A helicopter roared in enemy airspace. Its searchlight speared out of the warm night and swept over the rooftop. Sean Harker swore and ducked into the shadow of an air vent.
He pressed himself against the rough, damp brick.
He had dressed for the darkness, as per orders. Blackjeans, black top, black hood pulled over his blond hair. If the light caught him, nothing would stand out more in its merciless glare than someone who was obviously trying not to be seen.
But it was just a routine patrol, not looking for anyone in particular. The light moved on and the helicopter didn’t react to him. It disappeared into the darkness.
Sean stayed where he was until he saw Matt emerge from the shadow of another vent. Then he stepped out,just as Curly crept from behind the small generator shed.
Sean had spent half the night crouching down, and his thighs cramped. He flexed his arms and back and gazed out across the graffiti’d maze of rooftops and alleys. Then he and Curly looked to Matt for orders. Matt jerked his head, and the three of them silently gathered together by the skylight.
One of its panels was cranked open, and fumes of oil and petrol and ganja rose up from the workshop into the summer night. Sean took a deep breath through his nose.
They were the smells of his childhood.
The vehicle workshop was all lit up and the security shutters were down. Men in grimy overalls lounged in an office behind a glass partition, catching a last smoke and a drink before heading off. Even if they had looked up, they wouldn’t have seen the three lurkers. They would be looking out of a brightly lit space into the night.
Finally it looked like they were leaving. One of them stood by the keypad to the security alarm, ready to tap in the code. Matt gave Sean the nod and Sean delved into his pocket for his phone. He had already loaded up the recording app. Slowly, so that no one down there wouldspot a sudden movement out of the corner of their eyes, he stretched his hand through the open panel, holding the phone out to catch the sounds below.
Bleep, bleep, bleep. The electronic tones echoed around the workshop, and they had the recording. They could play it back at their leisure to work out the code. Then they could let themselves in, switch off the alarm, and they’d have all the time in the world to get what they had come for.
Sean grinned at the others and began to withdraw the phone. Matt gave an approving thumbs-up. A grinning Curly went further and gave him a nudge.
His hand bumped against the frame of the skylight and the phone was knocked out of his fingers. He made a futile grab at thin air at the same time as he heard it hit the concrete floor.
Perhaps even that wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t instinctively hissed, ‘Shit!’
A cry came from below. Curly and Matt flung themselves flat, away from the skylight. Sean was frozen for only a second longer, but it was long enough to be caught by the searching torchlight. More shouting below – not in English, but he got the gist of it. There’s someone on the roof!
Running footsteps echoed. Without a word the three pelted towards the top of the fire escape, a vertical iron ladder with safety hoops around it . . .
And skidded to a halt. The workshop’s back door was right by the bottom of the ladder and it was just opening. They wouldn’t get down before the work crew emerged.
Sean ran over to the far side of the building. There was no escape here – it was a sheer drop into the forecourt.
The only other way was the narrow alley at the back of the shop. It couldn’t be more than three metres wide.
‘Oh shit oh shit oh shit . . .’ Curly was muttering.
Matt cuffed him on the head. ‘OK.’ He backed away from the edge. ‘They’re gonna come up one by one. We’re just going to have to pick them off one at a time—’
‘No. No need,’ Sean said. They stared at him. ‘They only saw me. They don’t know anyone else is here.’
‘So what?’ Matt demanded. ‘We just let them take you? Fuck that!’
‘No.’ Sean shook his head emphatically, and pointed at the vents where they had hidden. ‘Get back there.’ He felt the excitement rise within him. A tense, nervous thrill, like his lungs and his stomach and his balls were all cramping into a tight knot. It was scary and weird and good.
He grinned and ran back to the top of the fire escape.
The first of the work crew had his foot on the bottom rung.
‘Wankers!’ he shouted, and ducked out of sight. He turned quickly to face the others. ‘Guys. I can do this.
Hide over there.’ He jerked his thumb at the air vents.
Matt took a breath, about to argue. Sean looked him in the eye. ‘Please?’
Curly turned to Matt for orders. Matt just stared at Sean like he was mad, but he could see it was their only street soldier option. Slowly, not taking his eyes off Sean, he backed into the shadows, with Curly at his side.
