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Authors: Chris Collett

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BOOK: Blood and Stone
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She set her mouth. ‘Right.'

She wasn't convinced, Knox could tell. ‘Anything else?' he asked, when she didn't move.

‘No.'

‘Okay,' he said, uncertainly. As Millie finally returned to her desk, Charlie Glover caught his bemused expression and shrugged lightly. ‘Pregnant,' he mouthed, as an explanation, drawing a hand around his imaginary swollen belly.

Knox didn't have time to dwell on Millie's preoccupations. With Mariner away there was plenty to be going on with; a couple of cases to prepare for the CPS and the follow-up on some bad drugs reported to be circulating the city. First of all though, he put a call through to Terry Dukes, the Police Community Support Officer with responsibility for Kingsmead High School. In the last few years it had become increasingly commonplace to base PCSOs within certain secondary schools to monitor behaviour and to support staff as part of ‘Operation Safe Schools'. It was an initiative that had initially horrified Knox and his contemporaries, mainly because of what it said about the changing schools culture. But since then the success of the scheme couldn't be denied. The mere presence of a uniformed officer had done much to improve communication and even relationships between the police and communities, and was effective in helping them to stay one step ahead of certain troublemakers.

‘How's it going?' Knox asked.

‘All quiet today,' Dukes said. ‘Though the weather doesn't help. They'll be climbing the walls if they can't get outside at break time.'

‘Is a lad called Michael Purcell on your radar? He's fourteen, coming up fifteen, so that would make him—'

‘Year ten,' said Dukes. ‘It's not a name I know, why?'

‘He's a neighbour of mine. I think there's a possibility he might have started smoking a bit of weed. Looks harmless at the moment, but can you let me know if he comes to your attention for anything?'

‘Sure. Not anything to do with Jean Purcell is he?' asked Dukes.

‘Yes, he's her lad.' Knox had forgotten that Jean had supply taught at the high school for a short time, so would be known to him. ‘Why do you ask?'

‘Just interested. She always seemed a bit … how can I put this? Highly strung?'

It was a fair comment. ‘This isn't coming from her,' Knox said. ‘I've smelt it on him. Just keep a look out for me, will you?'

‘Of course. I'll let you know if there's anything to report.'

Mariner ate breakfast alone in a dim and cheerless dining room, the barmaid in absentia, which at least saved both of them further embarrassment. He'd woken early with a thumping headache, the black dog lying heavily on his chest and his face wet. As always, it had taken him a few seconds to fast forward to the present, bringing everything flooding back to him anew, and now he had a grim church service and the humiliation of the night before to add to his misery.

Fruit, cereals, tea and coffee dispensers were set out buffet-style on the heavy dresser, along with insulated silver tureens of scrambled eggs and bacon that looked surprisingly fresh and appetizing. To make up for the lack of human presence the regional radio station gabbled in the background what seemed to be wall-to-wall adverts for local traders. If Mariner could have seen where it was he'd have turned it off. After breakfast he packed his few belongings and checked out, letting the landlord know that he'd be leaving his car in the car park for a few days.

Outside it was cool and fresh; the rain had stopped but gunmetal clouds swept low across the sky, threatening its resumption at any time. It could go either way, but hopefully by the time he set off it might have cleared. At his car he began sorting out what he needed to take with him as a minimum. It was a long time since he'd travelled so light, and he had to think hard before stuffing only the essentials into his rucksack: a change of clothes, soap and toothbrush, warm and waterproof clothing, a water bottle and a torch. His hand lighted on the cardboard box Gareth had given him yesterday and, unable to resist, he opened it and took out the scarf, soft cashmere in a golden brown that had perfectly complemented Anna's eyes. He did now what he'd wanted to yesterday: holding it to his face he breathed in her perfume, and felt his nerve endings burn with pain.

‘You sentimental dick,' she said, suddenly appearing beside him, a wry smile on her face. ‘What's the hell's the matter with you? Last night, and now this? So I'm gone, and yes, it's sad, but I'm not coming back and nothing's going to make me. You've got to get a grip; get over it and move on. For God's sake leave the skanky scarf in the car, or better still, take the whole lot straight to a charity shop.' Mariner couldn't bring himself to do that, but he tucked the scarf back inside the box and left it in the boot.

