Ok, so here is Part II of Coals of Fire: Ash. The eagle-eyed among you will notice a lack of first-person present tense, in apparent contradiction of my earlier post. Don’t panic: This is not a mistake! Jason’s chapters will be first-person present tense, and this new viewpoint character will be in traditional third-person past tense. (Although, having said that, I get the feeling that most of the first novels were actually first-person. Tom Jones, anyone?)
I do feel a little bit like one of those directors rushing to convert a film to 3D in post production. I can only hope this doesn’t turn out like one of those awful conversions with people’s hair floating around two feet behind their head, though if there’s one thing to be said for the first-person viewpoint it’s that it doesn’t tend to mess with characters’ hairstyles too much.
Oh, and apologies for posting this on a Tuesday rather than a Monday (for those of you who were keeping track). Here goes:
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Coals of Fire: Ash
Colin Ashwood woke to the sound of his phone vibrating. He raised himself up on his elbows, looking around for it through the half-light of morning. The vibrations had already stopped — so it was just a text, not a call. He tutted and lay back down again. A call he might have gotten up for.
The phone vibrated again. This time he swore and rolled over, squinting at the clock. 7.30. He’d set the alarm for 9.00, which meant it was far too early, especially for this.
He reached down beside the bed and shuffled through the piles of empty crisp packets and crumpled cans until he found the phone. There were two messages in his inbox. The first one was from Ian, the shift manager at his day job in the sorting office: Dont bother coming in today mate. Sry. Ian. He grunted. He should have seen this coming. He glanced at the half-opened brown envelopes spilling from a box in the corner of the room. Ah well. He’d just have to find the money some other way.
The second message made him sit up. The sender’s number was blocked, but he recognised the format straight away; short, terse, professional: Eyes on. Flat rate. First come.
He fumbled with the phone, trying to press the keys fast enough. He misspelt half the words in the message, but he did not care. When he had pressed ‘send’ he sat on the edge of the bed and jigged his leg nervously, waiting for a reply. He could really do with this now. Ian had finally had enough of him falling asleep on the job, and the hours he worked at nights in the tower wouldn’t be enough to pay bills, rent and food. One of them would have to go, and it wouldn’t be bills or rent.
The phone buzzed again. He looked down at the screen. A call this time. His pulse quickened. He picked up the phone and held it to his ear.
“Colin.” The voice on the end was hoarse from too many cigarettes and not enough sleep.
“It’s been too long. Where’ve you been?”
There was a barking laugh that trailed off into a coughing fit. “Is that a euphemism for ‘sitting on my backside in two dead-end jobs’?”
Colin sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes. “Just tell me. Did I get it or not?”
“You always were a boring old fart. Yes, you got it. Just about. Some Polish bloke replied about two seconds after you. He’s good, Colin. I nearly gave it to him. But it’s first come, first serve, and you were the first to come so consider yourself served. It’s a five-day job, flat rate, no bonus.”
“Depends what they are. Send receipts.”
“What’s the job?” Colin was finding it hard to keep the relief out of his voice.
“Missing person. Suspicious circumstances, but no evidence worth spit. Eyewitnesses, but again: spit. I need you to be eyes at the scene, then do some digging and see what you can find. I’m up to my ears this end. Got an internal review and three cases going to court next week. File a report by next Tuesday. Report gets your fee.”
“I was thinking two hundred —”
“Two—! I can’t do anything with that, mate, and you know it!”
“Hey, hey! Calm down, you grumpy git! You didn’t let me finish. I was about to say, but, seeing as you’re an old friend in need, I’ll swing it to five. That better?”
Colin breathed a silent prayer of thanks. “Better,” he said, making it sound casual. “Can I get an advance?”
Another barking laugh. “Don’t ask much, do you? Yeah, why not? Half now, half then.”
“I’ll leave it in one of the usual spots. And tell you what, depending how this goes, I might swing something else your way, next week or the week after. How’s that?”
“Sounds good.” Colin closed his eyes. He felt like he had just been pulled from the path of an oncoming truck. He glanced over at the box of envelopes and mentally ticked off some debts. Five hundred would keep the bailiffs from the door, if nothing else.
“I’ll get the relevant docs to you in a couple of hours,” Ray was saying. His voice was muffled; Colin guessed he was lighting up.
“When are you going to give that up?” he said. It was a cheap shot, he knew — an attempt to impress after all these years. But he couldn’t help himself.
“Don’t worry,” Ray said. “I know you’re still a detective, Sherlock. If you’re that desperate to impress the likes of me you must have it worse than I thought.”
“I got fired from the Met. There isn’t a much worse than that.”
“Say that again when you’ve been court-martialled. Right. I have to go. I’ll leave the docs, with your advance, in dropoff six. Remember where it is?”
Colin pictured the pub where they used to go for a pint after work, and the loose panel in the ceiling above one of the cubicles in the gents’ which the landlord kept loose, turning a blind eye to whatever Ray left there in return for a small ‘favour’ on the second Tuesday of every month.
“Yes,” he said. “When?”
“No problem. Anything for an old friend. Truth be told, I’m glad you called it in. Figured you’d be needing the cash what with work going belly-up.”
