Bad Debt

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CHAPTER One

A Robbie Munro Thriller

William McIntyre

Chapter 1

You could tell it was summer-time in Scotland by the longer intervals between the rain. It had started again. Fat drops splattered onto the page in my brother’s hand. When he’d finished reading, Malky tucked the soggy sheet of paper inside his jacket and ducked his head under my big black umbrella. There were more people graveside than I’d thought there would be. As a rule, the older you were when you died the fewer mourners you could expect. I stared down into the hole. Made you think. One day you were having the time of your life: drinking with your mates, watching football, playing golf. The next you were being buried or burned. 

I collapsed my brolly, stuck the spike into the ground and, along with my brother, stepped forward to receive one of the red cords the undertaker was distributing among the pallbearers. There were lots of us, but then we weren’t lowering a featherweight. Not in any sense of the word. Distant family members, old friends who’d dragged themselves away from busy schedules, even older friends who’d dragged themselves away from the Red Corner Bar, all took a cord. Last to receive was Sammy Veitch. A trip-and-slip lawyer, such was Sammy’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the defects in West Lothian’s pavements, he could identify the offending upraised slab even before you’d tripped over it. For once the wee man was clad in a sombre tweed suit rather than his usual Highland garb.

At the head of the grave, the minister droned on about life even more everlasting than his sermon had been back at the church. On his signal, we lowered the coffin into the ground, the thick hemp straps across the shoulders of the gravediggers taking most of the strain. Soon wood met earth. We let the red cords fall and stepped back. The man in the back-to-front collar stepped forward and stooped to pick up a handful of wet soil. As the dirt slipped through his fingers, there came a sudden stillness in the air, a flash of lightning followed by a loud clap of thunder. Someone up there was putting a No Vacancies sign in the window.

The service finished with a prayer, another roar of thunder and hailstones pelting the gathered throng. Many, like my brother, who’d been fooled by a bright start to the morning and come unprepared, scurried by us, casting soil into the grave as they went.

Malky and I were making our own departure, shuffling along, both trying to stay under the one umbrella, when Sammy came over, reached up and put a hand around each of our shoulders. ‘I’ll miss him,’ he said. ‘We all will. You can say what you like about the man, but he was a—’

‘Dodgy, corrupt old shyster?’ was my dad’s suggestion. He’d come forward to toss an excessively large clod of mud into the hole and watched it splat against a coffin lid already lightly dusted with dirt and gravel. He turned to Sammy. ‘No offence, of course. Sorry for your loss and all that. If you can call it a loss.’

‘Dad, you’re talking about Sammy’s business partner. The man’s dead. Leave it at that, will you?’

But the old man was on a roll. ‘Leave it? No, I won’t leave it, and don’t go thinking you’re any better than Eddie Frew the way you’re headed.’

‘And where exactly am I headed?’ I said.

‘Defence lawyers,’ my dad spat. ‘There’ll be no snowball fights where Eddie ‘Fix-It’ Frew’s going.’

My father’s view on the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial veered on the side of the lynch mob.

‘You’re retired,’ I said. ‘It’s okay to stop thinking like a cop.’

‘And start thinking like a crook?’ he said. ‘Like him? I mean, what’s all that about?’ He jerked a thumb in the direction of the minister, standing head bowed at the graveside. ‘I’ll bet the only time Eddie picked up a Bible was to check for loopholes.’

Sammy stepped between us. ‘That’s enough, Alex. Robbie’s right. It’s my partner’s funeral. You didn’t like him – Eddie knew that. He knew that and he didn’t care. Now why don’t you shut up and have a little respect for the dead?’

My dad snorted. ‘Respect?’ He turned on Malky.  ‘And you as for you. I might have known Robbie would be here, but I expected more from you. Making speeches about what a great guy Eddie was. Always there to give folk a helping hand. Aye, so long as they greased his palm first.’

Sammy had had enough. ‘Come with me boys. You’ll get soaked walking back in this.’ He manoeuvred Malky and me away from my dad and led us in the direction of a man in morning dress who was waiting by one of two black limos, seemingly oblivious to the downpour.

‘I’m sorry about that, Sammy,’ I said, once the three of us had clambered into the back seat. ‘I’ll have a word with my dad later. Get him to apologise properly.’

Sammy, in the middle, turned to look at me. ‘It’s okay, Robbie. Me and your dad have always been sound. He never did like Eddie much, though,’ he added, rather understating the obvious. ‘Your old man and Eddie had too many run-ins back in the day. Eddie used to say your dad could make a bachelor confess to bigamy. Don’t worry, we’ll patch things up later over a dram.’ He smiled. ‘And Alex is right about one thing. Eddie was as bent as a Brexit banana. He was also as rude as hell to the punters. I could never understand why they flocked to him. There’s me, buzzing about like a blue-arsed fly, chasing business all over town, while he just sat there, fighting off the clients. And as for legal aid? Not a chance. Cash was always king with Eddie.’

Like anyone who had known the late Eddie Frew, I couldn’t disagree. A reputation was everything in criminal law. Especially a bad one. Some clients didn’t want a straight-shooter. They wanted someone they thought would bend the rules in their favour, and Eddie ‘The Fixer’ Frew would bend them, break them and scatter the pieces about the courtroom if necessary, just so long as the money was right.

