He couldn’t believe it was back to this. Back on the bloody night shift by himself. Constantly looking over his shoulder. It wasn’t as easy as it had been either, especially being halfblind now. In the dark, having just one eye really made a difference. It stood to reason: only half the light went into your brain. And his left hand still hurt when he put pressure on anything. Lifting things the wrong way made his shoulder scream. He’d nearly dropped a whole bunch of stuff off a roof the other night. He’d get compensation eventually, they’d said. As a victim of crime. Quite ironic, if you thought about it. Of course he hadn’t said that to them, about the irony and that. He hadn’t said anything worth mentioning to them. You just didn’t. Assailants unknown. If he’d said anything else, anything more, and the big man had got wind of it, he’d have sent Ilkin to fi nish the job. He was lucky to be alive as it was, they had said so at the hospital. He knew they were right, too. Got away with losing one ball and one eye. The pain of it, just the memory, could still make him sweat, even on a freezing night like this one. They’d done it on purpose, too. The testicle, not the eye. They’d taken great care to punch his balls in. As a warning to others. Ilkin threw the half-brick that took his eye. Good at throwing stuff. When they tied him up, he was sure they were going to kill him this time.
Should leave Bristol, really. Much safer, in case the big man changed his mind. Lying low now, back on the night shift. The cushy life was over. But kind of relieved, too. Okay, it was easy money working for the big man, but he was a scary fucker. His cold, trembling rages were enough to turn your hair grey. Better off out of there. Better off on your own, working. While all the idiots slept.
McLusky knew he should get back to the station, but he wasn’t entirely convinced he could move. It had been a tedious morning of meetings and paperwork and his eyes just wanted to stay fi xed on this painting of snow-capped mountains. Certainly an improvement on the canteen walls at Albany Road. They should get whoever painted this to do a mural at the station. The painting reminded him of the Swiss Alps – not that he had been to the Swiss Alps – though this being an Indian place, it was probably a scene from Kashmir. He hadn’t been there either, but if this was what it looked like, he wouldn’t mind going. There were several of these mountain scenes hanging around the walls, and all were pleasingly, luxuriously empty of human life. It looked clean and sane. Restful. Unlike the place itself. If the owner was being nostalgic about the wilds of Kashmir, then a noisy fast-food restaurant in the shadow of a railway bridge had to make him feel a long way from home.
McLusky tried to burp and couldn’t. Shouldn’t have had the enigmatically named ‘meat curry’. He never dared ask what kind of meat went into it, but it sat in your stomach like a hot rock. He pushed his cleared plate away from him with too much emphasis and had to make a grab for it before it shot off the Formica table. He got to his feet with a groan. As he walked to the door, one of the men behind the counter gave him a nod of acknowledgement. He nodded back. McLusky was on nodding terms with the city now, but this was his fi rst Bristol winter. A fierce blast of it swept down the Cheltenham Road as he stepped outside, threatening to freeze-dry the fi lm of curry sweat on his forehead. And it was only November. Two in the afternoon, and already everything felt grimy and grey. It had never properly got light in the fi rst place, with the sky hanging over the city like a dirty tarpaulin. Which reminded him: he’d have to buy a few light bulbs on the way home; two of the bulbs in his fl at had blown this morning. This morning already seemed a long time ago.
Traffic didn’t look too bad today. By which he meant it was actually moving. As he vainly looked for a gap to cross the street, a man in a white T-shirt ran right-to-left on the other side, behind traffi c and parked cars. He was running fast. McLusky didn’t like the look of it. The man was running too fast. And what was it he was carrying? Shouting followed him up the road. Now he took a sudden rabbit-hook right into the street, angry horns blaring as cars braked sharply to avoid him. McLusky could see it now: the man was carrying a samurai sword, sheath in his left, naked blade in his right, stabbing the air as his arms pumped to the rhythm of his feet. McLusky thought he saw blood on the blade. Damn. He reached for the radio in his leather jacket just as a harsh and familiar voice approached. PC Hanham came running across lanes of traffi c, shouting breathlessly into the radio clipped to his vest. McLusky left his own where it was; Hanham would already be calling for armed response. If he had enough breath to get the words out, of course. The constable jogged heavily past him, giving no sign that he had noticed DI McLusky standing there with his much-needed unlit cigarette between his lips. Leave it. Hanham was the man to catch the swordsman, McLusky thought. He was the one wearing a stab vest, after all.
Rapid response. In this traffi c? Oh, what the hell. At least it would warm him up. He started after the burly constable. Hanham was running fast. McLusky speeded up, then found he needed to speed up again. He only caught up as Hanham followed the suspect into Zetland Road. By then, a jabbing stitch in his side was making it hard going.
‘He … attacked a man … at the bus stop near the girls’ school … a leg wound. Ambulance en route,’ Hanham got out.
‘By the school? That’s miles back.’
‘I know … miles … I don’t think … I can run … much further …’
One look at Hanham confi rmed it: his face was slack with exhaustion, his eyes were rolling like those of a panicked horse. He slowed, stopped, sank to his knees. ‘All yours …’
McLusky kept going. He could still see the suspect ahead. Just then the man turned to check behind him and spotted his new pursuer. Civilians shrieked and shouted, jumping out of the way of the dancing sword.
Running in the street now. Sweat was pricking his skin, despite the cold. He realized why he had so easily caught up with Hanham: the constable must have already been slowing from exhaustion. The swordsman was pulling away from him, fuelled by adrenalin, madness and drugs no doubt. And probably unencumbered by mystery curry.
McLusky ran on. The pain in his side got worse. He’d go vegetarian. Perhaps even give up smoking. Again. Now all he could do was keep running, without the foggiest idea what he was going to do should he ever catch up with the suspect. Without stab vest, baton or pepper spray, he’d have little chance of disarming him. As a last resort he could always threaten to throw up on him, which he’d do anyway if this went on much longer. The rattle of a diesel engine behind him made him glance over his shoulder. Never had a scruffy cab for hire looked more welcome. Suicidally he ran into its path, scrabbling in his pocket for his warrant card.
‘Follow that man!’ He threw himself into the passenger seat.
‘What man would that be?’ The cabby spoke and moved with agonizing slowness, setting the meter. He fi lled every available inch behind the wheel and looked like he hadn’t left his cab for years. Far ahead of them, the swordsman had now sheathed his weapon and was crossing Zetland Road, trotting into a side street.
‘Just drive! There, the young man …’ McLusky was still struggling for breath. ‘With the light jacket, jeans and … trainers.’
‘Righty-ho.’ The driver pulled away at last. ‘What’s he done?’
‘Never mind that, just catch up with him.’
‘Only asking. Taking an interest.’ He turned the cab into the side street. They could both see the suspect a hundred yards or so ahead. The man was either out of puff or thought he had lost his pursuers. He stepped off the pavement and stood at the edge of the road as if waiting to cross once the taxi had passed.
‘Keep closer to the left. I’ll tell you when to stop.’
Half a second before drawing level with the swordsman, McLusky popped his seat belt and threw the door wide open. The man had no chance to react before the door caught him a thudding blow on the side, breaking his elbow and fl inging him hard on to the tarmac. McLusky could hear him scream as they passed.
The cab driver braked indignantly. ‘You never told me to stop!’
McLusky jumped out and ran back the few yards to where the young man was still on the ground, groaning. He had dropped the sword. The DI kicked it under the nearest car, then thumped a heavy knee into the suspect’s back and twisted his unbroken arm back.
This wasn’t popular. ‘Ah! Get off me! You broke my arm! You broke my fucking arm! You fucking arsehole broke my arm! Get off me! I need an ambulance!’
‘You need to shut up. Of course it may harm your defence …’ McLusky rattled off half the caution, but stopped when he felt a wave of nausea travel up from his stomach. He thumbed the orange button on his airwave radio. ‘Alpha Nine, can I come in please …?’ He gave his position and asked for backup, while the suspect kept up a rich mixture our of pleading, insults and threats. Feeling in danger of losing his supper and with no handcuffs to secure the suspect, McLusky was extremely grateful when he saw PC Hanham, who had got his breath back, come marching up the road.
‘You can’t cuff the other wrist; I think he broke his arm in the fall,’ McLusky explained.
The swordsman twisted his head back and yelled his protest at Hanham. ‘He ran me down with the fucking taxi, that’s what broke my arm, you wankers!’
‘Good effort, sir. Did you see what he did with the sword?’ the constable asked.
‘Under that car. You’d better arrest him properly; I may have burped a few times during the caution. Better make sure.’
‘Will you take him in?’
‘Me? I got a taxi waiting with the meter running. No, he’s your man, Constable.’
Hanham loudly cautioned his blaspheming prisoner while watching the DI get into the cab. Half-arresting sus-pects, then swanning off in a taxi all casual. McLusky. Where on earth did they find him?
McLusky made the driver stop at a convenience store so he could stock up on light bulbs, mineral water and indigestion tablets before letting himself be driven back to Albany Road. By the time he was carrying his purchases along the corri-dor towards his offi ce, he no longer felt sick, but the curry still sat acidly right under his solar plexus. Defi nitely the vegetable biryani next time.
DS Sorbie watched McLusky come past the CID room. He checked his watch. If he himself were to take lunch breaks this long, he’d soon get an earful from DI Fairfi eld. The man had been shopping too, by the looks of it. Unbelievable. And that could so easily have been, should have been, him. If Avon & Somerset hadn’t seen fi t to import the DI from Southampton, there might have been room round here for long-overdue promotion.
McLusky fi rmly closed the door of his offi ce behind him and let himself fall into his chair. He didn’t have far to fall. The office they had found for him at the very end of the cor- ridor was minute. At first he had suspected it to be a converted cupboard, but he had been assured that it was DI Pearce’s old office. Sometimes McLusky thought it had probably been responsible for driving Pearce to retire early. With a large haul of drugs money. Not that ‘renegade cop Pearce, 46’ (Bristol Herald) had enjoyed it for long. The Spanish police, with the help of DCI Gaunt, had scooped him up before he had a chance to spend much of it.
The only good thing about the office was that the enor- mous radiator under the window, obviously designed for a much larger room, heated the place to tropical temperatures. Not quite the only thing, he reminded himself now. The fact that his window opened on to the back of the station, away from the prying eyes of colleagues and punters, meant he could afford to smoke the odd cigarette without attracting attention. Albany Road, along with every other police station, of course, was a no-smoking area. A recent decree issued by Superintendent Denkhaus had also strictly outlawed the ‘abhorrent practice’ of smoking near the entrance or in the staff car park. McLusky opened the window. It looked out over roofs and the neglected backs of nearby buildings.
McLusky preferred the backs of houses. He invariably found them more revealing than their better-kept fronts. The rear was not just where illicit cigarettes were smoked. It was where suspects tried to leave when the heavy knock came at the front. The rear of a house was the natural hiding place for drugs, money, weapons and the occasional body.
An illicit cigarette was exactly what he needed now. Last one in the packet, how stupid, and he’d been in the shop not ten minutes ago. Smoking was said to aid digestion, and he could do with all the help he could get. The scarcity of tobacco made the fi rst drag even more luxurious.
It had been a quiet week, apart from the endless paper-work of course: report-writing, form-filling, box-ticking, assessments and memos. Earlier in the year, Atrium, the anti-drugs operation, had taken Ray Fenton out of circulation, a major drugs baron who would never see his naff sports car, ostentatious penthouse or tasteless motor yacht again. But even in the midst of the celebrations, they all knew what it meant, what the next few months would bring: a vicious little war fought in the resulting power vacuum. In supply-and-demand economics there would always be drugs barons as long as there were customers for his wares, and Bristol was the hub that supplied drugs to much of the West Country. The business was so ridiculously lucrative that new dealers constantly tried to move in, at the risk of all-out war with Yardie and Asian gangs and established dealer networks. Over three hot summer months there had been stabbings and shootings; one drive-by shooting had injured two innocent bystanders while completely missing the target. Yet there was nothing concrete; there had been plenty of hints and rumours, but all had failed to solidify. By autumn, everything had gone quiet. A new kingpin was securing the hub now, only so far McLusky had no idea who he was. There were those rumours, of course, and the rumours weren’t good. Give it time. He knew that the quiet was deceptive, the short lull before business as usual resumed. Like a quick illicit cigarette break before the return to work.
He flicked the fag end out of the window towards the wheelie bins below. The phone on his desk rang and he answered it. On the other end was DS Austin. McLusky had been right.
They were back in business.
On the night shift, planning was important. Without a plan, you ended up like an opportunist junkie thief, climbing into houses and then staggering along the road carrying some crap that was enough to get you put back inside but not enough to buy you a kebab. Tricky, of course. All the good stuff sat where there was tons of security. Neighbourhood Watch, those were the days. Now it was all high-tech; no one needed to twitch their curtains, they all got security cameras, CCTV, SmartWater, alarms. If you strayed into the wrong neighbourhood, they would have you taped before you’d got your tools out. Taped? What an old-fashioned expression. It was all electronic now. At least in the old days they’d record over the same cassette a million times so when something worth seeing happened the quality was so crap it could have been anyone ghosting through the frame. Either that or they’d already taped over it. Morons. Now it was hard drives and crisp images and as much recording time as you liked.
Not in your league, that, anyway. Not on your own, either, not with one eye and one ball and an old motor that stuck out like a sore thumb. Mind you, he always made sure he looked after the van, and there was nothing the rozzers could pull him over for. Tax, MOT, insurance, all the paperwork. No point in drawing attention to yourself. Clean driver’s licence, too. As for housebreaking, it was the lowermiddle ground you wanted, the up-and-coming, upwardly mobile, what they used to call yuppies. Thirty-something couples just starting out together, twenty-fi ve grand a year each, fi rst house. Lots of money for stuff and gadgets to plonk on every surface but not enough for a fi ve ninety-nine window lock. Lava lamps. Digital photo frames. They’re the ones. Hard-working morons. Not a care. Pick one. Clean them out. All insured. Come back three months later and lift all the brand-new replacements. Nine out of ten still hadn’t fi tted any security, even then. Idiots. He was the lightning that struck twice. Of course most of the junk people had in their houses was worth next to nothing. All the usual stuff was now so cheap to buy in the fi rst place that it wasn’t really worth pinching. You hardly got a thing for it, especially if you used a fence. After all, why spend a hundred and fi fty on a netbook you know is probably stolen when you can get a new one for two-twenty? With a year’s guarantee?
But at last he had struck it lucky; not a bad haul, this. In fact it was so good he had made two trips to the van, break-ing his iron rule not to get Aladdined. Getting greedy and hanging around too long gave people time to notice you, to get on the blower and arrange nasty surprises. But it had been worth it. Not a load of catalogue showroom rubbish this time. Top-of-the-range equipment, this. Professional gear, all photography stuff. Two digital SLR cameras, long lenses, two printers – he’d lifted the bigger one – all the chargers and a laptop. State-of-the-art laptop. Top spec, latest model. Must have cost a fortune. He fl icked on the ultraviolet bulb. Not one item was security-marked.
He used to quite enjoy taking pictures. Never had a decent camera, though, just happy-snappy things. Send the pics off to Prontoprint and get them back a week later. Most of them went straight in the bin, but some were good. Some were priceless. No idea where they’d got to. Lost in one of the endless moves or disappeared when his last girlfriend ran off. Took a few good ones of her. He had quite an eye for taking photographs. Let’s hope it wasn’t the eye he’d lost. Ha. First eye joke that made him smile, good one. Might take a bit longer for the fi rst ball joke, of course. He was tempted to keep one of the cameras. And the printer. But perhaps not the laptop. Too expensive, he could never explain that away. Flog it, then buy a cheap one and keep the receipt. That’d unnerve the rozzers if they came calling. A receipt.
Of course before you could sell a knocked-off computer you had to wipe everything on it or whoever bought it in a pub car park wouldn’t be able to pretend that he didn’t know it was nicked. A shame with this one, because the pic-tures on it were fantastic. Really good. You could tell the last owner knew what they were doing. Folder after folder. This lot, for instance, the pictures in the woods in autumn. Taken at the crack of dawn or else just as it got dark. Some of the shots were amazing. Mind you, some of the pics had a weird mob in them; the bunch this photographer hung out with didn’t half look nerdy. All with little cameras. One of them in a wheelchair, even. How did they get him into the woods? But the pics without people in them, the atmospheric ones, he’d keep some of them. These ones with the lights in the trees looked spooky, like from a fantasy movie. And the pic-tures had so many pixels you could probably have them blown up big as posters. And you could zoom right in on the spooky lights … and keep zooming in … and …
It was difficult to believe what he was seeing. His mouth had gone dry and his heart was hammering. His palms were sweaty. And this was just a picture of the bastards. It must have been taken with a long lens. Or did he mean long expo-sure? The big man must have stood still, because he wasn’t blurred at all. Neither was the car. The very Merc he some-times used to drive him around in when he was drunk, he was certain. But the fi gure with the bag over his head was a bit out of focus, and so was Ilkin. Though you’d recognize him if you knew it was him. He was hard to forget. However much you’d like to.
He got up and started pacing the room, leaving the image on the screen. How was it possible that he had found this very picture? Or was it the other way around? Had the picture found him? Whoever took this picture couldn’t have known what they were photographing. The big man couldn’t have known, or this photographer would already be six foot under. What he needed now was a drink. And time to think. This could be it, his one chance of revenge. This picture could be his ticket. He would have to move house first, of course, no question about it. The big man would pay a lot to keep this picture out of the papers. Of course he would also happily have him killed – slowly – by Ilkin while he watched from the comfort of his car.
Excerpted from Four Below by Peter Helton. Copyright © 2012 by Peter Helton. Excerpted by permission of Soho Constable, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.