"Ever since the days of Agatha Christie, the great divide in the British detective story has been between plot and character...The novels of Jim Kelly are. . . a find." -The New York Times Book Review
Rookie detective Peter Shaw teams up with his father's tough ex-partner to investigate both a gruesome series of present-day murders and some unfinished business from the past, in Death Watch, the second book in the Detective Shaw Mystery series.
About the Author
JIM KELLY, the son of a Scotland yard detective and winner of the CWA Dagger in the Library award, lives in England.
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By Jim Kelly
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Jim Kelly
All rights reserved.
Sunday, 5 September 2010 Eighteen years later to the day
When the lights went out Darren Wylde was at Junction 47. It was the last thing he saw — the big stencil-painted numbers — before the shadows rushed out of the corners. He stood still, the dark pressing in, making his skin crawl, as though he were hiding in a wardrobe full of fur coats. He looked at his luminous watch for comfort: 8.16 p.m. Down here, under the hospital, the lights often failed, but the back-up generator would be online in seconds. He started counting slowly and he'd got to forty-seven before the emergency lighting flickered on: which was spooky, because there it was — the big number on the wall: 47. Spooky. The weak emergency lighting didn't really help; stillborn, barely struggling free of the neon tubes, creepier than the dark.
It was a T-junction; and so he could see three ways. Left towards the incinerator. Right? He thought that might be the corridor to the hospital organ bank. And back, over his shoulder, was the zigzag route to the lift shafts which led up to the main wards, A&E, and outpatients. But down here no one moved within sight. He caught only the echo of one of the little electric tugs, hauling laundry, a specific sound against the background hum, which was persistent and steady, like wasps in a jar.
This was Level One: a catacomb; a maze, in which a map was useless. There were small signs at crossroads, and some of the T-junctions, but you needed to know your way. He'd done Theseus and the Minotaur at school, and he knew that the Greek word for the ball of twine that the prince used to find his way out was the origin of the modern word clue. A smile lit up his face, because he loved that, the way the past was part of his life today.
Every corridor on Level One was the same: the walls bare concrete, services in dusty pipes running overhead, humming like a ship's insides. That's what it was like, he thought, Jonah and the Whale, and he was down amongst the intestines, the lurid coloured pipes, like he'd been swallowed whole.
Turning left, he walked quickly towards the incinerator, trying to forget what he carried; trying to forget why he was down here at all, when he could have walked through the hospital, down the long bright corridor with the children's mural, the yellow bag swinging in his hand. But the theatre manager on surgery had spelt it out: Level One, and get it signed for. He felt the weight in the yellow plastic bag. His stomach gently flipped the full English he'd crammed down in the staff canteen for tea: runny eggs, sunny-side down, oozing out onto the greasy plate. Gulping, he tried to suck in some cool air; but it was fetid, unmoving, hot. Outside, above his head now, the hospital tarmac would be cooling in the dusk. Here, the heat went on, defying the sunset.
Darren hitched up his jeans with one hand and walked faster. It wasn't a bad job as summer jobs went. Usually, all he had to do was take the clinical waste to the chute at the end of the ward, punch the code into the metal tag, and fill the metal drawer before sending it on its way, down to Level One, where the tug drivers collected it and ran it out to the incinerator. Those bags were full of things he tried not to imagine: dressings — bloodied, stained — and tissue, perhaps, discarded by the surgeon. Organs, cancers, fluids in sealed plastic bottles.
But sometimes they sent him on foot. The yellow bag would be too big, an odd shape, and they didn't want any breakages in the chute system because then they'd have to have it deep-cleaned. Or the yellow bag would have that little sign on it: the three-cornered trefoil, the radiation symbol. Or the chemotherapy warning label. So those bags he'd have to take down to Level One himself. And at weekends, when they pushed through the private patients, there'd be hardly any tugs working, so they'd send him on foot then as well, because the last thing they wanted was a backlog, not in this heat.
He felt the heft of the yellow bag and tried to swing it, but the laugh he'd planned caught in his throat.
At last. Junction 57. A door, a radiation sign, a danger sign, and AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
He took the steps two at a time and burst through a pair of swing doors marked INCINERATOR ROOM.
It was like crossing the threshold into a kind of hell. The sudden brutal heat, the shearing scream of the furnace; but most of all the air — heavy with the fine white ash, and the heated fumes, making everything buckle like a mirage.
Darren tried to take a breath and gagged on the grit in the air. The 'room' was the size of a school gym, the belly of Jonah's whale, the ceiling a mass of pipes, gantries, and extractors. The floor was concrete, the walls metal, windowless, held together by patterns of rivets. Half the floor space was taken up with the wagons the tugs dragged in from the hospital, each one full of yellow bags. Some came out of an industrial lift in one corner, but most came in through a tunnel which led in from the goods yard. The tugs could be tipped by a lever so that they spilt their waste onto a short conveyor belt which led across the room to the furnace itself, a dark metal mouth, a dim glow of fire just visible within, like a dragon's breath.
