there before he had arrived. Mack sneaked glances at them between sips of beer and pretending to watch the football. One was explaining something to the other in whispered tones as they examined something on a mobile phone. They giggled - a photo? One of them looked up in his direction as she made a point. Then the other looked up and they both looked at him, making eye contact. He turned away guiltily, immediately regretting that. He could feel the sting of their sneers following him.
She had been his wife once, but even when they first started going out together, he remembered his nascent concerns. She could not see the point of being rich unless you could look down upon the poor. Groundless snobbery, coldness and an unfortunate fetish for heavy makeup and leopard print.
He looked back at her and she showed him a smile that would have disappeared in a cloud of dust if he had touched it.
‘Russell, if she calls you over there, snaps her fingers or whatever, tell her to fuck off,’ he thought. But he said nothing.
The football had finished on the television and the two old boys had now started shouting answers at a quiz show. Mack rolled his eyes and returned his attention to his pint.
Mack had never meant to marry Stella; she had been the first half-respectable girl who had slept with him, but they had nothing but lust in common. Her family had a UPVC window business, but the last thing on his mind was money. It was only afterwards that he had heard of Boiled Frog Syndrome and it occurred to him that he had experienced it. They started going out together - he found some sort of validation as being a part of a couple, all was well. Then she had suggested that they live together - fair enough, he had not done that yet, he would like to give it a try. Then, why not buy a place together rather than wasting the rental payments - fair enough, it made sense, an investment, they had bought the house - closer to her parents, of course. Marriage was the next logical suggestion - he had just shrugged and gone along with it. After that, his re-education really started: what he should wear; how he should behave in company.
Mack did not have a set of political or religious beliefs that he lived by, but he knew what repelled him. His life with her had been a dalliance with that grotesque bourgeois existence, as epitomised by her dreadful father, but he had rejected it and retreated. They were unencumbered by any self-awareness. Cautious, greedy, and mean people who strove for the acquisition of money and social status. He had sought security and had been drawn to that world, but proximity had poisoned that well. It had not taken long for disillusionment to creep in. He started to resist, and they had both behaved badly. It ended before long.
Now his world had become centred around the daily grind of work. Then, more often than not, oblivion through drink after it. Repeatedly, one day and night after another. Was that the definition of madness: repeating the same acts over and over again and hoping for a different result each time - or was that gambling?
It was summer, and the weather outside varied as randomly as ever. Mack looked out the bar’s window at his car parked outside, a small hatchback.
Another car had pulled up beside it. It was a huge black Toyota Hilux with a look-at-me personalised number plate. The first part of it read “G8FF”. Mack tried to pronounce it: “gateeff”, “getafe”, “get ta fa...”, “gaafe”?
‘Are you having a stroke?’ Russell looked at him with mock concern. Mack ignored him.
A man of less than average height with light brown hair got out of the big pickup truck. A massive brown and black Rottweiler glowered at the world from the backseat of the cabin.
The man left the car and walked in through the door of the bar. He looked around it and his eye lit on Mack. He smirked as he walked over to the bar and sat beside him. Mack ignored him and had returned to watching the television. The old boys were fed up with the quiz and had got the channel changed again, it was back to sport.
The newcomer, Geoff, addressed Mack. ‘Want a drink?’ He was shorter than Mack, but the same vintage. His hair colour and skin were just starting to look slightly out of tune. Mack had known him since boyhood and was convinced he dyed it.
Mack nearly refused, but then nodded. ‘Go on then.’
‘Two pints of your finest lager, Russell my man.’
The barman got about his business and drew the pints.
‘Well Mack, how’re they hangin’?’
‘If you can only speak in cliches, then don’t.’ Mack continued watching the television.
‘You’re in a darling mood. What’s up?’ He looked past Mack and waved at the women at the other table, they nodded in solemn acknowledgment.
‘Nothing Geoff, absolutely nothing.’ And indeed, nothing dragged his gaze away from the sport.
Mack had grown up in this society notable for its competing hypocrisies. When meeting someone else in Northern Ireland, the first instinct was to identify the religion or community they come from. Even reasonable people did it unconsciously.
