Playing with Fire by Kerry Wilkinson – Extract

Playing with Fire

1

Andrew Hunter put his feet on the desk and leant back in his chair. In what was a less-than-impressive office, the chair was worth more than the rest of the furniture put together. The estate agent’s advert had enthusiastically declared the place came ‘fully furnished’ which, Andrew had to admit, it did – up to a point. What the advert hadn’t revealed was that the furnishings were apparently part of a job-lot of junk being cleared out from a school. He had already paid the deposit to secure the space when he realised the underside of the thick wooden table that served as his desk was plastered with dried chewing gum and felt-tip declarations that ‘Ian iz bent’. Among other things, ‘Ian’ certainly seemed to have a very varied sexual appetite.

The chair he’d inherited had a dreadful blue canvas covering and the back wouldn’t stay fixed in place. As part of a lavish exhibition of spending which he hoped at the time would impress prospective clients, he bought a brand-new leather-backed seat which the website dubbed ‘the Big Daddy’ of office chairs. It didn’t mention that it came flat-packed, which somewhat took away from Andrew’s enjoyment at receiving it. Two days later, he finally managed to relax in the height of luxury. Well, it would have been if he could have figured out how to make it go up and down.

Andrew pushed back into his new purchase and won­dered why he once thought a chair would be enough to woo clients. Then he jumped as someone rapped hard on the frosted glass of his office. He tried to spin around but somehow mixed up his limbs, catching his knee hard on the solid wood of the desk. He shouted ‘Come in’, at the same time stifling a swear word and rubbing his knee.

A man in a sharp, perfectly fitting grey suit entered the office. He was somewhere in his late fifties, possibly early sixties, and had a bright pink tie with matching handker­chief sticking out from his jacket pocket. His grey hair was immaculately swept backwards, while his six-foot-plus height made Andrew, with his five-foot-eight frame, feel instantly insecure. Andrew watched his visitor peer from one side of the office to the other, taking in the white, largely empty walls and potted plant in the corner before turning to face him. It was pretty clear that he was under-whelmed.

‘Is this Andrew Hunter’s office?’ he asked abruptly.

Andrew stood, trying not to wince from the pain in his knee. ‘I’m Andrew,’ he said, stretching out a hand.

The man gripped it firmly. ‘You’re a private investiga­tor?’

‘Er, yes,’ Andrew replied, wondering if he could match the iron handshake. He couldn’t and the man quickly released him.

‘I’m Harley Todd,’ the man said, still looking around. ‘You’re definitely the Andrew Hunter?’

Andrew wondered if his fame – or lack of – had some­how preceded him. ‘I am Andrew Hunter, yes. I’m a private investigator. Can I help you . . . ?’ He pointed towards the chair on the opposite side of the desk, the blue canvas one he had rejected for himself.

Harley edged around the table, as if making a special effort not to touch anything. Andrew didn’t think his office was dirty but it was somewhat sparse. Aside from the two chairs, the large desk and his computer, there was an empty bookshelf, the potted plant he had inherited and kept forgetting to water, and a stack of boxes which con­tained junk he didn’t have room for in his flat. To prospective clients, he figured the closed boxes might seem as if they contained vital paperwork. The fact they didn’t was something they didn’t need to know.

Light spilled through the window, partially obscured by the boxes, glinting from the man’s expensive-looking cuff ­links. Harley carefully sat in the chair, instantly annoyed as the backrest fell backwards.

‘Sorry about that,’ Andrew said. ‘I’m waiting on a replacement. Delivery companies, hey?’ It was a lie which Harley didn’t seem convinced by. He certainly didn’t respond to Andrew’s lighthearted chuckle.

‘I’m not sure this is what I expected,’ Harley said. His voice was full of authority, the type of terrifying tone that made Andrew think of teachers and parents. Or worse, his former father-in-law.

‘I can assure you, I run a very professional service,’ Andrew said, only half-believing his words. He swivelled slightly in his chair, wondering if ‘the Big Daddy’ would impress this prospective client.

