Harsh lights hurt his eyes. Too much noise, the rising buzz of indignation from a swarm of different voices.
He braced himself, ready to swipe it all away, his top lip curling.
“Whoa, easy.” A hand gripped the crook of his elbow. “There’s a way of doing things, eh.”
Tension ached like a bruise; the ache threatened a breakdown. He sucked breath through throbbing teeth.
“Dinnae worry about it. It’s all right. Come on away.”
His voice boomed in his head: “Phones.”
“It’s all right. I’ll sort it.”
“I’m fucked, Davey.”
“All right, calm—”
“I’m fucked.” His baton clattered to the road. “I’m fucked.”
“You’re fine. Away and wait for us in the car, Kevin, eh? On you go, son.”
The car door shut like an airlock. Glass muted the bedlam. He looked at the blood on his hands. Remembered his baton, panicked and put a hand on the door, then saw Davey brandishing it, his own baton on his belt.
He slumped back in his seat and stared through the windscreen.
Closed his eyes. Forced himself to say it, mouth moving but no sound except the dry click of spit:
“I hereby do solemnly …”
And there she was, appearing in his mind’s eye—Nicola McKay. A petite, pie-faced lassie with a sunny personality, a cute little belly roll and soft cornflower eyes. He remembered the wet snap of Juicy Fruit and the wind-blush on her cheeks, her full-throated laugh that chased the punchlines of filthy jokes. And then later, behind the old coal sheds, against the greasy wall of the underpass, in the claustrophobic back seat of Big Darren Grant’s Fiesta, that laughter changed, became punctuated with fearful-sounding hitches of breath, wee noises that clouded the mind and encouraged the other.
Nicola loved the boys and the boys loved her—at least they stammered something like it in their vinegar strokes—but nobody loved Nicola more than Kevin Baird, and nobody loved her like him—at a distance, non-judgemental, with full and sympathetic interpretation of the slightest gesture. She was his everything, perfect in her contradictions, poetic in her lumpen sexual tastes. The romantic in him sketched out a mission of mercy—he would save her from herself, take her as his own, and she’d be grateful and changed forever—but the plot never progressed beyond a stained-sock fantasy, and Kevin spent more time staring idly at his decade-old Batman wallpaper than seizing his romantic destiny.
Then she disappeared. The rumour around school was that she’d taken up with an older man, skipped town. Her parents managed to maintain a perfect balance of worried sick and black affronted while the town gossip spun Nicola’s already seedy reputation into a saga of wanton promiscuity. By the time Nicola turned up three days later, spread-eagled on the waste ground by the old pit entrance, her throat livid with bruises, the rest of her violated and torn, the unofficial judgement was that it had been an inevitable end given, you know, the way she carried on. Nicola’s former boyfriends united in apparent grief, driven more by assuaging police suspicion than any real mourning, and Kevin knew once it was all over they’d toss the memory of her to that dark corner of the mind reserved for drunk decisions and impulse buys. But Kevin remembered. He collected what few newspaper clippings there were—they petered out quickly once Nicola’s reputation became common knowledge—and supplemented them with ratty true crime books from the library. By the time he hit his eighteenth birthday, Nicola McKay had become his Betty Short, the details merging with a raft of rape-murders to become an intricate black lace of promiscuity, disappearance and death. He knew in his heart he was partly to blame—if only he’d had the guts to act on his plan, he could’ve saved her, she’d still be alive—and he vowed that it would never happen again.
So the first chance he got, he applied to join the police.
… and sincerely …
“Going in for the polis, is it?”
Dad’s face buckled at the news. His bottom lip tugged at the grey hairs of his moustache, his eyes filmed over, and Kevin felt himself wither further in the old man’s esteem. Back in the day, Dad was one of Tierney’s lads, a young picket devil, stomping and gobbing and mule-kicking whatever crossed his path as the police frogmarched him from the line at Bilston Glen. Dad would rather catch Kevin with his hands down another man’s pants than see him choose the blue wool.
“You wanted us to get a career, so I’m getting one. Job for life, and thirty years I’m out with a pension and a lump sum.”
Mum chipped in: “He’s thought about it, love.”
