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The Fire Baby

By Brenda Martinez,2014-11-04 20:28
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In the stifling heat wave of June 1976, an American plane crashes on the Cambridgeshire Fens, the point of impact the remote Black Bank Farm. Out of the flames walks a young woman, Maggie Beck, clutching a baby in her arms.Twenty-seven years later, Maggie is dying. Journalist Philip Dryden knows this because Maggie is lying in the hospital ward next to his wife Laura. As Maggie prepares to leave this world, Laura---locked in a coma for four years---appears to be slowly returning to it. And for the last few days, she has listened to Maggie's death-bed confession surrounding events on the night of the crash all those years ago.It's a confession that will blow open the murder story that Dryden is covering. But can Laura somehow communicate to her husband the shocking secrets she has learned? Published by St. Martin's Minotaur on 2004/12/15

PENGUIN BOOKS

    THE FIRE BABY

    Praise for Jim Kelly

    ‘A significant new talent’ Sunday Times

    ‘The sense of place is terrific: the fens really brood. Dryden, the central character, issatisfyingly complicated … a good atmospheric read’ Observer

    ‘A sparkling star newly risen in the crime fiction firmament’ Colin Dexter

    ‘Kelly is clearly a name to watch… a compelling read’ Crime Time

    ‘Beautifully written… The climax is chilling. Sometimes a book takes up residence inside myhead and just won’t leave. The Water Clock did just that’ Val McDermid

    ‘An atmospheric, intriguing mystery, with a tense denouement’ Susanna Yager, Sunday Telegraph

    ‘Excellent no-frills thriller with a real bite. 4 stars’ FHM

    ‘A story that continuously quickens the pulse… makes every nerve tingle. The suspense here istight and controlled and each character is made to count in a story that engulfs you while itunravels’ Punch

    ‘Kelly’s evocation of the bleak and watery landscapes, provide a powerful backdrop to awonderful cast of characters’ The Good Book Guide

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Jim Kelly is a journalist. He lives in Ely with the writer Midge Gillies and their youngdaughter. He is the author of five novels: The Skeleton Man, The Coldest Blood, The Moon

     and The Water Clock, which was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey AwardTunnel, The Fire Baby

    for best novel of 2002. He is currently at work on his new mystery, Death Wore White, featuring

    DI Peter Shaw (who is introduced in The Skeleton Man).

    In 2006 Jim Kelly was awarded the Dagger in the Library by the Crime Writers’ Association fora body of work giving ‘greatest enjoyment to crime fiction readers’

    To find out more about Jim Kelly and other Penguin crime writers, go towww.penguinmostwanted.co.uk

    The Fire Baby

    JIM KELLY

PENGUIN BOOKS

    PENGUIN BOOKS

    Published by the Penguin GroupPenguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL , England

    Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USAPenguin Group(Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3

(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

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    (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)

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    Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre,

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    Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

    www.penguin.com

First published by Michael Joseph 2004

    Published in Penguin Books 2005

    This edition published 20076

Copyright ? Jim Kelly,2004All rights reserved

    The moral right of the author has been asserted

    Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that itshall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulatedwithout the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in whichit is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on thesubsequent purchaser

    ISBN: 978-0-141-00934-6

    For John

    Acknowledgements

    I would like to thank Beverley Cousins, my editor, for providing inspiration and advice inperfect measures, Faith Evans, for her determination to elevate the quality of writing in The

    , and Trevor Horwood, for creative and meticulous copy-editing. This book againFire Baby

    centres on the case of a car-accident victim locked in a coma. I am grateful for the welcomeextended to me by the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability, Putney, and am happy to point outthat donations can be made through its website: www.rhn.org.uk. I would like to thank Donaldand Renee Gillies, and Jenny Burgoyne for helping with the text. Darren Fox, of Ely FireStation, provided technical advice on the properties of fire. The US Air Force let me tourMildenhall base, a privilege for which I am grateful. The oddities of the East Anglian weathersystem were expertly explained to me by Weather-quest, the forecasting company at theUniversity of East Anglia. Midge Gillies, my wife, stepped in brilliantly to break theoccasional logjam of ideas.

    The Landscape of the Fens is, of course, real but topographical and historical details havebeen occasionally altered for the sake of the plot. All characters are entirely fictitious andany resemblance to real persons is entirely coincidental.

