Exclusive Extract from The Dark Confides by Steven Maxwell
They came for him in the night. He was sleeping off a gutful of whisky in the corner of a run-down pub in Liverpool when he heard his name spoken. His real name. It rang down the years and past lives echoed through his body, cycling and recycling. Men asking for him. Their voices coming from another life. He jerked with foetal twitches as some painful memory dressed as a dream pulled him under, a dream set in a room of blood red dark like a chamber of the heart. That hallucinatory domain where the laws of physics freewheeled, where the dead got up and walked, where Operation Flowstone ran on for ever.
A voice in the real world said, ‘Is it him?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t tell with the bandage. Sean Alcott?’
A hand on his shoulder rattled him from his stupor. One bruised and rheumy eye opened and then the other. Gauze taped across his bust nose. Broken hand entombed in a filthy grey cast. Across his sunken face lay a shadow of greasy stubble. Two men stood overhead looking down at him.
‘Are you Sean Alcott? PC Sean Alcott?’
‘No, I’m . . . I mean yeah. Yeah. That’s me.’
‘What, you forget your own name?’
He tried to stand and fell back down. He sat there breathing through his mouth, sweating through his shirt. His broken nose, wadded with jellied blood and mucus, throbbed with each slack heartbeat. He looked up at the two men, both in hoodies, jeans and trainers, one wearing a baseball cap.
‘ID,’ he said.
They looked at each other.
‘You’re not as invisible as you think,’ he said. ‘ID or fuck off.’
They laughed at his gall and showed him their warrant cards.
‘Can you stand?’
He wiped drool from his chin. ‘My hand’s fucked, not my legs.’
‘And your nose.’
‘What time is it?’
‘It’s late. Let’s go.’
He blinked at them.
The plain clothes cops led him out into the still heat of that late summer night. The air close, breathless. A couple of lads from the bar stood smoking in the doorway, carcinogenic thought bubbles hanging about their shaved heads. Light from the pubs windows spilled across the unmarked Insignia. Even hungover he memorised its plates in a quick and practised glance. An evangelist’s hand on his head eased him into the dark of the backseat. What demons would be banished tonight?
He fumbled with his free hand and finally got it. The souped-up engine came alive and the pub slid out of the window frame. The night began to blur and then streak until only his pale reflection haunted the glass. He lay his broken hand in his lap and tipped back his head against the headrest.
The only sign of movement came from lights streaming across the glass and through the cabin, scattering shadows in every direction. He grew cold in the air-conditioned dark and his sweat was drying tacky, gooseflesh running over him, skin suddenly too tight, as if he shared it with another. He needed a smoke. He took a crushed pack of cigarettes from his jeans and started to light one.
‘Can’t smoke in here.’
‘Come on, mate. I signed my divorce papers today.’
‘We’re nearly there.’
Moths veered in the headlights like marine snow. As if they were voyaging across the sea floor. A cold and starless void domed over the horizon and the car fell into a greater silence. Even the radio ceased as if they’d passed into some dead zone in which electromagnetic waves could not travel. Untold miles piled up behind them.
‘Here we go.’
On the edge of a town centre, they pulled into a small car park surrounded by iron railings crowned in rusty loops of razor wire. The ground was broken up concrete, nettles and weeds sprouting at the edges, windrows of slimy rotten leaves and rubbish blown into corners. He guessed he was somewhere in Whiston or Rainhill, maybe even St Helens. He hadn’t really been capable of paying attention because of the amount of ale he’d drunk, so much that when he shut his eyes the dark spun. They parked beside a white Mercedes C-Class, the only other vehicle in there. Alcott looked at the car, its dark windows awash with street-light. He couldn’t see its occupants.
Alcott got out and shut the door and the Insignia drove off. The passenger window of the Mercedes went down a few inches.
From inside the car a male voice said, ‘Get in.’
He stood there a moment, looking about, trying to get his bearings. No use, he was lost. He opened the door and got in. Johnny Cash playing low on the surround sound. The driver was young, about thirty, and good-looking despite the purple port-wine stain that deranged half his face and ran down his neck behind his shirt collar. He spoke without accent.
‘PC Alcott, I’ve read a lot about you.’ He smiled and held out his hand. ‘Inspector Aiden Erskin.’
