Journalist Philip Dryden is shocked to be informed by police that his father has been killed in a car accident – he drowned during the fenland floods of 1977, 35 years before. At the same time, two unrelated cases are demanding Dryden’s professional attention: a body riddled with bullets found hanging in the middle of a lettuce field, and a couple protesting that the local council has buried their baby daughter in a pauper’s grave without permission. As Dryden pieces the clues together, he realizes that the three cases may be related after all . . .
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By Jim Kelly
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2012 Kelly, Jim
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Philip Dryden walked to the window of his wife's third-floor room at Ely's Princess of Wales' Hospital. The view north was uninterrupted, as if he was looking out to sea, the flat fen fields stretching to the edge of his vision. Early morning but already sun-drenched and humid, the heat burning off the rain that had fallen overnight; the few shadows retreating under hedgerows and solitary trees. Dryden thought he could actually hear things growing out there: creaking green shoots reaching out like a time-lapse film. Nothing else moved; not a cow, not a sheep, not a tractor. But the sky was alive, a cloud the size of a housing estate heading away towards the coast.
He made an effort to live in the moment, to let the joy run through his veins. Bending at the knees he lowered his six-foot-two-inch frame until he could insinuate an arm under the child sleeping in the cot by the window. He held his son of seven days easily – one hand behind the head, which was soft with a sheen of dark hair, the other encircling the narrow hips. He turned him to look out of the window.
A Ford Capri stood in a wide open space in the car park, emblazoned with a hand-painted sign which read:
Humphrey H Holt, licensed taxi. Ely 556335.
The cab's lights flashed once in recognition, then twice.
'That's Humph,' said Dryden to his son. 'Well, that's the car he lives in, but same thing.' The baby was lost in a profound sleep, the limbs as loose as a puppet with the strings cut.
The window was open, providing some relief from the damp heat. It had been a steam-room summer, furnace by day, rain after dark, and the sky often broiling with fair-weather storm clouds. There was loose talk that malaria was back in the Fens and the locals wondered if they'd all end up living in the tropics.
The Tropic of Cauliflower.
Dryden turned back to his wife Laura; she was asleep, as deeply unconscious as her son. He studied her skin, still pale despite her Italian tan, after the caesarean which had brought his son into the world.
Thursday's child has far to go.
It was a miracle she was here, that the boy was here, that he was here. Laura had been badly injured in a car accident a decade earlier – trapped in a coma for more than two years. She would never completely recover. They'd been told a child was impossible. They'd never be free of the repercussions of that single second of screeching tyres, or the impact of the car meeting water. But the baby had come. This version of the future had always seemed impossible. Now that he was living in it Dryden took every opportunity to slow time down, to prolong the moment.
He looked away from the baby's face to the cab, alerted by the sound of a door opening – the familiar grate of rust on rust. Humph prized himself out of the driver's door like a self-propelling cork, then circled the Capri, delicate dancer's steps expertly balancing the seventeen-stone torso, a spinning top of flesh and bone encased in a tight-fitting Ipswich Town tracksuit. The fingers of both small, delicate hands fluttered as if offering aerodynamic support, giving the impression that his feet only just touched the ground.
Dryden turned his son's head, as if he were awake, to watch Humph's early morning exercise routine. 'Once round, twice round and three times round,' said Dryden, as the cabbie circled the cab.
His voice was a surprise, deeper than his thin frame suggested: gravel-gutted, as if speaking from a larger, fleshier version of himself. You would have had to know him very well to discern that he was smiling: his face was usually immobile, as if carved in stone on some cathedral tomb, or peering from an illuminated manuscript. Or – given the black, unruly close-cropped hair – a figure in the Bayeux Tapestry, offering a parchment to a king. A face looking out from the past.
Putting the child back in the cot he rearranged a wooden articulated eel and a series of glittery fish. A fen boy's watery playthings.
The cabbie paused in his exercise routine, leaned against the side of the Capri with one hand and threw open the passenger-side door with the other. A dog leapt out, a shifting wraithlike apparition of grey limbs, suddenly at an almost impossible speed racing over the concrete, turning and twisting as if following some arcane and invisible pattern. Then it stopped, the greyhound's head looking back at Humph as the cabbie produced a green tennis ball and a yellow plastic chucker: the ball flew; the dog flew faster, catching it before it bounced and dropping it at the cabbie's feet where the ball's momentum carried it on, out of Humph's scrambling reach, so that he had to totter after it.
