Cleanskin, p.1Val McDermid
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WHEN A CHILD DIES, everybody hurts – family, friends and strangers alike. When a child is murdered, anger mixes with the pain. The only difference is that more strangers are drawn in. Doctors have to work out how it happened. Police officers have to figure out who is to blame. Reporters swarm all over the case like wasps round jam. Everybody takes it to heart.
That’s how it was when Katie Farrell died. It was clear from the start that the fire that killed her was no accident. The firemen could smell the petrol as soon as they got there. Plus, the fire had started right outside her bedroom door, a place where no petrol should ever have been. The other people in the house that night escaped easily – her mother, her father and the Spanish girl who cooked their meals and took care of Katie when her parents weren’t around. But not Katie. She didn’t stand a chance.
My name is Andy Martin and I am a cop. I heard about Katie Farrell’s death in a phone call that woke me around two in the morning. I don’t normally cover this sort of thing. My beat is serious crime and my team builds cases against serious villains – gangsters, people smugglers, drug dealers, big-time robbers. Scumbags, yes, but not normally the sort of scumbags who burn a nine-year-old girl to death in her own bedroom.
They called me because Katie Farrell wasn’t just any nine-year-old girl. She was the daughter of Jack Farrell, and I was the world expert on Jack Farrell. Whenever his name hit any police computer, a big flag would go up saying, Call Detective Chief Inspector Andy Martin. Farrell had no criminal record, but that didn’t mean he was an innocent man. Farrell’s crew ran just about every dirty racket you could think of: drugs, guns, hookers, porn. You name it, they were into it. They bought and sold human lives like they were bargains on eBay. We’d been after Jack Farrell for years, but we’d never been able to lay a finger on him. He was still what we call a cleanskin – somebody who had no criminal record, meaning he had all the rights and freedoms available to decent citizens. But I knew the truth. And I wanted Jack Farrell so bad I could taste it.
So of course they called me. Because Katie Farrell was dead. Dead in a way that said somebody was out to hit her father where it hurt most.
When I got down to Hampshire, Jack Farrell was standing barefoot outside a house about half the size of Wembley stadium. He was naked apart from boxer shorts and a blanket someone had thrown over his shoulders. He looked like he was the one who had died.
I saw two things that night I had never seen before. I saw a man whose beautiful life had been shattered with one blow. I also saw Jack Farrell’s tattoos.
Others had described them to me – vivid colours, dramatic patterns, the finest examples of the skill of the tattoo artist. A dragon covered his torso, its tail disappearing into the waistband of his boxers, only to re-emerge on his left thigh. Every green scale was cleanly etched. A scarlet tongue of flame licked across the right side of his chest, climbing up to his shoulder. On one arm, I could see a samurai warrior, sword raised as if to attack the dragon. On the other arm, a beautiful woman covered her nakedness with hands and a long mane of red hair. It was a story without words, written on Jack Farrell’s body.
It was also a story that he mostly kept hidden. In all the time I’d been watching Farrell, I’d never seen him in short sleeves. Unlike most villains, who display their tatts as if they were visible proof of how hard they are, Farrell’s body art was kept private. I’d heard it said that he took his shirt off when he was about to kill in cold blood. The word on the street was that Jack Farrell’s tatts were the last thing quite a few bad boys had seen in this world. It was yet another way of making sure he kept the opposition in fear.
But that night, Jack Farrell wouldn’t have scared anybody. The fire had robbed him of more than his Katie. He was a hollow shell, all the fire inside him snuffed out. I tagged along with the cop who was officially in charge when he went to speak to him, and it was like talking to a man who was already gone for good.
We got through the routine questions. Farrell responded like a robot. Then the cop said, ‘Had you noticed anybody hanging around who shouldn’t have been?’
Farrell’s eyes lost their dullness and his body tensed. ‘If I had, I would have dealt with it,’ he snarled.
‘What do you mean, “dealt with it”?’ I asked.
Farrell’s gaze raked me from head to toe. He seemed almost to gather himself together, as if he had just realized Katie’s death might not be the only bad thing that could happen tonight. ‘I would have called the police,’ he said. ‘What do you think I meant?’
I said nothing, holding his hot stare with my eyes. At last, I broke the silence. ‘What about enemies?’ I said. ‘Is there anybody who might have a grudge against you? Somebody you might have provoked?’ I kept my voice calm and steady, acting as if I didn’t have a clue about the sort of life he led.
‘Are you trying to say this is my own fault?’ The robot was gone and a man in pain had stepped out of the shadows. His face twisted with emotion. ‘This isn’t normal. This isn’t what happens when you piss somebody off. This is some nutter that’s done this.’ He turned away, pulling the blanket close as if he’d only just noticed how cold it was. ‘Leave me in peace to grieve for my Katie,’ he said, so quiet I almost didn’t catch it.
He walked away. I went to follow him, but the local cop grabbed my arm. ‘For Christ’s sake,’ he said, looking at me like I was less than human. ‘The man’s just lost his kid.’
