Hero to zero.
Cop to corpse.
One minute PC Harry Tasker is strolling up Walcot Street, Bath,
on foot patrol. The next he is shot through the head. No scream,
no struggle, no last words. He is picked off, felled, dead.
The shooting activates an alarm over one of the shops nearby,
an ear-splitting ring certain to wake everyone.
Normally at this time on a Sunday morning – around 4 a.m. – the streets of Bath are silent. The nightclubs close officially at three.
The last of the revellers have dispersed. PC Tasker was on his way back to the police station after checking that Club XL was quiet.
His body lies in a bow shape under the light of a street lamp on the flagstone pavement, a small puddle of blood forming under the head. His chequered cap is upturned nearby.
Harry Tasker is the third police officer murdered in Avon and
Somerset in twelve weeks. The others, like him, were shot while on foot patrol. A huge operation to identify the sniper has come to nothing. All the police know for certain is that the victims were shot by someone using a high velocity assault rifle that fires 5.56
x 45mm cartridges. The killings and the hunt for the so-called
Somerset Sniper have been splashed in headlines across the nation.
Nobody else is on the street at this hour. This is the pattern.
The killing is done at night. The victims are discovered eventually by some early riser, a milkman, a dog owner.
But today there is a difference. In a flat above one of the shops in Walcot Street, a hand grabs a phone.
The 999 call is taken at the communications centre in Portishead,
logged at 4.09 a.m.
‘Which service do you need: police, fire or ambulance?’
‘Ambulance, for sure. And police. There’s a guy lying in the street here. I heard this sound like a gunshot a minute ago and looked out and there he was. He’s not moving. I think he’s a policeman.’
Another police officer. The operator is trained to assess critical information and act on it calmly, yet even she takes a sharp breath.
‘Where are you speaking from?’
The caller gives the address and his name and in the emergency room the location is flashed on screen. An all-units call. Within minutes all available response cars and an ambulance are heading for the stretch of Walcot Street near Beehive Yard.
A new shooting is terrible news, but the speed of this alert gives the police the best chance yet of detaining the sniper.
Walcot Street was created by the Romans. It is believed to have formed a small section of the Fosse Way, the unswerving road that linked the west country to the Midlands. It runs north to south for a third of a mile, parallel to the River Avon, from St Swithin’s
Church – where Jane Austen’s parents were married in 1764 – to St
Michael’s, where it morphs into Northgate Street. Located outside the old city walls, Walcot was once a village independent of Bath and still has the feel of a place apart. It was always the city’s lumber room, housing, in its time, tram sheds, a flea market, slaughterhouses,
a foundry, a women’s prison and an isolation hospital for venereal diseases. Now it goes in for shops of character and variable charm such as Jack and Danny’s Fancy Dress Hire; Bath Sewing
Machine Service; Yummy House; Bath Aqua Theatre of Glass; and
Appy Daze, Bath’s Premium Hemporium.
The first police car powers up the street, blues and twos going.
By now some local people in nightclothes are grouped around the body. Two officers fling open their car doors and dash over to their shot colleague as more cars arrive from the other direction.
The ambulance snakes through and the paramedics take over, but anyone can see Harry Tasker is beyond help. His personal radio,
attached to his tunic, eerily emits someone else’s voice relaying information about his shooting.
A real voice cuts in: ‘Let’s have some order here. For a start,
will somebody stop that fucking alarm.’
Ken Lockton is the senior man at the scene and must direct the operation. ‘Senior’ is a contradiction in terms. Inspector
Lockton is not yet thirty, came quickly through the ranks and passed his promotion exam at the end of last year. He wouldn’t be the first choice to deal with a major incident, or the second,
or even the tenth, but he’s the man on duty. As the uniformed inspector lowest in the pecking order he gets more night shifts than anyone else. He knew Harry Tasker well and is shocked by the killing, yet can’t let that affect his handling of the incident.
Lockton knows he must suppress all emotion, lead by example,
and set the right procedures in motion. Inside him, every pulse is throbbing, and not just because another policeman has been shot. His strap-brown eyes are wide, eager. He doesn’t mind anyone knowing he’s a career man, a high flyer aiming for executive rank. This is a thumping great chance for glory, the best chance anyone has had to bag the sniper. And he hasn’t got long. As soon as Headquarters get their act together they will send some hotshot detective to take over.
The men available to Lockton aren’t exactly the A team. Like him, they happen to be on the night shift, almost at the end of it, ready for sleep, stumbling bleary-eyed out of patrol cars and minibuses uncertain what their duties will be. He must make effective use of them.
