Like a Matter of Honour
A Sam Bryson Mystery
by Russel D. McLean


.......“Aw, c’moan, man,” said Jimmy. He pushed the package across the desk, back towards me. “Just for a wee while.”

.......I looked at the package – a nondescript square box wrapped with brown paper – and then I looked at Jimmy. On anyone else, the moustache might have had the air of a twenties sophisticate. On Jimmy it looked as if he’d forgotten to wash his upper lip. His greasy black hair was combed forward in a horrendous parody of a Beatles mop-top. His skin was flared up. He was twenty-five years old. On the inside he was probably going on sixty.

....... “I think you have to tell me what’s in the box,” I said.

....... “C’moan! After all the shite I’ve done for you. Goin' places you can't go. Chattin' up people won't even look at you. I'm like Fozzie Bear.”

....... “You mean Huggy Bear.” The same conversation we always had. Jimmy on repeat like a messed up Dictaphone.

....... “What?”

....... Except Jimmy's neither black nor cool, nor down with the ho’s. At least none as gorgeous as Huggy's.

....... “Just tell me what’s in the package.” I could feel the sun coming through the window, toasting the bare skin just above my shirt collar. It was a heatwave outside, a Scottish heatwave at any rate.

....... Jimmy leaned back in his chair. His eyes screwed up against the sunlight coming in behind me. “It’s personal. Just need someplace tae hold it fer a while.”

....... “What’s wrong with your place?”

....... He laughed. “You ever seen ma place?”

....... I shook my head. I hadn’t thought about where Jimmy lived, whether he had friends or family. Hard for a man like him to have anything but associates. Like me.

....... “Fine,” I said. I pulled the package over. It was light. But I could feel the shape. A lockable box, same kind as you could pick up in any stationery store. “Just tell me there’s nothing illegal in here.”

....... He held up three fingers on his right hand. “Scout’s honour. Dib dib dib and aw that crap.” He smiled at me lopsidedly. He’d never been in the scouts. They’d have thrown him straight out on his arse.

*****

....... At lunch, my girlfriend Ros popped by the office with some sandwiches and a couple of cans of Coke.

....... “I have an hour,” she said, “before my next class.”

....... Ros moved from the U.S. to lecture in post-modern feminist philosophy at the University of Dundee. She still maintained an accent, although there was a hint of Scots creeping into her Southern twang.

....... We chatted as we ate. She was excited about an upcoming conference: Transcendence and the Self. She talked about things I didn’t understand. They say that opposites attract.

....... When she left I looked over at the iron safe I kept in one corner of the room. I could almost see the wrapped parcel in there, tempting me with its secret. You don’t fall into my line of work without an inquisitive mind. And where Jimmy was concerned, my instincts acted overtime. I could have opened the package. But I’d felt the lockbox in there, figured someone as paranoid as Jimmy would know if it had been tampered with. He talked like an eejit, but he was smarter than most folks gave him credit for.

*****

....... Close to ten at night, I was still in the office replying to email when my mobile phone began bleating. I answered in three rings.

....... “Hey, man."

....... “Jimmy,” I said, genuinely surprised to hear from him. “What’s up?”

....... “Look, man.” He was having trouble starting sentences. He sounded high. At the very least pissed out of his ugly wee face. “There’s been a, y’know, like, a wee…” I thought I could hear a car pulling away in the background. “Complication,” he said finally.

....... “Complication?”

....... “Just get the bloody package, awright, and meet me.”

....... “Aye, okay. Where?”

....... After a moment, he said, “Balgay Park. Up near the cemetery. The wee theatre thing.”

....... “The amphitheatre?”

....... “Aye, whatever-the-hell.” He hung up.

....... I dialled 1471 and the BT woman on the end chimed in with, “We’re sorry, but the last caller withheld their number.”

....... I sighed. Jimmy’s like a stray dog who pisses all over the rug. When you take him in you feel a little sorry for him but every time he does his business you have an overwhelming urge to boot him out the door.

....... I opened the safe and took out the package. Whatever was inside was important to Jimmy. I wanted to know why. Jimmy was going to tell me. He wouldn’t have a choice.

....... I went out into reception and grabbed a plastic bag from where Babs kept a whole stack beneath her desk.

