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The Loyalty Box

Copyright 2015 Smashwords.

THE LOYALTY BOX

Nobody wants to run someone down in the road, but for a long time afterwards Karl Seabury wondered if things might have worked out better if his truck had slammed the woman into bloody oblivion.

He was piloting 3,500lbs of Ford engineering along a road as wet as a solid river when something came at him. He didn’t even see a shape, let alone a woman, just a hint of colour that extracted itself from the black wall of trees on his right. Instinct pistoned his foot hard onto the brake. There was a screech of rubber that sent birds panicking from the treetops like gravity-defying leaves. His seatbelt cut hard across his chest as he was thrown forward. Before he had time to wonder what the hell had happened, it was all over. The box van sat stalled and silent, headlights illuminating the curving road ahead and a woman in a sodden summer dress.

He reached for the handle to open his door, missed it, cast his eyes away from the road to locate it, found it, started to open the door, ready to unload foul language, and let out a yelp as the door was wrenched from his grasp as if by a fierce gale.

She was right there in the doorway, a face that had been gaunt and terrified in the headlights now gaunt and terrified in the van’s interior light.

“What the Jesus are-” Karl began, but froze when she grabbed his shirt in two tight fists.

“You gotta help me!” she moaned.

Autopilot kicked in. On a bright summer’s day, he might have told her to calm down; might have stepped out of the van and led her to the side of the road to seek an explanation. But it was dark and eerie out here and that was firing an alarm in his mind. He grabbed the woman under the arms and yanked her up and literally threw her across him and into the passenger seat. Her head smacked the window but she didn’t seem to care, and neither did he. He twisted the ignition key and stamped and pulled at all the appropriate pedals and levers and the road started to vanish beneath the vehicle. By the time he hit second gear, the woman had already slipped out of the seat and crammed herself into the footwell.

And then it happened again.

This time the shape was black, just like the night, and he didn’t see a thing until it stepped into the funnels of his headlights. He recognised a humanoid form, but the mental alarm was in full-flow and this time his foot stayed away from the brake. He did not want to stop out here again, ever.

Instead, he tugged hard on the steering wheel, and the silhouette in his headlights vanished off to the side. It flashed by his side window then was gone. He was glad he hadn’t hit it even before he realised it was a man in dark clothing.

He looked in the driver’s wing mirror and saw the shape in the road, saw a dot of white high up in the blackness that must be a face, staring after him. Then the face turned to look the other way along the road, as if searching.

Karl gripped the steering wheel hard and faced forward again. Nothing ahead but the road and the trees and the headlights. He glanced at the woman.

“What the fuck’s going on?”

“Is he gone?” she croaked.

The road grew bright ahead. Another vehicle. Karl hit his door lock, then cursed his paranoia – what did he expect, this new vehicle to screech to a halt and block his path? It would just be some car, just some guy heading somewhere like he was. The headlights grew brighter, and then the car emerged from around the curve. The van’s interior was lit up like a surgery, then the car flashed by and all was dark again. But in that illuminated moment he had flung the woman a glance and noted that her dress was patterned red and yellow, the material thin. An indoor thing, or a summer-lunch-on-the-patio thing. Not what anyone would walk around in the dark woods in.

“He bloody who? Was that some guy?” Of course it was, he realised. Just some guy, not a vampire or a zombie. A guy in black chasing a woman through the woods. Happening a thousand times right now around the world, probably. “What did he want? You know him? Where did you come from? What are you doing out here?” He took a breath, aware than his rapid speaking broadcasted his own panicky heart. The man in black was gone and the woman was safe, but not yet calm, and he felt some kind of typical male pride telling him he needed to appear strong, as a knight in shining armour should.

“You want to tell me what’s going on? The guy’s gone, so you can sit up.”

She didn’t sit up. She laid her head on the seat as if it were a pillow. Closed her eyes, maybe to try to wipe away the past few minutes. He thought about her dress again.

“Do you live nearby? Did you come from a house?”

“There’s three of them,” she said, eyes still closed, voice low, as if talking in her sleep. Fatigue? A descending wave of calm?

“What did they want?”

“We have a house on land beyond the woods,” she murmured, a delayed answer to his previous question. “We were going to have dinner. Our friends. I hope they’re okay.”

“And what, you were all outside and three men came? Did everyone run away? Why are you on your own?”

“They wanted to hurt us, I think. Hurt my husband. They don’t like him. He’s made money illegally, that’s why.”

This was making his head spin.

“Where are you taking me?” she blurted, eyes open, new fear on her face, as if she now suspected he might be one of the bad guys.

“I’m sure all the others are okay,” he told her. He tried to picture a party on a rain-drenched patio. Men in tuxedos and women in flowery dresses. Expensive wines and political chat. And three men in black rushing at them out of the trees, making them scatter. Might there be other drivers out there with scared people in their passenger seats, listening to such a tale?

“You’re not going to tell the police, are you?” Her eyes were pleading.

“I’m not taking you anywhere,” he snapped, then realised aware that he’d just adopted her delayed-answer system. “I’m dropping you off soon as we reach somewhere and then I’m going home. I got a pie and Breaking Bad box set waiting for me.”

She didn’t speak again for a few minutes, and he was happy for the silence. He drove and ignored her. Virtually held his breath until he caught sight of the mist of orange lights oozing from around the next bend. A few seconds after the bend the trees abruptly ended. Streetlights appeared. Ahead were terraced houses in two neat lines like brick fences between which the road passed. Karl felt himself relax. The proximity of the human world woke some confidence in the woman, too, because she struggled up out of the footwell and sat in the seat like someone…normal. She gazed out of the window, as if enjoying the view, but he could tell she was concentrating on the wing mirror. Checking behind them, for pursuers.

“Burglars don’t come chasing people who got away,” he said, unable to think of anything else. He just wanted this woman out of his hair now that they were back in the world. “I’m sure they got spooked by everyone seeing them and just ran away.”

She looked at him. Hard, as if he had said something naive. Or just plain wrong.

“They came for my husband,” she said. “They’re bad men, and they came to hurt him. All of us, probably, and anyone else who saw them.”

He blanched. “What’s that supposed to mean? Me?”

If he was surprised at what she’d said, he was downright shocked by her next words:

“Maybe you shouldn’t have stopped for me. Now you’re caught up in this and in danger, and it’s all my fault.”

He wanted to laugh, he wanted to scream, and he wanted to kick open her door and shove his boot in her ass and drive away and forget the last few minutes. He wished he hadn’t gone to work today, and then he wouldn’t have been on that road. He wished he’d opted for a different route home, and then he wouldn’t have met the woman sitting next to him.

Hell, he wished he’d never slammed on the brakes. The man in black could have collected her smashed body off the road, done whatever depravity he had planned, and both men could have continued their lives without ever knowing the other existed.

It was a bad thought to have. And it wouldn’t be the last time he had it.

*

Brad knew something was up the moment he saw his partners.

Set in a clearing dotted with tree stumps, the house was a stone barn conversion with an open-air porch containing all-weather sofas arranged around a large fire pit. And there sat Les, laying on a sofa as if he was on holiday, puffing away at a cigarette and seemingly oblivious to the light rain. Dave was by an old Ford Cortina that was parked next to the porch, removing a petrol can from the boot, and he too was smoking and looking relaxed. And Brad knew there was no way they’d be this calm if there was a still a threat from the people inside the house.

He saw them clearly in the light from the flames despite their black clothing, but they did not see his approach until he was almost upon them. Like an apparition he appeared from out of nowhere right next to Dave, who jerked with a grunt when Brad said, “Smoking around petrol?”

“Where the hell is she?” Dave said once he’d composed himself.

“Since you aren’t carrying that slag over your shoulder, that mean you killed her?” Les said, now standing. He was in his late forties, thickly muscled, with an iron-grey buzzcut.

Brad ignored the question. He swung a leg over the porch fence, his eyes on the kitchen door, fearful of what lay beyond.

Dave, who was short and black, seemed to sense Brad’s concern and said, “It was like they all went superhero. Ain’t a summer scene in there.” He joined them on the porch.

Brad started for the door. He got the handle in his fist and was about to twist it when Les called out: “She dead?”

Brad paused but didn’t turn around. “She escaped.”

Dave started cursing. Les’s voice was low and calm as he simply said, “That’s not great news, Brad. Now open that door and go see why.”

Brad entered the house. The kitchen hummed with modern technology but retained a graceful air with bespoke cabinets and a slate floor and exposed timbers. There was a wine rack. It had been attached to the wall beside a tall freezer, but was now broken on the floor, bottles scattered or shattered everywhere, and in amongst them was a man in a white suit, sitting against the wall and wearing a mask of ribbony flesh where his face should have been. The red soaking his torso wasn’t a vintage Bordeaux.

Grafton. Dead, as promised.

Les spoke from right behind him. “I wish you could have seen his face, when he still had one. He knew the end was coming.” Brad could hear Dave further back, still moaning.

Brad moved through the kitchen and stopped in a hallway with a vaulted ceiling and paintings lining both walls – and another body. Another man. This guy wore jeans and a corduroy jacket. He was down on his face and there was a chunk missing from where his shoulder and neck met, as if a giant bite had been taken. The shotgun blast had taken him in the back as he ran.

“He had the audacity to turn his back on me, this one,” Les said, again from right behind him.

Brad ignored him. The vast living room was next. Three-quarters of the floor was carpeted, the rest laminate wood and set aside for an office. Here again were a vaulted ceiling in white and exposed timbers painted black. Colour had been added by yellow and green spotlights arranged around all the walls. The lounge section of the room had a corner sofa and upon it, sitting back as if relaxing in front of the TV, was a woman in a dress. A spotlight above the sofa bathed her in green, making Brad think of some bizarre art exhibit. Her death had been cleaner, because she had just a single bullet hole in her forehead. No blood, strangely.

“Jesus Christ, Les, what the hell happened? It was meant to be just Grafton.”

Les strode into the room, followed by Dave. “Now what?” Dave said. He looked distraught, and not because there were three dead people nearby. “Brad, how did she get past you and outside from all the way upstairs? This is fucked up.”

“Never mind that,” Les said calmly. “She can’t go to the cops. Or at least she won’t just yet.”

Dave started to pace. “She bloody will when she knows what happened here.”

Les grabbed Dave’s shoulders. He was a clear head taller than Dave. “Calm down. She won’t be running to the cops tonight. Remember who her fucking husband is. She knows he’d fucking kill her if she brought the cops around. She’ll expect this to just be some robbery or some enemies giving him a decent hiding, and she’ll just hide away somewhere till morning, when she can call him.”

But Dave was shaking his head. “You can’t know that! Look at this shit. This is an escalation into a new fucking universe. We need to sterilise this place and get rid of the bodies. Make out somehow that Grafton fled. No one was ever here.”

“Won’t work,” Les said. He let Dave go, and the shorter man started to pace again. Les faced both men. “No, we let the world know what happened here, and we don’t hide from shit. Too much evidence we’ve been here, no matter how much Mr Muscle we squirt around. We have to make sure the finger points elsewhere. Safer and easier and what we planned anyway, remember? And we need to make sure we get the bitch wife tonight.” He pointed at Dave. “Go do the Cortina. Go now.”

Dave didn’t argue.

When he was gone, Les walked slowly towards Brad, who was staring at the woman dead on the sofa. The only one who hadn’t run. When they had burst into the house, the three dead people had been in here, very much alive and sitting on the sofa and chatting. Grafton’s wife had been upstairs, using the toilet. When Brad went up to get her, he had left Dave and Les holding their guns – a shotgun for Dave and a pistol for Les – on the trio. Brad could see how it had gone down. For some reason, Les had shot the woman and the two men had fled. No way would Dave have pulled the trigger, so Les must have taken the shotgun from him and pursued the two men. He had probably blasted the other guy first just because he was a loose end. An obstacle between Les and his target. Grafton must have thanked his lucky stars when he heard the explosion in the tiny hallway and the guy next to him dropped. There had been no lucky stars a few seconds later. Grafton hadn’t been shot in the back, so, trapped in the kitchen, he had turned to face his executioner. Les had probably said something to the man before pulling the trigger. Probably smiled right at him, knowing the last laugh was his. But Brad had heard no shots, so the killing must have occurred after he climbed through the bedroom window in pursuit of Grafton’s escaping wife. And he hadn’t heard any arguing, either.

“She was shot out of the blue,” Brad said. Les just grinned at him. “Not like she tried to escape. You planned to kill them all, didn’t you? Not just Grafton. Not just a scare. Murder.”

Les stepped in front of him, blocking his view, making his view nothing but Les.

“Doesn’t matter now,” he said. “What matters is the bitch wife of his. Who got away from you in high heels.”

“I didn’t let her escape on purpose,” Brad said, sensing a hint of an accusation. “Did you plan to kill everyone here?”

Les nodded. “What did you think, we’d blast Grafton away and make the others do pinky promises that they wouldn’t tell?”

Brad hadn’t thought about that at all, because he had never believed Les would really kill Grafton. He had expected his partner to give Grafton a good scare and a kicking, nothing more. This was certainly more.

“There’s a toolroom stuck on the side of this place,” Les said. “You’re about to go there, because you’re the one who fucked up, Brad, and that means you get the short straw for what we need to do. And you’ll need goggles.”

“What the hell are you planning, Les?”

Les told him as he walked to the sofa and sat down, just feet from the dead woman in a summer dress. The cushions moved under his weight and the woman’s head lolled to one side. Brad said, “That’s fucking gruesome. And what are you going to do? Watch some TV?”

Les pulled his mobile. “Gruesome but necessary, unless you want Her Majesty as your new landlady for the next fifty years. And I get the hard part, believe it or not. I’m going to call the boys in blue. Didn’t you notice? There’s been a crime committed in this house.”

“And what do we do about the wife?”

“We’ve probably got tonight,” Les said. “Enemies have come at her husband before and lost. She probably thinks he’s invincible. But as soon as she finds out he’s no longer handsome, she’ll run to the cops. We don’t get her tonight, and the walls come tumbling. So we find her tonight and send her back into his arms.”

*

He had been on his way to a house in Wilmington to see a client, but all of a sudden that plan was out the window. Once he was through the housing estate, he cut north on Leyton Cross Road because a sign pointed that way for the A2, which he could use to get back to London. As if sensing that he had changed his route, the woman in the summer dress asked him where he was going.

“Back to London,” he said. “To a police station, where people will be a bit more interested in your story.”

Since reaching lights and civilisation, she seemed to have calmed down. Now, at the mention of the police, her face fell again.

“We can’t go to the police,” she moaned.

He felt her staring at him but didn’t look at her. “We nothing. You. I’ll stop outside and you’ll get out and then I’ll drive off. Maybe I’ll pass you at a bus stop or be behind you in a queue at the post office one day, but other than that, it’s been nice knowing you.”

Her hand went onto his arm, which made him jerk and almost tug the van into the oncoming lane and an insurance claim by a people carrier.

“Jesus.”

“No police. Just take me somewhere safe.”

He laughed. Disbelief, not amusement. “How about the 71st Signal Regiment?” He’d seen a sign a minute earlier for the barracks, somewhere north.

And then she started to cry. Jesus. He thought about putting an arm on her shoulder, just for comfort, then thought better of it. If he tried to console everyone in London who broke down in tears, he’d have to give up work and drink a lot more caffeine. He wasn’t Florence Nightingale. He’d rescued her from some guy on a dark road, and that was going to be his one good deed for the day.

He pulled his mobile phone and started to type, but she snatched it from him and tossed it down by her feet. Without a word.

“Hey! Look, we’re not in Iraq, so police stations are safe places. You’re making no sense. You want this guy caught, right?” Three guys, he remembered. Then he recalled something else. “Hey, you said they came for your husband. You know who these guys are or something?”

She nodded. He took a sharp left and they drove west with the A2 running parallel on the right. The junction would be coming up soon. He couldn’t wait. Bye speed limit once he got onto that road. The sooner he got rid of the trouble sitting beside him, the better.

“So who the hell are they? You protecting them or something? That’s why no police? What do they want with your husband?”

She stared out the side window, forehead on the cold glass. “Bad men. They want to hurt him. They’ve been trying for a while. My husband has enemies.”

“Who is he, Chairman Mao?”

She was silent for a few moments. Then: “He…makes money the non-traditional way.”

He stared at her. Thought of a joke, then cast it aside, because the truth was scary. “Some criminal? You don’t look like a criminal’s wife.”

She looked at him and he looked at her. Manicured nails, expensive dress and a colour of ash blonde to her bob haircut that you couldn’t get from a chemist. He knew he had it wrong. Not all criminals wore hoodies and mugged old ladies. Some wore suits and ran businesses.

“You some ganglord’s wife?”

She didn’t answer.

“Even more reason to go to the police. That’s a legit claim, there. The police will believe that some guys stormed a ganglord’s house with bad intentions. We’re going there, right now. I want no part of this.”

“No.”

And he really didn’t want any part. What if her husband took offence? Sure, Karl had saved the man’s wife, but that was just a story, just words. What if the guy was paranoid and suspected something sexual between them during the night drive?

“No police, you hear me? You take me somewhere safe for the night, until I get back to my husband.”

Or what if the guy wanted to thank him? He’d seen gangster films before, so he knew you didn’t turn down the generosity of the kingpins. And once you’d accepted what they gave you, you were in their pocket. Before he knew it, he’d be asked to make some dodgy delivery, or to hide some suspect package at his house, or to drive three hooded men to a bank and wait outside with the engine running.

“Take me to your house.”

Even worse, what if the police had the guy under surveillance and suddenly he, Karl, was on their radar? He might get swept up when the cops took everyone down. No way. He -

“What? My house?” he said, realising what she’d asked of him. “No fucking way. First police station I see, I’m skidding into that car park and kicking you out and going home. Steak pie and box set, remember? Nice knowing you.”

“No police. I can’t go to the police.”

Her eyes were pleading. Like some hungry dog’s. You were supposed to get all soft, seeing eyes like that. He just got annoyed. “Give me one good bloody reason why not,” he snapped.

“I’ll give you three reasons,” she said firmly.

*

The first officer attending (FOA) the crime scene sat on one of the Graftons’ all-weather sofas to await his colleagues, who turned up in an unmarked car, three patrol cars, two crime scene vans, an ambulance and a fire engine. The remote location, and the fact that the FOA had already reported that no first aid was necessary, meant there was no need for flashing lights and squealing tyres, so the vehicles came into the area via a dirt lane at an amble. The emergency services personnel and the scientific guys sauntered out of their rides without haste. Two uniforms in fluorescent jackets exited each patrol car, chatting and grinning as if welcoming the break from driving around London in the hope that someone would rob a post office right in front of them. Three plainclothes detectives from a Murder Investigation Team got out of the unmarked vehicle with mistrust all over their faces, as if they were strangers in a strange land. All turned their eyes first upon the Ford Cortina parked next to the house, but only for a second. The car was a smoking, ruined wreck, and the house was pristine and pretty, but the house was the reason everyone was here.

They looked and they imagined the horrors hidden within, but still there was no haste. The firemen knew there was nothing much to be done with the car until it had cooled. The paramedics knew they probably had no task here at all. The uniformed police officers were supposed to hold back the crowds and seal the area with crime scene tape, but there were no gawkers and nothing to tie the tape around. The crime scene guys threw open the rear doors of their vans and started to haul out their gear, but knew they couldn’t start until the detectives gave the nod, and the nod would have to wait until the fashionably late arrival of the scientific experts, like the pathologist and the biologist.

The only man to move with haste was the FOA as he rose from a sofa and leaped the porch fence and strode towards the three detectives, who were moving to intercept him. All four men yanked warrant cards like gunslingers in a Mexican standoff and fired names and ranks.

The FOA went last: “Detective Chief Inspector McIntyre,” Les said. “Three bodies inside. One’s a local hoodlum called Ronald Grafton. Not a pretty sight in there, so barf out here before going in if you’re squeamish. Who’s your SIO for today’s latest act of human basic instinct?”

Another car pulled into the area from the dirt lane, fast. Everyone watched. It drove past the cluster of other vehicles and parked beyond the house. A guy in black trousers and a black jacket got out. He waved Les over. He was a thin man in his fifties with bottle-blonde hair and a rounded gut that screamed alcohol. The three other detectives watched Les go, then forgot about him and turned their eyes upon the house.

Les stopped a few feet from the other man, aware that he was far enough from the house to be out of earshot of anyone else. Les showed the other man his warrant card. The guy didn’t even look at it.

“I know who you are, DCI McIntyre. I’m Bart Chambers, also DCI, and this is Homicide Command’s case, so I’m in charge. Take a seat and I’ll be back.” He yanked open a rear door like a chauffeur and walked away.

Les did as instructed. He watched the detectives and the crime guys suit up in plastic outfits to prevent contaminating evidence that Les knew had already been contaminated up the wazoo. The six uniformed cops went to the hole in the wall of trees where the dirt lane entered to keep out any members of the public who might stroll by. The firemen stood around their vehicle like guys on strike. Everyone else marched towards the crime scene.

Les sat in the car and watched the activity. He knew how to process a crime scene, so knew how to kill one for the investigators. The inside didn’t worry him, but the exterior did. Once the house had been processed, men would emerge and get on their hands and knees in the grass to seek out evidence, crawling like kids playing a game. He knew there could be a chance he’d left something incriminating somewhere around in the mud, despite the cleansing properties of the rain, but there was nothing he could do about that now.

The detectives and the crime guys entered the house. They would tread around carefully, noting, photographing, speculating, but at this buffet nobody would really start gorging until the coroner arrived. The minutes ticked down. Les counted thirteen gone when he saw the six guardians in uniform step aside to admit another vehicle into the area. This would be someone from the Coroner’s Office. The car parked and a middle-aged man got out, nice and slow for his £40 per hour. One of the detectives emerged, chatted to the new arrival, and then waved him inside, like a host about to escort a VIP guest to a swanky dinner. All went quiet again. Inside, men would be swarming over everything, bagging shit and dusting shit because you never knew what insignificant piece of nothingness might provide the breakthrough. They would tread with care where Les had stomped in destruction half an hour ago. Les knew these gamblers were chasing an unreachable jackpot. But you never really knew.

Les counted another seven minutes before anyone else emerged. It was Chambers. Now it was time for Les to be processed.

Chambers stripped off his plastic outfit, stored it in a bag and tossed it in the back of a crime van. He approached his car. He got in the passenger seat and flicked the rear-view mirror so he could see the man sitting directly behind him.

“How did you know Ronald Grafton was in there?” he said.

“White suit. Trademark. And it’s his place.”

Chambers shrugged. “You sure took that mess in there better than I did,” Chambers said. “Like it’s an everyday thing.”

Clearly Chambers didn’t like him. Might even suspect he knew more than he was saying about the carnage inside the house. But suspecting and knowing, never mind proving, were different kettles of fish.

“It ain’t every day a scumbag crime lord gets…whacked, but it should be. I miss a good old street party.” He’d nearly said “blown away,” and that would have blown him away. “You think I should be all distraught?”

“Because of Ronald Grafton? No. But what about the other two? You know who they are?”

“No,” Les said. “Two other scumbags, maybe, even though one was a woman.”

“Could be a couple of priests he was confessing to? Not shook up over that?”

Meeting Chambers’ eyes in the mirror, Les shrugged. “Seen too many nice folks end up on a slab. Doesn’t help to cry over all the bad shit in the world. Let me know when you ID them. If they’re priests, I’ll try to do the feeling bad thing.”

Now Chambers shrugged again. It almost seemed to be a nervous tic. “I’ll need your statement.” He started rooting in the glove box, but couldn’t find what he was looking for. Les tapped him on the shoulder with a small portable voice recorder. Chambers snatched it from him.

“It’s right there,” Les said. “Saved you ten minutes.”

“Don’t touch my stuff. I need you to write it down and sign it.”

“Get a bobby to write it, then I’ll sign it. So, you want to listen to that now, or later?”

Chambers seemed to think about this. Then he put the device back in the glove box. “Why don’t you tell me in your own words.”

“They are my own words,” Les said. Then decided to tell him. He had practiced it, and the tale was pretty much solid in his mind now, so he spoke from memory rather than the inventive part of his being.

Heard some rumour on the grapevine that Grafton was going to celebrate tonight at his house in Bexley. Came here to see if he could photograph any other underworld bigshots who turned up. Saw the burning car and got suspicious, so looked right in the living room window. Saw all the blood and a woman’s body. Went in to see if anyone was still alive. No one was. Called the local station. Sat outside to wait.

“Bet you’re glad, right? About Grafton. A pain in the backside for you Kensington boys, I hear.”

Les grinned, knowing it wouldn’t be wise to feign pity. “No, I don’t give a shit, DCI Chambers. Glad isn’t the word, but you and me both know the world will turn a little more smoothly with a wanker like Grafton out of the way.”

Chambers shrugged, conceding the point. “Makes your life easier, right, DCI McIntyre?”

Fishing. That was the suspicious brain of a detective. Understandable: a cop with a grudge against Grafton had been first on the scene of his murder and had called it in. Who wouldn’t wonder about that? Les said, “Not so much, since there’s an never-ending stream of these guys out there.”

“Any of your prints going to be found in there, McIntyre?” He’d dropped the honorific and his tone was accusatory: they were equal in rank, but this was Chambers’ crime scene and that gave him seniority. Les was now being treated as no better than a witness.

“I went inside. I was careful, but you never know.” He did know, of course. He’d worn gloves.

“Why did you do that? You said you saw the scene through the window? Thought you’d know better.”

“Save that for the uniforms, Chambers. I didn’t roll any body parts around the room or sweep up. I knew this was going to be someone else’s crime scene and I didn’t want to intrude. I went inside to check for signs of life. I was thinking of the poor Commissioner having to explain why one of his officers sat outside a house while some guy bled to death inside. Thought you’d know better.”

The two men sat in silence for a few seconds. Les knew Chambers had to go through the fishing routine, and knew there was nothing to worry about. Maybe a talking-to by his own Superintendent about stalking Grafton, especially off-duty, but that was it. Deflecting suspicion wasn’t his primary purpose, however: it was to get Chambers to give up what he knew so far, even though the investigation was mere minutes old.

“What’s the odds anyone heard or saw anything out here?” he said when their eyes met in the rear-view mirror again.

He saw the look in those eyes change as his question nudged Chambers onto another track. “Doubtful,” the Senior Investigating Officer said after a pause. “Tile Kiln Lane is north, but the part we’re on is some back lane section. Over east a few hundred metres are some estates, but there’s trees blocking any noise the killers might have made. There’s nothing around here. It still amazes me that you can find places like this in London. And Ronald Grafton’s got three places like this one, all set in woodland on the outskirts of London. Great for containing the area, bad for witnesses.”

“A bitch, eh?” He already knew there would be no witnesses. Damned reason he had waited months and months for a shot at Grafton out here.

There was a rap on the window and both men turned to see one of the other detectives outside. Chambers exited, shut the door, and listened for a few moments. The detective vanished and Chambers retook his seat. He didn’t speak for a few moments. But Les had seen the detective point at the smouldering Cortina.

“So what do we know about that car?” Les prompted. This was the part he had been waiting for. Chambers turned to look. The ruined Cortina would yield no forensic evidence, but it could still tell its story to the investigators. Not many people owned a Mark II Ford Cortina, and how many of them would be convicted criminals? If the trick with the car worked, there would be no comebacks.

“We just traced it,” Chambers said. He turned in his seat and looked at Les, but his face bore no suspicion now. He looked at Les like a man about to have a discussion about the case. Like a cop about to talk shop with another cop. The trick had worked, Les realised. So suspicion had been deflected, at least for the moment, and Les knew he could soon move on to finding the woman and sending her back to her husband.

*

“They’re cops? All three of them? Bullshit,” Karl said.

She looked hurt at the accusation of a lie. “What’s your name?”

He barked a laugh right at her. No way was he going to tell her his name. Anonymity was his safest option here. “Peter,” he lied. “Over the moon to meet you.”

She stuck out her hand. She wore two rings that looked very expensive. “Liz Grafton.”

He shook her hand, although he didn’t know why. Her skin was cold, which made this whole thing that little more unsettling, and he didn’t know why that was, either.

“Peter, I want you to listen to me. Are you listening?”

All of a sudden he felt reprimanded, like some kid about to get a warning off a teacher. He nodded, and she started talking.

“The three men who came into our house were police officers, detectives. One’s a Chief Inspector. They don’t work together but they know each other way back from training school. Are you still listening?”

He was, but half his concentration was on the some teenagers playing football on a small pitch ahead of them. Liz had insisted that he pull off the A2 before she told him her “three good reasons.” Figuring the quicker she said her piece, the quicker he could get rid of her, he had exited at the next junction and made a few turns left and right until he found a desolate dead end with closed shops along both sides and a park for ball games ahead. He had sat in the dark and the silence while she urinated behind a shop, and willed himself to drive off and abandon her, but he left it too late and she climbed back inside as his hand prepared to throw the gearstick into reverse. So he had sat back and told her to explain and thirty seconds later had prayed his ears were lying to him.

“The DCI is a man called Lesley McIntyre,” she continued. “He’s a violent thug. He’s as corrupt as anyone he’s ever put away. He’s the leader of the three, and he’s the one who has a major problem with my husband. They somehow knew where we were going to be tonight, and they came dressed in black and wearing masks. I got out and ran, but right now everyone else is back at the house and probably being robbed, maybe beaten. McIntyre will make it look like a group of rivals, so my husband starts a war. This isn’t about trying to get my husband in jail. It’s about personal gratification for McIntyre. Do you understand?”

Understanding and believing were different things, of course. But understand her words he did, so nodded.

"I've been to the police many times about McIntyre. When he's accosted me or my husband in the street, for no good reason -"

Sure, Karl thought, the police always hassle people for no good reason.

"- and whenever he's tried to arrest my husband for some crime they know he didn't commit. There have been threatening phone calls, smear campaigns, even some vandalism. They've got nothing on him, never have, but it doesn't stop this man. So, understand this, Peter, if I go to the police and say three police officers dressed as burglars threatened my husband, what do you think will happen?"

“They’ll investigate?” Karl said with a hint of sarcasm. Still watching the football game ahead, but his peripheral vision caught her hand lifting something off the dashboard.

"No, they'll say what they always say. We're paranoid. And that my husband has many enemies, and that maybe he shouldn't do the things he does, although I promise you he's going legit these days. These people suspect that I know who they are. If I tell the police, it will just cause more trouble. McIntyre will make things worse -"

“Or stop.”

“No, Peter, he won’t just stop. He’ll never stop. He blames my husband for something I’m not going into. But he had nothing to do with it.”

They never do. “So what’s your plan?”

"I need to stay away just for the night. I can't risk running around tonight, because I have no idea what's going on. There could be a war -"

“War?” he cut in with a laugh. “You think London’s going to burn tonight in riots?”

“Don’t joke about this-”

“Maybe you think the entire police force is out kicking in doors and shooting people to find you?”

She punched his arm, hard. The surprise rather than the pain clamped his mouth shut.

"Listen, mouthy, this is my plan. I'll meet back up with my husband in the morning He'll know what to do. How to proceed. He's good at that sort of thing. But not tonight. For all I know McIntyre has a whole bunch of his scumbag informants out there, looking for me. So what I need from you is to drive right on past any police stations you see, and any army barracks, and take me somewhere safe. If not your home -"

“My wife’s at home, and I don’t need to tell you how that would look.”

"- then somewhere else. Not a hotel, just in case. They might check hotels, and if they find me, there might be a threat to keep quiet. You understand?"

He nodded. Didn’t buy it, but nodded. “But where? And make it somewhere quick, because I just want to drop you off and get the hell home. Understand?”

“Sure.” She seemed to have lost all her timidity. She was starting to sound like someone in control. Certainly sounded like the wife of a ganglord. Must be an ego boost to be able to boss around a guy who bossed around a bunch of hard cases.

“So, where? Some friend’s house?”

“No, those people might be compromised.”

Jesus – compromised? And legit? Terms she’d overheard her husband say, probably. At least she wasn’t calling the police the feds.

“Some building that will be closed and empty. How about Sunrise Electronics, Karl?”

His heart almost stopped. His name, his real name, and the name of the business he ran with his childhood friend, Daniel. He looked at her, mouth agape, and saw her holding up the thing she had plucked off the dashboard.

His business card.

*

Brad and Dave were in Brad’s Audi TT a few streets from Hammersmith Police Station when Dave told him to stop.

“There’s one,” Dave said. Brad looked across the street and saw a police patrol car parked behind a truck. The officer and the trucker were between both vehicles, chatting over a piece of paperwork.

Brad exited, waited for a gap in the traffic and rushed across the road. By this time the trucker was climbing into the truck’s cab and the officer was strapping on his seatbelt. Brad rapped on the window. It came down.

Brad wore jeans and a cream jacket, so had to pull out his warrant card for the officer. “DS Smithfield. Off duty, so I don’t have a radio. I need a vehicle check. Just saw two idiots racing each other.”

He gave the registration numbers and the officer typed them into a small computer attached to his dashboard. Brad had memorised the plates virtually by luck. He hadn’t suspected that Grafton’s wife had somehow stopped a vehicle and gotten a lift, but out there in the black of night, the illuminated rear number plates of the van and the car had drawn his gaze, and his memory had retained them. Les had wanted him to radio in the vehicle check, but Brad hadn’t wanted to risk having his name connected to the vehicles’ owners – if one of them turned up badly injured, Brad’s interest in them would be questioned. Safer this way.

The result was back. Neither the Ford Transit box van nor the Citroen C3 had flagged up. Owners: no criminal records. Vehicles: taxed, insured, not reported stolen. Brad reached inside and turned the screen.

“Let me see,” he said. He looked, then said, “Okay, just a couple of regular guys who thought it would be funny to race at a green light. We’ll forget about it this time. Thank you, constable.”

Fifteen seconds later he was back in his car.

“Get them?” Dave said. Brad nodded. Dave had been referring to the addresses of the drivers, which Brad had memorised from the screen. Brad pulled his mobile and was about to call Les when it rang.

“We’re in the clear,” said Les.

“They let you go?”

Les laughed. “Course they let me go. The SIO was some cunt called Chambers. I heard about him before. He had nothing on me, although his tone said he would have liked the opposite to be the case. Twat. They’re still mopping up blood and flesh and talking shit at the house. I just left them to it, and as far as I know they have nothing. And they’ll continue to have nothing on us. Unless Grafton’s fucking wife somehow fucks us over.”

“She hasn’t been heard from?” Brad said.

“No, she hasn’t squealed on us yet. In fact, they don’t even think she was at the house. Apparently she was seen arguing with Grafton after he got bailed this morning. Theory is the party went on without her. They sent uniforms round to their Kensington place with the bad news, but nobody’s seen her. But they’re growing suspicious about that. It was speculated that she might be dead, too, or kidnapped. Turns out they just found a big clue that points to one of Grafton’s enemies targeting him and maybe his missing wife.”

“The Cortina?”

“Oh yes.” Les laughed. “It worked a treat. Poor Ramon. Two birds with one stone, eh?”

Ramon Ramirez, another ganglord, albeit small time. Grafton was high-end, dealing in money laundering, fraud, and other nefarious activities. Ramirez was at the other end, peddling heroin on the streets, running prostitutes and protection rackets. No less of a scumbag, even though he wore Nike rather than Gucci. Four months ago his prized Cortina had been stolen, or so he had claimed. The police had expected the vehicle to reappear later as part of some crime, allowing Ramirez to claim no responsibility – an old trick the criminals played. Well, the car had now turned up at the scene of a gruesome triple murder. Ramirez was a known enemy of Grafton’s, and he was going to get a shock when the cops pulled him in for a trio of slaughters. Even now the police were hunting him.

“He’s not at any of his local haunts,” Les said, as if reading Brad’s thoughts, “so he’ll probably hear that the police want him long before they get close. That’s good. Gives him time to do something reactive. Hopefully he’ll blame a third gang leader somewhere, and maybe number three’s surprise will make him eye up some other scumbag.” He laughed. “Maybe, with luck, they’ll all fall like dominoes to each other’s revenge.”

“And we’ll end up just chasing purse snatchers,” Brad said, laughing too. He was relaxed now that they seemed to be out of the fire.

“I miss a good purse snatcher,” Les moaned. “Someone you can kick around a cell and who’s too stupid to know we’re not allowed to do that.”

Brad sighed with relief and gave Dave a thumbs-up. “So we’re in the clear for sure?”

“Forensics are still at the house and the investigation is only an hour old, so anything could still turn up. Didn’t drop your driver’s licence there, did ya?” He laughed. “But I think we’re good. Chambers knows I had run-ins with Grafton, but there’s no real suspicion. Just the usual detectives’ mistrust of all and sundry. But all it does is back up my reason for being at the house. They’ve got nothing that sheds a dark light on us. No prints anywhere suspicious, no clue that you and Dave were there, and no bullets, thanks to you…”

He continued to detail where Senior Investigating Officer Chambers was with the investigation, which was in its infancy, but Brad had stopped listening. His mind went back two hours, to the chainsaw. No bullets, no firm indication even that the dead people had been shot. Brad had collected the bullet from the dead woman’s brain, and all the shotgun pellets – he hoped – from the other two. He had been able to do that because he had taken that chainsaw to them, hard, violent, turning them into ribbons, splintering bones, splashing blood everywhere. Gruesome work. Right there in the thick of it, he had performed like some robot, oblivious to the depravity, no different to a butcher slicing bacon, but he knew the images would come back at night, maybe for years to come. You couldn’t chop people up like that and remain guilt-free.

After the gruesome butchery was completed, Les had turned his attention back to the missing woman, who, Brad admitted, had recognised him as one of the intruders and could sink them all forever. He had spoken to her, which he shouldn’t have, and he had seen in her eyes that she recognised his voice. She needed to be found before she found the balls to tell her story. Les had wanted the drivers traced, and he knew this was the main reason for Les’s call, not to tell Brad about the current standing of the investigation.

Brad knew the question was coming and answered it without being asked: “I got the drivers.”

Les whistled, something he did when he was happy. “Then you get out of there and go get Król. That’s right up his fucking street. Get him to call me when he knows something, no matter what time in the morning. Make sure Król doesn’t fucking kill someone. Remember, Brad, this woman might be out there and scared and not liable to say anything at the minute. Think it’s gonna stay that way when she sees tomorrow’s papers? We get her tonight, or the walls come tumbling.”

“It’ll be done,” Brad said.

“Cool. You got rid of that damn Titty yet?”

Titty was what Les called Brad’s TT. “See you later, Les,” Brad said, ignoring the jibe.

Les hung up. Brad slotted away his phone. He couldn’t help thinking about innocent people. The couple in Grafton’s house, especially. But also the two men who had been driving out on that road earlier. Maybe one had picked up the woman, or maybe both had seen her and driven past. Maybe neither had seen anything. Innocent, but about to have a very bad night.

*

Karl had agreed within seconds, and spent the next fifteen minutes cursing himself for it. The guy in Wilmington waiting for his new fancy car alarm to be fitted would by now be wondering what was going on. He might call Karl’s home. Karl had been with this woman for almost ninety minutes now, and he would have to explain to Katie where he’d been if she discovered that he hadn’t turned up for his appointment. He could lie, of course, but for all he knew one of her friends had seen him driving with another woman in the van. He should have been rid of her by now, yet there she still sat. She should be miles away from him, with his bootprint on her ass, but instead they were headed to his shop. Every extra minute he spent with her increased the chances that someone his wife knew would see them together. Bad enough out on the roads, but if they were seen going into his shop while it was closed… This new worry knocked aside all thoughts of rogue cops.

They drove in silence. Karl watched the road. Liz spent most of the time staring out the window with her head on the glass, as if asleep. After a while, he caught movement as she lifted his business card again. “So what electronics stuff do you sell? DVD players and stuff?”

He looked at her for the first time in fifteen minutes. For a woman who had been accosted recently by armed men, she seemed very unstressed. He answered with a simple no, and fell silent again. Liz seemed happy with this, breaking her own silence only once as she saw Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park far off to their left.

“Where are we?”

“Old Ford.”

“Ah. I heard this place was getting a makeover because of the Olympics a few years back.”

“Well they overlooked the bit we’re going to.”

Sunrise Electronics was nothing but a sign above a large shuttered doorway in a long, windowless, single-storey building on a street tucked away from anywhere inhabited at night. The building was lined with such shutters and signs and mirrored across the road. The two buildings and the road ended at a high wall with faded graffiti and topped with rusted barbed wire. Just the one way in or out.

Karl’s place was second from the end, just past a place called FINE INK’s and before a joint that sold antiques. He pulled up to the kerb and stopped. Across the road a shutter was rolled up at a place called COMPUTERZ. Light washed the street and inside Karl could see shelves of machines and bit and pieces, and a desk at the back. Some guy was sitting behind it, putting on a white shirt and suit top over his coveralls. There was a pushbike leaning against the exterior wall.

