The Demands (Tom Thorne Series #10)

The Demands (Tom Thorne Series #10)

3.7 4
by Mark Billingham
     
 

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"Tom Thorne is the new superstar detective...Mark Billingham is the new-wave leader of crime fiction."—Lee Child


The Crime The customers in a London convenience store are taken captive. Among them is young mother, Detective Helen Weeks. She is told her life depends on the co-operation of one of her colleagues - detective Tom Thorne.

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Overview

"Tom Thorne is the new superstar detective...Mark Billingham is the new-wave leader of crime fiction."—Lee Child


The Crime The customers in a London convenience store are taken captive. Among them is young mother, Detective Helen Weeks. She is told her life depends on the co-operation of one of her colleagues - detective Tom Thorne.

The Demand Akhtar is desperate to know what really happened to his beloved son, who died a year before in prison. He is convinced the death was not an accident and forces the one man who knows more about the case than any other, Thorne, to re-investigate.

The Twist What Thorne discovers will upend everything he thought he knew about the fate of those he's put away...but will it be enough to fulfill the wishes of a grieving and potentially violent father?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A hostage situation turns personal in Billingham’s crackling 10th suspense thriller featuring Det. Insp. Tom Thorne (after 2010’s From the Dead). Javed Akhtar is convinced that his 16-year-old son, Amin, was recently murdered in the Barndale Young Offenders Institution—where Amin was serving an eight-year sentence following the death of another boy during a scuffle—even though everything points to suicide. Akhtar snaps one morning and takes two hostages in his London news shop, including Det. Sgt. Helen Weeks, who appeared in Billingham’s stand-alone In the Dark. As tactical teams and a hostage negotiator gather outside, Akhtar stands firm: he’ll only talk to Thorne, who originally investigated the case that put Amin away. At Barndale, Thorne uncovers secrets Amin kept from his parents, secrets involving powerful people who would do anything to keep certain information under wraps. Billingham never lets the tension lag as the hours tick by, the desperation and Thorne’s dogged determination palpable. (June)
Florida Sun-Sentinel
"The tenth outing with London detective Tom Thorne starts out as a conventional hostage novel, but then skillfully explores guilt, cultural differences and injustice."
Gillian Flynn
"One of the most consistently entertaining, insightful crime writers working today."
Michael Connelly
"With each of his books, Mark Billingham gets better and better. These are stories and characters you don't want to leave."
Lee Child
"Tom Thorne is the new superstar detective...Mark Billingham is the new-wave leader of crime fiction."
From the Publisher
"The tenth outing with London detective Tom Thorne starts out as a conventional hostage novel, but then skillfully explores guilt, cultural differences and injustice."—Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2012's Best Crime Fiction"

Ingeniously constructed...this great novel should put Billingham in the same league as Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, John Harvey and Denise Mina. A breakthrough novel."—Kirkus (starred review)"

A tightly plotted and suspenseful thriller sure to please fans of the genre."—Library Journal"

One of the most consistently entertaining, insightful crime writers working today."—Gillian Flynn"

With each of his books, Mark Billingham gets better and better. These are stories and characters you don't want to leave."—Michael Connelly"

Tom Thorne is the new superstar detective...Mark Billingham is the new-wave leader of crime fiction."—Lee Child

Kirkus Reviews
The clock is ticking for London detective Tom Thorne. A news agent, Akhtar, is holding detective Helen Weeks of the Child Protection Unit hostage in his shop, demanding justice. A year ago, Akhtar's teenage son Amin died in a juvenile detention center in what was wrongly ruled a suicide. Unless Thorne finds who killed the boy, the grieving father will do something terrible. In what could be his commercial breakthrough novel in the States, British author Billingham serves up suspense on multiple fronts. In the shop, Weeks and a frightened male banker are handcuffed to a radiator and subjected to the normally pleasant news agent's dangerous mood swings. Immediately outside, a battery of armed, high-tech cops are chomping at the bit to do their thing, impatient with a female hostage negotiator's slow, by-the-books methods. And Thorne, re-investigating a case involving a clash between bullying white kids and Pakistani youths that resulted in Amin killing a white kid with the kid's kitchen knife, immerses himself in the corrupt culture in and around the Barndale Young Offenders Institution. Secrets are revealed, notably that Amin was gay and frequented clubs where he took money for sex from men with reputations to protect. The book is an ingeniously constructed effort that unfolds with pinpoint timing, building to exciting finishes on all fronts. Thorne draws on his own rough beginnings to empathize with the young victims and his own busted relationship with a fellow cop following her miscarriage to empathize with Weeks, mother of a baby son. Billingham does an especially good job in his descriptions of Weeks' steadfast efforts to remain calm at gunpoint and in the face of Akhtar's polar inconsistencies. Thorne's sidekicks are winning. This great novel should put Billingham in the same league as Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, John Harvey and Denise Mina.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780316126632
Publisher:
Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
06/12/2012
Series:
Tom Thorne Series, #10
Pages:
405
Sales rank:
976,023
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Demands


By Mark Billingham

Mulholland Books

Copyright © 2012 Mark Billingham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316126632

Day One

Wild in His Sorrow

One

Chewing gum and chocolate, maybe a bottle of water on those hen’s teeth days when the sun was shining. A paper for the journey into work and half a minute of meaningless chat while she was waiting for her change.

Nothing there worth dying for.

Helen Weeks would tell herself much the same thing many times before it was over. In the hours spent staring at the small black hole from which death could emerge in less time than it took for her heart to beat. Or stop beating. In those slow-motion moments of terror that measured out each day and in the sleepless nights that followed. While the man who might kill her at any moment was shouting at himself just a few feet away, or crying in the next room.

It is not my time to die.

Or my baby’s time to lose his mother…

The chewing gum was a habitual thing, something to do and to help her stay off the cigarettes she’d given up two years before when she’d become pregnant. A newspaper ensured she would not have to look at the people sitting opposite her on the train, presuming she was lucky enough to get a seat and did not find herself pressed up against some lard-arse in a cheap suit who bought his aftershave from Poundstretcher. The chocolate was an addiction, pure and simple. One that had made the struggle to lose weight since her son was born no more than partially successful. She would try and eke it out; a chunk or two around eleven with a coffee, another after lunch and the rest as a treat at the end of the day. That was always the plan, but it was usually gone before she’d so much as logged on at her desk or, if the case she was working on was particularly unpleasant, by the time her train had finished its four-minute journey to Streatham station.

There were a lot of unpleasant cases.

She collected her paper from the rack near the door of the newsagent’s, and by the time she reached the counter Mr. Akhtar had already picked out her usual chewing gum and chocolate bar of choice. He smiled and brandished them as she approached.

Same as always. Their private joke.

“How is the little one?” he asked.

Mr. Akhtar was a short, prematurely balding man who almost always had a smile on his face. He rarely wore anything other than dark trousers, a white shirt and a cardigan, though that might be blue or brown. Helen thought he was probably younger than he looked, but put him somewhere in his mid-fifties.