....... I tucked the package into a Tesco’s carrier and headed out the office. Locking up as I left, I thought the night was blacker than usual. The close was more confined, and every time I stopped thinking about it the walls in my peripheral vision began closing in. I could have done with a drink, but Jimmy would probably be at the amphitheatre already. He sounded scared enough that he’d want to deal with whatever the situation was as soon as possible.

....... My car was parked across the street. I slid into the driver’s seat and started up the engine. I placed the package in the passenger footwell. I was five or ten minutes drive from Balgay Park. I planned on going in the back way, past the Western Necropolis You twist and turn on this road until you get to a large amphitheatre just across from a grassy expanse that, in the summer months, is filled with families and couples and people walking their dogs. It can be beautiful in the day and darkly eerie at night.

....... I left the BMW beside the gate at the rear entrance to the park. The gates were locked and bolted. I vaulted them and walked between the Balgay hills, underneath the Hird Bridge.

....... When I arrived at the amphitheatre, Jimmy was sitting on a stone wall, smoking a cigarette. He trembled as he sat. At first I thought it was the cold night air. As I got closer, I saw the cuts and bruises on his face. His shirt was ripped. His knuckles and the backs of his hands were red raw. Between drags on the cigarette he whistled off-key snatches from an old Frank Sinatra number: My Way.

....... “What’s going on, Jimmy?”

....... He looked up and saw me. Grinned, his eyes watering as though just moving the muscles in his face hurt. “Heh, straight down tae business, likes?”

....... “Tell me.”

....... “Ye brought it, I see.”

....... I sat down on the wall beside him. Laid the package on my far side out of his reach. Then, I reached inside my jacket pocket to bring out a pack of L&B. I sparked up and took a deep drag. I waited for him to say something.

....... “Do you no want tae know who it was beat me up, then?”

......."Aye."

.......I was nearly done with the cigarette when he said, “Ye might have guessed it’s got something with the wee package I left you.”

....... “Aye."

.......“Pretty obvious, likes.” He patted down his pockets. “Shite. Got another fag on you?”

.......I took my cigarettes out again and passed him one. He used his own lighter. A cheap, disposable bic with a Saltire printed on the side.

.......“The package belonged to this wee wanker I met in the Fiddler’s Drop.”

.......I knew the place, up in Lochee. The kind of pub you could describe only as a dive. Dirty, smoke-filled and stinking of body odor. The landlord, William McVey – or Wee Willie Winkie as he’s better known – is a greasy little moron who survives not so much on the drink he sells but on the kickbacks he takes for allowing certain less than legal businesses to operate on his premises.

.......“Cannae remember his name. But he was drinking pint after pint: getting more and more pissed, waiting for someone to arrive. He was gonnae sell them the package, and they were gonnae pay him good money for it. He didnae want tae tell me what was inside. Anyway, his buyer's late and he’s getting more and more bladdered, so I’m chatting away tae him and telling me all kinds of crap. Ken, stuff he shouldn’t be telling the likes of me. Fucking love loose-lipped alchies, eh?”

.......He paused and blew a long plume of smoke into the night air. He wasn’t shaking so bad now. “Aye, so anyway he needs to go take a leak and he’s so pissed he asks me tae look after the package. Leaves it there, and the wee piece of paper with the name of his client on it. Pretty bloody stupid, aye?”

...... I nodded.

.......“So I figured I could dae the deal myself, make a quick bit of cash. Should have read the wee note first.”

.......“Who was he waiting for?”

.......Jimmy smiled, somewhat bashfully. “Omar,” he said.

.......I took a deep breath.

.......“Aye, well, we all make mistakes.”

.......“One hell of a mistake crossing Omar,” I said.

.......“Aye, well, I think I may have made matters a wee bit worse than that."

.......I shook my head. “That who beat you up?”

.......“Oh, no the man himself. Some big buggers he sent for the package.”

.......“You were holding out for money, weren’t you?”

.......“Aye.”

.......“Just give him the bloody package.”

.......“Can’t.” He took a deep drag on the cigarette. “Shite, it’s like a matter of honour, y’ken?" I didn’t comment about Jimmy using the word, “honour”. He believed himself and I couldn’t shake that kind of conviction.

