Read Smokeheads Online

Authors: Doug Johnstone

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Social Issues, #General


BOOK: Smokeheads
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For Aidan and Amber


‘Freedom an’ whisky gang thegither’ 

Robert Burns


Blood roared in his ears and his heart thudded as he scrambled
across the ice.

Behind him, thousands of heavy shapes filled the night sky
and covered the frozen loch, panicked birds creating a mayhem
of flapping and crying. From somewhere amongst them a flare
sent fingers of violet light searching across the land. He ran on,
desperate to escape the nightmare chasing him.

He looked ahead for his friends, but there wasn’t enough light
to make anything out. He struggled to breathe as panic forced
him onwards, his legs aching and head pounding.

There was a low, heavy creak and the ice split up ahead, slivers
of black reaching towards his feet. The ice gave way under him
and he plunged into freezing water, the breath hammered out of
his body.

He grabbed and scratched at broken shards of ice as he went
down, the shock of the cold tensing his muscles and sending
spasms through him. His head went under and his face burned.

Thrashing his way to the surface with stiff arms, he tried to call
out, but his lungs were empty. He sank, gulping water as he went.

His body jerked as he tried to resurface. His chest was ready
to burst as he flailed and thrashed through jagged chunks of ice.
His head cleared the water and he thought he saw a hand held
out towards him.

He tried to reach for it but missed. He felt his body being
dragged back under, the cold sucking the life from him and setting
his nerves on fire.

Steeling himself for one last effort, he thrust his body upwards,
hoping the hand was still there, hoping someone would save him,
hoping there was a way out of this.

He pushed for a final time with every inch of effort he had
left, stretching his hands up and out of the water, searching for
something to hold on to.



‘What are we drinking?’

‘Take a guess.’

Adam looked at Roddy towering over him, upright and steady despite the wind. They always played this game, Roddy keen to catch out the supposed whisky expert. Adam examined the deep amber liquid in the glass as the wind swirled fiercely around them, the motion of the ferry making him shift his weight. Not the best environment for a tasting, but he stuck his nose in the glass anyway.

It was peppery, splashes of seaweed, a big hit of peat then something sweeter, maybe cinnamon. It would be an Islay, of course, given that they were on the boat to Port Askaig. Adam took a sip and let the spirit roll round his mouth, over and under his tongue, soaking into his taste buds. It was old, too much oak, vanilla and cocoa smoothing out the raw spiciness. It wasn’t any of the working distilleries, which left one option.

‘Port Ellen?’

Roddy smiled. ‘What age?’


Roddy sucked his teeth. ‘Twenty-seven-year-old. Single cask, limited edition 137 bottles. Set me back 320 quid.’

Typical fucking Roddy, he couldn’t give you a dram without letting you know how expensive it was. Typical of him to have Port Ellen as well, the rarest and most over-hyped Islay malt. That was Roddy all over, style over substance. Adam tried to curb his bile; he would have to stay calm on this trip if he was going to get what he wanted. He looked at his new watch and pressed the button.

‘Why do you keep doing that?’ said Roddy, glugging whisky and refilling his glass.

Adam hesitated. ‘It has a heart-rate monitor on it.’

Roddy laughed theatrically. ‘Really?’



Deep breath. ‘Eighty-nine bpm.’

‘At rest? Jesus wept, you’re a stroke waiting to happen. The last thing you need to be doing is keeping tabs on your bpm, Strachan, you’ll worry yourself to death.’

Adam started whispering under his breath – ‘Serenity now, serenity now.’ It had started as a joke from
years ago, Roddy comparing Adam to uptight loser George, Adam joining in the laughter so that he was part of the joke rather than the butt of it. Now he was George for real.

‘What are you doing now?’ said Roddy, peering at him. ‘Meditating?’

Adam took another deep breath. ‘Just give me a refill, will you?’

He watched his glass fill up. At least Roddy always poured good measures. Adam looked away and tried to imagine his heart pumping slower, his veins and capillaries easing and narrowing.

They were clear of the mainland now, the scabby Portakabin of Kennacraig Terminal gone from view but the brown-green stretch of Islay still just a shrouded fist of knuckles in the distance. In this open water they were brutally exposed to the weather: pummelling, icy winds, snowclouds dark as gravestones pressing down on them as their rusting CalMac hulk strained through the sea.

A snapping noise made Adam look up to see a frayed and faded saltire flapping amongst the ship’s rotating radar bars and brick-red funnel. He looked back out to sea, his eyes bleary in the bluster. The wind chopped fat lines of white froth out of the inky water and he had a flashback to last night, ill-advisedly sharing a couple of heavy toots with Roddy in the toilets at Amber.

The venue was another of Roddy’s wind-ups, the restaurant attached to the Scotch Whisky Experience, the tourist-trap travesty next to the castle with a whisky-making tour where you travelled through time in a ridiculous dissected cask. At least Roddy hadn’t made them do that. Actually, Amber was a pretty decent restaurant if you ignored all the tartan bullshit, which was impossible. How they’d ended up scraping out lines of Roddy’s top-drawer nose powder in the bogs, he couldn’t recall. Must’ve been hammering the cask strength. No surprise, given that Roddy was picking up the tab, keen as ever to demonstrate his obscene wealth to anyone in a five-mile radius.