“He’s good,” Helen said. She was aware of the customer she had seen browsing through the magazines on her way in, moving up to stand behind her. The man—tall, black, thirties—had been looking up at some of the covers in the top shelf’s “gentleman’s interest” section and had quickly dropped his eyes down to the lifestyle and motoring mags when he’d seen Helen come in. “Yeah, he’s good.”

Mr. Akhtar smiled and nodded and handed over the chewing gum and chocolate. “Hard work though, yes?”

Helen rolled her eyes and said, “Sometimes.”

Actually, Alfie was way better than good. He was indescribably brilliant. She grinned, thinking about her one-year-old son babbling happily as she had walked him to the childminder half an hour before. He was happy almost all of the time, as far as she could tell, but he certainly let her know when he wasn’t. He had Paul’s temper, Helen had decided, as well as his eyes.

Or was she kidding herself?

“Worth it though, yes?”

“Definitely,” she said.

“Trust me, it gets harder.”

“Oh, don’t tell me that.” Laughing, Helen handed over two pound coins and waited for the forty-three pence she was given back every morning. As Mr. Akhtar was digging her change from the till, she heard the bell on the door. She saw him glance up and heard the voices, braying and fearless, as a group of lads came into the shop.

She looked round. Three of them: one black, two white. All full of themselves.

“Here you are,” Mr. Akhtar said. He held out Helen’s change, but his eyes were on the three boys, and his voice was a little smaller than it had been a few seconds earlier. Before Helen turned back to him, she watched the boys amble across to the tall fridge and open the door, laughing and cursing.

Enjoying the attention of an audience, Helen thought.

“Looks like it might be nice today.”

“That’s good,” Mr. Akhtar said. Still quiet, looking towards the fridge.

“Won’t last.” Helen put the coins into her purse and folded the newspaper into her bag. She heard the man behind her exhale loudly, clearly impatient to be served. She had just opened her mouth to say “see you tomorrow” when Mr. Akhtar leaned towards her and whispered, nodding towards the three boys.

“I hate those bastards,” he hissed.

Helen looked round again. They were rooting around inside the fridge, pulling out cans, then putting them back again. Laughing and pushing each other. One, who must have grabbed a paper on the way in, was leaning against a display of greeting cards, rifling through the pages.

The man standing behind Helen muttered, “Christ’s sake.” She could not be sure if it was frustration at being made to wait or irritation at the behavior of the boys at the fridge.

“Hey,” Mr. Akhtar said.

Helen turned back to the till, then heard the hiss of a can being opened and saw Mr. Akhtar’s expression darken suddenly.

“Hey!”

Another hiss, and now two boys were swigging from cans of Coke, while the third tossed the remains of his newspaper away and reached into the fridge for one of his own.

“You pay for those,” Mr. Akhtar shouted.

“I forgot my wallet,” one of the boys said. The other two laughed, touched their fists together.

The white boy who had been reading the newspaper drained his can and crushed it. “What are you going to do if we don’t?” He held his arms out wide in challenge. “Blow yourself up or something?”

“You need to pay.”

Helen looked at Mr. Akhtar. She could see the muscles working in his jaw, his arms stiff at his sides, his fists clenched. She took a small step to her right, moved into his eyeline, and shook her head.

Leave it.

“Get out of my shop,” Mr. Akhtar shouted.

The white boy’s eyes looked small and dead as he dropped his empty can and walked slowly towards the till. One hand slid fast into the pocket of his hooded top. “Make us,” he said. Behind him, his friends dropped their own cans, sending Coke fizzing across the floor of the shop.

“Sorry,” one of them said.

Suddenly, Helen had no spit in her mouth. She eased her hand into her bag and closed her fingers around the wallet that held both her Oyster and warrant cards. It was bravado, no more than that, she was almost certain. One flash of her ID and a few strong words and the gobby little sods would be out of there in a shot.

“I think Osama’s shit himself.”

But an instant after Helen’s professional instinct kicked in, another took hold that was far stronger. It could so easily be a knife in the kid’s pocket, after all. She knew that she could take nothing for granted and was aware of what could happen to have-a-go heroes. She knew one community police support officer in Forest Hill who had reprimanded a fourteen-year-old for dropping litter a few months before. He was still on a ventilator.

She had had more than her fair share of this a year or so before.

Now, she had a child…

“Your shop, but it ain’t your country.”

The man who had been waiting to be served moved closer to her. Was he trying to protect her, or protect himself? Either way, he was breathing heavily and when she turned she could see that he was eyeing up the door, wondering if he should make a dash for it.

Trying to decide whether or not to make a move.

Same as she was.

“You lot are pussies without a bomb in your backpack.” The white boy took another step towards the counter. He was grinning and opened his mouth to say something else, then stopped when he saw Mr. Akhtar reach quickly below the counter and come up with a baseball bat.

One of the boys at the fridge whistled, mock-impressed, and said, “Oh, look out.”

The newsagent moved surprisingly quickly.

Helen took a step towards the end of the counter, but felt herself held back by the man next to her and could only watch as Mr. Akhtar came charging from behind it, yelling and swinging the bat wildly.

“Get the hell out. Get out.”

The white boy backed quickly away, his hand still in his pocket, while the other two turned on their heels and ran for the door, their arms reaching out to send tins and packets of cereal scattering as they went. They screamed threats and promised that they would be back and one of them shouted something about the place stinking of curry anyway.

When the last one was out on the pavement—still swearing threats and making obscene gestures—Mr. Akhtar slammed the door. He fumbled in his pocket for keys and locked it, then stood with his head against the glass, breathing heavily.

Helen took a step towards him, asked if he was all right.

Outside, one of the boys kicked at the window, then hawked up a gobbet of thick spittle onto the glass. It had just begun to dribble down past the ads for gardeners, guitar teachers and massage, when he was pulled away by his friends.

“I’m going to make a call,” Helen said. “We’ve got it all on camera, so there’s nothing to worry about.” She glanced up at the small camera above the till and realized it was almost certainly a dummy. “I can give good descriptions of all three of them, OK? You know I’m a police officer, so…”

Still with his back to the shop, Mr. Akhtar nodded and began fumbling in his pocket a second time.

“Mr. Akhtar?”

When he turned round, the newsagent was pointing a gun.

“Oh, Jesus,” the man next to Helen said.

Helen swallowed hard, tried to control the shaking in her leg and in her voice when she spoke. “What are you doing—?”

Mr. Akhtar shouted then and swore as he told Helen and her fellow customer exactly what would happen if they did not do what he said. The curse sounded awkward in his mouth, though, like something spoken by an actor who has over-rehearsed.

Like a white lie.

“Shut up,” he screamed. “Shut up or I will fucking kill you.”

Two

“It’s espresso, for crying out loud,” Tom Thorne shouted. “Espresso…”

The man—who of course could not hear him—was talking enthusiastically about how he could not even think about starting his day without that all-important hit of caffeine. He said the offending word again and Thorne slapped his hand against the steering wheel.