Hysterics and Clerics. On one extreme the intellectual wing of the evangelical movement believing the world was created about 6,000 years ago - generally accepted scientific evidence being of no interest to them. On the other side a religious tradition that was described by Niccolo Machiavelli as “merely a tool, useful for a ruler wishing to manipulate public opinion”. For centuries demagogues of either breed had held sway. These days the mantra was: if you don’t vote for “us uns”, “them uns” will get in.
Mack’s disdain (if that word is strong enough) was for both the politicians and religions of both sides, equally. He, perhaps naively, believed that a country was like a huge family, and the first duty of those in charge was to look after all the people. All sides of the current status quo spent most of their time looking after themselves, often at the expense of the weak and vulnerable.
Prejudice and bigotry stitched into human DNA. The self-righteous revel in finding fault with all but themselves. Whenever Mack heard someone styling themselves as special or chosen in some way, he knew to run like hell in the other direction.
He had stopped using social media. It had got too depressing for him to look at the pretend lives of his contemporaries. He should have moved out of the area years ago, instead here he was sitting next to someone he had disliked since school.
‘Not going to wander over there and sit with, Stella, your lady wife?’ asked Mack.
Geoff looked over towards the two women. They both looked back, he smiled, they frowned. ‘Nah,’ he said.
‘Did you ever think of throwing everything else up and working for the old man’s company when you were married to her?’ wondered Geoff.
‘Like you? Not a chance. Hateful old git. I knew that even before I married her. No interest in being anywhere near him,’ Mack replied.
‘The old bastard’s supposed to have retired, but you can’t get rid of him. Hangs around like a bad smell.’
‘I think I may have warned you about him at some point.’
Geoff was too deep in thought to rise to that. ‘I mean, he’s an idiot, you can’t tell him anything.’
Mack shrugged. If anything, he was enjoying hearing about the hole Geoff had dug for himself. Schadenfreude. ‘Shame really. Working for the old man must have looked so much more attractive when you were getting your leg over with Stella behind my back.’ He smiled. ‘So, what’s the most stupid thing he’s ever done, apart from employing you, obviously?’
In comic book style, Geoff looked over his shoulder at Russell who was loitering at the other end of the bar, about ten feet away at that point. Then he lowered his voice and confided to Mack. ‘You know what the fool did last week? A customer came to pay him for one job at about five o’clock one evening. Too late to get to the bank. The idiot took a pile of cash off this bloke and sat on it overnight. Insane.’
‘That’s really dangerous, you should warn him. He should have just told the customer to come back the next day.’
‘Right, yes, that would be the sensible thing to do. But no, the old fucker knows best. I think he’s losing it; I really do. He locks it up in a cupboard in the kitchen but keeps the key on his keyring with his car keys and everything. Crazy, you can’t tell him, he knows best.’
Mack turned round and, without a sound, Russell had arrived just at the other side of the bar from them. ‘Do we look like we need a drink?’ asked Mack sarcastically.
‘You always do.’ Russell returned to cleaning glasses behind the bar. One eye on the glass he polished, the other scanning the bar. His face displayed no emotion, he held the glass up to the ceiling light. Studying it, concentrating hard.
Mack slanted his head to one side and asked, a little cruelly, ‘Remind me, which eye’s actually looking at me?’
Cruelty has its consequences too.
Wilf, tall and thin with cropped blond hair, walked Russell through the warehouse to where Roastie held court.
Outside you could buy coal, firewood, and turf. You could even get your car washed by a desultory, unregistered Eastern European. Inside the air inside smelled strongly of cigarette smoke, the tang of turf and something else, indefinable but unsettling. At this point most visitors would be praying that Roastie was not in one of his black, irrational moods. Russell was no exception.
Roastie sat at his untidy desk, in his dirty office in the back of the scruffy warehouse. It was his place of business. He was a man well under six feet tall, bald-headed, and thickset from the neck down - the classic you-don’t-fuck-with-me weights and steroids look. Thick gold chains around his neck. The default modern criminal paramilitary appearance.
A pair of the Europeans loitered in the background. One male, Valdomir - short, round, with cropped dark hair and stubble; the other a female called Luba - short, high Slavic cheekbones, blond hair with black roots, slim but not skinny, and a strong sensuality. This was not solely communicated by the look in her eye, her lazy smile, the movement of her hips or an inner confidence, but rather a combination of these things. Both showed tattoos and smoked, almost continually.
