In politics, people cheat to win, or because they’re afraid to lose. Which isn’t always the same thing. A second referendum on Scottish Independence looms, an unlikely investigator uncovers meddling in the first, and desperate conspirators panic, with deadly results. Bastard Verdict weaves high stakes, low politics, and complex characters into a noir tale of power, loss and Faustian bargains.
When a Scottish government official enlists FBI Elections Specialist, Imogen Trager (on research leave at the University of Glasgow) in the fall of 2023 to look into the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum—ostensibly as a means of ensuring that a possible second referendum will be conducted fairly—he claims that he wants an outsider’s unencumbered view.
The government official may not be what he seems, and the trail Imogen follows becomes twisted and deadly, leading to a corrupt cabal intent on holding on to power.
But they didn’t count on Imogen, a feisty, conflicted and driven investigator who goes strictly by the numbers, if rarely by the book. To find the truth, Imogen will risk everything—her reputation, career, and possibly her life. None but a very few know that truth. And those few need it to stay hidden. At any cost.
‘But facts are chiels that winna ding,
An downa be disputed’
-Robert Burns, A Dream (1786)
Glasgow – 28 September
Anyone with the temerity to look upward into the rain that night on campus would have witnessed a kind of negotiated settlement between light and dark, as the wet Glasgow night held the pale glow from the Adam Smith Building’s top floor close in a murky halo. One man did look up, before sullenly returning to the meager shelter of a young birch tree outside the west entrance to the building. He mopped his face and dabbed his bald head with a handkerchief as he settled back against the tree trunk.
Inside those high windows, brightness reigned, the lecture theatre dazzlingly arid and contemporary. Though it was chilly for all that. Not that Imogen noticed. Within her slow-burn, imposter syndrome panic, she felt flushed, anxious as she began taking questions.
FBI Agent Imogen Trager had finished her first lecture as the Alma Guthrie Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at University of Glasgow. Twenty-five scholars, professors and graduate students sat bunched toward the front of a large lecture room in broad, curving rows of steeply raked seats. Each had listened with that cultivated, scholarly air of bored attentiveness to her inaugural lecture, meant as an introduction and discussion of her research interests for the coming year. Rain pattered against the windows, a discomfiting susurration that swelled and hissed during the agonizing moments of silence before questions and comments began.
The Head of School, David Reidy, sat next to her at a table beside the lectern in what felt like a well at the front of the room. He was himself cultivated, though administration had groomed him in its image. While most of his colleagues affected a smart-casual, anorak diffidence, he radiated trim-suited, camera-ready gravitas. To her immense relief, the gathered academics began to ask questions: regarding methodology, about the role and effects of policing in urban environments; two extended offers of help in research design methods.
As Reidy sensed that things were coming to an end, he asked a question of his own to wrap up.
“Thank you, Dr. Trager. Most enlightening and well presented,” he said from the bottom of their shared well space. “You’ve given us insight into your research agenda for this year,” he continued. “But I’m sure we’d all like to understand, as an FBI Special Agent, if you’d care to discuss how you begin your investigations. What’s the catalyst?”
Even at the bottom of a well, Imogen stood out, long-limbed, a sharp bearing, with striking red hair and green eyes. “As I mentioned, my special brief is voting integrity,” she began. “It’s said that the difference between voting in North Korea and Texas is that in North Korea, if you vote, you’re dead: whereas in Texas, if you’re dead, you vote.”
That won the chuckle she had hoped for, and she relaxed a little. She had a doctorate in political science but hadn’t made a presentation to a group of academics in years. She was pleased that her proposal to investigate how voting security was processed in another country had met with some measure of approval and interest and pleased to now be on the firmer ground of criminal inquiries.
“Both of those methods, by the way,” she added, “intimidation and fraudulent voting, fall under my group’s purview, and we would investigate…though obviously not in North Korea. We’re a domestic agency, after all.”
Of course, she thought dismally, she wasn’t part of that group any longer. Whatever praise the FBI bosses accorded her publicly, it was given through gritted teeth and rictus smiles. Most of the higher-ups at the Bureau still regarded her as a pariah. They were thrilled that she was taking her leave out of the country in the great abroad. The cowards.
