It’s been three months since Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy returned home, or what was left of it after a horrific tragedy. All that remained was charred masonry, broken timbers, and dried blood—a crude reminder of the home invasion and explosion that tore his house and family apart. McAvoy’s wife and daughter are safe, he’s been assured; he just wishes he knew where they were.
As McAvoy wrestles with his guilt, self-hatred, and helplessness, trouble persists in stormy Hull. Organized crime emerges as the city’s latest threat, with two warring factions leaving plenty of bodies for Detective Superintendent Trish Pharaoh and her unit to clean up. Now more than ever, Pharaoh needs her sergeant to return to work and be a policeman again. She gives McAvoy a case that’s supposed to ease him back into the game: a re-investigation of a rural quadruple murder that was put to bed fifty years ago. But what was supposed to be a cut-and-dry job quickly unravels as McAvoy digs up new evidence and witness testimonies, steering him closer to some of the most notorious criminals in northern England.
Fast-paced, noir-ish and fresh off the heels of Sorrow Bound’s violent finale, Taking Pity is the latest page-turning installment in the gripping Detective McAvoy series. Hailed by The New York Times as being “in the honorable tradition of Joseph Wambaugh and Ed McBain,” David Mark’s police procedurals are smart, dark, and above all, wholly captivating.
From the Hardcover edition.
"Taking Pity is a police procedural thriller that pulls no punches...Another terrific mystery/suspense novel by a master of the genre." —Midwest Book Review
"There seems to be no end to the vile deeds to be encountered in [Hull]." —The Wall Street Journal
“Hurry up and read the first three novels in this amazing series, because the fourth installment featuring the huge and huge-hearted Aector McAvoy is the best yet...Author Mark creates vivid, poignant characters that drive this series, from the complex McAvoy to his gypsy wife; from the tenacious Pharaoh to various supporting saints and villains. The ending is a stunner.” –The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Mark’s excellent fourth novel . . . weaves a complicated web of deception, betrayal, and violence as the action builds to a stunning conclusion.” —Publishers Weekly starred review
“A dark, bloody, twisting tale of love, hate, and greed you can’t put down.” —Kirkus Reviews starred review
“Det. Sgt. Aector McAvoy is recovering from tragedy, living with his young son in a flat near the burnt skeleton of his old home and easing back into work with what should be a straightforward investigation of suspected police wrongdoing. But it leads him to some very bad guys. Fourth in a dark and much-starred series.” —Library Journal
From the Hardcover edition.
DAVID MARK’s Taking Pity is the fourth novel in the Detective Sergeant McAvoy series. Mark lives in Yorkshire, England.
MARCH 29, 1966
John Glass tips his head back, as though draining ale. Gulps down some of the late-evening sky. Sees faces form and shift in the storm clouds: unfolding like crumpled, dirty lace and drawing a veil over a full, yellow moon.
“You still don’t belong, John . . .”
Though not quite drunk, he is edging toward a maudlin, philosophical state of intoxication. These wide-open spaces still trouble him. He is a city man in city clothes, masquerading as a part of this place. He feels like a wrong note. He is a discordant presence; an intruder. This is a landscape of greens and browns, of straw and earth. He is a speck of blue. Fancies himself as a bluebottle, buzzing ineffectually against dirty glass . . .
He feels his starched collar rub at the back of his neck.
“Sober up, John. Sort yourself out.”
He scratches at the sore patch at the top of his spine with cold, clumsy knuckles and takes the top off a scab. Grunting, he raises his fingers to his face and catches the whisper of his own blood. He doesn’t like it. Drops his hands and adjusts his clothing. Winces as he feels the white material of his shirt absorb the tiny crimson droplet.
He breathes deep.
Shivers unexpectedly as he drinks down the night air with its tang of pulverized crops and churned earth.
“Another beautiful night . . .”
He lets the weather do its work.
Feels the soft kisses of falling snow. Feels a harsh wind chewing at his exposed face and hands. Feels the pleasant haze of alcohol give way to the cold grumble of sobriety.
He gives a little shake. Centers himself. Swallows a burp of beer and pickled egg.
Stares up into a sky the color of dying flowers.
Turns back to the car, trying to warm his hands on the shit-streaked bonnet without actually touching the metal.
“End of the bloody world,” he says into his chest, leaning on the open door of the vehicle and gesturing with a sweep of his arm. “Furthest you can go without getting wet.”
The driver of the vehicle leans across: his big, round face all benevolence and bewilderment.
“You say something, John?”
Police Constable John Glass screws his eyes up again. Hopes that when he opens them, he’ll be somewhere else.
“Just thanking my lucky stars, Davey. Just enjoying the view.”
Glass reaches back into the vehicle and picks up the torch from the passenger seat. As he does so he leans on his tie, the knot suddenly bunching around his Adam’s apple and bringing a chill wave of nausea up from his gut.
“Should have stayed in the pub,” he says, though he has said it several times already.
He feels a smoker’s tickle in his lungs and gives in to a fit of coughing, punctuating the outburst with curses. Takes a deep breath. Tries to cleanse his nasal passages by sticking a finger into each nostril and inhaling. Fills with the smell of Woodbines and salted peanuts.
“My own fault for enjoying myself . . .”
It took the pair of them only a couple of minutes to drive here from the alehouse, but it had been long enough for him to absorb a whole cloud of heavy agricultural smells, and for most of Davey’s sheepdog to attach itself to his navy blue trousers. Despite that, it took an effort of will to get out of the vehicle. It had seemed warm and harmless in there. Had felt like a pocket of metal certainty in this vast, flat sea of crops and earth. He looks at the open gate. At the darkness beyond. PC Glass scratches at his short hair. He rubs his fingers at his temples, dislodging his cap with the big, blunt end of the black torch. The hat slides halfway down his face and he has to make a grab for it before it falls into the thick mud. Makes a mental note to take his shoes off before he drags it through the house when he gets home.
He fastens his tie.
Buttons his collar.
Pulls a packet of chewy toffees from the deep pocket of his long blue coat.
Switches on the torch and sweeps it downward to illuminate the patch of mud that is sucking at his shiny black shoes.