It was as he was retrieving his map-case from the glove compartment that Mariner spied something shiny lying on the floor in the passenger foot well. A coin, he thought at first, but when he picked it up, he found it was a gold locket, oval in shape and with a red stone set into the centre of it. He hadn't seen anything like it for years, though he remembered a trend for them amongst the girls, back when he was in primary school, mostly containing pictures of their pets as he recalled. It wasn't his, and he'd never seen it before. He considered briefly if it could belong to Millie, but he'd never seen her wear anything like it and anyway she'd been in the driver's seat yesterday. The only other explanation was that his passenger had dropped it last night. Prying it open with a fingernail, Mariner expected to see photographs, but instead found that this one had been used for its original purpose, a lock of white hair curled around the tiny, oval compartment behind wafer-thin glass. The gold had an orangey hue and the pattern was worn, and just beneath the eyelet that a chain would have threaded through was a series of tiny hieroglyphics, hallmarking that signified the possible value of the piece. Regardless of that, the fact that he carried it with him seemed to signify that it was of considerable sentimental worth to Bryce too. Mariner went back into the hotel, where the manager looked up the number for the Lamb and Flag at Plas Brynin, and invited him to use the phone.

‘Is Mr Bryce still there?' Mariner asked when he was connected.

‘Who?'

‘Jeremy Bryce, a backpacker. He stayed with you last night. Has he left yet?'

‘We had no-one staying here last night,' the man said. ‘We're a pub. We don't have any accommodation.'

‘Maybe he just had a drink then,' Mariner said, puzzled. ‘He's a big guy, white hair and beard, fifties, educated.'

The landlord sounded genuinely confused. ‘We only had locals in here last night, and not many of them, it was such a foul night. You sure you've got the right place?'

‘I dropped him off there,' Mariner explained. ‘Is there anywhere else in the village he might have stayed?'Perhaps that's what Bryce meant. They have rooms
in the village.

‘A couple of people do B&B. You want their numbers?'

‘Okay.' It wasn't what Mariner had intended, but he felt duty-bound to call them. However, no-one last night had put up a hitch-hiker called Bryce, or anyone matching his description. Mariner replaced the phone.

‘Track him down?' asked the landlord, reappearing.

‘No,' said Mariner. ‘He must have moved on. Do you know the Lamb and Flag?'

‘Of course, nice place,' the hotelier said. ‘Owen keeps a good pint.'

‘They don't do accommodation then,' Mariner checked.

‘Nah. Owen usually sends people here, if he's in the mood to.'

It was odd, Mariner thought, returning to his car. Nothing more than that; just odd. There would be a simple explanation. But why had Bryce implied that he would be staying in the pub, and where had he gone instead, on such a hostile night? Zipping the locket into one of the many pockets on his rucksack, he put it to the back of his mind.

Meanwhile, if he was going to get in the eight miles he'd planned to walk today, he needed to make a start. His first overnight was at a bothy that would, at most, give him a roof over his head and a wooden bench to lie down on, so he needed to buy food to keep him going for the next two days, maybe more in case things didn't go to plan.

The nearest supermarket was a small Co-op and reminded Mariner of the way shopping used to be years ago. The middle-aged woman behind the counter took her time with each customer, enquiring about their health, commenting on the weather, and by the time he'd filled his basket a small queue had formed in front of the checkout counter: a mother with a toddler, an elderly woman in a wool coat and headscarf, a workman with a high-visibility tabard over his donkey jacket. The older woman lingered after completing her purchase and as Mariner stepped forward to be served he caught the tail end of the conversation.

‘… who shot all those people,' the woman was saying.

‘They're after the son, aren't they?'

‘Shockin' that. How can someone do that to their own flesh and blood?'

‘Well, not the first time, is it? They reckon he might have come down here on the run.'

So, not only had Mariner got his shopping, he'd also learned something. That had never yet happened in his local Tesco Express.

