Today is my ‘home day’ — instead of working on Mondays I stay at home to look after my lovely daughter, Lily, while my wife goes to work at the hospital (12-hour shifts — it’s inhuman).
Today I’m going to get Lily out of the house, as the weather has perked up a bit. Before I go here’s the latest in the Coals of Fire series. Back with Colin again, and a little bit about his past.
Oh, and I should mention that I changed the name of the security firm Colin works for to ‘Sparta Security’.
* * *
Coals of Fire: Ash
Sparta gave Colin a week’s paid holiday, “as compensation for the psychological trauma you have undergone.” At least, that was how Asif put it when he brought the indemnity forms to the hospital for Colin to sign the next morning. To Colin, it sounded like, “Take some time off, and don’t sue us.”
He took the holiday.
After the waivers were signed Asif didn’t seem in a hurry to leave. He lounged back in the visitors’ chair and fiddled with his phone, talking the whole time. Colin lay back and let him talk. He was in no mood to reply.
There was something about the way the police had made him repeat his story over and over that left a foul taste in his mouth. It made him cringe every time, but there had been no choice. He had told at least five different people how he had found Jeff unconscious in Control, how he had seen the intruders on the monitor, had pressed the alarm and waited for the police to arrive. And done nothing. That was what they all thought. He could tell. No matter how many times they told him he had done the right thing, or that his actions were brave, or that he deserved some kind of medal — there was no escaping the expression in their eyes, their smiles, the way they half-turned their heads to look at each other.
The word was unspoken, but it cut him to the heart.
That was probably why he didn’t mind Asif being there. At least Asif knew him for what he was, and didn’t care. He was the only person who had no respect to lose.
Something Asif said made him turn his head.
“What was that? Say that again.”
Asif looked up from his phone and nodded, grinning. “I know, right? ‘No signs of forced entry.’ That’s what they said, bruv. Their words, not mine: ‘no signs of forced entry’. Know what that means? Inside job. Got to be. These guys, they always got an inside man, right? Know who I reckon? I reckon it was that Ade guy. Ade-something.”
“Adesola,” Colin supplied.
“Yeah. Him. Came in, right? Swapped shifts with Massoud, and he never works nights anyway. So he comes in, tells me he might have to leave later — family, or whatever. So I tell him no way, bruv. What do you think this is? A charity? No way. But get this: they never found him! He wasn’t there! And you know what that means?” Asif paused for effect, then nodded his head to emphasise each word: “Inside. Job. Straight up. And you know something else?”
He waited. Colin shrugged. “No. What?”
“Get this — they didn’t even take anything.” A grin spread across Asif’s face. “That’s right! Know what I’m saying, bruv? Nothing. That’s what I heard anyway. Feds are proper baffled! It’s a James Bond job, innit?”
Colin lay back and let him talk. They did take something, he thought. The last of my pride.
Ray came to visit him, just as he was being discharged. When he slouched in the door Colin didn’t recognise him at first. They hadn’t met in the flesh in years, and Ray was older, his frame thinner, his hair greyer, the shadows under his eyes deeper than Colin remembered. At first Colin took him for another case-worker, or maybe a lawyer from the shabbier end of legal aid. It was only when he spoke that Colin recognised his voice from the phone, and realised who it was.
“All right?” Ray said. He looked round at the room, hands in his pockets. He was in his early forties, but looked like he was pushing fifty. “This the best they could do?”
“It’s a room,” Colin said. “Better than being on a ward. What are you doing here?”
“Checking to see you’re all right. I heard it on the grapevine this morning. Word is the whole thing’s been pushed to MI5 already. Probably shouldn’t even be talking about it.”
Colin was surprised. “Just like that?”
“Just like that.” Ray wandered to the window and looked out. “Some government business. Maybe they were storing files there.”
“I heard nothing was taken.”
Ray didn’t elaborate, and Colin didn’t press the issue. He had learned that lesson a long time ago.
“Look,” Ray said suddenly, turning from the window. “About that favour I asked. Don’t worry about it, ok?”
“No, it’s fine.” Colin bent down to tie his shoelaces. “I’m fine. Honest. I’ll get back on it tomorrow.”
