Vinny Bennett looked up from the desk. He was a kindly, stupid man who would never progress beyond the rank of sergeant. Justin liked him for his innocence and honesty. The station was empty that night. The dog days of summer were upon them. People were on holiday, coppers and customers. The nick had the air of sullen boredom about it.
“I got this event up at Beulah tomorrow night. What if something happens? What if I need back-up? How long will it take?”
“Beulah, Beulah. All I bloody hear about is Beulah,” Bennett moaned. “You and your village. Those buggers from CID are still sniffing around, you know?”
“They found anything?” Justin asked hopefully.
“Nah. You can see it written on their miserable faces. Not that they’ll let on. Pissing in the wind, as usual.”
“Understood. But like I said. What if I need help tomorrow night?”
Bennett’s big, bucolic face looked puzzled. “Back-up? For Beulah? What you got on up there, boy? Sheep shagging en masse?”
“Nothing… I don’t know. It’s just that I wonder sometimes. What if I did need help? How would I get it? And how long would I have to wait?”
“Amazed you have to ask. You ought to know the answer already. How long did it take when that poor old woman got burned to death? Best part of an hour I recall. And what do you expect? Bloody place is stuck up there on the Downs, middle of nowhere. Nothing happens. Doubt they’d call us if it did. What are we supposed to do? Stick a couple of cars down in Wye waiting for them to pick up the phone?”
“An hour?” The closer Burning Man got, the more fuddled he became when he tried to think his way through the evening. Marjorie, with the aid of Mitch Blamire and whoever else was in her ring, would attempt to place someone inside the straw man, of that he now felt sure. There would be an attempt to disguise the fact before the figure was dragged to the bonfire. They could drug the victim. They could wait until the flames were at their very height, then hurry out, throw the effigy straight into the blaze, do everything so quickly that the ordinary bystanders didn’t notice. There had to be some kind of disguise. It was impossible to believe that everyone around the fire — ordinary people, like Sara Harrison — knew what was going on too.
But this train of thought had such implications. There had to be somewhere they could keep the intended victim beforehand, render him or her unconscious, and then hide the body inside the straw figure. It was this place that he needed to find. Waiting for the fire itself would be such a risk. He had to catch them in the act of preparing for the murder. And when he did, he had to contain the situation long enough for help to arrive. He thought of Mitch and those strong, muscular arms, like stubby tree trunks. At least this year there was just one Blamire boy to deal with, and whoever else had been roped into the game. All the same, it was not an encouraging prospect.
Bennett was looking at him with a touching degree of concern. “If you’re worried, lad, say so. We can sort something out.”
“It’s just an instinct,” Justin replied with a shrug.
“An instinct? Cripes, I can’t help you there. Guvnor wouldn’t like me committing resources on instinct.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s probably nothing.”
Vinny Bennett watched the young copper shuffle off down the corridor, back towards the CID offices and the coffee machine. They all knew the gossip in the nick. Justin was on the way out. Unsuitable for service. And maybe a cloud hanging over him too, though Bennett found it hard to believe Justin would get involved in anything seriously bad. “Kids,” he said to himself.
Down the corridor, mind racing Justin Liddle walked into the toilets and settled in the first cubicle. He stared at the obscene graffiti scratched on the wall and listened to the heaving and grunting coming from someone three traps down. This was his life, locked inside some tiny, stinking cell, alone, with no horizon, no hope. He thought of Alison and his heart rose in passion and despair.
If there was one reason why he lost this game it was, he judged, a lack of decisiveness. There was no going back. Alison was lost, forever. But he could still leave her one last talisman, one final gift.
He took out a ball pen and a plain, civilian notepad, wrote the message with his left hand, folded it over once, and scrawled the name “Detective Wills” on the front. They would check the paper for prints. Wills would wonder about the handwriting, and how the unknown informer had come to know his name. But by that time he would be gone.
Then he waited, for more than an hour, alone in the toilet, his head becoming clearer, seeing a path through these problems. After the change of the ten o’clock shift, when the nick was good and empty, he walked down the corridor to Wills’ office and left the note on his desk. Quickly and efficiently, he rifled the filing cabinets, took out every piece of paper that had some relevance to Alison and Sarah and stuffed the haul into a plastic supermarket carrier.
With a satisfying sense of finality, he walked out into the clammy town air at eleven, drove to the Eurostar station and bought an open one-way ticket, usable on any train, any day, for the fast service to Marseilles, changing at Lille. He knew nothing about his destination but the name sounded promising. This was a port. Boats came and went from all over the world. There were horizons, blue and bold and empty, stretching in every direction.
A mile down the road, in a lonely cul-de-sac, he parked the car at the old, abandoned railway works, poured lighter fuel on the pile of papers and touched them with a match. Blackened flecks lifted on faint flames towards a fusty yellow moon. For the first time in his life, Justin Liddle felt ready to run.
(c) David Hewson 2012