There was no natural light. Just the hazy glow of a city after dark.
But that was enough.
Enough to carry out his work. To create his final masterpiece.
The can of spray-paint resonated comfortingly in his hand as he shook it – an action more of reflex than necessity. He knew the sound would not betray him. Cities like this never fell silent. There was always a hum, a backing track to his clandestine endeavours, sufficient to shroud his every move.
With his free hand, he clung to a support on the outside of the bridge; his feet edging slowly along a narrow ledge. This was his office. The underworld office of an urban artist.
And exhilarating beyond compare.
The artist began to paint. Deftly. With natural sweeping movements. Like the master of an ancient martial art. And like those timeless disciplines, there was honour at stake in his works too. Not just from the mastery of the craft, but from the audacity of the canvas. Illicit, unreachable, perilous.
This would be his finest creation. It had to be. There would be no more after this one.
No more art. No more days. Not even the coming sunrise.
Not for him.
He worked intensely, with the flair of a dancer but the precision of a machine. Until the last mark was made, and the work was complete.
When the end came, it was swift. To the observer, had there been any, it would have been over in a moment. But to the artist, as he fell, he was no longer bound by the rules of time. He felt a great relief – a release from all worldly pain. He sensed the Earth coming up to reclaim him, and he welcomed it. And then there was nothing. He was one with nature again.
For him, the event was the most significant of moments on his journey. The final moment. The end.
For most, it barely registered, on the day that followed. The merest flicker of firing neurons. A morsel of news that obscured the consciousness only long enough for it to be rapidly swiped from view to make way for the next.
For one unknowing individual, it was the begining of a new chapter of their life.
Detective Chief Inspector Harlyn Quaye arrived at the scene just before seven in the morning. Earlier than he’d liked. He preferred to be at least partially acquainted with the new day before he started tiptoeing through body parts. But some dead people just aren’t that considerate.
Despite the hour, traffic had already solidified to a parking lot in the vicinity, partly due to the burgeoning collection of blue-flashing emergency vehicles and partly due to the incident having closed a train line into the centre. The need to get commuters back on the move was paramount – so he’d been informed by his superiors. Whether this would influence his haste in assessing the scene was yet to be determined, but unlikely at best.
As a further contribution to the traffic chaos, Quaye haphazardly ditched his car half-way up the pavement by Parson Street station, then got out and fetched his suit jacket from the back seat. The day was growing hot already. Over the last few weeks, the country had been experiencing one of those periods of weather that would once have seemed out of place before thirty-odd years of climate change. Now hurricanes and heatwaves were equally commonplace, and today it was the latter. In fact, already too warm for a suit jacket and tie, but chief inspectors were not yet permitted to adopt a smart-casual approach to workwear – not even on a Friday. There was a certain expectation to adhere to. The expectation that potential crimescenes were best surveyed by irritable detectives, Quaye assumed.
He approached Parson Street station. Although, identifying this particular stop on the line as an actual station was arguably overselling it. It was just two short platforms either side of two tracks. There was a set of steps leading down to each of the platforms and, on this occasion, at the top of each, a uniformed officer stood sentinel. Quaye badged one of them, who greeted him with a good morning.
The steps were steep and narrow, and each one seemed to slope forward in a disconcerting fashion. Quaye made his way down gingerly in his slick-soled shoes, reasonably determined not to add his name to the death toll at the station this morning.
A good few hundred yards along the line, some way beyond the end of the platform, he could see the site of the incident. To reach it he would have to make his way along the tracks. As he placed his foot on the rail, his mind cast back to his school days. He remembered how his class had been made to watch a video about railway safety that was so harrowing it would be classed as child abuse today. As with most moderate levels of so-called ‘child abuse’ that had since been banned, the approach served its purpose admirably, striking a lifelong fear of walking on train tracks into the souls of his classmates. In his case, not so much. No shivers of unease running down his spine; no nervous glances over his shoulder for oncoming locomotives. That’s just the way he was.
Up ahead, the scene itself was cordoned off in standard fashion. Though Quaye doubted a three-inch wide strip of blue-and-white tape was going to do much to protect anyone from the seven-fifteen to Bath Spa, should it not have gotten the memo about the track closure.