‘Roastie, how’s the wife?’ Russell asked, ignoring the others.
‘Mind yer own fuckin’ business.’ Roastie, without looking up from his desk, had put on a pair of reading glasses. To look more intelligent? Anyway, incredibly, it worked. He shuffled some papers around on the table in front of him, decided that they were not for him, and picked up a Sporting Life instead and browsed it, turning pages with a theatrical flourish.
Roastie had too-prominent ears, which Russell believed him to be sensitive about. A thick gold earring hung from the lobe of his left ear. That’s not the gay side, thought Russell, is it? Well, he didn’t want to talk about the wife, did he.
Roastie sat in a large brown leather office chair. At his side, a little behind him and in a shabbier office chair, Wilf had settled. Despite being taller and thinner, he was another version of the same cultural template. A bit better balanced. Silent, but a reputation for being nasty too. In front of them, and facing them both, sat Russell on a simple wooden kitchen chair.
‘It’s a bit private, actually,’ Russell sniffed loudly and wiped his nose with his sleeve.
‘What the fuck does that mean?’
‘For your ears only.’ Russell knew better than to smile.
Roastie turned to the Europeans impatiently. ‘Vlad, fuck off and wash some cars, and take Lulabelle here with you.’ They sulked off.
‘Scum, the lot of them. Eastern Europeans, thieves, whores. Can’t trust ‘em as far as you can spit ‘em.’ Roastie wrestled a bit more with the Sporting Life, ‘Got any tips for me then? Any of those local trainers been loose tongued in your bar? I know you keep your ears open.’
Russell shook his head, ‘No, not them.’ He sniffed again and used his sleeve.
Roastie turned to Wilf, ‘Well?’
‘Still four figures short Boss.’ Russell was still deep in debt.
Roastie folded his paper, slammed it down in front of himself and looked sternly at Russell. ‘What do you think this is, The Citizens fucking Advice Bureau? Folk come here to pay their debts or bleed, so who’s been blabbing about what?’ Roastie punctuated the end of this question by slotting the fingers of both hands together and cracking his knuckles loudly.
When you looked at Roastie’s face, even from the slightest of angles, he looked normal. Not handsome, but what he himself assumed (with some evidence) a woman (or indeed some men, in this modern world) might find attractive. However, Russell was looking straight at him. The ridge of his nose bowed off to the left alarmingly. He was pretty sure it was not a sporting injury - more likely an unsporting one. Badly broken at some point, and never reset.
Russell, a little nervously, ‘I’m just a wee bit short at the moment, Big Man, but I’ve got something we can definitely make some easy money out of.’
Roastie turned to Wilf, ‘Does he know how dangerous wasting our time can be? I don't like the sound of this “we” business, do you?’ He turned back to Russell, ‘This isn't going to end with you writhing in pain is it?’
‘Honest Roastie,’ Russell attempted a casual laugh, ‘you wouldn't believe how stupid some people are.’
Roastie looked meaningfully at Wilf, ‘Oh, I’ll not be surprised by that,’ sarcastically. ‘What are we talking about here?’
‘How about a dead cert.’
Roastie smiled, baring his teeth like a crocodile. ‘It better be, ‘cos if we’re there, you’ll be there too Russell my boy.’
He turned to Wilf, ‘That’s a nasty little summer cold he has there, Wilf. Get him a line on the way out.’
A few weeks later a clean-shaven Valdomir, dressed in a smart new tracksuit, walked along a typical old mill street past some tiny two up two down terraced houses. Houses that Roastie owned, obviously. They all had bright new white UPVC windows and doors. He inspected them carefully with Geoff. He ran his finger around the sealing of one of them where it fitted to the wall, to reassure Geoff that he knew what he was doing.
Wilf had driven him down there and sat watching from the car. Judging by the body language between them, Geoff was intimidated by Valdomir, he knew who Vlad and Wilf both worked for.
‘Good job,’ said Valdomir with a heavy accent.
‘Thanks very much. Have you looked at the back windows too?’ asked Geoff.
‘Yes. Very good.’ Stunted English.
Geoff had a piece of paper in his hand and Valdomir glanced at it. ‘That for me?’
‘Ah, yes, this is the invoice actually.’