If it did, then the man hid it well. ‘I’ve never come to a private investigator before. I found you in the phone book. I think I was expecting some sort of ex-policeman around my age.’

Andrew had forgotten about the phone-book advert as he had been focusing mainly on Internet advertising. ‘I offer the highest class of service . . .’

The investigator tried to look confident as Harley again scanned him up and down. ‘How old are you?’

‘Thirty-four,’ Andrew replied without thinking.

‘Hmmm . . .’ Harley was squinting slightly, apparently wondering what to ask next. ‘It might be better that you’re younger . . .’

Andrew sat up straighter, thinking he might be on to something. ‘How can I help you?’

The man ignored his question. ‘Are you married? Kids?’

It wasn’t the response Andrew expected but, given the man’s resonating tone, he felt obliged to answer. ‘I was married, I’m not any longer. I don’t have children.’

‘Hmmm . . .’

Andrew watched Harley repeat the examination. He was beginning to grow more and more uneasy under the older man’s gaze. The suit he was wearing was a little tight and compared to the quality of the garment the man in front of him was wearing it felt insufficient for the air of professionalism he was trying to portray.

‘Did you leave her or the other way around?’ Harley’s query was as direct as before.

‘I’m sorry, I . . .’ Andrew was stammering, uncomfort­able with the question.

Harley fired straight back. ‘I know it’s not my business but I like to work with certain types of people, Mr Hunter. I have a very important job and I’ll pay you very well.’

Andrew paused for a moment. He dropped any pretence of being someone he wasn’t and leant forward in his seat, allowing himself to slump. ‘She left me.’

‘Hmmm . . .’

‘It wasn’t as simple as that,’ Andrew added, keen to justify himself. ‘We were very different. She has a very rich family, while I . . . don’t. Her dad never liked me. Her mum did but, well, that didn’t really matter. In the end, when we were thinking about kids, it fell apart.’

‘So her father didn’t approve?’

Andrew thought he sensed a flicker of sympathy in the man’s voice but he wasn’t sure. ‘No.’

Harley nodded slowly, scratching his chin. ‘We’re hard people to please when it comes to our little girls. You’ll learn that if you have children.’

Andrew said nothing but held the man’s gaze until Harley clapped his hands together loudly. For the first time, Andrew noticed how big they were. He’d felt his hand being squeezed when they shook hands but hadn’t noticed how brutish they now seemed. The clap echoed around the room.

‘I think you might be exactly who I’m looking for, Mr Hunter.’

Andrew nodded. ‘So how can I help you?’

Harley smiled and shook his head gently. ‘First tell me how you came to do this. Are you ex-police? Marines?’

Andrew snorted before he could stop himself. Just thinking of the marines’ training he had seen on television made him feel slightly sick. His idea of exercise was the walk it took to climb the stairs to his office each morning. His slightly overweight physique was certainly not the type to be accepted into the navy. He wouldn’t describe himself as ‘fat’ but he had noticed his suit clinging to his thighs in recent weeks. The football he used to play as a teenager seemed increasingly as if it was something from another life.

Harley was sitting impatiently with his legs crossed and fingers interlocked, waiting for a reply.

‘I have a degree in criminology,’ Andrew said.

The older man nodded. ‘But why are you doing this? Why aren’t you off with the police or MI5 or something?’

Andrew didn’t know why he continued to entertain Harley’s questions. It wasn’t because of the promise of money but perhaps it was because Harley had said he was the person he was looking for. Beyond money, Andrew was looking for something to stimulate his mind.

‘Do you want me to be honest?’ he said.

As if expecting something exciting, Harley leant in, licking his lips. ‘Always.’

‘It’s a bit of a complicated story. I studied criminology at university and met a girl, Keira, while I was there.’

‘The ex-wife?’ Harley interrupted.

