Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Goldfish Heist

By Freewheelin' Jay Stringer

A friend recently reminded me of this story. I wrote it a couple of years ago for a competition by The Scotsman. I didn't win but it did get me published, and I got to meet with Ian Rankin and the other finalists. I also got my picture in the paper, which pleased my nan. Okay, it was only the back of my head, and the focus of the picture was the Rankin fella, but still. My nan.

Anyway. It got published, and that's about it. There's not much of an afterlife for these things unless they get collected somewhere else. But it's a story that I'm proud of, so I thought I'd give it one last airing before it goes to wherever stories go. Is there a retirement home for these things? Should I be scouting out the best care-package for it?

The Goldfish Heist.

“Big man, how can I tell if a goldfish is dead?”

“What’s it doing?”

“Well, it’s just sort of lying there.”


“Where is it?”

“Um, it’s in my hand.”

“Yes, it’s dead.”

These are the conversations you have with Cal when he’s high. He’s high most of the time.

Answering the phone got me a lot of dirty looks in the library, but it was raining outside and I didn’t want to get wet. I stayed in my seat, counting the looks I was getting from the bookish types. None of them would have the balls to call me on it, but they’d blog about it later.

Callum is the son of Mike Gibson, my boss.

Not a man to mess with.

“Okay, where are you?” Fixing Cal’s messes was my main preoccupation.

“I’m at my Da’s house.”

Damn it. Why did I answer the phone? Why does it have to be my problem?

“Where’s your dad?”

“He’s at work, I think, I don’t know.”

Here’s the problem: Mike Gibson, loan shark, filth merchant and owner of baseball bats, doesn’t own any goldfish.

He does have a prized collection of Koi Carp.

“Cal, have you killed one of your dad’s fish?”



“When you say it like that, it sounds bad.”

“Okay, sorry, but is one of your dads special fish now dead?”

“Umm. Yes.”

“When is your dad due home?”

“I don’t know, soon maybe. Joe, I’m cold.”

Oh god. Don’t ask.

“Cal, are you in the pond?”




Why did I answer the phone?

“I’m on my way.”

Cal, cold and shivering, was sat on the wooden deck chair in the garden, feet in the pond. Skinny little bastard, his skin was pale and his eyes sunken. He was wearing football shorts and a faded t-shirt, and he was blaring out tinny annoying music on his mobile phone.

I asked him what time his dad had left. I didn’t ask him why he’d picked up the fish, it’s pointless asking a smackhead why they’ve done something stupid. They’ll give you an answer but it wont be anything that helps.

“Uh, I don’t know, man. Like, a while ago.”

His favourite baseball bat had gone from his collection in the kitchen; that meant he was out collecting.

“See, I was thinking,” Cal said. “That maybe if we killed all of them others, like, da’ wouldn’t notice that this one was dead.”

He offered up the dead fish to me like a peace offering.

“I’m not touching that thing.” I brushed his hand aside and the fish flopped onto the patio.

“Cal, are you trying to tell me, you’ve killed one of your dads prized pets, and the only way you can think to make it better is to kill all of his other pets?”

“Well, I mean, we could fix it like a burglary, aye? Someone comes over the back wall, nicks some stuff, tv an’ shite. They killed the fish on the way out. To make a point, like.”

He stood there, grinning.

“What kind of a point is that then, to kill some fish?”

“I don’t know, burglars, man. They do crazy shit all the time.”

He had me there, I suppose.

“Look, Cal, you’re not going to do any good here. Get a shower and sleep it off.”

Why did I pick up the phone? Now this was on me.

Well, time to share.

“Baz, mate.” Barry had answered on the twelfth ring. He had a new girlfriend and, at any other time, it was funny how much touching they were doing. “Look, can you just put that girl down for five minutes? I need your help. What do you know about Koi Carp?”

Barry turned up 15 minutes later, with the lazy grin of sex. He had his laptop tucked under his arm, and a litre of vodka, ‘just in case’.

I took him straight out to the back patio. He nudged the dead fish with his foot.

“This is not good,” he said. “I think that one was Gibby’s best fish.”

“He had a favourite?”

“Yeah, well, its the same colours as Dundee United. He liked that one most.”

We both talked for a few minutes about all the fanciful acts of violence we could try out on Cal, but that wasn’t getting us anywhere near safe.

“You never seen what happened to the last person to mess with his fish, did you?” Barry scratched his chin and laughed as he told me.

“His name was Dave something, I forget his second name. He makes a whistling noises when he talks, because of the amount of damage Gibby done to his jaw.”

“Why did he mess with the fish?”

“Oh, it was accident. He was painting the wall back there, and some of his paint got into the water. Hate to think what he’d do to someone who messed with the fish on purpose. Where were you when Cal was doing this, anyway? Aren’t you meant to be baby sitting the wee shite?”

What could I say?

“I was in the library reading some big textbook about psychology,” is not something they’d want to hear. If they knew I was putting myself through open university to become a teacher, they’d look at me as if I’d just told them I was gay. And that wasn’t going to be happening either.

“I was getting laid,” is what I said.

Barry grinned and scratched his crotch. “Me too,” he said.

“So how much do these things cost?”

I was knelt over Barry as he searched the internet for information.

“Apparently,” he said, “ the word ‘koi’ actually means ‘carp’. So we really sound dumb when we call them ‘koi carp’.”

“I don’t care how dumb we sound. I want to know how much they cost.”

“It doesn’t really say. I guess it varies, there’s a lot of different kinds. I mean, these little ones on this site, they cost less than a tenner.”