“You’ve no doubt heard the braying about fraudulent voting in the U.S,” she continued, looking out at the gathered academics. “But despite my little quip about Texas, in the U.S., like here, voter fraud is exceedingly rare and hasn’t been a determining factor in an election in decades. But electoral fraud—manipulating, suppressing or outright disenfranchising voters—remains a danger. In each case, the fraud is an attempt to undermine or outright destroy the right of the people to determine their future.
“So typically,” she continued, tapping the mental brakes lest her newfound calm erupt into indignant anger, “an investigation begins when someone at the Federal Election Commission, a State Attorney General or some other official files a complaint. Having determined that there’s a case, and that it falls under federal jurisdiction, we open an inquiry and then I, or someone in my group, will be tasked with investigating. But we’re also meant to be entrepreneurial, actively looking for potential cases.”
Of course, she thought, it was the entrepreneurial part that seemed to land her in trouble. Then, because she couldn’t help herself, she added, “And there’s sometimes an infuriatingly myopic interpretation of the line between what’s deemed to have violated the law, and that which is just morally unacceptable.”
“I assume,” ventured a small man with a knotty thatch of iron hair seated in the front row, “that you’re aware Scotland may yet have its second referendum on independence from the UK some time this year or next, and—”
“—I knew you’d bring that up!” Reidy yelled. He looked at Imogen with embarrassed exasperation, then shook his head mournfully.
“And so,” the second man continued, his eyes bearing into Imogen as though much depended on her answer, “how could we ensure that the next referendum isn’t stolen?”
“Give it a rest, Frankie!” a scholar at the back of the room called out.
“I’ve read that Scottish Parliament wants a second referendum,” she began, “and that they ran on it in the most recent election, but I wasn’t aware there were irregularities in the one held in 2014—”
“Right,” said a professor sitting next to Frankie, “that’s because the irregularities’re only in Wee Frankie’s mind.”
“See you!” Frankie began, turning to the man as uncomfortable laughter stirred through the room.
“Well, I…” Imogen murmured into the growing noise. “This may not be the place to talk about it. I don’t know as much as most of you must about British politics, and irrespective of whether there was tampering the first time…”
Here the room erupted in passionate debate. By the look of things, the lecture hall could well have been parliament, with parties divided to left and right across the aisle. For a moment, she wondered whether she was cast as Speaker, and should be shouting “Order!” or whether that task fell to Reidy.
“HOWEVER!” she continued, as if taking the first role. “To answer the substance of your question: in my investigations, I make historical comparisons with similar elections, and I’m guided by events that don’t conform. Anomalies don’t always indicate malfeasance, but they’re a good place to start digging.”
“Aye, well there were anomalies aplenty!” Frankie interjected.
“The problem,” she continued, “is that referendum votes are such rare events that there’s not really a history to compare.” She let that sink in. “How do you know something’s an anomaly? Prior to 2014, there’d never been a referendum on independence, so what do you compare it to? Where do you look?”
She ended her presentation there, thanking all who had come as Reidy shook her hand and congratulated her. “Well,” he said, “that was a little more robust than the previous lectures.”
That was true, she thought. As a visiting fellow, she had attended the two previous lectures in the series, “Determination and consequences of the recognition of education among immigrants in Germany” and “(Un)settling epistemologies using digital tools.” There hadn’t been much controversy during the questions after those.
Reidy smiled. “What do you do for an encore?”
As the final cluster of scholars filed out of the room and Imogen began packing away her laptop, a man who had been sitting on his own near the back came forward. He was one of the few who hadn’t entered the fracas. He had stood out, though. Handsome, well-groomed, with soft, boyish features on a man’s slender body. Crisper, and with sharper angles—sharper elbows, too, by the look of him—than the graduate students and professors who had made up the bulk of the audience, he seemed more like a confident advertising agent. The department head nodded to him.