Andrew nodded. ‘Her father is high up with a bank in London. They own this giant mansion in Cheshire which they use at the weekends. It’s unbelievable. Keira took me there one time while we were still first years. I thought the weekend had gone well but she was really upset on the drive home. She said her mum told her that her dad hated me and insisted we break up.’

Harley said nothing but Andrew looked up to see him nodding. He didn’t know if it was because the man had taken a dislike to him as well, or because he had children of a similar age of whom he was equally protective.

‘We didn’t break up,’ Andrew went on. ‘We stayed together through university and then flew to Vegas and got married the day after Keira’s final exam.’

The older man coughed and unlocked his fingers. He hadn’t said it explicitly but Andrew knew for sure that he had a daughter who was most likely a young adult, possi­bly with an equally troubling boyfriend.

‘Anyway, that didn’t go down too well,’ Andrew contin­ued. ‘But her mum was great and her dad seemed to accept it in the end. Well, sort of. He got me a job in his bank. It wasn’t what I wanted to do but I didn’t have much choice.’

‘So how did you end up back here?’ Harley asked.

Andrew found the man hard to read. His legs were still crossed, while he was staring intently across the table, seemingly interested in Andrew’s story.

‘Guess.’

Andrew didn’t know why he’d said it but he suspected Harley Todd shared much in common with his former father-in-law. Harley seemed to relish the challenge. His eyes narrowed and he broke into a wide smile for the first time since entering the office. ‘He paid you off.’

Andrew laughed and spun his chair a quarter of the way around, before returning to face the other man. ‘How did you know?’

‘It’s what I would do.’

The answer was clinical and Andrew knew the person he was dealing with was uncannily like Keira’s father.

Andrew nodded slowly. ‘He told me he would make sure we broke up one way or another before we had children. He said that if I took the money, at least I’d have that. If I didn’t then he’d make sure I ended up with nothing.’

The other man didn’t speak for a few moments. ‘Smart man,’ he said eventually. ‘So you took the money?’

Andrew shrugged. ‘He didn’t give me much choice.’

‘How long ago?’

‘Seven years.’

Harley waved his arms around to indicate the office. ‘And this is what you did with the money?’ His tone sounded mocking but Andrew didn’t think he was trying to be cruel; it was simply the way he phrased things.

‘Among other things. I only started this six months ago.’

Harley nodded with a smile on his face. ‘Do you need my money?’

‘No.’ Andrew didn’t know why he continued to answer. It was almost as if he was facing his ex-father-in-law, unable to stop revealing his inner thoughts.

‘How much have you got left?’

‘Lots.’

‘So why do you do this?’

Andrew shrugged. ‘Because I want to.’

Harley made a point of looking around the room. ‘Why haven’t you got a better office if you have so much money?’

‘Money doesn’t interest me. It’s just there. I spend what I need to.’

Apart from nodding almost non-stop, Harley wasn’t moving. He stared at Andrew, as if fascinated by a new creature he had never seen before.

‘You’re perfect,’ he said, almost purring. Andrew didn’t respond. He didn’t know if he wanted to work for the man in any case. ‘Do you want to know what the job is?’ Harley asked.

Andrew sat up straighter, deciding that he would face the man, no matter if he felt intimidated. ‘Whatever it is, it’s going to cost you.’

‘I thought you had money?’

‘I do.’

Harley leant back into the broken seat, splaying his legs. He laughed loudly, the sound echoing around the room. ‘I’m really going to like you,’ he said.

‘So, what’s the problem with your daughter?’ Andrew asked.

The other man stopped laughing. ‘Who said I have a problem with my daughter?’

It was Andrew’s turn to smile defiantly at the man, waiting for a reply. Harley stared back before turning away.

‘Sienna,’ he said. ‘She’s just turned eighteen. She goes to college in the city. I wanted to take her away from the area but she insisted. In the end we agreed that she had to go to the university of my choice if she got to go to this college place with her friends.’

‘Why are you choosing where she goes?’ Andrew wanted to get a rise out of the man.

Harley didn’t react. ‘“We’re hard people to please when it comes to our little girls”,’ he repeated.

