They met at a café on the corner of Mulberry Street. It was a fairly nondescript place—greasy net curtains, laminated menus, chipped Formica tables. Probably bustling with overweight truckers first thing in the morning, but at this hour it was almost deserted. Casual patrons had possibly been deterred by the rain. Or maybe the poor hygiene.
Cowan spotted Jimenez as soon as he stepped inside. He was sitting at a table in the corner, and he glanced up and waved at the sound of Cowan’s entrance. The only other customer was an elderly man slurping noisily from a mug, a mangy dog lying at his feet. Despite the ban, the air was thick with cigarette smoke.
Cowan slid into the plastic chair opposite Jimenez. At first he thought the older man’s hair was wet, but then realised the greying locks were actually slicked back with Brylcreem. Dandruff dusted his shoulders. The lines around his mouth were deeply ingrained with age, greying whiskers indicating several days’ growth. He drew out a manila envelope from beneath the table and patted it with his nicotine-stained fingers. “Got what you wanted, Mr. Campbell.”
Cowan licked his lips. “Good.” He squirmed inside his tight collar. “Got the money?”
Cowan took an envelope from his pocket and passed it quickly across to Jimenez, who accepted it and transferred it into his own. There was a layer of dirt beneath the man’s cracked fingernails, so ingrained it looked like wood varnish.
“Five hundred—like you said.” Cowan cleared his throat and glanced at the counter. The owner—an Asian woman in a stained apron—was wiping down the wall tiles with a dishcloth. Behind her, a tinny speaker blared out the insipid blandness of local radio.
Jimenez began to speak. “I managed to locate him . . . Before I run through what I found, though, I need to ask you one question—why’re you looking for Mark Fisk?”
Cowan continued to shift his gaze round the café. “I told you—we were at school together. He was a mate of mine. I just wanted to see him again. You know—catch up.” His eyes were restless. “Old time’s sake and all that.”
“Ah yes, I remember now.” He flexed his fingers and rubbed the back of his left hand. “Took quite an effort to find him. Our Mr. Fisk did not want to be found.”
“Hmmm. You see, he’s going under an assumed name now—Peter Feltham. Been living under that name for several months, in fact.” His eyes searched the younger man’s face. “I had to call in some extra favours to discover this, believe me.”
Cowan blinked. “I thought we’d agreed the fee—”
“We did, we did. Don’t worry—no extra.” Jimenez waved a hand. “No, I meant I know a few contacts in the criminal justice system, the legal profession. And the police, for that matter. Had to go to them to get the info. Quite interesting really.”
“Well you know the first part of the story—up till he left school, right? Well after that, Fisk got a job in the steelworks. Worked for a Sheffield company. He inherited his mother’s house when she died in 1994. Lived there for a couple of years. Then in ’97 he married a Rosemary Willows. They sold his house and moved to Stannington. He was still at the steel company. She was a secretary at a firm of insurance brokers. They had a son, Alex, in 2002. This is where it takes a turn.”
He leaned forward in his chair. “In 2006 they separated. The wife left him and got custody of the kid. He was pretty cut-up about it, apparently. As you would be. Had to move into a council flat. For a few months he was just getting access to the lad every other weekend. The missus starts seeing another bloke. Looks like Fisk then gets edgy—thinking he’s going to lose the kid; reckons the lad’s going to start calling another bloke ‘Dad.’
“Then in the summer of 2008 he picks little Alex up as usual. Takes him to the top of the tower block and they both jump off.”
“Well, Fisk jumped and dragged the kid with him. Even left a suicide note for the ex, saying if he couldn’t have his son, no one would.”
Cowan swallowed and glanced away from the scrutiny of the older man’s gaze. He watched the Asian woman browsing a magazine, licking her fingers as she turned the pages.
“I remember it in the news, actually,” said Jimenez. “There was a public outcry. Front-page shit.”
Cowan nodded noncommittally.
“But here’s the best part—although the kid died, Fisk survived. Just snapped his fucking legs. The kid broke his fall.”
Cowan looked out of the window. Mid-morning traffic crawled past, glistening in the rain. Pensioners shuffled along the pavement laden with carrier bags. He shook his head. “What a bastard.”
“Bastard indeed.” Jimenez pursed his lips. “He was charged with murder but the judge let him off—diminished responsibility. He got five years in a nuthouse. The ex-wife killed herself a few months later. Overdose.”
Cowan watched the older man remove a cigarette and light it, taking a deep drag and blowing the smoke out almost provocatively, his eyes narrowing. “The judge said Fisk was remorseful afterwards—he’d just cracked under the pressure of the divorce, that’s all.”