“Wait till this guy’s gone,” he said, sinking low in his seat.

Seven minutes later the road was dark, COMPUTERZ shuttered and dead like all the other places. They got out and walked to SUNRISE ELECTRONICS’ shuttered door. Karl unlocked it and raised it just three feet with a screech, then slipped inside. When Liz didn’t immediately follow, he stuck out a hand and waved frantically. She muttered something about expecting him to open the shutter fully, then bent and ducked inside.

He told her to wait while he moved through the dark and hit a switch that powered a strip light in the ceiling. The light was right by a trap with a retractable ladder attached. The rest of the shop was like the place across the road, just a desk at the back and a few file cabinets and wall-mounted shelving bloated with stock.

“This is just some workshop,” Liz moaned. “I can’t sleep here.”

“Good, let’s go. B & B it is.” He was annoyed. He had suggested dropping her at a hotel somewhere, and she had refused, claiming she didn’t want to be seen, couldn’t risk someone who knew the rogue cops finding out where she was. And now she was complaining.

She looked upset, like someone caught between a rock and a hard place, and he softened.

“Up in the roof is a little chilling area. There’s a hammock.”

“A what?”

How posh was this girl? “I’ll show you it.”

“Not planning to take advantage of me, are you?”

It was said with mirth, and he grinned back at her. He was puzzled by her light attitude, but figured it was a coping mechanism, and one that he should employ himself. “In a hammock? You’ll see it and laugh.”

She didn’t laugh, though. She followed him up the ladder – in a dress, there was no way she was going first – and into the attic, which was carpeted. There was a TV/DVD combo, with a PlayStation alongside, wedged in a tight corner, a small coffee table with cups and magazines on it, and a hammock strung under the ridgeline of the roof. She looked at it as she knelt on the carpet, head just inches from the roof, and shook her head. “A man’s den if ever there was one, apart from no topless girl posters.”

“I take those home because my business partner licks them. Look, if not the hammock then the carpet’s soft enough. Stays warm enough up here, lord knows how.”

“What’s all that stuff?” she asked, pointing to a brick wall between this attic and next door’s, where there was a grid-like shoe rack that contained electronics rather than footwear. He told her not to worry about those items, then said,

“Right, I’m going home. There’s no food, but there’s a water bottle next to the TV, look. The shutter can be unlocked from the inside. I’m back here to open up at eight in the morning. You’ll be gone, right?”

He was halfway down the ladder, just his head and shoulders exposed to her, when he froze, amazed by her response.

“You might be in danger and shouldn’t go home tonight.”

“The fuck are you talking about? Why am I in danger? They didn’t see me.”

But one of them had, or at least his van. His was unmarked and like a thousand white vans that criss-crossed London every day and night. But each had a registration plate for a reason: to be traced. And according to this woman, these guys were Metropolitan Police. No big deal for a cop to do a vehicle check and grab Karl’s address.

She shrugged. Paused. “Just be careful.”

“I’m fine,” he said with fake boldness. “Just be gone tomorrow morning. Nice knowing you. Don’t steal anything.”

He slid down the ladder and went for the door. Then he stopped, turned back, and took an item off one of the shelves. He flicked the light, crossed the dark room, and slid under the shutter. He could see flickering light from the ceiling: she had turned on the TV, volume low. For about the millionth time he regretted ever having met this woman, then slammed the shutter, locked it and got into his van.

He didn’t know this woman from Eve and could return tomorrow to find half his stock missing. Didn’t care, so long as she was gone along with it.

*

He was at his street twenty minutes later. He checked his watch and figured he wasn’t much later than he would have been if he’d continued on to the Wilmington job, so there would be no need for a bullshit story to tell his wife. Unless he walked in the door and she straight out asked him who the hell was that woman seen in his van.

He stopped forty metres away from his house, pulled in behind a Range Rover and took out the item he’d lifted from his shop. He’d told Liz that his shop didn’t sell DVDs and the like, and that was very true. Sunrise Electronics dealt in surveillance and defence technology, which he and his business partner, Daniel, who was holidaying in Blackpool, bought online from overseas and sold and a high mark-up. In his hand was a small radio detector. Good for finding bugs and hidden cameras, but also for detecting the use of radios in the vicinity. He turned it on and studied the display as he drove past his house, and was happy with what he saw. Low signals that probably came from the houses, but nothing up close, which he took to mean that there was nobody with a radio hiding in a parked car. He turned at the end of the street, came back, parked, and went inside. Couldn’t resist his paranoia from making his eyes have one last look up and down the street.

The living room light was on, and the TV, but the room was empty. His steak pie was in the oven, still hot, but he didn’t fancy it. It went into the fridge, still pouring steam. He went into the living room and turned everything off and stood at the curtains in the dark. Another last look, which confirmed that nobody was out there, watching. Liz had been wrong. There were no rogue cops after him. It was a silly notion brought about by whatever mental impairment she obviously had. War on the streets indeed! A platoon of police and their informants fighting hand-to-hand against an army of criminals – buildings aflame, blood running in the gutters, all of it because Liz Grafton was out there with a secret that three renegade police detectives could not allow to be shared. Starring Steven Seagal and directed by John Woo.

Calmed somewhat by his own humour, Karl turned away from the window.

Katie was in the bedroom, tucked up in bed with just her head and arms showing. Her long dark hair was splayed on the pillow like black blood from a vicious head wound. She was on her electronic tablet again, probably looking at fireplaces, her new obsession.

“Hey,” he said as he walked past the doorway and into the bathroom. She returned his hey, then said something he didn’t catch. He returned to the doorway while brushing his teeth.

“What?”

“I’ve got some pictures of black fireplaces, if you want to see. All under seven hundred.”

“Tomorrow. Tired.” He went back into the bathroom. Heard some utterance he didn’t understand as he rinsed his mouth. Thirty seconds later he walked into the bedroom, topless. “What?”

“The best ones are more expensive, though.”

He had insisted on a black fireplace, and a ceiling of seven hundred pounds, once he had realised that they were going to get one no matter how much he objected. “We’ll check them out later.”

Soon he was in bed, but not naked. Explained that he was cold and had decided to sleep in tracksuit bottoms tonight. She cracked a joke: he just wanted to prevent her touching his privates. He forced a laugh. His own tablet was on the bedside table and for the next forty minutes they kept to themselves, lost in a cyber-world. But Karl couldn’t focus. When Katie announced she was going to sleep and turned off the light, he told her he needed the toilet and got up. The dark had got him worrying again. He went into the living room, kitchen, and the bedrooms. In each dark room he peered out the window, but saw nothing of concern. He had set the burglar alarm, locked all the doors and windows, and there was nothing else he could do bar sit up all night with a stick. Besides, the woman, Liz, was likely full of shit. Or this was some elaborate con and right now she and the masked man were unloading all his shop’s stock into a truck. Nothing he could do about that, either, so he got into bed, pulled the covers up, and tried to forget all about the last few hours of his life.

*

Two of them came just after two in the morning. The street was silent and empty and they rode up on a Beta 300RR off-road bike. It had been doing eighty miles an hour three hundred metres away when the engine was killed, and now it coasted silently along the road and turned into an alleyway. Two men in black plastic tracksuits with the hoods up exited and climbed a fence and ran across someone’s back yard. Scaling another fence put them in the garden they wanted.

The back door was a sturdy uPVC affair, but it had been compromised by the installation of a cat flap. The smaller of the two men prised away the outer frame with the claw end of a hammer. The inner frame fell away into the kitchen with barely a noise. The hole cut into the door was big enough to let him slip through. The key was in the other side of the door, which meant his partner was able to step through like someone who belonged a few seconds later.

These two men were seasoned burglars and had good night vision. They crossed a kitchen that had two islands and stools arranged around both without disturbing anything except a cat that shot past them and out its new exit. One guy was white, the other Asian. The Asian guy checked the living room while his partner remained at the foot of the stairs. They had learned the hard way that sometimes couples grew apart and sometimes one slept on the sofa downstairs. The Asian guy, still carrying his hammer, returned and gave a thumbs-up. All was good in this couple’s relationship.

Both men climbed the stairs. Four doors led off a tiny landing at the top. Two were open. A bathroom and a small bedroom given over to storage. The Asian guy opened one of the others to disclose a second bedroom, neat, and empty – no sex-starved husband sleeping in there. The white guy opened the other door slowly, exposing the main bedroom. The curtains were closed against the moonlight, but the couple in the bed had fallen asleep with a small lamp on the wall above the bed that gave off a soft orange glow. He could see two shapes under the thick quilt. The woman was on her back, mouth open, long dark hair splayed on the pillow like black blood from a vicious head wound, while the guy was on his side and facing away. Bare shoulders suggested both were naked.

The burglars had already formulated a plan, so they rushed inside quickly, silently. The white guy threw the cover off the male, exposing his nakedness. His half of the quilt fell over his wife. The Asian guy leaped on the woman, forcing the quilt over her face. The couple jerked awake at the same time. The woman started to struggle and yell, but the Asian man kept his weight on her, kept her smothered, and forced a gloved hand over her face, forcing the thick fabric of the quilt to cover her mouth and dull her cries.

The man tried to sit up, shock all over his sleepy face, but the white man head butted him right in the nose, then sat astride him and held a shank made from a piece of wood and three four-inch nails jammed into his cheek. His other hand clamped over the mouth. Blood from the guy’s nose dribbled down his cheeks like war paint.

“Where’s the woman?” the white guy whispered right into his ear. “Make noise and I bleed you and the wife.”

He released his hand from the man’s mouth. The guy looked to be in great pain and horror and couldn’t understand, or despite his terror refused to answer.

“The woman you picked up earlier tonight. Where is she? And what did she say?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” the man squealed. “Please.”

The white burglar twisted the wood back and forth, cutting the nails into the man’s face, scraping them against bone with a squeak like an old door opening. Despite his hand over the man’s mouth again, a scream of pain emerged that only dead neighbours wouldn’t hear. Blood went everywhere. Two feet away, the Asian man laughed like some kid riding a bucking bronco simulator as the woman thrashed beneath him.

“Where’s the woman?”

The hand was removed from his mouth. The man snatched a chance to scream for help. The white guy head butted him again, then stabbed him five times in the same spot on his upper arm, fast, like a piston. Now he didn’t care about the guy’s screams. He jammed the lethal-looking weapon under the man’s chin, right into his throat, and pressed in just shy of hard enough to draw blood.

“Last chance! Where’s the fucking woman you picked up tonight?”

*

Les woke at five. He checked his mobile, but there were no missed calls. He got out of bed and padded naked into the bathroom. In the mirror, his face was tired and angry-looking. That was a face he wore a lot these days. Brad had called him a TV movie bad guy once, and a cheesy cop-on-the-edge, because he was all rage and badness. He was about to brush his teeth when he caught sight of them. Yellow, getting worse. He hadn’t brushed them ten times in a year, and thought fuck it now. What good would it do? Who was he trying to impress?

He tossed the toothbrush and went into the kitchen. Put the kettle on and moved to the living room. Put the news on TV while he waited for the kettle. Sat on the arm of his sofa and tried to concentrate on the TV. This was part of what Brad meant: his inability to relax, to do normal things. He got his cup of tea and sat on a sofa cushion, not on the arm. Curled his feet under him and cradled the cup. It felt weird. He tried not to think about Król, who should have called by now. Tried to concentrate on the news, but even the news was all rage and badness these days. Flicked through channels until he found one broadcasting some American sitcom.

All business, those TV bad guys. The films gave the impression they were like robots. You didn’t see them chill in front of a TV or drink a nice cup of tea. They didn’t seem the sort to like soap operas or art, unless a penchant for Beethoven or classical literature was part of their invented charm to instil a sense of eccentricity. All mean faces and work, work, work, 24/7.

The sitcom started to wear on him quickly. The characters grinned too much, were too fresh and neat no matter the situation, sat like people at job interviews, and generally just pissed him off with all their fakery. He wanted to smash their buoyant faces. He turned off the TV before his brain got chance to blame the device for what it had just been subjected to. Something else Brad had said he had a habit for.

Angry again, Les, you cop-on-the-edge, you?

Brad and Dave often ribbed him about his anger, but what did they know? Dave had a wife, and Brad had a guy he’d found who also liked to take it up the ass. Dave had a mortgage and plans for kids, and Brad had that fucking stupid dream about opening a bar in Thailand. What future did Les have, apart from more pain? They knew nothing about what it was like to have your life ripped away. Most men would have sunken into some kind of despair and become a shell of their former selves, while others would have migrated to a monastery in Tibet: you coped how you could. Les’s way was to be, as Brad had put it, angry at the entire world. But it beat shrinking into nothing, or casting aside your entire life for something new. Both were weak, in Les’s opinion. Like running away.

He called Dave, knowing the man was working a night shift so would be awake. But there was no answer. The guy could be busy busting someone, or maybe just not answering the phone. Dave had gotten paranoid of late about the group’s activities and had a couple of times mentioned that he was thinking about getting out. He knew Dave was no big fan of the way things had gone down at the cottage, but the fucker was an idiot if he hadn’t expected bloodshed once Les finally got his hands on Grafton. No reason to ignore calls, you damn fucker. I could have important news!

There was that anger again. He tried to calm himself, but that just made things worse. Just like when Donald from the station had sent him that text with a link to some course in mindfulness. Who the fuck was anyone to say someone should calm down? Or tell them how to do it, like they knew best? Try a bloody mindyour-fucking-businessfulness course, you bastards.

He finished the tea and dumped the cup in the sink. Hard, from a distance, so that the thing made a noise. Les liked noise, although he didn’t know why – maybe it made him feel better. He liked to slam doors and shit like that, and if the bitch next door banged on his wall to complain, well, he liked shouting right back at her. That certainly made him feel better. In fact, he probably got more angry if she didn’t respond. He got dressed. Spent the whole time thinking about Król. Went to sleep thinking about that bastard and now the guy was filling his head again. Where was he? Why hadn’t he called? He wanted to smash the guy’s rat-like little face.

He called the station and said his stomach was no better. Sorry, won’t be in again today. Going to practice mindful meditation, he nearly added. Said he’d phone in officially later, when the boss was in, and hung up with no intention to do so. Unless he fancied a fucking argument. He had more important work to do today than hunting pickpockets and car thieves.

*

Karl was up at six and dressed by ten past, teeth cleaned, hair flattened into something respectable, and down in the kitchen, filling the kettle. He was wearing black trousers and a plain white shirt with SUNRISE ELECTRONICS stitched on the chest. He was eager to get to the shop, see if the woman had gone, but also wasn’t. Because what if she was still there? Daylight made everything seem less scary, but he still wanted no part of what was going on in her life.

The water reached the brim of the kettle and ran over, soaking his hand. Still he kept the kettle there, staring out the window, at something he’d spotted in the back yard.

Katie, in a nightdress, appeared beside him and shut the water off. “Still asleep?” she said, and took the kettle to go plug it in. “I’ve got my nails today, remember. Still want to meet for lunch?”

He nodded, even though she was behind him and facing away. Then he told her he’d be back in a minute and left the kitchen.

In the back garden, he crossed the lawn and stopped at the shed, whose door was ajar. He yanked the door open and stepped back. Mr. Hilton, two doors down, had found a homeless guy sleeping in his greenhouse a few weeks back. But the shed was empty. However, it wasn’t the way he had left it. The lawnmower had been standing upright in the centre, and now it lay on its back close to the door, exposing the underneath, where he could see that one of the two blades had been broken off. A bag of grass feed had been split and spilled everywhere, and other items had fallen off the hooks on the walls, probably when the lawnmower was moved. Some fucker had busted into his shed, although he couldn’t immediately see if anything had been taken.

Back inside the house, he almost knocked over Katie as he powered through the kitchen and towards the stairs. She asked him what he was rushing about for, but he ignored her.

The small bedroom was Karl’s makeshift office, with a bookcase and a computer table with his laptop on it. He flipped the lid and hit a button and sat to watch the machine wake up.

“Fuckers,” he said as he waited.

Katie appeared at the door with a cup of tea for him. He faked a smile and took the cup. “Checking something. Down in a minute.”

She stroked his hair and vanished.

Quickly he accessed a file with a camera icon and the screen filled with a video image of his back garden, from a tiny camera hidden in a potted plant on a side fence. The house was on the left, the shed on the right. The image had a bright green hue.

The camera was not motion-activated but recorded whenever the burglar alarm was active. He clicked and scrolled and clicked and scrolled and soon found what he was looking for. At 03.13 a.m., as he watched in horror, two green men scaled his green back gate.

“Night vision, dickheads,” he said, although the hairs were standing up on the back of his neck.

The two men moved towards the shed. The picture was clear, even when he zoomed in on the figures, who seemed to be wearing one-piece outfits.

“Fuckers,” he said as he watched one of them bust the hasp on the shed and yank the door open. The door opened towards the camera, so he lost sight of one man as he stepped behind it. The other guy just stood and watched, sometimes turning his head to look around, maybe to check on some noise he heard. That guy looked dark-skinned, even as a green alien-like figure.

The guy ransacking the shed moved away thirty seconds after the door was opened and closed it over. Both men scuttled across the grass, and Karl felt a shiver run up his entire body.

Because they didn’t head towards the gate, but to the back door. They weren’t fleeing the scene with a trowel or whatever they had nabbed. They wanted to get into the house. One of them put his hand on the handle, then yanked it back quickly, clutching it in obvious pain.

“Electrified, dickheads,” Karl shouted at the screen. Katie called to him, asking what was wrong. Nothing, he insisted.

The other guy went to the kitchen window and put his face close, scanning. Karl knew he had seen the metal strip running around the frame. He touched it with a finger, and yanked his hand away fast.

Karl clicked and the image changed. He had three cameras covering the back of the house. He was now watching the view from the one above the kitchen door. It was the size of a cigarette packet and the colour of the brick it was planted on, invisible in the night. The lens was aimed downwards at an angle, covering just a few feet in front of the door, and it showed the two hooded men in glorious definition. The guy who’d fingered the window looked Asian or Mediterranean, while the other was a white guy with thick stubble covering most of his face and neck.

They were talking to each other, one sucking his finger, the other spitting on his own burned digits. They were animated, angry. Karl waited for them to leave, to abandon this target and move on to another. But they didn’t. They talked and pointed and looked annoyed. Karl’s heart beat faster as he realised what was going on. Normal burglars would have given up by now. But these were not men who had randomly chosen a house and been foiled.

They needed to get inside this house. He couldn’t shake the belief that they were not after his property, but after Karl himself. And for damn sure it had everything to do with the woman last night.

*

Aleksy Kozaczuk was called Król by those who knew him, a name meaning “king”. He had run gangs as a teenager in Szczecin, Poland, inspired by his father’s tales of Polish criminals making money and earning respect alongside Al Capone and other notable gangsters during America’s Prohibition era. It all had to do with some loose family connection to Bugs Moran. Król didn’t retain most of what the drunken old fool spouted, but he did like the fact that he was allowed to steal and beat other kids and his father only reprimanded him if the police got involved. The old fool taught him early that a man without a rich family, a serious talent or massive luck could only strike it rich through crime. He had yearned to set up a new life in America, running guns and girls.

He got to London after the expansion of the European Union in 2004, still eyeing an empire in America, but here he still was more than a decade later. He didn’t mind, because he was running a gang and sometimes there was a girl he could pimp and now and then he sold a gun. He was tall, skinny, only twenty-eight but had a buzz cut and a face of stubble that was iron grey. It made him look older, but, he felt, meaner. His face was known on the streets. His gang was mostly kids shorter and stupider, and he liked that they called him their king. Like some Fagin of the modern world, he sent them out to do his robbing, so that he could remain untouchable. Of course, theft was in his blood, so he still went on the odd excursion himself. The latest was about to bite him in the ass.

He lived in a bedsit above a laundrette in Fulham, accessed by an entrance in the side wall and a set of stairs that terminated right at his door. Not exactly the palace he had dreamed of, but paperwork issued by the benevolent British government said he alone owned the keys. His eyes flickered awake at the sound of the first door being kicked in. His brain oriented itself as footsteps thudded up the stairs. He was sitting up in bed in just his boxer shorts and holding a knife as the inner door was booted open.

“Put that away or I’ll store it in your arse,” said the silhouette in the doorway. The intruder yanked on a grimy cord hanging from the ceiling and a weak bulb cast jaundiced light over the room. Król recognised his visitor and tossed the knife on a bedside table containing just his mobile phone and an ashtray heaped with cigarette butts.

“What you doing here?”

There was a cheap plastic clock hanging on the wall beside the door. The intruder yanked it down and skimmed it like a Frisbee, striking Król hard in the chest. “What time does that say? Is reading the time the same in fucking Poland as it is here?”

Król tossed the clock aside after a glance at it – barely past six in the morning – and rubbed his chest. “I’ve had one fucking hours’ sleep, Les. Fuck off.”

Les strode into the room and stopped at the foot of the bed. “Same here about the sleep, Król, you piece of shit. Know why? Because I was waiting up for you. You were supposed to call when it got done, remember? Not just piss off home. So I’m figuring it didn’t get done, right?”

“I got burned, man.”

“One of them recognised you?”

Król thrust out his right hand, fingers splayed. “Nah, I mean I got fucking burned.” Les stared at the man’s fingers, which were red and sore and blistered. “Some fucking weird electrified security shit on that house in Chiswick. Must have the fucking Crown Jewels in there.”

“That all you learned since you sneaked in my country? That fucking foul language? Which house? So you didn’t get inside?”

“Gave it up, man. You see my fingers? You’ll have to go see the guy yourself. Van owner.”

“Well that’s why I need you again. Get your stolen shit shoes on and let’s go.”

Król shifted so he could sit up against the headboard. He lit a cigarette stub plucked from the ashtray and sucked hard on it. “One hours’ sleep, Les. You listening?”

“I’m listening to you whine, that’s all. Let me tell you what else I listened to, Król. Earlier, a call about some boys in blue sent to Muswell Hill. Apparently some guy and his wife were attacked in bed. The guy got all cut up bad, and now he’s in the hospital. Shit, I thought, there’s some bad people out there. Not like my man Król, who I sent to ask a couple of guys some questions. Not like Król, who went in there simply to scare someone and find out one little piece of information. Król’s smart, and he wouldn’t have done anything like that, because he knows a guy who’s threatened in bed but left unhurt and with nothing stolen will probably keep his promise to keep quiet about the break-in if he thinks the guys will come back if he talks. Right?”

Król shrugged, finished his butt and grabbed another. “He was messing with me. But it worked, ‘cos he talked and I don’t think he’s your man. Must be the other one, that van owner.”

Les strode to where the clock had been tossed, grabbed it and skimmed it again at Król, who complained with expletives when it burst into shards just inches above his head.

“Now that guy has no choice but to talk, you fuckwit, because it’s obvious to everyone he got attacked at home. Some nurse called the police. You might get caught for this one, and then you might rat me and my pals out.”

Król shook his head. “Nah, I was playing cards all night with my own pals, and they’ll say so. Alibi.”

“Scum like you don’t have friends. You’re all backstabbing arses who don’t even trust each other. And if there’s DNA, the word of a bunch of kids who think you’re the dog’s bollocks won’t count for anything. You owe me, so get your Oxfam rags together and let’s go.”

“What the fuck’s that?” Król said, nodding at something Les had pulled from inside his bomber jacket. It was a plastic zip-lock bag with a switchblade in it.

“Clothing, Król. Or a call gets made to Scotland Yard. A concerned member of the community just found a knife, close to where that shopkeeper was stabbed four months ago.”

Król’s eyes widened as he recognised the knife. It had been here in his bedsit, he was sure of it, when the cops had raided, based on a tip-off that he’d been hanging about close to the mini-mart around the time of the stabbing. Exactly that time, actually, since he’d been the one who’d put the blade into the man’s groin. Brad, this guy’s associate, had been one of the cops who’d kicked in the door and searched the place, but amazingly the knife had vanished. Brad had later called and said he’d taken and gotten rid of the weapon, and for that Król owed him. Król hadn’t minded, because the cop had effectively gotten him off the hook for attempted murder by disposing of the weapon. Only there had been no disposing, obviously. Because there his knife was, safe in a bag and probably still containing the shopkeeper’s cells and Król’s prints.

“This fucking blackmail?” Król said.

“This is a carrot,” Les said as he put the bag away in his jacket. “And you’re the fucking donkey. You didn’t do the job you were asked to do. Lucky for you I did some research to help you redeem yourself. So, if you want to sleep here tonight instead of a prison cell, get dressed and let’s go finish it.”

*

Karl was so eager he caught his head as he ducked under the part-risen shutter. His yelp of pain brought Liz’s face to the trap.

“You okay?” she said.

He rubbed his head, then forgot about the pain and rushed to the ladder. He climbed three steps and thrust out an arm towards her, brandishing a sheet of paper.

“Who the fuck is this guy?”

He didn’t need her words to know she didn’t know. Her eyes showed puzzlement at the image he’d printed out that morning from the video of the men trying to break into his house.

“I don’t know him,” she said at length. “Who is he?”

“That’s what I was asking you,” Karl said. He climbed off the ladder and went to the shutter, peeked out from under it. “Two nobheads came to my house last night. Tried to break in. Got the shock of their lives. Literally. What do you know about it?”

“My God,” she said. “It has to be connected. McIntyre would have sent them after you.”

“Well that’s just lovely.”

“I used your phone last night. Tried my husband’s mobile, but it’s off. The cottage doesn’t have one. But as soon as I get hold of him, I’ll have him look into these men who came to your house.”

He came back. Started pacing. “This is a goddamn joke, this. Why did you have to jump out in front of my bloody van?”

She didn’t speak.

“Get down from there. Cops, right now. You go to the police and tell them. And you tell them men came to my house, looking for you. And you tell them how cool I was about everything you put me through. Use the word superhero.”

She shook her head. "No. No police. How many more times must I say this? I told you, Karl, my husband will -"

“Sort this out, I know,” he snapped. “Fucking Superman, your husband. Screw your head on right. Your husband could be hurt. He could be bound and gagged by Kryptonite. You need to phone the cops. I should have done it last night when I left here.”

“What I need from you is a lift back to my Kensington house, Karl. By now Ronald will be there. Take me home and then you can go your merry way. He’ll fix everything.”

“War on the streets again?” He paced some more, like an expectant father awaiting good news from the delivery room. “What was I thinking?” he said as he rushed behind the counter. He snatched up the phone. “Do it my-bloody-self.”

“You open yet?” said a voice. Karl instinctively glanced upwards, but Liz’s head had vanished from the trap. Then he looked at the shutter, where there was a guy squirming through. “I need a computer,” he added.

Then he was through and standing upright, and Karl’s heart leaped into his mouth. The guy standing just two metres from him wore a green tracksuit and a ball cap, but the face had not changed. Grey stubble, pockmarked skin. He didn’t need to check the photo in his hand to know that this was the white guy from the night before. One of the guys who’d come for him.

“How did you find me here,” Karl said before his brain could caution against it. Luckily, though, the guy thought he was talking about the shop, as the owner, because he said,

“Yellow pages, mate.” His eyes were looking all around. “You Karl?”

“Karl!” Karl yelled up at the trap. Then he mounted the ladder and started to climb. “Karl, you’ve got a customer.” He tried not to rush, but expected a hand to grab his leg, the guy to say, Nice try. Then his torso was through the trap. But that was when Liz appeared and grabbed his shirt to help haul him up. And the guy obviously saw her, because Karl heard the thud of feet, and a moment later the ladder was swept from under him. His legs swung free.

“Come here, you cunt,” the guy said, and grabbed a foot.

Liz yelled. Karl kicked both feet and felt a heel hit something hard, like the man’s head. Hopefully his nose. Then his foot was free and he was scrambling through the trap.

He turned, and together they stared down at the man below, right there, staring up at them, and brandishing a lethal knife. Only it wasn’t a knife, Karl realised. It was the missing blade from his lawnmower. Jesus, it hadn’t just broken off: the guy had taken it as a weapon. Karl bit back a horrible image of this guy in his bedroom, standing over him in the dark with that wicked blade at his throat. Or Katie’s throat. The picture killed his nerves and anger washed into the void.

“What the hell do you want?” he shouted at the intruder.

“Her beside you,” the man said with a leer. He pointed with the blade, as if Karl might not know who he meant. Beside him, Liz was shaking.

“My husband will kill you for this,” she spat at him.

“Course he will. Down you come, sweetie, and I promise this will be easier.” The guy moved away and lifted the ladder. His intentions were clear.

“What do we do, Karl?” Liz moaned.

Karl rushed over to the shoe rack that contained strange-looking items and selected one.

“Karl, he’s coming up! Do something.”

“Like what? Call the cops? My mobile’s in the van. And they’re all bad guys, remember?”

Below them, the intruder set the ladder in place and started to climb.

*

Les was sitting low in the car and watching the shop from the road running past the gateway when his phone rang. No numbers were listed in his phone book, but he had dozens stored in his head and recognised this one as a lady called Jane who worked at his station in Kensington. For a brief moment he thought she was calling because she’d changed her mind about going on a date with him.

“You asked me to watch out and it’s just happened,” she said. “A DCI called Chambers. Just contacted here about you. Wants your file.”

No sex tonight, then. Les thanked her and hung up. He bit the mobile in frustration. Bye the last shred of doubt that Chambers didn’t trust him. The guy was looking into him, and that was bad. Brad and Dave had complained that it had been a bad idea for Les to call the murders in and admit to being present, and already he was staring to agree. He should have known how it might look to a suspicious mind, given his history with Grafton. Should have gone with the original plan and just gotten the hell away and waited for the gardener or the postman or whoever to find the bodies. But there was nothing he could do to change the past, so -

He froze as he caught sight of something. Stark against the pale white clouds clogging the lightening sky, two figures had emerged onto the sloping roof of the building on the left side of the road. Seabury’s side. Right above Seabury’s shop and the white van parked outside. One of them in a summer dress.

“Jesus Christ, Król, what are you playing at?” He was ready for anger – it had been building all morning – but all of a sudden that changed as he realised what he was seeing. Bad for sure that Seabury and the woman were escaping…but Seabury and the woman were escaping – the guy had picked her up after all! And stayed with her, no doubt after hearing her story.

Król emerged from the shop, staggering backwards, staring up as if hoping to see the fugitives appear at the edge of the roof. He was stupid enough to think they would try to climb down right where they’d escaped, but they weren’t stupid enough to do that. Les knew their plan was to drop down into the land beyond the graffiti-covered wall at the end of the road. And sure enough the two figures, moving slowly because they clearly didn’t trust traversing a roof, started towards the far end of the building, away from Les.

Les wound down his window and screamed at Król: “Go the way they went! Inside!”

Król turned his head Les’s way, gave a thumbs-up, and vanished back inside the shop.

Les hit the gas. Beside the street containing the lock-ups was a fenced building site and he looked for a way in, aware that continuing straight ahead was to move away from his quarry at a forty-five degree angle. The site was vast and contained stacks of bricks and a few earth movers and building materials, but no workers, no buildings even in shell-stage, and no fucking gate. So Les waited for a shallow segment of kerb on that side of the road and then turned right, hard, and hit the chain-link fence. For a moment he had the awful thought that it would bounce him off like a trampoline, but the vehicle hit the barrier with enough force to wrench a section from its posts and flatten it under the wheels.

The earth was packed hard in places where heavy machinery had trundled and loose and wet from yesterday’s rain in others, so the car slipped and bounced until Les slowed to a crawl.

Towards two o’clock was the graffitied wall with the two roofs poking up beyond. He watched as Seabury and the woman, small at this distance of a hundred metres, climbed off the end of the building and onto the wall. Below them was a skip full of rubbish, no more than a ten foot drop. Les thought it would be too scary for a posh bitch like Liz Grafton, but she leaped first and had to stand amid the trash and wave Seabury to convince him he wouldn’t be hurt. Les cut towards them as they climbed out of the skip and started to run.

More movement caught his eye. Król, emerging onto the roof. Les lost sight of all three of them as he rushed past a shipping container that had been converted into an office, with sections of metal cut away for a door and window to be inserted. Both had padlocked shutters over them.

Once past the container/office, Les hit the brakes. Dried mud was churned into dust beneath the wheels and launched around the car like an aura as the vehicle skidded to a halt. Some kind of concrete-lined channel ahead. Sewage or whatever. Blocking his path, whatever it was for. Les backed up, past the shipping container, threw the wheel hard right and this time drove past the far side of the container. By this time, he was last in this race.

Król was ahead, sixty feet away, looking back and waving, and sixty feet ahead of Król were Seabury and the woman, pelting along, holding hands like lovers. They were running towards a torn-up area of concrete and earth that might have been the remnants of a slab-on-grade foundation, and which was surrounded by traffic cones with yellow tape strung between them. On each cone and on a pole stuck in the ground was a sign: DANGER HOLE BELOW.

“Come on!” Król yelled back, and now he was waving some kind of long blade, and grinning as if he was enjoying this game. It was not a game to Les. Seabury had elevated his status to dangerous now that he had clearly sided with the woman. If Seabury was running too, it could only be because he knew everything. Now there were two people Les desperately needed to stop.

Les drew level with Król and then passed him. Król slapped the side of the car as it raced by. Like a good buddy saying well done, or see ya later. Les wished he’d run over the fucking asshole.

Ahead, Seabury and the woman was stumbling along. She was in heels and having a rough time on the uneven ground. He had them, finally. The car bore down on them. Les had wanted to speak to them first, utter some gem of a final line to the condemned, something like the cool crack he had said to Grafton before removing the guy’s face. But in this moment he decided it was going to be more fun to watch them fly. So he hit the accelerator, planning to send both soaring. In his windscreen, their fleeing forms grew as if it were a camera zooming in.

Too late he realised that the churned area had raised foundations. He stamped the brake. Seabury leaped up and yanked the woman with him. They cut through the tape, snapping it like Marathon winners.

Half a second later the Almera slewed around, the wheels slamming into the raised edge of the foundations. The sudden check of momentum sent Les into his door, head into the window. If the window had been down, he could have reached out and grabbed the woman. If the foundations hadn’t been raised ten inches, the car would have cut them down like bowling pins. If, if, if.

Instead, he watched Seabury and the woman across the torn-up concrete. In the centre of the area was a hole surrounded by more cones and tape, like the bull’s-eye on a target. And there they stopped, as if having hit a dead end. Both were panting, exhausted.

Les tried to open his door, but the car was pressed up against the foundations and it was jammed shut. He scrambled out of the passenger side. Then he calmed himself, because Seabury and the woman were still there, still panting, like real Marathon runners who had completed the race and had no more reason to run.

Les stopped at the edge of the area. Król, also panting, appeared beside him.

“Got the fuckers,” Król said. He tried to step up onto the foundations, but Les grabbed his arm and pulled him back. Said nothing, but Król got the message because he stayed where he was after that.

Les was seeing Liz Grafton properly now for the first time in the flesh in a couple of months. Her dress was tatty – understandable given that she had been wearing it overnight and had been chased twice – but she was a pretty thing. Too late now, of course, but part of him wished he could have touched her in front of Grafton. That would have gotten his anger up – Les running his fingers over her skin while Brad and Dave held Grafton down. Stripping her naked. Doing things to her that only Grafton should.

The man, Seabury, was nondescript. Just some guy. Didn’t look like a weakling, but wasn’t a guy you’d fear, either. Didn’t look like a guy accustomed to trouble, yet neither were his features contorted with shock and terror as he stared across thirty feet at Les.

Les waved his eyes around without moving his head, making sure there were no witnesses. There were none: beyond the couple were shops arranged along a busy street, but that area was another hundred metres away. Les could hear traffic, but he saw no vehicles or people. Bad shit could go down here and no one might ever know, and Les knew Seabury knew that.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, pal,” Les said, “but it would be wise to just turn around and run.” He didn’t know why he said that. If the guy fled, Les would still have to take him out. In fact, he realised he needed to keep this pair close together.

“And what would you be arresting her for?” Seabury said, his voice cracking. Fear. Les liked that. What he didn’t like was the word “arrest.” Because it meant Seabury knew who he was. So, the bitch had told him everything.

“Never you mind that, Seabury. Perform a citizens’ arrest for me. Hold her down.”

Using the guy’s name got the response he wanted: shock. The guy said nothing. Les pulled a knife from his pocket and held it up. No words. In his jacket was a pistol, but for this occasion he preferred the knife.

Then Seabury pulled something from his own pocket. Held it up. Said, “One step forward, five hundred steps back.”

He didn’t sound that scared and Les knew why. The thing in his hand looked remarkably like a fat, squat green aerosol can, but Les realised it was a grenade. But where the hell would some shop owner have gotten a grenade? He decided to believe a guy like Seabury wouldn’t have the balls to detonate such a thing. He was all show.

“Kill four people? I don’t think so, Seabury. Karl, you need to give her up if you want things to go back to normal in your life.”

“No way that’s a fucking grenade,” Król said.

“Be fucking quiet, you cretin,” Les said to him. Then, to Seabury: “Think hard, Karl. Citizens’ arrest her and go and live your life and forget today. Go tell your friends over a pint at the pub how you brought a criminal to justice and made the streets safer.”

No response to that. He took a step, planting one foot inside the concrete area. It put him just twenty inches closer, but it felt like he had moved into their confines, and Seabury obviously felt it, too, because he waved the grenade-thing.

“This is a momentum device,” Seabury said. “Explodes in the direction it’s moving. I throw it at you, the blast is all yours. You get all the candy from this sweet shop.”

Brave words, but a flicker in the voice. Clearly Seabury was giving Les a front, and that meant he was bluffing. Besides, Les had never heard of such a device. He took another step forward. One step. Just to prove a point. Just for the fun of the game, to see what that single step did to their faces.

“Let’s just stop fucking around and rush them,” Król said.

He knew he could rush them, but that wasn’t what Les wanted. That wasn’t a show of power. Real power would be if he could convince Seabury to turn against the woman, even though Seabury knew Les meant her harm. He stared at Seabury. “Arrest her.”

“You can’t do this to us,” Liz moaned. She moved behind her protector, which made Les laugh.

From behind him, Król said, “Let’s jump them, now.”

Les ignored him. “Karl, well done for being the good Samaritan, but now it’s time to think about your wife. Your future. Don’t fuck it up just because the woman behind you fluttered her eyelashes at you.”

For a moment it looked as if Seabury was considering this. Walking away and forgetting about her. People got hurt every day, wasn’t his fault if he couldn’t help them all, did as much as he could. The guy was, in Les’s opinion, two seconds from making the right choice – Les’s right choice – and then Król and his big mouth fucked it up.

“Here we come fuckwits,” he yelled.

Anger bloomed. Les turned, pointed his knife right at Król's disgusting face and said, "Shut the fuck -"

That was when he heard the bang. Loud, monstrous. He saw Król in the half-second before throw up a defending arm, but he had thought that was because Les jabbed the knife. Now, his own arms went up around his head and he dropped onto his knees, expecting a rain of lethal debris to overwhelm him, a supersonic wave of fiery air to consume him. He had turned away from Seabury and the man had snatched the moment to try a daring yet doomed escape that was about to kill everyone with shrapnel.

Instead, black smoke washed over him. Right before it swallowed the world around him, he saw Król, still standing, not full of fear, not shredded by the explosion.

“Smoke bomb,” Król said, laughing.

Les stood and turned, but he could see nothing. Król was laughing, and it was the only sound out there. Les coughed at the smoke, but it wasn’t vicious on his lungs. Some kind of device designed only to disorient, so the user could escape. Some silly ninja trick, and he’d been caught by it.

Angry, he ran through the smoke towards where Seabury and Liz had been, but stopped after only a few seconds because he had no idea of what he might run into – or he did: DANGER HOLE BELOW. Or he might be moving the wrong way. Behind him, Król was shouting again, but laughing also. Oh, the game. He saw a shaped blackness in the smoke that he figured was Król, so stepped forward and punched right where its head was. Heard Król’s raspy voice grunt as he crumpled to the ground.

The smoke cleared thirty seconds later, carried away by the soft wind and dispersed. But the smoke grenade had done its job. Les looked all round, but he was alone apart from Król, who was clutching his face, moaning about being hit, and getting to his feet.

Seabury and the woman had gone.

*

“Slow down, I can’t see.”

“It’s fine, just keep going straight.”

“I don’t know where straight is. Where are we? Where does this go?”

“Not sure where it goes, but it goes away from those guys, and that’s good.”

“Where are we?”

“A train track.”

“What?”

“The builders posted a letter to all the shops, warning us about possible subsidence. They were digging up the buildings on this land and found a tunnel. Part of North London Line.”

“We’re on a train track? Underground? In a tunnel?”

“Cool, eh? And not a tube track. A genuine track, right underground. So we keep going until we find the next station and get out that way.”

“You’re joking. A train station underground? You must – ow!”