“Not expresso, you pillock. There’s no bloody X in it…”

Sitting in a long line of rush-hour traffic, crawling north towards lights on Haverstock Hill, Thorne glanced right and saw a woman staring across at him from behind the wheel of a sporty-looking Mercedes. He smiled and raised his eyebrows. Muttered, “Sod you, then,” when she turned away. He had hoped that, having seen him talking to himself, she might presume that he was making a hands-free call, but she clearly had him marked down as a ranting nutter.

“I suppose that a nice strong expresso gives you an expecially good start to the day, does it?”

Looking for something else, anything else, to listen to, he stabbed at the preset buttons; settled eventually for something sweet and folksy, a soft, pure voice and a song he half recognized.

Shouting at the radio was probably just another sign of growing older, Thorne thought. One of the many. Up there on the list with losing a little hearing in his right ear and thinking that there was nothing worth watching on television anymore. Wondering why teenagers thought it was cool to wear their trousers around their knees.

The song finished and the DJ cheerfully informed him which station he was tuned in to.

Up there with listening to Radio 2!

Changes of opinion or temperament were inevitable of course, Thorne knew that, and on some days he might even admit that they were not necessarily a bad thing. When change happened gradually, its slow accretion of shifts and triggers could go almost unnoticed, but Thorne was rarely comfortable with anything that was more sudden. However necessary it might be. Too many things in his life had changed recently, or were in the process of changing, and he was still finding it hard to cope with any of them.

To adjust.

He pulled somewhat less than smoothly away from the lights, cursing as his foot slipped off the still unfamiliar accelerator pedal.

The bloody car, for a start.

He had finally traded in his beloved 1975 BMW CSi for a two-year-old 5 Series that was rather more reliable and for which he could at least obtain replacement parts when he needed them. The car had been the first and as yet only thing to go, but more major changes were imminent. His flat in Kentish Town had been on the market for a month, though he still had some repairs to do and buyers seemed thin on the ground. And, despite several weeks of quiet words and clandestine sniffing around, a suitable transfer to another squad had yet to become available.

Then there had been Louise…

All these less than comfortable shifts in Thorne’s life, important as they might seem, were secondary to that. The car, the flat, the job. The flurry of changes had come about, had been decided upon, as a direct result of what had happened with Louise.

He and Louise Porter had finally parted company a couple of months before, after a relationship that had lasted just over two years. For half that time it had been better than either of them had expected; way better than most relationships between police officers, certainly. But as a team they had not been strong enough to cope with the loss of a baby. Neither had been able to give the other the particular form of comfort they needed and, while the relationship had limped on for a while, they had suffered separately and paid heavily for it. Louise had been understandably resentful that Thorne seemed more easily able to deal with the grief of strangers, while Thorne himself had struggled with guilt at not having been quite as devastated by the miscarriage as he thought he should have been. By the time that guilt had burned itself out and Thorne was able to admit just how much he had wanted to be a father, it was too late for both of them.

They had become lovers by numbers, and in the end it had simply fizzled away. It was Louise who finally plucked up the courage to say what needed saying, but Thorne had known for a while that the break had to come, before such feelings as were left between them darkened and became destructive.

They had both kept their own flats, which made the practicalities straightforward enough. Louise had taken away a bin liner stuffed with clothes and cosmetics from Thorne’s place in Kentish Town, while Thorne had left Louise’s flat for the last time with a carrier bag, a few tins of beer and a box of CDs. It had ended with a hug, but it might just as well have been a handshake. Loading his boxes and bags into the back of his car, Thorne had decided that it might be a good idea to change a whole lot of other things.

To start again…

He turned towards Finchley and almost immediately hit a traffic jam. No more than five miles now, but still half an hour or so away from Hendon, and Becke House. The headquarters of the Area West Murder Squad.

“Why the hell do you need to change your job?”

He had been out drinking with Phil Hendricks a few weeks before, and, as always, the Mancunian had not fought shy of giving his opinion. Thorne shook his head, but had listened anyway. Hendricks’ opinion was the one he most valued professionally and the same thing usually applied when it came to his private life, because the pathologist was the nearest thing he had to a best friend.

“Only friend,” Hendricks never tired of saying.

“Why not?” Thorne had asked.

“Because it’s not…relevant. It’s not necessary. It would be like me doing a postmortem on some poor bugger who’d been shot twelve times in the head, then saying the fact he had hardened arteries and a slight heart condition might have had something to do with his death.”

“You’re drunk,” Thorne had said.

“It’s too much, that’s all. Just because you’ve split up with someone doesn’t mean you have to change everything. I mean, car…yes! The bloody thing was a death trap and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with moving to a new flat either. We’ll find you somewhere much nicer than that dump you’re in now and I’ll take you shopping for some decent furniture, but do you really need to be looking for a new job as well?”

“It’s all part of it.”

“Part of what?”

“New start,” Thorne said. “New broom…leaf, whatever.”

“You’re drunker than I am…”

They had moved on to football then and Thorne’s desolate sex life, but Thorne could see that Hendricks had a point, and he had thought about little else since. Even though he still believed he was doing the right thing in looking for a new challenge, the thought of leaving Area West Homicide made him feel slightly sick. The nature of the job and the politics of arse-covering meant that it was often hard to build up real trust between members of a team. Thorne had come to value the relationships he had with a number of those he worked with every day. Men and women he liked and respected. Plenty of idiots as well of course, but even so.

Better the devil you know, all that.

On the radio, Chris Evans was making him almost as angry as Expresso Man, so Thorne turned it off. He switched to CD and scanned through the ten discs he had mounted in the changer. He turned up the volume at the familiar guitar lick and that first lovely rumble of the man’s voice.

Johnny Cash: “Ain’t No Grave.”

“While you’re busy changing things,” Hendricks had said, “you could always do something about that stupid cowboy music.”

Thorne grinned, remembering the pained look on his friend’s face, and pushed on through the traffic towards the office.

It was not as if he was going to take the first thing that came along. Chances were nothing suitable would present itself for a good while anyway, and by the time it did he might feel differently.

For now he would just do his job, wait and see what turned up.

Three

As Helen backed away from the gun, she could see a face at the window over Akhtar’s shoulder. One of the boys he had chased from the shop, openmouthed at seeing what was happening inside. He shouted something to one of his friends before tearing away, down towards the station. If Akhtar heard it, he did not seem unduly concerned. He just kept walking towards Helen and the man standing next to her.

Good, Helen thought, that’s good. At least now someone on the outside will know what the situation is and will alert the police. This was provided they believed it, of course. She could barely believe what was happening herself.

Mr. Akhtar.

She could not say honestly that she knew the man, not really, but she had been coming into his shop for over a year. They’d spoken every day, no more than pleasantries, but still…

What the hell was he up to?

Pointing with the gun, Akhtar ushered Helen and the other customer around the counter and through a low archway into a cluttered storeroom behind the shop. Sitting on a battered wooden desk was a television showing Daybreak with the sound turned down. There was a single chair, a filing cabinet and a small fridge in the corner with a kettle, some mugs and a jar of coffee on top. Aside from a small sink, almost every inch of space on three of the walls was taken up with cardboard boxes and stacked plastic pallets containing replacement stock.

Tinned goods, crisps, kitchen towels, cigarettes.

