Here’s part seven of the free thriller One Good Deed. If you’ve stumbled upon this page by accident and want to know what it’s all about, head back to the index page, and read the earlier instalments to find out all about poor old Sam Barnes and his misadventures.
Disclaimer – while this is a finished draft, it has not been professionally edited or proof read. There will be typos and possibly continuity errors. Having said which, if you’ve enjoyed it (or if you have any comments at all) you can get in touch using the contact form.
You’d think having escaped from a couple of psychopathic hired killers who were going to take me to the woods and cut my throat, life would be looking up. I had my phone, even if was broken, and I had my wallet. The cards were still working, although I had a horrible suspicion they would leave a trail even a seven year old child could follow. There was enough cash in my current account to keep me going for a while, if I could get at it; one of the benefits of living in mum’s old home was that I didn’t have to worry about rent or a mortgage, which meant I was more than comfortable financially. It was just my life that I was in fear for, and my options seemed very limited.
I was even beginning to have doubts about my plan now. At Kettering Station it had seemed a great idea to go to my sister for help. She’d know what to do, who to speak to. She was a lawyer, so she’d probably have access to resources I couldn’t even imagine. But with each passing mile, staring out the window at the sliding countryside and sprawling, grubby suburbs, the more unreasonable it had seemed dragging her into this. The thought of anything happening to her, of those two thugs using her to get to me, sent regular shivers down my spine.
When the train reached Leicester, I almost stayed on it. I had no idea where it would have taken me, but that was a good thing, since if I had no idea where I was going, then how could anyone find me? But in the end the thought of having to explain myself to the ticket collector spurred me into action.
I’d never been to Leicester, and I don’t suppose I’ll rush to go back. The station was as grubby and unpromising as any, though surprisingly crowded. I scanned the departures board and found the next train to Birmingham wasn’t due to leave for another half hour. My connecting train to Peterborough and then Cambridge wasn’t listed anywhere, which presumably meant it had already left. I considered hanging about the concourse and platform, then noticed the CCTV cameras everywhere. Perhaps it would be better to head into town, get some new clothes. I found a Cashpoint machine in the station and took out as much as it would give me, relieved to find that my account hadn’t been frozen. Then I found the nearest exit and set off into the town.
Of course, I had no idea where I was going. Usually when I’m in a new place, I just wander; let my feet take me where they will. In my current situation, that was perhaps unwise, but some habits are deeply ingrained. I hobbled off with the odd rolling gait that I’d developed to minimise the pain in my battered feet. Hands in pocket, head down so as to draw no attention to myself. Just another bloke out and about town. No need to bother me. Which is exactly what they did.
At first it was just a couple of lads walking behind me just too close for comfort. I tried to tell myself that I was being overly sensitive to these things, which was understandable given the circumstances. Then I noticed the others on the far side of the street, keeping pace, walking backwards, spinning around like jackals before the kill.
The mistake they made was waiting until we were alongside a boarded up shop before starting their attack. I glanced sideways, catching the reflection in the window as one of them behind me snuck out a foot to trip me up. I still fell, but I was ready for it, and rolled out of their way, coming to protesting feet as quickly as possible. Even so I was surrounded, back to the dirty glass that had warned me too late.
‘You fucking stink, you know that,’ one of the gang said. Obvious leadership material, he had the most expensive trainers on, and daringly sported his hood down.
I said nothing, all too aware that my wallet had almost two hundred pounds in it and my phone would probably be worth a couple of hits from their local dealer, even if its screen was fucked.
‘Looks like we’ve got ourselves a vagrant here,’ the leader said to his feral audience. ‘Reckon we want his kind in our town?’
‘Nice jacket though, Baz. That’ll wash up good.’
‘You want to wear a tramp’s jacket Jin? Be my fucking guest.’
The one called Jin, who had the best taste of the lot of them, stepped forward, grabbed for my shoulder. I knew in seconds the lot of them would be on me and I could smell the violence building. There was only one thing I could do. I grabbed the incoming arm and pulled, smashing Jin’s hand into the window behind me. He let out a yelp of pain as a crack splintered in the glass. I’m not sure who was more surprised, him or me. I’m not by nature a violent man, but then I’d never been threatened with imminent death until the day before, and after Jonno and Mr Crisp, this gang of idiots were about as menacing as Santa Claus.
‘Fuck you!’ I yelled at the top of my voice, and hearing my own voice for the first time in a long while, something in my head snapped. ‘Fuck all of you. You think you’re hard, eh? You think you can pick on someone just cos he’s on his own. Well go on then. Give it your best shot. I’ll fucking have the lot of you. Fuckers.’
It might have been the staring eyes, or the flecks of spittle flying from my mouth. I guess I did smell pretty bad by then, too. My broken nose and bruised face, the livid red cut on my cheek probably helped. But whatever the reason, my outburst seemed to work. Now that I could see them all, it was clear that they weren’t a big gang, just eight, and they weren’t as old as they wanted the world to think they were either. Probably only sixteen or seventeen. Skiving off school or just beginning the joys of unemployed adult life. That they only preyed on the weak and defenceless was obvious from the way they reacted to being challenged. One of them grabbed Jin under the armpit, hauled him up out of the way. The others backed off a pace or two, giving me room to breathe. Only the leader held his ground, aware on some subliminal level that this was a test of his position in the pack. He stared at me with a mixture of ignorant hatred and frustration, probably because his brain had reached the limit of its processing capacity and was starting to overheat. He opened his mouth to say something, but I beat him to it.