Karl stopped as he heard Liz hit the ground with a thump. In the blackness, he moved back, feeling. Found her breast and quickly shifted his hands to her arm. Felt along it until he had her hand and lifted her to her feet. She held onto him and he felt those same breasts against his chest. He moved away, but kept hold of her hand. Started walking again with careful steps. They walked between the tracks, stepping alternately on sleepers and stones, which made Karl remember doing this as a kid with his friends. Long strolls along the train tracks, where it was peaceful. But not pitch black.

“Are you going to tell your wife you touched another woman’s breast today?” Liz said.

He was glad of the dark in that moment, because he was sure his face flushed red. He didn’t think she’d noticed where his hand had strayed.

Nerves always made him joke. Something else he’d done as a kid when school bullies picked on him. He never got bullied for long when he was cracking jokes that made them want to laugh rather than hit him.

“Sure. Got the perfect excuse. We were in an abandoned underground train station, fleeing from renegade cops.”

She giggled, but he figured the humour wasn’t really real. Just her way of coping with the stress.

She’d mentioned his wife and he thought about her now. She thought he was at work, so wouldn’t worry for a while yet. But he wondered about his chances of getting home by teatime. If not, she’d worry then. Then he thought about the guys who’d tried to break into his house. The cops knew he was with Liz and knew he was a threat, although Karl had no idea what kind of threat he posed. Nobody would believe a story tying burglars to high-ranking cops, and he had no proof of any kind that the cops had chased him. Or maybe they would believe such a tale: he just didn’t know. But he knew that there was a chance those burglars could go back to his house. Today, in the daytime, while Katie was in. That worried him. He needed to get to a phone and call her, warn her. Maybe send her out of the house until…

Until what? What was his plan? Hope this all went away? That the cops would forget about him? That it was nothing but a bad dream?

“Are you sure about the station?”

He was. “I saw plans of the tunnel and stuff. I checked up on it once those builders told me about it. It was enough to postpone their building work while they checked it out. I wanted to make sure my shop wasn’t going to fall into the ground.”

“What if a train comes?”

Surprisingly, he laughed. “You know trains. Always late. We’re fine.”

“So we just walk straight? What’s ahead of us? What if it’s a dead end and we have to go back and they’re waiting?”

He didn’t know about that. The two men hadn’t tried to follow them, so maybe that meant they assumed Karl and Liz had fled over ground in the smoke. Surely they wouldn’t be lurking up there, waiting. It didn’t matter anyway, because they were not going back. They would find a way out ahead of them somehow.

“This is weird,” Liz said. “Underground station. Like something from Tomb Raider.”

“All I know is this thing runs east to west and was connected to Victoria Park Station. Vic Park closed in the forties. This one was soon after. The overground lines and station were demolished in the 1960s when they built the East Cross Route. There’s a housing estate where the Old Ford Station once was. I guess they were going to just forget about this underground section, but all the post Olympics regeneration of this area has unearthed it. Far as I remember, it’s about two miles to the station, which is not far from West Ham station, ironically. We’ll get there and find a way up.”

She gripped his hand tighter, which he took to mean she didn’t fully trust this plan. Nothing he could do about that, because he didn’t fully it himself. They walked, slowly, for a minute in silence. By then, his eyes had adjusted to the gloom and he could see curves and lines of lighter black in the dark. He could see the curve of the roof, make out bricks, and the walls just a couple of metres either side of them. And thin, long lines of grey-black that were the tracks they walked between. He started to feel better.

“It’s morning now,” Liz said. “The world is awake. How can they still be after us? I need to know where my husband is. He should have been on the warpath by now. There should be men out there looking for me, and out there kicking doors down to find out who broke into the cottage. War on the streets. Something’s wrong.”

That “war on the streets” thing again. Despite their predicament, he still found it a silly notion. And he didn’t care if it was true or not. He didn’t care about her husband and whether he was hurt of not, either. He cared about his wife, full stop. He couldn’t shake the idea that bad men were headed towards his house to interrogate Katie.

“He might still be tied up at the cottage. Maybe they tied everyone up. We have to go there and release him, untie him. Then he can get to work sorting this problem out. You have to take me there.”

Was Katie in danger? Were those guys going to go to his house now that they’d lost him? Had they already been? Maybe they’d visited there before coming here. Katie could be scared, or hurt. He was fearful, and needed to get back home, and get to the police to blow this thing wide open, no matter what little miss trouble in her red dress said.

“Ron can fix all this.”

He could feel the cold down here and feel that Liz was shaking. But that would be fear as much as the temperature.

“I need to get to my husband.”

“Fuck him,” Karl snapped. Last night his male pride had told him he needed to appear strong, and it was doing so again. Guys might have tried to break into his house, but they had succeeded at this woman’s place. Burst in with violence in mind. She had had to flee through the night in just a thin dress, and sleep on a carpet in a roof, and now she was lost underground, and she had no idea what had happened to her husband. So her lot was worse than his.

He stopped and turned. There she was, right before him, a silhouette. He could make out her eyes, barely, and her mouth. Figured she could do the same with his face so spoke with exaggerated lip movements, as if thinking she wouldn’t be able to hear him.

“I’m sorry for that. Look, we’ll sort this out, we’ll get to your husband. But we have to keep going forward, till we can get out of this tunnel. Stay close behind me and watch where you step.”

She smiled at him. He was close enough to feel her breath on his mouth. Last night she had been full of confidence after they’d escaped in the van, and that was because she fully believed her husband was a man who could make things all right. But he wasn’t here and Karl was. He was the best she had. So he decided he would do the best he could by her.

His timing was perfect. He was about to get his first shot at doing his best for her, because behind them they heard a noise, faint, distant. Both turned and looked. The world was black, but way in the distance was a pinprick of light. The hole in the ground, the place they’d entered. They saw nothing – no flicker from that light as something moved in front of it – but both knew that someone had found that entrance. Someone had entered their world in pursuit.

*

The collapsed foundations had created a sloping mound of dirt that they had been able to walk down, into the tunnel, with portions of broken concrete creating a handy set of stairs, as if arranged by the construction workers who’d found the hole so they could have a nosey around. Les tried to make his way down slowly, silently, but a wedge-shaped slab of concrete shifted under his weight and took away his legs. Dirt and concrete crumbled and fell down the slope, with Les sliding behind it on his ass.

Król started laughing from above.

“Shut your trap,” Les hissed. He looked up. Król was at the edge, on his hands and knees and staring down. Wearing a goofy grin that Les wanted to widen with his knife. “Wait in the fucking car.”

Les got to his feet. The way ahead was pitch black, but he started jogging anyway. Knew he could trip and smash his nose, might even step out over some great shaft leading as mile down, but he could not dawdle. He had learned about the underground tracks following a quick Google search of this area, but it had taken time, too much time. Seabury and the woman, if they weren’t crushed and dead at the bottom of some shaft, were far ahead and getting further.

His eyes soon started to adjust to the gloom. He saw walls, and the roof, and under his feet the twin lines of the tracks. He stopped to listen, but heard nothing. No footsteps or voices. Then he jogged onwards, arms extended before him in case he rushed right into a wall or something sharp.

Soon he came to a fork in the tunnel.

The tracks went ahead, but to the left was another tunnel shooting off at ten o’clock. Logic told him they’d gone ahead, following the tracks. It was the way he would have gone to try to find a way out of this place. The problem was they were also fleeing from a pursuer. Les would have taken the left fork and hoped that a pursuer would continue ahead.

In other words, they could have taken either path.

“Shit,” he hissed. So far, so close. What to do? He could pick the correct path and be home in an hour, washing their blood off his hands. But the wrong choice would let them escape, and he would waste precious time trying to get the hell out of here.

*

The shout bounced past them, echoing, as if McIntyre had repeated it.

They’ll never find your bodies down here, you know?

They lay on their fronts, facing back the way they’d come. Between the tracks, on the sleepers, on the dirt, feeling the cold seeping into their bones, feeling depressed, wishing they’d never been born.

Karl, at least: “You got kids?” Liz said whispered.

“What?”

I’m gonna gut you both, right down here, and leave you for the rats.”

“Kids? Ron never wanted them, so we never did. I’m older now so I wouldn’t have minded. Does your wife not want kids?”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing – at first. Then he could. He thought he knew this woman by now. Full of bubbles and lightness when she was confident, and brimming with darkness and despair when things weren’t going right. He had tried -

Last chance, Seabury. I’ll ruin your world or save it. You don’t even have to give up. Just knock that bitch out and shout me and you can run and I’ll do the rest, and you can live your life.”

- to disentomb his own feelings of despondency with a joke or two, and he figured she was doing something similar now. Acting as if everything were normal, pretending that there wasn’t a madman down here in the dark with them. So he went along with it.

“It’s not something we ever got round to. We never discussed it.”

“She’ll start to think about it when she’s older. When the biological clock starts ticking louder. I’ve heard that tick a couple of times in the last year. And you have to think of the old people’s home.”

I’m going to make you suffer like you wouldn’t believe, Seabury, unless you bring her out right now. No fucking silly gadget’s gonna save you down here.”

“The what?” He was finding it hard to concentrate on not concentrating on McIntyre. Liz was looking at Karl, but Karl could not ignore the obvious threat just fifty metres from them. Down there in the black, he could see the slight shimmer of movement that he knew was McIntyre. They had fled along the tunnel containing the track, hoping that the presence of two choices at the fork would stall him. It seemed to have worked.

"You have to think about the old people's home. That's where we'll be one day. You don't want to be one of those old ones that gets no visitors. I've seen them before, when I was visiting my father when he was -"

I see you, bitches. Here I fucking come!

"- still alive, and I felt sorry for them. They look sad."

“Like they were thinking, shit, I should have had kids.”

McIntyre hadn’t moved. An idle threat, then.

“Exactly.” She giggled. It was too loud and Karl watched the tunnel carefully, fearing that McIntyre was going to come running at them. What happened instead was worse.

The sound of the shot was booming in the confines. The explosion raced past them like a train. He could not ignore McIntyre after that. Neither could. Liz let out a moan. He saw her cover her ears and plant her face in the dirt. Karl put his hands out ahead of him, as if believing he could stop a bullet that way.

Another gunshot. Then a third. Ahead, the tunnel was lit momentarily each time McIntyre pulled the trigger. The madman was framed in the light bursts like a horror film baddy during a flash of lightning. The first time he was aiming right at them, but the second flash had him in profile as he fired down the other tunnel. Karl relaxed, knowing the man was firing blind. He did not know where they were. And he dared not venture down one of the tunnels in case it was the wrong one.

There was silence. Karl reached out and put his hand over Liz’s mouth. McIntyre was listening, hoping to hear them running, fleeing from the bullets. So they stayed silent too. A few seconds later, McIntyre started shouting again. Loud, fast, a billion threats, a trillion imaginative scenarios involving suffering and death. But his voice came no closer. This was a chance to put more distance between them and him.

He got up slowly and helped Liz climb to her feet. Their faces close, he started into her eyes and told her they were going to walk slowly, carefully. One misstep, one stumble, McIntyre would have them. She nodded her understanding. They walked.

The distance grew. There were no stumbles. McIntyre’s voice began to fade in volume, but not colour. Soon, his ranting was nothing but a background whisper.

Karl let out a breath, and that was when he realised that he’d been holding it. His chest was heaving as if he’d run. He heard Liz’s ragged breathing a couple of feet away. Saw the shape of her chest rising and falling. Same story.

“Let’s rest a moment,” he said.

Clearly she liked that idea, because he saw her shape bend and sit on one of the rails. He sat on the one opposite her, facing her.

“Let’s hope a train doesn’t come,” she said, then laughed at her own joke.

“We could do with the light.”

“Nah, you don’t want to see my face. Make-up all messy.”

“I think with all this dirt around we probably look like coal miners by now.”

They sat in silence for a few moments. He watched her tuck her dress between her knees, as if she thought he could see up it in this gloom. So he turned his head slightly, to give the impression that he was looking away. Had the odd quick look along the way they’d come, just to make sure McIntyre wasn’t crawling towards them, but mostly kept his eyes on her. Watched her lick her fingers and rub her face, like a cat trying to clean itself. His coal miner joke must have set that off.

“What was that thing with the smoke, that grenade thing you threw?”

“The grenade that let off all the smoke? Smoke grenade.”

She laughed. “Very funny. Where did you get that?”

“Internet. Two hundred quid, up in smoke.”

He thought that joke was funnier, but she didn’t laugh this time.

“Who’d need one of those for personal defence?”

“Anyone on the run from rogue cops, I guess.”

She laughed again. “I’m guessing that stuff’s not legal to sell.”

Just killing time, talking to make the minutes fly by, he realised. “No. That’s why I had it upstairs.”

He watched her straighten her dress and could tell she was thinking of something else to say.

“How long have you been married?” she asked him. “I’m about your age, I think. I’ve been married for twenty-five years now. Bet you did the playing the field thing for a few years, right?”

“Wrong. We met at school. Her mate set us up.”

He thought he saw her eyebrows rise. Surprise. Figured it was her role as a ganglord’s wife that gave her such an opinion of men. Hanging around all those “lads” with their girlfriends and mistresses, hearing about their raunchy parties. If that was the life of an organised criminal – he knew next to nothing about such things.

“Tell me more,” she said.

There was nowhere to go and no rush, so he did. A short biography, with emphasis on achievements (chess champion at school/ blue belt in jiu-jitsu/once met Kate Bush in a bookstore), murky background regarding embarrassing failures (three years of sexual impotence that ended only last year /fired four years ago from a job he’d been at for eleven years after seriously verbally abusing his line manager at a Christmas party/thought Kate Bush was Elkie Brooks), and nothing at all about those parts of his life that made him question his morals (cheated on his wife six years ago with a girl from work/failed to inform the police that a guy who robbed a pensioner neighbour’s house was another neighbour/killed a dog with his van just a few months back and didn’t stop). Overall: pretty normal life. Never won the lottery, but never got stabbed to death in a piss-stained alleyway, either.

He was glad of the darkness when his tale was told. He didn't know this woman, yet now she knew more about him than 99.99% of the rest of the world.

“You?” he said afterwards. He didn’t really yearn to hear her tale: he just didn’t want her firing questions based on what he’d just said. Especially about the three years when he’d been unable to get an erection and had feared his wife was going to walk, or at least seek out another man to quell her desires.

It worked. She started talking. And he listened, surprising himself.

*

Les stopped his Nissan Almera right outside Karl’s shop this time. There was nobody around, and all the other establishments were still shuttered down. Still a risk, but Les had never been a man to lack confidence.

“Why the hell are we back here?” Król moaned. “You think they doubled back to get something?” He said this with sarcasm.

“We are back here to get something,” Les answered. “But just in case, do you see any movement from inside?”

Król sat low in the passenger seat, staring at the shop out his window. Checking for movement through the slightly raised shutter. While he was distracted, Les slipped on a pair of latex gloves and then plucked a mobile phone from a jacket pocket. He slapped Król’s shoulder to get his attention and held out the phone. Król, never one to turn down something free, or something he might later be able to sell, snatched it.

“What’s with this?”

“In case I need to get hold of you.”

“Fair enough,” Król said. The phone was a Blackberry, worth quite a bit – Król’s greedy eyes said so as he turned it over in his hands. He was about to slot it away in a pocket when Les said,

“Hang on. I forgot. Just need to send a message from it. You do it or give it back.”

A guy like Król didn’t like to relinquish, so he said he’d do it. Les watched him access the text messages. “Who to?”

“There’s only one name in the phone book. Send to that. Just write ‘Arrived, going in now.’”

Król sent the message then slotted the phone away quickly. He looked at Les. “What’s the score with these two, anyway? How comes that guy had a smoke bomb? They knew we were coming, or what?”

Les had thought about that. Seabury had had virtually no time to get his shit together, yet he’d fled carrying that smoke grenade. So Grafton’s wife had certainly convinced him that the threat to her was real. Les now believed the pair had run where they had as part of a pre-laid plan. Stopping where they’d stopped in that building site had been part of that plan. Seabury had a shop here, so of course he knew about the underground track. And he had also known that fleeing overground would get them nowhere. They had to hide, but where do you hide when the enemy has you in sight? So the bastard had planned the method of his escape from the moment Król walked into that shop.

Smart fucker, but shrewd forethought wasn’t Seabury’s talent alone. Long before this moment, Les had had a plan B. And now that his quarry had escaped again, it was time for that plan.

Les slapped Król’s arm and told him to get moving. Król exited the car and walked towards the shop, followed by Les. Les paused to check the damage to the front of the car. Not too bad. He had extracted the car from its perch across the channel by using a backhoe parked nearby and that had caused scraping to the underside, but it seemed nothing vital had been hurt.

Król ducked under the shutter and vanished. Les looked around to make sure they were unobserved. There were no cameras above any of the shops and no one around yet, but it was almost nine-thirty in the morning and he knew some of these business would be opening soon. Had to move quick. If someone got a glimpse of his car here, it was going to kill what he had planned.

Król was halfway up a ladder leading into the roof when Les entered the shop. Les stood by the shutter and looked around. Lots of electronic surveillance equipment, he noted. Burglar alarms and personal alarms, cameras and voice recorders, bug-detecting equipment, and many other things on the shelves that Les didn’t recognise. So that was how Seabury managed to have himself a smoke grenade, although none of the shelves contained such a thing. The guy dealt in personal protection. But not guns, or the guy would probably have pulled one of those on Les instead. Or not. Not everyone liked the idea of using a gun, even when faced with a threat. Or maybe he also had a gun, for use if the smoke grenade didn’t work and Les got his hands on either him or Liz. Les would have to be careful if and when he next came across his new enemy.

Król stopped at the top of the ladder, head poking through the trap.

“We’re here for the money bags,” Les said to him. “Stop wasting time up there.”

That got him moving. Król looked at Les with big, greedy eyes and slid down the ladder. Half a second later he was in the centre of the room, turning, eyes all over the place like some kid who’d just been transported to Santa’s Grotto. Les approached him.

“Give me that stupid blade of yours,” he said. “I need to get rid of it.”

Król whisked it out and handed it over without a thought. “There’s money here? How much?”

“Enough to fit in that computer box,” Les said, nodding over Król’s shoulder.

Król’s eye went wider and he turned. Started to walk towards a box in a corner. It had once contained a computer desktop, so said the picture on the side. It was open and stuffed with paper and cardboard trash, as if Seabury had used it as a bin. Certainly not for storing wealth. Les could clearly see that but Król’s eyes were clouded with greed. He got three steps before it happened, and he only got that many because Les took a moment to look at the wicked item in his hands and wonder why Król would want such a thing. Too big to properly conceal and there was no handle, so incorrect use could damage the carrier’s hand. Looked like the guy had sharpened the end on something. Then he leaped forward, raised the blade and dropped it again.

The blow did not penetrate the neck cleanly, but caught a glancing blow that carved open one side, releasing a jet of blood from the carotid and a scream from the voice box. Król staggered forwards, falling onto his knees. He put a hand to his neck to stem the flow, his fingers arriving there a moment before the blade dropped again. It slid neatly between two fingers on the back of his neck without damaging them and sank deep into the flesh beneath.

Les ducked aside like a boxer avoiding a jab as another gout of blood erupted right at him. Król was screaming again as he face-planted into the carpet.

“Wuuuggghhh!” Król screamed.

“That Polish?” Les said, laughing.

He stopped laughing a moment later when Król got to his feet, one hand on his neck, blood washing down his torso.

“Shit,” Les said. He was not worried about an attack, because Król was losing blood fast; he was concerned about getting some of that blood on his clothing if the man rushed at him.

“That’s right, bastard,” Król said, grinning. Clearly he believed Les’s curse showed fear. He rushed forward, eyes bearing deadly intent, but stumbled after only two steps. Fell onto his knees and then toppled backwards.

Les rushed to the shutter, bent and stared out, but the street was empty. Behind him, Król was rolling about like a man on fire, but he was gurgling now, and nobody was going to hear that. His hands beat at the carpet soaked in his blood, sending up splashes.

It took eighty more seconds for Król to finally lay still. Les took his first breath in all that time as Król expelled his last.

Les tossed the blade down, stripped off his gloves and pocketed them, and slipped out. He was holding his breath again and didn’t gulp air until he was in his car and didn’t start to relax until the vehicle was turning off the street. But a few moments after that he was calm and smiling and breathing just fine.

*

Król hadn’t fixed the locks that Les broke when he kicked his way into the bedsit earlier, so Dave was able to stroll right in and up the stairs. He wore a tracksuit and a hoodie, and nobody on the street had given him a second glance. In such an outfit around this area, he fit right in. He surveyed the shitty room and then laid his rucksack on the bed. He hoped to be done inside two minutes.

Four miles away, Brad was in a parked car, staring at a house about sixty metres away. He watched a woman climb into a Ford Polo and leave. Then he drove down a cul-de-sac branching off the road and parked again. Between two of the houses was a path between high bushes that he knew led to a field that backed onto the rear gardens of the houses on the adjacent street. In thirty seconds he was over the fence and at the back door of the house he needed. He flicked the handle, but got no shock. Les had told him about the security features. Clearly the woman had not set them during the day.

He picked the lock in forty seconds and pushed open the door. No alarm blared. He went inside and through a neat kitchen. He would have enjoyed a look around, but had no time. Besides, he felt bad for Seabury’s wife. About to get caught up in all this shit, and she’d done nothing wrong.

There was a wedding photo on the staircase wall. One handsome man in black, one stunning woman in white just a few inches shorter than him. Big smiles for the perfect day. Nice couple. Brad wasn’t attracted to females, but he knew this one was very good looking. It made Brad feel that much worse for bringing this shit into her world. He put her from his mind and pushed on.

Upstairs he couldn’t resist a look in the main bedroom. A shelf above the bed held more photos of the happy couple. No children, thankfully. Only his timetable prevented him from having a good old nosey in drawers and cubbyholes. Next door he found a study with a computer desk with a single drawer. Perfect. He slung the rucksack off his shoulder and leaned over the laptop.

His mobile rang. It was Les.

“Catch you wanking into Seabury’s Y-fronts drawer, did I?”

“Rubbing his toothbrush over my balls, actually.”

“You done yet?”

“I just got here,” Brad barked. “Patience. Virtue.”

“Well hurry up. Got another job for you. Your phone got Internet?”

“Yeah, I paid more than a tenner for it.”

“Funny man. Now listen up…”

After the call, Brad got to work, with a glance out the window now and then to make sure that Karl Seabury’s wife wasn’t pulling up outside.

*

They walked in silence for a few minutes. Karl started to let his mind drift. He tried to think about work, just to calm himself. It started to work, until Liz’s voice brought him rushing back to reality.

“We should go see my husband’s solicitor.”

She was stumbling along in those high heels a few feet behind him. He didn’t look round. “Why?”

She explained. It was morning, and if her husband was planning some kind of revenge against the cops, he would probably want to know his options from a legal perspective. Even if he didn’t know it was McIntyre and his cronies who’d bust into the house, he wouldn’t want to make a move towards finding out who the culprits were until he knew whether or not he was under police surveillance as part of some investigation. So he will talk to his solicitor, and so the solicitor can help me get to him.

“You sound like you know a lot about living outside the law,” Karl said.

“No,” she countered. “I just know my husband. And he’ll be livid when he finds out these guys kept me scared and hiding all night.”

“I thought he was going straight now. Why would there be an investigation?”

She paused. “Old stuff,” was all she said.

Changing the subject, he said, “That fuckwit who turned up at the shop. Same guy who tried to break into my house. How did that come about? How do these three Keystone cops know this guy?”

“That guy’s probably some criminal they keep handy for dodgy jobs. They would have sent him after you. McIntyre must be planning something against you, if he knows you rescued me. Something to discredit you, in case you decide to tell the truth to the police. Or it was a simple case of sending some bad guy to threaten you into silence. I don’t know, but you need to stay away from that shop and from home until we can talk to my husband’s solicitor.”

There was no we. Once they got out of here, she could call who she wanted, but Karl was going to phone his wife. He would send her somewhere – use a code, maybe, to direct her somewhere, in case their phone was bugged – and meet her there, and then they would hide out for a few days. If this woman’s husband truly was going to go on the warpath, then this whole thing would surely be over soon. Karl and Katie would lie low and ride it out. That was his plan and nothing was going to change it.

They walked on in silence. At one point Karl tripped over the right-hand track and realised that the tunnel was curving to his left. The going was a little slower after that. The next problem announced itself a few minutes later. The loud noise of rushing water from above them and the echoing splash of water ahead. They didn’t see it until they were just metres away, by which time it sounded like a raging waterfall. Water was leaking from the roof of the tunnel in a great curtain. Liz stopped, said they had to go back, and he understood her reticence. The waterfall might be thin, or it might be a whole mile section of the tunnel that was breached, creating an endless rain. The tunnel could slope downwards and be flooded. The roof could be so weak that it fell in on them. What was above them? A sewage pipe, or some rich guy’s alfresco swimming pool? Karl had the brief thought of trying to bang the roof with something to attract attention – maybe construction workers were up there tending to whatever was causing the leak. But then he had the horrible image of breaching some lakebed and drowning them both.

He pushed through the curtain. The water was cold and drenched him in a second, but a second was all that it took to pass through.

“It’s fine,” he called through the curtain. Liz darted through and stood before him, soaked but smiling.

Liz and Karl chatted to while away the time and their pace became casual, like a stroll in the park, but soon both of them realised they needed to move faster. Down here it was easy to be lulled into a vision of stasis above: nothing moving, time standing still, progress paused. But that was not the case. Time was passing, and with each expired minute they had no idea of the movements of the people associated with them. Katie, for Karl. Not yet would she have any idea that he hadn’t gone to work as usual, but what if she did? What if those rogue cops had been in contact? And that contact didn’t need to be menacing. All it would take was one call to the house in reference to Karl, and she would panic. She would call the shop, wondering why the police wanted to speak to her husband, and when she got no answer, what would she do then? Of course, it could be worse: the men chasing him could have told her some lie, or threatened her. He knew he could not stay here, head buried in the sand, so to speak. He had to contact her.

For Liz, it was her husband. She believed that he was out there plotting revenge, because that was what he did. It was not an ego thing, more a survival thing. A man of his power could not let the cottage affront go unpunished, because laxness or even forgiveness would give other enemies the impression that he was weak. They would prey upon him. So, he would rally his men and send them out there, hunting. But his wife was missing, and he would have to find her. He would check their homes and hideaways, and he would phone their friends, and when nobody gave him encouraging information, he would grow concerned. He might believe her dead, in which case he would launch a war upon the streets. For that reason, she needed to contact him as soon as possible. His actions might hurt him as much as they hurt his enemies.

And, of course, the three cops. The attack at the shop was proof that they wanted her and they knew Karl had her. They would not give up. They had intelligence and resources and there was just no telling what they were up to right now. Liz believed they would try to discredit her and Karl in some way, knowing it was their best defence should the fugitive pair try to contact law-abiding police officers to seek help. The longer those three were out there unchallenged and plotting, the worse things might get for Karl and Liz.

Unaware of each other’s concerns, they picked up the pace. Karl, taller and not wearing high heels, took bigger strides and started to pull ahead. But then he suddenly stopped and Liz bumped into him.

“What is it?” she said.

“Station,” Karl answered.

*

East of West Ham Station a few hundred metres, Brad’s Satnav told him he’d arrived at the location Les had sent him to via text half an hour ago, just as he was finishing up the job at Seabury’s place. He was still smarting at being bossed about like an errand boy as he drove slowly along Memorial Avenue, watching his destination.

On the south side of the avenue was a long building housing a row of three classy shops with brick walls painted white and bay windows with black frames and fake antique signs hanging from brackets. But beneath the white paint above the centre shop Brad could see the faint remains of a relief naming the previous establishment. So, Les had been right.

Today the centre shop was called LILLY BOUTIQUE. A decal on the window showed a line art portrait of a female head in a hat, which he took to mean it was a shop that sold fancy clothing. A minute later he was illegally parked and pushing open the door to discover he was right. It seemed that the more chic a clothing store, the less stock they had, because inside he saw box shelving with a single item in each space and rails hung with garments spaced far apart as if the owners feared some kind of cross contamination and large pedestals broadcasting lone hats and shoes with no price tags. Mannequins stood around the walls wearing nothing but fake jewellery and make-up and at most two pieces of clothing. There was a girl behind a small counter and another straightening already straight displays, both wearing tight long black skirts and tight white shirts. They looked as plastic as the mannequins and he figured it was only the concrete-like hardening of their own make-up that kept the boredom out of their faces. The moment he walked in, both looked up, looked happy for a moment to have a customer, then looked at him like a tramp that had walked in on a wedding.

The lady who’d been straightening stock scuttled over to him. “Can I help you, sir?” Her accent was pure Cockney, which went against the grain of her sophisticated look.

He yanked his warrant card. Showed it just long enough for the badge to register but not the name printed on it. Slotted it away.

“I’m investigating a crime and I need your help to catch a pair of very bad people.”

*

Karl had been expecting a building deep down here, but the station was nothing but a widening of the tunnel. The platform was simply a stone shelf. No sidings, no old vending machines, no ticket booth, no turnstiles, nothing. But there was a lot of abandoned metal junk, including motors and fans and other bits of trains. The roof was higher, the walls flat rather than curved. There was a hole in the wall the platform jutted from and they aimed for it. Karl leaped up onto the platform then helped Liz climb. Their feet put marks in a thick layer of dust as they crossed the black to the blacker circle. Liz grabbed his hand again and he knew why: this was spooky. He would have loved this place as a kid, when the monsters that hid in the dark had three heads and threatened you with riddles and magic to take your soul. Today he knew he was more likely to run into an addict with a knife, and it was the soles of his shoes that were coveted.

The tunnel was even darker, but they could make out that the walls here weren’t brick. Some kind of tile. The floor was flat concrete. Best of all, nobody around.

It ran straight for twenty metres and ended. Karl’s fear rose. But four metres out he saw that the end was nothing but the left wall as the tunnel cut a sharp turn to the right. They followed it.

A few metres down, they both became aware of light. Four tiny pinpricks creating a square the size of the tunnel. They upped their speed, but soon stumbled on a mound of bricks. More bricks jutted from the roof and the walls, suggesting a wall had been erected at some point, then had collapsed or been broken down. By the time they’d climbed the mound in the dark, the cause of the light pinpricks was obvious.

Karl cautiously put his hands out, not believing what he was seeing. A wall of wood, but square, not circular like the tubular tunnel. The corners were touching the walls, but there was space at either side and above. Some kind of wooden box blocking their path. The light came from inside and poked out from the corners of the box where the faces met.

He jerked at a bang. Liz had rapped the wood with a brick.

“What’s inside?” she said.

Karl had a suspicion it wasn’t a box as such. He slipped down one side, into the half-circle gap between curving tile and vertical wood. Four metres down, the hand he held out before him touched brick. A blockage between both walls. But he could determine a faint length of light between the brick wall and the wooden one. Putting his eye to the sliver that ran from floor to ceiling, he called back to Liz.

“Stairs. We’re at the end. This box blocks the way out. We’ve done it.”

He made his way back, and together they put their hands on the wooden wall, testing its strength. Tried to rock the walls, but the box’s integrity held solid because it was jammed into the confines of the tunnel.

So they were still trapped.

*

The lady’s name badge said CARLA, but she corrected him: Lana. She had left her real name badge at home and was using that of another girl. The girls must not get on and get few customers, Brad figured, because Carla/Lana didn’t leave his side as they moved through the shop and didn’t stop talking. He didn’t like that because he thought it meant she’d remember him. That could be bad.

The shop front was pristine, but in back there was a storeroom that looked like a pair of tyrannosaurs had fought there. Clothing was heaped on tables and hanging from hangers hanging from pins in the walls, and all over the floor. There was a room to the left with a toilet inside, so cramped it looked as if you couldn’t shut the door once you’d sat down. There was a computer desk with no computer but a kettle and some cups. And at the back was a curtain pinned to a length of wood nailed at door height. Lane led him over to it, still asking him all about the fun parts of his job. Apparently she’d love to arrest a serial killer and would thoroughly enjoy giving evidence in court.

“Remember that rapist from a few months back? The Peckham Stalker? I would have tied him up and left him in the street and said everyone could have five minutes with him.”

She unpinned one corner of the curtain and let it drop, exposing an old iron door in an old iron frame. Someone had tried to paint the door a brilliant red, but the paint had peeled where it wouldn’t take. Hence the curtain.

“How come, eh, talking on a phone while driving is illegal but not putting on make-up? I don’t do that. I park up. Saw some bitch do it this morning. I would have made a judge give her ten years without make-up.”

“Judges do what they want. Does it open?” Brad asked, pointing.

“Sure does. We use it as a changing room.”

There was a new handle that she turned. The door swung outwards easily, as if oiled and often used. Brad was immediately hit by a cold wave of air. Beyond he could see a descending stairway of old bricks with a rail running down the centre to create two lanes, all lit by a series of naked bulbs in brackets in the roof.

It was just a staircase, not a changing room. He raised his eyebrows at her.

“Room’s at the bottom.”

The steps were stone with rubber mats to prevent slipping, but Brad went down carefully with a hand on the rail because the mats didn’t grip that well. Forty steps at least. Figured you had to really want to make sure a garment fit right to go through this chore. By the time they’d reached the bottom, Lana had already given Brad her theory that the police should legalise prostitution and take a percentage for their protection.

“Turn cops into pimps?” Brad said under his breath.

At the bottom was a new wall of pale wood with brick sections at either side. A door that was almost invisible said CHANGING ROOM on it. Lana pushed it open.

The room beyond was not what he expected. Wooden walls and ceiling, like a big box with a carpet. Where the walls met the floor and ceiling, he could see brackets holding the box together. The room clearly had been constructed inside the tunnel, and using a basic butt joint. There were cubicles created by vertical length of wood like buttresses, a mirror for each but no curtains.

He could see no other door. “Lana, is there another way into the tunnel?”

She shook her head. She was holding herself against the cold. Brad couldn’t imagine many bikinis being tried on down here. “We had this room built inside the tunnel at the bottom of the stairs. Council wouldn’t let us go past five metres into the tunnel. So you think these bank robbers are hiding in some underground station down there?”

The story he’d told her. He nodded. Inside, he felt dejected. There could be brick walls beyond these wooden ones. It could be the wrong place, the space this room occupied nothing but a cavity in the earth. This had been a waste of time. He turned to leave, pulling his phone so he could tell Les the plan had failed.

He turned to leave, and that was when Lana yelped. Something made a great bang against one of the walls. He spun, staring at the far wall, thinking that something had hit it from the other side. One hard strike.

“What the heck was that?” Lana whispered, now right by his side and holding his jacket as if fearing she might be whisked away. Brad shook his head in answer.

Now another noise. Soft, dulled by the wall, like a ghost’s whisper. He got the impression of someone saying something beyond the wall. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck.

Lana let him go and rushed for the door. She was out and gone in two seconds and Brad was glad. He would have been right behind her if not for what he heard next. Louder, still dulled by the wall, and now from his right, closer to the exit, but clearly a man’s voice and not that of a ghost:

“Stairs. We’re at the end. This box blocks the way out. We’ve done it.”

Seabury. Jesus Christ, Les had been right. Brad had followed the trail of a long abandoned underground train track to a building that had long ago been a station, but he had done so while internally mocking the theory that Karl Seabury and Liz Grafton were deep underground and going to emerge right here. That they had entered a lost tunnel two miles away and were trekking east through the earth. He had poured scorn all over Les’s theory, yet here were Seabury and Grafton’s wife, right here as promised, just metres away. With spectacular timing.

Metres away, but it might as well have been miles because there was no way in or out.

*

Karl looked down at Liz and grinned. He couldn’t see her face in the dark, so knew she couldn’t see his. So had to say, “There’s a way through.” He held out an arm.

It was tough to hoist her up because the space between the roof of the box and the brick ceiling of the tunnel meant he could get no real leverage. But eventually she was high enough to get a grip on the edge and, biting her lip against the pain in her fingers, pull herself up. They lay together on the roof, shifted around so their feet faced the edge, and that was when Karl pointed at a section of the wooden roof that was shaded a different colour.

“A panel for the light. It’s some kind of room inside.”

There were wires running though small holes in the panel. He stuck his fingers into the seam between the panel and the roof. Liz saw what he was trying to do and helped.

“How do we know it’s not just another dead end?”

“The light, woman. Someone installed it, so unless there’s a skeleton down there, the guy had a way out. And why install a light if no one’s going to use the room below? Trust me.”

One edge came up easily. A thin shaft of bright light stung their eyes like a barcode reader. The panel and the roof were connected by a simple half-lap joint, so the panel simply rested in place. Karl lifted the panel, saw a strip-light connected to the underside, slid his fingers into the opening, and shifted the whole panel to one side. Now the light was so bright they had to close their eyes.

“This reminds me of aliens,” she said. He didn’t dare ask. But her mood had lightened, which was good.

When Karl laid the panel aside, the room below fell into darkness. But before it did, they saw a carpeted floor and some sort of framed picture on a wall. The strip light lit most of the wooden roof and they could see each other’s faces. Liz’s was split by a giant grin.

“My God, we’re free,” Liz said, squeezing his arm.

“Don’t call the party caterers just yet. I’ll lower you down.”

She was hesitant. “So me first? What happened to chivalry?”

“There’s a door inside. I’ll hold it open for you.”

We don’t know what’s down there.”

That made no sense. Was she expecting a spiked floor like in one of those Tomb Raider games she’d mentioned? “The way out. Sunshine, fresh air, food. A phone. Want to stay?”

She twisted round so her legs were over the rectangular gap. Her foot caught the panel and must have dislodged a wire because the light blinked out. Darkness overwhelmed them again.

“I won’t see the floor!”

“It’s about eight feet below. Just be ready. Roll when you land. Don’t lock your knees or they’ll burst.”

“Eh?”

He laughed. “Just roll. We’re out. Keep thinking about not being trapped down here to die. Keep thinking about the fact that I know human meat tastes like pork and I really don’t want to starve to death.”

She started to say something, but it turned into a little yelp as he pushed her torso into the opening using her shoulders. Her legs disappeared. Then he slid her all the way. Her weight jerked his arms, but he kept hold of her hands. The edge of the opening dug into his chest. He could feel her kicking because her body swayed.

“You said eight feet!” she moaned.

“Maybe nine. Bend the knees,” he said, then let her go. She didn’t let go back and her weight caused her fingernails to scratch his flesh as she slipped away with a shout. He heard a soft noise as she landed and figured the drop must have been just a few inches. She said, “It’s easy.”

“Thanks. I was terrified. Now move out of the way.”

“Don’t burst your knees.”

He laughed. In the dark he could just about see her shape below. Watched it rush aside quickly. Too quickly. Heard a yelp and a crash, and knew someone had rushed into her at speed even before he heard a male voice hiss,

“Going nowhere, bitch!”

*

When the figure appeared out of the dark and crashed into her, she knew immediately that it was him, Smithfield, the one who’d burst into the bathroom seemingly so long ago no. She recognised his voice from the word BITCH, shouted now in the same tone it had been yelled last night. Back then he had been masked, and now he was shrouded by darkness so again his face was concealed. But she could picture him based on a brief glimpse from months ago, when he and McIntyre and the other one, English, had been lurking in a car outside the Salvation Army in Newington Causeway when she had delivered clothing to the charity.

They crashed into a wall and fell, and he was on top of her, trying to pin her arms. She smelled something on him, something medicinal, and remembered that her husband had told her one of them had a bad eczema problem.

“Liz?” she heard Karl yell from somewhere above them.

“Hold fucking still,” the guy she knew as Smithfield hissed into her face.

She freed one wrist from his grip and lashed upwards, a blow that caught bone hard enough to hurt her hand. But surely it hurt him, too. She knew for sure when he drove his head forward, aiming for her face. She caught his black shape coming towards her in time and turned her head, and his forehead hit her cheekbone hard enough to send a wave of black over her vision. The next thing she knew, he was standing over her, dragging her to her feet, and she knew she had lost a second or two. She had been knocked unconscious for a moment.

She threw her own head forward, eyes closed, ready for pain. She had never headbutted a man before and assumed it would hurt like hell. But he leaned back, out of the way, and his grip loosened. She staggered backwards, into the wall, still aware of his shape in front of her, much taller now, impossibly tall, easily seven feet.

Grunting, he shook and staggered. In awe, Liz watched as his massive shape resolved into some creature with two heads. She realised that Karl was on his back, arms clamped around the guy’s neck from behind in some kind of choke. Karl was grunting in exertion as he squeezed. Her husband had shown her this very stranglehold, where you clamped onto a person’s back, locked your legs around their waist in a figure-4, threaded an arm under the neck, and pulled tight on that arm’s wrist using your other hand. A few seconds, she recalled, and the assailant would fall unconscious due to lack of oxygen to the brain. She was going to make him show her this move again and a host of others, when they finally got reunited.

