The Long Close Call

PROLOGUE

(January 1968)
You ran along a railway embankment, long disused and overgrown, a ditch at either side. The track was gone, but you followed the line. It led you to the road. Once on the road, you sat with your feet in the gutter, and you cried.
     A woman pulled up in a car. She thought you were hurt and asked if she could help. She gave you a lift into Glasgow, but the night before, a storm had ripped the city apart at the seams, smashing down the chimney stacks and hurling them through the roofs of tenement buildings. The roads had become impassable, and she said she couldn’t take you any further; so you ran the rest of the way, weaving past people who stood outside the ruin of their homes.
     You reached the railway station and stood on a platform until cold drove you into the buffet. It was dark in there, the windows opaque with filth. The only source of warmth was from a boiler, and a woman who served food let you sit up close, gave you Coke and a sandwich, asked if you’d lost your coat.
     You wanted to tell her you’d lost everything but words to describe what had happened just melted away. She left you alone in the end, and you sat there, picking fat-streaked ham away from crusts too hard to eat. And when the London train came in, you climbed aboard, aware that she was watching; aware that she would remember you when the search for your brother began.

Chapter 1

Before knocking on the door to that dim, neglected house, Detective Inspector Jarvis took stock of his surroundings. In doing so, he found nothing to suggest that thirty years from now, this part of north London would become fashionable, that each of these houses would be worth upwards of three hundred thou’, or that a future Prime Minister would live a couple of blocks from here.
     Elsa opened the door, her nine-year-old son beside her. It was one of the few times in her life that she’d willingly allowed the police to enter her home, and the fact that her husband wasn’t simultaneously trying to escape it via the back made a pleasant change.
     There was something of the 1940s icon about her face, the suggestion of a starlet who had aged before her time. She’d long put Jarvis in mind of the movie star, Jane Russell, and whenever he spoke to her, he tried to ensure that nothing of what he felt for her was betrayed by his tone of voice.
     She led him into a room where the furniture was sparse, and her youngster flopped down on the carpet, sorted through Lego that lay on a rug, and started to play with it. Earlier, he’d built a small box, the bricks white, the roof green, and when he picked it up, something within it rattled, the boy instantly quelling the sound by holding the box very still.
     Jarvis had seen this room on many an occasion over the years, most recently some weeks ago when he and his team had come looking for the boy’s father, George McLaughlan. It was a month before Christmas and Elsa had been pinning paper chains to the Anaglypta walls. Now it was early January but the paper chains remained, their sticky links covered by a film of dust, their colours having faded from their former garish hues.
     In seeing those simple, home-made decorations, Jarvis recalled that Elsa had been helping her son to make them, gluing the links, or holding the chains while he stapled them together. That would have been about the size and shape of their Christmas, and his heart went out to them. As a rule, he had no time for the wives of criminals, or at least, no time for those who made excuses for their predicament, but Elsa merely said, I’ve made my bed, Mr Jarvis.
     He could relate to her straightforward acceptance of personal responsibility, but couldn’t help wondering why she felt it her duty to lie on that bed for the rest of her life. He’d once said, ‘You don’t have to stick it, Elsa. Nobody would blame you if you cut free of George and made a new life for yourself’. And he’d then asked how a girl of her decent, working-class background had managed to get involved with a man like George in the first place, a man who, when she met him, had already served a sentence for armed robbery, a man who was bred in the Gorbals and whose background was so far removed from her own, Jarvis couldn’t see what the attraction was for Elsa.
     ‘Nobody forced me,’ she said. ‘I wanted him. Thought I could change him, you see.’ She smiled at her own stupidity. ‘How many women have you heard say that?’
     Plenty, thought Jarvis, who now took his eyes off the paper chains and focused on Elsa’s face, finding that this, too, seemed drained of all colour, a washed-out, careworn grey. There had often been times when he longed to give her husband a piece of his mind. What stopped him was the knowledge that if he did, George would somehow find a way to take it out on Elsa. Besides, he’d be wasting his breath. Men so totally devoid of any sense of responsibility towards their family rarely changed their ways as a result of being told a few home truths. ‘You phoned the station,’ he said. ‘Asked me to drop by,’ and Elsa, referring to the older of her two sons, said, ‘Tam’s gone off somewhere. He hasn’t come back.’
