Miller stared at the rat and the rat stared right back.
‘So, what’s it to be, this morning?’
The rat raised itself up, bead-black eyes bright and whiskers quivering.
‘A nice bit of kedgeree, maybe?’ Miller waited, smacking his lips. ‘Eggs Benedict or a cheeky full English?’ He sighed and let his head drop so the furry little buggers would know just how disappointed he was, then shuffled forward on his knees and shook the plastic container. ‘OK, if you want to be boring.’ He opened the cage and took out the two food bowls, filled each one with the same old mix of cereal and oat flakes, then, before setting down their breakfast, he reached into the cage totake Ginger out. He held her on his lap and ran a finger gently across her head. ‘You know you’ve always been my favourite, right?’ He lifted her up and nodded towards her partner in the cage, whispering as she scrabbled for a few seconds then snuggled against his neck. ‘For God’s sake don’t tell Fred, though. Nobody likes a sulky rodent.’ He leaned back to look Ginger in the eye. ‘Don’t rat me out.’
He sat on the sofa after that and watched them eat. He’d brought a mug of coffee across, but fifteen minutes later, by the time he’d stopped worrying about the day ahead – the walking into the office and the strange looks he was very likely to get – and thinking about what he should say to people and what he definitely shouldn’t and picking at the loose threads on his tatty old dressing gown and remembered that there was coffee, it was lukewarm, so Miller carried it back to the kitchen and poured it away.
He couldn’t be arsed to make himself another.
He’d have one when he got to work.
He was pretty sure he’d need one.
Dressing slowly, like it was something he’d all but forgotten how to do, he listened to some irritating rent-a-gob sounding off about the state of the NHS on Capital Lancashire, so he argued
with him, same as he always did. Muttering, or occasionally shouting, at the radio. It was a daft habit that had become a kind of ritual, whatever the host or caller or so-called expert happened to be pontificating about, and Miller always enjoyed it.
He put on pants and socks, then picked out a shirt.
‘. . . and you can’t get an appointment to begin with, not
unless you’ve got one leg hanging off, or you’re an immigrant or
something . . .’
‘You’re an idiot, mate. On second thoughts, I take that back, because it’s insulting to idiots.’
He stepped into itchy grey trousers and the shoes he’d polished the night before.
‘I mean, wasn’t that why we voted for Brexit in the first place? That, and the fish . . .’
‘This is drivel, mate. You’re talking drivel.’
He put on his least offensive tie – which wasn’t saying a lot because he had quite the collection of horrific neckwear – then immediately undid the top button of his shirt, because it felt like he couldn’t breathe. ‘I swear to God, I could eat a tin of Alphabetti Spaghetti and shit more sense than you’re talking . . .’
As conversations went, Miller was fully aware that these chinwags were somewhat one-sided, but that wasn’t the point. Along with the ratty chit-chat, it got his brain moving in the morning, or at least moving in the right direction, and it reminded him what his voice sounded like. He needed the kick of that and the distraction.
He needed the noise.
Truth be told, he also argued with the radio in the afternoons, and in the evening. Middle of the night, quite often.
But that wasn’t the point.
A few minutes later, wearing a jacket that more or less matched the trousers, he stood in front of the large mirror next to the front door. He tried out a few expressions until what passed for a smile didn’t seem too scary. He had a bash at a couple of casual nods and shrugs that he was hoping would do the trick. After the habitual brief skirmish with his hair, he settled for a draw and turned back towards the multi-level cage-cum-playpen that had cost him a small fortune and now took up most of the living room floor.
He gave the rats a twirl.
‘So, what d’you reckon? I think it’s going to have to do.’
Predictably, Fred and Ginger were otherwise occupied chasing each other from one end of the cage to the other. Miller tried not to take their lack of interest as a bad sign and turned to pick up Alex’s mobile phone which was lying there where it always was; plugged in on a table by the door. That sparkly red case which looked nice enough, but – like he’d told her a hundred times – would have been totally useless if she ever dropped her phone. Not that she ever did drop the bloody thing, certainly not as often as Miller dropped his, because she was always careful.
But that wasn’t the point.
