THE DYING SQUAD
Winter hated Lincolnshire.
It sprinkled frost on its fields, squatted on the remains of its abandoned crops and draped everything in a sea of compacted fog, almost as if it were embarrassed by the place. The flatness of its Arctic landscape had always made Joe think of a disillusioned god, one who’d swiped the ground clean with the back of his hand, then shrugged his shoulders when tasked with its reconstruction. There was beauty in such bleakness, he supposed, if that was your kick.
It wasn’t his, but that didn’t stop him appreciating the spirit-level-flat horizon, because when you were on a stake–out, a clear line of sight was the partner that never let you down. It didn’t make the beaten-senseless farmhouse opposite any prettier, or the ditch, fifty yards away and cut like a chasm along the side of the road, any more pleasant to hide in. But he wasn’t being paid for pleasant.
Joe shifted on legs that were all needles and pins, ice water pooling around boots that weren’t as waterproof as advertised, cursing the dew and mush that had smeared itself on a raincoat four times above his pay grade, and reviewed the facts.
He was big on facts, Detective Inspector Joe Lazarus. He blamed it on an old cop show he used to watch with his dad; they were hungry for just the facts, ma’am in the Dragnet universe, and although much of what Joe saw of televisual police procedures annoyed him (and don’t get him started on the dime-a-dozen crime books that were spewed out daily), on that score he reckoned they got it right. All there was was facts. Determine those, and the truth followed close behind, cowed and willing.
So, fact one.
There was a county-wide epidemic of teenagers being used to sell drugs in rural towns and cities. These kids were often imported from cities like London – or, in the case of Lincolnshire (the fine county he was currently ditch-hiding in), Nottingham – but just as often they were locals from broke-arse homes, presented with the opportunity to make more money in one week than they would do in a month working the fields, or, if they were really lucky, the arcades.
County lines, that was what the media called the practice. Joe supposed it was more lyrical than child abuse.
Fact two: the recent rampant influx of drugs had pickled the county in addiction and despair, ripping apart Lincolnshire’s locked-in-time-and-all-the-safer-for-it seams and resulting in areas like this, its inhabitants – and buildings – crumbling from pharmaceutically induced neglect and rot. Joe might not have had any great affection for his home – in fact he’d grown up outright despising it – but the point was, it was his home. If he simply stood by and let a ragtag collective from Shottingham – not his favourite term for the city – claim it, what did that say about him?
Nothing good, and he was good. Good at his job precisely because, for him, it wasn’t a job, but a calling. Some of his colleagues mocked him for this (most of his colleagues, if he was honest), but that was fine; he was content to leave them to their cynicism and their office politics and their massaged arrest figures. All he cared about was justice.
His dad’s disapproving face flashed up. He shooed the image away, just in time for fact three.
Fact three was that Joe had fought hard to head up the task force, swerving a considerably more prestigious murder investigation; the county line had to be not only disrupted but cut off for good, and he was the man to do it. The fight-back began with him, right here, right now, in a rain-bloated Lincolnshire ditch.
The gang itself (who went by the name of Pilgrims) were good, and they were disciplined. Their operation turned over hundreds of thousands of pounds each month, with safe houses scattered all across the county, money moving between them quickly and quietly.
Joe had hunted down good before, though – great as well – and when it came down to it, they all fell the same way. Greed, stupidity and addiction had been levelling the playing field since man had first crawled from the swamp, and it was those three anti-virtues that had led him here. A grabby solicitor in Skegness, one of the seaside towns welded on like a barnacle to the east coast, had taken a liking to one of the young Pilgrims he’d been paid to represent. The girl’s drug boss had taken exception to this favouritism, and the solicitor’s fear of reprisals had led him straight to Joe.
In return for his protection – and after putting the fear of God in him – Joe had been granted a look at the inner workings of the gang. Luck, that was what this game was based on. You needed it, and if you were patient enough, you got it.
Was it patience that was stopping him calling this in and raiding this safe house? As he’d lingered in the ditch, time stretching seemingly beyond meaning, there’d been enough comings and goings for him to know it was the nerve centre of the gang, or one of them. A click of the button on his radio and twenty minutes from now it would be over. A pat on the back, another foot on the career ladder, and no more ditch water.
He rubbed his arms, spasms of cold rippling through him.
No, it wasn’t patience. It was something else, some wriggling-in-the-gut instinct that demanded he hold his nerve, because if he did, he would catch not only some fish, but a whale too.
So he’d wait a little longer. It wasn’t like he could get any colder or wetter.
Somewhere a dog barked at something he couldn’t see. Joe ignored it, because there was always a dog barking in places like this, at times like this. The young woman walking down the middle of the road towards the safe house, on the other hand, wasn’t for ignoring.