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SACK O' WOE
The street was dark and narrow, a smear of frost along the roofs of the occasional parked car. Two of a possible six overhead lights had been smashed several weeks before. Recycling bins – blue, green and grey – shared the pavement with abandoned supermarket trolleys and the detritus from a score of fast-food take-aways. Number thirty-four was towards the terrace end, the short street emptying onto a scrub of wasteland ridged with stiffened mud, puddles of brackish water covered by a thin film of ice.
Tom Whitemore knocked with his gloved fist on the door of thirty-four. Paint that was flaking away, a bell that had long since ceased to work.
He was wearing blue jeans, T-shirt and sweater, scuffed leather jacket, the first clothes he had grabbed when the call had come through less than half an hour before.
January twenty-seventh, three seventeen a.m.
Taking one step back, he raised his right leg and kicked against the door close by the lock; a second kick, wood splintered and the door sprang back.
Inside it was your basic two-up, two-down house, a kitchen extension leading into the small yard at the back, bathroom above that. A strip of worn carpet in the narrow hallway, bare boards on the stairs. Bare wires that hung down, no bulb attached, from the ceiling overhead. He had been here before.
'Darren? Darren, you there?'
No answer when he called the name. A smell that could be from a backed-up foul water pipe or a blocked drain.
The front room was empty, odd curtains at the window, a TV set in one corner, two chairs and a sagging two-seater settee. Dust. A bundle of clothes. In the back room there were two more chairs, one with a broken back, and a small table; a pile of old newspapers, the remnants of an unfinished oven-ready meal, a child's shoe.
The first stair creaked a little beneath his weight.
In the front bedroom a double mattress rested directly on the floor; several blankets, a quilt without a cover, no sheets. Half the drawers in the corner chest had been pulled open and left, miscellaneous items of clothing hanging down.
Before opening the door to the rear bedroom, Whitemore held his breath.
A pair of bunk beds leaned against one wall, a pumped-up Lilo mattress close by. Two tea chests, one spilling over with children's clothes, the other with toys. A plastic bowl in which cereal had hardened and congealed. A baby's bottle, rancid with yellowing milk. A used nappy, half-in half-out of a pink plastic sack. A tube of sweets. A paper hat. Red and yellow building bricks. Soft toys. A plastic car. A teddy bear with a waistcoat and a bright bow tie, still new enough to have been a recent Christmas gift.
And blood. Blood in fine tapering lines across the floor, faint splashes on the wall.
Tom Whitemore pressed one hand to his forehead and closed his eyes.
* * *
He had been a member of the Public Protection Team for almost four years: responsible, together with other police officers, probation officers and representatives of other agencies – social services, community psychiatric care – for the supervision of violent and high-risk-of-harm sex offenders who had been released back into the community. Their task, through maintaining a close watch, pooling information, getting offenders, where applicable, on to accredited programmes, assisting them in finding jobs, was to do anything and everything possible to prevent reoffending. It was often thankless, frequently frustrating – What was that Springsteen song? Two steps up and three steps back? – but unlike a lot of police work, it had focus, clear aims, methods, ambitions. It was possible – sometimes – to see positive results. Potentially dangerous men – they were mostly men – were neutralised, kept in check. If nothing else, there was that.
And yet his wife hated it. Hated it for the people it brought him into contact with, day after day – rapists, child abusers – the scum of the earth in her eyes, the lowest of the low. She hated it for the way it forced him to confront over and over what these people had done, what people were capable of, as if she feared the enormities of their crimes might somehow be contaminating him. Creeping into his dreams. Coming back with him into their home, like smoke caught in his hair or clinging to the fibres of his clothes. Contaminating them all.
'How much longer, Tom?' she would ask. 'How much longer are you going to do this hateful bloody job?'
'Not long,' he would say. 'Not so much longer now.'