     ‘Gone off where?’
     ‘Glasgow.’
     ‘When?’
     ‘A fortnight ago.’
     A fortnight, thought Jarvis, and Elsa added: ‘He went down by train the day before the storm.’
     Jarvis knew well enough that Glasgow had just been hit by one of the worst storms in living memory, and his concern deepened. There had been deaths in the poorer parts of the city where roofs that were rotten with age had crashed down on the tenement dwellers below. ‘What was he doing there?’
     ‘Trying to find his dad.’
     Good luck to him, thought Jarvis, who’d been trying to find George for the past six weeks. ‘Any particular reason?’
     ‘We needed money,’ said Elsa, simply, and she didn’t have to elaborate, Jarvis could picture the scene. Christmas had come and gone, and with George on the run from police, it was understandable that either Elsa or Tam would try to get hold of him on the off-chance of getting some money out of him. ‘Any luck?’ he said.
     ‘I’ve no idea,’ said Elsa. ‘He took Robbie with him, but Robbie came back on his own.’
     Jarvis now spoke to Robbie. ‘Did Tam find your dad, Robbie?’
     Robbie kept his head bowed, clicked a small white brick into place, but didn’t reply.
     Jarvis tried again: ‘Why didn’t Tam come back with you?’
     ‘You’re wasting your time,’ said Elsa. ‘I can’t get a word out of him.’
     ‘Robbie?’ said Jarvis, who crouched down low and spoke to the boy very softly.
     He straightened as Elsa said: ‘What do you think I should do – report him missing?’
     Jarvis wasn’t sure. Tam was sixteen so, unless they had reason to suspect he’d come to harm, the police weren’t likely to do anything more than make a few enquiries. There were, after all, more adolescents living on the streets than the authorities knew what to do with.
     ‘It isn’t like him,’ said Elsa, and Jarvis, who knew Tam well, couldn’t deny she was right. When the family had first moved to London, Jarvis had been part of a team that was sent to the house in search of stolen money. Elsa had hovered in the background, an arm around each of her boys. Robbie was too young to understand, but Tam was clearly traumatised by the way police had come smashing into their home.
     There was a model ship in the room, something Tam had made out of matchsticks salvaged from gutters and ashtrays. The delicate rigging was complex, and the varnish applied with care, but a copper crushed the rigging and jabbed his fist through the hull.
     Watching Tam crack as his ship was torn apart really got to Jarvis. ‘This is no place for the lads,’ he said. ‘Let me take them out,’ and Elsa, unable to speak, nodded her consent.
     An hour later, he returned them with ice-cream round their mouths, and the next day he’d come back with matches, and glue. Too hamfisted to help, he’d simply watched as Tam repaired the model, and later, when he was leaving, Tam had mumbled something along the lines of, ‘You’re all right.’
     Jarvis had wanted to tell him that most coppers were ‘all right’, but that unfortunately they had a job to do, a job that was often unpleasant for all concerned. He’d wanted to add that if men like George would refrain from committing armed robberies in the first place, it wouldn’t be necessary for the police to descend on anybody’s house with a view to taking it apart, but he’d kept these thoughts to himself.
     Now, he reflected on the fact that, despite her circumstances, Elsa had so far managed to bring up the boys as law-abiding, responsible individuals. She didn’t deserve to have problems with them, though what people deserved and what they got were often two different things. Even so, he would be disappointed if Tam was about to start causing her concern. He would also be surprised, for he reckoned he knew which of the lads sired by villains would eventually cause problems, and in his view, the McLaughlan boys were cut from a different cloth. ‘Supposing something’s happened to him?’ said Elsa, and because he had no answer for that, Jarvis replied with a question intended to extract some practical information: ‘When did Robbie come home?’
     ‘The day after the storm,’ said Elsa.
