The International Writers Magazine: First Chapter

Market Force
Graeme Talboys

Chapter One - Sunday 7 November 1999 - Evening
‘Are you all right?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. Why?’
‘I just wondered.’
‘I’m fine.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Just keep still, then.’

So, there I was. Out of touch, out of practice...

‘All right.’
‘You’re doing it again.’
‘No I’m not.’
‘Will you please stop fidgeting!’
‘I’m just trying to see where we are.’
‘No you’re not. You’re fidgeting.’
‘What time is it?’
‘For crying out loud, Alex.’
‘Well. I was quite happy at home.’
‘Decorating.’ She didn’t sound in the slightest bit convinced.
I rubbed my forehead, otherwise still for a moment in the comfortable obscurity afforded by the darkness in the rear of the car.
‘Yes,’ I said firmly. It was a lie. On both counts.
In reality, I had spent the afternoon sitting in the bedroom of my new flat. I’d been unpacking and came across a box of photographs. Mostly photographs of Lesley. So I sat and looked at them. And when it had become too dark to see them, I’d stayed sitting, in the dark, at the heart of a great and bleak loneliness.
‘You’re wearing that damned gun,’ she said, with sudden realization.
‘No I’m not.’
‘You really are the most hopeless liar.’
‘What of it?’ I asked, wondering just how many other lies she’d spotted.
‘You know damned well you shouldn’t be armed.’
Yes. I knew that. It didn’t make any difference. I would rather face the wrath of the DG than get caught out in the field. ‘I told you it was a secure situation,’ she added sharply.

I didn’t want to argue, not with Sally. She had proved a good friend in recent months, but something about her was putting me on edge. It didn’t take much these days. ‘In case it had escaped your notice,’ I said, ‘I’m only just back on my feet after the last one of those.’
She didn’t respond. I glanced out through the drizzle-streaked windows into the November night. A lone rocket shot up from the rows of distant dark houses off to the right, Gants Hill way.
The silvery white trail faded into the night before a silent explosion sprinkled the damp sky with a sudden burst of red, green, and golden stars. They drifted gently through the dank air before winking out, one by one.

In my mood, the symbolism was a bit too obviously metaphysical. ‘Why me, anyway?’ I asked of the window, misting it up. See what I mean?
‘Don’t start that again,’ Sally sighed.
I couldn’t help it. I’d asked her when I first climbed into the car, but I hadn’t been given an answer. And I wanted to know. After all, I’d been out of circulation for six months and there was still a question mark hanging over my physical fitness.
The recent refresher course in Hereford had been… uncomfortable. The physiotherapist at Herne Hill had not been pleased at the state I was in when I’d returned. Her language had been as ripe as my bruises.
And it wasn’t just my physical fitness that was in doubt. What the psychotherapists were making of me I had no idea. Not that I cared over much.
So, there I was. Out of touch, out of practice, carrying a weapon for which I did not have the required certificate of competence; and as if all that wasn’t enough, there was the much larger question mark that was hanging over my operational competence. Not the first choice, then, for an operation - secure situation or not.

As stealthily as possible, I eased the seat belt off my right shoulder. It had been cutting in and left me with a dull, tired ache. Bullet wounds can do that, long after they have healed.
It was also an excuse to turn slightly in my seat and look at Sally Barrett. By coincidence I was able to take my weight off the gun holstered in the small of my back as I did so.
I hadn’t paid too much attention before, Sally was Sally. She was my line manager. We worked together. Now that I looked properly, my restlessness subsided into a cautious wariness.
She sat deep in the seat beside me, huddled into the warmth of her long, dark wool coat. It couldn’t have been the cold that was affecting her as the heater was on full blast.
Her face, already bleached and hollowed by the sodium glare of street lighting, was tight and unhappy with tension. It was no wonder she was so snappy.
The car sped smoothly on along the North Circular Road. Waterworks Corner and Epping Forest slid quietly past at seventy miles an hour. Traffic was relatively light.
I’d lost my bet with myself at Wanstead when the driver passed up the opportunity to join the M11. ‘We’ll pick you up,’ Sally had said on the phone. ‘It’s on our way.’ Not any more it wasn’t. We had long since started to double back on ourselves. So who’s the liar now?
Sally spoke again, her tone softer. ‘Do you think I’d be here if it was going to be dangerous?’
It was a reasonable and honest question. The effect was spoiled, somewhat, because she sounded like she was asking herself as much as she was asking me. In any case, there was no way I was going to answer. Whatever I said would damn me.