I shrugged his hand off. ‘You really have no idea who you’re dealing with, do you? Let me tell you something about Jack Farrell. If he thought killing somebody’s kid was the best way to get their attention, he’d do it without a second thought. The only surprise is that somebody had the balls to do it to him first.’
FOUR HOURS LATER, WE moved in on the local boys. My boss made it clear to their boss that we would run the game. They weren’t happy about it, mostly because they would still be doing all the donkey work while we sat in the shadows and reaped the benefit.
I dished out the tasks at the morning meeting. I sent one team to go and see Farrell’s wife Martina, who was holed up in their Chelsea flat. The Spanish nanny had been taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation, so I sent another team round to talk to her as soon as she was up to it.
Of course, they didn’t have a clue where Jack Farrell had gone to ground. Shortly after I’d spoken to him, a Jeep Cherokee had shown up, driven by a shaven-headed thug I recognized as one of Farrell’s top lads. Farrell had climbed aboard and they’d taken off. I assumed the local cops had demanded to know where they were going. But no. They’d let him swan off God knows where with nothing but his lawyer’s phone number as security.
I wasn’t worried, though. They might not know where Jack Farrell was, but I knew where he’d be. I knew he was a man of regular habits. We’d had a close tail on him a few months back, and his daily routine never altered. It didn’t take many days for us to understand how he’d st
I called over the two detectives from the local squad who looked least stupid. ‘I expect you know by now that Jack Farrell’s a bad lad. Now, I want you to talk to Farrell again,’ I said. ‘Nothing too heavy, just go through last night one more time. But press him a bit harder on why anybody would want to target his lovely little girl.’
They swapped uneasy glances. ‘We don’t know where Farrell is, Mr Martin,’ the younger one said, his neck turning pink in embarrassment.
‘I know that. And I’m not exactly sure where he is right this minute either. But I think I know where we can pick him up. Here’s how it used to go every morning before today. At half past seven, a black BMW four-wheel drive rolls up at the gates of Jack Farrell’s mansion. At the wheel, Francis Riley, known as Fancy. He’s the number three man in Farrell’s squad. In the passenger seat, Danny Chu, Farrell’s number two.
‘They drive up to the house and out pops Farrell in running shorts and vest. Chu gets out of the 4∞4, also in running gear, and takes a suit carrier from the Spanish nanny, who’s lurking in the doorway. He stows the suit carrier in the car, then Chu and Farrell set off across the grounds at a nice steady pace. With me so far?’
The two of them nodded like a pair of puppets.
‘Three miles of open country later, the pair of them jog into the car park of Smithson’s, which I am told is the most select leisure club in Hampshire. That’s where Fancy Riley waits with the suit carrier. The three men go inside together. Chu heads for the steam room while Riley and Farrell swim twenty lengths then spend ten minutes in a very noisy spa pool.
‘Then they sit and have breakfast in the club restaurant. Same table every day. Where they talk about sport, their families and the money markets.’
I knew that because we’d had the table bugged. But you can’t bug a swimming pool or a spa pool. And whatever they might be able to do on the TV, in real life it’s almost impossible to pick up conversation between two men jogging across open country.
A couple of days of shadowing Jack Farrell, and we’d known exactly how his empire ran itself. Chu and Riley reported to Farrell during their morning exercises and Farrell issued his orders at the same time. They never spoke about their illegal businesses in their cars, their offices, their homes or their regular restaurants. Anywhere it was possible to be electronically overheard, Jack Farrell came off like he was Mr Clean. The routine was a strength. But it could also be a weakness.
I smiled at the two rural cops. ‘And that’s where you’re going to find Jack Farrell – in his jogging shorts, in the car park of Smithson’s. Failing that, you’re just going to have to spoil his poolside breakfast, aren’t you?’
They looked a little doubtful. The younger one, a carrot-top with freckles like a bad rash, said, ‘His kid’s just burned to death. You think he’s going to be swimming laps at the health club?’ His voice rose in a squeak at the end of the question.
Detective Sergeant Ben Wilson, my bagman on all our major operations, leaned into the chat. ‘Well, it’s not like he’s going to have to worry who’s doing the school run, now, is it?’
They both recoiled as if they’d been slapped. I gave Ben a hard stare. The low-level locals always hate us for steaming in on their patch. There’s no need to give them more reason for their dislike. ‘Ignore him,’ I said, trying to sound like we were all comrades together. ‘He was brought up by wolves. Yes, I do think he’s going to be at the health club, and here’s why.
‘Whoever did this, they did it so that Jack Farrell would fall. Whether they did it for revenge or to move in on his business, it’s all about cutting him off at the knees. I’ve been watching Farrell for a long time, and I think they’ve got it wrong. Katie’s death isn’t going to make Farrell throw in the towel. It’s going to make him dig his heels in. Not only is he going to stay on top, he’s going to crush anybody he thinks might have had a hand in what happened to his girl. So he’s got orders to issue today. And that, boys, is why he’s going to be at the health club.’ I sent them on their way, positive I was right on the money.
Pride comes before a fall, they say. So I should have been ready for the fact that everything would be tits-up by lunchtime.
