I wish to thank my friends at Wollaston School Sixth Form and for their encouragement and praise, and also 'Tebor' who was constructively critical of the early version, and had the good grace to be quite funny at the same time; his advice to readers that they should 'Take [their] disbelief and fire a shotgun at it' is a phrase which I quote with pride!
Now enough babble, and on with the story!
Or: Sometimes The Bad Guys Win
My name is Jonathan West. I imagine you've heard of me; I'm somewhat notorious these days.
In the circumstances, what with all the media attention, the appearance on Crimewatch and all that, you've probably formed an opinion of who -and what- I am. This is natural, but you are not in posession of all the details. This is my side of the story.
The beginning of this tale is very hard to trace. Maybe it started when my parents split up; maybe it started with the huge pile up on the M1 that caused a five mile tailback and killed, among others, two of the three occupants of a certain clapped-out Ford Escort. The only passenger to walk or at least toddle away was me aged six. My mother and four-year old younger brother were killed.
If I'm honest, this hardly seems likely to have sent me round the twist (the Sun's words, not mine!) in itself, except that it returned me to the full-time care of my father. He did not relish the idea, not liking children AT ALL. I don't much care for children myself, but I haven't been daft enough to have any for precisely that reason. He was.
Under such circumstances, expecting a genial father-son relationship was pointless in the extreme. Him losing his job and taking to drink was if anything a boon; he was so busy sulking about it he hardly noticed my presence most of the time.
However, a certain Tuesday in March 2003 was an exception to all this. We'd had a spectacular argument that morning, which so quickly degenerated into personal abuse that it's actual casuse ceased to be relevant. I spent the day in a dark mood; fortunately Tuesdays mostly consisted of study periods, so I could quietly plan out a solution to my problem.
I returned home, tuned out the semicoherent shouted remarks from my dad, and went to my room.
Most days, I'd wait until my dad staggered out onto the balcony of our little ex-council flat for a snooze before fixing myself something to eat, and then withdraw to my room to either read or tackle any items of coursework that really couldn't wait before eventually going to bed. Today, however, would be somewhat different.
I emptied my bag, and sorted out everything that I might need.
*All my clean clothes; twelve pairs of underwear, eleven pairs of socks, nine T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans.
*Washing and shaving kit.
*Stereo, one of those mini-Ghetto Blaster things, plus my entire CD collection.
*AA road atlas.
*Some rather unfashionable-looking waterproofs; I'd rather be dry than cool.
*Leatherman multifunction knife.
By the time I'd filled my school rucksack and a small gym bag with that lot, my dad was safely out of the way. I crept into the kitchen; for some bizarre reason the balcony opened on to it rather than the living room; why do council housing schemes invariably employ architects with no imagination and precious little sense?. My dad was safely asleep, so I turned on all four gas hobs and the oven. It'd be dark when my dad awoke, so he'd turn the light on, and there ought to be a nice big bang!
Once that task was performed, I proceeded to my dad's bedroom and opened the drawer in the bedside table. In addition to the usual clutter, there was a bundle of banknotes and a pistol. Where either of them came from I don't know, but I pocketed both. My dad's paranoia about home security was to be to my eventual advantage. The last thing I did was to look in the drawer of the little table by the front door. Jackpot! Another pistol and a box of spare magazines. I slipped the ammunition into my bag and both guns into various trouser pockets, and let myself out.
First stop was Millets, where I puchased a sleeping bag and an assortment of other kit; a little primus stove, a compass, etcetera. Next, Tesco's for provisions; a large quantity of ready-made sandwiches, several cans of beer, and tea-making materials. Luckily, a small cool bag came free with the beer. All eight cans and a two-pint carton of milk fitted inside perfectly.
One last job...
Isobel was waiting outside her house. I'd mentioned my plan in an email to her this morning.
