The summer heat shimmered on the pavements, glimmered on the red-hot roofs of red-hot cars, sweated through the pores of people on the street below. On the fifth floor, Chief Inspector Jacobson felt too tired to work, too hot to think. A memory flash came to him of the sublimely cool interior inside the Banque Populaire in Avignon, the tellers coolly efficient in white shirts, loosened at the collar. He reflected that global warming would have come and gone - that the planet would be staring down the barrel of the next ice age - before decent air conditioning was likely to reach the Divisional building.
He mopped his brow ineffectually with his hand, his heart sinking before the mountain of untouched paperwork on his desk. His holiday had been over less than a week but already it was starting to feel like some vivid dream which held you enthralled and enraptured only to fade at the first moment of waking. He checked his watch. One thirty. There was still half an hour to go before Chief Superintendent Chivers' operational briefing. Time to deal with some of the burgeoning pile of overtime claim forms for instance - or time for a quick one in the Brewer's Rest. It was hardly what you could call a contest: Jacobson swivelled in his chair and stretched his arms before he stood up. He picked up his pager from his desk, switched it on and tucked it into his shirt pocket.
He went out of his office and along the corridor to the back stairs, his exit route of choice in moments like these. Unlike the main stairs or - worse still - the lifts, you minimised your chances of running into someone you didn't want to see, save for the final sprint past the reception area on the ground floor. The route was known to the cognoscenti as the Denby Dash in memory of Detective Sergeant Denby, an early colleague of Jacobson's, long since deceased and even longer retired. Denby's ability to sneak in and out of the Divi unseen by superiors and inferiors alike had been very nearly as legendary as his famously extended lunch hours in the Brewer's Rest.
Jacobson imagined he felt the benign smile of Denby's ghost over his shoulder as he carried his drink away from the bar and out into the beer garden. A half pint of English draught lager was a far cry from a glass of local red in the shadow of the Palais des Papes but it beat the hell out of overtime calculations. He sat down at a table protected from the sun by the faded green of an elderly Perrier umbrella. He eased off his jacket and began to feel almost human again. He'd been lucky to get a table to himself. The heatwave had temporarily boosted the BR's takings to the level of the fashionable cafe-bars and phoney Irish joints which threatened its survival. Not that Jacobson would be especially sorry to see it go. Like others in the know, he used it only because - as Denby had long ago discovered - it was near enough for convenience to the Divi without being so close that you were actually visible from there while entering or leaving.
The woman he was trying not to look at had dark red hair in pre-Raph ringlets. Her left hand fidgeted with the end of her short summer dress while her right clamped her mobile tight to the side of her head. Jacobson hoped for her sake that the health risks he'd read about in the paper were just scare stories, space-fillers. He made her thirty, maybe younger, before he managed to look away. He lifted his glass and swallowed a good third of its contents in one gulp. At least, he thought, it was properly chilled. He seemed to spend an undue proportion of his time these days trying not to look at women, trying to reconcile the laddish impulses in his brain to the constraints of its middle-aged casing. He took another swallow, wishing the half were a pint or - better still - two pints. But even in his restless, post-holiday mood, he wasn't about to turn up at the Super's briefing with anything other than a clear head.
He checked again that his pager was properly switched on and risked another look. Her phone had disappeared - presumably into the giant-sized leather bag which lay at her feet - and now she was tapping frantically into an expensive-looking laptop. Underneath the white plastic table, her uncrossed, sun-tanned legs momentarily challenged Jacobson's Platonistic belief that true perfection was unattainable in the human realm. He made a show of reading the headlines in a drink-sodden copy of the Guardian which a previous customer had left abandoned on the table. When he looked up again she'd gone and he realised that it would soon be time to make a move himself.
Chivers, the force's most senior detective, was finally retiring, his leaving-do only seven nights away. Jacobson made it to the briefing room just minutes before the great man got up to speak. Greg Salter, Chivers' replacement, sat to his left, his arms folded high on his chest. Jacobson slid into the empty chair next along. The chief rose briskly to his feet.