He reached across and touched the screen, a picture of Alex and him. Some competition from a few years back. The pair of them looking pretty tasty, even if he did say so himself. He grabbed his rucksack from the chair by the door and threw it over his shoulder. He bent down for the crash helmet that was underneath it, then stood and raised his eyes to the ceiling. Shouted up.
‘Alex . . . I’ve fed Fred and Ginger, OK . . . ?’
He stood and listened. He stepped back across to the mirror and watched himself listen. The silence seemed to thicken and settle for those few long seconds before it was broken by the
painful squeak of the rats’ wheel; before Miller sucked in a fast breath and finally reached to open the door, like a brave soldier. Or a very stupid one.
Sofia Hadzic tied on her apron then stepped out, yawning, into the basement corridor, pushing the trolley she had spent the previous twenty minutes loading with fresh supplies. Bobbly towels with a faded letter S and sheets that might once have been white. The postage-stamp sized slivers of soap wrapped in plastic, the tiny bottles of shampoo that looked fancy enough but were filled up every few days from a huge plastic flagon of cheap stuff. The toilet roll that your fingers went through.
The Sands was not a hotel she would choose to stay in herself. She exchanged a nod with one of the other girls as she shunted the trolley into the lift. She didn’t know the girl’s name and seriously doubted that the girl knew hers, but it didn’t much matter. She was only there to work and she wasn’t looking to make new friends.
She put on her headphones then stabbed at the button for the top floor.
Sofia yawned again, nodding her head in time to an old Little Mix song she loved as the lift doors clattered shut.
The motorbike – a red and black Yamaha Tracer 9 with sixspeed transmission and an 890cc liquid-cooled beast of an engine – roared along the seafront. It cut through the morning traffic like the cars and lorries were going backwards, the North Pier and the glowering Tower there and gone. It raced past the sea-life centre, the mini-golf course where Miller had once copped off with a girl called Sandra Bullimore, and innumerable arcades that were just blinking into life. It burned up the tarmac and swerved skilfully round the potholes, while away to its right the Irish Sea frothed and spat against the damp sand; the same colour as the coffee Miller had poured away and a damn sight colder.
Half a minute after the bike had turned towards town and stopped at traffic lights by the Morrisons, Miller pulled up next to it. The leather-clad biker glanced across and, even though his expression was hidden behind a dark visor, it was a fair bet that he was less than impressed by Miller’s pale blue moped and high-vis tabard; those seventy pitiful ccs that he probably thought had sounded like a hairdryer behind him. Or maybe a wasp, trapped in his helmet.
Miller stared back, watching as the biker revved his engine, keen to get moving. ‘Race you,’ he said.The lights turned to amber and the biker just shook his head like Miller was an idiot. Miller winced when the light turned green and the Yamaha shot away; within seconds it was just a dot in the distance, though Miller could still hear the noise of that engine as he shouted after it. ‘Yeah, off you go. Pussy . . .’
A few seconds later, some twonk behind him started leaning on his horn, indicating less than politely that it was time for Miller to move. Miller was in no hurry, though. He wasn’t kidding himself that the day ahead was going to be easy, but right then he was in a pretty good mood. He gave the twonk the finger anyway, because why not?
The carpet in the long straight corridor was ugly, with brown and yellow swirls. Sofia thought it looked like someone had been sick on it. Given the state of this place, of some of the
guests she’d encountered, she guessed that plenty of people had been sick on it.She pushed her trolley towards the far end, though it wasn’t easy as one of the wheels was bent and she kept veering towards the wall. It was annoying, but what could she do? The whole of the top floor was hers, so starting with the room at the end and working back seemed like the best plan.
The first bedroom was nice and straightforward. Sheets changed, sink and shower scrubbed, tea and coffee making facilities replenished. In and out in ten minutes. The second room was closer to what she was expecting and took twice as long. Wet towels and dirty clothes all over the place, bins full of empty beer cans and it smelled like someone had been smoking in there.
Some people were pigs.
She knew she should probably say something to the manager, but it wasn’t her job to spy on anyone, so she just snapped on her rubber gloves turned up her Little Mix and got on with it.
