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Authors: Jo Bannister

Closer Still

BOOK: Closer Still
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Keep your friends close,
and your enemies closer still.
Sun Tzu
It was later than he thought. He'd been in the back room of The Rose for hours, conducting business. Then he got talking, and more than talking, and now it was two o'clock on a wet autumn morning and people with homes to go to had long since gone. The rain-slick pavement shone under the street lamps but all the houses were dark. He grinned to himself as he hunched his collar about his ears. Most south coast towns took on a different kind of life after midnight. Dimmock just pulled the duvet over its head and went to sleep.
But that was to ignore the special qualities of the night. Some activities are best conducted after sundown. The kind, forgiving night had given him his best times. Everyone in a seaside town enjoys the summer season, but he liked the winter best. The long nights. It was September now, and already the evenings were getting darker. It was coming his time of year.
But there are things that are better done on a sunny day than a wet night, and changing a flat tyre is one of them. He stared at it in disbelief. The gutter was running and the cracked pavement was grimy; and the wheel nuts had undoubtedly been tightened by a gorilla with a metre-long
spanner, and even if he could find a wheel brace in the deep recesses of his boot, all his instincts told him it would be the wrong size. He looked up and down the street. No one.
He could return to The Rose and sort it out in the morning. He could phone Colin to come and sort it out now – and see him hiding a grin every time they met for the next fortnight because he knew what it meant that he was leaving the pub at two in the morning. He might have been doing the accounts. But he wasn't, and Colin would know he wasn't.
He really wished he hadn't sworn at the last person who tried to sell him an AA membership.
A footstep on the pavement behind him made him look round hopefully. A lot of people in the same position would have felt a certain unease, but the night was his friend. And right now, someone willing to change a wheel for him would be too.
There were two of them. The older one was big, the younger one was tall. The older one had his hands fisted deep in the pockets of a dark raincoat. The younger one was wearing jeans and a leather jacket. Neither of them was smiling.
‘Having a problem, Joe?' The older man's voice was as expressionless as the craggy face it issued from.
Joe Loomis expelled the startled breath he'd caught, but only halfway. Lots of people would be nervous to be approached on a deserted road in the middle of the night, but round here what they were most anxious about was being approached by Joe. Loomis himself generally felt
pretty safe. There was only one shadow which, falling across his path, was enough to make him pause – but it was a big one. Just exactly this big.
‘Mr Deacon?' he said, waiting for his heart to steady enough to do nonchalance. ‘And you were doing so well for yourself. How long have you been back on the beat?'
The big man chuckled bleakly. ‘You
my beat, Joe. I've a good team down at Battle Alley, they can deal with pretty well anything that comes up. Which leaves me free to deal with you.'
‘Mr Deacon,' said Loomis again, reproachfully. ‘I don't need dealing with. I'm not a problem.'
like a problem,' said the younger man softly.
Loomis peered into the darkness. ‘Detective Sergeant Voss, is it? How are you? I haven't seen you since …'
It was a sentence he'd have been better not starting. Not when he was outnumbered two to one numerically and about four to one by weight. He let it peter out and hoped nobody'd noticed.
They noticed. Detective Superintendent Jack Deacon finished the sentence for him. ‘Not since you had your mates beat the living daylights out of him because you couldn't reach me.' You could have bent horseshoes round the iron in his voice.
‘A misunderstanding,' demurred Loomis. ‘Anyway, we cleared that up. I seem to remember that we cleared that up.' Possibly without knowing it, he rubbed his jaw with the side of his thumb.
Enjoying the recollection, Deacon took out his knuckles and blew on them. It isn't often that a senior police officer
gets the chance to deck someone with impunity. Only the memory of Charlie Voss's broken face, and the fact that if Division ever learnt how he'd reacted he could wave goodbye to his pension, kept Deacon from bursting into song every time he thought of it.
‘We did,' he agreed finally. ‘This isn't about that.'
‘What is it about?'
‘The reason you're still on the streets, and I'm still a policeman, is that
was personal,' Deacon explained carefully. ‘This isn't. This is about the fact that I'm
a policeman, and you're
a pimp, a drug dealer and a racketeer. A trader in human weakness and human misery. You're a ponce, a parasite and a thug; and you're doing it in my town. And you're not doing it for much longer.'
It was true, all of it. But it isn't often a man like Joe Loomis hears the unvarnished truth about himself. He felt himself flushing, even though there was nothing there he'd take issue with. ‘Mr Deacon – are you threatening me?'
