Read Playing with Fire Online

Authors: Peter Robinson

Playing with Fire

BOOK: Playing with Fire
11.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads
PLAYING WITH FIRE
PETER ROBINSON

For Sheila

Contents

Dedication

19th July

I was on my third sleeping pill and my second glass…

Chapter One

“The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, burn'd…

Chapter Two

Andrew Hurst lived in a small, nondescript lockkeeper's cottage beside…

Chapter Three

After stopping off at home for a quick shower and…

Chapter Four

“Do you know that it takes about an hour or…

Chapter Five

Danny Boy Corcoran lived in a small flat off South…

Chapter Six

Banks had loved the smell of old bookshops ever since…

Chapter Seven

Jennings Field lay on the eastern outskirts of Eastvale, beyond…

Chapter Eight

DC Winsome Jackman hated Yorkshire winters. She didn't think much…

Chapter Nine

Annie looked pleased with herself on Monday morning, and Banks…

Chapter Ten

Banks grabbed his leather jacket, left by the back door…

Chapter Eleven

“I'm Clive,” said the driver.

Chapter Twelve

On the train to London, Banks fretted about what Maria…

Chapter Thirteen

“Well, Mark,” said Banks, leaning back in his chair and…

Chapter Fourteen

Banks pondered over Phil Keane's response to his visit and…

Chapter Fifteen

The fire engines were gone when Banks arrived at Patrick…

Chapter Sixteen

“Mark,” said Banks, “we must stop meeting like this.”

Chapter Seventeen

After a good night's sleep and a morning spent catching…

Chapter Eighteen

It was a struggle just to cling to consciousness, Banks…

18th January

He'll be coming for me soon. Today, tomorrow, or the…

I
was on my third sleeping pill and my second glass of whiskey when he knocked on my door. Why I bothered to answer it, I don't know. I had resigned myself to my fate and arranged matters so that I would leave the world as peacefully and comfortably as possible, and nobody would mourn my passing.

Beethoven's
Pastorale
symphony was playing on the stereo, mostly because I had once seen a film about a futuristic society in which a man goes to be put to sleep in a hospital, and there are projections of brooks, waterfalls and forests on the walls, and the
Pastorale
is playing. I can't say it was doing much for me, but it was nice to have something to go along with the incessant tapping of rain on my flimsy roof.

I suppose answering the door was an instinctive reaction, like a nervous tic. When the phone rings, you answer it. When someone knocks at your door—especially as it was such a rare occurrence in my isolated world—you go and see who it is. Anyway, I did.

And there he stood, immaculate as ever in his Hugo Boss suit, under a black umbrella, a bottle in his free hand. Though I hadn't seen him for twenty years, and the light was dim, I recognized him immediately.

“Can I come in?” he said, with that characteristic, sheep
ish smile of his. “It's raining fit to start the second flood out here.”

I think I just stood aside dumbfounded as he folded his umbrella. I might have swayed a little. Of all the people I never expected to see again, if indeed I ever expected to see anyone, it was him.

He stooped and walked in, and I could see his eyes register everything immediately, the way they always did. It was another characteristic of his I remembered, that instant absorption and interpretation. The minute he saw you, his eyes were everywhere, even in your very soul, and within seconds he had you completely pegged. It used to scare the hell out of me, while it fascinated me at the same time.

Of course, I hadn't bothered hiding the whiskey and the pills—everything happened too quickly—but he didn't say anything. Not then. He propped his umbrella against the wall, where it dripped on the threadbare carpet, and sat down. I sat opposite him, but my brain was already fogging up, and I couldn't think of anything to say. It was a hot summer evening, and the heavy shower only served to increase the humidity in the air. I felt sweat prickling in my pores and nausea churning in my stomach. But he looked as cool and relaxed as ever. Not a bead of sweat on him.

“You look like hell,” he said. “Fallen on hard times?”

“Something like that,” I mumbled. He was going in and out of focus now, and the room was swirling, the floor undulating like a stormy ocean.

“Well, it's your lucky day,” he went on. “I've got a little job for you, and it should be a profitable one. Low risk, high yield. I think you'll like it, but I can see you're in no shape to talk about it right now. It can wait awhile.”

I think I nodded. Mistake. The room was spinning out of control, and I felt the contents of my stomach starting to heave up into my throat. I saw him lurching across the room to me. How he could even stand when the floor was tilting
and throbbing so much, I had no idea. Then the waves of nausea and oblivion engulfed me at last, and I felt his strong grasp on my arm as I started to keel out of my chair.

He stayed for two days, and I spilled out my guts to him. He listened to it all patiently, without comment. In the meantime, he took care of my every need with the uncomplaining competence of a trained nurse. When I could eat, he fed me; when I was sick, he cleaned up after me; when I slept, I am sure he watched over me.

And then he told me what he wanted me to do.

“T
he barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, burn'd on the water,” Banks whispered. As he spoke, his breath formed plumes of mist in the chill January air.

Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot, standing beside him, must have heard, because she said, “You what? Come again.”

“A quotation,” said Banks. “From
Antony and Cleopatra
.”

“You don't usually go around quoting Shakespeare like a copper in a book,” Annie commented.

“Just something I remember from school. It seemed appropriate.”

They were standing on a canal bank close to dawn watching two barges smolder. Not usually the sort of job for a detective chief inspector like Banks, especially so early on a Friday morning, but as soon as it had been safe enough for the firefighters to board the barges, they had done so and found one body on each. One of the firefighters had recently completed a course on fire investigation, and he had noticed possible evidence of accelerant use when he boarded the barge. He had called the local constable, who in turn had called Western Area Police Headquarters, Major Crimes, so here was Banks, quoting Shakespeare and waiting for the fire investigation officer to arrive.

“Were you in it, then?” Annie asked.

“In what?”

“Antony and Cleopatra.”

“Good Lord, no. Third spear-carrier in
Julius Caesar
was the triumph of my school acting career. We did it for O-Level English, and I had to memorize the speech.”

Banks held the lapels of his overcoat over his throat. Even with the Leeds United scarf his son Brian had bought him for his birthday, he still felt the chill. Annie sneezed, and Banks felt guilty for dragging her out in the early hours. The poor lass had been battling with a cold for the last few days. But his sergeant, Jim Hatchley, was even worse; he had been off sick with flu most of the week.

They had just arrived at the dead-end branch of the canal, which lay three miles south of Eastvale, linking the River Swain to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, and hence to the whole network of waterways that crisscrossed the country. The canal ran through some beautiful countryside, and tonight the usually quiet rural area was floodlit and buzzing with activity, noisy with the shouts of firefighters and the crackle of personal radios. The smell of burned wood, plastic and rubber hung in the air and scratched at the back of Banks's throat when he breathed in. All around the lit-up area, the darkness of a pre-dawn winter night pressed in, starless and cold. The media had already arrived, mostly TV crews, because fires made for good visuals, even after they had gone out, but the firefighters and police officers kept them well at bay, and the scene was secure.

As far as Banks had been able to ascertain, the branch ran straight north for about a hundred yards before it ended in a tangle of shrubbery that eventually became dry land. Nobody at the scene remembered whether it had ever led anywhere or had simply been used as a mooring, or for easier access to the local limestone for which the region was famous. It was possible, someone suggested, that the branch had been started as a link to the center of Eastvale itself, then abandoned due to lack of funds or the steepness of the gradient.

“Christ, it's cold,” moaned Annie, stamping from foot to foot. She was mostly obscured by an old army greatcoat she had thrown on over her jeans and polo-neck sweater. She was also wearing a matching maroon woolly hat, scarf and gloves, along with black knee-high leather boots. Her nose was red.

“You'd better go and talk to the firefighters,” Banks said. “Get their stories while events are still fresh in their minds. You never know, maybe one of them will warm you up a bit.”

“Cheeky bastard.” Annie sneezed, blew her nose and wandered off, reaching in her deep pocket for her notebook. Banks watched her go and wondered again whether his suspicions were correct. It was nothing concrete, just a slight change in her manner and appearance, but he couldn't help feeling that she was seeing someone, and had been for the past while. Not that it was any of his business. Annie had broken off their relationship ages ago, but—he didn't like to admit this—he was feeling pangs of jealousy. Stupid, really, as he had been seeing DI Michelle Hart on and off since the previous summer. But he couldn't deny the feeling.

The young constable, who had been talking to the leading firefighter, walked over to Banks and introduced himself: PC Smythe, from the nearest village, Molesby.

“So you're the one responsible for waking me up at this ungodly hour in the morning,” said Banks.

