5. McAllister’s machinations put Joe in a tight spot, and he has to take drastic action to escape - Book Two - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
The pub’s yellow gaslights blurred into an even more mellow light when viewed through the blue haze of the smoke of innumerable gaspers. As the night wore on the atmosphere in the pub became increasingly impenetrable.
Protective camouflage, one might say. For those native to the territory.
Joe - who had drunk many fewer of the drinks he had pressed to his lips over the last few hours than those watching him could possibly have guessed, and who could in point of fact actually have drunk all of them and still be upright and making sense - giggled inanely.
“Give me a moment.”
He drifted vaguely across the bar, a helpful bar-maid directing him towards the alley-way at the back, the direction she assumed he was seeking.
On gaining the sanctuary of the odoriferous back-alley behind the pub which led to the gentlemen’s conveniences, he looked backwards. His view was restricted - a narrow sliver of brightness into the crowded warmth of the pub. It was, nevertheless, as he suspected. The dark-haired, earnest man in the blue jersey and torn aquascutum who had come into the pub perhaps half an hour ago was taking advantage of Joe’s absence. Joe - relying on his pose of blithe and increasingly inebriated stupidity to prevent the stranger realising that the observed had become the observer - had detected him spreading poison from the moment of his arrival.
Joe had felt the atmosphere in the warm pub chill suddenly around him; he had lived long enough on the edges of the wild places of the world to know when a crowd has been primed to turn into a mob.
And he knew that he had to get out now. Or risk being beaten to within an inch of his life. If they even gave him that inch.
The enemy were, thank God, Glaswegians. With a momentary lingering flash of humour he recollected that their assumptions that he would not abandon a perfectly respectable Burberry which was currently hanging on the pub’s hatstand would buy him a few minutes grace at least.
He shinned over the stinking wall, dropped into the ginnel behind, racing for the lights of the main road, and the nearest tram stop.
He was not impeded in his blind flight to safety. Once aboard the first tram which arrived he pulled out a piece of paper and with a few quick strokes of a pencil jotted down in the form of a rough sketch map the directions he’d managed to extract from his unwitting informants. He was going to have to move fast; the speed with which the enemy had turned the tide against him in the pub suggested that the shadowy adversary who lurked somewhere in this fog possessed no common degree of influence. Or intelligence.
Catriona MacMillan’s lodging house was a narrow-fronted, three storied building that shrieked gloomy respectability. In fact, Joe thought, giving it a swift overview from the corner of the street, it embodied in stuccoed brick all the narrow, mean-spirited values which Helen had asserted were the prerogative of her Adamson relatives. It was a fortress that was not going to be readily taken by charm, a glib tongue, or the flashing of a well-filled notecase.
He looked at his chrono. Even if such an approach would not have already been pre-empted by his adversary, the hour was far too late even to contemplate the bold step of knocking on Mrs MacMillan’s front door and demanding to see “Mikey”.
He retreated round the back, to see if the fortress was perhaps vulnerable to being attacked from the rear - and what he saw there caused him to retreat rapidly into the blessedly concealing fog.
Someone - a flat-capped, overall-clad someone - flung up the tailboard of the lorry that had been parked directly behind Mrs MacMillan’s, and bolted it closed. The lorry’s engine, which had been idling, roared to life; its red tail-lights winked on and it rattled off into the night.
Joe cursed under his breath. It was almost certainly too late, but he eyed up the back of the house anyway. There was an open window about half-way up, a close to a robust cast-iron drainpipe. In less than half a minute Joe had broken in.
He found himself on a landing which moved softly along until he came to the stairs. Up or down? He flipped a mental coin, and went ghost-like up the bare boards of the next flight.
The two attic rooms faced each other; the door of the right hand one was open a crack. Joe eased it a little further open.
The room was empty, but the bed had been made up; the rumpled bedclothes showed that someone had lately been sleeping there. Joe put a hand on the sheet; there was a lingering warmth suggesting that the bed’s occupant had only recently arisen. But the room was otherwise bare with no trace of the occupant’s personal possessions. He wandered over to the cheap deal dresser and in a vague hope of obtaining some clue started opening its drawers.
The small brightly coloured packet of gum told him all he needed to know.
The only problem now was to find out where the lorry had gone. Because he was prepared to bet serious money that Dex must have been aboard it.
He pocketed the gum, tiptoed back down the stairs, and let himself out through the window. Climbing down the drainpipe proved slightly harder than climbing up it had been. It was with distinct relief he dropped the last few feet to the back alley, landing almost soundlessly on his rubber-soled feet.
There was a cough close by his ear.
“Man,” said a voice from out of the fog, “it would seem ye take your journaleestic duties awfu’ seriously.”
Joe spun on the spot. A figure - lurching slightly and reeking powerfully of whisky, leaned in towards him.