There were two doors. The one with bolts top and bottom and a heavy padlock was clearly an exterior door which Helen presumed opened out onto the alleyway that ran along the back of the shops. She guessed that the unpainted plywood door led to a toilet.

Akhtar said he was sorry that things were a little cramped and told them to stand against the one bare wall. He asked Helen if she had a mobile phone. She told him it was in her handbag. He told her to slide the bag across the floor towards him and told the man to slowly do the same with his mobile phone. Then, once he had taken a seat at the desk, he ordered them both to sink down onto their backsides. Without taking his eyes from them, he rooted around in one of the desk drawers before tossing two pairs of metal handcuffs across to Helen.

“Off the Internet,” he said. “Top of the range. Same as the ones you use, I think.”

Helen reached across and picked the cuffs up from the floor. “It’s not too late to stop this,” she said. “Whatever it is you’re doing, things are not too serious yet, OK? I mean I can’t say for sure you’ll stay out of prison, because of the gun, but if you let us go now I’ll do everything I can to make sure that it’s not too bad. Are you listening, Mr. Akhtar?”

He smiled at Helen, a little oddly. Said, “I would like you to handcuff one another to the radiator pipes. There is one at either end, see?”

Helen exchanged a look with the man slumped next to her, and nodded. She reached across and cuffed his right hand to the small pipe that ran down into the floor. When she had finished, though it had now become somewhat awkward and took rather longer, he did the same to her left hand.

“Don’t worry,” the newsagent said. “The radiator is not on, so you will not get too hot.” He looked at Helen. “Nice weather, like you said.”

Helen could see that he was trying to make a joke, but she could also see the tension in his face and hear the tremor in his voice. She could see how frightened he was.

This was not necessarily a good thing.

Satisfied that his prisoners were secure, Akhtar stood up and walked back out into the shop. The man handcuffed next to Helen stared at the archway for a few seconds, then, apparently satisfied that the newsagent was not coming straight back, he turned to her.

“You’re a copper, then?” Perhaps it was because he was trying to talk quietly, but his voice was soft and high. He was well spoken with just a trace of a London accent.

Helen looked at him and nodded.

He had short hair and was wearing a blue suit and patterned tie. He reached up with his free hand and yanked the tie loose, tore at the top button of his shirt. He was sweating.

“So what are you going to do?” he asked.

“Sorry?”

“What are you going to do about this?

Helen looked at him. “Well, there’s not really a lot I can do. Not right this minute.”

The man’s head dropped. “Shit.”

“The first thing is that we need to stay calm, OK?”

“You don’t understand, I’ve got a meeting this morning,” he said. “A really important meeting.”

Helen almost laughed, but the impulse vanished when she saw the desperation on the man’s face. She knew that such a reaction was not uncommon. She had heard about some of the victims of the 7 July bombings, stumbling up onto the street covered in blood, keen to tell police and paramedics that they would skip the visit to the hospital, thank you very much, that they needed to get to this or that appointment. This “inverted” panic was a natural instinct in some; a refusal to accept that a situation could really be as serious as it was.

It’s only a little bit of blood. It’s just a gun…

“I think your meeting’s going to have to wait,” Helen said.

They stared at one another for a few seconds, until she saw the wash of acceptance slide across his face. He nodded slowly and sat back against the radiator. Said, “I’m Stephen, by the way.”

“Helen,” she said.

They both turned at the sudden noise from the front of the shop. A loud grind and clatter. Stephen looked at Helen and she raised her voice over the drone. “He’s closing the shutters on the shop.” They listened in silence until the squeals and clanking had finished, which told them that the solid metal shutters were now down, completely covering the shopfront.

“We’re locked in,” Stephen said.

Helen was watching the doorway. “I think it’s more a question of locking everyone else out.”

They had been locked in anyway, of course, but something in the lowering of the shop’s shutters, a change in the light perhaps, provoked an increased panic in the man. He began yanking at the cuffs which rattled and scraped against the radiator pipe, grunting with the effort that Helen knew was pointless.

“Don’t,” she said.

Stephen just yanked even harder. He moved onto his knees and began swearing and shouting as he used his free hand to try and pull the radiator away from the wall.

“Please don’t—”

When Akhtar walked back into the room, he could see that Stephen had changed his position but he did not seem concerned. He clearly had faith in the quality of the handcuffs and the strength of his radiator pipes. He spent a few minutes wrestling the heavy metal filing cabinet from against a wall and inching it, corner by corner, across the room until it was pushed up against the back door.

He was sweating profusely by the time he had finished. He sat down at the desk and wiped his face with a handkerchief, then fished the gun from his pocket and laid it down on the desktop.

He turned to look at Helen. “You have been in my shop hundreds of times,” he said, “but I still don’t know your name.”

Despite the situation and the fact that her mind was racing as she struggled to make sense of it, Helen felt a peculiar pang of guilt. She told herself she was being ridiculous. Life in a city like London was full of relationships such as theirs. A few words exchanged every day and a necessary distance maintained. Did this man want more than that? Did he feel…slighted? Rejected even? Was he interested in her romantically?

“Helen,” she said. “Detective Sergeant Helen Weeks.”

He nodded. “My name is Javed.” He looked over at the man sitting at the other end of the radiator. “I’m very sorry that you have been caught up in all this, Mr.…?”

Stephen was still breathing heavily. He did not look up. “Stephen Mitchell.”

“I can only apologize, Mr. Mitchell.”

“Listen, Javed—”

Akhtar cut Helen off. “What kind of police officer are you, Miss Weeks?”

Helen was thrown by the question. “I’m sorry?”

“In which area do you work? Do you investigate robberies, fraud? Murder?”

“I work on a Child Protection Unit,” Helen said.

“So not murder?”

“Sometimes…”

“I need to speak to a police officer urgently.”

“So speak to me.” She was careful to keep her tone even and reasonable. “Tell me what it is you want and we can sort all this out. Whatever your problem is, the sooner you let us go, the easier things will be.”

“You don’t understand. I need to speak to a particular police officer, so I need you to help me.”

“I want to help you, but I can’t—” The words caught in Helen’s throat when she saw Akhtar’s expression change and watched him scrabble for the gun. She could see that, for the moment at least, he was done with being apologetic or reasonable.

“I need you to use your phone,” he shouted. “I need you to call whoever you have to call to get this policeman here.”

He was waving the gun at them as he ranted and Helen was aware that, next to her, Mitchell was flinching each time Akhtar used the weapon to emphasize his wishes.

“You get him here now, OK?” Akhtar threw Helen’s handbag back at her and she had to raise her free hand to stop it hitting her in the face. “Get him here and I will tell you what to say when he comes.”

Outside a siren began to sound, and grew louder.

For a few seconds, Akhtar and Mitchell were both staring intently at her. Helen could feel the rage and the fear radiating from both of them and from inside herself. The heater at her back was not turned on, but might just as well have been.

“Who?” she asked.

Akhtar told her the name.

“I know him,” she said. “Not well, but…”

“Good,” Akhtar said. “That might help both of us.”

