‘Whatever was inside had to be extremely valuable. Extremely valuable and/or extremely illegal’
Extract from Present Tense
By WHS McIntyre
Published by Sandstone Press
Clients. They tend to fall into one of three categories: sad, mad or bad. Some people said Billy Paris’s time in the military had left him clinically depressed, others that he had a personality disorder bordering on the psychotic. Personally, I’d always thought him the kind of client who’d stick a blade in you for the price of a pint. Friday afternoon he was in my office, chewing gum and carrying a cardboard box all at the same time. The box said Famous Grouse on the outside. I didn’t hear the clink of whisky bottles as he thudded it onto my desk.
‘Look after this for me, will you, Robbie?’ he said. No ‘how’s it going?’ No small talk. Nothing. Just a request that sounded more like a demand.
A number of questions sprang immediately to mind. First up, ‘What’s in the box?’
With an index finger the size of a premium pork sausage, Billy tapped the side of a nose that was deviated considerably to the left.
‘You either tell me what’s in it or you and the box can leave now,’ I said.
Chomping on an enormous wad of gum, Billy walked to the window and stared out at a dreich December afternoon.
The big man clumped his way back over to my desk, wedged himself into the seat opposite and sighed. ‘Just for a few days, maybe a week, two tops. Definitely no longer than a month.’
The box was well secured with brown tape. I shoved it across the desk at him. He shoved it back.
‘What’s the problem?’ He tried to blow a bubble with his gum, failed and started chewing again.
‘For a start I don’t know what’s in it.’
‘It’s just stuff.’
‘What kind of stuff?’
‘You know. Stuff. It’s not drugs or nothing.’ Billy seemed to think I wanted to know what wasn’t in the box rather than what was.
‘Stuff? What, like guns?’
‘When did I ever use a gun…?’
‘All those Iraqis shoot themselves did they?’
‘I was in Afghanistan, and I’m a sparky. I was in the REME. I didn’t shoot anybody. I fixed the guns so that other folk could do the shooting.’
The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers was a fine body of men whose recruiting officer must have been having a duvet-day when William Paris took the Queen’s shilling. It had taken seventeen years and a commissioned officer’s fractured nose for Her Majesty to come to her senses and discharge Billy dishonourably from further service.
Billy rolled his eyes. ‘That was ages ago and I never got done for it. You should know, you were there. Not proven. Same thing as not guilty.’
It was the end of another hard week, and I’d promised my dad I’d be home to make Tina’s tea. ‘Listen, Billy. Stop wasting my time and tell me what’s in it.’
Billy held up a hand, as though swearing an oath. ‘No guns, no blades, no drugs. And nothing stolen,’ he added, reading my mind. ‘It’s just some personal things I can’t keep at my place.’
‘You’ve got a place?’ It turned out he had: a homeless hostel in Dunfermline.
‘It’s temporary. I like to keep on the move and I can’t leave anything lying about up there. The place is full of junkies. They’d steal the steam off your pish.’
I wasn’t buying any of it. Even a light-fingered Fifer rattling for his next fix wasn’t going to take the chance of being caught nicking from Big Billy. Not unless they fancied making the headlines next morning.
He sighed again. Hugely. ‘A hundred. I’ll give you it when I come back for the box.’
I gave one of the cardboard sides a prod with my finger. One hundred pounds to warehouse a box of personal belongings? If he’d offered me twenty I might have believed him. But a hundred? No, there was more to it than that. This was Billy Paris. I’d have to be as mad as he was not to think there was something extremely dodgy going on.
There was a knock on the door and Grace-Mary, my secretary, came in wearing her coat. She stared disapprovingly over the top of her specs at Billy and his box and asked me if she could have a quick word.
‘That’s me away home,’ she said after I’d followed her through to reception. ‘I’m minding my granddaughter tonight and need to leave sharp,’ she added, as though she wasn’t off and running at the stroke of five every night.
‘Then let me be the first to wish you bon voyage and God speed.’
‘You might not want to look quite so happy about everything,’ Grace-Mary said.
Why not? I was one client away from the weekend.
‘I’ve just had SLAB on the phone about last week’s inspection.’ Suddenly that Friday feeling evaporated. ‘They want to go over a few files with you.’
‘Files? Which ones?’
The Scottish Legal Aid Board’s compliance and audit inspectors carried out regular inspections of those lawyers registered to provide Criminal Legal Aid. Fraud was practically non-existent, but the inspectors had to justify their existence someway or other and were famed for their strict adherence to a set of regulations which, unlike the legal aid hourly rate, changed frequently and with little warning.
