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BLOOD FALLS

ONE

They set a trap for him, and it nearly worked. Despite all his precautions, years of living like a hunted animal, he didn’t see it coming.

He was a needle in a haystack. That was what he’d allowed himself to believe. They would never find him, because they didn’t have the organisation, or the dedication. Because they weren’t clever enough.

But he was wrong. What he’d overlooked was that they didn’t need to be particularly clever. All they needed was patience, determination and a little bit of luck. Spend long enough combing through the haystack and eventually that needle was going to tumble into their grasp.

Whether it landed flat, or stabbed them in the process, was another matter ...

* * *

It was the corner that saved him. The corner, the high scaffolding, and his own generous measure of luck.

Five minutes earlier he’d been at ground level, drinking a coffee that the householder had brought out. As he mounted the ladder to get back to work, Ryan had said, ‘Knock off for lunch in ten.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeahhh, why not?’ Even Ryan sounded slightly taken aback by his own generosity: he often worked all day without a break. ‘We’ve been grafting since half-seven.’

Fair point, and Joe spent the next few minutes in pleasant anticipation of a hot pub lasagne and a refreshing pint of lager.

The two men came round the corner from Sion Hill, just twenty or thirty feet away. They were on foot, and the acute angle between the pavement and the top level of the scaffolding meant that Joe wasn’t visible from below. Had they been in a car, or approached from further along the street, they’d have spotted him at once.

And they were talking. Nothing he could distinguish clearly, but Joe tuned into the coarse estuary accents – voices that always put him on guard. He crouched down, choosing that moment to refresh the paint on his brush. One of the men called out: ‘Oy, mate?’

The shout made Joe’s stomach tighten. He stayed low as the men closed in. Heard a tiny metallic clink as someone’s watch or ring made contact with a scaffolding pole.

Joe leaned over, just enough to catch a glimpse of the two men standing beneath him. One of the faces he didn’t recognise at all, but the other was grimly familiar.

It was the face of a man he had killed.

* * *

Twenty to twelve on a cool overcast Tuesday in early October – an autumn of heavy rain, with more expected in the coming days. Ryan felt that this week represented their best opportunity for outside work. So far he’d been right, although all morning the clouds had been massing over the Avon gorge.

Ryan’s practice was to use ladders wherever possible; failing that, a lightweight mobile scaffolding tower. But the property they were renovating was a substantial Georgian town house, three storeys high. Nothing less than fixed scaffolding would suffice.

Unlike most of the other houses in the street, which wore a fine stippled render, this one was clad in a thick pebble-dash. Joe had assumed they’d spray it, but Ryan told him that would be a waste of time.

‘To get the paint into the gaps you have to spray really slowly. Then it starts dripping everywhere, so you keep stopping to mop up. Easier just to use a brush in the first place.’

Easier was a relative concept, Joe soon discovered, for a process that involved prodding the brush into crevices an inch deep, then working it round to ensure that the paint coated the entire surface area.

And there was the mess to contend with: not much less than a spray would have caused. In addition to full-length overalls, Joe was wearing gloves, goggles and a woolly hat. As the brush jabbed at the render it threw back a fine mist of droplets that through the course of the day would coat his body with little dots of plasticised paint.

But right now he had only gratitude for the arduous nature of the task. A smooth render would have had him perched on a ladder, helplessly exposed.

Careful not to make a sound, he eased the goggles off and set them down. Removed his hat and mopped the sweat from his face. Half his attention was on the conversation below; the other half weighing up the options available to him.

The man he didn’t recognise spoke first. ‘We’re looking for this bloke. You seen him anywhere?’

A pause. Joe risked another peek over the edge. The man had grey hair, slicked back and thinning to nothing at the crown. He wore jeans and a battered old brown leather jacket. He was showing Ryan a photo.

Joe couldn’t see it clearly, but he didn’t need to. He knew exactly who they were hunting.

* * *

Ryan sniffed. ‘Nope.’

‘Only he’s supposed to be working round here.’

‘Casual stuff,’ the other man cut in. ‘Cash in hand, probably.’

This was Danny Morton, a slight, twitchy man with narrow shoulders and long bony fingers. Short-cropped brown hair that stuck out at all angles, and a thin face with a pink puckered scar, the size of a pea, in the centre of his left cheek.

