‘Ello, ‘ello, ‘ello,
Welcome to Coals of Fire: Ash – Part IV, the next chapter of the new book. If you’re new to the game please feel free to click back to the first instalment to catch up. You haven’t missed too much yet, so there’s still time.
I am planning to post more. Honestly. But what with moving house (temporarily, I might add — we’ll be moving again in September) and other commitments, I’m not quite as up to scratch as I’d like to be. I have some materials for Lifting the Lid just sitting on my dresser waiting to be scanned. Watch this space.
This week we’re back with Colin. And the plot thickens …
* * *
Coals of Fire: Ash
Colin spent the best part of the night trawling through Internet chat rooms and sending and receiving emails. A box of half-eaten chicken wings sat cooling by his elbow as he worked; fresh lager cans littered the floor, joining the older cans, the unpaid bills and the dusty plates that lingered there. He knew he had to clean up one of these days; he just never had the time.
By the time he was finished on the computer it was past four in the morning, and he was aching with tiredness. He decided to go to bed and sleep until nine, get up, do some more on Ray’s case, then sleep from one until six, when he would be ready to go to work.
The night had yielded only one name, but it was enough. From a contact who owed him a favour (one of a dwindling number) he had learned that the dart he found had been manufactured by an arms dealer called Amsed, a distant subsidiary of Shannen Systems.
It wasn’t much, he knew. That a dart found at the scene of a kidnapping had been made by an arms manufacturer would not be news to the Metropolitan Police, and it was certainly not worth five hundred quid. But at least he knew which arms manufacturer it was. Perhaps he could get Ray to check purchase orders or something.
He yawned. He was dead on his feet.
He managed to drag himself over to the bed and drop down on to it, reflecting that the sheets were long overdue a change. The last thought that went through his mind was that most of the changes in his life were long overdue.
When he woke up it was already getting dark. The bedside clock read 20:32. He stared at it for a second, thinking that somehow the clock was mistaken, that it was actually eight o’clock in the morning. When he was sure it wasn’t he swore, wrenched himself out of bed and stumbled in the general direction of the shower.
His phone was ringing when he came back to the bedroom. It rang off, and he checked the number. It was Asif, the shift manager at the office where he worked nights. A voicemail came through while he was still staring dumbly at the phone: “Colin? I swear, man, you better be here in half an hour or I’m signing you off for good. Call me when you get this.”
He pressed nine to return the call and put the phone on speaker as he struggled into his uniform.
“Colin, where are you?” Asif’s voice came on after the second ring.
“I’m coming! I just overslept!”
“Yeah, well you got twenty-five minutes now. Be here.”
“I will. I promise.”
Asif dropped the phone.
“What’s your problem, man?”
Asif was half Colin’s age and half his size, lean and wiry, with the aggression of a pitbull and the attitude of a cockfighter. He was in Colin’s face the second he walked through the door, jutting his chin and dancing on the balls of his feet like a boxer.
“You got a problem with your hours, Colin? Working conditions? Pay? You not happy with something? ‘Cause if you’re not happy with something you know you can always come to me, right? My door’s always open, man. Just say the word and I’ll happily get your contract out, we can sit down, maybe over a cup of coffee, have a look at it, discuss, communicate — then I’ll personally take that contract and make you eat it. What’s your problem?”
Colin kept his mouth shut and concentrated on a patch of air somewhere up and to the left of Asif’s face. Something about the boy — he couldn’t bring himself to call Asif a man — made hidden pockets of anger come bubbling up from deep inside him. He knew he could break Asif in two at any time, if he really wanted to (and there had been times when he had come close); Asif knew it as well, but he also knew Colin valued his job far more than whatever shreds of dignity he had left, so he continued to bait him at every opportunity, picking on the easiest target in his team.
Just don’t let him find out that this is my only job now, Colin told himself. He waited until Asif had fired a few more choice insults in his direction and left him with a warning not to be late again, on pain of being fired. Then he closed his eyes, counted to five, and made his way to Control.