He points the torch back toward the car. Notes that the silly bastard has squashed a little patch of flowering snowdrops under the back tire. Makes a note to tell Davey off when he gets back, then decides he probably won’t bother. The lad’s done him a good turn. He would have hated to have cycled down here. Not at this hour. Not in these conditions. Not to this place, beneath a sky heavy with darkness and snow.
“Move it, lad,” he tells himself. “Get the job done.”
PC Glass is thirty-one years old and a decent enough copper. He’s done an adequate job looking after this patch of rural East Yorkshire. The locals tolerate him. He knows the villains. He’s taken only a couple of punches since he left his native North East, and they were thrown while in drink. He is a person first and a policeman second. He accepts people for what they are. Their vices tend to mirror his own. He likes a few pints after work. Likes a grope of a pretty girl and knows that if he gets a slap he has gone too far. Likes avoiding the taxman now and then on the odd box of imported cigarettes and brandy. He does what he’s paid to do. He stops trouble. He keeps the peace. He enforces the law, if it’s helpful. And he sometimes leaves a pint of bitter on the bar so he can go and attend a report of gunplay at a half-abandoned church in the middle of bloody nowhere.
“Bloody spooky, lad. Watch yer arse.”
Glass is muttering to himself as he approaches the gate of the small gray-brick church that has stood on this patch of ground for more than six hundred years. In this light it gives off little air of majesty. It is a squat, angular building surrounded by a low wall made of stacked stones. At its front is a long, stained-glass window, which looks oddly liquid against the stone. To the rear is a copse of woodland; all charcoal branches and spindly limbs.
Glass bunches his fists and shakes his head as the gate to the churchyard creaks. Above him, something large and feathered rustles the uppermost branches of a tall tree, then beats at the air with a sound like skin on skin.
“Hello,” he says, more to himself than to anybody else. “Police.”
Glass swishes the torch. His feet have found the shingle path to the wooden front door of the church. To his left, the beam illuminates a flash of color. He glances at the snowdrops and daffodils that spring from the thick grass around a rectangular tomb. Sees lichen on gray stone. Sees old iron railings, punched deep into soft, wet earth.
“We know it’s you, Peter. Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. But this can’t go on . . .”
Glass’s words are met with silence. He sighs. Flashes the torch to his right. Sees newer headstones, fresher pain. Reads names and dates chiseled into granite, and lets his torch beam linger on the soggy posies nestled against cold, unfeeling rock. “Peter?”
From the rear of the church, Glass hears the soft chink of stone on stone.
“Peter? You’re not in trouble, I told you . . .”
Glass means his words as he says them, even though he cannot rule out giving the simpleton a clip around the ear before sending him home. He’s had to deal with the lad before. Given him warnings, tellings-off, and a couple of rough shoves in his efforts to get him to act a little more civilized and a lot less of a prat. He thought he’d been making headway. Thought the slow-witted farm boy may have turned a corner and started behaving himself and working hard. No such luck. Glass had been halfway down his fourth pint when word reached him. Peter bloody Coles. Taking potshots at airplanes from the grounds of St. Germain’s Church out at Winestead.
Glass scowls as he pictures himself not twenty minutes before, perched on a bar stool in his civvies, supping ale and telling Colin the barman that Jimmy Greaves was no certainty come the World Cup and that Jack Charlton could keep his temper and do a job in defense if he was managed the right way. It had been a pleasant enough bloody evening. He’d planned another pint, then home to Enid and the boy. She’d promised toad-in-the-hole with onion gravy for his evening meal. Was going to cut the accompanying white bread and margarine into triangles to make it posh. Would probably have come and sat on his lap once the nipper was in bed and let him press his face to her ample bust until his legs went numb. Then the big bloke in the army boots had tapped his shoulder and told him what he’d heard at Winestead.
More than one.
Said he knew it was a farming community and that it was probably nothing important but thought he should tell the authorities or he wouldn’t be able to sleep . . .
Glass had got young Davey to run him home. Changed into his uniform and splashed cold water on his face. He could have gone in his street clothes but the chief constable would have a field day if word got back to him.
Curse of the rural bobby, Glass had said to himself as he pulled on his shiny black shoes and halfheartedly slipped on his tie. They always know where to bloody find you . . .
He coughs. Adds some authority to his voice.
“Peter? I thought we were past this, son. I’ve told you, haven’t I? It’s not me. It’s not even your gran you should be thinking of. It’s the bastards at the RAF base. They’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks. What if you hit a plane, eh? Or put a window through in the church? Peter . . .”
As he talks, Glass finds his feet leaving the gravel. His shoes sink into springy grass, speckled with fallen snow.
The young man is sitting with his back against a gravestone, chucking pebbles at a tomb. A shotgun lies uncocked and doglegged across his knees. He looks up at Glass’s voice. Holds up a hand to shield his eyes as Glass raises the torch beam.
Through a veil of tumbling snow and gathering darkness, Glass sees the dirt on the young man’s hands. Sees, too, the splattered color on his face. Across his neck. Upon his lips.
Glass feels his chest tighten. Smells his own blood inside his face; behind his nostrils, in his mouth.
“It all went bad,” says Coles, looking down at the ground. Then he raises his face and tries to catch a snowflake on his tongue. He looks straight at Glass, then past him, to the dark tangle of trees. “Am I going to prison?”
Glass follows the young man’s eyes. Squints and raises the torch.
The body is draped over a half-fallen gravestone, arms dangling to brush the longest blades of grass that push upward from the corpse-fed ground.
“Oh, sweet Jesus . . .”
Steam rises like a freed soul from the holes in the back of the corpse’s head.
Glass raises a hand to his mouth and fumbles with the torch. It drops to the ground, and rolls gently down a slope of wet grass. Its beam exposes the second body. This one is female. Young. Shapely. Half-dressed, and with her blouse ripped open and the bra pushed up.
Stumbling, slipping, Glass reaches the corpse. Her face is in shadow, and it is only as he retrieves his torch and shines it upon her that he sees that most of her head is missing.
As he recoils, he smells blood and gunsmoke.
