I am back from my summer holidays, moved into a new flat, and ready to (hopefully) settle down to a productive Autumn. Not much writing has been happening around here lately, but with my return to work I will have my commuting time back, which will be a bonus.
So without any further ado, here is the next part of Coals of Fire …
* * *
Coals of Fire: Ash
When Colin hung up after calling Amsed, his first thought was, Ray’s going to find out about this. His second thought, to his own surprise, was that he didn’t care. Not any more. This wasn’t just about Ray, now. It had become personal. These people had come into his life and killed men he knew, and he had done nothing to stop them.
He had a lead. There was a connection between the missing boy and the raid on the offices. The dart proved that much. Now he had to dig deeper, go further, see where the threads led him.
Then he would do something about it.
He sat back on the sofa and closed his eyes, sorting through the evidence in his head: a boy was kidnapped by someone masquerading as an ambulance team; the boy had been shot with a dart — some kind of tranquilliser? — but by whom? The ambulance team? That was likely. Two days later an armed assault team turns up at his place of work — remember, no signs of forced entry — kills everyone using dart guns — deadly force this time, not tranquillisers — and leaves with … What? Nothing was taken, or so the police said. Or as far as the police knew, maybe? There were plenty of reasons for these big companies to keep part of their finances off the record — the official record, at least. But there always had to be paper. There always had to be something written down, filed away — in secret, maybe, but filed all the same. And don’t forget the new guy on the shift. Ade-something. He struggled to remember. Adekola? Adesola? Yes, he remembered now. He had met him at handover a couple of weeks ago — a small guy, quiet, withdrawn, as if expecting to be pushed around or put down at any moment. Was he the kind of person to work as an inside man? Maybe, for the money. Or something else. Did it make sense? The thought nagged at him. Would a team that professional need an inside man? It didn’t seem likely. He knew the security systems they used at the Castle, and they were hardly top of the range. They mostly relied on the manpower, eyes and ears instead of alarms and computers. So then the question was: where was Adesola?
He opened his eyes. All right. There were two things he could do now.
The first was to sit down at the computer and look up the website for Lachlan & Son, the private bank who owned the Castle. He knew it would not be a simple matter of bringing up a list of their clients, but he made his way methodically through every page anyway, scanning everything and filing it away mentally for future reference. One name on the board of directors — Thomas Skopos — leapt off the screen at him, and when he couldn’t think why it should he typed it into the search bar and hit return. Over a million entries came back, and at the top of the results was a cluster of recent news articles about — surprise, surprise — Shannen Systems.
Colin hunkered down to read. The articles were from the business pages of the major news websites, and at first he struggled to make head or tail of the legal and financial jargon; but after ten minutes he managed to grasp the basics. He remembered the story from the papers. It had been big for a couple of days last week, and nearly every front page had at some time featured Skopos’ smiling, balding, shiny face laughing away questions from reporters. Skopos, amongst others, had been under investigation for their part in some kind of medical fraud: something to do with insurance payments being withheld from claimants involved in below-the board drug trials in one of Shannen’s subsidiary companies. The trial had found them not guilty, but some of the claimants had been talking to the papers, giving details that had somehow not found their way into the court room, and those details had been raising more than a few eyebrows amongst commentators and fringe politicians.
Colin clicked through link after link, his brows furrowing as he dug deeper through the layers of investigation, but soon the trail grew cold. Skopos’ name dropped out of the investigation, and the threads began to unravel. At last he gave up and closed all the windows. Skopos had dropped off the radar five websites ago. There was nothing here that would help him. It was just coincidence. He felt like he was following a dead end.
He turned instead to the other thing he could do: picking up the documents he had signed at the hospital, he shrugged on his jacket, pocketed his phone and his keys, and left the flat.
Sparta Security’s head offices were located in a run-down business park in Lewisham. Kids in school uniform were making their way home from after-school football matches as Colin stepped off the bus on to the main road and ducked through a fence to cut across the housing estate.
Colin had been to the office only twice in all his years with Sparta — once for his interview, and again for the disciplinary hearing — but he knew Asif spent his spare hours there, and that on a Friday he worked late to bring payroll up-to-date.
He showed his pass to the man lounging against the security barrier, who barely glanced at it before waving him through. Sparta occupied both floors of a converted warehouse across the carpark. Colin made his way quickly up the rusting exterior stairs to Reception, where Alison the receptionist greeted him with a puff of cigarette smoke and a nod towards the visitors’ book before she shooed him to a seat and went to get Asif.
The seat was threadbare, a relic of the seventies which went perfectly with the scuffed carpet, grubby plasterboard walls and sagging ceiling. Colin fidgeted on it for a minute, then stood up as Asif stormed into the room, his finger already up and in Colin’s face.