The building he worked in was an office block in the heart of the city, a bank or a fund management office, or something else to do with money — Colin wasn’t sure and he didn’t care. He and the other guards just referred to it as the Castle. The Castle was monitored twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, by a subcontracted security team who managed the gates, passes, alarm systems, CCTV and all other aspects of building security. By day the staff ran to forty or fifty, but by night they made do with a skeleton crew of eight: one to watch the front desk, five to roam the floors in a carefully randomized pattern, and two to man the monitors in Control, the tiny box of a room that served as a communications and logistics hub.
Colin preferred to be up and about the building — walkabout, they called it. It gave him a chance to switch off and let his mind wander through whatever infomation it wished to, without the distraction of any monitors to watch or inane conversation to put up with from his colleagues.
Tonight, however, he had been assigned to Control, and he had been assigned with Jeff, a man-mountain of flesh, fat and flatulence who subsisted on a steady diet of MacDonalds and KFC, and whose mouth spouted such a steady stream of verbal sewage it would have been more at home attached to a waste-processing plant. Jeff was Colin’s idea of the perfect nightmare, and tonight he had ten hours of his company stretching out ahead of him. The thought of it made him queasy.
Control was barely large enough for two average-sized men to share comfortably, and Jeff was roughly the size of two average men. When Colin squeezed in through the door Jeff was already installed behind the bank of monitors, leaning forwards on his chair so that Colin’s first sight was of an expanse of pale, blue-veined buttock that reminded him of a particularly rank French cheese.
“Jeff, mate, pull up your trousers,” he said, shoving him aside to get at his own chair. The room was already thick with Jeff’s particular odour, a combination of sweat and gas so pungent it made Colin gag. Ten hours … He dreaded every minute.
“Hey! Coll-o!” Jeff never called anyone by their name if he could think up a suitably inane replacement of his own. He swung round, hitching his waistband half an inch higher, and leered at Colin through a mouthful of nicotine-brown teeth. His breath smelled like a toilet. “See the game today?”
Colin made a show of studying the monitors so he wouldn’t have to face Jeff full-on. “No, Jeff,” he said patiently. “I never see the game. You know I never see the game.”
“Ah, it was brilliant. Brilliant.” Jeff tilted his head back and belched. The stink of fried chicken gradually filled the room. “Tottenham played like a herd of preganant cows. We walked it, mate. Walked it.”
“Great.” Colin stopped pretending to look at the monitors and actually looked at them. It saved him from having to listen to Jeff too hard. He let him ramble on, extolling the virtues of his beloved Chelsea and outlining the shortcomings of every other Premiership team in excruiciatingly anatomical detail. Jeff didn’t seem to care if Colin was listening to him or not. He preferred the sound of his own voice, and Colin was happy to let him have it.
For the next hour he fiddled, keeping himself busy so that he would not have to listen to Jeff’s incessant background drone. He checked the duty roster, the alarm circuits, the sign-in sheets and the maintenance schedule, and when he had run out of things to check he cycled through the feeds coming in from cameras around the building, looking for the five men on walkabout and checking them off against the duty roster. Mohamed was on the twenty-second floor, Dave on fifth, Liam on twelve, Eddie on thirty, and Massoud … Colin frowned.
“Jeff,” he said, interrupting an analysis of Arsenal’s performance in the Champions’ League. “Have you seen Massoud today?”
“Lionel Messi?” Jeff shook his head. “Nah. He’s a lazy one. Well, they all are, ain’t they? Arabs. It’s all that sun. Slows down their brains, innit? I’m not racist or nothing, I’m just saying. It’s true, ain’t it? You know what I’m saying …”
Jeff ignored him. He cycled through the cameras again. Then again. Eventually he picked up his radio. “Massoud? Come in please. Over.”