We had a strong relationship, which had been born out of mutual desperation and a complicated combination of circumstances around a school disco at the end of Year 11. Isobel had always been shy; timid, almost. She wore hearing aids, and was a lot more selfconscious because of them than she should have been- it took me a week to notice. Underneath all that, I discovered a vibrant personality, a sharp wit and an occasionally explosive temper. I fell in love with all of this quite rapidly, and it still hasn't really worn off.
"You're going ahead with it?" she asked solemnly.
"Yeah. No going back now, I turned on all the gas in the kitchen. Once they figure out what really hapened I'm going to have to run, and fast." Isobel was a lot less surprised than I'd expected her to be.
"So," she continued, "you came to say goodbye?"
"Yeah." My voice was near to cracking. "And to promise that one day I'll come back to you." Isobel smiled, and the effect on her pale, delicately pretty face was comparable to the sun bursting through heavy cloud. She reached behind one of the concrete posts flanking the drive, and swung a loaded rucksack over one shoulder.
"You didn't think you could go off on some big adventure and leave me here, did you?" she laughed.
I couldn't speak, so I just kissed her instead. She noticed the big gun in my trouser pocket, and I can't repeat the joke she made.
"You can have one too," I replied once I'd finished laughing. "You never know, you may need it. There's some odd types out there."
"I know, I'm in love with one of them!"
Detective Chief Superintendant Harold Maddox wearily read the letter informing him of a visit by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Police. He'd been HERE before, oh yes! He'd been subjected to this treatment twice in the Flying Squad, before transferring to Northamptonshire CID as regional head of department. The change of pace had been welcome; the odd smack dealer's debt collection, a few domestic disputes and the occasional plain old-fashioned nutjob. No more Russian Mafia, no more fundraisers for the Provos or some guy with a decidedly iffy interpretation of the Koran and a few screws loose. Bliss!
Except, of course, when his profession's equivalent of the auditors were in.
The chap was apparently ex-Sweeny himself, so Maddox figured he would know plenty about street-level policing. Most inspections were headed by men who policed nothing more exciting than a desk, and therefore expected you to cross all the damn Ts no matter what was going on, and even complained about 'unreasonable force employed' during the arrest of kiddy-porn pedlars when in the average jury's view there was no such thing.
The letter also stated that the inspector wished 'to observe the work of a scene-of-crime team in the field, should it be practical.' Well, that was no problem; Maddox was proud of his Forensics lads. The only thing was, they might not actually have a case for them whilst the inspector was here, another thing that Maddox liked about not working in the City any longer.
The detective's private musings were interrupted by a buzz from his intercom.
"We've got a pretty nasty case been handed us, guv'nor," reported the voice of one of the desk staff. "Fire crew turned up to sort out a gas explosion and found that a man had been killed, and reckon the gas was turned on deliberately. No sign of forced entry that the uniforms could see, and the only other person living in the flat is the dead man's teenage son, who is conspicuous by his absence."
"Good God! You're talking patricide!" Maddox groaned inwardly. Of all the bloody awful timing... "I'll be right down. Get Forensics out there, and send DI Hadley and DS Watts over. Where did it happen?"
"One of the flats overlooking St James's. I'm getting the address now."
It promised to be a long day.
Maddox arrived on-scene to find chaos. Press and public were trying to get into the building, and the uniforms were starting to lose their cool. Maddox heard one WPC suggest borrowing a hose off the fire crew.
With difficulty, he made it to the flat, where a full forensic investigation was being conducted. "Not much police training needed to guess how the gas 'leaked', guv'nor," reported DI Jill Hadley, an able and levelheaded policewoman who was photogenic enough to deflect pressmen without ruffling feathers or bruising egoes. "Oven and all four hubs on full bore. The bloke was asleep on the balcony, drunk I suspect, and when he came in he turned the light on. Kablooey."
"The kid's definitely gone?"
