Daniel Barker sat silently in the darkest corner of the most secluded room he could find.
The whiskey glass in his hand was cold to touch. The ice had long since melted away, but the chill still remained. The light-brown fluid swirled around the base as he rocked the vessel from side to side – his eyes gazing at a spot that even he couldn’t see. His mind dreaming dreams that would never become reality.
He was in grief – or at least what he supposed was grief. Every droplet of happiness had been sucked from what little remained of his soul and the heavy, empty feeling in his chest wounded him more than anything else could ever have done. And yet there was no physical pain – only the dull sadness of knowing that he would never again experience what had made him so contented for all these years.
He had built a career off the backs of his friends. For every speech he made they were there to listen, for every step he took they were by his side. Behind the scenes they formulated plans and schemes, spread fear and distrust and herded people to Barker’s cause.
But none of them were here now.
They were off celebrating in the bright lights and drunken throes of victory. With the glee of triumph had come the bitter pill of defeat, bringing with it fleeting pats on the back and kind words of sympathy. And then, like the parasites that they were, they’d scuttled off into the night leaving Barker alone with his misery.
Anonymity was Barker’s only friend. The only friend he wanted. The wolves of the tabloid press, his one-time allies, were surely out there now, hounding every pub and bar from London to Edinburgh, trying desperately to find him. And find him they would. And when their relentless questions and immoral bluntness had utterly shattered his already fractured ego, they would skulk back to their editorial caves and wait for another day.
For another victim.
Barker had hoped that, for a time at least, the seclusion would somehow shield him from the rest of the world. Keep him hidden until he was ready to stir out of the dark and emerge to fight once more.
But hope wasn’t enough.
The route through to the next room had no door to close and the sounds of the early morning drinkers drifted in, contaminating Barker’s safe haven. One by one, they crept up to the doorway and peered inside, nudging one another gleefully and daring their friends to be the first to step through. Out of the darkness, Barker’s once approachable eyes glared out with ferocity. He forced hard on his cigarette, breathing the toxic smoke deep into his lungs and then, with a great jolt of exertion, expelled the grey, airy mass out of his nostrils and towards his observers.
The vultures at the door giggled quietly – unthreatened and unperturbed.
Recoiling further into the shadows, Barker threw his head back and tossed the last of the whiskey down his throat, barely allowing his tongue to taste the liquid as it cascaded down.
As the glass hit the table, the dull pain returned. His lungs stung and the back of his throat crumpled as he retched and convulsed. His face turned blue and his panicking mind thought of nothing else but death as he struggled for breath.
He clutched hold of his neck and instinctively jumped up from his seat, smashing the table as he did so. The domino-wave of disturbed furniture sent a single bar stool skidding towards the door but Barker didn’t care. His mind was set on one thing along – forcing the whiskey back out of his lungs.
The vultures backed away a little as they watched Barker cough the liquid back up again. No one was interested enough to come to his aid. But nor did they turn their backs as Barker, face purple and contorted, struggled to regain control of himself. After all, they might be about to witness history – perhaps this was to be the end of the Barker Story.
But it wasn’t.
Regaining his breath, Barker slouched back in his chair, delicately wiping his lips where the phlegm had congealed. His blood-shot eyes glared up at the crowd outside the door whilst he breathed steadily, pressing his hand hard against his chest like a man trying to stem a gunshot wound. Little by little, his strength returned to him and the stinging sensation died down.
With the excitement over, the crowd slowly dispersed back into the main bar, occasionally throwing curious glances back towards the smoke-filled room but otherwise leaving Barker in peace. They would not ask any questions today, not if they knew what was good for them.
Barker was grateful for the solitude.
‘Another!’ he called out, banging his glass loudly on the table.
The nearby bartender glared into the gloom with unveiled distaste. He set down the glasses he’d been cleaning, moved over to the optics and poured out another whiskey. He tried hard not to make eye contact as he brought the drink out from behind the bar and deposited it in front of Barker. Through the murkiness of the smoke, Barker thought he heard the young man mutter something about smoking indoors as he retreated back through the door.
Barker had neither the strength nor the compulsion to challenge him. The bartender had already had several opportunities to demand Barker extinguish his cigarettes and he had baulked every time.
No one was going to confront him openly…
Not after the day he’d just had.
He had just finished his fourth whiskey of the day and lit up his ninth cigarette of the afternoon when the silhouette of a large, bald headed man appeared through the smoke. His tailor-made suit clung desperately to his body, moulding the shape of the unsightly man into something akin to attractiveness. A purple tie hung half-tied around his neck and his white shirt bore all the hallmarks of a heavy bout of partying: breadcrumbs, red wine stains and sweat.
He didn’t ask whether Barker wanted company. He simply crossed the room and took the seat next to him, a sneer stretching beneath his disjointed nose. There were no more thoughts of solitude, no more wishes of being left alone. Barker wasn’t going to stop him.
Not this man.
‘I am surprised to find you here,’ the man said, clicking his fingers dramatically. ‘I would have thought you’d be celebrating with the rest of them.’