Get out before you burn out, that was the word on the force. Transfer to general duties, traffic, fraud. Yet he could never bring himself to leave, to make the move, and each morning he would set off back into that world and each evening when he returned, no matter how late, he would go and stand in the twins' bedroom and watch them sleeping, his and Marianne's twin boys, safe and sound.
That summer they had gone to Filey as usual, two weeks of holiday, the same dubious weather, the same small hotel, the perfect curve of beach. The twins had run and splashed and fooled around on half-sized body boards on the edges of the waves; they had eaten chips and ice creams and, tired of playing with the big coloured ball that bounced forever down towards the sea, Tom had helped them build sandcastles with an elaborate array of turrets and tunnels, while Marianne alternately read her book or dozed.
It was perfect: even the weather was forgiving, no more than a scattering of showers, a few darkening clouds, the wind from the south.
On the last evening, the twins upstairs asleep, they had sat on the small terrace overlooking the promenade and the black strip of sea. 'When we get back, Tom,' Marianne had said, 'you've got to ask for a transfer. They'll understand. No one can do a job like that for ever, not even you.'
She reached for his hand and as he turned towards her, she brought her face to his. 'Tom?' Her breath on his face was warm and slightly sweet and he felt a lurch of love run through him like a wave.
'All right,' he said.
But by the end of that summer, things had changed. There had been the bombings in London for one thing, suicide bombers on the Tube; an innocent young Brazilian shot and killed after a bungled surveillance operation; suspected terrorists arrested in suburbs of Birmingham and Leeds. It was everywhere. Security alerts at the local airport; rumours that spread from voice to voice, from mobile phone to mobile phone. Don't go into the city centre this Saturday. Keep well away. Stay clear. Now it was commonplace to see, fully armed in the middle of the day, a pair of uniformed police officers strolling down past Pizza Hut and the Debenhams department store, Heckler & Koch sub-machine guns held low across their chests, Walther P990 pistols holstered at their hips, shoppers no longer bothering to stop and stare.
As the Home Office and security services continued to warn of the possibility of a new terrorist attack, the pressures on police time increased. A report from the chief inspector of constabulary noted that in some police areas surveillance packages intended to supervise high-risk offenders were now rarely implemented due to a lack of resources. 'Whether it is counter-terrorism or a sex offender,' explained his deputy, 'there are only a certain number of specialist officers to go round.'
'You remember what you promised,' Marianne reminded him. By now it was late September, the nights drawing in.
'I can't,' Tom said, slowly shaking his head. 'I can't leave now.'
She looked at him, her face like flint. 'I can, Tom. We can. Remember that.'
It hung over them after that, the threat, fracturing what had held them together for so long.
Of necessity, Tom worked longer hours; when he did get home, tired, head buzzing, it was to find her turned away from him in the bed and flinching at his touch. At breakfast, when he put his arms around her at the sink, she shrugged him angrily away.
'Marianne, for God's sake ...'
'We can't go on like this.'
'Then do something about it.'
'I've already told you. A hundred times. Not now.'
She pushed past him and out into the hall, slamming the door at her back. 'Fuck!' Tom shouted and slammed his fist against the wall. 'Fuck, fuck, fuck!' One of the twins screamed as if he'd been struck; the other knocked his cereal to the floor and started to cry.
* * *
The team meeting was almost over when Bridget Arthur, one of the probation officers, mid-fifties, experienced, raised her hand. 'Darren Pitcher, I think we might have a problem.'
Tom Whitemore sighed. 'What now?'
'One of my clients, Emma Laurie, suspended sentence for dealing crack cocaine, lives up in Forest Fields. Not the brightest cherry in the bunch. She's taken up with Pitcher. Seems he's thinking of moving in.'
'That's a problem?'
'She's got three kids, all under six. Two of them boys.'
Whitemore shook his head. He knew Darren Pitcher's history well enough. An only child, brought up by his mother, who had given birth to him when she was just sixteen, Pitcher had only met his father twice: on the first occasion, magnanimous from drink, the older man had squeezed his buttocks and slipped two five-pound notes into his trouser pocket; on the second, sober, he had blacked the boy's eye and told him to fuck off out of his sight.
