I’m not sure why I write it and I know the moment my fingers touch the keyboard that I’ve made one of those mistakes that make you wince whenever you think of them. Only, I have this naive faith in my readership and I reckon someone out there might be able to help me; and I’m feeling angry and resentful; so, that evening, I write an article about Joseph Derby and corruption in the nineties. The next morning, I publish it, and then I try to forget it.
The following day starts badly and gets worse.
Zachary Grieve is the power behind my particular throne. He’s sixty, short and corpulent, and has the ruddy glow of a man with high blood pressure and a foul temper. He founded the newspaper and ran it single handed until he retired from the front line. I was his junior for a few years, and it was like working for an unpredictable third world dictator. Now, like senior officers in the Great War, he likes to dictate policy and direction from behind the lines.
When the door bursts open, just after nine o’clock, I know there’s trouble. He’s not an early riser. His cheeks are blotched red and he’s snorting fire. He brushes past Megan, the receptionist, without a word, and slams the office door behind him.
‘What the hell are you up to?’ he yells.
‘I don’t know what you mean, Zac. What’s this about?’
‘My bloody phone hasn’t stopped ringing. You’re way out of your depth here, Philip. It’s got to stop.’
Zachary Grieve has built up a network of influential friends over the years. They’re members of the same clubs, share the same hobbies and attend the same dinners and charitable events.
‘I spent thirty years building this bloody paper,’ he storms. ‘People respect it; they trust it. It’s a local paper with local news for decent, respectable people.’
‘Who’s complaining about what?’
‘Never mind that,’ he says evasively. ‘Stop ferreting about in what doesn’t concern you.’
‘You mean JAYDEE?’
‘Never mind what I bloody mean. When I start getting phone calls from respected members of our community, it’s time to stop. You’re a journalist on a local rag, not a bloody detective. It’s time you took more care about what really matters.’ He reaches across the desk to where a copy of the offending paper is lying. ‘It’s riddled with mistakes – misprints, grammatical errors, bloody typos.’
I’d like to tell him that I had to rush through a few articles to clear time for my detective work but I don’t think it’ll help.
‘It won’t happen again,’ I tell him, ‘but this story is too big to ignore.’
‘No,’ he interrupts me. ‘No, you just leave that story alone and get back to what you’re paid to do. I’m warning you now. This paper will go on whether you’re at the helm or not. I won’t see it turned into something it was never meant to be. This is a local paper...’
‘...with local news for decent, respectable people; yes, I heard you.’
‘People don’t want you digging into their private lives and looking into their affairs. That’s not your job.’
‘Who’s got to you, Zac?’ I demand. ‘Who’s putting the pressure on?’
He ignores me and turns towards the door.
‘You stop these investigations right now,’ he says.
It sounds like his last word only I don’t want it to be that easy.
‘Why are people worried about JAYDEE,’ I ask him.
‘What? How the bloody hell should I know?’
‘Was Councillor Greenhalgh involved?’
‘No, he bloody wasn’t. You leave Eric out of this. That man has done more good for this community than your bloody articles will ever do.’
‘But it’s Greenhalgh who’s been phoning you?’
He opens the door.
‘Half the bloody town has been phoning me. You stop right now, or you look for another job. Is that clear enough for you?’
The door slams behind him before I can tell him that I’d sooner walk out and look for another job than give up this enquiry. Maybe that’s fortunate. No point burning bridges just yet. I haven’t planned my novel or searched out a garret.
Megan appears at the door, holding a mug of coffee.
‘I thought you might need this,’ she says. Her hand trembles as she puts the hot mug on the desk. ‘Can I help in any way?’
‘That’s very noble of you, given the conversation you must’ve overheard.’
‘I like to think it’s a good cause,’ she says.
So, I explain to Megan what I’m looking for and she begins to trawl through the newspaper archive, week by week, page by page, which is a weight off my mind.
‘I’ll start in 1990 and you start in 1996 and I’ll race you to June 1993,’ I say.
Only I don’t get further than March ’90 when the phone rings.
‘It’s Carl, Carl Jeffreys,’
‘I’ve got something for you,’ he says. His voice is muffled as if he’s half covering his mouth or speaking through a sock. ‘It’s about JAYDEE,’ he says. ‘I know something. Can we meet?’