“So he’s—what? Locked up still?”
Jimenez shook his head. “Got released after four years. Since last summer he’s been living here under the name Peter Feltham.” He opened the envelope and took out a folded sheet of A4 paper. His fingers hesitated on it for a second before he slid it across the table.
Cowan unfolded the paper and looked at the address. “Leeds?”
“Yeah. As part of the rehabilitation process he was given a new identity. That’s why I asked why you were looking for him.” Jimenez paused. “This info can’t be traced back to my contact—it’s now a matter of public record anyway, if you can be arsed to wade through enough paperwork—but I wanted to make sure you’d be . . . discreet with it.”
Cowan forced himself to maintain eye contact. “So you think—what? That I’ll grass to the papers?”
“I don’t know, son.” His hand gripped Cowan’s wrist. “But if you go through with what I think you’re planning, I’d urge you to be careful.”
Cowan released his hand, on the pretence of scratching his nose. “Mr. Jimenez, I just wanted to see him—to talk. I won’t mention it to anyone else.”
Jimenez shrugged. “Look, I couldn’t give a shit. Just don’t bring my name into it if he gets itchy feet and scarpers. The authorities’ll have your arse for an ashtray.” His laughter sounded ugly and coarse.
“I just want to say hello—that’s all. Maybe he’ll be pleased to see an old face.” Cowan slipped the address into his pocket.
Jimenez smiled wanly and began packing the envelope away. “Aye, Mr. Campbell—or whatever your real name is—maybe he will.”
• • • •
The rain hadn’t let up all week. Cowan tried to concentrate as he peered through the windscreen, the wipers doing their best to distract him. Rows of sagging shops blurred into one continuous line as he negotiated the ceaselessly spiralling roads. Leeds appeared to be a labyrinth of narrow streets choked by parked cars. The bricks of the buildings were a strange shade of ochre. It was quite unlike anything he’d seen before, certainly different to the houses in Sheffield.
He’d stumbled across a Tesco on the ring road. He’d been queuing at the checkout, clutching a Leeds A-Z, when the enormity of what he was about to do engulfed him. He quickly paid and rushed to the toilet, his legs almost buckling with nerves.
Outside, the cool air helped revive him. He waited in the car and browsed the A-Z, taking time to familiarise himself with his destination. He took a carrier bag from the glove box, gauging its weight in his hand. He drew back the plastic opening and admired the pistol inside, careful not to touch it with his fingers. The two-inch barrel looked deceptively harmless. It had been originally manufactured in Brazil; standard issue for the Singapore Police Force. The serial number had been filed down. This particular model—the Taurus 85—had an ornate pearl handgrip. He’d paid £600 for it from a man in his local, a transaction that had come with unspoken conditions attached: the weapon was untraceable—there would be no incriminating trail—but Cowan better keep his mouth shut if things went wrong. He swallowed and wrapped it back up.
Soon Cowan was back on the road, Fisk’s address seared indelibly into his mind. He was headed for a tower-block in Gipton called Coldcote Heights. He pushed other thoughts away and tried to concentrate on driving.
Eventually he spotted an ugly, brooding building on the corner of Beech Lane—the Church of the Epiphany—and realised his destination was close by. He parked on the roadside and switched off the ignition, listening to the patter of rain on the roof as it synchronised with the ticks of the cooling engine. The wipers—frozen in the act of clearing the windscreen—helped to divert him as the raindrops obliterated his view.
He removed the carrier bag from the glove box and tucked it into his jacket pocket. Then he paused for a few moments to gather his nerves before climbing out of the car and locking it.
A row of shops slouched to his left, rendered almost identical by the metal grilles obscuring their windows. Two elderly women in headscarves stood chatting outside the off-licence. An Asian man was talking loudly on his mobile phone, glaring through the window of the bookies. Cowan drew up his hood and set off across the grassy incline towards the kids’ playground.
The squat, redbrick council houses surrounding the muddy expanse seemed to stare at him reproachfully. The play area was in a poor state. Cowan stepped between used condoms and rusting syringes. The rungs of the slide’s ladder were blackened with fire. Spray-painted obscenities adorned the side of the toddlers’ climbing frame. Nearby, a heavily-muscled skinhead waited patiently as his Staffordshire bull terrier shivered a pale turd onto the grass. Cowan glanced away.