    Tuesday, 1 June 1976 – The Great Drought

    East of Ely, above the bone-dry peatfields, a great red dust storm drifts across the moon,throwing an amber shadow on the old cathedral. Overhead a single, winking plane crosses thestar-spangled sky. Flight MH336, just airborne from the US military base at Mildenhall, fliesinto the tumbling cauldron of dust.

    The diamond-hard sand begins to shred the turning turbines and the dislodged blades scythe eachother like spinning knives. The fuselage dips as the engine suffocates, and begins a descent ofsuch violence that the passengers float, despite their seatbelts, in a weightless fall towardstheir deaths.

    At precisely 11.08 pm, according to the pilot’s watch recovered at the scene, the fuselageburies itself in the soft earth. The distant cathedral tower shudders with the impact and thecrows, roosting on the Octagon Tower, rise in a single cloud. Heads turn ten miles away atLittleport with the earthy thud of the crash, followed by the crackling combustion of theairfuel.

    A fireball marks the point of impact at Black Bank Farm. Here there is too much sound to hear.At the heart of the fire a cold white eye burns where 50,000 gallons of kerosene turns to gasin a single second. Then the flames come, licking the stars.

    At the foot of the vast white pillar of rising smoke the air crackles with the heat. And in theashes of what had been Black Bank Farm she stands alone. Her, and the baby.

    They are the only ones alive. Her, and the baby.

    The family died at the table: her mother caught in the act of drowning in a flame, herfather’s blackened arm still stretched towards his throat. His last words will stay with herto her deathbed: ‘The cellar, Maggie. A celebration.’ She’d gone to get the bottle, leavingMatty in his cot by the empty fireplace. Celebration: a family christening to come, now thatMatty had a father.

    In the dry damp of the stone cellar she heard it coming. Machines, like people, can pretend toscream. But the pretence was gone in the final wail of the failing engines, the ripping metal,and the blow of the impact.

    Sometimes she wished she had died then, as she should have.

    Instead she saw the light and heard the sound that was the fire, the dripping fire, fallingthrough the floorboards. The liquid fuel from the tanks, the quicksilver light that saved herlife. So she found the stairs and climbed up to count the dead, hung, like game, from theburning rafters. Then the real horror, in the tiny swaddled bundle with the blackened limbs.

    Outside, with her secret in her arms, she felt him kicking, and nudging with the jerky half-conscious movements only a child can make.

    Even here, in what had been the kitchen garden, she felt the heat prickling her skin. She smelther hair singe, as the black hanging threads turned to ash-white corkscrews. A lock ignited,and burnt into her cheek. She had a lifetime to feel the pain, but even now it terrified herwith the slow, insidious intimation that the worst was yet to come.

    A fire in her blood. And the baby’s.

    A silent fire. The only sound a flapping inside her ear, like a pigeon’s wings.

    She took a limping step towards the coolness of the night. These ashes weren’t cold like theones in the grate at Black Bank. These were white with heat, an ivory crust beneath whichbreathed the cherry embers. She smelt flesh burn and knew, with the clarity of shock, that itwas hers.

    And then she saw him. A hundred yards from the house, shielding his face from the heat with anout-turned palm.

    He’d been waiting to join the celebration. Her father had been confident Maggie would changeher mind that night ‘Come at eleven. She’ll come round for Matty’s sake. It’s the baby.

    She’ll come round.’

    And with the intuition of a lover Maggie knew where he’d been, knew where he’d been waitingin the night. The old pillbox. Their pillbox; the concrete hexagonal space that she had oncedreamed of in the damp and guilty night, the place where they’d made Matty come to life.

    She heard a siren then. The first. From the base. They’d be at Black Bank soon, but not soonenough to save him. Not soon enough to save him from the life she planned for him in those fewseconds. It was the best decision of her life. And the quickest. Taken in the time it takes tolight a match.

    And then they were together. So she smiled as she trembled. The yellow-blue light of thekerosene was in his eyes and briefly she remembered why she’d loved him once. But she saw thathe looked only down, at the baby. His finger turned back the fold in the blanket. He saw theface for the first time, the tiny red wandering tongue. And the fool smiled too.

    ‘Our boy,’ he said, wishing it was so. ‘He’s safe. Our boy.’

