‘In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it.’
The beer stuck in Hillier’s throat. It was gassy and chemical. He shook his head and belched, feeling the pressure give and the warm, foamy beer dropping into his gut, like a snake swallowing an egg.
………those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it
Hillier knew the words well enough. The problem was, apart from a pathologist and his team of detectives, no one else did. No one knew about the message on the answer-phone and Hillier was determined it would stay that way. There’d been four victims already. He had a feeling those words were critical.
In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it.
Hillier shuffled forward, flipping a beer mat onto the sticky tiles. The seat was shiny vinyl, sprouting with mushrooms of foam. It squeaked, as if he’d farted, as he stooped to peel the mat from the floor. Three men stood at the bar nursing the dregs of their pints.
‘You are one sick man.’
Spit fell from his teeth as his head rocked back. He wore a ski jacket and snow-washed jeans. Hillier blinked. He didn’t know them.
‘Sick bastard,’ ski jacket said.
‘I do my best.’
The man’s thumbs were tucked in his belt. He grinned, exposing a line of large crooked teeth like tombstones on a hillside. He had an odd, misshapen head, like the last potato in the sack, with tufts of blond hair sprouting above the ears. Hillier raised his pint, forcing himself to sip. Foam slid down the inside of the scratched glass, where the dishwasher had scorched, distorting the man’s outline. Hillier’s feet jigged on the tiles. He swallowed, reached for his mobile. The man had the cheerful face of a grocer or milkman. With his ungainly looks he’d probably worked hard on that, but you’d trust him, Hillier thought. He wore a chunky, cable-knit cardigan over a brown shirt. He couldn’t have been more than forty, but looked like he was dressed by his mother. Hillier pictured the set-up. The guy would have been in the same low-level job for years. He’d have his mother and a budgie at home for company. He sent a text to Smudge.
Get to the Queen’s Arms. wait outside.
The man tugged his coat off a bar stool and jerked his arms into the sleeves. He grabbed a pint glass off the bar top and guzzled the dregs. Then he raised a glass of tonic and licked the rim, before tilting a dribble of Scotch into his mouth. Ski jacket screwed up his face as he held up the tonic glass. Even from where he was sat Hillier could see the smudges of greasy fingertips and garish scarlet lipstick on the glass.
‘It’s had some bird’s gob round it.’
Potato head belched and punched ski jacket on the arm.
‘It’s as near as you’ll get to some bird putting her mouth round it.’
He turned up the collar on his jacket and stepped out into the night. There were sparkles of frost on the pavement and a wet sheet of newspaper had frozen solid.
‘Still up for Saturday, Col?’ ski jacket shouted.
Colin raised a thumbs-up without turning. Hillier counted to twenty and followed.
Outside, Hillier paused on the steps. There was no sign of Colin. A car engine started. Hillier scanned along the line of parked cars and vans. They were frosted, but one had an interior light on. Hillier started walking, softening his stride, aware of the clip-clop and scuff of his shoes on the flags. Smoke chugged from the exhaust of a bottle green Escort. Hillier quickened his stride. The engine began to squeal as Colin released the handbrake and pulled out. Hillier tapped the registration number into his phone. It started to vibrate.
‘Excuse me for breathing,’ Smudge said.
‘Where are you?’
Smudge told him.
‘There’s a bottle green Escort heading your way. Follow it.’
‘There’s one bloke driving. You’ll know when you see it.’
Hillier stepped back inside the Queen’s. Ski jacket and his mate had gone. He cursed. The barman was stacking peanuts.
‘Those blokes that were in, just….’
‘Yeah,’ the barman said, without turning.
‘Where did they go?’
The barman jerked a thumb towards the toilets.
‘It’s not really an exit, but-‘
‘Do you know them?’
The barman set his palms on the bar-top and stared at Hillier.
‘What if I do? My customers have got a right to privacy.’
Hillier flipped open his warrant card.
‘You’re running a boozer, not MI6. Now, who are they?’
