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Authors: Chris Collett

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BOOK: Blood and Stone
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‘Christ, this is a nightmare.' Tony Knox was leaning forward, straining to see the way through the sheet of rain that fell from the sky, exacerbating the blanket of spray thrown up by the column of HGVs in the slow lane of the M5. He'd slowed to fifty, but inevitably there were idiots overtaking at thirty miles an hour faster, even in these treacherous conditions.

‘Do you think the boss will be all right out there on his own?' Millie said, gazing out of the window.

‘It's his way of dealing with everything,' Knox said. ‘You know him, he likes a bit of space. And I offered to go with him, didn't I?'

‘He's so vulnerable just now though …' Something on the radio caught Knox's attention and, breaking off suddenly he leaned forward and turned up the volume for the news bulletin. The headlines concerned an elderly couple who had been discovered during the day, shot dead in their home in Kirkby, Merseyside. They listened to the details. Burglary was cited as the probable motive, though the random selection of the house of what otherwise appeared to be an ordinary working-class couple was so far baffling police.

‘Sorry,' Knox said, when the bulletin came to an end. ‘I tend to tune into stuff up there.'

‘Of course,' said Millie. ‘Your old patch wasn't it? What sort of place is Kirkby?'

‘The kind of place where incidents like that aren't exactly unheard of,' said Knox. ‘Think of Liverpool's answer to Chelmsley Wood. It'll be a domestic of some kind.'

The journey back to Birmingham took longer than usual and it was a relief when Knox had dropped Millie off at her house and later pulled into his own drive. He rolled his shoulders to ease the tension. He could feel the tickling at the back of his throat that signalled the start of a cold. It was dark, but the rain had almost stopped by the time he let himself into his house. Nelson, his adopted border terrier, greeted him in a state of high excitement and immediately bounded back into the kitchen hovering by the door to be let out into the garden. It could only mean one thing: that Michael, his young neighbour who usually walked the dog, had not been round. It was the third time this week he'd reneged on their arrangement without warning or explanation, and on this occasion would have to mean a financial penalty. The lad had to learn that he wouldn't get paid for what he didn't do. The last couple of times Michael had been round Knox felt sure he'd smelt something vaguely herbal on his clothes, though he couldn't be absolutely sure. He wondered if Michael's mum Jean knew what was going on. He decided to let it rest for now. Up until now his relationship with the lad had been a reasonable one and he didn't want to spoil it by sticking his nose in unnecessarily.

Heating up a microwave cannelloni dinner for two, Knox took it into the living room where he settled down to watch the Channel Four news. Among the inevitable top stories of severe weather and flooding across the country, one of the lead items was of the double murder on Merseyside. Knox had departed that force under something of a cloud and, apart from the occasional visit to extended family, hadn't been back there for some years. He'd lost touch with his colleagues and didn't recognize the SIO for this inquiry. What was reported only served to reinforce his first impressions. It would be a domestic of sorts, as was so often the case. There had additionally been a series of shootings in Cheshire, but Knox didn't find out if any link was being considered, because at that moment his phone rang. Automatically he doused the volume on the TV before picking up the hand set. It was Jean.

‘How are you?' she asked.

‘Fine, thanks,' Knox said, wondering what had prompted this. A while back he and Jean had enjoyed a bit of a fling, but it hadn't lasted long. She was an attractive woman and Knox had since come to understand that he'd been her get-back-on-the-horse shag following the death of her husband a couple of years before. They'd parted amicably though, and since then Knox had sometimes wondered if, when she was ready, they might pick up again where they'd left off.

Tonight she was apologetic and harassed. ‘I should have let you know sooner, I've told everyone else. Michael will be fifteen on Sunday, and I wanted to warn you that he's having a party tomorrow night. And since I can't afford to hire anywhere I'm stuck with having it here. It goes against my better judgement, and I'm terrified of the Facebook effect, but apparently all his friends are having them, so it's pretty much expected.'

‘Sounds like fun,' said Knox, drily.

‘I'm dreading it to be honest.'

‘You want me to steward?' Knox asked. ‘I've got some experience in crowd control.'

‘That's really kind, but I think I'm sorted,' she replied, a little too quickly. ‘Pete Lennox, a colleague from work, has offered to help out.' Knox wondered if Pete Lennox was the driver of the flashy Mazda sports car that had lately been much in evidence on Jean's drive, often late at night. He had a tendency to notice these things. ‘Besides,' Jean added. ‘I'm not sure if having a policeman on site …'

‘No, you're probably right,' Knox agreed. ‘But if you change your mind, you know where I am.'

