Authors: M. J. Trow
M J Trow
Text copyright © 2013 M J Trow
All Rights Reserved
First published by Hodder
This edition first published in 2013 by:
36 Great Smith Street
Table of Contents
The Old Millennium had just four minutes to live. Four minutes. Some people could run a mile in that time. In the good old days of impending nuclear destruction, it was all you had to hit that shelter or you could kiss your arse goodbye.
Peter Maxwell was a child of the Old Millennium. He could boil an egg in four minutes with just a little help from the National Grid. But this wasn’t any Millennium. This was Peter Maxwell’s Millennium and everybody knew that Peter Maxwell was mad. A year ago, the Dome had exploded with light onto a cynical and dubious Greenwich. A river of fire had allegedly roared down the Thames, the great and ancient artery burning and writhing, as though Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe had come back again or the City witnessed again the results of that one careless match in Pudding Lane. Curiously, only the organizers of the event had seen it happen, but hey, what’s a little Millennium bug between friends?
That was then. Last year. Ninety-nine – the year of the flake in the ice cream. Only the historians held out against it – and a few mathematicians nervously followed. The cusp of two thousand to two thousand and one – that was the real Millennium, Maxwell had argued, to anybody who would listen in the staffroom at Leighford High, that fountain of all knowledge where the Great Man had been driven to drink. He had harangued his Sixth Form on the matter, but they were callow youths and it was ever a case of pearls before swine. It gave them an excuse, they reckoned, to party all over again and to celebrate twice, exactly as they whooped it up at eighteen and twenty-one.
He’d fought his way through the milling New Year crowds that thronged the aisles at Tesco’s. There seemed to be offers on everything except the thing that mattered – the amber nectar that was Southern Comfort. ‘Buy one, get one free?’ he asked the cheerless woman on the till, the one who still had tinsel in her hair.
‘No,’ she answered with all the wit and repartee of her calling and Maxwell dropped the badinage while rummaging for his plastic.
So here he was, alone as he faced his version of the twenty-first century. H.G.Wells had assumed we’d all be dead by now, choked in the creeping red weed from Mars. But dear old H.G. hadn’t lived long enough to discover that Mars was really made in Slough and it was actually brown. George Orwell had feared we’d all be cowed into impotence by Big Brother and his thought police. Maxwell chuckled and shook his head; then he caught sight of Tony Blair on the front page of his paper, smiling like a death’s head at some New Year symposium and he suddenly wasn’t so sure. Come to think of it, as Maxwell suddenly did, wasn’t George Orwell’s real name Blair? What with him and Tony and Lionel, it was quite a dynasty. Spooky, too.
The cat called Metternich lay in a tight curl on the pouffé, his tail up his nose, his nose behind his knees in that curious way that cats have. The Millennium, Old or New, meant nothing to him. He was just grateful that the cantankerous old bastard who was his master had grabbed that black plastic thing with the buttons and that, coincidentally, the telly had gone off. There was something about the nasal colonial whine of Clive James that got right up Metternich’s arse. It played merry hell with his sound waves.
Maxwell looked at the black and white beast of Columbine through the amber distortion of his glass. ‘Here’s looking at you, Count.’ It was a superlative Bogart and he sucked his teeth, becoming Maxwell again. ‘Here’s to the chase and the nightly hunt. Did you know there are more rats than people in this great country of ours today? I shall expect you, in the Millennium that’s about to break, to do something about that.’
The sharp ring of that piece of white plastic shattered Metternich’s moment. He didn’t need the exhortations of the old bastard to encourage him where rats were concerned. He was a serial killer without conscience, the pied piper of Columbine and come early light he’d be out there, sniffing, scenting the wind, crouching with his belly prone – the Jeffrey Dahmer of Leighford.
‘War Office,’ Maxwell picked up the phone.
‘Max. Happy New Year, darling.’
‘Woman Policeman Carpenter,’ Maxwell smiled. ‘Excuse the formality, but you are on duty?’