A loner at school, marked out by learning difficulties, readily bullied, from the age of sixteen Pitcher had drifted through a succession of low-paid jobs – cleaning, stacking supermarket shelves, hospital portering, washing cars – and several short-term relationships with women who enjoyed even less self-esteem than himself.
When he was twenty-five he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for molesting half a dozen boys between the ages of four and seven. While in prison, in addition to numerous incidents of self-harming, he had made one attempt at suicide.
Released, he had spent the first six months in a hostel and had reported to both his probation officer and a community psychiatric nurse each week. Since which time, supervision had necessarily slackened off.
'Ben?' Whitemore said, turning towards the psychiatric nurse at the end of the table. 'He was one of yours.'
Ben Leonard pushed a hand up through his cropped blonde hair. 'A family, ready-made, might be what he needs.'
'The girl,' Bridget Arthur said, 'she's not strong. It's a wonder she's hung on to those kids as long as she has.'
'There's a father somewhere?'
For a moment, Tom Whitemore closed his eyes. 'The boys, they're how old?'
'Five and three. There's a little girl, eighteen months.'
'And do we think, should Pitcher move in, they could be at risk?'
I think we have to,' Bridget Arthur said.
Leonard took his time. 'We've made real progress with Darren, I think. He's aware that his previous behaviour was wrong. Regrets what he's done. The last thing he wants to do is offend again. But, yes, for the sake of the kids, I'd have to say there was a risk. A small one, but a risk.'
'Okay,' Whitemore said. 'I'll go and see him. Report back. Bridget, you'll stay in touch with the girl?'
'Good. Let's not lose sight of this in the midst of everything else.'
They sat on the Portland Leisure Centre steps, a wan sun showing weakly through the wreaths of cloud. Whitemore had bought two cups of pale tea from the machines inside and they sat there on the cold, worn stone, scarcely talking as yet. Darren Pitcher was smoking a cigarette, a roll-up he had made with less than steady hands. What was it, Whitemore thought, his gran had always said? Don't sit on owt cold or you'll get piles, sure as eggs is eggs.
'Got yourself a new girlfriend, I hear,' Whitemore said.
Pitcher flinched then glanced at him from under lowered lids. He had a lean face, a sickly pallor, a few reddish spots around the mouth and chin; strangely long eyelashes that curled luxuriantly over his weak grey eyes.
'Emma? That her name?'
'She's all right.'
Two young black men in shiny sportswear bounced past them, all muscle, on their way to the gym.
'It serious?' Whitemore asked.
'What I heard, it's pretty serious. The pair of you. Heard you were thinking of moving in.'
Pitcher mumbled something and drew on his cigarette.
'Sorry?' Whitemore said. 'I didn't quite hear ...'
'I said it's none of your business ...'
'My life, yeah? Not yours.'
Whitemore swallowed a mouthful more of the lukewarm tea and turned the plastic cup upside down, shaking the last drops onto the stone. 'This Emma,' he said, 'she's got kids. Young kids.'
'That don't ... You can't ... That was a long time ago.'
'I know, Darren. I know. But it happened, nonetheless. And it makes this our concern.' For a moment, his hand rested on Pitcher's arm. 'You understand?'
Pitcher's hand went to his mouth and he bit down on his knuckle hard.
* * *
Gregory Boulevard ran along one side of the Forest Recreation Ground, the nearest houses, once substantial family homes, now mostly subdivided into flats and falling, many of them, into disrepair. Beyond these, the streets grew narrower and coiled back upon themselves, the houses smaller with front doors that opened directly out on to the street. Corner shops with bars across the windows, shutters on the doors.
Emma Laurie sat on a lopsided settee in the front room; small-featured, a straggle of hair falling down across her face, her voice rarely rose above a whisper as she spoke. A wraith of a thing, Whitemore thought. Outside, a good wind would blow her away.
