I didn’t have a hangover. There was probably something to be said about that. Judging by the crushed cans that crunched under the wheels of the morning traffic, and the shattered bottles of vodka and puddles of puke, I might be in a minority.
I sat in a small square in an intersection between two roads full of stuttering silver traffic, rolling a cooling Greggs sausage roll between my hands to warm them up. The morning air stung my nose as I stared into the windows of a shuttered JD sports. Someone had puked into the bin next to my bench, and there was a used condom hanging from the bare branches of the tree across the square, swaying in the light breeze like a pendulum filled with a slowly-dying civilisation.
I pulled out my new phone. I’d managed to find an early Samsung where you could still remove the battery. Not that it ever helped. 8:32. He was late. Maybe he’d been out partying the night before. The text identified itself only as “Barney”. Somehow I doubted he was as filled with cheer as the dinosaur my daughter cried at whenever he came on the TV. I wondered if she was a prophet, not for the first time.
He announced himself by mounting the kerb behind me in a grubby Fiat Punto, potentially silver underneath the thin layer of dust and caked-on mud. He also threw a filthy wave of water over my shoes. That more than anything got me on my feet.
I turned for the car as he laid on the horn, more for the benefit of the crawl behind him, who were already winding down windows.
I folded myself into the seat as he pulled off into the traffic. The Punto rattled alarmingly as he ran a red light into a blaze of horns.
“Easy.” I grunted across at him, struggling into my seatbelt. There was a pizza box at my feet that looked like it might have been there since the nineties. The car smelt of stale sweat and mould. I edged down the window. It squealed. The Killers played on low volume: “Mr Brightside”. I couldn’t identify.
“Hunter?” The kid asked. He wasn’t looking at me, eyes on the road as they should have been. His hands trembled slightly on the wheel. I felt a sigh die in my throat. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen. He still had acne scars in the cleft of his chin.
“Logan.” I corrected. I’d dealt with kids like this before.
“Hunter.” He insisted. I took a closer look at him. He was long and lanky, mixed race, with a mop of dark curls pulled back into a severe bun. The beginnings of a moustache sprouted from his upper lip like new shoots of grass. It wasn’t a good look. He wore driving glasses, steel-rimmed saucers of glass that probably would have got him liberated of his lunch money. For some bizarre reason, he was wearing motorbike leathers, and a thick brown overcoat. A gold stud gleamed in his ear. “You can walk if you’re not.”
I felt a sudden surge of anger. I hadn’t left my daughter to be talked down to by someone half my age. “People who know my name tend to end up in the ground.” I growled.
“Oh, I know.” He nodded vigorously. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Take it how you want.” I looked out of the window. It was starting to rain again, grey streets melting under a thin curtain of water.
There was an uncomfortable two-minute silence, broken only by the squeal of tyres and an early argument, drunken catcalling under flimsy umbrellas.
“He gets in tonight?” I found myself breaking it.
Barney nodded. “He’ll spend a night at the Hilton, then drive out to the lodge.”
“This a regular thing?” I asked.
“When he’s in country, sure.”
I knew all this already. I was doing what Rob referred to as sinking the Titanic. Nicole had gentler metaphors. And this appeared to be a hell of an iceberg.
Barney was sweating as we drove North out of the city, the terrain beginning to dip and undulate in valleys, hillocks and glimpses of distant lochs teasing us through the windscreen. I could smell sheep and wet grass. I took a deep breath.
“Everything in place?” I asked the kid.
“Everything you need.” He confirmed. We took a left turn and he had to meet my eyes for the first time. Deep, dark eyes that shied away from me like a rabbit from a fox. But they didn’t look afraid.
“Staying for the show?” I wasn’t sure why I kept trying to reanimate the conversation.
He shook his head. “Seen enough of your work.”
I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. I was aware that I had a following, of a sort. Like some sort of morbid twitter account. People who paid the big money that I never saw for my services. But I tried not to think about it.
The rain let off as we approached Loch Lomond, and the sun glinted through a faint rainbow between valleys. Neither of us smiled.
The cottage was a half-mile back from the lake, at the head of a muddy field where potatoes peered hopefully from the slush. We drove up a long winding drive, like a snake whose sides were made of waist-high breezeblock. I could hear cows in the distance, and a dog barking. But there was nothing on either side of the white-walled, two-storey thatch-roof job for a mile in any direction. A long low red farmhouse was the closest building, and judging by the caved-in roof, it wasn’t in operation.
Barney pulled up outside the front door, splattering the front of the house with a spray of mud. It could have been avoided.
“No central heating.” He said as he pulled a key from his pocket and thrust it at me. “Have to stoke the fire.”
“Very Dickensian.” I muttered. There was a woodpile leaning against the side of the house. Soaked through, no doubt.
“I’ll be back when it’s done.” The kid said by way of goodbye. I’d given up trying to make eye contact.
“And if I need anything else?” I slowly sank into the churned mud of the drive as I leant down towards the driver’s window.
“You’ll manage.” Barney sniffed, not sounding as if he cared either way. “Men like you always do.”
He splashed me with another mud shower as he left, my jeans soaking coolly into my shins as I tried to decipher the meaning behind his words. It was the strangest interaction I’d had since I’d retired Forbes. The new year could have gotten off to a better start.