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One Last Breathby Stephen Booth
Monday, 12 July 2004
Today was the day Detective Constable Ben Cooper was supposed to have died. For practical purposes, he was already dead. His feet and hands felt icily cold, as if death might be creeping up on him slowly, claiming his body inch by inch.
For the past half hour, Cooper had been unable to move his arms or his legs, or even his head. Mud-stained rock filled his vision, every crack and protrusion glistening with dampness in the beams of light that swung across the passage. He could smell the mud and sweat around him, and hear the splashing of water as it echoed in the confined space. The rock was so close to his face that his breath condensed on it and fell back on him as mist. It filled his mouth with the sharp taste of stone.
Cooper had never imagined that he'd feel so helpless. The roof seemed to be sinking closer towards him, pressing down to crush his skull. He could sense the mass of the hill poised overhead. One tiny movement of the earth's crust over Derbyshire, and millions of tons of rock would flatten him where he lay. He'd be squeezed to a juice, reduced to an inexplicable red smear for future geologists to find.
"Only a few more minutes," said a voice in the darkness, "and we'll reach the Devil's Staircase."
Then the light went off the roof, and Cooper could see nothing at all. For a moment, he thought the rock had already crushed him, and he began to panic. His lungs spasmed as if there were no oxygen left for him to breathe.
Cooper felt himself tilted violently backwards, but he was strapped in too tightly to move. Looking up from this angle, he saw a cluster of yellow PVC oversuits glowing in the sporadic light. Lamps created pools of luminescence around them and distorted their shadows on the roofs and walls. But there were no faces visible in the darkness.
He was jolted again. He was sure the stretcher would turn over and tip him on to the floor of the passage, where he'd drown lying helpless in two feet of muddy water. And that would be the end of his career in Derbyshire CID. He'd never expected it to be like this.
"I want to die in the daylight," he said.
But no one was listening to him. As far as they were concerned, he was already dead.
Detective Sergeant Diane Fry stumbled in the middle of the floor and kicked out in irritation. She'd never thought of herself as a tidy person-there were too many messy loose ends in her life for that. And God knew, her flat was a tip; she might have been competing with the students across the landing for the pigsty-of-the-year award. But the intrusion of someone else's untidiness was a different thing altogether. It made her grit her teeth every time she came home from a shift. She'd barely noticed the mess when it was her own clothes thrown on the bathroom floor, but finding a pair of black jeans halfway across the room from the laundry basket reminded her that she was no longer alone.
Fry's pager was bleeping. She checked the number, scooped up her phone from the edge of the bath, and dialed.
"DS Fry here. Yes, sir?"
Her boss at E Division, Detective Inspector Paul Hitchens, was at his desk early this morning. Yet he sounded far from alert.
"Oh, Fry. Are you on your way in?"
Fry waited expectantly, but heard nothing except a metallic whirring in the background, as if Hitchens were having some construction work done on his office.
"Was there something, sir?"
"Oh, just . . . Does the name Quinn mean anything to you, Fry?"
"I'm sorry, it doesn't."
"No. No, it wouldn't."
Hitchens sounded as though his mind was on something else entirely. Fry pulled a face and gestured impatiently at the phone, as if she'd been reduced to using sign language to an idiot.
"Well, make sure you come and see me before you do anything else, will you, Fry?"
Fry shrugged as she ended the call. It was probably nothing. Hitchens was just losing his grip, like everyone else around E Division. But she'd better not be late. There was no time now for clearing up someone else's clothes.
Hold on, though. She looked more closely at the jeans on the floor. These weren't someone else's clothes-they were hers, bought only a couple of weeks ago during a shopping trip to the Meadowhall Centre in Sheffield. Worse, they'd been a comfort purchase on a day when she'd been feeling particularly down. She hadn't even found a chance to wear them yet.
There was no reply from the sitting room, where her sister lay wrapped in a duvet on the sofa. The fact that her sister was asleep irritated Fry even more.
