Authors: Adrian Magson
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Crime
This one’s for all those readers who enjoy Lucas Rocco.
And, of course, for Ann, his biggest fan.
About the Author
By Adrian Magson
The gleaming black Citroën DS with the curtained rear windows ghosted along the deserted country road at a steady 70 kph, its hydropneumatic suspension making light of the undulating, pitted surface. Inside the car, its two occupants were as shielded from the cold tarmac underneath as they were from the frost-glazed mud of the fields on either side, warmed by the controlled whisper of heated air wafting gently around them.
‘Belt up tight,’ said the driver. His name was Calloway. ‘This could hurt, otherwise.’ He checked his double shoulder harness with its quick-release button and, for luck, tapped the padding on the roll cage, an ugly non-factory addition to the otherwise plush, stylish interior.
‘Just get on with it,’ muttered Tasker, his passenger. ‘You talk too bloody much.’ But he checked his harness and settled lower in his seat, bracing himself with both hands.
Calloway flicked a glance across the field to his right,
to where the stubby shape of a truck was moving away from a strand of pine trees. It accelerated quickly, bouncing along a rough track on heavy-duty tyres, bits of mud and vegetation flicking up in its wake. Olive green in colour, it had the low, front-heavy bulk of a bulldog, made uglier by a large black oblong strapped across the grill.
And it was aiming towards the road in front of them on an intercept path.
‘Two hundred yards,’ Calloway murmured, watching the truck’s progress. He was calculating its trajectory, his foot steady on the accelerator. A quick glance at the road, keeping to the centre line, then back to the truck, the eye movement and speed of the two vehicles bringing them closer together in sharp bursts like the stuttering frames of an old film reel.
‘He’s gonna miss.’
‘No, he’s not. Seventy.’ Eyes to the road and back. Surface clear, no other traffic, just as they’d been assured. Something on the grass verge but no time to look now. Concentrate.
‘He’s bloody shifting a bit, isn’t he?’
‘Fifty yards.’ The truck was suddenly bigger, solid. Brutish.
Go, for God’s sake!
’ Tasker pounded the dashboard in panic as the Renault tore out of the end of the track and loomed all over them, its grill grotesquely dwarfed by a railway sleeper held in place by steel hawsers.
Calloway calmly flicked the wheel and stamped on
the accelerator. It was too late for a complete miss, but limiting the damage was as instinctive to him as breathing. The Citroën’s rear end drifted sideways on the slippery surface, an elegant shuffle of its aerodynamic lines like a lady performing a two-step. The movement absorbed some of the impact, but the wooden sleeper still slammed into the car just aft of the passenger seat, punching the panel hard against the reinforcing struts welded into the interior. The car spun violently on its axis, jerking both men hard against their harnesses, and the scream of tortured metal and rubber echoed across the cold acres on either side of the road.
‘What’s he trying to do –
bloody kill us
?’ Tasker turned to glare at the truck driver, who was grinning down at them as he slammed the truck into reverse and pulled back several yards along the road.
‘Isn’t that the general idea?’ Calloway coolly spun the wheel and stamped on the accelerator, taking the car back up the road, its rear end sinking under the extra power being transmitted to the wheels.
‘Idea! I’ll bloody give him an idea,’ Tasker raged. ‘Let me out!
Calloway stood obediently on the brakes. Stopping the car altogether took a while due to the extra weight of steel reinforcements. But he compensated by spinning the wheel again and bringing the Citroën to a wallowing halt side-on to the truck, now stationary on the grass verge. The sleeper, he noticed, was hanging drunkenly from the front where it had become dislodged by the impact.
Throwing off the harness, Tasker struggled into the rear seats and kicked at the door on the undamaged side,
moving with difficulty in the confined space. His breathing whistled harshly through his ex-boxer’s smashed nose and his face was flushed with anger.
Before he could clamber out fully, however, two shapes rose up like wraiths from a nearby ditch and ran towards the damaged car. Dressed in camouflage smocks, each man carried two bottles with rags stuffed in the necks. They paused a short distance away, breath puffing white in the cold air, and hurled the bottles against the side of the vehicle. As the glass smashed on impact, the two men stepped closer, drew handguns and opened fire at
Three hundred metres away across the fields, a farmer named Simeon watched from behind his prized horse, a heavy grey percheron, as the sounds of gunshots drifted across on the breeze. He didn’t know what was going on, only that strangers were behaving like lunatics for no good reason.