‘Fuck off,’ I shouted, and kicked him hard in the crotch. The satisfaction of watching his eyes roll up into his head, his hands automatically rush to his parts, too late of course, and his slow topple to the silent ground was almost enough to make up for the wave of purest agony that speared up my leg from my damaged foot. I suppressed the urge to howl in pain, and instead limped carefully over his prostrate form, pushed past two of his speechless companions and headed back for the station. It was only once I was away from them, my brain replaying every last detail in excruciatingly slow detail, that I realised he’d been holding a Stanley knife in one hand. It was there on the pavement of my mind, dropped before it could do me any harm.
I didn’t make it as far as the station, even though it was only a few hundred yards. I felt the rush of nausea just in time to duck behind a parked van and throw up in the gutter. My legs had been swapped for balloons filled with jelly. I sank to the ground beside the remains of the Mars Bar and cheese sandwich I’d bought on the train, shaking uncontrollably as the adrenaline overdose hit.
Campbell left a message on Jonas’ phone, bringing him up to speed as they made the short trip to Kettering railway station. Flass checked whether Barnes’ credit card had been used again. It had, just an hour or so earlier, forty-one pounds and fifty pence to East Midlands Rail.
‘Looks like he’s bought a train ticket,’ Flass observed as they walked into the ticket office. Campbell resisted the urge to say ‘no shit, Sherlock.’ She took one look at the long queue of brain-dead travellers, elbowed her way to the front and shoved her warrant card against the glass.
‘I need to see the manager. It’s very urgent.’
The woman behind the counter looked at her with an expression of pure hatred. Campbell met it, stared her down until she reluctantly slid off her stool and wandered into the back office with a surly grunt. Moments later a door to one side of the ticket windows clicked unlocked and a portly man appeared.
‘Can I help you?’ He asked.
‘This man.’ Campbell held up the mug shot photo of Sam Barnes. ‘He bought a ticket in here about an hour ago, using his credit card. We need to know where he was going.’
‘Of course. Come with me.’ The manager led them into a tiny office, then out the other side into the ticket office. The surly woman was once more serving customers at one window; the other was closed. The manager sat down and tapped some keys on the ticketing machine. ‘Did you have the credit card number?’
Flass handed over his notebook, opened on the relevant page, and after the manager had tapped a few more keys, the printer churned out a duplicate ticket.
‘Cambridge.’ He beamed a happy smile.
‘What’s he doing going to Cambridge?’ Flass asked.
‘Well, his mother’s in a home there. And he went to see her yesterday. Maybe he left something with her after all.’
‘I thought you reckoned he was being straight with us.’
‘Aye, I did.’ Campbell stared sightlessly through the window at the slowly diminishing queue beyond. Then she noticed the camera set up above the entrance.
‘You have CCTV all through the station?’ She asked the manager.
‘Pretty much. It can get quite hairy here on a football night. You want to see the tapes?’
They had to squeeze into the tiny control room for the CCTV system, but at least it was relatively modern. No tapes as such, just a bank of computer hard drives and a couple of screens. Most of the cameras were fixed, but some of them could be remotely operated by a small joystick set into the end of the keyboard.
‘I’m afraid I’ve no idea how it works,’ the manager said. ‘Bob’s had the training, but he’s off with a bad back. It’s just set up to record whatever it sees. I think it saves about a month’s worth, then overwrites from the beginning.’
Campbell stared at the screens, the flickering lights. Cooling fans wheezed asthmatically, shuffling dusty air that smelled of impending thunder storms. Might as well have been Mission Control in Houston for all she knew how to work it. Tapes, he’d promised. Tapes she could cope with. This was tech stuff.
‘You want me to have a go?’ Flass didn’t wait for an answer, just pushed past into the room and dropped himself into the chair. A couple of clicks at the keyboard and one of the screens changed from a picture of the platform to a string of meaningless commands. A couple of clicks more and the second screen split into four images.
‘This is the feed from about ten minutes before Barnes bought his ticket.’ Flass pressed buttons, switching through different images until the ticket office appeared in one quadrant, the station entrance in another. The other two showed different images of the platform.
‘Let’s speed things up a bit.’ Flass spun a control wheel and the people in the four images started to walk like comedians from a silent movie, jerking from side to side and sometimes disappearing altogether. The timestamp in the top corner jumped forward to the time the ticket was bought. ‘Ah, there he is.’ Flass twisted the control wheel the other way and the images froze.
Sam Barnes looked like shit. His eyes were sunken deep into his head like he’d been using for most of his life. Black panda rims surrounded them, merging with heavy bruises on his cheeks, and his nose was clearly broken. He’d tried to smooth his hair down and make himself presentable, but it hadn’t really worked. The girl at the country store thought this was what happened on a stag night? Christ Almighty, Campbell hoped she never got engaged to anyone from around these parts. Getting tarred and feathered was really quite benign in comparison.
Flass set the image moving again, slowly this time, so it seemed to take forever for Barnes to get his ticket. Every few seconds he glanced over his shoulder at the door, but there was no sign of his captors. After an age that was really only a minute, he slow-walked out of the ticket office, reappearing on the platform a short while later. He must have smelled like shit as well, because the other travellers avoided him, keeping out of an invisible bubble fully ten feet in diameter that he carried with him.
Flass set the speed up again, and in moments the train was pulling into the station. People swarmed on and off, Barnes amongst them, and then the train was gone. The image of an empty platform flickered for a while longer as the timestamp climbed towards now, and then a few people began to congregate for the next train.
‘He definitely got on then.’ Flass said.
‘That’s the Leicester train.’ The station manager looked at his watch. ‘He’d change there for Peterborough and then Cambridge. Should get there in about half an hour’s time. If he didn’t miss the connection.’
‘Reckon you can do Cambridge in half an hour?’ Flass typed some commands into the keyboard and the screens reverted to how they had been at the start. He stood up with a big grin on his face, and Campbell had to admit he deserved it. At least this time.
