Nathan raised his eyebrows.
‘This autumn. And she suggested I apply.’
‘Go on.’ His voice was cautious.
‘So . . . I want to know if you think I should.’
‘You don’t need me.’
‘I’m asking you. I value your opinion and you know me as well as anyone.’
‘Right. Well then, first off, do you want it? Really want it. If your heart jumped and you thought “job of my dreams” – go for it. Nice though, getting asked like that.’
‘It’s not in her gift . . . she was just suggesting she’d approve.’
‘Come on, more than that, guv.’
‘I wish you’d stop calling me guv.’
‘Can’t. She means you’d be the best at it, best successor she could want, all that.’
‘Yes. Very flattering.’
‘Chief’s not an oiler. No need to be.’
Simon leaned back. The dining room was full but they were in a quiet corner and he saw no one he recognised, and certainly no one from the station. He could talk freely, as ever, to Nathan.
‘I just don’t know. When she said it, that did happen – I did think, “Crikey! Wow, yes please.” For a second or two. But then this case took it clean out of my head and it stayed there – until just now actually. I hadn’t given it another thought. But relaxing over this – it came back to me. You know me, Nathan. You know this nick. You know this force pretty well – it hasn’t changed much since you went, not essentially. You know what the job is all about.’
Nathan looked at him. ‘Yeah, I do know you, I reckon. I know you and the job. And I know pretty well what a Chief’s for. So I’ll tell you. Don’t touch it. Come on, guv, you’re not an admin, big-picture, strategy copper. You’re a hands-on, off-beam tec. Always have been – DCI, DCS, whatever, you’re the same. You get your hands dirty, you don’t pull rank, ’cept when arses need kickin’. You don’t break the rules but you don’t treat them with kid gloves. You get results. You lead a great team on a case. Nobody better. Chief Constable? Not saying you couldn’t do it. Course you could do it. But you’d ’ate it. You’d ’ate it from day one and there’d be no going back into CID and your old desk. Right, I’ve said it.’
SERRAILLER’S PHONE RANG on the way in to the station. He listened. Exploded.
‘Right, I’ve had enough. I’m going to talk to him. Not you, not anyone else from CID or uniform, I’m going. Get this sorted. Anything else?’
‘Matt Williams, guv. Seen today’s papers?’
‘Can’t get a job any more cos one of the guys he worked with on the bungalows had a bit of an argument with him, hates his guts, told a reporter Matt was a psycho, bit of a weird one, blah-blah. The media blew it up, had a photo of him looking like someone out of a locked ward. Press office are doing their nut. He’s demanding compensation.’
‘Of course he is. And how many millions is a subcontract sparks worth? Leave it to the press office, they’re good at their job, and he’s on a hiding to nothing anyway – we had every reason to arrest and charge him. It’s one more damn thing getting in the way, but not worth worrying about. Right, if anyone wants to know where I am, you’ve no idea.’
‘The Chief’s already asked.’
‘You’ve still no idea.’
The DS sighed. ‘Guv.’
The temperature was still only hovering around zero but the sky was cloudless, a bright sparkling blue. Lafferton looked as if it had been rinsed clean, the cathedral tower standing out in 3D against the clear sky. Simon parked his car at the top of Metal Street and walked down towards the canal, which ran darkly gleaming beside the towpath. There had been talk for years of clearing up the old warehouses down here and, once, a start had been made, when the Old Ribbon Factory was converted into expensive apartments. But the developer had run out of money, there were engineering problems to do with the site, the conservationists and the Friends of the Canal had organised themselves vigorously and, finally, they had begun to clear downstream for a proposed future reopening of the waterway to canal boats. The old warehouses and sheds stayed as they were, some collapsing in on themselves gently as the weather worked on their fabric, others still in fair condition.
Simon went over the bridge and along the towpath. The willows had been pollarded the previous year and looked bald and stumpy but the whole area served as a lung to the town. The field beyond had a couple of gypsy horses grazing, with an old trailer full of hay nearby. Two women were walking briskly across, their dogs racing and running in circles.
He had meant to come down here and draw the old warehouses before it was too late. Which it would be one of these days when there was money about. Councils liked tidying up. He would come when it was warmer.