Smithfield didn’t fall. He gurgled and struggled, but didn’t fall. He staggered into a wall to shake Karl from his perch, and the mighty impact shook the whole room, but he didn’t fall.

“Run!” Karl said through gritted teeth.

She ran past them, for the door, which was slightly open. At the top of a dark flight of stairs, she saw light from another doorway. A lot of light. Real daylight this time. And she powered up those stairs so fast the pain in her thighs soon overwhelmed the pain in her face from the headbutt.

*

Brad woke up with his face on the carpet. He rolled over. For a moment he thought he was at home, waking after a bad dream, but the real world submerged him in the next second. A second after that he was up and running for the door.

The two girls were by the counter, one on the phone and the other, Lana, leaning over her, listening. When Brad burst through the door, they both looked at him.

“No cops,” he said, grabbed the phone and hung it up. Then he was heading for the exit.

The street was busy with cars and pedestrians and his hopes of catching Seabury and Liz Grafton fell away like an adrenaline dump. He scanned left and right, but they were gone. He rushed across the road and through a gate in a low fence, into a small children’s playpark that was empty. Climbed the stairs to the top of the slide and looked around. A busy junction over to the right, houses left, the train station ahead, Memorial Avenue behind. Too many places they could have gone. He climbed down, pulled his mobile and hit a speed-dial number.

Les answered within half a ring. And got straight to the point: “This is where you tell me they’re tied up and waiting, right?”

“On top of a pile of gold, sure,” Brad said.

“Shit. How did you fuck this one up?”

For about half a second Brad considered the truth. I had the drop on them, but Seabury, the guy we all thought was just some idiot, put my lights out with a chokehold.

Instead he said, “Because someone told me they were underground and sent me on a wild goose chase. They weren’t where you said, Les. Fucking underground train station. I found the place, but it’s all converted and there’s no way in or out. If there was, it’d be a homeless paradise by now, wouldn’t it?”

“Shit. Where are you?”

“At the place. The station. Where you sent me. Where else?”

“So we go with my plan. You go drive the streets around there, just in case. In your Titty.”

He hung up.

Four miles away, Les and Dave left their outdoor cafe table and crossed the road. They stopped outside a bank of old red telephone boxes. Les flipped Dave a coin. He missed it, said,

“We should just call Chambers about it. This is risky.” Les simply nodded at a phone box. “Mind if I say again we should just pass this onto DCI Chambers? This is risky.”

His answer was a nod at the phone box. Dave bent to retrieve the coin.

“Is this a control thing, Les? Seems that way.”

Les nodded again at the phone box. Dave entered the phone box and Les stood by him, holding open the door. Dave picked up the receiver and slotted the coin in. “Absolutely sure about this?”

Les nodded at the receiver. So Dave hit the keypad.

A few seconds later the phone was answered. “Hey, this Notting Hill police station? Okay, I’m not giving my name, okay, so don’t ask. There’s a guy called Aleksy, bit of a scumbag. I just saw him enter a shop, a mean look on his face. You got a detective there called McIntyre? Les McIntyre?” Pause. “I don’t need to speak to him. I’m one of his informants, and so’s this Aleksy guy. Guy went into some shop on Beverley Drive in Old Ford. Saw him as I drove past. Think I saw a weapon. You might want to tell McIntyre, because I heard he wanted to speak to this Aleksy guy. Been looking for him, I heard. That’s it.” Pause. “Call me Santa Claus, if you like.”

Dave hung up. Les winked at him. Both men exited the phone box and moved towards their vehicles, parked illegally at the kerb a few metres away.

“I’ll call you,” Les said. “You get off, go do some sick anal shit with your missus or something. I got this covered.”

“Any chance of a clue as to what you’re up to, Les?”

“Okay, one word, four syllables.”

“Thanks,” Dave said sardonically. He got on his bike and pulled into traffic with a wave.

Les sat in his car, holding his mobile in both hands like something precious. It rang two minutes later.

“Hello?,” Les said into the phone. A Pause. “Hey, Sally.” Pause. “Sure, I know that lowlife.” Pause. “Okay, I’ll head over there.” Pause. “I think I can handle myself, Sally. Especially against that skinny runt. But you go ahead and send me two uniforms. I’ll meet them there. Beverley Drive. I got the Satnav, thanks.” Pause. “Still a bit dodgy, but I had some antacids.”

He big goodbye and hung up. Grinned at himself in the rear-view mirror.

“You’re right, I do need to be in control, Dave. Things get done properly that way.”

*

Ramon Ramirez was arrested because of his mother.

She had been warned not to contact him until he was better. Vitally important, she was told by Ramon’s brother, Carlo. He’s got that bird flu thing and he’s very ill. And she wouldn’t contact him, oh no. As soon as she got him a brew of green tea, she’d leave him well alone until he was better. She’d read about it on the Internet. Good for curing bird flu.

The local shop didn’t open until 9 a.m., and that was when she went there. She bought green tea, then decided to take a walk. Pot in hand, she took alleyways and kept her head low, scarf wrapped around her face to throw off the police. She looked in windows so she could see behind her, a trick Ramon had showed her. She took a bus and got off at the very next stop and got another bus. Tradecraft, that was word she’d heard before. She lost the police and made it all the way to Ramon’s new girlfriend’s house and rapped the door.

One lowly uniform had been tasked with staking out her house. It beat the beat. He saw her leave and followed her, out of uniform now, of course. He rode the alleyways on his pushbike and folded it up so he could get on the buses and walked with it the final portion of the journey, barely ten metres behind her, stopping to look in a shop window when she did the same further ahead. She carried a teapot under her arm, wrapped in a towel. She went into a block of flats and from the street he watched her walk the landing on the third floor and rap on a door. He worked out the number, then called his bosses.

DCI Chambers had waited in his car while three of his men rushed up the stairs. They were back eight minutes later, dragging Ramon by an elbow each, hands cuffed behind his back. He was screaming about a setup, a fix, but Chambers had instructed his men not to tell Ramon why he was being arrested. They simply read him his rights and cuffed him and dragged him out, but at no point did they mention triple murder, and at no point did Ramon, a skinny little Latino guy with a bushy moustache that looked like some joke cartoon version of a disguise, ask why he was being detained. They sat him in the back of the car, squeezed between two big guys in suits, and let him rant for a moment. Then Chambers turned the interior mirror so he could see his prisoner’s eyes and said,

“Didn’t do what, Ramon?”

Ramon paused. Looked awkward. “That thing, man. That…what you arresting me for?”

“Two crimes last night, Ramon, and while you couldn’t have done both, you were certainly the culprit for one. I think you robbed that old lady’s purse right out of her bag, Ramon. She described a weasel of a little thug. That’s you to a T.”

“Fuck that, that wasn’t me.”

Chambers turned to face him. “For definite?”

“Wrong man, man.”

“Oh darn. I guess that just leaves the triple murder, then.”

There really had been two crimes last night that seemed to involve Ramon Ramirez, but as Chambers said, Ramon couldn’t have been involved in both. To avoid prosecution for triple murder, Ramon had soon coughed to, not purse snatching, but robbery. His men had burst into a house loaded with prostitutes and punters and taken all the money they could find. The punters had left fucked after all. Ramon had been in his new car, texting his girlfriend, and, he said, if they cared to do some of that triangulation shit with his phone, they’d see it spent the entire evening on a road in Leyton.

Now, hours later, Chambers was at his desk, looking at a website that intrigued him. It had nothing to do with Ramon’s phone and where it might have been last night, because that was no proof at all of his innocence. And what he was looking at wasn’t really proof of innocence, either, really. But factor in DCI Lesley McIntyre and things looked interesting.

Thinking about McIntyre, he leaned forward and hit the keyboard. He loaded up his Gmail account and found what he’d hoped to see. The file he’d requested. McIntyre’s file. He downloaded it and saved it so he could run through it at home. He checked his watch. It was almost mid-day. He grabbed his coat and was about to head out when the phone on his desk rang.

“How’s it going, Chambers?”

McIntyre. Chambers tried to keep the anger out of his voice. “What can I do for you, McIntyre?”

“It’s DCI McIntyre, and you can say thank you to me.”

“And what would bring about my thanking you?”

“I just solved your case.”

Chambers was dumbstruck. “What?”

“I just solved your triple murder, Chambers. Take down this postcode and come along. Thank me face-to-face.” He reeled off the postcode and hung up.

*

Ninety minutes after seeing the sky for the first time in two hours, Karl took another look.

“Be careful,” Liz said.

“If he’s still here, he’s got the patience of a saint.”

Karl opened the plastic door and peeked out. Then he climbed out and down the plastic stairs. He helped Liz to the ground.

Their hiding place had been a playpark across the road from the shops, in a climbing tower designed like a castle. Risky, but he hadn’t really been thinking straight when he’d rushed out of the doorway and into the street. Disoriented, really, because two minutes earlier they had been deep underground, and then suddenly they had burst out into the wide world, on a busy street. Liz had been hiding behind a car, not knowing what to do. He had grabbed her hand, yanked her across the road, and into the playpark. If the man chasing them had been any quicker regaining consciousness, he might have spotted them climbing into the big plastic castle, and that would have been game over. Sitting together cramped inside a plastic shell, they had heard his voice nearby, obviously talking to someone on the phone, but he had soon left. Then they had waited. Someone with a dog had come along and hung around for ten minutes, shouting at the dog, but still they hadn’t moved, just in case the guy was still out there, relaxing on a bench while he thought of what to do next. Eventually, though, too much time had passed. Nobody, Karl felt, would hang around that long, not when there was the chance his enemies might be putting down miles. Besides, the hiding place was cramped and the bits of them pressed against hard plastic had begun to go numb.

They walked quickly from the park and along the pavement and into the recessed doorway of the first shop they came to. Some place selling clocks and run by an old man in tweed who stared at them from a rocking chair behind a counter.

“Now what?” Liz said. “We need a phone. Or a car.”

The phone would be easy: they could snatch one off someone on this street, because he could see plenty of mobiles in hands as people remotely socialised. But a car would get them off the street, so that would come first. Karl saw a car slow down in the road and indicate left. Twenty metres away, it turned and seemed to disappear into the long building housing the shop they hid by. He slipped out, still holding Liz’s hand, and walked to that spot, where he found a cobblestone passageway between a newsagent’s and a Co Op. At the end he could see a wide space with parked cars behind the building. Down they went.

The car park was small and served the Co-Op, and according to a sign you could be fined £75 if you exceeded a one hour stay.

“Can you hotwire a car?”

“No need.” He dragged her towards a row of bottle bins by a vegetation-engulfed fence, where the Volkswagen Passat that had just entered was parked. The driver’s door was wide open, as was the boot, and there was an elderly lady standing before the bottle bins with a plastic bag full of glass, slowly feeding bottles into a rubber mouth. The car’s engine was running.

“You’re going to steal that?” Liz said.

“You wanted me to hotwire one. At least this lady won’t return with six bags of shopping to find her car gone.”

They ducked so the car would hide them in case the woman turned around, but she didn’t. Too busy slotting bottles carefully into the bin, sinking her arm deep so she could drop them with as little noise as possible. Karl had once worked in a nightclub, in his early twenties, and he remembered that every single member of staff tried to throw down the bottles as hard as possible to smash them.

Liz was up for it. Needed no urging. Knew what to do. She jumped in, slid across into the passenger seat, and got low in the footwell, reminding Karl of how she’d perched in his van last night. How much they’d been through since then.

He jumped in and slammed the door. He should have torn out of there, but instead he found himself staring over Liz’s head, out the window, at the owner. She didn’t seem to have heard the noise, or at least didn’t associate it with her car. Deaf? So instead, he engaged first gear and pulled away slowly, like a learner. He cast a look back. The old lady was still at the bins, now carefully folding away her empty plastic bag.

On Memorial Avenue, Liz told him to slow down. They could not afford to be pulled by the police. Any cop they came across could know McIntyre or one of the others and give them up. It seemed unlikely to Karl that rogue cops would have so many on their side, but it was not worth the risk.

They drove in silence for a while, just zigzagging, taking smaller streets, losing themselves in built-up areas. Keeping to places where it was less likely they’d come across the police. They were looking for a phone. Many people on the streets had mobiles clamped to their ears, but robbery was out of the question. Shops might have phones, but how could they convince a proprietor to let them use it? There were a scattering of telephone boxes still around even in this modern age, but they hadn’t come across one yet. They didn’t know what exactly they were looking for until they happened upon it. Karl drew the car a to a halt across the road from a pub on a quiet residential corner.

Liz was out of the car even before he’d killed the engine. He got out and rushed after her, looking around for cops even as he told himself that being arrested was Liz’s fixation, not his. Then overtook her, planning to get there first. Her husband could wait: he needed to phone his wife.

The pub was empty except for five or six men in dirty coveralls around a pool table, and a bargirl with red ponytails on a stool behind the counter with a laptop on her knees. She gave them a glance that held annoyance – how dare customers intrude upon her time? – and stood, but they didn’t go to the bar. Beyond the pool table was an alcove with a payphone, and they rushed for it.

Both of them stopped at the phone and eyed each other. “You go first,” she said. “At least my husband knows what’s going on.”

Liz kept a watch out for…anyone, while Karl phoned home. The builders gave their dirty clothing cheeky grins, but otherwise ignored them.

He placed a reverse charge call and waited while it rang. Behind him, he heard Liz shout to the bargirl, asking if there was another phone. Her cracked voice filled him with guilt. Despite her offer, she needed her husband as much as he needed to get hold of his wife.

While it rang, he tried to calm himself. Told himself to talk normally so Katie wouldn’t start to worry. He would ask how she was, announce that work was slow and boring today, and then tell her he might be late home tonight: probably going to grab a takeaway for our dinner. Just in case something happened to delay him. Already he had come up with an idea. He would tell her that he had had a road rage incident while driving to work. Nothing major, but the cops might come to the door. Don’t answer it. I’ll sort it out. Don’t worry about it. Just don’t answer the door. He would say it all with a tone of humour, so she wouldn’t freak out.

Katie answered. He didn’t hear the anger in her voice. Not until she told the operator that, yes, she would accept the charges for the call, did he detect that something was wrong.

“Katie?” he said, trying to sound calm, hoping that he had imagined the distress in her voice. That everything was fine her end. No problem.

It wasn’t: “Oh god, Karl, what’s going on?” she shrieked at him. “The police are here. I just got back and they turned up. They’re searching the house. They say you’re wanted for questioning about someone who got killed. They say there was a man killed in your shop and you went missing.”

Karl felt his world drop away. They had gotten to Katie already. A man killed in his shop? “Who’s there, Katie? Did they give names? Is one of them called McIntyre?”

She didn’t answer. He heard a commotion, heard a voice asking for the phone. He pictured the cops realising that she was on the phone to him, rushing over, snatching the receiver from her. A moment later a male voice spoke.

“Is that you, Mr. Seabury?”

Karl’s breath caught. It was him. It was McIntyre. He was at Karl’s house!

*

Seabury’s wife was at the living room window, fist in her mouth, staring out, obviously angry as well as distraught. Les thought she was staring out so she didn’t have to face the four intruders in her house.

Les had brought along three uniformed constables for the search. He had sent two men upstairs, where one of them had already found the items Brad had hidden in a drawer in the office. Les had taken the living room and the other uniform the kitchen. He was in there now, easily within earshot, so Les knew he had to watch what he said.

“Where are you, Mr. Seabury. We need to talk to you.” That bit, nice and loud, nice and official, the tone of a professional police officer.

Seabury tried to sound confident: “What do you want from me, McIntyre?” It didn’t work. He was clearly scared. Good.

Les stepped further away from the wife. “We have some questions for you, sir. I need to know where you are.” Still nice and loud.

“Why are you in my house?”

He heard a racket as the cop in the kitchen searched a drawer of pans. Quickly, quietly, he said, “You’re in deep shit, Karl, so put your thinking head on. We don’t want you. Is the woman still with you?”

“What do you want with her?”

Seabury’s wife was still looking out the window, having stormed there angrily when Les demanded the phone from her. Watching her, he said, “I’ll protect you, Karl. You’re in trouble and you need my help. I’m the only one between you and prison, or worse. Where is she?”

Seabury said something, but Les didn’t catch it because the kitchen cop appeared at the door and said, “There’s some wrapped presents in a cupboard. Am I allowed to open those?”

Mrs. Seabury whirled on them both, red-eyed and angry. “My husband’s birthday presents, so you leave them goddamned alone. Hurry up and get the hell out of my house.”

Still playing the role of a professional, Les told the cop to leave the presents alone. He already had what he needed, found where they’d been planted and now safe in a sealed and officially marked plastic bag in his jacket.

The cop went away. Seabury’s wife suddenly left. She rushed outside, stood with her back to the living room window and lit a cigarette. Les was alone. No need now for an act. “Still there, dickhead?”

"Why are you doing this? If you hurt my wife, I'll -"

“Don’t fuck with me, Karl. Tell me where I can find that woman. She’s nothing to you except the reason you’re in so much shit.”

“I’ve done nothing wrong. “

“Need convincing? Keep an eye on the news. You’re soon to be in a world of shit with no way out. Soon it’ll be too late. Where is she?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The kitchen cop came back, stood in the doorway. Looked like he had another question.

“Mr. Seabury, it is in your best interests to turn yourself in.” Then he waved the cop away.

Watching both the window and the kitchen door, Les put the phone back to his ear. "Kill her, Karl. Slice her throat, dump her body. I see that in the news, I'll help you get through this. Otherwise you're both fucked anyway. So -"

Footsteps on the stairs. One of the other two cops came into the room quickly, carrying a shoebox with bits of metal and wires poking out. He looked like the cat that had got the cream..

“Looks like bomb components, sir,” this guy said, full of praise for himself. Based on the shop Karl ran, Les thought it was probably just a bunch of exotic electronic items that Seabury was – what? Fixing up, modifying, or hiding because they were über-illegal? He didn’t care, but he said well done, constable, bag it up.

The cop started to bag it up right there, kneeling in the living room. Now knowing he’d be overheard, Les returned to cop mode. “Mr. Seabury, are you still there?”

Seabury said something pleading. He wouldn’t tell a soul, and he’d convince the woman to do the same, if only McIntyre would leave them alone.

“Come on in, Mr. Seabury.”

Now something threatening from Seabury. He would expose Les and his minions, see them in jail forever for armed robbery. That perked Les up. He now knew that the woman still didn’t know about her husband’s murder. He still had a chance to make sure that she never found out, and thus never got to tell her tale.

“I understand, Mr Seabury, but you must reconsider.”

Just then Seabury’s wife yelled from outside. Something about why don’t the police just piss off. Les went to the window and saw the object of her derision. A car had pulled up and two men had emerged. One was a uniformed police officer, driver’s side. The other was DCI Chambers. Chambers literally rushed towards the house.

Les had only seconds, he knew. He quickly came up with a line that would both sound inert to the cop carefully packing up “bomb components” and relay a threat to Seabury. “Mr. Seabury? Look, if you’re still there, here’s the deal. Half an hour. That’s how long you’ve got. And I’ll do what I can to help you.”

He cut Seabury off in mid-sentence by hanging up. “Lost connection,” he said to the kneeling officer, who was twisting and scrutinising each weird electronic item before bagging it.

The front door burst open and Chambers stormed in. Right behind him was Seabury’s wife, still ranting. Chambers turned to her and said something to calm here. Even apologised. Said he would get these men out of her house right now. Knight in shining fucking armour, Les thought as he dropped the phone onto the sofa while Chambers wasn’t watching.

“McIntyre, what the hell are you doing here?” Chambers barked. “This search is illegal.”

The guy who thought he’d found a bomb stopped and looked up. The guy who’d come with Chambers materialised behind him and also froze. The kitchen cop appeared in the doorway. Les was aware of all three uniforms staring at him.

He calmed himself. "Well, firstly, it isn't illegal, because Mrs. Seabury willingly let us inside. Second, a serious crime has been committed and I believed evidence of that crime was in this house, Chambers. I also came here to arrest Karl Seabury, the owner, for the murder of Aleksy Kozaczuk, and to obtain a breath test, because I believe he has been driving under the influence. I have evidence that -"

Seabury’s wife started screaming at him. Murder? Her husband? Was this some sick joke? Illegal search? Les had not told her that the dead man had been murdered, or explained what they were searching the house for. He had flashed her a copy of an old search warrant that he kept for just such an occasion. She hadn’t noticed that it didn’t bear her husband’s name or this address.

Chambers jerked his head, indicating that they should go outside. In the garden, Chambers whirled on him. “Has a warrant for his arrest been issued?”

"No. I felt time was pressing. There's enough evidence -"

“Was there a road traffic accident involving Karl Seabury?”

“I heard a rumour.”

“Do you have a search warrant?”

“No, Chambers, I don’t. The law says I don’t need one. Look it up.”

“Yes, McIntyre, I understand you have it all covered with your murder and drink driving offence. You certainly know your loopholes.”

“And don’t forget that Mrs. Seabury let us in willingly. Now I know you’re all knicker-twisted because I said I solved your crime for you and I know you Homicide Command boys get all territorial, but we’re all tasked with upholding justice, aren’t we?”

"McIntyre, you're -"

Les told him to shut the hell up. He unzipped his jacket, extracted a plastic bag and tossed it at Chambers’ chest. “Take a good look at that, detective. Karl Seabury was involved not only in your triple murder, but also the murder of a man called Aleksy Kozaczuk this morning. That’s four fucking murders, Chambers, and I was just trying to do the right thing. Time was pressing and I didn’t want to waste any getting damn signatures on a form. So, do you want to hear what I’ve got or not? We can work on you getting all the bloody glory later, if that’s your driving force.”

Chambers was seething, clearly. But he took a breath. His eyes were on the bag in his hands. “Talk,” he said.

*

Karl stepped away from the phone and Liz jumped for it. She snatched it up in one hand, while her other grabbed his arm. He saw the question in her eyes.

“I have to go,” he answered that look. “I have to get back there.” He told her what McIntyre had said, and what Katie had said.

Liz put her hand to her mouth. “They killed that man in your shop?”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Karl said. He leaned against the wall. His legs were shaky. Then he stood upright again, started to move past Liz.

She grabbed his arm again. “No,” she said. “You can’t go home. You’ll be arrested. I don’t know what’s going on, but we’re in trouble. We need to find out what exactly has happened.”

He snatched his arm away. “We can’t just sit and do nothing.”

“There’s nothing at your house the police can want unless they’ve planted it and there’s no arrest warrant for you. It’s a trick to get you back there, probably.”

“Well it’s worked.” He started for the door. She caught up to him right by the pool table. The guys around it were watching the show with grins.

“No, Karl. Listen to me.” She dragged him back into the alcove, away from listening ears, which seemed to upset some of the pool players. “If you go home, don’t expect to walk in and be surrounded by well-meaning cops. McIntyre will be there alone, or he’ll have some other criminal watching the place. Remember he sent that burglar to your shop. He knows people. He’ll have someone outside your house who will capture you or just call him. You’ll get nowhere near a police station. McIntyre will take you somewhere and make you tell him where I am.”

“Then you go somewhere and don’t tell me where, so I can’t tell him. But I have to get back to my wife. Before all this she was oblivious, and even that was bad. Now she’s involved and upset. I can’t just stay away.”

“It won’t work. And if you try going to a police station, that won’t work, either. Cops talk to cops. It’s one big gang. They’ll put you in a cell, and the next thing you know McIntyre will walk through the door. They’ve got us for the murder of that man in your shop. They’ve killed him and set us up. Believe it.”

“Bullshit,” he said. “This guy can’t control everything.” But he wasn’t sure he believed that. “So, what’s your great plan?”

“We can’t stay on the run, so we have to hand ourselves in. But we’ll do it through my husband’s solicitor. That way he can arrange that it goes properly. He can make sure McIntyre and his cronies never get near us. We tell our story and then this thing gets sorted out. But first I need to talk to my husband. He needs to know I’m okay. For all he knows, McIntyre has kidnapped me. I need to make sure Ron doesn’t start kidnapping police to find out where I am.”

She paused, watching him carefully to see what he would do. He wanted to run, but didn’t. When Liz seemed satisfied that he was going to stay with her, she picked up the phone. Karl waited, thinking about her husband. Wondering if he was as all-powerful as she claimed, or at least seemed to believe. He was starting to think her war on the streets idea might not be as daft as he originally thought.

She called a number. Reversed the charges, just as he had. Got a receptionist. He heard Liz tell the person to have Mr. Gold call her on this number. Then she hung up. Faced him.

“It’s done. A waiting game now. You want a drink?”

He was in no mood for a pub chat, but what else could they do? And he was thirsty. A bottle of gin right now would go down a treat. “We have no money.”

She led him to a table in a corner, then approached the guys playing pool. He couldn’t hear what she said, but saw her flail her arms about, telling some kind of story. She pointed at Karl and he saw the guys laugh and shake their heads at him. Whatever she was doing, though, worked. The guys dipped in their pockets while she went to the bathroom. She got back to the table just as one of the guys came over with two pints. Liz thanked him. She was looking a lot more mellow now the ball was rolling the way she wanted. Happy, even. The guy gave Karl a sympathetic look and retreated.

“Hell did you say to them?”

She winked at him.

*

They were in Chambers’ car again, sitting just as before: Chambers in the front, watching his backseat passenger using the rear-view mirror. This time, though, Les had insisted on this location for their talk.

He had told his story, and now they sat in silence. Chambers was doing what Les would have done: taking a moment’s silence to let the story ferment in his mind. Normally, with a criminal suspect, questions would be fired to catch the guy off-guard. But Les was a detective like Chambers, and both men knew that tactic. If Chambers was silent now, it was because he probably expected Les to already have answers prepared.

Eventually he said: “So again a body turns up, and again you’re the first on the scene.”

A veiled accusation of something – again. Les remained silent. Waiting for more.

Chambers exited the car and got in the back, right next to Les. Sat with one leg curled on the seat, so he could turn sideways and face his nemesis. Les would not be overwhelmed, so copied the action. Both men faced each other. Chambers held up his digital voice recorder.

“Put that away, Chambers. This is not a statement. This is me doing you the courtesy of an explanation.”

Chambers put the device away. “It’s quite a story, McIntyre. Quite a story.”

He was waiting for a response. He got silence.

“Why don’t you tell me how Ramon Ramirez is tied in to all this. After all, the man’s car was found at the scene of the triple murder. He was there, he was involved, right?”

Right then Les knew Chambers had something. Some nugget of information, some detail, some fact that cast a shadow on Les’s scheme to frame the Hispanic lowlife criminal who had once incurred Les’s wrath. Again, he said nothing.

“We found him,” Chambers said. Les felt the scrutiny as Chambers tried to read his face for something: fear, or shock. “We found him earlier, hiding at his girlfriend’s house. New girlfriend, one we didn’t know about. We questioned him, of course, and the man just didn’t strike us as being a liar. We told him something bad happened to Ronald Grafton, a known enemy of his. He said he once had a run-in with Grafton, but it was eight months ago. And nobody’s reported any friction between them in that time, so we believe that. Then we told him it was murder and that we found his car at the scene. You should have seen his face.”

“Did he admit it?” Les said, unable to think of anything else.

“Oh no,” Chambers said with too much glee. “The man told us all about his car being stolen months ago. Said he reported it. Got a crime number. Called us periodically for updates. Did everything you’d expect the concerned owner of an antique car with sentimental value would do.”

A pause. Clearly building up to something. Les wasn’t liking this. “But we know he’s lying, right? Cut to the chase, Chambers.”

"He's a criminal, right? Of course he's lying. We've seen this before. Some car gets reported stolen, then a week later it's used in a ram raid. Mostly the owner and the thieves don't know each other. A genuine theft. But sometimes the owner sets it up because he needs a vehicle for a crime and it isn't that easy to nick these new cars -"

“I’m aware of all this, Chambers. Did you work on this speech? I said cut to the chase.”

Chambers looked annoyed, as if he really had been planning a long lecture.

“Okay, McIntyre, here’s the thing. Since Ramirez reported his car nicked, he’s never unregistered it from his name. He’s a member of three different online Cortina owners’ groups and his computer shows a lot of messages on these websites, asking people to report if they see his car. He’s offered a reward.”

“Subterfuge.”

“If he’s lying, it would be overkill. Almost daily he’s sending these messages, plus photos of his car. If he just wanted the police to believe it was stolen, he could have reported the theft, put a couple of messages on the websites for ‘subterfuge’ and left it at that. Overkill. I believe the man really did get his machine stolen and really wants it back. Have you wondered why he would chose to use such a car in a crime? Why he’d condemn a car he’s had for years and looked after and loved? Love interest aside, he’d be bound to know that the police would trace it to him. Why subject himself to police interest, even if he thinks he’s got a rock-solid alibi?”

“You think all criminals have logic and intelligence?”

“But posting online about his car isn’t the only thing he’s been up to, McIntyre. He likes his emails. Know what else he’s emailed about? You. Three weeks before his beloved car was stolen, he reported you for trespassing at his house. He caught you snooping in his garden. It wasn’t the only time he emailed a complaint about you harassing him.”

“I watch the bad guys, I won’t deny that. Same as I was at Grafton’s cottage. I’m just trying to put the bad guys away and you can’t always do things by the book.”

“So you hassle Ramirez and his car goes missing three weeks later.”

“And in between he’s probably been punched by someone, spat at, chased, all sorts of things. It’s the life he leads as a scumbag. How many of these scum do we end of finding dead in ditches? You think I had something to do with his car getting nicked?”

They stared at each other. Chamber, after a pause, shrugged.

Les said, “Now here’s where it gets tricky. Because if that car was stolen, then the thief put it at the scene of that triple murder. And you’re hinting that I had something to do with the theft. So if we do the maths…”

Chambers just shrugged again.

Les leaned forward until their faces were just inches apart. “Never was a foreplay fan, Chambers.

“Okay, McIntyre, let’s get straight to it. I think you had direct contact, of the negative kind, with both Ramon Ramirez and Ronald Grafton. There wasn’t enough friction between them to warrant a crime like this. Grafton had some men follow Ramon’s man home one night. Ramon’s man had been dealing drugs at Grafton’s club. They let him make a tidy sum, then taxed him later that night. This wasn’t the first time one of Ramon’s little crew got done over. That’s a job obstacle. Yet you claim that Ramon was heated up enough, even after eight months, to plan murder. No.”

“I don’t claim anything. I had nothing to claim. I reported the bodies, that was all. You took the investigation where it went. You decided Ramon Ramirez was a bad egg. Now, back to the accusation. You want to say it? Make it official? Say out loud exactly what it is you think I did?”

“You turn up at a triple murder scene. You know the lead guy, you have history with the guy. The lead suspect is also a guy you’ve had run-ins with. Now we get a guy turn up dead in some shop, and it turns out you know that guy, too. Before anyone can determine cause of death, motive, anything, you’ve suddenly decided it was murder, located a new prime suspect’s house and gotten yourself some nice evidence to tie all the murders together and wrap the whole thing up.”

“That’s beating around the bush, Chambers. Just say it.”

Chambers shrugged, as if he knew he might be overstepping a line. “Something’s not right about you, McIntyre. Something’s rattling my radar. It’s very uncomfortable. That’s all I’ll say. Until I know more.”

Chambers reached past Les and opened the door for him. Les got out. His own radar was rattling. He knew Chambers was going to become a serious problem.

*

“Lizzy, where the hell are you?” said the solicitor. Mr Gold had a raspy voice, as if he smoked or shouted too much.

Liz was crowding the phone, while Karl was sitting at a nearby table, rubbing his head. They had waited two hours for the return call, to the annoyance of the bargirl, who had twice asked them if they wanted a second drink. Only Liz’s pleading had kept her from tossing them into the street. The builders had gone and the only other occupant was a businessman sat alone at a corner table, sipping at some kind of fruit juice loaded with vodka as he worked on a laptop.

“Did you get anything?” she asked the solicitor.

“Lizzy, what on earth happened? Did you have something to do with your husband’s death?”

It hit her like a heatwave. Her legs went limp. He was still talking, but she barely heard. Eventually she screamed at him down the phone, demanding to know what the hell he was talking about.

Her shout yanked Karl out of his reverie. He took a step towards her, but only one. He didn’t know what to do. He watched her clutch the phone and listen and wished he could hear what was being said. Instead, he waited and watched. Eventually she ended the call, but did so by simply dropping the receiver, which swung from its cable like a condemned man. She sat against the wall under the phone and Karl squatted before her. He didn’t have to be a genius to work out that her husband was dead. He wanted to help her, console her, but another part of him, the selfish part, wanted to know how his death tied in to the police searching Karl’s house.

He heard a tinny voice coming from the receiver. The solicitor was still there, calling Liz’s name. He snatched it up. “Hello? What’s going on?”

“Who’s this? Where’s Liz? My god, are you Karl Seabury?”

“Yes. What’s going on? Is her husband dead? Did they kill him? And what do you know about me?”

"I can't be talking to you, Mr. Seabury. You need to -"

“Hey, we’re in deep shit here, Mr. You can shed a light, you better do so.”

A pause. The man's legal mind whirring, perhaps weighing up the problems that could arise later if he said things he shouldn't. "I got scant details because this is ongoing. Apparently the police searched your house because they found a man dead in a shop you own -"

“He chased us,” Karl cut in, remembering the guy in the shop. Dead in the shop? “We got away. He was still alive and running when I last saw him.”

A pause. Karl could tell the man doubted his version of things. "This man was discovered dead in a shop you own, and so the police went to your house. I understand they've found something there that was taken from the Grafton cottage, where the bodies were found. A credit card, if I understand correctly. It belonged to Ronald Grafton. The dead man in the shop, some lawbreaker called Aleksy Kozaczuk, he had his bedsit searched and it turned up other items from the cottage. Aleksy had in his possession when found a mobile phone from which he sent a text saying he was going into your shop. They traced the recipient number and found it is registered to Elizabeth Grafton. A text from her number to Aleksey's last night said 'Come Now.' The police -"

“That’s bullshit. No way.”

“This is what they have, Mr. Seabury. These are the facts as I understand them. According to the police, on the night of the murder, Lizzy sent Kozaczuk a text telling him to come. Then three people end up dead. The next morning, this man Kozaczuk sent her a return text saying he was about to visit your shop. Then he winds up dead, too. The murder weapon appears to be a lawnmower blade, and when the police visit your house, they find items taken from the Grafton cottage, and a lawnmower missing a blade…”

His voice faded out as Karl remembered the lawnmower. The missing blade. He had assumed it had simply snapped off in the shed, but it hadn’t. It so hadn’t. The burglar he now knew was called Aleksy Kozaczuk had taken it as a weapon. He had tried to enter Karl’s house with that weapon, and when he had been foiled, he had visited the shop – with that weapon. Looking for Karl – with that weapon. And then someone had killed Kozaczuk in Karl’s shop – with that weapon.

“Mr. Seabury?” Karl came back with a start.

“I’m here. This…this is all wrong.”

"Understand how bad this all looks, Mr. Seabury, please. The police are very happy with their theory that Lizzy arranged her husband's murder, and that you were involved. They think the killer, Kozaczuk, was sent to your shop to kill you, but this was purely to set Kozaczuk up to be killed, too. That last part's highlighted by the fact that you and Lizzy are on the run together. They don't know how you two know each other, and I must say that's stumped me, too, because until today I'd never heard of you -"

Karl cut in again. “Jesus Christ, until last night I’d never heard of any of these people.” He quickly explained his relationship with Liz: saved her from a guy, took her to his shop, escaped with her when someone came in with a knife, and here we are.

“Mr. Seabury, do you know a Ramon Ramirez?”

Some other player he had never heard of. He said so. How’s this guy involved? Did I kill that guy, too?

“Ramirez was the original suspect for the cottage murders. I don’t have much on him. Apparently the police are not too interested in him following new evidence obtained at your house. Maybe he was in league with Kozaczuk, but they don’t fully know yet. He was arrested but has been released on bail. Mass murder and bail don’t fit snugly together, so my guess is they no longer have interest in this man. Do you know Aleksy Kozaczuk?”

“Oh, very well,” Karl snapped. “He’s been to my house and my shop. Look, I’m not involved in this. I don’t know anyone, I didn’t do anything. All I know is that we’re being chased by three guys and Liz reckons they’re cops.”

He expected the solicitor to shoot him down, but that didn’t happen. Instead the solicitor, without a pause, said,

DCI McIntyre.”

“Yes.”

“McIntyre I know of very well. I’m sure Lizzy told you a lot about him and her husband. The one detail here, Mr. Seabury, that is making me look upon your tale without scorn is the fact that McIntyre led the team that searched your house. He’s the man who found Kozaczuk in your shop.”

“So you believe me? Us?”

“What I believe is not important. What is, though, is what I can do to prove that you and Lizzy are not killers, but victims. But that cannot be achieved while you are both on the run from the police, you understand? You both need to come in. Come to my office and I’ll arrange your surrender to the police under favourable terms. This investigation is still in the early stages and if there’s proof of your innocence, it will come out. I may even have some of the facts wrong. I was given this story after uttering a lot of threats and shouts.”

“But what about McIntyre? What if he’s the guy in charge? What if he gets to us once we surrender?”

“McIntyre is involved, but the man in charge of Operation Back Road, the investigation into the triple murders, is called DCI Chambers from Homicide Command, and I’ve heard that he’s not happy about McIntyre’s search of your house. So we will go to DCI Chambers and tell him your story. If corroborating evidence is out there, it will eventually come to light. But you cannot continue to run. You need to come in.”

Liz was looking at him. He stared back. She said, “It’s the best thing to do, Karl.” She knew what the solicitor was proposing.

"I need to go see my wife," he said to her. Hearing this, the solicitor said, "Mr. Seabury, that's not a good idea. The police will -"

He moved the phone away from his ear and missed the rest.

“That’s not a good idea, Karl,” Liz said. She got up. “We go to the solicitor. He arranges our surrender. That’s the best plan.”

“The best plan was for me to have kicked you out of my van last night. Or for you to have left my shop before I got there this morning.”

“That doesn’t change the state of things right now. I understand your feelings. Your wife is alone. You want to be with her. But it would be a bad move to go home. You agreed with that half an hour ago.”

“That was before we knew…”

He stopped. Her eyes were red, tears on her cheeks. Two minutes ago she had learned that her husband was dead. Yet here she was trying to convince him of the right thing to do. She was putting her own problems aside for him. He was a selfish dick, he realised. Worrying only about how uncomfortable his wife might be feeling at the news she’d heard, while Liz’s husband lay dead somewhere.

Even in grief, her head was on straight. She was dead right. They could not keep running and the process of clearing their names would go smoother if they surrendered, rather than getting nabbed on the street. And there was every chance that he could be nabbed if he tried to go home. They would expect him to try to contact his wife. McIntyre could arrange for his people to stake out the house. He could even plant more men like Kozaczuk around to make sure he was captured before he got to the house. It was not worth the risk.

He brought the phone back up to his ear. The solicitor was halfway through some sentence, but Karl cut him off.

“Can you call my wife and see if she’s okay. Tell her…tell her that I’m fine and I’ll sort this out.” He reeled off the landline number. “Tell her not to worry about me or any of this. Can you do that?”

“Come in , Mr. Seabury. Both of you.”

“We’ll get back to you. Just call her, please. I can pay you.” And he hung up. Liz was staring at him. She’d helped him and now it was his turn to put someone else first. He moved into her arms and held her tight.

*

Dave and Brad were sat at a table in Dave’s garden, watching the water feature near the back fence. They had teas and biscuits brought by Dave’s wife, Lucinda, who was now back in the house.

“Where is he?” Dave moaned.

“He’ll be here.”

Dave got up and started to pace.

“All you do is walk and moan,” Brad said. “You’ll run out of synovial fluid and then you’ll really moan.”

Dave stopped. “What? Look, phone him again.”

Brad had already tried, but Les’s phone was turned off. Les had called earlier and agreed to meet here to discuss…whatever, but nobody had heard from him since. This time the phone rang, so it was turned back on, but it quickly went to voicemail.

“Maybe he ran away,” Dave said. “Maybe for once his brain stopped to think and he’s realised he’s made this situation a lot worse by trying to set up Seabury and the woman. But that’s Les, right. Shoot first, sod the questions. And he literally did shoot first, didn’t he? He’s going off the rails a bit, don’t you think? I mean more so than normal.” Dave said.

That much was true. The man was getting more erratic, and less thorough. Brad put it down to ego. Akin to some undefeated boxer getting sloppy in the ring, Les was taking more and more risks because he believed he was invincible.

“I reckon he’s back on the drugs.”

Brad looked at him. Dave’s face said he was serious and Brad understood, because he’d had the same thoughts. But he said nothing. Dave paced some more.