Helen’s hand was shaking as she reached into her handbag for her phone.

Four

Thorne had just picked up his own “hit of caffeine” from the ancient and grubby machine in the Incident Room and was walking towards his office, when Detective Chief Inspector Russell Brigstocke stepped out into the corridor in front of him.

“Don’t take your coat off,” Brigstocke said.

“Bloody hell, can I finish my coffee?” Thorne saw the look on his senior officer’s face and stopped smiling. “What?”

“We’ve got a situation in south London.”

“South?” Thorne’s squad worked the north and west of the city and rarely, if ever, ventured south of the river. Even when he wasn’t working, Thorne tried to avoid crossing the water whenever possible.

“A Child Protection Unit in Streatham got a call from one of their officers who claims she’s being held at gunpoint in a newsagent’s in Tulse Hill.” Brigstocke glanced down at the scrap of paper in his hand. “Sergeant Helen Weeks.”

“I know the name,” Thorne said. He tried to remember.

“The CPU found us on the intranet system and the call got put through to me. So—”

“She was the woman whose boyfriend got run down at the bus stop. A year and a bit ago.” Thorne tried to picture the woman who had sat in his office, to whom he had briefly spoken at her partner’s funeral. “He was Job too, remember?”

“No, but it might be relevant.” Brigstocke shook his head. “I’ve no idea at the moment. Point is—”

“Hang on, what’s this got to do with us?”

“Not us,” Brigstocke said. “You.”

Thorne waited, already feeling an unwelcome tingle at the nape of his neck and starting to wish that he’d rung in sick.

“The newsagent has apparently asked for you.” The DCI was still staring at the scrap of paper as though trying to gain some insight from what was clearly limited information. “Better make that ‘demanded,’ seeing as he’s holding a gun on a police officer.”

“Have we got a name?”

“Akhtar.”

It was another name Thorne recognized, as Brigstocke had known he would. A surname, at least.

“That manslaughter case last year,” Thorne said. “Right?”

“He’s the kid’s father,” Brigstocke said.

Thorne tried to picture the man, but the face would not come. He remembered an uncontrolled anger though, when the sentence had been announced, a fury the man had taken out vociferously on Thorne and his fellow officers outside the court. Despite having a good deal of sympathy for him, Thorne had tried to calm the man down, pointing out that he should be taking up his dissatisfaction with the judge and not the police.

Thorne remembered the tears when the man had finally walked away.

“So is that what this is all about?”

Brigstocke’s shrug said: your guess is as good as mine.

“Doesn’t make sense,” Thorne said. “The trial was what, eight months ago? Nine?”

“Look, you know as much as I do,” Brigstocke said, brandishing the scrap of paper. “I’ll try and find out as much as I can while you’re on your way down there.”

“Can I take Holland?”

“Just go.”

Thorne walked quickly back into the Incident Room, told Detective Sergeant Dave Holland to follow him and took the stairs two at a time down to the car park. He grabbed a magnetic blue light from the boot and tossed it to Holland before they climbed into Thorne’s car.

Holland dropped the light at his feet and reached for the seatbelt. “Any chance you might tell me where we’re going?”

Thorne had shared such information as he had by the time the car was pulling out of Becke House and turning towards the north circular.

“Something different,” Holland said.

Thorne had to agree, but was not at all sure that “different” was what he needed right now.

With the traffic thickening as they hit Park Lane at the height of the rush hour, Thorne suddenly remembered that Helen Weeks had been pregnant the last time he’d seen her. About to pop, more or less.

She would have a one-year-old by now.

“Let’s get the blues on,” he said.

Holland reached down for the light, and plugged one end of its curly lead into the car’s cigarette lighter.

Thorne could imagine Helen Weeks staring at a gun and thinking about her child. He put his foot down, and as Holland leaned out to attach the blue light to the BMW’s roof, Thorne accelerated south towards Victoria and Vauxhall Bridge beyond.

“This doesn’t sound right,” Holland said. “Why’s Akhtar suddenly losing it now, and why take a hostage?”

It was much the same thing Thorne had said to Brigstocke half an hour before. Holland had worked the original manslaughter case too and could clearly sense, as Thorne did, that there was something wrong with the picture.

“It’s stupid,” Holland said.

Thorne shrugged. “We’d be out of work if people weren’t stupid.”

“You reckon he still blames you for the sentence?”

Up until the judge’s sentencing, the Akhtar manslaughter case had been run-of-the-mill, even if the exact details of the offence itself had remained a little vague. Amin Akhtar and a friend, aged sixteen and seventeen respectively, had been attacked by a group of three young men, all about the same age as they were, on a street in Islington. One of the attackers—Lee Slater—had been carrying a kitchen knife, and during the melee that had followed, while Amin had been trying to protect his friend, Slater had been fatally stabbed with it.

In an effort to avoid prosecution, the two surviving attackers were naturally keen to distance themselves from their dead friend, but their version of events had differed wildly from the account given by Amin and his friend. There had been snow on the ground that night and they insisted that a harmless exchange of snowballs had simply got out of hand. Denying any direct involvement in the attack, they were at least willing to admit that Slater had been the attacker, but claimed consistently that Amin had been equally aggressive in snatching Slater’s knife when it was dropped and using it to stab Slater to death. This was not of course how Amin and his friend saw things and though theirs was the story that most believed, the conflicting testimonies led to the Crown Prosecution Service deciding it would not be in the public interest to pursue any charges of assault or GBH, despite the injuries to both Asian boys. In the end, they had decided to proceed only with a charge of manslaughter against Amin and it had been one of the easiest cases Thorne had ever had to put together.

With at least some of the evidence pointing towards self-defense and given the defendant’s previously unblemished character, the prosecution had been expecting a sentence of four years or perhaps even less. Nobody had been more astonished than Thorne when Amin Akhtar had been sent down for eight. Or more outraged than the boy’s father.

Though he could still not quite picture the man, the ferocity of his anger had become even clearer. Screaming in Thorne’s face on the steps of the Old Bailey. Shouting over and over again that the law had let him down.

“It sounds like I’m the one he wants,” Thorne said. Ahead of him, cars swerved into the bus lane as he tore down South Lambeth Road into Stockwell. “Maybe he’s taken Helen Weeks so he can swap one copper for another.”

“Jesus,” Holland said.

She would have a one-year-old by now…

Thorne would do it, if that’s what it came to, and he spent the rest of the high-speed journey south thinking about how he would handle things and trying to keep his hands steady on the wheel.

Imagining himself staring at a gun.

Wondering who he would be thinking about.

The road had been sealed off one hundred yards either side of the newsagent’s. Squad cars blocked side streets as well as the main routes in and out, which meant disruption not only for dozens of householders but also for commuters using the mainline station at Tulse Hill and the staff and children at a local junior school, both of which were well within the area that had been cordoned off.

Thorne showed his warrant card and was waved through the cordon. On the pavements either side of him, uniformed officers were ushering residents to safety. Some were still in nightclothes, having been hurriedly evacuated.

He drove slowly down the hill towards the target location.