"Our watchwords in the new century must be those of the old. Law and Order -" Chivers paused, then repeated his mantra. "Law and Order. If that's not why you joined, if that's not why you're still here, then go now. If you can't put your duty before your personal feelings then go now."
A second pause, a second repetition: Chivers' eyes scanning every face in the room.
"The proper authorities have decreed that Robert Johnson is to be paroled under licence. His wish to return to this community is a lawful wish. There will be no vigilante justice in Crowby. Robert Johnson will be under a voluntary curfew. Robert Johnson will be subject to the fullest supervision of the Probation Service."
Chivers paused a third time. Jacobson looked around for a groan, maybe even a catcall, but somehow an uneasy silence persisted through buttoned lips, bitten tongues. He glanced at Greg Salter, who seemed to be working a nodding dog routine, his head bobbing vigorously in support of the party line. Chivers made a run for it while the going was good.
"Our uniformed colleagues already have their contingency arrangements in the event of any incidents of public disorder. As Frank Jacobson will now describe to you, our role, the proper Crime Management role, is discreet pre-emptive surveillance. Not only Johnson himself but also those members of the public who are regrettably unaware of Our Lord's retributive prerogatives."
Jacobson ran through the surveillance arrangements in detail. Johnson would be tailed round the clock for at least the next month and there would be regular checks on those who'd made the most noise against him, victims' families mostly. Before he sat back down, he put his own spin on the official policy which Chivers had taken pains to spell out.
"It's bad news that the bastard's going to be back in Crowby . Bad news, plain and simple. No one feels that more than I do. But the way to deal with it is to stay professional, to do our jobs properly. As long as Johnson' s on our patch, it's up to us to ensure that he doesn't so much as drop litter or cross the street against the traffic."
Salter caught up with Jacobson by the lifts after the meeting.
"Nice speech, Frank, if I may say so. You did more to calm the troops than the old boy did in my view."
Say what you like, take any view you like, Jacobson thought. Never met me before and already he's using my Christian name. It was the first time he'd encountered Salter face to face. He'd arrived at the Divi while Jacobson had been in France, had apparently spent the last two weeks 'shadowing' Chivers, if Jacobson had got the management buzzword right.
"Thanks, Greg," he said, managing somehow to keep his face deadpan. Eight passengers crammed into a lift constructed for six. Jacobson was no giant yet Salter's balding head just about came to his shoulders.
"I'm inviting some of the movers and shakers over for drinks and a meal come Sunday night. You'd be more than welcome, Frank. My wife is quite a sought-after cook, if I say so myself."
Say so anyway you care to.
"That would be good if I can make it, eh, Greg. I'll need to check my diary."
"Do that, Frank, do that."
A civilian clerk with an armful of documents struggled out of the lift at the third floor. Jacobson seized an opportunity and exited after him, having decided he'd rather walk the rest of the way down. He'd heard on the grapevine that Salter was a smoothie but he hadn't realised that the soon-to-be Super was quite definitely in training for Slimy Schmoozer of the Year. Since he was headed out on official business this time he treated himself to the broad sweep of the main stairs, a welcome pretence of cool air hitting his face.
It took him fifteen minutes to walk to the railway station. You could probably do it in ten minutes tops but he wasn't going to hurry in heat like this. Besides walking at any pace was still quicker than driving through the post-lunchtime traffic. When he got to the station he found the usual mass of dissimilar elements in close proximity. Beggars, businessmen, back-packing tourists - the lost and the found. The two lonely tables reserved for smoking pariahs in the Costa coffee franchise were wedged in an unattractive corner. Jacobson lit up proudly what was only his second B and H of the day so far, less proudly realising that he was still in overtime form denial. There was no compelling operational need for the meeting he'd arranged here - only his own desire to be out of his office, away from his desk. By reputation, the two Brummies were skilled stake-out merchants and could probably be safely left to get on with it. Not that he had any other real option: the success of this part of the surveillance depended on the use of outside officers and - trickier - of Jacobson and his team steering well clear. The Mill Street bail hostel, where Johnson would be put up, crawled with locally-based career low-life who could take the membership of Crowby CID as their specialist subject on Mastermind if the programme ever came back. Mill Street itself likewise: petty thievery, drugs, prostitution - the kind of area where a bail hostel was tolerated, even welcomed, by the locals.
