My temple was jammed against the head rest and my arm outstretched, feeling blind for a toffee beneath the passenger seat. A white blur shot into the road. I slammed the brakes on. The rear wheels flipped out as the car screeched to a halt. I rubbed my forehead, took a deep breath and swallowed back the thumping in my chest.
A gust of wind sent a pizza box spinning from under the bonnet and out along the gutter. I thumped the wheel, got out and stood against the front wing sucking in the cold night air. I shot plumes of breath watching them rise into the frosty night. The sky was full of stars, like black velvet studded with diamonds.
A tin can rattled down the cobbles. There was a roar and the sound of breaking glass. Kids were revving engines, doing wheel spins on the old salt works. I got back in the car and turned the heater up just enough. Too much and it smelt of burning hair. I brushed dandruff from my lap. I’d chosen to work Christmas and New Year. If you didn’t buy into the whole festive thing you were faced with two choices: work or religion. Christmas had at least brought snow. C-shift had got through two tins of Quality Street. I’d locked up a guy for chucking hot fat at his wife and picked up three puppies dumped on the hard shoulder of the M6. We didn’t do serial killers in these parts; we did domestic violence and pub fights. I celebrated Jesus’ birthday glugging down two-for-one Chianti while I zapped my turkey dinner in the microwave. I spooned up mash and stuffing and listened to carols. The chocolate in the advent calendar tasted like the stuff we used to give to our collie. When I’d eaten I walked out onto the marshes. I didn’t see anyone. The temperature had dipped so low the snow had a frosted top that cracked like icing under my boots. The sun fell beyond the horizon giving a salmon tinge to the sky. Gnarled fence posts and hawthorns poked from the snow blanket. I chucked last week’s loaf into the river and watched a family of ducks wolf it down. Then I went home and slept. The next morning I found Harry Fox dead, curled up in Boots’ doorway in torn crisp boxes. His yellow teeth were exposed like a dead rabbit. I had to wait for the undertakers – two pudgy men in humbug trousers. Rigor had set in. They lifted Harry into the corpse bag limb by limb like a fallen robot. They zipped him up and dropped him onto the gurney.
The green digits flashed on the dash clock. There were thirty four minutes till the bells. The radio crackled on the passenger seat.
‘Control to Bravo Mike Three.’
I picked up.
‘Are you single-crewed?’
I said I was. If I got shot or stabbed or run over then Karl on Control could say he’d done his welfare check.
‘I’ve got just the job for you.’
‘I’m waiting,’ I said.
‘There’s a break in progress at The Guild Shopping Centre – offenders on site.’
‘Cheers Karl. Is anyone else taking a look?’
‘I’ll get you some backup.’
Karl didn’t answer. There were eight of us working New Year’s Eve. The smart ones had found prisoners at ten, locked them up and gone missing. I’d got myself a Drunk and Disorderly early on, but he still wasn’t fit for interview. I doubted his brief was going to be fit for interview either.
‘I’m two minutes away so you can book me off,’ I said.
I tucked the Peugeot behind a crumbling wall next to the graveyard. I didn’t want it getting trashed by drunks. The car park was greasy with mouldy leaves and flattened burger cartons.
‘Caretaker bloke’s coming down to you,’ Karl said.
I checked my watch. It was eleven forty six. I locked the car, sniffed and listened. I could hear pipes. No? A shout came from the park. They’d fenced in the swings and the bowling green, but kids got in. They’d leave condoms, spent fags and crumpled cider cans in the kiddie’s play area. I pressed the intercom button. The door was out of sight, in a recess that stank of piss. A torn porno poked from a supermarket carrier bag. I thumped the door. It was strengthened with steel panels. As it was out of sight I guessed it’d been kicked in plenty of times. The door scraped open, dragging a free paper and some pizza ads.
‘Police?’ a voice said, as a security lamp lit up the dank space.
‘Interesting reading matter,’ I said, pointing at the porn mag.
The guy nodded for me to follow, so I stepped inside and he slammed the door. The walls were breeze block painted white with health and safety posters tacked at regular intervals. Now Wash Your Hands. Bin it, Catch it, Kill it.
The man had stick-out ears and a thick purple vein that throbbed at his temple. His hair was greased and combed flat across a lumpy scalp. He wore a navy nylon blazer with gold buttons and flannel trousers. His cheeks were ruddy like a child who’d been scrubbed and washed ready for church. He walked at a brisk pace forcing me to skip the odd step to keep up.