PC Smythe paled. “Well, sir, it seemed…I…”

“It's okay. You did the right thing. Can you fill me in?”

“There's not much to add, really, sir.” Smythe looked tired and drawn, as well he might. He hardly seemed older than twelve, and this was probably his first major incident.

“Who called it in?” Banks asked.

“Bloke called Hurst. Andrew Hurst. Lives in the old lock-keeper's house about a mile away. He says he was just going to bed shortly after one o'clock, and he saw the fire from his bedroom window. He knew roughly where it was coming from, so he rode over to check it out.”

“Rode?”

“Bicycle, sir.”

“Okay. Go on.”

“That's about it. When he saw the fire, he phoned it in on his mobile, and the fire brigade arrived. They had a bit of trouble gaining access, as you can see. They had to run long hoses.”

Banks could see the fire engines parked about a hundred yards away, through the woods, where a narrow lane turned sharply right as it neared the canal. “Anyone get out alive?” he asked.

“We don't know, sir. If they did, they didn't hang around. We don't even know how many people live there, or what their names are. All we know is there are two casualties.”

“Wonderful,” said Banks. It wasn't anywhere near enough information. Arson was often used to cover up other crimes, to destroy evidence, or to hide the identity of a victim, and if that was the case here, Banks needed to know as much about the people who lived on the barges as possible. That would be difficult if they were all dead. “This lockkeeper, is he still around?”

“He's not actually a lockkeeper, sir,” said PC Smythe. “We don't use them anymore. The boat crews operate the locks themselves. He just lived in the old lockkeeper's house. I took a brief statement and sent him home. Did I do wrong?”

“It's all right,” Banks said. “We'll talk to him later.” But it wasn't all right. PC Smythe was clearly too inexperienced to know that arsonists often delight in reporting their own fires and enjoy being involved in the fire fighting. Hurst would now have had plenty of time to get rid of any evidence if he had been involved. “Heard anything from Geoff Hamilton yet?” Banks asked.

“He's on his way, sir.”

Banks had worked with Hamilton once before on a ware-
house fire in Eastvale, which turned out to have been an insurance fraud. Though he hadn't warmed to the man's gruff, taciturn personality, he respected Hamilton's expertise and the quiet, painstaking way in which he worked. You didn't rush things with Geoff Hamilton; nor did you jump to conclusions. And if you had any sense, you never used the words “arson” or “malicious” around him. He had been browbeaten too many times in court.

Annie Cabbot joined Banks and Smythe. “The station received the call at one thirty-one
A.M
.,” she said, “and the firefighters arrived here at one forty-four.”

“That sounds about right.”

“It's actually a very good rural response time,” Annie said. “We're lucky the station wasn't staffed by retained men.”

Many rural stations, Banks knew, used “retained” men, or trained part-timers, and that would have meant a longer wait—at least five minutes for them to respond to their personal alerters and get to the station. “We're lucky they weren't on strike tonight, too,” he said, “or we'd probably still be waiting for the army to come and piss on the flames.”

They watched the firefighters pack up their gear in silence as the darkness brightened to gray, and a morning mist appeared seemingly from nowhere, swirling on the murky water and shrouding the spindly trees. In spite of the smoke stinging his lungs, Banks felt an intense craving for a cigarette rush through his system. He thrust his hands deeper into his pockets. It had been nearly six months since he had smoked a cigarette, and he was damned if he was going to give in now.

As he fought off the desire, he caught a movement in the trees out of the corner of his eye. Someone was standing there, watching them. Banks whispered to Annie and Smythe, who walked along the bank in opposite directions to circle around and cut the interloper off. Banks edged back toward the trees. When he thought he was within decent range,
he turned and ran toward the intruder. As he felt the cold, bare twigs whipping and scratching his face, he saw someone running about twenty yards ahead of him. Smythe and Annie were flanking the figure, crashing through the dark undergrowth, catching up quickly.

Smythe and Annie were by far the fittest of the three pursuers, and even though he'd stopped smoking, Banks soon felt out of breath. When he saw Smythe closing the gap and Annie nearing from the north, he slowed down and arrived panting in time to see the two wrestle a young man to the ground. In seconds he was handcuffed and pulled struggling to his feet.