She heard a grunt, and a creaking of springs as her sister stirred and turned over. Fry looked at her watch: quarter past eight. She'd better pray the traffic wasn't too bad getting to West Street, or she'd be late.
She called again, more loudly, then picked up the jeans and tried to fold them back into their proper shape before laying them on top of the overflowing laundry basket. They were creased and scuffed across the knees, as if Angie had been crawling around the floor in them. They were hardly worth wearing now, despite the money she'd lashed out for the sake of the designer label stitched to the back pocket.
Cursing, Fry began to fuss about the bathroom, picking up more items of clothing and shoving them into the basket. She rescued a towel from the bottom of the bath and hung it on the rail. She straightened the curtains, swept up an empty toothpaste tube and a Tampax wrapper and threw them into the pedal bin. She dampened a cloth and began wiping splashes of soap off the mirror. Then she caught sight of her own reflection, and stopped. She didn't like what she saw.
"What's all the noise about?"
Angie stood in the doorway wearing only a long T-shirt, scratching herself and peering at her sister through half-open eyes. Fry felt a rush of guilt at the sight of her sister's bare, thin legs.
"What are you doing? I thought there must be a fire, or a burglar or something."
"No. I'm sorry. You can go back to sleep, if you want."
Angie coughed. "I'm awake now, I suppose. Are you going out, Sis?"
"I'm on shift this morning."
"Yeah. Well, I'll get myself a coffee. Do you want anything?"
"I don't have time."
"Tidying up? Just before you go to work? You want to slow down, Di. You'll be giving yourself a heart attack if you get so stressed."
Angie looked at her, puzzled. "You were shouting at me though, weren't you? I'm sure you were. What did you want?"
"Nothing," said Fry. "It doesn't matter. You go and get yourself that coffee."
"I'm sure I heard you shouting me," Angie said, turning away. "You sounded just like Ma."
Fry dropped the damp cloth and leaned on the washbasin for a moment. She listened to Angie shuffling away, her bare feet slapping on the worn tiles in the passage. Fry kept her head lowered. The one thing she didn't want to do was see herself in the mirror again. She didn't want the memories that had been visible for a brief moment in the reflection of her own eyes, in the hard line of her mouth and the frown marks etched into her forehead.
Reluctantly, she looked at her watch. She had to go or she'd be late, and she couldn't afford to be late when she had to set an example for the likes of Ben Cooper and Gavin Murfin, who would go wandering off in their own directions in a second if she didn't keep an eye on them.
Fry walked into her bedroom to fetch her jacket from behind the door. She was annoyed to see that her hand was shaking as she entered the kitchen. Angie was sitting at the table, staring at her fingernails.
"Angie, just now, what did you mean . . . ?"
"When you mentioned Ma. What did you mean?"
Angie shrugged. "Nothing really."
"But . . ." Fry stopped, defeated. "I've got to go."
She went down the wide flight of stairs with its threadbare treads, and left the house by the back door. Number 12 Grosvenor Avenue was one of a series of detached Victorian villas in a tree-lined street, its front door nestling between mock porticos. It had space at the back for Fry to park her Peugeot, and she was glad to be able to get the car off the street, especially when she lay in bed at night listening to the passing drunks.
Fry wound the windows down to let some air into the car. It might turn out to be one of the few days in the year when she wished she had air conditioning. She plugged her mobile phone into the cigarette lighter to make sure it would be fully charged by the time she got to West Street. Then she drove up to the corner of Castleton Road and waited for the traffic to clear. She looked at her watch again. Almost eight-thirty. She might not be too late, after all.
There was plenty to do, as usual. Today's diary included a meeting to plan an operation against Class A drug misuse and a review of a long-running rape enquiry, as well as prioritizing whatever had happened in the last twenty-four hours.
Fry frowned. She hated starting the day with irritations that she couldn't classify. And she had one already this morning, thanks to the call from her DI. What was the name Hitchens mentioned? Quinn? It still meant nothing to her. But she would have to know-who the hell was Mansell Quinn?