The car kept going, past the Banbury Reservoir, over the Lea Valley Viaduct and into Edmonton. Sally turned to me again and I could sense her hesitancy. ‘You have friends,’ she said very quietly, her lips barely moving, the sound barely reaching my ears.
My eyes flicked automatically to the rear view mirror, but the driver was watching the road ahead. Other than that inbuilt caution, I didn’t know how to react. It was such an incongruous statement. In all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons.
I searched her eyes as best as I could in the dark interior before turning away. They were too deep in shadow. There was nothing to be read there. For now.

Besides, I had learned more than I wanted from what she’d said. Because when someone tells you that you have friends, it invariably means that their number is far outweighed by the enemies you have. Just the sort of thing you want to hear after months of trying to convince yourself that life was not quite as bad as you’d imagined.
Twisting to face Sally had eased the ache in my right shoulder, but it had put a strain on my abdomen. The damage there had been much worse. The scarred flesh still itched constantly. So I sat up straight again, the gun digging into my back. Confirmation, if I really needed it, of my own belief in the multiplicity of my enemies.
The view out of the window began passing less swiftly. The driver took his foot off the accelerator and let the hill slow us as he took the car onto the slip road and up to the roundabout for the A10. Left for White Hart Lane and Wood Green. We went right. Then left. Palmers Green. A plethora of exotic sounding medieval village names buried beneath two centuries of brickwork and the damp November night.
It had been sunny that morning. Warm for the time of year. I had risen early, full of enthusiasm, putting a second coat of varnish on the woodwork in the bathroom. But by the afternoon, as the sun began to set, the loneliness had got to me again.
A ghost or two would have been welcome, but there were none. Even they had deserted me. Or maybe I had left them behind.
Whatever the case, as darkness gathered I had struggled to fight off the gloom within me, tried to find a corner of warmth in the great cold emptiness. I was losing the fight, lost in the search, when Sally Barrett had telephoned.
The car slowed even more and a chaos of flickering blue light drew me out of the false warmth of self pity to warn me that we had arrived. Frowning, I turned to Sally. ‘I thought you said it was a secure situation.’
‘It is.’
I let my breath out very slowly. ‘Sally, "secure" means that it’s over and no one knows about it. I should think half the people of north London are at their windows enjoying this bloody light show. And how long before you have the media hovering up there, as well?’
Her expression made it clear that she agreed. A discreet police presence is acceptable, preferably Special Branch. This was absurd. The road ahead was like a car park at an emergency services rally.
Vehicles of all shape and size, with doors open and radios crackling, were double parked along the roadway. There were the vans of an Armed Response Unit as well as SO13. Several ambulances were queuing for business. Even a twin-engined Squirrel helicopter was hovering nearby. It must be a quiet night elsewhere.

The whole scene was awash with the vivid blue of flashing lights, all out of sync and lickering like cold flames across the nearby houses, offset by a concentrated pool of halogen floodlighting beyond a high brick wall. You could sense the co-pilot of the helicopter itching to switch on their spotlights as well. It was like a major disaster area.

Our driver slowed the car to a crawl and manoeuvred us through the various cordons stretched across the road, waving identification as he went. He finally turned through a set of gates in the high brick wall. Beyond, was an expanse of garden at the centre of which stood a large house.
We didn’t get much further than the gates. The grounds were cordoned off with scene of crime tape. I turned my head and raised an eyebrow at Sally. She shrugged and pulled a face back at me. I got out of the car.

It was chilly in Palmers Green and the cold, damp air pinched at my face after the stifling warmth of the car. I pulled up the collar of my jacket, glad I’d had the forethought to put on my thermal underwear after Sally’s phone call. Not exactly James Bond, but a damned site more practical than a tuxedo and a bow tie. And cheaper.
As I stepped away from the car, the stocky form of Keith Eddle materialized out of a deep splash of nearby shadow. ‘Hello, Alex,’ he said quietly, looking over my shoulder to the car, surprise at seeing me clear in his face.