A hiss of static.
“Massoud, this is Colin. Please come in. Over.”
Seconds ticked by. Then: “Hi. This is Dave on five. What’s up?”
“Have you seen Massoud today? Over.”
Behind Colin, Jeff pulled out a portable TV and switched it on. The tinny roar of a football crowd blared from the speakers.
“No, he said he was going to be off. Swapped with that new guy. Ado-something?”
“Ado … Ade … I don’t know. He started last month. You wouldn’t have met him yet. He normally works days. Black guy.”
“Well, where is he? I can’t see him on the monitors.”
“Dunno, mate. In the bog?”
“So you saw him when you came in?”
“Look, I’m going to go find him.”
“What for? He’s taking a piss, Colin. Just wait a minute. You’ll see him.”
“I’ll let you know what I find.”
Dave didn’t bother to reply.
“I’m popping out,” Colin told Jeff. Jeff grunted, too caught up in the match he was watching to care. Colin strapped on his walkabout kit — a thick black belt hung with a baton, pepper spray, cuffs, and other equipment that was supposed to come in useful on the off-chance he ran into trouble — and left Jeff’s stink and noise behind him.
Control was sound-proofed, which meant once the door had closed Colin was surrounded by a blissful blanket of silence. He made his way up the service stairs to the first floor. The lights were on in the plush-carpeted hallway, but he was the only one about. Even the cleaners had gone home for the night. He smiled, despite himself. He loved this job. The others didn’t — all they cared about was the wage packet waiting at the end of the month — but Colin had always preferred the peace and quiet of night work.
He padded down to the end of the hallway, where it opened out on to a glass balcony overlooking the atrium. The space was huge, and every sound echoed a hundred times. Opposite the balcony were the tall glass doors that looked out on to the street. From where Colin stood reflections obscured every detail of the outside world, showing only a faded copy of everything inside, including himself. Directly below him was a fountain surrounded by modernist sculptures, twisted shapes in grubby bronze, and behind the fountain the vast curve of the reception desk, flanked by security gates.
“Alfie!” Colin called down to the white-haired man lounging behind the desk. Alfie looked up and raised a hand.
“Looking for that new bloke?” he called back. “Waste of time!” Their voices boomed in the stillness of the atrium.
“Better than staying in Control with Jeff!”
Alfie shrugged. “Suit yourself!”
They raised a hand to each other in farewell, then Colin turned and walked the span of the balcony to the line of lifts at the far end. Luckily one was waiting ready. He rode it to the thirtieth floor, where the roster had Massoud patrolling for the next twenty minutes.
The floor was as quiet as the rest of the building. Colin paced the hallways for ten minutes, checking every men’s room along the way, but the entire floor was deserted.
He sighed and lifted his radio. “Jeff, this is Colin. Come in please.”
The radio hissed. There was no reply.
“Jeff, come in. Over.”
“Oh, come on,” he muttered. “Jeff? Dave? Mohamed? Anyone? Is anyone receiving me?”
He checked the radio, checked the channel, then tried broadcasting on every other channel. There was no reply on any of them.
Piece of junk radio. They should have bought new equipment ages ago. But these days it was all cost-saving measures and budget cuts. He slapped the radio against his palm a couple of times, then clipped it back on his belt and returned to the lift.
Alfie was reclining in his chair behind the reception desk, his cap pulled low over his eyes, when Colin stepped out on to the balcony. Colin smiled and shook his head. Alfie was sixty-seven, and should have retired years ago. He left him to doze and made his way back down the service stairs to Control.
When he entered the room he found Jeff with his eyes closed as well. The portable TV was still blaring, propped up against the monitors.
“Hey.” Colin shook Jeff by the shoulder. Jeff slid sideways and tumbled to the floor. His head lolled to one side, his eyes wide and glassy, his breathing shallow. Colin swore and stumbled back against the desk, fumbling for the silent alarm, his heart pounding and his head spinning. When he finally found the alarm he jammed it as hard as he could then backed up against the wall, putting as much space between him and Jeff as possible. He slid down until he was crouched on the floor, unable to tear his eyes away from Jeff’s swollen face.