Alcott looked at the hand a moment before shaking it. Erskin’s grip was cold and feeble. He started the engine and said, ‘Okay. Let’s go.’
‘It’s not far.’
Erskin locked the doors. ‘The safe house.’
They drove for fifteen minutes. Neither spoke. Then the headlights swept across a row of shuttered shops daubed in graffiti that lay set back under a portico. Brutalist concrete apartments overhanging the dingy shopping parade reared into the night, propped on columns that kept the entire structure from collapsing under its own morbid weight. A scattering of window lights above in the broken-down apartments. Most of the shops had folded years ago and all that was left was a Turkish takeaway, a newsagent, a Citizens Advice, and a bookies with a mobility scooter upended outside.
The Mercedes bumped up on the pavement beside a column and Erskin got out. He opened Alcott’s door and started helping him out when Alcott brushed him away, saying he could manage. He followed Erskin towards a fire-gutted butcher’s shop facing traffic lights on the corner of the curved row. As if an impish ghost floated at the controls, the traffic lights kept changing for no one. A quad bike thundered past ridden by two teenage lads wearing hoods. The first-floor window over the butcher’s shop glowed a sick yellow through the blinds and behind the blinds stood a figure. It saw the approaching men and receded from the window as if being sucked backward.
Erskin pressed the intercom and the dented metal door opened with a mechanical thunk. He pushed open the door and Alcott looked inside. A steep staircase skinned in a dark carpet worn down to its mesh. Damp overcast walls reticular with cracks that reached to a high ceiling. He stepped inside and Erskin followed him, shutting the door behind them.
Silence. Smell of old cigarette smoke and earthy rot. A shadeless bulb burning high overhead at the top of the stairs. Erskine led the way and Alcott followed, holding on to the thickly painted handrail to pull himself up the creaky steps in the dim nightmare light. A single doorway stood at the top of the stairs, already open, and Erskin went through without pause. Alcott stopped outside on the stairhead and listened. A chair scraping on floorboards, a cup settling on a saucer, a woman’s voice talking quietly. Erskin reappeared in the doorway, eyebrows raised.
Alcott went in. The room was large and square with a kitchenette. A stack of radio equipment and monitors lined the back wall. An oscillating pedestal fan, dusty blades stirring the muggy air. Filthy cream wallpaper and raw floorboards. A tall corner lamp casting a pool of stretched oval light up to the high ceiling. In the middle of the room stood a cheap laminate table with four mismatched chairs.
Erskin pulled out a chair and Alcott sat at the table facing another man sitting behind a laptop. He was about fifty with thick grey presidential hair and the yellowed pallor of a heavy smoker. On a two-seater couch pushed against a wall sat a forty-something woman with her legs crossed holding a tablet. Pale skin, long straight black hair, a black well-fitted pantsuit, red heels. Erskin pulled up a chair and sat down at the table.
‘This is Assistant Chief Constable Mervyn Waters,’ Erskin said.
‘Get him a coffee,’ Waters said. ‘He looks like he’s going to blackout. Are you going to blackout?’
‘I don’t think so.’
Erskin went to the kitchenette and switched on the kettle.
‘Have we met?’ Waters said.
‘You still live alone.’
Alcott gazed starkly at Waters as if he were blind. The kettle began to roar. The woman watched Alcott and then typed on the tablet.
‘Your report here,’ Waters said. ‘Heavy stuff.’
‘You asked for it.’
Waters smiled over the laptop. A wigged skull in the monitor light. ‘Yes we did. Yes we did. It seemed you appreciated your targets’ company more than the company of your co-workers.’
‘Despite the questioning tone, that wasn’t a question.’
Waters looked Alcott over. ‘Been fighting walls again?’
Alcott protectively hid the surgical cast with his other hand.
‘Where’s that coffee?’ Waters leaned back and watched Erskin pour water into a mug. Erskin set down the mug before Alcott on the table amid a series of overlapping coffee rings.
‘Eight months ago you sent us a letter expressing your desire to get back into the field.’ Waters held up what appeared to be the original letter. Alcott was only as stunned as a bellyful of whisky allowed. ‘And despite your threatening tone, trying to play the old I’ll-go-to-the-press card, we’ve—’
‘I was promising it.’