     ‘And how did he get back to London?’
     ‘Same way he got down to Glasgow in the first place – by train.’
     Jarvis was staggered that any trains had managed to run from Glasgow the day after the storm and said so, adding: ‘What were he and Tam wearing?’
     The look that crossed her face made him hasten to reassure her that he only needed to know in case it became necessary for him to put out a description of Tam, and Elsa described the usual clothing of jeans, sweatshirts trainers.
     ‘What about jackets, or coats?’
     ‘I can’t remember.’
     Jarvis left it at that for the moment. ‘Where were they planning on staying while they were down there?’
     ‘Iris.’
     That made sense. George was rumoured to have fled to Glasgow following an armed robbery that had gone badly wrong, and it would be logical for Tam to assume that his grandmother, Iris, might have some idea where he was. After all, Jarvis had recently paid her a visit for precisely that reason.
     It had been his first ever visit to Glasgow, and Jarvis recalled a dock stacked with cargo, streetwise gulls stealing food from a wharf, and some kind of iron bridge across the Clyde estuary. It had been a five minute walk from the red, sandstone tenement where George’s mother had raised her lethal offspring, and when Jarvis poked his nose into the smaller of her two rooms, he’d imagined how, in childhood, George and his brother, Jimmy, had slept nose-to-tail on a shake-down bed, the mattress infested by fleas. The mattress was still in situ, a writhing, living thing, the material striped in blue and white, like a milk jug.
     Iris was a biggish woman, her features hardened by years of deprivation. Jarvis had questioned her, and had quickly ascertained that she wasn’t afraid of the police. At least, she wasn’t afraid of him, who must have seemed soft by comparison with some of the animals Strathclyde had in its ranks. Jarvis had returned to London suspecting she knew where George was, but convinced that it would take more of a man than him to get it out of her. He was about to ask Elsa whether, in her view, George was still in Glasgow, when Elsa added: ‘I told our Tam he was wasting his time. Iris wouldn’t tell him anything, even if she knew.’
     ‘Why not?’
     ‘She’d be worried in case the police got it out of him.’
     ‘Does she know that Tam didn’t come back to London?’
     ‘She says it’s news to her.’
     ‘Do you think she’s telling the truth?’
     Elsa had to think about that. ‘I can’t see why she’d lie,’ she said. ‘Not to me. And why hasn’t he been in touch?’
     She had a point, thought Jarvis.
     Elsa added: ‘She said they stayed with her the night, and then they set off early for the train.’
     ‘How early?’
     ‘Sixish.’
     ‘What time does the express leave for London?’
     ‘About one o’clock.’
     Jarvis didn’t say anything to that. It would have taken them no longer than thirty minutes to get from the Gorbals to Glasgow’s Central Station. Therefore, they’d obviously gone somewhere in the hours between leaving the tenements, and Robbie catching the train. Since Tam had gone to Glasgow to look for their father, it made sense to assume that they’d probably spent the morning trying to find him. Whether they’d found him or not was a different matter.
     He turned his attention to Robbie, who was still playing at his feet. He hadn’t said a word since Jarvis got there, and he seemed, to Jarvis, unusually withdrawn. It had been the coldest January in Glasgow since records began, and if what Elsa had said about what they were wearing was true, neither boy had been dressed for the weather. Kids could sometimes be very withdrawn when they were sickening for something, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if Robbie was starting with pneumonia. He said, ‘Has Robbie shown any sign of illness since coming back?’
     She shook her head.
     I’d get him to a doctor, just to be on the safe side.’
     He crouched down by Robbie, and reached for the Lego box. Throughout his conversation with Elsa, he’d heard the occasional rattle coming from that box, and he was curious. ‘Can I see your box?’ he said, and, without looking at Jarvis, Robbie handed it to him.
     Jarvis took it and shook it gently. ‘Mind if I look inside?’
     In the absence of a response, Jarvis tackled the lid. It was jammed down hard on the Lego, and he’d had to force a fingernail under the hard green plastic in order to get purchase and flick it away. He did it a little more forcefully than he’d intended, and the box fell apart in his hands. Pieces of Lego fell from his fingers and, among them, a small golden crucifix.