‘Yes, thank you.' She hesitated. ‘Has Michael been to walk Nelson today?' she wanted to know. There was something in her voice.

‘It doesn't look like it,' Knox said. ‘Is everything all right?'

‘I don't know,' Jean sighed. ‘I've hardly seen him in the last few days. No, that's not true. It's more like weeks, if I'm honest. When he gets in from school he just goes straight out again, then he doesn't come home again until late.'

‘But he
is
coming home.'

‘Yes, although I don't know why he bothers. He can barely bring himself to say two words to me.'

‘He's a teenager,' Knox said, conscious that he was pointing out the obvious. ‘That's how they are.' He spoke from personal experience. He'd seen his own two kids through their rebellious phases, although mostly from a distance. Theresa, his ex-wife, had handled much of the fallout.

‘I know.'

‘Is he turning up for school?' Knox asked.

‘As far as I know. He leaves the house at the right time every morning. But I do think he's started smoking.' There was a pause at the other end of the line, the cue for Knox to disclose his suspicions. But something stopped him.

‘You want me to talk to him?' he asked instead.

‘He's not here right now – of course.'

‘I'm sure he'll be fine,' said Knox, with more certainty than he felt.

EIGHT

M
ariner restarted the car. The rain, mirroring his mood, seemed to beat down harder than ever, drumming on the roof of the car in a macabre tattoo. Rounding a bend, his headlights, on full beam, bounced back off the reflective band on a jacket sleeve; a man, head down in full waterproofs, pack on his back, was pounding along the side of the road. Slowing down, Mariner pulled over to the verge, and as the figure caught up with him, he flicked on the interior light and lowered the passenger window. A face appeared, bearded, raw and dripping.

‘Where are you going?' Mariner asked. ‘I can take you as far as Tregaron.'

The man raised his arms to waist level. ‘I'm pretty soaked through,' he said, in case Mariner hadn't noticed.

‘That's okay,' Mariner said, reaching behind him to shove his rucksack out of the way. ‘Put your pack in the back there.'

Opening the rear door, the man wrestled his own rucksack into the back seat then climbed in beside Mariner, pushing back his hood. ‘This is most kind,' he said. ‘I hoped to get there sooner, but the visibility on the hill back there was bad and I got utterly lost.' Removing a sodden glove, he offered Mariner a cold, wet hand and they shook. ‘Jeremy Bryce,' he said, catching his breath.

It was a firm grip and in the dim, interior light Mariner made his usual quick inventory, getting an impression of a man in his late fifties or beyond, grey wispy hair going in all directions and his lower face obscured by a substantial white beard and cheeks reddened by the elements. Mariner was reminded of Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas.

‘Tom Mariner,' he reciprocated and, putting the car into gear, he moved off.

‘Well if there's one thing that can always be relied on, it's rain in Wales,' Bryce observed cheerfully.

‘This year more than most,' Mariner agreed. ‘How's the Paramo working out?'

‘Sorry?'

‘Your jacket,' Mariner clarified. ‘It looks like one of the new Paramos. I've just bought one myself but haven't tried it yet.'

‘Oh, it's excellent,' Bryce said. ‘I might look wet through, but underneath I'm dry as a badger.'

‘A badger?'

Bryce laughed. ‘Sorry, a malapropism I overheard once. It kind of stuck.' He was English, but well-spoken and his voice was accent-free, making it impossible to guess where he was from.

‘Where are you heading?' Mariner asked. He dabbed at the windscreen as the condensation from Bryce's damp clothing began to mist it.

‘I'm walking the Black Mountain Way, with a few of my own variations, some intentional and some not. I'm having mixed success with accommodation so far, too. A couple of nights ago I got to a place only to find that the pub had closed down years before.'

‘It's happened a lot recently in these remote areas,' Mariner said. ‘You haven't booked anything?'

‘Oh no.' Bryce shook his head and drips flew. ‘At home my whole life is governed by timetables, meetings and deadlines. Now and again I feel the need to climb down from my ivory tower and out on to the open road, as it were, with no schedule and no commitments. It's liberating.'

‘I know what you mean,' said Mariner. It was exactly what he had planned for himself. ‘Do you know this area well?'

‘I wouldn't say well. But I've been here before, years ago. How about you; where are you aiming for?'