Dad nodded, staring into the middle distance. No argument. No communication beyond that one dip of the head. It would remain that way through training and beyond, became an acknowledgement of a death in the family—no amount of paternal affection could make up for the fact that his only son was about to become a fucking polis.
It didn’t matter. Kevin didn’t need the old man’s blessing. His Mum was supportive enough for the pair of them, already sold on the idea of her boy in uniform, working a respectable job. Kevin quickly passed his SET, aced the MSFT—ten minutes dead on his mile and a half—skated through the interview, further vetting and financial checks, and finally crossed the threshold of Tulliallan sporting a cocky grin and high hopes.
Those hopes were met in spades. The training clicked; he was hungry for it. He made friends for the first time in his life. He met a girl—blonde, boyish, popular—named Holly. She held court in the McLeod Room, did wicked impersonations of their instructors and pierced wannabe lotharios with stiletto scorn. Kevin liked her a lot. She liked him too, mistook his passivity for inner peace and his apathy for self-esteem. Before long, they fell in together, a weird match for those who gave a shit about such things, but one that lasted long beyond the break-up sweepstakes.
The Royal Highland Fusiliers 2nd Battalion band led the new constables at their passing out parade. Mum came by herself, told Kevin she’d never been so proud in all her puff, and how much she liked Holly, what a nice girl. She made unnecessary excuses for Dad’s absence and took too many photos with a disposable camera, clucking and fussing and looking every inch the miner’s wife. It was embarrassing.
After the ceremony, when Kevin finally managed to get a moment alone with Holly, he took the traditional knee and proposed.
She said yes and became Holly Baird three months into the job. Other coppers said they were bampots—two police in one marriage never lasted.
Kevin and Holly didn’t care. They’d heard it all before. They knew they were stronger than that.
… and truly declare …
“I’ll tell you what this job’s about.” Sergeant Moss, a bluff former squaddie with acne scars and a whisky tan, scratched the dandruff from one ginger eyebrow and told it to his new constables as straight as he knew how. “Get a lot of young lads and lassies in here, they’re eager, they want to get on them streets, clean ’em up, rack up arrests, put the—whassit—perps behind bars. They get carried away, get themselves into trouble, because we’re not The Sweeney, are we? This is the twenty-first century. And police work in the twenty-first century is all about what? Community. And maybe that’ll mean chasing a schemie up a close once in a while, but the majority of your time is going to be spent forging links between the police and the community at large. You’re ambassadors. Don’t ever forget that. And don’t forget that it’s sometimes more valuable to observe and report than it is to risk your skin.”
Not what most of the constables wanted to hear, Kevin included, but time on the beat was necessary—he needed two years minimum before he could apply to CID. And he reckoned, what the hell, the beat constable was a community nanny, he could handle that no bother. Paper the cracks, soft-soap the proles for a couple of years, then he could get on with the important, career-making work.
Because the beat calls were nothing. Vandalism. Graffiti. Student parties. Some dog wouldn’t shut his yap. The guy in charge of stocking the Costa at stupid o’clock in the morning kept setting the fucking alarm off. A drunk took a shit in the Greyfriars Bobby fountain. A pissed-up Australian woman wouldn’t stop grinding herself suggestively against Pitt the Younger. A burglar put his foot through the ceiling after he tried to hide in an unconverted loft. Tourists asked for directions to attractions in other cities. Tramps—Bible-reading, dog-hugging, muttered requests for change. One black guy with a large pink facial burn avoided eye contact and recited his one speech—“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, I am not an alcoholic, I am not a drug addict, I am a decorated serviceman and I am homeless and I am hungry, please help”—in the kind of high, loud monotone that cried out mental illness and put a swerve in the step of those passing by. And everywhere you went, flyers fluttered on lamp posts—a pale, smiling girl in a thick coat, a lost student advertised like a missing cat.
Kaitlin, Katya, Katriona …
Kevin couldn’t remember her name. Didn’t need to. In his head, it was always Nicola and she was waiting to be found, just as soon as he made it to CID.
Halfway through her second year on the force, Holly fell pregnant. She acted annoyed—the kid wasn’t planned—but both parents-to-be knew that it was a blessing. The grind of the patrol had worn Holly to bones, so she grabbed her maternity like a lifejacket, trusted it to save her from terminal exhaustion. Their marriage suddenly bloomed after a fallow period of long shifts apart, and they promised they would wait until the birth to know the sex of the child, everything gearing up to that one perfect surprise. While Holly stayed at home, Kevin redoubled his efforts on the beat. As soon as his first two years came to an end, he filed an application for CID.