THE FIRST TEAM BACK were the ones I’d sent to talk to Martina in the plush white flat with the high ceilings and the river view. I knew as soon as they walked in it hadn’t gone well. Heads down, shoulders hunched, they’d lost all the bounce they’d walked out the door with a few hours before.
They plodded up to the desk I’d taken over. ‘Well?’ I asked, eyebrows raised.
‘No, not well,’ the woman DC said. ‘She’s off her face.’
‘She’s off the planet,’ her partner said. ‘On drugs. Not the kind you take when you go out clubbing on a weekend. More the kind that tame doctors feed you when they want to keep you from thinking about your kid being dead.’
‘The doctor’s got her dosed up to the eyeballs on tranks,’ the woman said. ‘We’re not going to get any sense out of her. Probably not in this lifetime, anyway.’
‘You think the doctor’s under Farrell’s orders?’ I asked. I was interested in how it seemed to people who were out of the loop on Farrell’s track record.
The woman shrugged. ‘You lose a kid like that, you’re going to want to be well out of it. I think the doctor’s giving her what she wants.’
‘Yeah, and when she comes back from her space walk, who knows what she’ll remember,’ her buddy added gloomily.
I had to agree with him. It didn’t look like Martina was going to be much use. In that state, she couldn’t tell us anything useful about who might want to burn her daughter to death or why. Even more importantly, from Farrell’s point of view, she couldn’t tell us where he was or what he was up to.
It got worse when the second team drifted back towards lunchtime. They’d gone out looking keen and sharp, the way young CID lads get when they have something to prove. Now they looked shifty, rather than pissed off like the earlier pair. My heart sank. That’s what you get when you send boys on a man’s errand, I thought to myself. They’ve been blown out.
Turned out, it was worse than that. ‘She’s done a runner,’ the shorter, skinnier one said; Laurel to the other one’s Hardy. Not that there was much to laugh about.
Hardy nodded miserably. ‘Not a Scooby-Doo where she is. The hospital treated her for the effects of the smoke, then discharged her. We had a couple of uniforms waiting to talk to her, but she said she was too upset. She said Farrell had told her to check into a local hotel, so our lads dropped her off at the door. But she never checked in.’ He looked at his shoes. It seemed like he was as impressed with his co-workers as I was.
‘Wonderful,’ I said bitterly. ‘I don’t suppose you checked any other local hotels? Just on the off-chance?’
‘That’s what took us so long,’ the skinny one said. ‘Nobody locally has her registered.’
I sighed and shook my head. ‘OK. We’re probably too late now, but get on to the airports and the airlines. Let’s see if Manuela has already skipped off back to Spain. And if she hasn’t, put out an alert at all points of exit.’ I waved them away and swung round to face Ben Wilson.
‘I’m beginning to wonder if I was right about Farrell sticking to his usual routine,’ I said.
Ben gave his nicotine gum a vigorous chew, a look of disgust on his bulldog face. ‘We’ll find out soon enough,’ he said, nodding towards the door. ‘They’re back. And it looks like they’re empty-handed.’
I swung round in the direction of his gaze. The two lads I’d sent out to bring me Jack Farrell had just come in. There was an empty space between them where Farrell should have been. ‘He never showed, guv,’ the ging
‘I’m not your guv,’ I said sharply. ‘Which I regard as a result, frankly. You’re telling me Jack Farrell hasn’t been near Smithson’s today?’
They both nodded.
‘What about Danny Chu and Fancy Riley? Did they turn up?’ I asked.
The red-haired lad flashed a quick glance at his oppo. A glance that said, Oh, shit. They both shifted from one foot to the other.
‘Never mind,’ I sighed. ‘OK, here’s what I want you to do. Phone Farrell’s lawyer and set up a meeting down here. Tell him we need to take a formal statement from Farrell about the fire. Tell him it needs to be sooner rather than later.’
They slunk off, leaving me with Ben. ‘What do you think?’ I said.
Ben spat his gum into the bin and shrugged. ‘Katie was his only kid. Maybe he really is beside himself with grief.’
I wasn’t won over by the argument. Even less so when the fat lad I’d put on Manuela’s tail came back to me later on.
‘She was on the first flight from Heathrow to Malaga. She was on the ground there three hours ago, but she hasn’t shown up at the family home,’ he said. ‘The Spanish cops checked it out. Her mum and dad only live an hour from the airport. They claim they had no idea she was on her way back to Spain. And they haven’t a clue where she might be holed up.’
Like most English gangsters, Farrell had connections in Spain. That’s probably how he’d got Manuela in the first place. It’s still easy to disappear there. So many tourists, so many short-term workers. I remember once meeting a Spanish cop who said there were some parts of his country where there were no locals any more. Somewhere like that would be the perfect place to stash a young Spanish woman you wanted to stay hidden for a while. For whatever reason.
I looked at Ben. ‘Farrell had enough wits about him to get the nanny out of the picture,’ I said, grim-faced. ‘Still think he’s so upset he’s lost it?’
Cleanskin by Val McDermid / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes