This is my third novel – the edit and proof read were completed in August 2017. This is the draft back cover blurb:
When Martin Bennett, the backroom brains in a regeneration company charged with bringing back Merseyside’s former prosperity, sees an ex-friend murdered on a hospital escalator and discovers that the body was too hastily cremated, he feels compelled to investigate.
In order to discover the truth about the murder, he must navigate the Merseyside underworld peopled by bent solicitors and coppers, corrupt politicians and violent thugs. He forms an alliance with the mayor’s right hand woman, who is out of favour with her corrupt boss, and uncovers not only the surprising story behind the murder but also a conspiracy to carve up Merseyside’s green belt.
The journey will not be without risk. For both of them.
And this is the first chapter:
Martin Bennett turned a corner and the hospital came into view. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath. His mouth felt dry and sweat ran down his cheeks. The grey concrete used in the Sixties to construct the monstrosity of a building looked like the end result of some poisonous industrial process. It reminded him of the dumped slag that used to form mountains and cliffs down by the river at Widnes.
He slung his satchel around his back and walked on past a huge hoarding showing the proposed new hospital. The blue sky in the artist’s sketch matched the cloudless sky above. A red strip about two feet wide stretched across the main pedestrian access. On it in big white letters: No smoking beyond this point. Outside the entrance, a crowd of smokers, some in hospital gowns and carrying drips, puffed away. He pushed through the crowd and went in. His hands trembled.
Inside, he followed endless corridors. Fluorescent lights overhead, blue lino underfoot, pine-veneered doors leading off. Messages on the lino. Combinations of the words Commitment, Compassion, Communication, Care.
He got a surprise when he reached the waiting room for the cardiac clinic. He’d expected the patients to be overweight and unhealthy, but everyone looked average. Like him.
An old man, completely bald and looking more like a skeleton than a living person, sat slumped in a wheelchair. He seemed to be asleep but muttered quietly to himself. Martin recalled reading George Orwell’s essay ‘How the Poor Die’ one sunny afternoon in the Park Lane flat. Hospitals under the British National Health Service were much nicer places now compared to French ones in the Twenties, but even so, a fear of hospitals persisted in the subconscious. He’d not read the essay for years, but the passage in which the old Frenchman cries out ‘Je Pisse!’ just before he expires in agony in a crowded, squalid ward felt very real to him at this moment.
The tests took most of the morning. Blood pressure. Scans. Leads stuck to his body and connected to a computer. Finally, a nurse laid him on his back and placed a metal contraption over his head and face—like Hannibal Lector’s in the horror film—and he slid into a machine with background noises like the grinding of a broken gearbox on an old car. The nurse told him to tap on the side if he couldn’t stand it, and only the fear of looking like a wuss stopped him from doing so.
‘Do many people give in?’ he asked after she’d pulled him out of the torture chamber and released him from the mask.
‘Lots,’ she replied with a grin on her face.
Back in the waiting room the receptionist summoned him in to meet the doctor. Young, Middle Eastern-looking. Striped shirt and fawn chinos. Brown brogues. ‘Okay, Mr Bennett,’ the doctor said. ‘Tell me what happened. I know you’ve told us before, but just go through it again.’ He read the file notes as Martin spoke.
‘I woke up with numbness in the right side of my body. I couldn’t walk properly. Co-ordination things. Stubbed my toe on the end of the bed. At first I thought it was cramp in my leg. But then I noticed that I had difficulty writing.’
‘Which side was this?’
‘The right side. I’m right-handed.’
‘That afternoon I was making a cup of tea in the kitchen when I saw these zigzag flashes across my eyes. Then it seemed like I was being taken by a huge, curving wave of greyness. Next thing I was on the floor.’
‘Did you lose consciousness?’
‘No, just nausea.’
The doctor moved his chair close in front of Martin and held out his hands. ‘I want you to hold my hands and push.’ The doctor pushed against him with surprising strength. Martin pushed back. The doctor let him go, then watched his face. ‘Smile,’ he said.
‘Any problems with speech?’
He nodded and moved his chair back to the desk. ‘Any other symptoms?’
The doctor nodded. ‘That’s good.’ He opened a drawer and got out a piece of paper. ‘Now, if you’ll just answer a few questions. Who is the Queen of England?’
‘Elizabeth the Second.’
‘What year is it now?’
‘What month is it?’
‘Repeat this phrase: John Brown, 4 West Road, Childwall.’
Martin did so.
‘What time is it, roughly?’
‘About ten thirty?’
‘Now count backwards from twenty to one.’
Martin had to concentrate on fourteen to thirteen but he managed it.
‘Now say the months of the year in reverse order.’
Martin stumbled on August to July but again managed it.
‘Now repeat the address I gave you earlier.’
‘John Brown, 4 West Road, Childwall.’
‘Excellent.’ The doctor totted up the score. ‘Top marks. Well done. Now, Mr Bennett. We’ve had a chance to look at all the scans, and we’ve had a conference. As you know, the question is: do we operate or not? Well, we’ve decided that you don’t necessarily have to have it. It’s up to you. The operation is not without risk, and we think that you can get by with increased medication to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. We can hold off the operation for the time being if you agree.’
A wave of relief passed through Martin’s body, washing away the tension and anxiety. He grinned at the doctor.
‘Hang on,’ the doctor said, ‘before you start doing back flips. You’ll have to take things easy. Take a couple of weeks off work. Do some gardening. Change your lifestyle. It says here that you are a non-smoker and a moderate drinker. Right? You seem like a tense person, if I may say so, so relax. Take some gentle exercise—a brisk walk, say—every day. You could do with losing some weight, if you don’t mind me saying so. No driving, of course. And definitely no stress.’ He made a note. ‘Are you married? Do you have a family?’
Martin thought about this. ‘Not really,’ he said at last. ‘My parents are dead. No brothers or sisters. I’m divorced. We have a daughter, but she’s grown up.’ He paused, aware that he sounded like a saddo. ‘This operation. It’s not without risk? What kind of risk are we talking about?’
‘Not a great risk. Two per cent.’
‘And the risk is?’
Two percent. That didn’t sound too bad. Two in a hundred. But he’d passed maybe a hundred people in the corridors on the way in. Two of them sounded different.
‘I’ll go with the no operation option,’ he said.
The doctor grinned and clapped his hands. ‘Excellent! Now take this as your chance to make a new start. Change your lifestyle.’ He leaned forward and clasped both of Martin’s hands in his, suddenly serious. ‘I see a lot of men your age. They don’t listen. Can I give you some advice, Mr Bennett? Seize the day, Mr Bennett, seize the day!’
Outside the hospital, Martin took deep breaths of fresh air, like a prisoner on death row who has received a last-minute reprieve. His satchel bulged with a big package of various boxes of tablets that he’d collected from the pharmacy. An operation promised a lasting solution, but the risk was real. He’d made the right decision. He stepped into a pall of cigarette smoke and wafted his hand in front of his face. It reminded him of the old days when they allowed smoking in pubs. He was dying for a fag, but his new lifestyle had to start somewhere. He took out the packet of fags he’d bought in case he’d been handed a death sentence—then he would have started again—and, without looking, handed it to someone in the crowd. ‘Here y’are, mate,’ he said.
A few steps later someone grabbed his arm.
‘Martin? Martin Bennett?’
He turned. A gap-toothed man held Martin’s fag packet in his hand.
‘It’s John Hardin,’ the man shouted. ‘I’ve not seen you in what … twenty-five years!’
Martin raised an eyebrow. ‘John; it’s nice to see you again.’
He didn’t say that John Hardin looked different. Totally different. The golden locks were gone. He was almost bald, and what he had left was grey. He seemed to have shrunk in height from his previous six feet so that his eyes were level with Martin’s. He was thinner, almost emaciated; the bones in his once handsome face stretched the skin as if they wanted to escape. And the John Hardin he’d known all those years ago would have had the silly-looking gap in his front teeth fixed—he’d been so vain. He must be hard up.
‘Come on,’ John said. ‘Let’s have a coffee and rap about the old days!’
‘Fine,’ Martin said. ‘You lead the way.’
Martin’s smile masked his real feelings. For years he’d dreamt of causing severe pain to the man who had destroyed his marriage. Not kill him. That would be wrong. But Martin had wanted him to suffer some pain so he’d understand what it felt like.
John led him to the atrium at the top of the escalator, a bright, busy space that looked out onto a parade of nondescript shops. Martin followed him into a dark, cave-like coffee bar in a corner.
‘What’s yours?’ Martin asked as they approached the counter. ‘You go and sit down.’
‘Americano, no milk, no sugar.’
Martin had the same.
He placed the cups of coffee on the table and sat next to John in a small alcove. Low conversation buzzed and crockery rattled in the background. ‘So how’s things?’ he asked. ‘I thought you were in America?’
John grinned, pale and ghostly in the subdued light. The lines on his face merged so his jaw appeared separate from the rest of his face, like on a wooden puppet. The effect was so startling compared to the memory of almost impossible good looks that, for a second, Martin felt physical revulsion. With his open mouth revealing bad teeth and gaps, John looked worse than Martin ever had. So there was some justice in the world.
The malice rising from somewhere deep inside himself—somewhere he didn’t know or denied existed—surprised Martin.
‘Oh, things didn’t quite work out as I’d planned.’ John laughed. ‘So what are you in here for?’ An American drawl overlaid John’s St Helens accent.
‘A stroke. And you?’
‘Liver’s destroyed. Drunk too much pop. And my shit’s fucked up. Do you know that Warren Zevon song? Well, I went to the doctor …’ He sang loudly, causing nearby customers to turn and stare. ‘I said I’m feeling kind of rough. He said, let me break it to you, son. Your shit’s fucked up.’
His voice caught on the last word, and he went into a coughing fit. He got out a small black container, shook out a little black sweet and popped it in his mouth. He offered the container to Martin, who caught a whiff of menthol and turned away.
‘Fancy an Imp?’ Hardin said. ‘All this medication makes my throat go dry.’
‘Imps? I haven’t seen them for years. I didn’t realise that you could still get them.’