‘If we don’t get stopped, maybe.’
‘Why is this all so fucked up, Bob? What am I missing?’
Jonas stalked across the expensive carpet in Bob Hayley’s office, thought about throwing himself into one of the leather armchairs beside the unlit fireplace, then changed his mind and stalked back the other way. This was a smaller room that the one he’d been in before, but not by much. Dark oak panelling and bookshelves seemed to be the design brief. Hayley must have bought the expensive leather bound books by the yard, or they’d come with the house. He didn’t remember his old friend ever having much time for reading. Sitting behind a vast, antique desk, the ex-detective inspector said nothing, just stared at the screen of his laptop and tapped the occasional key.
‘I mean, Barnes has escaped, right? So why’s he not been in touch?’
‘You really need to ask that?’ Hayley didn’t look up from the screen.
‘No. Well, I don’t blame him for not contacting us. But he’s not contacted anyone.’
‘Maybe he’s running scared. Or maybe he’s going to get whatever it was Tim gave him.’ Hayley sat back, stretched. ‘Could be he’s looking for something to bargain with.’
‘Tim didn’t give him anything. I’m certain of that. We’ve got the meeting on camera, and I interviewed Barnes. He knew nothing.’
‘A good actor?’
‘Nah, he wasn’t faking. He really didn’t know anything.’ Jonas found himself back at the armchair. Dropped into it this time. Fell silent.
‘What do we know about Barnes?’ Hayley asked after a moment. ‘Not the profile guff you got Campbell to find out for you. I mean, what’s he done since he escaped? For that matter how did he escape? These guys are professionals after all. They don’t make mistakes like that.’
‘You think they let him go?’
‘Why not? Let him “escape”. See where he goes. If he heads straight for the police, well, they didn’t have much trouble getting him out from under your nose once. And they’d know he really didn’t have anything, so they could just take him out from a distance. But if Tim did give him something, or told him something, then all they need to do is follow him until he leads them straight to it. Whatever it is.’
‘But Tim didn’t give him anything. Didn’t tell him anything.’
‘There’s two dead men who’d suggest these people think otherwise.’ Hayley leant forward now, elbows on the desk, warming to his subject. It was just like the old days, trying to get into the heads of the bad guys. Only neither of them were young and naive anymore, and the surroundings were a lot more pleasant than the smoke-filled CID room they’d shared all those years ago.
‘What was Tim working on?’ Hayley asked. ‘What was so important that it was worth killing a cop for? Two cops.’
‘Someone’s been taking over the East London gangs,’ Jonas said. ‘Time was they spent as much time fighting each other as anything. We played them off against each other, kept things more or less under control. You know all this, Bob. You were the one who first came up with the strategy, far as I remember.’
‘I’m not that old.’ Hayley smiled. ‘But I’ll take the compliment anyway.’
‘Yeah, well. Someone’s been undoing all that hard work. Knocking heads together, disappearing people who might get in the way. There used to be fifteen, maybe twenty players. Now there’s just one.’
‘That’s what Tim was trying to find out. I’m guessing he did, too. But somehow they twigged who he was.’
‘Which brings us back to Victoria Embankment Gardens. Sam Barnes. Could Tim have just given him a name?’
Jonas wanted it to be that easy, but he’d already considered the possibility. ‘Barnes couldn’t hear what Tim said. From what I’ve seen of the PM report, it was a miracle he managed to say anything at all.’
‘So Barnes really doesn’t know anything.’ Hayley relaxed back into his chair again, clasped his hands together with interlocked fingers in parody of prayer. ‘Poor bastard. That’s some shit luck he’s got there.’
Jonas stared out the window at the parkland and ancient trees. He felt very tired all of sudden, very old.
‘OK, so we’ve established that Tim didn’t tell Barnes anything, and he didn’t give him anything either, as far as Barnes was concerned. But what if Barnes didn’t know?’
Jonas blinked, dragged his eyes away from outside. ‘I don’t get you.’
‘Well, if all you’re looking for is a name, Tim could’ve written it down on a slip of paper, shoved it in Barnes’ pocket. For all I know, the man carries a load of rubbish around with him all the time, might not have noticed it. Did you search him, when he was brought in?’
‘Fuck.’ Jonas smacked himself on the forehead. ‘Local plod did that. Should’ve been in the report they never bothered to write up.’
He started to pull out his mobile, but Hayley picked up the phone on the desk first. ‘Here, use mine. Signal’s a bit flaky in here.’
‘It’s OK, I’ve got the number on speed dial.’ Jonas thumbed what he hoped was the right sequence of buttons, held the phone up to his ear. A silence followed by the call failed tone. He peered at the screen. No signal. Useless piece of crap.
‘Fuck it, I need a fag anyway.’ He pushed himself out of the armchair, fetching the packet of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket as he headed for the door.
‘You’re not in the station now, George. You can light up in here if you want.’ Hayley pulled open a desk drawer, took out a wooden cigar case and placed it down beside the phone.
‘Never did get the hang of those things, Bob.’ Jonas reached for the door handle, pulled it towards him. ‘And it’s got to be a habit now. Feels wrong smoking indoors. I won’t be a minute.’
He stepped out into the corridor, trying to remember which way led to the front door. Turning left soon revealed itself to be the wrong choice, but he followed it anyway. There had to be a back door to the place somewhere, and judging by the plain decor he was heading into what would have been the servants end of the house; kitchen, pantry and other rooms of no use to an old man living on his own.