"No doubt about it. His room's been cleared out, but nothing else valuable seems to be missing, and there's no sign of forced entry. And that isn't all." Hadley held up a small cardboard box in a sealed polythene bag. "Lapua nine-millimetre ammunition, eight fifteen-round magazines. Gone, and the cellophane was lying screwed up next to the box when we found it."
"So, Jill, let me just make QUITE sure I understand the situation," said Maddox. "A sixteen-year old boy has deliberately murdered his own father, and is now on the run and possibly armed with a handgun?" He used a blandly enquiring tone of voice which his subordinates had learned to dread.
"Yep, that's just about the long and the short of it, sir," replied DS Owen Watts, a Londoner who did his best to hide a fine analytical mind beneath the loveable-rogue act. "Nice timing, innit, right on top of the inspector coming in!" Maddox grimaced in acknowledgement.
"Jill, do you mind smiling sweetly at the news crews and bullshitting them enough to keep the heat off us? With any luck, they'll be so smitten they'll quote you verbatim whilst we sort out this whole mess." Hadley raised one eyebrow.
"Oh, come ON. I'm not asking you to pose naked for the Sport, and I know it's slightly sexist but we have to use all the assets at our disposal."
"Exactly what makes you think that MY assets are AT your disposal, guv'nor?" Hadley replied, laughter in her voice. "I see what you mean, though." She walked off wiggling her hips in a hugely exaggerated manner. Maddox snorted with laughter, and dug in a pocket for his cigarettes. "Is the gas gone?" he asked one of the firemen.
"Yeah, we've shut it off further down the pipe. Go ahead, you can hardly make the atmosphere worse." Maddox lit up, leaned against a wall, and tried to THINK. /Lapua from Finland, hmm? Top quality, and priced accordingly; that carton would cost a hundred quid. Well, we'll certainly know it's him if the boy uses that gun; if two crooks in this county use that brand, I'll be watching out for the infinite number of monkeys with typewriters wanting to show me this new script for Hamlet they've worked out!/ It wasn't much, but it was something. The boy only had to get into one bad situation and they'd have him cold.
That was the theory; the reality would be beyond Maddox's most ghastly nightmares.
By luck, we were still able to see the building when a brilliant flare exploded out from the side. I smiled coldly.
"Got the bastard," I hissed. Isobel gave my hand a squeeze.
"Come on, let's find somewhere to lay up for the night," she suggested.
A stone bus shelter in the centre of Moulton eventually proved to be the best we were going to get. I didn't want to risk the primus, so we just unfurled our sleeping bags. "I wouldn't have minded sharing if you hadn't brought one," I told Isobel. She grinned and zipped them together. This isn't about to get NC-17 rated, by they way. It was March, we couldn't remove anything except our trainers, and we were both far too knackered anyway.
It WAS nice though, lying there wrapped in each other's arms, drifting gently off to sleep. We both woke up at about the same time, and I immediately began making tea.
"I hope I don't snore," I remarked, handing her a mug. Isobel slipped on her other hearing aid. "I'm the last person in the world who's going to be bothered about THAT!" she pointed out. A shape blocked out the light, and became a girl about my age. She had short blonde hair, and would have been quite attractive if something about the set of her features hadn't suggested she was telling the whole world to piss off.
"Morning," I said politely, trying not to stare at the baseball bat she was holding, but keeping my attention on it. "You got the time on you? My watch has stopped."
"What are you doing here?" she demanded, suspiciously.
"Sleeping," Isobel replied. "Now do you mind letting me get on with it?" She isn't a morning person. Three more people appeared, blocking the way out of the bus shelter. My hand closed around my pistol. It was a Browning Hi-Power, British Army standard issue, and I reckoned that one shot in the air would get me out of this. If not, one shot through somebody's head would sort it for definite. Isobel had quietly clicked off the safety of her own Sig Sauer.
One of them, a fair-haired boy slightly younger than me, held up a copy of the Sun. He looked from the front page to me, and back again, and said, "Shit! It's him!" I couldn't see the headline from here, so I asked him if I could have a look.