Sammy leaned across and patted Malky on the knee. ‘By the way, I should have said earlier, thanks for coming and saying a few words, big man. It would have made Eddie’s day knowing you were here.’

Come to think of it, why was my brother here? Sammy was the deceased’s former business partner. A few of us local solicitors had pitched up out of professional courtesy. My dad had probably come along just to make absolutely certain Eddie was dead, and I suspected the large contingent from the Red Corner Bar had a lot to do with the free drink that was being laid on back at their local, courtesy of Frew & Veitch. But my brother? Was football legend Malky Munro, radio pundit and after dinner speaker, doing guest appearances at funerals now?

‘I’m here because Eddie asked me to come,’ Malky said.

According to reports, Eddie had died from a massive heart attack. Dropped dead while on a visit to Queensbury House, a 17th Century building renovated and integrated into the Scottish Parliament, where politicians and guests downed tax-payer-subsidised liquor. It was the equivalent of the old boys’ clubs and smoke-filled rooms of yesteryear, where affairs of state were discussed. Except these days there were a lot more women and a smoking ban. Many was the time Big Eddie Frew, a staunch unionist, had said he wouldn’t be seen dead in the place at the foot of the Royal Mile. He was wrong about that. He’d been seen very dead. Dropping like the pound on the eve of Brexit, dram in hand and never spilling a drop. There would have been no time for him to call Malky before he hit the floor.

‘When did he ask you?’ I said.

Malky scratched his jaw. ‘Would have been a few years ago now. Remember that time someone broke in and stole my Cup medal?’

How could any of us forget the wailing and gnashing of teeth that had followed? Or the fact that out of all Malky’s trophies, that medal was all the more important because he’d scored the winner? A goal that had gone down in Scottish football legend as either the best or the luckiest cup-winning goal ever. An opinion that varied depending on the tint of the spectator’s spectacles, light blue or shamrock green.

My brother looked out of the window at a West Lothian that was getting wetter by the minute. ‘Eddie... Well... Let’s just say he arranged for me to get it back and wouldn’t take any money for it. All he asked was that I do him a favour. I thought he wanted a signed shirt or tickets to a game or something, but, no, he said to me, “When I die, say something nice about me at my funeral.” I thought he was joking, but here I am.’

‘Sounds like Eddie,’ Sammy said. ‘Sometimes I think he made more money out of court, than he ever made in it. He had the Scottish Parliament to thank for that, even though he hated the place. Closing all those police stations and turning the bizzies into call centre operatives. What did that lot in Holyrood think was going to happen?’

I knew what he meant. Close hospitals and there’d be fewer admissions, but people didn’t suddenly stop getting ill. They looked for cures elsewhere: old wives and witch doctors. It was the same with police stations. For some Eddie Frew was a justice medicine man – the cure to a failed system. It made sense in a twisted sort of a way. If you had serious people on the books, and Eddie had a client bank of some top-notch villains, why not hire them out? Someone stole your motor? Assaulted you? Maybe just a noisy neighbour? The police don’t want to know, neither does the Council, so why bother to report it? Go see Eddie Frew. He knows a guy, who knows a guy. For a price, you’ll get justice. Proper justice, without all the hassle of court and definitely no witnesses – at least none that will speak up.

Sammy was ten years Eddie’s junior. Eddie had taken him on as a legal apprentice, and for years the pair practised in their hometown of Linlithgow, before deciding there was not enough business. So they’d diversified, opening offices in Edinburgh and Bathgate, with Eddie chasing the private money, Sammy chasing ambulances. Eddie had made a lot of contacts over the years, both high and low. He could eat at anyone’s table. He had a map of where a lot of bodies were buried and was never afraid to exhume a few. Eddie always knew somebody who knew somebody. And the other somebodies those somebodies knew, were not the kind of somebodies you’d want to meet up a dark close. 

‘All the same, you must have done all right out of it,’ I said to Sammy. ‘You were in partnership for how long?’

Sammy thought about that. ‘I’m sixty-four, so it must be getting on for forty years. Not that there was a lot in it for me. I fed off the crumbs from Eddie’s table. He did occasionally pull a few strings for me, but we ate what we killed and shared overheads. After his illness, Eddie was very choosy and only took on a few new clients.’ The richest few, I guessed. Sammy tugged at the seat belt and strapped himself in. ‘Eddie might not have liked your dad, but he was Malky’s biggest fan. Never missed a game. And he had a soft spot for you, too, Robbie.’

‘I hadn’t realised he was such a good judge of character,’ I said. ‘Unlike my dad.’

Sammy laughed. ‘Och your old man’s all right. Dead proud of the pair of you he is.’

‘Hides it well in my case,’ I said.

Sammy leaned forward to give the driver some directions. ‘What do you expect?’ he said, reclining again. ‘Your old man was a cop for thirty odd years, doing his best to get folk banged-up. Then you come along and start getting them out. But remember, he’s still your dad.  You don’t judge a man like Alex Munro by his words. You judge him by his actions, and he’d never do you a bad turn, no matter how much he complains.’