There were a number of cars and motorbikes parked alongside the small parade of shops. Thorne guessed that most would belong to people who had caught the train into work, though it might now be a while before they could be claimed. He could see a police van and several more squad cars at the bottom of the hill on the far side of the station. He pulled over on the same side of the road as two Armed Response Vehicles and got out of the car.

He stared across at the shop.

The metal shutters were covered in graffiti though only the word PAKI was legible.

There were five or six armed officers standing around the two specially adapted BMWs, and, as Thorne and Holland walked towards them, it was clear from their stance and the almost casual conversations taking place that they had yet to be constructively deployed. With the shutters down there was nothing to take aim at and, with the shop based inside a single-story unit, there was no possibility that the man inside could be taking aim at them.

They were waiting for orders.

Just before Thorne and Holland reached them, Thorne’s mobile rang.

“I think I’ve got your ‘why,’” Brigstocke said.

“I’m listening.”

“Amin Akhtar killed himself in Barndale Young Offenders Institution eight weeks ago. Tom…”

Holland looked at him, waiting to be told.

Thorne just swore under his breath and carried on walking towards the men with the guns, while Brigstocke gave him the sordid details.

Five

The leader of the CO19 Firearms Unit was a squat and surly individual named Chivers. He pointed Thorne and Holland towards the junior school at the far end of the street opposite, which had been designated as the RVP, or Rendezvous Point, and was being hurriedly transformed into a temporary Incident Room. Walking away, Thorne was thinking that Chivers had seemed irritated by the situation, bored even. One of those types for whom things were pretty tedious unless they were kicking in a door somewhere and spraying bullets around.

Thorne could only hope for everyone’s sake that, as far as Inspector Chivers was concerned, this particular situation would remain as dull as ditchwater.

There was another gaggle of uniforms at the school gates. Staff and children were still being moved off the premises and, to his left, Thorne could see a small crowd behind the cordon, many angrily demanding to know what was happening. Some would be disgruntled parents, but the majority, he knew, were there for no other reason than to gawp and there would be plenty more of them as the day wore on and word spread.

It would not be long before the media arrived in numbers.

Thorne and Holland were escorted across the playground, through the main doors and into the echoing hall. Most of the plastic chairs had been stacked at one end and a series of trestle tables erected in front of the small stage. Uniformed and plainclothes officers were shunting equipment about, their boots squeaking on the polished wooden floor, shouting and swearing as they rushed to get set up.

It still smelled like school though.

“That takes me back,” Holland said, breathing it in deep. “Reminds me of crayons and sweaty socks.”

Thorne sighed theatrically. “I was thinking about the dinner lady I was in love with,” he said. “And a little tosser named Dean Turner who used to steal my milk. Until Margaret Thatcher stole everyone’s, of course.”

Holland clearly did not understand the reference. “You used to have milk at school?”

“Are you Thorne?”

They turned to see a tall man in full dress uniform walking towards them and Thorne did not need to see the crown on the man’s shoulder to know that he was looking at a superintendent. He was in his early forties, with sandy hair cropped close to the scalp and a nose that looked to have been broken more than once. In a low voice and with a trace of a northern accent, the officer introduced himself as Mike Donnelly and explained that as the local superintendent on call that morning, he had by default become the Silver Commander, the head of the operation on-site. He did not sound overly thrilled about the fact. This could easily be due to a lack of experience in situations such as this, Thorne thought, but might simply be down to the shortage of information thus far.

“So, what do we think Akhtar wants?”

“Me, by all accounts,” Thorne said.

Donnelly nodded. He clearly had a habit of nodding and grunting in what sounded like agreement, whenever anybody else was talking. It was a strategy Thorne was familiar with, and one he had not been beyond adopting himself once or twice. It looked as though you were listening, paying attention. It gave the appearance of being thoughtful, even if all you were actually thinking was that you were out of your depth.

“You don’t think this might be a Muslim thing?” Donnelly looked from Thorne to Holland and back again.

“A thing?

“Come on, you know what I mean.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Just throwing it out there,” Donnelly said. “Got to consider every angle at this stage, right?”

Holland shrugged. “Fair enough.”

“That’s not what this is about,” Thorne said. He told Donnelly what Brigstocke had said on the phone.

Donnelly thought about it for a while. “Now that’s not good news for anyone. Least of all Detective Sergeant Weeks.” He excused himself, saying he needed to check on how the evacuation was going, then handed Thorne a transcript of the call made by Helen Weeks just over an hour before. There was a small CD player on the table and Donnelly leaned across to press PLAY before he turned and walked away.

Holland peered over Thorne’s shoulder to read the transcript as they listened to the recording.

Call from 07785 455787. 08.17 am

—Child Protection Unit, Gill Bellinger.

—Gill, it’s Helen, and I need you to just shut up and listen, OK?

Pause.

—I’m listening…

—I need you to get hold of a DI Tom Thorne for me. He’s Area West Murder Squad, or at least he was a year or so ago.

Voice in the background. Indistinct.

—It’s very important that you get hold of him, OK? You need to do it now.

—What’s going on?

—I’m being held at gunpoint in a newsagent’s on Norwood Road. Near the junction with Christchurch Road…just up from the station.

Voice in the background. Number 287.

—Number 287.

—Jesus—

—Make whatever calls you need to make, OK? But first get hold of DI Thorne. The man who’s holding us wants him here.

—Who’s holding you?

Voice in the background. Indistinct.

—I need to go, Gill…just get on the phone…

Call ends. 08.18 am.

“Akhtar seems happy enough to tell us exactly where he is,” Holland said.

“He wanted us here as fast as possible.”

“She sounds nervous.”

“Really, Dave? I can see why you sailed through those sergeant’s exams.” Thorne saw Donnelly coming back and held up his mobile. “Why don’t I call her?”

Donnelly nodded, but was looking around. “Let’s make sure all the key people are listening in first, shall we?” He asked a passing uniform to go outside and fetch the CO19 team leader. Then he waved across a young woman from the other side of the hall. He turned back to Thorne. “You met Chivers?”

Thorne nodded. “Ex-military?”

“He told you?”

“Shot in the dark,” Thorne said.

The woman arrived at Donnelly’s side. She was somewhere in her early thirties, Thorne guessed; above average height and skinny. Her dark hair was cut in a shaggy bob, and she wore a tailored leather jacket over jeans. She looked relaxed enough, but Thorne could not be sure how much of an effort she was making. Donnelly laid a hand on her arm. She glanced down at it for just a second, before smiling a little nervously at Thorne as the superintendent made the introductions.

“This is Sue Pascoe,” he said. “She’s here as our trained hostage negotiator and I hear very good things.”

Pascoe shook hands with Thorne and Holland. Donnelly told her they were just waiting for Chivers and she nodded.

“Done much of this?” Thorne asked.

“Enough,” Pascoe said.

Thorne was not aware of any full-time hostage negotiators in the Met and guessed that “trained” just meant that Pascoe had been on the requisite course. He’d been on one himself a few years before, but one focused on how to cope should you find yourself being held hostage. A weekend at some cheap hotel off the M25, where for many, learning anything had come a poor second to heavy sessions in the bar or looking to score. It was all the stuff you would expect: forging a bond with your captor; finding common ground; encouraging them to see you as a human being. All those techniques that might help keep you alive as long as possible.