As he neared the cordon, a female officer approached to greet him. At least, he was obliged to assume she was an officer, based on the uniform she was wearing, even though she barely looked old enough to be on work-experience. He realised this assessment was in part just a reflection of how old he felt some mornings. Though, in truth, his own appearance was not as lacking in youth as it might be. He had to keep himself in shape for certain aspects of his life. Only a few specks of grey at his temples hinted at his admirable progress through his fourth decade.
‘Morning, sir,’ the officer said, thrusting out a hand. ‘PC Katrina Wilcox.’
‘Morning,’ the detective responded absently, already surveying the scene. ‘DCI Quaye,’ he added, though apparently no introduction was necessary. The constable had clearly been appraised of his attendance.
The area was littered with mounds of unpleasantness, concealed from the sensitive eyes of potential onlookers by blood-stained sheets. Fortunately, most of the gruesome remains were beneath the bridge, hidden from public view. Between them and beyond, both rails of the train track were slick with a red sheen.
‘We’ve been expecting you,’ Wilcox said, smiling. By ‘we’ she meant the British Transport Police. This was their territory, so the smile was reassuring. Quaye had been called in as the ‘most available’ senior detective in the area, just for oversight.
‘What do we have here?’ Quaye asked.
‘The varied remains of a white male who seemingly fell from the bridge up there.’ She pointed. ‘And who was subsequently hit by a train.’
‘When was this?’
‘All we can be sure of is that the train came through here at six-fifteen. But on the assumption that the fall would have rendered the individual unconscious or dead, the body could have laid on the tracks for some time. The likelihood is that he was performing his handiwork in the small hours – any time after midnight I would say.’
The detective took a step back and looked up at the bridge above, adjusting his eyes to the bright sky behind. On the stonework were geometric and angular sweeps of red, black and silver paint. He had the vague impression that the shapes formed letters, but not ones he could make out. The graffito looked fresh and unfinished.
‘What does it say? Can you make it out?’ Quaye asked.
Wilcox turned to get a proper look at the paintwork. After a moment she shrugged. ‘No. It’s a bit like any handwriting,’ she reflected. ‘If you knew what it said you could probably read it.’
Quaye acknowledged the observation and squinted at the markings some more, tilting his head one way, then the other. It didn’t help.
‘Do you think it’s relevant?’ Wilcox asked.
Quaye tried to gauge whether this was a polite way of her suggesting she thought it wasn’t.
‘Maybe,’ he replied. ‘Maybe not. But I don’t like not knowing things, all the same.’ He flashed a quick smile at her then adjusted his stance, in line with his thought process.
The question was always the same in circumstances like these. Did he jump, did he fall, or was he pushed? Given the incomplete nature of his artwork, the first of these options seemed implausible. If Quaye knew one thing about the mind of a graffiti artist – and that was about all he did know – it was that the art was all about making a statement. If you knew it was going to be your last, you’d make sure it was finished.
‘Can we be sure this was his handiwork?’ he asked.
‘He had a rucksack with a number of spray-cans in it. And one more was recovered from the track.’
The detective nodded. In all likelihood, this was a straightforward case of misadventure. But it was the coroner’s place to make that call, with all pertinent evidence at his or her disposal.
‘Nothing on him.’ She held up a clear plastic evidence bag. ‘Except some cash and a Waitrose receipt for …’ – she read it – ‘… a hummus and falafel flat-bread sandwich.’
Quaye raised an eyebrow. ‘Hmm, the good-old Waitrose hummus and falafel flat-bread sandwich. The go-to pre-vandalism snack for all middle-class graffiti artists, so I hear.’
‘Indeed,’ agreed Wilcox, acknowledging his sarcasm. ‘Bought with cash last night,’ she added. ‘So we might be able to source some CCTV. But in the meantime, we have nothing to ID him.’
The detective looked up at the bridge again.
‘Nothing except his name daubed in six-foot high letters on the side of a bridge.’
Wilcox followed his gaze. ‘Unfortunately, the whole point of graffiti, of this kind at least, is anonymity. His peers might recognise the work, but the authorities are less well placed.’
The detective accepted the statement contemplatively. ‘Rather inconsiderate of them not to jot their LinkedIn details alongside. Could be missing some commissions.’
‘It’s almost like they’re not business minded,’ Wilcox concurred playfully.