“What the hell’s this about, bruv? I told you, didn’t I? I told you: never come round these ends on a Friday! Flip, bruv! I’m busy! I don’t need your beef! I got flipping payroll, I’m up to here in these accounts, bruv! I don’t need jokers like you coming in and getting all up in my business!”
Colin was ready for the onslaught. Already the papers were out of his jacket and in front of Asif’s nose. He held them there until Asif noticed them, then watched as Asif’s eyes narrowed, then widened, then narrowed again. His voice trailed off, and he glared at the papers as though they were about to explode.
“Can we talk in your office?” Colin jerked his head in Alison’s direction. “This is kind of private.”
Asif glowered at him, and for a moment Colin was sure he would throw him out. Then he snarled and turned on his heel, and crooked a finger for Colin to follow.
“What you doing with that, here, now?”
Asif slumped down behind a desk littered with payslips and scraps of paper dense with scribbled figures. He did not meet Colin’s eyes, but instead frowned at a monitor and clicked away at some spreadsheets.
“Huh?” he said, still not looking up. “You know the deal, Colin. You signed the papers. You take your week, you rest up at home, and you keep your mouth shut.”
“Well,” Colin slid the indemnity forms across the desk, glancing at the payslips as he did so, “I think you’ll find there’s nothing in there that stops me from talking to anyone about this.”
“So I was thinking, a week’s holiday doesn’t seem long enough for me to recover from this trauma.”
“Really?” Asif snorted. “How long is long enough? You want two weeks?”
“Six months.” It was a ridiculous demand. That was why Colin had chosen it. Something that Asif would have to clear with management. But to his surprise Asif nodded.
“Fine. Done. Anything else?”
Colin hadn’t expected this. Six months should have done it. He’d have to think on his feet.
“And a cash sum,” he said.
That got Asif’s attention. He looked up from the monitor. “How much?”
Colin hesitated. Good question. How much was too much, and how much was not enough? He decided to jump in with both feet.
Asif’s face was a mask. For a long minute he looked at Colin, and Colin couldn’t tell whether he would laugh or take a swing at him. Then Asif’s hand reached out and picked up the phone. His eyes didn’t leave Colin’s as he dialled an extension and held the receiver to his ear.
“Boss? It’s Asif. Yeah. I got Ashwood here. Yeah. You got a moment? All right. I’ll tell him to wait.”
He replaced the receiver and crossed to the door. Just as he was about to leave the office he turned and looked back.
“You better know what you’re doing, bruv,” he said, then closed the door firmly behind him.
As soon as the latch clicked Colin jumped up. He didn’t know how long he would have. Asif’s desk was a tip: the payslips were in no kind of order, and they were mixed in with Asif’s scribbled calculations, old letters and overdue invoices. He ran his hands over them, scanning the top right-hand corner for the name. From down the hallway he hear someone swear, loudly and distinctly. That would be Manipal, the owner. It wouldn’t take him long to decide whether to give Colin the money or sack him, and Colin wasn’t holding out on the latter. He probably had about twenty seconds.
A door opened and closed. Make that five seconds. His eyes flicked back and forth across the desk. Footsteps in the hallway. Four seconds.
The door opened.
“What you doing, bruv?”
Colin turned, holding up a payslip. “I just thought I’d pick mine up while I was here.”
Asif stalked back to his seat, snatching the slip from Colin’s fingers and throwing it down on the desk. “You can wait for it, same as everyone.” He leaned back and stared at the screen, biting a fingernail. A thought went through Colin’s mind, and it said, He hasn’t sacked me yet.
“Fifteen grand,” Asif said abruptly.
“Fifteen grand, and your holiday. Take it or leave it.”
For a moment Colin was speechless. He had fully been expecting to be thrown out of the office. This was a bonus. He should just say yes. Definitely say yes. But something — probably the image of the debt box — made him hesitate, and when he opened his mouth it was to hear himself say, “Twenty grand.”
Asif sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. Immediately Colin regretted the words. He could have punched himself. There. He’d done it now. He should have taken the fifteen grand and left.
“Fine.” Asif shrugged. “Twenty. Done. Not a penny more. Twenty grand and six months off. Now get out of my office.”
Colin didn’t move. He couldn’t believe it. What was going on? What had happened the other night that was so bad they were paying him that much to keep his mouth shut? This was definitely the right thread to follow, then.
“Colin?” Asif was leaning forward in his chair. “Did you hear me, bruv? I said get out. I don’t want to see your face no more.”
“Sure. Sure.” Colin pushed himself to his feet. “I want something on paper. Signed. Official.”
“You’ll get it.”
“If I don’t I’m going to the papers.”
“I said you’ll get it.”
Colin nodded, still in a daze. “All right, then.” At the door a thought occurred to him, and he turned. “Have you heard anything about that Ade guy?”