    She let him believe it for another second.

    ‘Dead,’ she said, and pulled the blanket back to let him see the stencilled blue capitalletters on the soft linen: USAF: AIR CONVOY.

    He looked at the ruined farmhouse then: ‘Dead? You can’t be sure.’

    He looked at the blanket again. ‘I’ll get him,’ he said. ‘stay here.’ She watched him runinto the flames, until they closed behind him, like the hushed velvet curtains of acrematorium.

    Saturday, 14 June 2003 – 27 years later

    The single glass of water stood like an exhibit on the pillbox shelf. When the sun reached thewestern horizon it shone directly into the hexagonal room through the gunslit and caught theliquid, sending a shifting rainbow of incredible beauty across the drab concrete walls.

    It haunted him now. He could see it with his eyes closed. Its cool limpid form was held forever in his memory: but then he knew that for ever, for him, was not a long time. As the heatrose towards midday he could see the level of water drop, and he sucked in air to catch thememory of the moisture.

    It was his life now, trying to reach the glass. But he knew, even as he stretched and felt thehandcuffs cut into his wrist, that he would never touch it. He’d marked the full extent of hispassion on the floor. On the first day he’d stretched out and left a line in the sand, threefeet short of the far wall. By the third day he’d stretched until he heard his joints crack, asickening pop of cartilage disengaged.

    The next day he won six inches in a single panic-stricken lunge, the pain of which had made himswoon. When he came to, the blood had dried and the cut at his wrist showed the glint of bone,like a gash of knuckle glimpsed on the butcher’s counter. That night the fox came for thefirst time, circling, sniffing death.

    His jailer noted his efforts to reach the glass with obvious satisfaction, smoothed clean thesand and re-filled the glass with bright water from the sparkling plastic bottle. Then he tookthe carved knife from its place, sticking out of the door jamb, and held it to his victim’sthroat. A minute, maybe two, then he returned it, unblooded.

    There was something familiar about the jailer. Something in the way he leant against theconcrete wall by the glass and smoked. Something in the downcast eyes.

    He yearned to hear his voice, but the jailer hadn’t spoken.

    The routine was silently the same. He’d hear first his footsteps on the tinder-dry twigsbeneath the pines. The iron door pushed open, the glass re-filled. Then he’d stand and smoke.A packet sometimes. How long does that take? An hour? Two?

    Sometimes he came twice a day, the sound of his car suddenly loud as it parked beyond the treeshe could see through the guns lit. But he’d always go without answering the questions. And

    then once at night. He was afraid then, for the first time, that the jailer would kill himbefore the thirst did. His tormentor was drunk, and the storm lantern put tiny red flashes inhis eyes, but still he said nothing.

    He’d speak before the end came. He felt sure of that. But he wanted to know now. Know now for

    which of his crimes he was being punished.

    Nine Days Earlier Thursday, 5 June

    1

    Philip Dryden looked down on the taxi cab parked on the neat shingle forecourt of The TowerHospital. In the front seat was a large sleeping figure encircled by an Ipswich Townsweatshirt. The driver’s delicate hands were clasped neatly over an ample tummy. Theslumbering cabbie’s tiny mouth formed a perfect O.

    ‘How can he stand it?’ Dryden asked, turning to the figure laid out under a single whitelinen sheet on the hospital bed. ‘It’s eighty-four degrees. He’s parked in the fullsunlight. Fast asleep. All that meat. Cooking.’

    The figure on the bed didn’t move. Its immobility was a constant in his life, like the heat ofthat summer, and equally oppressive. He turned back to the large Victorian half-circle windowand put his forehead to the glass.

    Heat. Inescapable heat, like a giant duvet over the Fens. He felt a rivulet of sweat set outfrom his jet-black hair and begin a zig-zag journey across his face. His features werearchitectural. Precisely, Early Norman. The head of a knight, perhaps, from a cathedral nave,or illuminated on a medieval parchment. Illuminated but impassive; a dramatic irony whichnicely summed him up.

    He tipped his head back and turned his face to the ceiling. He had a powerful imagination andhe focused it now, as he had done a thousand times that suffocating summer, on conjuring up asnow storm. The ice-cold flakes fell on his upturned eyelids. He listened to them falling inthe silence, punctuated only by the tick of the bedside clock.

