Dead on Arrival

Dead on Arrival

by Patricia Hall


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312265724
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/28/2001
Series: Ackroyd and Thackeray Series , #6
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.73(w) x 8.55(h) x 0.79(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Laura Ackroyd knew the instant she stepped on to the gleaming new escalator that she might have made a fatal mistake. Below her in the glare of the bright, white-tiled station entrance she could see the two young black boys she had been following surrounded by a crowd of white youths who began to hit them with silent intensity. There was no one else in sight. The only sound was the sickening thud of fist and boot and baseball bat on flesh.

    Laura opened her mouth to shout but swallowed her protest before it could shatter the eerie quiet. She knew that the station platform behind her was deserted and she had heard the almost empty train she had got off pull away. Holding tightly on to the handrail, she began to walk awkwardly backwards up the moving staircase, desperate to maintain her position high above, and so far unnoticed by, those involved in the violence below. With her other hand she pulled her mobile phone out of her bag and pressed the 9 button three times.

    Out of the corner of her eye she was aware that one of the victims of the assault had struggled free and was racing out of the station entrance. A couple of his assailants began to give chase but then they hesitated, apparently called back by one of the rest with a cry which sounded like 'This one.' The other boy was on the ground, his limp body offering no resistance to the heavy blows which were still thudding into him. Laura gave her location to the emergency operator, put the phone in her pocket, regained her precarious balance and allowed the escalator to carry her downwards again.

   'Hey!'she yelled with all the power she could muster, before she got to ground level. 'Leave him alone, bloody well leave him alone. I've called the police.' All of the assailants glanced briefly in her direction, as startled as wild animals over their prey.

    One-held her gaze for a moment, an almost baby-faced youth with closely cropped blond hair who mouthed obscenities at her before giving the body on the floor a final kick and moving away with the rest as quickly and silently as they had carried out their ambush. As they all picked up the sound of an approaching police siren they broke into an unhurried trot and vanished round a corner, waving obscene fingers in Laura's direction.

    Almost tumbling off the bottom of the escalator, she ran over to where the young black boy lay curled in a foetal position, eyes closed, a pool of bright blood spreading from beneath his head across the floor. Bloody boot-prints on the white-tiled floor showed the direction in which his assailants had run.

    The boy was dressed in the uniform of youth: jeans and trainers and a short green jacket, stained now with dirt and blood, his used train ticket still clutched in one hand, some sort of bright programme sticking out of the back pocket of his jeans.

    Laura crouched down beside him, sick with fear, and felt the side of his neck for a pulse. There was none and she bowed her head, overcome with an impotent anger at the knowledge that she had just witnessed a murder and had been powerless to prevent it.

    Behind her the police sirens grew shrill, obliterating coherent thought, brakes squealed, doors slammed and she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder.

    'You the one who called us?' a voice asked, not unkindly, and she stood up carefully, her face chalk white beneath the glowing copper hair, not sure her legs would support her as she faced a burly uniformed policeman.

    'I saw them from up there,' she said, her voice thick, and she nodded towards the escalator and the brightly lit station on the railway viaduct above them. 'There was nothing I could do. There were six or seven of them. Thugs. Bastards. They didn't stand a chance.'

    'They?' the policeman said.

    'There were two of them, two boys, fifteen, sixteen, I suppose. They got off the train ahead of me. The other one ran away.'

    She glanced down again at the boy on the floor, his dark curly hair glistening with clotted blood. He was surrounded by policemen now, searching for signs of life which she knew they would not find. As an ambulance pulled up, bringing new flickering blue lights to add to the unreality of the scene, Laura shuddered. 'I couldn't do anything, it was so quick, there was no one else around ...'

    'You'd have got hurt yourself,' the policeman said, his seamed face concerned. 'It's not on, having a go. I get paid for it and I'd think twice.'

    'He didn't stand a chance,' Laura said quietly. 'They had weapons, baseball bats it looked like....'

    The officer took her arm and drew her away.

    'We'll need a statement,' he said. 'Sit in the car for a minute and someone will take you down to the nick, away from all this.' He gestured towards the increasing number of policemen who were throwing a cordon round the station entrance with blue and white incident tape. 'This'll go on half the night if he's snuffed it and it's a murder investigation.'

    She did as she was told, shaking now with shock as the anger ebbed away.

    'Live round here, do you?' the policeman asked as he took in her drained expression and trembling hands and helped her into the back seat of a patrol car.

    'Staying with a friend,' she mumbled. 'I need to get back. She'll be worried.'

    'You're not safe on your own round here after dark,' the policeman said, an edge in his voice. 'You should get a cab. The yuppies may think they've colonised Docklands but it's strictly daytime, that is. Keep off the trains and the underground at night. That's what I tell my daughter. Take a cab. It's worth every penny.'