.......I passed him the package. “Just take it, Jimmy. Do what you have to do.”

.......Jimmy took the package. “What I have tae do, Sam, is tae meet Omar in a little under two hours. He’s gonnae give me what I asked for. I’m gonnae give him the package.”

.......“Great,” I said, standing up. “Good for you.” I made to walk away.

.......Jimmy grabbed my arm. “Which is why I need ye to do me another wee favour," he said.

.......“No way.”

...... “Aw, c'moan, man. After aw the crap..."

...... I turned around.

......“Just come along, man. Stand aroond a bit. Muscle and aw that.”

.......“Muscle?”

.......“Omar knows you, right?”

.......“Aye. He wants to break my face.”

......."Is there anyone in Dundee who doesn’t? Look, man, he doesnae like you but I think he respects you. Like Sherlock Holmes and Blofeld… Doctor Evil… ahhh, whatever the bastard’s name was."

....... I pinched the bridge of my nose. I wanted to go home and climb into bed beside Ros. But Jimmy wasn’t going to let this go easily. Besides, I owed him more than a few favours. It was one of the reasons I didn’t just break into that lockbox in the first place.

....... “Okay," I said. "Let's go."

....... My mobile began to shriek. I took it out and looked at the caller ID. Babs, my secretary, was calling from her mobile.

....... “Sam, where are you?” Her voice trembled.

....... “I’m working on something,” I said.

....... “So you have time tae get back tae the office?”

....... “What is it?”

....... “Some bastards broke in. Wrecked the place!”

....... It took me a second to digest the information. “How bad is it?”

....... “It's gonnae take me days tae get the files back in order. Doesnae look like anything was actually taken. They broke into your safe. The wee one in the office.”

....... “You weren’t there?” Babs is in her mid sixties, and as tough as she is, I couldn’t help being worried about her.

....... “No. I got the call fae the polis.”

....... “Okay,” I said. I had a fair idea of what might have happened. “Who’s dealing with it?”

....... “Sandy’s come in, said he wanted to oversee it personally when he heard it was your place.” Sandy’s a DI with the local CID and my best mate since school. He’s one of the few coppers in Tayside Constabulary who hasn’t branded me a professional pain in the arse.

....... “Sure, that’s great. Could you put him on?”

....... "It’s a real mess,” Sandy said.

....... “They didn’t take anything?”

....... “Not like we can tell. The safe seemed to be the main target. Did you have anything important in there?”

....... “No. Just cash and a few files. Look, I’ve got some work to finish tonight but I’ll come down tomorrow take an inventory, see if anything’s been nicked, okay?”

....... “Must be something important.”

....... I looked over my shoulder at Jimmy who threw his dying cigarette on the ground and stamped it out.

....... “Might be,” I said, and hung up.

....... I turned back to Jimmy. “I have to ask you something."

....... “Whitever."

....... “Did you tell Omar you gave me the package for safekeeping?”

....... He laughed. “Naw, man, what do y’think I’m an eejit?”

....... “What did you tell Omar?”

....... “Told him I had his shite and he would have to give me a wee bit of money if he wanted it delivered.”

....... “What did you tell the lads he sent round to beat the living crap out of you?”

....... “Aww, man, what d’ye think I – Y’know, I may hae said one or two things I cannae quite remember right now.”

....... I clenched my fists tight, but kept them down by my sides. “You told them where you put the package. My office was just broken into. They were looking for something, gave the place a real going over. Now unless the world is conspiring for to put together some pretty neat coincidences, I’d say that was Omar looking for whatever's in that package.”

....... Jimmy held the box close to his chest, like he was afraid I’d come over and try to rip it out of his grasp.

....... “Are there going to be any more surprises?”

....... He shook his head.

....... “I mean it, Jimmy. One more thing you haven’t told me comes up and I’m going to rip that head off your skinny wee neck.”

....... “Man, I swear, this is it. The whole deal, every bloody card doon on the table.”

....... I let it go at that. No point in having any more of a go at him. He’d never told the truth a day in his life, I was sure. And even if he seemed to consider me a friend for this evening, he had no real reason to treat me different from anyone else.