    When he opened them it was 11.57 precisely. Three minutes.

    He closed his eyes again and tried to wish the heat away. The Tower was on Ely’s only hill. Aprecious hundred feet above the limitless expanse of the Black Fens which stretched in aparched panorama to the distant wavy line of the horizon. A tractor, wobbling in a mirage,trundled across a field slightly smaller than Belgium.

    He looked down at Laura. His wife had been in The Tower nearly four years since the accident atHarrimere Drain. Dryden had met the other driver on a lonely fen road head on, swerved over theverge, and the two-door Corsa had plunged into twenty feet of water in the roadside dyke.Harrimere Drain. Whenever Dryden saw the sign he could feel the seatbelt cutting across hischest and the dull, distant, double click of his collar bones breaking.

    He’d been dragged to safety, but Laura, unseen on the back seat, had been left behind. Hetried never to imagine what she must have thought when she regained consciousness. Alone, inthe dark, in pain, and gasping for breath in a remorselessly diminishing pocket of damp air.

    Three hours later the emergency services got her out. She was in the coma then. Locked InSyndrome: LIS. Locked away from the horror of those 180 minutes of total isolation, locked awayfrom the knowledge that she’d been abandoned, locked away from him.

    The clock flipped over a number: 11.58. Dryden pulled at the frayed linen collar of his whiteshirt and fingered the gold chain around his neck. He pulled on it until the single brassChubb-lock key came out into his hand. The car crash had been two days before his thirty-thirdbirthday and he hadn’t got back to their flat in London until a month later. That’s when hefound his present where she knew he’d stumble on it, in the top drawer of their desk. A singlewhite envelope, a card showing a black and white landscape shot of the Fens near Ely, and anewly cut key. The inscription on the card read ‘Love, Laura’; nothing else.

    He’d tried the locks in the flat first, then her parents’ café and flat, but nothing. Hetried the local locksmiths in the North London suburb where they lived but none could recall avisit from the Italian girl with the copper hair. He’d tried the two cottages out onAdventurer’s Fen they’d inspected during their long debates about moving out, starting afamily. But the doors were rotten and the keyholes rusted. Ivy obscured the sign engraved inthe bricks: Flightpath Cottages.

    How many other locks had he tried since Laura’s accident? A thousand? Two? But nothing. OnlyLaura knew which door the key opened, and she hadn’t spoken since the night of the crash. Itwas a mystery which tormented him subtly because it seemed the perfect symbol of his life sincethe accident. That he should have the key, but not the door. An answer without a question.

    ‘Unbearable,’ he said out loud, and the heat seemed to intensify.

    Eleven fifty-nine, and one minute to the news. He flipped open his mobile and rang Humph’sbusiness number: Humphrey H. Holt, licensed mini-cabs for all occasions. Not quite alloccasions. In fact, hardly any occasions at all. Humph’s cab, a battered Ford Capri, lookedlike it had been retrieved from a dump on the outskirts of Detroit.

    Dryden’s face, normally stonily impassive, creased with pleasure as he watched the cabbiestart awake and fumble for the mobile.

    ‘It’s me,’ he said, unnecessarily. They knew each other’s voices better than they knewtheir own. ‘Put the radio on. Local. Last item. I need to hear.’

    They zoomed dizzily over the wavebands until Humph picked up the signal.

    ‘The headlines at noon on Radio Littleport…’

    Dryden, for a decade one of Fleet Street’s sharpest reporters, listened with completeindifference to the usual tales of political intrigue, international violence, and luridshowbusiness before the station moved on to local items.

    ‘… with an entire lorryload of turnips. Meanwhile on the coast at Cromer the heatwave againbrought havoc to the holiday beaches. A huge cloud of ladybirds descended on sunbathers by thepier. A spokesman for the local council’s environmental health department said the insectswere breeding in huge numbers and were desperate for food. Apparently they can live quitehappily on human sweat. And with that thought the time is now four minutes past twelve.’

    There was a short jingle, a digital version of Fingal’s Cave. Dryden swore at it.

    ‘This is Radio Littleport. The Voice of The Fens. And now an important announcement from EastCambridgeshire County Police Force.’