Quaye returned his focus to the sheet-covered remains. ‘Okay, well I don’t know which pile his fingers are in, but get what you can of his prints. And dust all the spray-cans too. Wouldn’t be surprised if we have him or one of his cohorts on file.’
Wilcox made a note in her book.
It was time for Quaye to take a closer look at what was left of the victim. Wilcox knew her way around the scene by then and lifted each sheet in turn. It didn’t make for pleasant viewing, but Quaye had seen worse. He knelt down to inspect a left arm.
‘TAG Heuer,’ he announced indicating a smashed watch on the victim’s wrist. ‘Expensive.’
‘Or fake,’ pointed out Wilcox.
Quaye pulled himself up straight. ‘But the rest of his clothes. Mostly designer brands too. Ralph Lauren polo shirt, Hugo Boss jeans.’
‘What are you thinking?’ Wilcox asked.
‘Dunno.’ Quaye shrugged. ‘Just not what I was expecting, I guess. But, then, clearly, I didn’t know what to expect.’
‘The dangers of stereotyping,’ Wilcox pointed out.
‘Guilty as charged,’ Quaye admitted.
The detective turned back to face the platforms, to survey the wider scene. To his left, running down one side of the tracks was the high red-bricked wall of an industrial unit. On the other was a high viciously-spiked fence. Behind the fence was overgrown wasteland initially, but a bit further along the line was a row of terraced houses, whose gardens backed up to the fence. Due to the curve of the track, the houses were at a slight angle to the bridge making it unlikely anyone would have seen much from a window, but someone at the end of the garden might have done.
Just as the detective’s eyes landed on the gardens, he was briefly dazzled by a flash of light, as if the sun had been caught by a small mirror. But then it was gone. He peered more closely, but he could see nothing.
‘Do a door-to-door,’ Quaye requested of Wilcox. ‘See if anyone saw anything. And gather what footage you can from any cameras in the area.’
‘Sir,’ she confirmed and turned away to instruct other officers.
Standing alone, the detective took a moment to absorb the scene. He had a sense that something wasn’t quite as it seemed. But it was just a feeling that tickled at the edges of his mind; nothing he could get a grip on. Nothing he could justify an exhaustive investigation on if the evidence didn’t allow. He snapped himself out of his reverie and pulled his phone out to take a few pictures, in particular of the graffito above. This was a subculture at the heart of this city, but not one he’d had cause to brush up against.
Now it was time.
Lisa was late getting ready for school, which wasn’t entirely unusual. It was not that she was a particularly girly girl. She didn’t take an inordinate amount of time to get ready. She just found it hard to get out of bed some mornings. Burning the candle at both ends her dad might say, if he knew about both ends. But he only knew about one of them, and that was for the best.
She brushed the last of the knots out of her long hair – pale like her skin. She was used to it being fair again, now that her Goth phase had long since passed. The black had been washed away, cosmetically at least. Just as the dark ivy leaves around the doorframe had been replaced by colourful floral stencils. All making her out to be the normal well-adjusted schoolgirl she was expected to be. Despite … everything.
Lisa got down to the kitchen just too late to hear the story on the news. Her dad turned off the radio on her arrival. He was making them both sandwiches for lunch. To the best of her knowledge, Lisa’s dad had had cheese-and-pickle sandwiches every working day for at least the seventeen years she’d been alive. It was a little joke she’d shared with her mum when she was still around.
Lisa sat down at the breakfast table, poured herself a bowl of Cheerios and stared at them blankly. A few moments later her dad sat down opposite.
‘You planning on eating them or drowning them?’ her dad enquired, nodding at the bowl.
She smirked wryly at him to acknowledge the sarcasm.
It wasn’t that she was uncommunicative, as was the criticism often levelled at her peer group. Not anymore anyway. It was just that sometimes her mind operated in a different realm, and opted to stay there until something invited it back to the real world.
She looked down at her bowl. Then carefully lowered the underside of her spoon into the milk, until it spilled over the rim. This was a ritual of hers. One of them. She had to do this three times without a rogue ‘O’ breaching the defences. Usually, this was not a problem – she’d grown very adept. But today was different. On the third attempt, a honey-nut Cheerio came spinning into the spoon like a rubber ring at a water park. She paused, a sense of unease flooding through her veins.
At that exact moment, her phone buzzed beside her on the table.