‘You know how they sent us an advance list of files they wanted to examine?’
I did. I’d spent much of the previous weekend going through those files, turning each one into a SLAB auditor’s dream, stuffed full of attendance notes fully time-recorded and in duplicate.
Grace-Mary winced. ‘When the lady from SLAB turned up on Monday you were out at court, or otherwise making yourself scarce.’
‘She gave me another list.’
Another list? I didn’t understand.
‘A different list,’ Grace-Mary clarified.
I didn’t like the way this was going. ‘But you wouldn’t have given her the files on that different list. Not before I’d had a chance to look them over.’ Which was to say pad them out with all the bits of paper the SLAB boys and girls wanted to see.
She sniffed and fumbled in her raincoat pocket for a scarf.
‘No, Grace-Mary, you would have told the witch-woman from SLAB that those other files she wanted were out of the office, in storage, destroyed by flood or fire, orbiting the moon or something. You wouldn’t have—’
‘I couldn’t stop her.’ Grace-Mary stiffened, buttoned up her coat. ‘I went out of the room for a moment and when I came back she was raking around in the filing cabinets, hauling out files.’
‘You left her alone in my office?’
‘I was making her a cup of tea—’
Tea? For SLAB compliance? That was like Anne Frank’s mum handing round the schnapps before showing the Gestapo up to the attic.
‘Yes, I made her tea. Why not? I make tea for all your thieves, murderers, robbers and goodness knows who else.’ Grace-Mary, my dad and Sheriff Albert Brechin shared similar views when it came to the presumption of innocence.
‘Firstly, Grace-Mary, those thieves, murderers and robbers you refer to are alleged thieves, murderers and robbers. There’s nothing alleged about SLAB compliance. Everyone knows they’re a shower of bastards. And, secondly, those thieves, murderers and robbers are keeping me in not trying to put me out of business.
Grace-Mary said nothing, just looked down at her desk and the small green tin box sitting on it. By the time her eyes were fixed on mine again I already had a one pound coin in my hand.
‘Why didn’t you tell me this before now?’ I asked, dropping the money into the swear box. It didn’t have far to fall.
‘I was hoping the files would be okay.’
‘Okay? Why would they be okay? You know I don’t have time to do a double-entry attendance note every time I meet a client for five minutes or make a trip to the bog!’
‘Well, if you’re going to start raising your voice…’ Grace-Mary yanked a woolly scarf from her coat pocket and whipped it around her neck, almost taking my eye out with the corner. ‘I’ve put the appointment in your diary. See you Monday.’ She strode off down the corridor performing an about-turn after only a couple of steps. ‘And I’ve put a bring-back in as well so you’ll remember that Vikki Stark comes back from the States a week on Monday.’
A seven day bring-back to remind me of my own girlfriend’s return from a trip abroad? As if I needed it. Vikki, legal adviser for a private adoption agency, was off on a two-week lecture tour of America. She and I were now officially an item. Our relationship hadn’t exactly been torrid thus far, our times together infrequent, interrupted by work commitments or with Tina there or thereabouts, cramping what little style I had. The last few months had been hectic for me. First discovering that I was a father and then having to try and act like one. Keeping a romance going on top of that wasn’t easy. So we’d been taking it slow.
Once Grace-Mary had bustled off, I returned to my room to find Billy Paris standing on my desk fiddling with the fluorescent light strip. It had been flickering for ages so I’d been making do with an arthritic, angle-poise lamp.
‘Problems?’ Billy asked, when I returned to my office.
‘Nothing I can’t handle,’ I said, wishing I believed that. ‘By the way, what do you think you’re doing?’
He jumped down and went over to the light switch on the wall. After a couple of practice blinks the fluorescent light came on and stayed on. ‘Your starter’s knackered,’ he said. ‘I’ve sorted it with a piece of chewing gum wrapper, but there’s nothing for it – you’re going to have to splash out fifty-pence on a new one.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, ‘and talking of money, I think you were saying something about two hundred pounds.’
The big man winked at me and his features carved out a grin, revealing teeth, most of them molars. At least he’d disposed of his wad of gum. ‘You’re a good man, Robbie,’ he said. ‘You’ll not regret it.’
That’s when I knew to say no thanks. If Big Billy Paris was ready to shell out two hundred quid for me to babysit a cardboard box, whatever was inside had to be extremely valuable. Extremely valuable and/or extremely illegal.
I showed him the flat of my hand. ‘But I’ll need the cash up front.’
Present Tense, by WHS McIntyre, will be published by Sandstone Press on 15th September (PB, £8.99)