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       Vacuum, p.1

           Bill James
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  Recent Titles by Bill James from Severn House











  THE SIXTH MAN and other stories


  Bill James

  This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

  First world edition published 2011

  in Great Britain and the USA by


  9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.

  Copyright © 2011 by Bill James.

  All rights reserved.

  The moral right of the author has been asserted.

  British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

  James, Bill, 1929-


  1. Harpur, Colin (Fictitious character)–Fiction. 2. Iles,

  Desmond (Fictitious character)–Fiction. 3. Police–Great

  Britain–Fiction. 4. Detective and mystery stories.

  I. Title


  ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-136-1 (epub)

  ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-012-6 (cased)

  ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-512-1 (trade paper)

  Except where actual historical events and characters are being

  described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this

  publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons

  is purely coincidental.

  This ebook produced by

  Palimpsest Book Production Limited,

  Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.


  Following that dreadful business when his wife and son were shot dead in the Jaguar, Mansel Shale seemed to decide on very deep changes to his own life. Evidently searching for consolation and some comfort, Shale turned to the church. Apparently, he became a regular at services and made donations beyond just the collection plate. There was talk of an endowment for a stained-glass window. Shale had a very active interest in art.

  Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur understood well enough how this swing to the spiritual could happen. Plenty of others before Manse had done the same when floored by grief. The possibly unique point about Shale, though, was that until this development he’d been chairman, hands-on managing director, and chief executive officer of a booming, comprehensively stocked, brilliantly profitable, recreational firm, offering its quality-guaranteed products across the entire traditional range, from Ecstasy to H. Estimates put his earnings at around £600,000–£700,000 a year, naturally untaxed, and rising very sharply in the recession.

  People had less money, yes. As a result, many prioritized their spending more ruthlessly than before, went with absolute, steely dedication for the essentials. That is, they lashed out generously on stuff which would for a while blur the crisis pain and complement their Jobseeker’s Allowance, although, of course, it ate into their Jobseeker’s Allowance, because prices of the commodities stayed high on account of this increased demand.

  Most people and most of the media thought the killings of Naomi and Laurent Shale were an error and that the real target had been Manse himself. He normally drove the Jaguar on those little routine trips, and would undoubtedly have business chums who wanted him slaughtered. It appeared someone had laid on an ambush that went wrong, possibly hiring a novice gunman. Whether or not such speculation made sense, suddenly now, Manse, ravaged by sorrow and regret, almost totally abandoned that sphere of busy commerce, as no longer morally fit for him or proper.

  Of course, he might have gone either way. Some, assaulted by a tragedy of such appalling severity, would ask how God could allow it and resolve to have nothing more to do with Him. Others saw terrible events as a reminder that seeming success in the banal and basically worthless areas of life were only that – banal and worthless. They began to seek an alternative. This was Mansel’s response.

  He did keep the company chairmanship of his complex, but delegated all detailed running to a previous chief assistant who, Harpur’s tipsters agreed, was at present definitely more or less completely clean, with a hale nasal septum and terrific dealership skills: one testimonial said he could sell pussy to a pimp. But crucially the informants also agreed he lacked command experience at rave and street level, and occasionally hallucinated about the Spanish Civil War of the mid 1930s. Some fragility was apparent in him, even conspicuous. The uncertainty sprouting from this could encourage others on the patch, or from elsewhere, to try a trade grab. The new man might look a pusher pushover, and there were plenty ready to have a go at pushing the pushover over and acquiring a rich firm.

  Equilibrium had been gravely disturbed. Harpur would need to handle the fresh situation, whatever its shape and greed-powered armament. He saw the possibility of protracted, warring viciousness, conceivably a Yardie incursion. And he knew that, a rung above him, Desmond Iles, Assistant Chief Constable (Operations), thought the same.

  Harpur considered that one of the most moving, temperate and surprising things about Iles was he did not altogether loathe and despise religion. In fact, he occasionally showed empathy and even a kind of hallowed enthusiasm towards the mystical. This appeared so now, in Mansel’s case. Generally, Iles wouldn’t have much to do with empathy or hallowed enthusiasm, except as a response to his slim-cut trouser legs and his profile, from either side. (‘It would be coquettish in me to prefer one to the other,’ Iles sometimes stated, and Harpur considered the case could certainly be argued.)

  Yet, despite this usual prevailing focus on himself, Iles would now and then fabricate something damn close to authentic respect for others’ faith and beliefs, totally regardless of what the faith and beliefs were: ‘The complete fucking interdenominational samples book, Col,’ as the ACC had once described his helpful come-one-come-all attitude in the theology compartment. He was from a Protestant Northern Irish family, but could put that aside. ‘Am I going to stand between a man and his God, or, similarly, woman?’ Iles said. It was the kind of question he liked – no question at all: an announcement, not requiring a damned awkward, presumptuous opinion from anyone else, thanks very much, because the only approved reply lay built-in to the tone. Although Iles possessed few tones, he screwed his money’s worth from the ones he had.