The girl’s body is only a signpost to the next dead. In snow and blood and darkness, PC John Glass staggers from one body to the next.
Veiled by tumbling snow, the world turns dark.
“Does it matter if I’m sorry?”
Peter Coles’s voice is small and childlike against the nighttime silence.
John Glass is too consumed with the blood rushing in his head to hear the boy’s repeated question. But in the darkness of the sheltering trees, his words are heard by another.
Tall, powerful, the figure watches silently as the policeman slips and falls over first one body and then the next; his clothes matted with dirt and blood and brains.
The man’s answer, when it comes, is little more than a breath.
“Sorry doesn’t matter. This is how it had to be.”
He slinks back between the dark trunks of a forest nourished by bones.
Fades into the snow and the night.
MONDAY MORNING, 10:14 A.M. A meeting room in the Charing Cross Hotel.
The heart of London, and a long way from home.
It’s a place of comfortable, high-backed chairs. Expensive carpets. Pictures of ships in chunky frames. Tartan curtains framing windows made murky by a hard rain thrown down from a sky the color of rancid meat. The whir of a dozen laptops and the distant swish of tires through dirty water. The honk of angry motorists and the soft thunder of trains rattling through the station next door. The rattling breath of smokers and the unsubtle glug of liquid down the throat of a buxom, dark-haired, middle-aged woman in biker boots and a black dress . . .
Detective Superintendent Trish Pharaoh lowers the cup. The coffee tastes of cigarettes and perfume. Extra-strong mints and vodka. Cardboard and sweat. It tastes of her mouth.
She wipes lip gloss from the plastic lid. Sits her takeaway latte down on her sheaf of papers and reaches over for a china cup filled with strong tea. Grabs a Jammie Dodger from the plate in the center of the long varnished table. Curses under her breath as the cookie crumbles around her bite. Brushes crumbs from her face and her damp clothes with a hand that smells of cigarettes. Of cold coffee. Of gin.
“Trish? Anything to add?”
Pharaoh turns her eyes to the man opposite. Soaks him up for an instant.
His name is Detective Superintendent Nick Breslin and he’s high up in the Metropolitan Police’s Secret Intelligence Service. He’s younger than her. Slicker. Maybe six feet tall. Slim, but with muscle definition beneath his smart checked shirt and plum-colored suit. He looks box fresh. Clean. Looks like he’s thought about every inch of his appearance, from the simple gold wedding band to the frameless spectacles. Looks like a man who will be chief constable before he’s forty-five. The sort of man who insisted she be at Grimsby Train Station at 6:10 a.m., shivering her arse off and facing a day in a city she hates. This “symposium” is his baby. It’s a “meeting of minds.” A chance to share information. A place to “push the envelope” and do some “blue-sky thinking.” Pharaoh hasn’t seen any blue skies in years. The only envelope she wants to push is a big square cardboard one—right down Breslin’s scrawny throat.
She turns her head back to the image on the big pull-down screen at the far end of the room. Looks at injuries she has seen too many times before. Looks at the face of a man who died in agony. Flicks her gaze over congealed blood and fingers curled inward in pain. Studies black ink and purple bruising. Absorbs the tar-black ruination of the dead man’s chest and the stripes of bone that peep out from behind the churned, burned flesh.
“There’s no doubt,” she says. “Our boys. Our bastards.”
Breslin nods and sucks his cheeks. Gives her some twinkle.
“I believe you refer to them as the Headhunters?”
Pharaoh meets his expression. Manages a smile in return.
“One of my officers came up with it. It kind of sums them up. That’s what they do. They talent-spot. They look for people on the up and they recruit them. It’s run like a business. Like a consultancy.”
Breslin nods again. Looks down at the folder in front of him and makes a note with a ballpoint pen.
“To use your corporate analogy, it seems they have their eyes on a lot of hostile takeovers.”
Pharaoh wonders if he wants a gold star. Of course they’re fucking expanding. They’re branching out, moving up, and taking over. That’s why she and all the other poor bastards are here.
She looks around the long, high-ceilinged function room. Narrows her eyes at the other senior officers who have been dragged away from catching killers and rapists to sit eating cookies and drinking coffee in a hotel she could never afford to stay in. They all look similarly wrung out. All soaked through and pissed off. They have better things to be doing. They all run CID units the way they choose to and have been around long enough to remember when a meeting such as this would have been conducted through a fog of blue cigarette smoke and to the sound of whiskey glasses hitting stained desks. To Pharaoh, this all feels too polished. Too anodyne. Too far removed from the nature of what they do. She wants somebody to swear or shout or break wind and laugh about it. She wants to feel like she’s in a room full of coppers who use words like “bastards” when talking about the bad guys and “poor bitch” to describe a victim.
Breslin steeples his fingers and looks at the dozen men and women who sit around the oval table. He beams like a politician. Turns to his left and whispers something in the ear of the woman sitting next to him. She hadn’t introduced herself when they were doing the meet and greet at the start of the session. Breslin had simply said that “Anne” was here to help. She had a “watching brief.” She was a “great asset.”
Pharaoh considers her. Young. Short brown hair. Looks classy and sexless in a round-neck, long-sleeve shirt and cream jacket. Her scarf looks expensive. Her jewelry, too, though it’s subtle and not designed to catch the eye. There’s an intelligence to her, and Pharaoh fancies that this is somebody she wouldn’t want to be playing poker against.
Breslin looks down at his notes again. “Arthur. You had something you think may be relevant?”
A stocky, fifty-something man with luxuriant white hair and a blue suit gets to his feet. He gives a nod and a civilian officer clicks a button on the laptop in front of her. The image on the screen changes. It shows a strip of shingly beach on which a male forearm, wrapped in cling film, is sitting next to a yellow evidence marker.
“This is Lloyd Moore,” says Detective Superintendent Arthur Blowers in a broad North East accent. “Or, it used to be. Lloyd’s been the face of villainy in Newcastle for the best part of twenty years. His dad, Dermot, had the honor before him. Crime family in the proper sense. Old-school. Didn’t court the media, but those in the know knew his name. Lloyd had a bit about him. Relatively fair man, provided you didn’t upset him. Done a few minor stretches but it was always a bitch to pin anything on him. Witnesses tended to scarper or lose their bottle. Evidence would disappear. Plenty of other people intruded on his turf over the years but they never lasted long.”
