Sonata of the Dead: Teaser #2

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I was on the M6 within twenty minutes. The motorway was uncommonly quiet, just a smattering of lorries and cars, maybe a dozen or so in total. It was getting on for seven o’clock. Clouds were piled like wet grey towels.

My dad died when I was twelve years old. He dropped dead in a car park in Southampton while he was attending a conference, some work-related training course; he was an office manager for a stationery business based in Penrith. Aneurysm. The technical name for it – subarachnoid haemorrhage – gave me nightmares. I thought his head had split open under the weight of a skull filled with spiders. I bore the fear of that for years; a time bomb in the brain he had carried from birth.

I remember little things about him, although I suspect I’ve also dreamed some of them into perceived reality. The way he drank instant coffee exclusively with hot milk and lots of sugar; his penchant for big coats with big pockets so he could line up his pens in a row; a love of Dylan and Mitchell (I remember singing along to Blue in a Christmas living room smelling of vinyl seat covers and tangerines and Harveys Bristol Cream). I remember going to the swimming baths with him, and clinging on to his shoulders in the deep end, where the water was always colder. He would buy me crisps and chemical-green pop from the vending machines afterwards, and we’d sit on plastic chairs while I ate and he tied my shoelaces.

What’s the difference between a duck?
I don’t know, Dad.
One leg’s both the same.

My foot on the parapet. The crack of stone. The drop.

How fast you’d go. A sense of freedom, of flight. Shackles off. A release for ever from worry and fear and responsibility.

I bore down on the accelerator.
70… 80… 90…
I lifted my hands from the steering wheel and closed my eyes.

CW up for a CWA Dagger

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My story Rosenlaui has made it on to the shortlist for a prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Dagger award. I’m shocked and thrilled. The nominees were announced at CrimeFest this weekend. The awards ceremony will take place later in the year.

If you’d like to read Rosenlaui, along with a bunch of many other fine tales by many other fine writers, you can get hold of a copy of the anthology, edited by the redoubtable Maxim Jakubowski (who is also responsible for getting my PI Joel Sorrell on the scene, by the way), here.

Congratulations and good luck to all the other finalists.

Bestwick… Campbell… Williams…

I’ll be reading at an event at Waterstone’s, Liverpool, tomorrow night to celebrate the launch of Simon Bestwick’s post-apocalyptic novel Hell’s Ditch along with horror legend Ramsey Campbell. Tickets are available for £3 and we kick off at 6.30 pm. Come and join us!

Dust and Desire finds favour with The Rap Sheet

The venerable Ali Karim, one of The Rap Sheet‘s writers, has included Dust and Desire in his list of favourite crime fiction for 2015. You can see what else he likes here.

Advent Stories #9

FOOTPRINT ON NOWHERE BEACH

I’m Rad Hallah. I work here. I’m a Drop-jockey.

No. Let me do that again.

Hi. I’m Rad. Rad Hallah. I’m a Drop-jockey. If you die, die nasty, and the plods can’t work out why… buzz my line.

Jesus. That hums. One more time.

The name’s Hallah. I’m a Drop-jockey. I nail all murderers. Guaranteed. If there’s a death you want solving, remember this. Cops on duty? Things smell fruity. Hallah in town? Perp’s going down. Call now…

‘That’ll do,’ I said, once I’d repeated the number and signed off with a crisp Don’t put ’em in the ground till you’re sure the case is sound.

‘Cool, cool, cool,’ the producer rapped, snapping her gum, some pre-pube called Clara or Kara or somesuch. ‘Nice rhymes. Did you just make them up?’

‘No, I worked on them for weeks. You should have heard the early versions.’

‘So buy me dinner and I’m all ears.’

‘You’re all ears already, darling,’ I said. ‘There are operations you can get to sort that out, you know.’

She pulled a face and flounced off. Women do that a lot around me. I haven’t yet met a woman who couldn’t give good flounce. I was going to go after her and see if we could swap some really meaningless dialogue — I mean, it’s what guys like us do best, right? — when my phone vibrated. It was Milk. She wanted to meet me in Oak Seddon’s bar, right in the middle of the Splinters, that mass of skyscrapers at the heart of the city.

‘Is it a body?’ I asked her. I didn’t want to go all the way out there just to be quizzed on whether I thought her pashmina went with her cullottes.

‘It’s a body,’ she confirmed. ‘Actually… it’s two bodies.’ She didn’t sound too sure.

‘Juicy,’ I said. ‘I’ll be there within the hour. Have a pint waiting for me.’

I got a lift into the city with one of the film crew. He told me my ad would probably go out for the first time that very night. I was lucky. I didn’t have to pay a wedge because I wanted the graveyard slot anyway. I don’t make my money from the restful. I’d say ninety per cent of my clients are insomniacs, and for good reason.

I was dropped off on the corner of Coma Lane and Fruit Street. From there I walked through the market stalls of the bazaar which lies at the foot of the Splinters, a melange of clothes and gizmo stalls that, from above, probably looks like someone has emptied a giant suitcase all over the floor. In the five minutes it took me to wade through that shrieking mass of de-humanised rip-off merchants, hookers and self-mutilated beggars, I had been offered everything from a chakra massage to a titjob to a skink-skin wallet that looked as though it was carrying nothing, no matter how much shit you put in it.

I was hot and sweaty when I emerged on the other side. The bazaar was akin to some old-fashioned security system. Only the most determined could bypass it and be granted access to the Splinters. I hopped on to one of the monorail pods as it trundled by and was scooted into the dark, cool interior. Monster buildings lifted into the sky on either side of me, like trees in a Cretaceous rainforest. I looked up but cloud cover at maybe 3000 feet prevented me from seeing their summits. There were other buildings as thin, it seemed, as wafers, planted in vertical stacks, like chips in a circuit board. Big jets lumbered through specially designated corridors between the scrapers: sharks cruising the corals.

I don’t like the Heights. All that tungsten and glass and carbon fibre. It’s impersonal. Too polished. It’s like the city has pulled on a pair of mirrorshades. You can never see its eyes or tell what it’s really thinking.

I do like Oak Seddon’s bar, however.

You’ll find it in a small niche where the finance giants abut the pharmaceutical district. It’s a two-storey midget, made from wood and brick. When it’s cold, smoke rises from a chimney. People in smart suits and celebrity masks stop to stare. And then, thankfully, they move on to drink their powerjuice in rooftop bars with other masks who look so flawless they might well have been made from the obsidian bartops they rest their elbows on.

Milk does not like Oak Seddon’s bar. But she meets me there when she wants me to do a job for her. She thinks this gives her the upper hand. Poor, deluded fool.

‘A pint,’ she said as I entered, flapping my way out of my overcoat. ‘You didn’t say what you wanted that pint to consist of, but I guessed right, I think.’

‘You did,’ I said, and sank half of it. The studio lights had given me a big thirst. Milk was drinking a glass of the most outlandish thing that Oak serves in this place: red wine. I could imagine his face when he went to pour it. Shit, I bet he had to root around for a dusty bottle out back for five minutes first. A sign over the bar says: If it isn’t beer, remove your buns from here. Me and Oak: partners in rhyme.

Milk Fuss is an old friend of mine. We were at college together. We could have had a thing going if it weren’t for the fact that we both met other people first. She’s still with hers, a fat cat who’s big in the dog-eat-dog world of chimp farming. My wife left me six months after we married when I came home from a long weekend on a case stinking of whisky, bleeding from a gunshot wound in the arm and carrying a pair of human kidneys in my pocket. Don’t ask.

Anyway, there’s still something there between us, an unspoken what if, a bit of heat, a bit of banter. If flirting was an offence, we’d both be serving five to ten in Chalkham prison.

‘How’s the ex?’ she asked.

‘Still breathing,’ I said. ‘How’s monkey-boy?’

‘Up to his ears.’

‘I won’t ask in what but I’m glad to hear it. These bodies…’

Milk said, ‘It’s one body.’

‘But you said — ’

‘I’ve had time to reassess the situation.’

‘One body,’ I said. ‘These days I rarely get out of bed for just one body.’

Milk finished her drink and gestured that I should do the same.

‘Where is this two-bodies-no-wait-just-one-body?’

Milk jerked her head back and looked at the ceiling.

‘Oh great,’ I said. ‘Smashing.’

*

For some people it’s snakes or rats. For others it’s flying or in-laws. With me… you’ve guessed it, it’s heights. I tell you, I’m grateful to my gene pool that I failed to hit six feet. I sleep on a futon. My flat is one of the sunken jobs in Sorrel Dip, miles from here. The word ‘lofty’ brings me out in hives.

Milk held my hand in the lift. I clutched her shoulder with the other and gripped her knee between my own. I was ready to bite her cheek too, when we went through the clouds, but by then the lift was slowing and it helped to look up at the dark bowl of space.

‘So what’s the story?’ I said, in a strangled voice that sounded like a cat hacking up a furball.

‘Got a call from a Mrs Phthisis Mutch. Her husband didn’t come home last night.’

‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘Touching that there are still a few like that.’

‘Yeah. Once the duty officer had stopped laughing, he told her somebody would come and check it out. Like, some day. I picked it up from the slush pile yesterday. Sounded interesting. Thought I’d give you a call.’

We got off 20,000 feet above Oak Seddon’s spit- and lager-stained floorboards. The walkways up here are sealed, transparent tubes of plexiglass to protect our lungs from the rarefied air; they were flooded with tourists, musicians, truants, hookers and job-seekers. This wasn’t officeville. Bars and clubs and casinos stretched away in every direction, their awnings and entrance halls constantly being spruced up as if they were troops standing shoulder-to-shoulder in an inspection parade. Milk dragged me off to a narrow alley where some of the less salubrious watering holes were tucked. These were the unlicensed drinking dens, the places that cowered in the shadows in the hope that they would be missed during the occasional spot-check. And why not? There must be over a million bars in this city. The police will maybe turn a few of those over in the run-up to a mayoral election, but in the main, they’re ignored. More so if they look like a boarded-up Wax den.

In the way that this place, Bane’s, does.

We went inside, the bouncers melting away from the door like vampires in sunlight as Milk flashed them her District Sheriff’s badge. The place was so dark some of the punters were using pencil torches to find their drinks. On the stage — little more than half a dozen beer-soaked tables stuck end to end — a topless dancer was doing her best to extricate one last bill from the hand of a guy whose face was wreathed in darkness. All I could see of it was teeth and the glints on his lenses. She kept pursing his lips at him and wiggling her backside. It was worth his last bill, to be fair. The music was sleazier than a rat in a spiv’s suit. I liked it.

‘This is Muntin Bane,’ Milk was saying. The man in question was maybe early fifties, porny moustache and hair greased back to a tapering point behind his head, like a speed-cyclist’s helmet. He wore a suit that had seen better days, but compared to the clown’s outfit I was wearing, who was I to judge?

‘Hi,’ I said, keeping my hands in my pockets. Bane’s fingers looked like they could serve as stunt turds in a scat film. He grunted and asked if we wanted a drink. I said no. Then I asked him where the body was. He grunted again and wagged his head towards the toilets.

‘We moved him in there,’ he said. ‘He was putting the punters off.’

‘Where was he originally?’ I asked. It was no big surprise.

‘At the front door. We found him when we closed up about four this morning. Punters had been stepping over the poor guy all night.’

‘Do we have his 24-clip?’ I asked Milk.

‘That’s for you to find out,’ Milk said. ‘I’ve got to go. We got word through on the Duratein crop raid. They’re expecting it within the next twelve hours. I need to be there when they pinch them.’

That’s the way things go these days. Population’s so high, murder is quietly accepted as a modest means to help prevent it outstripping food production. The crimes that were paramount a century ago: homicide, drugs and the like, that’s nothing compared to biogenetic terrorism, or the war against water smugglers. That’s where the police are concentrating their efforts. Which is fine by me. Good old-fashioned killings like this keep me in semolina.

I waved Milk off and picked my way through last night’s wreckage to the conveniences, which from here looked more like inconveniences. The floor was littered with broken bottles, discarded bras, the odd tooth, all of it pointing to quite a party in Bane’s last night.

I didn’t need to push the toilet door open, it was hanging off its hinges. Several different types of filth encrusted the tiles, not all of them human. The Mutch guy had been propped on a toilet seat. Some comedian had stuffed a wad of tissue paper between his fingers. I felt sorry for him, all of his dignity gone, but at least he didn’t have to smell the hell that was Muntin Bane’s latrine. It wasn’t immediately obvious what had killed Finn Mutch, but when I tipped his head forwards, I saw right enough: a huge gash right across his cerebellum. Checkmate. I sat him up straight again and noticed straight away that there was ash on my shoes. My shoes are the best thing about my wardrobe. I keep them clean. It’s kind of important to project some shred of class. And now there was ash all over the insteps. When I saw where it had come from, I forgot about my shoes pretty quickly.

‘Nice touch,’ I said, just to say something. It was suddenly too claustrophobic in that cubicle with Finn Mutch, his battered skull and the burnt remnants falling from his eye sockets.

*

I returned to the bar, Mutch’s 24-clip safely tucked away in my pocket, and ordered a beer and a vodka chaser from Bane, who seemed affronted that I should regard him as a lowly bartender.

‘Lissa will serve you. She’s only going to be a minute. She’s collecting glasses.’

I pondered this and while I did so I pulled up a stool. But I didn’t sit on it. ‘You serve me,’ I said. ‘Let Lissa get on with her hobby.’ The V of a miasmic shirt yawned on Bane’s chest like puke made solid. Hard curls of chest hair rioted there like rusting bed springs. He wore a gold necklace with an ingot which read BANE, for those difficult crises of identity, most probably when he woke up in the mornings with his brain lagging half an hour behind him.

‘Cute,’ he said, but I could see he was saying it only because he didn’t understand me. Pearls before swine. ‘As I was saying, Lissa will — ’

I imagine the next words up were serve you but I couldn’t be sure because they were caught in a kind of squealing grunt as I reached over and dragged his bicycle helmet over the bar and through the slats of the stool. His feet waggled on the other side of the counter like a baby learning how to swim.

‘Is this cute too?’ I asked him. His face was turning purple. It didn’t go well with the shirt so I released him. He went off to pour my drinks.

‘On the house,’ he said, sarcastically. He really knew how to hit low.

I nodded back at the entrance. The wood around the doorframe was charred and smoke had left a sooty scar across the ceiling. ‘When did you have your fire?’

‘About a month ago,’ he said. He was being civil because he wanted me gone before he did something he was going to regret. I can tell that from a man’s eyes. And from the level of abuse I dole out first. His chest was moving like a guy’s backside under the sheets with his wife after a ten year stretch.

‘About a month?’ I downed the vodka and took a sip from my beer to smooth out the edges. ‘I deal in specifics, Mr Bane. Detail. Care to narrow that down for me?’

He gave me a date, I jotted it down. ‘I remember because it was the night Yuicy started.’

‘Yuicy?’

Bane looked over at the girl writhing around. The guy still hadn’t parted with that last bill.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘What is it with the soot though? You like the burnt effect?’

‘No structural damage,’ he reasoned. ‘Paint costs money.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said. I got the rest on my pint inside me and flicked him a card from my wallet. ‘Call me, if you get lonely and want to talk some more.’

‘Next time you come here it won’t be such a warm welcome,’ he said.

‘It might be,’ I said. ‘If you don’t get your fire certificate in order.’

*

It was getting late so I went back to my flat, stopping on the way to buy a paper bag from Ming’s. When I got home I found that there was a pint of whisky in the bag. Lucky me.

I did a tour of my flat to check the booby traps I’d set that morning hadn’t been sprung but I couldn’t remember where the traps were. I stopped worrying about my brains a long time ago. The way I see it, everyone in this polluted metropolis is losing the old think cells at a bastard rate every day. So I forget what I was doing this morning. So some berk forgets to wipe his prints off a doorknob after killing his grandma. It evens itself out.

In the kitchen I poured my dinner and went to the window. It’s not a great view here in Sorrel Dip, the only place in the city that sounds like a side order in a vegetarian restaurant. I can see a kind of low hill saddled with restaurants and a deteriorating road that winds out of the city towards the suburbs of Chiefly and Billion Spread. A couple of drinks and I end up in her study, as I always do. I keep it this way, even though I could use the space. Her desk is in the corner of the room beneath a cork notice board filled with photographs and concert tickets and dressage rosettes. None of which she wants back. Her computer monitor — I’ve never turned it off — scrolls with the last message she typed into her screensaver: Sorry Rad, You were right… I’m not up to this.

She’s living in Tetrahedral Street now, on the other side of town. With some guy, some safe guy who doesn’t chase killers. It’s a shame, because Tupelo was good for me. She was the best kind of wife. She was a good listener. She’d listen to me while we lay in bed, spooling through all the shit that I’d done during the day, pouring it out, and by just listening, being a wall that I bounced stuff against, she helped clear my mind and let my best thoughts through, the thoughts that led to a capture. The thoughts that put our meals on the table.

But I wasn’t good for her. I was the worst kind of husband. I didn’t provide her with any kind of wall. She was alone in a wide open street and too many directions in which to travel unhindered. Unlucky for me, she picked one. I should have blocked her in. I should have been the last road she ever turned in to.

‘I should have blocked her in,’ I said and my voice boomed in the tiny study, slapping me awake.

I left my empty glass on the desk and returned to the living room. I dug through the newspapers and books until I found the remote for the plasma screen on the wall and flicked it on in time to watch my advert. I wish I hadn’t. My face looked as long as a lifestyle questionnaire. The advert finished. The phone didn’t ring.

Hungry after all, in the kitchenette I made an air sandwich with two slices of stale bread and the abundance of jack shit that was in the fridge. I kicked off my shoes and recovered the 24-clip from my coat pocket. I washed off as much blood as I could from the interface and slid it into the socket beneath the screen.

*

A 24-clip is a coin-sized device implanted under the scalp of felons. It stores 24 hours of information on it. Scenes from your day. You don’t have to be Tusk ‘The Eviscerator’ Myrikle to get one of these badges. Like poor old Finn Mutch, you could have committed a driving offence, or been caught shoplifting. If the plods were in the mood for a collar, it didn’t matter if you were a paedophile who ate the heads of your conquests or a fence who had handled a stolen drawing pin. A convict was clipped and every day he would have to upload his clip on to a hard drive that was accessible to the plods down at Cop HQ. If you didn’t upload, an alarm went off and the police came to find you and lock you up. Great for the police, who could get away with even less work and occasionally got the chance to watch some hot late night action. Great for me too, because sometimes the clip gave up a clue that could lead to my pinching the killer. Sometimes. Well, hardly ever. People killed in this city are invariably smashed around the head by those who know what clips are but don’t know how to retrieve them. Ever tried putting a raw egg yolk in a plug socket? Of course not. And I’ve never tried to play a clip that looks like a pile of matchsticks.

How long does it take to watch a 24 clip? Twenty-four hours, you might say. But you’d be wrong. It isn’t like watching television. The picture isn’t clear and there are constant fades to watch out for as well as other interference: daydream static, wish projection, lots of other cranial flotsam and jetsam. But there wasn’t too much of that going on with Finn Mutch. Maybe it was his job that scoured any imagination from his head: a dignity-sapping hands and knees scout for electronic lice. There was the occasional temper-induced flare, usually after some rubber-faced nadge-sac called Huckey dropped by to give Mutch grief, and a softer, warmer haze when he thought about the hands of his lover.

Anyway:

Huckey had slipped his head around the edge of the door twenty minutes ago to tell him, with that irritating, lispy voice of his, that there was no downing tools for him until every Ludd in the system had been flushed.

Mutch knew what that meant. He’d be lucky if Bane’s was still open by the time he finished here. Bane, with his cold hot dogs and warm beer. Bane, with his strange tattoos and lurid shirts. Hell, maybe he should just go straight home.

Cursing Huckey as colourfully as he knew how, Mutch ripped the sterilising sheath from a fresh nozzle and squeezed the rubberised membrane on the feeder until a dewdrop of gel oozed from the tip. This he fed into the cooling vein on the machine he was currently servicing, a moulded ventilation hub that looked to Mutch as though it had been made from tin, plastic and about six tons of fervent prayer. The nozzles were loaded with a special fluid, developed over the past six months, which dealt with the Ludds and repaired their damage in one dose. The fluid acted both as an anti-coagulant on the Ludd saliva that blocked up the exhaust pipes and electrical cables on the old technology they preferred and also rendered the Ludds sterile so they couldn’t breed. Before the introduction of the gel, each piece of machinery would have needed to be taken apart, cleaned, and reassembled, every Ludd paralysed with a pair of spark-pincers and tossed in the waste disposal cruncher. This way was much more civilised and highly effective. The adult generation were dying out; hopefully, Mutch would be able to forget about this part of the job for a while, at least until some cowboy mechanic re-infected the system with a rogue spare part or a less-than-pristine tool. The task was easier now, but as jobs went, it was still a bag of dung.

It was five hours later, and almost midnight, by the time he had cleansed the circuitry. He left a copy of the procedure log pinned to the wall and caught a ride up to the nineties, wincing at the bleached look to his face in the elevator mirrors. His back ached and his fingers itched where they had come into contact with the gel. He should wear gloves, safety tests for the gel were inconclusive; dark rumours abounded that they were carcinogenic but Mutch didn’t care. The itch in his fingers made him feel alive for a while. There were too many hours of numbness in his life at the moment.

Out of the fifties, the protective walls of the scraper fell away and he was able to look at the city as it unravelled around him. It seemed to be growing by the day. The new developments out east, in Pur and Dandasque, edged the horizon with a silver gleam. He had helped neutralise the cable network out there. It was clean for as long as it took for the pirates to feed outlawed services through them. It would happen, as sure as he would go to Bane’s and eat something dodgy, drink a few tepid, watered-down glasses of Burpszt, try to flirt with Lissa.

Everyone wanted cheaper power. And who was going to say no to a few extra channels on the TV? In the end, despite the unsociable hours and the occasional Ludd bite — which meant a trip down to the infirmary for a course of anti-rabies jabs — it was a solid job. He’d never be out of work.

He smelled Bane’s before he saw its tacky, faltering neon sign. A chalked sign on a small blackboard read: Litre beer $14. Girls Girls Girls read another. Mutch could see Lissa inside, working the tables, a tray filled with glasses of froth and bowls of nuts balanced on her upturned hand. He smoothed his hair down across his head and reached for the door handle.

And someone behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder.