“Maybe we should get out of this thing,” Dave said. “Ain’t like the money’s vast. Ain’t worth the headaches. When we did this shit for justice or whatever, that was fine. Now we’re just being greedy. Or in Les’s case, personal. Ah, that’s it. I want out. Out.”

“Maybe we should give the man the benefit. You know, as in wait to see how this pans out before we slate him.”

“He reacted badly shooting Grafton. Then had some knee-jerk reaction by sending Król to break into houses. Then again by killing Król when that didn’t work. What’s he going to do if Grafton’s wife ends up telling the cops all about us? Bomb London to shift attention?”

Brad said nothing.

“All that trouble we went to with Ramirez’s car, and now it’s all for nothing because now we’re trying to blame Król and sell some theory about a set-up involving Seabury and Grafton’s wife.”

Brad said nothing.

“You don’t owe him anything, you know?” Dave said. He had stopped pacing and was staring at Brad. Brad gave him a withering look right back and waved a hand, as if he’d been joking. “Let’s get out and open a sandwich shop.” He was grinning, but it was forced.

Brad stood up. “It’s getting late. He isn’t coming. I got the next three days at work, so I don’t want to waste this evening. I’m going home.”

Dave didn’t like that idea. “You can’t. What if he comes here? I don’t like having him around my house, you know that. Why the hell did we agree to meet here? Lucinda doesn’t trust him. He grins at her like he’s undressing her with his eyes. Next time we meet at your flat or his house.”

Brad said, “Just tell him we’ll arrange another meet. He can phone me if he wants to talk about whatever.”

Just then his mobile rang. He checked the screen. “It’s him,” he said as he answered.

Les said, “Who? What you talking about?”

“Nothing. I was telling Dave it was you on the phone.”

“Listen, Brad, I got an update. Hey, sorry I missed our meet. Business stuff. Anyhow, Grafton’s solicitor, that fucker Bartholomew Gold, he’s been snooping around. I just heard. Suddenly he’s enquiring about what happened to his biggest cash cow, and that means he heard somehow about what happened.”

“Chambers released a statement through the press office about the murders,” Brad said. “Everyone will know now. Grafton’s cronies will probably go out in force to find out what happened.”

“Will they fuck,” Les said. “We know he hasn’t got the clout he once had now he’s apparently gone straight. But so what if they do. Let them smack a few heads. Scum hurting scum. No biggie. Do we give a shit? Anyway, what if the solicitor heard about it from Grafton’s wife?”

“You mean she might be planning to come in using him?”

“Exactly. She knows now, and they know they’re in the shit, but they also know they didn’t do it. Grafton’s wife might not trust the police, but Seabury’s got no reason to doubt the great wheels of justice. They come in, they tell their side, and they sit in custody while detectives detect. Then the truth slowly comes out.”

“The truth was always going to come out, Les.”

Les paused. Brad knew he had hit a nerve.

“We needed to keep them on the run, Brad. Did you have a better idea? Run it by me, please.” He sounded annoyed. That was Les for you. You didn’t question his brilliance and get a smile.

“The Król thing was a big step, that’s all I’m saying, Les. It just created more hassle. Risked more. Killing Król and then angering Chambers with that house search. Those were risky moves and you have to admit they didn’t pay off.” He realised he had taken up Dave’s argument.

“Everyone’s a critic. Look, we don’t know yet. But without my plan, Seabury and Grafton’s missus would probably already be back at home, their story told. And we’d be talking by shouting across jail cells.”

“Two years ago Grafton’s nightclub was held up, Les. He blamed us, because we’ve been on his back all this time. Nothing came of it and maybe nothing will come of this.”

“Especially if she hadn’t recognised your voice.”

Brad took the hit. He knew he’d fucked up when he spoke to the woman. “I admit I shouldn’t have let her hear my voice. But that’s by-the-by. What about Chambers? There was no need for you to go toe to toe with him. That’s more hassle.”

“Don’t worry about Chambers. He has nothing.”

“But he’s watching you. And then he’ll start to watch us. He’ll know we hang out soon.”

Dave, who had been listening, piped up: “Could we talk to Chambers in some way? Get him on our side somehow?”

“Tell Dave to kill that idea, Brad. Say, don’t be daft, Dave. One word about any of this and you’ll be on his radar instantly. Say that.”

Brad looked at Dave. “Les says we’ll think about it.” Then to Les: “Maybe we could cut out now and still survive this,” Brad said. “Just stop now and start to try to cover our tracks.”

“No. We can cover our tracks anyway. Hell, that’s what I’ve been doing. But they can’t talk. We can still get to them, shut them up. The solicitor, Gold. He’s based in Bromley. We go watch him, and see if they turn up there.”

“Your plan is to go watch Grafton’s solicitor to see if they turn up there?”

He had said this aloud so Dave could hear, and now both men looked at each other, their eyes saying the same thing: BAD IDEA.

“More people to get hurt?” Brad said to Les. He was aware of Dave pacing again. Troubled again.

“Rancid shit,” Les barked. “Sorry, eating a bullshit hotdog. Look, I’ve got something on. You two hang loose, wait for a call. Do normal stuff for a few hours. Give Dave’s wife one for me.”

He hung up. Brad again looked at Dave, who said, “Just so you know, Brad, we’re not in this shit because Grafton’s missus heard your voice. Grafton knew who we were the moment we got in there. I don’t know why he blames you.”

“Because Les is faultless, Dave. You know that. He planned to kill Grafton all along and needed the man to know who was behind it. Ego So don’t worry about me feeling guilty that she knew my voice. I don’t.”

“Sure, ego. The man has a big ego and a train that’s well and truly left the track. Bad combination. Like nitro and glycerine. And we’re the two bozos standing around playing with it.”

*

Karl soon got tired of driving around aimlessly, so pulled into a McDonald’s car park. He parked at the back, near a Beefeater with a garden that he figured they could escape across if the police suddenly came at them.

“Solicitor.”

They’d been driving for an hour while Karl thought. Right up until the point when he’d started the engine, he had been all go for the surrender plan. Then the doubts had come. He knew that the wheels of justice wouldn’t turn at the speed of light and he’d probably spend time in a police cell. He was worried about not seeing Katie for a week, a month, however long it took to get this mess sorted out. And he didn’t want that. Again it came to him: the very bad idea of going home. He would be caught, but at least he would be able to see Katie, even if only for five minutes. Long enough to hold her, talk to her.

“Solicitor,” Liz said again.

Half an hour ago she had realised that he was stalling. Since then she had humoured his concerns and allowed him to aimlessly drive, punctuating the silence periodically with that one word, as if to make sure his mind kept itself anchored in reality.

“Just give me a minute to think,” he said.

“We’ve done all the thinking, Karl. Thinking time is over. I know what you’re worried about. They’ll let your wife visit.”

There she went again, reading his mind. He stared out at the garden. There was a concrete plot for benches and people sat there. Planning sex or holidays, not jail time. He was jealous.

She slapped his arm. “Enough, Karl. Are we doing this, or do you want to do what you wouldn’t last night and drop me at the nearest police station. I’m doing the right thing.”

Of course, she wanted the solicitor, not a police station, but he got her point. Their roles had, ironically, been reversed. Now she wanted to go to the cops and he wanted to stay hidden.

“I was just lapping up the last few moments of freedom,” he said light-heartedly.

“It won’t be the last. Mr. Gold is a good man. These bastards will come unstuck, you just watch. He’ll get the truth out there.”

He took a deep breath. Felt like a man about to attempt a dangerous stunt. Started the engine again. She slapped his arm.

“In there first,” she said, pointing at the drive-thru. “I want food first.”

“In case the cops starve us while we’re being waterboarded, you mean?”

She laughed and that lightened his mood. What was he thinking with all this paranoia? “Okay, Big Mac and fries times two, then we see your solicitor.”

“Deal” she said. They shook hands. He studied her smile and saw it was a mask. For his benefit, probably. That brought the guilt back. Her husband was dead and she was showing a brave face just to keep him at ease. He felt like a bastard.

She handed him a bunch of coins she had found earlier in the door pocket. He took them and guided the Passat towards the drive-thru.

They stopped at the order point. “We have enough for a single burger each.”

“With cheese?”

She checked the menu board, then recounted the coins in her hand. “One.”

“You like cheese?”

“Oh yes.”

“Shit. Okay, you have it.”

They ordered, then Karl guided the Passat around the corner, to Window 1. He slammed on the brakes hard. There was a car at the window and three others in front of it.

The car in front of them was a police patrol car.

“Jesus, you and your stomach,” Karl moaned, sinking low in his seat.

“Relax. He’s getting a burger.”

“With cheese, probably. Needs a full stomach for arresting us.”

“Relax. He can’t see our faces that well through the glass. And he’s hardly going to recognise us anyway.”

The car contained a single officer in a fluorescent yellow jacket. He paid and moved forward six feet. Karl didn’t move to the window.

“Sitting here will just get his attention.”

Karl didn’t move. The way behind was clear. He was thinking about backing up.

The cop looked at them in his rear-view. Karl decided enough was enough. He put the car in reverse and was about to back the hell out of there when a car pulled in behind them.

“Shit.”

“Calm down.”

But the cop was checking out his wing mirror, staring at the car. Karl rubbed his face to hide it, but was aware that the gesture probably looked suspicious.

“They’ll have pictures. This guy recognises us, Liz.”

“Calm down. No he doesn’t. Cops look at everyone that way.”

“All the fugitives, maybe.”

A gap opened between the cop car and the car in front of it. The cop flicked his eyes away and saw he was meant to drive forward. Didn’t move. Didn’t look at the mirror again. For a moment Karl thought they might be safe, but then he saw movement as the cop unlatched his seatbelt. Then the door banged open.

“Run when I’ve gone,” Karl said, then threw his own door open.

The cop had gotten out and started towards the Passat, acting all innocent with his head down. But when he saw Karl climb out of the car, he started to run. Karl forced the door wide, slamming it into the brickwork of the McDonald’s. The cop’s route was now blocked, but he reached over the door and grabbed Karl’s shirt at the shoulder.

“Got you, you bastard,” he snarled.

Karl grabbed the guy’s wrist and bent his knees, dragging the guy’s arm down, forcing his own weight against the door to keep it open. The cop moaned as his armpit was forced hard into the top of the door. He was stuck. Behind him, a teenaged face in a cap leaned out of the payment window, dripping with shock.

“Go,” Karl shouted at Liz. She was frozen in the seat, watching the action. But his words got her moving. She threw open her door and ran.

“Get the hell off my arm,” the cop yelled. “Someone grab this guy, he’s a killer.”

Karl actually laughed. Shouting the word killer, the cop had guaranteed that nobody was going to come to his aid. The mirth was short-lived as reality sank in: the police now fully believed that Karl was a vicious criminal and were out in force to apprehend him, his face burned into their minds.

He held on, pulling the arm, holding the door with his weight. He did not see where Liz went, but he waited at least ten seconds, long enough for her to get away, and then he released his grip and bolted.

He ran past the car, past the car behind, and away. The cop slammed the Passat’s door and ran after him, shouting into his radio. Karl swerved to avoid a car entering the drive-thru, scampered up a low grass bank, and darted across a road. He could hear thudding feet behind him, but he wasn’t worried. The cop was wearing heavier clothing and still yammering into his radio, while Karl was swinging both arms to aid his momentum. He knew he was going to escape. His worry was Liz and how he was going to find her afterwards.

*

Bart Chambers tossed the file on the coffee table and took a sip of vodka. It was an eight year-old bottle that was half-full, which he only ever drank from when he’d solved a big case. There was nobody arrested yet, certainly not convicted, and he wasn’t drinking to celebrate anyway. He was drinking because this was momentous. Four people were dead, two were missing, and Chambers now firmly believed a senior Metropolitan Police detective was thick in the middle of it all.

There was nothing to take to court, but in the court of Chambers’ mind, DCI Lesley McIntyre was a guilty man. Three years ago Lesley McIntyre had begun a vendetta against Grafton, yet nobody had thought McIntyre’s new and obsessive interest in Ronald Grafton was anything but dogged detective determination. But the truth was vastly different, and the clues were right there in the file, clues that had been overlooked. Three years ago McIntyre’s arrest record had taken on a new and bizarre format, and for sure this was tied to the event in question. Taken together, both pointed towards McIntyre as a very bad man who needed to be in jail. And that was right where Chambers was going to send him.

McIntyre had had good prospects early on. He had moved from Cumbria to London as a teenager with the prime desire to join the Metropolitan Police. By twenty he was in. He had then moved to Kensington, his desire now to be allocated a station in that borough, and again he had succeeded. His arrest rates were average for the first few years, although he became known as a man good at getting informants. The criminals seemed to trust him. By thirty-three he was a DCI, a rank that even Chambers had taken eighteen years to achieve. By then he had married a local girl and had a child. The only blemishes on the man’s file were counts of insubordination, numerous ones. He had defied orders, but his transgressions had mostly been inert, so he had never raised hackles enough to get demoted, although he had never been considered for promotion. Then again, Chambers had never been in the running for a Superintendent role, either, and he had toed the line throughout his whole career. The higher up the ladder you climbed, the thinner that ladder got. In the upper echelons, there just wasn’t much room.

Ironically, though, it had been one of those transgressions that had boosted McIntyre from Inspector to Chief Inspector. He had been involved in a chase, pursuing a guy on a bike who had just attacked a man in a bingo club. McIntyre had ignored orders to abort once it had been deemed dangerous to continue the pursuit. He had followed the biker for six miles, until the suspect had leaped off his bike at a house in Notting Hill and rushed inside. McIntyre had kicked in the door and rushed upstairs. He had found the suspect in the process of trying to kill a woman. Turned out the woman and the suspect had been married and the biker had found out she’d been seeing someone else. He had left work, gone to the bingo club to kill her lover (he had later died of his stabbing injuries), and then rushed home to kill his wife, too. A breech or orders, for sure, but McIntyre’s actions had saved the woman’s life. The story had hit the papers and McIntyre had been a star for a few days, loved by a public that adored those gung-ho cops from TV shows, who flaunted the rules and saved the day. The brass had had no choice but to commend McIntyre for his bravery, and since he was still in the spotlight when he came up for promotion review, the brass felt their hands were tied. Hero Cop Refused Promotion was not a headline the MPS wanted to see on the front page. Or maybe they’d seen the light, realising that sometimes their officers needed forgo protocol and follow their hunches. Doubtful given that the brass were more politicians than police these days. But who knew how the brains worked in the upper echelons?

Since that time, McIntyre had been nothing special. He had not stood out against any other man of his rank. Just another DCI in a sea of them. Until that day three years ago.

Chambers put down his glass when he heard the doorbell. He was a cautious man and at any other time the following events would never have happened. Chambers would have called through the door, demanded to know who was out there. He had had criminals turn up on his doorstep before, seeking revenge, and the families of victims, demanding information on this or that investigation. But he was awaiting a pizza delivery and he now strode to the door with his wallet, fully expecting to meet a man with a box of food. He did not call through the door and he did not use the peephole. He flicked the latch and pulled open the door.

It was open no more than six inches when a gloved fist burst through, right into his nose, a scene right out of a cartoon. He staggered back as the door was kicked open. He saw a man in black, wearing a balaclava, and then two more seemed to emerge from him, like a ghoul splitting into three. One held a short club, like a rounders bat. It swung. Chambers put up a hand to deflect the blow. It caught his hand, continued on its arc, and crushed his wrist hard into his temple.

He thought he’d blacked out for just a fraction of a second, his brain skipping like a record. But he quickly realised he’d been out for a while, because he was naked, tied firmly to the rocking chair in his shed, where he liked to carve animals from wood with a penknife while listening to audio books. All he had in there was a small table containing his knife and portions of tree branches, a CD player for the audio books and that rocking chair.

The three men in black clothing were in front of him, between him and the door. They wore masks. They stood casually, as if they had dragged him here and then adopted their threatening stance to await his awakening, wanting him to see them arranged before him. Chambers’ gaze was drawn to the face of the guy on his left, whose single eyehole had a loose thread that dangled along his nose. The guy in the middle, who was taller than the others, said,

“Albert Conrad finally got his revenge on you, then.”

Albert Conrad flashed into Chambers’ still-orienting brain. Conrad was a convicted rapist. He had attacked three women at Danson Park over a period of four weeks. Chambers had caught the guy through DNA left on the final victim. Easy. A slam dunk case, the kind that kept away sleepless nights and stress-related rashes and alcoholism. From the courtroom Conrad had sworn he would kill Chambers. But Conrad had gone down for a long stretch eight years ago, regretting nothing except that the media had not given him a fear-inspiring nickname. And he had been a pathetic man with few brain cells and fewer friends, certainly not the kind of man anyone would think could muster three guys to avenge him eight years later. All of a sudden it fell into place in Chambers’ brain.

“So you’re going to set Conrad up like the others, McIntyre?”

The two shorter men glanced at the much taller third, and that was the giveaway. That sealed it even before the taller one stripped off his hood with a grin.

“Good detective work, detective,” Les said. He held up Chambers’ own penknife. “Guess I got here at just the right time. Before you went tattling on me.”

Chamber thought quickly. “So you think everything I know is all in my head? Not a word written down, not a single thing recorded? Nobody told?”

McIntyre laughed. “I think you’re like me. A theory that falls apart doesn’t make a leading officer look good. So it cooks in the mind until it’s ready. It stays there until it’s set like concrete. So yes, Chambers, I think you wrote nothing down, recorded no theories on that digital recorder of yours, and certainly told none of your lackeys. Nice try.”

Chambers hadn’t expected the lie to be believed, but had had to try. His brain was fully awake and back on track now, and that meant he was very aware of the danger he was in. He was scared. But he would not be meek.

“If you think you’ll get away with this by shutting me up, that’s going to be yet another bad mistake from you. And from your friends here, David English and Bradley Smithfield.”

It was well-known that McIntyre hung around with a pair of detectives from other boroughs, but there had been no indication that McIntyre had involved them in his dodgy dealings. Yet here he stood with two obviously close friends. The two men seemed to grin under their hoods, which confirmed it in Chambers’ mind. And set his fear rising: English and Smithfield obviously were not fazed by the fact that he knew who they were.

“Seems our friend is as smart as he looks. But does he know everything? Why don’t you enlighten us all, detective. Let’s see if you deserve those three pips on your shoulder.”

Chambers knew that claimed innocence would not save him here.

“Three years ago, that’s when your team started setting people up,” he said, holding McIntyre’s stare. “Before then, you were good at arresting people pretty quickly for small crimes. Good at long investigations that also resulted in arrests. Then it all changed. Open-and-shut cases dragged on and got nowhere. I think you were keeping evidence back. All three of you. You were killing investigations by getting rid of evidence. Criminals who should have gone to jail were suddenly in your debt. People like Aleksy Kozaczuk.”

Les nodded like a man impressed. “That one sounds pretty set in concrete.”

“The high number of failed open-and-shut cases would have made you seem incompetent, except you were suddenly solving other cases that you sometimes weren’t even part of. Bigger cases that had the top guys stumped. You were using stolen evidence to set up other people, criminals we couldn’t normally touch. To boost your arrest record. People who seemingly had no connection at all to some crime, suddenly they were bang to rights because of the magical appearance of some clue you found. Like Ramon Ramirez. You stole his car months ago, didn’t you? Kept it hidden, knowing one day you could blackmail him or just frame him.”

McIntyre clapped. “Cooked to perfection and ready to serve.”

Chambers felt his heart lurch. There it was, the admission. Chambers hadn’t known for damned certain. But now he was damned certain. He had to lick his dry lips before he could speak again.

“So you killed Ronald Grafton. All three of you. By the way, we got the ID on the other two you cut down at that cottage. They weren’t scumbags, as you might have hoped. Grafton’s cousin and his girlfriend. David Lever, just some local businessman, nothing illegal. The girlfriend, Tina Sinclair, organised charity sports days for schools. You killed two innocent people.”

The two men bookending McIntyre seemed shocked by this. Chambers caught the widening of their eyes. But in Les’s face there was no change, as if he had known who his victims were all along.

“Well done, Chambers. Well fucking done. You got it. I set Ramirez up by putting his car at that crime scene. But lucky for me I stole a few things from the cottage, just in case I needed a back-up plan. I set Karl Seabury up by using a simple credit card. And I set up Grafton’s wife and Aleksy using her mobile and a pay-as-you-go one that cost me a tenner. I did it all, I planned it all, and I thought the plan was faultless, so props to you for working it out. But since I’m going to kill you, I win anyway, so all you did with your snooping was get killed. And that makes you pretty stupid, really. Hell, you were stupid even for thinking you were smatter than me.”

Chambers took a deep breath. He knew what he was going to say next might anger McIntyre. “I know what happened three years ago, McIntyre. I know what changed you overnight from a decent cop into a goddamned psycho.”

The face changed, as expected. Chambers stiffened, expecting some kind of physical blow. But before anything could happen, the silence was wrought by the ringing of a phone.

Les reached down and picked up Chambers’ trousers from the wooden floor. Tossed them aside a moment later and was left holding a mobile phone. Still ringing.

“Davidson. Not a friend, judging by the surname phone book entry,” Les said. The phone stopped ringing. Les continued to stare at it. A few moments later, it beeped as a text message came through. McIntyre read it aloud.

“Karl Seabury arrested. He at Stoke Newington.”

Chambers couldn’t help grinning. “I never worked out what you had against Karl Seabury, but the guy must know something you don’t want him sharing. And now he’s about to share, so I guess that means you’re fucked, McIntyre.”

*

Karl had once seen a video of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, being escorted to court under some copper’s coat to protect his identity, and he expected that to happen to him as he was taken from the police car to the station in Stoke Newington. Baying crowds outside with banners and placards calling for him to be hanged, rocking the vehicle as it pulled up, spitting and cursing. But nothing of the sort happened. The single officer grabbed the cuffs that bound his hands behind his back and slowly led him inside the station, and there was nobody outside except a few others cops and some civilians doing nothing, maybe waiting for a friend to be released. Inside, he was taken to a desk behind which sat the custody sergeant, and that guy didn’t perk up at the fact that he had the infamous Karl Seabury before him. He was asked if he had anything sharp in his pockets, had them searched, and then stood by the desk as the custody sergeant filled in a form and the arresting officer told his tale. Karl was told he was being arrested on suspicion of murder, then photographed, fingerprinted and taken to a cell, where he was told to remove his shoes before stepping inside (“You worried I’ll walk dog shit on your nice cell floor?”). Everything they did they did as if bored to death of it – the endless chore of trying to rid the world of badness, or maybe just all the triplicate paperwork. Murderer or bag snatcher, they were all treated the same, it seemed.

The uniformed officer who escorted him into his cell turned to leave. Karl said, “What happens now? I need a solicitor. I know one.” Then he realised he couldn’t remember the guy’s name.

“What happens is you’ll wait here until someone comes for you. You’re Homicide Command’s boy. They’re sending people for you. Get used to a room like this for the next fifty years.”

He left, slamming the door with a loud clang. Karl saw the guy look through the service hatch, as if he believed the prisoner could have gotten up to mischief within half a second.

Once the cop had decided the prisoner wasn’t going to kill himself and had left, Karl sat on the solid bunk and thought. Homicide Command. The solicitor had mentioned Homicide Command. That meant Chambers, the detective in charge of the case. A guy who didn’t like McIntyre. This could be good news. Chambers would listen to Karl’s story and believe it. So things weren’t as bad as he’d assumed.

He leaned back against the wall, tried to ignore some drunken lout singing next door, and attempted to relax.

*

McIntyre knelt in front of Chambers, his face serious.

“Listen carefully, Bart. Very carefully. Even if the SAS try to kick in this door right now, I’ll kill you. Understand that you’re not walking out of here. You’re going in a bag. That you cannot change. But what you can change is what happens to your son tonight. If you don’t do what I want, I will send a man to Edinburgh to kill your son. I will keep you alive long enough to get your son’s head back here by second class post, if need be, just so you can see the final terrified and pained look on his face. Understand? One word out of place, and you will have killed your son. Do this right, and I promise he’ll never be touched. There’ll be no need. This is not revenge between me and you. This is just so I don’t get caught.”

Chambers knew it was true. He was scared and still thinking of a way out of this. He said, “You don’t need to kill me, McIntyre. There must be another way.” He knew it would do no good to claim he’d never breathe a word against the man if he was freed.

McIntyre held up Chambers’ phone. “Your team will want to interview anyone held in connection with the investigation into my handiwork at Grafton’s cottage. The cops who have Seabury will contact your team, and your guys will want to send men to interview him. I know this is the way it’s done. As officer in charge and a man with a big ego, I’d insist on being the one who interviews him. You also have a big ego. This is why your phone just rang. So you will ring your team right now, and this is what you’re going to say…”

Chamber baulked at Les’s order, but there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t risk something happening to his son.

Les redialled the last caller and put the phone to Chambers’ ear. “One wrong word, Chambers, one fucking Spanish phrase, anything that I think could be a distress code, and I’ll need to buy stamps, understand?”

Chambers nodded. The phone was answered.

Afterwards, Les ended the call and put the phone in his pocket. He stood up, stared down at the naked detective. With a grin.

Chambers had to lick his lips again. And swallow spit to ease his dry throat. “So, what now? You kill me with my own knife and somehow plant it on Albert Conrad? In prison?”

“No need,” Les said. “Nobody will ever find your body.”

*

He’d been in the cell for over an hour when the same cop who’d delivered him came back. Wordlessly, the guy cuffed his hands behind his back and took him to an interview room and left him there. He watched the clock, which was a mistake because that made it crawl. And sometimes stop. Then he heard movement outside. Then the door opened. The same cop was back. He stood in the doorway.

“Here you go, sir,” the cop said to someone behind him. Then he moved out of the way. Karl sat up, then stiffened as Lesley McIntyre walked in. He was wearing jeans and a green wax jacket and a grin. Karl felt bile rise into his throat.

“Mr Seabury, my name is DCI McIntyre. You were probably told to expect a DCI Chambers, but he’s unable to make it and has attached me to the investigation to oversee in his absence.” He turned to the cop beside him. “Thank you. I’ll call you in a few minutes.”

The cop left and shut the door. Les grinned at Karl.

“I’m here to ask you a few questions about your movements over the last two days, Mr. Seabury,” he said loudly, probably for the camera high in a corner of the room.”

Les looked at the camera, then approached and bent over the table, slowly placing a pen and some paper down. Their heads were just a foot apart. Karl was aware that the back of Les’s head was towards the camera when he did this.

“I hate all that fucking cop-speak,” he whispered. “Makes me sound like a robot.” He sat down, still keeping the back of his head to the camera. Still whispering, he said, “Told you you were in the shit, Karl. Four murders. You bad boy, you. That’s gotta be a full-life term, mate. Not one of those 30-year recommended larks where you can dream of parole. We’re talking about you dying in prison. You’ve probably already seen your last moments outdoors. Sex for you now is going to involve being the receiver quite a lot.”

Karl stayed silent. He didn’t want to antagonise this man. The less he spoke, the more Les would speak, and maybe give away his hand.

Les started to unwrap two cassette tapes that had been sitting next to a cassette machine on the table.

“We’ll be digital soon,” Les said loudly as he slotted the cassettes into the machine. “We still like tapes, though. Easy to pause, and a suspect can watch them being sealed. But they chew up easily.” He took one of the tapes out and held it up, started to fiddle with it as if it were faulty. He stood and moved to the side and held the tape up to the light, looking at it. Karl realised Les was blocking the camera’s view of him.

His voice was low again. “Give her up, Karl, and this all goes away. I’ll make sure you don’t go to prison. Soon as she’s dead, I wave my magic wand and someone else goes down for the killings. Why don’t you give just me a location, right now? One short sentence to avoid one nasty long one?”

“Why are you doing this?”

Loud: “Damned tape’s faulty. Look at this cheap thing.” Quiet: “Where is she, Karl? Don’t fuck about. Think of your wife all alone, until she finds another man to slip it into her.”

“I don’t know where she is. You set me up. I’ve done nothing.” He stood so the camera could see him. Stared at it and repeated, “This guy’s setting me up.”

Les laughed. He gave a thumbs-up to the camera. Told Karl he’d be back soon, sit tight.

He left. Karl sat down. Ten minutes later the uniformed officer walked in. Told Karl to follow him.

“I haven’t done anything. That detective, McIntyre, is setting me up.”

“This way,” the guy said.

They walked along a corridor, then took a set of stairs down. Despite the handcuffs holding his hands behind his back, Karl wanted to make a break for it. When they exited one of the doors at the bottom and emerged into an underground car park, Karl braced himself for a burst of energy. But, as if sensing this, the officer took his arm. He was led to a car and put in the back behind the driver’s seat. The officer sat beside him. Les was in the driver’s seat, doing something on his mobile phone. Karl wondered what was going on.

As if reading his mind, Les said, “You’re going to show me where on the wasteground you dumped the murder weapon, right? As promised?” He started the car.

“I don’t have a weapon,” Karl said. He looked at the rear-view mirror, and saw that Les was staring back at him in the glass. “I don’t know anything about a weapon. This is bullshit.” He turned to the uniformed officer. “This guy is lying. He’s setting me up.”

“Now, Mr. Seabury, don’t play games,” Les said. “Don’t make us bring you all this way out of the station on a wild goose chase.”

Karl looked at the cop beside him, but the guy’s face was a bland stone sculpture.

“He’s lying, officer. He’s going to take me somewhere and hurt me. You have to stop this. Take me back inside. I don’t know where any weapon is.”

“We’ll go to the wasteground and maybe that will jog your memory,” Les said.

“Please. This is a lie. There’s no weapon. Take me back inside. Call Chambers.”

The cop ignored him. Karl realised his ploy must be something the police had heard many times before. But even if the cop suddenly decided to believe him, what could he do? Order his superior to stop all this? It was not that guy’s place to question.

They drove out onto the street and were away. Karl remained silent, knowing that he was hurting himself each time he spoke. But he did ask where they were going.

“Back to your shop, Mr. Seabury,” Les said. “Show me where you threw the weapon in the wasteground, and it will help your defence.”

Karl lowered his head. They drove on. They took some turns, then headed north along Lordship Road, which ran between the butterfly wings of the East and West Reservoirs and soon became Woodberry Grove. Ahead was Seven Sisters Road cutting across their path. It was at that point that Karl realised they were headed the wrong way. Old Ford – if they were going to his shop – was to the southeast of the police station, but Seven Sisters Road was up north.

“This is the wrong way,” Karl said. He looked at the cop, hoping the guy would realise something was wrong.

Before he could, Les said, “We’re going past your house first, Mr. Seabury. In case there’s anything there that you might wish to show us. Easiest way is west along Seven Sisters.”

They passed a row of high rises on the left and were stopped by a red light at the junction. Karl looked at his door and wondered if he had the speed to open it and get out before the cop grabbed him. But with his hands behind his back, how would he work the door handle, or even get his seatbelt off? With his teeth?

The cars passing by in both directions along Seven Sisters Road stopped as the lights went red. The car ahead of the patrol vehicle moved off. Les followed. They hit the junction and moved across it.

Karl waited for a left turn that didn’t come. He realised they were heading across the junction, not turning onto Seven Sisters Road. He was about to complain when -

“Jesus, hold on,” Les shouted. The cop next to him cursed and stiffened. Karl had a moment of pause, of concern, of surprise and wonder, and then the van hit them.

It was riding the left lane, which was free because of the red light, but it was moving east, the wrong way. It powered into the junction and struck the patrol car like an anvil. Karl heard the a tyre pop even over the screech of rending metal and shattering glass. His seatbelt seemed to snap and shrink and crush him in a nanosecond as the car was shunted to the right as if fired from a slingshot.

The car came to a stop and everything went still and quiet, except for the uniformed officer. The impact had crunched his door inwards, right into him, and he was screaming, and bleeding. Karl had a moment of pause, of concern, of surprise and wonder, and then his own door was yanked open. For a flash moment he expected to see Liz there, just as he had yesterday when all this started. Hands reached in. His seatbelt was unclasped, and then he was being hauled out. Paramedics? he thought, then realised his error. Two men had hold of him, but they wore black and balaclavas covered their heads. Their grip was not the soft touch of people with tenderness and care on their agenda.

He was carried to the van, whose sliding side door was open. He saw no windows on the sides or back, so the doorway was a black hole that came at him like a hungry mouth. He could hear other cars around him, screeching to a halt, horns blaring, people yelling. The patrol car’s alarm was wailing. He could hear Les shouting, probably into a radio, calling in the traffic accident. The man was screaming in shock and Karl had a strange moment when he hoped that what he thought was shock was actually mortal pain. But all sounds were dulled, as if taking place underwater. It all seemed surreal.

Then the sounds and all the light died as he was tossed inside the van and the door was slammed shut. By then his rocked brain had recovered enough to throw him a simple detail. This had not been some random traffic accident.

He was being broken out of custody.

*

Brad was getting sick of Dave’s pacing.

The man was right in his view, blocking the river. They were in Shad Thames in Bermondsey, behind one of the few abandoned warehouses that hadn’t been converted into luxury flats. They had been here for half an hour now, awaiting Les. And as usual Dave was in pessimist mode.

“We don’t hear from the guy for hours, and now we’re waiting again. Where the hell is he?”

Brad checked his watch. “He’s only twenty minutes late. That means nothing in London.”

“For a bleeding dinner date, maybe. This is a bit more important.”

He paced some more, back and forth across Brad’s vision. This part of the Thames wasn’t exactly postcard material, but the view was helping Brad to relax. “Just stop wearing a hole in the ground, Dave. Sit the fuck down.”

A recessed loading dock had had a conversion of its own. Two threadbare deckchairs sat alongside a coffee table balancing on three legs and a pair of sleeping bags were by one wall. There were discarded syringes and empty plastic 2 litre white cider bottles everywhere: some dosser’s palace. Dave continued to pace right at the edge of the dock, and Brad hoped he’d misstep and plummet six feet to the trash-littered yard below.

“Don’t you care the least why he’s been running around without us?”

Brad shook his head. “The man’s a lone wolf. But he got to Seabury eventually, didn’t he? He’s working on getting us out of this mess.”

“A mess he put us in. He shouldn’t have killed those other two. The police wouldn’t have given a toss about Grafton if it was just him. But he went off on one of his rampages, and now look?”

“Stand fucking still, will you? I’m getting a headache. When we get Grafton’s missus, all this shit will go away. Right?”

“If we ever do. And what about that Król guy? Why’d he kill that guy? What was his plan with trying to set up Seabury and the woman for murder? That was just going to put the cop on them and there was a risk we’d never get to them.”

Points Dave had been repeating endlessly, but ones Brad had to agree with. It had been a bad idea putting the spotlight on Seabury and the woman. Obviously Les had decided that their capture would come about more quickly with an entire police service after them, but that had created the problem of getting to them before they talked. The end result had been successful, of course, because Les had found which station Seabury had been taken to. But it still showed that Les was throwing caution to the wind. This time his reckless ways had paid off, but what about next time?

“And that DCI from Homicide Command who’s looking into him?” Dave said. “It was a bad idea irking him. Now that guy’s missing.”

Brad sat up. “What do you mean?”

Dave stopped pacing, stood with his back to the river, feet on the edge of the dock. He looked a little embarrassed, like a kid caught up to no good. “Well…the guy…no one knows where he is. Main guy posing a problem for Les – missing. That not ring any alarm bells?”

Alarm bells indeed were ringing loudly, but not because Chambers was missing. “How the fuck do you know that? Dave?”

“The guy’s people tried to contact him, but he wasn’t at home, wasn’t answering their calls. They say that’s not like him. And we know that guy’s now on Les’s shitlist.”

Brad stood up. “Dave, how the fuck do you know this?”

Dave paced but stayed silent. Brad reached down for an ancient half-eaten burger as solid as a rock and tossed it at him. It missed by a mile but got his attention.

“How do you know all this about Chambers?”

“I contacted the guy, okay?” Dave said. He put up his hands when Brad started to moan. “Hey, calm down, it’s not what you think. I rang his office and asked to speak to him. I just wanted to know where he was at with the Grafton investigation. I just wanted to find out what they knew, Brad. So we’d know. Offered my help. Said I knew who Grafton was and wanted to help. Thought I could misdirect them a little.”

“Help how? What were you thinking? You contact Chambers and he’ll want to know why you’re so interested. Then he checks you out, and gets to me, and then he finds out we know Les, and who knows from there. That was a bad idea, Dave.”

“Hey, calm down. I never even spoke to the guy. I called once and someone said Chambers wasn’t there. Look, cops call other cops about their investigations all the time. You think that’s going to make him suspicious?”

Brad eyed him suspiciously. “You sure it wasn’t something else?”

Dave’s face got instantly angry, and Brad decided the penny had dropped in Dave’s head too quickly. “What are you implying, Brad?” he snapped.

Brad shook his head. But what he was thinking was that Dave was entering survival mode. Beginning to look out for just himself, rather than their team. Had Dave planned to contact Chambers in order to give Les up? That made no sense, since he’d be sinking himself. Unless he thought he could get some kind of immunity. Then he cast aside that thought. There was no evidence that Dave was planning to betray Les. On the contrary, given what they’d just done.

Just then Dave let out a yell and tumbled from the edge of the dock. In his place, Les climbed up, laughing. He had pulled Dave down for a joke, Brad realised.

“So you guys made it,” Les said, helping haul Dave back up onto the dock. “You got something sweet to show me?”

Dave was moaning about Les’s prank. Both men ignored him as Brad pushed open a door at the back of the loading dock. He stepped aside and Les entered, followed by his cohorts.

They were in an empty warehouse with whitewashed windows and gaping holes in the corrugated iron roof , where a billion noisy pigeons crowded along the shit-covered rafters. Empty apart from a scattering of wooden crates and vast amounts of trash and the remains of what had once been components from fairground rides.

“You get away okay?” Brad asked Les as they walked across the concrete, careful to avoid the fresher areas of pigeon shit coating the ground. Dave shut the door and followed.

Les nodded. “Said I just wanted to go home. Promised to go by the hospital on the way. Damned fuckers let me, too. Could have had concussion or internal bleeding for all they knew.”

“Other guy okay?”

“Don’t give a shit.”

Both men stopped in front of a man sitting in a wooden chair with his hands cuffed behind his back and the cuffs tied to the backrest.

“Bet you foolishly thought you’d been rescued by some guardian angel,” Les said to Karl.

*

Like a lot of Mr. Bigs out there, Ronald Grafton had had small beginnings. He hadn’t trodden the path claimed by so many lawbreakers, that of poverty or a broken home that forced him to drag himself up with his fists, living hand-to-mouth and turning to crime because he had no other option. He had simply been some guy who realised that crime paid. He began his new vocation by selling dope, and that led to a number of fights against other teenagers who tried to rip him off. One day he beat the hell out of some guy who turned out to be a Mr. Big’s brother, but rather than exact revenge, the crime lord gave Grafton a job as a doormen at one of his clubs. Grafton patrolled the floor and sold drugs and tossed out other dealers who tried to sell on the premises. He was strict and violent and soon he got a name as someone to avoid crossing. He was only twenty when he’d made enough money to buy his first car, a black BMW that he felt looked mean and would attract the girls. One such was Elizabeth Parker, a local receptionist who was at the club on a friend’s hen night. They married a year later.

“This should have calmed the guy, right?” Les said. “Should have made him decide to toe the straight and narrow for the love of his woman? Nah. The bastard got himself some lackeys and kept his nose clean while they did the dangerous stuff. He bought a house with a sweet shop on the ground floor. Donned a fucking apron and started selling Bon Bons to local kids. He became the nice guy on the corner, who’d load up a ten pence mix and let kids have chocolate on tick. Meanwhile, he had savages infesting the streets, robbing homes and selling heroin. He sent his white boys out onto the streets of Wembley to kick black ass, and Bangladeshi ass in Tower Hamlets. He started taking control of drugs patches through gang wars. These bastards like that word. War. Makes them think they’re a real army. Grafton thought of himself as some kind of general.”

He became involved in extortion and drug trafficking. He ran prostitutes. He ran a protection racket in various boroughs. Numerous law enforcement agencies were interested in him, but he was never charged with a crime. Over the years there were dozens of crimes that he should have gone down for, but there always seemed to be some lowlife who suddenly turned up out of the blue to put himself in the frame, like a good little acolyte. He paid for the loyalty of these martyrs using a drug slush fund he called the Loyalty Box. This way, he was careful not to move too close to the centre of anyone’s radar, while his empire grew. He never made the millions that some criminals garnered, but it was estimated that he was worth at least six million pounds by the time he purchased the nightclub where he’d once worked as a doorman – a lifelong dream. After that, things changed. The sweet shop got sold. His drugs zones got sold. His prostitutes and enforcers and burglars got passed on to others for a price. Grafton had his club and a steady wage and he was happy. He started to help charities for his cousin’s girlfriend. He started to attend swanky dinners and get on first-name terms with local politicians and businessmen. He went to the theatre. And he filled his nightclub with respectable people, not criminals. The police soon lost interest because other faces were setting off alarm bells – mentally and literally. Grafton had gotten out of the fire. He was no longer a criminal.

“But there was a guy working his nightclub, a bouncer with tattoos all over his hands and neck and who wore a dodgy wig, like something on a Lego figure. Known as Rapid, because he could go from sweet to angry in a flash. This guy was reported to sell drugs, but despite complaints to him, Grafton did nothing. Then one day Rapid decides to play a joke. There’s a bunch of college students out celebrating. They’re in a corner booth in the nightclub, laughing and drinking. One of them’s a handsome kid with blonde hair, the sort the girls love. His name is Joseph to the girls. The guys on his basketball team call him Joe. Everyone likes him. It’s his birthday, and he’s the star. One of his friends decides to give him a treat, so the friend goes up to Rapid and ask for some drugs. Something that’ll blow his mind, give him a night to remember. Rapid hands him a packet of something. Rapid watches Joseph take it. He watches Joseph laugh and joke and dance and fall around. Soon Joseph can’t walk and he’s throwing up. One of his friends calls the mother, and she comes right into the club to take him home. And that should be it. Next morning, a headache, and maybe a desire never to do drugs again. But that isn’t going to be it, and Rapid knows it. He knows exactly what he’s given the kid. One of his special concoctions, saved just for teaching people a lesson. The next morning Rapid’s gone. Grafton shows the police some paperwork, proving that Rapid was not on the books. Other staff join in and say that Rapid was like some freelancer, and the boss never knew about him. Came in pretending to be a doormen and never fucking officially worked there. In and out, like the Scarlett Pimpernel. The police believe Grafton and the others and are left holding their tails. Rapid’s gone, never seen again, like he never existed. Grafton employs a local security firm to work the doors, vowing never to let the darkness of drugs invade his respectable club ever again. What a man.”

And why all the police interest? The drug taken by the young student, Joseph, had been a combination of Fluoxymesterone and imipramine, which Rapid called Buzz. The former ingredient is an anabolic steroid, the latter an antidepressant. Together they can cause a serious paranoid reaction. Joseph’s came while his mother was driving him home. He exploded like a firework and caused the car to hit a wall at sixty miles per hour.

“I lost them both that night, to a man who since disappeared. I had nine months away from work, but when I came back, I looked into Grafton. I spent most of the time off locked in my house, so what I expected to find was something other than what had happened. Nothing. Nine months after my wife and son were killed, Grafton wasn’t in jail, and he wasn’t under surveillance. The guy had made a stand against drugs and wiped them out of his club, and was doing a good job of trying to keep them out of the community. I saw his face on a shop poster one time, pointing right out at kids like that Uncle Sam guy the Americans used to recruit soldiers. I mean, this was my local shop. Grafton and me, both Kensington. His main house is barely a mile from my fucking crap flat. The poster was a Say No To Drugs thing. Some anti-drugs seminar he was hosting, the fucking cunt. I thought it hypocritical, but the police no longer did. It was like when the some giant corporation hires a computer hacker to do their Internet security. Here was a former drug dealer who was now trying to wipe drugs out of the community, and they didn’t see the irony. They just saw the best type of guy to do that shit. They let him and they praised him for it.”

So there it was: the reason for all this. McIntyre believed that Grafton was responsible for the death of his wife and son. It certainly explained the man’s obsessive determination, but Karl thought McIntyre was lashing out at the next best thing because he couldn’t locate the drug dealer called Rapid. It made Karl angry.

Unable to hide that anger, he said, “Not only do I not see what this has to do with me, I also don’t get why you want to kill Grafton’s wife. Or Grafton himself. Maybe he did change. Maybe you should be looking for this Rapid guy and not taking it out on everyone else.”

He would have understood if Les had been angry with his answer, but Les only shook his head with a smile. “Grafton didn’t fucking change. It was in his blood, crime. He went into his own club at night in a false wig and temporary tattoos, pretending to be a doorman. And not so he could do some kind of Undercover Boss thing. It was so he could crack heads, so he could still play at being a criminal. He couldn’t just give that lifestyle up. That’s right, Karl, Rapid was Grafton’s fucking disguise, like Superman and Clark Kent, some shit like that. His supervillain alter-ego. Ronald Grafton, reformed criminal and now successful local businessman, was the lethal fucker who sold my son a dodgy drug that got him and my wife killed.”

He paused to let this news sink in. Karl kept the emotion out of his face, but inside he was terrified. McIntyre’s rage against Grafton was now understandable. And all-consuming: he would never give up his hunt for Liz. Karl said nothing. McIntyre continued.

“The police never worked it out, but I did within a few weeks. And when I did, I knew I would eventually kill that man. I started with petty annoying shit against him, mostly to see if anyone would connect the dots. They never did. Somehow it got overlooked that Grafton owned the club where my son was given drugs. Nobody realised that I was a danger to him. I should have been reassigned somewhere far from him. I should have been watched. The truth should have come out every time something happened to Grafton, every time he made a complaint against me. It never did. Even coppers in my own station didn’t work out the reason why I seemed to be targeting that bastard. The passage of time, probably. And, of course, the blame was on some phantom called Rapid, while Grafton was by now a legit businessman in everyone’s eyes but mine. He couldn’t say a word because he knew an investigation would unearth his secret. I said nothing because I didn’t want him in jail. He was going in a hole in the ground. And his wife, by the way, sucks his dick and makes him happy, so that’s why this involves that bitch as well. I want Grafton’s whole world to crumble. I want them both dead, and they should already be, except for some guy who picked the woman up and took her away. And in case you haven’t worked it out yet, that guy’s you. So you’re going to tell me where she’s hiding, and then I’m going to kill her. Point me to her, and my original offer to you still stands. I’ll help you out of this mess. Refuse, and my friend here is going to go fetch your wife and bring her right here, sit her right beside you. Then things turn bad. At the minute your life is a summer’s day compared to the storm I’ll bring on you if you don’t give me what I want.”

He leaned close and raised his eyebrows. Karl leaned back as far as he could. He got the message. Talk now. But what could he say? The last time I saw her, she was at a McDonald’s? So he said, “I don’t know.”

Les pulled a penknife from his pocket. It didn’t look like a mean weapon, but it had a blade and Les had strong muscles, so Karl rightly got scared. This time he mentioned the fast food outlet, but he expected the worst.

Les seemed to consider this. Maybe he’d been told by the arresting officer where the takedown had occurred. Maybe Les actually believed him.

He put the knife away, but came back with a pistol. The message was just as clear: no messing about with the threat of torture. Tell me or die. He aimed the barrel right at Karl’s chin.

*

“Think of your wife. And I don’t mean think of her lonely without you. I mean think of her in this chair. You slumped beside her, dead.”

Something Katie had always hated about Karl was his ability to go from 0 to 60 on the anger tachometer in a moment. He could crack his shin on a coffee table and explode. And that happened now, before he could stop it. The threat on Katie propelled him instantly from scared and weak to enraged. He leaned forward, rose, pistoning his legs, pushing his body upwards like a rocket. The chair he was cuffed to rose with him. Les was quick enough to see the change in Karl’s face before the action came, so he got his head turned aside and took the force of the top of Karl’s head on his cheek instead of his nose. He staggered back, momentarily stunned, but reached out and grabbed Karl’s shirt and swung, throwing him like a wrestler whipping an opponent into the ropes. Those ropes were his colleagues. The black guy darted aside, but the other guy, the feminine-faced white guy, lifted a knee and planted it smartly in Karl’s gut. He went down, still attached to the chair. Someone was cursing, but someone was laughing. Karl looked up and saw all three of them standing over him, and the one laughing was Les.

He aimed the gun down. “Good man, you just proved how much you care about your wife. So I don’t need the fancy threats any more. Put one of the ladies in the chair, Karl.”

They waited. Karl waited. Too long. Only a second or two, but it was enough. Or Les saw the look in his eyes, the one that told tales on his brain, which was desperately trying to think of a way out of this without giving up Liz.

“Go get his wife, Dave,” Les said triumphantly, as if he knew he’d just delivered the deciding blow.

But Dave, the black guy, just looked at Les as if he thought the guy might not be serious. Karl’s hopes rose. And the white guy was doing the same. Karl realised that these two henchmen weren’t as unhinged as Les, which was good. But he also realised that their looks proved Les was unhinged, which was bad, because he was the guy in control.

Les returned the look, but added a portion of intensity that Dave finally wilted under. He held out his hand and Brad tossed him some keys – to the battered van parked nearby, presumably. He moved away. Raised a rusty old shutter in the wall and guided the vehicle out. Les and Brad watched it go. Karl used the time to test the integrity of the thin rope tying the cuffs to the back of the chair, to stare around at the high windows and the shutter and a doorless office at the back, where there was a ground-floor window. His brain threw up escape scenarios, but they all depended on his being out of this chair, and it didn’t look likely that that would happen.

When the van was gone, Brad went to the shutter, set it automatically closing with a press of a button, and came back. The shutter’s descent was like thunder and Karl hoped someone would hear it and know something was up. But he had no idea where he was. He had been in the dark in the back of that van and knew they could have driven him anywhere. There might not be a soul around for miles.

While Brad was closing the shutter, Les yanked Karl back to his feet and set him on the upright chair again. He squatted before his prisoner.

“Karl, no more asking, okay? I won’t ask again. It’s up to you to just tell me what I want to know. Know this: when Dave returns with your wife bound and gagged and drags her by her hair through that doorway, I’m going to sit her right in front of you. I won’t say a thing to you or her. I won’t ask you anything. I’ll just sit her down and pull my gun and put a bullet in her face. That’s what’s going to happen, and you know how you can stop that process at any stage.”

He stood and walked towards the office. Karl saw him pull out a seat from the table in there and sit just out of view. He could see the man’s feet up on the table. He heard the low sounds of some TV sitcom, maybe from a mobile phone.

Karl looked at Brad, who looked uncomfortable. He knew his eyes were pleading.

“You should just tell the guy what he wants,” Brad said.

Karl was about to respond when Les called in from the office: “Brad, come sit. Leave the guy to think.”

Brad held Karl’s look for a moment, turned and entered the office. He sat on the other side of the table, far end so he could watch Karl through the doorway and Karl could watch him.

The shutter’s downward rumble increased. It was two feet from clanging shut when light splashed across the pitted concrete floor from outside. The light intensified as the rumble increased. A moment before it happened, Karl realised that whatever was throwing the light was also giving off its own rumble. And whatever it was, it was moving closer, fast.

The shutter burst inward as if a bomb had gone off just outside. With a screeching bang it tore free from its runners and flew into the warehouse, and behind it was a vehicle.

At first he thought it was Dave’s van, but it was a different colour. It roared into the warehouse with the shutter folded over its front, held there by force and making the vehicle look like some caricature snowplough. And it was racing right at him.

He jerked his whole body to the left and tipped the chair, hoping to God that it bounced or skidded or whatever – as long as it moved enough to get him out of the vehicle’s path. He landed hard on his side and stuck there, no bounce, no skid, no whatever, but thankfully the van swerved away from him at the last moment. He felt the rush of air as the van blew past him, mere feet away. He got a half-second glance at the driver, some guy he didn’t know but whose face was a mask of joy. Karl knew then this was no bizarre accident.

The van did not slow as it bore down on the office just a few metres away. Beyond the powering vehicle, he saw Les appear at the doorway. A nanosecond later the van hit the wall right where the office door was and stopped dead with a massive clang from the shutter, like a dinner gong for the Gods. He understood: the driver had blocked the doorway. Hopefully the guy had crushed that bastard cop, too.

If this was already too much for Karl’s brain, then it got a super overload when the passenger door crashed open and Liz leaped out. He didn’t believe she was real until she bent over him and started yanking at his shoulder to make him stand.

“Tied to it,” he yelled. She found the rope and the cuffs and started tugging there instead. He heard her voice urging him to get up and run, but apart from that all seemed still and silent. He realised the van must have stalled just before he heard the engine fire up again.

“Don’t back up!” he yelled. The van didn’t move. The driver, whoever he was, knew to keep the shutter pressed against the doorway, to keep the animals inside.

From this position Karl could see right under the van. He saw a sliver of the doorway because the shutter didn’t fully block it. No more than eight inches right at the bottom, but enough to allow the passage of a man. And that was what he saw now: the guy called Brad, down on his front, feeding himself out of the office like a snake, making his slow way under the van, soon to emerge.

“Back up when I say,” Karl screamed as loud as he could. Brad had been about to exit one side, but reassessed that idea after Karl’s shout. If the van backed up, it would run over him. Instead, he continued along its length, meaning to exit from the rear and avoid the wheels.

“Hurry up,” he said to Liz. She was pulling and pushing and yanking, yet his bonds held.

Then they didn’t. He heard the crack of wood and felt the resistance fall away. She had bust the chair somehow. Didn’t matter how: he was free.

Brad crawled, his movements slow because the space was tight. Karl struggled to his feet without the use of his hands, which were still cuffed behind his back. The van was five metres away, and Brad was just a second or two from slipping out from under it. Liz grabbed his arm and yanked him towards the vehicle, but he wasn’t sure they would make it in time.

But would it matter? Because where was Les?

*

At that moment Les was in the upstairs office, having rushed for the stairs while Brad dropped to his front to crawl under the shutter and the van blocking the doorway.

He had heard the initial crash, figured some vehicle had rushed the shutter, and had gotten as far as the doorway when the shutter slammed the walls either side, forced there hard by the vehicle. The impact was hard enough to crack the doorframe and send a spiderweb of cracks along one wall; dirt and paint flecks from the shutter rained all over him and the booming clang rattled his ears. He had been just two feet from the doorway when the vehicle hit and it had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, like a bear-trap, so he had been given no time to react other than to yelp and cover his face like a beaten child. In his defence, though, he had his gun out and aimed in the next second, so he was no deer-in-the-headlights, although all he could see to shoot at was the great metal shutter covering all but a sliver at the bottom of the doorway.

The second after that, he knew this was a rescue attempt.

He had rushed up the stairs to find a door, locked. Three hard shoulder blows killed the lock.

At the far end of the office upstairs was a window, which he rushed to. It was simply a sheet of clear plastic, no handle, not designed to open. Les dislodged a corner with a heavy kick, grabbed the edge and pushed. The whole sheet peeled away like the top of a tin can, nice and neat. He watched it fall and hit the top of the van, eight feet below.

Like something from a cartoon, he stuck his head out in time to see the final inches of a leg slipping inside the open back doors. Then hands reach out to slam the doors. A moment after that, Brad rolled out from underneath. He was halfway to his feet when the van shifted backwards, knocking him over again. He rolled aside, barely avoiding the wheels as the van reversed towards the exit. It was halfway there by the time the shutter, with nothing to hold it up, toppled away from the office door and onto the concrete with a noise like thunder.

Nobody seemed to have noticed the thud as Les leaped onto the roof of the van. He regretted the macho move instantly, because there was nothing to hold onto. He yanked his gun, got to his knees, and fired downwards, into the roof, four bullets flying before the driver reacted. Knew he was going to get thrown, nothing he could do about that, so he just hoped to get a lucky shot before the pain came.

The driver’s reaction was nought but a shout. No brakes, no swerve. Clearly didn’t know where the firing was coming from. No screams of pain, either, so Les’s rounds had hit no one.

The van’s engine whined as it rushed backwards towards the exit. In a second it would be there; in half that time Les had weighed his options. If he jumped off to one side, he would land hard and full of momentum and bounce or roll into the wall – not good. If he tried to remain perched, the van would exit and J-turn, and he would be slingshot – worse. So he stood and leaped into the air as the wall above the shutter raced at him. Hands and feet went out to lessen the impact. It was like landing from a height. The wall stung his knees, wrists, and hip. Then he was falling. He hit the ground neatly but heavily. Parts already stung were bitten again. But as he lay there in the doorway, watching the van burn rubber as it J-turned and raced away, he laughed. Luck had been on his side this time.

*

Les sat on the chair that Karl had been bound to and stretched out his feet. Rubbed his pained right hip. Brad watched him. Les pulled his phone and called a number. It was answered quickly.

“Dave, forget the wife and get back here. Brad just fucked up and let Seabury escape.” He hung up without waiting for a reply.

“Funny. So now what?” Brad said. “This is like fate’s against us or something. Might be a clue that we should just give this up.”

Les lit a cigarette. “Give it up? Like some game of hide and seek? Think Grafton’s wife’s just going to give up wanting to tell the cops her tale?”

“I just heard you admit to Seabury that you want her dead, full stop. Something about dick sucking. Not because of the tales she can tell.”

Les puffed smoke into the air. “True, true. But it would be nice to do so before she tells the world.”

Brad didn’t want an argument, so he went to the exit to wait for Dave’s return.

The van was back in sixty seconds. Dave parked in the doorway to block it and got out. He looked distressed.

“So what happened?”

“Fate,” Brad said. Then he explained.

Dave said, “I think we should call it a day, boys. Fate’s a hard bitch to beat. Let’s emigrate to Cuba or something.”

“Why don’t you two shut up?” Les said. He was still sitting on the chair. Dave and Brad approached. Les took something from his pocket that looked like a pill. He sliced a rent in his cigarette with a sharp thumbnail and stuffed the pill, crushed, inside. Dave and Brad watched with interest.

“What’s that, Les?” Dave said.

“Energy pill. So you guys want to vote on whether or not to abandon all this?” A big grin told them he wasn’t being sincere. “Do we find where they’re going to hide next, or do we find ourselves somewhere to hide for the rest of our lives?”

“Maybe they’re done hiding and running,” Dave said. “They could go right to Scotland Yard after this. Things are too intense, and now they have help. I don’t see them staying on the run any longer. You agree, Brad?”

Brad caught him staring, waiting for Brad to join his side. Brad didn’t want to side with either man. “Maybe we could ride this out. There’s no proof we were involved. Maybe she’ll tell the police and nothing will come of it.”

Dave said, “That won’t happen, Brad, because Les’s bloodlust isn’t satisfied yet.”

Les stared at him, hard.

“That’s no energy pill, Les,” Dave continued. “We all know what that is, and we all know what it does to the brain. Your brain. If you were Superman smoking that shit, the world would be a burning wasteland.”

The hard stare remained. “Elaborate for Brad, he’s not as smart as me.”

“I’m just saying that you might not be thinking straight. You want to kill Grafton’s wife because you need revenge and don’t feel you’ve got enough yet. And you’ll go all out to get it, even if it means making mistakes. And maybe after the wife, someone else will need to be put down.”

“Name my mistakes then, Dave. Go on, list them. This look like a prison cell to you, does it?”

Dave looked away. He shifted his feet like a nervous kid. “I need a piss.” He jogged towards a corner loaded with pallets of wooden crates. Vanished behind them. Brad watched him go, then turned back to Les.

“He’s not entirely off the mark, Les. How long you been back on that shit you’re smoking?”

Les puffed on the cigarette hard, drawing the end down to the rent. The powder ignited and the smoke turned greenish. That gave Brad the proof he needed.

“It’s just to calm the paranoia, Brad. I reckon someone’s after me from way back. Been getting these threats.”

“Someone we tried to put away? Who?”

Les shrugged. “Just a theory. Be on your guard in case it’s all of us they’re after. Had some call, some idiot saying he’s going to burn me in my own house.”

Brad was shocked. Nothing fazed Les, least of all the criminals. He feared the pen more than the sword. This felt like a surprising admission from the man. Les caught his scrutiny.

“If someone’s after us,” Les continued, “then maybe Dave’s right and we should get out. Leave London. But after we finish this. And we can end this today, Brad. Didn’t you recognise that van? How many piss-yellow vans like that are there in London? That was Danny Mall, one of Grafton’s ex-cronies. The wife obviously recruited help, but how? Danny Mall had a fall out with Grafton years back and I doubt Mall and the wife are hanging out. Who put them together? What could be the common denominator here?”

Brad knew. Bartholomew Gold. Grafton’s solicitor had looked after the interests of many of Grafton’s employees. Gold knew Mall, knew Liz, and been asking questions about Operation Back Road: he was definitely involved. But Brad didn’t like Les’s interest in the man. People got hurt when Les got interested in them, and if he was smoking that illegal shit again…

“Earlier you wanted to go watch Gold’s office, but gave that up. So now you want to go talk to him? Risky. That’ll be one more person wondering why we’re interested in where Liz is. And Gold won’t be so eager to keep quiet.”

Les shook his head. “The original plan was to watch the guy and see if they turn up. We do that. If Gold got hold of Danny Mall to help Liz, then at some point they’re all going to meet for a chat. Gold isn’t going to slink around the shady parts of London at night. So it’ll be his office. You got a better plan?”

Brad said nothing. He knew there was nothing he could do to change what was already set in stone in Les’s head.

“This can still end okay for us,” Les said. He got up and stood before Brad, put a hand on his shoulder as if to console him. “Don’t start thinking about innocents getting caught up in this. Don’t start thinking about what we should have done or could have done. Realise where we stand right now and then think about whether or not you want to finish your days in prison.”

Right then Les’s phone rang and he fished it from his pocket. Brad noted that it was a black model, not the silver thing Les usually carried. Not the device he had called Dave on just minutes earlier. Les stared at the screen with awe, but did not answer the call. Brad was puzzled. The ringing ceased.

“Who was that?” Brad said.

Dave came back, fiddling with his trousers. “So what’s next?”

Les held up the phone. Brad and Dave looked at it, then Dave looked up at Les, and Les was staring right at him, and Brad watched both men and knew something had just changed between them. He saw in Dave’s eyes the whirring of his brain, knew because he knew his friend that the man was thinking hard and fast, much as you might think hard and fast about a way to survive if you suddenly fell off some high place. His own thoughts started to race as he tried to work out what the hell was going on.

Dave’s look changed from one of fear to one of suspicion. He said, “Les…why have you got DCI Chambers’ phone?”

Brad, shocked, was between both men, looking back and forth between them like a man watching a tennis match.

Les was all suspicion, too. “Dave…why the fuck are you calling DCI Chambers’ phone?”

Dave said, “The man contacted me. About you. He knows we know each other and wanted dirt. Don’t worry, I gave him nothing. I’d sink myself, wouldn’t I?”

Now the spotlight was right back on Les. He had in his hand a mobile phone belonging to an enemy – why?

“Well he won’t answer because I nicked his bloody mobile, didn’t I? Wanted to know what the guy knew about me.”

Then there was an awkward moment when both men laughed, but it was clearly forced. Brad’s heart sank. He knew neither man believed the other, but nobody was going to say so. And he didn’t believe either of them. He couldn’t deny it any longer: Dave was selling them out to Chambers. But worse, Chambers, who was missing, had clearly fallen foul of Les in some way. He was certain.

Les stepped forward and clapped Dave on the shoulder. “Look at us two, getting all suspicious of each other.” Both men laughed again, but again it was phony. “Let’s get out of here and go finish this.”

Ten minutes later, Brad was thinking that he’d gotten it all wrong. They were en route to the solicitor’s office to stake it out. Les and Brad were in their cars, while Dave was following behind on his motorbike. The van had been torched behind the warehouse. Les and Dave had chatted like old friends as they crossed the car park to their vehicles, and Brad had started to put all his bad thoughts away.

But then they came to a junction. Single file, they passed the green light and continued ahead. Except Dave: his bike stalled and he got caught on red. Brad, behind Les, slowed and watched his rear-view mirror. He watched the light change to green; watched the tiny vehicles two hundred metres back begin to move again. And watched Dave’s bike swing a fast left at the junction, instead of following.

Stalling the bike had been a trick, he realised. Dave was abandoning them. Cutting them loose. Running. And when Brad cast his eyes forward again, he saw Les’s eyes on his own rear-view mirror. So Les, too, had watched Dave turn away.

That was when Brad knew things had changed irreparably.

*

“They’re going after my wife, we have to get there.”

“What are you talking about?” Liz said.

Karl told her about McIntyre’s threat against Katie. The driver shook his head. “Don’t worry about that, pal. That plan was when they had you, and now they don’t have you. They won’t be going there now.”

Karl thought about this. It made sense, but he couldn’t take the risk. What if Les failed to contact the man called Dave and cancel the kidnap? He needed to get hold of Katie, quick.

A hand appeared in front of his face. “Danny,” the driver guy said. “Please to save you.” Karl’s cuffs had been snipped off with a pair of bolt cutters and he now sat in the front with Liz between them. He grabbed the hand and shook it, but only out of a sense of duty to the man who’d helped save him.

Danny was in a wheelchair that took the place of a driver’s seat, with braces on his legs that connected to the pedals – no clutch. The vehicle had been converted to allow a disabled guy to pilot it. A mechanical framework around the door seemed designed to hydraulically lift the wheelchair in and out. A strange thought came to Karl – would this guy be more confident on the road knowing that a serious crash couldn’t do much more damage to him?

“You two know each other?” Karl asked him. The guy had skinny legs, obviously, but carried heavily muscled shoulders under his T-shirt. He had a ponytail, a neat beard and a lot of acne scars, all of which cast confusion upon his age. Karl couldn’t tell if he was an old-looking twenty-something or a guy in his forties who’d aged well.

“We do,” Danny said. “Known the Graftons many a year. So when Lizzy asked for help, I came running.” He laughed, but Karl didn’t get the joke at first. Danny caught him staring at his legs.

“I was a good pal of Ronald’s until he suspected I ratted him out to the cops one day. The day after he heard that, actually. That was when he sent two guys to my house to break my spine.”

Karl was shocked. “Ronald Grafton did that to you?”

“And here I am helping his wife. Strange world, eh?”

And getting stranger. He sat back and let the miles roll by. Danny and Liz chatted about her husband – Danny had obviously been informed about his murder – but Karl tuned them out. He stuck his eyes on the window and watched some part of London he didn’t know race by. He wanted to ask where they were going, but suddenly didn’t care. But he couldn’t avoid asking how the hell they’d known where to find him.

“I got to Mr. Gold, my husband’s solicitor,” Liz said from the back. She spoke quickly, as if loaded with adrenaline after the action of a few minutes ago. The solicitor had made some calls and learned which station Karl was at. Then he called Danny, who was pleased to help. Liz and Danny had waited outside the station, then followed the patrol car carrying Karl. They had watched the fake crash then followed the van he was thrown into. “We didn’t know what to do at the warehouse until we saw one of them leave in the van. It was Danny’s idea to smash through the door.”

“Only weapon I can use in my condition,” Danny said, slapping the dashboard as if petting a loyal guard dog.

Karl was about to thank the guy again when he spotted a mobile phone near the automatic gearstick. He snatched it up. “Can I use this?” Danny nodded and asked who he was going to call.

“My wife,” Karl said.

*

Dave had never spoken to DCI chambers, but he knew that would not save him. He had acquired the man’s number as a safety net: if the walls started to crumble, he would call the guy and arrange some kind of deal. It wasn’t selfishness and he had no desire to rat out his friends. But he had a pregnant wife to think about. And who wouldn’t try to shave ten years off a lengthy jail sentence? It was a call he had hoped he’d never need to make, but earlier in the warehouse he had felt constricted, like a claustrophobe trapped in a coffin. He had made the call but hung up after just a few rings, his mind changed. But the damage had been done. Les knew Dave had tried to call the one man who was close to toppling those walls. He didn’t know that Dave had baulked; he didn’t know that Dave had never spoken to Chambers. Didn’t matter: the man had his suspicions now, and that meant Dave was under threat.

Les was clearly off the rails now. He might not be raging around like a psychopath, but he was acting without thinking and that made his actions just as dangerous. Sending Dave to kidnap Seabury’s wife, for example. A fucking joke. Dave had never planned to go through with it. He had managed to get back to the warehouse so quickly after Seabury’s escape because he had been parked just a few hundred metres away, thinking of a way out of the task he’d been given. Maybe a bomb threat on a neighbour’s house, so the cops would swarm Seabury’s street and make it impossible for him to get to the wife. He knew he’d need a reason Les could verify. Then the job had been cancelled and the relief had flooded in. That at least showed that Les wasn’t fully gone. But the Chambers thing quickly made Dave reassess that opinion.

His street was lined with semi-detached houses at the end of sloping gardens. A peaceful place, much coveted. Full of old people and respectable couples. Certainly the sort of place where trouble would be memorable. He drove down the road in a low gear so the 900cc bike would scream its distress. He wanted faces at windows so there would be witnesses if anything happened.

He drew up outside his home and leaped off the bike, allowing it to topple over on the street. The eyes behind windows would see and know something was not right, and that would keep them watching. He checked that the Zafira on the driveway was unlocked, then rushed inside the house.

Lucinda was in the living room, rubbing cream on her growing belly. A nicely timed reminder of what he stood to lose if he let Les fuck things up.

She sat up sharply as he burst in the door. “What’s wrong?”

He had planned a lie, but decided against it at the last moment. If he said he was taking her somewhere secret, for a meal or whatever, she might object, or take her time getting ready. Better, he thought, if he put fear in her. Besides, he was obviously worked up: wide-eyed and sweating.

“There’s a problem and we need to leave. Now. We need to get out of London for a few days.” Hopefully a few days was all he’d need: he doubted Les’s erratic behaviour could keep him out of custody much longer.

She just looked at him, puzzled. “Pack a bag, now,” he yelled. Then he rushed upstairs.

He had filled one gym grip bag with clothing by the time she got to the top of the stairs. The climb had exhausted her, even though she was only fifteen weeks pregnant.

“David, what’s going on?” Her voice was calm despite the urgency in his own and his actions.

“Bag,” he yelled as he rushed past her and down the stairs. He threw the bag in the Zafira and went back.

She was packing now, but slowly, making sure she got toiletries. He snatched an armful of her clothing from the wardrobe and tossed it at her. “That’ll do.” She picked up a jumper from the floor and started to fold it neatly. No urgency.

"David, you -"

“Quick.”

While he packed a second bag, she questioned him. His answers were short, abrupt, but he explained that bad criminals who’d recently been released from prison might pop round. That got her moving a little more quickly. It also got him an earful.

Dave grabbed her bag and rushed downstairs with it, shouting that they were gone in five minutes.

Outside, Dave heard an engine approaching and scanned the street. A white van with some emblem on the side was cruising down the road. Some tradesman, but not one of his neighbours. Looking at the van, he remembered his bike. It was in the road, blocking the white van’s path. He rushed through the gate. The white van started to slow just metres away. Dave grabbed the handlebars and lifted the bike upright. He raised a hand in apology to the van’s driver.

He started to wheel the bike off the road. And that was when the van leaped forward with a screech of tyres. Dave turned, realised the van was going to hit him. He had no time to avoid it.

The van hit the bike, forcing it into Dave, sending man and machine bouncing along the road. Dave rolled and stopped and immediately tried to rise, but he was wobbly and his left leg gave way beneath him. Someone screamed and he knew that his trick to bring witnesses to their windows had worked. They had put noses to glass, and they had seen Dave rush into his house and back out and load up the car with haste, and they had watched him run into the road and be struck by the van, and now, if this was Les’s doing, they would tell the police and Les would go down.

A guy rushed out of the van’s passenger side. The balaclava and knife left no doubt in Dave’s mind. He was done. End of the line. Goodnight. But Les would go down. At least there was that.

The masked man stopped and stooped and stabbed and stood and sprinted, two seconds, job done. The van leaped away again like a horse out of the gate. The wheels splashed through the blood that was migrating from Dave’s throat to the road.

The driver stuck his head out the window as the van roared past. “That’s for Andy Jones!” he bellowed, louder than the van’s engine, and louder than whoever was screaming – it was Dave’s own wife, he now knew. Loud enough for all those faces Dave had put at windows.

But as his blood ebbed away, so did Dave’s hope that Les would go down for his killing. Andy Jones, the neighbours would say. Andy Jones, the police would write. They would investigate and learn that Andy Jones was dead, that the paedophile had committed suicide two years ago while Dave and two other officers were kicking in his door with an arrest warrant. A revenge attack, they would conclude.

That was how Les played the game: always make sure someone else gets blamed.

*

East Ham. The terraced houses on Danny’s street were thin and bunched, as if they had been squashed together by the hands of a giant. The road was thin and made slimmer by twin walls of cars parked nose-to-end. Danny barely avoided hitting a neighbour’s vehicle as he turned sharply into his driveway. Not many of his neighbours had driveways because the choice was that or a garden. No room for both. But Danny needed one, of course.

Karl got out, glad to feel the fresh air. It was dark but the street was brightly lit by lampposts and a million living room and bedroom bulbs. There were people out and about: women talking at gates, kids playing in the road, men fixing cars, just as if it were a sunny afternoon. People had waved at Danny as they drove down the street and others now called over or raised a thumb. The guy was well-known in a thriving street loaded with friends. Karl felt instantly safe. And jealous, because he didn’t have that many friends.

Danny tossed Liz a key and told them to wait inside. which gave Karl the impression that Danny was one of those self-sufficient guys who abhorred the offer of help. Karl would just offend the guy if he tried to give him a hand getting his wheelchair out of the van, or into the house. So he and Liz went ahead and left Danny to make his own way inside.

They strode up a small ramp to the front door. The hard ground made Karl realise he had left his shoes behind. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed. They entered a hallway and found the living room. Liz told him to take a seat while she used the bathroom. He had expected the house to be modified to accommodate a guy in a wheelchair, but that wasn’t the case. It looked like any other house. Maybe it was an ego thing – rather than adapt his surroundings to accommodate his predicament, Danny preferred to push himself and struggle. Or maybe he didn’t want visitors to see his house as different, that he was different. Hell, maybe he believed he’d miraculously wake up one day able to walk. The only concession was the grabbers, the sort of tool he had seen street cleaners use to avoiding bending down to retrieve trash. Danny was effectively four feet tall, so needed these tools. They were everywhere. When Karl was a smoker, he used to leave lighters everywhere around the house so he’d always have one to hand – same thing, he figured. They were on chairs, on floors, leaning against walls. Danny grabbed one from a corner as he entered the living room and used it to turn off one of the two bulbs that served the room. The guy either liked the dimmer ambience or needed to save money on bills.

“Tea?” Danny said. Karl followed him into the kitchen, where Danny grabbed a fresh grabber and used it to drag the kettle along the worktop, close enough to the edge to grab. There was a lot of overreaching to fill it and to extract cups from a cupboard. Karl noted that the cups were in a high cupboard and that Danny pushed the kettle far back along the worktop when finished with it, as if making things hard for himself. He was tempted to help, especially when Danny had trouble hooking a cup with the grabbed, but knew his help would be seen as interference.

They took their teas into the living room to continue their conversation. Again Karl wanted to help because Danny had trouble wheeling himself. Cup jammed between his legs, he manoeuvred himself slowly to avoid spillage. Liz was gone from the living room, but Karl could hear a shower running upstairs.

While the tea was brewing, Danny had told him how he knew the Graftons, and hadn’t spared the gory details. Danny had been a hired basher, a man employed to put fear into people. Former paratrooper in the air force. Knew guns and unarmed combat. Grafton had attended a mixed martial arts show at which Danny had been competing. Danny had reached the semi-finals after beating two opponents by submission, but had lost via TKO. Joint third place, but Grafton had hired the top four guys there that night. Tasks: follow Grafton around like a bodyguard, watch the area when Grafton met a shady business contact, and crack this head or break that finger. Fun work and good pay, until one day a cop showed up at his door, barged in, said virtually nothing, then walked out with an empty envelope stolen from a stationary drawer. He had hinted that Danny should shake his hand on the doorstep, to show no bad feelings. Danny thought nothing of it until the next night, when he and the other three bruisers had been sent to pick up a package from Hyde Park. No package there, just a serious kicking from the other three, all of whom he had considered friends until that point. One broken back, one Ronald Grafton as an enemy. That had been his reward for giving information to the cops.

Karl sat on the sofa and Danny faced him from the centre of the room.

“The cop? That was Lesley McIntyre, by the way,” Danny said. “He set it all up to look as if I was in bed with the cops. Don’t know if Grafton just got word or had been watching or if Mac – McIntyre – filmed it all to show him. But someone saw a detective walk in my house and then come out with an envelope and shake my hand. I get why that would look like we were good pals.”

Karl didn’t know what to say. Reap what you sow, he was thinking, but didn’t want to say that aloud. But since they were being honest here, he said, “McIntyre thinks her husband killed his kid.” He recapped the story McIntyre had told him.

Danny sipped his tea. “Sure did. I get on well with Liz, that’s why we kept in touch now and then, although she never told her husband. She heard about the deaths and asked him, but he denied it and so did all his acolytes. She bought it. In her mind, her husband was guilty only of not doing full background checks on the people he hired. But Grafton was a bruiser from his early days and the money and upper-class stature didn’t wipe that away.”

“So this elusive bouncer called Rapid – that was her husband?”

“Sure was. He invented Rapid because it was a way to crack heads, but never get his dirty laundry aired in public. And he liked to hang about his club and see what people got up to when he wasn’t there. He thought he was some great actor, but most of the people who knew him knew he was Rapid, they just didn’t say anything. After the kid and woman died, McIntyre was all over him and that made Grafton paranoid. Guys like him can run rings around the police because of cop rules and red tape and stuff, but he knew McIntyre didn’t worry about the rules. The guy was sneaking about like a cat, but he wasn’t just interested in finding dirt. He was playing annoying little games. Pop the odd tyre, bit of graffiti here. Grafton was paranoid because he figured if McIntyre could find out he was Rapid, so could others if they looked. But McIntyre never said anything. He didn’t want Grafton in jail. Grafton knew the guy’s petty annoyances would escalate. Now look.”

Karl thought about Liz. At some point in the future, the truth would come out. How would she feel about that? He thought she would probably still refuse to believe it.

Danny continued. “But the clues were there. First thing McIntyre did after the deaths was spray paint the word RAPID on Grafton’s car. It was Liz who reported it, without realising what it meant. McIntyre was full of rage at first so wasn’t careful – got caught on CCTV for that one. Got a warning, but probably nothing else because he’d just lost his family so was understandably upset. Grafton owned the club, so Grafton’s negligence allowed Rapid to work there – that was probably what they assumed he was angry about. Remember that the cops had no idea Grafton was Rapid. I don’t know how McIntyre found out. Maybe he beat it out of someone. That would be just up his street. The criminals all knew, of course, but they couldn’t say anything because the cops would then work out Grafton was Rapid, and that’d be the same as snitching, and snitching gets you in the bad books. But certainly clues were there that McIntyre had more than just a cop’s interest in Grafton. It was a dad’s interest in getting back at the man who killed his family.”

They heard footsteps on the stairs. Danny said, “Don’t talk about any of this around her. If she says how great her husband was, just agree, okay?”

Karl nodded, thinking, I’m not a soulless animal, you know.

Moments later Liz entered the room wrapped in a towel, her wet legs glistening. Both men avoided looking. She was carrying fresh clothing, female stuff that Karl assumed belonged to a sister of lover of Danny’s. And a pair of shoes, which she tossed to Karl. He glared at them and pointed at his shirt and trousers: muddy, oily, creased, torn. Danny laughed and said he’d get Karl some fresh ones.

“I needed that,” she said as she slumped onto the sofa. Her eyes were red, which Karl assumed meant she’d been crying. Probably because the adrenaline had worn off and she’d had time to reflect on her husband’s death. It made him think of his wife again. God knew what she had been through these last few hours, after hearing that he was on the run and wanted for murder. After having the police burst in to search the house.

He had called her from the van. She had been quiet on the phone, as if not believing his claims that he was innocent and being set up. Understandable, because surely a lot of criminals said such a thing: the police are framing me. But at least she had seemed happy that he wasn’t hurt. He had told her to hang tight at home, because he would be back soon. But that had been his way of reassuring her, because he had no idea when – if – he’d be back. Ever. It had been hard to hang up the phone, because he couldn’t shake the idea that he might never see her again.

That turned his thoughts to the future. “What’s our next step?”

“To Mr. Gold,” Liz said while drying her hair. “Bromley is only fifteen miles from here. Twenty-five minute drive. Mr. Gold will take our statements and arrange our surrender.” She looked at Danny, and he nodded. She seemed serene, as if a message from Heaven had promised her that everything was going to be alright.

Danny made some joke and Liz laughed. They began chatting as if without a care in the world. If it was Danny’s plan to lighten the mood, it worked. But not for Karl. He suddenly felt claustrophobic.

“Grab a shower, mate,” Danny said, as if reading his mind. “Scour my wardrobe for something clean. Try the stairlift, it’s way cool.”

Danny gave a real smile for the first time in a long time. A shower sounded good. He went upstairs and stood under the hot water and tried to mimic some of Liz’s optimism. She could turn her despair off like a tap. But he couldn’t relax. They had a plan and it was the best they could do, but turning themselves in to the police was no pleasant notion. Last time, McIntyre had turned up with a spanner for the works.