The barman offered a hand. Hillier didn’t take it.
‘Terry,’ he said, ‘I don’t want any bother. I get plenty of you lot in here and-‘
‘Who are they, Terry?’
‘I don’t know their names.’
‘Shouldn’t be difficult to find out, though. They’re in the pub quiz league.’
Hillier waited. Terry crouched down and started riffling through a tub full of cards and bookie’s pencils.
‘Here you go. Norfolk and Chance.’
Terry handed across a dog-eared card with a tally in red ink.
‘Norfolk and Chance. It’s a play on words, see. A lot of the teams do it. We’ve had-‘
Hillier walked out.
Hillier’s phone bleeped.
‘What about the car?’ he said.
‘Nothing came through.’
Hillier grunted, killed the connection and phoned Control.
‘DCI Hillier, yeah. I need a PNC check on a vehicle.’
PNC was the police national computer – a huge database that held details on everything from vehicle’s keepers to offenders’ addresses and tattoos.
‘Comes back to an address off the Munster Road.’
Hillier scribbled the details on a business card and tucked it into his pocket.
‘Do you need back-up?’
Hillier said he didn’t. The last thing he wanted was everyone in the nick saying he’d lost it.
Yeah, he overhears this bloke talking in a boozer. You know, minding his own and having a few jars. The next thing the poor bugger knows he’s doing a 25-stretch for murder.
Smudge screeched up alongside and drew down his window.
‘There’s people sleeping,’ Hillier hissed, ‘and I’m not even sure this thing’s legal.’
‘It’s legal,’ Smudge said.
Hillier got in and gave Smudge the address.
‘I’m not stopping you doing anything?’
Smudge tugged at his hair.
‘I didn’t know you washed it. And don’t give me that hippie crap about it cleaning itself.’
Smudge changed up into third with a roar of the Subaru’s engine. They were soon on the Cromwell Road, heading west.
Smudge pulled up round the block, obscured by a battered builder’s Transit with a padlock on the back door. Someone had licked their finger and written in the grime: I wish my missus was this dirty.
‘What now?’ Smudge said.
Hillier wasn’t sure. He couldn’t place the house under obs because that would mean justifying resources. He couldn’t very well knock on the door and flash his warrant card either.
‘I don’t see his motor anywhere, do you?’
Smudge shrugged. There were hundreds of cars parked in lines. Some you could barely slip a fag paper between them.
‘He probably parks round the corner. He’s not going to get a space outside, is he?’
‘Wait here. No radios.’
Smudge patted his leather jacket.
‘It’s in my locker. We’re off-duty, remember. I was enjoying a nice bottle-‘
‘Stop whining. It’s back on, isn’t it?’
‘I haven’t heard a thing. She’s not answering.’
Hillier pushed the car door to softly. He stepped off at a pace, looking like he was going somewhere, hoping he didn’t look like a copper. He’d seen some of the pathetic attempts his colleagues made to blend in. Their idea of undercover garb was a pair of desert boots, stonewashed jeans and a navy fleece. Off-duty clobber meant undercover to them, the trouble was the local villains didn’t spend their weekends hiking in the Lakes or cycling the South Downs.
Hillier stopped outside number 58. It was a tidy terrace with two steps up, immaculately scrubbed, and ivy growing in a crescent around the door. There was a stained glass panel and a brass door knocker. There was a small card in the window. No sellers or hawkers welcome. The nets were pristine, the window sparkling. There was a faint nip of bleach.
Hillier tapped the door. He pressed his nose to the glass panel. Down the hallway was a soft light, like the interior of a fridge or a night light. There was no movement. He puffed out his cheeks sending a plume of icy air into the night sky. He pressed the doorbell. The soft light widened. Someone approached.