*

I watched Mutch’s point of view rotated through 180°. Someone behind him, I couldn’t see who: too dark. Mutch well impressed, whoever it was. Yapping like a puppy. Then the other saying something. Muffled, something like: ‘Buy you a cocktail.’ And Mutch turning back to the entrance. And bang. Fade to black.

*

‘The guy was killed by someone who knew him,’ I said, my breath bouncing back at me from the mouthpiece like the sweet-sour burp of a cadaver’s gut during post-mortem. I was glad we hadn’t hit the video-link. I probably looked like something that ought to be on the slab too.

‘That’s interesting,’ Milk said. She didn’t sound interested. She sounded tired. ‘Rad, it’s four in the morning. Is this all you wanted to call for, to tell me this Mutch chap was offed by a known?’

No. No. No. No.

‘Yes.’

She downed the link, quite rightly. She was even polite about it, swearing only five or six times. I couldn’t sleep. I felt that a part of my past, recent or otherwise (or maybe some moment from my future) was out of whack. I was on edge, my belly full of prickles. It happens when I’m on a case. Early on, I know that I’ve seen something, or heard something which has provided me with the key to the whole shebang. Knowing what it is, of course, is a different bucket of gerbils.

Around 5 am I took off, the walls of my flat too inhibiting. The fresh air cleaned my mind and stripped away some of the damage last night’s whisky had caused. I just wanted to walk, pound some streets until the sun came up, I wasn’t thinking about directions. But my feet were, and I found myself outside the local fire station, staring up at the great polished doors that, at the first hint of an emergency, would sink into the earth to reveal a trio of fire-fighting trucks. An upstairs room was filled with light and shadow. I imagined firefighters cruising around a pool table, talking in murmurs, or playing cards, watching a little TV. Busy but waiting, always waiting.

I skipped up the steps and entered the office. There was a woman in a severe blue suit sitting in a hanging leather chair, wearing a headset. She was gabbing code into the mouthpiece, a fast sequence of numbers and letters, interspersed with the odd moment of recognisable speech: a street name, a yes, a no. She ended her conversation without saying goodbye and without looking up at me, without changing her voice pattern, she asked what she could do to help me.

I showed her a card and sat on the only available surface, the corner of her workstation. ‘I wondered if any of the crew on duty tonight were on duty a month ago, on the night of the 18th?’

The receptionist repeated the date into her headset and then said: ‘Duty log.’

A second later, she recited a list of names:

‘Fetter, Noo, Curve and Whysse. They’re all in tonight.’

I wrote the names down and asked if I could get a list of phone numbers. She shook her head. ‘You look like a nice guy but your card is not a shield. Sorry.’

‘Then can I talk to them now?’

‘Let me see.’ She got back on the headset. Told the crew what was what. After a short while she came back to me. ‘You can take the lift up. They’re waiting for you.’

It was nothing like the romantic vision I’d had in my mind. Two firefighters were stripped to the waist and were wrestling inside a chalk circle. The others were standing around with bottled soft drinks, calling out words of encouragement. One of the spectators came over to the lift as I stepped out of it. He shook my hand.

‘Byte Noo,’ he said.

‘Rad Hallah. Thanks for taking the time.’

‘No problem. Come on, let me get you a drink. We’ve only got fruit juice, I’m afraid. Either that or qat-tea and we don’t really go for that till after the shift’s over. Snooze stuff. Helps bring you down if you’ve had a rough night.’

‘Nothing thanks. I just wanted to ask a few questions. Be finished in a jiffy.’

‘Sure.’

We stopped by the large bay window that looked down over the sleeping, polished fire engines. The other spectator came to join us. Noo introduced her as Curve Moody. She wore a little cropped top. Her blonde hair was in a pony tail. We shook hands. She had a face that made you smile even if you were thinking of nuns on fire.

‘I was told you were on duty on the night of the fire over at Bane’s bar, in the Splinters?’

‘I know it,’ said Noo. ‘Yeah. Small fire. Hardly worth the effort. Guy could have pissed it out.’

‘What’s the wrestling all about?’

Curve Moody said, ‘Aggression. Good way to get rid of it. You don’t want to be pumped full of nasty when you get called out on a job.’

‘You wrestle too?’ I asked.

She smiled, nodded. ‘Like a demon.’

I pushed away the visions and concentrated on the job. ‘Do you get many fires occurring up in the Splinters? Isn’t it a huge disaster waiting to happen?’

The wrestlers were going for each other like thin dogs scrapping over a chicken wing. The smaller guy was winning. He was bulked out in the heavy, sculpted manner of a weightlifter. Whenever he went into a clinch with his opponent he let out a roar that seemed to come all the way up his body from his balls. I’d have him on my side any day.

‘The Splinters should pretty much take care of themselves,’ Noo was saying. ‘Sprinklers, auto-foaming ducts, vents that suck oxygen from a room to starve fires. We go along every so often to do firechecks. We’re serious about them too. Access for the machines — you’ve seen the size of them — is pretty limited. And it takes about ten minutes for a chopper to get over here from Paleshrike, enough time for a place to burn to nothing.’

‘Word was that it was kids, playing around,’ Curve Moody continued. ‘We put it out in seconds. It was a low-grade risk. Last job of the night, as I recall.’

Noo chipped in. ‘We went back afterwards. Owner offered us a drink on the house.’

Curve Moody looked at her watch. ‘You want to talk to Vex and Oquo? Vex Whysse and Oquo Fetter? They were the other guys on duty that night. They’ll be finished in a minute.’

I shook my head, despite the fact that Curve Moody was pulling off her combat trousers in readiness for her bout. ‘No thanks. It’s late.’

We said goodbye and Noo walked me to the lift. At the side of it was a photograph of four men. The inscription on the plaque beneath it read: Our glorious dead: Chew Matino, Hensall Grab, Bench Moody, Pol Cloake.

The lift doors opened. I said, ‘Moody. That something to do with Curve?’

Noo nodded. ‘Her father. All four of those firemen were killed in an oil rig fire ten years ago trying to save the crew. What a waste. There was a crew of eight working on the rig. Their last night on duty. They had been drinking pretty much all day and were bosko absoluto. Fire started in the galley. A pan of something they were cooking up for supper.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. It seemed a pathetically weak thing to say but Noo shrugged.

‘Death gets in the cab with you every time you go outside in this job,’ he said. Over his shoulder, Whysse and Fetter were leaving the circle. Whysse gave Curve Moody a big hug as they swapped places. Idly, I wondered how long it would take me to qualify as a fireman. ‘Curve joined up because of her dad, but she knows the risks.’

Outside, weak sunlight was striping the tips of the Splinters, occasionally visible above the rafts of cloud hugging the city. I stopped off at Chimp’s mobile diner for a Styrofoam container of tepid coffee and a jam doughnut that made my teeth disintegrate as I was chewing it. Then I went home and slept for four hours.

I woke up refreshed. Well, as refreshed as a man can be who suddenly finds himself staring into the muzzle of a pistol. Somebody was straddling my chest, making it hard to breathe. A balaclava concealed anything I might have used later down at the cop shop in order to have some failed artist drum up a picture of someone who looked nothing like my assailant.

I wheezed, ‘Get comfortable why don’t you?’

The lump on top of me was either mute, foreign or, as I expected, not mad keen on chit-chat. The pistol, cocked, was traced gently all over my face like a lover’s fingernails. It dimpled my cheek, pressed against my closed eyes, rattled my teeth. I got the picture.

A piece of paper was tucked into my shirt pocket. A little slap across the chops and the intruder was gone.

He had got in through the window. I always leave the window open when I sleep. One minor drawback of living at ground level. I closed it and locked it and drew the curtains even though the sun was shining. I took a hot shower, then a freezing cold one. More coffee, a fresh shirt and I was ready to read my love letter.

Two words, no nonsense: Walk away.

I dropped the note into a little plastic wrap for the graphologists and went outside, wishing for about the ten thousandth time that I carried a gun.

*

It’s true what they say. If you’re armed, you’re twice as likely to end up being shot. I believe this, even though I don’t know who they are, the people who say this. But put yourself in a villain’s shoes. He’s on the lam, he’s got a gun, he’s shakier than a jelly poodle. If he sees some chisel-faced dick sniffing him out with a piece in his hand, he’s more likely to slug it out. But me? Chisel-faced though I undoubtedly am, I don’t carry. I would rather face a gun-toting perp who feels as though the balance of power is in his favour than a sweating, slippery-fingered tripwire of a guy.

This was what I was thinking as I took the steps two at a time up to the entrance of Stable Cables.

That and why the cheesy nuggets don’t I carry a gun?

*

If Snafu Huckey was an entry in the dictionary, this is what his definition would be: n. Jesus Creeping Chrrrrist, what a choad-hole! See also: tit-head, knob-end, anal cyst and irritant (major).

I fixed a grin and sat on the other side of the desk from him, hoping he wouldn’t hear my teeth grind. Huckey’s chair was too low; the edge of the table was about level with his shoulders. His fingers clung to the table-top like he was playing a phantom piano. He wore a side parting so savage that he could have dismantled it and used it as a set square.

He was so spectacularly ugly that I completely missed the first few sentences he uttered.

‘I said,’ he said, his voice like the whine of a failing jet engine, ‘can I get you anything? Coffeeteawater?’

‘Nothing for me, thanks.’ I cleared my throat. I said, ‘Finn Mutch.’

‘Finn Mutch,’ he said.

I said, ‘Yes.’

He said, ‘Yes.’

I said, ‘Sorry, did I take a wrong turn somewhere? Is this Echo Canyon?’

He spread his fingers. They looked like the kind of things you’d spear on a stick and toast over an open fire. ‘You haven’t asked me anything yet.’

‘Okay,’ I said, breathing deeply. ‘You and Finn. Did you get on?’

‘I was his boss.’

‘So that’s a no.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘Then you did get on?’

‘I didn’t say that either.’ He wore the smug expression of a guy who thinks he’s smarter than most. I wondered what that expression would look like mashed on to my knuckles.

‘How long did Finn work here, Mr Huckey?’ I ladled just the right amount of sarcasm over that mister to drag his face a couple of degrees deeper into uglydom.

‘He was in his six-month probation period. Just coming to the end of it.’

‘And you were going to keep him on? He seemed quite a diligent worker.’

Huckey bristled. ‘I would have been the judge of that.’

‘Would you like to answer the question?’

‘Let’s make one thing clear, Mr Hallah. You are not police. I am not obliged to tell you anything.’

‘That’s right,’ I said, cheering up a little. Maybe I would get the chance to tenderise his facial steak after all. ‘But you will, because if you don’t, you’ll have trouble telling anybody anything for a while.’

‘Is that a threat?’

Not that bright then. I spent the next minute making it clear what I would do to him if he didn’t comply. He looked a little queasy after that. And told me all about Finn Mutch’s chances in the Ludd extermination industry. They weren’t great.

‘Why would you sack a guy like that?’ I asked. ‘Okay, he’s got some form, but it’s lower league stuff. I’m sure if we had a rattle of the skeletons in your cupboard we’d find more impressive offences.’

‘It had nothing to do with that, Mr Hallah,’ he said, regaining some of his oleaginous brio.

‘Then what?’

‘It was the company he kept.’

