Old friends took tea at a pub, one bald, one gray, and each a friend of Mick’s. The third hour ran to treachery, as third hours will where tea is a figure and old is only literal.

“A’ve got the keys to Mick’s flat,” said Ya Bas through a slush of Famous Grouse. “He asked me to watch it while he’s away. Let’s go rob the place.”

No firm no, the frown drawn atop a smile. “We’re bosoms, you cunt,” Shane said. “Steal from a friend? Anyway we’re no burglars. We’re ruffians out of Maryhill in semi-retirement. That’s a whole different set of skills.”

“But it’d be funny, aye.”

A sip, a savour. Bottoms up. “Let’s go rob the place.”

No need for fare: a walk saw it done, fifteen minutes up Byres Road and University Avenue with a left just past the crest into the tenements. The flat was top floor in a listed row, each flight of the stairway a jagged chute. The climb took wind that the stroll had not. Doubled on the landing, Shane said, “Bastard,” and again. Ya Bas probed at a mortise lock. It was the right key, but with so fat a bit, silence took a hand that knew the knob. No door came ajar below.

“Neighbours must be off as well.”

“Or stone drunk.”

“Piss deaf.”

“West End wendies.”

Graceless, but done. “A whisky cabinet in the welcome hall,” Shane said. He had never seen inside before. “It’s Mick’s place all right.”

Glass was soon in hand, or two in two, Bunnahabain 18 Year, neat. The peat drew winces but that was the steepest bottle and there was the principle. Tossing the domicile with a right hand committed to the drink slowed the pace a bit. Pulling out a drawer, contents sown on the duvet cover, Shane said, “Nae pornography—aw that’s just bizarre. Maybe he’s a secret poof.”

Ya Bas had put on a Panama hat, Mick’s summertime pomp, weather permitting.  The crown rattled loose on his smooth and tapered head. “Were it so there’d be porn. And you miss the obvious here. Wank is electronic now. Nobody keeps magazines.”

“A keep magazines.”

“You’re gray on top and slow to adapt.”

“A honour tradition. A video streaming platform? Are we a lot of randy cyborgs?”

“Anyway if there’s poofsign in here it’s this straw hat. Fiddle-dee-dee.”

Shane fished the loot. Up between forefinger and thumb came a length of surgical tubing. It had been coiled and tucked among a deck of washcloths. “For a spike?”

Ya Bas said the word back with a happy gleam. “Some older cunts, they have issues. Half mast inhibitions, as Charles Mingus put it. But there’s way to shore up the colours. Seems you loop against the scrotum, aft the testicles, first with the overhand tie—”

The tubing had flown. Shane poured on 18 Year to disinfect. “There’s a dearth of vices. Bevvy, a rig for mince, but no character. As though Mick has no inner self.”

“He may want for our multidimensionality.”

Within an hour they had the place stuffed to the eaves with smut, through a call to a courier at Deliveroo. The filthiest imaginable, they had specified; every human ilk; barnyard animals, if doable, for a gratuity; and fortunately the toss had flushed out a debit card. Into the drawers went the magazines, whether desk or kitchen. Under the bed, over the coffee table, into rehung picture frames. A snap of grandma in WAC uniform had become a duel of charcuterie at an orchid. The intercom rang again.

“That would be the cocaine,” Shane said.

True, a debit card would not front that sort of purchase, not typically, but Shane knew people. He was a people. The intercom rang yet again. Ya Bas saw in the escort.

“What shall it be?”

“Use this gimp mask, for going incognito,” Shane said, “and please, trousers aff.”

“Bents are extra.”

“We’re gentlemen,” Ya Bas said. “This is for posterity.”

“Posterity is extra.” Her joke, not mine. Give a lady credit.

“Debit OK?”

She used a card swipe dongle. Soon the photo was staged: every toothbrush in the cup headfirst up an arse. “That’s from urban legend,” said the escort on the snap.

Ya Bas raised a tumbler. “Confirmation bias.” On picking up his own Shane, otherwise playing photojournalist, lent the clink. There were other defilements—bars of soap, bath towels, doorknobs, the landline headset—each duly logged on phone cam for future bulk e-mails and posting on social media.

“Randy cyborgs,” Shane said, once their model had left. “We’d best call the movers.”

“Movers tell tales,” said Ya Bas. “They take photo ID and a signature. And it’s the weekend coming up. What we need is a team of corner neds.”

“For man’s work? It’s two flights of stairs, mate—the worst flights A’ve ever set eyes on. Just revisiting the climb in thought alone gives me a terrible thirst.”


“Nae mair of that Teuchter bog malt. Naw, A’m in a cold spirit. Grouse, rocks.”

“We could pay the neds out in charles, aye.”

“Bite your tongue.”

Ya Bas went to the freezer for ice but came straight back. “Mick’s got hands in there. A stack of amputated human hands in clear zipper bags.”

This Shane had to see. “That’s diabolical. What’s the purpose?”

“There are dates on in Sharpie, and initials, so A assume it’s a matter of vocation.”

“What fuckin use is a frozen human hand? Is there any ice?”

“They’re all lefts,” said Ya Bas, handing back a tray of cubes as he rifled through.