Laura stirred in the bed and opened her eyes: they were brown, with a slight caste in the right. Instantly awake, she brought both hands up, then down, so that the bed rippled. She had this ability to come out of sleep and pick up a thread of conversation she'd left unfinished eight hours earlier.
'Yes – I want to get out of this bed!' The face was immediately animated, the eyes luminous, the full lips parted to reveal large white teeth. 'Today – Philip. Today,' she added. Her speech was quick, the voice quite deep, even syrupy. But the consonants were dulled, as if she might be deaf, each word tending to be built round a solid dominating vowel. The disability was one of the few that had seemed to deepen in the years since she'd emerged from the coma.
'It must be today – yes?' she asked again. 'This room. I must see something that is not in this room. Anything.'
Since the birth they'd been treating her for high blood pressure. They were reluctant to send her home because of her medical history – the accident, the coma, the bouts of fatigue. But for forty-eight hours her vital signs had been returning to normal. The doctor would judge this morning. Until then she must stay in bed.
'Please.' She held out her hands, and Dryden gave her the child.
She studied his face as if reading a map. 'Jude?' she offered.
'Too biblical,' said Dryden. Their son had no name. In the womb they'd called it 'touchwood' for luck. Now, faced with the reality of the boy, they'd struggled to find the right note. 'And there's the echo of Judas – a model of treachery, selfishness, and materialistic greed.'
'A child of his time,' she said.
'Not Humph,' said Dryden.
'Not Humph,' she said, looking to the window and missing the shadow of disappointment which crossed Dryden's face. The whole process of naming was oddly disquieting. He felt that the child didn't properly exist unless they could name him – but by naming him they'd somehow capture who he was, and that was too great a responsibility. Dryden was waiting for the child to give them a hint about who he was, a flicker of attitude, or character. So far he was a bundle of bodily functions.
They'd dismissed all the obvious names – her father was Gaetano, which would be memorable, and a tribute to her Italian roots, but difficult in the Fens. It would end up shortened to something ugly – Tano, maybe. Dryden's father had been Jack. But Dryden's father had died young – at thirty-five – swept away in the floods of 1977. The tragedy seemed to taint the name.
'We're going home,' said Laura, looking at the baby. 'To a house!'
During Laura's long illness Dryden had lived alone on a boat on the river. He'd left his Fleet Street reporter's job on The News and got a job on the local paper – The Crow – to be near his wife, walking away from his career. Once Laura was well enough to leave hospital they'd lived together on the boat, converted to accommodate a wheelchair, hoist and a specially adapted shower. There wasn't room for a child. They'd used Laura's savings to buy a house on the fen with a distant view of the ruined farmhouse in which Dryden had been born. But domesticity repelled Dryden, who'd come to like his footloose life. He said he'd sell the boat, but he kept forgetting to put the advert in the paper.
'Humph said he'd run us to the house in the cab,' he said. 'He's going to tie tin cans to the back.'
They'd lived out at the new house for a month. But tonight would be special.
'Will you carry me over the threshold?'
'I'm not carrying Humph.' Dryden squinted at the battered car. 'He's tied a ribbon to the aerial.'
'That will make all the difference,' she said.
She had a point. The cab had seen better days. Even the fluffy dice attached to the rear-view mirror were dusty and threadbare. The exhaust wasn't shot, it was dead and buried.
'For the child he can be a godfather – yes? Padrino.'
'He's got some champagne too,' said Dryden.
'But only little bottles?' she said.
'Yup. Only little bottles.'
Humph's car had its own minibar: the glove compartment, crammed with miniature spirits and wines. The cabbie's principal daytime duty was acting as Dryden's unofficial chauffeur. His real money came in late-night runs picking up nightclub bouncers from Newmarket and Cambridge, and working unsocial hours for a Stansted Airport minicab firm. He had regular customers – mainly academics at the university or execs at Silicon Fen's bio-tech and IT companies. They saved him the miniature bottles of spirits dished out in business class on the long-haul flights. His glove compartment looked like a bonded warehouse in Lilliput.
'But he should exercise more,' said Laura. 'I will write him a programme – a fitness programme. He can take the boy for walks in the pushchair.'
Laura found it difficult to approve of Humph. There was something unsettling about a grown man who lived in a car.