Above him, unseen, Darren knew there were several more floors of the incinerator building, smaller than this room, but rising up to house the various stages of the furnace, the cooling ducts, the filters, until at last, 200 feet over the hospital itself, the incinerator chimney trickled a cloud into what he imagined to be an otherwise cloudless evening sky.
The polluted air made his skin creep, as if he'd walked into a spider's web. Below him, around him, the furnace rumbled, as if he were part of the machine. And the heat was like a duvet, crowding out the last breath of cool air, sucking out his energy.
Emergency lights here too, running on the hospital generator, which had kept the furnace working — but, oddly, while the conveyor belt was running, it was empty of yellow bags, and unsupervised.
'Bry!' he shouted. The ash got into his mouth right away, and he had to lick his lips, tasting the carbon. Someone, on his first day, had given him a mask to wear in the incinerator room, but he'd never bothered. A klaxon sounded, making his ears hurt.
Bryan Judd — Bry — had always been here on the late day shift, two until nine, watching the conveyor belt shuffle the piles of yellow bags towards the furnace doors, his pudgy fingers running over the dials on the control panel, sorting the bags, working alone. Darren didn't know why he liked him, especially as he always seemed annoyed that his solitude had been interrupted. Perhaps it was the music that created a bond, because Bry always had an iPod round his neck, like Darren. And, despite the age gap, they liked the same stuff: New Country, some Cash. And he knew what he liked because Bry was always singing, tunefully, hitting the notes dead on.
But there was no Bry.
One of the plant engineers appeared from behind one of the control panels wiping his hands with a cloth, a blue overall open to his waist, the hair on his chest grey, streaked with sweat. He shrugged. 'What's up?' he shouted, holding his mask out with one hand. Everyone shouted in the furnace room. 'The belt's empty — where's Bry?' he asked.
Darren knew the man; his name was Potts. Like all the engineers his damp, warm face was plastered with the white ash-like dust, a face devoid of eyebrows, wrinkles, or stubble. The face of a clown. Across his skin sweat had eroded a few channels, as if his skull was about to fall apart.
'I've got this,' said Darren, holding up the bag.
They heard footsteps on the open-lattice metal ladder, descending from the floor above. Another one of the engineers, but this one had a tie, knotted neatly, and a clipboard in one hand. Bry had told him this one's name was Gerry Bourne, and he called him Mr Bourne to his face, 'The Git' when he wasn't there.
'Nothing's going in,' said Bourne. 'Better find Bry — he'll cop it otherwise.'
Potts shrugged. 'Probably having a fag outside — I'll get him.'
Both of them looked at Darren, and the yellow bag.
'It's a leg,' said Darren again, holding the bag out.
The two men exchanged glances.
'Left or right?' shouted Potts, readjusting the mask after wiping spit off his lips with the back of his hand.
'What?' said Darren, but he knew what he'd heard.
'Left or right?' said Bourne, tapping a ballpoint on the clipboard. He didn't have a mask, which marked him out as one of the bosses from the second floor. 'We need to know. You need a receipt, but we can't sign it in unless we know. So — left or right?'
'I don't know,' said Darren. He lifted the bag and read the written label attached to the metal tag. It was in code and meaningless. There was a signature, a squiggle in blue. Darren shrugged.
'Take it back,' said Bourne. Darren's shoulders sagged. He should be clocking off at nine.
You could look,' said Potts, pouring tea from a flask into the plastic stopper cup. Darren didn't want to walk back, and he could feel they were judging him. He disguised a deep breath, then flipped the bag onto a metal worktop. The seal was plastic, poppable. He broke it open. The bloody stump was at the top, the bone cut clean to reveal the neat central core for the marrow. He forced himself to look beyond, down to the waxy toes. There was bile in his throat, but he was proud of himself for looking, so he didn't show anything in his face.
He resealed the bag with his fist; a savage blow.
Bourne was already laughing, Potts spat out his tea. They leant on each other, a little vignette of mirth. Darren thought, not for the first time, how cruel comedy could be.
'Priceless,' said Potts, leaving a smear under his eyes where tears had trickled out under the mask. 'Left or right!'
The main lights flickered back on, neon blazing, and — unbelievably — the noise levels jumped. A pain, quite sharp, went through one of Darren's eardrums. He grabbed the yellow bag, feeling tears well up in his eyes.
'Sorry, kid,' said Bourne, avoiding the youngster's eyes, pocketing the ballpoint. 'Here — come and have a look at this.'
Darren didn't move. He didn't trust Bourne. 'No,' Bourne laughed, loosening his tie. 'Really. I have to check the furnace now we're back on full power. Routine. Come on ...' He put an arm round Darren's bony shoulders. They walked to the wall and climbed a metal stairway to the next level. As they climbed Darren felt the temperature rise so that sweat sprang out on his skin and a cool thread of salty water ran across his left temple. Here, on the second floor, the space was subdivided into corridors lined with control panels, the ceiling an open metal lattice just above their heads. There was a steel wall in front of them, some rusted dials, a red panic button. And that smell of heated metal, the stench of the guts of the machine. Darren licked dry dust off the roof of his mouth. In the centre of the metal wall was a small hatch which Bourne flipped open to reveal a pair of eyepieces, like a set of binoculars, sunk into the wall.