Jacobson had ordered a latte with an extra shot. Despite the paper cup it tasted good. There was no doubt that the peripherals of rail travel had improved since the days of British Rail when your choice was foul tea or instant coffee or piss-off. The problem was the trains themselves. The one with Jacobson's outsiders onboard was already twenty-five minutes overdue.
Robert Johnson. King of the Delta Blues Guitar. It had been Kerr inevitably, Jacobson's Detective Sergeant, who'd made the musical link. The man whose playing was so angelic they said he'd made a pact with the Devil. But not this one. This one was Robert Johnson aka The Crowby Crawler. The newspapers at the time had acted as if he WAS the Devil. Eight violent rapes in eight months. The youngest victim had been seventeen, the oldest seventy-three. Each one had been committed on the thirteenth day, each one had tabloid-friendly elements of 'bizarre ritual' : right from the beginning, Johnson had made sure an insanity plea would be his fall-back position if caught. As far as Jacobson was concerned, what had really been bizarre was that this plea had been believed by six experienced psychiatrists and ultimately by a unanimous jury guided by a judge who'd looked like seventy going on a hundred and five.
Jacobson finished his cigarette, drained the latte: still no-show from the Brummies.
So in the end Johnson had been put away for - what was it? - eight years, nine at the outside. A special hospital job: assessment, counselling, rehabilitation. From the release notes it looked like some super-duper special programme in Johnson's case. Skim reading, he'd taken in enough keywords to get the flavour. Experimental. Behaviour Modification. Impressive Results in Scandinavia and Holland. The notes also testified to Johnson's genuine repentance, his deep personal sense of regret. All very convincing no doubt. Except for one, central detail ... Johnson's ceaseless insistence on returning to Crowby. A town where he had no prior roots. A town where his victims endured their wrecked lives.
Emerging back on to the concourse, Jacobson was astonished to see the woman from the Brewer's Rest, the woman with the legs, hurrying towards him, smiling. He drew up, gobsmacked, waiting. Quickly he pretended to check his pager for messages - as if that had been his purpose all along - when she swept straight past him. From the huddle of doomed commuters in front of the departures board, vainly trying for an early escape home to the barbecue or the golf course, he tracked her destination, saw her meet two men, one young, one old, both in leather jackets despite the heat, both camera and camcorder laden.
Jenny Mortimer nursed her hangover all the way from the master bedroom to the breakfast bar at the far end of the large mahogany-fitted kitchen. She switched the massive ghetto-blaster moodily between Classic FM, Radio Four and her cd of Billie Holiday without finding something to distract her. She was too sober now to think about anything but Kevin's exasperating, stupid deadline. Tell him Jenny, tell him before I get back. If you won't tell him, I will.
She took the precious photograph from her dressing gown pocket, her only still from the movie which played relentlessly in her head. She looked again at his tanned body, lean and lightly muscular, his tight cut-off jeans, the sunlight catching his eyes and his smile. She'd always thought that only men were really turned on just by looking but now, tracing the line of his face with her finger, she wondered if that were really the case.
She poured herself a cup of instant coffee, realising she couldn't face the hassle entailed by the expresso machine. She tried Radio Four again only to hear the unwelcome pips before the three o'clock news. Today was the day she'd dreaded - the day when she could no longer put off a decision - and it was already a lot more than half-gone. She lifted the coffee cup to her lips but it was still too hot to drink. The phone rang but she didn't pick it up, let the answerphone act as her barrier to the hostile world. Gus Mortimer's voice sounded gruff, confident and as cold as the arctic. He wasn't asking his wife about their invitation to the Trayners' summer party, he was telling her.
"They're expecting us around eight, Jen."
