From the editor:Nel is a bartender, so she’s heard more than her fair share of tall tales and sob stories. But one gloomy Tuesday evening, a patron’s tale of intrigue and murder sends her evening in an unusual direction. Author Charlotte Platt lives in the far north of Scotland, and posts speculative fiction and horror on Curious Fictions every fortnight.
From the author: A bartender gets an unusual patron on a gloomy Tuesday night in Glasgow.
"Whisky, neat." The man barked, slumping into one of the stools nestled at the bar. He tugged raggedly at his tie and planted his elbows on the wood, cupping his face in his propped hands.
"Sure," Nel nodded, moving to grab a glass and pour him a measure of the amber liquid. She put it in front of him with as much of a smile as she could pull up on a dreary Tuesday evening.
"I'm room 307, add it to my tab, please."
"Pre-paid or card?" she asked, tapping the room number into her till. It showed his name, Magnus Johnston, blinking up at her.
"Pre-paid, Johnston," he answered through his hands.
"No problem." She hummed, adding his drink on. She left his tab open, just in case. It was a quiet night and she wasn't banking on anyone else coming in this close to closing.
She went back to wiping down and restocking. The bar was already pristine and she’d done everything she could aside from the washing out and tap cleaning, but she absolutely had to wait for closing before she could do them.
She heard him set the glass down.
"Another please," he called and she dropped the rag in the sink.
"Yes sir," she said, trotting back to his spot. She whisked the empty glass away and brought another, the tumbler shiny from her multiple cleans. He nodded a thanks and she tapped it onto his tab.
She watched him out of the corner of her eye as she cleaned glasses. He looked rough – hair messed up, bags under the eyes, face miserable. Nel knew there was a wedding across town in one of the bigger hotels, she'd been invited to help with the catering; maybe he was a refugee from that. An ex of the bride maybe? A bit old, unless she had a thing for that. An ex of the groom? Or more likely a disappointed father, escaping the mistake he saw unfolding.
"You're not very subtle," he said and she flushed to match her hair.
"Sorry." She shrugged. "Looks like a rough night."
"Another." He sighed as he set his glass back down.
She poured again and passed it over, taking his empty and washing it out. The lights flickered and she frowned, eyes up at the fittings. The weather was dreak, dark and bit windy, but there shouldn't be any power outs.
"It's been a bad week," he said from down the bar, and she looked back to see him propping his chin up on one hand.
"Want to talk about it?" she pushed.
"Do you want to hear it?" He laughed, eyeing her over his glasses.
"I can only clean the glasses so many times, mate," she replied, moving back to where he sat. "And I'll probably ‘ve heard worse, you should see some of the folks we get in here."
"Alright. Someone wants to kill me. And they're going to manage it. So I thought I might as well have a good drink of whisky and wait for them to get here."
"Well I'm not cleaning blood up, so they can kill you somewhere else thank you very much." Nel huffed, eyeing her gleaming bar.
"An entirely reasonable view." The man nodded, face serious. "I'm Magnus."
"Nel," she said, shaking the offered hand. They were dry, a little rough but not from neglect, larger than they'd seemed holding the glass. He drained his drink and placed it in front of her. "Another. Good name for the job that, it's short."
"Works for me," she said, handing him the fresh glass. She stretched up, rolling her neck to pop the tension out of her spine. She was tall and her shoulders bunched up quick when she was lugging things about for the bar. She heard the rain start to fall outside, pattering on the thick glass of the windows. That would be fun walking home.
"Any why are you bartending in a dive like this hotel then, Nel?"
"That's an ancient line, Magnus." She laughed, eyeing his over. He had knocked a few back, maybe he was just feeling friendly. Friendly, not frisky, was fine.
"Seriously: business or pleasure?"
"Paying my bills," she said, shrugging as he wiped the bar down with a damp cloth. "Why are you getting involved in people that want to kill you?"
"Not want to, will. And that's a bad question to ask, what if it gets you killed too?"
"Spooky," she countered, rolling her eyes.
"Sort of." He gave a dark chuckle, swirling the liquid in his glass. "I can only tell you half the story or they'll kill you too. They aren't afraid to kill people. Generally they get it to look like suicide but some people just end up with a bullet in their temple."
"Go on then, surprise me," Nel prodded, leaning her elbows on the bar and watching him. The shirt he wore was expensive, or expensive enough that she could tell. It sat a bit loose on the wrists but he wore it well.
"I work as a court reporter for a local rag. I write down details of cases as they're heard and this gets written up in the papers."
"Like The Digger?"
"That and others, yes." He nodded, approving. "So I get to see a lot of the criminals in the city, and I get details of what they've been up to."
"It's not bad. But people start to recognise you, eventually. You get known. And not everyone likes a reporter, some of them get to dislike the same person learning too much. You get a nose for that too."