Adam looked at Roddy now and winced. Tall and fit, wavy hair flicking in the wind, he looked like a Hollywood rendition of a heroic frontiersman off to tame the wilderness and win his bride, all square jaw, striking good looks and smouldering stare. Adam caught a glimpse of his own hungover self in a grubby porthole. Chipmunk cheeks and wobbly chin, balding head and a short, stocky body, red-raw eyes behind dated thick-rimmed meeja specs. He was six inches shorter than Roddy, but it felt like more. It was hard to believe they were the same species, never mind the same age.

A bacon roll filled his view.

‘Thank God,’ he said as Ethan handed it to him, Luke slinking behind and handing one to Roddy.

‘You clowns took your time,’ said Roddy.

‘Truckers, man,’ said Luke, as if that explained it. He slouched into a scuffed plastic seat bolted to the deck and chewed lazily. Adam loved the way Luke didn’t give a flying fuck whether he made any sense or not. Some pretentious bastards might aim for enigmatic; Luke managed it without realising. His lanky, emaciated body, rough beard, ever-present beanie and stoned placidity added to the accidental guru effect. He was gazing out to sea, then spoke.


Adam couldn’t see anything except the choppy waters and emerging peat moors of the island.

‘And young gannets.’

Adam looked again, thought he maybe saw tiny blades of white dive-bombing the surf, but couldn’t be sure.

‘Really?’ said Ethan, following Luke’s gaze.

Ethan was the most normal of them, Mr Average with his supposedly sensible RBS career-ladder computing job, new-build suburban semi in Gilmerton, conventionally pretty but conservative wife, Debs, and full range of Berghaus and North Face to keep the January cold out. He was average height, average weight and his brown hair was even in a carefully combed side parting, for Christ’s sake. Adam liked to be condescending about Ethan’s averageness, but who was the mug? Adam rented his tiny Abbeyhill flat, lived alone and still did a job he hated in the arse end of retail at the age of thirty-eight.

But this weekend would change that. The other three thought he was researching a whisky book, the same hypothetical book they’d been taking the piss out of since he mentioned it one messy night two years ago. Truth was, the book had stalled almost before it started. He couldn’t decide whether to make it a serious whisky guide, a novel, a memoir or a diatribe about the industry, and had given up months ago around page twelve.

No, he wasn’t here for a book but to get Roddy on board with the plan that was going to turn his life around. He’d spoken to the right people, done his research, worked everything out. Now all he needed was the backing, which was where Roddy came in. Adam was going to spring it on him tomorrow at the site he had in mind, hoping the spirit of the weekend would win him over. But he was nervous. He patted his jacket pocket, felt the reassuring thickness of the folded papers in there. He checked his watch. Ninety-two bpm. Jesus, he had to calm down.

He sipped his Port Ellen. Maybe he’d been a bit harsh on it. It was more complex on the palate than he first thought, heather blossom and tar battling it out, and the finish was pleasantly dry and smoky. Nowhere near his top ten, and wildly overrated and overpriced, but a decent dram nonetheless.

‘Hey, man,’ said Luke, noticing his glass. ‘Where’s ours?’

‘Cool it, hippy,’ said Roddy. He produced two more glasses, filled them and handed them to Luke and Ethan. ‘There’s plenty of this bad boy for everybody.’

Adam gazed at Islay approaching through the squally gloom.



Roddy gunned the engine with a shit-eating grin as they sped off the ferry and past the hotel and corner shop that constituted Port Askaig. As they rose steeply away from the harbour past snow-flecked pine and fir, Adam examined the car. It was a huge beast of an Audi, top of the range apparently, an embarrassing display of four-wheeled affluence. Roddy had insisted on bringing it to show off to the locals. At least there was plenty of room for the four of them and their stuff. Thank fuck they hadn’t come in his soft-top Porsche or high-end Beemer, both of which were nestling in the garage at his ridiculous Victorian mansion in Merchiston. Roddy made no secret of the fact he didn’t have a mortgage on the place, that’s what ten years as a fund manager with White Stone Investments got you, enough cash to buy the same postcode as J. K. Rowling, with outdoor hot tub and tennis court thrown in.

‘What are the roads like on this rock?’ said Roddy. He lurched the car forward to pass a whisky tanker on a bend, then selected the Killers on the futuristic sound system.

Adam gripped the dashboard. ‘Unbelievably bad, except for the main road south.’

‘Which is the one we need to take, right?’

‘We’re on it already.’

‘This is the good road? Fuck me sideways.’

Adam looked at the speedometer. They were clocking eighty on a road full of bends and bumps, twisting past small villages and farms.

‘Take it easy, will you?’ he said.