She looked at her dad with wide eyes.
He looked back.
‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘You know the rules. No screens at the table.’
‘But this is a bad sign,’ she said emphasising the ‘bad’ and raising her spoon slowly into view.
Her dad smiled and shook his head in amusement.
‘Don’t say it!’ Lisa insisted.
Her dad refrained. He liked to refer to these such ‘signs’ of hers as Cheeriomens. Comedic gems like this are what dads are good for, it seemed.
‘I’m serious,’ protested Lisa.
‘Then eat your breakfast quicker.’
She did. She inhaled the bowl of cereal and all its portents of doom with great haste, before launching from the table with her phone in hand. Unlocking the screen she saw that someone had sent her a private message on her blog. It was a guy called Luke. He’d commented on her blog before, a number of times, but they’d never communicated directly.
She opened the message. It just said, ‘It’s Gioco’, followed by a link. She clicked on the link. It took her to a Breaking News article on the local news website. The headline read:
Graffiti Artist Dies in Bridge Fall.
She stood motionless, blood draining from her face until it was as pale as her shirt.
It couldn’t be, she thought. It just couldn’t.
Her dad noticed her frozen form.
‘You okay?’ he asked.
Her head snapped around at the sound.
‘Err … yes,’ she responded hesitantly. ‘I’m fine.’ She punched a response into her phone and hit send, then grabbed her bag from the back of the chair.
‘Don’t forget your lunch,’ her dad called after her.
Lisa turned and grabbed it from him. ‘Thanks.’
She stuffed the lunchbox into her bag, then bundled herself into the hallway and out of the front door. After a few steps she cursed herself and turned back, shaking her head. Back inside she quickly checked the alignment of all the shoes in the hallway. Another of her vital rituals. She figured it might be especially important today; the fates needed all the guidance she could offer.
She walked at pace, and read the news report once again as she did so. It didn’t have much detail – not even a specific location. But if Luke had known it was Gioco, he must know where – he must have seen it. Not the incident, the artwork. She’d asked him in her message for the location. In the meantime, she didn’t know where she was heading – other than not to school. Not yet. She just needed to get out of sight of the house and off the route of the school run, while she waited for a reply.
This was bigger news than most people realised.
The man sat in contented silence on a trackside bench at Temple Meads station, until a train rolled in and clattered to a halt. After a pregnant pause, the locomotive spilt its human cargo onto the platform, right in front of the man. People skittered past him without affording him even a glance, all keen to be elsewhere as a matter of urgency. Much the same as when he sat on the streets of the city centre, or sheltered in a doorway on Park Street, or simply existed just about anywhere. The vague notion of his kind meant something to these people, in a peripheral kind of way. The homeless guy, the tramp, the beggar, the vagrant. But he did not belong in their sphere of existence. The sphere of existence where people got trains and commuted and busy-busied themselves across platforms.
This time, though, he didn’t mind. Didn’t dwell on his insignificance to them.
This time, he was asking for nothing.
Today, he had what he needed – had found what he’d been looking for.
He flicked through the pages of the sketchbook in his hands, as he had done so a thousand times before; every sheet full to the edges with drawings – some elaborate and detailed, some just the seminal outline of an idea that might one day be born.
He stopped at a particular page near the middle of the book and turned it to sit landscape in his hands. Not that he needed to – he knew intimately what it looked like. He knew it was the same as on the wall in front of him. He looked up again at the derelict postal sorting office standing adjacent to the station; an open canvas for local artists, yet relatively untouched – presumably due to the robustness of the security. But there, right at the top, was the image he’d been searching for. Just like the one on the page before him.
The mere presence was not that significant. He’d found the same tag in a dozen places about the city. The significance of this particular example though was not to be overlooked. And the significance was simple.
It wasn’t there yesterday.
The artist was still active.
The artist was still in town.
That’s what was important; that the man’s search had finally been validated.
Satisfied with his find, the homeless guy returned his sketchbook to its plastic carrier bag and wrapped it up tight, before packing it into his duffle bag. Then he headed to Platform 4. He didn’t have a ticket to get out through the barriers at Temple Meads. From Platform 4 he could get a train along a branch line, get off at the first stop, where there would be no barriers, and walk back to town. The train would consist of only two or three carriages, but he knew that as long as he got on at the right end, he’d be off before the ticket inspector reached him. These were the tricks you learned as a homeless guy in Bristol. Not that most would recognise him as such today. Just a man with a beard, scruffy clothes and a duffle bag. He’d stashed his other belongings in the doorway of a disused building in town.