Nobby Parks’s shack was fifty yards ahead. There was no sign of life but as he got nearer Simon could smell the faint fumes of paraffin from his ancient stove. The door was made of flimsy wooden fencing and there was a broken padlock hanging from the handle. Nobby wasn’t troubled by the idea of intruders.
He banged on the door, then on the wood panel beside it. Silence. He banged again and there was a muttering and swearing from inside. Serrailler pushed open the door and the paraffin fumes came at him more strongly.
‘You’ll set fire to yourself one of these days, Nobby.’
His eyes grew used to the dimness and he made out the rickety table, bench, wicker chair, and the bed in the corner, piled high with blankets, quilts and old sweaters. Nobby was struggling out of it, wearing another of the sweaters, with long johns and a cap.
‘Morning,’ Simon said. ‘Sorry it’s early for you. Got a kettle and some tea bags?’
‘All right, all right. Give me a chance. What you doing down here? Thought you was too high and mighty to come bothering innocent members of the public.’
But his tone was not unfriendly. Simon went back more than fifteen years with Nobby Parks, from his first days in the force as a DC.
He looked around. The place was more crammed with junk than ever, inside and out, stuff Nobby took from skips and tips and bins, ditches and waste ground. Never from people.
‘For heaven’s sake, what do you want with a bag of old golf balls?’
‘Come in handy. Never know.’
‘And all these roof tiles?’
‘Could sell those. Old tiles fetch a bob or two.’
‘Not when they’re broken they don’t. OK, well, just don’t go climbing on church roofs nicking lead or I’ll have you.’
The tin kettle whistled sulkily on the stove. Nobby got down two mugs and rinsed them in a bucket of water, found tea bags from a tin. The milk was out on the window ledge.
‘Don’t need any fridges, see? Butter as well. Bacon. Bit of cheese. All lives out there.’
‘What do you do when it’s hot?’
‘Suffer. Help yourself. Got no sugar, sorry about that.’
‘I don’t take it. Thanks, Nobby.’
‘This is about the other business, isn’t it? Them poor women.’
‘You got no need to take me into your station again, there’s nothing else I can say. Said everything.’
‘Where did you get that reel of electrical flex, Nobby?’
‘Skip at the back of the bungalows. It was a disgrace what they threw out when they’d done – enough paint to do a lot of walls, enough wood to make a few window frames. Look – nails, screws, cabling. All just thrown out and wasted. Do you blame me?’
‘No, I don’t, and if you can get a bob or two for it I’m not looking. It’s not that and you know it, Nobby.’
‘You don’t want me out at night. Only I’ve been out at night for years. You know that. I like it at night. You see this, you see that. You get the run of the place.’
‘That’s all right, Nobby – and you were in the right place at the right time when you saw that ram raid in the Lanes.’
‘Ah, you see . . .’
‘I don’t want to stop you doing what you want. I’m not bothered where you go when, and it’s your problem if the patrols pick you up.’
‘Always shoving me in their car and giving me a lift home, think they’re doing me a favour.’
‘They’re doing it for your own good, Nobby. At the moment, you’re in our way and every time you go out there at night, especially up near the sheltered housing, you’re even more in our way and you’re having us suspect you of things I know you’d never do. But if you’re seen hanging about there at two in the morning when a woman was murdered a few yards away what do you expect us to think? What do you expect to happen?’
Nobby drained his mug of tea and reached for another tea bag, then for his tobacco and Rizla papers on the table. He showed them to Simon.
‘No thanks. Never fancied them.’
‘Don’t know what you’re missing.’
He bent his head and started the neat, finicky business of laying the strands of tobacco along the paper. Simon looked around again. Did a double take, then got up.
‘What?’ Nobby said.
‘Get this off a skip as well?’ Simon reached for a mobile on top of a pile of old magazines.
‘Picked it up in the gutter.’
‘Work, does it?’
‘Never tried. Takes pictures though. I was playing around with it and something went flash bang wallop. Took a picture of them shelves there. They come out all right.’
