Extract: Sirens by Joseph Knox
Sirens is the brooding debut novel by Joseph Knox and the first in a new series featuring disgraced detective Aidan Watts. The book has already received high praise from the likes of Val McDermid and Lee Child – and we’re predicting that it’ll be big.
After he’s caught stealing drugs from evidence, Aiden Waits is blackmailed into an undercover operation which sends him from the upper echelons of the super-rich to the low-life squalor of the drug scene. He’s tasked with finding the teenage daughter of James Rossiter – a powerful member of parliament – who’s run away from home. Uncovering the motives of those involved, and finding himself at the centre of a storm, Waits is thrown forwards – through politicians, police and drug lords – towards a truth he doesn’t want to know.
Read on for an extract from Sirens…
Afterwards I went back on to the night shift. They’d never trust me in the daylight again. I spent my time responding to 4 a.m. emergency calls, walking up and down dead escalators and trying not to think. I’d been good at that once. I could hardly believe it, a few months later, when I saw my breath in the air again. Saw November coming back around.
‘Shittin’ it down,’ said Sutty, refusing to get out of the car. Sometimes it was hailstones and sometimes it was slush. Tonight it was sheet rain, catching the light and cleaning down the streets. They needed it. My partner handed me his newspaper and I got out of the car, holding it over my head as an umbrella.
We were responding to a call from the manager of a charity shop. I watched his mouth moving. He wanted me to shift along some homeless people sheltering in the building’s doorway. It didn’t make a lot of sense but, then again, I wasn’t paying close attention. His nasal hairs were jet black and matted together, like the start of Hitler’s moustache. I looked at the sleeping man and woman in the doorway, told him he was wasting police time, and walked back through the rain to the car.
I climbed inside and handed Sutty the wet newspaper, his punishment for not coming with me. He gave me a look and then turned to a dripping, folded-down page.
‘See this?’ he said, holding out the paper and gauging my reaction. ‘No way to die, that, is it?’
The picture was blurred with rain, the text too, but I recognized the girl. She’d been one of a group, one of three I’d known briefly, the previous year. The subheading said she’d been twenty-three years old when she died. Twenty-two when I knew her. I looked out the window, at November, coming back around. She was the last of them. Sutty leaned in, cleared his throat with a graveyard cough.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘What happened there, really?’
I looked at him steadily. ‘You’re asking the wrong person.’
All I knew was where it had started, a year before. The three strikes against me and all the reasons I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t have explained the girls, the women, who had briefly entered my life. Briefly changed it. He wouldn’t have understood their laughs, their indignations, their secrets. For the rest of the night my eyes drifted to the people on the street, the girls, the women, and I felt like I was seeing the lives they wouldn’t live.
I got home in the early hours of the morning, made myself a drink and sat down. I flicked around the radio stations until I couldn’t put it off any longer. I reread the newspaper and let myself think about it properly for the first time in months.
‘You’re killing me,’ she said.
What had happened there, really?
The young couple crossed over to avoid me, and I heard the jingle of loose change in someone’s pocket.
A street you see every day can look unfamiliar, lying face down on the ground, and it took me a minute to work out where I was. The pavement was frozen. Low-hanging fog blurred the air, and nothing could pass through it without being altered somehow. It threw the whole city out of focus, taking the shine out of another Friday night.
My left arm had gone numb and I rolled off it to check the time. The face of my watch was shattered. Assuming it had stopped when I hit the floor, assuming that had only been a few minutes ago, I still had over an hour. I could get into some dry clothes and be at the bar in plenty of time to see the handover. I felt my way up a wall and got to my feet. My face hurt and my brain felt like it had come loose, rattling around inside my skull, erasing pin numbers and names of childhood friends.
I watched the young couple disappear into the fog. In spite of social media, CCTV and the state, we still live in a world where you can disappear if you want to. Or even if you don’t. It had been about a month since the story leaked.
A month since I’d gone missing.
I felt the back of my head where someone had just hit it, hard. My wallet was still in my pocket, so I hadn’t been mugged. I’d been warned. There was no one else around but I could feel eyes all over me.
The street swayed and I held on to a lamp post to steady it. When I started to walk I went for long stretches with my eyes closed, not even thinking about bumping into things.
Turning a corner, I found myself on Back Piccadilly, immediately recognizing its exhausted red-bricks by their external fire escapes. These buildings wall in a narrow alley on both sides, making a claustrophobic throughway. The evening rain had caught the moonlight, and I started walking out of nostalgia as much as anything. There was an all-night coffee shop at the other end, and I’d spent some time there in another life. It had been years since I stopped going, and the city had changed so much that I knew I wouldn’t see any of the old faces.
I was a few steps into the alleyway when I heard a car start behind me. An engine growled into life, flexing its muscles before falling into a smooth rumble. Light flooded the narrow path and a crooked silhouette grew out from my feet.
Thinner than I remembered it.
I looked over my shoulder, into blinding high-beams. The car was idling at the alleyway’s entrance. Nothing to see here. I turned and kept walking. I was halfway along when the beams shook. When they started following me.
The engine revved and the car moved closer. It sounded just two or three feet behind, and I knew then that I’d never really disappeared. I could feel the headlights, burning into my back. I didn’t want to turn and look through them at the driver any more. I was afraid of who it might be.