'Ashes to ashes,' said Bourne, running a hand down his stiff back and licking his lips. 'Six hundred degrees. When we've done there's nothing left but a thimbleful of white dust. She can take anything ...' He patted the metal wall affectionately. 'Radioactive waste, chemical waste, plastics, metals. Go on, have a look.'
Darren stepped up and sank his face into the plastic mould.
He was looking into the heart of the furnace. It wasn't fiery in there. It was like the sun; a searing yellow, with flares of aluminium white. And then, at the left-hand margin, a sudden intrusion of charred black, something extended, like a winter branch. Darren blinked, clearing his eyes. The vision edged across his field of view on the internal conveyor, and he saw it for what it was: a body, the head on the thin skeletal neck flexing, jerking, one of the arms thrashing with mechanical, inhuman spasms. A body in agony, combusting like newspaper tossed on an open fire.
Darren sprang back, angry, the tears welling again. 'Oh God,' he said. 'There's someone in there ...' Vomit gushed through his hands as he tried to cover his mouth. Bourne stepped in, pressing his face into the mould, turning his head quickly, rapidly, left right, right left. He hit the panic button, hard, twice, and a siren screamed in the heart of the machine.
Darren's knees had buckled and he sank to the floor, then rolled over, lying on his back, looking up into the metal-mesh floor above. The noise level peaked and then died, like an aircraft engine after touchdown and throttle-back, so that what was left felt like silence. So he heard the footsteps, above them, on the metal floor. Not measured footsteps — he'd later tell the police officer who took his statement — not measured, but running, escaping footsteps. Briefly he saw those footsteps, through the wire, the base of a pair of fleeing shoes. But it was the sound that was wrong — the crack of iron on iron, of steel on steel. And the telling detail: the sparks — the little crackling electric sparks — as the shoes struck the mesh, creating a necklace of tiny lightning bolts.CHAPTER 2
Detective Inspector Peter Shaw was on the beach when his mobile rang — the ringtone a snatch from A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams. His beach. The death of an Indian summer's day, the sun already long set, the sand cool now, where it had once burnt the pale arches of his feet. He sat on the lifeguard's high chair, the RNLI flag flying over his head. Tracking his telescope from north to south along a falling wave he looked for the few late surfers prepared to stay out in the dusk, and found instead his wife, Lena, walking in the shallows with his daughter. Further out the swell spilt sets of waves in perfect sequence.
He'd been looking west, enjoying the last of the amber light. A broad face, wide open, matching the distant horizon, high cheekbones, almost Slavic, and short hair surfer-blond. His good eye was blue, as pale as falling tap water. The other blind, the pupil reduced to a pale circle like the moon edging its way into the sky above. He'd lost the sight in his right eye a year ago and he had only just begun to develop the skills which would allow him to judge distance. In the first months after the accident he'd tried to ignore his disability. Now he understood that it might give him skills he'd never had.
He twisted the top of a Thermos flask and let its lip sit on the edge of the cup before pouring out the cool juice within. In the early days after his accident he'd made a fool of himself more times that he could recall, pouring coffee onto his desktop rather than into his mug, his single eye unable to construct a 3D world. He twisted the top back on the Thermos and concentrated on a yacht which had dropped anchor out at sea. He tried to judge the distance using what artists called 'sfumato' or smoky perspective — the tendency for colours to dim to blue as they approach the horizon.
He watched as a family quit the beach, a straggled line from the mother, carrying beach bags, to a young child, reluctant to leave a ring of sandcastles. Soon, he thought, he'd be able to reclaim the beach for his own. The car park on the headland was nearly empty, a few barbecue fires flared along the waterline, but to the north the sands ran to a horizon as deserted as the Empty Quarter. He imagined a camel train threading its way into the night past Arab camp fires.
He shivered, zipping up a lightweight jacket, hugging himself.
He'd played with his father here as a child; between the lifeboat house and the old café. Detective Chief Inspector Jack Shaw, reduced to human scale by the tangled skein of a kite's string or a child's cricket bat. The beach had been their world, the only one they'd shared, the place they could both live life in the moment. Shaw remembered the day he'd traced the outline of an imaginary corpse on the sand, his first crime scene. Clues laid: a clamshell for the heart where the bullet had lodged, lolly sticks marking the shell cases, a cigarette butt between imaginary teeth. He'd been ten. His father had looked at the outline long and hard, and then he'd sat his son in the sand and told him for the first time about the rest of his life; that he could do anything he wanted, be anything he wanted. Anything but this — anything but the police force. There'd been no reasons, no duologue. Just a diktat. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
Excerpted from Death Watch by Jim Kelly. Copyright © 2010 Jim Kelly. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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