An extract from ‘The Stone Gallows’

The Stone GallowsPrologue 1

January 2008

I was going to kill him.

An hour ago, John Coombes – my partner and supposed mentor – had been nothing more than a deeply unlikeable human being. Sixty minutes trapped in an unmarked police car with him had caused me to revise my opinion. He was the anti-Christ, my duty to the human race clear: God wanted me to kill him. I was sure of it.

It’s amazing how quickly people can go from a state of mild irritation to one of homicidal rage. This was the first time the two of us had pulled a surveillance duty together; although I didn’t know it at the time, it was also to be the last.

I even knew how I was going to do it. There was a disposable pen sitting on the dashboard and I was going use it to sign my name on the inside of his skull, jamming it through his eye or up his nose in a gratuitous but undeniably spectacular display of violence.

I was going to kill him because he was making a noise.

Not just a noise. An irritating, repetitive, childish sound. Like nails scratching a blackboard, or an amphetamine-fed Jack Russell given free rein with a squeaky rubber bone. The kind of noise that makes your soul wince in horror and discomfort until the most hideous act of violence seems like the conduct of an utterly reasonable man.

I’m a reasonable man. I swear.

But. . . even reasonable men have limits, and I was long past mine. He’d been doing it for at least ten minutes, using a plastic straw to try and suck the melting ice out of his paper cup, making a disgusting schlurp schurlp sound, and showed absolutely no sign of stopping.

Any detective who has ever worked surveillance would testify that those ten minutes had been an eternity. Hell, it wasn’t as if Coombes had a whiter than white service record. I might even be able to claim that I was performing a public service.

John?’

I made sure that my voice was calm and reasonable. If he sensed just how irritated I was, he’d keep on doing it. Coombes was that type of guy.

Yes, Cameron?’

I indicated the straw. ‘Do you mind?’

He sighed like I was asking him to donate his entire liver to my alcoholic second cousin, before tossing the cup in the back seat. We settled back into miserable silence.

There is only one rule to surveillance duty and it’s mindbogglingly simple: don’t take your eyes off the subject for a second. It doesn’t matter if you have been sitting there for an hour, a week, or even a month, you’re expected to maintain a constant level of focus. In the past, whole investigations have been abandoned because the people involved haven’t taken the job seriously enough. In one memorable incident, a key suspect was lost forever because the two detectives assigned to the case had been in the bookies across the road watching the three fifteen from Newmarket. They lost more than their fifty pounds each way that day, I can tell you.

Of course, none of that mattered to Coombes. He shifted his weight in the passenger seat of our unmarked Mondeo. ‘I need to pee.’

I grunted as I turned and fished the paper cup out of the back seat I showed it to him.

He looked at it, then me. ‘What do you think I am? An animal?’

Yeah, I saw that on David Attenborough. The famous cup-peeing gazelle of the Serengeti.’

We were three hours into a six hour shift. I’d been sensible, not over-eating or drinking. Coombes had munched his way through a quarter pounder with cheese, plus fries, plus a bloody chocolate doughnut. And, of course, nearly a litre of caffeine-laced soft drink. Of course he needed to pee. Coombes was always pissing about. You would think a time-served detective would know better.

But then, Detective John Coombes could hardly be described as the shining light of Strathclyde Police. I’d been his partner for about one month, and it had taken me less than two weeks to work out that he was perhaps not as dedicated as one would expect of a public servant. In his mid-forties, he was soft in the gut and work-ethic, with flabby hands and straw blonde hair that was thinning badly. I was supposed to be learning from him but so far all I’d discovered was the best places in Glasgow to get free food. The city had plenty of restaurants and bars where the subtle wave of a warrant card would net you a courtesy Chicken Fried Rice or pint of Heavy, and Coombes seemed to know them all.

Speaking of which. . . ‘There’s a pub round the corner,’ he said. ‘The Docker’s. We could take a little break.’

I checked my watch. ‘It’s after midnight. They won’t let us in.’

The landlord’s a friend of mine. Besides, it’s only five past. They won’t even have had time to hose the vomit out of the toilets yet.’

Sounds classy.’ I pretended to think about it before shaking my head. ‘Maybe another time.’

Come on. You new fish are all the same.We’ve been watching this bloody guy for two weeks now.He might be dirty, but he’s smart. He’s not going to do anything that we can pin on him. It’s a waste of time. Nobody’s going to know if we sneak off for a quick one.’

I wondered if we would be expected to pay for it, or if it was one of the many places where the landlord owed Coombes a ‘favour’.

I’m not comfortable with the idea.’

His face had a disgusted look on it. ‘Look, Stone, I’m not peeing in a paper cup. All I’m saying is, we’ll sneak away for one pint. . .’ He wagged a finger at me. ‘Just one, mind you, and then we’ll come back. We can sit here in the cold and the damp and smell each other’s body odour and you can hand over to whoever they send to replace us with a clear conscience.’

There was a park less than thirty yards away from where we sat. No lights, no walls, plenty of trees to slip behind. I nodded in its direction. ‘You could jump in there. Take you less than sixty seconds.’

He sulked for about two minutes, crossing and uncrossing his legs. Then he opened the car door. ‘Fuck it. I’m going for a pint. You can sit here on your lonesome.’

Don’t do it, Coombes.’

He laughed. ‘Why? What are you going to do? Report me?’

I took a deep breath. Being a cop is like being part of a big family. Coombes may have been a shifty bastard, but he was our shifty bastard. And I was still very much the new boy. If I made a complaint about him, it would be my word against his, and the repercussions for me could be grave. At the very least, it would isolate me from everybody else. Don’t work with Stone, they would say, he’s a clyping bastard. The worst case scenario was that I would be viewed as a trouble-maker, and probably not be considered for promotion any time in the next thousand years.

I decided to compromise. ‘You got your mobile with you?’

Coombes patted his pocket.

I’ll call if anything happens.’

Good boy.’

The car door slammed and I listened to him whistle as he walked off into the night. ‘Arsehole,’ I whispered, to myself.

© C. David Ingram 2009