“Muscle?” asks a short, stocky woman with a gray perm and glasses, whose accent ensured she hadn’t needed to tell anybody she was from Birmingham during the introductions.
Blowers sucks on his lower lip. Gives a smile that suggests a grudging respect and affection for the man he is about to describe.
“Well, that’s the thing,” he says. “Lloyd may have been the public face, but those with long memories may remember this chap.”
A new image flashes up on the screen. It’s a shot from the 1960s. Black-and-white. It shows a squat, bulldog-looking man in a double-breasted pin-striped suit and a flat cap. He’s been captured on camera coming out of a brightly lit building with two tall, intimidating men in black suits and ties. The two men look so similar they could almost be twins.
“Is that . . . ?”
Blowers gives that grudging smile again. “Yep. You know all those stories and urban myths about the Geordie gangsters turning away the London boys at Newcastle Station? It’s bollocks. This man let them in. Then he did a deal with them. And he’s been top dog ever since.”
“And he is?”
“Francis Nock. He’s eighty-one years old now, and we haven’t had anything tying him to organized crime since the seventies, but that may well be because he’s very good at it. We’ve had people in his operation before. We had one in Lloyd’s outfit until recently. And from what we can tell, Nock has been the man who says yes or no, live or die, since the sixties. For all intents and purposes, he’s a retired property developer. Suffers with arthritis and diabetes. Looks forward to his daughter’s visits from Spain. Holidays in Panama when he’s well enough. But he’s the one who Lloyd has been reporting to all these years.”
“And you think the Headhunters bumped Lloyd off to send a message to this old boy?”
Blowers shakes his head. “No, I think your Headhunters approached Lloyd and offered to back him. They wanted him to turn against the old man. I think they offered to give him the crown. And I think Mr. Nock found out about it. And Lloyd ended up an arm on a beach.”
There are exhalations from around the table.
“And who does Nock’s dirty work?”
Blowers chuckles. He clicks a button on the laptop and nods appreciatively as the screen fills with a prison mug shot. It shows a handsome man in his late twenties, with thick hair swept back from a face with cheekbones so sharp they could slice the breeze. He’s looking at the camera with soft, inquisitive eyes, and has the appearance of a big man afraid he might hurt somebody by accident. It’s a look that Pharaoh recognizes.
“This was Raymond Mahon in his prime. He was arrested in the late sixties following an incident in a pool hall, for which no charges were brought. Handsome devil, isn’t he?”
Blowers clicks the laptop. Enjoys the change on everybody’s faces as the image on the screen morphs into something new.
“This is the same man in 1976, when he began a lengthy stretch for blowing the face off a man in a Denton pub with a double-barreled shotgun.”
The assembled officers give a chorus of curses and grimace at the image on the screen.
“He served seventeen years. Other pictures were taken but we don’t have them anymore. You can probably thank Mr. Nock for that. Further images were taken upon his release and during his interactions with his probation officer, but they, too, are no longer in our possession. He’s clearly camera shy. You can see why.”
The image is hideous. One whole half of Mahon’s face looks as if it has been torn away. A glass eye pokes out from inside a cave of tangled, livid skin. His hair looks like it has been burned off on one side and grows patchy on the other. His lower lip is missing a chunk and his teeth are exposed in a grisly mockery of a smile.
“What the hell happened?”
Blowers shrugs. “Lots of urban myths. We’ve heard he did it to himself while strung out on LSD. Another story goes that it was done to him in prison by some southern gangster while he was asleep. We know he’s alive. He’s not such a mess now, but you won’t see him on the cover of Men’s Health anytime soon. We know he’s a killer. And we know that, at the moment, we can’t locate him or Francis Nock.”
“And you want to talk to them both about Lloyd?”
Blowers looks at Breslin as though he’s a toddler. “Yes, sir, that would be very helpful.”
Breslin waves Blowers back to his seat. He flicks through his notes again. Tries to find the right facial expression. Leans over to Anne and gets no reaction to whatever it is he whispers in her ear this time.
“Fucking hell,” says Pharaoh under her breath, but with enough gusto for it to be heard by all.
“So, just to recap . . .” says Breslin, looking at each of the officers in turn. His focus lingers on a haggard, round-bellied detective chief inspector from Nottingham. The man is still sweating off last night’s ale. He’s an unhealthy green around the edges and has a whole spaghetti loop crusted onto the lapel of his supermarket suit. His name’s Melvyn Eades and he’s a bloody good thief taker. He’s also a man with a temper, a limited vocabulary, and a pathological hatred for southerners. Pharaoh likes him. His presentation to the other officers had been quick, and to the point. Two bodies on his patch. Both tortured almost to death. Hands nailed to their knees and a blowtorch used on their bare chests. Finished off with a nail to the temple. The bodies were thrown from a moving vehicle in the early hours of the morning. Dumped, like rubbish, on a cobbled street near the entrance to the city’s castle. Both men had ties to Andy Hadrian, who had been looking after the city’s cocaine and firearms needs for as long as anybody could remember. Hadrian had played the hard man in the interview room. Given them nothing. But Eades had a man on the inside and a bug in the bastard’s phone. Hadrian wasn’t just rattled. He was fucking terrified.
Despite his presentation being cut short by an unhappy Breslin, Eades had at least managed to give the little symposium its first bit of positive news. Something was causing the Headhunters a little disquiet. Rumor was that they had recruited someone to the firm who was doing things very much his own way. Somebody was refusing to follow instructions. They had stopped listening to the voice at the other end of the line. They were causing the organization a little upset. And that could only be a good thing.
Eades rolls his round head on his fat neck and sniffs noisily.
“To recap, sir, you’re on the money. They’re taking over existing firms. They’re looking at which outfits make money, and then they’re telling the man at the top that he now works for them. He can pay them a cut of his profits, or they’ll go to his number two and make the same offer. They’ll give demonstrations of what they can do. Andy Hadrian’s not an old man. He’s got years ahead of him. He’s got kids. He wants to live to have grandkids. He can keep his lifestyle and his life if he just bows his knee. I think he’ll do it. He’d rather have these people on his side than against him.”