Andrew nodded. ‘What’s the problem?’

‘She’s pregnant. Well, she was . . .’

For the first time, Andrew thought he saw a small chink in Harley’s demeanour. One of his eyes twitched as if he was winking but it was clearly not deliberate.

‘What happened?’

‘What do you think happened?’ Harley said irritably. ‘I paid to make it go away.’

‘You made her have an abortion?’

The two men locked eyes but Harley ignored the ques­tion. ‘You’re on thin ice,’ he said and Andrew realised their roles had completely reversed.

‘I don’t mind if you walk away,’ Andrew said, indicating towards the door.

Harley didn’t move. ‘I made it go away.’

‘So what do you need from me?’

Any trace of a smile had disappeared from the man’s face. His eyes were narrow, the rest of his features fixed. ‘I want to know who the father was.’

2

Detective Sergeant Jessica Daniel glanced up from her plate to face the man sitting opposite. She put the metal fork on the table, loudly enough to ensure he knew she wanted his attention.

‘So, Garry,’  Jessica began. ‘Who the hell is Sebastian Lowe?’

She watched Garry Ashford squirm. Despite the fact she had known the journalist for a few years, she knew he was still that little bit afraid of her.

Garry looked up from his breakfast, where a congealed fried egg yolk had blended into the leftover baked-bean juice. All that was left of his breakfast was a final piece of black pudding, which he was chewing on while swirling his hand in the air, as if pointing out to  Jessica that he would answer when he had finished. She had purposely picked her moment to ask the question, so that he was at his most uncomfortable. Jessica fixed Garry with a steady stare, telling him with her eyes that she was waiting for the answer.

The journalist swallowed and started to speak before spluttering and gulping the final mouthful of tea from his mug.

‘Sorry,’ he coughed. ‘I was just finishing off.’ He smiled apologetically but Jessica didn’t relax her glare. ‘Sebastian’s newish,’ he went on. ‘He’s been working for me for around six months. I hired him but he’s just been bumped up to senior news reporter.’

‘When did you start hiring people?’ Jessica replied, fail­ing to hide her surprise.

‘Since I was promoted to news editor.’

Jessica weighed up his response, not overly satisfied with it. ‘What’s he like? A bit of a troublemaker?’

Garry shook his head. ‘Sebastian? No, he’s a bit like I was. He gets by story to story, although he seems to come up with better stuff than I did.’

Jessica looked sideways at the man, flicking her long dark-blonde hair away from her face and wishing she had tied it back. When she had invited Garry for breakfast, she hadn’t known if she wanted to play on the fact he was scared of her, or that she was pretty sure he still fancied her – despite apparently having a girlfriend. Torn between the two, she opted for a bit of both and left her hair down.

As they waited for their food to arrive in the cafe around the corner from his newspaper’s office, Jessica hadn’t said too much. She allowed the tension to build, watching him devour a full English and deciding she would definitely be going down the ‘scare’ route. She quickly finished her sausage sandwich, wondering if the large breakfast was a usual thing for him, or if he had ordered it because she was paying.

‘Does he have better dress sense than you?’ Jessica asked.

Garry peered down at his brown corduroy trousers, before realising what he was doing. In fairness, Jessica had to admit he was looking as smart as she had ever seen him. His previously long scruffy hair had been cut short and was tidily shaped, with the goatee on his chin looking as if it was there by design, as opposed to because he hadn’t bothered to shave. His cord trousers were perhaps a little outdated but, for as long as she had known him, that seemed to be his style.

‘Why do you want to know about Seb?’ Garry asked, not taking the bait.

Jessica reached into the bag under her seat and scooped out a copy of the previous day’s Manchester Morning Herald. She pushed a ketchup bottle to one side and unfolded the paper before turning it around so Garry could see the front page, pointing at Sebastian’s byline on the lead story.

‘Did you have anything to do with this?’ she asked.