She looked at her phone. There was one person who was sure to know. She didn't really want to talk to him if she could avoid it, but it might be preferable to walking into the DI's office ignorant, and therefore in a position of weakness. Ben Cooper's number was stored in her phone's memory, one of a hundred invisible squiggles on its smart card, so that she carried his presence with her permanently, like a scar.
From the moment she'd arrived at E Division, Cooper had been in her hair, probing into her past, turning over all the memories she'd left the West Midlands to escape. And then this business with her sister. Why had he got himself involved in that? The one thing she wasn't going to do was give Cooper the satisfaction of asking him. It seemed impossible to Fry that there could be any acceptable explanation.
She pulled his number up out of her phone's memory and dialed, ready to pull over to the side of the road if he answered. But the number was unobtainable. Fry grimaced in frustration. Of course, Cooper was on a rest day today. Why shouldn't he turn off his phone and enjoy himself?
Water was pouring through the roof. Splashes of it landed on his face, making him blink. Ben Cooper tried to move a hand to wipe it away, but his arms were held too tightly. Then he felt himself traveling up a slope and saw a larger chamber, lit by artificial lights. At last there was a change in air temperature and a glimpse of daylight as the mouth of the cavern opened above him, then he heard the high-pitched cries of jackdaws.
Giving an exhausted cheer, the six men in yellow oversuits dropped the stretcher with a thump. Cooper's head banged on the plastic cover.
"Hey, I'm a casualty, you know. Where's the ambulance? Don't I get an ambulance?"
"Sorry, Ben. But you are dead, you know."
"My God, if I'd known it'd be like that, Alistair, I wouldn't have volunteered. In fact, I didn't volunteer-I was talked into it."
Alistair Page took off his gloves and leaned over to unfasten the buckles on the stretcher straps. He was still covered in the smelly silt that coated the caves and had been stirred up from the flooded passages by the rescue party. Like the rest of the team taking part in the exercise, he was protected by elbow and kneepads, and had a heavy tackle bag slung from his belt.
Cooper tried to remember which of his friends had introduced him to Page. Whoever it was, he had a score to settle.
"You're not telling me you're claustrophobic," said Page. "It's a bit late for that."
"I didn't think I was, until an hour ago. But I've changed my mind. I feel quite sick."
"You'll be all right in a minute."
At last, Cooper was free of the stretcher. He had to walk up and down and shake his legs a bit before the painful tingling started, a sign that the blood was flowing back into his limbs. Glad to be using his muscles again, he helped Page to lift a bundle of ropes and slide them into the cave rescue vehicle, an old Bedford van that was kept in the police compound in Edendale. The van was well overdue for replacement, but the Derbyshire Cave Rescue was a voluntary group and relied entirely on donations. They'd have to raise tens of thousands of pounds before they could buy a new vehicle.
The chattering of the jackdaws made Cooper look up. The birds were circling the roofless keep of the castle on the eastern rim of the Peak Cavern gorge, hopping restlessly from tree to tree, or flapping on to the cliff ledges.
"Do they nest on those ledges?"
"Yes. And so do mallard ducks sometimes," said Page. "But their ducklings have a habit of falling off. Visitors don't like that very much."
"I can imagine," said Cooper, still craning his neck. It was a relief just to be able to move his head and see the sky.
"You did a good job of being dead, by the way. Don't forget-you get a free tour through the show cave for doing this."
"I'm coming down with my two nieces tomorrow afternoon. They've just broken up for the summer holidays, and I promised them a day out."
"You can cope with that, can you?"
"At least you don't get many real deaths here."
"There's only ever been one in Peak Cavern. That was a long time ago. And, well . . ." Page hesitated, looking back anxiously over his shoulder at the mouth of the cavern, as if he heard noises in the darkness but couldn't see what was there. "Well, that was different," he said. "It was unique. And a long time ago."
From the Hardcover edition.
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