Read This Thing of Darkness Online

Authors: Harry Bingham

Tags: #UK

This Thing of Darkness (5 page)

As he’s talking or, to be more precise, not talking, Mike swings up onto the wall. Same basic body posture, same rhythmical, controlled movement. He doesn’t worry at the lichen, just climbs smoothly up the corner. He inspects the cornice and descends.

‘OK. You’ve got this horizontal part about so big.’ Mike holds his finger and thumb about four or five millimetres apart. ‘If you had anything for the feet, or if the wall was more slabby, if it was lying at more of an angle, the hold might be enough to keep you on. As it is, though, there’s just not enough there. If anything, you’d have to aid it.’


Aid
it?’

‘Cheat, basically.’

He explains. I don’t follow everything, but the gist is that the good old days were really the bad old days, and when climbers couldn’t get up a particular route, they’d just invent some gizmos to help them do it, but these days nobody does that, except maybe in California, but then what are ethics really, when you think of sports climbing, after all?

My face expresses the degree to which I have understood him.

He says, ‘Look, you can’t climb out along there cleanly. But if you came with some skyhooks, you could do it, all right.’

‘Skyhooks?’ I ask, not sure if he’s being serious. Then, when it’s clear that he is, I ask if he can show me, but no, he doesn’t have any skyhooks, no, climbers round here wouldn’t typically have them or use them, and no, he can’t think of anyone who would be able to demonstrate.

I would ask more, but all this time Rhod has been chucking stuff – mats, towel, boots, chalk bag – into the back of Mike’s tatty-looking Mazda and looking pleadingly at his companion.

He says, ‘We can still get something in on Witches Point, if we bomb it.’

Mike shoots him a look, to remind him that I’m a police officer with, no doubt, ferocious views on road safety, but I wave them off without making any arrests.

Rhod chalked up to make the climb, but Mike seemed happy to do without and in any case you could probably colour the chalk so it was more or less invisible against the stone.

Ollie appears from somewhere. Lockwood’s son.

I say, ‘Your mother’s OK, is she?’

‘She’ll live.’

‘Listen, your sister, Francesca. She was here on the night of the burglary, wasn’t she?’

I know she was. Our files record all the names of all family and staff. Short statements from most of them.

Ollie says, ‘Cesca? She’s – she’s in London now. Art student.’ When my face reminds him that that is not an answer to my question, he adds, ‘I think so, yes.’

‘We might need to interview your dad too. I’m hoping not, but it’s possible.’

He shrugs.

‘You don’t care?’

‘Not particularly.’

I raise my eyebrows at that, nudging him to expand, but to start with he offers nothing. Just gazes out at the lawns. The dark topiary pillars. Clipped yew and regimental box. Then he says, ‘Thing is, my dad’s OK, but he
is
a bit of a dick.’

We laugh.

I think Ollie’s summary rates somewhere between accurate and flattering. Ollie’s dad, Galton Evans, made his money in agricultural insurance, then sold up and now passes his time screwing girls only a few years older than his son and dabbling in property and investment projects.

I don’t really care about Evans’s bedroom habits, but he’s been a target of mine for two years now. I’ve watched him. Gathered data. Tried to find a route into the privacies of his life. Not because I’ve known anything bad about him directly, but because he was a close friend of a man called Brendan Rattigan, because Rattigan was an evil man, and because I have fair reason to believe that Evans knew about that evil and did nothing to stop it.

That’s how they started, my little private investigations, but they’ve deepened since. My second big case fingered a man called Idris Prothero – another of Rattigan’s circle – and Prothero only escaped justice because the Crown Prosecution Service was too wimpy to bring a case in the face of political hostility. My most recent case of note also had some local rich guy at its heart, but I don’t know who. I never got a name and I saw him only the once, a distant figure on a far-off hill. Evans knew Rattigan, knows Prothero, and – I’d bet my sweet little Alfa-Romeo, complete with petrol, road tax and dangly cardboard air-freshener – he also knows the man who was my target that dark morning.

I tell Ollie about Rhod and Mike. Their ease in climbing the corner.

Ollie looks up, says, ‘Up there? Wow.’

‘Do you have a ladder?’

He does. Finds a groundsman, or someone, to haul a ladder from an outbuilding. I climb it. The light, never great, is murkier now, but I’m able to view the cornice from above.

Mike was right. The actual horizontal part is very scanty. Five millimetres at the most, but this is eighteenth-century stone which has seen the weather of centuries. Some bits of that top edge look crisp and sound and certain. Other parts, not so much. A black lichen lines the crevice where the cornice meets the wall.

I come down and call Mike on his mobile.

‘Fiona,’ he says, ‘hold a moment.’ A pause, then, ‘OK, you’re on hands-free.’

‘Are you
climbing
?’