"Yeah, we get something like that," Nel agreed.
"Mine's good," Magnus said, leaning in and tapping his nose with one long finger. "I've been doing this a while, I can spot them. So when I got approached by one of the gents I'd been reporting on, it seemed suspicious."
"You'd be expecting a beating."
"Exactly." He grinned, nodding at her. "I was expecting trouble. But he had a job offer. They wanted me to pay special attention to certain cases, get the full details of what had happened and feed it back to them."
"Weren't you already doing that?" Nel asked, tilting her head to one side. He handed her his empty glass and she pushed off the bar, refilling it and tapping on the till again before handing it back.
"I was, this just meant they got the report at the same time as my editor. And they paid well for it."
"Where's the catch?" she asked, loading the glass washer with all she had and setting it off. It would rattle, being half empty, but there were worse things.
"There wasn't one. They wanted to know what had happened early, and I had the most up to date information. They asked me to keep an eye on their rivals mostly, see who was going on remand and who was sentenced, how long for."
"Keeping tabs on the enemy?"
"Something like that," Magnus agreed, sipping his drink now rather than knocking them back. Well his head would thank him for that in the morning. Still no one else came in, and Nel hadn’t heard many cars going past either. It really was dead, even for early in the week. Only an hour till closing. He could spin a yarn for an hour, surely.
"That lasted about six months, good money all that time," Magnus continued, breaking Nel out of her pondering.
"They asked me to keep a track of their own guys trials. Ones where there was a chance of jail time, big or small. Report back what happened."
"But their guys would already know that."
"I'm certain they did. I'm certain the very good lawyers they paid kept the boss informed too."
"The boss being the person paying them, I take it?"
"Naturally." He grinned at her again, teeth peeking out from it now. "Me too."
"So you were keeping tabs on the lawyers?" she asked, not seeing the link. Magnus was talking up a storm but none of this explained his need to get hammered or why he thought someone was going to kill him.
"I thought that too, at first. Maybe one of them was running the case long to pull in fees or throwing cases so they could get more on the appeals, working the books. But they weren't, they were really slogging at it." The door made a half hearted noise, the start of someone opening it then stepping away. Both their heads whipped round to watch it but nothing followed, the dull glow of the street lights remaining as was.
"So where was the problem then?" Nel asked, wiping the bar down and taking the tray of clean dishes out to dry them.
"They were still losing: their guys were still going to prison. Despite the very good lawyers, and how careful the gang was being."
"The police could just be that good. They were getting other gang’s guys too."
"But never as many, and the others were getting off. Less successful cases against them, less prison time when the cases were successful. Less stuck."
"Were your gang just not very good?" Nel asked, deadpan.
Magnus's brows shot up and he laughed, putting his glass down as he shook with it.
"This is one of the biggest ones in the country. They're organised, sophisticated criminals, they were good. But they had a problem: they had a rat."
"An informant? Sounds risky."
"It is. They usually end up in the Clyde with a new smile round their throat." He threw back the rest of his drink and handed it over to her again. "Another. They thought it was me."
"So they're the ones coming for you?"
"Alas, no, that wouldn't be so bad." He sighed, running a hand through the mess of hair again and passing it over his face. He tugged absently at the collar of his shirt.
"You have a preference for who is murdering you?" Nel stared at him, brows up. She put the filled glass down in front of him.
"A slit throat kills you pretty quick, and at least my body would be found easy enough."
"Why are you saying that like it's a good thing?" she asked, her frown dragging her brows back down.
"Means I'd get a decent grave," he said, near pouting at his whisky. "Maybe a decent funeral too. My editor would turn up and cry for being a prick and not believing me. Someone might throw themselves into the grave in grief. I could maybe haunt someone."
"Sounds peachy," Nel murmured, tapping the till again.
Magnus shrugged, spinning the liquid before taking a sip.
"It's more than I'll get now. I'll wind up a mess, or in someone's bathtub."
"You're going to wind up in the toilet the way you're knocking them back," Neil interjected, watching him sip again. "Anyway, if you're going to get killed shouldn't I cut you off? You won't be here to pay your tab."
"Pre-paid, you're covered," Magnus retorted, finishing his glass. "Another."
"Fair point. So who is going to kill you?"
"You haven't been paying attention," Magnus chided.
"Well it can't be the rat, that would be too obvious," Nel reasoned, eyeing the windows again. There hadn't been any traffic past the last while, as they'd been chatting, and the darkness was starting to feel like its own presence. "And you said they had thought it was you but didn't now, so it's not the gang."
"Correct, well done," Magnus smiled again, far too happily for a man contemplating his own murder.
"So you haven't told me who it is."