A movement on the monitors caught his eye; he looked up, and swore again. A line of masked and booted figures padded quickly down a hallway, black rifles held low as they swept their heads back and forth, covering every angle. These were not amateur opportunists — these were professionals, and they were looking for something.
He should do something, he told himself. He should go out there and confront them. There was a handgun locked in the safe in the corner of the room — he should get it and take it and hold them off until they police arrived.
But when he went to move he found he couldn’t. He wanted to, so desperately — this was his job, it was what he was supposed to do — but his arms were limp and unresponsive, and his legs would not obey his commands to get up and walk. He willed himself to move, gritting his teeth so hard they hurt, but without success. He could not do anything.
He turned his head and watched as the masked figures ascended through the building to the eighteenth floor. What was on the eighteenth floor? Accounts, he remembered dimly. Filing. Empty offices. No-one went to the eighteenth.
But these men did. They did not hesitate. They exited the stairwell, turned right and jogged down the hallway. A moment later two others joined them — from the floors above, he thought with a jolt, where they had gone to take care of Eddie and Mohamed, the way they had taken care of Jeff. It was dumb luck that had saved him. If he had gone a few minutes later, or stayed up there a few minutes longer …
He managed to rise and drag himself to the console. He slid gingerly into the seat, avoiding Jeff, and with an effort of will he stretched out his hands to the camera controls. They were shaking, and it took three tries before he could grasp the controls properly. He started to manipulate the images on the screens, accessing all the feeds on the eighteenth floor, bringing them up one-by-one until they filled the bank of monitors in front of him. He cycled through them, watching as the masked men turned this way and that, guns low and ready, their movements fluid, like a pack of animals on the hunt.
The leader raised a fist, and they halted outside an office. Colin could see nothing special about it. It was identical to all the other offices on that floor. But the masked men knew something he did not, and they wasted no time in wiring a small charge to the lock. They stepped back; a second later there was a bright flash and a bang that jerked the camera so it faced the wall. Colin pulled the stick to bring it back round again, but when it faced the door once more he saw to his horror that they were all looking directly at him.
They saw it move, you idiot! They saw it move!
The leader pointed to one of the men then pointed downstairs. The man nodded and slipped away.
He’s coming here, Colin thought. They saw it move, and they know someone’s here, and they’re coming to finish me off!
He pushed the chair back, wincing as one of the wheels caught Jeff in the face, and stumbled to the safe in the corner of the room. His fingers shook as he struggled to remember the combination. Five … five … eight … three … No! Five, five, eight, two! He started again, cursing under his breath. When the lock beeped he wrenched the handle and jerked the safe open, snatching the gun and spilling the box of ammunition all over the floor. He swore and dropped to his knees, fumbling for the rounds, shoving them into the clip, missing, dropping them, finally loading it, sliding the clip into the butt, pulling the shaft back, checking the safety was off, retreating into the corner, watching the door, his hands shaking, shaking, shaking …
He didn’t hear the distant wail of sirens; nor did he see the men on the monitors look up and fall back, radioing for their colleague to join them. Tears blurred the edges of his vision, and before he could stop them the sobs were rising from his chest and escaping from his lips.
That was how they found him: crouched in the corner of Control, his red-rimmed eyes staring at Jeff’s unmoving form. He didn’t speak as they helped him up; he didn’t speak as they led him out of the room.
There was nothing he could say.
* * *
Some of you may recognise this from and earlier edition of Lifting the Lid. The last scene is one of my favourites in terms of character development. I just hope I went in the right direction!
Well, I hope you enjoyed it. I’m off to catch up on Secrets of Witches: Bridge of Memories and wait for my wife to get home.