She was indeed. At her end of the line, in the cheerless glass and brick of Leighford Nick, DC Jacquie Carpenter was back in the old routine. Peter Maxwell was the biggest thing in her life these days, although she’d die rather than let him know it, but she didn’t believe his Millennium reckoning and found his addition a little shaky. So, for her, this was just another Hogmanay, another chance for drunken idiots to make her life that teensy bit more eventful. She was nearly thirty, attractive and bright and she’d refused to bow before the recent onslaught that decided ginger was the new black in the ethnic minority stakes.
‘You didn’t go to the party, then?’ she asked him, accepting gratefully the cup of tea from old Jock Haswell, the desk man.
‘And I’d be telling you again … why, exactly?’
‘Just in case, sir.’ DS Martin Stone didn’t want to be here. Not tonight. Not just as the new year dawned, looking suspiciously like the old. ‘In case there’s a little something, however small, you may have overlooked the first time.’
The Detective Sergeant was a kid, really, no more. He had large ears which Maxwell suspected hid gallons of wetness. Still, he seemed competent, not fazed by death at all.
The Head of Sixth Form was not a kid, though he taught several. His ears were largely hidden under a greying thatch of barbed-wire hair, but his dark brown eyes burned right through a man. Stone checked his watch. Today was the allotted day. A new year baby, a first footer. His and Alex’s second. The head had engaged; the scans were good. It would be a girl – Samantha. Alex had already bought the Buzz Lightyear against the day when the infectious hunky toy came back again like a boomerang, a merchandiser’s dream.
‘It was virtually on the stroke of midnight,’ Maxwell began again. ‘The New Millennium.’
Maxwell hated the Americanism, but he wasn’t going to get into all that reasoning again, not with this lad and not now. There were more pressing problems. ‘Two minutes to twelve,’ he settled for.
‘You were watching the clock, I suppose,’ Stone prompted him, ‘raising a glass. Er … you were alone?’
‘Apart from my cat,’ Maxwell smiled.
‘Er … yes.’ Stone could see no cat, on account of how Metternich had fled up the attic stairs at the first shrill screech of the doorbell that had announced the arrival of the boys in blue. He was crouched on an old chest, head low, ears flat, his bottle-brush tail relaxed now and swinging just slightly in the wind of his nonchalance. He considered huffing on his claws, but realizing there was no one to witness the spectacle, thought better of it. What was the point, really? It was like silent trees falling in forests. You had to be there.
‘And the doorbell rang?’ Two floors below him, the young suit with the jug-handle ears was pursuing his inquiries.
‘You weren’t expecting anyone? Family? Friends?’
‘Haven’t many of either,’ Maxwell shrugged. It wasn’t intended to elicit sympathy. And it didn’t. It was just a statement of fact. Christmas. The New Year. They were the loneliest of times, like the dead of night, when a man can be truly, madly, deeply alone.
‘You opened the door?’
‘Was that sensible, sir?’ the uniform spoke for the first time, as though trying to impress or just because it was his turn. He was taciturn in a nondescript sort of way, slowly turning his peaked cap in his hand.
‘This isn’t the Ratcliffe Highway, Constable,’ Maxwell reminded him. ‘There’ve been no murders on Columbine for, ooh, let me see …’
‘An hour or so, sir,’ Stone looked his man in the eyes.
‘Yes,’ Maxwell acknowledged. ‘Sorry, bad taste.’
‘You saw no one in the street; you’re sure?’
‘Not a soul. There was a party going on – number twenty-six, I think. There were lots of cars and the lights were blazing. I heard it rather than saw it.’
‘And on the path?’
Maxwell raised his eyebrows and sighed. He’d seen corpses before. Before this questioning kid was born, he’d been to the hospital to identify the bodies of his wife and child; they who’d been on the wrong stretch of road at the wrong time. But this was different. This time, death had come to him.