‘I steer clear of all that,’ Ryan told him. ‘Not worth the aggro to fiddle it these days. For all I know, you could be Customs and Revenue.’

‘Do I look like the fucking taxman?’ Danny growled.

Ryan ignored the question. ‘Who is he, anyway?’

‘His name’s Joe Clayton,’ the other man said. ‘Sure you haven’t seen him?’

‘He might have changed since this was taken,’ Danny added. ‘Different hairstyle. A few years older.’

‘Still don’t know him. Sorry.’

Joe thought Ryan sounded convincing enough, but he wanted the conversation over. The longer it went on, the more chance that Ryan would slip up.

A shuffling sound as Leather Jacket withdrew the photo and maybe even started to move away, but Joe could sense a lingering tension. He imagined Ryan’s mind processing what he’d been told and understood the young man’s dilemma. There was one question that a person with nothing to hide would be compelled to ask.

‘What d’you want him for, then?’

It was Danny Morton who replied. ‘He murdered my brother.’

TWO

Joe didn’t dare move. Given what Ryan had just heard, even a tiny unconscious glance upwards could give him away.

His options for self-defence were limited, to say the least. Perhaps wait until Danny or his sidekick reached the top of the ladder, then swing a can of paint at them ...

Except that they wouldn’t need to mount an assault on the scaffolding. Joe knew that Danny routinely carried a gun – and he was deranged enough to use it.

That meant flight was the better alternative. Smash a bedroom window, get out through the backyard and across the rear of the neighbouring property. He should gain twenty or thirty seconds’ head start on them: it might just be enough.

He hoped that neither course of action would be necessary. It all depended on Ryan now. Whether he would stay loyal or whether he would crack.

* * *

‘Jesus,’ Ryan said. ‘So he’s on the run?’

‘Four years.’

‘And is he, like, dangerous? You know how the police always say you’re not to approach—’

‘We know he’s round here somewhere, and we want him.’ Danny sounded impatient, as well he might. Ryan’s inquisitive nature had driven Joe mad at times over the past few weeks; right now it was a tactical masterstroke.

‘I’ll keep my eye out,’ Ryan promised. ‘I assume the cops are on the hunt for him as well?’

From Danny, only a grunt. His colleague must have offered a card or a note.

‘You see him, call us on that number. There’ll be a drink in it.’

‘Unless you don’t want cash in hand?’ Danny muttered scornfully.

‘Yeah, no, that’s great. I’m happy to help. I mean, no one wants a murderer on the loose.’

Don’t overdo it, Joe thought. Fortunately Ryan’s interrogators had tired of him and were moving away. The bad news was that they continued along Princess Victoria Street, where the pavement ascended on a gentle but – for Joe – potentially fatal gradient.

He lowered himself down, wincing as the scaffolding boards shifted and groaned on the transoms. Lying flat on his belly, head turned to the side, he felt like a butterfly pinned under glass. He prayed that the toeboard would be high enough to conceal him from view.

Ryan was back at work, whistling furiously as he painted. Joe took that to be a signal of sorts: Stay where you are.

Sure enough, after a couple of minutes he heard Ryan put down his brush and tap on one of the uprights.

‘They’ve gone.’

‘You sure?’

‘Yeah. Do you wanna come down and tell me what the hell is going on?’

* * *

Ryan Whittaker was short on stature but big on character, a successful entrepreneur at twenty-four. As well as the building and decorating business, he was also a key investor in his older sister’s chain of hairdressing salons and had recently set up a website selling, of all things, designer baby clothes and maternity wear.

He’d agreed to employ Joe on a trial basis, carefully monitoring his skill and diligence for several days before pronouncing him acceptable. Contrary to what he’d told Danny Morton, he was perfectly willing to pay cash in hand. The only source of tension had been Joe’s vagueness about his past, but Ryan had accepted that it was information he could do without. He was simply glad to have found someone willing to work as hard as he did himself.

‘And it’s not like you’re all that young, either,’ he’d added with sublime tactlessness.

‘Pretty ancient, compared to you,’ Joe had said.

