Authors: Mark Billingham
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller
For Peter Cocks.
We’ll always have Mijas . . .
For a few seconds after the petrol tank goes up, the woods are shocked into silence.
At least that’s how it seems, as though it takes those moments of quiet and stillness after the
of the explosion for every bird and insect and small mammal to release the breath it has been holding. For the wind to begin moving through the trees again; although, even then, it dares do no more than whisper. Obviously, as far as the men watching the burning car are concerned, it might just be that it takes that long for the ringing in their ears to die down.
And, of course, the man inside the car
finally stopped screaming.
Ten minutes earlier, dragging him towards the Jag, the younger of the two men had needed to slap the poor bugger a few times to keep him quiet. As soon as he’d been bundled into the passenger seat, though, there was no shutting him up. Not when he’d seen the handcuffs come out and the petrol can that had been taken from the boot.
Not once he’d realised what they were going to do.
‘I didn’t think he’d make such a racket,’ the older man said.
‘They always make a racket.’ The younger man sniffed and smiled. ‘You’re not normally around for this bit, are you?’
‘Not if I can help it.’ The older man shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his Barbour jacket, looked up at the trees crowding in on the small clearing. The light was already starting to go and the temperature was dropping fast.
The younger man grinned. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll warm up in a minute.’ He opened the back door of the Jag and started sloshing petrol around.
The man who was handcuffed to the steering wheel threw himself back and forth in the front seat, the cuffs rattling against the walnut steering wheel and the spittle flying on to the dash and windscreen. He started shouting, begging the man with the petrol can to stop. He told him he had a family, told him their names. He said, ‘You don’t need to do this.’ Then, ‘For Christ’s sake!’ and ‘Please
. . .
The older man winced, like he had a bad headache, and told his colleague to close the door. Shut the bloody noise out a bit. The younger man did as he was told, tossed the empty petrol can back in the boot, then walked across and offered his employer a cigarette. It was refused, but he still took out a Zippo and lit one of his own.
The man in the Barbour nodded. ‘Just needed to get the details right. The clothes, you know? Jewellery, all that.’
The younger man nodded towards the car. ‘Shame about your watch.’
The older man glanced down at the outline of a wristwatch, pale against a Barbados tan. ‘It’s all just
. . .
stuff, isn’t it?’ He shrugged. ‘Watches, cars, what have you. Means nothing at the end of the day. Living is what counts, right?’
The younger man drew smoke deep into his lungs then hissed it away between his teeth. He took two more fast drags then flicked the nub-end into the trees. Said, ‘Shall I get this done, then?’
He took out the lighter again and a rag from the other pocket, which he twisted between his fingers as he walked back to the car.
The man inside the Jag was crying now and banging his head against the side window. His voice was rasping and ragged and only audible for as long as it took to open the door, fire up the lighter and toss the burning rag on to the back seat. No more than a few seconds, but it was easy enough to make out what was being said.
Those names again. His wife and son.
Said for nobody’s benefit but his own this time, and he repeated them, eyes closed, until the smoke stopped them in his throat.
The two men moved back towards the trees and watched the fire take hold from a safe distance. Within ninety seconds the windows had blown and the figure in the front seat was no more than a black shape.
‘Where you going to go?’
The older man nudged the tip of his shoe through the mulch. ‘Now, why would you think you need to know
‘Just asking, is all.’
‘Yeah, well. Just think about the worthless crap you’ll be spending your money on.’
money, you mean.’
‘Right. Can’t be too many like this, can there? How many times you been paid twice for one job?’
‘Never had a job
like this one—’
That was when the petrol tank caught and went up
. . .
Half a minute later, they turn and walk back to where the second car is parked; away from the sounds that have begun to roll and echo around the clearing after those few dead seconds. The wind and the leaves and the creak of branches. The crackle and hiss as flames devour flesh and leather.
A hundred yards or so from the main road, the older man stops and looks up. ‘Listen
. . .
He waits, then points when he hears the sound again. ‘Woodpecker. Can you hear him?’
The younger man shakes his head.
‘Great spotted, I’m guessing. He’s the commonest.’
They start walking again, the woods growing darker by the minute.
‘How do you know stuff like that?’
‘Reading,’ the older man says. ‘Books, magazines, whatever. You should try it some time.’
‘Yeah, well, you’ll have plenty of time on your hands now, won’t you?’
The younger man nods back in the direction of the car, the blaze clearly visible a mile or more behind them, through the dark tangle of oaks and giant beeches. ‘You can read about fucking woodpeckers till the cows come home. Now you’re dead
. . .
Anna Carpenter had eaten sushi only once before, when some bloke she’d gone out with for about five minutes had been trying to impress her, but this was her first time in one of these conveyor-belt places. She thought it was a good idea. It made sense, having the chance to look at the food before you took the plunge, and it didn’t matter if you let it go by half a dozen times while you made your mind up, because it was cold anyway.
Fiendishly clever, these Japanese . . .
She reached for a plate of salmon
from the belt and asked the man sitting next to her if he could pass the soy sauce. He slid the bottle towards her with a smile, then offered her the pot of
‘God, no, that’s the really hot stuff, isn’t it?’
The man told her it was just a question of not overdoing it and she said that she’d rather not risk it, that she was something of a novice when it came to eating raw fish.
‘This your lunch hour?’ the man asked.