‘OK, give me.’ Geoff handed it to him. Valdomir folded it up and put it in his pocket.
‘How are you going to pay? Cheque? Bank Transfer?’
‘No problem. We come to your office tomorrow. OK?’
‘Oh sure, yes. Absolutely fine.’ Geoff was nervous.
Roastie drove to the father-in-law’s farm where the window business was based. He parked up short of it on the road, out of sight of the house protected by a hedge and checked his fat gold Rolex. It was just a minute past five o’clock, early evening.
He turned to the passenger seat where Luba was putting the final touches to her make-up in the vanity mirror over the windscreen. ‘You clean up well.’
All in black, under a short coat she wore a low-cut top, making the most of her cleavage, and a mini skirt leaving little else to the imagination. The look was completed with a pair of high heels.
Luba’s short skirt rode up to mid-thigh as she sat in the front passenger seat. Roastie laid his big grubby paw at the top of her thigh feeling the soft bare skin and gave her instructions.
‘Right girl, you know what you’re doing. In you go and give him this,’ He handed her a fat roll of cash tied up in rubber bands. ‘Put it in your bag….and I have counted it.’ She rolled her eyes and smiled.
He leaned over and smelled her scent. ‘You know how to get the old bastard off his guard. He’ll never have met someone like you. He won’t know what’s hit him. A little bit of innocence and plenty of sexy, ok?’
She gave him a broad warm smile. After all, he was the boss.
Luba was sitting in the Father-in-law’s front room with him in front of a large bay window that overlooked the lawn and the yard down to the front gate. He had offered her a cup of tea and she had refused it. They sat in armchairs either side of an old oak coffee table. ‘In a bit of a hurry, see.’ She reached into her handbag and brought out the roll of money.
‘Cash? All of it?’ The old man was surprised.
‘Cash to avoid VAT. Then we both win. Right?’ She played around with the hem of her skirt. The old man licked his lips.
‘They just give me the money and tell me to pay you. What am I supposed to do?’ she slipped the rubber bands off the banknotes and shuffled them onto the table.
The old man was almost salivating as he looked from the money to her. Between the VAT he could save, and the raw attraction of the woman in front of him, what had a greater magnetic pull? He smiled and nodded his assent, ‘Go on then.’ Roastie had told her that you catch them with their own greed.
The old man could hardly conceal his delight as he gathered up the cash. There was something visceral about handling that much. ‘Scottish notes, just like the drug dealers use.’
Luba forced a smile. ‘You going to count it?’ She crossed her legs.
His eyes followed the route from her cleavage to her legs. Nevertheless, the call from the money proved stronger and he took a few minutes to count it.
She took a bright orange Sainsbury’s supermarket bag out of her own handbag and put the cash in it. Then, with a cheeky smile, she took a perfume dispenser out of her handbag and sprayed the orange bag. Sniffing it afterwards. ‘There,’ she said, ‘now it smells of me.’ His eyes widened.
‘I’ll be off then.’ She hopped up, blew him a kiss, and wiggled out.
He walked over to the window and watched until she passed beyond the front gate and behind a hedge. Not once did it occur to him to wonder why she was walking out of a gate, miles from anywhere in the middle of the country. He was far too busy smelling the bag and imagining that rear view unencumbered by clothing.
He had torn into Geoff for not getting the money off them when he was at the site with Vlad - now the irony of that did not even cross his mind.
When she got back into the car where Roastie was waiting for her it was her turn to put her hand on his thigh.
‘Well?’ asked Roastie.
She explained how it had gone, ‘Too easy.’
‘He needs to be careful with all that cash now and keep it safe. You’re good, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t have time to tickle any of it out of him,’ Roastie leered.
‘The dirty old man,’ she laughed, ‘He couldn't keep his eyes off my tits.’
The next day an unmarked saloon car turned off the road and pulled up in the old man’s farmyard well short of the house, stirring up a little dust. It was early morning in the country, before the banks might open, and almost no traffic passed that way. It was a bright warm morning. No movement, all quiet. By passing through the gate, they had triggered a sensor that announced their arrival in the house.