Jonas finally found what he was looking for after a couple of false turns into rooms whose purpose he could only guess at. He cupped his hands around the lighter, inhaled the first smoke as his feet crunched on the gravel of a small courtyard. A high arch led out opposite where he was standing, stables and garages to either side. It really was a ridiculously large house; must have cost Hayley a fortune. Still, for a barrow boy from the East End he’d done pretty well.
The signal was better here, so he put the call in.
‘Sergeant Denholm. How can I help?’
Jonas explained the situation; asked if they still had the log sheet from when Barnes was processed.
‘Here somewhere.’ There was a noise of rustling paperwork as Sergeant Denholm searched. An impatient pause long enough to finish the cigarette. ‘Yup. Knew it hadn’t gone to filing yet. What were you interested in?’
‘Piece of paper with something written on it?’
‘Let me see. Wallet, phone, house keys. Ah, here we go. White DL envelope. Addressed to some bloke in Wales.’
Jonas stopped pacing. ‘What?’
‘Yup. Chap by the name of Prowett. Some unpronounceable load of words. Not enough vowels. Must be Wales.’
‘You’ve still got it? The letter?’
‘No, no. We gave that all back to Mr Barnes. But it’s here on the log sheet. That’d be Sergeant Shepperd who wrote it up. He’s a bit too thorough sometimes, if you know what I mean. Likes to take his time.’
Thank Christ for that. ‘Listen, can you give me the full address.’ Jonas tried to get out his pen and notebook, found his hands already full. ‘Actually, forget that. Just text it to me, OK?’ He gave the sergeant his number, remembered to thank him, then hung up.
He paced around the courtyard, lit another cigarette, pulling hard on it as if it were the only thing keeping him alive. Christ but this was a fucking mess. He was really too old for this shit, should have retired years ago, like Hayley. But then that wasn’t him, and he knew it. Like a terrier after a rat. Only there was always another rat just around the corner. No, he’d never stop. Not until they put him in a pine box, six feet down.
The phone chirped in his hand, the text popping up on the screen as he leant against the wall by the back door. Sergeant Denholm was right about the lack of vowels. Christ, how were you supposed to pronounce any of it? Didn’t matter, really. The post code was there, and that was enough for his Sat-Nav.
Grinding the dog-end into the gravel, Jonas headed back into the house. Somehow he managed to take a wrong turn, ending up down a flight of stone steps in some kind of basement. There were several doors he would have paid no heed to, had it not been for the smell. Fresh disinfectant probably wasn’t that unusual a thing to use on stone floors, but something about it piqued his curiosity. He was a detective, after all.
The first couple of doors opened up onto dark store rooms piled high with dusty boxes, but the third room was more interesting. A heavy wooden table sat under a bare light bulb hung from the arched brick ceiling. It had been recently scrubbed; the smell of disinfectant was overpowering in the confined space. More interesting were the heavy leather straps looped around the tabletop. Just the right size and positioning to restrain a man, if you were into that sort of thing. He’d seen a similar setup in a lock-up on Canvey Island, only that one had still been occupied, its victim unfortunately beyond caring what had been done to him.
Jonas slumped against the doorframe. All the breath went out of him as if he’d been punched in the gut. Looking down, he saw a pair of shoes sitting on the ground, neatly placed beside the door. Black leather slip-ons, probably about size nine, scuffed and muddy, a few pine needles clinging to the uppers. They could have been Hayley’s, left down here after he’d been for a stroll, but the parkland around the house was all broadleaves, oak and beech, and it was as dry as a bone outside. Then there was the small matter of Barnes using his credit card to buy a pair of boots. Wasn’t that what Campbell’s message had said? Why would he need to buy boots if he still had his shoes on?
Jonas picked up one of the shoes, peered inside it in the vague hope that it might have a name written there. No such luck, but he knew past doubting that this pair belonged to Barnes. He’d seen the man wearing them, after all. And if Barnes had been here, then that meant Bob Hayley was in it up to his neck. No bloody wonder the old man had been so keen to help. What better way to keep one step ahead of the investigation?
He put the shoe back, closed the door and retraced his steps to the ground floor. He knew he should go straight out, get in his car, drive away and call the chief superintendent. The entire investigation was fucked right royally, and he’d found the leak. How many times had he met Hayley for tea in that scabby old café on the Mile End Road? How much information had he given away? And Christ, he’d even introduced Tim Prowett to his old friend. Might as well have signed his death warrant. What a fucking mess.
But it was his mess, and he’d fix it as best he could. Jonas turned away from the back door, tried to calm himself and breathe normally as he headed back into the house. The corridor back to the office seemed much longer than it had done on the way out, but as he approached it Bob Hayley’s low voice rumbled out into the quiet. Jonas took the last two steps silently, bent forward to listen in on his old friend’s conversation.
‘…enough of your excuses already. You fucked this up, I expect you to sort it. Get to Wales, search the house and find that bloody memory stick. If Barnes shows up, then deal with him.’
Jonas stepped into the room, expecting to find Hayley at his desk, perhaps hastily putting the phone down, but the ex-DI was standing by the unlit fireplace on the other side of the room, the phone in one hand and a gun in the other.
‘I’m sorry, George. I really didn’t want it to come to this.’
‘You ever get tired of breaking things?’
Jonno stopped what he was doing and looked at his colleague, leaning against the door frame. Mr Crisp had his knife out and was playing with it like a bored teenager.
‘Not really, no.’ He pulled another book off the shelf; some chick-lit rubbish with a line-drawn cartoon on its pastel blue cover and a terrible pun for a title. There was no artistry in literature anymore. He ripped its spine down the middle and tossed it into the growing pile in the middle of the living room floor. Reached for the next book.
‘Why d’you do it?’
‘Why not? And besides, I get bored waiting. If the stupid bitch turned up a bit sooner I wouldn’t have so much time to kill.’