Hopes were high once more.
Then, twenty-six weeks into the pregnancy, came the catastrophe—there were no signs of life in the womb. The doctor gave them the odds—one in two hundred babies—as if it meant something, as if it consoled, and surmised that the cause of death was more than likely—forever hedging—placental insufficiency. Neither Kevin nor Holly cared what the phrase meant, only that it represented domestic devastation on the grandest possible scale. That word “insufficiency” festered in Holly’s mind, ravaged her even more than the induced labour and its aftermath. This pregnancy was the first time in her life she hadn’t excelled. More than that, it felt like an essential failure on her part. She didn’t want to see the stillborn; he absolutely had to. When the midwife brought him a little girl wrapped in a tiny blanket, he secretly named her Nicola.
The life leached out of Holly; she bled, lactated, wept. She nursed phantoms and grew sick, her skin translucent and her attitude ghostly. After six months of haunting the flat, she decided to move on. They were strong, she said, but strength wasn’t enough. She needed space, time away. His presence was a reminder of what she’d lost. He agreed, refused to make a bad situation worse. She left the flat, went to stay with her parents. She said she’d call, but she never did. Meanwhile he dreamed of Nicola McKay, staring at him with dew-dotted eyes, her skirt up over her waist, her T‑shirt ripped in half, her denim jacket open like angel wings. She was disappointed that he didn’t fight. And he awoke to a part-furnished flat, bare-walled and spotted black with mildew.
In those weeks, he caught himself crying a lot.
The answer from CID didn’t help—his application was rejected.
Not enough life experience, they said.
… and affirm …
Parked in a half-Battenburg down the Grassmarket, Kevin watched a group of lads in fancy dress troop out of WJ Christie & Sons. Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Superman, Batman and—obviously the groom—Wonder Woman. They passed a group of tottering women on skyscraper heels, their bright yellow T‑shirts proclaiming Lauryn’s Last Nite of Freedom. Some of the women sported sparkling mini bowler hats held on with elastic and L‑plates slung around their necks. The two tribes hooted at each other as they passed. There were invitations to intimacy, bellowed back and forth and capped with cackles.
“Why’d you join, Davey?”
“What’s that?” PC Davey Reid shifted in the passenger seat to look at Kevin. Davey was greying, balding and uncomfortably fat. He struggled to breathe at the best of times, sweated constantly, and when the spring nights turned summery, the car reeked of gas and armpits about twenty minutes into the shift.
“The force,” said Kevin. “What made you join?”
Davey showed a gummy, short-toothed grin, then acted serious. “Well, to reduce crime and the fear of crime …”
Kevin shook his head, looked out of the window. His gut knotted. Wasn’t in the mood for this shite.
“… and to promote confidence among local people that the police understand and are prepared to deal with the issues that matter most to them.”
“And make a real difference to the community.”
Davey sniffed. “Seriously? The usual. It’s a job.” He peered out the side window. “Disnae matter how shite the economy, they’ll always need a polis.”
“I don’t know.”
“Aye, they pay us sweeties, but it’s better than a fuckin’ giro.” He leaned over, jabbed a rounded elbow into Kevin’s shoulder. “Here, you ken what we should do, eh.”
“Get ourselves hurt.”
“Telling you, see Barry Flood?”
“I know him.”
“Got his twenty, time-served, right. There’s this fracas on Rose Street—some wee wifie’s claiming the Big Issue guy’s snatched her purse because he’s brown and she’s no’. Pure radge about it, effing and fuckin’ blinding, she’s getting all demonstrative. Anyway, Barry gets there, he’s trying to calm the situation, disnae want this to escalate. She’s no’ listening, so he decides he’s gunnae put hands on her, the daft bastard. She—and like, she’s tiny, this wifie—she grabs his thumb”—Davey held up his hand, thumb outstretched, and pointed—“and snaps it back to here.”
“Jesus.” Kevin buzzed the window to let in some air.
“Aye, but now he’s suing the brass for half a million.”