The headline showed typical restraint; TEEN KILLER. This was basically accurate, let's face it, and was an unusually accomplished piece of investigative journalim for a paper that would sink to having a regular column from Jeremy Clarkson. I read the article slowly, thoughtfully. They the facts more or less right, for once, and claimed that the police were releasing misleading statements.
"Good grief," I said after a while. "The Sun has actually printed a truthful and accurate article, and not even by mistake." This drew a quartet of stares, their expressions a mixture of horror and a fair bit of admiration. "I think I'm going to frame that headline," I continued. "I'll auction it off as 'When The Sun Got It Right'. Shame about the photo of me, though." It was an awful school photograph, with me wearing a fixed grin that would have needed surgical correction if I'd held it a moment longer than I had too.
There was slightly nervous laughter. I have often been accused of having a slightly dark sense of humour, but only if laughing when Steve-O stuck his head in a tank full of jellyfish counts as 'dark'.
Further conversation was curtailed by a sound of tyres on tarmac. "Shit! Cops!" somebody shouted. We all tried to hide in the shadows, hoping they wouldn't see us. I snapped off my own pistol's safety catch.
"Trish, I know you're in there." A uniformed officer entered the bus shelter. "I'm actually kind of impressed. I don't think anyone's been so determined to get away before." I reckoned I had a second at best before he saw me. If I just threatened him with the gun he'd knock it out of the way and that would be basically it, unless Isobel got a clear shot, and was willing to pull the trigger. I still took the time to be cool, however.
"You ain't seen nothing yet," I replied, raising the pistol in both hands and firing one round. The recoil was less than I'd braced myself for, and I was able to spin around and drop the second cop by the patrol car before the first went down. It had all taken a matter of seconds.
"You're not nicking me today, mate," I breathed. There was a stunned silence, finally broken by the girl, who was presumably Trish. "Thanks," she said. "Now we'd better get out of here." She dropped a bag of white powder on the floor of the bus shelter.
"Is that the real stuff?"
"Would the kind of user who'd buy drugs somewhere like this bother to ask? By the time they work out what really happened we'll be miles away."
Maddox stared at the scene before him, willing it to all go away. Something had gone wrong, this was NORTHAMPTONSHIRE, not Peckham! Gun murders did not happen in cosy little villages full of people who drove Range Rovers and sent their kids to fee-paying schools. The odd woman coming home to find her husband shagging the daily help and going bonkers with a breadknife, yes, but not this sort of thing.
"White powder on the floor, two cartridge cases; a bit of an orgy of evidence, y'know?" Watts said thoughtfully. "Look." With gloved hands he held up a spent cartridge case. "No shit-scared coke dealer only fires off one shot. It'd be 'bangbangbangbang!' Panicky, like. This was someone totally in control."
"If they were totally in control they wouldn't have killed two police officers, surely," suggested the inspector, a thin, ascetic looking man named Harris. He'd been quite impressed with the scene-of-crime response so far, though they didn't have much to go on.
"Nutjobs come in many shapes and sizes," replied Hadley. "Could be this one's so sane he's insane, if you see what I mean."
"Or he might be ex-military," Maddox suggested. "Possibly one of those types who're trained to kill, but get booted out for enjoying themselves too much. The US Army found themselves with a lot of snipers a bit like that after Vietnam."
"All this amateur forensic psychiatry isn't a hell of a lot of use without a description," Watts pointed out. "Nobody heard a thing; marvellous, the advances made in the field of double glazing, isn't it? We only know about this because they didn't radio in and a jogger happened to pass by a few minutes ago." He paused. "Odd time for a drug deal, too. Nine thirty?"
"Passing trade, people using the bus using ON the bus," Harris suggested. "You get that occasionally in London. I've had mornings when a bit of speed would be a great help, actually."
"I'm having one now," Maddox replied. "But can you see anybody round here," he indicated the array of expensive metal parked all around, "using the bus to get to work, or school come to that?"