His train plan came off smoothly. When he’d made it back to the centre, he found a friend of his sitting on one of the giant steps at the amphitheatre. He was glad to find him. Because to his friend he was not just the homeless guy. To him, he was a person.
He was Raymond.
‘What are you doing here, Eric?’ Raymond asked.
‘Watchin’ the skateboarders,’ Eric stated like it should have been obvious. ‘You knows how I like the noise. Kach-ch-ch kach-ch-ch-ch.’ He tried to imitate it. ‘Likes a train.’ He grinned a toothless grin.
Raymond sat down next to him. ‘Here,’ he said, offering a can of beer from his bag, which was eagerly accepted and opened.
‘Where’s you bin, anyways?’ Eric asked.
‘Not looking for that artist again?’ His own words prompted a thought. ‘Oh, you knows Valerie.’
‘Yeah, we saw her couple weeks back. Going round and round the roundabout with her trolley.’ Eric swirled his finger in the air.
‘Oh yes.’ Raymond remembered the trolley, so laden with bags, mounded inside and hanging around the edges, that virtually no sign of a trolley was actually visible. ‘What about her?’
‘Spoke to her, ‘bout your artist. She says she knows a guy who knows a guy that might know.’
‘Great.’ Raymond wasn’t optimistic.
‘Let me ‘ave a page of that book and I’ll show it her.’ Eric reached for the sketchbook poking out the top of Raymond’s duffle bag. His attempt was rapidly thwarted.
‘No! Don’t touch that.’ Raymond grabbed the bag to his chest. ‘You don’t need to have a sketch. There’s plenty on the walls. You just need the name. Gioco. Yeah? Can you remember that? Gioco.’
Eric looked confused.
‘I’ll write it down.’ Raymond tore a scrap of paper from a copy of the Metro he’d picked up at the station and wrote the name on it in clear capital letters. ‘There,’ he said. ‘Gioco. Tell that to your friend. Ask if anyone knows who it is.’
With that, he walked off, to go reclaim his stuff. As he trudged along, he found himself harbouring a sense of frustration that he just couldn’t shake. And he began to reflect on his place in the world.
His life hadn’t always been this way. He used to have a wife and a job and a home. But he’d learned the hard way that nothing was constant. Not even one’s state of mind.
Especially one’s state of mind.
Sometimes an event can occur that will make you switch track. Consciously or otherwise. The life he used to lead was no longer his – no longer even felt real to him. A life he kept locked in a box.
Three years earlier…
Lisa didn’t want to go home today. She hadn’t wanted to for a while. Not since it had happened. Too many memories. They said she shouldn’t really be at school. But she preferred it there. Marginally. Her dad obviously felt the same about being out of the house. He was not handling things well. And at this time, when being together, being there for each other, ought to help, it did not. It was just a stark reminder of who was absent; of not being whole.
So today, she didn’t go home. Didn’t get on the bus with her schoolmates. Just started walking. She wasn’t looking for anything in particular – other than herself. If that didn’t seem too cliché. She ended up on Park Street, browsing around in little shops and boutiques – figuring that was what a fourteen-year-old girl should want to do. But she didn’t. Not really. She found no solace in it. Moreover, it meant being social. Putting on a face to parry the nauseating hospitality.
Hello, can I help you?
No! Fuck off.
She realised she was most comfortable just being on the streets. As long as she walked, as long as she kept moving, she didn’t feel out of place, didn’t feel lost.
She did feel alone. But it was a loneliness that wouldn’t be remedied by the presence of others. In fact, the more people that surrounded her, the lonelier she felt. At this realisation, she trudged away from the centre of town, sought out new streets and alleyways. And in those dark places, she found new friends. Flat and two-dimensional maybe, but vibrant and colourful too. Sometimes. Not always. Sometimes just grungy and ugly. And that became the challenge, the quest to occupy her mind. To heal her soul.