The three children huddled in the corner, watching cartoons, the sound turned low. Jason, Rory and Jade. The youngest had a runny nose, the older of the boys coughed intermittently, open-mouthed, but they were all, as yet, bright-eyed.
'He's good with them,' Emma was saying, 'Darren. Plays with them all the time. Takes them, you know, down to t'Forest. They love him, they really do. Can't wait for him to move in wi' us. Go on about it all the time. Jason especially.'
'And you?' Bridget Arthur said. 'How do you feel? About Darren moving in?'
'Be easier, won't it? Rent and that. What I get, family credit an' the rest, s'a struggle, right? But if Darren's here, I can get a job, afternoons, Asda. Get out a bit, 'stead of bein' all cooped up. Darren'll look after the kids. He don't mind.'
They walked down through the maze of streets to where Arthur had parked her car, the Park and Ride on the edge of the Forest.
'What do you think?' Whitemore said.
'Ben could be right. Darren, could be the making of him.'
'But if it puts those lads at risk?'
I know, I know. But what can we do? He's been out a good while now, no sign of him reoffending.'
'I still don't like it,' Whitemore said.
Arthur smiled wryly. 'Other people's lives. We'll keep our fingers crossed. Keep as close an eye as we can.'
Sometimes, Whitemore thought, it was as if they were trying to hold the world together with good intentions and a ball of twine.
'Give you a lift back into town?' Arthur said when they reached her car. It was not yet late afternoon and the light was already beginning to fade.
Whitemore shook his head. 'It's okay. I'll catch the tram.'
Back at the office, he checked his emails, made several calls, wrote up a brief report of the visit to Emma Laurie. He wondered if he should go and see Darren Pitcher again, but decided there was little to be gained. When he finally got back home, a little after six, Marianne was buckling the twins into their seats in the back of the car.
'What's going on?'
She was flushed, a scarf at her neck. 'My parents, I thought we'd go over and see them. Just for a couple of days. They haven't seen the boys in ages.'
'They were over just the other weekend.'
'That was a month ago. More. It is ages to them.'
One of the boys was marching his dinosaur along the top of the seat in front; the other was fiddling with his straps.
'You were just going to go?' Whitemore said. 'You weren't even going to wait till I got back?'
'You're not usually this early.'
'It's a two-hour drive.'
'I know how far it is.'
'Tom, don't. Please.'
'Make this more difficult than it is.'
He read it in her eyes. Walking to the back of the car, he snapped open the boot. It was crammed with luggage, coats, shoes, toys.
'You're not just going for a couple of days, are you? This is not a couple of fucking days.'
'Tom, please ...' She raised a hand towards him, but he knocked it away.
'You're leaving, that's what you're doing ...'
'No, I'm not.'
'It's just for a little while ... A break. I need a break. So I can think.'
'You need to fucking think right enough!'
Whitemore snatched open the rear door and leaned inside, seeking to unsnap the nearest boy's belt and failing in his haste. The boys themselves looked frightened and close to tears.
'Tom, don't do that! Leave it. Leave them alone.'
She pulled at his shoulder and he thrust her away, so that she almost lost her footing and stumbled back. Roused by the shouting, one of the neighbours was standing halfway along his front garden path, openly staring.
'Tom, please,' Marianne said. 'Be reasonable.'
Excerpted from A Darker Shade of Blue by John Harvey. Copyright © 2011 John Harvey. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 6, 2012
Of the 18 short stories in this collection, four feature Charlie Resnick, seven north London detective Jack Kiley, and one in which they both appear. Each, of course, is a well-known protagonist featured in prior John Harvey novels. And their characters come through even more strongly in a short story.
As Mr. Harvey writes in an introduction, the short story form gives an author greater latitude to experiment with an idea or character to learn whether or not use can be made later in the novel format. The extremely well-written, well-constructed short stories are a prime example of that observation.
Not lost in the shuffle is Harvey's fascination with the world of jazz, nor his descriptions of London and outlying areas, especially the more depressing aspects of English life and the world of crime.