‘We’re losing valuable drinking time, Tiger,’ said Roddy, swerving to pass an old couple in a Honda.

Adam wondered if there was any ice on the roads as Roddy bombed past another car. Did they have a gritter on the island? They approached a junction too fast and blurred past a sign saying Port Ellen 11 Miles.

They scudded through Bowmore, past the distillery at the bottom of the hill and the strange cylindrical church at the top, then headed inland across flat moor. The road straightened and Roddy floored it, quickly reaching a ton. Adam checked his watch – Ninety-seven bpm. He looked out the window at a familiar chocolate landscape of peat bog and tussocky grass. Now and then they passed trenches dug by peat cutters, thousands of squares of the stuff piled up alongside the trenches like fibrous mud bricks. They passed fields of grazing geese, Adam pointing them out to Luke in the back seat.

‘Barnacle,’ said Luke. ‘Down from Greenland. Fifty thousand of them.’ He turned to Roddy. ‘Got any decent music, man?’

‘Screw you, hippy,’ said Roddy, looking in his mirror. ‘Aw, fucksticks. Adam, I thought you said there weren’t any police in this backwater.’

Adam turned to see the flashing lights of a police car right up their arse.

‘I said there weren’t many. Well done on finding one within fifteen minutes.’

For a moment it looked like Roddy was going to try outrunning them.

‘Roddy,’ said Ethan from the back, a tremble in his voice. ‘Come on, pull over.’

Roddy considered this for a long moment, then took his foot off the pedal. ‘OK, Mortgage Boy, have it your way. But I’m waaaaay over the limit if this clown’s got a breathalyser, so hold on to your fucking hats.’

They pulled over and sat, the Killers still blasting away.

‘Turn that off,’ said Luke.

Adam reached for the button and looked at Roddy. ‘Just take it easy, OK?’

Roddy stared at him as if he was a stroppy toddler. ‘Trust me, kiddo. When have I ever let you down?’

An officer approached the car. Roddy pressed a button and his window whirred open. The occasional snowflake fluttered down outside as the officer filled the window.

‘Out, big guy.’

Roddy smiled around the car as if this was all a huge laugh then got out with an exaggerated sigh. Adam leaned over to get a better view. The copper was big and mean-looking, tight muscle under his protective vest. Roddy was gym-fit, but this guy looked like he’d earned his physique in knuckle-fights or the army. He was a few years younger than them and Adam noticed a heavy gold chain round his neck. Was that police regulation?

‘Name and address,’ said the copper.

‘Is there a problem, mate?’ said Roddy, smiling like a visiting dignitary amused by quaint local customs.

‘I’m not your fucking mate,’ said the copper.

‘No need for that language,

The copper stopped at that and slowly scoped Roddy up and down. Roddy put on a big gleaming smile at the attention. The copper narrowed his dark, glistening eyes and smiled. Adam looked round in the car and shared a worried glance with Ethan.

‘A fucking comedian, aye? Just give me your licence and keep the one-liners for open mic night.’

Roddy handed over his licence and the copper walked to the squad car to radio it in.

‘For Christ’s sake,’ said Adam, ‘give it a rest, will you? You’re gonna get us all nicked.’

‘Relax,’ said Roddy as the copper returned. ‘It’s all in hand.’

‘Visiting the island long, Mr Hunter?’ The copper handed back the licence.

‘Couple of days.’

‘Business or pleasure?’ the officer asked, throwing a contemptuous look into the car.

‘I’m all about the pleasure, officer.’

‘Well, watch how you go, the roads are dangerous this time of year, especially the speed you were going.’ He dug a pad out of a pocket and began writing. ‘Here’s your ticket. You were doing at least ninety.’

Roddy looked like he was about to tell the copper that the real speed was three figures when Adam chipped in.

‘Sorry, officer,’ he said cheerily through the window. ‘It won’t happen again.’

The copper looked at him as if he was dogshit on his shoe then turned back to Roddy, giving him a hard stare.

‘Like I say, watch yourself this weekend. Islay’s a pretty wild place. I wouldn’t want you getting into any real trouble out here.’

‘Thanks for the advice,’ said Roddy, bouncing on his heels then opening the car door.

The copper watched as Roddy started the engine and revved off, spraying gravel behind them.

‘For God’s sake, Roddy,’ said Ethan. ‘You’re a magnet for trouble.’

‘Easy in the back,’ said Roddy as he raced through the gears and put the Killers back on.

‘I can’t believe he didn’t breathalyse you,’ said Adam. ‘Isn’t that standard?’

‘Fat fucking chance,’ said Roddy. ‘If he’d tried I would’ve had him. I could smell a whole fucking distillery on his breath, he’s more loaded than we are. I guess that’s one of the perks of being the law on an island full of whisky, eh?’

Serenity now. Adam made a conscious effort not to look at his watch as they headed past a tiny dreich airstrip then more expanses of bleak bracken.

Luke hunched forward between Adam and Roddy.

‘Can we
listen to some decent music, man,’ he said.

BOOK: Smokeheads
13.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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