, he thought, and spat on the ground. Too much money and time on their hands, mostly. Thought they were God’s gift. He recognised a film camera when he saw one, though. It was parked on a tripod by a clump of spindly pine trees, although if it was working, it was doing so all by itself, because there was nobody with it. The truck had barrelled along the narrow track by the trees, passing the camera by no more than a couple of metres before slamming into the Citroën with a loud bang.
Simeon decided it was none of his business. As for the gunshots, he valued his horse too highly to risk it being hit by a stray bullet. He gathered up the lead rein, urging the animal on with a gentle clicking noise. Time to be
gone, instinct told him, heading for dead ground where he couldn’t be easily seen. Madness like this was best left to its own company. He’d come back later when they’d gone. Or maybe call the local
, Lamotte. Let him deal with it.
Back on the road, Tasker had finally calmed down and was pulling on a cigarette, the smoke billowing around his head as he watched Calloway inspecting the damaged coachwork.
‘Not too serious.’ Calloway patted the panel. ‘Thanks to the welding. We were lucky, though.’ He turned and flicked some fragments of broken bottle to one side with his foot, gesturing at the Renault. ‘Any faster and we’d have been toast.’
‘It worked, didn’t it?’ The truck driver called defensively, and jumped down with a grunt from the cab. Jack Fletcher was big across the shoulders and spreading around the midsection, with a face that had seen a few too many hard fights and late nights. Alongside Calloway, he made the former race driver look slim and boyish. He held a match to a roll-up. The loosely packed tobacco caught with a burst of flame, and he sucked hungrily, consuming a third of its length in one drag. His voice had the scratchy quality of a heavy smoker. ‘Came at you square on, just like I was told.’ He huddled inside his coat, shivering against the cold breeze knifing across the flat terrain. It brought with it a metallic smell of standing water and cold, wet earth.
Tasker nodded grudgingly, his fury gone as suddenly as it had arrived. ‘Yeah, it worked. But you bloody near killed us in the process, you ponce. You didn’t need to hit us that
hard.’ He dropped the cigarette on the road and stamped on it, watching the two men in camouflage smocks gathering up the glass debris to throw in the ditch. As he bent to pick up the cigarette butt, he froze in a half crouch. ‘Christ,’ he whispered. ‘Where the hell did
‘Who?’ Fletcher turned, and saw the big man staring beneath the truck.
‘Him.’ Tasker pointed under the rear wheels. ‘What’s left of him, anyway.’
Fletcher squatted for a look and uttered an oath. Lying under the rear wheels was a man’s body, twisted and torn and covered in grass, grease and dirt. It had been rolled beneath the wheels and dragged, somehow managing to become caught up in the chassis, where it now hung like a collection of bloody rags.
Fletcher stood up, his face grey. He’d seen bodies before, in varying states of disrepair. But this was different. Unexpected. ‘What do we do?’
‘We get rid, what do you think?’ Tasker whistled for the two bottle throwers to come and help, and stood back as they wormed their way beneath the truck. They untangled the dead man’s limbs until the body flopped onto the stubby grass.
‘He must have been on the verge,’ said Calloway, remembering. He glanced at Fletcher. ‘Didn’t you see him?’
‘Of course I bloody didn’t.’ Fletcher lit another cigarette. ‘I was busy at the time, remember? Didn’t you clock him?’
‘No. I thought I caught something in the background, but I couldn’t make out what it was.’ He bent and stared at the body. ‘Looks like a tramp, poor bastard.’ He sniffed the air. ‘Smells like one, too. Maybe he died out here in the
cold and you were unlucky enough to hit him.’
‘Makes no odds what he is or what he did,’ Tasker muttered coldly. ‘He’s dead. Someone might miss him.’ He gestured at the truck and said, ‘Get him in there and cover him up good. We’ll find a place to dispose of him later.’
‘Why not in the trees?’ said Fletcher. ‘Nobody’d look, not out here.’
‘We don’t know that. We’ll take him with us. We’ve got to torch the truck anyway; we can do both together. Then let’s get out of here. I need some breakfast and a strong drink to warm me up.’ He turned and scanned the bleak horizon, city eyes oblivious to the farmer and his horse low down against the colourless backdrop, seeing only stretches of cold, featureless fields rolling into the distance with no obvious buildings, few hedges or trees and fewer signs of life. ‘Fucking Nora. Who’d want to live out here?’
The dull pounding in Lucas Rocco’s head gradually moved outwards, morphing from a foggy background noise in a sludgy dream to the more identifiable sound of someone hitting his front door with what sounded like a sledgehammer.