"Not quite. I started watching these cases, trying to see a pattern. Maybe there was a common supplier, or a seller who the police could have moved in on, gotten a turn coat."
"Seems sensible." She nodded.
"There wasn’t one though. Arrests were on varying routes, different materials, not even like the police could be tracing from one source. It was like they knew what the gang was doing before they did it."
"Hell of a leak." Nel whistled.
"It was, and it didn't make sense.” He poked the bar with a finger, leaning in to emphasise it before he slouched back onto his elbows. “There had to be a way the police were getting in so far ahead of the boss, ahead of all this planning and paying and moving. So, eventually, I get a visit from a guy I haven't seen before. A big fucker, six foot and change, nasty scars about his face from some old scores, would spook you if you met him in an alleyway type."
"The enforcer – he who takes care of problems."
"I thought you weren't a problem?" She arched her brow with the question. She could hear the rain hard on the windows now, the rest of the world cut off from his tale.
"I wasn't." Magnus laughed. "But they knew they had a big one, and I had the best overview of what had been going on in court. So Sam, my new friend, wanted to go over what I knew and what we could figure out."
"And you knew Sam?"
"I knew of him, from payments and the like. Face like that gets you a reputation ‘round the city."
"Yeah, you'd probably remember it." Nel nodded, lips curling at the thought.
"He's put more than one in the ground. Nothing's stuck: he's been in court and made it back out of two murder charges."
"Nice guy to know."
"A useful one, though nice isn't what I'd call him. But he showed up at my flat, with whisky I might add, and said he wanted to run through what I had, see if he could make anything of it. See if he could help the boss figure it out."
"More sensible than you think – the boss and him are together. Partners in more than crime. If the boss has a problem, then so does Sam."
"Could have been – Sam and the boss go way back. Been together easy fifteen years, probably more. Very legit, and very private, but their business is their own and I wasn't going to judge." Magnus shrugged, knocking the rest of his drink back. "Another."
"So, you and Sam drank and chatted?" Nel asked, wondering if she could sneak a drink for herself while he was talking. It was after closing, technically, but she couldn’t shutter up while he was in. The continued quiet of the street and the solitude of the bar were starting to creep up her spine, she felt like there were eyes on her skin.
She passed him his new drink.
"Oh yeah, we did all that." Magnus nodded. "We sat in my flat and worked over every case there had been in the last eight years, then over the past few months when they'd been particularly badly hit. Worked out that the only common theme was the gang, and that there was only a handful of them that could know about all of it."
"And you," Nel reminded him.
"Not even me – I only knew about the court cases, not about the set ups. I had no insider info, except how often I got paid."
"Then what was the plan?"
"The plan was that we were to go over this with the boss. And that was fine, really, I was cool with that as far as things go. I was already in - I wouldn't be getting off any worse."
"Didn't go so well though?" Because you didn't sit and drink yourself silly alone after a good meeting.
"It went great, we narrowed it down to about five folk, not including the boss and Sam."
"I feel a 'but' coming."
"But, Sam spilled a drink over himself in the flat and changed his shirt. You know any Latin?"
"Not even a little bit," she said with a sheepish laugh. She thought she heard a sound outside, footfalls or maybe someone unpacking a wagon. It was a bit late for that, but some of the shops up the way did food so maybe there was a big order in? She was shaken from the thought by Magnus continuing.
"Court reporters get to know a fair bit of it – lots of it still used in the courts, by the Sheriff's and in pleadings. You pick things up, maybe get an interest, maybe start to learn a few bits yourself here and there. Sam, he has a tattoo you see. It's on his ribs, part of a bigger design, and it has Latin in it. 'Uirtute spes', in valour there is hope." Magnus laughed to himself, sipping the whisky quickly again.
"You going to enlighten me?" Nel asked, brows high again.
"Well, 'in valour there is hope' is an old police phrase. Started off in America really, after a woman officer was jumped and shot in an ambush. Nasty business all that. But it's an odd tattoo for a gang member to have. Could lead to lots of confusion."
"That he liked the police?"
"Not that he liked them, no," Magnus said, setting the glass down. He moved the glass around on the bar surface, skimming the ring of condensation about until it evaporated away. "Traditionally, you only get that if you're in the police."
"But your man was a gang enforcer. That's a hell of a job change." Those heavy footsteps rattled past again, boots she could hear over the rain.
"It would be, wouldn't it?" Magnus hummed, smirking to himself. "It'd mean your face was recognised on the beat and you'd be watched all the time. It'd make you a terrible member of a gang. An even worse one to be in a relationship with the boss. Ever heard of something called Operation Countryman?"
Nel shook her head, unsure what was going on outside. There was still no traffic and the footfalls had stopped. The door huffed, again, like someone was pushing it to come in, but nothing. There wasn’t the tell-tale yelps of a scuffle, she knew those, though maybe the rain would drown them off.