The headline read ‘FLAMING HELL’ with ‘Killer Out This Month’ underneath.

Garry must have known what was coming but he still fidgeted awkwardly. ‘I didn’t write the headline but I knew about Seb’s story.’

Jessica pushed the paper away. ‘Didn’t anyone think about the implications? What if this guy gets hurt when they let him out of prison?’

The journalist sank into his seat and Jessica began to feel a little sorry for him. ‘That’s exactly what I said,’ Garry insisted. ‘I told my editor that. I told Seb that. I said we should be careful if we were going to run it.’

From her earlier dealings with Garry, Jessica knew he had a pretty good grasp of what was right and wrong. Or, more specifically, what she considered to be right or wrong. She wasn’t as prejudiced against the media as some at the station but, as with all professions, she knew there were good guys and bad guys. Garry was one of the better ones. He had certainly helped her in the past, although she was loath to admit it – especially to him.

‘I’ve been assigned to keep an eye on Martin when he comes out of prison,’ Jessica said. ‘It’s not even our job but after this,’ she pointed to the paper again, ‘we don’t have much choice.’

Garry looked a little apologetic, his eyes slightly wider than before. ‘You have to admit it’s a good story.’

Jessica knew it was and had made that exact point in the staff briefing the previous day. It was probably that which prompted Detective Chief Inspector Jack Cole to give her the job of escorting Martin Chadwick when he left prison in a few days’ time. Unknown to Garry – she hoped – everything had been moved forward by a day in an attempt to avoid any further publicity.

‘Where did Sebastian get the story from?’  Jessica asked, fully aware Garry would never give her the answer. She was curious because the day of a prisoner’s release wasn’t the type of information that should have been freely avail­able. All they had managed to come up with in the briefing was that the second subject of the article – who would have been told by the prison service that Martin was due to be released – had taken it to the media.

Garry shook his head. ‘You know I won’t tell you that.’

‘Was it Anthony Thompson?’  Jessica asked, hoping Garry’s body language would give him away. As he had grown older, the man had clearly learned his lessons from dealing with her. He sat impassively, refusing to answer. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Jessica added. ‘I know Anthony might have every reason to want to hurt Martin – but flagging it up for the world to see isn’t going to do anyone any good.’

Garry nodded slowly and  Jessica could see he agreed with her, although the congealed egg yolk on his chin did detract slightly from the serious conversation she was trying to cultivate. She leant across the table and wiped the yellow liquid from Garry’s face as he writhed away from her. ‘You’re not my mum,’ he said with a smile.

Jessica grinned back, the atmosphere lost. ‘Believe it or not, I didn’t invite you to breakfast to simply bollock you. Whoever this Sebastian is should do his homework. There are mistakes in the piece and, although it’s not my job to clean up after you, my boss and I thought it would be much better if we gave you some proper facts for next time.’

‘On the record?’

Jessica shook her head. ‘You give me your source and I’ll give you something on the record.’ Garry smiled back but didn’t answer.

‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Off the record it is. Have you got a pen?’

The journalist stacked his empty plate on top of Jessica’s and moved them into the middle of the table, before fumbling in a shoulder bag hanging over the back of his chair and taking out a notepad and pen.

When it was clear he was ready,  Jessica began. ‘You got most of it right. Martin Chadwick is due out of prison but you know I can’t confirm exactly when that’s going to happen. Up until seven years ago, he was a bit of a pest with sporadic criminal offences, none of which was very serious. Then he set fire to a pub he thought was empty. Unfortunately, a twenty-one-year-old man named Alfie Thompson was sleeping inside.’

Garry was making notes, although  Jessica hadn’t yet told him anything he wouldn’t already know. She paused to let him catch up, continuing when his pen scratched to a halt. ‘Martin was so drunk, he was picked up sleeping on a bench less than a hundred yards away from the pub. The lighter and empty bottle of vodka he used to start the fire were still in his possession. He didn’t exactly confess, largely because he said he couldn’t remember doing it. With the CCTV footage and forensic evidence, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received his prison sentence.’