Breslin whispers to Anne yet again. Nods. Turns back to Pharaoh.
“And we’re certain they started out in Humberside?”
“East Yorkshire, actually, Nick.”
“No such place as Humberside.”
“But you’re with Humberside Police . . .”
“Yeah. Stupid, isn’t it?”
Damp, tired, hungry, and hungover, Pharaoh wants this meeting to be over. She wants to tip the rest of the Jammie Dodgers into her handbag and run for the train. She wants to get home. Back north. Back to her four daughters and semidetached house. Back to catching killers and putting an arm around those who need it. Back to her shitty bloody life and all the things she’s good at.
“We don’t think that perhaps they were operating elsewhere but your team was just the first to come into contact with them?” asks Breslin with a little more steel to his voice.
Pharaoh sighs. Takes a handful of her hair and wrings it out onto the carpet.
“It started in Hull. Or at least that’s where they got good. We reckon it was no more than a year ago. Couple of blokes turned up at a cannabis plant run by the Vietnamese. Held a phone to the foreman’s ear and he got the message from their boss that he now worked for somebody else. Next thing, every dealer who got their supply from anybody else was finding themselves on the wrong end of a nail gun. The new firm recruited. Picked some rising stars. Couple of serving dealers. Some muscle. Even got a big name in the traveler community to join them. We had some successes. Put some away. But we haven’t scratched the surface. They’re too well-connected—”
Breslin holds up a hand. Looks down at the papers in front of him.
“I understand one key prosecution had to be dropped following allegations of assault by one of your senior officers.”
Pharaoh bites her cheek but can’t keep the sneer from her face.
“That’s not strictly true, Nick. DCI Colin Ray was suspended following an accusation from a suspect. The prosecutors were still debating the merits of bringing charges when the other incident took place. Fortunately for all concerned, that suspect is no longer an issue. Or a person.”
Pharaoh keeps her eyes on Breslin’s. Forces him to look down. Counts to ten in her head as she waits for the next question.
“The suspect in question is now dead, yes?”
Pharaoh rubs a hand across her face. Takes a sip of tea then a swig of cold coffee. Remembers the phone call that shattered everything.
“Yes, Nick, he’s dead. So’s a civilian. One of my officers may never come back. A good man lost everything that mattered. But yeah, the little bastard’s dead. We’ll miss him.”
Pharaoh throws herself back in her chair. She’s breathing hard. Thinking of Roisin McAvoy. Of Helen Tremberg. Of the poor dead bitch who took the full force of a hand grenade blast to the chest. Of her sergeant and friend, Aector McAvoy. Of what he has become in the three months since he left the hospital and returned home to charred masonry, broken timbers, and dried blood.
Breslin seems about to speak when the woman beside him leans in. Her lips brush his ear as she speaks. He seems to like it.
Through an awkward expression, Breslin suggests they adjourn for a short break. It’s met with considerable enthusiasm from the assembled cops.
Pharaoh is first out the door, reaching into her handbag for her little black cigarettes and lighter. She thunders down the wide spiral staircase, knocking over ornamental tea lights with her clumsy feet. She’s already inhaling nicotine as she barrels across the broad, tasteful lobby and out through the revolving door into the rain and smog of a city that doesn’t give a shit if she lives or dies.
She leans against black railings and watches two black cabs try to nudge a bus into a bicycle lane. Listens to the British flag flutter damply above her head as it drips water onto the feet of the homeless man in the sleeping bag curled up by the wall. Watches pedestrians skip through puddles and between cars, clutching takeaway coffees and mobile phones. Watches the commuters pour in and out of Charing Cross Station. All individuals. No conversation. All headphones and iPads and paperback books. No new friends. No neighbors.
Christ, she wants to go home . . .
“Trish. Could I borrow you?”
Pharaoh spins and finds herself facing the mysterious woman from the meeting room. The woman’s not panting. Not damp. She looks poised and cool, and appears to be holding back a laugh. She gives off the impression of having followed Pharaoh through the revolving door and emerged first.
Pharaoh turns her head to avoid blowing smoke into the woman’s face. Gives her a wary look.
“Don’t worry,” says the woman. “Breslin. I think he’s a prick as well.”
Pharaoh leaves it a whole half second before letting her emotions show. “He’s just so . . .”
The woman whom Breslin had called “Anne” finishes the sentence for her. “So oily?”
“Oily,” says Pharaoh, mulling it over. “Yeah, that would do it. I’m sure he’s very good, but . . .”
“He’s not,” says Anne dismissively. “Not good at what you do, anyway. He’s good at the media and public appearances and coming up with information-sharing working groups like this bullshit, but I can’t imagine him holding back a dozen rioting Millwall fans, can you?”
Pharaoh gives Anne a more considered appraisal. “You’re a cop?”
Anne shrugs. “Sort of.”
Pharaoh runs her tongue around her mouth. “SOCA?”
“I’m on secondment.”
Anne nods in the direction of the Thames, vaguely indicating the general direction of Westminster and the politicians who hold the Serious Organized Crime Agency’s leash.
Anne smiles. “Can I have one of those?”
Pharaoh is about to retrieve a cigarette from her bag when Anne takes the one from Pharaoh’s lips. She sucks on it deep and breathes out with a wince.
“Gasping,” she says by way of explanation.
Pharaoh pushes her wet hair back from her face. Lights herself another cigarette.
“I think I like you,” says Pharaoh, nodding.
Anne shakes her head. “You won’t soon.”
“We need a favor.”
Anne uses her left foot to point tiredly in the direction of Westminster again. In the direction of Parliament. In the direction of a viper’s nest full of people like Breslin.
Pharaoh holds Anne’s gaze.
“I thought you were here for Breslin’s symposium,” she says. “Thought you were making sure we hadn’t missed anything obvious, like bodies on the lawn or a surge in nail-gun purchases.”
Anne sucks half an inch off the cigarette and lets her smile drop.