*

Les and Brad were in Les’s Nissan Almera in a car park, hidden amongst small trucks marked with GUSTAFSON FOODS. Both men were watching a building across the road and a hundred metres down, which was lit. The curtains were drawn over the large front window, but occasionally they saw a shadow, so someone was home. He or she was virtually the only one because most of the other places were shut for the evening.

The businesses on their side of the street were housed in long structures of glass and metal and plastic, while across the road the buildings looked as if they had been born as homes: two storeys of brick, sloping tiled roofs, chimneys, first-floor bay windows, single wooden front doors. The car parks ran right up to the front doors and windows, as if they had once been gardens. Behind the buildings on both sides was agricultural land.

“You were talking about Fate earlier, right?” Les said, using his mobile to show Brad a Google map of Bromley, which looked very green from 2500 feet in the sky. “Check out this place for a showdown. London’s most rural borough, apparently. Fields, peace and quiet, no one around. Perfect. If you want to believe in that shit, that’s fucking Fate for you. This is meant to go our way. Just like before. This’ll go down the same way it did with Grafton.”

“You mean she’ll run again and be picked up on a back road and we’ll be hunting another guy all over again? Can’t wait.”

They had been here over an hour and Brad was feeling irritable and tired. Always a problem for him in the old days when on a stakeout. His energy was kinetic and the more he moved, the more awake he seemed to be. Conversely, stasis brought on lethargy. He stretched all his muscles in turn to fight the fatigue. It didn’t work.

He thought about Dave. They had driven to Brad’s house after Dave’s disappearance, where Brad had parked then gotten into Les’s car. Les had been hurriedly finishing up a phone call as Brad climbed in. Les had again mentioned Brad’s Audi TT, just the usual moan about how the car was too conspicuous, stands out, you risk witnesses remembering it, need to get yourself something plain like mine, then he had fallen silent. And they had spent the rest of the journey ignoring each other. But Brad had been waiting for Les to mention Dave’s disappearance. It hadn’t happened. Les hadn’t mentioned Dave once. Only after they’d parked and shut off the lights and engine had Brad brought up their colleague. Where is the guy? He was right behind us. Think he’s lost? Cold feet, that had been Les’s answer. No problem, let him go. Brad wondered why Les was being so cool about one of his team dropping out.

And he wondered who Les had been on the phone to.

His eyes drooped, but then jerked open when light washed over him. He sat up and watched a white van with a faded emblem on the side turn into the car park. The van drew up into a spot three spaces from them and the lights died. Les threw open his door.

“Wait here a second. And by the way, remember who let her run away to be picked up in the first place.”

He went over to the other vehicle. A window came down and he spoke to the driver…

…“Job done,” said the driver, a tall guy in his thirties with a goatee beard and a shaved head under a ragged baseball cap advertising some business conference of yesteryear. His accent was thick Irish. Beyond him, the other guy was younger, with floppy blonde curls and a face that was handsome despite an inflamed eczema whorl on one cheek. “So where’s the stuff?”

“I’ll get it to you,” Les said. “You do the line I said to use?”

“Yeah. Who the fuck is Andy Jones anyway?”

“Need to know basis. You know the funny thing, Sink? It was only simple theft that we had you on, yet you just killed a cop to avoid community service.”

The guy looked horrified and angry. “A fucking cop? Why didn’t you fucking say? Where’s the stuff, Les?”

The “stuff” was nothing but a Satnav and a laptop. Sink – Sinclair – had stolen them from a neighbour’s car he broke into. Les had visited the man’s place of work to ask him questions after a member of the public had reported seeing him out and about late that night, and the guy had been on his tea break playing with the laptop, having a good nosey at the owner’s Facebook account. Les had taken the items away with nothing but a warning, but, of course, Les had never intended that to be the last of it. Later he’d found out that Sink was wanted in his native Republic of Ireland for “loyalist action.” After that, Sink had been a willing servant. Three break-ins, the theft of Ramon Ramirez’s Ford Cortina, the vicious beating of a fellow police officer, and now the murder of an old friend and colleague.

“I destroyed it months ago, Sink,” Les lied. “But don’t you go thinking that means you’re safe. You name comes up a lot at the station, and it’s getting harder and harder to deflect suspicion. So I think you owe me one more job.”

“I think you should start paying me for this lark, Les.”

Les held out his hand. “Give me the knife and I’ll get rid of it for you.”

Sink laughed right in his face. “Fuck you, Les. Think I was born yesterday?”

“One more job and I’ll make it up to you. Start paying you. Continue to sidetrack my friends the boys in blue every time they’re about to stumble upon you.”

“Let’s do it, Sink,” said the other guy. He was pure Cockney. Les didn’t know much about him, except that he was brash and stupid and keen on action. Maybe a lover, or some kid from Sink’s metal workshop who was eager to impress the boss. Looked all sweet and innocent, but Les had seen eyes like his before and they hinted at a seething psychopath beneath the handsome exterior.

“What’s the job?” Sink said…

…A few minutes later, Brad watched Les turn from the driver and head back to the car. He opened Brad’s door. “Go with these guys, Brad. Make sure they don’t fuck up.”

Brad didn’t move. “What’s going on?”

Les reached over and unclipped Brad’s seatbelt. “They’ve got a job to do and they’re fucking idiots, so I need at least half a brain along to oversee.”

Brad got out. He looked over and saw the driver and his passenger staring at him. The driver, a bald guy in a cap, waved him over impatiently.

“I’ll call you if Seabury and Grafton’s whore turn up here,” Les said. He shook Brad’s hand, clapped his shoulder.

Brad approached the van. “Where we going?” he asked the driver.

The guy held up a scrap of paper. “Got a postcode. You’ll know when we know. Jump in and be quick. Want to be home at least tonight.”

Brad didn’t know what Les was up to, but he was curious. Maybe even suspicious. He opened the sliding side door and climbed in. The van had three rows of seats and he took the middle one so he wasn’t right behind the guys. He was now eager to know what was going on. For certain these guys weren’t off to buy milk and cookies for the stakeout.

*

Danny, being a bachelor, had a fridge and freezer bloated with ready meals and microwave burgers. He blasted a cheeseburger for each of them, although Liz wrinkled her nose at it. Karl didn’t imagine such a refined girl would last very long on a desert island.

After eating, they headed out. Liz wore jeans and a plain blue cardigan, which Karl thought made her look more homely. No make-up. Make-up did her no justice, he felt, because it disguised the natural beauty of her lines. He noticed for the first time that she had a freckled nose. Cute. Danny’s outfit consisted of black jeans with an elastic waist and a T-shirt advertising concert dates for an ageing rock band. He felt the T-shirt explained Danny’s hairstyle.

Danny asked Karl and Liz to check the locks on his windows while he “sorted the van.” Karl took this to mean Danny didn’t want them to watch him performing the routine of inserting himself into the vehicle. He understood.

They were all ready to go – Danny and Liz were in the van and Karl was at the front door, locking it – when the landline rang inside.

“Get it, please,” Danny called over. So Karl went back inside and found the phone and said hello.

“Mr. Seabury?” said a voice he recognised. Gold, the solicitor. He sounded displeased that Karl had answered the phone. “Where’s Danny-boy?”

“We were just coming to see you,” Karl said. “Everything okay?” He felt his heart rate increasing.

“Got some good news for you. Not over the phone. Make sure you bring Liz and Danny-boy. See you soon. Bye.”

Karl hung up the phone and tried to calm his elation. Good news didn’t mean spectacular news. The guy was a solicitor, which could simply mean he had gotten some prosecutor to agree to drop some charge or other. Twenty years behind bars instead of twenty-five. Didn’t mean they were out of the woods yet.

He left the house, locked the door, and slid into the van. Liz sat in the middle, just like before.

Danny raised his eyebrows, as if to say, who was it?

“The solicitor. Says he has some good news. So let’s get there.”

*

The moment Gold hung up the phone, the masked man swung the hammer a hard blow into his knee, causing him to scream in pain and slip off the chair. The masked man stood back and watched the man writhing, yelling, and clutching his leg.

The masked man waved the hammer at him.

“What kind of solicitor calls a man Danny-boy? I’m thinking that was some kind of code. Did you just alert him to a problem here?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the solicitor moaned. He sat up and scooted away from the masked man, but was followed. Gold’s back hit a bookcase and he stopped. The rickety thing wobbled and dropped books into his lap, which made the masked man laugh.

“If that was a code, I’m going to kill all of you, understand?”

Gold was getting his wits back now that the pain was diminishing. “You’re paranoid. I did what you wanted. They’re coming. So why don’t you leave?”

“How can I leave? They’re coming here, aren’t they? No, we’ll just sit and wait for them.” The masked man moved to the chair and sat. It was the only chair. “Do you make your clients stand in front of you? Why no other chairs?”

The solicitor rubbed his leg and ignored the question. The masked man reached out with the hammer. Gold buried his head in his arms, moaning again, but the intruder simply tugged out more books with the claw end and laughed as they fell around the guy in the sweat-stained suit. When the rain of literature ceased, Gold looked up again. His eyes grew wide at what he saw. The masked man was now holding a pistol in his other hand. But, worse, he had removed his mask, and the solicitor knew exactly who he was dealing with.

“So who are you, then?” he said. It was a trick. The man had exposed himself and Gold knew it was never good when that happened, so he would pretend to not know the intruder’s identity. But the trick didn’t work, because the man he knew to be Lesley McIntyre said,

“You know who I am. Everyone knows me. I bet right now you’re thinking how bad a sign it is that I let you see my face. You’re thinking, if he had kept the mask on, it would mean he was going to let me go. But now I don’t know what’s going to happen to me because he’s shown his face, and I feel excrement trying to come out. That what you’re thinking? He wriggled the hammer in front of the solicitor’s face. There was a big grin on his own.

“You’re insane.”

“That’ll probably be my defence,” Les said. “Think you could prove it for me?”

*

Brad didn’t realise where they were headed until the Satnav announced that they’d arrived. He’d had his head down and was thinking, and when he looked up, he recognised Karl Seabury’s street.

“What are we doing here?” he asked, panic already rising in his throat.

Sink and his partner, who hadn’t been named but who Brad thought of as Floppy, unclasped their seatbelts, but ignored his question. Then they did something outlandish: played a round of Paper Scissors Stone, and Floppy lost. But it was Sink who got out of the van and crossed the road. As he walked, he pulled on a balaclava.

“What’s the plan?” Brad said, trying to sound casual, like a guy who didn’t already have a good idea what was going on.

Floppy exited the van and got in beside Brad. He shut the door and said, “We wait.”

Brad watched Sink walking casually along the road towards Seabury’s house, then quickly dart into the man’s driveway and over a tall fence, lithe as a cat. Lithe as a man who’d had lots of practice at breaking into houses.

“Tell me we’re not here to hurt the man’s wife.”

“So what did you do to piss off Mac?” Floppy asked from the darkness.

He knew he should have reacted then, right then, as the realisation that Les had tricked him sank in. But he didn’t. He allowed himself a moment of doubt, a moment to think he had it wrong, that Les wouldn’t do this because they were friends, because they’d known each other years. And in that moment the chance to strike first passed. By the time Brad had knocked away doubt from his mind, Floppy already had something cold and sharp pressed against the side of his neck and a hand in his hair, the grip hard and serious.

“We’re not just here to hurt the man’s wife,” Floppy said.

*

Katie was in the bath when she heard the noise.

The bath was her fifth that day. She had given up alcohol nine years ago – her last drink had been on New Year’s Eve – and smoking thirteen months ago. These days stress was relieved by water hot enough to make her dizzy

And today had been one of serious stress. It had begun badly when Karl left the house in silence, barely a word spoken and obviously something on his mind as he rushed out the door. She had thought he’d somehow found out about Adam, her sister’s gay friend, but the thing with the definitely-not-gay personal trainer had been five weeks ago and a one-off – no calls or contact of any kind since then, so there was no way Karl should have found out. Only hours later had she realised that Karl’s funny attitude had to do with something else, something he might have done.

Murder, said the awful police who rapped on her door and claimed they had a search warrant for the house. The other detective, the thin one called Chambers or Chalmers, had been very apologetic and subservient to her, but the damage had been done. Never again would she be able to hear a knock at the door without a chill of fear running down her spine.

And now, the icing on the cake, Karl was missing. Some copper had contacted her to say he’d been arrested, and two hours later three others had arrived – with two more cars loaded with men lurking outside – to ask if he was here, if she’d seen him, if he had any friends he might have gone to. She understood immediately that this was not an escape they were talking about. Those hunting fugitives would not knock the door and politely enquire if the escapee was home. No, something else had happened. Something bad. But they would not elaborate. She was no wiser now as to the location or condition of her husband than she had been before hounding the station with phone calls for the last hour.

She had given up uselessly pestering the police – their word, “pestering” – and calling Karl’s dead mobile phone and had gone for soak number four. An hour later and here she was again, barely dry from the last bath and settling into another. And that was when she heard the noise.

It sounded like the back door opening and her first thought was that Karl was creeping in. Understandable because he was still a wanted man, but strange because he knew that door’s funny habit. If the door was opened at speed the draft excluder, fixed too low, slid over the lino easily, but if opened slowly it caught and caused the whole door to vibrate loudly enough to hear throughout the house.

“Karl?” she shouted down. The faint vibration halted. Maybe because of her shout, or the door might already be open wide enough to allow him in. No answer, but he was probably staying silent in case there were police with her, waiting for him. Again, understandable.

“Karl?” It’s okay.”

Nothing. But he must have heard. And he would not stay silent.

Katie rose slowly from the bath, trying not to make a splash. Even as she did this, she knew it was a futile action, because her earlier shouts would have given away the fact that there was someone in the house.

She nearly fell as she stumbled to the towel rail on the wall. Her vision swam and her head throbbed. The heat of the bath had raised her blood pressure and sweated out a bunch of her fluids. She opened the bathroom door and staggered to the top of the stairs. Out on the landing it was much cooler and she felt instantly better.

The stairs had a bulb at both top and bottom and she lit up the one below, leaving herself in darkness.

Too late she realised she should have run for the phone in the bedroom. A man appeared at the foot of the stairs, a man in a boiler suit and a balaclava. He looked up into the darkness and she froze. Despite knowing he couldn’t see her, she threw her hands over her exposed body, silently cursing that she’d forgotten to grab a towel.

The man reached for the light switch, and she was no longer frozen.

It was a mistake. He did not light her up, but instead turned off the lower bulb to envelope himself in darkness once again. But she moved, and he heard it.

His feet thumped the stairs and she heard an Irish voice say, “C’mere, Darling.” Her fear level rose at the realisation that he hadn’t seen her but clearly knew who to expect here. He was after her!

She ran into the bedroom, turned, threw the door shut. It bounced right back at her as he crashed into it, knocking her into the bed. The moment she landed on her back, he was right there, right above her. She saw his lascivious eyes either side of a thread of the balaclava that had come loose and dangled down the bridge of his nose. Hands pinned her arms, then forced them above her head. To cover her naked waist, she threw up a leg. She wasn’t thinking of an attacking blow, but her knee caught the guy in the balls and he grunted. It didn’t help her cause, though. He lowered himself onto her, closing the gap so she couldn’t strike again. She felt his clothing on her skin and it sickened her, maybe more so than his bare flesh would have. His head was on her chest and she could hear his panting.

“Help!” she yelled, top of her voice, giving it all her lungs had. The neighbours were young people, good ears, and surely they’d hear and come rushing round. Thirty seconds, she figured. All she had to do was fight this guy off for thirty seconds and she’d be saved.

His knee went between her legs, forcing through and up, until she felt coarse material, very cold, in her secret area. Only now did the thought of rape enter her mind and she yelled again.

One of his hands released her arm and grabbed her between the legs. Her free hand lashed out, slapping his head. He seemed to barely feel it. In fact, he laughed.

She heard something downstairs. The door again. No vibration this time but a heavy thump, as if someone had slammed it all the way open. Then footsteps on the stairs, just as loud as her attacker’s had been. The neighbours, thanks God!

“You kill that dude?” the guy on top of her said as she saw the black shape of another man rush into the bedroom. The last of her resolve was crushed under a wave of horror as she realised the two men knew each other. She could not defend against two. There was no hope to be had and she felt her muscles relax as her brain gave up the fight.

“Sure did,” the new guy said, then moved forward to help his partner hold her down.

*

They were just a few minutes from their destination when Karl said, “Shall we park right outside or a street away or something, Danny-boy?”

He jerked as the van swerved. A moment later it was against the kerb, parked, and Danny was staring at him past Liz. “What did you call me?”

Karl froze. Danny had a wild look in his eyes, as if Karl had slighted the guy’s mother. “Just Danny-boy,” he said, scared now. He didn’t need another enemy in the world. Could this guy really get offended at a name, now, with all that was going on?”

“How did you hear that name?”

"The guy, Gold, he used it. Thought it was just a nickname. Didn't mean any -"

He cursed and Karl fell silent.

“What is it?” Liz said, her head jerking left and right to watch each man’s face.

“Your husband’s idea. Something we used way back if ever Gold was talking to Ron or me and he wanted to let us know we might be being recorded by the police. He called me Danny-boy, or he called Ronald Ronny-boy.”

“So, what, the police are recording us?” Liz said. “Is that not good?”

Danny’s face clearly said he didn’t think it was good. “This ain’t about police surveillance. Gold must have used the code to say there was some kind of problem, but he couldn’t say what.”

Now Liz and Karl looked at each other. “Why not?” Liz said.

“Because the problem was standing right in front of him,” Danny said.

*

In a housing estate in Bromley, Danny turned into a cul-de-sac and Karl sat up. It seemed they were going to the solicitor’s house, not his office. He scrutinised the houses and took a guess, but the van didn’t stop. Then they were at the turnaround at the end and he stared at a detached house that he thought befitted a solicitor’s wage and standing, but the van didn’t stop. The vehicle mounted the kerb and drove down a path between two houses. There had once been a bollard to thwart cars, but all that remained was a concrete stub. Space was tight and Danny drove slowly because, despite the damage to the front of his van, he didn’t want to scratch the paintwork.

The path delivered them onto a hammerhead turnaround on a wide road that ran straight ahead. There was no street lighting. On the left were commercial businesses, large and imposing and lit by signs and lamps, while on the right were smaller buildings, shrouded in gloom, that looked like houses, apart from the fact that each had a tiny car park out front.

Danny stopped the van and pointed down the road. “On the right…” he counted “…fifteenth place.”

Karl counted. Fifteen was a long way, a good couple of hundred metres. There was a single car parked out front. At this angle they couldn’t see the front of the building, but there was a pinprick glint of light on the side of the lone car – a reflection from a lit window. It seemed to be the only place that might be occupied.

“This is way out of the way for a solicitor’s office or house,” Karl said.

“He likes the peace and quiet,” Liz said. Made sense.

“And a city office would attract all manner of scum,” Danny said.

That made more sense. A man with clients like Ronald Grafton would not want to deal with ASBO breakers and car thieves.

He looked down the left flank and saw what appeared to be an end to the commercial places because the world turned black.

As if reading his mind, Danny said, “Where it gets dark, just after the businesses end on the left, that’s where the food place and the football place are. The football place is shut because of a fire and the food place is a warehouse so has no lighting on the exterior, so they’re both dark. The best place to hide and watch, so that’s where McIntyre will be lurking, if he’s here. By coming the way we did, we avoided the entrance to this road, which they’ll be watching.”

Liz hit Karl’s arm. “Told you he was good.” She was in a buoyant mood that Karl envied.

“Not so fast,” Danny said. “The problem is they can see the entrance but they can also see Gold’s house. If we drive right up there, they’ll spot us long before we get close. There’s light on us and none on them, so they’d also see us before we saw them. So there’s no creeping up.”

Liz lost her enthusiasm. “So we can’t get there?”

Danny grinned at them both. “Think I came all this way without a plan?”

He outlined his plan. Liz was up for it. Karl was dubious because he sensed something like gloom in Danny’s voice. He understood why when Liz touched Danny’s arm and said,

“I know you want to do this, Danny, but we’ll be fine.”

So the former paratrooper was worried that he was sending these two amateurs out there alone, that was all. Karl grew extra respect for the man.

“If I honk,” Danny said, “it means trouble’s coming, so run for a galaxy far, far away.”

Liz threw open the door. Danny turned off the interior light before it really got a chance to come on. She slipped out and Karl followed immediately, knowing that a pause would broadcast his reticence and that that would increase Danny’s worry.

“You go in, you call the police, and you lock the doors and stay there with Gold until they come. I’ll wait here until they arrive, then be off. Luck be with.”

“Thanks, Danny,” Karl said to this man who had saved him and who he didn’t even know.

Danny gave him a thumbs-up and Liz shut the door.

*

Behind the houses was scrubland that terminated at a post and rail fence, perhaps a boundary for former back gardens, with farmland beyond. On the other side of the fence, running parallel, was a gash in the land where piping had perhaps long ago laid. They climbed the fence and walked the gash, just their heads visible to anyone who might have been in one of the buildings. They walked slowly because the gash was littered with trash and rocks. Karl led, with Liz bringing up the rear. He was cold and wished he’d selected more than just a T-shirt for the trip. Then again, he hadn’t expected to be out in some field.

“Suppose this solicitor isn’t keen on getting us a good deal,” he said. “Maybe he believes everything the cops have said and thinks we’re evil bastards who deserve to go to prison.”

“That’s not what he does,” Liz answered with confidence. “He’ll give us the best defence he can. In the past he’s gotten my husband off when he knew Ron was guilty as sin.”

This reminded Karl of what Danny had told him about the phantom called Rapid and McIntyre’s dead wife and kid. Gold must have had a hand in sweeping all that trouble under the carpet. He thought that proved they could trust the guy.

They arrived. The back of the house had an extension that looked like a kitchen, right down to ornaments on the window sill and what looked like the top of an upright freezer glimpsed beyond open horizontal blinds. The light was on. The light wasn’t the only indication of habitation: the chimney poured smoke. People sometimes went out and left lights on, but surely not fireplaces.

“So how do we do this?” Karl said. “Rush across and try the door?”

In answer, Liz climbed out of the gash and over the fence and, bent low, scuttled across the scrubland. She stopped at the window and looked in, eyes and forehead peeking up like some kid being nosey. Karl shouted a whisper, trying to draw her back until they could formulate a plan. But when she tried the door and it opened, he cursed and followed her.

They stood at the open door, bathed in light, and waited, listening. No sounds.

“Through the kitchen there’s a hallway. Three doors and some stairs. A waiting room, a study, and the office. Bedrooms upstairs. Normally he lives in the study with his books and IPad, but if he’s waiting for us then he’ll be in the office. Second door on the right, just past the stairs.”

“In other words, this place has a lot of places for a bad guy to be lurking.”

“In other words, me first?” She stepped inside. He grabbed her arm and pulled her behind him.

“My hero,” she said sarcastically.

“Don’t flatter yourself, Queen of Sheba. If we’re going to die, I want it over with.” He walked into the kitchen, hunched over and taking big steps like a cartoon burglar. Then he stood up straight, realising how silly he was being.

The kitchen was completely normal, just like any you’d find in a typical house. Now he definitely felt like a burglar. “Sure this is the right place?”

“In other words, me first now?”

He scowled at her and continued. The floor was carpet, which helped kill the sound of their footsteps. The door in the far wall was ajar and he put his eye to the gap. He saw the outline of a dark hallway beyond, just as promised. On the left were the stairs, running along the hallway and held aloft by wooden pillars. No banister, which he thought was dangerous. Boxes were stacked underneath. At the far end, the stairs hit the ground by a door in the wall. The front door was at the end. From this angle he couldn’t see the other two doors. No choice but to open the kitchen door and step out. At least the light in the hallway was off. They would be hidden. But so would anyone waiting for them.

He walked along the hall. The first of the two doors in the right-hand wall was ajar – outwards – and hinged on the nearest side, so he was unable to see inside. He stood in front of it and leaned and turned and peeked within. A lamp on a table shed enough light for him to see most of a study. Empty.

The second door was right across from the one at the bottom of the stairs. Karl noted a design flaw: door two and the front door would clash if opened at the same time. However, this door was wide open, almost touching the wall and held there by some kind of clasp. A modification made once someone had spotted the flaw, he figured.

Flickering yellow light seeped out of the office, as if from a fireplace. Was Gold in there, poring over books as he awaited his guests? Karl was tempted to call out, but didn’t. Eight more steps and they’d be able to see inside.

Three steps later, the hallway light came on.

Liz cursed. Karl froze, eyes on the light switch on the wall. No one there, of course. Then he turned and looked up the stairs, to where the other switch would be.

“Thought you were going to come in the front way,” Les said. He was sitting on the stairs near the top, one arm raised high over his head and his finger still on the switch. The other hand held a gun aimed right down at them.

*

Karl tensed, ready grab Liz and run back towards the kitchen. Half the hallway was a blind spot for the gun because of where Les sat: three steps and he would have no angle to fire at them. But he could fire before they got one step.

Les lowered his hand from the light switch, but not the gun. It moved back and forth between Karl and Liz.

“So who do I shoot first?”

“Yourself,” Liz spat. “You killed my husband.”

“He killed himself, lady. When he killed my wife and son. And I’m not done yet. When I go to Hell, he’s got more coming.”

“He had nothing to do with that,” she shouted.

Les stood up. For the second it took to do so, Karl figured the guy had no real aim, so he made his move. Hissing Run, he jabbed his arms hard into Liz’s back, forcing her forwards and using her weight to launch himself backwards. She was propelled into Les’s blind spot. He turned and grabbed the doorframe and hauled himself into the office. The ploy worked because he heard no shot. But he did hear footsteps thudding down the stairs as he slammed the door.

Beyond the door: shouting…thudding…but still no gunshot.

He was trapped in the room, of course. Some kind of macho thing he’d done there, splitting Liz and he up so Les would have to pick one to chase. Liz might escape if she was quick, but Karl had no way out.

He turned to seek a window, or a fucking fireman’s pole into the centre of the earth – anything. What he found himself facing was a dead man in a chair. The window was to Karl’s left and the desk was facing it, but the fat guy in a suit sitting behind it was turned so he was facing the door. The desk lamp had been positioned so its meagre light bathed the solicitor, clearly displaying a ragged red slice right through his throat and blood all over him.

A display, Karl realised, feeling his fear and revulsion peak. Gold had been carefully positioned so that his visitors, here to seek his help, would immediately see that he was going to be of no assistance to them at all.

It was how Les had wanted it to go down, of course. Liz and Karl in the doorway, frozen with shock, Les behind them on the stairs, watching their distress for a few seconds before he flicked the light on. At least they’d fucked up his little surprise, although not completely because here was Karl, standing frozen after all.

The door started to open. He turned, backed away. Forgot about the dead guy so completely for a moment that he backed right into the man’s legs.

Liz entered, struggling against a hand clamped in her hair, Les right behind her with the gun resting on her shoulder and aiming at Karl. Knowing Karl was trapped, Les had obviously chased Liz. And now he had both of them right where he’d probably wanted to bring them all along. So all Karl had achieved with his macho deed was to save Les the trouble of saying, “Get in the office.”

Les pushed her hard, right into Karl, and they hit the dead guy and went down. All three of them: the fat solicitor came out and slumped on the bloody carpet. Karl and Liz backed up against the far wall, right by the burning coal fire, with the solicitor laying on his side near their feet. Les kicked the door shut and sat on the edge of the desk, one foot resting on the dead guy’s shoulder.

They were only a few feet from Les, but he sat casually because he had the gun and they were on their asses and he had no doubt he could quickly put down anyone who tried to rise and cover that gap. His proximity was like a tease or a taunt that Karl wasn’t going to be bitten by.

Liz grabbed his hand, and for some reason that just made him feel more impotent. He slowly got to his feet, ready at a moment’s notice to drop right back on his ass if Les told him to. But he didn’t, so Karl rose up and Liz came with him. He stepped to one side, right in front of her. Three feet away, kicking distance, the gun tracked his heart with minute precision.

Les bent his arm as, keeping his aim, he drew the gun backwards six inches towards his chest. Kicking range gone. Not that Karl would have tried that daft move anyway.

“This is a Sarsilmaz ST10, Karl. Big power. The bullet will go right through you and into her. The resistance of your body will slow it just enough to make her death slow and agonising. More humane if you just step aside and let me kill her instantly.”

“Would it help if I said we wouldn’t tell anyone if you let us go?” Karl said. Strangely, he wasn’t that scared. Maybe it was the finality of it all: all running was done, all hope of escape gone. Or some silly bravado, because Les wasn’t going to kill him any quicker just because of a snidey remark or two.

“If you promise,” Les said. The guy tried to put on a serious face, also joking about.

“No, we’re telling everyone, sorry,” Karl said. He felt Liz squeeze his arm, as if she thought he’d just tossed away a chance at freedom and continued life.

Les was looking at them and Karl realised that the guy was enjoying the moment. When they were dead, there would be no more fun to have, so Les was delaying the final moment. But Karl couldn’t think how he could use that to his advantage.

“Step aside, Seabury. If you want it to be quick.”

Karl didn’t move. Liz tried to shift him aside, a gesture that put a lump in his throat but also made him more determined. He decided he wasn’t going to make this the lovely, fun experience that Les wanted it to be.

“Fuck you,” he said.

Les shrugged. “Fair enough.” He lowered the gun so it was aiming at one of Karl’s knees, and pulled the trigger.

*

Danny opened his door again, and closed it again.

He knew it was a bad idea to leave the van, but staying here, doing nothing, made him feel impotent. He had punched dozens of men in the face, he had threatened and been threatened with knives and guns. He had taken beatings at the hands of vicious people and given similar to countless enemies. All that in mind, he felt like a coward sitting here while his ex-boss’s comely wife and some guy she’d said was a shop owner walked into a dangerous situation. But he was in a wheelchair and would be of no use to anyone. Still…

The past few years had been a mellow time in his life and he’d gotten used to a quiet existence, or so he assumed. But burning beneath the surface was an unquenchable desire for action. He hadn’t really been aware of it until he got the call from Mr. Gold informing him that Liz Grafton needed help. The decision had taken a second, maybe two. A hour later, a friend’s birthday party ignored, he had been sitting beside her in his van in the car park of a pub near a McDonald’s, hearing her tale and relishing both the promise of action and her proximity.

He wondered what would happen after all this was done. Would she keep in contact? He was sorry that her husband was dead, but only because she was upset. Ronald Grafton himself was no great loss. In fact, Danny was glad in a way. He and Ron had had no contact in a few years, but Danny had not forgotten the man’s vengeful streak. Not a week went by when he didn’t wonder if Grafton would today decide he wanted to get back at Danny again. The guy was like that, and Danny knew because he had been sent to dish out vengeance on Ron’s behalf. Now and then one of the boys would get a call: go past blah blah’s house and toss a brick through the window, or pop his car tyres. It made Ron feel good because he knew nit-picking like this kept people on their toes. A brick through a window was no great deal, and anyone normal would just blame bored yobbos on the street. But if you knew Ron was pissed at you, a brick through the window would keep you paranoid for a week, wondering if it was the start of a new round of comebacks. The guy looking at Danny funny in that flower shop a couple of weeks back; the wing mirror that got busted on his van six months ago; the EBay parcel that was dispatched but never arrived: Danny had fretted about each of these things, wondering if, during a moment of boredom, Ron had thought about him and decided Danny’s life was too peaceful.

But Ron was gone. And, yes, Danny was glad. And now Liz was single, and they got on well, and who knew, maybe in a couple of months when the pain of loss diminished…

Lights hit his wing mirror. He was parked twenty metres from the path out of the cul-de-sac and now watched a vehicle coming along it. It was moving slowly, which was not a good sign, but then again the lane was thin and slow was needed.

The vehicle slipped out of the path and speeded up. It drove past the left side of Danny’s van and he lifted an A-Z and lowered his head, pretending to read. But his eyes were cast to the side. The van was white, with some faded emblem on the side. He didn’t know the vehicle, but in the driver’s seat he glimpsed a man he thought he recognised, although it was dark and he could have been wrong. There was a guy in the passenger seat, too. A driver and his mate, could have been. But Danny was sure he recognised the driver. A bad guy for sure. Which meant two bad guys. He watched the van drive down the road. The road led to a roundabout, and from there the roads of course went everywhere, so these guys could be going to Scotland, or to Dover to catch a ferry to France. But he knew they weren’t. Because he recognised that driver.

Danny opened his door again, then slammed it. By the time he got his chair out and had wheeled himself halfway, it would all be over. And if he drove in pursuit of the van, he would alert the bad guys and then he’d have no element of surprise and he’d be stuck in the van anyway, unless they were such sportsmen in combat as to allow him to fire up the machinery and extract his chair from the van before they started shooting.

He cursed. Nothing he could do except what he’d promised Liz. So, angry, impotent, lost, Danny laid on the horn.

*

The timing was perfect. A car horn, just as Les fired. The distance made the noise quite quiet, so it wasn’t the volume that made Les shift his aim a millimetre, putting the bullet somewhere in the wall behind both Karl and Liz at ankle level.

Karl could see the suspicion on Les’s face – way out here in the dark, all but this place closed for the night, and someone had let off a long blast on their horn. Not one of those watch-where-you’re-going blasts a thousand motorists did every day to broadcast their annoyance. Longer, harder, something to get someone’s attention, or give a warning. Les had realised this and it put enough shock and suspicion in his mind to cause the gun to jerk and waste the bullet. And Karl seized the opportunity:

“That noise means you’re in big trouble, McIntyre. Thought we came unprepared, did you?”

He had and he shouldn’t have, said Les’s face. He rushed to the bay window, still keeping the gun on Karl, and pulled one of curtains open a crack. Karl saw nothing beyond at first, then bright lights as a vehicle turned into the car park. His hopes flared and died in the same moment, because it had to be Danny out there, and what could a man in a wheelchair do apart from extend their lives for another minute before getting killed himself?

Les let the curtain drop. He stood with his back to it and grinned at them. “My friends are here,” he said.

Not Danny after all, and of course not – the plan had been to honk the horn if he saw trouble, not honk to announce his own arrival. And the trouble he’d spotted? More bad guys coming to join the party.

“Sit down, backs against the wall,” Les ordered.

They had almost no chance of disarming Les at such a distance, but sitting took the “almost” part out of the equation. But sit they did, no choice. Side by side against the wall behind the desk, with the fallen chair and the dead solicitor in front of them. This close, his lethal wound looked that much worse. His open eyes seemed to be staring right at their feet, but that, Karl felt, was better than their faces.

“How do you think you’ll sell this?” Karl said. “Are you going to be the hero? You find us dead and claim the glory?”

Les shook his head. “Not this time. Did that with her husband and it raised a sneaky bastard’s suspicions. He doesn’t have them any longer. No, this time I’ll be long gone when the bodies are found.”

“How did you kill my husband, you bastard?” Liz said, out of the blue, unexpected.

Karl did not want Les to answer that one. Liz didn’t need to know the details. He spoke before Les could answer her, because he was sure the bastard would love to shock her with his gory recollection.

“Well, you tried to blame us for that. Who gets the blame this time?” He put his hand on her shoulder, hoping that would calm her.

They heard two doors slam outside. Les’s friends, about to join the party. Karl felt time slipping through his fingers.

“Nobody this time. This time the killer was guilt. No, the paranoid human mind.” He smiled at his own idea. “You and missy there set up all sorts of people who are now dead. Lots of double-crossing going on. Only right that in the end you tried to trick each other and it all ended in more blood.”

“How did you kill my husband?” Liz said again.

Karl didn’t miss a beat: “So, what, you set it up so it looks like we killed each other? What you thinking, mutual Seppuku?”

"One shot the other with this very gun then blew his own brains out. Or hers. I haven't yet decided which one of you gets to commit suicide. Maybe her, because she's all cut up about losing her -"

“Tell me!” Liz yelled at him. “Relive it in your sick mind, like you want to. Speak it aloud, let us hear the thrill in your voice. Beat me down with it. Take your sweet time. Go on, tell us how you murdered my husband.”

The multiple murderer with the gun actually looked shocked at her outburst, as if it was the very last thing on earth he had expected. He might have stayed shocked forever, but they would never know because they heard the front door open, and a moment after that two people walked into the office.

Karl felt a falling sensation. Something ethereal yet anchored coming loose inside him, like his soul. He refused to believe his eyes, but knew it was real. There in the doorway stood the man called Brad. And beside him, her upper arm clutched in his fist, was Katie.

“Leave her alone!” he yelled, and rose to his feet. Les fired once, into the air, but Karl kept rising. Only when the second bullet tore into the wall beside his face and plaster and paint chips caught his eyeball did he stop, clutching his face.

“Stay back, Karl,” Katie moaned.

He fell back against the wall, all fight gone. Brad had a knife, and it was hovering close to Katie’s face. One with a knife, one with a gun, game over.

Les, though, was not as happy as he should have been. The gun was no longer pointed at Karl but somewhere halfway between him and Brad, at a blank piece of wall where no enemy stood. As if he didn’t know which of the two men was the biggest threat.

“Where’s the guys?” he said.

Brad said, “Cops chased them away, but I was already in the house. Went in and got the wife.” He shook her a little, just to emphasis his point.

“Glad you made it,” Les said, deadpan.

Brad shook Katie again. “So why don’t you have a feel of this one, Les. Moist and soft.”

“Don’t fucking touch her,” Karl hissed at Les.

That made him angry. “Give that bitch here.”

Brad took a step forward and thrust Katie towards Les, who put his hand out to receive her. Karl closed his eyes.

*

Les would never know, but it had gone down like this…

Back at the Seabury house, Katie had struggled under her attacker and watched the second intruder move forward to grab her. Only he hadn’t grabbed her.

Instead he grabbed the guy on top of her and yanked him back, and down they both went. Katie froze, unsure what was happening. She could hear grunting, thudding, and feel the two men banging into her legs as they rolled and wrestled, but she didn’t lift them up. She just lay there in the dark, listening, until finally the noises stopped and a piece of blacker black raised itself up. The guy stood before her. There was enough light coming through the curtains to allow him to see all her nakedness, but she still didn’t move. Not even a hand to cover herself.

“Get dressed and come with me,” the guy said.

He turned the light on and she saw he was wearing a balaclava just like the other guy, but normal clothes, not a boiler suit. She sat up and pulled the blanket around her, and that was when she saw the boiler suit guy on her bedroom carpet, eyes wide, hair a mess, blood running from his nose, and looking very dead. She saw these things because he no longer wore a balaclava. She understood that the guy standing before her had taken it from him so she wouldn’t see his face. That was a good sign, right? That was what they did in the films, covered their faces if they planned on leaving a captive alive, right?

“Come with me and you’ll be safe,” he told Katie. He backed off to the doorway, as if to reassure her.

She didn’t move. He took a step closer, and she shifted backwards on the bed, and that made him stop. Clearly he didn’t want to scare her.

He stripped off the balaclava, tossed it down. Fear welled up for a second, but then she saw his face. Not one she recognised, but a soft face, feminine, and one that she strangely thought she could…trust. And he had killed the other guy, after all.

“Who are you?”

“Just get dressed. I’ll help you and your husband. Call the cops and I can’t do that, and they won’t find him, at least not alive. Call them or come with me.” He pointed at the phone, but she didn’t move. Then he backed out of the doorway and shut the door. And she scrambled for the bedside phone.

But she didn’t make the call. She thought about what he had said, and she thought about the police who had come to her door earlier, both times. They had killed her trust in the police. This strange man had saved her, but who was he? Some kind of friend, of course, and someone who knew all about what had been going on. Karl was missing, and this guy claimed he could take her to him, help them both.

Against her better judgement, she moved away from the phone. She threw on clothing, one ear on the door, half-expecting him to burst in, all of it some joke, some trick to get her hopes up. But the door stayed shut.

She opened the door slowly once dressed, and there he was, sitting on the top stair. Just waiting, either for her or the cops. He stood. He went down the stairs without a word.

She followed, even though her fear radar was screaming. When she got to the top of the stairs and looked down, there he was, at the bottom, a black shape in the black, waiting again. And then he moved away.

At the living room doorway, she peered round. If this was all some trick, she figured, then there would be some surprise for her here, in the living room. There wasn’t. Just the guy, standing at the kitchen door and waiting for her. He vanished again.

At the kitchen door, she looked across the dark kitchen and saw him standing at the open back door. Moonlight soaked his shoulders and head, but his face was in shadow. The moment he saw her, he stepped out into the world. She was being led like some dumb animal, she realised. No, he was keeping his distance, that was all.

It happened again. He was at the open back gate just long enough to confirm that she had appeared at the back door. When she reached the gate, she looked out and saw him at the end of the driveway. She was reminded of chasing a rainbow as a kid, riding her bike towards the giant arc of colour but never getting any closer.