Colin didn’t ask how Ray knew about his work problems. It was Ray’s business to know, especially to know about ex-colleagues who did a bit of freelance legwork at the Met’s expense on the side. Ray had risen through the ranks on the back of fiddled budget figures and back-alley deals. He was a man who watched those around him very closely.
They exchanged muttered farewells, then the line went dead and Colin was left alone in the cold flat, surrounded by the tatters of his has-been life.
At five o’clock that afternoon he stepped off the bus into the whirling melee of Piccadilly Circus. The offices were emptying and the streets were filling, millions of identi-kit Finance Management Operatives spewing out of their air-conditioned cubicles to seek the nearest pub or tube station.
Colin slipped between them, barging and being barged, offering no apology and getting none. That was how it was in London: everyone an island, every stranger a threat, every glance a challenge. Better to keep your head down and plough on and pray that today was not your day.
He broke out of the current and stood against a shopfront, watching the crowds flow past. Two days ago a boy had been kidnapped right here, in front of a hundred pairs of eyes, and no-one knew how it had happened. He ran over the case-notes in his mind, mentally bringing up an image of each page for review. At about nine o’clock on Wednesday night a boy of nine or ten years old was seen behaving erratically, staggering and muttering to himself, walking into the path of oncoming traffic, lashing out at passers-by. He collapsed — Colin looked around — there, beneath the enormous video screen flashing adverts for Coke and Samsung, outside Boots and Barclays. Bystanders said he was ‘floppy’ and ‘weak-looking’, and he could not move or speak. Someone called an ambulance, which arrived two minutes later (too soon, a voice in the back of his head told him — he made a mental note to ask someone about response times) and took the boy away. Three minutes after that, another ambulance turned up looking for the boy, and radioed in when they were told he had already been taken. Dispatch reported that no other vehicle had been sent to the scene, and advised the team to file a report with the police.
It was simple enough: someone had impersonated an ambulance crew in order to stage a kidnap. But why? The notes said that no ransom demands had been made. No missing persons report had been filed matching the boy’s description. No terrorist group had come forward to claim responsibility. The boy was no-one special. No-one had recognised him, nor even remembered what he looked like apart from the usual generalisations about age, build and hair colour. The simple fact was, there was no ‘why’. In all respects the case was a cold, hard dead-end.
Which is why Ray’s palming it off on me.
He looked both ways. The crowd showed no sign of thinning. It had been like this two nights in a row since the disappearance: any clues would long since have been trampled out of existence. But he was still going to look. It was the first rule in the Colin Ashwood manual of detective work: Visit the crime scene. No matter how late you were, whether hours, days, months, or years, that was where you had the best chance of picking up a lead. You could waste days of precious time if you started anywhere else, or if you relied solely on someone else’s account. No. It was always best to see it with your own eyes. That was the first rule.
The second rule was: Get lucky.
He thrust his way through the crowds, moving upstream, head down, hands in his pockets, forcing those ahead of him to move out of the way by the simple expedient of ignoring them. When he reached the place where the boy had collapsed he stopped; the crowd flowed around him like a river around a rock.
A hundred eyes, he thought. Someone had seen something. Someone had noticed something. Something about the ambulance, the paramedics, the boy. But no-one had said anything. No-one had come forward. Why should they? It was just another face in a city of faces, another body in a city of bodies. Living or dead; lost or found: why should they care?
His eyes scanned the ground. A part of him was surprised at how easy it was to slip back into the old habits, the certain way of looking, the certain mindset you needed to see everything at once and notice anything that shouldn’t be there. It felt natural to him, like driving a car after years off the road: something you did without thinking, letting the brain take control and trusting your instincts.
The pavement was a mess of grime, chewing-gum plastered in black patches everywhere, dust and dirt thick between the paving-stones, cigarette ends strewn like bizarre seedlings. He drifted as he looked, letting his eyes take control of his feet, relaxing into the detached state of half-concentration that had always come so easily. This was what he missed, this feeling of empowerment, taking the bridle off his mind and letting it go where it wanted. People spent far too much time getting in the way of their own minds, trying to take control, trying to stamp their authority on every choice, every decision; they did not realise the potential they had locked away behind their eyes, if only they would let go and not fetter themselves with their preconceptions and prejudices.
He looked for an hour, shuffling up and down the same spot, occasionally stopping in one place and staring for a minute or two at the ground before moving on again. The people who walked past him turned their heads to look, wrote him off as a homeless eccentric, and carried on walking. Colin did not notice them.
It was in the gutter that he found it, the thing that did not belong. It was half-hidden beneath a crumpled newspaper, and so he had missed it countless times; but now he took a plastic sandwich bag from his back pocket and wrapped it around his hand, then crouched and carefully lifted the thing from the gutter. It was a dart, the kind they used in game parks or zoos for tranquilizing wild animals. It was small, no longer than a finger-joint; at one end was a thin needle, at the other end flesh-coloured fletching. The syringe between the two was empty.
Colin held it up and studied it for a second, then reversed the bag over his hand so that the dart dropped inside. He placed it in his jacket pocket, making sure the zip was fastened before he straightened up stiffly and turned back towards the bus-stop. He had some emails to send.
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Thanks to all my lovely readers. You know who you are, and you are much appreciated.