    Dryden had his reporter’s notebook ready on the window ledge. His fluid shorthand left anelegant scribble across the page. Elegant but unreadable: he was only fooling himself.

    ‘This is an urgent message for Estelle Beck, the only daughter of Maggie Beck of Black BankFarm, near Ely. Please contact immediately The Tower Hospital, Ely, where your mother isgravely ill. I’ll repeat that –’

    Dryden clicked off the mobile without thanking Humph. He brushed away a fly which had settledon Laura’s arm. Then he walked across the large, carpeted room and folded his six-foot-two-inch frame into a hospital chair beside the room’s only other bed. In it lay the curled,wheezing body of Maggie Beck.

    ‘Why now?’ he asked nobody.

    There had been four radio appeals, each as urgent as the last. He hoped her daughter came soon.He had seen very few people dying but the symptoms were shockingly clear. She held both handsat her throat where they clutched a paper tissue. Her hair was matted to her skull. She seemedto draw her breath up from a pit beneath her, each one a labour which threatened to kill her.Her skin was dry and without tension – except for the single mark of a livid burn which cutacross one side of her face in the shape of a corkscrew.

    ‘They’ll come,’ he said, hoping she’d hear.

    In the oddly detached way in which he expressed almost all his emotions Dryden had come to loveMaggie Beck. When his father died in the floods of ’77 Maggie, still a teenager and newlymarried, had moved in to look after his mother. Dryden had been eleven. Maggie had taken thespare room and helped his mother through the few weeks before the coroner’s court inquest, andthen the excruciating absence of a burial. His father had been presumed drowned, swept off thebank at Welch’s Dam, and the body never found. For his mother this had been the final burdenwhich Maggie helped her bear. The heartache of grief without a corpse to cry over. After that

    they combined their sorrows in often companionable silence. Maggie had her own tragedy to carry– the air crash at Black Bank which had killed her parents and her infant son. They shoulderedtheir grief together, farmers’ wives who didn’t want to subside under the weight of theirmisfortunes, at least not without a fight. They’d travelled together – day trips and weekendswhich took them far from the memory of their lives. He’d met her many times at Burnt Fen inhis mother’s kitchen, a big woman with farmyard bones as familiar and comforting as the Aga,with that corkscrew burn like a tattoo on her face.

    Maggie knew she had cancer. The radiotherapy would last six weeks, the convalescence longerstill. Dryden had gone out to Black Bank to see her and knew instantly that she expected todie. The specialists had suggested that it might be good therapy for Laura if she shared herroom. Maggie said yes without a pause and raided her savings to afford The Tower’s substantialfees. She would spend her last months in comfort, for she had a task to complete before thecancer took her life. She wanted to tell her story. Dryden gave her a tape recorder so thateach day she could spill out her tale to a silent audience. The story she wanted to tell, theone she wanted Laura to witness. And Laura, if she could hear, had a story to listen to.

    Dryden had visited in those first weeks and found in her a desperate insecurity. She’d holdhis hand and tell him that her life had been a failure, that she’d failed Estelle, that she’dfailed Black Bank. But she still hid the heart of this failure, a secret Dryden sensed wasburning her from within. And then she’d turned to him one night just a week ago, as he satwith her enjoying the breeze that came through the open windows. They’d heard the cathedralclock chime midnight and she’d taken his hand and held it with the intensity of a bullclip:‘Promise me they’ll come,’ she’d said.

    She’d been in The Tower a month and each day Estelle had visited – until now. Each day shehad come to sit with her mother. But the best days for Maggie were when she brought theAmerican. Dryden had met him twice, by Laura’s bedside. ‘Friend of the family,’ said Maggie.A pilot, tall and slightly wasted, with the drawn features of a victim. Every day they came –until this last weekend. The doctors assured them that the end was months away, if not years.Maggie had agreed to a break, to let her daughter go. Let them both go.

    The moment they left, Maggie’s health had rapidly collapsed. The cancer cells had begun tomultiply in her blood and she had felt the change within her, the subtle beginning of theprocess of death. She had to get Estelle back, she had something to tell her. About the secretsthat had consumed her life.

    ‘Promise me you’ll find them in time,’ she said. Dryden noted the plural.

    He didn’t like telling lies. ‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘The police are trying; what more can Ido?’