He gets one success. The jangling alarm is silenced.
He grabs a loud-hailer and begins issuing orders. No one must be in any doubt who is in charge
The first imperative is to seal the crime scene. A stretch of the street for about a hundred yards is closed to traffic by police cars parked laterally at either end. Cones and police tape reinforce the cordon. While this is being done, Lockton assesses the location. If the sniper is still in the area the local geography will hamper him.
Behind the row of small shops on the side where PC Tasker lies is the river, deep and steeply banked. Not much chance of escape there. On the other side of Walcot Street is a twenty-foot high retaining wall. Above it, on massive foundations, are the backs of
Bladud Buildings and the Paragon, grand terraces from the mideighteenth century sited at the top of a steep escarpment.
The armed response team arrives by van. They were sent automatically when the seriousness of the alert was known and they are here in their black body armour and bearing their Heckler & Koch
G36 subcarbines. Ken Lockton, glowing with importance, tells the senior man he wants stop points on all conceivable escape routes from the sectioned-off area.
He also has work for his sleep-deprived army of unarmed men and women. Residents disturbed by the noise and coming to their front doors will find officers standing guard. They will be told to lock up and stay inside.
Another group is sent to make a search of Beehive Yard, on the river side.
Do Not Cross tape is used to enclose the area around the body.
Later a crime scene tent will be erected. The police surgeon is already examining the body, a necessary formality. He’s a local
GP. The forensic pathologist will follow.
The 999 call originated from a flat above a charity shop and
Lockton goes in with a female officer to question the informant,
a first year undergraduate.
Ponytail, glasses, pale, spotty face and a wisp of beard fit the student stereotype. The young guy, who gives his name as Damon
Richards, is in a black dressing gown. The questioning is sharp considering that he raised the alert. Lockton knows that people who call the emergency number are not always public-spirited.
They may well be implicated in what happened.
‘Take me through it. You heard gunfire, right? Where were you – in bed?’
‘Actually, no. I was at my desk, studying. If I wake early, that’s what I do. I had a book open and I was making notes.’ He is tiresomely slow of speech.
‘What woke you – a noise?’
‘If you really want to know, I needed a pee. Then I was awake, so
I started to work. Ten or twenty minutes after, I heard the shooting.’
‘Where were you when you heard it?’
‘I told you. At my desk. Over there by the window.’
The room is typical of early nineteenth century Bath houses,
high-ceilinged, corniced, spacious. And typical of the twentyfirst century, it is in use as a bedsit, crammed with self-assembly furniture. The desk is hard against the sash window and books are stacked on it. One book is open and there is a notepad beside it.
‘With the curtain drawn?’
‘Yes. I heard the gunfire and didn’t know what it was so I pulled back the curtain and saw the guy lying there. He wasn’t moving.
That’s when I phoned. I didn’t go out to him because I was scared,
to be honest. Is he dead?’
‘You heard more than one shot?’
‘I think so.’
‘What do you mean – “think so”? You’d know if there was more than one.’
‘There could have been an echo.’
‘Do you have any sense of where the shooting came from? Was it close?’
‘It sounded bloody close to me. Other people must have heard it.’
‘The difference is that you were already awake. Was the gunfire from out in the street, would you say?’
‘As distinct from one of these houses?’
‘I get you. I couldn’t say that. How could I tell?’
‘Do you remember if there was a vehicle nearby?’
‘There are some parking spaces that get filled up quickly. Otherwise it’s double yellow lines all the way.’
‘I’m not talking about parked cars, for God’s sake. Did you hear anything after the shots, like a car or a motorbike moving off?’
‘I don’t remember any. I could be wrong. I was in shock, to be honest.’
‘You keep saying “to be honest”. You’d better be honest with me,
young man. We’ll need a written statement from you. Everything you remember.’ Lockton nods to the constable and leaves her to start the paperwork.
It is still before 4.30 a.m.
Reinforcements are arriving all the time. Lockton knows he could find himself replaced any minute as the Senior Investigating
Officer. He needs to make his opportunity count, and soon. He moved over to where the police surgeon has now stepped back from the body.
The shooting fits the pattern of the previous attacks. The entry wound is above the right ear. The bullet must have fragmented inside the skull, shattering much of the opposite side of the head.
It’s not a sight you want to linger over.
‘Nothing I can tell you that isn’t obvious. A single bullet wound.’
‘We think there may have been more than one shot,’ Lockton says.
‘Have you found other bullets, then?’
‘Not yet. Other priorities. Is there any way of telling the direction of the shots?’