‘Yes,' said Deacon immediately. ‘Oh yes, Joe, that was definitely a threat. I'm threatening to use every power at my disposal to put you where you should have been for the last ten years, and keep you there until old age and infirmity stop you posing a danger to my town and pissing me off. It's a threat, a warning, a promise and my birthday present to myself all wrapped up in one. Now.' He turned to his companion. ‘Is that everything I wanted to say to Mr Loomis?'
DS Voss ticked off a mental checklist. ‘Threat, warning, promise, gratuitous insults – yes, I think that's everything, sir. Unless you want to tell him to be on the next stage?'
Deacon shook his heavy head. ‘I thought about that, Charlie Voss, but I decided against.' He spoke as if Loomis had not been standing right in front of them. ‘I decided I'd sooner have him in Parkhurst than sunning himself on the Costa del Crime.'
‘Then that's it.'
‘Fine.' Deacon went to walk away, then something occurred to him. ‘Oh, Joe – you're going to need some help changing that wheel. Some sod's broken a match in your valve. Lucky we came along, really. Lord only knows who you'd meet on these mean streets if it wasn't for the local police keeping an eye on things. But since we are here, I was going to suggest …'
He waited until he thought he detected a glimmer of hope in Loomis's eye. ‘ …that you call a friend, if you've got any. Just don't dial 999. That's not what we're here for.' And with that he strolled fifty metres up Rye Lane, got into his own car and drove away, with a smile on his face that Joe Loomis would remember for the rest of his life.
DS Voss had a flat in one of the red-brick Victorian villas in Pound Street. Deacon drove by on his way home. But when he stopped the car Voss didn't get out.
After a moment Deacon looked at him quizzically. ‘You're thinking, Charlie Voss. I keep telling you, it's not a good habit to get into.'
Voss smiled dutifully. ‘I'm just wondering if we did the right thing.'
‘Marking Joe's card?' Voss nodded his ginger head. ‘Didn't you enjoy it?'
‘Of course I enjoyed it. That's the problem. Usually, if you're enjoying something that much you shouldn't be doing it.'
Deacon gave a crocodile grin. ‘Everyone needs a little pleasure in life.' But the last four years had taught him that Voss only looked like an overgrown barrow-boy: he was in fact an experienced police officer with good instincts. ‘You think I shouldn't have told him I'm coming?'
‘Maybe not. It's going to make him careful.'
‘He's been careful,' said Deacon. ‘That's why he's been a major player in Dimmock for five years; why I've
he was a major player for four years, three hundred and sixty-four days; and even knowing I haven't been able to nail him. He is careful. Let's see if he can go on being careful when he's rattled.'
Voss nodded slowly. ‘It's worth a try. And on the bright side, even if it doesn't work …' He hesitated.
His smile was sunny. ‘It
fun, wasn't it?'
Jonathan Farrell had kept a lot of hospital appointments in the first six months of his life. He'd seen a lot of doctors. Or perhaps he hadn't. It still wasn't entirely clear how much of anything he could see.
Which, in a way, made the decisions that were coming easier. Easier to take, and easier to bear. If he'd had enough sight to be worth saving, even the toughest mother in the world – which Brodie Farrell was not, though she sometimes tried to give that impression – might have found it impossible to balance the loss of his eyes against the chance of protecting him from a life-threatening illness.
Because there were no certainties. The tumours in his eyes might never affect the central nervous system. It might be safe enough to let him enjoy what vision he had for as long as it would last. But even the oncologist couldn't tell her for sure. They could wait, but there was danger in the waiting. They could remove one eye, or both, but they would do it without being sure it was necessary. It was a matter of percentages, of considering what had been done, and how successfully, with similar cases around the world.
Retinoblastoma is a rare condition and it's hard to get a
statistically significant sample. Dr Millership saw a handful of new cases a year, few of them directly comparable to Jonathan Farrell's. Jonathan was born with white eyes, the tumours in both already apparent. She could remember two similar patients. One had had no possibility of sight and they'd gone for early enucleation: he was growing up blind but healthy. In the other, the prospect of preserving some vision had led her to start chemotherapy and laser treatment. The initial response had been good, but in the end surgery became necessary when one of the tumours began moving outside the eye. These cases, and others she'd read about, were at the forefront of her mind as she tried to advise Brodie Farrell.
The two women had formed a good working relationship over the last five months. They used one another's first names. Anne Millership didn't assume that having a sick child automatically made Brodie an idiot, and Brodie tried not to blame the doctor for knowing so much and still, in the end, not enough.
With Jonathan on her knee sucking determinedly on his teddy's head, she said quietly, ‘Not good news, then?'