She wasn’t an expert in graffiti. Living in Bristol, she couldn’t help but be aware of it. It was part of the fabric of the city. Most of it was just vandalism. To counter this, its destructive nature, the city authorities had welcomed it in its legitimate form. Whole sides of buildings overtaken by masterpieces – sometimes four or five stories high. These were captivating. She’d never really appreciated them before. Now she did. With nowhere else to be, she just stood and studied them. Though it was not these grand works that gave her most comfort. It was the more subtle pieces that attracted her attention.
Low down on one wall, Lisa found a stylised image of a horse smoking a pipe. It had crazy eyes and goofy teeth. It was playful. But more importantly, it was surreal, and this pleased her; spoke to her need for escape.
Nearby, Lisa was surprised to find a character that stirred fond memories of her childhood. A simple stencilled image of Paddington Bear, with his duffle coat and his suitcase. Lisa’s mum used to read her stories about the little bear when she was small. Seeing him again now, she recalled how excited she had been when she’d first visited London as a young girl, arriving at Paddington station, which seemed vast beyond compare.
The character, with his deepest darkest homeland in mind, had been chosen by the artist to make a point. Migration is Not a Crime were the words stamped in ink underneath the little bear on the wall. It made Lisa smile. She hadn’t smiled for a while.
The smile faded quickly when her phone rang. It was her dad.
‘Where are you?’ he demanded.
‘So you should be home.’
Where you can treat me like I don’t exist some more? she thought, but didn’t say it out loud. She just hung up and turned off her phone.
That’s how it started for Lisa. Her first steps into the world of graffiti. From that point forward she spent a lot of time scouring the streets. After a while, the quest became more focused, more systematic. Street-by-street she mapped out her findings. Taking pictures on her phone and making notes. At first just for herself, but then she posted them to a blog too. In truth, this didn’t expand her reach beyond a total of one either. Not for a while anyway.
A few months after her task had begun, Lisa started to feel she needed a way into the scene, if she were to truly understand it. She’d read books, but now she needed to meet people. In this world, this underworld, she was ready to meet people. She likened her occupation to that of an investigative journalist, like the ones she saw on the news in far-flung war-torn corners of the world. And she knew that if she wanted to report on this particular corner, she would need to make contact – with someone. But there were two problems. One, she was fourteen, and, two, she was a girl. The natural homelands of the graffiti artists, in this town at least, were raves and skateparks. Neither readily accessible territory to a middle-class schoolgirl. Ultimately, she had to resign herself to the fact that this was a world she would always be at a distance from.
But then, she saw him.
Just along the path ahead of her.
It was very early in the morning when Quaye picked up the young woman. The sun had yet to rise, and there were no lights in the remote location he’d been told to meet the other guys. It only took a moment. She was bundled unceremoniously from their vehicle to his, with nothing more than a few grunts to accompany the proceedings. Then he was driving. Just him and her, deeper into the wilderness.
Quaye didn’t say anything when they set off, just glanced across to assess the woman’s condition. Her hands were bound. She was gagged and blindfolded. In the dim glow of the dashboard he could see she looked grubby and had bruises up her arms. She was shivering with fear and cold.
It made him feel sick.
It always made him feel sick.
He turned up the climate control a couple of notches, then uttered his first words as softly as he could.
‘You’ll be warm in a minute.’
She flinched at his voice, but otherwise did not respond.
After five miles or so Quaye pulled the car off the road. He could only imagine what must run through the mind of a woman in her situation at such an event as pulling into a layby; an event normally so mundane.
He let the car come to rest for a moment, then spoke in as reassuring a voice as he could muster.
‘I’m going to untie your hands, okay?’
There was no immediate response, then a slight downward nod, indicating her comprehension.
She had been bound with a couple of industrial cable ties. Quaye leant across and made two swift snips with a pair of wire cutters. The woman rubbed her raw wrists in relief.
‘You can take off your blindfold and gag now,’ Quaye said. He didn’t want to encroach on her personal space any more than he had to. He felt compelled to build trust even though he didn’t need to. He knew he could treat her like the other guys had, all the way to the end of this and it wouldn’t make a difference to the outcome. In fact, it would make it easier to arrive at the right outcome. But something within him couldn’t bear the thought of someone having the wrong opinion of who he was. Even though she would never know who he really was. It was not such an odd compulsion. In fact, it was an evolved trait. Like leaving a tip in a restaurant you’ll never go to again, or waving another car out at a junction. It’s not altruism, it’s something much more powerful.