Ahead, his destination loomed like a beacon for the destitute. He hurried up the slope. Coldcote Heights towered broodingly above the roofs of the surrounding houses, seeming to watch over Gipton like a guardian. The cold, impassive building almost made him shudder.
A chain-link fence at the top of the grassy square had been breached, its posts skewed by force. Empty cigarette packets and McDonald’s cartons wilted in the rain. The sign on the Bangladeshi community centre had been vandalised, clearly by someone lacking the use of a spell-check. Youths loitered around the industrial bins at the rear.
Soon he had negotiated the warren of faceless tenements and found himself approaching the tower-block. He crossed the quadrangle of concrete, suddenly feeling exposed by the countless windows that watched his progress. A burnt-out car stood in the centre, rusting on four flat tyres. From somewhere nearby came the frantic barking of a dog. He pushed open the door of the building and entered the dark foyer.
The smell of piss was overpowering. To the left, a flight of concrete steps rose out of sight. A CCTV camera was positioned at a weird angle—possibly made ineffective by some wrongdoer. Signs on the walls promised direction but did nothing more than bewilder him. He scanned for the address that Jimenez had supplied, seeing that he needed to trek to the ninth floor.
The steel door of the lift was so scratched it looked as if ancient runes had been etched into its surface. Someone had smeared a foul-smelling substance over the call button. Wrinkling his nose, Cowan glanced down and spotted the neck of a broken beer bottle discarded in the corner. He picked it up and used the lip of the glass to press the button. The noise of the lift’s approach sounded ominous, as if the action had tripped some unseen signal.
Inside the lift, the smell of piss was just as strong. He used the glass shard to press the number 9 on the panel. A furry patch of mould stained the floor and a lower section of the compartment. Cowan stood as far away as possible from it as the lift bounced its ascent. The red LED above the panel flickered aggressively. Presently, the door opened and he stepped out onto the ninth floor, taking time to carefully deposit the glass in the corner where he might later retrieve it.
A narrow corridor led into the heart of the building. Cowan wandered down it, glancing at the door numbers to check he was headed in the right direction. The light was meagre. Shadows scuttled in the corners. Windows at evenly spaced intervals looked down into the quadrangle, accentuating his dizzying height. From further down the landing, he heard the sound of someone singing in a foreign language, the staccato rhythm of the words suggesting a football chant. Cowan hurried along until he reached an intersection, heading to the left according to the door numbers.
He could feel his heart pounding as he drew close. The bag in his pocket felt like it was getting heavier. He stopped outside a door and stared at the plastic numbers screwed to the wood, licking his lips to alleviate the dryness. A quick glance both ways up the corridor eased his nerves. He pressed his ear to the door and listened.
Indistinct music was playing inside. Somewhere beyond the sound, a child was crying. Cowan considered the two bullets loaded in the pistol; for the first time worried that he ought to have requested more. The original intention had been for one bullet for Fisk and one for himself. The bloke in the pub had warned that it was difficult to silence this type of weapon; he’d need to make every shot count. He took a deep breath and tried the door handle.
He peered into a deserted hallway. The music was now recognisable—The Style Council—and he slipped inside the flat and closed the door.
From this angle, he had a narrow vantage point into the living room. He could see the crown of someone’s head as they sprawled on the sofa. The weeping child now sounded like it was coming from next door. He crept closer. As he drew near, he could see that the prone figure was indeed Fisk. But not as he’d remembered him.
The man had his eyes closed tight, his face screwed up like a wrinkled cloth. His forehead looked unnaturally pockmarked. Sallow. The skin was pale and gaunt, stretched over the bones like tissue. His thinning hair barely covered the skull. His hands clutched the side of his head, accentuating the tendons in his rail-thin arms. He looked depleted.
Cowan swept a quick glance around, noting the signs of disarray. Empty beer bottles and cans littered the floor. Discarded pizza boxes and the misshapen trays from microwave-ready meals. Boxes were stacked in the corners, filled with brightly coloured objects. Light was pouring through the curtainless window. There was a powerful odour of stale sweat and booze. Relief surged. The pokey flat seemed otherwise empty. Cowan’s fingers curled around the handle of the gun.
“Fisk.” He stood over the emaciated wreck of a man, staring, daring him to look.
Fisk’s eyes opened slowly. They looked blurred and bloodshot. He widened them, trying to focus, shuffling into an upright position.
“Remember me?” Cowan tried to keep his voice low and threatening, but he was afraid it just sounded weak.
Fisk blinked slowly. He appeared to be under the influence of something; probably drink, by the smell. He pulled a sour face.