What he meant - what he always meant - was be there, do it, play by my rules. She gripped the coffee mug tightly, felt the day's first full shudder of fear. For the tenth time since waking, she told herself to get a grip. All she had to do was not panic. All she had to do was think it through. She finished her coffee and then she forced herself to make and eat two slices of wholegrain toast with marmalade. She washed up, showered, got dressed. She was easing the ice blue Jag out of the garage on to the smoothly-raked red gravel of the curving driveway when the fear gripped her a second time.
She cut the engine and sat there for a few moments, fighting it. Anyway, there was no point just driving off with no destination in mind, driving just for the sake of it. Not with her head pounding her eyes behind her Ray-Bans. She shoved her head back into the soft leather of the head rest, tried to do the deep breathing they'd shown her at Skyros the summer before last. The worst thing was knowing that Kevin had consciously and deliberately forced her into this hellish corner, into a confrontation that she really didn't want, really didn't need. It wasn't enough that she loved him, that every cell, organ and membrane of her body was his and his alone. Kevin wasn't Gus but Kevin, she realised, was still a man; men always needed their ownership to be public. She shook her head, bit her lip. Finally she turned the ignition again, lurched the car recklessly forward, her foot heavy on the pedal.
Ten minutes later, as high as it was possible to get above Crowby, Jenny followed the narrowing path to the summit of Crow Hill. Below and to her left was the woodland clearing where she'd parked. Above and around her: scraggy rain-parched grass, outcrops of hard rock, unreal powder puff clouds in the perfect summer sky. It was the nearest thing to a local beauty spot. By day you could see right over the town as far as the motorway. By night, the lights of Crowby twinkled like a film set, making it seem larger than it was and somehow more important. She'd come here as a girl on family picnics and, much later, with Gus in his after-dark car - when she'd first known him - when he was still with his first wife.
An Indian or Bangladeshi family nodded politely to her on their way back down the hill. The woman' s sari was a dazzling, sumptuous orange, her little boy's eyes big and smiling, like shining black saucers. She turned and watched the three figures disappearing, carefree, down the path. She toyed with her mobile, considered phoning Gus at his office right there and then. Just state the facts without drama. Gus, I've been sleeping with the guy who does the gardening and now I'm going to live with him. God! He'd hit the roof. He'd probably hit her when he could get hold of her, might even hurt her badly. But then at least it would be over; everything would be out in the open and Gus could file for the divorce which both of them knew was long overdue.
It wasn't that she expected Kevin to last. Ten years younger than her, he'd wake up one day and realise her breasts were less than perfectly firm, her stomach not as flat as it used to be. Or she'd wake up the next day, her physical need of him finally sated, her mind at last numb and bored by his juvenile enthusiasms for crop circles, conspiracy theories, alien abductions. That would be a bad time obviously. The immediate time - today, tomorrow - would be even worse. But at least there would be the beginning of an end in sight. Six months from now - a year - and she could be somewhere else, leading another life. She could even get some kind of a job, earn her own living again. This last thought came to her shockingly, almost thrillingly. As if she were a prisoner newly awakened to an unlocked cell door and the jailers all fled. She looked down across Crowby, the traffic crawling like shiny beetles through congested streets. It would hardly be fair that Gus, with his string of office bimbos and sales conference pickups, would legally be the wronged party, would hang on after all to the lion's share of 'his money'. But it had been a long time in any case since she'd believed that life could be fair.
She reached in her shoulder bag for the last of her Marlboro Lights, realised that her hands were shaking. Two lank youths swaggered by, passing a joint between themselves only barely surreptitiously. The one with the least spots gave her a lecherous wink. She fingered her mobile again but then put it back in the bag. OK. Today if it must be. But later and in person, not now by phone. She would have had to tell him anyway, would have had to force the issue sometime. She lit the cigarette, her fingers a little steadier. All Kevin had really accomplished had been to compel her to act sooner rather than later.
When Gus Mortimer put down the phone after calling home, he walked through to his outer office for no good reason other than to watch the girl called Faith swivel away from her word-processing and await his instructions.