*****

....... In the darkness, the playpark was hollow and dead. The swings and chutes were misshapen skeletons hidden in the shadows. Litter was strewn on the tarmac.

....... Omar stood by the rusted roundabout with two guys I’d never seen before. His greying beard gave him an air of power even standing in such a desolate place. He wore a sharp, blue suit and when he saw me he folded his arms across his chest. “My estimation of you, Mister Bryson, is going rapidly downhill,” he said. “You’re keeping very poor company these days.”

....... Jimmy stepped forward. “Hey, man,” he said. “Ye’re here tae talk tae me.”

....... Omar shook his head. “Of course,” he said. “You’re an impudent little shit,” Omar told him. But he was smiling. “With balls.”

....... Jimmy grinned, like his favourite teacher had just given him a gold star.

....... I looked at the other two fellows standing there. One of them – a big Indian fellow dressed in a tan shirt and dark trousers – gave me a nod.

....... “Have ye got ma money?” Jimmy asked Omar.

....... Omar nodded to the second fellow and he came forward. He brought a bundle of notes from his jacket and passed them to Omar. Omar held out the packet for Jimmy to take. “Count it if you want,” said Omar. “Make sure it's all there.”

....... Jimmy grinned. He started hopping from one foot to the other. “Why would I want tae do that, man?” he said. “I trust you.”

....... Omar smiled again like you would at a small child who’s done something naughty but you’re secretly proud of them.

....... Jimmy passed the package to Omar. Omar took it and passed it on the big guy in the tan shirt. He extended a hand to Jimmy. “If you ever do anything like this again, I will send a stronger message.”

....... Jimmy laughed. He stuck out his hand as well, grasping Omar’s. He put his other hand in his pocket.

....... I relaxed a little. I’d been worried about how this was going to go down. Jimmy was bound to be a little pissed at the beating he received, but he seemed to be taking it all in good humour. Omar, of course, knew Jimmy for what he was: a small time chancer who’d got in over his head this time.

....... Jimmy pulled his other hand out his pocket. Before I registered what was happening, he’d punched Omar in the gut. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Omar doubled over and stepped back from Jimmy, who gave out a high pitched laugh and then turned to run. The two big guys didn’t know how to react. They stepped forward to their boss to check he was all right. I just stood still. My mind went blank and I just stood and stared as Jimmy ran off into the night, cackling like a hyena.

....... I looked at Omar. The two guys let their boss fall to the ground. I saw clearly now that Jimmy hadn’t just slugged him one in the gut; he’d chibbed Omar, sliced open the man’s belly.

....... The guy in the tan shirt roared and came over to me. He swung a wild punch. I ducked, kicking out to get tan-shirt in the shins. He roared again, caught off balance. I punched him in the stomach and then the face. He went down on the second punch. The other guy was trying to stop the blood pouring out of Omar. I went over and knelt beside him.

....... “I didn’t know he was going to do that,” I said.

....... “I should kill you,” the guy said.

....... Omar mumbled something, but it was indistinct. Jimmy’s blade had cut him deep and wide. He was losing blood, going into shock. I pulled out my mobile phone.

....... “What’re you doing?” said the guy trying to stop the bleeding.

....... “I’m calling the hospital,” I said.

....... He stood up and grabbed the phone from my hand.

....... The guy in the tan shirt was on his feet again, stumbling over to us. He looked angry; but he was more concerned about Omar than trying to knock my lights out.

....... “You won’t call the hospital,” said the first guy. “There’s another number.” He dialled in on my phone and mumbled something down the line in Arabic. I looked down at Omar. Tan-shirt was dealing with the blood flow, blocking off the wound, making sure his boss didn’t lose consciousness.

....... I looked out across the park where Jimmy had run off. I should have seen it coming. He’d been antsy ever since I’d met him at the amphitheatre in Balgay. Thing was, all the time I’d known Jimmy, I’d seen him as a fool, a wee chancer. He wasn’t dangerous. He’d nick your wallet soon as look at you, but that was about the worst I’d considered him capable of. I’d thought I knew who he was.

....... The guy on the phone hung up and came over to me. “Your little friend left you in the lurch.”