Manners make the world a bearable place to exist, and Quaye was not about to abandon them now. That was the beginning of a slippery slope. And he didn’t have the appropriate footwear.
Quaye stole a brief glance to study the girl. She was young. She had the defined bone structure reminiscent of her homeland. One that radiated beauty, even from behind tired reddened eyes and dirt marks on her cheeks. All the same, he knew she’d be horrified at her present state. In gaining her trust, he knew he could do no better than giving back control of her own appearance.
‘If you want to freshen up,’ Quaye said, nodding toward the glove compartment. In there were some cleansing wipes and a hairbrush. He stopped short of providing a selection of make-up. That would just be weird.
His passenger didn’t say anything, but she pulled down the vanity mirror to study herself. As she set about fixing her face up, he reached over to grab something from the back seat. The woman flinched at the movement, and he apologised for not forewarning her.
‘Here, if you’re hungry,’ he said handing over a selection of pastries and a flask of coffee.
She clearly hadn’t been fed that well by the way she started devouring food. It was half way through a second pain au chocolat that she finally found the confidence to speak.
‘Who are you?’ she asked.
‘I’m the negotiator,’ Quaye replied matter-of-factly. ‘You’re going home today.’
She studied the ever-diminishing and steepening track they had been following into the rural hillside. ‘This isn’t the way home,’ she said nervously.
‘No, I’m sorry. But … we have to go through the motions.’
‘I don’t understand,’ she said with an obvious crack in her voice.
Quaye looked at her. ‘I know.’ He unfastened his seatbelt and got out of the car. ‘Enjoy your breakfast.’
He sat on a grass bank, facing back toward the car. Besides his guest, he was alone. There was probably no one for miles in any direction, such was the remoteness of this place. But the situation brought to mind many vivid memories of people.
The worst of people.
And the best.
And as he strained to concentrate on the latter, it only seemed to bring the former into sharper focus. Sharper, colder, darker.
He closed his eyes, tried to will the thoughts away, but he couldn’t shake them. Instead, he felt the cold tip of a gun barrel firmly pressed to the back of his skull, as if it were really there.
The day the deal was struck.
‘Tell me where she is,’ the voice had said behind him, calm yet menacing. It was Myco. The worst of people. He was talking about Jessica. The best.
‘You know I can’t do that.’
Quaye was on his knees, facing the wall. He hadn’t seen the face behind him, but then it wouldn’t have made any difference. Myco was a man of many faces.
‘Mr. Quaye, you don’t seem to understand the seriousness of this situation. We have invested a lot of time and money in Jessica.’
That was true. They played the long game, these people. ‘She is in our debt. She can’t just walk away. That’s not part of the deal.’
‘I understand. But you must understand that I can never hand her over to you.’
‘Then you are willing to exchange your life for hers?’
‘That’s exactly the deal I am offering.’
Myco had meant it by way of death, of course. Quaye had not.
There was silence for a moment as the gang lord considered this.
‘What are you suggesting?’
‘I’m a detective. She’s a doctor. I must be worth at least as much to you.’ It sounded like a game of chess. And that’s pretty much what it was, on a grander scale. A knight for a rook. ‘So, let me take her place,’ Quaye continued. ‘Take on her debt to you. In return, she is free of any further obligation.’
The gun barrel had been pressed against his skull all this time. Now the pressure was finally gone. Quaye took this as an acceptance of the offer, but he remained motionless – did not dare to turn around. He heard footsteps, a door open, and then, just before it shut again, the words:
‘You will be hearing from us.’
When he came back to the present, Quaye found himself staring at the patch of grass in front of him, elbows on his knees, fingertips rubbing his temples. He flicked his head up to the car opposite and locked eyes with his hostage. The gaze lingered for a moment until Quaye snapped himself free, and pulled himself into an upright position, assuming the appropriate stature for today’s role. Whatever that was. Hostage taker, negotiator, common thug, good citizen. He wasn’t sure anymore, just played along to the beat. Waiting for the music to stop, so he could finally take a seat.
He checked his watch.
It was time.
He got back into the car. The girl studied him but didn’t say anything. The engine burst into life at the turn of the ignition.
‘Let’s get this done,’ he said out loud to himself, as the car skidded away.