I was alone next morning. Helen was in Manchester. The Metropolitan Museum had had problems with an exhibition of Persian antiquities and an old friend had approached Helen as a last result. Luckily, a uni mate was now at the Iranian Embassy in London. Helen had gone to make the introductions.
With the place to myself, I cubby holed myself astern and worked through the company’s inbox. Usual humdrum lot, trinkets and trifles and vintage champagne. Couple of charities wanting celebrity items for auction. Helen would sort them no charge. The one challenge was for ‘an HMS Glasgow error postage stamp’. I did some reading and learnt it was from 1964, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Falkland Islands. Instead of HMS Kent, HMS Glasgow was pictured. Could go for £30k at auction, so I scooped out the address books and started ringing numbers.
I was having plenty of luck, all of it bad, when Helen’s sister dropped her dress back from the dry cleaners. Ruth is yin to Helen’s yang. Alike in many ways, but separate in style and temperament: High street elan versus charity shop chic, the impulsive actress beside the tempered musician and business woman. Same shock of gold that shines when the light catches it right though. Same full lips too. Same nose. The Marr Nose they call it: All the kids have it.
We had a drink and a catch up, and then Ruth said something that reminded me about the day before. I asked her about ‘The Great Hiatus’.
“Does it mean anything?” she replied, sipping mint tea. “I thought it was just a name, like ships have names.”
“That’s what I heard, apparently it’s supposed to mean something.”
“Google it.” I did, finding nothing at first. Then I enclosed ‘The Great Hiatus’ in inverted commas. Three of the first four results were now about Sherlock Holmes. I clicked one at random.
“There.” Ruth said, pointing to a list of contents, “6.1, The Great Hiatus.” Click:
Holmes fans refer to the period from 1891 to 1894—the time between Holmes' disappearance and presumed death in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’ and his reappearance in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’—as ‘The Great Hiatus’.
“Three years.” Ruth said, walking away. “The Great Hiatus was three years.”
“That’s what it says.”
“Helen disappeared for three years. Went travelling with some Irish guy and didn’t tell anyone. Final year of uni too. Only heard from her after like eight months and then just the odd postcard from Tokyo and Shanghai and places like that.”
That would explain the Eastern artefacts all over the place. “This guy Helen went off with, remember his name?” She didn’t. “Was it Andy?”
“Maybe. Yeah, that seems familiar. Why?” I told her about yesterday’s encounter. She sneered. “Well you let me know if you see him again. That Andy’s still got a lot of explaining to do.”
Ruth had been gone twenty minutes and I was feeding bread to the swans (they come pecking at the side same time every day, they don’t care what you’re doing), when a frantic Helen called from the fast lane of the M62. “Sam meet me at the Royal a. s. a. p. please. Explain when I see you.”
“Sure. What’s happened?” but she was gone. I grabbed my keys, locked up and drove down.
I caught sight of her as I was finding a parking space. She was appropriately dressed for her meeting in a knee length Persian green dress over black pants, fingerless opera gloves and skull cap to match. She held her hands out towards me as I arrived. “It’s Scot, he’s been shot.” I hugged her. “Damm it.” she snapped, spinning away. “I shouldn’t have got him mixed up in all this again.”
“Now hey, you don’t know this was down to you.”
“I know it was Sam, I can feel it in my bones.” We went in, but couldn’t get in to see the scroat. He was in a coma anyway. Helen made some calls and after a time a very large man arrived. He looked out of place outside the gym and even more uncertain crammed into an dark coloured suit. “Helen Marr?” he rumbled in the coarsest Scouse. My thumb showed him the way.
“I’m to watch the kid.” he boomed over Helen’s head. “Boss wants to see you. Starkey’s, Rathbone Road.” Helen thanked him and she smiled and he went, as I had seen so many others go, under her spell. I knew for anyone to finish the scroat off they’d have to get through every ounce of Craig Murray’s eighteen odd stone.