The doctor shook her head. ‘The tumours are definitely advancing – the left more than the right, but actually both of them. I'm sorry.'
Brodie didn't need sympathy so much as sound guidance. ‘What do you want to do?'
‘I think we should remove the left eye as soon as possible. He has no useful vision in it and he'll be much safer with it gone.'
‘And the right one?'
‘This isn't what I want to be telling you,' said Dr Millership quietly. ‘But we should seriously consider removing it too. He has a little vision, but I don't think it'll last as the tumour advances. We can slow its progress with a number of different treatments. I don't think any of them will enable him to grow up both safe and sighted.'
She paused to let that sink in. ‘One thing in favour of early enucleation is that if he doesn't remember seeing he won't miss it as much. He'll grow up using his other senses.'
‘I thought that was a myth,' said Brodie bleakly. ‘That blind people hear better to compensate.'
‘Yes and no,' said the doctor. ‘We don't think they hear any better. We think they use their hearing, and their other senses, more effectively.'
Like a defective vacuum cleaner, Jonathan switched abruptly from suck to blow. The soggy teddy landed on the floor. With a smile Anne Millership retrieved it for him, and having returned it let her hand linger on his plump thigh. She looked up at his mother. ‘We don't have to make any decisions today. But we should make them soon.'
In fact Brodie didn't need more time. She'd understood the situation pretty thoroughly by the time Jonathan was a month old. She'd discussed the options with Anne Millership, with Jonathan's father and with close friends; and then discussed them again as the less radical solutions were tried and failed. She'd known this moment would come, and she knew what she had to do about it.
‘I don't want him to lose his eyes,' she said, her voice
under rigorous control. ‘But most of all I don't want to lose him. If surgery is his best chance, do it. If losing both eyes is safer than losing one eye, do that.'
The doctor slipped back into her chair. She nodded. ‘Yes. It's the right decision, at the right time. I'll set the wheels in motion.'
Brodie was determined not to cry. She held her amiable baby tight and mourned the life she'd imagined for him that now he could never have. She forced a brittle smile. ‘So he's not going to play rugby for England after all. How
I tell his father?'
‘You start by saying he probably wouldn't have done anyway,' said Dr Millership practically. ‘How is Jack about this? Does he feel the same way you do?'
Brodie struggled to know how Deacon felt. About anything, but most of all about this. He'd never expected to have this child. Neither of them had. By the time she realised he was on the way, Brodie's relationship with Jack Deacon was on the rocks. Deacon's initial reaction to the news was more shock than delight.
After that, though, there was no doubting his pleasure. Dear God, he even proposed to her – in a Deaconish sort of way, not so much an outpouring of emotion as a practical solution. When the baby came, and his problems were immediately obvious, his distress was at least as great as Brodie's. But they never really talked about their feelings. About the future, the prognosis, the various treatments available and the decisions they might have to take, but not about how they felt. She assumed that Deacon too considered any sacrifice worth making to keep his son
safe – but she didn't know. He hadn't said and she hadn't asked.
She answered obliquely. ‘He'll back whatever decision I take.'
Millership bit her lip. ‘I'd be happier if I thought you were taking decisions together.'
‘In a perfect world, so would I,' said Brodie tartly. ‘But Jonathan is my responsibility. Jack and I aren't married, and we aren't planning to get married.'
‘Does that make you solely responsible?'
Brodie managed a wry grin at the memory. ‘Actually, the precise manner of his conception probably does. Anyway, I've done the single parent thing before. Jack's new at this. Anything he has to say I'll listen to, but the bottom line is that I'm paying the piper so I'll call the tune. Some decisions are easier to take on your own.'
Anne Millership nodded her acceptance. Whatever problems Jonathan's parents had were for them to sort out. ‘One thing you must tell him. That if your baby had to have this condition, this is the place to get it. In the UK, nine out of ten affected children survive. Over much of the world's surface, nine out of ten die.'
There was reassurance in that. There was also a warning. Brodie's eyes acknowledged it. ‘This will keep him safe, won't it? If we do the ops?'
Anne Millership could promise nothing. ‘There's a tiny risk that the tumours may already have moved into the central nervous system. I don't think they have. I think operating now will ensure they can't.'
Brodie heard what she wasn't saying out loud. ‘But one
time in ten, good doctors in good hospitals do all the right things and still …?'
The doctor nodded sombrely. ‘Yes. We can't get it down to zero risk.' She brightened. ‘But you'd put your shirt on a horse that was running at ten to one on.'
But all Brodie knew about horses was that they were unreliable.