    Laura sighed and said nothing, leaning back in her seat and closing her eyes. If only he knew, she thought. She had got on the Docklands train deep underground at Bank station and been surprised at how few people there were aboard as it climbed up the steeply sloping tunnel on to the elevated track and into the sparkling city night at Tower Hill. By the time she had passed the station before her destination at Princess Wharf she shared her section of the snaking train with just two black boys who sat close together in front of her deep in giggling conversation in a language she did not recognise.

    She was not without a wary sense of London's dangers. There were, after all, parts of her native Bradfield where she would hesitate to walk alone at night. But her friend Sally Neill, with whom she was staying in Docklands, had assured her that the railway was safe and the walk from the station to her flat well lit. She did it herself all the time, she had said, and had experienced no trouble. So Laura had accepted the invitation to supper with an old colleague in the West End without hesitation and set off back east without a qualm.

    Even so, Laura had been very aware as the train slowed down that she was alone and that the two boys in the compartment were also about to get off. She moved to a different exit, berating herself for her own prejudice as she did so, pushing the button to open the door only when the boys had set off well ahead of her down the platform and towards the escalator which led down to the street.

    She blamed herself bitterly now for following them at such a cautious distance. By the time she stepped on to the moving staircase they had already reached the bottom and been surrounded by the gang of skinheads who had been lying in wait for someone precisely as black and vulnerable as they had turned out to be.

'Try one of these,' Sally said, throwing Laura a small pharmacist's bottle of pills.

    'What are they?'

    'Trancs. They'll help you sleep.'

    Laura put the bottle on the table between them and picked up her mug of coffee.

    'I'll be OK, thanks,' she said. 'I need a clear head tomorrow to go to see my editor at Canary Wharf. And I have to go to the police station again, to look at mug-shots to see if I recognise anyone. Not that I got close enough ...' Her voice trailed away and she gazed for a moment with distaste at the curdy coffee in which the whitener had only partly dissolved. Her mouth felt as though she had been eating ashes.

    'Do you ... regularly, I mean?' She glanced at the pill bottle meaningfully but Sally shook her head.

    She was a big woman, blonde hair tousled, bathrobe straining around her waist, face puffy after being roused from heavy sleep, but her blue eyes were bright and intelligent and her voice crisp with the expectation of being listened to and obeyed.

    'Not me,' she said. 'They're Tom's. He left them here by mistake one time. He finds it difficult to cope with our young customers sometimes.'

    'You've no regrets? I had visions of you up there in Stratford with the greats,' Laura asked, glancing around the airy third-floor flat, with its high beamed roof and brick walls and bright, minimal furnishings and rugs. The converted warehouse was half a mile from the local comprehensive school where Sally taught English, but with its panoramic view of the Thames and its high-tech kitchen, it was a world away from the dilapidated pre-war blocks nearby where many of the school's pupils lived.

    They had met at university in Bradfield where Sally had cajoled and bullied fellow students into astonishing performances for the drama society and loudly proclaimed her intention to run the Royal Shakespeare Company within ten years. They had kept in touch intermittently and Laura had been astonished when Sally had suddenly changed direction. She had trained as a teacher and taken herself to East London where schoolteachers could expect little reward and less thanks from an increasingly carping society. But she seemed to be thriving on her daily struggle with the damaged children of the mad, the sad, the bad and the refugees just off a jumbo from points tumultuous around the world.

    'If I get my sleep, I've no regrets,' Sally said, glancing at her watch. 'Now Ben is at nursery he sleeps better.' Ben was her son, a dark-skinned, dreadlocked tornado of a three-year-old, the little surprise Sally had warned Laura to expect when she had called her seeking a bed for the couple of nights she intended to be in London. Sally smiled, a smile which Laura remembered beguiling the most temperamental of actors into feats they did not know they were capable of, and she guessed it probably had the same effect on her students. Lucky kids, she thought.

    'But Tom doesn't call any more,' Laura said, still trying to get her friend's new life straight in her mind. Tom was Ben's father but not, apparently, a fixture in his son's, or Sally's, life.

    'I told you,' Sally said. 'He comes and goes. He's a free agent. Anyway, what about you, still on the Bradfield Gazette? I thought you'd be editing the Guardian by now. And all for a bloke who sounds like a real bastard — and a policeman ...'

    Laura turned away and Sally, realising she had gone too far, got up impulsively and came round behind her to give her a bear-hug.

    'Sorry, sorry, sorry/ she said. 'Wrong time, wrong place, I'm a clod-hopping great idiot.

    Laura leaned back against Sally's comfortable bosom.

    'You're right,' she said. 'He's a bastard. And I don't know what to do about him.

    'Take the job tomorrow, if it's offered,' Sally said flatly.