“Stay close to me in here.” Helen warned on the drive to Old Swan. “Lenny helps me out now and then, but he’s only got so much influence with Starkey’s crew.” She needn’t have bothered. The boarded up windows and neat formation of bullet holes in the entrance masonry told me all I needed to know.
You could tell it was a Saloon Bar, ‘cause on entering all faces turned in our direction. The smoking ban hadn’t dared take effect here. Wisps of smoke drifted through a blue haze, giving rise to that authentic pub odour that’s already out of another age. I saw at least one hand reach for something concealed in an elasticated waistband.
“Helen.” a voice called from a function room to our right. A bronze skinned man sat punching numbers into a calculator in the corner. He wore a grey jacket, fat gold necklace and signet ring on his left little finger. A pork pie cap sat at one corner of the table.
“Helen ma girl, how the hell are you?”
“Fine Lenny, fine. And yourself?”
“Tres bien mon cher. Bad business this with your boy. Shot outside Doyle’s so I heard. Lot of bad boys drink in there.” Lenny smiled knowingly. “What was he up to?”
Helen wore a pained expression. “Don’t tease me Lenny, I feel dreadful. I’m trying to find a friend of mine that’s gone missing and Scot was helping me. Girl named Sarah O’Connor. Was shacked up with a guy called Lennox.”
Lenny’s eyebrows shot an inch north. “You surely don’t mean the late Terry Lennox?”
“That’s the one. What d’ya know Lenny?”
“Only that he’d had his hands in the Nicholsons’ till for years. Went too far this time. Stole something big, something priceless the way I heard it.”
“Sorry girl, no one’s saying. You know what a tight ship Brett and Kurt run.”
We made to leave. “I do know something about your girl.” Helen’s frown only made Lenny grin wider. “If that would be of any interest to you.”
She was subdued on the way back to town. I can hardly say I blamed her after what Lenny said (“Rumour has it your girl was working with the Nicholsons... Couple walk into a bank, a jewellers, and before you know it staff are handing out great wads of cash and twenty four carat diamonds and holding the door open for them with a wave. You must have seen the CCTV footage, it’s been on ‘Crimewatch’ girl... No-one cared when it was happening up north, but last month they hit London and now the Met are all over it.”). I dropped her back at her car. She said something about running some errands and asked me to check with Sarah’s dad where he’d got her address from. I left her looking deep in thought and troubled.
I went home, had a smoke, rang O’Connor and showered in short order. Jo rang right then. Was good to hear her voice, the last week seemed as long as the previous eight. She was very excited. The team had been down south where an entire village had disappeared overnight. She said there were great rents in the ground. No-one knew what had happened. She was exhilarated, and a little scared. Still, she was missing me and wished she was coming tonight. I said I’d tell the girls, Hi. I don’t know why I didn’t tell her about Sarah.
I changed and drove into town. Helen and Ruth were waiting outside St George’s Hall. They looked like something out of another age. Helen wore a Prussian blue, backless silk ball gown, circa 1932, purchased from a little shop in what is now Quiggins for a very reasonable price. Ruth favoured a green on white rose print 50s summer dress. The girls had been looking forward to this night for months, an unworn Charleston dress hung in the wardrobe at home. Even my suit came from the Vintage Clothing section on ebay (1940s to complete the set). As soon as we climbed the stairs and entered the Great Concert Hall, we helped ourselves to complimentary champagne and toasted absent friends.
I’d never been in the hall before. It’s a huge, long room, dominated by the raised organ at one end and rows of colonnaded balconies running either side. A full orchestra played a Strauss waltz at the opposite end. The carved, panelled ceiling high above was lit blue by modern spot lights, as was the dance floor, while two banks of chandeliers cast an orange glow between them. They fought for supremacy, patches of competing light formed a mosaic across the wooden dance floor. Long shadows moved between them, as couples drifted over the polished surface. Rows of chairs stood either side.