“Colin. I said don’t worry about it.”
There was an edge to Ray’s voice that made Colin look up. Ray was looking straight at him, and there was something in his look that made Colin hesitate.
“Fine,” he said at last. “What about the rest of the payment?”
“I’ll arrange something.”
“Sure. Fine. Great.”
“Great.” Ray smiled, and just like that the edge was gone. “You’re a good man, Colin. I’ll find something else in a week or so, eh? Get you up and about. Fresh air, all that.”
Colin nodded. “Thanks.”
The last people to see him before he left were a doctor and a police detective, their faces grim. They asked him to sit down, then the doctor told him the bad news. None of his colleagues had survived. All of them had suffered some kind of massive adrenal shock, and Jeff had passed away only ten minutes ago. Colin couldn’t believe it. At first he thought it was some kind of joke, but the look on the doctor’s face was far from funny.
The detective asked if he noticed anything odd about Jeff when he found him, anything imbedded in his skin, or lying on the ground nearby. Colin shook his head. He hadn’t seen anything. No, he couldn’t recall right now. Yes, he’d be in touch if he did remember anything. The detective gave him his card, and they left him to sit and shake his head in disbelief.
There was an envelope waiting on the mat when he got home. Inside were twenty fifty-pound notes, and a typed note: Cheers. Be in touch. Ray had probably dropped it off on the way to the hospital. He had already decided to take the case away from him, and he didn’t want him talking about it.
Colin put the envelope with the bills and statements. He would allocate the money later. Right now what he needed was a stiff drink, and something to eat.
There was the tail-end of a bottle of Jack’s in the cupboard. He sloshed it into a mug and went hunting for a takeaway menu. Thirty minutes later he slumped down in front of the TV and let the comforting noise of a panel show wash over him. The whisky wasn’t half bad, considering, and it ignited a warm, comforting glow in his belly. The Indian food was awful, but it always was. A waste of money, too. He would have to start cooking for himself, now he was on a single income. Next week. He’d start next week.
He watched the TV for a while, then a crime drama came on, and the first shot was of a blood-drenched, wide-eyed corpse. The image of Jeff’s pale, bulging face flashed into his mind, and he shuddered and changed the channel.
But it was no good. The thought was there now, and it would not go away. He shook his head at it, turning the words over in his mind: Jeff was dead. There was something strange in the way it sounded in his mind, like when you say the same word too many times and it loses all meaning. Dead. Dead. Dead. And Dave, and Liam, Eddie, Mohamed, Alfie … Alfie! He shouldn’t even have been there. He was supposed to have retired. He only did the shifts because he had insomnia and liked the company. He had grand-kids, for crying out loud!
Colin clenched his fists. He could feel the anger building up inside him, tight in his chest. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths. It was no good getting angry. There was nothing he could do, nothing he could have done.
The memory came unbidden.
Nothing you could do, Colin … We recognise that … But, given the exceptional circumstances … I’m sorry, we can’t afford a media circus on this one … Someone has to go … I’m sorry …
His breaths were coming faster now. He was struggling to control them. The mug dropped from his fingers, whisky splashing unnoticed on the carpet. He gripped the sofa cushions and put his head back, squeezing his eyes tight, trying to relax. The shrink said this might happen. Count to ten. Count to ten.
One, two, three …
… a crying shame, mate … Not your fault, of course … You know how it is …
… four, five, six …
… she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time …
… seven, eight …
… Ray, she was only ten …
… nine …
… wrong place at the wrong time, Colin …
…. nine …
… only ten, Ray …
… nine …
… wrong time …
He opened his eyes. It was morning. Sunlight streamed in through the windows, dust swirling in the golden beams.
He lifted his head and looked around. The room was in disarray. Glass littered the floor, sparkling in the sunlight. A breeze tugged at the curtains, catching them on the jagged edges of the broken window. A long crack ran down the front of the TV, and the remains of smashed plates surrounded it. His heart dropped. He had done it again. The counsellor had warned him, but he had not believed her. He believed her now.