“I’ve come to kill you,” Cowan said quietly. He shuffled his feet.
Fisk smiled wanly and rolled onto his side, moved to a sitting position. “You were Rosie’s bit on the side. I remember you.” His voice sounded dead. Listless.
“I wasn’t a bit on the side. I tried to help her after you two split up.”
“So you say.” Fisk laughed hollowly. “How’d you find me?”
Cowan made a fist. “I made a promise to Rose before she died.”
Fisk shrugged. It was an unsightly gesture. Cowan marvelled again at the man’s appearance. He looked ravaged. Close to death.
“Go on then.” He sat up and put his head in his hands. “You’ll be doing me a favour.”
Cowan stared at him, clenching his teeth. He fought to suppress the rage that ached inside. “You piece of shit. He was six years old, for fuck’s sake. A good kid.”
“Should I tell you something . . . what’s your name?”
“Cowan, that’s right. Cowan.” He rolled the word around his mouth. “Let me tell you something—he’s not a good kid anymore.”
“You selfish bastard. Why couldn’t you just kill yourself and leave him with his mum?”
“With you and Rosie, you mean? That would’ve been nice.” His breath hitched. A change seemed to come over him. He looked detached. “Don’t you think I’m sorry for what I done? Don’t you think I wished I’d died that day? I’d end it tomorrow if I thought it would all stop.”
“This place is a shithole. Why’d you move here?”
Fisk shrugged. “Why not? I lived ’round here as a kid. Till we moved to Sheffield when I left school.”
Shit. Jimenez must have known about the lies. He must have known Fisk hadn’t attended school in Sheffield.
Cowan glanced around. There was a cushion on the sofa. He could hold the gun against it and shoot through. It should muffle the shot. The crying kid next door might mask the noise. It could give him sufficient time to get away.
Fisk looked up, wrongly interpreting the pause. “You can hear him too, can’t you?”
Fisk nodded and grimaced, revealing yellow teeth. His next words chilled Cowan to the core. “That’s Alex.”
Cowan peered in the direction of the sound. He’d assumed it had been from the neighbouring flat, but he realised it was coming from the next room. Heart hammering in his throat, he approached the door and pushed it open.
The sound stopped instantly. He could see similar signs of disorder in the room—an unmade bed, clothes strewn on the floor, boxes of things stored in the corner.
“It’s not so bad in the day,” Fisk said. “The nights are worst. I can’t get away. He’s changed. He doesn’t love his dad no more.”
Cowan turned back.
“You should see his face at night. Fucking terrifying.” Fisk stood with a groan and switched off the music. “That’s why I have that on—drowns him out a bit.” His foot knocked an empty can of Tennent’s Super across the floor. He slumped back onto the sofa, the movement causing a hole in the upholstery to gape like a hungry mouth. He stared at a spot in the corner of the ceiling.
“Sometimes at night I see him watching me from up there.” He motioned with his hand.
Despite himself, Cowan glanced into the empty, mildew-stained corner.
“He grows spindly legs like a spider. He creeps around quiet, daring me to watch. If I close my eyes, he’ll pounce. It’s just a game to him. Without the booze, I can’t sleep.”
Cowan rolled his eyes. “Maybe the booze makes you imagine things.”
“The fuck it does.” He suddenly lifted the sleeve of his t-shirt, revealing a pattern of angry scabs. “Trouble is, I’m so out of it, I can’t feel him slashing me.”
Cowan winced at the rawness of the wounds.
“Stanley knife,” Fisk said. “Fucker likes to have his fun.”
Cowan studied the boxes for the first time. They were stuffed with children’s toys, videos, wooden jigsaws. “You need help.”
Fisk laughed again, that horrible sound. “I’m past help.” He slumped back onto the sofa. “I need to drink—that’s what keeps me from seeing him. That or the gear.” He ran his fingers through his hair and belched. Cowan could see the forearm was scarred with circular marks like burns. The man looked wrecked with exhaustion.
His anger was beginning to dissipate, replaced by a modicum of pity. It seemed like Fisk was existing in his own self-induced hell. Tormenting himself. The guilt must have tipped his mind. That or the booze.
“If I carry on drinking, I know I’ll die. I’ve already seen signs. Liver’s knackered. Be a blessing when it comes.” He motioned with his hand. “Benny from over the way brought me a couple of bottles of absinthe back from his last trip. That’s good stuff, let me tell you. Good stuff.”
“Why do you keep these?” Cowan tapped the side of one of the cardboard boxes. “You should let it go. You’re just torturing yourself.”