Helen asked what O’Connor had said. “Said he heard about Bonjour from a golf buddy of his.” I told her. “The golf buddy knows ya dad, does the karaoke with him or something.” She seemed satisfied with that. “Well it’s worth checking every angle.”
Of course Helen being Helen, she knew everyone. And as the tickets were courtesy of Ruth’s connections at the Post, they both did a fair bit of mingling. I felt alone then, without Jo beside me, but Helen, ever the barometer of mood, made certain I was kept entertained. All those dance lessons were put to use right away as she introduced me to a triumvirate of partners (“Trust me, the hours will fly by.” she winked), with Ruth taking a spin in between, at the end of which I’d worked up a fine sweat and needed a sit down. I struck up a conversation with Antonio, a wiry, hirsute guy from Portugal that I knew through Helen. We were discussing his PhD thesis on municipal planning (he was boring himself, but I was genuinely interested) when Helen floated over, a gloved palm held out: “May I have the pleasure of this dance.” she asked with comic cuteness.
She seemed happy as I guided her around the dance floor. Carefree, like I hadn’t witnessed since the previous day. “Did I ever tell you how I met Antonio?” She hadn’t. “Was when I was living in Mossley Hill and a load of us went to Lisbon for New Year to this traditional folk dance, stroke New Year celebration thing. Antonio ended up being my dance instructor. We got talking and I found out he lived three doors down from me.” She laughed. “Isn’t that mad? I travel hundreds of miles and end up meeting a guy I could have bumped into on my own street.” She told me how the dance floor on which we stood was not the real floor, but installed for such occasions, the actual base being a sunken pit half a meter below. At one spot the flooring was a transparent square, revealing the ornate tiling beneath. We stopped to have a look. I agreed it was beautiful.
It wasn’t a late one and before long we were driving Ruth back to her flat at the edge of Sefton Park. I love this city, but at night is when it truly comes alive. There’s an energy about it at night that is like nowhere else on earth. I don’t know if it’s starlight, moonlight, sodium-light, or just the vibe of the place, but something at night causes this city to luminesce.
My dad’s side are all Scousers, I spent most of my childhood returning here for family events. Like the time we went to my cousin’s christening on the Friday, Granddad’s funeral on the Sunday, and between days sat in the Kop watching us win an Anfield derby for the first time in five years. I remember what my dad said as we were leaving the ground: “Well son, I guess two out of three ain’t a bad result, all things considered.” Was only later I realised what he meant. And when it came time to decide where I was going to uni, there was no competition in my mind. We spent so many years moving around the country, Liverpool has always been the closest thing to a spiritual home.
The second we entered the alleyway back at hers, Helen sensed something was up. “You may as well crash on the couch.” she was saying when her eyes went. We ducked down and crept up to the gate. “Where’s Toby?” she whispered. I thought I saw movement on the barge. A look at Helen confirmed she’d seen it too. “Wait two minutes,” she whispered, “then creep astern.” scurrying off behind the fence before I could object. I waited as she instructed, watched her shadow approaching the bow, then found a shielded spot and hopped the fence.
I saw the same shape moving aboard as I approached through rows of lettuce and string beans. It seemed to be pacing. I doubled back and approached the stern flat down the bridleway, removing the monkey wrench that Helen kept hidden for emergencies. I heard a sound that I knew was the hatch at the bow closing. I slipped into the wheelhouse, knelt and listened. Nothing. I stood up, gripping the wrench so tight I figured my knuckles must be glowing. My left foot fell forward into the darkness. I descended.
Is there anything more frightening than being confronted in the dark by two Glock touting scalies? I had barely hit the bottom rung when I felt something cold pressed to my neck. “Don’t move.” a voice commanded with elongated vowels. Someone emerged from behind the breakfast bar. I was disarmed. “Are-eh, it ain’t ‘er.” The one behind pushed the barrel into the small of my back and steered me towards the couch. I was span about and pushed down.