“Right? That’s what I’m saying, eh. He’ll no’ get the full whack, like, but fuckin’ the Lord loves a tryer. See, that’s what I’m after. Get fucked up, get a big payout, sit on my arse all day.”
“Do that anyway.”
“ ‘Cept this way I’ll be fuckin’ minted, won’t I? And you want to get in before everyone’s at it. Because see the way they’re working us the now, it’s inevitable. The fuckin’ six and three?”
“That’s not official.”
Davey counted it out on pudgy fingers: “Two early, two late, two night, four off. That’s the pattern. Anything else, I’m telling you, we’ll take it to the union …”
And Davey kept talking about the union, about the rotas, about “they bastards down south with their snouts in the fuckin’ trough” while Kevin slowly zoned out, watching as the sky bruised and the shadows that walked outside began to lose their way.
… that I will faithfully discharge …
Someone puked on the spot where the Zeppelins dropped bombs in 1916. Another took a piss where the gallows used to stand. Down in West Port, where Burke and Hare used to smother people for cash, Superman took a header into one of the large metal bins outside the tattoo place. All around, the men announced their inebriation and sang “Flower of Scotland”; the women countered with a car alarm rendition of “Umbrella”—ella ella eh eh eh eh eh …
A group of Geordies passed the car, wafting the smell of fish suppers. Davey sniffed like the Bisto kid. “I could murder some chips, me.”
Kevin’s voice was toneless: “Thought you were on a diet.”
“Aye.” Davey rubbed his nose. “Have to make do with a fag, won’t I? Hold the fort, son.”
Kevin glanced at Davey as he struggled to haul his bulk out of the car. It was a pathetic, unbecoming sight that ended with Davey’s arse smacking the door frame, shaking the chassis, and disappearing into the dark. Then came the flare of the lighter and the dip of the driver’s side as Davey leaned against the car.
So this was it, the pinnacle of police work—praying for a cloudburst to thin the herd of drunks while your partner copped a fly smoke. No good about it, no reason. Another rejection from CID that morning, the same old bollocks excuses—not enough experience, not enough time served, like he was some wet-eared, no-hope probationary. And all the while, Nicola taunted him with his inadequacy. He would never be anything, she said. He never was anything.
The noise was real, caught his attention, momentarily stunned him.
He heard it again, outside, across the road. It snagged his ear and hung on.
Kevin pushed out of the car in a hurry, looking for the source.
Davey turned at the sudden movement. “You all right, Kevin?”
“Aye, fine, Davey. Finish your fag.”
There it was again—a group of young men and women coming out of the White Hart. The laughing girl had her back to him. He crossed the street to get a better look.
Her pals clued her in before he reached her—she turned his way. Nicola’s face flashed across hers for an instant, then disappeared. Not her. Not even close. Eyes brown, hair darker; she was thicker in the lips and hips, a pig snout above horse teeth. Fear was her first expression, then disgust, and Kevin became aware that his fingers were digging into her shoulder. He let go.
One of the lads said, “What seems to be the problem, Officer?” It came out patronising.
The girl rubbed her shoulder, watching him warily.
He said, “These lads bothering you, Miss?”
An incredulous look, then she laughed—and Christ, it sounded like Nicola, it really did—and mock-frowned at the rest of her mates, her tone hard: “I don’t know, Officer. They seem kind of rowdy. It’s giving me the collywobbles.”
The lads cheered. She was posh, they were posh. English. Students, probably, with that enviable air of invulnerability, that armour of privilege. Kevin resisted the urge to shuffle his feet, reassessed the situation. They’d sensed weakness—he’d shown weakness, made a right fucking arse of himself, truth be told—and that balance of power needed to be redressed quick-smart.
As they waited for a response, the Joker tipped a quarter bottle of Bell’s to his lips.
It was all Kevin needed. “All right, hand it over, son.”
They chuckled at “son”, bristled at his tone. “You what?”
“That’s an open container.”
“There’s people with pints—”
“That’s bought on the premises and drunk in the designated areas. You’ve got three seconds to hand it over or pour it out.”
An “ooooh” went through the group. Joker sloshed the contents around the bottle, weighing up his options. He snuck a series of quick, daring looks at his mates, then, bolstered by their presence, necked the rest of the whisky in a one-er.