‘So what you’re saying is that it’s her fault.’
‘Pretty much.’ Jonno pulled the empty shelf out of the bookcase and threw it onto the coffee table, smashing the glass top.
‘Well at least try and keep the noise down a little. The neighbours?’ Mr Crisp shrugged, then wandered off.
Jonno pulled the first book off the next shelf, but his heart wasn’t really in it anymore. All this waiting and watching and letting people go so you could follow them. It was fair doing his head in. Time was it was simple. Find the guy, kill him, dispose of the body. Now they wanted to torture them for information first, or leave little messages to torment them; a dead dog in the front garden; photographs of their children at the park or the school playground, that sort of thing. He’d not managed to persuade Mr Crisp to let him put a severed horse’s head in someone’s bed yet, but he was working on it. And maybe that was the problem. He was getting sucked in to all the weird and complicated shit. It was all good and well the old man telling them he’d got the police in his back pocket, but sooner or later they were going to get caught. Jonno didn’t like the sound of that. He’d done a short stretch in a young offender’s institution, back when he was a lad with a different name. That’d been bad enough. He really didn’t want to go to prison. Didn’t much fancy a spell on the Costa either. Too bloody hot, and all those ex-cons talking endless shit about the good old days while their guts swelled ever larger.
A phone rang, bringing Jonno back to the here and now. He focussed on the book in his hand, a slim romance by some American novelist he’d heard about. Might be worth a read, so he shoved it in his pocket. Through the kitchen door, he heard a woman’s recorded voice saying that she wasn’t in right now and could you leave a message. Then another woman’s voice. This one was quiet, but he got the gist of it. So the nursing home had found the dead biddy. About bloody time; they’d killed her hours ago. With any luck Barnes would be finding out the good news too. That should put a fire under his backside.
Mr Crisp came back in from the hallway, his own phone out. ‘New orders Jonno. We’re going to Wales.’
‘What, now?’ Jonno cast an arm around the wrecked living room. ‘I’ve barely started. And there’s the kitchen still to do.’
‘Quit your moaning, OK. Barnes isn’t coming here, he’s going to Wales too. Play it right we can get there before him.’
‘Great. More waiting around.’
‘What’re you complaining about? You’ve got something new to read. Come on. Time to go.’ Mr Crisp stepped lightly over the wreckage and out into the hall. Jonno took one last look at the books on the shelves. Apart from the one he’d already taken, none of them held much promise. He reached in behind the bookcase, and with a heave brought the whole thing crashing down.
‘Wales, you say?’ He kicked out at the door frame as they left the apartment. ‘I hate the fucking Welsh.’
‘It was you, all along.’ Jonas tried to keep his gaze on Hayley’s eyes, not let it slip back to the pistol.
‘Well, you helped. And that nice young detective sergeant of yours, Campbell. Someone really should warn her about leaving important information in voicemail messages.’
‘You hacked my phone.’
‘Oh please, George. Hacked? That would imply some degree of skill. All I needed was the number, and you gave me that. There’s a pass code to get access, of course, but do you know how many people bother to change it? You’d think a detective might. But then again, if that detective’s so old-fashioned he makes me feel like a teenager, then maybe not.’
‘So all this time I’ve been trying to find out who’s been leaking information, it was me?’
‘Hurts, doesn’t it. Realising just how badly you’ve fucked up.’ Hayley pushed himself away from the fireplace, took a couple of steps closer. Jonas edged towards the desk, scanning out of the corner of his eye for anything to use as a weapon.
‘If it’s any consolation, you’re not my only source. Plenty of old coppers like to meet up and talk about the job to an ex-CID man like me. Put that together with what I get from my own people, it’s not that hard to join the dots.’
‘But why, Bob?’ Jonas edged closer to the desk, all too aware that the only thing on it was a very small laptop. ‘I mean, you hated those scum just the same as me. More. How many did we put away?’
‘And yet every time we cut one down, another two sprang up to replace him. And usually they were meaner. You remember when you started out? When there was some semblance of honour among thieves? They were utter bastards, true, but there were some boundaries even they wouldn’t cross. Not now. Now anything goes.’
‘Like killing cops?’
‘Tim was a good man, but he was undercover. Deep cover. He knew the risks.’
‘I was thinking of Steve Pointer, actually. What did he do to deserve having his throat cut?’
Hayley had the decency to look a little uncomfortable. ‘That was… unfortunate. But that’s what I mean about boundaries. There’s kids out there’ll shoot into a crowd just for the hell of it, or to prove something to their gang. They don’t give a fuck about anything, as long as they can get high and show off their flash motors. You try controlling them the way you always did, it’s not going to work. Just gets nastier, more violent. More innocent bystanders caught in the middle.’
‘So let me guess. You decided to take over the whole East End as an act of philanthropy. Just to keep the peace.’
‘That’s how I sleep at nights, George. Things are organised now. Everyone working together. And if someone steps out of line, well, I just send in Jonno and Mr Crisp. They’re brutal, but quite persuasive.’
Jonas was closer to the desk now, moving slowly as he spoke. ‘And this is what you wanted me to help you with? The job offer? Did you really think I’d take it?’
‘Come off it, George. I know your rep as well as anyone. No, I had you in mind for the legitimate stuff. These corporate types will pay very good money for the sort of experience you have. And to be honest I’d rather have had you somewhere I could keep an eye on you than skulking around in Cold Cases. Never know what you might have turned up.’
‘For fuck’s sake, you were a policeman, Bob. A detective almost thirty years. You spent half your life putting these people away.’