Slowly, gingerly, he pushed himself up. Dried blood spotted the back of his hands. He stared at them for a minute, then raised them to his face and felt around until a stab of pain just under his left eye told him where the cut was.
He sighed, and sat back to assess the devastation. He could not remember any of it now. The last thing he recalled was dropping the mug of whisky, and then … Nothing.
Slowly he staggered to his feet, holding himself up on the arm of the sofa. For a moment he looked around dumbly, wondering where to start. Then he sighed and went to look for a bin bag and some Sellotape.
He spent the rest of the morning tidying up. That was one thing he still had control over, at least. When he was finished clearing up the glass in the living room he moved on to the kitchen. He suddenly felt dirty, and the sight of so many unwashed plates made his skin crawl. He cleared out the fridge and his cupboards, filling a bin bag with mouldy and out-of-date food, and got rid of most of his Tupperware as well, which was largely cracked or stained. He took the bag into his bedroom and picked up the cans and takeaway boxes, opening the curtains and then the windows to let in more of the fresh, summer air.
Partway through the cleaning a police officer knocked on the door, asking about the broken window. Colin told him it was an accident, which satisfied the man, and after bidding him good-morning he turned and continued on his beat. Colin stepped back inside, so he didn’t see the officer stop and look back then call someone on his radio.
Colin took a break only to go out for cleaning supplies. When he came back he didn’t notice that the pile on his doormat had been disturbed, or that the envelopes in what he liked to call his ‘debt box’ had been replaced in the wrong order. In any case, the first thing he did after he had cleaned the kitchen was to bring the box into the living room and tip the contents into the middle of the carpet, fully intending to go through them and bring them into some sort of order.
After fifteen minutes, however, the sheer size of the figure mounting in his head was enough to dent his enthusiasm, so that what had started as an energetic sort-out gradually dwindled to a listless rummage, as he pushed the bills and final statements back and forth and tried somehow to find a way to stave off bankruptcy.
Half an hour later the last of his energy fizzled out. He sat back with a sheaf of papers and flicked through them idly. Who was he trying to convince? He wasn’t going to be able to keep this up for long. Give him a couple of weeks and the flat would soon get back to the same state it had been in that morning.
But as he turned over the pages something caught his eye: a blue logo, the corporate representation of a globe with a line through it, and the words Amsed Defense and Aerospace. He pulled the sheet out of the pile. It was the printout from two nights ago, the one with the details of the dart he had found. The dart! As though a light had gone on in his head, two disconnected thoughts suddenly snapped together. He rushed to the bedroom. His jacket was hanging on the hook behind the door, the plastic bag poking out of the pocket. He pulled it out and held it up, looking at the dart inside.
Anything odd — that’s what the detective at the hospital had said. Anything embedded in his skin, or on the ground. They had died from an adrenal overdose, hadn’t they? What if that overdose had been delivered by a dart like this one? Were they connected? Was it possible?
He felt as though he had been given a shot of adrenaline himself. Here was something worthwhile. Here was something to which he could make a difference.
He dug out his phone from the sofa cushion and dialled Ray’s number. It went to voicemail.
“Ray, listen,” Colin said. “I’ve got something you might want to see. I found it when I was looking around Piccadilly Circus, where that boy was taken. I think it might have something to do with the raid last night. I need you to get in touch with a company called Amsed Defense and Aerospace. Find out about purchase orders for a part number …” he scanned the printout “… Six six seven eight two dash lima lima four three dash charlie zero. Call me back. Please, it’s urgent.”
The phone rang as soon as he hung up. It was Ray. He took the call.
“Ray, it’s me,” he said. “I left you a message, but it’s all right, I’ll tell you now—”
“Colin, wait.” Ray cut him off midsentence. “I know what you’re going to say, and I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“What am I going to say?”
“You’re going to say you’ve thought of something from last night, or you’ve found some evidence, or there’s something I need to hear. Am I right?”
Colin didn’t answer.
“How do you know that’s why I’m calling?”
“Because I know you, mate. I know how that brain of yours works. It doesn’t stop. But I’m telling you now: drop this one. Don’t think about it, don’t theorise, don’t hypothesise.”