‘I’m pretty busy at the moment, Carl. Can’t you tell me over the phone?’
He can’t – or won’t. He sounds muffled and slurred. Maybe he’s been drinking or he’s still hung over from last night.
‘Can you give me a clue, a couple of names maybe?’
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘I’ve got names for you all right. I’ll be at The Wheatsheaf at twelve. Bring some money. Once I’ve told you, I’m getting out of this shit-hole forever.’
The line goes dead.
I tell Megan I’ve got to leave and I apologise, but she knows I don’t mean it. She just gets on with the archive with a resigned sigh. Some people are loyal to the core.
I’m late arriving at The Wheatsheaf but Carl isn’t there so, I sit down with a red wine and a micro-waved steak pie, which sags on my plate between a few scraps of salad and a handful of crisps. I check for skin and fingernails. Ten minutes later, Carl still hasn’t arrived, and I check my phone for messages; nothing. The flabby, white pastry has settled heavily on my stomach so I get a fruit juice.
‘Carl Jeffreys?’ I ask the barman. ‘Do you know him?’
He nods. ‘He’s usually in by now.’
‘I’m supposed to be meeting him.’
He glances at the clock above the bar and the optics, high on the wall, Roman numerals set in an oak mount, like an upmarket railway clock. One o’clock.
‘I doubt he’ll be in now,’ he says. ‘Have you got his number?’
‘Back at the office,’ I tell him.
He takes a mobile from his pocket and flicks through his contacts.
‘Straight to answer-phone,’ he says. ‘Sorry.’
I decide to head back to the office to see how Megan is getting on. I rather hope she’s found something since I don’t want to spend the rest of my wasted day going through archived reports of local trivia. But in my experience bad days only ever get worse, so I’m not optimistic. The smile on her face tells me I’m wrong.
‘I found something,’ she beams.
’Tell me, - no, show me. Let me read it for myself. I lean over the screen while she brings up the article. ‘Fears grow for missing local man,’ the headline runs. ‘Joseph Derby, managing director of local building firm, JD Enterprises, left his home as usual on Monday morning. He never arrived at work but the alarm wasn’t raised until late in the afternoon. His car was later found at a remote picnic site on the outskirts of the town, but there was no sign of Mr Derby. That was four days ago, and, despite extensive enquiries, nothing has been seen of him since. The police say they will continue their search.’
There was a photograph of Mr Derby, in his thirties maybe, smiling and staring directly at the camera. It looked like a picture taken at a family event. He seemed happy and maybe slightly drunk.
‘Have you checked the following week?’
‘Yes, there’s a small paragraph reporting that there’s been no progress.’
‘And after that?’
‘No campaign? No interview with the family? Nothing?’
‘Not a single word.’
I take a deep breath and phone Zac.
‘How the hell would I remember something from the early nineties?’
‘It was a missing person, quite mysterious from the look of it. His car was found but he wasn’t. Joseph Derby – JD.’
He’s winding up for a big one, I can sense it. The receiver is starting to melt in my hand.
‘What are you getting at? Because he’s got those initials he’s part of some fucking conspiracy? Is that it?’
‘His firm was called JD Enterprises.’
The explosion arrives. I don’t get a word in for several minutes. Then we reach the summary.
‘I’m warning you now, Philip; if I hear another word about this you’ll be out of a job. Give it up now. Do what you’re fucking paid for.’
The phone goes down with a crash you could hear streets away.
Maybe I should listen to him. I’m only digging myself a deeper hole; before you know it, I’ll be in too deep to see the sun. But I don’t listen; I can’t. Perhaps I’m just stubborn or perhaps forward is the only direction I can go right now. With a lurch of the stomach which sends that limp pie from The Wheatsheaf into a spin, I remember what’s behind me and what’s waiting not far ahead. Avenues of escape seem to be closing down.
I pick up the phone and give Slattery a ring.
‘Can you check something out for me? It’s a missing person enquiry from years back, October 1992, a guy called Joseph Derby. He ran a company called JD Enterprises. I think it’s the company Oldfield was involved with.’