....... I shrugged. “He’s not my friend."

....... He laughed. “Why’d you come along with him, then?”

....... “He’s an associate.”

....... The guy in the tan shirt was gripping his boss’s hand. Omar’s eyes flickered as he tried to stay conscious.

....... “I didn’t know this would happen,” I said. “I know Omar. He knows I wouldn’t try something like this.”

....... “Just wait. We’ll see. But if you’re lying, you’re a dead man. And your little friend, he’s a dead man anyway.”

*****

....... I arrived at my place close to half-twelve. Ros was in bed already. A note in the living room said there was pizza in the fridge In the kitchen I grabbed the pizza and a Millers. I sat in the living room and watched TV. I downed the beer quickly, before I’d munched through the remnants of the pizza. I went through for another brew before settling back in front of the BBC’s News24 Feed.

....... I must have fallen asleep sometime after that. When I awoke, Ros was in the kitchen, boiling the kettle. I padded through and slipped my arms round her waist, kissing her slender neck. She pulled away from me, not unkindly.

....... “You got in late last night,” she said.

....... “I know.”

....... “Anything you want to talk about?”

....... “Work,” I said.

....... “Client confidentiality?”

....... I smiled. “Something like that.”

....... “You seem a little odd.”

....... “Guess I didn’t sleep as well as I thought.”

....... “You seemed pretty relaxed when I came through,” she said. Her eyes dropped to the beer bottles on the floor.

....... I shrugged.

....... “Long as everything’s okay,” she said, placing her mug down on the coffee table. She stood up and stretched. “Better get showered,” she said. “Head out. An early morning coffee.”

....... Ros smiled and left the room. I heard the shower go.

....... I fished my mobile out of my jacket and dialled Jimmy’s pager. I went back to my coffee and decided to wait.

*****.

....... I called into the office at nine-fifteen. Babs answered and asked if everything was okay. I told her I was working something and probably wouldn’t be by the office until later. She said that it was okay. There was a tone in her voice that I wasn’t sure if it was a plea to be careful or some kind of unspoken reprimand for something I barely realised I’d done.

....... I waited. At ten I put the kettle on. I was still tired, in need of a pick-me-up.

....... The kettle boiled and my mobile began to bleat. I answered it in three rings.

....... “Awright, ma man!” said Jimmy.

....... “Where are you?”

....... “Sorry aboot that,” he said. “Kindae got carried away, ken?” His words slurred together. He was loaded on something.

....... “You crazy little prick.”

....... He laughed. “Knew ye could take care o’ yerself, man! It's nae more than he deserved, likes.”

....... “It was a stupid bloody stunt."

....... “He disrespected me, man. Sending some wee wankers tae beat the package outae me when I wouldae handed it over all peaceable, likes.”

....... “So where are you?”

....... “Ah, naw, man, that’d be telling, ken?”

....... “Jimmy, this is me.”

....... “Aye, it's you. And why should I trust you, man? Christ, mebbe I shouldae stuck you, too. All you do is you come tae me and you say, likes, ‘Jimmy, I need ye tae get me information now,’ or, likes, ‘Jimmy, I’m looking fer someone and you’ll know who they are, cause, ken, you’re a bloody scumball too!’”

....... “Okay. I haven’t been exactly fair to you.”

....... “Ye think ye’re this great wee man wi’ yer contacts on the criminal underworld and aw that shite, Sam. But ye’re just this stuck up prick thinking yer better than I am!”

....... I didn’t say anything.

....... “Like Omar, man, thinking that he’s gonnae get one over on me, cause who am I but a wee schemie arsewipe?”

....... “Even if he didn’t survive, His brother Yafit will be after you.”

....... “Man, I got aw that money, and I’m gonnae do great."

....... “Skipping town?”

....... He laughed. “I was like Fozzie Bear. But Fozzie Bear, he’s got teeth, man. Big bloody teeth!”

....... He waited for acknowledgement, but I said nothing.

....... “Aw, man, dinnae worry! I’m no gonnae come gunning after you. I mean, I’m smarter than that, y’ken? I just thought I’d give you a ring, let you know I was doing awright and say thanks for everything. Even if ye were a snooty shite, I guess we got on awright. When you werenae shaking me down!”