The journalist looked up from his pad. ‘We know this . . .’

Jessica interrupted. ‘What you don’t know is that Martin had an eleven-year-old son who was taken into care when his father went into prison. He is now eighteen and, apparently, he’s been in regular contact with his dad. I don’t know much about his mother but the son is called Ryan. Although I’ve not met him yet, strictly unofficially we would rather you be careful of mentioning him. He doesn’t have anything to do with this and I am only telling you because I know you will find it out at some point anyway.’

She let her words hang. Garry hadn’t written down any of the last pieces of information. ‘All I can do is ask,’ he said.

Jessica nodded. ‘Obviously you know about Anthony Thompson. It was his son killed in the fire. I’m assuming he was your source about Martin’s release because he was informed. We don’t know that much about Anthony, except for what you printed.’

She picked the paper back up and began to read. ‘“There’s no bringing back my Alfie but everyone has to pay for what they’ve done”.’

She looked up to see Garry wince. ‘I know it’s ambigu­ous,’ he said.

‘Deliberately so?’ Jessica asked. She fell silent as a wait­ress came close to their table and picked up the plates.

‘Can I get you anything else?’ she asked sweetly, although the twang of her local accent made it sound as if she was offering them a fight. The woman was somewhere in her early twenties, with bleached hair tied neatly in a bun on top of her head. Jessica watched Garry eye the waitress up and down, before stopping himself when he realised she was observing him.

Jessica giggled slightly, shaking her head. ‘No thanks, just the bill.’

When the woman had moved away, she raised her eye­brows. ‘Are you really a ladies’ man now?’

Garry offered an apologetic ‘No’ but  Jessica already knew he was far from the type. He might have wandering eyes, as did most men she knew, but the journalist lacked the social grace to be discreet.

Jessica lowered her voice. ‘From what Anthony says, I don’t know if he’s referring to the jail sentence as Martin “paying” for what he’s done, or if there’s a veiled threat there.’

Garry spoke slowly and cautiously. ‘I don’t know. Sebastian did the interview. I know you can read it both ways. I said we should take it out.’

Jessica returned the paper to her bag. ‘I don’t think any of us want something stupid happening when Martin comes out. Whatever you think of the guy, or the punish­ment, he’s done his time.’

Garry put down his pen and nervously wiped his chin with a napkin from the table.

‘How are things anyway?’ Jessica asked in a lighter tone.

He stopped dabbing his face and smiled. ‘Are you actu­ally being nice to me?’

Jessica grinned. ‘Hey, I left my hair down for this impromptu bollocking. I’m not all bad.’

Garry shrugged. ‘I’m doing okay. I’ve been promoted and I’ve moved in with my girlfriend.’

‘Is she the blind one?’

The journalist snorted gently and shook his head. ‘I thought you were being nice?’

‘This is me being nice,’ Jessica replied with a wink.

‘What about you?’ Garry asked. ‘I heard you were loved-up, engaged and all that?’

Jessica tried not to fidget but couldn’t stop herself. Instead of answering his question, she shunted her chair backwards and picked up her jacket, before crouching to retrieve her bag. ‘I’ve gotta go,’ she said.

Garry laughed. ‘Thanks for the breakfast.’

‘Judging by the amount you left on your chin and shirt, it certainly looked like you enjoyed it.’ He glanced down at his clean shirt before looking back up at a smiling Jessica. ‘Gotcha,’ she said.

The journalist put his coat on while Jessica paid at the counter. As she turned, he looped his bag over his shoulder and stretched out his hand for her to shake. ‘It was good seeing you again, Jess,’ he said.

Jessica rolled her eyes but shook his hand anyway. ‘Can you deliver a message for me?’

‘What?’

‘Tell this “Sebastian” that I will kick his arse if anything happens to Martin.’


Excerpted from Playing with Fire by Kerry Wilkinson. Copyright © 2013 by Kerry Wilkinson.
First published 2013 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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