I nearly fell off my chair. ‘Really?’ I said, just to fill the silence. I thought about Huckey’s friends. I thought about spending an evening with Huckey and his friends. I thought about gnawing my own legs off. Without anaesthetic.

‘Mr Hallah. Clearly you don’t understand. Finn Mutch was, well, he was a homosexualist.’

*

Somehow I got out of there without painting my fingernails with his blood. I say somehow, but it was a call from Milk. At first I didn’t realise it was the phone vibrating in my pocket. I thought Huckey had brought on some kind of irritable bowel syndrome.

I left him without an excuse me and stood outside, wishing I smoked.

‘What is it?’ I snapped.

‘It’s a pause, so you can apologise.’

I said I was sorry and asked her again, just as snappily, what she wanted. She must have cottoned on that I wasn’t in a mood to mess around. She became clipped and businesslike. ‘There’s another body,’ she said. ‘Caramel Pines. I booked you a seat on this afternoon’s train. And a room at an impressively cheap hotel. I’ll expect a refund if you don’t nail this monkey.’

‘Same MO?’ I asked, knowing full well that it was. I had to say something though. I hadn’t been to Caramel Pines, let alone heard the name mentioned, for over a year. Why there? Fate was a clown with a custard cannon, and the seat of my pants had a target on it.

‘Same MO,’ confirmed Milk. ‘Only this one was done first. It’s about a month old.’

On my way to the train station I bought a fresh handkerchief and a bottle of cheap after-shave from a pharmacy. I bought a fistful of miniatures too for the journey, a five-hour jaunt. The thought of stepping off the train sober was enough to make my eyes bleed.

I picked up my ticket from reservations and found my train waiting on the platform, engine tutting away like a wronged Maud. Making sure my ticket was poking out of my top pocket, I settled into my seat even though departure time was over half an hour away. Then I started tucking into the booze. The next thing I remember was an old dear trying to clamber over me, complaining loudly that trains shouldn’t allow animals to travel with normal people. My ticket had been punched, and so had I, it felt like. Or maybe it was just the alcohol. Outside, darkness had turned the countryside into a congealed mass. I could smell salt water and scorched earth. The guard was strolling through the carriage telling me what I already knew.

‘This train terminates here. Taxis are available to Caramel Pines, Bow-wow South, The Jut and Winterwild. This train terminates here. This is Nowhere Beach.’

*

I made my way through the ticket barrier and stood in the entrance to the station, breathing deeply. There was a queue of taxis at the rank but most people were eschewing them in favour of a healthy walk in the freezing cold. I got in the back of a cab and told the driver where to go. I told him I’d give him a tip if he promised not to engage me in any smalltalk. We drove in silence, me staring at the back of the driver’s head, or at his resentful gaze in the rearview mirror.

I remembered it all. It had been Summer when I came here last. Heavy fruit on the trees, children playing in the sand. I smiled a lot. She smiled a lot. I blamed it on wind. She kicked me. Cold cuts on a rug by a hot fire. Hot sex on a cold kitchen worktop. I was maybe looking into her eyes 90% of the time and thinking how beautiful her eyes were for the other ten.

The cab driver dropped me off outside Hotel Jejune. I tipped him a little extra when he asked me if he could say goodbye. I was shown to my room by a little old lady in a Zimmer frame. Inside I locked the door and rammed the back of a chair up against the door handle. When I turned on the light I realised that if I was going to spend a night here I should have got the old lady to lock it from the other side. Cheap was too grand a word for this dive. But I was tired. And my head was filling with too much other stuff, old stuff, safe stuff, for me to care about how many spiders I was going to share my pillow with.

I slept. Maybe I cried. What does it matter?

*

Knocking on the door. Like someone auditioning for drums in a band called Drums and Nothing But.

‘Okay, okay,’ I yelled, but it wasn’t. It was far from okay. Within the hour I would have those knuckles mounted on a plinth and hanging over my fireplace. But the owner of the knuckles was already walking back to his car as I opened the door in the suit I had crashed out in. Weak sunlight dribbled through the crack. I slipped on my shades and asked if we could stop for coffee.

‘I have anticipated you, Mr Hallah,’ he called. ‘Come and get it.’

*

He introduced himself as Flyk Kibble. I nearly missed the name. I was staring at his godlike sideburns. He had fashioned them into deep, scything blades that petered out a centimetre or so from his chin. The coffee, it had to be said, was excellent.

‘What do you do out here?’

‘I’m liaison for the coroner, Mr Hallah. I am his eyes and ears.’

‘And legs.’

He laughed. ‘Yes, legs too. It was Ms Fuss though, who asked me to pick you up. A personal favour for her.’

‘How personal?’

He gave me a look. ‘We were at college together.’

‘That figures.’

‘Hmm?’

I said, ‘You’re both highly polished people. I could go round to knock on Milk’s door at 3 am and she’d open it looking like someone who just fell out of a movie. You too, I reckon.’

‘It’s called professionalism.’

Stung, I said, ‘I’m a professional too.’

‘I don’t doubt it.’

‘The tone of your voice says you do.’

‘What, we talk for two minutes and you know me well enough to determine what I think? Milk told me you were difficult.’

I said, ‘In my job it doesn’t pay to look like a clothes horse. I need to blend in.’

‘I’ll take you to the morgue if you like,’ he said. ‘You’ll blend in plenty.’

‘No thanks. The boathouse is good for now.’

Maybe I did lean on him a little too hard. But I prefer to travel in silence. Especially if other things are crowding in, trying to lay claim to the little good space that’s left inside my head. What did I care if he thought I was a pain in the neck? It wasn’t like we were neighbours.

*

I had a headache by the time we got to the edge of the lake. Mist clung to its surface, but you could just see enough to tell it was mirror-smooth. A little eaterie called the Bread ‘n’ Water stood next to it. I checked the menu in the window before we went in. Tupelo would have liked this place. Lots of fish and herbs. Lots of candles. Her eyes in candlelight… you could go mad.

There were no candles here now though. Lots of big, harsh lights. Lots of lab coats. Lots of police. And a scoop with a pencil jammed behind his ear and a big camera with a big flash attached to the hotshoe that went off with a sound like a sheet being torn from a bed. People in Caramel Pines took their murder seriously. It was nice to see.

I flashed my card and used Milk Fuss’s name like currency. It got me to the front of the pack where a squat guy in a cableknit sweater was lying on his back. I pulled out the aftershave and splashed a good few glugs into the hanky which I placed over my mouth and nose. Some of the cops laughed. Some of them looked at me wishing they had had the same idea.

I examined the body. Another gash across the back of the head. Brains hanging out like the tentacles of a Portuguese Man o’ War. No 24-clip. I was impressed the body had lasted this long with only superficial decomposition. But then, it was deep winter.

‘What do you reckon, city boy?’ one of the cops asked out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Dead?’

A bit of laughter. Local badges, they’re in a class of their own. I didn’t take the bait. There was a murdered man here. Someone who was looking forward to his lunch and then, maybe, the rest of his life. Young guy. What had he done? What had Finn Mutch done? Where was the common ground?

‘Who was here first?’ I asked. My lucky day, the cop with the comedy lips. He crinkled them as he approached me. They looked like something you might find at the back of a monkey.

‘Do you know him?’ I got in first, before he could impress his friends with more bon mots.

‘Sure. Name’s Gully Jukes. Owns a secondhand bookshop on the seafront.’ He handed me the wallet he had rescued from the corpse’s pocket. The face that beamed at me from the ID card didn’t carry a hint of the shadow of death that had now come home to roost.

‘Any ideas who did this? Or why?’

He smirked. ‘You’re the talent. You tell me. I just point traffic in the right direction.’

One of the boathouse staff was doing his best to try to clean up. He had a broom under the dead man’s feet before anyone could stop him. ‘Woah, boy,’ I said, and put my foot in the way. I was used to an unhelpful crime scene in the city. Out here, it made a nice change to have order. I wasn’t going to let anyone screw it up. But he’d done some damage, raking up some soft loam, a bit of litter. And hello.

A tiny skeleton. What was that? A mouse? a bird? I picked the little tangle of bones up off the floor and folded them into my handkerchief.

‘Lunch?’ asked the comedian cop.

‘Evidence,’ I said. ‘Maybe.’

‘Oh really? You think cock robin killed our friend here? And then topped himself?’ More laughter. I ignored it. I could rise above it all. Get me.

I said, ‘I need a lift to the station. I need to get back to the city.’

‘What’s the big rush? Getting nose bleeds so far away from your delis and your traffic jams?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Well, there are no more trains tonight, mister. Next one is at 8 am tomorrow morning. Stick around. I’ll show you the sights.’

‘No thanks.’ I gave him a card. ‘Call me if you get any more info on this.’ The bones in my pocket burned into my thigh as if they had just come from a cooked bird. I went back to the hotel and left the handkerchief on the dressing table. Then I caught a tram to the beach.

Nowhere Beach isn’t particularly pretty or dramatic. It isn’t good for sunbathing, enclosed as it is on either side by hills that block out the light. The area doesn’t have a rich diversity of wildlife. There are no good restaurants, no clubs or bars. It’s a bit of a nowhere place and maybe that’s how it got its name. And I like it. We liked it. Maybe because nobody else did. I get the feeling that Tupelo liked me for much the same reason.

We came here on the day after I asked her to marry me. I was feeling powerful, primitively powerful, as if my genes had triumphed over those of any other sad old Joe in the city. Man hunt for woman. Man find woman. Man good. I needed to get out of town and get some fresh air into me. The city was too stifling. I wanted to run around and scream. We took a picnic to the beach and ate some of it before our mouths gravitated towards each other. Most of the afternoon was spent spooning in the sand and we finally unlocked ourselves from each other as the hill’s shadows lengthened across the sea.

Now I walked down to where the tide lapped against the sand. The sea was darker than I remembered it, like beaten gunmetal, perhaps because of winter. With the ocean behind me, I scanned the beach, trying to remember where we had lain. I remembered after we had gathered together the blanket and the picnic basket, we hiked up the hill to the tram terminus instead of following the path that I had come in on.

I retraced the route we had taken last year, remembering how I had looked up at Tupelo as she picked her way barefoot through the rocks and vines, and teased her about the sway of her backside. She almost fell over at one point, she was laughing so much. Here. It was here that she pressed her foot into a little puddle of sand. I remember…

I had stared at the perfect little impression of heel and toes. Before she could see me, I had picked up a piece of slate and covered the footprint, possessed suddenly with an insane desire to protect it and prevent anybody else from clapping eyes on a little mark made by my wife, my wife-to-be.

I saw the slate, tinged with a little moss, hidden by a few thick ferns that had reached over, as if guarding a shrine. My heart was beating wildly as I reached out to flip off that slate lid, and I thought surely, not… the insects, the weather… surely not.

But the footprint was there. Five tiny dips and the elongated heart shape of her foot proper. I lost it, a little, up there on the hill. I dug my hand into the sand and scooped it up and put it in my pocket and dropped to my knees and lost it.

*

I thought of nothing else, of nobody else on the way back the next morning. I took out my phone. I would ring her. I would tell her things were different. That things had changed. I would send her the sand in an envelope.

I stepped off the train five hours later and put the phone back in my pocket. Caught a cab. I hadn’t had a drink for over twelve hours. That was a sin I was about to atone for.