Inside the car Russell sat at the steering wheel looking straight ahead, both hands firmly clasped at ten and two o’clock. A honeybee landed on the windscreen in front of him and he watched it waddle across. He had not done anything like this before, and he felt a thin line of sweat creep down the back of his neck. He looked nervously ahead towards the house, an occasional glance to the rear mirrors. There were two others in the car with him, Wilf in the front passenger seat, Valdomir in the back.
Wilf turned to Valdomir on the back seat ‘Remember, I’ll lead, just you and I go in the house. You don’t speak.’ Then leaning back, addressing both of them, ‘If either of you have to say anything in an emergency, no names.’ Then to Russell. ‘You, hold back and make sure no one surprises us.’
‘Now Vlad,’ Wilf continued, ‘remember, we’ve got to smile when we see this man - can you do that?’ Valdomir did his best. Both Wilf and Russell reacted as if they had sniffed milk long gone off. Clearly it was not something he did often. He had not looked after his teeth, and they had acted accordingly. ‘Ok, just stay out of his line of sight behind me.’
‘And we’re looking for the cash. It should be in a locked cupboard in the kitchen, and the key will be on his main key ring. Should be in his pocket or somewhere handy. Luba left the money in a supermarket bag, it’ll make it easy if it’s still there.’ These were Wilf’s final instructions.
All three were in police uniforms. They got out and looked about the place cautiously, making sure no one else was there. They walked up towards the house, nodding to each other, in reassurance. Wilf’s uniform fitted reasonably well. Valdomir bulged out of his and the cap perched precariously on the very top of his head. Russell’s hung on him like a sack.
Beggars cannot be choosers. Roastie had procured their uniforms from a contact of his. Someone with a cocaine problem who knew a local costume designer. As Roastie said: who doesn’t have a cousin in the Film and TV industry in Northern Ireland these days - and who doesn’t have a cousin with a cocaine habit.
Wilf headed for the house, Valdomir behind him. They took up position in front, Wilf and Valdomir by the front door, Russell behind them at the garden gate watching their backs.
There was a bell at the side of the door, a big brass knocker shaped like a horses’ head in the middle of it and glass panels either side. As Wilf approached, he saw that there was a man inside watching him.
Wilf smiled good-naturedly at the old man through the door, coming to attention and saluting him smartly. He thought that was a nice touch.
It briefly occurred to the old man that these policemen were in uniform and yet the car was unmarked. Then he thought of the number of times that, for security, he had seen uniformed police in unmarked cars. Surely that was just common sense in a place where they were constantly a target.
Always lead with a smile, Roastie had said. The copper kept smiling. ‘Are you….,’ he consulted a piece of paper he had in his hand, ‘Stellar windows?’ After the daughter, of course.
The old man shouted back, “Yes”.
Wilf indicated the door, ‘Do you mind?’ Still with the broad beaming smile.
The old man, after a lifetime of believing that the police were on his side, and always there for him to depend upon, opened the door. He asked him what they wanted as he did so, it was an instinctive response.
Another policeman was close behind this first one. Short, heavy, and solemn. Then he caught a glimpse of another, further back. A strange bunch, he thought, but too late.
The first copper moved forward towards the old man; the smile changed from friendly to fixed with notes of sinister. The old man retreated along his hall asking, ‘What is it you want?’ several times, sounding more uncertain with each repetition.
Valdomir pushed past Wilf and grabbed the old man by the neck.
Then, for the old man, all became confusion. A foreign voice snarling at him, demanding something from Sainsbury’s. The old man remembered being struck, maybe more than once, a heavy jarring. Being disorientated and then a floating sensation before he realised that he was lying on the hall carpet, briefly wondering how he got there. The last thing that he remembered before he blacked out was a stranger’s face looking down at him with concern. ‘Here, what did you do to him, he’s alright, isn’t he?’ it said. Surely policemen don’t have lazy eyes and neck tattoos, he had thought. It was not till he regained consciousness in hospital that he felt the waves of pain.
The father-in-law’s red-ringed, rheumy eyes followed Mack around the hospital room with unconcealed hostility from behind an oxygen mask. He obviously was not so demented that he could not remember his hated ex-son-in-law, thought Mack. Actually, although perhaps there was a little bit of that involved, the old man’s problem was mainly with the police uniform he was wearing.