“Dr. Imogen Trager,” he said, “this is Ian Ross, Special Adviser to the First Minister.” He looked pointedly at Ross and made to leave. Imogen registered the look but didn’t know what it meant. “You’ll both be at the dinner?”
Ross nodded and the department head left them alone.
Holding out his manicured hand to shake hers, Ross said, “Wee Frankie’s concerns—“
“—I’m sorry,” she interrupted, “is that what you call the eminent Political Philosopher, Francis McDougal?”
“And he’s Wee Frankie to everyone?”
“Not to the students, no. Not to his face, anyway,” he added, with a mischievous grin. “Reidy misspoke just now. I report to Janette Ritchie, Chief of Staff to the First Minister of Scotland, not to the FM directly.” The smile dimmed. “The chief of staff is aware that you can’t establish a norm in a referendum like this, but it might nevertheless be useful to note and explore potential points of difficulty or weakness in the system, don’t you think? Wasn’t that part of your analysis of what happened in the Electoral College?”
“Indeed,” Imogen responded. “But I would hope that if there’s an open inquiry the Scottish or UK Election Committee is doing just that.” She reached down for the UK-US plug adapter.
“Yes,” he said nebulously. “Maybe you might look at it as well? Unofficially, of course. Because irrespective of what’s been said publicly, a number of us are pretty convinced it was stolen last time. And if this referendum does go forward, we want to make sure it isn’t stolen again.”
Dundee – 28 September
He’d felt it for a day or two already, a presence watching him from across a street, or the someone who turned a corner just as he looked round. The previous day he’d noticed a figure sitting alone in a car. The engine started, and it pulled away when the driver saw that he’d been noticed. So, he was being watched, followed. But by whom? And why? He’d had a good look at his shadow the previous day when he started the car and pulled away, and the clues only raised more questions. It wasn’t a Serious Organized Crime Command operation. He’d more than likely have been tipped off about something like that. And even so, he’d have been able to tell, would have seen them working in pairs and noted the “handoffs” from one officer to another. This seemed to be solitary, possibly the same man each time. Which was a worry.
Buff Lindsey was head of the Madmen crime syndicate in Dundee, itself part of a larger criminal enterprise throughout the UK and abroad. He referred to himself as the Dundee “shop steward.” Whoever was watching him didn’t seem to come from management. The Madmen used foreign outsiders for this kind of work, and the shadow, based on what Lindsey had seen of the man’s clothes, his face and build, was local, loutish. British. And not the police.
A rival gang? he wondered as he sauntered alone that night out the alley leading from the collision centre chop-shop where one of his offices was located. Reaching the main street, he looked up and down it, noted someone waiting in the passenger seat of a car across the road to his right. Lindsey turned left. He had no rival in Dundee, he mused, and any potential usurper would know that his death would only goad the larger syndicate into scorched earth retaliation.
A dismal night. The air seemed smothered in gray baize. Light seeped from the few working streetlamps, registered in large, greasy pools along the pavement and the road. As Lindsey walked down the empty street between derelict warehouses and shuttered shops, he heard whoever it was get out of the car and fall into step some thirty or forty yards behind him. Could it be someone who wanted revenge? This last seemed the most likely, and the most worrisome. Such men were unpredictable.
Buff was taking a chance being out alone on the streets like this, but he needed to turn the tables and put an end to whatever this was. He had chosen to face this problem alone because if he was wrong and it was his bosses looking to clean house, his favored, right-hand man Alec would likely be part of the scheme. “Ye don’t get tae be heid, alive and fifty-seven all at the same time,” he thought, “without a healthy dose a paranoia.”
There was a pub ahead, at the near corner marking a tentative hipster foray across the boundary road between the Madmen’s playground and an up-and-coming district. In the boozer, it was all beards, tattoos and grim Spotify playlists, but the owners knew the score, and Lindsey enjoyed dropping in from time to time, was pleased to find that part of the hipster ethos was keeping on tap some of the brews he liked and remembered from earlier days.
“Liam,” he roared at the barman as he entered. “A pint of heavy, if ye’ve no objection.” He put a five pound note at an empty spot on the bar and indicated that he was heading for the Gents. The barman nodded as he drew the pint.