    'No, no, I've come to talk about a commission, not a permanent job,' Laura said quickly. 'Did I say job? Maybe I did, but I just meant a one-off. I've done a couple of pieces for the Sunday Extra and the editor wanted to meet me. Did you think I meant a job-type job? I didn't mean that.'

    'Didn't you?' Sally said quizzically and Laura remembered that she had always had an instinct for seeing beneath the surface of things, whether in the drama she loved so much or in the dissection of real relationships which had occupied so many of their long student evenings together.

    'Oh, Sal, I don't know what I mean any more,' Laura said, giving in to the weariness which threatened to overwhelm her. She shuddered. 'You know me. I was one of the ambitious ones too, remember. But after tonight, London doesn't look such a tempting prospect.'

Laura slept badly, and began to think that she should have accepted Sally's offer of diazapam as the grey dawn light began to filter through the thin curtains and the spartan mattress on Sally's spare futon persuaded her she was being tested with cannon balls rather than the traditional pea. When she did doze off she was tormented by dreams, as she had been ever since the evening she had told Michael Thackeray not to return to her Bradfield flat where they had been living together for months.

    Now, as she relived the moments at Princess Wharf station which replayed themselves in vivid slow-motion every time she skirted the edges of sleep, she wanted more than anything to feel the solid comfort of his arms. She could live with the fact that he was married, she told herself. What had angered her to the point of distraction was that he had deceived her for so long about his wife's existence. That she did not think she could forgive.

    By six o'clock she gave up on her tumbled bed, pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt and crept quietly into Sally's tiny kitchen. With a mug of strong black coffee in one hand and the Guardian she had retrieved from the doormat in the other she curled up on the sofa in the living-room to try to distract herself from last night's events and the dull ache at the very centre of her being.

    The death of the boy at the station had not made it as far as a national newspaper and Laura suspected that it never would. Violence amongst young men tended to be written off as a fact of life even by local newspapers. The Bradfield Gazette, she knew, would give it front-page treatment for a day and then forget about it, particularly if the victim was black.

    But she knew that what had happened was not just another drunken outburst of random violence. What she had seen was a premeditated ambush of boys who had been laughing and joking on their way home from what, a football match, a concert? They had offered no threat to anyone, she had realised only too bitterly last night. But they had been the wrong colour and one of them had died.

    She frequently felt the thin crust of civilisation tremble beneath her feet. But she had seldom seen the lava beneath the surface erupt as it had done the previous evening, engulfing the innocent with such devastating swiftness.

    Staring sadly at the morning light streaming in through the high windows, she did not hear Sally come in, already dressed. She realised as she eventually glanced up that her friend must have been standing watching her for some time.

    'All right?' she asked. 'I see you found the coffee.'

    'Yes, thanks,' Laura said.

    'You didn't sleep much then?'

    'Not a lot.'

    Sally went into the kitchen and left the connecting door between them open as she made toast and more coffee, bringing mug and a plate piled Pisa-like with hot buttered wedges to share with Laura. She looked at her friend with troubled eyes, taking in the fragility of her composure.

    'You know,' she said, thoughtfully, 'We get all these kids coming to school who've been through dreadful things. What we do is get them to draw pictures and write about it. That seems to help. Of course, you're a journalist, so you'll know that ...'

    The sound of voices must have wakened Ben. He tumbled out of his room, dressed only in pyjama bottoms, ran in and out of the bathroom and then joined them, scrambling on to his mother's lap and grabbing a piece of toast from her hand. Sally kissed the top of his head abstractedly and wrapped her dressing-gown around his golden brown body.

    Laura glanced at Sally with the faintest ghost of a smile in her green eyes. She envied her friend that cuddle, as she envied the increasing number of her friends who were becoming mothers. But that was a count against Michael Thackeray which she could never broach with him.

    'Writing as therapy?' she said, with an eyebrow raised ironically. 'I'll bear it in mind when I see this guy at the Sunday Extra. Of course, it would mean staying in London a bit longer ...?'

    'Feel free,' Sally said easily. 'Ben and I would be glad of the company, wouldn't we, honey-child?' Ben merely wriggled in response, burying his face in Sally's breasts. 'You don't have any burning need to get back to your bastard, then?'

    'No burning need at all,' Laura said. 'My grandmother's having a wonderful time with my father in Portugal and Michael Thackeray can stew in his own juice for a bit. It's no more than he deserves.'

    'Stay over the weekend anyway,' Sally said. 'We'll have a night out. I'll get Tom to take Ben. You'd like to go to Daddy's, wouldn't you, hon?'

    The child wriggled in her arms in delight and stuffed another piece of toast into his mouth.

    'Great,' Laura said, although if she was truthful it did not feel great at all.

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Dead on Arrival 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
alice443 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story opens with a brutal beating murder, but the story is largely something approaching a cozy. It includes a touch of romance and contemporary life dilemmas.