‘I'm starting out from Tregaron and heading west in the first instance and then, who knows.' Mariner tried to sound vague. Although Bryce's intentions seemed to mirror his own, something prevented him from sharing that. However convivial this man might be, the last thing Mariner wanted to do was to attract a companion. A blaze of lights appeared on the road ahead: a petrol station. Mariner checked his fuel gauge. ‘I could do with filling up,' he said. ‘Do you mind?'

‘Not at all,' said Bryce. ‘I can enjoy the benefits of being warm and dry for a few more minutes.'

The filling station was an old-fashioned one, with no self-service nonsense and a proprietor who moved at a leisurely pace, so it turned out to be almost twenty minutes, but eventually they were back on the road. After a while the dark, confining hedgerows gave way to pavements and a string of street lights that marked the way; they were coming into a settlement.

Bryce peered through the misted windscreen. ‘That looks like a pub up ahead,' he said suddenly. ‘Do you know, I think I might try my luck there after all. I'd really like to bridge the gap that I've missed this afternoon. Does that sound eccentric?'

‘Not at all,' said Mariner, feeling some relief that they would be parting company. ‘It's exactly what I'd want to do.'

In the village centre he drew up outside the Lamb and Flag Inn. It was small and unpretentious, no more than a stone cottage set a little way back off the road.

‘Thank you very much for the ride,' Bryce said, beginning to assemble his things.

‘I'll wait here for a few minutes,' said Mariner. ‘Make sure that you can stay the night. If not, you can come on with me into Tregaron. It's a bigger town; there will be more options.'

‘I appreciate that.' Bryce got out of the car and, heaving out his bulky rucksack, he disappeared into the pub. Moments later he returned, minus his backpack. ‘It's fine,' he grinned, peering in the passenger window. ‘They have rooms.' He tilted his head back towards the pub. ‘Can I buy you a drink for your kindness?'

Mariner looked up at the rain still pattering steadily on the windscreen. ‘Thanks, but I'll be on my way,' he said. ‘I'd like to get to Tregaron in time for dinner.'

Bryce stuck his hand in through the window again. ‘Of course. Well, thank you again for the ride, and have a good journey.'

‘You too,' said Mariner. ‘Let's hope the weather improves – for both of us.'

Mariner drove on, arriving in Tregaron twenty minutes later. The Star Hotel was in the centre of the town and little more than a glorified pub itself, but it had a decent-sized well-lit car park in which, with the landlord's consent, Mariner could leave his car for a few days. His room was typical British small-town hostelry: cool and slightly musty, with cheap furniture, thin curtains and a TV on a bracket attached to the wall.

Leaving his bags unpacked, Mariner went straight down to the bar, taking a couple of maps with him. There were few other customers: three young men in overalls standing at the bar enjoying a loud and laddish conversation, and a middle-aged couple at one of the tables. The place was inviting enough, with a living-flame fire and the small TV screen deep enough into the corner to be largely ignored, though when the news came on the barmaid turned up the volume. The main story involved a couple of shootings on Merseyside and the Wirral, and speculation that the key suspect may have headed south and across into Wales. Great, thought Mariner, I hope Millie doesn't hear that. She'll be out here with a rescue party.

Glenn McGinley. From habit, Mariner pinged a mental sonar far into the depths of his memory, but it registered nothing. The couple at the adjacent table were also watching intently and Mariner nodded towards the screen. ‘Good thing I didn't know that earlier,' Mariner quipped. ‘I picked up a hitch-hiker. He wouldn't have been so lucky.'

They smiled politely in response, and Mariner returned to studying the menu. It was pretty standard fare; Mariner ordered lasagne and chips and settled down with his pint, reacquainting himself with his maps. He'd been to this area several times before, once for a whole summer, but that was years ago, and he needed to re-orientate himself a little before he set off tomorrow. ‘Where do you want this, love?' He looked up into the smiling face of the barmaid, who stood beside him balancing a steaming plate expertly on her arm. Mariner hastily cleared a space for her to deposit his dinner. Around forty, she was blonde and brassy and as she leaned over him, Mariner got an eyeful of a deep cleavage exaggerated by her low-cut, tight T-shirt. After he'd eaten Mariner ordered another beer and chaser, then another, and another. It had been a tiring day, but had opened up a wound, and the longer he stayed here the longer he could avert the unwelcome thoughts that would come crashing back into his head the moment he was alone.

BOOK: Blood and Stone
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