Mack went and stood outside the hospital room but kept eye-contact with the old man as he spoke to another uniformed policeman. ‘Perry, what the fuck were they thinking?’
‘How many times have you told me what a miserable old bastard he was - perhaps he just pissed them off too?’
‘Not funny Perry.’
A couple of plainclothes officers nodded to Mack as they passed him, going into the room. They spoke quietly to the nurse about interviewing the old man as one of them quietly closed the door behind them.
Geoff was sitting outside the room, Mack gave him a sympathetic smile and sat down next to him.
‘The silly old bastard was holding cash overnight.’
‘Wasn’t it you telling me about this not too long ago, who else did you mention it to?’
‘Don’t remember,’ Geoff shrugged. ‘They came for it in the morning dressed like you lot. But why did they have to beat up the old boy?’
‘It was just a simple bit of thieving, now its bloody aggravated robbery. If the old bugger turns up his toes, it’s murder. Fuckwits.’
‘Why?’ It was a rhetorical question; Geoff really wasn’t expecting an answer.
One of the plainclothes boys came out, Mack stood up and walked with him. ‘What do we know?’
‘Not much yet, we’re trying to find out as much as we can about where the money came from.’
‘So, do you know whose job the cash was for?’
‘You know Roastie, don’t you?’
‘What, him? Shit.’
‘Well, a couple of his creatures, actually. And guess what? They’ve both disappeared.’
‘What you mean?’ Mack drew a finger across his throat.
‘No, no. Well at least not as far as we know. They’re from Eastern Europe, one of the Baltic States we think. Fuckers’re probably back there by now.’
The plainclothes man walked on, leaving Mack behind. Thoughtful.
‘Why do they call him Roastie?’ asked Perry, appearing nearby.
‘Because he looks like a spud?’ said Mack.
Mack and Perry were out on patrol in their unmarked patrol car. Perry was at the wheel. Mack daydreaming as he looked out of the passenger window. Their beat was rural, just villages and small towns, and it was quiet. The sky was dark with ominous low grey cloud, and there was a hint of drizzle in the air.
They were waiting in a car park outside some shops in the middle of a 1970s housing estate that had been filled with the detritus of Belfast at the height the Troubles. Always with one eye on the mirrors, the other on the passing trade. Their radio mumbling in the background. In Northern Ireland, in the Police, you never knew when a bullet or a pipe-bomb might be gifted. Young women passed with their children, old people with their shopping bags. Workers buying their grub-on-the-go.
‘You’re not saying much today,’ said Perry.
‘I’ve never learned anything by listening to myself.’
Mack watched some drifting groups of youths, a few standing around, others moving. ‘And that, Perry old chum, is our primary clientele.’
‘It’s exactly the same in Belfast, always has been.’
The boys were all baseball caps, sporting gear and hostile scowls. The girls were smoking away in the tightest of clothes, hiding behind their kabuki make-up as instructed by their social media yardsticks. Blurred eyes and running noses. Faces obscured by tattoos and piercings. Feverishly pursuing all the acceptable designer labels. With no other worthwhile points of reference, they were reduced to following the herd to be deemed acceptable by their peers.
‘Truly a handsome bunch.’
‘Cause and effect.’
‘The Law of Unintended Consequences. Things happen as the result of some act or omission. Cause and effect. Then the effect becomes a cause for something else. Generation after generation. Parent passing the baton on to the child. Booze, drugs, violence. Nothing much changes and we just clean up afterwards.’
‘How long have you been doing this job?’ Asked Perry.
‘Too fucking long, let’s go.’
Off they went, through the untidy town, then its outskirts, and then on out into the country. They moved along quiet country roads. Hedges and ranch fencing, regimented green fields and small woods. The heavy Irish rainfall guaranteed the thick green optical filter across the land. Occasional houses on either side of the road, some far back in the fields. They drove on and eventually parked in a secluded spot high in a pine forest, looking out over the view. Perry dug out a sandwich, Mack sipped coffee from a takeaway cup.
‘A tough game, this policing. Glorified social workers most of the time.’ Mack was in a pensive mood.
‘It’s as if you walked straight out of a recruitment advert,’ Perry’s sarcasm had no effect.
‘The civilians are pissed off with us because all we do is tell them they can’t do stuff. The villains and skanks hate us because we are always trying to lock them up.’