     Reflecting that it was the very last thing he would have expected to fall from the box, Jarvis stooped to the carpet and picked it up. It was old, and very plain. It was also of very high quality, and it had a feel about it, as if it had been – a word came to mind, a word he couldn’t replace with anything more appropriate – it had been blessed. Blessed or not, it was worth a bit, and he suddenly had a vision of it tumbling out of a safety deposit box in some bank or other.
     George had a habit of keeping things that took his fancy. On more than one occasion, it had proved an expensive peccadillo, the evidence having been found, if not in the hull of a model ship, then in a hiding place that was equally ingenious, though no less detectable for that.
     A chain had also fallen out of the box and Jarvis picked it up, finding it inappropriate for a cross of that size and weight. It was broken, which didn’t surprise him. One good yank would have been enough to snap it. He couldn’t decide what to do for the best with it: he would have been well within his rights to pass it on to the Antiques Squad to check against their records, but he gave it back to Robbie – he couldn’t say why. Maybe he just felt that he could do with something in his life, something that was blessed, as if a little of whatever had blessed it might improve his lot.
     In catching Elsa’s eye, he saw a glint of gratitude that he hadn’t deprived the child of it. ‘You keep it safe,’ he said. ‘Don’t go selling it – hear me?’
     Robbie took it from him. The look that crossed his face. It sent a shudder through Jarvis, and it was then that he realised something had happened to Tam.
     ‘Robbie,’ said Jarvis. ‘Where’s Tam?’
     The boy made no response, and in that moment, Jarvis wondered how many other lads of nine had ever had cause to wear the expression that Robbie was wearing now. It was as if he knew that, notwithstanding the charade with the game of Lego, his childhood was over, that he carried a secret of such magnitude it had hauled him out of childhood and into the grown-up world, where secrets aren’t merely a game but a matter of life and death.
     He curled his fingers around the cross as if attempting to burn it into his flesh, to hide it for ever within himself – something to draw strength from in the years and trials to come.
     ‘Robbie?’ said Jarvis.
     The boy looked up at him, the cross clutched tight in his hand, but he didn’t say a word.
     ‘Robbie?’
     Nothing.

Chapter 2

 

(September 1999)
The house that Robbie McLaughlan had lived in over thirty years ago had undergone a transformation since he’d last seen it. Gone was the drab exterior, and the paintwork gleamed on a brand-new door and windows, recently fitted.
In looking at it now, he found that none of it tied in with his perception of what it had been like to live there, but he didn’t doubt that its present occupants had no idea what it had been like in the sixties. Nor would they know that, regardless of the fact that it had been renovated to a high standard, he still saw it pretty much as it had been when he was a boy.
     He half expected to see his mother at the door, watching as uniformed men dragged his father out of the house. And then it was Tam he saw – Tam who was still sixteen, his image frozen in time.
     Tam had been in the habit of walking round the side to enter via a door that opened straight into the kitchen. The memory was so vivid it brought a tightness to his chest. And then he remembered Jarvis, who had tried to be some kind of father to him after Tam disappeared. Not all coppers are out to cause grief – remember that.
     McLaughlan had remembered.
     He hadn’t seen the house in years, and he found it disconcerting to be in such close proximity to it. The memories it evoked weren’t pleasant, and he tried not to let them distract him, because it wasn’t the house that had brought him back to the area, it was his job.
     He was looking through the window of a flat that stood opposite a branch of the Midland Bank. It used to be owned by the grocer who ran the shop below. Now it was owned by someone who had obliged by moving out for the morning, leaving it free for armed police to use for surveillance purposes.
     As he took his eyes off the house and trained them back on the bank, an Armed Response Vehicle cruised past and disappeared down a side road.
     The sight of that ARV didn’t please him, and he knew it wasn’t likely to please his guv’nor either. The order to keep a low profile was one that Leonard Orme expected the teams to observe, but for reasons that were lost on McLaughlan, the men in that ARV had driven it past the bank in full view of the public, the police, and maybe even the robbers, thereby jeopardising the entire operation.