‘Depends where he was when he was hit. The bullet entered here,
quite high up on the right temple, and you can see that most of the tissue damage is lower down on the opposite side. That could be an angle for you to work with.’
‘You’re talking about the trajectory?’
‘That’s for you to work out. I’m only here to examine the body.’
‘A high velocity bullet?’
‘I’m a doctor, not a gun expert.’
Ken Lockton goes into deduction mode. ‘It’s unlikely the shooting was from ground level, so it’s a good bet he fired from above us, like a window over one of the shops.’ He’s pleased with that.
CID would approve.
‘In that case, he would have been walking away from the town centre, towards Walcot.’
Lockton isn’t sure now. He betrays some of the tension he feels by chewing his thumbnail. ‘The right side, you say.’
‘You can see for yourself.’
Actually he’s seen more than he wants to. He doesn’t need to look again to know where the bullet entered. He gives a nervous laugh. ‘His shift was nearly over. He should have been heading the opposite way, back towards Manvers Street nick.’
‘If you’re right, the killer wasn’t on the shop side. He must have been somewhere behind us.’ He turns to look again at that massive brick rampart along the west side of the street, a far cry from the cleaned-up stone structures that grace most of the city.
Blackened by two centuries of pollution, the wall is tall enough and grim enough to enclose a prison.
A disused Victorian fountain is recessed into the brickwork under an arch flanked by granite columns. When the market across the street thrived, the trough must have been a place where thirsty horses were watered after delivering goods. Its modern use is as a flowerbed – with insufficient cover for a gunman to crouch in.
‘I’m leaving,’ the police surgeon says. ‘I’ve pronounced him dead. There’s nothing more to keep me here.’
Lockton is too absorbed to answer.
Left of the fountain his eyes light on an ancient flight of steps leading up to Bladud Buildings. Is that where the shot was fired from? The gunman could have made his escape up there and be in a different street.
His heart-rate quickening, Lockton crosses for a closer inspection,
runs halfway up the steps and at once discovers a difficulty.
It is far too narrow. To have fired from a height the sniper needs to have been at least this far up, but the tall sides mask the view.
You can’t see the fallen man from here. The sniper would have needed to wait for his victim to draw level across the street. The shooting from the steps didn’t happen.
Cursing, Lockton descends, returns to the middle of the street,
stares at that long expanse of wall and gets a better idea. Up to now he has accepted the structure without fully taking it in. Now he can see that the brickwork isn’t entirely solid. At intervals there are cavities where entire bricks are missing. Maybe they are meant for drainage. They look like spy-holes.
Or sniper points.
The holes go in a long way. Beer cans have been stuffed into some within reach. You could put your whole arm into them. It’s hard to tell how far back they go.
He has assumed up to now that solid earth is behind the wall.
Still thinking about the possibility, he steps back for a longer look and some way to the right of the fountain notices a door and window spaces.
A lock-up. It belongs to a local firm that salvages and retails masonry and statuary.
His spirits surge.
Padlocks and hasps would be no great problem for a committed assassin.
He orders two pairs of armed officers to force the lock-up door.
The window spaces would be ideal sniper-points, allowing a clear view of the street and a human target walking by.
Overhead, the police helicopter hovers, more proof of the seriousness of this operation. This is the biggest moment of Ken
Lockton’s career. All of this is under his command, the chopper,
the cars, the bobbies stepping down from minibuses, the gun team yelling, ‘Armed police,’ as they storm the lock-up.
The doors are kicked in and the interior searched by flashlight.
In a situation as tense as this, violent action is welcomed by the team. Inside are large chunks of masonry and statuary harvested from old buildings all over Somerset, griffins, dragons and hounds.
Several are large enough to hide behind.
But it ends in anticlimax. There’s nothing to show that the lockup was entered recently. The team steps out, deflated.
Lockton feels the pressure. For all he knows, the sniper could be inside one of the shops or flats holding people hostage. Each dwelling will need to be checked, every resident questioned as a possible witness, but unless something happens quickly this will have to be a later phase in the operation, after he hands over responsibility. Headquarters have already radioed to say CID are on their way and will take over.
He stares at the wall, the sodding great wall. Logically that was the side the bullets came from if one penetrated PC Tasker’s right temple. Or was he facing the other direction for some obscure reason?
His gaze travels up the rows of blackened bricks. There isn’t enough daylight to see properly and the height goes well above streetlamp level. He asks for a flashlight and picks out an iron railing along the top. ‘What’s up there, Steve?’ he asks Sergeant Stillman,
one of the patrolling drivers who had answered the all-units call.