She felt better now, because now she was out where people could see. In fact, there was a guy with a dog on the other side of the road, walking. She could call for help. She didn’t. She could have called for help up in the bedroom. Some part of her didn’t want to, because she trusted the soft-faced man.

When the dog-walker disappeared behind a white van, she saw the stranger inside the vehicle, waiting. She went to it, opened the passenger door and, shocking herself even after coming this far, got inside. As she climbed in, she saw another guy in the back, slumped on the middle row of seats, some young blond guy who looked as dead as the one upstairs. It didn’t shock her, but reinforced her belief that the man with the feminine face was here to help. She knew that three men had come for her, but one had had other plans.

[_ "Where's -" _]

[_ "- Karl?" she said. _]

Brad started the engine. He knew this would be the point where she would flee if she finally decided to. But she just sat there.

“I don’t know for sure,” he said. “But I promise I’m here to help you.” He handed her a knife. She looked at it. She was supposed to take it, to know that he was offering it as a weapon against him if he tried anything. The gesture seemed to be enough, though, because she shook her head.

He pulled away from the kerb slowly, giving her the option to leap out if she suddenly decided she wanted no part of this. She stayed in her seat, staring ahead through the windscreen. Doubting herself, he knew. Twenty seconds later they were up to forty and away from the estate, and Brad shifted his mind from the woman. She would have baulked by now if planning to, so he had her trust, albeit grudgingly. He emptied his mind, because he knew he could not plan his next move until he’d found out for sure about Dave. He didn’t speak, and the woman beside him didn’t speak, and they drove like a couple that had just had an argument.

If he was on the fence about Les’s vicious intentions tonight, all doubt vanished when he turned onto Dave’s street and saw the police cars. Two of them, and an ambulance. It could have been a pair of neighbours having a domestic, but Brad knew it wasn’t. Dave. Something had happened to Dave. He pulled up alongside a squad car, dropped his window. A uniform in the other car looked annoyed, perhaps thinking this was a nosey member of the public. Brad flashed his warrant card. He waited for Seabury’s wife to give him up, but it didn’t happen. She didn’t even acknowledge the cop. Only the windscreen as she sat like someone in a trance.

“What’s happened?” he asked the cop.

The guy told him. Some stabbing. The guy was one of ours.

Brad didn’t hang around. Now he knew. Les’s mind had finally derailed. His plan tonight was to go out with a bang, then escape. It had been something he’d always planned on. He’d lived his life these past few months as a slave to the belief that the walls might tumble at any moment and force him to flee. He had cautioned Brad and Dave against becoming too firmly rooted. Don’t fall in love too deep. Don’t have kids. Don’t get any big library books. Because you might have get the hell out of Dodge at the drop of a hat. That would be Les’s plan tonight, because things were falling apart rapidly. The violence in Les’s blood had brought about his downfall and he knew it, but he wasn’t done yet. There was more violence to come. The attack on Seabury’s wife, the attempt on Brad’s life, and now this, Dave’s murder, were proof that Les was trying to get rid of witnesses, anyone who might have a fragment of information that could set the police upon him. He would flee soon, but there was one more loose end to fix. Liz Grafton and Karl Seabury. The solicitor probably wouldn’t survive his tidy-up, either.

Brad couldn’t allow that. He had told Seabury’s wife that he was one of the good guys, and although that wasn’t exactly true, he wasn’t about to let Les rampage over any more lives, especially innocent ones. Seabury’s wife had been a step too far.

“I need your help,” he said to Seabury’s wife. “I will take you to your husband, but there will be another man there. He’s a man I need to put down. I need you play along with me, if you can. I need to manhandle you a bit, if you’re willing. Let me explain…”

*

So she stumbled forward, pushing forward, all part of the plan, suitably distraught of face and flail of arms to pull off the act, and Les didn’t expect her momentum, and she crashed into him hard, forcing through, and down he went because he was not planted against such an impact. Four entwined arms and four entangled legs, and two torsos hitting the deck hard.

“Bitch,” Les yelled.

“Run,” Katie shouted.

Right then he knew it was a trick. Catlike, he slipped from under the woman even before her full weight had landed on him, tried to stand, and took someone’s knee right in the face. He fell back, hitting the bookcase beside the roaring fireplace, and raised the gun and his eyes at the same time. Brad was right there, moving in, holding that knife, but the gun changed whatever plan he had and he darted aside as Les fired.

It gave Les space. He lunged forward, grabbed Brad around the waist and lifted him up. A fireman’s lift, they called it. But Brad crunched his abdominals as his torso went over Les’s shoulder, forcing himself forward fast so that his momentum seemed to multiply his weight. Unprepared for a man “weighing” twice what he expected, Les toppled backwards, falling into the wall, crushing Brad’s upside down body against the pale paintwork.

Les moved away as Brad fell to the ground, turned as Brad was getting to his feet, and this time it was Les’s knee and Brad’s skull that connected. Brad crumpled against the wall and Les leaned in, grabbed his hair. The pistol was right there on the carpet, so Les snatched it up with his free hand and swung it and his head towards the far wall, where his captives were.

“Don’t moo…” That was all he got out before he realised he was aiming at nothing. Seabury, Seabury’s bitch wife, and Grafton’s bitch wife – all had seized the moment and darted away like terrified cats. Out the door and gone.

“Again!” Les yelled in anger. They had gotten away yet again! He yanked on Brad’s head, toppling him from his sitting position, and thrust his head into the fire. Coal jumped and sparked and fell out, onto the hearth. Brad’s arm cast over an ornate metal urn holding pokers, spilling them.

Les stepped back as Brad yelped and clutched his face.

“You sack of shit, Brad. You do this to me after what I did for you?”

“What did you do?” Brad yelled back. He swiped at a loose, burning piece of coal. It flew nowhere near Les. “You mean the part where you set me up with two guys who were supposed to kill me?”

“Loose ends, Brad. You guys lost trust in me.”

Brad swiped another dislodged piece of coal. Les had to jump aside to avoid this one. Brad sat up. “Plural’s right, Les, isn’t it? You killed Dave.” He made to sweep another piece of coal, and Les reacted by stepping back, but instead Brad grabbed a poker from the spilled urn and launched it. It sailed past Les, not even close. But Les lifted a defensive hand and turned his head, and that was when Brad grabbed a burning piece of coal and lunged forward and threw it, and this shot was good. Les took the lump right in the face. It sent burning fragments into the air like a tiny firework. Les yelped, staggered back, brought the gun up, but by then Brad was up and moving forward, powering into Les’s legs, driving them both back.

Les pivoted, turned, swung Brad, used the man’s forward motion to slam him against the wall. Brad let go and fell to the carpet again. Les stepped back and raised the gun. Then he picked up the thrown poker and slotted the gun away. He cracked the metal stick against Brad’s hand, breaking something, lacerating it. Brad moaned and clutched the bleeding limb to his chest.

“I saved your fucking life, Brad. Or did you forget the bastard who tried to stab you?”

Brad started to crawl towards the doorway. Les followed him.

“Did you forget this?” Les jerked the T-shirt under his jacket to expose one pectoral and a thick white scar. “That was for you, and here’s my thanks.”

“And you never let me forget it, either.”

Les cracked Brad across the right shoulder, eliciting another scream of pain. But Brad continued to crawl. Out the door, to the right, and towards the front doorway, and the dark night. Les stepped out of the office.

Brad was halfway across the threshold. Les hit him again, this time across the lower spine, then planted a foot on his ass and shoved. Brad sprawled forward onto his belly on the tarmac right outside the doorway.

“That’s right, I never forget!” Les bellowed, but not for Brad’s ears. Loud, forward, out the door and across the world. No matter how fast they had run, his yell was faster and he knew they’d hear it, believe it. No sleep for them tonight because he could emerge from the woodwork when they least expected it. “Never give up, do I?”

He raised the poker for a killing blow as he stepped towards the doorway, best he could raise it while restricted by the doorframe. Les laughed as Brad covered his head with his hands and unleashed a scream.

Only it wasn’t a scream, Les realised. The growing sound of some roaring engine, he knew. And by the time he had worked this out – half a second after hearing it – it was too late. The speeding van hit the doorway with a thunderous boom and crunch of glass.

…seemingly out of nowhere, like a bear-trap… no time to react other than to yelp and cover his face like a beaten child…gun out and aimed in the next second, so he was no deer-in-the-headlights, although all he could see to shoot at was –

Frozen in place, chest heaving, gun raised, Les laughed again as he realised he had been here before, same stance, same panic and shock, as if he’d jumped back in time. But this time something was different. This time he was facing no wall of metal.

This time his gun was pointed directly, undeniably, incontestably at the guy sitting shocked behind the steering wheel.

This time I see you,” he said, and fired through the busted windscreen, which was in a million pieces on the carpet and the stairs and Les’s clothing and hair. He fired four times, fast, and the guy in the van thumped back in his seat four times, fast, and then slumped forward, dead.

*

They were hiding behind the solicitor’s car, too close, still in the danger zone, but it was the only hiding place out there unless they wanted to risk running along the street. Katie had been up for that, but both Liz and Karl had chosen the car when they saw Danny’s van, headlights off, cut a sharp and fast curve into the car park. Liz had raised a hand to get his attention, but then Danny had hit the gas, and they could see why: Brad had exited the building, with Les right behind him. Karl had watched with a strange sense of déjà vu as the van slammed hard into the doorway. This time, faster, the van had suffered. He heard the great bang, heard the windscreen blow out, and saw the entire front of the vehicle crumple like tinfoil.

“Danny!” Liz had cried out when they heard the gunshots, four of them, so fast that it might not have been four but one echoing.

She tried to rise and run, but Karl held her in place. Katie was crying, moaning, asking under her breath, over and over, what was going on.

Then they saw the back doors burst open and Les was there, holding the gun, aiming out at nothing. He must have climbed inside through the busted windscreen.

“One more down and here I come for the rest of you,” Les screamed into the night, like an over-eager kid playing hide and seek.

He jumped down and started running right towards them, but surely he couldn’t know where they were hiding, that they hadn’t fled miles away.

He got one step before he fell flat on his face, hard. They saw his face hit the ground, saw blood from his nose spray across the dark concrete. Heard his grunt of pain. They saw a hand clutching one of Les’s feet.

Brad was suddenly on Les’s legs, climbing, pulling himself out from under the back of the van. Somehow the wheels had missed him when the van hit the house. Les tried to turn, managed it, but then Brad was astride him, mounting him, and raining fists down, hard. Some hit the concrete, but they didn’t seem to hurt him; some hit Les’s arms, but they didn’t seem to bother Les. Then one got through and Les’s head rebounded off the concrete. After that, more got through. They all got through. Les’s arms fell away and lay limp, but Brad’s continued to rise and fall.

Eventually Brad rolled off Les and crawled to the gun. Both men stood at the same time. Eight feet separated them. Les’s legs were wobbly and his face was a bloody mess, and so were Brad’s hands.

Now Liz struggled again and this time got free from Karl’s grip.

“Shoot him!” she screamed. She stumbled out from behind the car. “Shoot him!”

Brad made the mistake of turning to look at her, and that could have been it. Eight feet, one second to close that distance. Game over.

Instead, Les turned and ran. He was injured, though, and his gait was a messy stumble. But it did its job: distance grew between him and the gun. Brad took a step forward, meaning to pursue because he clearly didn’t relish the idea of blasting a man in the back, but his leg gave out and he went down onto one knee, his free hand clutching at his lower spine. The gun did not drop. The gun continued to track Les as he stumbled away, into the road, into the dark. The gun did not fire.

“Shoot him!” Liz rushed to Brad and tried to grab the gun, but he swatted her away and she fell on her ass. The gun continued to aim at Les’s back, but the gap between him and the bullet that could end all their problems grew to forty feet. Fifty feet. Karl emerged from the safety spot behind the car and went to Liz, and Katie followed. Six feet behind Brad, they watched the gun and, beyond it, Les’s staggering form, a trick of perspective making the weapon and the man look the same size.

“Shoot that bastard!” Liz screamed. But the gun did not fire. Beyond it, Les’s shape shrank, and the darkness took him like a black ocean closing around a sinking ship, and then there was nothing more to watch except that gun.

Which continued to stare its single eye at nothing.

*

They were sitting in the white van with the faded emblem on the side, parked by a row of lock-up garages. Karl was in the back, with his wife by his side and Liz beside them. Brad was in the driver’s seat, staring out through the windscreen.

“No,” he repeated.

It had been awkward at first, with Brad pointing his gun at them yet claiming he was not here to hurt them. Eventually he had lowered the gun, but refused to drop it, claiming Les could still be out there. But he had turned his back on them, inviting Karl and Liz and Katie to run if they wanted, or strike him down. Katie’s story of rescue by Brad, as well as the fact that he had fought his former friend, had convinced them that he was no longer a threat.

However, Brad’s trust was not their main concern. Danny was, even though dead. Liz and Karl tried to remove his body from the van, but it was a no-go. They could not lift him from his wheelchair and the mechanism designed to extract the chair from the van had been rent and twisted and busted when the vehicle hit the house. Karl stepped back to give Liz room to cry or talk to him or whatever. All she did was kiss Danny’s cheek, then grab an old coat from the back of his van and cover his face with it. Karl had then approached Brad. He had told the man that the only way to try to make amends would be to give himself up and tell the police everything.

No, Brad had said. But I will help you.

Brad had lifted a mobile phone and called the police, directing them to a pair of bodies at this location. Then he had gotten in the white van and called the others to join him.

The drive had been awkward. Brad hadn’t spoken, and Liz had sat with a knife in her hand, fearing a trick. Fifteen minutes later they had turned onto a quiet street, and Liz had started yelling about a trap. Karl had calmed her by explaining that they would already be dead if that had been the plan.

They had stopped on a dark lane lined with nothing but lock-up garages along both sides and a rusted chain-link fence at the far end, dark scrubland beyond. The place reminded Karl of a smaller version of the street containing his shop, where they had had to run for their lives. Here, as there, there were no houses within sight.

“So what’s here?” Liz had asked.

“Let me call the police,” Karl had said. “We need you to help clear our names.”

Now, Brad said no again. For the first time since entering the van, he turned to face them. He was holding up a mobile phone. “But I’ll tell my story.”

He got out and approached a heavily padlocked garage door. Selected a key from deep inside a pocket and unlocked it. After a glance around, he lifted the up-and-over door with a screech. He waved them over.

They approached cautiously. Brad flicked a switch and lit up the interior. It was large inside, long, and cramped, with the floor loaded with boxes and other items, and shelves that sagged under the weight of items of all kinds. There was a car at the back under a tarpaulin, and in front of it an oblong space that was free of clutter, as if another car had recently sat there. Nothing seemed special about the interior: it was just like any other garage that had been used for storage. For some reason, Karl expected to be shown a dead body, or a heap of cash. But it was just junk, apart from the car.

Brad tossed Karl the mobile phone, stepped inside the garage, took a vinyl glove from a box and slipped it on before lifting a wrench from a shelf, returned and stood in front of the garage. “Film me.”

Karl knew phones and quickly accessed the video camera. The garage light was behind Brad and the man was in silhouette. He could have used the flashlight feature to light him up, but knew Brad intended to be anonymous for this.

“What’s this about?” Liz said.

“This is a confession,” Karl said. “And I think that stuff is evidence we can use in some way.”

“Start,” Brad said.

“Action,” Karl said, hoping to inject some calm into all this.

“My name, as you’ll soon find out, is Bradley Smithfield, Detective Sergeant out of Hammersmith. Behind me is something we called the Loyalty Box. Don’t dismiss the stuff inside as trinkets and junk. Some of it is criminal evidence stolen from evidence rooms in unsolved cases, some is evidence taken from suspects’ houses in order to save them from prosecution, and the rest is evidence from crimes perpetrated by myself, DCI Lesley McIntyre and DS David English. And every single piece was held with the prime reason of blackmailing London’s vast army of ne’er-do-wells.”

He held up the wrench, from which dangled a tag on a string. “This, for instance, is clearly marked to help you. Date and time and location. Dried blood on this item is from an attack on a long-distance driver who disturbed two men breaking into his truck while he was sleeping in it. He wielded this, but they got it from him and put him in the hospital. I was one of the attending officers and I found it discarded in nearby grass. I kept it. I stalled the investigation and nobody was ever apprehended. This became part of the Loyalty Box for use against someone who might have something we wanted, or if we needed the driver to do a job for us. It was used a few weeks ago against a man called Alan Grain, a heroin junkie who confessed to a spate of burglaries. He had nothing to do with those crimes, but I blackmailed him into the confession so I could close the cases and get a pat on the back. He got eight months inside, but that was a lot less than he would have received if he’d gone down for aggravated assault because he already had a conviction for that. Then the wrench went back into the Box for future use.”

He carefully replaced the wrench back on its spot on a shelf. Took off the glove and stuffed it in his pocket. “Most of the stuff is trivial. Shoplifted items, for instance. But also here are items from all sorts of major crimes. Six murderers are free out there because of the Loyalty box. Two men are in prison for killings they didn’t commit. Four rapes in Hammersmith over the last three years are officially unconnected, yet they’re the work of the same man. He has a record for arson and three months ago we forced him to perpetrate a series of car fires in Shoreditch. Inside you’ll find his prints on notes left at all four rapes. I took those notes and nobody knows about them. So, rapes, killings, burglaries, all sorts. You’ll have a field day.” He paused. “Stop filming.”

Karl lowered the camera, and Brad turned to shut the door. But Liz said, “No. More.”

“This is all you’ll need,” Brad said. One hand on the door, ready to shut it. “Three cops, discredited to high hell, and your names cleared. You’ll walk free while the country goes into shock and men in suits talk about police reform programmes.”

Karl turned to her, one placating hand raised. “You don’t need to know,” he said.

“Yes I do,” she said to him, then cast her eyes over his shoulder. At Brad. “Tell it all. What happened that night. The night you murdered my husband.”

Brad paused. Sensing it, Karl turned back to him. As if on cue, Brad faced forward again, and Karl raised the camera.

“If you insist,” Brad said.

*

The story was big news, then stratospheric after some uniformed constable in some small station in Wembley somehow got hold of and leaked the video on YouTube. Within two days, three hundred thousand people had watched the recording of a silhouetted, disgraced Metropolitan Police officer describing his part in a triple murder and the theft and misuse of criminal evidence.

Calls flooded in from distraught criminals claiming they’d been stitched-up by what the media began calling the Officers of Death. At first nobody doubted the veracity of such claims, since the Loyalty Box was proving to be a treasure trove, but soon scorn entered stage right as the numbers increased, and it became clear that the Officers of Death would have had to work 24/7 and teleport around the city in order to perpetrate every grievance cried.

Les saw the YouTube video after hearing two girls talk about it at a bus stop. He had spent the past three days and nights lurking in a tangle of bushes at the back of the cemetery in St Mary’s church in Rotherhithe. He heard the girls on the other side of the wall and leaped over and threatened one for her phone. He had expected the story to come out, which was why he was in hiding, but seeing that video was a shock to the system. He stared in disbelief the video showing Brad in front of the lock-up garage they called the Loyalty Box, giving up their secrets for the world. It was the very last thing on Earth he had expected.

On the night in question we drove in two cars to Bexley, to Ronald Grafton’s house. One was Les’s car, driven by Les, and the other was an old Cortina that Les had had stolen a few months earlier. It belonged to a guy called Ramirez, someone Les wanted to blame for the crime. It was supposed to be a beating and a robbery, and we were supposed to say something to Grafton that would make him suspect Ramirez. Les had had this idea for a long time. You’ll find out why Les had a problem with this guy soon enough. I tell you I was surprised, given how hard Les went at some of the other scumbags out there, that Les had only ever done little irritating things to this guy. Now I know he’d been waiting, looking for the right opportunity. It came that night. I always thought the car part was overkill when we could easily blame Ramirez with a nice line or two. But now I figure the car was there because deep down Les knew Grafton was never walking out of there, so the cops would need something physical if Ramirez was to get the blame. Anyway, Les’s car was parked some way west and he crossed fields to get to the house. Dave and me drove the Cortina straight there, radio on loud so we’d be remembered. We’d already sorted out some alibis, but Les hadn’t. Again, now I know why. Anyway, the place was in some clearing in the woods, so when we got there we turned off the lights and the radio, met with Les, and then went in. We went in the back way, through the kitchen. Just sneaked in, three guys in black. I had a knife, Les had a handgun, and Dave carried a shotgun. We heard voices and laughter. I think they were a little bit drunk. In the living room, there they were. Grafton was there and two other people I didn’t know. Grafton’s wife wasn’t there, but then we heard her shout from upstairs. I think they were playing Charades. Grafton was standing in front of the sofa, while the other two sat there. They all laughed as we came in and Grafton shouted some joke insult up to his wife…”

Les remembered it well. He had led the way, handgun pointing ahead. Grafton had been performing, and had only just started when his wife shouted down the name of a film, and Grafton sagged and the others laughed. Les remembered thinking that the film had probably been one that Grafton used often in Charades, maybe because he had a flamboyant act for it, and his wife knew this. That was when Les had made his move, while everyone was laughing, at the height of their fun.

He strode over quickly, managing to get right up behind Grafton before the other two spotted him.

He put the barrel of the gun against the back of Grafton’s neck.

“Guess this film, asshole,” he said.

The unknown man and woman started shouting, trying to rise, but Dave cocked his shotgun and the noise of it – so recognisable from films – ended all that. Grafton, hands up, didn’t even try to turn round.

“Brad, get his wife,” Les said.

Brad scuttled past and through a doorway and up the stairs.

Grafton turned. His hands were up, but his eyes held no fear. Even after they recognised his assailants. In fact, Les remembered, the man had relaxed somewhat, as if he thought he was going to be okay because these were cops holding guns on him. Men like Grafton feared rivals more than cops, because the cops had a line to toe and the criminals didn’t. A trial was preferable to a funeral. How wrong he was going to be that night.

He jabbed Grafton in the chin with the gun barrel, knocking him onto the sofa even as he said, “Sit.”

“This is a step too far, McIntyre,” Grafton said. Then to his guests: “Lady and gent, this is Detective Chief Inspector Lesley McIntyre, Metropolitan Police, and he has a hard-on for me.”

He was grinning like a man who thought he was in control, despite the guns. It was clearly making Dave nervous, because out of the corner of his eye Les could see the shotgun barrel shivering. This really was a step too far, Dave obviously thought. Until tonight there had been no real proof that Les had been the man harassing Grafton, but now there were witnesses. And until tonight the harassment had involved simple things like vandalism and graffiti and nuisance phone calls. Now guns were involved. Dave was understandably concerned. Les was not, because he had already set his mind on what he wanted – needed – to do tonight.

Nobody moved for a second or two. A frozen scene, neither side wanting to make the next move. Then there was a crash from upstairs, and a shout – NO YOU DON’T, YOU BITCH – and Grafton tried to stand, and Les pushed him back down with a hand, not a violent move at all, not a gesture that hinted at the violence soon to come. And then the woman leaned forward and raised a hand and pointed and opened her mouth, like some teacher about to admonish a child, and Les shifted his aim slightly and fired. Just like that. She sat back nice and neat after that, eternally admonished herself.

Dave grabbed Les’s arm, shouted something like STOP, and Les staggered back. That was the cue for Grafton to shift. Not to do what you might expect of a violent career criminal and fight his attacker, and not to do the doting husband thing and try to help his wife. No, Grafton’s purpose and concern was all Ronald Grafton. He was up and running, and the other guy was right behind him, both headed for the kitchen and the back door and freedom and death by old age.

Les grabbed the shotgun from Dave and followed, fast, calling back, “Find Brad, kill the wife.” At the living room door, he lifted the shotgun and aimed. The hallway was narrow and Grafton and the other guy were belting along single-file.

He pulled the trigger, still running.

Seconds later he was past the dead body on the floor and through the hallway, where he stopped at the kitchen door. Grafton had slipped while trying to turn and now he got up slowly, facing Les, eyeing the shotgun. The back door was to his left, but he backed off, hands up, until he nudged a wine rack on the wall. Les stopped just feet away.

Raising the shotgun to Grafton’s face, Les smiled. And now, he smiled again as he remembered his final words to his long-time enemy.

Les searched online news publications to see where the story had gone, and found it everywhere. He checked a dozen online newspapers and found a host of eye-catching banners: rogue cops on killing spree/officers of death/bexley slaughterhouse/met cops implicated in murder/local solicitor murdered/stolen evidence treasure trove shames met. police.

Each time Les read an article and found something important missing, the next article covered it in highlight, as if each publication had consulted all the others and agreed to split the giant tale between them. And between them they had it all, everything. The whole story. The inside scoop. But Les laughed, because there was still one thing missing, the vital thing, the spark that had ignited everything. Rapid/Grafton. Still nobody knew these men were one and the same, at least in this early stage, which meant the papers were bloated with theories about why the officers of death had targeted the former crime boss. How temped Les was to phone a journalist and lay it out in a few simple words: Grafton is Rapid. That would spawn a plethora of new headlines. It might even sway some people over onto Les’s side, especially doting mothers and fathers who had lost their children to drugs or killers or drunken fucks driving cars.

The Loyalty Box was not mentioned at all in the first article, but in the third was the main feature of the report. It had a photo of the garage’s interior, but after the cops had carted away everything inside. Apparently the contents of the garage, according to one senior officer, could throw doubt upon dozens of criminal convictions over the past few years. No shit, Les thought.

The population loved to gobble up the Officers of Death. Dave was big news because he had been killed, which some people thought was good and others abhorred because he would now never face justice. Brad was bigger news because he was still missing, and people were being warned not to approach him because he was probably armed and certainly dangerous. It was still under debate as to whether or not he had been involved in Dave’s death, because a cop had come forward to defend Brad on that score, saying he had met the man at the crime scene and could swear that he seemed shocked by his colleague’s death. And Les, of course, was the big story, because he was the cop murder squad’s ringleader. Fifty officers were on the case to track him down. They were searching lock-up garages like the Loyalty Box, and the homes of known associates and informers, and abandoned warehouses throughout London, since it was known that he had an interest in such places. Pity they weren’t searching cemeteries.

The news publications had a list of his infamous achievements, everything he’d ever done. Barely three days down and already they’d unravelled his entire life and spread it wide for the world. The bad stuff, that was. Every petty little threat he’d ever made to another officer or some criminal, all of it had been tweaked to portray him as evil incarnate. Every bad guy he’d ever arrested was lucky to be alive. Colleagues who’d had run-ins with him were thanking God for their lucky escapes. Then there were the big crimes. Król was there, the solicitor was there, both now confirmed as victims of the murderous top detective. Ramirez was there, too, talking about his narrow escape following an attempt to blacken his name, about his run-in eight months ago with Les and how he had been chilled to the bone by the killer cop’s evil eyes.

Strangely, there was no mention of the two goons that Les had sent Brad off with, which meant they were either dead and buried or still alive and keeping silent. He was betting they were gone forever, because he knew how lethal Brad could be. Hoping, in fact, since the duo had been his partners for the Chambers kill.

Chambers. Les thought about the man and scanned for news.

Missing police detective feared dead screamed the headline, but there was apparently no connection to the Officers of Death. The world, then, knew not why the lead detective on the Grafton murder case, Operation Back Road, had vanished. Even though the police knew he had had run-ins with Les, they refused to blame Les for his disappearance. Maybe they knew there would be a backlash if they let it be known that one of their top men had suspected Les but performed no arrest. Maybe, strangely, shockingly, they just had not connected the dots.

He stopped reading and took a moment to think. What was his next move? He had planned to fake his own death after tonight and affix the blame on some lowlife who wanted revenge. It was why he had told Brad that he’d been getting threatening phone calls. The plan had been to cut Brad and Dave loose, and hope that they unwittingly backed up his plan if they got caught. But then he’d learned that Dave was betraying him, and had assumed that Brad would follow suit, and had decided to have them both killed. That hadn’t worked and he hadn’t had time to fake his death, and now he was on the run.

Finally, he turned his attention to other enemies.

He typed Karl’s name, but got nothing. Liz’s name brought up the triple murder, but only to state Grafton’s wife couldn’t be reached for comment. Nothing about their involvement in the past few days’ activities. Clearly this meant they had not been charged and that their names had been kept out of the papers. Certainly they would have had their lives scrutinised by men like Chambers and Les because they were integral performers in this production : stories checked, pasts unearthed, every coincidence taken apart. But ultimately they had walked through this thing unscathed. Les burned with anger at that notion: that Karl and Liz were out there, right now, probably fucking each other and laughing and living their lives as normal.

Barely twelve miles away, Karl was indeed trying to get on with his life, but he was not sleeping with Liz Grafton. He hadn’t seen her since that night. He had asked, of course, and knew she was up north somewhere, staying with some old school fiend nobody else knew about. Still fearing for her life, maybe, or just eager to put new surroundings about her to ease the pain.

New surroundings: something Katie wanted. They had talked about an extended holiday, but didn’t have the money just yet. So they watched TV – never the news – and chatted – never about THAT – and tried to move on, aware that each minute that passed would make acceptance easier. Katie was in the bath and Karl, off work for two weeks, was in the living room when the phone rang.

It was Liz.

“Ronald’s funeral is on Saturday,” she said. “I’d like you to come.”

He paused long enough for her to understand.

“I don’t know what good it would do, either,” Liz said. “But having you there is what my brain’s saying is the right thing. Or at least offering you the chance to attend. Up to you.”

He was pretty certain it would probably be a bad idea. Maybe the press would be there and would wonder who he was. They might enquire, then poke, then unravel, and before he knew it they’d have the truth and he would be forever connected to the headlines that had gone across the globe. But his brain was telling him he couldn’t say no.

*

Karl had seen gangster funerals in films and read about real-life ones in the papers, and this one was nothing he had expected. Six sleek black limousines followed the hearse, which had so many floral tributes hanging off it that it looked like a rolling garden, but the turnout was mediocre. No throngs lined the streets bearing placards with the dead man’s face, no shops were shut in tribute, no planes flew overhead with banners. It looked like any other funeral he had seen or attended. He put it down to the fact that Ronald Grafton had given up his wicked ways in the years before his death, or maybe it was simply because the man had never achieved high infamy. He saw no police, either, unless they were undercover amongst the people in the street who stopped to watch the procession go by.

Karl and Katie arrived at the church at the time Liz had specified, but they turned up in time only to see people oozing out of the door. Liz must have decided that the service itself was private. Karl stood by his car and scrutinised the mourners. Some of the men who came out of the church after the service were big men, older men, mean-looking men who shook dozens of hands and were given space wherever they stood or stepped or turned, as if contained within an invisible bubble that nudged people aside. He assumed these people were other ganglords, maybe rivals who had turned up to pay their respects. They might have been employees, hired muscle mourning the loss of their beloved boss, or just their beloved jobs. Many of the other attendees were ladies attached to those men and a host were children and teenagers. He wondered how many of the sixty or so present actually wanted to be here. He certainly didn’t, nor Katie.

He didn’t see Liz.

The burial was elsewhere. Katie was silent for most of the drive to the cemetery and he had a good idea why. And it wasn’t because she didn’t know the dead guy or in some way blamed him for what had happened to them last week. No, he suspected it was because she didn’t fully trust that nothing untoward had happened between he and Liz. He had to acknowledge that his story about almost running into her on a dark road in Bexley sounded suspect.

The crowd was bigger at the cemetery. At least a hundred, all in grey or black. The sky was overcast, the gravestones were bland, and the church was a colourless monolith. Grass aside, the world around Karl was monochrome, which added to his depression. Here was the only indication of Grafton’s criminal status: the gates were manned by shady-looking big guys in black to keep out intruders. Others lined the perimeter wall at intervals. Karl had a mad moment when he searched the skies for some enemy of Grafton’s coming in by parachute to disrupt proceedings.

He didn’t care about Ronald Grafton’s death, so his low mood had nothing to do with that. It was Liz. Finally he spotted her. She was in a black suit dress and had black hair now, as if dyed just for this dark occasion. It was also cut short, as if she’d opted for practicality rather than appearance. For the burial she kept her head bowed, dabbing at her eyes now and then. Karl and Katie kept back, beside a large mausoleum some eighty metres away, and watched the ground around the graveside. They couldn’t hear the priest’s words. Karl tried not to look at an open grave nearby, lined with wooden planks and tarpaulin, a great mound of dirt next to it; tried not to wonder which poor bastard was going into that one later today. He pictured a family milling outside the church for their turn. Busy places, graveyards. People were dying to get in.

The coffin was lowered, Katie and another woman, facing each other across the hole, tossed in a handful of dirt each. Katie then lowered a small wooden box using a length of rope, tossed the rope in and stepped back. Karl found it all very sweet, except for the presence of a backhoe lurking off to one side, its bored driver awaiting his task of covering the dead guy.

When the crowd broke afterwards, Katie said she wanted to go home. But Karl told her to wait. He watched people file away, but Liz broke off from them and approached him. She hadn’t just spotted him or looked around for him, so he knew she knew he’d been there all along.

She stopped five metres away, as if concerned about Katie’s feelings.

“Glad you could come,” she said. Katie moved away behind the dirty mausoleum and leaned against it. She lit a cigarette. She had started smoking again since their ordeal. He was praying the alcohol wouldn’t return.

“I’m sorry,” he said, thinking that was the line to use at a burial.

She nodded, as if acknowledging that he knew his funeral protocol.

Eighty metres away, the final few people were vanishing. They were alone except for a mourner off to the left, coming their way from a copse of trees near the east wall. Some guy in a suit with a bald head and an opened umbrella, as if he had expected rain during the visit to pay his weekly visit to a dead wife or brother or whatever. But the grey skies were all bark and no bite.

“The wake is at my house. Both welcome, if you like.”

“Thank you. I think we need to get home, though. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. This has been the hardest part. Hopefully life gets easier from here.”

Karl had buried his father five years ago. He could testify that time was a good healer. But he said nothing.

Liz heard the approach of the suited mourner, turned, saw that he was weaving his way past graves just ten metres away, and said, “Well, I should get back. Maybe we’ll meet again, Karl Seabury.”

“Maybe, Elizabeth Grafton,” he replied, before he could wonder if she’d reverted to her maiden name. To his left, hidden behind the mausoleum, Katie tutted.

Liz turned to go. She paused to let the mourner walk across her path, like a couple of cars at a junction, but he didn’t do that. As Karl watched in shock, the mourner stepped across a grave laid with coloured stones, dropped his umbrella, and grabbed her. Even before her scream of shock, Karl recognised the man. It was a clean-shaven face and minus hair on the head, but still a face he would never forget.

The man took Liz in a bear-hug and put a blade to her neck.

“I can’t fucking believe this,” Les said. “Both of you at the same time. Fucking Christmas.”

*

Karl froze. To his right he sensed more movement. His eyes flicked that way. Another man, this guy in a ball cap and a tracksuit. Twenty metres away, by a tree. He did not signal the guy, but hoped the man had seen what had happened. Amazingly, the cemetery had cleared of everyone else. Not a bird or a cat, even. A world of four people.

Les forced Liz towards the open grave a few metres away. Liz struggled, but his grip around her arms, forced tight against her sides, was tight. He was laughing. Karl watched them stumble along, unable to move, unable to think what to do. Unable to will his muscles into action. Behind the mausoleum, Katie looked fearful. She had not seen what had happened, but then he realised that she might have recognised Les’s voice.

“This is wrong, Les,” Karl said. “What are you gaining from this?”

“Revenge, Seabury, just plain revenge. If you’ve never tried it, you should. Best feeling in the world. Don’t go anywhere. You’re next.”

He lifted Liz from the ground, swung her over the grave, and dropped her. But as she fell, her fingers grabbed his suit top tightly, and with a grunt he was yanked into the grave with her.

He rushed to the open grave and stared down. Liz was on her back with Les kneeling astride her. He was taking fistfuls of soil, forcing them into her face, grinding hard, and screaming and laughing like some beast devoid of all sanity. It was a noise no human should ever make. They were dealing with a human in shape only.

“Liz,” Karl shouted. His eyes searched for a weapon and lit on the spade.

Hearing Karl’s voice, Les stood up. Karl took a step towards the spade, but Les swept an arm at him. Karl started to back up.

“Seabury!” someone shouted. The guy in the ball cap, surely. Only four people on this planet. Karl turned his head. The guy was behind him, right behind him, right there, charging forward, and the cap was gone, snatched by the wind. Karl found himself staring at a face he’d hoped never to see again.

Brad.

Brad hit him, cast him aside with a hard shoulder, then powered onwards as if Karl were weightless. Karl hit the ground, rolled, and when his eyes found the grave again, Brad was gone and Les was gone. But he could hear them in the grave, fighting.

Brad’s appearance had given Liz a chance to stand, to move to the far side of the grave, and Karl scrambled over and grabbed her hands. He started to pull her out.

In the grave, Les was atop Brad, dropping blows hard onto his head. A reversal of the their position the last time they’d been together.

Liz’s torso was free of the grave. She kicked and Karl pulled and she slipped further, and then her legs were free. Then he -

“Karl!” Katie screamed.

He turned his head. Katie was stumbling towards him, her shuffle the unsightly gait of a movie zombie. Shock and fear – emotions they had both come to know well. “Katie, run!”

For that moment he forgot about Liz. She knocked his hands away, grabbed the spade from the ground, stood and whirled on the two fighting men.

Les rose to his feet and raised a leg, meaning to stomp Brad, finish the battle. His back was to Liz, to Karl, to Katie, only his former friend in his mind. Only more murder. His was an irresistible world of noise and rage and cruelty.

“My sweetie.”

Karl found it hard to believe such a sweet sound could have been uttered by the terror-stricken woman before him. It was the chirp of an angel: a voice that could raise Goosebumps, sing to sleep, or stir desire. And it slashed through Les’s world of noise and rage and cruelty like a rainbow in Hades.

So Les turned, his killing blow upon Brad forgotten, and his face bore a sort of half-happy, half-puzzled look, something you might wear if you woke to find a wrapped gift sitting on the end of your bed. But Karl understood what Les never would: Liz wanted his whitewater blood injected with a bubble of calm and intrigue to create a momentary blip in the bloodlust, a single half-second when he would be a far cry from expecting that the gift was booby-trapped. And she wanted him looking at her face when it happened.

The blow landed hard on Les’s shoulder, instantly dislocating it. Les screamed in pain. And shock. Clutching his shoulder, he stared up.

“You fucking bitch.”

But even as he was speaking, the spade fell again, and this time the blade landed flat and hard on his bald head. A gout of blood erupted amid a heavy crack. He staggered. Blood was pouring down his face.

“No,” Karl said. He tried to grab the spade, but it fell again.

The impact was mammoth and this time Les dropped as if thrown down. Liz collapsed to her knees. Karl was kneeling behind her. Brad hauled himself out of the grave and lay panting. The moment was frozen for a second.

Then Liz uttered a cry and burst into movement. Cursing, crying, she started to sweep soil from the mound into the grave. The earth pattered across Les, but he didn’t move.

Karl lunged forward, grabbed her arms. “Liz, stop.”

She dropped the spade, dropped to her knees. Karl knelt and held her. There was a commotion now: people appearing, drawn by the noise. Some started to rush over. Katie knelt next to him, and her arms went around them both.

Brad rose to his feet, grabbed the spade from her hands and held it tightly.

Then he turned to face the oncoming people running their way. He roared like a bear and they quickly stopped advancing. Mutterings snaked through the crowd. Some backed away, even ran. But some of the bigger men came on. Brad stood there in a pose of defiance, as if ready to fight, to start swatting aside anyone who came within range. But that was not his intention, Karl knew. He was giving the people a sight to behold, a lasting image. A tale to tell. Nobody had seen Liz with the spade. The police would find a dead man in the grave and learn of a lunatic who brandished a spade like a weapon, and they would have their story.

Brad let them get close enough to make damned sure nobody got the wrong idea. To make sure they saw his face. Then he dropped the spade, turned, and ran.

His departing shout back, for all to hear, was, “I’m sorry.”

They would report that, too. A dozen witnesses would claim that the killer had shouted his regret at what he’d done. It would be considered further proof that Brad Smithfield had murdered Les McIntyre, former cop, former friend, fellow Officer of Death.

Karl’s statement would say the very same thing. But he knew the truth.

Brad’s words had been for Liz.

END

The Loyalty Box – Jason Bickerstaff

 


The Loyalty Box

A country cottage outside London has just become a bloody crime scene. A crime boss and two innocents lay dead, and the target's wife, Liz, is running for her life. Enter Karl Seabury, a typical guy who stops his vehicle on a dark lane to help a woman in distress. But his good deed has put him in the crosshairs of the killers. Soon Karl and his new passenger are in the frame for the triple killing, and going to the police for help is out of the question: the killers are three renegade cops, who need to silence the fugitives at all costs.

  • Author: Peter Ackers
  • Published: 2015-09-06 17:16:48
  • Words: 73389
The Loyalty Box The Loyalty Box