He, too, looked washed out and uneasy. It might have been the spotlights that the police had erected. On the other hand, it might not. ‘Welcome to the three ring circus,’ he added before he stepped past me.
I could hear him talking quietly with Sally before he moved off out of sight. Within a couple of minutes, the blue lights began to go off and the helicopter peeled away to go and do something useful.
Left to my own devices for the moment, I stood with my hands in my pockets and looked around, trying to get a feel for the place. Not easy with all the activity still going on.
Something clicked within me - the cold store of my emotions switching on. I shivered and shrank deeper into my coat and pulled the zip up tight. It would do no good in the end.
The house was an elegant, late-eighteenth century, two-storey building. One of those anomalies you find scattered through any big city, hidden behind high brick walls - a one time country residence swallowed up by the ever advancing tide of housing.
Blue-red hand made bricks. Stone lintels. A simple cornice with discreetly placed CCTV cameras and security lights. Slate roof. Squat chimney stack with an interesting VHF aerial array. Symmetrical frontage with later additions to the left rear corner.
Three broad steps led up to a large, heavy front door flanked by pillars that supported a narrow classical portico. Large sash windows stared blankly out into the grounds.
Someone had made an attempt to keep the gardens tidy, but you could tell their heart wasn’t in it. A few overgrown shrubs and starveling trees huddled against the high perimeter wall. A couple of token flower beds stood empty of plants.
The rest was a prairie of pale, unkempt grass. Something you could easily see people move across, even in the dark. I was beginning to get the feel of the place. It belonged in my world. But there were other, more obvious clues.

At the front of the house, the gravelled driveway formed a large circle. At its centre, a grassed area. The desiccated fingers of dying rose bushes stuck rigidly upward from a small bed at the very centre. Along the circumference of the circular section, a number of new and very expensive cars were parked.
The scene had the superficial look of a glitzy party, especially with the powerful floodlights. Show-biz types. Minor diplomats. But if you looked closely, which I did, it was evident that this was a party with a difference.
Take those cars. Expensive cars. Big cars. BMWs, Mercs, and a scattering of four-wheel drives, mostly Range Rovers. Not one of them was more than a year old. All parked neatly by people who are paid to park things neatly.
On the side nearest to me there were four vehicles. They stood empty and untouched. The hosts.
On the far side, there were six vehicles in three groups of two, each sedan with its accompanying four wheel drive - which was significant in itself. The guests. The difference between the two sets of vehicles was in the details.
I didn’t approach because the whole area was taped off and photographers were at work. They moved like ghosts. Silent. Grim. Their white overalls glowing and their flashlights barely visible in the floodlighting.
I didn’t need to approach. Even from where I stood, I could see that each one of the guests’ vehicles was badly shot up. Not a wild spraying of bullets by some bunch of trigger happy mobsters, but a precise use of weapons by experts.
Nothing had been wasted on the engine or tyres - the vehicles had been parked. Just glass shattered into crystal, a few holes in the body work and the doors. High velocity. Large calibre. Armour piercing. Rapid fire. From several different firing points.
And then, of course, there were the bodies. Lots of bodies. And blood. Lots of blood. You don’t waste ammunition and time on empty vehicles.
Most of the bodies were still in situ. I could only see two that had been able to get their doors open. They hadn’t done much more than that except draw extra, butchering fire. It would all have been over in a matter of seconds. Sounding like a couple of Chinese fire-crackers going off.

As I walked a short section of the perimeter of the taped off area, I made a quick body count. It simply confirmed the worst of my suspicions. There might be lots of bodies out here, but judging by the number of available seats in the vehicles, there were probably a lot more inside the building.
‘I’ve warned her.’ It was Keith Eddle again, back from his errand. ‘But she insists on going inside. I’m warning you, as well.’
‘Bad?’ I asked, turning away from the vehicles.
He looked at me for a moment, running his hand over his cropped head, and then nodded once. ‘Bad.’ There was no joke, no comment. That was a first for Keith. Bad was going to be an understatement.

 © Graeme Talboys November 2006

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