Anna closed her eyes, despite the darkness, and took a deep breath. She coughed. It was like breathing cotton wool. It reminded her of being a child and being handed up through the loft hatch by her dad. She’d inch through the dust and packing crates, shuddering at the thought of spiders or shards of broken bauble, to fetch the Christmas decorations. She wished her dad was here now. He was an ex-miner who’d boxed at middleweight. He’d make mincemeat of the creep who’d brought her here. The air was hot and stuffy. She wriggled, clenched up her fists and pounded at the panel. She kicked and punched and shouldered the panel. There was no give, not even a creak. There was someone outside, talking. She kept still, listening.
You are the seventh visitor.
Anna trembled. The voice was recorded. She pressed her feet against the panel and arched her back into the opposing side and pushed. He had taken her shoes and socks. Her feet were cold and plastered in grit. There was no movement. It was as if she were kicking against the foundations of a house.
‘Let me out of here, you creep!’
You are the seventh visitor.
She felt dizzy and her tongue was swollen. She could taste blood. She had no memory of how she had got here. She remembered nothing after finishing work.
‘Let me out you bastard!’
She heard footsteps, the slow casual slap of soles on a floor.
‘You’ve got spirit.’
Anna pinched the bridge of her nose. She had to stay calm.
‘In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it. You’ll do well to remember that.’
The footsteps trailed away.
‘Don’t leave me here.’
There was silence. She listened, sensing he was close. Her skin prickled. Beads of sweat formed on her brow.
‘Don’t give in, Anna.’
Anna’s breaths came quicker. There was a roar in her ears. She rubbed her temples. She had to think.
‘That’s a selfish thought. I expected better.’
‘Did your mother beat you?’ she said.
He started laughing. She pictured a fat, little man with waxy skin and solitary habits.
‘Did someone touch you?’
‘I was only touched by God.’
She strained her eyes. There was a tiny, paper-thin wedge of light at the foot of the box.
‘Would you feel better if I was a Bible-basher?’
‘How do you know my name?’
‘Because,’ he said, his voice perfectly calm, ‘I chose you. You’re number seven. You’re special.’
A tear welled in Anna’s eye. There was an aching, bruising hollow in her throat. She thought she would never see her family again.
He clicked his fingers.
‘Come on, Anna. Don’t get soft on me, now.’
His footsteps trailed away.
‘That’s more like it. Now listen to the instructions, there’s a good girl.’
Anna tasted salt on her cheek. Tears rolled down her face. Her hair was plastered to her forehead with sweat.
‘They can’t find me like this,’ she said.
She patted her pocket and shook her head, knowing he’d taken the mobile. A bugle sounded. Anna froze. There was a screech of feedback, then the voice. It was his voice, but distorted, hollow.
‘Listen carefully, Anna. This is your chance. In five minutes precisely the box will open. Then you will have the chance to escape.’
‘The chance to escape?’
She pressed the light on her watch. Of course, he’d allowed her to keep the watch. She watched the seconds tick away and sucked in the air, knowing she had to slow her breathing, knowing she had to think.
‘I’ve been told to keep the chain on,’ the woman said.
‘Catch,’ the woman said.
She frowned, regretting she’d told him. She didn’t have to answer questions on her own doorstep. She was in her sixties, Hillier thought, with white hair scraped back into a bun. She wore a fleece jacket with a St Bernard dog on it.
‘I’m after your Colin.’
‘He’s not in. He doesn’t have men calling on him.’
The way she said men spoke volumes. Here was a woman whose son never brought women home. She would never have grandchildren. She pushed the door. Hillier shoved his foot in the gap. She screamed. A man walking a terrier shouted. Hillier turned and flashed his warrant card.
The man watched from across the road. Hillier thought he saw the man talking into a mobile.
‘Let me in, Mrs Catch. Colin is in serious trouble.’
‘I don’t believe you. Why should I?’
Hillier pushed his warrant card through the gap in the door. She took the chain off. He followed her along a tiled hallway with yucca plants and a hat-stand in mahogany. The Catches didn’t fit the house. The heat was oppressive, the stifled air thick with wet dog and chip fat.
‘In here,’ she said.
‘You’re not from round here, are you?’
Mrs Catch didn’t turn round.