He swung out of bed, instinctively snatching up his MAB 38 on the way. If it was the local priest finally come to welcome him into his flock, he’d simply put a few rounds through the wood before going back to sleep. Just in case it was Mme Denis next door, he yanked the door open with the gun behind his back.
‘Do you know it’s gone ten in the morning?’ It was the stocky figure of Claude Lamotte, the local
for the village of Poissons-les-Marais and the surrounding district. ‘You’re not on holiday, are you?’ He raised heavy eyebrows at the sight of Rocco in his shorts, his muscular chest covered in goosebumps. ‘Christ, that’s a sight a man could do without.’
Rocco stood aside and beckoned him inside with the gun, squinting at the grey light of a December morning. ‘Very funny. What do you want?’
‘Coffee and a bite to eat, first,’ said Claude. He brushed past and dropped a fresh baguette on the table, then headed for the sink and began filling a saucepan with water. ‘Some of us have been up since dawn, you know that?’ He put the water on the boil, then turned and looked at the gun as Rocco slumped into a chair. ‘You weren’t about to end it all, were you? Only I’d hate to interrupt a man in his hour of despair.’ He bent and peered closely into Rocco’s face. ‘You do look like crap, though.’
‘You should see it from my side. I was on a stake-out most of the night.’ He put down the gun and rubbed his eyes. They felt full of grit and the view was hazy, like looking through muslin.
‘Really? Sounds like fun. Any results?’
‘No. A no-show. We had information about tobacco smuggling but I think it was a decoy. When I catch up with the so-called informant, I’m going to shoot off his toes one by one.’ He looked at the baguette. ‘Is that mine?’ The baker came round every morning in a battered old 2CV, and if Rocco was out, left it by the door in a plastic box.
‘It is. No longer warm, but fresh and too good to waste.’ Claude tore off one end and took a bite with great relish. ‘
. Best bit of the loaf. You want the other end?’ Before Rocco could answer, he looked around expectantly. ‘You got any butter in this place?’
Rocco waved a hand. ‘Cupboard, top shelf. Help yourself but please do it quietly.’
‘Okay. You want coffee?’
‘Why not? Now you’ve ruined my sleep I might as well get dressed. Excuse me.’ He got up and wandered through to the bathroom. By the time he had dressed and come back, Claude had made coffee and smeared thick butter on slices of baguette, and was sprinkling a layer of cocoa powder over his. He sighed in expectation. ‘This is the way to start the day.’ He took a huge bite and coughed as he inhaled some of the powder, then winked in enjoyment. ‘Takes me right back.’
Rocco sat down and picked up a slice of bread, ignoring the cocoa powder. ‘You country cretins have some disgusting habits.’
Claude dunked his bread in his coffee. ‘That’s the trouble with you fancy city-bred cops – you’ve forgotten how to enjoy yourselves. All croissants and china cups, that’s your trouble. This, my friend, is one of life’s unique pleasures. You should enjoy it while you can.’
‘If I was twelve, I would.’ Rocco took a mouthful of coffee and swallowed. At least Claude knew how to make a wake-up drink. He felt his synapses respond to the jolt of caffeine and shook himself. ‘To what do I owe this debatable pleasure, anyway? Have you lost your way home?’
‘Not quite.’ Claude put down his bread and brushed crumbs from his hands. ‘I had a call this morning from a farmer who works a couple of fields about six kilometres from here, towards Bray. Name’s Simeon. He was calling from a café where he’d gone to take a medicinal drink. Seems he had a nasty shock. He claims he saw a truck ram a car this morning on an open stretch of road out near his fields. Then two men jumped out of a ditch and opened
fire on it with handguns.’ He picked up his bread and took another bite. ‘How about that?’
Rocco stared at him. ‘Have you been drinking paraffin?’
‘No. I’m serious.’ Claude held out a hand. ‘See – steady as a rock.’ As Rocco made to get up, reaching for his gun, he added pragmatically, ‘There’s nothing to see. They’ve all gone – car, truck and men. We’ll go out in a while. You want more coffee?’
Rocco sank back onto his chair. As he’d learnt in the past few months since being posted here, there was world time and there was Poissons time. And trying to bring the two together usually gave him a headache.
‘Go on, then. I think I’m going to need it.’
‘An army truck?’ Lucas Rocco tried to imagine what any military vehicle would be doing out here on a deserted road in the middle of open farmland. There was a small barracks in Amiens, but it was used for shipping local army conscripts in and out, and relied almost exclusively on the station for its troop movements.