"That's sadly true. Honestly, this feels like Sussex! Are we still in the commuter belt?"
"Not really, but the town generates commuting by itself. Is there any sort of marking on the case, Owen? It might give us a clue to the shooter's supplier." Watts got out a magnifying glass, aware of the theatrical air he had taken on, and looked closely. "Bugger me," he said to himself, "it's a Lapua round. You don't see them very often."
"We did yesterday," Maddox said slowly. "At the flat; well, it was an empty box." This sank in.
"Bloody hellfire. It isn't a man we're hunting for, it's a boy not even old enough to buy a beer!"
"Make a list of his known associates," Maddox told Watts. "Hadley and I are going to have a chat with his headmaster."
"Righto, guv'nor!" Watts replied.
"And stop the cheeky-chirpy Cockney act. I lived and worked in London for fourteen years, so that stuff doesn't impress me."
"West? Hmm, you'd do better speaking to his head of year," the headmaster replied. "I only know him vaguely by sight, you see. Don't get time to teach any longer; too much damn paperwork." Maddox said nothing, but shared a solemn look with Hadley. They both had kids in secondary schools, though not this one, and therefore had Views about headmasters who didn't teach. Professionalism forbade giving any sign of this, however.
"I have his file, though. Average grades, fair bit of peer harassment though he would never complain to staff; too many diverse sources, and most of them totally unfazed by anything I can do to them. I can't exclude every troublemaker, or I'd be hard pushed to keep the place from falling apart." Competititive education, Maddox thought to himself. Market forces making every school try to pack far too many kids into their buildings just so they got more cash. Ta, Maggie!
The Head of Sixth Form proved more helpful. "Nice lad, but a bit weird. Read a lot, tried to write some stuff himself a few times. Not many friends, even before the Great July Cull, and most of the people he WAS friendly with are long gone. Didn't get on with his father very well, from what he said to me, though I imagine you guessed that much."
"You could say that," Hadley remarked coolly. "Now, have you got ANY idea where he might go, or who he might go to?"
"Now that I can't help you with. I think there was a girl, but I don't even know her name."
"Well thank you anyway. Come on, Jill, we might as well go back to the office," Maddox said despairingly. "I wonder if Owen's had any luck?"
He hadn't. "There was indeed a girl; Isobel McRae. Suffers from slight hearing disability, described as extremely shy, and vanished a few hours before the gas explosion." Well, that was just WONDERFUL. "I spoke to her mother, who seems a lot less worried than you might expect. Apparently this John kid always struck her as polite, friendly and absolutely devoted to this Isobel. Now that is NOT what you would normally expect to hear from a woman whose daughter is shagging a murderer!"
"Delicately put as always, Owen. You'd better circulate descriptions of them both, and make it clear that they shouldn't be approached. And find out who told all this to the Sun, and send them up to me." This last was said in a low growl that would have made Dirty Harry nervous.
"I already checked," Hadley replied. "It was one of the fire crew. Our officers obeyed orders to stay quiet, but nobody told the rest of the Emergency Services. Not that we can actually ORDER them to do anything anyway."
"I sure as hell wasn't going to ask nicely," Maddox replied. "What are we going to do now?"
"Doesn't seem like a lot we CAN do, 'cept pray we find him before he shoots anyone else," Watts replied. "Though I'm not sure I'd want to find him for myself; not without a weapon in my hand, anyway. That kid scares the cacky out of me!"
"I don't think we were properly introduced," I remarked. We had been walking for at least an hour now, and I was starting to have misgivings about our choice of route; put another way, I was a bit lost. We stopped by the signpost I'd been praying for, and swapped names and family histories.
Trish was a real school-of-hard-knocks type, what Pink tries very hard to be and fails, largely on account of having nice tits. Her dad had died not long ago, forcing her into a parental support role from a fairly early age. Under all that she was a lot nicer than she wanted the world to believe, I suspected. I've been proved right since.