He hoped that Helen Weeks had been on the same course, that she had not been one of those on the sniff or pissing it up the wall.

Chivers came through the doors and took off his helmet as he walked across to join them. Ignoring Thorne, Holland and Pascoe, he acknowledged Donnelly with a nod, his hand falling automatically to the handle of the Glock 17 on his belt, holstered next to a pair of 8 Bang stun grenades.

The superintendent told Thorne to make the call.

“Nice and easy,” Pascoe said. “Obviously we need as much information as possible, but it’s important to be reassuring. Nothing’s a problem at this stage.”

“I’ll try and remember that,” Thorne said. He checked the number on the sheet and dialed, then switched the phone onto speaker as it began to ring.

“Here we go,” Donnelly said.

It was answered almost immediately.

“Helen?”

“Yes?”

“It’s Tom Thorne. Are you all right? Can you talk freely?”

Helen Weeks said that she could. That she was fine.

“Tell Mr. Akhtar that I know about what happened to his son, and that I’m sorry.”

They listened as the message was relayed. Nothing was said in response.

“Helen? Can I talk to him?”

Helen asked the question, then said, “He wants you to talk to me for the time being.”

“OK, listen. Tell him that I’m willing to trade places. It’s me he asked for, so if he lets you walk out of there, he can take me instead.” Thorne became aware of Pascoe waving a “no” at him, and of Donnelly gesticulating furiously, clearly annoyed that such an offer had not been discussed with him. He turned back to the phone. “Helen…?”

“That’s not what he wants,” Helen said.

Donnelly leaned in close to Thorne and whispered, “Ask who’s in there with her. We’ve got a witness who claims there was another customer in the shop.”

“Are there any other hostages?” Thorne asked.

“He’s called Stephen Mitchell,” Helen said. A man’s voice said something, then Helen gave out an address in Tulse Hill.

Donnelly scribbled it down and handed the piece of paper to a uniformed officer who hurried out of the hall.

“So, what does he want?” Thorne asked.

The exchange that followed was punctuated by a series of pauses and muffled conversations as Helen passed on Thorne’s questions, listened to Akhtar, then relayed his responses. “He says that his son did not kill himself…that he would never kill himself. He says that the truth has been covered up. You are the one that sent his son to prison…so you are the one who must find out who murdered him.”

Thorne glanced up. Saw that all eyes were on him. “Tell him that we’ll mount a full reinvestigation into his son’s death, but that we need to end this situation now.”

While they were waiting for a response, Donnelly scribbled RELEASE MITCHELL? on a piece of paper and passed it to Thorne.

“He says it will end when you find out what happened to his son.”

“Tell him that we’re happy to listen to him,” Thorne said. “Tell him that I’ll do what I can, but that we need an act of faith on his part. Tell him that he needs to let Mr. Mitchell go.”

Next to him, Sue Pascoe was shaking her head. “Never going to happen,” she said.

“He says no,” Helen said.

They could hear the newsagent shouting now.

“He says he had faith in the law, but not anymore…so you need to do what he wants, or things will only get a lot worse.”

Thorne glanced up to see Donnelly and Chivers exchange a knowing look. Donnelly closed his eyes.

“You have to prove that Amin did not commit suicide,” Akhtar said. “To find out who killed him and why. Or…”

“It’s OK, Helen.” Thorne and everyone else had heard Akhtar clearly enough and Thorne did not want Helen to have to say it.

To hear the terror in her voice.

“Or I will shoot them both.”

Six

When the call had ended, Helen laid her phone down on the floor in front of her and looked up at Akhtar sitting at the desk. He was breathing heavily and muttering to himself. He seemed pleased about how the conversation with Tom Thorne had gone. He looked back at her.

Said, “Thank you.”

“So, what happens now?” Helen asked.

Akhtar stood up. He was holding the gun. Next to her, Helen felt Stephen Mitchell flinch.

“Turn the phone off,” Akhtar said.

“What if they want to talk to you? If there’s news.”

“When I’m ready.”

He pointed the gun and Helen did as she was asked.

“Now you must try and make yourselves comfortable, and we will hope that Detective Thorne is as good as his word.”

“He will be,” Helen said.

“And is also good at his job.” Akhtar thought about this for a few moments then walked out through the archway into his shop.

Helen and Mitchell said nothing for a minute or more, then Mitchell spoke quietly, without raising his head.

“Why wouldn’t he let me go?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is all about you, right?” He looked up and glared at her. “Because you’re a copper and he knows they’ll take it more seriously.” He spoke quickly, hissing out the words. “So why the hell do I have to be here? What’s the point of both of us going through this?”

“You need to shut up and stay calm,” Helen said. Mitchell looked away. Helen could see that he felt bad about what he had said, but that he was also terrified. “Listen, it’s OK. You’re not the only one who’s scared to death.”

Mitchell nodded slowly. They could hear Akhtar moving about in the shop.

“Will they tell my wife?” Mitchell asked.

“Course they will.”

“She’ll be in bits.” He tried to smile. “She’s even less brave than I am.”

“They’ll look after her,” Helen said.

Mitchell let out a long slow breath and straightened his legs.

“What do you do, Stephen?”

“I work in a bank,” he said. “On Tottenham Court Road. I was up for a promotion today.”

“Sorry.”

“You think that something like this might happen in a bank, you know? Some nutter with a gun. Or a post office, maybe. Not a bloody newsagent’s.”

“Wrong place, wrong time,” Helen said. She knew better than most that this was what actually lay behind the majority of violent crime. You walked into the wrong pub, turned the wrong corner, strolled blithely through an estate in the wrong postcode. It was understandable, being scared of boys with knives or men with bombs, but what people really needed to be frightened about was simply being unlucky.

“There’ll be armed police outside by now, won’t there?” Mitchell looked towards the back door. “Snipers or whatever. I’ve seen this kind of thing on the news.”

Helen said that she thought there would be a Firearms Unit on standby, that they would probably be sealing off the shop. She told him that whoever was running things outside would know what they were doing.

“So what are they likely to do?” Mitchell lowered his voice still further. “What’s normally the plan with things like this?”

“There isn’t one,” Helen said.

“Oh…OK.”

“It’s always different and there isn’t any set…protocol. They’ll wait and see what happens.”

Mitchell seemed to take this on board, the idea that, in all probability, nothing would happen quickly. But Helen could see that he was far from reassured and she could hardly blame him. Aside from Akhtar unlocking their handcuffs, opening the shutters and letting them walk out of there, anything that happened was likely to be dangerous for all concerned.

She sat back and listened. Akhtar had stopped moving around, but then she heard the telltale sound of pages being turned.

“He’s reading the paper,” Mitchell whispered. “Looking through the paper like nothing’s happening.”

Helen was still trying to decide how Akhtar himself was handling things, how he was coping. She knew it was important. Could this man who held a gun as though it were a poisonous snake really be that calm? Or was he making as much effort as possible to appear that way?