‘My sister left us the place. Bernard said we might as well see the sights, like.’
Hillier stepped into the living room. There were five glowing bars on the gas fire.
‘Bernard,’ a man growled.
The man was wedged into a tartan armchair. His face was shaped like a triangle, so everything hung down from a small, square forehead to his wobbling jaw. On his lap was a tray, with a bag of beans clipped beneath so it would shape to him and avoid spillages. Piled high on the largest dinner plate Hillier had ever seen – and he’d eaten with Traffic – was a mountain of mash with Cumberland sausages protruding like horns.
‘Where’s Colin?’ Hillier said.
His toenails bit into the soles of his shoes. There was a brass carriage clock chiming on the tiled mantelpiece. In a silver picture frame Colin held a fish in his arms.
‘That was down the cut. You wouldn’t think anything could live there, would you?’
‘Where is he, Mr Catch?’
‘We’ve not been introduced. I was in the Force years back.’
Hillier guessed the accent was Midlands. He’d had a Superintendent from Dudley who always called a canal a cut.
‘It’s urgent,’ Hillier said.
‘What’s he done then, cock?’
The clock chimed ten. Hillier was light-headed. A sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead. He looked in the mirror above the mantel. Dark crescents had formed beneath his eyes.
‘Where is he? He could be in serious trouble.’
Bernard Catch frowned.
‘You’re after him, aren’t you?’
‘He’ll be working on his motor. But our Col wouldn’t be up to no good.’
Bernard Catch lifted his racing paper. There was a ring of tea blurring the headline.
‘That old Ford?’ Hillier said. Bernard Catch shook his head, causing the flaps of skin beneath his chin to wobble.
‘He’s building a kit car. He’s always at it.’
Hillier took the address and left.
‘He’s not a wrong ‘un, if that’s what you’re thinking.’
When Hillier had gone Beryl Catch sat down smoothing the apron over her knees.
‘Is he in trouble, Bern?’
Bernard Catch bit his lip.
‘Pass us the mobile. We’d best give him a heads up.’
Five, four, three, two……….
Anna was beginning to think she’d miscounted when the lid creaked open. A blaze of light caused her to throw her arms in front of her face. It was a dragon lamp, the type they used to light up crime scenes. She squinted, framing her eyes from the glare. A vast expanse of dusty, cracked concrete stretched out around the box. There was a length of rope that twisted, snake-like, across the floor. She guessed it had been attached to the hook on the box-lid. She stared into the steel rafters high above, but could only see darkness and motes of dust circling downwards. She turned round and round, shoulders arched forwards, crouched, expecting attack. Then the lights went out.
‘What are you doing?’
Smudge was fiddling with his mobile. The phone was balanced precariously on his knee as he thumbed through the gears.
‘Can you concentrate on getting us there in one piece?’
‘I can’t get hold of her.’
Hillier stared out of the window, watching young couples in trench-coats sipping cappuccinos at zinc-topped tables. It was freezing cold. London wasn’t Lisbon.
‘Buy her some flowers later. She’s probably having a girls’ night.’
‘It’s not like her not to answer, that’s all.’
‘You’ve got it bad, haven’t you? You want to try marriage. That’d soon knock the romance out of you.’
Smudge swerved towards Parsons Green.
‘Last of the romantics,’ he said.
Hillier pointed at a turning between a row of industrial units.
They screeched to a halt, scattering gravel into a fence panel like shot.
‘Sorry,’ Smudge said.
‘I’m sure his folks called ahead, aren’t you?’
The green Escort was parked against one of the pebble-dash walls. Smudge jogged back and closed the gates, wedging packing crates and wheeled bins against them.
‘There’s no bolt, but he’s not getting out in a hurry.’
They fanned out, walking across a ribbed concrete yard. There were skips piled high with broken plasterboard, brick dust and mangled iron.
‘What is this place?’
Smudge had his baton in his sleeve.
‘It’s an old depot or something.’
‘Don’t worry, Smudge. I’ll look after you.’