He drew a deep breath into his lungs, leaped onto the low wall with a single bound, and flung his lean, six-foot frame into the darkness. Air soared around him . . .
Sean bounced on his toes, and felt his heart thud inside him. And as he heard footsteps on the iron rungs, he began to run back across the roof towards the alley.
Long legs ate up the distance in a few paces. He drew a deep breath into his lungs, leaped onto the low wall with a single bound, and flung his lean, six-foot frame into the darkness. Air soared around him . . .
. . . Except that he wasn’t going to make it. He was dropping faster than the far wall was approaching. It was only three metres away, but he had picked a really bad time to learn that three metres was further than it looked.
His arms began to windmill, striving for that little extra momentum.
‘Shi-i-i-t . . .’
His torso thumped into the wall with an impact that knocked the breath from his body. He flung his arms forward to get a hold. Pain flared in his armpits as his weight ground them into the sharp edge of the roof.
But he wasn’t falling any more. With an effort, he hooked his elbows over the top of the wall, dug his toes into the cracks and levered himself up until he could fall forward onto the flat roof on the other side.
He rolled onto his back, stared up at the night sky, and laughed. Pain stabbed through every bruised rib and he didn’t care. ‘Ha!’
Angry, baffled yells behind him made him grin. The work crew lined the edge of their roof. They were three metres away and might as well have been on the other side of the city.
‘You little shit!’ one of them shouted. Another seemed like he might seriously try and jump over, but then he looked down and thought better of it. If Sean could barely do it with a run-up, no way was it possible from a standing start. None of the men had noticed the other two figures, still in the shadows on the other side of the roof.
But now one of them was fumbling inside his coat for . . .
Shit! Sean pushed himself to his feet and was running for cover even before he was upright. If the guy was armed, he wasn’t going to hang around.
He ducked down behind the coaming of an aircon unit, breathing heavily. He hadn’t thought much beyond this point, and had no idea if you could get down from this place. If there were skylights, then he would break in, risk the alarms, and smash his way out of a window downstairs before reinforcements arrived.
But he had to be quick. He only had a couple of minutes before they sent people down to ground level, and then back up inside this building.
He needn’t have worried. His eyes lit on the railings at the top of a fire escape – a proper one: a metal staircase winding its way down into the next alley. He charged towards it, hearing the angry shout from across the way.
Sean threw himself down the metal stairs and kept his grip on the iron railing long enough to fling himself in the direction of the main road. The pain in his ribs he told to piss off, and for the time being it obeyed. The alley was an obstacle course of overturned bins and sagging boxes, all vomiting their contents across his path.
Sean half ran, half hurdled, his whole life shrunk down to one aim: get to the main road; get out of here.
He burst out into the road like a cannon ball. The pavement was lined with the turning-out crowd – people coming home from the late screening or the restaurant.
The air was rich with the sweet aroma of fast food. Faces loomed in front of him and then whipped away, just as shouts rose up behind him. Shit. They were still on his tail. At least they probably wouldn’t start shooting in front of all these witnesses.
Sean put his head down and urged himself on.
He had to get away from this area. And there, up ahead, was his way out of here. A guy in black leathers and helmet, sitting at the lights astride a Kawasaki Ninja.
They had just turned red. The stream of traffic was slowing down and Sean was running faster than the cars, so he took a left and dodged through a gap in the oncoming traffic. An angry horn blared as a car jammed on its brakes. It shuddered as the car behind kept going and ploughed into it with a metal crunch.
Sean summoned all his strength for a final dash between the streams of traffic before the lights could change again. The biker looked in his wing mirror and saw him. The helmet swung round to stare.
Sean didn’t stop. He barged into the man with his shoulder, hard enough to knock him off the saddle. The guy bounced on one foot, arms waving for balance, and then sprawled in the road as Sean grabbed the handlebars and swung his leg over. And then the biker was back, wading in with hammering fists before Sean could get his hand on the throttle. He ducked under the first swinging punch, and the guy grabbed him with both hands, one on each shoulder. Sean saw what was coming and thrust his arms up in front of his face, just before the guy nutted him with his helmet. Sean’s arms took the blow.