‘Control said someone’s trying to break in,’ I said.
He didn’t turn round, but shook his head. The corridor narrowed where metal filing cabinets had been stood or propped against the walls. Some had been padlocked, despite the fact the doors didn’t shut and leaflets and papers and directories were spilling onto the floor. Where the doors bulged outwards against the locks my cuffs or baton would catch or bang against them. The man stopped.
‘They were here,’ he said, ‘but it’s sorted now.’
‘So they’ve gone?’ I said.
He set off up a flight of stairs, taking them two at a time. I followed him, my PR24 baton clanking against the banister rail. He was waiting for me at the top.
‘Too many pasties and pies,’ he said.
He was whippet-thin, the type who ate chips with every meal and never put on an ounce.
‘I guess that’s one of the problems – getting time to go to the gym.’
I nodded. I still ran when I could. I used to box. A few days back I’d lost a foot chase with some teenage car thief. The job did nothing to help us. We worked crap shift patterns. The Chief was closing down canteens so we had little choice but burgers and chips. They weighed us down with more and more kit and most of the crims round here were six stone heroin addicts or teenagers in running shoes. If we did catch them they’d spend six hours a day working out inside.
‘How many of them were there?’ I said.
He shook his head.
‘Don’t call in. They’ll just send you to another job.’
I frowned. I didn’t like being told my job by security staff.
‘Control doesn’t change,’ he said, ‘I used to be in the job.’
The world was full of bitter cops who’d been thrown off the force. There was nothing left for them but patrolling shopping centres or walking through goods yards with a torch and an Alsatian.
‘I chose to leave,’ he said, ‘in case you were wondering.’
He turned away before I could answer and tugged a keychain on his belt.
‘I’m Malc,’ he said.
The key rattled in the lock. I wondered why he locked his office.
‘Go in,’ he said, ‘park your backside down.’
I’d expected a poky broom cupboard with a deckchair, a chipped coffee mug and a paint-spattered radio.
‘Not bad is it?’ he said.
I nodded. The room had been some sort of storage cupboard but someone had knocked through into a vacant unit that had once been Acorns Cafe.
‘What are you going to do if they let it?’
‘We’ll worry about that if it happens.’
It was criminal damage, of course. But it was New Year’s Eve and Malc was filling a kettle. I walked over to the window. On tiptoes the room had one of the best views in town. You could see the rooftops, the old almshouses, St Mary’s churchyard and over towards the park and the river.
‘Only ten minutes to go.’
He dinked a glass against a bottle of Bell’s.
‘And don’t give me that bollocks about being on duty.’
‘I wasn’t going to,’ I said.
He sloshed three generous fingers of whisky into a tumbler and a teacup. Snow started to fall, drifting in from the marshes in a thick veil that made halos of the orange street lamps. It was already beginning to stick on the tombs and headstones of St Mary’s. My breath fogged the window. Malc pointed the remote at a TV on a bracket high on the wall. I raised a hand to silence him. He frowned, setting the glass and cup on the table.
‘Can you hear something?’
He shook his head.
‘It’s a knocking sound. It’s muffled.’
‘Why would you want to freeze your nuts off stood in Trafalgar Square with thousands of other idiots when you could-‘
I pressed my head against the partition wall.
‘There’s nothing in there,’ he said.
He walked over to the window, sipping whisky from the teacup. I picked up my glass and breathed in deep. The peaty tang hit my throat like medicine. I had a thing about good whisky. Just a sniff and my neck loosened and my shoulders dropped.
‘There’s your answer,’ he said, pointing. ‘There’s your bloody racket.’
I looked out of the window and saw two lads dancing on a tablet-shaped tomb. One grabbed the other in a headlock and they grappled, egged on by two girls freezing in mini-skirts.
‘I’ll keep an eye on your drink,’ he said, ‘If you want to go and have a word.’
I shook my head.
‘This place is amazing,’ I said.
I dropped into a battered black leather chair. It was scuffed and scraped like an old handbag, but a perfect fit. I sipped at the whisky, closing my eyes as it warmed my throat.
‘How long you been in?’
He turned the volume up on the TV.
‘Here we go. Ten, nine, eight-‘
I was sure I’d heard the thumping again, but put it out of my mind.
A dull thud came from outside.
‘Happy New Year,’ he said.