'He's been round the cab three times.' Dryden walked to the window. 'He's back in it now, mind. Oh, no, he's out again.'
The cabbie tottered twenty feet from the Capri and opened a book, looking up at the sky.
'Ah,' said Dryden. 'Clouds. The latest collection.' The cab was littered with I-SPY books – fifties and sixties dog-eared copies. Humph was a dedicated 'spotter' and had worked his way through the classics: I-SPY churches, I-SPY Trees, I-SPY creepy-crawlies, I-SPY pub signs (a particular favourite). Such obsessions were a diversion from the reality of his life: a messy divorce, two girls he didn't see, an inability to be still.
It had been the cabbie's own idea to collect clouds but there'd been no book. So he'd parked outside the library and Dryden had got him a textbook. Fifty different cloud types were listed and he'd already ticked off ten, then run into the complexities of identifying objects which changed their shape as you watched. It was proving as troublesome to name clouds as it was children.
'He's stuck,' said Dryden, enjoying the moment. 'He said he saw a cloud in the night, an hour after sunset – like a rainbow, but brighter, cloud-shaped. I reckon he'd been in the glove compartment.'
The cabbie stood stock still studying a single cloud, a billowing chef's hat, a cathedral of water drops. He looked between the page of the book and sky repeatedly as if one or other image might re-form itself to provide a match.
Another vehicle entered the empty car park. Police markings, just through the car wash. It parked right next to the Capri, and the driver's window slid down. Humph nodded then turned towards the hospital, beckoning Dryden with a small, delicate hand.CHAPTER 2
The hospital swimming pool was one of the few remaining parts of the original buildings, built in the 1940s to care for wounded RAF pilots and crew. Hydrotherapy had been offered to burns victims, their skin taut and raw, frightened to touch the world, but enticed by the cool embrace of the water. Dryden always imagined the pool back in that first summer of the war – young men being lowered into the water by hoist. Two walls of the building were made of glass doors which could be opened on to a lawn. He'd seen pictures of patients set out on chairs, swaddled in bandages, limbs stiff and awkward, watching bombers overhead bound for Germany. Today there was just a single woman in the water, in a black one-piece swimsuit, cutting efficiently through the pool, notching up languid lengths.
A coffee machine stood by the exit to the changing rooms with a set of cheap plastic chairs. Dryden took one and watched Detective Sergeant Stan Cherry struggle with coins to get two black teas. DS Cherry was the local coroner's officer: bluff, a northerner who'd never lost his accent, a few years from retirement, stiff-jointed. Cherry's skin was like a baby's – pink and shiny, and almost completely without lines on his round face.
'There you go, my man,' said Cherry, passing Dryden a plastic cup. 'Get yourself on the outside of that.'
Dryden watched the swimmer turn, her body an agile corkscrew. He was in no hurry to find out what Cherry wanted. He was very rarely in a hurry for anything, nurturing his natural inclination to be an observer, letting it deepen and flourish. When he watched ticking clocks he made a conscious effort to try and slow down the second hand.
Cherry's mobile rang but he killed it without looking at the screen. The little tactic made Dryden uneasy, creating a small frisson of anxiety. What was so important about what he had to say to Dryden? Then Cherry smiled inappropriately. He'd built a career on being jovial and he clearly wasn't going to let being a coroner's officer stop him now.
'I've got some bad news, Philip.' Dryden had covered many inquests in the last five years and Cherry was a good contact, a helpful officer. They were on first-name terms. It was the kind of mannered friendship which can mean nothing. 'Well – startling more than bad,' Cherry went on. He took a breath: 'Look.' He leaned forward and fixed his watery eyes on Dryden's. 'It's about your father.'
Consulting a notebook he gave Dryden the full name. 'John Philip Vincent.' Cherry looked for some sign of recognition but Dryden didn't flinch. 'I've got a body in the morgue, Philip. Male – roughly between sixty and seventy years of age. It might be his.'
His father had been swept from sight in an accident on the fen during the floods of 1977. They'd searched for the body but it had never been found. He'd always pictured white bones uncovered in some fenland ditch, or emerging in a fisherman's net. 'Bones?' he said.
Cherry shook his head impatiently. 'It's not that simple. There was an accident out on the road to Manea last week. You carried a paragraph in the paper: the car hit a dip, lost control, ended up in the ditch. There was a fire so we couldn't ID the driver. Well, we've got a name now. The name's John Philip Vincent Dryden. Born April 8, 1942.'