I listen as Slattery points out that he’s not my secretary and that he has enough work of his own to do, that the Chief wants results and that he’s got fuck all from me. He suggests a trade. I bring him something and maybe he’ll find a few minutes to check the records for me. Otherwise I can go fuck myself. I sense he’s a man under pressure for a quick result.
‘Okay, let’s say I’ve got some information that might be of interest to you.’ I listen as the tirade continues. Then we get down to business. ‘Tomorrow lunchtime, same place, one o’clock. Okay, I’ll be there.’
Once that’s agreed I ring the hospital and make some quick enquiries. Thomas Oldfield is still hanging in there. The crisis is over but he’s still critical. He hasn’t regained consciousness.
‘He’s a tough old sod,’ I say to Megan, ‘You’ve got to give him that.’
‘What next?’ Megan asks. She’s like a terrier, I think, nipping at ankles. She’s sunk her teeth into my enquiries and now there’s no prising her loose. I give her a couple of bones to shake, looking into Greenhalgh’s Council career and his business interests, while I get on the phone to Tommy Sands.
‘Have you got anything for me?’
‘Not a fucking thing.’
‘Come on, Tommy, - Wayne Keech, Mackie, Oldfield - there must be something, a few whispers.’
‘Have you heard from Carl?’
‘I was due to meet him. He didn’t show.’
‘He didn’t show at the snooker club, either. He was full of talk about what he knew and how he was going to get money from you and Simon and then split.’
‘Did he tell you anything?’
‘I told him the same as I’m telling you. I don’t want to know. You’re stirring up some big trouble, and I’m keeping well clear. Have you asked Winston?’
‘I tried; he wasn’t helpful.’
The phone went dead.
I phone Winston again but he’s not answering, so I think I’ll speak to Wayne again but he’s at work. Tina’s back at the hospital and Erin can’t speak for long because she’s busy. I’m left sitting at my desk, writing about a car boot sale and a charity auction, while the clock ticks on towards my deadline. Deadline.
I’m really glad when the day ends and I can go home and think through what I’m going to do next. I even write it down in a list so I can tick things off when I’ve done them. It says
3.See what Alasdair Riley can tell me
4.See what Simon’s found out
5.Find a garret and start a book
Then I go to bed.
In the middle of the night I hear bells ringing and I realise it’s my phone. It’s Slattery.
‘Are you planning to go into work in the morning?’
‘Yes, I imagine so,’ I mumble, and rub half closed eyes. I glance at my phone. ‘Jesus Christ, Slattery, it’s three in the morning.’
‘Imagine something else then,’ he says. ‘The whole fucking place has burnt down.’
Suddenly I’m awake and sitting on the side of the bed.
‘What? Wait a minute; what did you say?’
‘It could be an accident, I suppose, old wiring, an electrical fault, a cigarette end. But I doubt it. Dan Bailey – you know Dan, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, we’ve met.’ Dan is the Fire Chief. Our paths cross professionally from time to time.
‘Dan says he could smell petrol from the end of the street. The place went up like a bomb had gone off.’
‘What are you telling me? You think it’s arson?’
‘Or someone arson about,’ he quips.
‘That’s not funny, not even remotely funny.’
‘Is Zac there?’
‘Oh yes, he’s here alright, making his presence felt, wanting the door shut now the horses are in the next county. How do you put up with the fucker?’
‘He pays me.’
‘I’d love to stand here and exchange chit-chat, but I’ve got things to do, and I see your boss lumbering towards me as I speak. Do you think you can forego your beauty sleep and come down here?’
I want to ask him if it’ll wait till morning, but I know it won’t. If Slattery is out there at this time of night, he’ll want fellow victims dragged from their beds and mugged by the night air.
I’m so awake now it might as well be broad daylight and when the darkness and the cold slap me about the face I’m focussed too. I feel like my eyes are so wide they could swallow the sky.
I must park a street away because the road is cordoned off; there are police everywhere. It’s worse that I could’ve imagined. The building’s a charred skeleton, the roof mostly gone, the windows too. The top floor has collapsed and part of the gable is on the street. There are ladders and hoses and a lot of smouldering timbers, but few flames now, just smoke and a red, grumbling furnace at the heart.