Hillier had been here before, perhaps twenty-odd years ago, as a raw recruit. It had been one of his first dead bodies. He was out on solo patrol for the first time and Control had sent him to check reports of a break-in. In the gloom he’d stumbled across a body, stepping into the man’s chest with a crunch of bone. He’d cursed, crouched with a sense of dread, and shone his torch over a gasping mouth and blackened eyes. When the undertakers turned up Hillier was sitting in the sun scraping the man’s guts from his size 11s with a twig.
Smudge lifted a loose panel of corrugated iron. It snapped back into place, quivering, as they stepped inside. Hillier flicked on the torch beam and scanned the floor. It was covered in broken bottles, half-bricks and mounds of crumpled cans. Newspapers had been scrunched up in place of bedding. A sodden, fungal strip of underlay was draped across a plank. The place stunk of cat piss and damp.
‘Vagrants’ paradise,’ Smudge said.
‘Stay on your feet and eyes peeled for needles,’ he said.
‘What was that?’
Hillier raised a hand. ‘Through there,’ he said.
They stepped through an arch someone had hammered through the crumbling brickwork. A low, mournful sobbing came from within.
‘Who’s there?’ Hillier said.
‘It could be a trap, boss.’
‘For God’s sake, help me.’
‘It’s Anna,’ he said.
He called out her name. She sobbed and screamed for help. Hillier seized his arm.
‘Wait. We’ll get her, but you’re right it’s a trap.’
Smudge shrugged him off and ran, kicking clinking half-bricks and stumbling and grunting in the darkness. A beam of light flashed from the ceiling. Hillier blinked. Something flashed past, a dart-like blur. Smudge howled in pain. The light went out. Anna was screaming. Hillier kept his mouth shut. His only chance was not to give away his position. He crept back into the pile of bricks and crumpled newspapers. Hillier had no gun, no CS, no baton. He rummaged through the dust and pulled out a smooth, hard pebble. He tossed it and caught it, feeling its weight. Colin was fifteen, maybe twenty feet up.
‘You must know you haven’t a chance.’
It was Colin’s voice. Hillier bit his lip and focused on placing him in the darkness. Anna was sobbing. He sensed she was close to Smudge, who was breathing deep, gasping for air.
In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it.
‘I’m not begging, you bloody freak,’ Hillier roared.
‘You should be. You’ve no back-up and no weapons. You’re a man down and she’s bottled it.’
‘You hold all the cards, big man,’ Hillier said.
‘I can take you out whenever-‘
Hillier got to his feet.
‘So do it, mummy’s boy. I’m waiting. Take your best shot.’
The light flashed on. Colin’s silhouette stepped through the beam as Hillier launched the pebble, slung from the hip. There was a grunt as Hillier dived into the bricks for cover.
‘I bet you’re seeing pink elephants.’
Smudge nodded, ghostly pale. The paramedics had given him a shot of something and he’d slumped back. He was sat in the back of the ambulance. A towel was draped over his leg so he wouldn’t be forced to see the crossbow bolt through his right ankle.
Anna draped an around his shoulder and kissed his cheek. Her forehead was lumpy. There were cuts on her lips where Hillier guessed she’d chewed them.
‘You OK, PC Hart?’ Hillier asked her.
‘Make sure you answer your phone in future,’ Hillier said, ‘Smudge gets moody if you don’t.’
Smudge pulled a face. Hillier turned and jangled the keys to the Subaru.
‘You’re in no state to drive,’ he said, ‘but don’t worry I’ll take care of her.’
‘One question, boss?’
‘Go on DS Smith.’
‘How did you learn to throw like that? You took him out like David and Goliath.’
Hillier straightened up.
‘Derbyshire Colts. I was a demon at mid-off.’
Smudge frowned. The paramedic grinned.
‘Not everyone loves cricket,’ he said.
Hillier nodded. It was a pretty decent throw.
‘You’ve still go it, David,’ he said as he walked off into the night.