"It was an investigation into the police. More specifically, undercover policemen and their activities in infiltrating political parties and the such. Eight officers investigated, no convictions, lots of hand wringing. Lots of activities carried out by the officers that was far beyond the scope of their remits, lots of illegal activities that never saw the light of day. Marriages and children to men that never existed. The cases against them just melted away like butter in a pan."
"So Sam was-"
"Careful," Magnus raised a finger up on the hand holding his glass, warning. "If those little red dots skimming over the optics are anything to go by, I think we're going to have our conversation cut short soon. Best not to know any more, Nel. My editor has a flash drive with the rest sat in his kitchen; it can be his choice what he does with it."
He smiled, slipping his free hand into his pocket and throwing down a clip of notes.
"That's a lot of money," Nel said, eyeing the stack like it would bite her. She could see the clip was fat, full. Magnus shrugged, nudging it to her and she took it, slipping it into her back pocket. She could hand it in to the office if he woke up regretting it in the morning.
"For your trouble. If you're lucky you'll only have to clean up the blood off your shirt." Magnus shrugged, knocking his drink back again. "Another. Make it the Scapa at the back there, the good stuff."
She took the glass from him and moved back towards the whisky shelf, her heart thudding in her chest. He was most likely spinning her a yarn, some bored waster looking for an excuse for a pretty girl to listen to him. Had to be.
She shrieked when the first bullet came through the window, a puff of splatter painting down her back and slicking her neck. She threw herself down, hands over her head, curling in on herself from the slam of more shots, of the door springing open, and the shouts of thick accented men pouring into the bar.
Rough hands grabbed her and pulled her from behind the bar, shouting for her to move, shoving her towards the dark hollow of the door.
She stumbled out and was met with flashing lights and a paramedic holding a blanket for her, wrapping in the awful foil shit they put round car crash victims.
"You're safe now," the paramedic soothed, running her hands over Nel to check for damage.
"None of the blood’s mine," Nel stuttered, looking about as if she could make sense of what just happened.
"There’ll be someone here in a minute to speak to you, to talk to about what's happened," the woman assured her, hands still squeezing firmly down Nel's limbs. She was dimly aware of another one, a man, in the back of the ambulance and moving things around.
"What happened?" Nel echoed, still feeling Magnus's blood dripping from the back of her hair. She heaved, relieved when she was handed a cardboard basin to aim for.
"It must have been very difficult for you, I know hostage situations are so intense, but they'll have someone here for you soon. I'm glad you're not physically injured, they said he was swinging a blade around in there," the man said, offering a bottle of water to her. Nels hands took it without her meaning to, gripping like she’d strangle it.
"They what?" Nel heard her voice repeating the words as a thrum of adrenaline sprung through her blood. She didn't want to be around police right now. She didn’t want to be here. "I really just want to go home and shower, can someone come and speak to me at home?"
"Not yet, darlin’, you were in there for a few hours so we'll need to take you in to get checked over. They'll want a counsellor to speak to you before you give your statement too, help with the shock. I'm sorry, it's a lot to go through on top of what you've already had to endure tonight. We'll do our best to keep the press away, last thing you want is a thousand questions from them as well."
She gave Nel a smile that was supposed to be sympathetic, or reassuring. Nel couldn't tell which and she could feel her heart panicking against her ribs, kicking like a trapped thing. She sucked in a breathe and nodded dumbly, wrapping the blanket tighter around her.
"It's a good thing they got him, you never know what a hostage situation can turn into. Guys get all sorts of strange ideas in their head when they've got a young woman at their disposal," the man behind her said.
"He just talked," Nel shot out, trying to hear it over the sound of blood in her ears. He had to be crazy. Magnus had to be wrong.
The female paramedic moved away and Nel saw an older man honing in towards her, scowling against the rain.
"I'm detective Foghey. I'm sorry we took so long to get in for you. It must have been terrifying, having him threaten you like that. We'll need to speak to you to get a proper statement once you've been cleared at the hospital, Ms Redmayne," he said, the same sort of smile as her paramedic framing his face. Nel nodded, watching him hover for a minute before the paramedic shooed him off.
"Can I call my partner, to say I'm ok?" she asked, trying to keep her trembling under control.
"If you let my colleague know the number I'll get someone to call them for you. They'll send an office to pick them up as well, if you want, so they can meet you at the hospital?" she replied, all sympathy, loading Nel into the back of the ambulance and closing the door.
Nel heard the lock snick into place and glanced to the man sat across from her. He gave her the same smile they all had, patient and vacant, watching her like she’d bolt. She folded down on herself instead, hugging her knees and feeling the wad of notes in her back pocket.
He'd never had a knife in his hands. There'd only ever been a glass.