Charlie was everything I'm not: good-looking, cool, suave, stylishly dressed. I knew how Renton felt when he hung around with Sick Boy in Trainspotting, though mentally I've always felt the greatest empathy with Spud. I mention Trainspotting, by the way, because we had a lengthy argument over whether Robert Carlyle was any good as Begbie. (For my money he was cracking except for the ridiculous 'tache, but he'll always be at his best for me in Hamish MacBeth; there is an inconsistency there, I know) He was mercifully too obviously smitten with Trish to try it on with Isobel. He had been in the same juvenile wing with her some time ago, and been trailing along in her wake ever since.
Sandy was a quiet lad, originally from the Czech Republic. I'd been there with the school one time, blowing most of my savings and all the money my mother had left me in trust for this kind of thing, and I endeared myself to him by waxing lyrical about the cheap beer and beautiful architecture (in that order, of course!). His real name was Mikhail Dzerhinsky (sp?) but nobody pronounced it right -"Mikhail, not Michael, you dickheads!" became his catchphrase- so the nickname stuck.
Mick was a public school kid who'd gone of the rails after, he claims, a lively incident of Criminal Damage involving a ride-on lawnmower and the school's Astroturf pitch. He was originally from Jamaica, and boasted that he had connections with the cartels. He was also the youngest, at eleven, on which grounds I forgave him being a bit of a prat.
I don't think we would have chosen each other's company at the time, now I come to reflect on it, yet today...
Well, as I'm typing this we're in our shared flat in Prague, overlooking the river. Trish is loudly protesting that she's got nicer tits than Pink, and Charlie's halfheartedly backing her up. Sandy's speculating as to whether Charlie's fixation with ladettes has a deeper meaning, and Mick is remarking that he also rather likes butch women; his words not mine I might add! Isobel is just sitting off to one side, watching and laughing. We're bantering away, chucking affectionate insults at each other like any family. Yes, FAMILY. If anybody had told me that I'd started the process of acquiring three brothers and a sister right then, I'd have laughed, and so would the rest of them.
"So, where do we go from here?" I wondered aloud. "Shall we knock around together for a bit, or just shake hands and go our separate ways? And if so, where should we go?"
"I'd like us to keep together, if only out of a certain morbid fascination in seeing who you're going to shoot at next," Mick replied. "And I reckon we owe you at least a couple of beers for getting us out of that one."
"No trouble, I was in the same boat as you. What did they want you for, anyway?"
Sandy grinned. "We burned down a school building," he explained. It was my turn to be horrifed but impressed. "We didn't actually mean to, we were just having a go at something we'd learnt in Science the other day."
"What? The explosive properties of nitrate-based fertilliser?" Isobel asked.
"Distillation, actually," Charlie replied. "And it worked pretty well, except I spilled the finished product onto a hot piece of gauze and set the bench alight. Three-appliance job, whole place closed down for a week, the works."
"The Head was NOT amused," Trish added.
"I'll bet!" I laughed. "You all want to stay together?"
"We haven't got a destination in mind, so we'll go where you're going." That might be a problem, seeing as I didn't know where I actually wanted to go; something I ought to have given some consideration to before leaving, I suppose. I decided not to say so right this minute, so settled for saying "Right, then," in what I hoped sounded like the dynamic, no-slouching-let's-get-up-that-mountain voice that PE teachers and scoutmasters have to practice in front of a mirror. There was a pause, with Trish looking at me stranglely. She spoke at last.
"You haven't got a destination in mind either, have you?"
"Nope." There was another pause.
"And you have no idea where you are right now, am I right?"
Trish closed her eyes for a moment. "Lord, give me strength," she said to herself. "Isobel, how can you shag such a complete plonker like this guy?"
"He's an endless source of comic relief," Isobel replied.
"Oh, SHIT, did I say that last bit out loud?"
Well, knocking around with this lot ought to be interesting, to say the least.