‘Shit,’ I mutter.
It takes me a few minutes to locate Slattery. He’s talking to a helmeted guy I figure must be Dan Bailey. They’re talking seriously, and Dan is pointing towards the windows on the ground floor. They go quiet as I approach. Dan murmurs condolences as he walks away, shouting a few instructions to someone out there in the darkness.
‘Has Zac gone?’
‘About ten minutes ago.’
‘Thank God for that.’
‘Indeed.’ He looks me up and down. ‘Zac was wearing a coat over his pyjamas. I see you took the time to get properly dressed. I find that suspicious.’
‘No, you don’t. Stop fucking about and tell me what happened.’
He leads me away to where his car is parked. It smells of cheap fags and chip fat.
‘This car is a health hazard. It ought to be quarantined.’
‘Write an article,’ he says.
‘So, what happened?’
‘It was Arson – deliberate; no doubt about it.’ He takes out a notebook and the stub of a pencil. ‘Can you think of anyone who might have done this, any enemies? Anyone you’ve particularly pissed off recently?’
‘How long have you got?’
‘All fucking night, Phil, all fucking night.’
But what can I tell him? Studley-Brown and his pet gorilla? Mackie? Tyrone? The last name sticks, and I can’t prise it away; fucking super-glue. Tyrone. Who else could it be? My stomach knots like cramp and I think I’m sweating. I’m definitely nauseous. How much time have I got? Evidently, not much if this is a sign that Mackie’s getting impatient.
‘Tyrone’s never liked me,’ I say.
‘Tyrone’s never liked anyone; other than Tyrone?’
‘I don’t think he likes himself either.’
‘There’s the woman who was caught on camera shoplifting - she was seriously pissed off - and there’s the angry guy who didn’t win the photo competition. Did you read his letter? Talk about unstable.’
‘Oh well, think about it and get back to me. You’ll need to come down to the station and give a statement. Let’s be civilised. Make it midday. Is the place well insured?’
I look at him with disbelief.
‘You think Zac, in his pyjamas, has been wandering round at dead of night with petrol cans?’
‘I’d love to think so. I’d like to wipe the superior, fucking look off his face for once and for all; he’s been giving me a hard time.’
Not as hard as the time I’m going to get, I think. But I feel bad, too. Zac was right. If I’d left things alone, this wouldn’t have happened. He spent a lot of years building this place up, and I’ve demolished it with one article. Hardly fair, is it?
I don’t go back to bed and I’m in the kitchen when the phone rings just after seven. It’s Zac. I don’t get time to say hello.
‘I warned you; I fucking warned you. I told you to keep your nose out.’
‘Out of what, Zac? I don’t get it. You obviously know a hell of a lot more than I do. What should I keep my nose out of?’
He’s not in a listening mood.
‘It’s ancient bloody history and best left alone. They were different times back then. If you start throwing shit around some decent people are going to get smeared.’
‘Did your decent people get thugs to threaten me? Did they close down the paper?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. They’re not that sort of people. You know who did that.’
‘No, I don’t; I really don’t. George Mackie and Tyrone might be behind the fire, but it wasn’t them set the Gestapo on me.’
‘I’m sorry Philip, but you’ve brought this on yourself. There’s no paper, so there’s no job.’
‘You’re firing me?’
‘I’ve no choice.’
‘You can’t fire me. Listen. I’ll work out of a garden shed if I have to. Besides, there’s Tim and Alice and Megan to think about.’
‘You should have thought of that before you started digging up things that don’t concern you.’
‘Of course they concern me; I’m a fucking journalist.’
‘I’ve no choice. You’re fired. And don’t come asking for a fucking reference.’
The phone goes dead, and here I am with no job, not much money, no future and no story that makes any sense. Maybe I’ll go back to bed today and wallow. I’m pretty certain that I qualify for a spell of self-pity. About mid-morning, I’ll slouch through to the kitchen and make a coffee and then slouch back again and wallow some more.
Only I can’t, can I? I’m expecting Studley-Brown and Mickey, and George Mackie is showing his impatience. I figure if pain is accelerating towards me anyway, I might as well go down fighting. I snarl at the mirror, pick up my coat and head out of the door. I’ve got to see Slattery at twelve, so I’ve a bit of time to go looking for Carl. I’ll check his address and his usual haunts. If I’m lucky I’ll find him early. If not, there’s always The Wheatsheaf. He’s not going to miss two days.