After he'd eaten, the medication began to kick in and McGinley started to feel a renewed vigour for what lay ahead of him. The last part of his mission, this one would be the most physically demanding and he had no way of knowing exactly what awaited him or if he was really up to it. He couldn't be so sure of his mark this time either, and was relying on second-hand intelligence with no way of establishing how reliable it was. This last target had been much harder to track down, but he'd got there eventually by good luck and common sense. Sometimes it was simply a question of looking in the most obvious place. And now the bastard's chickens were coming home to roost.

Chemotherapy is tedious. It involves a lot of waiting around. And when you've been clearly identified as undeserving scum you can make it time and a half. Usually it was just McGinley and a couple of screws who made the fortnightly trip to the hospital; one to drive and one to escort. But one day he had company; another prisoner and a different type of cancer, but the same fortnightly trip to hospital, co-ordinated so as to ‘maximize the use of resources'. This was when McGinley's plan had been conceived. It had started off as nothing more than bravado – each man listing the individuals who had wronged him over the years, and what he would do to them if he ever got out again. It was a way of passing the time. The discussion was one borne out of frustration and fear, but the more McGinley talked, the more his ideas began to shape up into a plan, taking on a life of their own. And the old git had egged him on. Clinically speaking it was obvious that they were both hopeless cases, but when McGinley suddenly got parole on the strength of it, he didn't know how to break it to the old man. Somehow it didn't seem fair. As it happened the old boy was quite accepting of the situation, smiled and congratulated him. But that was when he made McGinley promise to back up his big mouth. ‘Do it for me,' he'd said. ‘I'm too old now, but you can make it right.' And now McGinley was going to do just that if it killed him, as it probably would.

He'd done what he could to dry out his damp clothing and had stocked up on essentials, but this would be the real test of his mettle. After a while he got up, put together his things and set off, leaving the caravan park behind him and starting out along the path winding out of the town and heading east into the wilderness.

TEN

B
y the time Mariner emerged again into the blustery breeze, it felt as if the day was half over, but finally he was able to leave the small town behind going west, winding up a rocky bridle path alongside ancient woodland. Once belonging to the network of Drovers Roads that criss-crossed Wales, the track would once have been heavy with the traffic of livestock being herded across the borders for sale at market; a practice that continued well into the twentieth century. Today he was alone. The rain had held off so far today, but he'd been careful to stow his waterproofs at the top of his pack, as he felt sure it would only be a matter of time. The path quickly steepened and as Mariner's boots clumped and scraped over the rocks, his breath began to labour and, finding his rhythm, he waited for that first buzz of elation that always came with the prospect of a few hours' solitary walking. Whilst many people in crisis seek the comfort of others, that had never been Mariner's style and his instinct was for the exact opposite. He needed to be alone, and there were few better places to achieve that than the wilderness of mid-Wales.

So far he was warm and dry, the weight of his pack had settled comfortably on his shoulders and stretching out before him were miles of open country, green and rolling. The sheep were back on the hills after wintering in the valleys near the farms, the adult creatures awaiting shearing, their coats dirty and matted alongside the pristine milky-white fleeces of their offspring. But the pain in Mariner's chest remained and however much he tried to divert his thoughts away from her, he couldn't shift the vision of Anna's face, even though this was about as alien to her as it could be. Hiking was not something she'd ever considered to be fun. He remembered when he'd first met her, the high-flying businesswoman with the luxury pad and designer clothes. She was about as far from any of his previous girlfriends as it was possible to be, but that quickly became irrelevant.

Becky's parting words were eating away at him, mostly because they confirmed the impression he'd had at the time, though he'd assumed then that it was just wishful thinking on his part. Certainly Anna had seemed delighted enough to see him when they'd met by chance that Saturday in town. He'd rehearsed every detail of the encounter over and over, in an attempt to cling to those last minutes he'd spent with her. After they'd split up Mariner had developed the habit of seeing her everywhere in the guise of other women: the mind playing tricks on him. So when, on this occasion, the woman he'd spotted actually turned out to be her, he felt such a lurch of joy he could hardly contain himself.

BOOK: Blood and Stone
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