‘No, Rhod is. I’m belaying.’

‘Quick then. If someone used a skyhook on that edge, what marks would you expect to see? I mean, assuming there was something there to take an impression.’

Mike’s attention is mostly with his climbing partner, and there’s a yelled conversation between them about some issue to do with the way the ropes are moving, or not moving. Then, hurriedly, ‘Basically a skyhook is just a pointy metal hook. So if you’re lucky you’ll find a line of pointy metal hook marks.’

‘And that climb – up the corner and along to the window – how hard is it? I mean, you and Rhod had crash mats underneath you, but would you have been happy to attempt the climb without protection? If there was four hundred grand at the end of it?’

Mike’s attention absents itself, then returns. There’s a booming noise in the background, which is, I realise, the sound of waves.

‘Me, no. Rhod, maybe.’ Then he corrects his answer to, ‘Rhod, probably.’

I want to ask more, but there’s a shout of ‘Watch me!’ and a sudden jingle of ropes and metal. The sound of something soft hitting something hard.

I say, ‘Shit, Mike, are you OK? Is Rhod all right?’

There’s a short pause. An ocean fretting against silence. Then, ‘Yeah, fine. Look, can we finish this tomorrow?’

I say yes and hang up.

Go up the ladder again to see if I can see a line of pointy hook marks. I can’t. Say thank you to Ollie and the groundsman.

Drive home, radio silent, still hearing the ocean roaring in my ears. And the sound of something soft hitting something hard.

 

7

 

Home, that place of uncertain welcome.

Magnolia walls and undrawn curtains. I open the fridge and say hello. Eat a tomato. Find some grapes and eat them.

I’d vaguely been intending to flip through my policing manuals again – my exam is tomorrow – but get diverted by an internet search for academic researchers in criminal forensics. Someone at the University of Kent is interested in lichens. I’m interested in lichens too. I whack off an email.

Smoke a joint. Have a bath.

Then, dammit, remember my exam, but it’s raining, I’m in a dressing gown, and the manuals are still in the back of my car. I peer out at the rain and send my manuals some positive vibrations through the bedroom window. They vibrate positively back.

Those positive vibrations carry me through to what was once a spare room, now rather grandly renamed the ops room.

Computers. Lists. Photos. Data.

Lots of work. Not much product.

Fiddle around with a current interest of mine, Ned Davison. Once an accountant, now a general purpose ‘business consultant’, whatever that means.

Davison had a marginal relationship to my past assignment, Operation Tinker. I did what I could to rope him into the inquiry proper. Did enough that my boss at SOCA managed to pull some data on him. Data which shows him having done paid consultancy work for a dozen or more local businessmen in the period ending 2008. From January 2009, he channelled his activity through an offshore management company and his records basically dried up. He still pays tax, but our ability to see the fine grain of his income vanishes.

I’ve tried to find out more, but without joy. I know where he lives, what car he drives, where that car goes, who he sees, but the data reveals more or less nothing. For all I know, the guy is just a decently successful consultant, working hard, making a living.

I leave Davison. Turn to Francesca Evans.

Try finding her on Facebook. No joy. Try the same search a few different ways. Still nothing.

Then try Francesca Lockwood. Find her first go. She calls herself Cesca, but I know it’s the right person, because she’s a student of art and design at Central Saint Martins in London. Her friends include Ollie and her mother. Not her father.

Who changes her name to her mother’s name following a family divorce? Someone who’s pissed off at her father.

Thing is
, Ollie tells me,
my dad’s
OK
, but he
is
a bit of a dick.

How much of a dick, Ollie? I want to ask. Just how much of a dick?

Go to bed. Sleep well.

In the morning, I sit my OSPRE exam. A hundred and fifty questions in three hours. Some I get right, some I get wrong. Jackson can yell at me if likes.

Phone Mike again, ask – properly – what happened last night on the phone and if Rhod is OK.

Mike, vaguely puzzled by the question, says, ‘Yes, fine. He fell, that’s all.’

I thought the point of climbing was about not falling, but I don’t pursue the topic. Ask instead if Mike has ever climbed Critterling, the hardest of the four climbs on the cliff from which the security guard fell.

‘Critterling? No. Tried it once and kept lobbing off the crux. Love to try it again, though. It’s brilliant.’

I ask him for a favour and he’s happy to agree.

We ring off.

I can’t think of an excuse not to return to my dungeon, so I do.

When I enter the room, Ifor looks vaguely round and says, ‘Oh, hi . . .’ He gropes for my name.

‘Fiona,’ I say. ‘Fi, if you prefer.’

‘That’s right. Fiona.’

‘Are you OK?’

‘Oh yes. I’m fine. I’ve got a bit of a . . .’ He points at his head.

