Here’s a familiar scenario: two friends, finished with school, looking for work. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy—just enough to cover rent and maybe—maybe!—a car. In my experience, this kind of story leads to exhausting bartending gigs or grim retail jobs. But in Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow, it leads to debt collection. In his new noir, The Night The Rich Men Burned, Oliver Peterkinney and Alex Glass are tempted by a life in which the only thing easier than the money is the slide towards ruin. Read the prologue below.
He ended up unconscious and broken on the floor of a warehouse, penniless and alone. He was two weeks in hospital, unemployable thereafter, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that, for a few weeks beforehand, he had money. Not just a little money, but enough to show off with, and that was the impression that stuck.
It had been a while since they’d seen him. Months, probably. They were heading back from the job center, having made a typically fruitless effort at sniffing out employment. They went in, they searched the touchscreen computer near the door, and they left. Two friends, officially unemployed since the day they left school together a year before, both willing to do unofficial work if that was available. They bumped into Ewan Drummond as they walked back up towards Peterkinney’s grandfather’s flat.
“All right, lads,” Drummond said, grinning at them, “need a lift anywhere?” He was as big and gormless as ever, but the suggestion of transport was new.
“Lift? From you?” Glass asked.
“Yeah, me. Got myself a motor these days. Got to have one in my line of work, you know.” He said it to provoke questions that would allow him to trot out boastful answers.
Glass and Peterkinney looked at each other before they looked at Drummond. There wasn’t a lot of work among their circle of friends. The kind of work that let a man like Drummond make enough money to buy a car was unheard of. They could guess what was involved in the work, but they wanted to hear it.
“Yeah, we’ll take a lift,” Peterkinney nodded.
They followed Drummond back down to where his car was parked. Turned out to be a very respectable-looking saloon, not some old banger or boy racer’s toy.
“Well, yeah, got to keep up appearances, you see.”
Glass dropped into the passenger seat, Peterkinney the back. They were in no hurry to get anywhere, but this was too intriguing to pass on.
“Come on then, big man,” Glass said with a mischievous smile, “what’s this big job you got?”
“Well, uh, I can’t really tell you much. Shouldn’t tell you much, I mean. Hush-hush, you know.”
By this point Peterkinney was leaning over from the back seat, crowding Drummond, knowing he couldn’t keep quiet for long. Drummond’s mouth and brain had always been loosely acquainted, so things he shouldn’t say frequently slipped out.
“I mean, I suppose I can tell you a bit, but you got to keep it quiet, right.”
“Sure,” they answered together.
“I’m working for Potty Cruickshank. I’m one of his boys.” He said it with such pride, such force, that they both assumed it meant something. Then they thought about it.
“Who?” Glass asked.
“One of his boys? The hell does that mean?” Peterkinney asked warily.
“Nah, nothing like that. He’s, like, a debt collector. I go round and pick up money that people owe him. It’s all legit. Well, sort of, financial services, that sort of thing. Good money, real good money. You know how much I made last week alone?”
“Isn’t that dangerous?” Peterkinney asked.
“Not really, no. Well, now and again, but you got to be tough to make a living these days, guys, that’s how it is. How else you going to make good money?” Said with wisdom he presumed but didn’t possess. “So come on, guess what I made last week.” He was desperate to tell them by this point and unwilling to wait for a guess that might be accurate enough to take the wind out of his sails. “Six-fifty I made last week. Worked four days, couple of hours a day. Six-fifty. I’m telling you, it’s the life.”
They didn’t say much more to Drummond; just let him rumble on about how much money he was making until he dropped them off. They walked up to the flat Peterkinney shared with his grandfather, a poky little place you would only invite a real friend back to. They went silently into Peterkinney’s small bedroom, a cramped room with nothing in the way of luxuries. There was only one subject of conversation.
“Six-fifty a week he’s making. Him,” Glass said. “He’s making ten times what we make on Job Seekers.”
“Come on, it ain’t six-fifty a week. It was six-fifty in one week, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get it every week. And look what he has to do for it. How long you think it’s going to be before someone kicks the living shit out of him? His teeth will be down his throat and his money will be up the wall.”
Glass sighed. “All right, yeah, fine, but look at the money. He’s making good money. Even if it’s short-term, right, it’s still money. And he’s got to do some shitty stuff for it, but come on, you think we’re going to get a job that pays us that for non-shitty work?”
“I don’t think we’re going to get a job at all,” Peterkinney sighed, and slumped back on his bed.
A sentence he was tired of uttering. Glass sat on the chair in the room and tilted his head back, thinking about Ewan Drummond. No smarter than either him or Peterkinney, probably less so. No tougher when push came to shove, although he was bigger than them, which helped. He was no better connected than they were, which was to say that he hadn’t been connected to the criminal industry at all as far as Glass knew. Must have gotten his foot in the door without realizing where he was stepping. All of which suggested that employment in the business, and six hundred and fifty quid a week, was within their grasp.
Glass didn’t say any of this to Peterkinney because he knew what the reaction would be. Peterkinney would pour scorn on it; tell him he needed to get real. Peterkinney was all about getting whatever job he could, no daydreaming attached. That was fine by Glass; how his best friend had always been. A realist. They left school underqualified and stumbled together into a job market that had no room for them or interest in them. So they struggled along together, and were still struggling.
Glass couldn’t stop thinking about it, and that was really the point. People like Ewan Drummond were useful both in the work they did and the people they encouraged. None too bright and loaded with cash. He was a walking billboard for employers like Potty Cruickshank. A debt collector like Potty had a high turnover of staff, so that positive PR was worth its weight. Glass saw Drummond and knew he was at least as capable. Six-fifty a week, four days a week, a couple of hours a day. Think about it. The money, the cars, the women, the parties. Him and Peterkinney, lounging around doing fuck-all, waiting for some godawful nine-to-five that would pay them buttons and last six months if they were lucky. No, what Drummond was doing, that was real work.
It wouldn’t have mattered if Glass had known. Even if he’d seen Drummond lying on that warehouse floor two weeks later, it would have made no impact. He would have spent the previous two weeks thinking of nothing but the money Drummond was making, and working out how he and Peterkinney could do the same. Nothing, no matter how grim, was going to change his mind. That was the way to make good money. That was the best option.
“I’ll ask the old man if he’s heard of anything going,” Peterkinney said quietly. “We can go back down the job center again in a couple of days.” His grandfather was going to have a word with a friend at a packaging factory on their behalf sometime today, although that would lead nowhere as usual. Their names on a list for future reference.
“Yeah,” Glass said. But he wasn’t thinking about the job center. Wasn’t thinking about any sort of work that was going to be advertised. He was thinking of the world Drummond now inhabited. He was thinking of the money. He was thinking of the life.