Authors: Bill James
|Come Clean (1989)|
|Harpur and Iles |
Sarah Iles' latest young lover, Ian Aston, and the seedy gangland club he frequents both possess the intense attraction of the forbidden. When one night at the Monty they witness a fatal knifing, they unwittingly learn far too much for their own good of a deadly plot that could, if successfully executed, rearrange the city's criminal power structure.
Immediately, the unfaithful wife and petty criminal become targets of both police and underworld observation. In Come Clean Bill James once again explores that no-man's-land of law enforcement, where human concern and naked expediency stand perennially at odds with each other.
This title is part of The Murder Room, our series dedicated to making available out-of-print or hard-to-find titles by classic crime writers.
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Where Criminal Minds Meet
Sitting in a far corner of the club, Sarah Iles slowly became aware of some kind of disturbance over near the door to the street. After a moment she turned her head to observe
better what was happening. If she had been quicker, she might have seen more but Sarah had learned a long time ago to be cautious in the Monty. It was a place which could excite her, and she liked
it for that, but often part of the excitement was fright.
A man in his twenties must have just come in and now, after a few steps, had sunk down to one knee, as if exhausted or injured, one shoulder propping him against the wall and keeping him from
slipping further. His head hung forward, seemingly out of control, and a sheaf of dark hair had fallen over his forehead and obscured part of his face. Oddly, despite her anxieties about his state,
and although he was crumpled on the carpet, her mind registered that he wore what seemed a very expensive light grey suit, probably custom made.
Ian had just gone to the bar for drinks and, glancing towards him, she saw he was staring at the man, but made no move in his direction. Nobody else in the club shifted, either, though all of
them had seen what was happening. Sarah stood up.
‘No,’ Ian called to her. ‘Stay out of it.’
‘Of what?’ Very scared, she crossed the little dance square and passed a pool table to where the man remained huddled on the ground. Now, she could make out what was obviously a
blood stain under the top pocket of his jacket, and it spread quickly as she watched, like tea through a dipped biscuit. His breathing sounded weak and laboured. As she bent down to him she saw to
her relief that Ian had left the bar after all and was at her side. ‘What is it?’ she asked the man. ‘What’s happened?’
He did not answer for a moment. Then, without lifting his head, he muttered: ‘A drink. Water.’
‘Yes, of course,’ she said.
‘Yes.’ She turned to Ian. ‘Can you stay with him? I’ll go to the bar.’ But as she was about to straighten the man reached out suddenly as if to grip her arm and
detain her. He could not complete the movement and the effort made him lose balance and almost topple over. To steady him, she put a hand on his shoulder and waited. Before speaking again, he tried
to raise his head, but couldn’t.
‘Listen,’ he whispered, ‘in case.’
‘In case? What do you mean?’
He nodded his head very weakly a couple of times. ‘Yes, in case. A mess.’
‘He needs an ambulance,’ Ian said, crouching with her.
‘Look,’ the man muttered, ‘some things I just can’t take. You’re hearing me?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Go on.’
‘A silver day. Do you know what I mean? Supposed to be a great day.’
‘What?’ Sarah asked, bending closer. ‘Who do you mean? Which day?’
For a long time he did not answer, seeming to need all his strength to breathe. Then he murmured: ‘I’ll tell you. But some water – or Scotch.’
She went quickly to the bar and asked Ralph to fill a glass. He did not hurry and, as Sarah waited, she realized with a start that Ian had joined her again. ‘No, you should be with
‘Stay here.’ Ralph said. ‘Both of you. No need to intervene any longer. Best keep out of it.’
‘Yes, we understand. Don’t fret, Ralph.’ Ian replied.
When she looked back towards the entrance swing-doors she saw that four or five more men had come in and were grouped around the one on the floor. They looked flushed and excited, as if they had
been running. Almost immediately the group began moving, slowly now, across the club towards a door and corridor which led to the wash rooms and lavatories. From the bar, she had trouble making out
what was happening and was about to walk back across the room with the drink when Ian and Ralph both said, urgently: ‘No, Sarah.’ Neither of them touched her or held her back, but she
found suddenly that fear had mounted so much that her legs would hardly carry her, and, although she felt ashamed, she did what she was told and waited.
Her first count of the group seemed right: there were four men circling the fifth who was hurt, perhaps helping him, half carrying him now, towards the corridor. He might be on his knees,
supported by hands under his armpits and gripping his jacket. The men did not speak and everyone else in the club remained silent and still. The injured man seemed worse and the only sound she
could hear was the hideously laboured, rasping efforts as he fought to breathe.