‘And your point is, with this burst of philosophical insight?’
He sighed heavily. ‘Nothing. It’s just depressing after a while when everyone hates you.’
’Your deeds are your monuments.’
‘Just an old quotation.’
A call came over the radio for them. Someone had reported cows loose on a country road.
Now they were in hilly country, small fields, the occasional copse, crows, buzzards. A view of the land rolling down to the distant Lough Neagh on a clear day - which was not that often.
‘Come on, let’s get the lights and siren on.’
‘For a bunch of cows? Get a grip.’ Mack was dismissive, Perry laughed.
It was not that far away, and only took them about ten minutes to get there. Sure enough, a large herd of cows were completely blocking a local back road. It was so narrow that, even without the cows, cars could barely pass each other on it. Black and white Friesians. Milkers. The spot was surrounded by fields. They both got out of the car and looked about for where the beasts might have escaped from. An open gate perhaps. Nothing obvious.
There was a farmyard about 100 yards away along the road, Mack pointed to it. ‘Well, there’s a coincidence. That’s the ex-wife’s family’s farm, I bet these are their cattle.’
‘Fucked if I want to go and talk to them.’
‘I’m sure the feeling’s mutual.’
‘Alright City Boy, I’ll stay with the cows,’ said Mack. ‘You go and see if there’s someone at home. We need to get the owners out to them.’
Perry walked off in the direction of the house. Mack radioed in that the cows were indeed loose and that they were trying to find the owners.
Perry went into the farmyard and up towards the house, past an angry barking Alsatian on a chain. He pushed through the garden gate in front of the house and approached the front door.
The Father-in-law was drinking a cup of tea in the kitchen at the back of the house when he heard the bing of the sensor and the dog barking. He had been thinking about the day when he was beaten by the robbers dressed as policemen. He thought of that often, it had happened too recently. The man’s face had been smiling at him from outside the door, asking to be let in. Then looking down at him without emotion when lay on the ground. Helpless, losing consciousness.
He got up slowly and walked out to the front room of the house. He could see a shadow of someone moving outside. He was nervous and went to the bay window at the front of the room, gently moving the old-fashioned lace curtains to one side. As he did so a leering face came up to the window. A police uniform. A broad smile across his face. Perry. He knocked on the window, then called out: ‘Hello sir. Open up will you please. Just want a word.’ Then the face was gone.
The old man stood there looking at the window for a few moments. Then he turned and walked back into the kitchen.
Perry rang the doorbell and stood outside the front door, waiting. The smile was still on his face.
The front door opened slowly, and the Father-in-law stood there with an old side-by-side shotgun. It was pointing towards Perry’s midriff.
Perry smiled - the thought that the old man was wielding the gun because of him had not occurred to him yet. The Father-in-law had not been a good man before the robbery. Now he was sick, deranged, and vengeful, and his face was stiff with hate. He was back at the robbery and this man before him was a robber in disguise.
The smile faded from Perry’s face. He moved back by a pace or two, the serious nature of the situation became clear now. He held both of his arms out in front of him, palms facing the old man.
‘Take it easy. Nothing to be alarmed about.’ The old man did not move. ‘Here, he pointed to his uniform, you can see, I’m Police.’
The old man was not listening, but his memory was clawing its way back to when another man dressed as a policeman stood in the same place and smiled. He cocked both barrels of the shotgun and held the stock it up to his shoulder.
Without another word the old man fired. One barrel, straight into Perry’s midriff below the bullet-proof vest. At that moment, when Mack heard the shot, he realised that something was very wrong. He ignored the cows, jumped in the car, and drove to up to the house at speed.
When Mack arrived in the front garden, breathing heavily, all he could manage to say was: ‘Fuck.’ Perry lay motionless on the ground, on his back. The middle of his body was a bloody mess.
The old man stood over him, still looking down at him. ‘Drop the gun,’ Mack shouted, his hand on his undrawn pistol on his belt. He moved swiftly towards the old man. In a moment of clarity, the old man threw down the gun, turned and walked back into the house muttering to himself. Mack knelt on the ground next to Perry, checking him for vital signs, trying to cover the wound with a field dressing from his belt, but he knew it was useless.
Perry’s last breath escaped with a choked gargle. That was it.