Three pints in, Oak Seddon lining them up. An argument was raging between a Bible-quoting reformed stripper and a man with a banjo who sang rude songs. It was excellent entertainment. My phone vibrated.

‘Hallah,’ I said.

‘It’s Milk,’ she said. ‘Good trip?’

I gave her the bare bones about the bare bones and listened to her silent reply.

‘Still there?’ I asked. ‘Why don’t you come over to Oak’s and get tight with me?’

‘I was right the first time,’ she said.

‘I don’t follow you, toots,’ I said. ‘And after another one of these pints of rocket fuel I’ll have trouble following my own nose.’

‘Shit, Rad. I messed up. When I said there were two bodies at Bane’s? I did say it to get you interested. I was being facetious. But there really were two bodies up there. There was a skeleton. A little thing, like a rat. I didn’t think it meant anything.’

Oak’s beer suddenly tasted as flat as tapwater. He saw my expression and started clearing away the frothy glasses that were queuing up for my gullet. Fifteen minutes later I was in the plexiglass pod sprinting up into the Splinters, swallowing hard against a scream that was building like an orgasm inside my chest. By the time I got to Bane’s I was wound up like a dog chasing its own tail. Bane wasn’t around, but plenty of other people were. Yuicy was gyrating on her table like a drunken uncle at a wedding reception. A sea of faces looked up at her.

I pushed through the swilling bodies to the toilets. Mutch had been removed, but I wouldn’t have batted an eye if he was still on the throne. I kicked about in the filth for a while but did nothing other than make a case for Shoeshine Eddie to hate my guts for the rest of eternity.

Outside I saw a few heaps of muck that some short-straw loser had swept against the wall. In the second heap I struck paydirt. A tiny skeleton, not quite as intact as the first in my grim collection, but still very interesting. I pocketed it and went back to the bar.

‘You Lissa?’ I said, when the tall, raven-haired barmaid tilted my way.

‘Yes,’ she said brightly.

‘Where’s Bane?’

‘He’s playing cards in the back.’

‘Through there?’ I nodded at a door at the back of the bar.

‘Yes,’ she said, uncertainly. ‘But — ’

I vaulted the bar and pushed by her, ignoring her protests and those of the punters waiting to be served. I got through the door, surprised to see that the lights were off and I was in total darkness. But somewhere between that thought, and my legs folding, I realised that I had been brained.

*

I woke up. I vomited.

Sneezing puke through my nostrils and trying to swallow against the burn in my throat, I scrambled to my feet only to be punched back down again. Blood squirted, bittersweet across my tongue. I reckoned my face now looked like some ripe gourd at the bottom of an unsuccessful greengrocer’s refuse sack.

I made it upright once more and another fist landed on my nose, crushing it like an eggshell, persuading me it was better on the floor. I didn’t argue. I lay there, the centre of my face bubbling and fizzing, and waited for the feet to join in, but then came the sound of yelling and another scuffle that didn’t involve me. Footsteps ran away. Heavy, ponderous footsteps. Muntin Bane making good on his promises.

A hand in mine. Warm breath against my cheek.

‘Can you stand up?’

‘I tried it earlier,’ I said. ‘It didn’t work out.’ I recognised the voice. It made the hair on my neck spring to attention.

‘Come on,’ she said.

Somehow she got me on to the main street where she flagged a cab and took me home. In the kitchen, the striplight flickering, she washed my cuts and dabbed peroxide into them. I laughed at the pain. If I hadn’t, I would have cried instead.

She wrapped a blanket around me and took me into the living room, where she made a space on the sofa and let me rest my head against he shoulder for a while.

‘Thanks for rescuing me, Curve,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to show me a few moves sometime.’

She did show me a few moves, that very night, and it was good and it was great. Sometime towards dawn I heard her scuffling about for her clothes and I opened my eyes to watch. I was groggy from a glass of brandy and a few codeine pills, but I was able to see her body as it accrued layers, her breasts against the moonlight making it seem as though there was nothing but an edge to her, a brilliant white curve. I watched her move across the room to the door, where she stopped and looked back at me. She said something then and I went back to sleep and tried to forget.

I’m sorry.

*

I booted up the drive and pulsed my dad. It was early. I couldn’t stomach breakfast, but I found a coffee cup for the rest of the brandy.

He’s in his dotage, but my dad works harder than ever. Especially since my mother died. It’s like he equates retirement with senility and death. Maybe he’s right. Anyway, he’s up at sparrowfart and doesn’t go to bed till past midnight. He looks at me and thinks, she must have had an affair, I’m certain of it. He reads, he writes, he has so many filing cabinets that he has a filing cabinet devoted to a filing system that deals with his filing cabinets.

His face shimmered into view on the LCD. He blinked a few times and said, ‘Well?’ He suddenly saw me properly. ‘What the hell have you been up to, Rad? Did you forget how to negotiate doors?

‘Hi dad,’ I said. ‘How are you?’

‘Busy,’ he said, pointedly.

‘Busy doing what?’

He sighed. ‘I have to deliver an essay on a synthetic heat protein for the blood, you know, for the terraforming project in the Antarctic. I mean, have you ever tried using a screwdriver with fifteen pairs of gloves on?’

‘Right, dad. Sounds good. Listen, I need you to have a look at something for me. See if you can identify what it is.’

‘If it’s your brain, don’t bother. It will not be recognisable. Perhaps as a pickled walnut, but nothing else.’

You can see where I get it from.

‘I’m uploading the scans now, dad. I think they’re the same beast, but I’m not a hundred per cent.’

He screwed his magnifier into his eye socket, the compensating hike of his cheek giving him a lecherous appearance. ‘Ah,’ he said. And then: ‘Ah.’

He left his seat and wandered off. I took a sly slug from the cup. You’d need it too, if you were talking to my dad. He came back with a huge volume that he started riffling through contentedly, looking up now and again at the scans to make comparisons.

‘Hmm,’ he said, haughtily. ‘Regulus ignicapillus, I’d say.’

‘A bird, right?’

The magnifier out, he rolled his eyes theatrically. ‘Of course it’s a bird.’

‘It’s not helping me out here, Dad,’ I said, hating myself for allowing him to manipulate me like this. The only person in the world who could.

‘What else can I give you?’ he said. ‘Most people know that it has an orange flash on its head. It’s what gives it its name. They nest in spruce or larch forests. Migrant birds, but some of them have started to breed over here.’

I gritted my teeth against saying that he obviously just gleaned all that from the book he consulted, but a tiny part of me suspected that he knew it all anyway. He made me feel about as big as a pygmy in a basketball team.

I was readying myself to say goodbye, that I’d try to make it up to see him sometime soon, when I remembered what he’d said.

‘What name would that be, by the way?’

‘I told you lad,’ he said, ‘Regulus ignicapillus.’

‘Which means?’

Another sigh, augmented by the cluck of his tongue. I butched it out. ‘Why, Rad, obviously, it’s Latin. For Firecrest.’

*

The city is silent tonight. It’s withdrawn, huddled into itself. The cold has pinched the streets blue; frost sucks the depth from the alleyways, everything is visible in the city, in winter. There are no places to hide.

There were no places for Vex Whysse to hide, though he tried. I don’t think he tried too hard, in the end. I think that part of it was that he wanted to be stopped. It was too painful, all of it. The tracking down, the killing. The remembering. The killing didn’t stop the memories, or make better what had happened all those years ago. The killing made the memories fresh. It made the circle of pain that much wider, that’s all.

Curve Moody knew it and she had decided to end it now. She gave me an address, before she left last night. I found it when I was pulling on my clothes, slipped into my pocket. I went to check it out, a storage facility on the edge of the city, where people who can’t fit everything they’ve got into their apartments rent garage space to keep the remainder.

I broke in and found a pile of boxes containing clothes, sports equipment, magazines. Nothing special. But in a plastic carrier bag hanging on a hook on the wall, I found half a dozen Firecrest skeletons wrapped in cotton wool. Every one of them was an anatomy lesson in pain and regret. I called Milk Fuss as I studied them. I told her about the oil rig fire.

‘Check out the offspring of those who died, Milk,’ I told her. ‘They’re being picked off one by one. Father of a woman who works at the fire station was offed fighting the blaze. She joined up to keep his spirit alive, That kind of shit. Someone else joined up too, for the same reason, but without the good intent. I’m going to find him now.’

I asked her to run a check on Vex Whysse and she came back to me ten minutes later with the good news and the bad. Whysse had been a childhood sweetheart of Curve’s and applied to join the fire service on the same day Curve did. But although Curve got in at the first attempt, Whysse failed three times, on medical grounds. He had been a heavy kid. Remembering what he looked like on the night I visited the station told me something about his determination. Once in the service, he could go about avenging the killers of Curve’s father, not realising until it was too late that they had paid the ultimate price and that their offspring, innocent, harmless, were poor targets. I wondered if he slept at all these days. I wondered if his dreams were good.

‘We’ve accounted for five of the six who are left,’ Milk told me. ‘Sister of the sixth, a Nude Lucky, told me that her brother had been phoned up by a man who wanted to offer him a job. He’s gone to meet him there now. Desperate for work, apparently.’

I thought of Finn Mutch, how his sexuality had been preyed upon. Whysse knew about need. He knew how to work on a person’s Achilles heel.

‘Where?’ I said, wishing I had a gun.

*

I got to the kid before Whysse. I told him to be good and go home. There was no job. Then I waited on the waste ground outside the football stadium, listening to the animal roar of the spectators inside and watching the floodlights turn the area above the stands into powdery white haze.

I recognised Vex Whysse immediately, even though he was wearing a skullcap and a padded windcheater. He looked like an inverted triangle. His face was red in the brutal cold whipping down the street. When he saw me step out into the light. He stopped. Then kept walking towards me. That pause was enough to tell me that his being here wasn’t a coincidence and I might have it all wrong. That pause let him down.

‘Hi,’ I said.

‘Funny seeing you here.’

I nodded. ‘Hilarious. You ready to come in with me? We can get a cab to the DS’s office.’

‘I don’t think so,’ he said, and stepped away from me.

‘You going to make it difficult?’

‘I’m not… ready,’ he said, and took off into the waste ground at a speed that surprised me for such a muscly man.

I was on the back foot, but I gamely trotted after him. He fired a couple of times in my direction, but the shots were wildly off target. It was almost sad. I caught him trying to reload hunched down behind a stack of rotting pallets, his fingers shivering as they slotted the bullets into the chamber of his gun.

‘Come in with me, Vex,’ I said softly. ‘It’s over. You can stop running.’

He shook his head. ‘I can’t. I won’t go to prison.’

‘I can’t let you go. You know that.’

‘I know.’ He looked as if he was about to offer a different argument, serve up some kind of bargain, but instead he lodged the muzzle of the gun under his front teeth and blew his face apart.

*

There was a lot of attention from the media. I got my face plastered across the front pages, black eyes and busted nose, the works. Dad emailed me to congratulate me but also to harangue me for not mentioning him at all. And Milk slipped me a cheque which I cashed and spent a goodly portion of in the local bottle shop. I got home to find that my place had been broken into. I smelled her all over the flat, but nothing had been taken. Her shape was in the bedclothes. She had come here to be with me while things were being sorted out by the football stadium. It was the last time I ever felt near to her. I never saw her again.

I caught my advert on the screen again that night, and thought I didn’t look too bad after all, especially compared to the smorgasbord that my head now resembled. Toasting my erstwhile handsomeness, I tipped the bottle as the chump on screen stumbled over those rhyming couplets.