Angie, his regular secretary, was on her annual screwing-fest in Ibiza and now he almost wished he'd let her have the extra week off she'd asked for. The strange thing was that her temporary replacement didn't actually match up to Gus's normal recruitment criteria. Obviously they had to be able to use a computer and answer the phone. But above this minimal baseline, Gus gave priority to other qualities. Angie for instance was classic office furniture. Blonde, leggy, sizeable bust and a manner that suggested you were in with a chance. This girl on the other hand gave the impression that her Doc Martens were permanently targeted on any set of bollocks within striking distance of her long, thin legs. He still couldn't really say why he hadn't just booted her right back to the agency the very first minute he'd clapped eyes on her. She wasn't exactly bad-looking but she certainly wasn't a typical Gus sex-object either. She was tall and pale, her long, straight hair dyed jet black. What they used to call a Goth a few years back, maybe still did for all he knew.
She was good enough at her work, better than Angie if the truth be told. But that was hardly relevant. Competence wasn't material if you didn't want someone around, just didn't like their face or their bad breath or - which was the issue here - their attitude. He ran the company after all: what was the bloody point otherwise?
"I need a quick breakdown of last month's figures, love. Just run them off on Excel or something, could you?"
Gus looked into her hazel eyes as if probing a mystery. You couldn't even get a proper angle on her figure under the black sack she wore as a dress. All he was sure of, apart from she was slim, was that her chest, unfettered, was probably bigger than she allowed it to appear.
The girl looked away from him and back to the screen.
"No problem, Mr Mortimer."
Ordinarily, Gus liked formality in the office. Even when he shagged them he didn't want them taking liberties on company time. But somehow this girl wielded her unvarying politeness like a sharp stick. He watched her for a further moment, her thin fingers resting on the keyboard, the fingernails painted a deep, dark purple. You could do some damage with those love: the kind of thing he would have said without thinking to Angie. With this girl he said nothing at all. Instead he astonished himself by closing the door and leaving her to it without a single, patronising word.
Jacobson had been ready to give up on Aston and Dennett, the two Birmingham DCs, when their train finally crawled in a full fifty-five minutes late. He blew most of his hospitality budget on a round of drinks at the Yates' Wine Lodge which had recently opened up in the building opposite the station that had once belonged to the Evening Argus. He left them there half an hour later waiting for a mini-cab to Mill Street; both looking convincingly dodgy, both getting wary glances from the bar staff. Jacobson wouldn't have blamed the driver for turning down the fare. He walked back to the Divi, picked up his car and drove - late himself - to his next destination.
He parked unobtrusively at the bottom of Riverside Avenue and got out. Tall plane trees lined the pavement at regular intervals, keeping the glare of the sun at bay. When he reached the unmarked Astra, he opened the passenger door and sat in.
"All quiet, lass?"
Detective Constable Emma Smith nodded.
"Barnfield and his wife got back about twenty minutes ago. Supermarket trip. From what I could see it looks like the only thing they're planning at the moment is a barbie."
Jacobson looked across and down the street. The house was solid, detached and, like its neighbours, a century and a half old. On foot you were no more than four minutes away from Riverside Walk and the river itself. Another couple at most to get you across the nearest bridge and into the Memorial Park: feed the swans, exercise the dog or call into the Riverside Hotel for a swift one.
"Not your typical rent-a-mob area," Jacobson thought outloud.
Yet the Barnfields were undoubtedly the potential troublemakers to be taken the most seriously. On the first day of the trial, John Barnfield had urinated on the supposedly tight security by waving Linda Barnfield's sharpest Kitchen Devil, a veritable cleaver, within two feet of Robert Johnson's throat. Thereafter, with the husband banned from the court and its environs, the wife had become the unofficial leader of the braying hordes who'd shrieked, jeered and spat at every one of the Crawler's coat-shielded entrances and exits from the building. 'A Mother's Fury' had been how they'd billed it, the day she'd made the front cover of the Sun.
"What do you really think they'll do, guv?"
Jacobson shook his head, glad that DC Smith didn't smoke, glad of an additional reason to postpone his next lighting-up.
"I just don't know, Emma, I just don't know."