The rain was still hammering down when the limo pulled up outside the Red Corner Bar. As the three of us alighted and hurried into the pub out of the rain, Sammy put a hand on my shoulder.

‘I’m having to wind up Eddie’s side of things,’ he said. ‘Once I’ve finished off his work in progress, the accountants will do the rest so that Wilma and the kids get what’s due to them. He was semi-retired, and there’s not that much to sort out. Most of it I can handle myself, but…’

I wondered why Sammy thought it necessary to confide his business affairs in me. I was soon to find out.

‘I’ve got a wee favour to ask you, Robbie,’ he said, as, single file, we followed in Malky’s slipstream, forcing our way through the crowd of happy mourners, on the scent of free whisky. ‘Eddie’s got this jury trial set to start soon—’

‘How soon?’ I asked, sensing the direction things were going.

‘Day after tomorrow.’

‘Wednesday?’

‘Or possibly Thursday. Has to be called-in by Friday or it’ll time-bar. Who knows? It might not even start.’

That was the trouble with jury trials; they seldom started when you thought they would. When they didn’t, you were left with a diary like a desert. When they did, it meant you were tied up for days. For a one-man-band like mine it caused havoc with the business calendar.

‘It’s in Livingston,’ Sammy said. ‘Your stamping ground. The case has dragged on for nearly a year. I know there’s not that much time to prepare, but I thought you could maybe step in.’ He sensed my hesitation. ‘Honestly, it’s a great defence.’

I’d heard the it’s a great defence line many times. It was usually followed by it’s very straightforward, and shortly before I was presented with the sort of thing Wile E. Coyote might gift wrap for the Roadrunner. ‘I’d like to help, Sammy, honestly, but—’

‘I’d owe you one, Robbie, and, seriously, you’ll thank me for it. I’m almost tempted to do it myself, but I’ve done no criminal work for years. I couldn’t find a jury in a courtroom these days, and Eddie would want me to instruct someone who knows what they’re doing. You’d have been his first choice.’

While flattery has been known to work on me, this was one of Eddie Frew’s clients, and I was sure Eddie’s clients had expectations of acquittal directly proportional to the size of fee they paid. Just as I was sure they would not be magnanimous in defeat.

‘Of course, he’ll do it,’ Malky said. He was of the same view after he’d barged his way to the bar, scooped up three drams and returned to my side. ‘Come on, Robbie. How can you refuse a dead man’s last request while you stand there drinking his whisky?’

‘Strictly speaking it’s the firm that’s paying for the drink,’ Sammy said. ‘And the food.’

‘There’s food?’ Malky stood on his tiptoes and looked around until he spied a trestle table heaving with pies, sandwiches and sausage rolls.

‘Who is this pal of Eddie’s that’s in bother?’ I asked, after my brother had gone off in search of sustenance.

‘Simon Keggie’s his name.’

I knew the name from somewhere. ‘The MSP? The one who battered the housebreaker?’

‘He’s not an MSP. He’s Provost of West Lothian. That’s not to say he wouldn’t like to be an MSP. He stood in the election last year. The trouble is he’s a Tory.’

I wondered why he’d even bothered. A Tory candidate in Linlithgow running for Parliament had about as much chance as Long John Silver running for a bus. In recent years the constituency had become an SNP stronghold, and before the Scottish Parliament, Tam Dalyell of Scottish Labour had been MP for over twenty years. Although there had been a recent Tory resurgence, they were still a long way short of the mark.

There was also the fact he was charged with assault the week before the election.’ Sammy shook his head sadly. ‘I really thought Keggie might have been in with a shout this time. The Labour candidate didn’t know if he supported Karl Marx or Groucho Marx, and Simon Keggie is well-liked as a councillor. Very hands on. He’s old school, and I don’t mean old private school. Keggie went to Linlithgow Academy and he used to work for a living, and he lives locally. He’s a man of the people.’

There were no prizes for guessing who Sammy had voted for. Tories wore kilts too.

‘This has been a party-political broadcast on behalf of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party,’ I said. ‘But you’re right. Being charged with assault on the eve of the election wouldn’t have helped his cause. Anyway, I thought the case would have been well over by now.’

Sammy necked his drink and looked around for another one. ‘Simon was an old pal of Eddie’s, and he was determined to get him off.’

‘When you say Keggie was an old pal of Eddie’s…’

‘Don’t worry,’ Sammy said, reading my mind. ‘This is Eddie Frew we’re talking about. He didn’t do mates rates. The fee is all sorted out with the client.’

‘How much?’

Sammy relayed the sort of hourly rate with which we at Munro & Co were entirely unfamiliar but would very much have liked to become better acquainted. ‘Two-thirds for you, one for me,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to wet my beak.’

For a legal aid lawyer, even two-thirds of the figure quoted was beyond the dreams of avarice.

Sammy moved closer, putting a hand on my shoulder. ‘What do you say, Robbie?’

I looked at him through the fog of pound signs swimming before my eyes. There wasn’t much I could say, other than, raising my glass, ‘Here’s to Eddie.’


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