They all stood still for a few moments to catch their breath, and Banks looked at the youth. He was in his early twenties, about Banks's height, five foot nine, wiry as a pipe-cleaner, with a shaved head and hollow cheeks. He was wearing jeans and a scuffed leather jacket over a black T-shirt. He struggled with PC Smythe but was no match for the burly constable.

“Right,” said Banks. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing here?”

The boy struggled. “Nothing. Let me go! I haven't done anything. Let me go!”

“Name!”

“Mark. Now let me go.”

“You're not going anywhere until you give me a reasonable explanation why you were hiding in the woods watching the fire.”

“I wasn't watching the fire. I was…”

“You were what?”

“Nothing. Let me go.” He wriggled again, but Smythe kept a firm grasp.

“Shall I take him to the station, sir?” Smythe asked.

“Not yet. I want to talk to him first,” said Banks. “Come on, let's go back to the canal.”

The four of them made their way through the woods back
to the smoldering barges. Smythe kept a firm grasp on Mark, who was shivering now.

“See if you can scrounge up some tea or coffee, would you?” Banks said to Smythe. “One of the fire crew's bound to have a flask.” Then he turned to Mark, who was staring at the ground shaking his head. Mark looked up. He had pale, acned skin, and the fear showed in his eyes, fear mixed with defiance. “Why won't you let me go?”

“Because I want to know what you're doing here.”

“I'm not doing anything.”

“Why don't I believe you?”

“I don't know. That's your problem.”

Banks sighed and rubbed his hands together. As usual, he had forgotten his gloves. The firefighters were resting now, most of them in silence, sipping tea or coffee, smoking and contemplating the wreckage before them, perhaps offering a silent prayer of thanks that none of them had perished. The smell of damp ash was starting to predominate, and steam drifted from the ruined barges, mingling with the earlymorning mist.

As soon as Geoff Hamilton arrived, Banks would accompany him in his investigation of the scene, just as he had done on that previous occasion. The fire service had no statutory powers to investigate the
cause
of a fire, so Hamilton was used to working closely with the police and their scene-of-crime officers. It was his job to produce a report for the coroner. There had been no one hurt in the warehouse fire, but this was different. Banks didn't relish the sight of burned bodies; he had seen enough of them before, enough to make fire one of the things he feared and respected more than anything. If he had to choose a floater over a fire victim, he'd probably choose the bloated misshapen bulk of the former rather than the charred and flaking remains of the latter. But it was a tough choice. Fire or water?

And there was another reason to feel miserable. It was now
early on Friday morning, and Banks could see his planned weekend with Michelle Hart quickly slipping away. If, indeed, the fire had been deliberately set, and if two people had been killed, then it would mean canceled leave and overtime all around. He'd have to ring Michelle. At least she would understand. She was used to the vagaries of the police life, being a DI with the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, still living and working in Peterborough despite the controversial outcome of the case she and Banks had worked on there the previous summer.

PC Smythe came back with a vacuum flask and four plastic cups. It was instant coffee, and weak at that, but at least it was still hot, and the steam that rose when Smythe poured it helped dispel some of the dawn's chill. Banks took a silver hip flask from his pocket—a birthday present from his father—and offered it around. Only he and Annie indulged. The flask was full of Laphroaig, and although Banks knew what a terrible waste of fine single malt it was to tip it into a plastic cup of watery Nescafé, the occasion seemed to demand it. As it happened, the wee nip improved the coffee enough to make the sacrifice worthwhile.

“Take the cuffs off him, would you?” Banks asked Smythe.

“But sir…”

“Just do it. He's not going anywhere, are you, Mark?”

Mark said nothing. After Smythe had removed the handcuffs, Mark rubbed his wrists and clasped both hands around the cup of coffee, as if its warmth were sustaining him.

“How old are you, Mark?” Banks asked.

“Twenty-one.” Mark pulled a dented packet of Embassy Regal out of his pocket and lit one with a disposable lighter, sucking the smoke in deeply. Seeing him do that made Banks realize they would have to have the boy's hands and clothing checked for any signs of accelerant as soon as possible. Such traces didn't last forever.

BOOK: Playing with Fire
11.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Lord Greywell's Dilemma by Laura Matthews
Six Celestial Swords by T. A. Miles
A Painted Goddess by Victor Gischler
The Song of the Siren by Philippa Carr
State Ward by Duff, Alan
The Healing by Frances Pergamo
How to speak Dragonese by Cressida Cowell