Anyone could feel sympathy for the Barnfields' position. Their only daughter had been eighteen when Johnson had broken in and found her alone in the house with a boyfriend while they were on holiday in Florida. Overpowering the youth, he'd held her there for sixteen hours, the most sustained and degrading of all his attacks. Bulimia, wrist-slashings and heroin had all followed predictably in its wake. Jacobson never wanted to know how he'd feel or act in their situation. If the case had become an obsession with him, as his ex-wife claimed it had, then the nightmare that a girl like Sally, his own daughter, could be next had certainly played its part.
"It's okay, guv, I don't mind on a day like this with the windows wound all the way down."
Jacobson had unconsciously been tapping the cigarette lighter on the dashboard.
"You're more than kind," he said. "But I'll hold out a while yet."
From the pavement outside the house next to the Barnfields', an elderly resident was trimming his hedge. Every now and then, he stopped to rest, gazing contentedly up and down the street. Each time he looked straight past the Astra without a second glance. If he noticed them at all, he'd probably assume they were a couple. Provided there were only two of them, it was what officers in a surveillance car were usually taken for, regardless - as in this case - of any age difference or other incompatibility. It helped - but was no longer essential - if they were male and female. The whole world, Jacobson thought, loves a lover. The Barnfields had kept up the pressure by more conventional middle-class methods too. Constant letterwriting to press, politicians and the Home Office was the least of it: Mrs Barnfield was a regular on local radio phone-ins, had even made a couple of appearances on regional television. As a victim's family, they'd had to be legally informed of the release date, would undoubtedly have passed the information on to their media contacts. It would be a minor miracle if Johnson's whereabouts remained unknown to them for long. Jacobson watched the old boy's shears glistening in the sunlight, wondered whether - next door along - they might be quietly sharpening up the cutlery again.
Aston and Dennett had barely set up in their shabby room above the Atlantis laundrette when, at the pre-arranged time of four o'clock, Colin 'Santa' Marshall, the Head of Crowby's Probation Service, parked his ageing Volvo estate at a dangerous angle on the double yellow lines outside the bail hostel. One tearaway racing too quickly to beat the traffic lights up ahead, Aston thought, and he's looking for a new bumper minimum. The hostel was directly across the street from the laundrette. Robert Johnson emerged on to the pavement carrying his worldly goods in a grey Adidas holdall. Johnson was thirty-six but from this distance he looked younger in his baggy jeans, hooded sweatshirt and number one haircut. You had to be up close to see the jail pallor on his face, the thick creasing lines on his forehead. Marshall, fat and with an unkempt grey-white beard, locked his car and followed Johnson into the hostel. Aston tapped out the Operation Control number on his mobile.
"Nasty looking piece of kit, mate," said Dennett.
Aston held the phone to his ear, waiting for someone to answer. The lack of an instant response left him un-impressed.
"Which one? Chummie or Karl fucking Marx?"
Jenny stepped out of the bath feeling almost relaxed. She'd had the idea for ten minutes now. She'd looked at it from every angle, examined it, still couldn't see a flaw. She would tell him at the Trayners' party. There! Simple! She'd tell him quietly if possible but loudly in public if need be. If she took a few overnight things with her then she could leave alone by taxi, book in somewhere for the night, meet Kevin when he got back tomorrow. She towel-dried her hair, an almost-smile across her face in the mirror. The Trayners' invitation meant so much to Gus. That kind of thing always did. He'd either have to take it in silence, behave himself, or become a public spectacle. Even if he did lose his rag, she would surely come to less harm there in public than back here on her own. She pulled the long T-shirt she wore as a summer bath-robe over her head and walked out of the bathroom. At the top of the stairwell she stood, listening. Gus's carwheels made a distant scrunging of gravel. He was home. He was here. He must have left early for once but there would still be a good twenty minutes before she'd have to face him. Hot and indefinably irritable, he'd make straight for the pool. He'd strip, plunge straight in, his clumsy, angry crawl like an elephant on speed. When he finally sought her out, he'd find her semi-naked in the bedroom, trying on dresses: just where - the gospel according to Gus - his wife should be.
© Iain McDowall, 2001. All rights reserved.
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