The bartender promptly jumped out from behind the bar and walked swiftly back into the murky room. The bald man ordered two more whiskeys and, as the bartender turned his back, removed a large Cuban cigar from his jacket pocket and proceeded to light it. The two of them sat quietly as they waited – Barker inhaling from the cigarette, his visitor sucking loudly on his cigar.
The bartender returned with their drinks, keeping his eyes pinned to the floor as he approached. As he set them down, the bald man opened his legs, pointed his large belly towards the bartender and rolled the cigar smoke around in his mouth.
‘What’s your name, boy?’
‘Tom Richardson, Mr Haines.’
The bartender was no boy. To Barker’s eyes, he seemed closer to his early thirties – probably a former student who, like so many graduates, had fallen on hard times and joined the masses of the working class. A man who, despite his intelligence and ambition, had been driven down to the lowest rung of society by betrayal and fear. It was that same fear that controlled him now as he flashed Haines a token smile whilst keeping his eyes firmly glued on the two drinks he was delivering.
Haines felt it as well. Slowly, his hands crept up and down his fat thighs, his tongue licking sickeningly at the side of his mouth.
‘Do you like it here, Tom?’ he asked. ‘Do they pay well?’
‘It’s a good job, Mr Haines.’
‘Maybe you might like to work for me?’
Tom didn’t answer. His eyes flickered with apprehension and – with an unusual sense of haste in his stride – he paced out of the room and into the fresher air. Haines sniggered to himself as the sound of Tom’s coughing and hurling drifted back through the open door. He picked up his glass and, with his eyes still tinted with glee and sparkling with mischief, he raised it in a toast.
‘To your success.’
He took a long sip.
Barker didn’t join him.
Haines couldn’t have failed to notice. But he didn’t react. He finished his sip and set his glass back down on the table. In the silence that followed, Barker was aware only of the rhythmical tapping of the ice against the inside of the whiskey glass and of Haines’ predatory eyes as they watched Tom, now ghostly-pale, pottering around behind the bar. Something about the way Haines toyed with the cigar in his hand made Barker feel distinctly uneasy and, in that moment of quiet contemplation, he wondered how he had never felt it before.
‘You lied to me,’ Barker said. ‘You went back on your word.’
There was little reaction in Haines’s eyes save for a small glimmer of distaste.
‘I disagree. I believe I fulfilled my part most effectively.’
‘The deal was that I would win…’
‘The deal was that your party would win.’ Haines tore his eyes away from the barman. ‘There was never any specific mention of what would become of you.’
‘It was implied…’
‘I don’t do business by implication, Mister Barker.’
Barker sunk back into his seat. All the fight had gone out of him. Even if it hadn’t, there was little that could be done about it now. Haines’ emphasis on the word ‘Mister’ did little to breathe fire back into Barker’s battered ego. Reluctantly, he reached across and took a dose of fresh whiskey, allowing it to slide easily down his throat until the glass was all but drained.
Haines nodded approvingly. He snapped his fingers and ordered two more. When Tom returned this time, Haines paid him no attention. He’d had his fun. Now there was a new game to play.
‘I would have thought you’d be happier,’ he explained. ‘What was it you said during the campaign, ‘Britain needs a party capable of making the tough choices’? Well, you certainly got the British people on your side. Now they have a government capable of making the tough choices. But they didn’t really like you, did they?’ He chuckled, taking another suck on his cigar. ‘I suppose Dobbs would be the best replacement for you. He hasn’t got the same man-of-the-people appeal as you, but he’s been in my pocket a lot longer. In a few weeks, when they do the vote, you’ll be able to relax. No more media attention. No more abuse for the left-wing hippy fascists. Nothing more than a footnote in the history books…’
‘Will you rig that one as well?’
Haines’ eyes sparkled. He took another puff on his cigar.
‘That is no longer your concern,’ he said. His eyebrows flickered up and down as he flashed the briefest of sneers. ‘And, of course, having fulfilled my side of the bargain, I will naturally be expecting you to fulfil yours.’
Haines smiled, sliding one of the whiskeys across the table. Barker peered down at the inviting fluid as it swirled around the semi-transparent rocks of ice. Dashed against them and sinking to the bottom of the glass were all his hopes and dreams; his ambitions and desires for the future…
A sixth won’t hurt.
‘I have nothing left to give, you saw to that…’
He drained the glass, squinting as the bitter taste caught in the back of his throat. Haines leant forward and placed a hand on Barker’s upper thigh, squeezing it tightly.
‘Oh, I don’t think that’s entirely true. Do you, Mister Barker?’
Evelyn Giles let the phone ring.
It was a Bank Holiday and there was no way she was going into work.
The world outside was bright and sunny. The crisp, cool air wafted through the open window, floating the suggestion that spring was nearly over and that summer would soon be here. The blue sky, scattered with the merest suggestion of small, puffy clouds, hung like a great protective veil over the city and the cheerful sound of children playing drifted up from the park at the foot of her apartment block.