“Ah. Witchcraft then.”

“That’s a hobby, no a profession.”

“A’d assume any form of clergyman draws a check.”

“We’re letting all the cold air out.”

Ya Bas skated hands into an array atop the counter, one by one.

“Aye,” Shane said. “All lefts.”

“No this last. My mistake.” The hand, a stout right, clattered like a patty out for thaw.

“That’s eleven.”

Ya Bas made a lookup on his phone. “Ah—see? This puts left-handedness at ten percent of the population. That correlates inversely with what we see here.”

“That’d be nine and one, no ten and one.”

“Roughly, should have said, but within a plus or minus for sampling error. Here’s what A think. In each case Mick took inessential hands. That means whoever these lads are—and there’s no misread of hair on a knuckle—they still needed their dominant grip.”

“Aha—for signatures, perhaps.”

“The very thing! So they’re alive yet. It’s no a murder racket. Extortion is my guess. Coercion with a grim spectacle of violence.”

“Or for arrears—long arrears. A chop-off, that’s gone far for a wee shakedown.”

“But settlements won’t account for the inverse correlation. Plus if you want to frighten a cunt to payment, there’s nae advantage in mayhem, much less in singling out a non-dominant hand. Why no just have a fingernail, or a tooth, or smash a knee?”

“That takes me back. But why keep the trim?”

“A rich inner self,” said Ya Bas.

Talk fell to who would make the better amateur sleuth, and then to the best name for a cocktail of whiskey and cocaine, whether shaken or stirred. The Ben Nevis. The Cloud Chamber. The Bog Quaker. The Number One. The Rust Duster. Irish Ching. The Sneezy Pete. The Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Say Hello to My Little Friend. The Strathclyde Comma. The Ripsnort. The Llamashagger. The Irvine Welsh.

“That’s for heroin.”

“The choice is made.”

“A feel as though there’s something we forgot.” The intercom sang out once more. “Did you place another order, Shane?”

“Did you?”

“Pizza would have been nice.”

Ya Bas had buzzed the party in without question. They heard the long trod up the stairs and opened the door before the knock. There stood a dim young man, thick of neck, and his dim young pal likewise thick of neck behind. The first held a clipboard and a deadpan. The other tried to look hard, crossing his arms to make extensors ripple.

“Is either of you Mickey Batts?” The accent was Midlands, the snoot parliamentary.

“Who’s asking?” Ya Bas and Shane said at once.

“We’re case officers for TV Licensing.” On “officers” the two exchanged a glance. “Our inquiries have gone unanswered, so we’ve found it necessary to pay a visit.”

“We’re no the man of the house, neither of us,” Shane said. “We’re burglars, aye.”

Ya Bas gave his forehead a smack. “Rob the place!”

“Sirs. We have been unable to find out what we need to know through correspondence, so of necessity, here we are.” A full rephrase, as if the aging blood-eyed chavs at the door had not understood. “May I ask which of you is Mr. Batts?”

Ya Bas and Shane turned to one another. “Ever seen these cunts actually show up?”

“No in thirty years.”

“And after the fall of darkness. In Glasgow.”

The canvasser jumped in. “We had to be certain—”

No glance, no pause to the sidebar. Shane said, “Do you suppose it has to do with those cut-off hands in the icebox?”

“That’s on the nose, aye? But A take your point. There’s just nae chance. Oh, and we should get those back where they belong. They’ll be going soft by now.”

Mention of hands made the arms in back uncross. The agent’s face sought a camouflage in blandness. The other, no lightning rod, said, “Have a look at my ID, sir. I have the case papers right—”

“And however else,” Shane said to Ya Bas, “there’s the sanctity of a man’s home.”

“Impertinence. Eight-forty five at night. What if we’d been watching our shows?”

“Should we come back another time?” said the agent in back.

Ya Bas, on the turn: “Now’s good.”

Late in the morning the mortise lock came undone without a hitch. Here was Mick, briefcase in one hand, roller bag in the other, winded from the climb. They were all getting older. He happened to look across the hall to a frame of his gran. Without change to his expression he took note of the double dicking. The face was no less staid and affect-free as he saw his living room. Shane was snoring on a couch, Ya Bas on the rug, underneath the Panama hat. Two TV Licensing case officers, or were they, had been bound and gagged with duct tape, yes they were, and held fast to dining chairs with more of the same, four eyes swollen shut. On sound of footfall both had begun to moan, then to plead for help, through clipboard paperwork wadded in their mouths. Mick sniffed. Somebody had shit himself, or somebodies, though who, and whether it was desperate or recreational, was not yet clear. He looked to his pals, each a sleeping wreck, mercifully unaware as yet of a head that would throb, a tongue that would rasp, the cruel counterspin that landing from a flight of whisky would put onto the earth.

No firm no, the frown drawn atop the smile. “You pair of cunts.”

Into the kitchen he went, to fill two glasses at the tap. There would be ibuprofen in a bathroom cabinet, paracetamol, fizzy tablets, pink stuff, Vicodin. But first he thumbed the latches on his briefcase, laid it open, and added one more hand in plastic to the freeze. This one was a right.