Authors: Martyn Waites
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
For Nina and Betty
A Better Place
She opened her eyes, saw bleached-bone white sky. A pale, deathly heaven. She sighed, sending a blade of pain through her ribs. Unable to move, she lay still, allowing consciousness to dribble back slowly
She could feel wet wooden planks beneath her back, the dampness soaking her clothes, a slow, incessant drizzle of rain on her face. White noise filled her head. Her hearing was damaged, she knew, but she managed to make out rushing water underneath the planking. A river's quick current. It stank of decay and pollutants: things had died in that water
That sudden, chill thought jolted her. That would be her fate if she didn't escape. The realisation came like a stone, thrown and wedged in her heart. Frantically she tried to move her arms, lever herself up, but all she succeeded in doing was unleashing a cacophony of pain through her body. The bones in her arms and fingers, like those in her legs and torso, had been systematically shattered. She would be going nowhere
The torture had been thorough; the men almost clinical in their application of agony. They had broken her fingers one by one, burnt her, hit her. She had passed out, but they had just brought her round and started again. They had tried to extract her teeth with pliers, twist her hair out with an iron bar and worse. But she wouldn't talk. As their sadism increased, so did their sexual energy. They had raped her in turn, using her battered body as a receptacle for their lust and hatred
The pain had been enormous but, perversely, it strengthened her resolve. She still wouldn't talk, no matter what. Too much rested on silence
They destroyed her body, but not her soul. That she kept for her lover â the person she was trying to protect. Her lover had given her strength, hope and a reason for living. A pure, unconditional love, totally unlike any she had ever known in her life. If positions had been reversed her lover would have gladly done the same for her; of that she was absolutely certain
Suddenly she heard footsteps. Her tormentors were returning. Her stomach lurched in fearful anticipation as they approached. They stopped at either side of her, looked down. One of them, the big one, knelt, pushing his face right into hers. His dead eyes flicked over her body, taking in the damage he had inflicted. He grunted, content with the results of his labours
He moved away from her slightly and, without a change of expression, pulled his arm back. She just had time to see his fist speeding towards her eyes before her head exploded into hot fireworks, subsiding to a smothering, comforting purple darkness
The cold water hit her, enveloping her in ice, rushing her back to consciousness. She was in the river, sinking. She tried to move her broken limbs, swim to the surface, but it was no good. She was constrained by ropes, weighed down by breezeblocks, the sodden knots tightening as she struggled. She didn't want to die, she was scared, this was all wrong. She was losing her life when she had just started to find it. She held her breath, shattered lungs bursting, clinging on to that last precious piece of trapped air. Down she went, writhing the blocks dragging her quickly, pressure bursting her eardrums. It soon became too dark to see anything as the toxic depths of black, brown and green began to claim her
Realising no one would come to help her, she stopped fighting. She wasn't going to be saved. She was no longer a person, just a sack of bones, rope and stone. It was too much, she was tired from the effort of living. Her head was stinging from holding the air inside her body and, resigned, she let it go
As it escaped and the rank, toxic water flooded in, she saw her lover's face smiling at her. She smiled back, grabbing the image, desperately hoping her love would be enough to carry her to a better place
The white noise in her head dissipated and she imagined she heard the angels singing beckoning her. A sound so heavenly-sweet she could listen to it forever. The desire to follow the song was so strong she could do nothing but let her mind drift towards it
Her heart stopped, her body lay unmoving; caught in the tangled waste at the river's bottom. Dead. Missed by her lover, perhaps, but no one else. To the rest of the world just another statistic, another biodegradable mass in an unmarked grave. Another lost child
Seven am, Sunday. Larkin walked down Mosely Street pulling his leather close around him to keep out the sharp February chill. The Victorian buildings loomed, malformed and unfinished in the sodium-etched dawn, the sky struggling to turn night into day, the dark not giving up without a fight. He walked on, purposefully but not quickly. At such an unsociable hour, he doubted the person he was going to meet would want to share good news with him.
He had walked from Jesmond through the city centre and found it practically deserted. It was the dead hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning â a transitional time â and the city had either fallen into a restless sleep, or an alcoholic stupor. On the roads were the odd taxi, a crack-of-dawn bus, and a few vans: market traders humping their wares down to be hawked on the quayside. The occasional shop doorways were filled by huddled homeless bundles, their bodies embalmed by meths and alcohol, entombed by blankets and cardboard. Perfectly still, imitating death so the cold wouldn't claim them. On the pavement straggled a Saturday night clubber, bombed out and dazed, wondering where the party went and how he got left behind; directionless as a dog that has lost its scent in the rain.
Larkin rounded a corner to an open, paved square with wooden benches and civically administered concrete flower tubs. Where once had been bulbs now bloomed old burger boxes, kebab wrappers and beer cans. Pools of vomit, broken glass and dried blood on the paving stones told their squalid Saturday night stories. Larkin ignored them. He'd heard them before.
Beyond the square stood St Nicholas' Cathedral, gothic and imposing; so dark it seemed to suck all the available surrounding light into itself like an ecclesiastical black hole. The Cathedral held memories for Larkin, not least of which was a murdered lover and a prayer said for a sad, dead woman he had never known. The dead woman had, in a way, turned out to be his lover all along. The memory sprang up quickly and sharply, like a knife-wielding jack-in-the-box, and he tried to shut it out but it was impossible. It was just one more unpleasant reminder of his past in a city full of them.