The rest of them cheered.
“All right, smart arse, let’s have it.” Kevin stepped forward, one hand on his belt, the other clamping hard on Joker’s bicep. Joker yelled at the touch, backed off.
Kevin shook out his baton, swatted twice across the back of Joker’s knees. Joker yelped and buckled. Kevin hauled him out of the protective knot of friends, felt a rush of air and adrenaline, smacked Joker on the hip, in the ribs—cracked one—and across the forearm that had jumped in front of Joker’s face. Followed it with a jab to the jaw, the nose—an explosion of blood—and the side of the head. That final smack put Joker to his hands and knees, whoop-coughing and spluttering red. Kevin stepped back and booted the broken rib, snatching a sharp collective gasp from the crowd. Joker rolled onto his back and wheezed. One of the other lads started to say something, but a look from Kevin balled the protest in the guy’s throat.
“What?” he said.
No more community bollocks. This was proper police work. The fake Nicola was in shock, but the real one knew the score. Maybe if they’d taken the rod to a couple of her boyfriends, they’d have found out the truth, like maybe Big Darren Grant got rough one night and throttled her in the back of his car, kept her in the boot three days before he dumped her. Or maybe it was one of the others, those hulking, testosterone-rife, libidinous lads. The popular lads, the ones with charisma. Maybe it was all of them. Kevin tried to tell the police at the time, but they didn’t care, didn’t take him seriously. Nobody ever did. Not Kevin. Not him. Never him. Oh no. Too busy laughing at him. Everything he did was inert, dead at the source, stillborn. He’d never amount to fuck all, this one. No real drive, no real life. CID didn’t want him. Nobody did.
He was Davey in waiting.
Then so be it.
This lot wanted to hurt him; let them come ahead, square fucking go. He’d take as many as he could and if he survived, he’d file a comp claim, live easy on the money. If he didn’t make it, so much the better. That way there was peace and Nicola—the old Nicola, the real Nicola, still whole and laughing and completely his—at last.
Joker’s gurgling rose in volume as he rolled over onto his side. The noise thickened into a retch.
Kevin moved to the next biggest—looked like a rugby player—baton ready to strike. “Come on,” he said.
“I don’t want—”
“Come on.” He drew back his arm. Daring him. One move. That’s all he needed to make this righteous.
“Whoa, easy.” Davey grabbed Kevin’s elbow. His other hand alternated between warning off the rest of the students and readying the CS spray just in case the warning didn’t take. “There’s a way of doing things, eh.”
Fake Nicola said, “You see what he did? You see what—”
“Dinnae worry about it. It’s all right. Come on away.”
“He needs a fucking ambulance.”
Kevin looked around; people watched through their phones. Witnesses.
Kevin said, “Phones.”
“It’s all right. I’ll sort it.”
He looked down at Joker. Something kicked him in the chest. “I’m fucked, Davey.”
Someone called: “Yeah, you’re fucked, you fucking fascist.”
“All right, calm—”
Jeers from the crowd, growing louder by the second.
“I’m fucked.” Kevin dropped his baton. “I’m fucked.”
“You’re fine. Away and wait for us in the car, Kevin, eh? On you go, son.”
He did as he was told.
He felt scraped out. His head hurt.
He closed his eyes and the world dropped away. The faint sounds of a fledgling riot echoed like television in another room. At his left side a bike rickshaw whizzed past with a couple of whooping drunks in the back.
Davey opened up the driver’s door. “You all right?”
Kevin looked dumbly at him.
“Dinnae ken what’s got into you, but there’s easier ways of claiming your comp.” He swallowed, stared at Kevin. “Nothing to worry about. The lad made a move. I saw it and me and you are the only sober ones on this street. We’ll be all right.”
“Stick together, eh. You stay here, don’t say a fuckin’ word, all right?” Davey shut the door and went to meet the paramedics.
Kevin sat, squinting at the blue flashing light outside the car.
Everything was going to be okay. He had friends. He had protection.
And for the first time in a long time, his mind cleared, his mood lifted, and he muttered the last of the oath he’d taken too many years ago, his benediction, the words running thickly in his throat like discharge from a burst blister:
… the duties of the office of constable.”