‘That’s my whole bloody point. Don’t you see it? Knock ‘em down, they pop right back up again. And you know why? Because people want what they’re selling. That’s all it comes down to in the end. Drugs, whores, cheap fags and booze. If there wasn’t a market for all that shit, the only crime we’d have to worry about would be petty burglary and the odd domestic. Accept that, and the rest is just damage limitation.’
‘Yeah, well tell that to Sergeant Pointer’s child, growing up without a father. Tell that to Tim’s parents. Tell that to Sam bloody Barnes.’
Jonas didn’t wait for Hayley’s reply. He lunged for the computer, hurling it at his old friend as the gun went off. It missed, but so did the bullet. Hayley took a step back, lining up for a second shot, but his foot slipping on a dark patch on the rug. Before he could get himself back up, Jonas was on him, grasping for the gun. Hayley kneed him in the stomach, stronger and quicker than a man his age had any right to be, driving the breath out of him. Jonas cracked him in the head with his elbow, rolling over with the motion, trying to use his momentum to pull the gun from Hayley’s grip. There was a muffled crack, and the ex-DI went limp.
It took Jonas longer to get his breath back than the whole tussle had lasted. He pushed himself up onto his knees, only then feeling the weight of the gun in his hand. Bob Hayley lay on his back, eyes wide in a look of surprise. Thick red blood was already pooling out from underneath him, still warm as it soaked into Jonas’ trousers. He pressed a shaking finger to Hayley’s neck, feeling for a pulse that wasn’t there.
My altercation with Leicester’s finest meant I missed the first train to Birmingham. I needed time to calm my nerves, anyway, having abandoned all hope of doing any shopping. At least I was able to have a coffee and a muffin in a café filled with civilised people, even if they looked at me like I was something that needed a second flush to get rid of. I was able to use the café’s toilets to clean myself up a bit more, but there was no getting away from the fact that I looked a mess. I didn’t care. Soon I’d be able to have a shower. With a bit of luck, my sister might even have had some spare clothes from an old boyfriend or something I could wear without too much embarrassment. I just needed to get to her flat, and everything would be all right.
I had a table all to myself on the next train. Several people walked past looking for an empty seat, and I could see a few more standing in the bit between the carriages, but for some reason no-one wanted to sit with me. That suited me fine, even if the ticket collector gave me his best disapproving scowl when I paid him for the journey. He warned me against putting my feet up on the seat opposite, something I’d not thought of doing until then. It was a blessed relief to get the weight off my bruised soles just as soon as his back was turned.
The cab from New Street Station swiftly negotiated the rush hour traffic across Birmingham to the converted cotton mill where my sister had her apartment. It was only as I was paying, standing on the pavement in front of the building’s ornate entrance, that it occurred to me someone might have staked the place out just in case I made contact. I looked up and down the street nervously as the taxi drove off, but there was no sign of the black BMW, and no plain clothes officers came running up to arrest me.
The front door had a security system. I’d spent most of the taxi ride wondering what I was going to say to the old lady who lived next door to get her to let me in if Alice wasn’t at home. My sister had introduced me to her the first time I’d visited, getting on for ten years ago now. She kept a key for Alice’s apartment, and I was hoping she would remember me. Otherwise I could be waiting there a long time for my sister to get home from work. That was assuming she hadn’t got herself a boyfriend and decided to crash with him. But as it happened, I didn’t need to worry. Well, not about that, anyway. The front door was propped open with a folded up piece of card.
My feet still throbbed with every step, so I was glad that the lift worked. I had to pass sister’s place on my way to get the spare key from her neighbour, which is how I noticed that the door was slightly ajar.
I couldn’t move. My legs just didn’t want to work anymore. It’s possible I might have shat myself a little, too. They’d been here. They knew about my sister. For the few hours it had taken me to get here, I’d allowed myself to think that I might be able to get away from them, that I might survive this ordeal. But they were here. They knew everything about me. There was nowhere I could turn.
I strained my ears to catch any sound of people inside the apartment, but all I could hear was the low rumble of distant traffic, the hum of the city and the clattering in my chest. Christ, they’d been here already. What if my sister had been home when they came looking for me? I pictured Constable Pointer in my bath, Izzy’s face going red, his eyes disappearing up into his head as he died. I reached forward with a shaking hand and gently, silently, pushed the door open.
Alice has always been tidy, almost to a fault. It’s probably another reason why we drifted apart; she was always picking things up, putting them away, where I was content to know where I’d left them. She wouldn’t have been very happy with the state of her apartment right now.
There was no doubting that my friends Jonno and Crisp had been here. It had all the hallmarks. A methodical destruction of everything. They hadn’t been searching for anything, I could tell. It was simply a case of breaking things because they could. Or because their being whole was an affront. I picked my way through the rubbish-strewn hall, peered into the living room. It was deathly quiet, even the sounds of the city seemed unwilling to enter as slowly, reluctantly, I pushed open the bathroom door.
Reception was abuzz with activity as Campbell pushed through the front doors and into The Abbey Residential Nursing Home. Middle-aged nurses in old-fashioned blue and white uniforms bustled in and out of a number of heavy wooden doors. The desk in the front hall was unmanned. DS Flass wandered off to look at the notice board with its cheery leaflets on Alzheimer’s and Senile Dementia. Campbell let three nurses ignore her before grabbing the fourth by the arm as she hurried past.
‘Excuse me. Is there someone I could talk to?’
‘We’re a bit busy right now, dear,’ the nurse said, glancing over at Flass and no doubt coming to an erroneous conclusion. Young couple wanting to get rid of onerous parent. ‘Did you have an appointment? Only we’ve had a bit of an incident. With one of the patients.’
Campbell dug her warrant card out of her bag. ‘Would this help?’