He walked past the front of the Cathedral, the huge wooden doors not yet admitting the believers, and rounded the corner to a closed-in area of slabbed ground upon which sat a couple of dilapidated benches and which led off to a narrow lane sided by mugger-camo bushes. Once an area where the faithful would gather in fellowship, now a desolate place beloved of winos, junkies or just those who either through deliberation or circumstance chose to make a career of losing themselves. The faithless were drawn to this spot, congregated on it, some of them considering it home. Its name was spelt out on a plaque on the cold stone wall above the benches. Amen Corner. There were no winos or junkies there this morning, though. None would have dared. Because there, slap in the middle of one of the benches, sat Detective Inspector Henry Moir.
“About fuckin' time,” he said by way of a greeting.
“A pleasure to see you too, Henry,” Larkin replied, his breath curling into steam as he spoke.
Silence. Moir seemed not to have heard him.
“So,” said Larkin, feeling uncomfortable but trying to keep the conversation light, “you said on the phone something about breakfast? Where we going?”
Moir grunted and gestured to a paper bag and polystyrene cup on the bench next to him. “There. Haven't been waitin' too long for you. Should still be this side of lukewarm.”
Larkin sat down, picked up the bag. Its contents could only be termed a bacon sandwich in the most literal sense: a thick, gristle-fat slab of pink meat, heavily soaked in ketchup and grease, stuck between two lumps of white bread that seemed to have been cut by someone wearing boxing gloves. “Thanks, Henry.” He put it back where he found it.
“You not gonna eat it?” Moir asked as if personally insulted.
“It's a bit early. But it's the thought that counts.” He picked up the polystyrene cup, took a mouthful of tea. It was the liquid equivalent of the sandwich but he drank it. He knew it was a big gesture on Moir's part and he didn't want to appear ungrateful.
“So,” said Larkin, setting the cup down. He wasn't looking forward to the next bit. “You said on the phone you wanted to ask me a favour â¦”
“Aye â¦” Moir nodded, distracted. He opened his mouth to speak but no sound came out. Shit, thought Larkin, this wasn't going to be easy for either of them.
He took a good look at Moir. Although he was still a big man, he had lost a lot of weight since they'd last met. There was a gap between his collar and neck wide enough to slip a finger or two. His clothing was more unkempt than usual â mis-matching overcoat, jacket and trousers, worn and grubby, thrown over a washed-out red polo shirt, now home to a varied array of stains. Moir looked like he'd come last in a dressing-in-the-dark competition. His unwashed smell was unsuccessfully masked by stale booze and tobacco.
To delay speaking, Moir rummaged through his pockets for something. He found it. A half empty half-bottle of whisky. With trembling but eager hands he poured a large shot into the tea and took a sip. As an afterthought he bobbed the bottle in the direction of Larkin, who lifted a refusing hand. He then fumbled out a packet of Marlboros and lit one. Ritual completed he settled back, allowing the various hits to enter his body.
The Bell's and fags diet, thought Larkin. Poor sod.
“You were saying?” he said quietly.
“Aye â¦” Moir glanced quickly at Larkin, eyes refusing to make contact. “You know I've been away recently â¦” He spoke to the ground. Larkin didn't interrupt. “An' you know where I've been. Lookin' for Karen. My youngest. Daughter.” His breathing quickened. Moir took a drag to steady himself. “She's a â¦ a junkie â” The word was painfully spat out. “Heroin. An' she's got the, got the Aids, y'know.”
“So I went lookin' for her. To try an' â¦” His voice tailed off. He sighed. “You know me an' her didn't â¦ didn't get on. So I thought I'd best try an' sort things out before â¦” He gave a useless gesture with his hand and fell silent. He swallowed down half the cup of tea, replenishing the whisky afterwards.
“And,” Larkin began cautiously, “did you â¦ find her?”
Moir gave an exhalation that was both sigh and grunt of pain. “No. I went all round Edinburgh, her old haunts, the crowd she used to hang with â¦” He tensed. “Her mother â¦ Nothin'.” Moir fell silent again and stared ahead. Larkin glanced across to where he was looking but Moir's eyes were focused on a deeper and distant place, further away than Larkin could see.
“I'm sorry,” said Larkin.
Moir turned to him, startled, as if he was seeing Larkin for the first time. “I said she's not in Edinburgh, I didn't say she was â” He stopped himself and took a quick drag. “She's in London. One of her mates told me.”
“What about your lot? The Missing Persons Bureau isn't it? Can't they help?”
“No. I can't â¦” His fingers contorted into rigid claws. “I don't want â¦ No. She just doesn't want to be found. No,” He took a deep drag, held it. “I've had an agency lookin' for her. No joy so far.” He sighed again, expelling smoke. “They're a waste of fuckin' money, you know that?” The sudden volume in Moir's voice startled Larkin. “I should be lookin' for her myself. I'm a detective!” he suddenly shouted. His voice, like his hands, was shaking. “I should be lookin' for her! I should be out there!” He threw the cigarette to the stone and ground it out. “I shouldn't be sittin' here, I should be â¦ I â¦” He trailed off, head dropping into his chest, eyes screwed tight with the effort of keeping it all in. His hands balled themselves into fists and began uselessly smacking against each other. Larkin could do nothing but sit and watch helplessly.
Not without effort, Moir brought himself under control again. He reached into his pocket and, with shaking hands, lit up another Marlboro. He kept his eyes fixed on the flagstones as if ashamed of his outburst. When a dignified period of time had elapsed, Larkin spoke.
“So what are you going to do?”
“I'm goin' to London. I'm goin' to find her.”
“D'you know where she is?”.
“Aye,” said Moir, anger and irritation clouding his voice, “London.”