‘I said I was promising it.’
‘Then why didn’t you? Why haven’t you?’
‘Things have been . . . I changed my mind. I’ve put all that behind me.’
‘Have you seen them since, your old friends?’
‘No. Of course not.’
‘Of course not. You went to the activist’s funeral, correct?’
Alcott took Waters apart with his eyes. ‘The activist? She had a name. I stood nearby, what the fuck was I supposed to do?’ He paused. ‘Listen, Flowstone wasn’t all my fault. If you’d just let me arrange—’
‘We’re not here to dredge up Flowstone. That operation has been sealed in concrete and buried deep. I hope you’ve done the same with your . . . recollections.’
Alcott cleared his throat and repositioned himself on the chair. ‘I have.’
Waters looked at Erskin, who looked at the woman, who looked at Alcott. He shut the laptop and sighed.
‘Right, enough foreplay. You ready for a job?’
Alcott looked between the three figures. ‘What kind of job?’
‘Have you heard of Sergeant Quinlan Carney?’ Erskin said.
Waters handed the laptop to Erskin. Erskin clicked some buttons and showed Alcott the screen. He looked at a folder labelled ‘Rainbird’ that contained numerous videos, photos and text documents. In a separate window was a photo of a young uniformed officer. Lean, serious face under the peaked cap. Hot amber eyes. Like marbles of fire. Sergeant Quinlan Carney.
‘Carney was police for sixteen years,’ Waters said. ‘Nine of those undercover. An exceptional officer, exemplary record, recipient of the QPM, a giant over seven feet tall, and now a complete embarrassment to the force. He went dark in the middle of an operation and with his unique insider knowledge, he began coke trafficking with the Mexicans and the South Americans. Deals worth millions, hundreds of millions.’
Erskin said, ‘Some people believe he wasn’t police turned crook, but crook turned police in order to become a more well-connected and well-informed crook. A long-term plan.’
‘Over the last five years or so, with the supersaturation of the drug industry, he’s begun stealing oil,’ Waters said. ‘Or more specifically, stealing and transporting oil to independent oil groups.’
‘Stealing from where?’ Alcott said.
‘The Niger Delta.’
‘He used to pay kids in rowboats to break into pipelines, now we’re getting reports he’s hiring local guerrillas and pirates and training them up with private military firms.’
‘How much does he steal?’
‘Estimates vary but let’s assume anything up to a hundred thousand barrels a day siphoned straight from the trunklines. Then take into account the crude bunkered from tank farms, export terminals, refinery storage tanks, jetties, ports, wellheads and that figure could go even higher.’
‘Where’s he selling?’
‘Mostly the Balkans, but any rogue oil company big enough to buy but small enough to buy unnoticed. It involves commodity traders and bankers, oilmen, politicians, supranational criminals—an entire system of people.’
Erskin said, ‘You’ll go into one of Carney’s units run by—’
‘Criminal enclaves with their fingers in every pie. Guns, drugs, gambling, loansharking, extortion, protection rackets, cargo theft, human trafficking, prostitution, organ trading. You name it. He has dozens of them working for him across the globe. The units themselves never meet him or each other. He keeps them in competition, each unit working in isolation. Maybe it’s some form of game theory, complexity theory. We don’t know. Most probably have no idea they’re even working for him. He only deals with them through his lords.’
Alcott arched his eyebrows.
‘Oh yeah.’ Erskin smiled. ‘He uses feudal system hierarchy. He’s king, obviously. King Carney. Below him are his lords who swear fealty to him. We’re certain of only five in Europe—Rattigan, Crowley, Søren, Gaspar, and Zampanò. They’re pretty elusive. And below the lords are the knights who control the units. So you’ll go into one of his units as a serf, one controlled by Aileen Molloy.’
‘I’ve never heard of her.’