Lindsey slipped out the back door.
A narrow service alley for deliveries and rubbish collection ran along the back of the building. Lindsey crept toward the street, stepping carefully in the darkness between puddles and grease. He was approaching the corner where the alley met the road when his shadow arrived. The stalker moved cautiously but his eyes were fixed on the pub’s doorway at the corner. “Definitely an amateur,” Lindsey thought. “No even a glance down this way.” His follower was a big lad, a head taller than Lindsey and outweighing him by two stone. Now, barely six steps from him but still focused on the pub door at the corner, Lindsey saw him slow and touch a bulge in his jacket. Gun.
At 57, Lindsey might not have been as spry as in earlier days, but he still knew his business—and someone carrying a gun had to be subdued. Quickly. Lindsey’s knife was out. The shadow registered him too late as he struck from the darkness. He slammed the butt of the hilt into the man’s left eye and again at his temple. As the man recoiled, Lindsey stamped viciously into the man’s left knee. Then a swift kick in the groin.
The big man’s bulk collapsed in sputtering, breathless agony. A hand fumbled inside his jacket toward the gun. Lindsey stabbed this time, slicing him across the hand and wrist. With one hand he stuck the point of his blade into the man’s fleshy neck and with the other grabbed him under the jaw and hauled him deeper into the alley behind the bins.
“Who sent you?” Lindsey hissed, when he was sure they were out of view of the street.
“Fuck off!” the man sputtered, as he sat in one of the grimy puddles.
English, Lindsey thought. Manchester? “Who’re you working for? Why are you following me?”
“I don’t know what you’re on about, I was just—”
Lindsey pushed the tip of the blade a little further into the donut folds of flesh at the back of his neck. “Keep it down, now,” he advised. A thin stream of blood pulsed along the cutting edge.
“You people, always fucking things up!” the man said boldly, as Lindsey patted him down. No wallet, no identification. He grabbed hold of the pistol from inside the coat and skidded it across the ground to the far side of the alleyway. “You don’t even know what you’ve done, do you?” the man on the ground gasped. “You want the police on you?”
“And you with a pistol on ye? Ah’d love ta here ye explain tha to the polis.”
“I don’t have to worry about them.”
“Explain that,” said Lindsey, thumping his fist in the same bleeding eye. The man’s shoulder and head rested against the brick wall of the alley, but he remained seated.
“When they find out,” he said, still looking downwards, “your life won’t be worth shit.”
“Ah’ll ask ye again. Who’s ‘they?’ Who’re you working for?”
It sounded like ill-advised revenge, a civilian out of his depth in a soldiers’ world. Well, civilian or no, Lindsay thought, you can’t let this kind of thing slide, can’t give him a good hiding and leave him be. Or he’ll be back. With mates. For two days, Lindsey had been living with the fear that his bosses wanted him out of the picture, on edge for every nuance that might give him a clue as to why. Now, it was clear he was safe on that score at least. And he had a pint waiting inside.
The civilian on the ground struggled, glared at him defiantly through his one good eye.
It had been Lindsey’s experience that no one ever believes you’ll kill them. But this needed to be done for a good many reasons. Still standing behind him, Lindsey plunged the knife between the neck folds at the back of the man’s bald head and let him fall in a heap. Gazing down at him, Lindsey wondered whether people would be more, or less, willing to give you information if they knew they were going to die. Still, the shock in their eyes was always disquieting.
He fished a set of keys out of the man’s pocket. Maybe there’d be some information inside the car when his boys took it apart in the chop shop. Lindsey wiped the blade on the man’s coat and cleaned his hands on the man’s trousers. He picked up the gun. Then he made a phone call.
“Is that Mr. Dettol?” he asked. “Clean up on aisle seven, if you please. Jist the one. But mebbe bring a mate. It’s a wide load. The wynd behind that hipster bar.” He paused to listen, then chuckled. “Naw, nothin like tha. Ah try not ta shit where Ah drink.”