The two were sergeants together for four years. Stillman is worth his stripes, but in Lockton’s opinion won’t ever make inspector.
No officer qualities.
‘Behind the rail? Gardens. They’re all the way along. They belong to the houses in the terrace.’
‘Gardens?’ Fresh thoughts stampede Lockton’s brain. He can’t see anything except overhanging foliage from down in the street,
but he is visualising a gun position.
‘They’ll be roof gardens really. Just a few feet of soil.’
‘How would he get up there?’
‘He wouldn’t, unless he lived in one of the houses. He’d have to come through someone’s flat.’
‘Drive me up there.’
‘Now?’ Stillman doesn’t appreciate that Lockton wants a personal triumph out of this.
‘Get the car, for fuck’s sake.’
He could just as easily run up the steps. It would be quicker.
Sergeant Stillman decides this is about power. Ken Lockton is asserting his rank.
A silver-haired sergeant is deputed to take over at street level.
Without another word Sergeant Stillman fetches the car and does the short drive as ordered, ignoring the one-way system by turning at Saracen Street and back down Broad Street to park on the front side of the terrace, level with the cast-iron bollards at the top of the steps – the same steps Lockton could have used in half the time.
To the right of the steps is Bladud Buildings. The Paragon is to the left. There’s little difference. It’s all four or five floors high and Georgian neo-classical in style: entablatures, pediments and cornices.
Lockton stands by the car with arms folded, trying to understand how this building is grounded on the steep slope. It isn’t easy to visualise from this side. ‘There have got to be basements,’ he tells
Steve Stillman. ‘The ground floor is going to be above the level of the garden.’
He steps up to one of the entrances and looks at the array of bell-pushes on the entryphone system. Each terraced house must have been a sole residence once. Now there are flats on all floors. Beside each button is the name of the tenant. He tries the lowest.
Through the grill a weary voice says, ‘Chrissake, what time is this?’
‘Police,’ says Lockton.
‘Fuck off,’ says the voice.
‘That’s what we get for safeguarding the great British public,’
Lockton comments to Stillman. ‘We’ll try another place.’
Stillman is frowning. ‘It could be him.’
‘I don’t think so. He wouldn’t answer, would he?’
There was some logic in that.
They study the bell-system two doors along. Someone has been efficient here. Each name is typed on white card rather than handwritten on odd scraps of paper. ‘Not this one,’ Lockton says.
‘Why not?’ Sergeant Stillman is starting to question Lockton’s deductive skills. By his own estimation, the house must overlook the place where Harry Tasker’s body lies.
‘Because it’s not what I’m looking for, not what the sniper would look for.’
He finds it at the next house, handwritten names for flats 1, 2
and 3 and a blank for the fourth, the lowest. He presses 3.
After a long pause, a woman’s voice. ‘Who is this?’
‘How do I know that?’
‘Look out of your front window. You’ll see our car.’
‘Hang on a mo.’
Presently they are admitted to apartment 3 by a young woman in blue winceyette pyjamas. She rakes a hand through her blonde hair and tells them it’s early in the day.
Stillman bites back the strong comment he’d like to make after being up all night.
Lockton asks who occupies the flat below.
‘Nobody,’ the blonde says. ‘It’s been empty some time, far as
‘You haven’t heard any sounds?’
A shake of the head. ‘There was a noise like an alarm down in the street a short time ago, or I think there was. It woke me. Then
I drifted off again.’
‘How do we get into the basement?’
‘The what? Do you mean the garden flat? The stairs in the hall.’
The two policemen find their way down. The door is locked.
‘Force it, Steve.’
Sergeant Stillman aims a kick at the lock. The door gives at the second try. ‘Shouldn’t we get armed assistance?’
Lockton doesn’t listen. ‘Give me your torch.’
He’s already inside, still living his dream of instant fame. The place has the smell of long disuse and the lights don’t work. He senses that the sniper isn’t here. Through what must be the living room – though the place is unfurnished – he can see a small sunroom, too poky to call a conservatory. Beyond is the garden,
overgrown, a fine crop of stinging nettles waist-high and bedraggled with the overnight dew.
He steps through the sunroom and notes that the door isn’t bolted from inside. Not a huge security risk, but any landlord worthy of the name would surely take the trouble to secure an empty flat.
If nothing else, he’ll get a view of Walcot Street from the end of the garden. Parting the nettles, he moves on, following the torch beam, and then stops.
Ahead, resting against the railing, is an assault rifle.