  But, of course, what would worry him was that Mansel’s abrupt, permanent and very nearly wholesale switch to the sacred, plus transfer of the corporate management to an imperfectly rehabbed hack underling, could mean weakness; could mean, in fact, a depressingly large and perilous hole in the local mercantile power structure. Iles had helped build that structure, cherished it. ‘I see myself as very like Nature itself, Col,’ the ACC had said last week.

  ‘I’ve heard several people state this soon after meeting you, often breathlessly, sir. Phrases such as: “That Mr Iles, though! Now, what is it he reminds me of? What? What? Damn it, what? Oh, I know – of course, of course: Nature!” It’s not always unfavourable, I think.’

  ‘Which people, Harpur?’

  ‘Oh, yes, several.’

  ‘Which aspects of Nature did they list as being apparent in myself?’

  ‘“Nature” covers quite a variety, si
r. That’s one of its most famed features. Look almost anywhere and you’ll find some aspect, or aspects, of Nature – larches, hillocks, and, indeed, outright hills, floods, zebras, moss, deltas, deserts, hermit crabs, west winds.’

  ‘In what connection, as concerning myself, did they mean it?’

  ‘These were people entitled to hold an opinion,’ Harpur replied. ‘British through and through, and unquestionably schooled in the fundamentals.’

  Often Iles did self-scrutiny. Although others scrutinized him, he preferred his own. ‘Col,’ he said, ‘I resemble Nature in that I abhor a vacuum. This is a well-known phrase – “Nature abhors a vacuum” – though probably not well known by you. Abhorrings wouldn’t be featured in your vocab and ambit. You’re glued to the Detective Chief Superintendent perch and don’t have to fret about wider matters. But, look, Harpur, you unquestionably have your passable qualities, extremely valid within their limits, yes, within those limits. You are content. Myself, I have to quest intellectually – some would say recklessly, arrogantly, restlessly roam – in a search for mental satisfaction. That’s how I am. My psychological brand. Also, however, this brings troublesome, unsparing, ruthlessly thorough insights, and I see that Shale, in his distress, has unfortunately donated us a prime, sodding vacuum.’

  ‘Well, not exactly, sir. There has been a neat, well-schemed passing of certain powers.’

  ‘To a nobody, Col.’

  ‘To an established aide.’

  ‘Established enough to be kept held down at number two until now. That is, Col, until Manse’s brain and judgement had been knocked numb by tragedy and sadness, inevitably affecting his powers of choice. Haste, also, might have been involved.’

  ‘Manse could have been grooming him for a long while. I’ve heard he didn’t want his son in the business.’

  ‘But please don’t think I fail to see the link, Harpur,’ Iles replied.

  ‘Link? With what?’


  ‘In which respect, sir?’

  ‘Perhaps I, too, will never in normal circumstances climb above the second- or third-in-command spot, the Assistant Chief spot.’ As was usual when he spoke his rank, he lingered on the ‘s’ sounds in Assistant, like a snake hiss, to suggest enforced subservience, subordination, servility and contempt for the virulently poxed conspiracy holding him back. This was another in his limited range of tones. ‘Do I, too, need some extraordinary change to the context before I can move higher? Or am I a congenital sidekick, Harpur?’ Here, too, the ‘s’ of sidekick fondled its despised s-ness.

  ‘That is quite a bit of phrasing, sir. Not many could come up with such a combination. Almost a tongue-twister. It would definitely have stayed in my head if I’d heard folk call you a congenital sidekick.’

  ‘Which folk?’


  ‘Which folk have you failed to hear calling me a congenital sidekick?’

  ‘Things might continue as you want, even without Manse fully involved, sir,’ Harpur replied. But he could follow the ACC’s logic. This went its own simple, mighty Ilesian way, like a straight section of the Ganges in spate – speaking of Nature. He thought attempts at drugs prohibition through the law a vastly dangerous, self-defeating, blatant farce, and had for years determinedly allowed two separate, harmonious trafficking operations to function in this city: one Shale’s; the other headed by Ralph W. Ember, noted environmentalist, with special concerns about urban pollution, which he raised in letters to the Press.

  A major proviso to Iles’s grand, permissive OK existed though. This pair had to deliver peace on the streets and preserve it: no turf fights, no drive-by salvoes to hail the New Year and/or mark the Queen’s official birthday, no domestic torchings, no body-part severances or desocketed eyes. Desocketed eyes really riled Iles. ‘Desocketed eyes get up my nose,’ he’d told Harpur a while ago. They could have no place in policy. The mind of Iles often preoccupied itself with policy. He would quote an article from a very meaty London journal, The Economist. Harpur had it by heart after so many repetitions, though that didn’t mean he agreed: ‘There is no correlation between the harshness of drugs laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer.’ Iles would say: ‘Col, criminalize equals gangsterize. Only the market then controls price and distribution. Illegal syndicates maul and disembowel one another to get this control and the huge earnings that come with it – maul, disembowel, kill, maim, torture, terrorize. This is an industry producing hundreds of billions a year, Harpur. I half laugh, half mourn, when I remember all the worthy, dim efforts over the decades to achieve a “drugs-free” world. Whoever first mouthed that cheery booster must have been mainlining something prime and brain shattering. Instead, Harpur, we have a thinker as eminent as Professor Ian Gilmore, past president of the Royal College of Physicians, saying drugs should be legalized. Likewise the chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales, Nicholas Green QC. The British Medical Journal states prohibiting drugs has been “counterproductive”. Attempts at disruption of the trade and enforcement of anti-drugs laws are not working, a piece in The Times says. These are good, intelligent sources and were bound to catch up on my thinking, bless them.’