I get him some aspirin and send him off to make tea. When he’s gone, I look at his computer. He’s done almost nothing all morning. Twelve exhibits entered in the database, about half an hour’s work in total. The data entry is slipshod too. The data is clumsily duplicated from prior entries, or simply wrong.

I call Laura Moffatt, the senior exhibits officer, over from her dungeon, which stands a couple of doors down from ours. Show her the screen. Point out the errors.

I ask, ‘Is this normal? I’ve always found him to be—’

Laura agrees with her eyes, but at that point Ifor returns.

Laura says, ‘Ifor, how are you? Are you feeling all right?’

He says, ‘I’m feeling . . . I’m feeling . . .’

In his hands: two mugs. Coffee granules in his. A tea bag in mine. No water in either.

I reach for the phone and call for a patrol car.

Laura, speaking slowly, says, ‘Ifor. You’re not feeling well and we’re going to take you to hospital. Do you understand? To hospital.’

Moving his lips carefully, and with a lot of thought, Ifor says, ‘That’s right. I’m not feeling well.’

Two hours later and we know the worst.

Ifor has a brain tumour. Benign, but the size of a tangerine. Surgery has already begun. A full recovery is perfectly possible, but surgeons won’t know until the operation is complete. In any case, recovery will take months, not weeks.

I have a sit down with Laura Moffatt, Owen Dunthinking and DCI Jackson.

We all say the right things. The personal ones, of course. Poor Ifor. So young. Shocking, really.

But the professional ones too. Where this leaves Chicago, our mounting pile of exhibits.

Six eyes looking at me.

Or eight, in fact, because the pair of eyes that matter aren’t even in the room. Kirsty Emmett. That tangled hair, those empty eyes.

I say, in a tiny voice, ‘I’d be happy to step in. Easier to keep going.’

There’s a bit of further discussion. I don’t participate. My gaze is on the floor. Grey carpet, running a little threadbare in places. I hoovered it once. Washed the skirting board.

Jackson tells Laura Moffatt to ‘Keep an eye on this one. I want regular updates on her work. Speed, accuracy, attention to detail. All that.’

Laura assents, but is nice enough to add, ‘From what I’ve seen, her work has been excellent so far. Really good.’

My mouth forms the words ‘thank you,’ but I don’t think any sound comes out.

The one contribution I do make is to say, ‘The one thing that we don’t seem to have so far is anything from the hospital. Swabs, dressings, paper towels, that sort of thing. I’m worried that we’ve got them somewhere insecure or stored in a way that might compromise their evidential integrity.’

Jackson darts a glance at Dunthinking, whose pinkishness accelerates. Gathers in his cheekbones. Thickens in the shade of his gingery beard. He says, ‘I’ll need to look into that. I’ll have to check where we’ve got to on that.’

He swallows once after speaking and drags a fingernail across his jaw.

Jackson’s stare is as broad as the ocean, but he says nothing.

Dunthinking talks about his current strategy. He’s looking for vehicles that were both in Gabalfa and on Rover Way in Tremorfa on the same day, and at roughly the correct times. Number-plate recognition cameras are fairly well positioned at both locations and,
mirabile dictu
, all working.

‘There’s a lot of work,’ he says. ‘Locate any suspect vehicles. Get them forensicated. Keep crunching through the data.’

He repeats himself. Stops where he shouldn’t. Once again, Jackson says little or nothing.

When the meeting breaks up, I ask to stay behind. Want a private word.

Moffatt and Dunthinking leave. I’m alone with Jackson and Kirsty Emmett. Of the two presences, Emmett’s seems the stronger.

Jackson says, ‘Well done for getting Ifor to hospital.’

I nod. According to a registrar at the hospital, the tumour was pressing up against a major blood vessel. Ifor was no more than days, perhaps only hours, from a massive and probably lethal stroke.

‘And thank you for volunteering just now. That was the right thing to do.’

Nod.

I say, ‘I assume you heard about—’

‘Your adventures at Plas Du. Yes, I did. And yes, you were totally out of line.’

His tone adds: ‘And you’re due one shitstorm of a bollocking, as well you know.’

‘Sir?’

‘Yes?’

‘I don’t know how much you know about – I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at my HR file.’

‘No. Should I?’

‘No.’ I realise I don’t know how to say this. My file shows a two year gap in my CV. Years in which I was mostly in a mental hospital. Years I almost never discuss with anyone. So I skirt the topic. Stay safe. Say, ‘I used to have problems. Not any more. None at all, really. Only – only my job is really important to me. Not just as a police officer, but as a detective.’

‘We’re not taking your job away, Fiona. You’re still in CID.’

‘I know. Sorry, sir, I know that. It’s just . . .’