'There's been a mistake,' said Dryden, although the skin on his scalp had begun to crawl. 'Last week? This happened last week. You're saying Jack – my father, Jack Dryden – was alive this time last week?' Dryden shook his head, laughing. 'It's a common name,' he said. 'He's been dead thirty-five years.'
'We started with the vehicle, of course,' said Cherry. 'But there was some sort of problem at Swansea with the computer. We got the vehicle licence this week – and an address. He lived in town, Jubilee Estate, a rented house. Neighbours didn't know a thing – kept himself to himself. Old bloke – retired, solitary. A loner. Like I said – name of Jack Dryden. He didn't tell many people his surname, by the way – so just plain "Jack" to most. Local GP had his file, which went right back to London. Born in Hampstead – right? It's your Dad's records all right. We got his dental file too – a rough match, but nothing cut and dried. And fillings are post-1977, after your Dad went missing. So that doesn't prove owt.'
Dental records. It was one of those euphemisms that didn't work, because it just conjured up its own horrors.
'The fire was bad?' asked Dryden.
'If you want to know what I think,' said Cherry, 'I think this is ID theft. I think someone took the chance when your Dad went missing. There was no death certificate. So, officially, he's still alive unless your mum applied to have him certified dead?'
Dryden shrugged, then shook his head.
'See – that's got to be it. Somehow they got hold of his documents. If they got the birth certificate they could build a whole new ID. Like I say – got to be.'
But Dryden could see in Cherry's eyes that it hadn't got to be. That there was another solution.
Cherry leant forward and produced a passport in his hand like a magician.
Dryden flicked the stiff old-fashioned black wallet open. It was his father's – dated 1974. So, again, it didn't prove anything. It was thirty-eight years out of date. The corner wasn't clipped, so it had never been sent in for a replacement. 'This is crazy,' said Dryden. 'There must have been pictures in the house – up-to-date ones?'
'Nothing. There's nothing on the walls 'cept wallpaper. I think we're going to have to take a DNA swab – if you're OK with that. Can't see any other way forward. We can hardly ask his neighbours to identify any of your family snaps. They're a lifetime out of date.'
'Trade, profession – any work?'
'We're on to that, but it looks like he was some kind of tutor – you know, GCSEs, A-Levels, that kind of lark. Somewhere he'll have picture ID – bound to have. Then we might know. But it could take time and I'd rather, you know, rule out the real Jack Dryden.'
Excerpted from Nightrise by Jim Kelly. Copyright © 2012 Kelly, Jim. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a book that I enjoyed immensely, despite the fact that at times it moved rather slowly for me, probably because many of its frames of reference were unfamiliar, coming as I am from the “other side of the pond.” Even extending to the title, although I supposed it was meant to evoke the opposite of sunrise, and is defined by the author at one point as the moment when one sees “the first star clear in the sky.” Philip Dryden had been a Fleet Street reporter, a job he’d left for one on the local paper to be near his wife. I found him to be a very original protagonist, one made very human and vulnerable when, on the opening page, he is introduced to the reader as the father of an infant son, following somewhat traumatic circumstances: His wife “had been badly injured in a car accident a decade earlier - - trapped in a coma for more than two years. She would never completely recover. They’d been told a child was impossible.” But, almost miraculously, here he was. Also in the opening pages, Philip is told by the police that his father has just been killed in an auto accident, the body burned beyond recognition, only the vehicle itself providing the identity of the owner. This is a second near-impossibility: His father had died 35 years before, drowned during the floods of 1977, the body swept away and never found. The thought that he might have survived and simply chosen not to return to his family is, to say the least, stunning. There are other story lines here, and a faint suspicion allowed that somehow they may be linked.. A West African man, seeking asylum in England but being forced to return to Niger; has been refused, without explanation, the return of the body of his infant daughter, buried, he is told, in an unmarked grave, and he and his wife seek Dryden’s help. Then there is the mystery behind the murder of a local man whose already dead body had been hung from an irrigator in an open field. When another murder occurs, a very personal one for Dryden, his efforts to solve these crimes are redoubled. The novel is very well-written, suspenseful, and with a totally unexpected ending. This is the sixth book in the series, but the first one I’d read. I was happy to discover it, and shall definitely look for the previous entries. This one is certainly recommended.