  Iles maintained that possibly the greatest police objective after ‘stuff the Home Office’ was ‘no blood on the pavement’. Throughout his domain, including drugs-pushing spots, he wanted a situation where people could walk unhurriedly and relaxed, especially younger women with brilliant arses. He, Ralph W. Ember and Manse had achieved these conditions for most of the time. Well, at least, for some of the time: plainly, not for Shale’s wife and son. And there’d been other deaths. But, together, Manse and Ralph were strong enough to provide a reasonable degree of tranquillity under the Assistant Chief’s conditional, constructive supervision. The agreement had never been explicit. Iles despised explicitness, unless, of course, he wanted something explicit. But the understanding worked. Now, with Shale’s departure, Iles clearly sensed impending breakdown of the system; his careful, creative work ruined; its precise, frail, blessed balance vilely threatened. Blitzing up the Jag? A sort of blasphemy. Would the new managing director and CEO of Shale’s outfit be willing to, and able to, maintain that violence-free, decently eye-socketed townscape demanded by the ACC? Would Ember agree to work with this jumped-up new boy? Also, could the amended alliance remain strong enough to smother machine pistol trouble from outside gangs trying to invade and capture some, or all, of the nicely hooked, lavish, Ember-Shale customer-base?

  ‘Manse can’t run that kind of pushing operation in his new role, sir,’ Harpur had said. ‘It wouldn’t harmonize. The apostle James in the Bible states faith without works is dead, and probably means good works, not flogging skunk.’

  ‘I direct no blame at Shale, not a fragment. Poor, desolate, endlessly suffering Manse. His present needs have to be paramount. Our requirements trail his. Tolerance, Col.’ They were in Harpur’s room at headquarters; Desmond Iles, wearing uniform, had called in on his way to some lunchtime civic function where he might be able to give offence. He looked snotty, brilliantly smart, would-be wholesome, evasive, utterly dandruff-clear: he looked an Assistant Chief. ‘Tolerance is a quality I prize above all, except wise hate,’ he said. ‘In some quarters I’m known as “Forbearance Des”.’

  ‘Is that right?’

  ‘Why shouldn’t it be right, you fucker?’

  ‘These phrases!’

  ‘Will it last?’

  ‘What, sir?’

  ‘Manse Shale’s “born again” experience.’

  ‘Back to the Bible – St Paul,’ Harpur replied.

  ‘What about him?’

  ‘In his case it went on and on, after that moment on the road to Damascus. Many an Epistle. Two each for the Corinthians, Thessalonians and Timothy.’

  Iles said: ‘He just wanted to bulk out the New Testament, like the long story Joyce put on the end of Dubliners to make a fu
ll-scale book of it.’

  ‘That Joyce—’

  ‘And if you say, “That Joyce – she was always a fly one,” I’ll kill you,’ Iles replied.

  In the afternoon, Harpur decided to go down to Sandicott Terrace again, where the school-run shooting had happened. It would be his fifth trip there. Of the five, his later visits didn’t have much to do with detection. There weren’t any new discoveries to be made. But he’d fallen into a kind of dim ritual. It was as if he wanted to reassure himself that everything there was OK now: no further appalling incidents like those morning murders – the two people dead or dying in the Jag; the girl cowering blood-covered next to her brother’s body in the back and having to be lifted out by Harpur; the demolished, low, front garden wall of a house where the car, its driver no longer a driver, got up on to the pavement at next to no speed and gave the brickwork a minor nudge . . . not enough to prompt the air bags, but sufficient to bring some destruction and stop the wheels. The wall had been repaired now.

  Sandicott Terrace was a section of middling or upper suburbia, and Harpur considered it only right that a proper appearance should be quickly restored, at public expense. On the whole, he admired suburbia. It tended to be tidy. It shouldn’t be subjected to turf-battle knocks. Just after the shooting, the elderly couple who lived in the property had come out on to their front lawn and spoken to Iles and Harpur. They’d rushed separately to the scene. The man said apologetically, but not apologetically enough, that he’d heard the police had lost control of the streets. His wife remarked it was as if some evil force from another way of life had taken over. Harpur recalled verbatim a few of her words: ‘This is not civilization as we used to know it.’ And he recalled, too, how badly that had shaken Iles. When he and Harpur were alone a bit later, the ACC said, yes, maybe some widespread evil force was destroying civilization and its little, sheltering walls. Harpur gave him a bit of rejoinder-bark then: ‘We’re a police force. We’re here to shelter them,’ he said. ‘We haven’t been fucking flattened, sir.’

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