The effect was instant. The nurse seemed to deflate, her shoulders sagging as she let out a long, drawn out sigh. ‘You’d better come with me.’
Campbell followed her through the heavy wooden doors, with Flass hurrying to catch up before it swung shut and locked itself. They walked down empty corridors, past an open plan area with a couple of dozen comfortable chairs arranged in a semi-circle around a flat screen television. Some vacuous game show was playing to no-one at all.
‘It’s all very sad. Poor old dear, she’s not been in her right mind for a long time. We try to keep an eye on them, you know, but it was so unexpected. I mean, she just seems to have stopped breathing or something.’ The nurse prattled on as she led them at a rapid pace through a twisting route it would be hard to retrace without leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind. It was all Campbell could do to keep up and listen, she didn’t have an opportunity to get a word in before they had arrived at the end of another corridor. Voices came from a propped open door, and a paramedic’s gurney was waiting outside.
‘Um, what’s going on?’ Campbell asked, uncomfortably certain that she already knew.
‘Mrs Barnes?’ The nurse looked at her with a puzzled expression. ‘That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, but how did you know?’
‘The head sister phoned in herself, of course. We naturally alert the proper authorities whenever one of our patients dies.’
Campbell looked through the open doorway into a crowded room. Two male nurses stood nervously behind a large armchair, whilst a third nurse, dressed like a ward sister from the nineteen-sixties stared at a fourth figure in a tweed suit, bending over and obscuring whatever was in the chair. He stood up, pulling his stethoscope out of his ears, and Campbell saw a single, small, pale hand draped over the arm of the chair.
‘There’s no sign of any distress,’ the man said. ‘I think she must have just died in her sleep.’
‘But her eyes were open,’ the ward sister said.
‘Excuse me.’ Campbell stepped into the room, seeing for the first time the person sitting in the chair. She was tiny, almost skeletally thin, but she had Sam’s nose and elements of his facial structure. A light breeze tugged at her white hair, pulling air from the corridor out a window that had been opened wide. Even so, it couldn’t quite hide the stench. Without thinking, Campbell covered her mouth and nose with the back of her hand.
‘Who are you?’ The ward sister straightened her back, visibly bristling at the intrusion on her private discomfort. Her gaze swept past Campbell, to the nurse still standing in the corridor. ‘Nurse Jones, you can’t let people wander in here. It’s not proper.’
Something about the word ‘proper’, perhaps the inflection with which the ward sister said it, sent Campbell straight back to her primary school, the headmistress admonishing them all at assembly for being wicked girls. Not that they had done anything wrong; just that the very nature of being a girl ensured their wickedness. There was a great deal of Miss MacKie in the rather pompous nurse, but at least now Campbell had the means to deflate her. She took her warrant card out of her pocket and held it up.
‘Detective Sergeant Campbell. Serious Organised Crime Agency. This is Mrs Barnes, I take it? Sam’s mother?’
For a moment, the silence that ensued was satisfying. But only a moment. Then it became annoying.
‘Look, can anyone tell me what’s going on?’
‘Mrs Barnes died sometime between ten and twelve this morning.’ The doctor turned to face her as he spoke, folding up his stethoscope and pushing it into his pocket. ‘She was in the advanced stages of senile dementia, so it’s not entirely unexpected. The manner of her death is… unusual. But not so much that I’d have thought it necessary to involve the police.’
‘What do you mean, unusual?’ Campbell stared at the dead old woman. She was facing a blank television screen, as if she’d been watching it when the Grim Reaper had paid his visit. Someone must have switched it off, and the detective in her twitched in annoyance at the contamination of a crime scene.
‘As the nurse said, Mrs Barnes was found with her eyes open. I can’t be sure she didn’t have a heart attack or a stroke, not until there’s been a PM. But it’s equally possible she just forgot to breathe. If you look closely, you can see signs of anoxia. Her lips are blue.’ The doctor pointed with a finger, bending down to get a better look. Campbell didn’t join him, unwilling to get closer to the terrible smell.
‘Are you in charge here?’ She asked him. He looked a little startled by the question.
‘Me? Gracious, no.’
‘I am in charge of The Abbey, detective sergeant.’ The ward sister removed her spectacles, allowing them to dangle over her starched bosom on a long, thin chain looped around her neck.
‘Well perhaps I might have a word with you, since I’m not going to get much out of Mrs Barnes.’
‘Why not ask your two colleagues who were in here earlier?’
Campbell was halfway through thinking that finally Jonas had got off his arse and started to contribute to the investigation when her brain caught up with what the nurse had said.
‘I’m sorry. Did you say two colleagues? Two police officers here earlier?’
‘That’s right, yes. Two detectives. Well-spoken, they were. Very polite. Though one was a bit scruffy, I thought.’
‘Did you get their names?’
‘I don’t recall exactly.’ The ward sister paused for a moment. ‘But they’ll have signed in at reception. Come. Let’s go and see.’ She brushed past on her way to the door, then stopped as if suddenly remembering something.
‘Are you finished here, Dr Williams?’
‘Yes. Yes. You can get her to the mortuary now.’
The two male nurses stepped forward, pulling on latex gloves. ‘You might want to step outside now,’ one of them said. ‘This isn’t going to be pretty.’
Campbell didn’t need encouraging any more. She didn’t much like dead bodies at the best of times. Flass, she noted, had stayed firmly outside throughout.