I phone Tommy who doesn’t want to speak to me and stays on the line just long enough to give me Carl’s address. He tells me not to phone him again. I drive straight round there; Jesus, what a dump. It’s one of those squat blocks of flats, about five stories high and with all the charm of a nose bleed. I swear I saw cockroaches on the stairs. They were heading for the exit. Carl’s flat is on the top floor but Carl isn’t. I try one neighbour, but she looks as if she’d like to bite my face, so I try another one. He breathes something over me which I can’t distinguish, something like alcohol, iodine and bleach; quite a cocktail. It makes me wince but at least I learn that Carl hasn’t been home for two days.
It’s early, but I try the snooker hall and, as soon as they open, a few pubs, suitably downtrodden. Eventually I give up and head for the police station. As soon as I’ve finished with Slattery, I head to The Wheatsheaf but Carl’s not there either and the landlord hasn’t seen him.
‘Two days now,’ he says. ‘It’s not like him.’
He looks worried. I think it must be hitting his profits.
There’s nothing left to do but see if I can prise something useful from Wayne; only he’s at work and tonight he’s going to the hospital.
‘Tomorrow, maybe,’ he says.
Okay, okay, I get the message. It’s time to give up on today and resign myself to my fate. When Studley-Brown arrives, all I’ll have to give him is a big smile.
I’m about to head home when my phone rings and my day suddenly improves. It’s Erin. There’s a film she’s been longing to see. Do I fancy it?
I avoid an obvious reply and we agree to meet.
Maybe I’ll die tomorrow but, with luck, I’ll go out with a smile on my face.
You know how sometimes you meet someone and you just click? You start talking and you never run out of things to say. There are no dead points, no silences, you don’t look at your watch and wish you were somewhere else, and the evening passes like five minutes. It’s like that with Erin. I feel like we knew each other in an earlier life and we’re just picking up from where we left off.
We even like the same films and music.
The film is perfect, the coffee we take afterwards in the hotel across the road tastes better than any coffee I’ve had before. You know what? I think she likes me - no, I’m sure she likes me. You don’t smile like that, laugh like that, talk like that unless you like someone, do you?
We talk a bit about JAYDEE and Thomas Oldfield, the fire at the paper, my current status as a redundant journalist; I even mention my run in with Mackie and Studley-Brown, and she asks what I’m going to do. For a moment, that doom, end of the world feeling comes back and my stomach bounces around my abdomen like a basketball.
’Ask me what I’m not going to do, it’s easier.’
’What are you not going to do?’
‘I’m not going to give up.’
‘I don’t want you to get hurt,’ she says.
I want to hug her. She’s the first person who actually sounds like she cares.
‘Neither do I; I’ll be careful.’
The evening ends. We kiss. I’m about to make a suggestion about how we might pass the next few hours when a taxi pulls up and the driver opens the window. He leans across.
‘Erin Sawley?’ he asks.
‘It’s for me,’ she tells me. ‘My dad always books a taxi. He worries.’
Just for a moment, I want to cry, and I take an instant dislike to her dad, but one smile, one look from those eyes and my resentment just slips away like an otter in a pool and yeah, I go home with a smile on my face - and make love to myself.
Early next morning I get another phone call from Slattery and I fall off the cloud I’ve been sleeping on and plummet to the earth. He’s been called out to a scrap yard in the east of the town because someone found a body in the half-opened boot of a car.
‘What’s the cause of death?’ I ask.
‘Well, given where we found him, I’m ruling out suicide,’ he tells me, ‘and given the bullet hole in his chest I think we can rule our natural causes. The official line for media and newspapers is that we’re treating the death as suspicious.’
‘I don’t have a newspaper anymore,’ I remind him.
‘Oh yeah,’ he says. ’Well, since it’s not for publication, I guess I can tell you. It’s an old friend of yours.’
My stomach lurches. ‘Carl Jeffreys,’ I murmur.
‘How did you know?’
‘Just a wild guess,’ I tell him.