As the phone shrilled from the lounge, Giles beat the cake mixture a little harder, clattering the wooden spoon against the large ceramic bowl in an attempt to drown out the persistent ringing. She leant a little closer, breathing in the scent of sugar and flour that fused seamlessly with the wholesome aroma of fresh grass and pure air from the outside world. She watched as the light yellow mixture lapped and folded over itself in the bottom of the bowl, slowly becoming thicker as the wooden spoon smashed it about.
The phone continued its relentless cry.
Giles reached out for a bag of chocolate chips and gently distributed them into her mixture. As the last chip fell into the bowl, Giles eyed the phone with renewed irritation. The welcoming heat of the oven beneath the counter begged her to stay put and Giles was not about to argue.
This day off had been a long time coming, and no trouble at work was going to ruin it.
Giles spooned her mixture on to a baking tray and took up her position, crouching down in front of the oven as the dozen or so small blobs slowly melted to form warm and deliciously gooey cookies.
The phone rang again.
Beneath her breath, Giles cursed the obstinacy of the inanimate device but remained at her post by the oven. She didn’t notice the bedroom door swing open, nor did she register Jason crossing the lounge until it was too late. The stocky, thin figure of her husband arrived at the telephone long before Giles could react and she could do little more than watch helplessly as he stood, speaking with whoever was on the other end of the line.
‘I should have taken it off the hook,’ she muttered to herself.
Will I never learn?
Her eyes levelled on Jason’s back. Water from the shower dripped delicately off his bronzed back, disappearing into the neat white towel around his waist. Giles smiled as her eyes continued down to his bare legs – if it came down to a choice of baking or following him back into the shower, she knew which one she would take.
The idea was shattered as he turned to face her.
‘Eve,’ he called out. ‘It’s important.’
Giles took as long as possible to set down her bowl, wash her hands and saunter through to the lounge. As she approached, Jason’s eyes glinted with a curious resignation. No one in the world knew her better than her husband and Jason was wise and patient enough to know there was no point in attempting to intervene. Whoever was on the other end was going to get one hell of a shock. Nothing short of an emergency was going to ruin this Bank Holiday – that was what they had both agreed.
He handed her the phone, planted a delicate kiss on her cheek and headed back towards the bedroom. Giles watched him walk away, her eyes locked firmly on his muscular back until he had disappeared behind the door.
‘Giles,’ she barked into the receiver.
Her smile had vanished and her dulcet tones were now clipped and professional.
‘Detective Sergeant Giles?’
The voice on the other end of the phone belonged to a man. That much was clear. But his words were taut and his pitch was laced with anxiety.
‘Detective Inspector William Harris, Kent Police. I was wondering whether I could steal an hour or so of your time?’
‘I’m afraid that’s not possible. I have plans.’
She didn’t know Harris and perhaps it was this that made it easier for her to rebuke him. She wasn’t often blunt towards senior officers, but on a day like today…
The voice that replied was more confident and steadfast than before, but through the cold, hard plastic of the receiver, Giles could still hear the unease it masked.
‘I think you will break your plans when you hear what I have to say.’
Giles didn’t reply for a moment. Her eyes flickered longingly between the baking in the kitchen and the bedroom door, wanting nothing more than to tell Harris to call again another day. But the fear, and she had no doubt it was fear in his voice, began to sow a familiar, yet unwelcome, seed of interest in her mind.
‘What can I do for you, sir?’
‘There has been a murder just outside of Edenbridge. We were hoping you might come and have a look, if it’s not too much trouble?’
It is too much trouble. This is my day off.
‘With the greatest of respect, sir, a dead body in Kent is a little outside of my patch…’
‘Granted. But the circumstances of the case may well interest you.’
It can wait until tomorrow.
The door to the bedroom opened and Jason emerged, the towel now replaced by a pair of jeans and a white, open shirt. He peered across at Giles and mouthed: ‘Is there a problem?’
No, there is no problem. Nothing is going to ruin this Bank Holiday.
Giles let loose a small smile before turning away from her husband.
‘Well, I haven’t arrived at the scene yet, but my officers inform me that there is some evidence that may pertain to you or maybe one of your cases…’
It can definitely wait until tomorrow.
‘I don’t understand…’
You don’t need to understand. Deal with it tomorrow.
Harris took a deep breath on the other end of the line.
‘It would appear the victim knew who you were…’
You are off-duty. This can wait until tomorrow.
‘… and I don’t think he was a friend…’
Giles raised her hand and squeezed her temple between her thumb and middle finger, willing the argumentative voice in her head to stop.
‘I don’t want to cause alarm,’ Harris continued. ‘But I think we have one of your informants…’
The breath caught in Giles’ throat. The voice in her head fell silent and, in that short moment, she could think clearly once again.
The decision came swiftly.
Nick R B Tingley is a crime writer from the UK. After several years working as a ghostwriter, Nick released his debut novel The Bluebell Informant– the first in his DS Evelyn Giles series. He is currently working on the second in the series – The Court of Obsessions – as well as a Victorian-era mystery novella called The Butcher of Barclay’s Hollow.
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