‘That’s why she’s a knight. Or a dame. Whatever.’ Erskin clicked on the laptop and read aloud from the screen. ‘Aileen Molloy, widow to Marcus Molloy, murdered. Mother to Christopher Molloy, murdered. Mother to Anton and Wren Molloy, twins, very much alive. She uses Anton as mouth for the debt-collecting side of things. He usually brings with him some muscle for the heavy lifting, but he’s been known to be a bit creative with the debtors himself when the fancy takes him. Sadistic fucker likes hammers. And on the other hand, we have Wren. She’s a bit of a mystery to us. University educated. She has a BA in History of Art and an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. She’s currently working at the Manchester Art Gallery. Apparently she likes to make her own money and keep her hands clean.’
‘Is it a ruse, her not taking part in the business?’
‘On the surface, no, but who knows what’s going on beneath?’
‘You’ll go through the unit to get to Carney,’ Waters said. ‘By any means.’
By any means. It’d been a while since he’d heard that.
‘Why go into a unit at all?’ he said. ‘Why not send me directly to him?’
‘Because no one knows where he is,’ Erskin said. ‘Just rumours. Juárez, Caracas, Mogadishu, Kabul. So no, we can’t go at him straight on, we have to hit him sideways. Honestly though, we’re not really that interested in the Molloys, they’re just a means to an end. We need to know about Carney. His movements, his contacts. We need to know if he’s a national threat. We need tip-offs about impending deals and so on.’ He turned in his chair and held out his hand to the woman. ‘This is Sergeant Margot Ward. She’ll be your handler.’
Alcott looked across the room at her.
She looked back impassive.
‘What about my legend?’ he said.
‘We were thinking small-time weed-dealer. You’ve shifted some gear from Turkey, made a few quid here and there, done a year or two inside, and now you’re out looking for work. You and Margot can work out the finer details.’
Before Alcott could say anything else, Waters spoke. There was something oddly emotional in his tone, a seething passion, his voice on the verge of coming apart.
‘There have always been Carneys and there will always be Carneys, we accept that, but one thing we can’t accept is a Carney who used to be us. Of course we’d like him arrested and brought to justice, but they’d never let that happen. This is an alternative course of action. You won’t be collecting evidence for trial or called to bear witness, nothing like that. We need to know what he’s planning and who with. You’ll be collecting intelligence and getting it back to Margot. And should the opportunity arise and you meet the man . . . stop him.’
Silence chilled the room. Alcott considered asking what he meant by this, but what was the point? He already knew. This was the kind of job for those down there among the bottom-feeders scuttling in the silent dark.
‘Why am I getting the impression this isn’t just another operation for you?’ Alcott said.
Waters looked at the floor, idly smoothing his hair with the flat of his hand, seeing something down there in the floorboards. ‘I was Quinlan’s handler on all of his undercover operations.’ He looked up at Alcott. ‘And I was his friend.’
Alcott looked at Erskin and Margot but they couldn’t hold his gaze.
‘This is last time you’ll see or hear from Erskin and me.’ Waters had recovered some composure. ‘Something goes wrong, your cover’s blown, you’re on your own. We offer no shelter once you step into the storm. We will deny everything and turn our backs on you.’ He glanced at Margot, who brushed her hair behind her ear and looked down. ‘This operation isn’t . . . real.’
Alcott sat there, taking everything in, and then rose and waded through the curdling heat to the window. He wiped his forearm across his sweaty brow. A hangover was kicking in. Brain pulsing hotly, tongue thick with thirst. He parted the blinds and looked out. An old payphone shed a flickering light and in the light stood a stray dog lapping at a dark rill of gutter water. Traffic lights changed for no one. The starless roof of the night curved on for ever but contained nothing, an empty universe. A memory struck of crying alone in the dark. Never again. Never again.
He went with Margot on the Carrion Run for the second time in his life, scavenging the identity of yet another dead child. They chose a child whose middle name was the same as Alcott’s forename to obfuscate potential meddling. He kept his forename owing to the possibility of recognition. If he was recognised on the street while with a target and he’d assumed a false forename, the person would call him by his real forename and his cover would be blown. This way was safer. Had the child whose identity he’d hijacked survived meningitis at the age of two, today he would have been thirty-five years old, only twelve days younger than the man who’d reaped his identity. In another life they may have been friends or they may have been enemies. Neither of which mattered. What mattered was that the dead boy’s name was David Sean Bale.
Extracted from The Dark Confides by Steven Maxwell. Available to download from Kindle, Google Play, Kobo, Nook, iTunes and Overdrive.