“And Gibby’s carp?”



“They look like....ah.”

He shut down the lid on his laptop and reached for the vodka.

“What is it?”

“They look like the top breed, the real showy ones.”

“What we talking, twenty five? Forty?”

“You know when you visit a car showroom, and all the fiestas have prices on them, but, say, an Aston Martin doesn’t? None of these websites are listing a price for Gibby’s koi.”

I took a long pull from the bottle, before letting out a long sigh that turned into a swear word.

“Where can we get one?”

Barry lifted the lid on his laptop and did another search.

“Dobbies, in Paisley.”

Paisley? Why the hell did I answer the phone?

We parked up out of sight from the front door. Barry’s Fiesta is a better getaway vehicle than the number nine bus. Inside my coat I had a plastic bag full of water, the way you carry goldfish. It was a cold and heavy against my side. We walked around the garden bits first, playing it about as casual as you can when you’re thinking of stealing an expensive goldfish. They had wooden patio furniture of the same sort found in Mike Gibson’s garden, but I doubt he got it there. They also had some fun gnomes, the sort of garden ornaments that everyone wants, but nobody will admit. And some of those strange statues you can buy to put in a pond.

“You ever seen the point of these?” I asked Barry.

“The fountains?”

“Well not so much that. You want a fountain, that’s fine. But why would anyone want a wee little naked boy holding the fountain?”

“Its not a boy, its a cherub, or a fairy, or something. Like in a fairy tale.”

“You’re telling me you don’t look at that, and see nothing but a statue of a naked little boy?”

“Well, now that you say it. Damn, Joe, now that’s all that I can see.”

We found the place where they kept the fish, an aquarium section that was both too warm and too damp. Tanks full of goldfish, tropical fish and stupid plastic castles.

And a big fake pool full of Koi.

“Anyone of those look like the one we need?”

“Easy way to find out,” said Barry as he pulled the dead fish out of his coat.

I’d wondered what the smell was.

We knelt close to the waters surface and compared the Koi to the smelly thing in Barry’s hand. There was one that was the right colours, but the patterns were different.

“That’s not going to matter,” I said when Barry mentioned the difference. “ I mean, its not as if he’s going to pick it out of the pool and fuss it. It just needs to look close enough from a distance.”

“What do you think? I drop this one in, we pick up the live one, and then on the way out tell them one of their fish looks ill?”

“I don’t know, I can’t see a way of getting that fish picked up without drawing attention. We’d need a diversion.”

“What kind of diversion can we create in a garden centre? A runaway lawnmower?”

“Lets try the honest way.” I called over someone in the shops uniform. A gormless looking kid with spiky blonde hair and blood shot eyes.

“How much is the Carp?” I asked.

“Koi,” said Barry.

“Depends, there’s a couple of rare breeds in there. Which one?”

“That one with the tangerine bits on it, the fat one.”

The kid stooped low to look at the fish we were pointing at, then straightened up with a grin.

“That’s the rare one. A hundred, pal.”

It was the way he said it, that’s what annoyed me most. Like he knew we couldn’t afford that. If Gibson was going to be paying me back, a hundred quid would be no problem. But out of my own pocket? No chance.

“Any chance of a student discount?”

Barry flashed his student ID, 5 years out of date.

The blonde kid shrugged a refusal.

“Expensive, these carp.” I said.

“Koi.” The kid said.

We got the distraction we needed when I broke the kids nose with the heel of my fist. While I pushed him face first through the nearest tank, asking him how much the goldfish in it cost, and if the plastic castle came free with them, Barry slipped about in the pool and picked up the koi.

We got it into my bag of water before dropping it, and ran out through the main entrance. Laughing at all the stunned shoppers, frozen in the act with their potted plants and miniature plastic wheelbarrows.

Back at Gibson’s house, Cal opened he front door. He was washed and alert.

“What ye got, man?”

We pushed past him and through to the garden, where I opened my coat and tipped the bag upside down into the pond.

The koi, fat, tangerine and lifeless, floated on the surface.

“Fuck.” I managed to say it calmly enough. “You put the wrong one in the bag.”

“No, that’s the right one. It must’ve died in the bag. I guess we needed a special tank to carry it in, or something.”

“Well I would’ve thought that was obvious,” said Cal.

I stood and breathed slowly for a moment. Then went with the only option left.

“Barry, load the television, DVD player, and anything else you fancy into the car. We’re going to make this look like someone broke in, and killed the carp to make a point.”

Cal laughed and started to help, picking up fish.

Once we were finished, and Barry had gone, I dialled a number into my phone.

“Mike? It’s Joe Pepper. Listen, you’ve been robbed. Sorry man, the bastards killed your fish. What? Yeah, sorry. Cal tried to stop them, wee trooper, but they set about him.”

I hit Cal hard enough to bruise. And again.

It felt good.


Alan Griffiths said...

That was a super story Jay, really tight writing, no wasted words and lovely dialogue. I liked the ending and it threw me as well.

I thought that, with the swapped fish swimming around healthily, Mike Gibson was going to return home and say:

“What’s happened to my fish?”

“Nothing, it’s fine.”

“I can see that but it was dead when I got up this morning!”

Forgive me, it’s the punch line for a very old joke. I’ll get my coat...

Great story though.

Kind regards.

Dana King said...

Well done, that. I particularly like how Cal's beating is sort of thrown away, though we know it's the highlight of the day.

Steve Weddle said...


Paul D Brazill said...

Cracking story.