“But that may be because you’re no a journalist.”
The man’s spittle spattered Joe’s face.
Joe took a step backwards. The man grinned at him, revealing a mouth full of broken teeth.
“They were saying doon the pub that ye’ll be a Yankee detective, maybe. And maybe I could be putting a name to the laddie ye’ll be seeking, also.”
Joe needed little effort to assume an attitude of cool hauteur.
“Oh? And what interest might you have in my affairs?”
The broken toothed man put his head on one side, eying Joe with an air of befuddled craftiness.
“Maybe I might know where the man concerned is awa’ to. Running like a fox to ground the moment he learned ye were on his tail. And maybe I might be after telling you. Were you to make it worth my while, ye ken. After all, if ye’ve troubled to come this far to find him, nae doot there’s a fair price on his head. And I’m no asking ye to share it. Just for a wee commission, as it might be.”
Joe paused, momentarily. Everything about this man was repellent - his barely veiled loathing for Dex in and of itself inspired Joe with a passionate longing to see whether it would be possible for him to make a worse mess of the stranger’s face than fate had already provided. It would be a challenge, certainly - not only had his nose evidently been broken more than once - the most recent, if Joe was any judge, mere days ago, probably at the same time he’d acquired the now-yellowing black eye - but among the mouthful of blackened or yellowing stumps which filled the stranger’s mouth there was a major gap where the two front incisors should be, which added a touch of peculiar horror to a smile which, Joe guessed, was intended both to be disarming and ingratiating.
Abruptly, Joe recalled a few snippets of admiring gossip on a tram, and made a connection.
Whatever else Dex needed from him, this particular battle was one that he didn’t need anyone else to fight on his behalf. He had, quite evidently, already won it comprehensively.
“Weel?” the man demanded. “Are ye no interested in what I have to tell ye?”
That strain of almost beserker hilarity that had beset him intermittently between the gloom and near-despair of the last hideous few days welled up again. Life was so hideously screwed up that the only human response possible except gibbering idiocy was hysterical laughter.
Joe kept his face disinterested, almost sneering.
“It might be worth something to me, yes. But I’m not buying a pig in a poke. You’ll have to prove your information’s worth something to me.”
The stranger sneered back. “Aye? And what sort of fool do you take me for? If I was soft enough to tell you absent payment in advance, I doot I’d see ye for dust.”
Joe drew a deep breath. Paying this repellent individual for information went completely against every instinct. But he was rapidly running out of options, and there was, at least, one thing that this informant possessed which his others of the evening did not: a genuine desire that Dex should be found. And that might be for all the wrong reasons, but it nevertheless made the information pure gold, no matter how murky the waters in which he had to pan to extract it.
He made up his mind.
“Here’s the deal,” he said abruptly. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out his wallet and extracted a five pound Bank of England note.
The stranger’s eyes glittered, he half-stretched out a hand.
Joe pasted a cold, distant smile on his lips.
“Not so fast.” Very slowly, very deliberately he tore the note in two. The stranger gulped.
“Now,” Joe said, conscious that he now had the stranger’s undivided attention, “I’m proposing to give you half of this note in exchange for the information you’re about to tell me. And then, provided always it’s the genuine article - I’ll undertake to post you the other half of the note as soon as I’ve checked it out. After all; it won’t be of any use to me, will it?”
The stranger was inclined to bluster a little, but the lure of the money was too powerful, as Joe had guessed it would be. He scribbled an address onto a torn scrap of paper, and held it out to Joe. Joe, in turn, exchanged it for half the note.
“Weel,” the stranger said, “ye’ll understand I’m no aware just exactly where they’ll have taken him. And it’d be cheating ye were I to say otherwise. But he’s away on Skipper McKechnie’s boat, the Annie Laurie. She’s late on her tide as it is. And she must be at Ardrishaig the morn. If ye get after her, maybe they’ll no have landed the mon by the time you catch up with her. Or maybe you’ll be able to find from one of the crew where they dropped him. It should no be difficult for a man of your ingenuity. There’s no that mony Yankees in Cowal and West Argyll.”
And his gap-toothed smile spread craftily over his face again as he tucked the half note into his jacket, and turned away. Before he did so he half turned back, tossing his final remark back over his shoulder.
“And once ye’ve found him, I’d be obliged if you could pass on a message. It would give me no considerable satisfaction to have him know this: tell him when you catch him it was Geordie McGeown who put ye on to him, will ye?”
“Oh, I will,” Joe breathed. “Trust me, I will.”
But by that time the stranger had faded away into the fog. Within seconds, Joe was heading rapidly and almost silently away, too. The neighbourhood could hardly be said to be healthy for him, and in any event he needed to find someone from whom he could beg, borrow or steal transport, so he could take off in pursuit of the Annie Laurie instantly.