Imogen’s reputation, it seemed, had followed her across the Atlantic, and Ross was still waiting for an answer. At home in the US with a blend of good casework, canny analysis and tenacity, she had tracked down and brought to justice those responsible for conspiring to steal the presidency by manipulating the Electoral College. It was the kind of important case that would have made any other agent’s career. But to bring the case, she had exceeded her authority. She had gone outside the FBI, had worked with outside agencies, bypassed proper authority and had used non-FBI staff. She had even gone to the press.
For her efforts, Imogen became the public and photogenic face of the “Faithless Elector” investigation, but an exile within the Bureau. Those who knew that what she’d done was the right thing nevertheless joined the wagon circle against her because she had embarrassed the Bureau, which among careerists was regarded as the cardinal sin. What was more, an anonymous agent shouldn’t have her picture on the front of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, however good-looking she was.
After all she had achieved and despite the public recognition she received, she found herself sequestered in the Studies in Electoral Integrity office in a non-investigative role, still reviled by many of her colleagues and superiors, still discounted. From the start, her superior at Electoral Integrity had been trying to get rid of her, the FBI’s redheaded stepchild. At their first meeting, he had helpfully suggested that she might enjoy an academic post, away from him and the Bureau. He had tried not to show his elation when she requested leave. She was exhausted, spent. She hadn’t made up her mind whether she’d go back to the Bureau after her one-year leave of absence, but she needed to keep her nose clean irrespective of what came next. Whatever this Special Adviser Ian Ross was selling, she wasn’t buying.
“Shall we go together?” Ross asked. “The restaurant’s about a ten-minute walk from campus on Eldon Street.”
“That would be fine, thank you,” she agreed. “I’d like to put my laptop away in the office first.”
They walked in silence down two flights of stairs. He was waiting for her to respond, she felt, but was giving her space. She knew what she should say—No—but something wasn’t letting her do so. She wondered what Duncan would have had to say. He would have been intrigued by the prospect, as she was, but it was a ruinously bad idea.
She had chosen University of Glasgow for her research leave of absence in large part because years earlier, before she and Duncan Calder were together, Duncan had spent a year at Glasgow as a Fulbright Scholar. He had often spoken of his time there, and of Scotland in general, in glowing terms. Coming to Glasgow had felt like a means of staying connected with him. There was a family connection for her, too. The favorite aunt for whom she was named—and from whom she’d inherited her deep, red hair—had emigrated with Imogen’s maternal grandparents, the Lochries, from Ayrshire, less than 30 miles to the south and west of Glasgow.
She had wanted time away to heal, to work on some research and maybe a bit of genealogy while she thought about next steps. The idea of doing it somewhere with a connection to Duncan, however tenuous, had been irresistible. She had gone so far as to imagine there might be a kind of ghostly dialogue with him as she worked or took in the sights, like feeling the chill light of a full moon when far from home and knowing that it also shined on a beloved. But a gaze across time—Duncan, younger than when she knew him, walking these streets in the rain.
She had imagined his voice teasing her that first day when she’d gone to the wrong floor looking for her new office—“It’s not the metric system, ’Gen,” she had heard him say, “but you do still have to convert: UK ground floor equals US first floor.” Now, as she and Ross trod the wide, metal staircase she imagined Duncan giving an unflattering disquisition on the Brutalist style of the building they were in, the Social and Political Sciences Adam Smith Building:
“I get that ‘brutal’ comes from the French for raw,” she could hear Duncan saying, “but it’d make more sense if it was based on the Italian ‘brutto’ – ugly.”
She almost nodded in agreement. Squat and gray, it seemed better suited as a bunker than an academic building. “And surely,” Duncan’s indignant voice continued in her head, “a building named for the author of Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments deserves better.” It was entirely possible that she was going mad.
The idea of communing with him like this was fraught. No fond memory, no warm thought was free from gut-stabbing regret. Every cheery moment began in her mind’s eye with Duncan as he had been, generous yet snarky, bookish but passionate, and it ended where it all ended, with him dead on a slab at the morgue. Although she tried to suppress the memory, it often burst in on her without warning.
