Authors: Peter James
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Police, #Mystery & Detective, #Crime & Thriller, #England, #Crime & mystery, #Police Procedural, #Grace; Roy (Fictitious character), #Brighton
If Ronnie Wilson had known, as he woke up, that in just a couple of hours he would be dead, he would have planned his day somewhat differently.
For a start he might not have bothered to shave. Or wasted so many of those last precious minutes gelling his hair, then messing around with it until he was satisfied. Nor would he have spent quite so long polishing his shoes, or getting the knot of his expensive silk tie absolutely right. And he sure as hell would not have paid an exorbitant eighteen dollars – which he really could not afford – for the one-hour service to have his suit pressed.
To say that he was blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting him would be an exaggeration. All forms of joy had been absent from his canon of emotions for so long, he no longer had any idea what bliss was. He didn’t even experience bliss any more in those fleeting final seconds of orgasm, on the rare occasions when he and Lorraine still made love. It was as if his balls had become as numb as the rest of him.
In fact recently – and somewhat to Lorraine’s embarrassment – when people asked him how he was, he had taken to replying with a brief shrug of his shoulders and the words, ‘My life is shit.’
The hotel room was shit too. It was so small that if you fell over you wouldn’t even hit the floor. It was the cheapest room the W had, but at least the address helped him to maintain appearances. If you stayed at a W in Manhattan, you were a somebody. Even if you were sleeping in the broom closet.
Ronnie knew he needed to get himself into a more positive mode – and mood. People responded to the vibes you gave out, particularly when you were asking for money. Nobody would give money to a loser, not even an old friend – at least, not the kind of money he needed at this moment. And certainly not this particular old friend.
Checking out the weather, he peered through the window, craning his neck up the sheer grey cliff of the building facing him across 39th Street until he could see the narrow slit of sky. The realization that it was a fine morning did nothing to lift his spirits. It merely felt as if all the clouds had drained out of that blue void and were now in his heart.
His fake Bulgari watch told him it was 7.43 a.m. He had bought it on the internet for forty pounds, but hey – who could tell it wasn’t real? He had learned a long time ago that expensive watches gave off an important message to people you were trying to impress: if you cared enough about a detail like time to buy one of the best watches in the world, then you would probably care just as much about the money they were going to entrust you with. Appearances weren’t everything, but they mattered a lot.
So, 7.43. Time to rock and roll.
He picked up his Louis Vuitton briefcase – also fake – placed it on top of his packed overnight bag and left the room, wheeling his luggage behind him. Emerging from the elevator on the ground floor, he skulked past the front desk. His credit cards were so maxed out he probably didn’t even have enough to settle the hotel bill, but he would have to worry about that later. His BMW – the swanky blue convertible that Lorraine liked to drive around in, posing to her friends, was about to be repossessed, and the mortgage company was about to foreclose on his home. Today’s meeting, he thought grimly, was the last-chance saloon. A promise he was calling in. A ten-year-old promise.
He just hoped it had not been forgotten.
Sitting on the subway, cradling his bags between his knees, Ronnie was aware that something had gone wrong in his life, but he couldn’t really put a finger on what it was exactly. Plenty of his contemporaries from school had gone on to have big successes in their fields, leaving him floundering in their wake, getting increasingly desperate. Financial advisers, property developers, accountants, lawyers. They had their big-swinging-dick houses, their trophy wives, their kids-to-die-for. What did he have?
Neurotic Lorraine who spent the money he didn’t have on endless beauty treatments she seriously did not need, on designer clothes they seriously could not afford, and on picking up the tabs of absurdly expensive lunches of lettuce leaves and mineral water with her anorexic friends, who were all far richer than they were, in whatever happened to be the latest hip restaurant-of-the-week. And despite a fortune spent on infertility treatment, she had still been unable to produce the child he so badly wanted. The only expenditure of which he had really approved had been her boob job.
But of course Ronnie was too proud to admit to her the mess he was in. And, ever the optimist, he always believed there was a solution just around the corner. A chameleon, he blended perfectly into his environment. As a used-car dealer, then an antiques dealer and an estate agent, he used to look pin-sharp, with the gift of the gab that was, unfortunately, better than his financial acumen. After the estate agency business went down the toilet, he had rapidly segued into property developing, where he used to look convincing in jeans and a blazer. Then, as the banks foreclosed on his twenty-home development that ran aground over planning issues, he reinvented himself yet again as a financial adviser to the rich. That business hit the buffers too.
Now he was here in the hope of convincing his old friend Donald Hatcook that he knew the secret of making money out of the next golden goose – biodiesel. Donald was rumoured to have made north of a billion in derivatives – whatever they were – and had lost only a paltry couple of hundred thousand investing in Ronnie’s failed estate agency business ten years ago. Claiming to accept all his friend’s reasons for the failed enterprise, he had assured Ronnie he would back him again one day.
Sure, Bill Gates and all the other entrepreneurs on the planet were looking for the way forward in the new, environmentally friendly biofuel market – and had the money to throw at it to make it happen – but Ronnie reckoned he had identified a niche. All he had to do this morning was convince Donald. Donald was sharp, he’d see it. He’d get it. It ought to be – in New York parlance – a slam dunk.
In fact, the further the train headed downtown, while he mentally rehearsed his pitch to Donald, the more confident Ronnie became. He felt himself turning into the Michael Douglas character in Wall Street: Gordon Gekko. And he sure looked the part. Just like the dozen other sharply dressed Wall Street players sitting in this swaying carriage with him. If any of them had just half of his troubles, they were keeping it well hidden. They all looked so damned confident. And if they bothered to glance at him, they would have seen a tall guy with lean good looks and slicked-back hair who looked equally confident.
People said that if you hadn’t made it by the time you were forty, then you were never going to make it. He was coming up to forty-three in just three weeks’ time.
And he was coming up to his station. Chambers Street. He wanted to walk the last few blocks.
He emerged into the fine Manhattan morning and checked his bearings on the map the hotel concierge had given him last night. Then he looked at his watch: 8.10 a.m. From past experience of navigating New York office buildings, he reckoned he should allow himself a good fifteen minutes to get to Donald’s office once he reached the man’s building. And it was a good five minutes’ walk from here, the concierge had told him – and that was assuming he did not get lost.
Passing a sign informing him he was now on Wall Street, he walked past a Jamba Juice shop on his right and a shop offering ‘Expert Tailoring and Alteration’, then entered the packed Downtown Deli.
The place smelled of stewed coffee and frying eggs. He sat on a red leather bar stool and ordered freshly squeezed orange juice, a latte, scrambled eggs with a side order of bacon and wheat toast. As he waited for his food, he flipped through the business plan once more, then, looking at his watch again, mentally calculated the time difference between New York and Brighton.
England was five hours ahead. Lorraine would be having lunch. He gave her a quick call on her mobile, told her he loved her. She wished him luck in the meeting. Women were easy to please, just a bit of lovey-dovey flannel every now and then, the occasional lines of poetry, and one or two pieces of expensive-looking jewellery – but not too often.
Twenty minutes later, as he was paying the bill, he heard a massive bang somewhere in the distance. A guy on the stool next to him said, ‘Jesus, what the fuck was that?’
Ronnie collected his change and left a decent tip, then stepped out into the street to continue his journey towards Donald Hat-cook’s office, which, according to the information that had been emailed to him, was on the eighty-seventh floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
It was 8.47 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001.
Abby Dawson had chosen this flat because it felt secure. At least, in as much as she was ever going to feel secure anywhere at this moment.
Apart from the fire escape at the back, which could only be opened from inside, and a basement fire exit, there was just one entrance. It was eight floors directly below her, and the windows gave her a clear view up and down the street.
Inside, she had turned the flat into a fortress. Reinforced hinges, steel plating, three sets of deadlocks on the front door and on the fire escape door at the back of the tiny utility room, and a double safety chain. Any burglar trying to break in here was going to go home empty-handed. Unless they were driving a tank, no one was going to get in unless she invited them.
But just in case, as back-up, she had a canister of Mace pepper spray in easy reach, a hunting knife and a baseball bat.
It was ironic, she thought, that the first time in her life she was able to afford a home large and luxurious enough to entertain guests, she had to live here on her own, in secrecy.
And there was so much to enjoy here. The oak flooring, the huge cream sofas with their white and chocolate-brown cushions, the sharp, modern art on the walls, the home-cinema system, the high-tech kitchen, the massive, deliciously comfortable beds, the under-floor heating in the bathroom and the smart guest shower room which she had not yet used – at least not for what it was intended.
It was like living in one of the designer pads she used to covet on the pages of glossy magazines. On fine days, the afternoon sun streamed in, and on blustery days, like today, when she opened a window she could taste the salt on the air and hear the cries of gulls. Just a couple of hundred yards beyond the end of the street, and the junction with Kemp Town’s busy Marine Parade, was the beach. She could walk along it for miles to the west and along under the cliffs to the east, past the Marina.
She liked the neighbourhood too. Small shops close by, safer than going into a large supermarket, because she could always check who was in there first. All it needed was for one person to recognize her.
The only negative was the lift. Extremely claustrophobic at the best of times, and more prone than ever to panic attacks recently, Abby never liked to ride in any lift alone unless she absolutely had to. And the jerky capsule the size of a vertical two-seater coffin that serviced her flat, and had got stuck a couple of times in the last month – fortunately with someone else in it – was one of the worst she had ever experienced.
So normally, up until the past couple of weeks, when workmen renovating the flat below hers had turned the staircase into an obstacle course, she walked up and down. It was good exercise and, if she had some heavy shopping bags – well, that was easy – she would send them up in the lift on their own and climb the stairs. On the very rare occasions she encountered one of her neighbours, then she would ride up shoulder to shoulder with them. But mostly they were so old they never went out much. Some seemed as old as this mansion block itself.
The few younger residents, like Hassan, the smiling Iranian banker who lived two floors below her and sometimes threw all-night parties – the invites to which she always politely declined – seemed to be away, somewhere else, most of the time. And at weekends, unless Hassan was in residence, this whole west wing of the block was so silent it seemed to be inhabited only by ghosts.
In a way, she was a ghost too, she knew. Only leaving the safety of her lair after dark, her once long, blonde hair cropped short and dyed black, sunglasses on her face, jacket collar turned up, a stranger in this city where she had been born and grown up, where she had been a business studies student and had once worked bars, done temporary secretarial jobs, had boyfriends and, before the travel bug hit her, had even fantasized she would raise a family.
Now she was back. In hiding. A stranger in her own life. Desperate not to be recognized by anyone. Turning her face away on the rare occasions when she passed someone she knew. Or saw an old friend in a bar and immediately had to leave. God damn it, she was lonely!
Not even her own mother knew she was back in England.
Just turned twenty-seven three days ago – and that was some birthday party, she thought ironically. Getting smashed up here on her own, with a bottle of Moët et Chandon, an erotic movie on Sky and a vibrator with a dead battery.
She used to pride herself on her natural good looks. Brimful of confidence, she could go out to any bar, any disco, any party and have the pick of the crop. She was good at chatting, good at laying on the charm, good at playing vulnerable, which long ago she had understood was what guys liked. But now she was vulnerable for real, and she was really not enjoying that.
Not enjoying being a fugitive.
Even though it would not be for ever.
The shelves, tables and floors of the flat were piled high with books, CDs and DVDs, ordered from Amazon and from Play.com. During the past two months on the run she had read more books, seen more films and watched more television than ever before in her life. She occupied much of the rest of her time by doing an online course in Spanish.
She had come back because she thought she would be safe here. Dave had agreed. That this was the one place he would not dare show his face. The only place on the planet. But she could not be completely sure.
She had another reason for coming to Brighton – a big part of her agenda. Her mother’s condition was getting slowly worse and she needed to find her a well-run private nursing home where she could have some quality of life in the years remaining. Abby did not want to see her end up in one of those terrible National Health Service geriatric wards. She had already identified a beautiful home in the countryside nearby. It was expensive, but she could afford to keep her mother there for years now. All she had to do was lie low for just a little longer.
Her phone pinged suddenly with an incoming text. She looked down at the display and smiled when she saw who it was from. The one thing that helped sustain her was these texts, which she received every few days.