Whatever the truth was, and whatever Tom Thorne was up to on the outside, they needed Javed Akhtar to remain calm if they were going to stay safe. She and the man from the bank would need to do everything they could to keep him relaxed.

They stiffened when the newsagent appeared suddenly in the doorway. He raised a hand, as though apologizing for worrying them. Then he calmly laid the gun down on the desk and asked if they wanted tea.

Thorne was in the playground, on the phone.

He had already called Brigstocke to bring him up to speed and to ensure that all the paperwork pertaining to the suicide at Barndale be sent across to his office at Becke House. He had also requested that a copy of the postmortem be faxed to Phil Hendricks as soon as possible. Finally, Thorne had told Brigstocke to make contact with whoever had led the original inquiry into Amin Akhtar’s death and ask the officer to call him immediately.

To his credit, DI Martin Dawes had called back within ten minutes.

“Did you not think it might be a good idea to let us know what had happened to Amin Akhtar?” Thorne asked.

“It wasn’t connected with your manslaughter case.”

“Just as a courtesy, then.”

Dawes was clearly not the type to give ground. “So you always need to know what’s happened to everyone you’ve put away, do you?”

There were a few—the ones who had genuinely scared him—that Thorne would always keep a close eye on, but Dawes had a fair point. Besides, Thorne did not have time for a pissing contest.

“Can you run me through it?”

Dawes told Thorne that Amin Akhtar had killed himself with a drug overdose two months earlier, that he was found dead in Barndale’s hospital wing. His body had been discovered first thing in the morning and he had been pronounced dead at the scene by the YOI doctor.

“What was he doing in the hospital wing?”

“He’d been assaulted four days before by another boy. Had his face sliced open, basically.”

“Enough reason to suddenly top himself?” Thorne asked. “I mean he’d already been in there, what, seven months?”

“He’d also been raped,” Dawes said.

“In the hospital wing?”

“Could have been. The pathologist couldn’t be sure exactly when the rape had taken place, but the CCTV camera that should have been covering the area the kid’s room was in had been moved the week before, so anything’s possible.”

“Why?”

“Why was he raped? How the hell should I know?”

“I meant why was the camera moved?”

Dawes laughed. “Sorry…apparently there’d been a lot of stuff going missing from the dispensary, heavy-duty painkillers or what have you, so they stuck the camera on that instead. Akhtar probably knew where the camera was. Knew nobody would be watching when he started popping his pills.”

Thorne thought about that. “No other cameras?”

“One on the entrance to the wing and one inside another of the private rooms. Bugger all on any of them.”

Looking across the playground, Thorne could see Holland talking to Sue Pascoe by the main doors into the school. Holland said something and Pascoe laughed.

“What’s the big drama anyway?” Dawes asked. “Your DCI was a bit vague.”

Thorne guessed that Brigstocke had simply been in a hurry, but saw no reason to keep Dawes in the dark about what was happening. He gave him the highlights.

“I’d love to say I was surprised,” Dawes said.

“Sorry?”

“The father always looked to me like he was close to the edge. You know what I mean?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

“Well, for a kickoff he went a bit mental after the inquest, shouting and screaming at the coroner. At anybody who would listen, basically. Going on about a cover-up, telling us we’d got it wrong, all that.”

“When was this?”

“A couple of weeks ago. Yeah, he was definitely cracking up, I reckon.”

Pressed for time as he was, Thorne was not about to let this one go. “Again, you didn’t think it might be worth picking up the phone and letting us know?”

“Letting you know what exactly? That some newsagent was losing the plot? You’re being stupid.”

“You’re an idiot,” Thorne said. Dawes started to protest, but Thorne hung up and went to meet Donnelly, who was coming towards him across the playground.

“The wife’s arrived,” Donnelly said. The superintendent nodded towards the main gates and Thorne turned to watch a WPC helping a middle-aged Indian woman out of a squad car. “Nadira.”

Thorne remembered her. The woman looked every bit as dazed, as lost, as she had the last time he’d seen her. The day her son had been sent to prison. “I could really do with talking to her,” Thorne said. He looked at his watch. It was more than half an hour since he had spoken to Helen Weeks and she had relayed Akhtar’s instructions. “Why don’t I do it on the way to Barndale?”

Donnelly thought about it. “What if we need her here? Sue Pascoe thinks she might be able to use her. Get her to talk to her husband.”

“So send a car to follow me and bring her back afterwards,” Thorne said. “I only need ten minutes.”

They both looked up at the sound of a helicopter overhead. Thorne was impressed at the scale of the police operation until he saw the Sky logo on the aircraft’s side. He looked at Donnelly.

“It was only a matter of time,” Donnelly said.

A few seconds later, Chivers came marching through the gates and across the playground. He was pointing angrily at the circling helicopter. “You need to get them out of here now,” he said.

Donnelly muttered something about the freedom of the press, but Chivers was having none of it.

“Listen, we’ve not got a clue about what our target is up to behind those shutters, right? But if he’s got a TV in there, thanks to those idiots he’s going to know exactly what we’re doing. Do I make my point?”

Donnelly nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“So, what about the wife then?” Thorne asked.

Donnelly looked flustered. It was clear that Chivers hadn’t finished with him yet. “Ten minutes,” he said.

Thorne walked towards his car, beckoning Holland away from his conversation with Pascoe as he went. When Holland had caught him up, Thorne told him to get back to the office as quickly as he could. “Get Yvonne Kitson on this. While I’m at Barndale, I want the two of you looking at anyone who might have wanted Amin killed. You might as well start with Lee Slater’s family, they’ve got a decent enough motive, then talk to the other two kids who were with Slater the night Amin was attacked. We’ll stay in touch by phone, OK?”

Holland ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t get it,” he said.

“Get what?”

“Why we’re doing this.” Holland stopped walking. “The kid killed himself. I mean it’s a shame and all that, and I can see why his old man’s upset, but we’re not going to change anything by charging about looking for nonexistent murderers.”

“You heard what he said.” Thorne took a few steps back towards Holland, put a heavy hand between his shoulder blades and pointed him towards the shuttered-up shop. “What he wants and what he’s threatening to do if he doesn’t get it.”

“I heard, but we can’t create a murder when there wasn’t one.”

“What if he’s right though?”

“What are the chances of that? He’s a nutcase, you know he is.”

Thorne was starting to lose his temper, but did not raise his voice. “So what, you think we should do nothing?”

“He doesn’t know what we’re doing, does he? Why can’t we just tell him we’ve looked into it and that we couldn’t find anything.”

“That might almost be a half-decent plan, Dave…if Helen Weeks wasn’t sitting in there with a gun pointed at her.”



Continues...

Excerpted from The Demands by Mark Billingham Copyright © 2012 by Mark Billingham. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Gillian Flynn
One of the most consistently entertaining, insightful crime writers working today.
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With each of his books, Mark Billingham gets better and better. These are stories and characters you don't want to leave.
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Tom Thorne is the new superstar detective...Mark Billingham is the new-wave leader of crime fiction.

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