    Her eyes pleaded with him, with a look which seemed, prematurely, to cross the divide betweenthe living and the dead. ‘Then promise,’ she said. ‘And promise you’ll forgive me too.’

    ‘Forgive you for what?’

    Her hand fluttered, searching out the bedside table where the tape recorder stood. ‘I’ve saidit here. But I must tell them too. Promise me.’

    He’d always remember the white arthritic knuckles and the parchment skin clutching hisfingers. He stood, angry at the suggestion he needed a public oath to make him keep his word,and angrier still that she’d penetrated his emotional defences.

    ‘I promise.’

    She cried. The first time he’d seen her buckle after all the months of pain.

    ‘I promise,’ he said again, and by some peculiar transference of emotion he felt vividly thathe’d made the promise to his mother, to her memory, to the gravestone on Burnt Fen. Even nowthe thought produced a fresh surge of sweat on his forehead. He was doing all he could. Thepolice appeals, ads in the papers along the coast where Estelle and the American had gonetouring. Why didn’t she ring? Why didn’t she answer her mobile phone?

He walked back to his wife and touched her shoulder through the white linen sheet. ‘Laura?’

    Her eyes were open. Seemingly sightless, but open. He imagined she slept – why not? So sheneeded waking like anyone else. And he liked using her name, now that he knew for certain thaton some level, however deep and however distant, she could hear him.

    The caretaker walked by in the corridor outside, dragging laundry bags and whistling the ‘OdeTo Joy’, each note perfectly pitched.

    Maggie Beck turned in her bed and struggled, as she always did, not to cry out.

    Humph beeped from the cab. They had a job. Dryden had to go, back out into the world wherepeople talked. But Dryden knew there was no real hurry. The Crow, the paper for which he was

    chief reporter, had a final deadline of 3.00pm.The handful of stories he had yet to file wouldtake him an hour to knock out, probably less.

    ‘Loads of time,’ he said, sitting on the bed and taking Laura’s hand.

    They’d made the breakthrough three months ago. Dryden, unable to sleep, had spent the night onthe deck of his boat at Barham’s Dock. The sunrise had driven him to walk and a fox had doggedhis tracks into town, scavenging across fields of sunburnt crops. The Tower had slept, thenight nurse looking up from her studies to wave him through. He’d tried the routine a thousandtimes: taking her hand and beginning the endless repetition of the letters. Waiting for thetiny movement which would signal intelligent life, like a radio blip across the galaxy.

    That first time, she’d done it perfectly. L-A-U-R-A. No mistakes. He’d sat on her bed andwept for her. Wept for joy that she was somewhere. But wept most for himself, doomed perhaps tospend his life beside a hospital bed, waiting for messages from another world.

    Humph beeped again. Dryden placed the smallest finger of Laura’s right hand in his palm sothat it barely touched his skin. The neurologist had shown him how. They had a machine too, theCOMPASS, but Dryden liked doing it this way – the way they’d first done it. The communicationwas intensely personal, as though he were a lightning rod, channelling her energy to earth.

    ‘OK. Let’s concentrate.’ The specialist, the one with the dead-fish eyes, had told him togive her a warning.

    Humph beeped again and Dryden suppressed a surge of petty anger.

    ‘Loads of time.’

    He counted to sixty and then coughed self-consciously: ‘OK. We’re starting. A, B, C, D, E,F…’ and on, a full two seconds for each. He felt the familiar tingle of excitement as he gotnearer: ‘J, K, L’ – and there it was, the tiny double movement.

    It didn’t always happen. One out of five, six perhaps. They’d always got the next bit wronguntil Dryden had hit upon the idea of beginning at M and running through the alphabet ratherthan starting at A. He moved on, with the two-second gaps, but she missed it. Two tinymovements – but on the B.

    He felt irritation, then guilt. The neurologist had explained how difficult it must be. ‘It’sabout as easy as playing chess in your head. She’s learnt to combine certain muscle movements,small tremors in the tissue, to produce this timed response. We have no way of knowing how muchtime she needs for each letter. How long she has to concentrate.’

    He did the rest to spite Humph. L-B-U-S-A. Three letters right, two just a place away in thealphabet.