Absence diminishes small loves and increases
great ones, as the wind blows out the candle
and blows up the bonfire.
She thought for some moments. A benefit of having so much time on her hands was that she could surf the net for hours without feeling guilty. She loved collecting quotations, and texted back one she had saved up.
Love is not gazing at each other. Love is staring
together in the same direction.
For the first time in her life she had met a man who stared in the same direction as herself. Right now it was at just a name on a map. Images downloaded from the web. A place she went to in her dreams. But soon they would both be going there for real. She just had to be patient for a little longer. They both needed to be.
She closed The Latest magazine, where she had been browsing dream houses, crushed out her cigarette, drained her glass of Sauvignon and began her pre-exit checks.
First she walked to the window and peered down through the blinds at the wide terrace of Regency houses. The sodium glow of the street lights bled orange into every shadow. It was dark enough, with a howling autumn gale blasting rain as hard as buckshot against the windowpanes. As a child she used to be scared of the dark. Now, ironically, it made her feel safe.
She knew the cars that were regularly parked there on both sides, with their residents’ parking stickers. Ran her eyes over each of them. She didn’t used to be able to tell one make from another, but now she knew them all. The grimy, bird-shit-spattered black Golf GTi. The Ford Galaxy people carrier belonging to a couple in a flat across the street who had grizzly twins and seemed to spend their lives lugging shopping and collapsible strollers up and down the stairs. The odd-looking little Toyota Yaris. An elderly Porsche Boxster belonging to a young man she had decided was a doctor – he probably worked at the nearby Royal Sussex County Hospital. The rusty white Renault van with soggy tyres and a FOR SALE notice written in red ink on a strip of brown cardboard stuck in its passenger-door window. Plus another dozen or so cars whose owners she knew by sight. Nothing new down there, nothing to be concerned about. And no one lurking in the shadows.
A couple were hurrying by, arms linked, with a bloated umbrella threatening to turn inside out at any moment.
Window locks in bedroom, spare bedroom, bathroom, living/dining room. Activate timers on lights, television and radio in each room in turn. Blu-Tack single cotton thread, knee high, across the hallway just inside the front door.
Paranoid? Moi? You’d better believe it!
She tugged her long mackintosh and umbrella from the hooks in the narrow hallway, stepped over the thread and peered through the spyhole. The dull-yellow fish-eye glow of the empty landing greeted her.
She unhooked the safety chains, opened the door cautiously and stepped out, instantly noticing the smell of sawn timber. She pulled the door shut and turned the keys in turn in each of the three deadlocks.
Then she stood listening. Somewhere downstairs, in one of the other flats, a phone was ringing, unanswered. She shivered, pulling her fleece-lined mac around her, still not used to the damp and cold after years of living in the sunshine. Still not used to spending a Friday night alone.
Her plan tonight was to catch a film, Atonement, at the multiplex in the Marina, then grab a bite to eat – maybe some pasta – and, if she had the courage, go to a bar for a couple of glasses of wine. That way at least she could feel the comfort of mingling with other humans.
Dressed discreetly in designer jeans, ankle-length boots and a black, knitted polo neck beneath the mac, wanting to look nice but not to draw attention to herself if she did go to a bar, she opened the fire door to the stairwell, and saw to her dismay that the workmen had left it blocked for the weekend with lengths of plasterboard and a whole stack of timber.
Cursing them, she debated whether to try to stumble her way through, then, thinking better of it, she pressed the button for the lift, staring at the scratched metal door. Seconds later she heard it clanking, jerking and bumping obediently upwards, reaching her floor with a jarring clang before the external door opened with a sound like a shovel smoothing gravel.
She stepped in and the door closed again with the same sound, along with the lift car’s own double doors, enclosing her. She breathed in the smell of someone else’s perfume, and lemon-scented cleaning fluid. The lift jerked upwards a few inches, so sharply she almost fell over.
And now, when it was too late to change her mind and get out, with the metal walls pressing in around her and a small, almost opaque mirror reflecting the dawning look of panic on her mostly invisible face, it lunged sharply downwards.
Abby was about to realize she had just made a bad mistake.