“No, I’m here for you. You and McAvoy.”
Pharaoh seems to freeze. Every protective instinct in her being comes rushing to the surface.
“He’s on sick. Will be for as long as he wants to be. What he’s been through. What he’s done . . .”
Anne nods. Looks at the ground.
“We understand. We also understand the situation he’s currently in. The financial problems. We don’t need very much. Just somebody thorough to check that somebody else has done their job right. It might be good for him. It would be very good for you.”
Pharaoh examines her, hard.
“Tell me,” she says.
Anne grinds out the cigarette beneath an expensive heeled boot. “Can you imagine spending nearly fifty years in prison for something you didn’t do?”
“Well, I’m married. So, yeah . . .”
“Can you imagine spending fifty years locked up without a trial?”
Pharaoh winces. “I bet the press could fill in any mental gaps.”
Anne nods. “A test case is coming to court. The home secretary has a personal interest. A certain man has been locked up under the Mental Health Act since 1966. And now his doctors say he’s sane. So the home secretary wants him tried for a mass murder committed back in the days when England could still play football.”
Pharaoh scowls, confused. “But the law doesn’t work like that . . .”
“We just need a case building on the off chance our minister gets his wish. We need to show we’re doing what he wants and that if it comes to court nobody will end up looking silly. We need to know everything was done right.”
The two don’t speak for a time. The rain continues to fall. A businessman marches past shouting the word “cunt” into a mobile phone. An attractive black woman thrusts leaflets into the hands of some passing tourists while eating a pot of cold salad and trying to send a text message.
“I can’t promise anything,” says Pharaoh at last. “What he’s been through. If you saw him. He’s living out of a suitcase. He’s broken.”
Anne traces the outline of her mouth with a finger. Purses her lips. “Would be worse if his sick pay was withdrawn.”
Pharaoh’s face seems to turn to stone.
“You couldn’t do that.”
Anne simply gives another nod in the direction of Westminster.
Pharaoh grinds her teeth and looks at her fingernails. Wonders when she began to chew them down so far.
“He’s good, this McAvoy?” asks Anne tactfully. “His file could be read in one of two ways.”
Pharaoh lights a fresh cigarette. Holds the smoke in her lungs until stars explode in her eyes.
“A good detective, I mean.”
Pharaoh blinks slowly. Says nothing and just lets the rain fall upon her face. She remembers the day when the call came through. McAvoy had been found, half-dead, with a serial killer cuffed to his wrist. Ambulances on the way. And then, seconds later, the call from Hessle Police. McAvoy’s home destroyed in an explosion. People trapped inside. At least two dead . . .
Pharaoh has wanted him to come back to work for weeks, and he has pushed and pushed to be allowed to. But her duty as a friend has outweighed all other desires and she has insisted he be a father first and a policeman second. His wounds still weep when he exerts himself. He is suffocating under the weight of death and separation. Can’t seem to find the strength to put a kiss on the end of his text messages anymore. Can’t seem to find the strength for much more than holding his son and squeezing him until they seem to fuse.
She will agree, of course. She will do the Home Office their favor. She will let McAvoy loose on a case full of ghosts and long-dried blood. She will do so for many reasons, but more than any other, she will agree so that she has a reason to call him. To visit him in that hellish place. To give him the hug and the kiss on the cheek that sustains her in a life where the only love and affection she receives is from her children.
To remove her guilt for robbing him of his wife and child.
Pharaoh looks at the other woman and wonders whether she knows. Wonders if the Home Office and the various intelligence services know of the threats to Roisin McAvoy, and the way Pharaoh broke the rules to spare her sergeant’s heart.
She pushes out a lungful of smoke and nods her assent. Then she turns on her best smile.
“I’m going to need a favor . . .”
MCAVOY’S SIGH paints a patch of condensation on the window. It does little to change the view. It simply makes the wet car park and the pewter sky a little more fuzzy around the edges. For an instant the scene appears in soft focus. It takes on the appearance of a soggy watercolor: hung on the wall too early and reduced to puddles, trickles, and smears. Then his breath clears and the scene returns.
It is 8:06 p.m. and McAvoy is leaning against the window in the largest bedroom at The Lodge, a few miles west of Hull. It has been home for more than three months. Were he to use a mirror on a stick he would be able to see the Humber Bridge. Would be able to watch the waters of the estuary ripple and pop beneath the teeming rain, as though millions of fish were rising up to feed. But the only window in this small, rectangular room faces the car park, and the most exciting thing he has to look at is the arse-end of a Transit van. It has at least given him a brief bit of cheer. In the dust on the double doors, somebody has written Please overtake quietly—refugees asleep.
The Lodge is a squat, red-roofed, cream-painted building that backs onto the dense woodland of the Country Park. It offers easy access to the foody pub a hundred yards away across the patch of rutted tarmac he has come to think of as his front garden.
He used to like it here. Used to come here with his wife . . .
He shakes the thought away. Fills his head with the first memory he can think of. Finds himself remembering this view during the summer months. He had gone to sleep to the sound of laughter and clinking glasses during the brief spell of warm weather. He may have gone to sleep in tears, but the sounds that bled into his nightmares had at least been cheerful ones.
Summer has come and gone. The leaves have turned and begun to fall. Black clouds hang heavy over a city the rain never seems to wash clean. On a gray, miserable autumn night, the car park is home to only a dozen cars and most of them belong to the staff. McAvoy has gotten to know them pretty well these past few weeks—the employees and their vehicles alike. Has heard life stories over his daily cooked breakfast. Has learned which duty manager will make a fuss if he fills a carrier bag with bread rolls and fruit from the buffet table. Has made friends with the dumpy little chef who works two nights a week and who hasn’t made up her mind whether she wants to mother him or ride him like a racehorse. Whatever her motivations, she has yet to run out of excuses for making him and Fin an evening meal, which they haven’t paid for whenever she’s on duty.