I was about to swallow when the phone rang.

Advent Stories #4

CRAPPY RUBSNIFF

IMG_0652

Stanniford was waiting for them when they got back. He watched the two men enter the room and help themselves to drinks from his cabinet. They settled into a pair of leatherette armchairs on the other side of Stanniford’s desk. Soon, the only sound was that of the traffic on the main road and the ice chinking in their glasses. They seemed relaxed, but Haslam was looking anywhere but at him and Tasker couldn’t get his drink down fast enough. Stanniford left it a little longer. The drink wasn’t doing what it said on the label. Haslam started to squawk.

‘I think…’ he said. ‘I think…’

‘Charlie,’ Stanniford said. ‘That is something you manifestly do not do. I think. You listen. And act. Or you’re supposed to.’

‘I think…’ Haslam began again.

‘You think, therefore you’re a cunt,’ Stanniford said. He left him to it, slowly rolled his eyes Tasker’s way. Tasker was busy refilling his glass. His face was pinched hard and greying, as if someone had coated it with quick-drying cement. ‘What’s Descartes here trying to say, Phil?’

Tasker took a mouthful of whisky and swiped at some invisible hairs on his jacket. ‘He got away, John.’

‘You. Fucking. What?’

‘I think he did. It was hard to see. Dark. Lots of smoke. But I saw… we saw a shape coming out the back window.

‘Well now,’ Stanniford said. He caught a glimpse of himself in the waxing blackness of the window, a pallid man who had lost too much weight too quickly and resembled something ill-packed. His skin was baggy, as was the black Dior Homme wool suit, which had once looked so very sharp on him. The light was such that he was unable to see anything of his eyes beneath the heavy ledge of his brow, just a couple of wedges of shade above a hawkish nose and the humourless slit of his mouth. ‘Well now. What’s it come to? I can’t rely on my best men to do a job for me? Did you follow him?’

Haslam found his voice. ‘We followed him.’

‘But you lost him.’ Stanniford favoured the younger man with the kind of tones one might use with a child.

Tasker put down his glass and got to his feet. ‘We lost him, but there aren’t that many places he can go. We’ve shut the door on most of his people. Give us a little more time and we’ll flush him out.’

Stanniford sucked his top lip between his teeth. He had no choice, but he didn’t like conceding to an employee’s suggestions. ‘Fix me a drink,’ he said, flatly, not wanting one, but needing to lord it. ‘Vodka. Plenty of ice.’

Tasker handed him the glass but Stanniford took his time before accepting it, keeping his eyes on him, keeping the shadows there so the other man wouldn’t be able to read him.

‘You bring me Kelleher’s face in a paper bag before this time tomorrow night,’ he said, the ice chinking against the expensive crystal, ‘or I will have your arse for a fucking ink well.’

*

What had he lost? Really lost, in the grand scheme of things? A couple of secondhand paperbacks from the Scope shop down the road; a half-litre bottle of the cheapest white rum he could find; a batch of letters from Fran; his mobile phone. That was all. Losing the letters hurt most, of course, and he didn’t feel too great about grabbing the gun instead of the bundle before removing his arse from the flat. But Fran was dead and what she didn’t know couldn’t bring her back from the grave.

At least he had got one of the fuckers before they came for him. And it was good, really, that he hadn’t died. He’d have the rest of his lifetime to wish he had. They’d know how dangerous he could be. How far he was prepared to go. They’d be scared of him, a little. Maybe more.

Kelleher hadn’t stopped running for ten minutes, but now he ducked into the driveway of a house in Lordship Road to catch his breath and try to work out what to do next. The driveway was blocked, but not by anything so grand as a car. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a car in a driveway, certainly not in London. Driveways were for skips or rotting mattresses, or, in this case, an old GEC cooker and half a dozen swollen, ripped bin bags. He sat down with his back against the cooker, trying not to displace the spilled tin cans and beer bottles too much. It was getting on for 2 am. A change in the wind brought back to him the swoop of the sirens from Amhurst Park. His clothes — thankfully he’d fallen asleep fully dressed — smelled of smoke and part of the sole of one of his Pro Keds had melted in the heat. What had they used back there? Had they doused the whole building in petrol? The place had gone up quicker than Argentinian inflation.

Kelleher checked his gun. A virgin clip, but his last. He’d need to find fresh ammo before dawn. The gun was a battered old thing, a 9 mm Glock 17 that felt too light and plasticky to give him any real confidence, but it was all he had, stolen from the safe of a Korean restaurant he’d burgled in Manchester the previous summer. He hated guns; if you had a gun, you were much more likely to get shot, but the stakes were so high in the city now. Everyone who was a player had a piece. If you didn’t… well, you weren’t a player. Simple as that.

He found himself wondering more and more about that these days. Not being a player. Losing the gun, losing himself. Maybe get out of N16 and drive north, don’t stop till the petrol runs out. Ditch the car, get a job in a bar, find some new walls and a roof, a woman to help forget himself for a while. It sounded so easy, but he couldn’t do it, not yet, not while the sound of Fran’s breath as it gurgled out of her body still swam around in his head.

It was cold, now that he had stopped running. Stopped running. Now there was a joke. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was such a considerate neighbour, he’d have sat there hooting his Jacob’s off at the hilarity of it all. Instead, he closed his eyes and tried to think of an open door, or at least a door that was slightly ajar, offering a chink of light, some warmth. Everyone he knew in the city had been scared off, or had disappeared. And so should he, but for what had happened to Fran. He couldn’t leave until he’d sorted that out.

He caught a night bus to Lewisham, a nightmare of a journey that involved a change at Trafalgar Square where he had to wait for 20 minutes for a connection. The driver woke him up with a nudge at a little before 3.30 am; the bus was parked in the terminus. He thanked him and stepped off, depressed by the oily quality of the dark. He walked the half mile or so to Hither Green Lane and took a right, stopping by the disused St George’s hospital, which was hunkered down in black shadows, its windows boarded up, looking like anything other than a place where you could go for help. Every building, though, looked like that to Kelleher now.

He forced himself to wait for five minutes. Every window in the street opposite he checked for movement. He clocked every car that trundled by and listened hard for footsteps, sniffed the air for the smell of cigarette smoke. All clear.

He paused again outside the flat on Lullingstone Lane and had one more check of the area around him: the residential parking bays and the high wooden fence on to the dead hospital’s grounds. The windows visible in St George’s were either boarded over, punched out or milky with smears. It seemed to suck the silence into itself, becoming ever more still and dark with each passing second. He knew, if he didn’t act, that he would become the same before long. Already he could feel vast corridors of emptiness reaching out inside him, offering him miles of darkness to walk alone.

He knocked on the door.

*

‘You fucking prick,’ Tasker said again. He regarded his partner, who was looking out through the passenger window, his elbow up against the door, busy with whatever feeble thoughts buzzed around that colossal head of his. Haslam wasn’t rising to his bait.

Not for the first time, Tasker wished that Nicky Preece had been able to last the pace. It would be good to have Nicky around now, inasmuch as any endgame could be described as being good. But he’d feel more confident with Preece, instead of this hair-trigger arsehole. Where the hell had Stanniford picked him up from? Tasker squeezed the steering wheel tight for a few seconds, until his knuckles whitened under the sodium lights streaming past the car as they nosed through Holborn. Nicky Preece was on a ventilator now at the Royal Free. Half of his chest had been blown away, and a leg too, one morning two weeks ago when he started his Mazda up outside his gaff in King’s Cross and found out, too late, that the engine had been souped up with something extra special. The day after, Tasker had rented a lock-up for his own motor. The day after that, Stanniford introduced him to Haslam.

He thought back to that evening. They’d met in the World’s End in Finsbury Park, a large pub with a purpose built stage for gigs and karaoke. Stanniford and Haslam were there waiting for them. Two pints of Stella sweating hard on the table. Nothing for Stanniford if the pub didn’t serve Finlandia. Tasker didn’t like the look of the other guy from the off. His muscles were gym muscles. He wore a goatee, one of those jobs that looked like he’d dribbled treacle from his bottom lip to his chin. And he looked around him nervously, fiddled with the buttons of his Paul Smith suit, licked and re-licked his mouth as if it was a fucking lollipop.

Stanniford, Mr Economy: ‘This is your new partner. No buts.’ And he was gone, leaving them to their pints like two desperates on a blind date.

Since then, their hunting of Kelleher had not gone as well as Tasker would have liked. This was partly down to Kelleher’s savvy, and refusal to stay in one place for longer than a night, but it was also because Haslam was making his shit hang sideways. Tasker couldn’t focus. Every time he felt he was drawing a bead on the situation, Haslam would say something to knock him out of whack. He was getting sick of it. If Stanniford refused to notice that Haslam was an issue, a fucking liability, then they could both piss off and play house together. There were other places he could work. At his age, he didn’t need the aggro.

‘What’s left?’ he asked now.

Haslam looked at him as if he’d just suggested they have sex with a couple of rats. He sat up in his seat and looked out as they swung on to Waterloo Bridge. It was raining.

‘Left is St Paul’s, the Barbican, Canary Wharf and — ’

‘Fucking hilarious,’ Tasker spat. ‘Answer the fucking question or you’ll be left too. Left on the fucking bridge. As fucking roadkill.’

He chewed his teeth while Haslam took his time opening the A-Z. Haslam said, ‘Swearing indicates a limited vocabulary, you know.’

‘Answering back to me indicates a limited intelligence,’ Tasker said. ‘Especially in this fucking car.’ Just push it, he thought, just fucking push it a little more and I’ll air some fucking grievances. And then I’ll air you, you scum-sucking piece of shit.

‘We’ve got a shit-pit off the Old Kent Road and that’s it. If he isn’t there, then he’s scooted. We’ll never find him.’

‘You lose this cocksure attitude in front of Stanniford, don’t you? You piss yourself.’

‘I don’t piss myself,’ Haslam said, his voice hard and flat. ‘I play Stanniford like a fish. He wants to see people intimidated in front of him. I tell you something. He’s more comfortable with me than he is with you. He isn’t sure about you.’

‘I’ve known John Stanniford twelve years,’ Tasker said, slowly, making sure he took it in.

‘Counts for nothing,’ Haslam said breezily. ‘He thinks you’re after his crown.’

Tasker’s fingernails had found the soft area at the base of his palms and were digging. He reined it all in and eased back in his seat. Brought the needle down from 45 to 35. There would be time, at the end of all this, to let his steam escape. And then —

He pulled up around the corner from the Dun Cow Surgery and got out without waiting to see what Haslam might say. His back to the main street he dipped his head into the flaps of his greatcoat and checked the chamber of his customised Brocock, then motioned for Haslam to follow. It had been Haslam’s idea to torch Kelleher’s flat and it was the first and last time he went with any of the smaller man’s dumbfuck ideas.

‘You stand in my shadow for this one,’ he warned Haslam as they moved into the target street.

‘Stanniford has us equals in this job.’

‘Yeah, well I’m not Stanniford and I’m telling you to fuck off. Watch our backs. You can cry your heart out to Stanniford later.’ He could feel Haslam tightening up behind him like the coil in an overwound watch. Once they reached the stairwell of the block of flats, however, he pushed Haslam out of his mind. As long as he did his job properly, he wouldn’t have to think of him again until they got back on the street.