“Piss off, Colin.”
According to the payslip on Asif’s desk, Adesola Oye lived at Flat 35, Eastman House, Bickersteth Estate, Bermondsey. But when Colin rang the intercom there was no answer, and there was still no answer after five minutes of ringing.
He stepped back and looked up at the high-rise towering over him. The sky was bruised, the day’s last clouds high and wispy. Behind him streetlights flickered into life. This means nothing, he told himself. The guy could be down the pub, or out with his family. He could be anywhere.
He decided to wait. It wasn’t as if he had anywhere to be right now. He sat down on a nearby wall with his hands in his pockets and watched the last of the blue ebb from the sky. Windows in the flats above him had been flung open, spilling out their mixture of televised football chants, music, and the clattering of cutlery. It was still warm, so he shrugged off his jacket and laid it on the wall beside him, then leaned back on his hands and closed his eyes, enjoying the breeze across his face. If only all police work could be like this.
But it wasn’t, was it? That was the point. There were good people in the world, and there were the people who did bad things to good people, and then there were the people whose job it was to stop them. At least, that was the theory. It didn’t always work, of course, and that’s where good people found themselves on the wrong side of the line, doing bad things for something called ‘the greater good’ — and there were always those people waiting in the wings to see which way it would go so they could step in front of the cameras and justify what had happened.
(An echoing warehouse in a deserted scrapyard somewhere in the belly of London. Dripping water, shouted commands, sporadic rattles of gunfire; the stock of his MP5 digging into his armpit; the girl buried into his side, stick-thin, terrified, her hands over her ears, wincing at each new retort; his back sweat-slicked, his throat hoarse from shouting, his shoulder bruised from pressing up against the shipping container.
A burst of gunfire, terrifyingly close; the girl starting up like a frightened cat, squirming from his grip, running into the open, ignoring his shouts. He rising to follow her, but the squeezing terror in his belly forcing him back down, panting, flushed with shame.
A single shot. The girl stumbling sideways, falling, twisting oddly, sprawling in a puddle with her arm behind her back, a hole where her head should have been. He, frozen, staring at her, the bottom crumbling from his world—)
No. Stop it. He shook himself, as if he could shake the memory away, then leaned back and took a deep breath of the warm night air. The past should stay in the past.
A boy was coming up the path to the door of the block. Colin stood and followed him with his jacket under his arm. The boy passed his key fob over the electronic lock and held the door for Colin to follow him.
“Cheers,” Colin said.
As they waited for the lift Colin glanced at the floor plan. When the doors ground open he stepped in first and held his finger over the buttons.
He pressed eleven, and they stood side by side as the lift clambered upwards.
“I suppose you must know Mr. Oye, then?” Colin said. “Number 35?”
The boy looked at him sharply. “Why do you want to know?”
Ah. Jackpot. “I’m a friend.”
Why not? “Yeah. You his boy?”
The boy nodded. Colin took a second look at him. Thin, gangly, your typical teenager: nothing particularly special. But there were the clothes: Superdry t-shirt, Levi’s, Converse trainers. Rich, then? Living in a place like this? Something didn’t add up. He took an educated stab in the dark.
Again, that sharp suspicious look. Almost as if he knew who Colin was.
“She’s all right.”
“Can’t be easy, eh?”
The boy shrugged. The lift jerked to a halt and they both stepped out into a box-like landing with four doors facing on to it, all with security gates attached to them. The boy fumbled with his keys and made sure he closed the gate behind him before he leaned into the flat’s darkened hallway.
Colin peered through the crack in the door. The lights were all off, and there was no sound of TV. That confirmed it. There was no-one home.
Even so, when the boy came back and told him his dad was out Colin nodded as if it was news to him.
“Know when he’ll be back?”
The shrug. The look. “Sometimes he stays out all night.”
“Got his mobile number?” As soon as the words were out Colin wished he could bite them back. Stupid. Amateur. Clumsy. Obvious.
“Look.” The boy spoke to him through the half-closed door. “I don’t know you, all right? You know my dad from work? Ask them for his number. Otherwise, I can’t help you.”
Colin forced a smile. “All right,” he said, stepping away. “I’ll give them a call. Cheers.”
He felt the boy’s eyes boring into the back of his head until the lift arrived.
Five minutes later the main door to the block opened, and a figure bundled in a hooded jacket hurried down the path and disappeared into the gathering night.
Colin watched the boy go from behind a low wall. When he was far enough ahead not to notice, he rose and followed him.
Ten seconds later a man of average height and average build stepped out of the shadows. He paused to send a text, then pocketed the phone and followed them both.
* * *
I hope that kicked things up a gear for some of you. The plan says there are two more chapters of Ash, before we move on to Kindling, then Wildfire.
I shall do my best to stick to the plan.