She paused for a few seconds outside the door of her third bedroom, took out her phone and skipped a couple of tracks she wasn’t fond of. Once she’d found the song she wanted, she
leaned forward to slide her key card into the slot below the door handle. When the light flashed green she spun round and nudged the door open with her backside.
She heaved the trolley in from the corridor and turned as the door slammed shut behind her.
Initially, it struck her that the room wasn’t in too terrible a state, certainly nothing like as bad as the last one. There wasn’t a great deal of . . . mess, to speak of. Aside from the blood on
the bed and the body it had come from, obviously.
Sofia’s scream was loud enough to wake a dead man.
Not this one, though.
Miller wasn’t sure how long he’d been standing there like a lemon waiting to go in, peering through the window of the incident room. Too long, probably. Long enough to clock several of the usual faces, anyway; the looks on a few of them when they noticed him. Like someone had slapped them in the gob with a wet fish or they’d spotted George Clooney in Tesco’s. Like they’d coughed and followed through.
Eventually he just got fed up with himself and walked in.
Breezed in, like it was any other day and what was the big deal? It was a bit forced, maybe, but there was even a smattering of bantz as he sauntered across the office.
Sauntered, which was bloody ridiculous and only went to prove that he was brimming with misplaced confidence. Miller might have ambled now and again and may even have meandered on occasion, but he had never been one for sauntering anywhere.
He was more of a lolloper.
‘Oh . . . hey, Dec.’
‘Hey yourself. That is a seriously brave haircut, by the way.’
‘How’s it going, Dec?’
‘Mustn’t grumble. Yourself . . . ?’
All fine and dandy until he reached his desk. What had been his desk, at any rate. Tony Clough – who was looking nice and comfy sitting behind it – was a decent enough bloke and a fairto-middling DC, but he was a bit of a lump sometimes. Also, he’d turned up at the pub one night wearing a rugby shirt with
the collar turned up, on top of which Miller had once heard him say nucular. So . . .
Clough finally realised Miller was standing there and looked suitably shamefaced.
‘Well, this is me,’ Miller said. ‘At least it used to be me.’
Clough moved as fast as Miller had ever seen him. On his feet and gathering up his things like it was going-home time or someone had announced they were giving pies away.
‘Sorry, Dec, here you go . . . I mean, nobody said, so we weren’t . . . you know.’
Miller shrugged, like it wasn’t a big deal. ‘Jump in my grave as quick, would you, Tone?’
The blood drained from Clough’s face and they just stared at each other for a few seconds, nodding like idiots. Miller felt a bit guilty, because he certainly could have said something that would have made the man feel less uncomfortable. Actually, he couldn’t think of much that would have made him any more uncomfortable, but that’s what had popped into Miller’s head, so that’s what came out of his mouth.
That’s how it tended to be.
As Clough stalked away in search of a different desk, Miller made himself back at home. He shifted the computer screen round an inch or two and whistled for a bit. He adjusted the height of the chair, opened and closed a few drawers then noticed some godawful gonk thing that Clough had left behind and lobbed it into the bin.
He looked up to see DS Andrea Fuller hovering.
Miller reckoned that, himself aside, Fuller was probably the smartest copper on the team and, if she wasn’t, she certainly had the shortest fuse. He knew her parents were knocking on a bit and that she had to take care of them on top of the Job, so it was understandable that she got somewhat . . . frazzled
sometimes. They once had an argument about whether wearing only socks counted as being naked and things had got a bit heated.
She’d been wrong, obviously.
‘Boss wants a word,’ she said.
Miller sat back and held out his arms, but he could see that a simple gesture of disbelief wasn’t going to be enough. ‘Andrea, you know when people use the word “literally” and you want to punch them, because they don’t really mean literally?’
She just grunted and Miller could tell by the way she rolled her eyes how thrilled she was that he was back.
‘Like, there were literally a million people in the pub. No, there almost certainly weren’t. He was literally pissing himself laughing. No, I think you’ll find he wasn’t. Well, I have literally been here two minutes. Literally. So how the hell can I be in trouble already?’
Andrea grunted again and threw in a shrug for good measure. ‘I think you’ve just got a gift.’