     ‘For fuck’s sake,’ said McLaughlan.
     He wasn’t alone in that room, and his partner, Doheny, a deceptively weak-looking man who had formerly served in the SAS, spoke into the semi-gloom. ‘I don’t believe they did that.’
     The men inside that ARV carried Smith and Wesson handguns, two carbines, and enough ammunition to quell a revolt in some minor Third World country, and although he wasn’t in any way religious, the realisation that those weapons might be fired, and that shots might be returned from hardware equally deadly, made McLaughlan reach for the crucifix rather than for the Glock 17 with which he’d been armed since early morning. It was concealed beneath a navy crew-neck sweater, bulky over a bullet-proof vest. Solid. Heavy. Protective.
     He’d worn it since the day Jarvis had handed it back after telling him not to sell it. Initially, he hid it in the box reconstructed from Lego, but when he was slightly older, he plaited it into a leather strap and tied it round his wrist. Later still it dangled from a gold earring that he’d given up wearing long ago, and now it hung from a thick gold chain clasped around his neck.
     Few of his colleagues had ever commented on it, but those who had were told that he wore it because he had the feeling that it protected him, that if ever he took it off …
     Most of them could relate to that, if only on the grounds that they each had their own little rituals, their touch-wood devices that they needed to believe would protect them in situations where anything could go down.
*
The news that an armoured van was about to be hit outside a branch of the Midland had come to McLaughlan courtesy of an informant – Gerald Ash.
It wasn’t uncommon for villains to turn grass once, as was the case with Ash, they’d grown too old for the game and money was in short supply. At seventy-odd, planning and executing a robbery was rarely seen as an option. Few could face the prospect of another stretch if things should go pear-shaped, and McLaughlan had been benefiting from Ash’s desperation for several years, on and off.
     They’d met at a Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, McLaughlan walking in from pavements that were crowded and a winter’s afternoon sky that was already growing dark. He’d found Ash thumbing through a rack of golden oldies, and the sight of him came as something of a shock: it had been only a matter of months since McLaughlan had last seen him, but during that time, age had taken hold. His eyes had turned from the steel grey of his prime to the bluish grey of an infant who is not yet able to focus, and his movements, along with his speech, had slowed perceptibly.
     It took him a good few moments to realise McLaughlan was there, but when he did, he simply resumed his search for a face from the past. Elvis Presley. Little Richard. Roy Orbison. These were the people who’d kept him sane in the type of prison where men only left their cells for an hour a day. I know every word of every song they ever sang—
He revealed that an armoured vehicle was due to make a delivery of cash to a branch of the Midland at 11 a.m. that coming Monday, and when McLaughlan complained that it didn’t give the police much time, Ash had quipped that it gave them two days, and that Flying Squad was always bangin’ on about being able to get to the scene of any bank raid in London in under five minutes, so what was he bleatin’ about?
     It hadn’t been getting to the scene, or even ensuring that they had it fully covered, that bothered McLaughlan. It was getting the robbers under surveillance prior to the job going down.
     He asked for names, and more than expected Ash to start screwing him around then, because this was the point at which Ash usually started talking silly money. But on this occasion he pocketed the fifty without even attempting to get more out of him, and then said the name Swift. The minute he heard the name, McLaughlan thought Ash was either mistaken, or lying.
     Calvin Swift, fifty-six years old, was one of London’s more notorious villains. He’d started out as a messenger boy for a well-known East End firm, but he’d come a long way since then, and neither he nor his brother Ray needed to dirty their hands by pulling a bank job. Those days were gone for the Swifts, and McLaughlan couldn’t imagine either of them returning to the type of activity that had finally earned Calvin a lengthy jail sentence back in the eighties – not unless business was poor, and business, to McLaughlan’s knowledge, was currently booming. ‘What would Calvin want with robbing a bank?’
     ‘Who said anything about Calvin? It’s his son, Stuart.’