‘Yes. Small and stubby – not one of the big ones. But it was going fast. It smashed right into the car, as clear as day. Deliberately, I swear it.’ The farmer, a weather-beaten stick of a man named Simeon, dressed in heavy trousers and large rubber boots, pushed his cap to the back of his head and eyed Rocco with caution, as if awed by the sight of a man just over two metres in height with shoulders to match. Or maybe it was the all-black clothing and shoes; black in these parts was usually the prerogative of the old or the Church. Rocco, however, was clearly no priest.
‘And it happened here?’
‘That’s right.’ Sensing a willing if unusual audience, Simeon settled his feet apart and got ready to tell his story all over again. ‘Right here.’ He pointed at the section of road where they were standing, a little-used stretch of straight and surprisingly wide tarmac recently made redundant by a new section of road built three kilometres away under a local government regeneration scheme. ‘I saw it with my own eyes.’
You’d have had trouble seeing it with anyone else’s,
Rocco wanted to say, still dulled by lack of sleep in spite of Claude’s industrial-strength coffee. He forced himself to concentrate. ‘Where were you when you saw this crash happen?’
‘Out there.’ Simeon pointed across the fields, still
by the remnants of frost. ‘By the old machine-gun site. I was about to hitch the horse up to drag an old stump out of the ground when I heard the noise. See the blackthorn?’ He leant towards Rocco as he pointed, bringing with him a waft of sour breath and cheap wine. ‘Just to the left. There’s a bit of dead ground, so they couldn’t see me.’
Rocco nodded. He had to assume that a blackthorn was what he was looking at because it was the only bush in sight. ‘But you could see them?’
‘Sure. Well, pretty good, anyway. The light wasn’t great and my eyesight’s not what it was, but it was clear enough.’
Rocco wondered if the day would ever come when he’d get a witness carrying a camera and a total power of recall. ‘Tell me what happened.’
‘Well, as I already told Lamotte, here, after the truck rammed the car, both vehicles stopped, then two men jumped out from the side of the road and threw things –
but I couldn’t see what they were. Then they took out guns and started shooting. I got out of here as quick as I could at that point. It was like a war zone … apart from the camera.’
‘Camera?’ There had been no mention of a camera in his call to Claude Lamotte. A car being rammed by a truck and guns firing had been the sum total of the story.
Rocco glanced at Claude who looked blank. ‘He didn’t mention it before.’
‘Didn’t I? I thought I did. By the trees over there.’ Simeon pointed at the only clump of trees around, two hundred metres away. Pines, Rocco noted, sharp and spiky and rigid with cold against the horizon, like a scene from the Eastern Front. ‘The truck came down the track from behind the trees, and that’s when I noticed the camera, sitting on a tripod thing. But there was nobody with it. Don’t they usually have a man sitting behind it with a megaphone shouting at everyone and wearing riding britches?’ He looked at Rocco. ‘Don’t they?’
Rocco decided to change tack before he lost the will to live. ‘Can you describe the men?’
Simeon considered the question, then said, ‘No. Not really. At least four, I’d say. Two drivers, two gunmen … and maybe one other.’ He mimed drawing a gun and firing, making a soft
noise, and smiled. ‘But from here …? I didn’t get any detail.’
‘What time was this?’
‘Earlier today – about eight. Roughly. I don’t have a watch. No need, see. Seasons are more important in my line of work.’ He pursed his lips and frowned, as if he’d just surprised himself by saying something profound.
Rocco shook his head and walked away towards the copse. It was shaping up to be another tale of unlikely events unsubstantiated by reality or facts, and likely due to the after-effects of too much
vin de pays
and a bad night’s sleep.
Simeon watched him go, then nudged Claude. ‘Is he for real? I heard we had a new
in the neighbourhood, but not one like him.’
‘Where’ve you been hiding?’ Claude muttered. ‘He’s been here a while now. And he’s good, so you’d better watch yourself.’
‘Yeah, well, I’ve been off sick, haven’t I? It’s why I’m trying to catch up, pulling out tree roots in this shitty weather instead of leaving it until spring.’ He sniffed and lifted his chin towards Rocco. ‘Does he always dress like he’s going to a funeral?’
‘Always. He goes hunting in the marais like that, too, when he has to. Just mind you don’t tick him off because when he goes after someone, he doesn’t stop. He’s … what do they call it – relentless.’
‘That was him?’ Simeon’s eyes widened. ‘I heard about that. A gun battle, so they say. Grenades, too.’ He pulled a face then spat on the ground. ‘And to think it used to be so peaceful around here.’