‘Looked like somebody’s old rubbish,’ he said. ‘As if the bin men had suddenly raised two fingers to the world and piled up garbage on my doorstep annoyed at no Christmas tip. It was only when I looked closer …’
Stone shot a glance at the uniformed man. This was only his third murder inquiry, his first as detective sergeant. Murder took men in different ways. He didn’t know Maxwell, couldn’t guess which way he’d go.
‘It was an old woman,’ the Head of Sixth Form’s voice came back stronger than ever. ‘Seventy, seventy-five. Difficult to say. She was stiff, covered in hoar frost, which was odd, considering the ambient temperature.’
‘Ten Celsius,’ Stone confirmed. ‘Very mild for January. What did you do?’
‘Well,’ Maxwell leaned back on his settee, clasping his knee and looking at his man. ‘It was a classic choice between chucking up or floating away, but I went to a good school, so in the event I phoned you blokes. Record time, by the way. Well done.’
Stone nodded. He didn’t want compliments at this stage. He wanted answers. And he sensed he’d get no more here. Time to move this on, take the matter upstairs. He stood up, along with the uniform and Peter Maxwell.
‘Can you come to the station tomorrow, Mr Maxwell, to make a full statement?’
‘You mean today?’ Maxwell checked the large clock.
‘Er … yes,’ Stone nodded. ‘I s’pose I do. John?’ And the uniform nodded and made for the stairs, putting on his cap. ‘Oh, by the by,’ Stone turned to Maxwell, ‘it’s not every day someone leaves a stiff on a doorstep in the nice end of Leighford, so expect a bit of pestering from the gentlemen of the press tomorrow, Mr Maxwell.’
‘Should I mention your name, Mr Stone?’
‘If I were you, sir,’ the DS told him, ‘I wouldn’t even mention yours.’
‘Bugger!’ Jim Astley wasn’t a believer in biorhythms, part of the folklore/feng shui bollocks a desperate people increasingly clung to in an age of secularism and disbelief. Not for him the mantras and healing crystals of the New Age. He was a scientist, well, a doctor anyway and anything you couldn’t find in Gray’s Anatomy was just so much mumbo-jumbo.
Today however he was off form. The problem was that old Roger McGuigan threw a bloody good party. Too good, as it turned out, because Jim Astley still had the mother of all hangovers by lunchtime the next day. Had any of the boys in blue with whom he occasionally worked asked him to blow into this, they would have been horrified at the result.
Some would say it didn’t matter too much. Because Jim Astley only operated on the dead. In a sleepy seaside town like Leighford, he’d doubled for years as police surgeon and pathologist, but increasingly the younger men were tackling the live ones, coping with drunks in the cells and officiating at scenes of accidents. Increasingly they only called Jim Astley in when life was pronounced extinct. That didn’t bother him much. In his heart of hearts, Jim Astley knew he was better than all of them. Except today. Today, he’d dropped his scalpel for the second time. He was still sharp enough not to turn however as the door clicked behind him. He didn’t turn and he knew exactly who’d come in.
‘Morning, Henry. Happy New Year to you.’
‘And you, Jim.’ Detective Chief Inspector Henry Hall had never liked mortuaries. They were cold and antiseptic, like a politically correct abattoir. But then, Henry Hall was a copper of the new school, a fast-track graduate who’d done his beat time with his eyes shut. He wasn’t Astley’s generation, the man who’d obtained his first ‘subject’ for dissection from Messrs Burke and Hare. Hall had almost grown up with computers rather than having them foisted on him.
But this was no way to go, to start a new year. He perched on the green plastic chair by the door. ‘How was your Christmas, Jim?’ he asked.
Astley grunted. That was years ago, wasn’t it? It even seemed years since last night, when he’d taken Marjorie home before she embarrassed them both still further. Harping on about the Falklands when your hostess is Argentinean was perhaps a little insensitive. But then, that was Marjorie, through whose veins ran pure Gordon’s.