We shook hands. Big Ben chimed and fireworks lit up the Thames. He unscrewed the cap and hovered over my glass. I didn’t stop him. He slumped back into his chair.
‘Why did you leave?’ I said.
‘My face didn’t fit. There were complaints, the usual stuff.’
I said ‘Oh.’
‘Were you local?’
He shook his head.
‘I was based out in the sticks.’
The knocking sounded again, closer this time.
‘I heard that. Did you hear that?’ I said.
He shook his head, but I’d seen him flinch. There was a pause in the firework display on TV and the faint knocking had begun again. He poured more whisky into his cup. He gestured to fill mine. I said no.
‘This place is full of heating ducts and air vents and all sorts. You get noises like this all night.’
I got up, asked him to turn the TV off. He tried a smile, his lips peeling back across his teeth.
‘You wouldn’t last long here,’ he said.
‘What, working as a security guard in a shopping mall?’
He grinned, shaking his head from side to side.
‘The job was different back then. You wouldn’t believe the things I saw.’
I bit my lip.
‘It’s no picnic now,’ I said.
I took my coat from the back of the chair.
‘It’s just kids now, kids with no bloody respect. We had working men to deal with in those days. They were hard blokes who did a proper day’s work and liked to have a few pints and a decent knock.’
‘I’ve got to get off,’ I said.
I never did like reminiscing with old cops. They seldom had a good thing to say about the next generation.
The room began to sway a little. I gripped the back of the chair.
‘You drank my whisky,’ he said.
‘You want a contribution?’
I rummaged through my pockets to prove the point. The knocking started. The heat coming off the electric fire was oppressive. It drew stale, greasy smells from the carpet.
‘What is it? Where is it coming from?’
He rolled his eyes. I shoved past him as he raised his hands in protest.
‘It’s coming from outside in the corridor, isn’t it?’
He grinned and glanced at the floor.
‘What’s going on?’ I said.
The knocking became banging. I followed the noise along the corridor. A strip-light buzzed. Stacks of directories and sacks stuffed with shredded papers were piled along the walls. I turned to see where he was. He’d stayed in the room. I could hear someone being interviewed about their hopes for 2010.
The thumping got louder. The end of the corridor was in darkness. It had been used as a dumping ground for cardboard cut-outs, boxes and files. I shone my torch on a large metal filing cabinet. The door was bulging out, the hinges squealing. I dropped the end of my baton between the lock and the door and wrenched it. The hinges buckled and I shone the torch through the gap. I saw a child’s face, gagged with a towel. His eyes were streaming with tears. His nostrils were scarlet.
‘What have you done?’ I said.
‘He shouldn’t take what isn’t his,’ he shouted.
‘He’s a bloody kid.’
‘Then he can learn young.’
I went to work bending the door away from the hinge. I heard a scrape and turned. Something struck me across the temple. I sank to the tiles. I felt their coolness against my cheek. My tongue lolled against my teeth. Then everything went black.
I coughed and shuffled against the cupboard door. My knees were wedged against stacked boxes. My ankles were tied with cord or rope and my arms were cuffed behind my back.
‘I can hardly breathe in here,’ I said.
A radio or television was playing in the next room. I swallowed dust. The cupboard smelt fusty the way old tents did on Scout trips. I licked my lips and raised my voice.
‘I said I can’t breathe in here-’
‘I know. I can hear you,’ he said.
I guessed he was sitting or kneeling outside.
‘They’ll turn up soon and you’ll be in the crap. Do yourself a favour and-’
‘No one knows you’re here.’
‘I booked off at the mall.’
‘Yeah and I’ll say I never saw you. You’re not on CCTV. There isn’t any at the back door.’
I wriggled. My shirt was stuck to my back with sweat. A trickle ran down my spine and I shuffled awkwardly.
‘Who was the kid?’ I said.
‘Some thieving little shit.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘I’ve got to decide what I’m going to do with you, sunshine.’
I scratched my forehead against my shoulder.
‘You’d better let me out.’
‘You’re not in a position to make any sort of demands though, are you?’
I stretched my toes in my boots. I could feel my calves cramping up.
‘They know where I last was. They’ll come looking for me. And they’ll look for the kid.’
‘You really don’t get it, do you?’
‘You’re not at the shopping centre. I’ve moved you. You slept like a baby after that nasty fall.’
‘Where am I?’ I shouted.
Malc’s boots clomped away down the hall. The TV was turned up to full volume.