As she put her notes and laptop away in the office, she found herself crying bitterly. Jesus, why now? she wondered. Fortunately, Ross had stayed in the hallway to make a phone call while she put away her things. He rapped on the doorframe as she collected herself and dabbed at her eyes.
“Ready?” he asked.
Imogen drew a clearing breath. “Yes,” she said.
“Well, you’ve settled in, I see,” he said, eyes roving over the office with its well-stocked shelves and a tartan throw over the armchair.
“The only things that are mine are on the desk,” she said, her back to him. “The rest belongs to Professor Ogilvy, who’s on leave this term. He stops by now and then when he knows I’m not here, to pick up a book or something. He leaves passive-aggressive notes thanking me for keeping it tidy. Cleanliness that I can only assume applies to everyone but him.”
She smiled as she turned toward Ross, her eyes still wet. “I’ll have to move out of the Druid’s quarters and find somewhere else next term.”
“The Druid?” he asked, amused.
“That’s the nickname.” She shrugged as though it couldn’t be helped. “A bit like Wee Frankie, I guess. I’ve never met the Druid in person, though we correspond in snark.”
“Snarky runes, eh?” He stared at her as if there was something more he wanted to say. Whatever it was, he let it go and gestured toward the door. “Shall we?”
The rain had stopped. Patches of grass shimmered with icy wet, and there was a cold bite to the air. Light from the streetlamps played and scattered on the pavement and flagstones as they retraced their steps out of the building, behind the library and down the hill toward Eldon Street.
At the edge of campus, they passed a thick-set man in a leather overcoat. Though he’d sought refuge from the rain under a tree by the Adam Smith Building, he looked sodden, and his bald head glistened. As they continued past him, he left off whatever he was pretending to look at on his phone and fell in behind them, matching their sauntering pace and taking care to keep about thirty yards behind.
Twice, as Imogen passed under one of the streetlights, their damp, trailing admirer snapped her and Ross’s picture from his phone. Engrossed in their conversation, they paid him no mind, even if he was one of the few others on the street.
“You’re not interested in helping us ferret out any weaknesses then?” Ross asked her finally.
“I’m an FBI Agent, Mr. Ross.”
“Call me Ian,” he said.
“Even on leave, I’m not allowed to be involved in non-federal cases. I expect someone from MI5 wouldn’t be able to work outside the UK.”
She thought again of what Duncan would make of this new puzzle. He’d jump at the chance, she was sure, but he was a professor. Well, he had been. He could follow his whims, could take up “interesting questions” because his very job required him to do so. He was also dead because of it.
As they approached the King’s Bridge, the bald, beefeater in the leather jacket turned away and headed down a steep side street. When he was out of sight of the bridge, he pulled out his phone and dialed a number. “Can’t say,” he said into the phone. “Did you see the pictures?”
On the bridge, Ross noted in his lilting accent: “You still haven’t said no.” He arched his neck to look down over the iron railing into the Kelvin.
“Why me?” she asked again.
“It’s delicate,” he said, looking behind them for a moment. “Anyone we might use officially would be embedded in or seconded from the Electoral Commission or the Met. Or both. And they would have to make reports. Once that starts, we couldn’t be certain whom they were telling or where their directives were coming from—a clusterfuck, if I might borrow a vivid American term—of epic proportions.”
Christ, she thought, it sounded a lot like the situation she was running from at the FBI, even if it was delivered in a dulcet Scottish accent.
“You’re an outsider,” he continued. “One with an astounding track record.”
Despite herself, she scoffed. That wasn’t the way they saw it back home.
“Am I missing something, Dr. Trager?”
“No,” she sighed. “Not really. And please, call me Imogen.”
“Well, Imogen, you took on—and took down—the president of the United States.”
Excerpt from Bastard Verdict by James McCrone. Copyright 2023 by James McCrone. Reproduced with permission from James McCrone. All rights reserved.
He’s a member of Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists’ Center and he’s the vice-president of the Delaware Valley Sisters in Crime chapter. A Pacific Northwest native (mostly), he lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. James has an MFA from the University of Washington, in Seattle.