And I don’t know what to say. Don’t know how to tell him. Should I explain that I’ve wanted to crush the glowing tip of a cigarette against the pale skin inside my elbow? That I stood so hard on my own toes that two of them are crushed black, with nails that are turning purple? That the thought of going back down to the dungeon, to enter data, ferry exhibits, and stare pointlessly at Ifor’s stupid waterfall poster in a room without windows, makes me actually shake inside? Long, violent, invisible shakes that are the precursors of something much worse.

I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything at all. Just sit there, mouth partly open, staring ahead.

‘Fiona?’

‘I’m an investigator. I need to investigate.’ Because I know that Jackson wants to tell me that an exhibits officer is a vital part of any inquiry, because I know he wants to give me the senior officer crap which is every word of it true but still every word of it crap, I interrupt his interruption. ‘I’m not saying I won’t take over from Ifor. I will. And I’ll do it right. I won’t cock up. I won’t piss you off. But I can’t only do that. I mean, I
can’t
. That’s why I went to Plas Du. Why I pulled Lockwood in for interview. It wasn’t because I thought the case required it. It was because
I
did. It’s because I was struggling.’

I point to my head, in much the way that Ifor did with his.
Here
. This is the problem. His tumour, my craziness.

Jackson doesn’t answer right away. One of the best things about him is his slowness. His silences.

He knows that some truths, the biggest ones, blossom best in emptiness.

And this is hard for him, I see that. When Jackson joined the force, policing was a more straightforward affair. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act didn’t exist. Most coppers were men. The ones who weren’t were called birds and had their bottoms pinched. Computers barely existed. DNA evidence hadn’t been thought of.

And now? Jackson lives in a world where women police officers are called, simply, police officers. Where my five foot two inches is no barrier to recruitment or advancement. Where technology is rampant. Where attitudes to evidence handling, interrogation and much else are utterly different from the past.

I’m wearing a pleated blouse and grey woollen trousers. I’m looking at my knees and feeling Jackson’s gaze hot on my face.

He says, ‘Fiona, last year, I worked with you on an operation, during which—’

‘I know.’ I can’t explain. Beyond a point, I just can’t explain. Last year, I worked undercover. I worked full time as a payroll clerk, and part time as a cleaner. I was in constant danger, cut off from friends. My social life revolved largely round a homeless shelter. ‘I found that easy, sir. I
liked
it. This won’t make any sense to you, but I found that kind of life restful, almost.’

‘And you’re saying that working nine to five, in a warm room, doing an important job . . .’

Jackson trails off and I complete his thought. ‘Working in safety, clerical work, seeing the same colleagues day after day, knowing that my tomorrow will look much like my yesterday? That’s what I can’t do. I wouldn’t manage it.’

I don’t say, ‘wouldn’t
survive
it,’ though that feels like the truth. But I do realise that my finger is once again pointing at my head. Passing the blame, identifying the culprit.

The voice in my head wants to say, ‘I’m not normal. I’m just not like other people.’ But I don’t say that. Not out loud. Don’t disclose more of my craziness than I really have to.

A Jacksonian silence swells beneath us. Like one of those vast American deserts, all bleached sand and towering rock.

Sunlight on creosote bushes.

The sound of something small burrowing out of sight.

Then Jackson says, ‘OK. So, you’re happy to take over from Ifor. Do a proper job. But you want something else to run alongside. Something, I don’t know, to keep you motivated. Keep you engaged.’

‘That’s it, sir, yes. Motivated and engaged.’

I almost laugh in relief. God! Here I am virtually telling Jackson that I’m a wacko. A crazy who half-belongs in hospital and he thinks I’m worried about a little ordinary boredom. The guy is so damn sane, he can’t even imagine real craziness. I feel shaky with relief.

‘You’ll be busy enough with Chicago,’ he says.

‘That’s OK. I don’t mind working hard.’

‘Tell me about it.’

He stares at me appraisingly. I wonder how I look through his eyes. A small young woman in a neat white blouse. But one who can’t actually handle the kind of life that small, neatly bloused women are meant to lead.

‘So. You’ve got a burglary at Plas Du. What else did I give you?’

It was a whole stack, in fact, but I only mention Derek Moon, the fallen security guard.

‘That’s a thin diet for you, isn’t it?’

He means I normally like my cases fresher, bloodier. Corpsier.

‘Yes, maybe, but with crime the way it is . . .’

Crime statistics: a favourite complaint of mine. The way crime always falls. The way each year brings fewer corpses, fewer Major Crimes for our dwindling team.

Jackson says, ‘Fiona, falling crime is a good thing, remember? But look. Your priority, at all times, needs to be the EO job, OK? If Owen Dunwoody or Laura Moffatt tell me you’re letting things slip, I will jump up and down on your head. Probably literally. But in any case, you won’t have a job in CID afterwards. Is that clear?’

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