‘Well, yeah. But you know how to graft, don’t you? Not like lads my age, pissing away their wages and then calling in sick ‘cause they’ve slept till bloody lunchtime. What kind of attitude is that?’

In a gruff military tone, Joe had declared: ‘Bring back national service!’

‘Bring back ...?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’

A slow grin from Ryan. ‘No, I get you. I sound like a miserable old sod, slagging off the youth of today.’

‘They’re not all bad, are they? You aren’t. Your sister isn’t.’

‘I s’pose not,’ Ryan had conceded. ‘Becoming an employer, it changes your view of the world. So bloody frustrating to see people choosing not to do what’s best for them.’ He’d sighed. ‘Though we’re all guilty of that at times, aren’t we? We’re all a bit fucked-up.’

‘Yep, we are,’ Joe had agreed. ‘But trying our best not to be.’

* * *

As soon as his feet hit the ground, Joe pulled off his gloves and started undoing his paint-splattered overalls.

‘I’m sorry. I owe you more of an explanation than I can give you right now.’

‘Is it true you killed that guy’s brother?’

‘There’s more to it than that, but yes.’

‘And you’re wanted by the law?’

‘No. I was a police officer when I did it.’

‘Ahhh.’ Visibly relieved, Ryan’s hand drifted towards his cheek. ‘What’s with his scar?’

‘A screwdriver. That happened when he tried to kill me.’

‘Bloody hell. So how did they track you down?’

‘That’s what I need to find out. Once I’m well away from here.’

Joe stepped out of the overalls but kept his trainers on. Underneath he was wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. He bundled up the overalls and stowed them on the lowest deck of scaffolding, next to their empty coffee cups.

‘Any idea where you’ll—’ Ryan gave a twitch of a smile. ‘No, you can’t tell me, can you?’

‘Best not.’

‘Fair enough. But I’m sorry to see you go.’

As they shook hands, Joe’s gaze was drawn back to the overalls. There was something troubling him. Something he’d missed ...

The coffee cups.

Maybe he’d been lucky, he thought. Maybe they hadn’t noticed the cups at all, or had seen them but had failed to make the connection: that Ryan wasn’t working alone.

‘What’s up?’ Ryan said.

Joe didn’t reply. He was listening. There was a lot of traffic noise from the streets around them, but one engine sounded louder, more urgent than the rest.

He turned, saw a car roaring towards them. It was a beaten-up old Ford Granada: just what he’d expect them to use. Probably legally acquired but unregistered, set to be junked when the assignment was complete.

There were two men inside, their faces still indistinct at this distance. But the driver wore a brown leather jacket.

THREE

The car picked up speed. From the passenger side Danny Morton leaned out of the window, his left arm stretching towards Joe. It didn’t make much sense until Joe realised that there was something in Danny’s hand.

‘Gun!’ Joe shoved Ryan away from him and leapt in the other direction. Both men hit the ground as a shot rang out, the noise a shocking boom in the stillness of the residential street. The bullet struck the front of the house, gouging out a chunk of pebble-dash and spraying them with fragments. The Granada was weaving in the road, the driver flapping his arm at Danny, suggesting a disagreement over tactics.

Even with Morton firing wild, Joe knew that a ricochet could just as be deadly: the lattice of scaffolding poles offered no real protection. He got to his feet.

‘I’ll draw them away,’ he told Ryan, who was lying face down on the pavement and seemed too shocked to respond.

Running for the corner, Joe stayed low, using a row of parked cars for cover. He was a little surprised by Danny’s loss of control. He’d always imagined that the Morton family would prefer to capture him alive. Danny in particular had a grisly aptitude for torture, but his old man, Doug, and even Valerie, his ferocious hard-as-nails mother, were almost as bloodthirsty.

But there was no time to dwell on it. He had to focus on an escape route. Turning into Sion Hill, with the grand Georgian facade of the Avon Gorge hotel directly opposite, Joe sprinted up the hill towards the east tower of the Clifton suspension bridge. A trick of the perspective made the thick supporting chains seem as delicate as a spider’s web.

Perhaps he should try to cross the bridge, he thought, then get hold of a car. Steal one. Hijack one, if he had to. Whatever it took to survive.