“Where’s da Marr bitch.” said one, same shaven head, same Primark shell suit (did Harry Enfield do nothing to shame the scaly fraternity I wondered?). I said nothing. The next sound I heard was two weapons being cocked. “I said, where’s da bitch.”
“My name is Helen!”
She stood in the doorway. She was dressed in full Samurai armour. The daisho, the long and short swords, were held in each hand. It was the same suit that stood in one corner of her bedroom. Later she explained the stand was rigged for instant access. The scalies were speechless. Then they trained their weapons on her.
She tapped at the ornate mask which obscured her face. “Kevlar guys. Bulletproof, so unless you get a lucky shot through an eyehole, I’d say you’ve got thirty seconds to get off my boat before I start hacking off limbs.”
“Where’s da O’Connor bitch?”
“As Nicholsons, I’d of thought you’d know more about that me.”
The talkative of the two aimed his gun at my chest. “I said, where’s da O’Connor bitch.”
“And I said I didn’t know. I also said you had thirty seconds to get gone before I start slicing. As for any threats to my assistant...” she shrugged through her armour, “go ahead, I’ve got people queuing ‘round the block to help me.”
She advanced a pace and they backed off. Their weapons were raised, but it was a face saving exercise. She sliced the air with the short sword and they backed off all the way up the stairs and out of the wheelhouse. She followed them, followed them all the way up the alley and remained until their tail lights had faded into the distance. I was a little shaken, but stood beside her, now armed with something sharper than a wrench. Satisfied they weren’t coming back, she sheathed her weapons and removed the mask.
“Sorry about what I said in there.” she said. “Had to convince them you meant nothing to me or they’d have used you as leverage. I couldn’t have that, not when I have nothing to tell them. That sounds really bad, I didn’t mean it like that.” I told her it was ok. “Well Sam, what do you think now about Sarah being with the Nicholson’s?” We passed through the gate.
“Yeah, I might have been wrong about that. Not getting very far are we?”
“No, we are, just not as quick as we’d like.” She stopped at the edge of the bridleway. “Look, we know that at 3.30 on Wednesday, someone, probably hired by the Nicholson’s, shot Terry Lennox dead on his doorstop. We can also be fairly certain that about 50 minutes before that, someone got into a fight with Lennox in his living room and took Sarah with them when they went. We now know that person wasn’t working for the Nicholsons or they wouldn’t be sending their goons to intimidate us. Wherever Sarah is, I’m sure she’s fine, but her parents want to know she’s safe so we keep going until we know for sure.”
At that moment Toby came lolloping from wherever he had been hiding. “Toby!” Helen cried, squatting to greet him. His yelping echoed on the night-time air, spinning himself in circles as Helen patted him. “Hello little man and where have you been. Not much of a guard dog are you? Ah well, at least you’re safe.” She lifted him on deck and he scurried down the steps, wagging his tail.
“Well if I wasn’t staying before, I certainly am now.” I said, standing under the wheelhouse tarpaulin. Helen was beside me, frozen. She stared out into the blackness, chin high in the air with a look of concentration, watching for movement. “Sorry?” she said, absentmindedly, her body turning towards me, head static. Then the trance was broken. “Yes, yes, of course.” she enthused. “well you should have figured out the bed settee by now.” She stared back out into the night and muttered something that I swore sounded like, “Thanks Andy.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Well he did design the stand for the armour. And the armour itself as it goes.”
“So what, he’s some kind of designer.”
“I said to forget about Andy. But yes, amongst other things, he is a designer. An inventor really. The suit is designed to allow instant access in an emergency.” She was energetically enthused, then caught herself and her mouth closed with a barely audible pop. A wry smile played on her lips. She span me ‘round. “That’s very kind of you.” she said. “I’d love a cup of cha.” pushing me gently in the small of my back. For the second time that night I descended into the darkened room. The rustling of Kevlar followed me down.
Get it done.