But it didn’t work out like that. On the target corridor, Haslam was pumped up so much that he started kicking doors in. He’d done for three when Tasker decked him with a punch to his stomach. He swung around as babies’ screams and yells of consternation came from the adjoining flats.

He waited until the testosterone was coming at him from the doorways and then he showed them his gun. ‘Go back inside,’ he said, and they did, all good boys.

A little further along, Tasker rang a doorbell and a woman answered. He pushed her back into her flat, ignoring the strident demands as to who he was, and pressed the muzzle of the gun against her sternum. He smelled piss, very strong, as her bladder gave way. ‘You should drink more water,’ he said. Her mouth was doing the beached fish. She had nice eyes, but her skin was very tired, her hair so used to colour from a bottle that it was the consistency of straw. ‘I won’t harm you,’ he whispered, conscious of the clock ticking. ‘But if Kelleher is here, if you’re hiding him, give him to me now.’

*

It was difficult to lock down the precise moment that his London life had begun to fall apart. Fran’s death codified it, made it all super-real, but the spark that lit the kindling? If he wanted to be extra anal, he could go all the way back to the day he joined the gym, in his mid-teens, and started making all the connections his parents begged him not to make. But the stuff that was happening now could really only be measured from the date of the cricket match, two summers back, at a nice little ground in Herne Hill. A casual game set up by some friends of his, an excuse to get the barbecue out and order half a dozen cases of lager. Invite plenty of ladies along and hope the sun was strong enough to get them dressing in bikini tops and quim skimmers. It was an in for him. He met a few men who were intelligent enough to know that muscle was no good unless there was a brain on top of it all. One guy had impressed him more than the rest. It helped that they struck up a partnership with the bat out at the crease. Kelleher reached 74, the other man 88 — they’d put on 62 since the previous wicket had fallen — before Kelleher was caught, slashing at a ball on the off side. As he trooped off the pitch, the other man had shook his hand and invited him for a drink later. Yes, he had impressed Kelleher, but his mistress had impressed him more.

IMG_0650— I’m Frances, she had said when the game had been won. Stanny’s not stopped talking about you.

— Who’s Stanny? he asked, thinking I could care less, and wondering how much curve a man could take before he went raving mad.

— My man. Your partner out there. John Stanniford.

He’d turned up then, fresh from the shower, his gaunt face coloured in by the jets, his suit fitting him so well it looked as if it was something to be shed, rather than taken off.

— Great knock, Stanniford said, offering his hand again. Again, Kelleher took it.

— Great century. You carried your bat like a pro.

— Thanks, Stanniford said. Let me get you a drink.

Frances arched her eyebrows as Stanniford went over to the cooler chests and picked out three bottles of beer. — He never gets his own drinks, she got off, before he was back within earshot.

— You here with anyone I know? Stanniford asked him.

— Not really, just those clowns over there, the guys set the match up.

— Nice blokes. You work with them?

— No, Kelleher had said, pointedly, fixing Stanniford with a look, with a come on.

— You looking for work?

— Yes.

— Well, Stanniford said, knocking back the rest of his bottle and looking at his watch, best of luck. Hope you get some.

Then he was moving away and Frances was going with him, but not before looking back over her shoulder and tipping him a slow wink that he knew he’d carry into his dreams that night. He watched the silver Porsche Boxster swoop out of the car park and rebuffed all other parties, for the rest of the afternoon, evening and night, knowing that something was going to happen there.

And Christ, did it ever.

*

Stanniford suggested Marylebone Library because of its proximity to Paddington Police Station and because it had a security guard, which would make the punters more relaxed and unsuspecting. As an added bonus it was within spitting distance of the Westway, a quick out of the Smoke. And because, who’d have thought it? A fucking library.

It was all news that calmed their nerves. They said, we like it. We like it a lot.

The exchange: a hundred DVDs, no packaging, no labelling, zipped up in a Case Logic disc holder — teen-porn, smuggled in from the Hook of Holland that very morning — in return for a dozen handguns skimmed off the amnesty stockpile, courtesy of their PC Bentboy.

Stanniford was in a suite at the Landmark Hotel across the road, watching it all play out with a pair of Zeiss in one hand and a Finlandia with a fistful of cracked ice in the other. Frances lying on the sheets behind him, naked, smelling good, waiting for him to finish his drink.

The kicker: an hour before swapsies, the security guard had been taken out by Kelleher who was now sitting in the booth in a white shirt and clip-on tie, reading a copy of GQ and stroking the baseball bat at his side. Waiting to do some good work for his new boss.

Stanniford’s men came in a two minutes to eleven. Kelleher nodded at them: Tasker and Preece, good men. He watched them, Tasker carrying the disc holder, as they moved through the swing doors, past the reception desk and over to the travel section, back left of the library.

Five minutes later, and three minutes late, two more men entered the library, both of them uglier than something dreamed up by Grimm. One of them had a green North Face rucksack slung over his arm. Kelleher avoided eye contact. It was better that way.

He watched them move towards the music section back right of the library, where the CD shelves stood. He was distracted by someone knocking insistently on the booth window, but only for a second, till he realised it was his heart beating. Beating like it had the first time he and Frances fucked against the wall in Stanniford’s garage, a wild two-minute thrash in the middle of an evening’s entertaining at Stanniford’s pile out in Egham.

Keep those visuals, he thought, as he lifted the bat and edged out of the booth. Five past, now. A quick peek. The swap made. No trouble. Two men disappearing out through the swing doors at the back of the library, heading for the fire exit. Two men coming his way, making for the main doors.

Fran sucking hard on his ear as he went for it, sliding her hand up his back, her breasts scooped out over her Wonderbra, jiggling against his chest. The warmth of her, the unbelievable heat. He felt her heartbeat, an insistent code of need drumming through to him.

— Morning, ladies, he said, as the doors swung open. He clipped Preece across the jaw, which broke immediately, and he went down in a squealing heap, trying to keep his mouth where it was meant to be. Tasker he felled with a sharp swipe to a kneecap. The sound as it popped made him feel ill. Tasker too, by the look of his face: it filled with grey, the eyes rolling back in their sockets as if he was auditioning for something by George Romero. Kelleher gave Tasker another to the side of the head, to keep him down, and kicked Preece in the balls when it looked as if he was trying to get his hand in his pocket. Then he dropped the bat, picked up the rucksack and left, eyeballing nobody till he was in the Merc with the ugly sisters and screeching away along Upper Montagu Street.

In the back, he punched Fran’s number into his mobile.

— Kelleher. You fucking cunt.

He was about to hit the call end button but Stanniford wasn’t finished. Kelleher didn’t like this. Stanniford never picked up Fran’s calls. Not in the month since they’d been seeing each other, anway.

— This is how you treat someone who was never anything but polite with you?

Kelleher forced himself to remain civil. — I could have been good for you, he said. I was willing to be loyal. A good worker.

— I don’t need any more men, Stanniford said. And those that I’ve got are top professionals, worth any number of you.

— Yeah, well, you might want to come down to the entrance hall and help your top professionals to pick their teeth up off the fucking floor.’

— I’ m impressed, Stanniford said, in a voice that was anything but. Incidentally, I’ve put a stop to your covert shafting, what you thought was your covert shafting, of my bird. It’s all over. The end. She’s here on my hotel bed, room 27 at the Landmark, looking mighty fine, waiting for me to give her some attention. But I’m not in the mood now. I’ve already given her more than enough attention to last however many seconds are left of her lifetime.

Stanniford killed the link then, and Kelleher felt his mouth turn to dust.

— Go back, he said to Blondell, the ugliest driver in the world.

— Are you fucking nuts? asked Gearing, the ugliest passenger.

Kelleher opened the back door, the Merc doing 50 south along Baker Street.

Blondell, then: — Okay, okay, Jee-sus.

At the Landmark, Kelleher barged through the protests in reception and was about to shoulder down the door to room 27 when he saw that he didn’t need to. It was ajar. Seeing that crushed him. If the door had been locked, maybe he could have at least felt that he might have a chance to save her. But a door that was swinging on its hinges was the saddest sign in the world. He opened it anyway. The message Stanniford had left for him had been daubed on the wall in the stuff that had turned hot for him, been pushed around her body by the sweet tempo of her heart. You’d have thought he’d have the decency to spell his fucking name right.

*

Stanniford alone in the rooms above the cab firms, bookmakers and newsagents and endless, streaming traffic. Blackstock Road was doing an impression of a car production line at down tools. The Seven Sisters Road too was nose-to-tail, filling the air with exhaust fumes, impatient horns, blasphemy.

It was only 6 pm, but already the sky was midnight black. North London seemed at its happiest in the dark, as if it were in league with this colour, and revealed its best side. Stanniford watched the army of Arsenal supporters as they downed pints outside the The Twelve Pins or bought burgers and hot dogs from the portable listeria vans parked around Station Place. Some big game at the Emirates, some European night. A clash of the titans, no doubt. They don’t get much bigger than this.

The gun in the drawer was still there when he went to check it for the fourth or fifth time since daylight faded. He had loaded it himself that afternoon but couldn’t decide whether to keep the drawer closed or open. Maybe he should keep the piece in his pocket, but that would only spoil the lines of his suit, and a sharply-dressed man always had an edge over his opposition, even before guns came into the equation.

He poured a drink, a strong one, and took it back in one gulp. It had been such a long time since he’d been at the brink, stoked up to take a life. That was what his men were for, that was what being at this level was about. He didn’t have to do it anymore. He had paid his dues and passed the tests. He’d put the hours in over the years. Blood and fear were a young man’s game. Now he pulled strings and sent men to swap bullets or blades in order to gain ascendency and improve his territorial claims. Pity this this team of men were the most incapable bunch he’d assembled in his puff. He’d lost the nous that had served him so well in recent years when it came to judging character, it seemed. He should have brought in Kelleher at the start, despite his swagger, because of his swagger. Despite his transparent hots for Frances. What did it matter if he was boning her behind his back? He was only doing what he did himself every now and then. Did respect come into it? Was he really so up his own arse as to think that respect meant shit in this day and age? As long as he did the work, what did anything matter?

Well now it was too late. He knew that Tasker and Haslam would fail to hunt down Kelleher. Tasker was too full of resentment to be truly effective anymore and Haslam wasn’t so much the loaded gun he’d hoped for but a loose cannon. They’d had long enough. He knew too, and in this sense his hunches had not deserted him, that Kelleher would not fail to track him down. He was that kind of man, the kind that bears a grudge.

Stanniford stopped himself from reaching for the bottle again. And looking out of the window was the only way to prevent him from imagining the colour of his own death splashed all over the walls.

*

‘I don’t want you here,’ he said again. It seemed as though he had said nothing but in the half hour since Kelleher muscled by him into the living room.

‘It’s okay, it’s safe,’ Kelleher assured him. ‘I wouldn’t come here if I was drawing any heat, would I?’

‘How do I know that?’ he said. ‘How do you know that?’

‘I was careful.’

‘You? You’ve never been careful.’

Kelleher sat down finally, in the hope it might relax the older man. ‘I’ve learned how,’ he said. ‘I’ve been practising. Now Paul, please, relax. Got anything to drink?’