Simon scrolled down, working out the way the unfamiliar mobile worked quickly enough, scrolling down through the digital pictures Nobby had taken, which turned out to be bits of wall, stretches of icy grass, an upside-down tree, the back end of a cat, a parked car, a run of fencing. They were mainly taken after dark and either vivid in the flash or too dim.
He went on scrolling. Pictures of women shopping in the Lanes. Women loading car boots with groceries at the supermarket. Random men, walking. More dark shots. And then a bungalow. Another. A doorway. Dark. Dark. A van. A car, too out of focus.
Elinor Sanders, walking up the path of her bungalow. A removal van outside it. Her open front door. The bungalow lit by a flash, curtains drawn.
‘I’m going to have to take this in, Nobby.’
‘What for? You won’t find anything indecent on there, I don’t do indecent.’
‘I know. You took quite a few pics up at Duchess of Cornwall Close, though. We might find something useful on those.’
‘Help yourself, only I want it back.’
‘You’ll get it back but I can’t promise when.’
‘And I want a receipt.’ He lit his cigarette.
Simon did not carry evidence bags these days but he poked about until he found a couple of plastic food bags on a shelf. They seemed unused, though they’d probably be contaminated with something or other, like everything in Nobby’s shack.
‘Thanks, Nobby. Thanks for the tea. And remember what I said. Keep out of our hair for a bit.’
‘You’re all right, Mr Serrailler. Sure you don’t want to try a roll-up?’
‘Dead sure. And you watch lighted matches and cigs in this tinderbox. Don’t want you carried out with your lungs full of smoke.’
‘How long have I lived here? How long have I smoked these?’
‘Too long. Cheers, Nobby.’
‘And don’t send those twelve-year-olds in their panda cars down here again neither.’
‘Behave yourself and I won’t.’
At first, when I woke up I used to be confused, just for a second or two. Who am I? I couldn’t work it out. I’m not him any more? No. I’m him then. Right. Never going to be him again. Right. It got better. I never do it now. I didn’t. I do. Shit.
I’ve started again. And I’m glad I have because I realised that I didn’t want to lose touch with him. Because that meant losing touch with me. The born one. Not the invented one.
When I look in the mirror now, though, I’m not surprised any more. Not surprised I’ve got a shaved head, not surprised it’s contacts not glasses. Always hated wearing glasses so that’s been a good thing. Not surprised by the moustache.
The contact lenses are brown. Ordinary, muddy sort of brown. Whereas Alan Keyes’s eyes are blue.
Surprising how quickly it didn’t matter what I looked like. Funny that. It’s what’s inside my head. That’s where it was harder. But I thought I’d got it. Well, I had. I could reel off all the new stuff. Turned out I’m a good learner. That’s why I could do the plumbing course. And I could tell you ‘my’ schoolmates and neighbours and names of my sister’s kids. The sister I haven’t got. I mean, I have. But I haven’t.
In the end, though, I missed him and I wanted him back. I wanted to be him again, and it was never going to happen and that was what started doing my head in.
Then it came to me. What I had to do.
And it worked. When I walked out that night, quietly up the hill and into that dark little street, when I went up to her bungalow, as soon as I did all that, I knew it had worked. I was him. I hadn’t lost who I was after all.
I’m still him.
And I can be him again any time I want. I know what I have to do.
Only thing was, I never meant it to happen again so fast. I never wanted to do that second one. What sort of monster do you think I am?
But I was worrying that she’d seen something, seen me, even a glimpse, even in the dark, even across the grass, so I had to do it. I’d no choice, had I? Just in case.
Maybe she didn’t see me. Maybe I imagined it.
But I couldn’t take that risk, could I?
‘AH, CAT. DO come in.’
Judge Gerald Hanbury lived in one of Lafferton’s oldest houses, tucked away behind a high wall near the cathedral. Few people knew a house was there at all. A plain door in the wall had a single bell with an electronic eye beside it, set into the brick. Cat had rung and there had been a slight sound. She pushed the wooden door and it opened.
Ahead was a handsome Queen Anne mansion at the end of a gravel path, with two rectangles of perfect lawn on either side of it. The house was in Pevsner. ‘One of the finest examples of this style of perfectly proportioned town house in the country. Fault cannot be found with its design or its execution.’
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