He knocked and bowled straight through DCI Susan Akers’s door before she had a chance to say ‘come in’. Using the same long-perfected tactic, he sat down before he was invited. He knew it would be fine, because even though Akers was his boss, they’d known each other a long time and were close. Well, as close as you could be to someone you were inordinately fond of, but who was also well capable of scaring you half to death whenever she fancied it.
Whenever you . . . whenever he messed up.
‘Balloons would probably have been a bit much,’ he said. ‘I get that, but a cake would have been nice. Not a massive cake, I mean not the kind of cake someone could jump out of. Well, maybe a child or a very small person. That sort of size. I mean, now I think about it, any sort of cake was unlikely, bearing in mind nobody knew I was coming in. But there’s still time, if anyone fancies making the gesture. That’s all I’m saying. I promise I’ll act surprised.’
He grinned at her, but Akers stayed stony-faced.
‘Have you finished, Detective Sergeant?’
He pretended that he was thinking about it, then leaned forward to pluck a dead leaf from the potted plant on her desk. It looked nasty. ‘Grey mould.’ He shook his head to let her know just how nasty it was. ‘You need to keep an eye on that.’
‘What the hell are you doing here?’
‘Oh my God. I must have missed it!’
He grabbed the newspaper that was sitting on her desk and began leafing quickly through it. ‘You know, crime being ….over. Is it in here somewhere? I didn’t hear anything on the radio. I mean that’s fantastic news, obviously. So what are you going to do, now none of us are needed any more? You and your missus will have plenty of time for the amateur dramatics now, and the golf, so it’s a win-win when you think about it . . .’
He stopped because, even though he was not always great at taking a hint, on this occasion Miller could see very clearly that she wasn’t remotely charmed or amused. Best to cut his losses, he reckoned. Best to tell the truth.
‘I was bored, Susan. Fair enough?’
‘It’s only been six weeks.’
‘I know exactly how long it’s been.’
‘That’s not enough time. You were given twice that long.’
‘Rattling around in that house—’
‘That’s not a good enough reason—’
‘I need to work.’ He looked at her, made sure she knew he meant it. ‘I need to do something.’
He let his head drop back for a few seconds, and when he lifted it again the DCI was straightening papers on her desk. It was probably an effort to distract herself from wanting to throw something at him. He saw her look past him and he didn’t need to turn round to know that people in the incident room were watching through the big window of her office.
‘Look, don’t get me wrong, Dec,’ she said. ‘Nobody’s more delighted than I am to see you’re doing better.’
‘Me,’ he said. ‘I’m more delighted.’
‘But it’s still my job to see that this team runs efficiently and that means all officers doing their jobs properly. I know you think you’re up to it, but . . .’ She looked at him and he saw her eyes close for a second or two which was usually a sign that he was wearing her down. He tried not to do anything
too obvious like cheer or punch the air. ‘OK, but I’ll need to re-jig things a bit.’
Unable to resist it, he turned to give the incident room audience a thumbs-up.
‘Clough and Fuller are a team now,’ she said. ‘So I’ll have to find someone else to pair you up with. I could put you with the officer who came across to replace you, but that would be cruel and unusual punishment.’ She left a beat, which he thought was impressive. ‘For them, obviously.’
‘Obviously,’ he said.
‘I’ll have a word with DI Sullivan, see what he thinks.’
That pissed on Miller’s chips, somewhat. ‘Sullivan’s a DI?’
‘Came through last month.’
‘Honestly, you turn your back for five minutes and everything turns to shit.’ Tim Sullivan’s promotion was genuinely bad news, but seeing Susan working to suppress a smile made him feel a little better.
‘Leave it with me, Dec,’ she said.
Miller stood up to leave but stopped at the door. ‘I’m serious, by the way.’ He pointed to her sorry-looking plant. ‘Grey mould. Botrytis. Nasty if you don’t sort it. Just remove the infected bits, do something about your ventilation and you’ll be right as ninepence. See, Susan?’
Akers pulled a face, like she knew she’d regret asking. ‘What?’
‘Back on the job less than an hour and I’ve already saved a life. To be honest, I don’t know how you’ve managed without me.’