As they followed the ward sister back through the maze of passageways to reception, Campbell wondered who the two policemen might have been. She’d been expecting Jonas to phone, or possibly turn up himself. It seemed unlikely he’d have asked someone else to come on his behalf. The whole reason she was running around like a blue-arsed fly was so that they could keep a lid on what they knew. Mind you, it would be typical of Jonas to make her suffer whilst delegating his own half of the workload. She dug her phone out of her pocket, bringing up the DCI’s number whilst they walked, but before she had time to place the call, they had arrived back at reception. Another middle-aged nurse was now sitting behind the desk, telephone clamped to one ear, and busy tapping at her computer. She made to stand, but the ward sister held up her hand.
‘Don’t worry Janice. I’ll deal with this.’ She reached over the desk and picked up a clipboard, ran a finger down the list of names. ‘They arrived about nine this morning. Maybe a bit after. Here we are… oh.’
‘What is it?’ Campbell took the clipboard from her. It didn’t take long to find the names. Not because there had only been a half dozen visitors to the place since then, but because they read M Mouse and D Duck, both of Toytown Police Dept.
‘Tommy. Get back to that room. Now. Tell them to stop everything. Don’t touch anything.’ Campbell shoved the clipboard back into the ward sister’s hands whilst juggling her phone to call Jonas. Flass didn’t move.
‘It’s a crime scene. Stop them mucking it up any more than they already have.’ She shoved the phone to her ear as her colleague finally started to understand. He was still moving too slowly for her liking. ‘Run dammit. Why’s he bloody well engaged when I need to talk to him?’ She cancelled the call before the voicemail message could finish.
‘Would you mind telling me what on earth’s going on?’ The ward sister was back in her imperious headmistress mode, but Campbell didn’t have time for it.
‘Those two policemen who came here earlier. You left them with Mrs Barnes alone, didn’t you.’
‘It’s not unusual. They seemed respectable enough. They had warrant cards.’
Campbell tried not to scream. ‘Did they say what they wanted to see her about?’
‘I’m not really sure. I think they said something about young Sam. How he was helping them in their investigation. Yes, that’s right. They said he’d not be able to come and see her for a while, so they were just letting her know he was all right. That’s so like Sam, thinking of his mum even when… Oh. He’s not in any trouble is he?’
Campbell wanted to throttle the old woman, but her phone ringing distracted her. Expecting it to be Jonas returning her missed call, she was surprised when a woman’s voice spoke. ‘Er… Is that Detective Sergeant Campbell? Of S.O.C.A?’ She voiced each letter separately.
‘Yes. Who is this?’
‘Oh, hello. My name’s Jenny. Jenny Spiers. I’m from Kettering railway station? My boss asked me to phone you about the man buying the train tickets.’
Across the hall, Campbell watched in annoyed disbelieve as Flass backed out through the heavy wooden door, chased by the two male nurses pushing the gurney with a shrouded figure on it.
‘I’m a bit busy right now Miss Spiers.’
‘Oh it won’t take a minute, love. I just remembered something he asked me, that’s all.’
‘Well, he wanted to know about the trains to Cambridge right enough. That’s where he bought his ticket to after all. But he also asked about where he’d need to change to get to Birmingham. I told him, it’s Leicester of course. Same as for everywhere, really. But it did seem a bit odd. Completely in the wrong direction for Cambridge.’
‘Thank you, Miss Spiers. That’s very helpful.’ Campbell ended the call before the woman could say anything more. It was another complication she didn’t really have time to deal with right now. Flass seemed to be arguing with the front of the two male nurses, and from the gist of what he was saying, it seemed he wanted them to put the body back where it had been.
‘Leave it, Tommy,’ she said. ‘They’ve moved her now. Just let the doctor know this is a possible murder, OK? He’ll know what to do.’
‘Murder? Oh, mercy me. Poor Mrs Barnes.’ This from the nurse behind the reception desk, who had just finished her phone call. ‘And I can’t get through to her son or her daughter to let them know she’s gone.’
Campbell stopped in her tracks. ‘Daughter? I thought… There was just Sam.’ But of course she hadn’t thought at all.
‘Oh no dear. Sam’s here the most. He dotes on his old mother, he does. But his sister Alice comes whenever she can get the time.’
‘You have an address for her, a phone number.’ It wasn’t a question.
‘Of course. Here, just a minute.’ The nurse tapped at her keyboard, brought something up on her screen, and then wrote it down on a post-it note in careful, slow handwriting. Campbell tore it from her fingers, scanning the address, seeing the last line. Birmingham.
‘You cheeky sod, Sam.’ She smiled to herself, even though everyone else could see. ‘You’re trying to throw us off the scent.’
I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to see an empty bath. I must have stood in the doorway for five minutes, maybe more, just staring at the white plastic. I don’t think I really took in the mirror cabinet emptied into the sink, or the towels pulled out of the airing cupboard and thrown in a tangled heap onto the vinyl floor. All that mattered to me then was that the bath was empty. For those five minutes at least my sister was alive.
Then I remembered that there were two bedrooms and a kitchen I’d still not looked in. Just because Mr Crisp liked to kill people in the bath didn’t mean he always worked that way. And maybe this time it was the other one’s turn. Who knew what he liked to do to his victims? For that matter, who knew what either of them would do to a woman?
I worked my way slowly through the apartment, each new room a trial and ultimately a relief as I found no dead sister. But with each little relief, there came a growing worry. What if they’d taken her as a hostage? What if they were going to use her to persuade me to hand myself over? It didn’t occur to me that they had no way of getting in touch with me to let me know.
I was shaking like vodka jelly at a student party by the time I reached the kitchen. It was the last room to check, and it, too was mercifully free of bodies. For some reason it hadn’t been turned over, either. Everything was in the place it was supposed to be. I slumped down in a chair, put my head in my hands. Just sat there, frozen, powerless. I couldn’t do anything else. If my tormentors had turned up then, I’d have just sat there, let them kill me. I’d reached the point where I could take no more.