    He felt fierce pride and love burn, briefly, at her achievement. The specialist, an expert fromone of the big London teaching hospitals who had treated his wife like a specimen preserved ina Victorian museum jar, had told him to be patient – a word which always prompted in Dryden aninternal scream. Laura’s messages were halting, disjointed, sometimes surreal. He must wait tosee if she would ever emerge from the confused penumbra of coma.

    ‘Patience,’ he said out loud. A virtue, if it was one, of which he had no trace.

    2

    Humph parked up in a lay-by three miles east of Ely. It was a lay-by like all lay-bys,distinguished by nothing. The A14 east–west trunk road linking the coastal port of Felixstowewith the industrial cities of the Midlands was punctuated by them. At this hour – lunchtime –it was a canyon of HGVs ticking over and spewing carbon monoxide into hot air already lacedwith cheap grease from the Ritz T-Bar.

    ‘Coffee. Four sugars,’ said the cabbie, unfolding a five-day-old copy of the Financial Times

    with casual familiarity. He played the stock market in the way that many people play thehorses. He lost a lot; but when he ran out of things to read the FT made a snug, pink blanket.

    Humph was Dryden’s chauffeur. There was no other way to describe it. They had shared a life ofaimless motion for nearly four years since Laura’s accident. Humph had a few regular customerswho paid well – early morning school runs, and late night pick-ups for club bouncers inNewmarket and Cambridge. The rest of the time he was on call for Dryden. The Crow, Dryden’s

    newspaper, was happy to pick up the modest bills as it made up for the fact that they appearedto have forgotten to pay their chief reporter a salary. Humph’s home life was as non-existentas Dryden’s, in his case owing to an acrimonious divorce. He had a picture of his two girlsstuck on the dashboard. Dryden and Humph shared an insular view of the world, if that ispossible, for the most part without sharing a word.

    In the lay-by the combination of the noon sun and the exhaust pipes of fifteen heavy wagons washeadily reminiscent of Athens under a smog. Amongst the lorries were two Milk Marketing Boardtankers, common now on the Fen roads, converted to carry water for irrigating salad crops inthe drought. The air along the roadside was a shimmering blue advert for global warming. Drydentried a cough and produced a strangulated lead-fuelled squeak.

    The Ritz T-Bar was a regular meeting place for Dryden and the crew of stragglers he counted ashis ‘contacts’. He noted that Inspector Andy Newman’s car was already parked up on a grassmound at the end of the lay-by. The detective drove a clapped-out Citroën with a sticker in thewindow for the Welney Wildfowl Trust. Andy Newman – ‘Last Case Newman’, as he was known tohis fellow officers on the force – was more interested in catching sight of a sparrowhawk thana crook. Mentally he had been on the allotment for a decade. Or in his case, in one of thehides from which he could spy on his beloved birds. He had twenty-three days to run tostatutory retirement age. He wasn’t counting, but that didn’t include two days’ holiday anda doctor’s appointment.

    Dryden queued for a cup of tea. The Ritz was standard issue in the mobile tea-bar world. Sugarbowl with one teaspoon and several lumps of coagulated glucose. One copy of the Sun – tied to

    the counter with a piece of string. A hotplate with a row of sausages sizzling in six-pointharmony. And one oddity: a bird cage hung from the wooden awning in which sat a moth-eatenparrot. It was not a pretty boy.

    A blackboard on the rear wall of the kitchenette read: THURSDAY’S SPECIAL – DOUBLE SAUSAGESANDWICH 99P.

    The proprietor was tall, with blond hair tinged nicotine-yellow. His conversational powers,which Dryden had tested before, were strictly limited to Premier League football, female lorrydrivers and the weather in a two-mile radius of the lay-by. He kept his hands in his pocketsand smoked a roll-up with the lung-pulling power of a set of doll’s house bellows. As hepushed the styrofoam cup of tea across the counter Dryden noticed the livid raised mark of askin graft on his hand.

    ‘Johnnie,’ said Dryden, putting his change on the Formica top.

    ‘Steamin’ again,’ said Johnnie, shuffling coins between the lines of five-, ten-, twenty-,and fifty-pence pieces on the counter-top he had arranged in the long hours of boredom whichcame with being proprietor of the Ritz.

    Dryden left it at that. He got into Newman’s car and sat pretending to sip the tea for fiveminutes. Newman, binoculars pressed to his face, was scanning the vast field opposite.

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