‘Well, I’m my own boss, so I usually manage to sneak a bit more than an hour, if I’m honest.’ He expertly plucked what looked like a small pasty from his plate and dipped it into some sauce. ‘You work nearby?’
Anna nodded, her mouth full of rice, grunted a ‘yes’.
‘What do you do?’
She swallowed. ‘Just temping,’ she said. ‘Trying not to die of boredom.’
A waiter appeared at her shoulder with the bottle of water she’d ordered and by the time he’d left, she and the man sitting next to her were all but strangers once more. Anna felt as awkward as he obviously did about picking up their conversation, and neither needed any condiments passing.
They ate and exchanged smiles. Glanced and looked away. A nod from one or the other when something was especially tasty.
He was in his mid-to-late thirties – ten years or so older than she was – and looked good in a shiny blue suit that probably cost as much as her car. He had a crinkly smile and had missed a bit just below his Adam’s apple the last time he’d shaved. He looked like he worked out, but not too much, and she guessed he was not the sort who moisturised more often than she did.
He was still sitting next to her by the time she had finished.
‘Maybe I’ll be brave and try the
next time,’ she said.
‘Sorry?’ He looked round at her in mock-surprise, as though he had forgotten she was there.
Anna wasn’t fooled for a second. She had been aware for the last ten minutes that he had finished eating. She’d seen the pile of empty plates next to him, watched him eke out a cup of green tea, and known very well that he was waiting for her to finish.
She leaned in close to him. ‘We could go to a hotel.’
Now the surprise was genuine. He had not been expecting her to make the first move. He opened his mouth and closed it again.
‘Seeing as you can sneak more than an hour.’
He nodded, but could not make eye contact with her.
‘Why don’t we find out how much you
like eating sushi?’ It was deliberately crude, and she felt herself redden as she said it, but she could see straight away that it had done the trick.
He muttered, ‘Christ!’ as the crinkly smile became a stupid grin. He waved the waiter across, pointing to Anna’s empty plates as well as his own to indicate that he would be paying for both of them.
The hotel was a five-minute walk away. Tucked behind Kingsway and within conveniently easy reach of Holborn Tube Station and a well-stocked chemist. A notch or two up from a Travelodge without being silly money.
He took out his wallet as they approached the reception desk.
‘I’m not a hooker,’ Anna said.
‘I know that.’
‘I’m perfectly happy to pay my share of the room.’
‘Look, it’s not a problem,’ he said. ‘You said you were temping, so . . .’
‘Fine, whatever.’ She caught the eye of the young man behind the desk. He nodded politely, then looked away, sensing he should not show any sign that he had seen her before. ‘If you
to be flash, you can order us a bottle of something,’ Anna said, then turned and walked across the lobby.
In the lift, he finally asked her name.
She shook her head. ‘Ingrid . . . Angelina . . . Michelle. Whatever turns you on the most. It’s more exciting that way.’ She closed her eyes and moaned softly as his hand moved to stroke her backside.
As the lift juddered to a halt at the first floor, he said, ‘My name’s Kevin.’
The room was larger than she had been expecting – a decent-sized double – and she guessed that he had splashed out, which made her feel oddly sorry for him.
‘Nice,’ he said, slipping off his jacket.
She headed straight for the bathroom. ‘Give me a minute,’ she said.
She sent the text while she was using the toilet, then stood in front of the mirror and wiped away the excess make-up. She could hear him moving around on the other side of the door, heard the bedsprings creak and imagined him pushing down on the mattress, testing it out like some sitcom gigolo, with that grin still plastered to his face.
When she came out, he was sitting on the edge of the bed in his boxer shorts, his hands in his lap.
‘Where’s that sushi, then?’ he asked.
‘Aren’t we going to have a drink first?’
As if on cue, there was a knock at the door and he nodded towards it. ‘They didn’t have champagne,’ he said. ‘So I got some sparkling wine. It’s more or less the same price, actually . . .’
Anna moved quickly to the door and opened it, then turned and saw Kevin’s face whiten and fall when his wife stepped into the room.
‘Oh, shit,’ he said, one hand still covering the rapidly dwindling erection, while the other scrabbled for shirt and trousers.
The woman watched him from the doorway, clutched her handbag to her stomach. Said, ‘You sad wanker.’
‘She picked me up, for heaven’s sake.’ He jabbed a finger in Anna’s direction. ‘I was just having my bloody lunch, and this . . .
. . .’
‘I know,’ his wife said. ‘And she had to drag you here kicking and screaming, right?’
‘I can’t believe you did this. That you set this up.’
‘What, you can’t believe I didn’t
Anna tried to squeeze past the man’s wife towards the door. ‘I’d better get out of your way.’
The woman nodded quickly and stood aside. ‘The money’s already gone into your firm’s account,’ she said.
‘Right, thanks . . .’
‘You bitch,’ Kevin shouted. He was still struggling to yank his trousers on and almost tumbled, bracing himself against a chest of drawers.
Anna opened the door.
‘And don’t flatter yourself either, love. It was only because it was on offer.’
The wife had tears in her eyes, but still managed a look that was somewhere between pity and rage. It seemed to Anna that both were aimed as much at her as at the woman’s husband.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ Anna said.
She stepped quickly into the corridor as Kevin began shouting again, and winced as the door slammed shut behind her. She walked quickly past the lift and took the stairs down to the lobby two at a time.