....... “So where are you going?”

....... “Dinnae treat me like an idiot, man. I’m getting out, like while the going’s good. Omar’s going tae be pissed, like, and Yafit, well I guess I cannae blame him. But they got back the bloody package, whatever-the-hell, right?”

....... “Right.”

....... “So this is goodbye. Good luck getting by withoot yer Fozzie Bear.”

....... I hesitated. Then: “Good luck to you, Jimmy.”

....... “And just so’s ye know, I’m calling from ma home, man!” He cackled wildly before hanging up.

....... I waited a second, listening the dead tone on the other end. Finally, I pressed my fingers down on the cradle. When I lifted them I got the connection tone. I dialled in 1471. I got a number. Smiling, I wrote it down.

*****

....... If Jimmy was telling the truth about calling me from his house, he lived in a small flat up beyond the Hilltown. The Hilltown area of Dundee is to the east of the city, up behind the Wellgate Shopping mall, Scotland’s original purpose-built shopping complex. The Hilltown is long, steep and eclectic in its population. DSS and social scroungers live right alongside young professionals and students, although the further up you walk the more apparent the poverty becomes.. If there’s one thing I guess Dundee can be proud of it's that there are few areas of the city that are divided; the high rises and council plots aside, pretty much everyone lives side by side.

....... Jimmy’s pad was near the top of the Hilltown: the fourth floor of an old tenement building. No security buzzer, and the building’s main door, which had once been painted red, was scratched, the paint peeling..

....... I walked up to the fourth floor, and saw that the flat on the left was open, the door gently peeking inwards. I pushed it and said, “Hello, anyone home?” When I got no reply I walked inside.

....... The flat was small, with three rooms including the bathroom. The wallpaper – striped blue and white – was faded and peeling from the top down. The floorboards were exposed; rough and uneven. The bedroom had only a mattress on the floor. The living room wasn’t much better. A phone was plugged into the wall but it lay on the floor. There was a scrap of paper on top. It was marked – in a spidery scrawl – “SAM”. I picked it up........

Sam, my man!

You always asked if I had a place to kip. This is it. Nice? Not as nice as your swanky wee place, I’m sure.

Don’t know if I’ll ever see you again. I don’t know if you care. But it's been cool. It's been time to go somewhere else, anyway. Dundee gets on top of you after a while. Or maybe there’s too many piss-artists here want to break my skull open.

Whatever. See y’after, man!

....... He signed off with an incomprehensible scrawl. But I knew it was him. I smiled as I folded the note and put it in my pocket. The madness of the other night seemed a lifetime away. I guess that was Jimmy’s charm; he was the rogue, the chancer, the happy-go-lucky wee shite who always seemed to land on his feet. Even after a display like the other night, that was how I would remember him.

....... I looked around the pad a bit more and decided there wasn’t much else; no clue to who Jimmy really was. I guess I felt a little ashamed I hadn’t got to know him better. But then, that’s how I am: I never really know anyone. Jimmy had been right when he said I’d never taken the time to know him, but it wasn’t because I saw myself as better than him. On that, he was dead wrong. Like almost everyone else in my life, he was useful to me. All my relationships are utilitarian, maybe even Sandy, who I’d always thought of as my best mate.

....... I thought about this for a while, standing in Jimmy’s dead flat. And then I thought about the one relationship I could say with absolute certainty meant anything to me. I took the note out of my pocket and screwed it up in my fist. When I got outside, I threw it in the nearest bin.

....... I pulled out my mobile, dialled through to Ros. She answered in three rings and I said, “It's me.”

....... After that, I didn’t say anything. I just closed my eyes and listened to her voice.

Copyright (c) 2006 by Russel D. McLean.


......

Russel D McLean is the man behind such Scottish PIs as Sam Bryson (featured here) and John McNee, as well as other shorts which have appeared in various publications including Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and the upcoming anthology, Fuck Noir. He is also the editor of the noir ezine Crime Scene Scotland and hopes that one day the zine will be updated on schedule (Hah! I know THAT feeling). Be sure to check out Russel's blog, and if you liked this story, don't miss The Death of Ronnie Sweets, his new collection.

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