McAvoy turns from the window. Looks at his son, asleep in the bed they share. Fin is five and the double of his father. Big for his age. Red-haired. Soft brown eyes and a wary smile. A look of worry on his face when in repose. He’s a handsome lad with pale, freckled skin, unsullied and perfect. That is where father and son differ. Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy has scars. A livid furrow runs from his left eyebrow to his cheek, bisecting a faint, jagged line that travels from the corner of his mouth to disappear into the permanently damp hair at his temple. Fire has made its mark upon his back. A blade has carved a trench into his clavicle. The puncture wounds upon his shoulders still need to be redressed each morning and night. He’s six-foot-five, with limbs like railroad ties and huge, broken hands. He looks the way his people have for generations. He may be a crofter’s son from the banks of Loch Ewe but it would not take much effort to imagine him wielding a broadsword and cutting soldiers in half.
While McAvoy hates the image he projects, Fin finds his father’s appearance fascinating. Even got himself into trouble at school for drawing a particularly accurate portrait of his dad when his class was doing a project on heroes. He’d told his teacher his dad was a detective. A knight in shining armor. And he’d used a red crayon to show the gruesome toll that such work has taken on him. McAvoy hadn’t told the boy off. Had been too busy blushing at being thought of as a hero.
McAvoy readjusts the covers around Fin’s sleeping form. Brushes his hair back behind his ear and breathes the boy in. These are the hardest moments. After tea. After Fin’s shower. After a story and a kiss and some memories of Mammy. By eight p.m., Fin is always softly snoring and McAvoy is alone with his loneliness.
Several months ago, McAvoy’s new home was partially destroyed in an explosion. Roisin’s best friend, Mel, took the brunt of the blast. Blameless, guileless, she had done nothing to deserve the destruction wreaked upon her slim body by the shrapnel and flames. Roisin had been concussed by falling masonry and suffered gruesome wounds to both legs. Despite that, she had managed to crawl to their baby daughter, Lilah, and had been cradling her among the smoke and flames when the fire crew pulled her out of the wreckage. She’d bitten one of the paramedics to the bone when they’d tried to take Lilah from her grasp. The firefighters found Detective Constable Helen Tremberg, too. Her wounds were worse. It was touch and go whether she would survive. Touch and go whether she would ever wake up to explain why she had been in McAvoy’s home, or accept his pitiable sobs and embraces for saving his wife and child.
McAvoy was a patient in the same hospital as the survivors. He’d needed a blood transfusion and microsurgery on the nerve damage to his shoulder and neck. Had needed to be told on half a dozen different occasions what had happened at his home. Had collapsed in the same heap of snot and tears each time Trish Pharaoh explained that his loved ones were okay. They were going to be fine. But they couldn’t come home . . .
McAvoy tears his eyes from Fin and takes up his position in the corner of the room. He should probably have said no when the insurers told him they had found him accommodations fewer than five hundred yards from the ruin of his family home. Should probably have left this place when the insurers began to find fault with his policy and warned him he was almost certainly not covered for the damage. McAvoy should probably find a low-rent flat for himself and Fin. Somewhere with a bed long enough for his body. Somewhere with a kitchen and a bath. But to do so would suggest that he was starting a new chapter. That he was putting down roots as a single father. That the way things used to be were dead and buried. So they stay in their little room. They live out of carrier bags. McAvoy washes their clothes under the showerhead and he ensures Fin eats a good complimentary breakfast each morning over at the pub. He’s still paying the mortgage on a house that structural engineers have condemned. He’s still on sick pay from work but is drowning in debt. He can barely afford the petrol for the school run. Has begun to experience migraines brought on by the discomfort of sleeping in too small a bed, and lack of sugar.
Looking up at the small, wall-mounted TV, McAvoy catches a glimpse of his own reflection. Tracksuit trousers. White sneakers. A crumbled lumberjack shirt and an unshaven, hangdog face. He closes his eyes. Reaches out for the remote control. Lowers the volume and checks that Fin is comfortable and undisturbed.
For an hour, McAvoy flicks through the six free channels that the TV offers. Learns a little about an artist he had never heard of and salivates over an advert for a new cookery program. He tries to close off his senses to the adverts offering payday loans. Quick. Simple. Effective. A few hundred quid would tide him over. But paying it back the next month would tip him into genuine penury. The problems are getting too big. The postman knows where to find him and every letter is a request for money. Unpaid utility bills on a house reduced to a shell on his second day of living there. Council tax. Credit card bills for presents he bought Roisin back when it seemed that a new leather jacket and a necklace were worth declaring himself bankrupt for.
Predictably, slowly, McAvoy’s eyes begin to close. This is his routine. He will climb into bed next to Fin in a little while. Will say a silent goodnight to Roisin. Will kiss his baby daughter in his mind. Will fall into a fitful sleep, waking every time he rolls onto his back and the tears in his flesh sing with pain.
There is a soft, policeman’s knock at the door to his room. McAvoy sits bolt upright. Rubs his face with rough hands. He doesn’t know what he fears. Criminals? Debt collectors? Knows simply that it has been a long time since a knock at his door meant anything good.
“Hector. You dressed?”
The door handle jiggles and there is a thump as the body on the other side puts their weight against it. After a brief silence, a boot hits the wood.
McAvoy doesn’t know whether to pretend to be asleep or leap up and hug the person beyond the wood. He hates her seeing him like this. Feels sudden shame that he allows his son to be raised here when he thinks of it as too pitiful a place to welcome guests. And yet, she helped put him here. It was she who took the phone call. She who heard from the plummy-voiced man using the unregistered mobile phone. She who told him of the threats to Roisin’s life. She who said that Roisin needed to be taken somewhere safe. She who said that Lilah’s place was with her mother. She who dictated there was no time for good-byes.
McAvoy hauls himself up. Runs a hand through his hair and uses the hem of his shirt to polish his front teeth. Wishes, on occasion, that he could afford a hotel with a receptionist and an escape route.
“Hector, it’s pissing down.”
He opens the door a few inches. Looks into her scowl. Streaks of black hair cling to the lines in her forehead. The red lipstick at her mouth has been recently applied. She smells of expensive perfume and her little black cigarettes. As she raises a hand to push her hair back from her face, her gold bangles jangle beneath the cuff of her biker jacket. He can’t see her little convertible car but she looks as though she may have driven here with the top down.