Fisk shook his head. “You don’t get it, do you? He brings them.”
“You think Alex brought this stuff?”
“Uh-huh. He leaves me . . . little gifts. From the other side.”
Cowan felt the skin on the back of his neck prickling. He lifted a soft toy out of the box. It was a cloth mouse wearing a gingham shirt—something from Bagpuss? Cowan’s memory faltered. It looked old. Some of the stitching had come loose. One of its eyes looked wonky. As he held the object, a foul stench seemed to emanate from it. An intense feeling of revulsion struck. He tossed the toy back into the box, almost recoiling.
Little gifts. Cowan knew enough to understand the correct word even if Fisk didn’t—apports. Fisk believed the toys were reminders from his dead son. Reminders of what damage he’d done. He had clearly lost his mind. The self-harming was just another symptom of the madness. Cowan supposed guilt could do that.
Fisk was speaking. “Remember that film with Bruce Willis’s wife and the crazy black woman? And him—Lundgren?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Well that’s what it’s like. Twenty-four hours a day. He’s there taunting me, trying to hurt me. Reminding me that he’s angry. At night he sometimes burns my skin.” He rested his head back on the sofa. “And he set fire to my hair once. But it’s no more than I deserve.” His voice seemed stronger now, less slurred. Maybe he was sobering up.
Cowan became aware of the gun’s weight again. He looked around the squalor, considering Fisk’s situation. His physical condition was pathetic. Dishevelled. The mementoes, the cans of booze, the state of his mind. Ending Fisk’s life would be doing him a favour, and that was the last thing he wanted to do.
“Why not kill yourself then? Proper this time though.”
Fisk blinked slowly. “You a religious man?”
Cowan shook his head.
“Neither was I before all this shit.” He swallowed. “But in hospital I was encouraged to find God. So I’m hedging my bets—this might be His test. I need to endure my punishment. Anything else would be to face eternal damnation. And—like I said—my liver’s on its way out anyway.”
Cowan shook his head. “You sick fuck. You committed a wicked act. For that you’ll rot in hell when your time comes.” He fought to keep his composure. “You ruined Rose’s life—and mine. And you took poor Alex. But the judge was right—you’re fucked up in the head. That’s no excuse for what you did, but I think you’re suffering in your own hell.”
He shook his head and left the flat, slamming the door behind him. Almost instantly the crying kid started up again. It really did sound like it was coming from inside Fisk’s flat. The music recommenced straight away.
Cowan made his way back to the lift. Turning back, he glanced into the throat of the corridor. An indistinct shape loitered in the shadows. The singsong tone of a nursery rhyme echoed along the passage, followed by the sound of children’s laughter.
“Hello?” Cowan’s voice was taut. “Who’s there?”
The laughter rang again, this time with a malevolent edge. Brittle.
Cowan turned back to the lift. He flared his nostrils at the panel and shouldered open the door to the stairs. The air was cool. He began his descent. Raindrops on the windows warped his view. Someone was kicking a football in the stairwell far below. A child’s echoing voice recited “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” The noise felt like it was swirling around him. Monochrome colours of the décor matched his headache. He was gasping by the time he reached the ground floor, bursting from the foyer into the quadrangle. It had stopped raining.
He strode back to his car, feeling uncomfortably warm beneath his coat. Shafts of sunlight were fighting to break through the clouds. He uttered silent apologies to Rose as he crossed the playground, reminding himself that Fisk’s suffering justified the broken promise. It made him feel no better.
As he drew near to the car, he clicked his remote control. The alarm squealed its short burst and unlocked the doors. He was desperate to get back to Sheffield. He was tired of this world of graffiti and decay, of litter and filth. He took off his coat and tossed it into the back. The key slid into the ignition and he turned it, firing the engine. And it was just as he was reaching over to fasten his seatbelt that he spotted the toy mouse on the dashboard.
He picked it up carefully and studied it. The faded gingham, the worn seams, the wonky eye—all identical to the one in Fisk’s flat.
Cowan clicked the seatbelt in and released the handbrake.
• • • •
He stopped in a lay-by several miles outside Leeds. A stone bridge spanned the road, under which flowed a deep waterway identified by a wooden sign as the River Aire. Cowan paused for a moment and peered at the brown water as it flowed languidly beneath. The road was deserted. He removed the plastic bag from his pocket and paused for a second before dropping it over the side. The splash was deep and satisfying. For several minutes, he watched the ripples until they died away and the surface returned to its flat, constant motion. Then he walked back to the car.
Spread the word!