     This made no more sense to McLaughlan than the idea of Swift senior pulling the job. This time, he said, ‘If Stuart wants money, all he has to do is tap his pa.’
     ‘He’s got a drug problem: said Ash.
     If Stuart Swift had a drug problem, it was news to McLaughlan, but in a voice that sounded frankly incredulous, Ash added, ‘I’ve heard he’s been stealin’ from the old man.’
     Silly boy, thought McLaughlan. There was a certain type of person you didn’t steal from, not even if you happened to be their only, much-loved son, and Calvin fell very much into that category. Nobody ripped him off and got away with it. Doubtless, people had tried it in the past, which was why Serious Crimes had a vested interest in keeping an eye on him, because people who crossed him tended to disappear. Some had done so of their own volition. Others had not. But rumour was one thing. Finding a body and pinning a murder on Calvin was another.
     ‘Who else is involved?’ said McLaughlan.
     ‘Carl Fischer,’ said Ash.
     McLaughlan had never heard of him.
     ‘The driver is a mate of Fischer’s – bloke by the name of Leach.’
     McLaughlan had never heard of Leach, either, but that wasn’t his problem. It wasn’t his job to have heard of every villain in London, and nor was it his job to decide what should be done on the strength of the information: he was merely required to brief his immediate superior, and it would then be up to Orme to decide what action, if any, to take.
     Orme might decide that Ash was either lying or had been misinformed, in which case, Flying Squad would do little more than ensure that an ARV was close to the bank when the job was tipped to go down. On the other hand, he might decide that a full-scale op was justified.
     McLaughlan demanded details relating to the way in which the armoured van would be attacked, and considered them carefully. Then, taking care to sound fairly noncommittal, he said, ‘I’ll have a word with the guv’nor.’
     ‘Suit yourself,’ said Ash, who drifted off to search through other displays.
     McLaughlan watched him go, then left the store. It had grown dark in the past ten minutes, and Oxford Street was heaving with people who were staring into the face of a British winter. Most looked resigned to it. All looked cold.
     The traffic was moving slowly, and as he made for the tube, McLaughlan thought about what Ash had just divulged. If Orme acted on the information only to find it was dud, they would all look stupid. More than that, operations on even a fairly small scale cost money, and Orme would be expected to account for what had prompted him to spend precious resources on an op that had proved a total waste of time. Therefore, it was in all their interests to determine whether the information was solid, and in this case, with the robbery fairly imminent, they could only rely on an analysis of the information and hope they got it right.
     Trouble was, informants often lied. You could never really tell whether they were telling the truth, the partial truth, or – to use a phrase coined by Doheny – an out-and-out porker. Ash might be short of money, and provided he didn’t do it too often and lose McLaughlan’s trust, passing dud information was always good for a few quid. But already, on this occasion, McLaughlan was willing to state that, in his view, the information was probably totally sound.
     Orme would want to know what made him think so, and McLaughlan would point out that coppers and villains alike shared certain things in common: if your only son is doing drugs, you’ll usually try anything to stop him. In Calvin’s case, that meant making it difficult for Stuart to get his hands on money. Conversely, if you’re a user, you’ll do anything to get your hands on money, and to someone of Stuart’s background, armed robbery would seem the natural solution to the irritating problem of lack of funds. He would know precisely what the risks were, and how to go about it. All he needed was the guts to go through with the job.
     Whether he had the guts, McLaughlan couldn’t say, but in the circumstances, and knowing what he did about the family, he was prepared to advise Orme that in his opinion, come Monday, Stuart would most likely be found in front of a branch of the Midland. He would be holding a sawn-off shotgun to the head of a terrified guard, and he would be threatening to blow his head from Islington to Richmond. It won’t even fucking bounce!
     The guard would do the sensible thing: he would give him whatever money there was to be had. Even so, if Stuart was anything like his pa, he’d shoot him anyway.
     But nobody was going to find out whether Stuart was as vicious as the old man, because this would be his first armed robbery – and McLaughlan was in no doubt that Orme would make it his last.