Whatever – no time to argue. Sean brought his arms down hard, knocking the hands aside, and in the same movement brought his knee up into the guy’s balls. The biker bent double and staggered away, his yell muffled by the helmet.
It was the chance Sean needed to gun the throttle, and the bike surged away. ‘Yeah!’ He pumped the air with a triumphant fist.
He kept the gear low and the throttle at max, forcing power into the wheels while the engine howled. Adrenalin pumped through his veins like petrol through the engine.
The white lines on the road blurred beneath him, and gritty, petrol-laden fumes washed into his eyes. He took a right, and pointed the front wheel towards friendly territory.
Five more minutes and he sensed that he was properly out of danger. Untrained eyes would have said it was just another shopping district, units lining the road on either side, some shuttered for the night, some still lit up for the late-night population. But Sean was finely tuned to the invisible barriers that carved up the city – different races, different religions, who was a friend, who wasn’t. The style and language of the graffiti had changed. There were different tags on the walls. This was the no man’s land between two sides. He wasn’t home and dry yet, but there would be allies here. He could slow down, a little.
With the engine revving hard beneath him, Sean scanned the way ahead for landmarks. After a moment he knew where he was. The glowing neon sign of the fastfood joint where he’d had a quarter-pounder with fries last week. Curly had been trying to chat up the girl who took their order. She had replied with a remark about only serving burgers, not chipolatas. And she had held thumb and forefinger just far enough apart to make it clear what she was referring to.
Sean broke into a laugh at the memory. And then he was passing the restaurant and the memory came apart as he remembered what had happened next.
Two days later, the place had been blown up. One staff member and two customers killed, and a dozen others injured. The staff member had been Chipolata Girl.
The restaurant’s plate-glass windows had been boarded up so he couldn’t see into the blackened interior as he zipped past, but the devastation was clear. The brickwork was scorched where the flames had licked it.
Weird that they had left the sign switched on.
In that brief moment Sean was too distracted to notice the car make its way out of a side street directly into his path.
He grabbed the Ninja’s brake – too hard: the rear wheel skidded out left and Sean dropped onto the ground.
His body slammed into the tarmac and he pulled his arms in tight as he rolled. The road scraped his skin raw through his jeans. The bike continued on its way, slipping under the vehicle, with sparks flying and the creaking sound of metal on concrete echoing as it disappeared from view.
Running feet stopped in front of him. ‘You OK?’
A tall black guy helped him stagger up onto legs that were bleeding and sore. Concern was stamped all over his face. Sean looked around desperately. The Ninja was a write-off and he wasn’t going to get any more transport.
His best chance was to spin a sob story and get out before the cops arrived. He drew in a breath to begin – and suddenly a police cruiser was there, screeching to a halt with flashing lights.
The driver had the window down. ‘Hold him!’
The black guy turned towards Sean and opened his mouth – but Sean was already running. Hands grabbed at him and he jabbed back, hard, with his elbows. He felt them grind into flesh and bone. The black guy swore and the hands let go.
He ducked hard left into a shop. The door swung behind him into whoever was on his tail. More swearing.
Sean pushed on, between magazines and newspapers and canned food and bread. The only person in the shop was an old woman with a bucket and mop. She leaped out of his path and fell over backwards.
And there was the rear exit. Sean swerved towards it, but the floor was still wet. His foot slipped beneath him and he fell flat on his face.
He wasn’t given a chance to recover. A body fell on top of him, then another. He howled his anger and tried to push himself up. A third body knocked him down again and drove the breath from his lungs.
Immediately his hands were pulled behind his back and pinned together. Click, click. Metal loops snapped into place around his wrists.
And, despite everything, he laughed.
It had finally happened. There was a first time for everyone, and this was his. Like getting laid – though doing that for the first time had been a lot more fun.
Breath, warm and heavy, fell across his right cheek. There was coffee on it, stale and sour.
‘Share the joke, son?’ the voice murmured.
‘Yeah,’ Sean gasped. ‘My mum always told me a night out in Ilford would be shit.’
‘She wasn’t wrong.’ Someone grabbed the back of his head and banged his face onto the wet tiles. The voice said the three words that Sean had always known he would hear one day.
‘You’re nicked, son.’