Paul spent longer in the kitchen than retrieving a couple of cans of Stella might have warranted, but Kelleher let it go. When he came back, and passed him his beer, Kelleher noticed the dilation of his pupils, and the dusting of white on his lips, but it was worth it to have Paul tucked up into a cosy manageability. Paul mouthed his can and asked if he had any cigarettes.

‘I don’t smoke,’ said Kelleher. ‘You know that.’

‘I’ve heard nothing but bad things about you, Rory,’ Paul said. ‘You’ve got some fucking nerve coming out here. I don’t want to get a caning for putting a roof over your head.’

‘They don’t know about you,’ Kelleher assured him. ‘You and Ally separated five years ago, for God’s sake. I haven’t talked to you for six. You might as well be some door I knocked on at random, hoping to find a good Samaritan open up.’

‘How come I get so much news about you then? How come?’

‘You haven’t heard any news,’ Kelleher said. ‘You’re playing safe with all that talk. But fair play, all that talk is still the right talk.’

‘See? You’re still fucking about. Still trying to play Goodfellas. You’ll get yourself killed. And me while you’re at it.’

‘Nobody knows about you,’ Kelleher said again, wishing he’d never had the idea to come down this way. But where else? Ally, his sister, was now overseas, living in Tuscany with friends she’d met at University. There was nobody else. Apart from Lucy, his aunt in SE15, but she wasn’t answering her phone. By choice, he hoped.

‘I didn’t want to come here,’ Kelleher said. ‘You think I want to come to the place where my sister took some beatings? The only time I thought I’d ever come here is to give you a fucking going over.’

‘So why are you here then?’ Whatever Paul had snorted was beginning to wear off already. A tiny thread of blood was creeping out of his left nostril. The rest of the flat was pale in comparison to this gentling of hard colour. Ally was still here, in many ways. Kelleher wasn’t certain that he could smell her perfume, but in the decor and the organised chaos her presence was acutely felt, to the extent that he thought she might roll in from the kitchen before too long, a joint smouldering between her fingers, to ask him if he wanted a plate of chips, or one of her fearsome Bloody Marys.

‘Some guys are trying to kill me.’

The line, like something cribbed from a Hollywood film, hung limply in the south London flat, like a deflated birthday balloon sellotaped to the ceiling that nobody can be bothered to retrieve. Paul didn’t even dignify it with a response for the time being. He sank the remains of his beer and went off for a couple more. When he came back the blood on his mouth had been smeared away, turned into an angry comma on his towelling bathrobe.

‘You can stay here tonight,’ he said, as if Kelleher had any intention of leaving if he deigned it. ‘But tomorrow you fuck off. I don’t want my life knackered because of you.’

As he left the room, Kelleher couldn’t resist it: ‘Words you’ve heard before, I’ll bet,’ he said. The door might have paused a fraction, in its shutting, but Paul didn’t come back.

He didn’t sleep. His confidence that he had not been followed was minutely chiselled away by the dark until every creak became the footstep of a man intent on snuffing him out. He wanted to get up and look through Ally’s things. He wanted to spit in Paul’s face and beat the shit out of him. He wanted Stanniford. He wanted to do to Stanniford what he had leisurely done to Fran, while Kelleher was sitting on his arse leafing through pre-pubescent magazines, getting a hard-on about how he was going to make the old cunt rue the fact that Kelleher had been rejected.

Uninvited memories of Fran kissing him hungrily, removing her knickers in the back of his car, he quelled by summoning thoughts of Ally. He had not spoken to Ally for almost as long as he had blanked Paul. She had been Paul’s apologist, even when her husband broke her collarbone, and Kelleher had given up hope of drumming sense into her dope-addled mind. When the only words you speak to your sister are warnings and those words are being ignored, it doesn’t come as a shock to you to find that you no longer communicate, when of course, it should do.

Kelleher rolled over on the sofa and closed his eyes. He and Ally sitting on a slight incline in Finsbury Park, right in the bullseye of summer, aged what — ten, eleven? — and he’s trying to nick what’s left of her ice cream after finishing hers. ‘Fossip!’ she yells at him.

‘What the bloody hell?’ he says. Around them, people are strewn in the grass like human litter, smoking weed, drinking cider from bottles, listening to cricket on the radio.

‘Fossip,’ she says again, more casually, licking at her 99. ‘Collip. Dipoots collip.’

He’s looking at her blankly, more, in an almost panicked way. It’s as if his speech has suddenly become redundant, as if everyone else has graduated to a new level of communication but forgotten to tell him what the new frequency is.

‘Ally, what — ?’

She rolls her eyes and groans. ‘Say it backwards, you tit. God, you are so thick.’

Sudden delight. A new game. They play it all summer, infuriating their parents with the simple code.

‘Cuff the ecilop,’ he says to his dad, trying to pencil in his choice for the 3.15 at Kempton Park.

‘What’s that, a new band?’

‘Sick my bon,’ he says to his mum, as she puts away the shopping.

‘That’s nice, dear.’

He and Ally, crying with laughter, close to suffocation sometimes with the pointless hilarity of it all. Had they laughed so much in the years since? Had they laughed at all? They had ruled Finsbury Park back then; he had never had anything but good memories of the place, an age before Stanniford’s stain crept all over his thoughts.

Somehow he did sleep, his edges softened by memories of childhood. When he wakened, an hour before the sun was due to rise, he was shivering, having shrugged off his leather jacket. He got up, washed quickly in the kitchen sink, and stole an apple for his breakfast from Paul’s fridge. He was at the front door, about to let himself out, when he paused. He could hear his erstwhile brother-in-law’s laboured breathing from the bedroom. Part of him wanted to sneak a glimpse of it to see how much of Ally remained in there. Quite a bit, he suspected, given Paul’s apparent inability to sweep away the cobwebs and start afresh.

He unzipped his jeans and pissed into Paul’s coat pocket. Then he went out, and slammed the door behind him as hard as he could.

*

Haslam was asleep. Tasker watched the other man slowly drool across the dashboard of his car. His face was too fucking big for his features; Tasker hated that. He also hated the fact that Haslam wore one of those stupid pins that went through the collars of his shirt with a fine chain attached that rested on the front of his knotted tie. He hadn’t seen those since he was at school. He hated Haslam’s thick bottom lip and thin upper one. He constantly looked like a camel chewing a bit of toffee. The twat.

‘Twat,’ he said.

‘Hey?’ Haslam came out of sleep and regarded Tasker with red-rimmed eyes.

‘Wake up, Sparky,’ Tasker said. ‘No bonus for you if you sleep on the job.’

‘I wasn’t sleeping. I was resting my eyes.’

‘Rest your fucking lip,’ Tasker said. He could feel himself getting fired up inside, the way he felt whenever he day-dreamed about violence. He wanted Haslam to slap him, so he could retaliate with an excuse, really go to work on him without worrying about how Stanniford would react.

He craned his neck and looked up at Stanniford’s office. He suspected the light there had burned all night, certainly for as long as they’d been there, which was about two and a half hours now, since Stanniford called them in on the mobile. ‘You guard that fucking entrance during the night from now on,’ he’d said, in a strangled voice. Soft old fucker. Shitting himself in his little room. Sucking on the voddie bottle like it was a nipple.

‘Nothing will get past,’ Tasker had said. His jaw still twinged occasionally where Kelleher had tapped him with the bat. Sometimes he lay awake in bed, trembling with the need to pay him back, with interest.

‘I want some coffee. Is the rag-head’s shop open yet? You want some coffee?’

‘Stay in the fucking car.’

Seven Sisters Road was gearing tself up for the morning’s rush. Buses carrying the first wave of commuters — the zombified 6 am shifts — rattled by, breathing diesel fumes all over Tasker’s Beemer, parked illegally on the pavement by the bowling alley on Stroud Green Road. Tasker caught sight of Stanniford at the window, a man whose face seemed to be made entirely of shadow, his body beneath the immaculate suit of stuff barely more tangible. He saw Stanniford rub his mouth and loosen his tie. Then the light went off.

Difficult for a man to do, even Stanniford, when you were twenty feet away from the light switch.

‘Shit,’ Tasker said. He got out of the car and that was what saved his life. He was into the road, Haslam mimicking him with a falsetto voice: Stay in the fucking car, stay in the fucking car, when it went up like a rigged vehicle in a James Bond film. The blast helped Tasker to cross the street faster than he would otherwise have managed, and he hit the doorway of a hairdressers hard, thinking as he went down how grateful he was that the door was made of wood and not glass.

Haslam tried to follow him, the poor, game fuck. But he was never going to get too far with both his legs gone at the knees and fire fucking him over every square inch of his body.

Tasker was on his feet and moving to the entrance to Stanniford’s gaff before the other man had given up and turned instead to the small matter of his own death.

*

bulb

The sky was putting on some blusher, but it was still too dark in the room to see what had gone down. Tasker toed the threshold, looking in, wetting and re-wetting his lips, his eyes as wide as he could get them, sucking in every possible crumb of light, trying to put some meaning to the shapes in front of him.

‘John?’ he said. His voice hit the wall and dropped, much as he had done only a minute or so before. There were no other sounds. ‘Kelleher?’

A voice. Little more than a whisper. What was it saying? Oh, God, something like that.

‘John? John. Are you all right?’

He edged into the room. It looked as if Kelleher had been and gone, but too fast, perhaps, to make sure of a kill. A shape in the window was too dark to be a cloud, now he was certain that it was blood. And Stanniford’s desk looked as though it had a heap of clothing on it. The light was improving all the time. He could discern the soft gleam of Stanniford’s expensive suit, sprawled over the blotter and the phone. He saw a foot twitch. Tasker entered the room and switched on the light, but the bulb had been removed.

Fuck.

‘It’s okay, John,’ he said, edging closer. He thought he could smell the smoke from the burning car coming up the stairs after him. It wouldn’t be long before the filth turned up. He switched the Brocock to his other hand and fished out his Nokia.

He was dialling for an ambulance when Stanniford shifted on the desk, rolled over slightly. Something wasn’t quite right.

Oh, Dod…Oh, Dod.’

There was too much bulk for the man to be Stanniford. Then maybe Stanniford had got his shot in first and put his man down. In which case, where was his boss?

Oh, Dod.’

‘What the fuck — ’ Tasker said. His last words as Stanniford moved, fast, much too fast for a man turned stale after years of sitting behind a desk drinking neat vodka.

Kelleher, in a jacket much too tight for him, grinned up at Tasker and showed him the muzzle of his Glock. ‘Oh, Dod,’ he said again. ‘And you’re as dead as.’

One shot.

*

He took off Stanniford’s jacket and ruined it by covering Tasker’s body. Then he went over to the bar and pulled Stanniford out from behind it by the hair and the plastic ties that bound his wrists and feet. The older man’s face was red with effort. Perhaps he was choking on the gag. Maybe he was having a heart attack. Get in quick then.

Sirens were approaching, still half a mile away, perhaps. With any luck they’d be preoccupied by the burning car in Fonthill Road.

‘Bye, John,’ he said. ‘I hope you’ve got Fran’s sweet face in your thoughts right now.’

Kelleher never wanted Stanniford’s face in his thoughts again so he shot him in it six times. He reloaded the Glock, and shot him again until the trigger was clicking on the spent clip. Another six ought to do it, he thought. He needed a lot of blood, more perhaps than Stanniford was carrying, for the message, the fucking letter, he wanted to write on his walls.