McAvoy is incapable of rudeness so greets his boss with a slight twitch of his lips. Puts his hand out as if to shake, then bends down for a clumsy, awkward kiss. Pharaoh rolls her eyes. Reaches up and takes this big bear of a man in a hug that takes the air from his lungs.
And then she is inside the room. Picking up clothes and sniffing them. Hanging towels on the radiator. Straightening the row of shoes at the foot of the bed. He feels like a teenager whose mum has had enough. She opens a window and cold air floods the room.
“He gets a bad chest . . .” says McAvoy weakly, gesturing at his son.
Pharaoh looks scornful. “It’s fresh air, Hector. It’s good for people. You should try it.”
“We go for walks . . .”
“Yeah? Does he make you wear a collar or are you allowed off the lead?”
“Could we use indoor voices, please, guv? He’s a light sleeper.”
Pharaoh points at the snoring child. “Does he know that?”
They stand, a few feet apart. McAvoy’s mouth twitches and then he lets himself smile properly. It’s a nice feeling. He feels almost immediately guilty for it, but for an instant it’s a simple, uncomplicated pleasure.
“Can I make you a tea? There’s some fruit, in a bag. Oh, it was London today, wasn’t it?” he asks, agitated and gabbling. “The Met’s symposium?”
Pharaoh mimes cutting her own throat.
“Nothing earth-shattering to report on that score,” she says with the air of somebody who expected nothing and got less. “It’s what we thought. Headhunters are moving up. Hopefully they’re moving out. The Met’s going to liaise with Interpol and all the big boys to see if the nail-gun and blowtorch thing has been used overseas. Bloke from Liverpool reckoned he’d heard about something similar in Eastern Europe, years back. They’re checking it. Anybody with informants inside the major gangs is getting their palms greased to listen twice as hard. A lot of scary people are feeling scared, which is no bad thing. The Headhunters may have picked a few bad apples who are causing them headaches, but other than that, we’re no further on. I’m not running it. Never thought I would be. This prick Breslin from SIS had the chair. Seriously, you’d have loved him. Three different types of notepads and his ballpoint pen matched his socks. Reminded me of what you’d have become if I hadn’t dirtied you up a little.”
McAvoy plucks at his eyebrows, listening hard. He is desperate for new information. Desperate for Pharaoh to tell him that the gang is about to be taken down, and that Roisin and Lilah are safe. It takes him a heartbeat to register the faint praise in Pharaoh’s words. He doesn’t know what he would have become had Pharaoh not spotted his potential, shortly after taking over as head of Humberside CID’s newly formed Serious and Organized Crime Unit. Before that, he had been a pariah. He’d been the cop who helped push out Doug Roper: the slick, Machiavellian, coldhearted media darling who had let murderers walk free and locked up any innocent on whom he could pin a charge. Roper had been a popular man. McAvoy could never claim to be similarly appreciated. But at least as Pharaoh’s right hand, he has earned back some respect. Taken his lumps and his broken bones and bleeding sores, and worn them like badges of honor.
“Were there awkward questions?”
Pharaoh holds her hands wide, as if hosting the Last Supper.
“Some shit about Colin Ray. Few questions about how we failed to capitalize on the info we got from our traveler friends. Some raised eyebrows about the way we let our big, brutish sergeants swan around like pirates, getting themselves stabbed. I told them the slogan’s right: ‘It’s never dull in Hull.’”
McAvoy nods. Wonders if she’s popped in just to keep him in the loop, or whether she’s going to deliver bad news. The last time she came over it was to inform him that, despite her best efforts, the Police Federation rep was refusing to put him and Fin into one of their rental properties. Apparently he didn’t fit the hardship criteria. In truth, the rep had served under Doug Roper and was simply enjoying saying no to the man who had spoiled his comfortable life.
Pharaoh looks at her sergeant. At the state of him. He looks broken. Looks ill. Looks like he’s had his heart torn out and replaced with cold stones.
“How are you coping, Hector?” asks Pharaoh, softening her face and perching her rump on the windowsill. “Seriously?”
McAvoy looks as though he is about to say something glib in reply, but he stops himself and sinks slowly onto the foot of the bed. He pushes both hands through his hair, and when he withdraws them, his hair remains sticking up. Pharaoh cannot help herself. She crosses to him. Flattens his fringe. Takes his face in her hands and raises his eyes to hers.
“It won’t be forever, Hector. It won’t always be like this.”
McAvoy holds her gaze. Holds her scent in his lungs. Fills himself with the cigarettes and perfume, the mints and gin. Wonders how she would react if he pressed his head to her stomach and let her cradle him until the world made sense again.
McAvoy spins around as his son struggles upright, rubbing his eyes. Pharaoh gives the boy a fulsome hello. They have only met a handful of times but Fin has fallen very much in love with his dad’s boss. She’s loud and naughty and she talks funny and doesn’t mind him hearing when she swears. She also has four daughters who all think he’s the cutest thing since baby rabbits, and her visits tend to presage the consumption of sweets.
“How the devil are you, my little monster? You driving your dad up the wall?”
“I’m being good,” says Fin sleepily. “Where’s Sophia?”
Sophia is Pharaoh’s eldest daughter, and Fin’s favorite human being.
“She’s at home, trying to find how many pairs of dirty knickers it takes to cover a bedroom carpet. It’s important work. She’s taking it very seriously. I’ve told her she should use mine. When we were poor, they used to double as a tablecloth.”
Fin has no real idea what Auntie Trish is talking about but he finds everything she says hilarious, so falls into fits of giggles. Pharaoh turns and catches McAvoy’s eye.
“Shall we take a stroll? I’ve got something to run by you.”
McAvoy looks unsure. “It’s late. He needs to get to sleep . . .”
Pharaoh scoffs. She is an experienced parent who is used to being obeyed and believes that most children can be made to behave by the judicious application of chocolate bars and headlocks.
“He’ll fall asleep the second we get back. That’s right, isn’t it, Fin? No moaning now. You can come for a walk with Dad and me, but if you make a fuss when we put you to bed, I’m allowed to set fire to your legs, yes?”