So her mind was full as she left the hospital, Jonathan leading the way in the souped-up buggy his father had insisted on buying for him. Full of thoughts and fears and images. She was resigned now to losing the funny white eyes that startled strangers who leant over the pram to coo at him, but which Brodie had grown rather fond of. She knew that after the op he could have blue eyes or brown eyes or grey eyes, and nobody would know he was blind until she told them. She knew – she'd told people repeatedly so it must be true – that even blindness isn't the end of the world. That her son would cope with his disability with strength, imagination and good humour, and if he couldn't be a world-class rugby player he'd learn to be a world-class cellist. He'd have a good and full life.
Unless he was that tenth child.
She was almost back at the car before she realised someone had fallen into step beside her. She was in a public place in the middle of the day: it didn't occur to her to be anxious. She assumed he was parked beside her. Even when he stood by as she fumbled for her keys she just thought he wanted to help her load the buggy, and mumbled, ‘Thank you,' without even glancing at him.
But he went on standing there, saying nothing, between her and her car, until she realised something was amiss and looked up. Her heart turned over. Then she said with conviction, ‘You have no business with me, Mr Loomis.'
He wasn't a big man. Much smaller than Deacon; not much bigger than Daniel. Unless you already knew who he was, there was nothing distinctive about him. He had dark hair cut a shade longer than was fashionable, and ungenerous eyes and a thin moustache; and a certain sallow cast to his skin suggested he didn't get out enough, at least in daylight. But there was nothing to make alarm bells ring. He wasn't wearing a fedora with the brim pulled down or carrying a violin case. Brodie was perhaps the only person within a quarter of a mile who'd have looked at him twice.
But then, she knew who he was, and what he'd done. She knew that, if he wasn't the biggest crook in Dimmock, he was certainly the nastiest. (Dimmock wasn't like London or New York. In a faded Victorian resort, a determined man can conduct a reign of terror with a whoopee-whistle. It was a matter of some surprise to Division how much serious crime occurred in the town. His superiors were never entirely sure whether more crime came to light because Jack Deacon was Senior Investigating Officer, or if his very presence was a provocation.)
‘No business,' agreed Joe Loomis smoothly. He gave a thin-lipped smile like a snake's. ‘I just thought I'd say hello. I'm an old …acquaintance of your partner's.'
‘I know who you are,' she said, clipping the words off short. ‘Acquaintance isn't the word he uses. But if you
want to discuss it with him, I have his number on speed-dial.'
She met his gaze full on, and had the satisfaction of seeing him blink. People tended not to realise how tall she was. Her manner could be unsettling too. Her forthright gaze and the confidence that came of dealing with the world on her own terms troubled men who thought that strong women had to be plain. Brodie Farrell was born striking but she learnt to be strong. Now she was head of her household and proprietor of a successful business, and not much scared her any more.
And if Joe Loomis was the exception, she wasn't about to let him know. She stared him down, expecting him to move.
He didn't. He said, ‘What a nice baby.'
It was the sort of thing Deacon said before he was a father, polite and totally uninterested. If she'd been holding a melon he'd have said, ‘What a nice melon.' Only Loomis went on looking at the sleepy child long enough to suggest that he did in fact have an interest, even if he wasn't prepared to declare it.
Brodie honed the edge on her voice. ‘You're in my way, Mr Loomis.'
Joe Loomis smiled again, and nodded, and didn't move. Brodie suddenly realised he wasn't alone. A young man in jeans and an older one in a suit were waiting by a big silver car, looking at nothing with the studied blankness of professional minders.
‘It's time Jack Deacon had a family,' said Loomis judiciously. ‘A man gets to a certain age, he shouldn't be
putting all his efforts into his work any more.'
And that was what this was about. Brodie knew as surely as if he'd slapped his agenda on the bonnet in front of her. He knew about her and Deacon, he knew that Deacon was the father of her child, and he wanted her to know. And he wanted her to tell Deacon that he knew.
You couldn't object to anything he'd said. Nothing he'd said or done could be described as a threat. But Brodie knew she was meant to feel threatened. No one in her right mind wanted Joe Loomis taking an interest in her family.
She breathed heavily. ‘If there's something you want me to tell Jack, spit it out.'
But he raised his hands in denial. ‘Nothing. Just that I said hello. You can tell him I like his baby, if you like …'
With Jack Deacon for a father and Brodie Farrell for a mother, this particular baby was always going to have a sense of dramatic timing. As Loomis leant over the buggy to smile at him, Jonathan opened his mouth and yawned. And then he opened his eyes.
BOOK: Closer Still
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