‘Yeah. There’s a little shop by the St John’s precinct. They specialise in sweets from the past. Want one?’
‘No thanks. So your shit’s fucked up. What’s changed? You always were full of shit.’
‘Ha, very true. Still climbing?’
‘A bit.’ Martin took a sip of his coffee.
‘Still dropping people?’
‘Come on, I never dropped you. I burnt my hands trying to stop you.’
‘It took me six months for my ankle to knit together again after that fall. Mind you, I thought you were a goner when you fell off that path.’
Martin felt himself blushing. They’d been walking down the path from a climb. He’d turned to reply to something John had said. He must have stepped on some mud or wet leaves or something, and he’d gone arse over tit over the crag. By some miracle the thick vegetation at the bottom had stopped his fall, but he’d been stunned and covered with cuts and bruises. Nothing broken. Incredibly lucky.
‘What about,’ Martin said, ‘when you abbed off the end of the rope into the sea at Gogarth?’
It was John’s turn to blush. ‘Lucky I’m a strong swimmer. Though I nearly got dragged under by the weight of the gear. What about when you fell off at Cloggy? You went off screaming into the mist and came back half an hour later, still screaming.’
‘They had to cut my strides off me back at the hut.’
‘And the time we were top roping at Helsby. I was about to fall off, shouting “tight rope!” to you at the top. Or where I thought you were. I looked down, and there you were at the bottom. You bastard.’ John leaned back in his chair.
‘Good times,’ he said. ‘I haven’t climbed for years. Can’t abide all these bolts, mats and climbing walls. Remember what they used to say: respect the rock? It’s not a proper sport now; it’s a leisure pastime people do to keep fit. Remember what Hemingway said? “There are only three true sports, the rest are games.”’
‘Motor racing.’ Martin remembered the same conversation from years before. ‘Bull fighting and mountaineering.’ He’d never been sure about the bull fighting. The odds were pretty much stacked against the bull. ‘You have to risk your life in a true sport.’ He shrugged and smiled. ‘People want to survive, not kill themselves. Not everyone wants to fight a bull or race fast cars around all the time. I bet you’re not climbing now.’
John laughed. ‘No, I’m not. Got a family? Kids?’
Martin nodded. ‘One girl.’ He looked away. ‘Julie and I split up.’
‘Sorry to hear that. Same thing happened to me. Seems to be the way these days, doesn’t it? I had a business in the States. I was doing all right. Then I had some bad luck. It went bust and everything just went tits up. Had to come back over here.’
‘Living in Liverpool?’
John nodded. ‘Gambier Terrace.’
‘One of Liverpool’s landmarks, that. Gumshoe. The Beatles.’
‘I knew that one of the Beatles lived there. But what was Gumshoe?’
‘A Sixties film. Albert Finney. About this bingo caller who gets mixed up in murder and stuff. Kind of a scouse noir movie.’
John nodded. ‘I’ll have to check it out.’
‘You can’t get it at normal outlets. You’d have to get it off the internet.’
‘Right.’ He leaned back in his seat and grinned at Martin. ‘This is just like being back in Park Lane in that flat with you and Lester—smoking dope, dropping acid and listening to records. Those were good days, weren’t they?’
A long silence.
‘Look,’ John said at last, the grin gone. ‘I’m sorry for what happened. I’ve got to bail.’ He stood and walked away, leaving his mobile and a bunch of keys on the table.
‘John,’ Martin shouted after him, but John kept walking.
Martin studied the keys. The cardboard on the tab read Flat 9A.
Looks like an estate agent’s tab. Can’t have lived there long.
He slung his satchel on his back, grabbed the keys and the mobile, and ran after John to the top of the escalator. John stood halfway down with a hooded figure behind him. He or she moved out to pass him, appeared to pat John on the back, then ran down the escalator and out of view. John slumped onto the escalator and slid off onto the floor at the bottom.
It was over in an instant. Had it really happened?
Martin ran down the escalator, stumbled off at the end and knelt by the slumped figure. John turned towards him. His face looked like a skull on which parchment had been stretched.
‘I’ve had it, kid,’ he whispered.
‘Who did it, John? That was a professional hit.’
‘Don’t get mixed up in it, kid.’ His eyes opened wide. ‘Oh, fuck!’ His head banged onto the floor, and it seemed as if his whole body deflated a little. Like a balloon being let down. He lay there, not moving.
Martin stepped back. Unable to think straight, he turned and walked as calmly as he could to the exit. He had to get some fresh air. Outside, he walked to a railing and held onto it, breathing deeply. He bent over, had to grab his satchel as it swung around, and realised he still clutched Hardin’s keys and mobile. He unzipped the side pocket of the satchel and slipped them inside, then zipped it back up.
Shouldn’t he go back? He couldn’t just leave him. For years he’d dreamed of giving John Hardin some pain. Punch him hard in the mouth. Wipe the stupid grin off his face. Now he’d seen him murdered. Hardin had deserved what he’d got, but it didn’t seem right, almost as if he, Martin Bennett, was somehow implicated. But it had nothing to do with him.
A babble of raised voices and shouts came from inside the hospital. In the distance a police siren drew closer. Too late.