In a minute, they were near the corridor and to enter it had to go single file. One of the men moved ahead, backing into the space, still half-crouched and with his arms stretched out to draw
the kneeling, gasping figure after him. Very briefly then, as the circle around him broke up, the man in the centre was clearly visible to her. Again her guess had been right: he was on his knees,
but doing nothing to propel himself, and needing to do nothing, because the others were virtually carrying him. The light grey double-breasted suit, white or cream shirt and a tie which was mostly
pink, with some dark stripes, seemed a quaintly dandified outfit now. His head hung forward as before and swung out of control when the men moved, as if he might be only half-conscious, or less.
She could still make out little of his appearance: there was the dark straight hair across his brow, and he seemed to have a sharp, bony nose and chin. He might be twenty-five. As far as she could
tell, she had never seen him before in the club, nor any of the men around him. Two of them wore suits, one good jeans and a T-shirt, the other brown slacks and a brown leather jacket, also fine
quality. This one had rapidly receding grey hair and wore rimless spectacles. To her, they seemed the wrong sort of looks for this setting and this incident, like a passed-over clerk’s or
librarian’s. The other face that stuck in her mind belonged to one of the men in suits. His eyes were deep-set and unyielding. Although he could not be much more than thirty, she thought his
teeth seemed too white and regular to be real. He had well cared for, very clean-looking dark hair, and immensely powerful shoulders. She found him terrifying.
Now, Sarah thought she discerned some sort of mark on the neck of the injured man, perhaps another wound. His shirt collar seemed stained immediately beneath it, and possibly the pink tie and
shoulder of his jacket, as well. Still afraid to go forward, she stood on the foot-rail at the bar and as she did Ian whispered harshly, urgently, one word, ‘Lights.’ Momentarily, she
thought he was addressing her and did not understand what he meant. A second later, she heard someone hit the switches and every bulb in the club went out. So, he had been talking to Ralph.
Ian took her arm and led her to a chair at one of the small tables. Then he moved quickly away, she did not know where. Sitting in the blackness, listening to the appalling wheezing from across
the room, and the slither and bumping of the man’s knees and feet over the floor as the others continued dragging him, she suddenly felt as if she had been deserted, left on her own. What she
had always half feared about Ian all at once looked to be true: she did not know him, was invited into only those parts of his life he chose to show and talk about. There were other parts, and from
those she was carefully locked out, until an uncatered-for incident like this forced him to reveal tiny bits more. Perhaps he knew these men and could make a guess at what had happened. Or perhaps
– Oh, perhaps almost any bloody thing, but he obviously felt he had to give them cover from her and others in the Monty, and that hurt. She honestly thought she did not care all that much
what he was or wasn’t, but she wished to know it all. Secrecy between lovers sickened her. Didn’t she make a point of being open with him, telling the lot – well, the lot except
about Francis Garland, which was a while ago now, and which had become such total ashes finally that she decided it was not worth mentioning?
‘It’s all right, everyone,’ Ralph called. ‘Temporary fault. Sit tight.’
Nobody replied. The Monty was heavy with the silence of people minding their own business, a state of mind they would fall into by habit and instinct here. The only sounds were still those from
the five men across the room. The noise of breathing had grown less regular and fainter. She heard a door open and then some subdued grunting, as if the four had adjusted their holds on the
‘Ian,’ she whispered, ‘are you still there? Please.’ He did not answer. She turned her head, straining to see, and thought she could distinguish Ralph, leaning forward
over the bar and gazing up towards the group, but failed to make out a shape for Ian. She was ashamed of feeling the need of him so much, and, although she wanted to call him again, somehow managed
to stay silent.
A door slammed shut and the sounds from the five men ended. For a moment an idiotic calm took hold of Sarah, as if the silence and the closed door made everything all right again – now you
see it, now you don’t, and when you don’t it’s because it never happened at all, did it? Yes, it did, and it was still happening. Four men had a fifth, hurt, maybe dying, maybe
dead, in the lavatory of a back-street club, and, if the men’s lavatory was anything like the women’s, nobody was going to mistake it for the London Clinic. Some things she could make
herself believe for a while, because it was more pleasant to believe them, but not that the Monty would be sweetly back to normal as soon as the lights came on again and the talk re-started and the
games of pool.