“Because I told you so. The investigation’s been taken over by another team. It’s official business now. I can’t have people knowing you were involved.”
“But … I think I’ve got a lead. I think the people who took that boy might be the same ones who killed Jeff and the others last night.”
There was a pause, then a sigh. “And what makes you say that?”
“The ones they used in the raid. That’s what you think, right? The adrenaline overdose, and I bet they had some kind of marks on them.”
“Colin. Colin, just slow down.” On the end of the line Ray took a deep breath and let it out in a burst of white noise. “Did you get the envelope I left you?”
Colin closed his eyes. His heart was hammering. “Yes,” he said.
“Okay. Do you understand what it means?”
“Did you hear what I said at the hospital?”
“About MI5, the investigation, everything.”
“Yes, yes. Of course.”
“So you understand when I say this has been moved up the channels. I’m not even directly responsible for it now. If you carry on like this … Well, let’s just say it’d be a bad idea.”
“All right. All right.” Colin’s pulse was slowing now. His head was hammering. He sat down on the sofa and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, Ray. I just—”
“I know, mate. I know. It’s hard when stuff like this happens. But you just have to deal with it. If you want my advice, I’d say enjoy your holiday and just try to forget about it. Okay?”
“Yeah. Okay. Sure.”
“Good. You take care of yourself.”
The line went dead. Colin dropped the phone and sat back down on the sofa. It wasn’t fair. He had a right to this. He had done the work. He should be able to see it through. It wasn’t about the money, not any more — it was about getting back at the people who had done this. He hadn’t gotten along with Jeff — at times he had hated him — but that didn’t mean he was happy to see him dead. No-one deserved to die, least of all like that.
The Amsed printout was still in his hand. He smoothed it out and sat staring at it for a long time. Enjoy your holiday, Ray had said. Try to forget about it. No. He couldn’t. However hard he tried, he would not be able to forget this.
He picked up the phone, and dialled a number.
“Good afternoon, Amsed Defense and Aeronautics, sales division. How may I help you?”
“Yes, good afternoon. I’m calling from the Metropolitan Police. I’m wondering if I could have some information on sales of one of your products, please?”
“Certainly. Do you have a part number?”
“Yes, it’s … Six six seven eight two dash lima lima four three dash charlie zero.”
“One moment, please … The Achilles Mark Four hypodermic dart?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“What information do you require?”
“I need purchase order data for the past three years, including named contacts and invoice numbers.”
“I’m afraid that information is classified, sir, under the Data Protection Act. You’d have to send a formal request to our head office, who may ask to see a warrant. I see that your colleague was told the same, so perhaps you’d like to speak to him?”
“I beg your pardon? Which colleague?”
“The name I have on the system is Ray Levinson. He called today at … Well, it was just a few moments ago, sir.”
“I see. Thank you very much for your time.”
“It’s my pleasure, sir. Is there anything else I can—”
“No. Nothing. Thank you.”
“Thank you, and have a pleasant day. Goodbye.”
Ray gently placed the receiver back in its cradle and looked at it long and hard. Damn him. The man was more persistent than he’d given him credit for. This was not how it was supposed to go.
After a minute the lifted the receiver again and dialled out.
“Hello? Yes, it’s me. No, I know. But this is an emergency. Yes, I’ll wait.” He waited, drumming his fingers on the desk. “Hello? Yes, it’s about Ashwood. He’s asking too many questions. Well, obviously I was mistaken. What do you want done? Of course. No, I’ll take care of it myself. Yes, I can. All right.”
He sighed and replaced the receiver. It was a pity. He liked Colin. The man was a coward — it was no wonder the force had sacked him, after that debacle in Battersea — but with time he could have been a useful asset.
It was no use getting emotional about it, though. Assets were cheap. There would be others.
He made one more call, then buzzed his P.A. and told her he would be leaving early today, to play golf.
* * *
Now, I am fully aware that at this point Colin slots rather nicely into the niche of ‘washed-up alcoholic detective with a history’. But this is my first time writing in this genre, so bear with me. Hopefully Colin will not turn out at all how you expect.
Anyway, Lily’s calling so I’m off to be daddy for the rest of the day.
Take care of yourselves,