I pressed myself into an alcove so the car could pass. It stayed where it was for a few seconds. Squinting into the light I saw a BMW, all gleaming black paint and chrome. I could feel the night in my lungs. The blood, singing through my veins. A window came down but I couldn’t see inside.
‘Detective Constable Waits?’ said a man.
I heard a woman’s laughter from the passenger side.
‘We’re not asking, handsome. Get in.’
The rain tapping against the windscreen was making faces at me. My veins felt threadbare and weak, and I sat in the back of the car trying to make a fist for my own amusement. I thought of the speed in my coat pocket.
‘True what they say, then?’ said the driver, reading my mind. He looked to be in his late forties. He had broad shoulders and weaved them like a middleweight each time he turned the wheel. He wore a fitted suit jacket, charcoal grey in colour, which nearly matched the hair on his head. When he used the rear-view mirror it was casually, looking through me like I wasn’t there. The woman was a dishwater blonde with an efficient ponytail.
I didn’t say anything.
In the back seat I felt the chill of my sodden clothes and clenched my jaw to keep from shivering. The only thing in the car that hadn’t come straight from the showroom was a police scanner. It was turned right down. I could smell a designer vanilla perfume but didn’t recognize the brand. It didn’t match either of the people in the front seats, though. It smelled like money, like youth. We were driving emphatically away from where I’d been. Out of the nightlife, the glare. Past the empty shops and the going-going-gone local businesses. The huge, vacant buildings. The dying high street.
‘What’s he want?’ I said.
The man made eye contact in the mirror. ‘Didn’t ask.’
We pulled on to Deansgate.
Over a mile in length, Deansgate stretches from one side of the city to the other. In that space it does it all, from invite-only restaurants to down-and-out soup kitchens, with everything you can think of in between.
‘Well, where is he?’
I must have sworn.
‘Been there before have you?’ said the woman.
The tallest building outside the capital, Beetham Tower had been one of several skyscrapers planned for the city. The idea was to expand further and further upward, each structure a few metres taller than the last, like some great, dull-metal graph, charting endless growth. Developers had decided they could make millions by mortgaging small, overpriced rooms to single men and women, our only commodity. But their heads had been in the clouds. When the economy came crashing down around them, the owners, investors and builders lost everything. The male suicide rate rose slightly and everyone else carried on.
Now, most of these derelict building sites are cannibalized for scrap. The others are left to rot, collecting rainwater in exposed foundations. Rusting like open sores in the ground. There were times during its three-year construction when it seemed that even Beetham Tower wouldn’t be finished. It went up, though, in spite of everything, extended like a middle finger to the entire city.
We turned off Deansgate and pulled up to the tower’s car port. A beaming valet dressed like Sinatra leaned into the window. He recognized our driver at first sight, stopped smiling and waved us on, down to the subterranean car park.
Beetham Tower is shared by a Hilton hotel, residential apartments and, right at the top, bespoke penthouse suites.
Although the structure itself is streamlined, the four-storey annexe at its base is much broader. It has to be, containing as it does a ballroom, swimming pool, and the smiling sons and daughters of the top 2 per cent. The walls of the lobby and lobby bar are made almost entirely from windowed glass. The design is such that, should someone accidentally look outside, all they’d see is their own reflection.
I had been here before.
The previous year, after a young woman crashed through a nineteenth-floor window and fell to her death. Dasa Ruzicka was an underage sex-worker from the Czech Republic. She had been trafficked through Europe when she was fourteen, having been sold by her father to a local trader. It was easy to take girls from these places because they went missing so often. Each one was camouflaged against a backdrop of habitual disappearance. But there was another, more elemental, reason she was taken.
Dasa had been beautiful, and not the emaciated version of it they throw around these days. She gave meaning back to the word. Her clear complexion had naturally lent itself to sex work because, in spite of all the sadness life could parade past it, she went on looking pure somehow. A recurring frustration of my job was that girls, women, were things to fuck and throw punches at. To throw through windows. I wondered what it said about us now, that graceful was the worst thing you could be.
I was sure Dasa couldn’t have propelled herself through the window with such force. The hotel room she fell from had been empty, though. I kept guests and staff there for hours, questioning anyone whose key card might have allowed them access to the floor. When enough money had complained, a Detective Inspector was sent to relieve me. I took him into an empty room on the nineteenth floor, tried to explain the situation.
When he still wouldn’t listen I backed off towards the door, my eyes on the window. The city below. He realized what I was about to do and shouted at me to stop. I ran at the glass to see the look on his face as much as anything, but he managed to get in the way before I could hit it.
It was the second of three strikes against me that would eventually lead to front-page news. To my total disgrace. To my taking the only job left open to me.
Dasa’s death went down as a suicide and stayed that way.
I hadn’t been back to Beetham Tower since.
‘Detective Sergeant Conway,’ said the female officer, holding out her hand for me to shake.
Her colleague was talking to the receptionist while we waited in the lobby. By my estimation of a Special Branch officer, I would have called him overfamiliar. There was a roar of laughter from a group of men in tuxedos, entering through an enormous, ornate revolving door. They danced beneath a chandelier the size of a family car. I was wishing it down on them when I looked at DS Conway.
‘What’s his problem with you?’ she said, nodding at her partner. The man turned from the desk, walking back towards us, and she fixed her posture like she hadn’t given me a second thought.
The lift went endlessly up towards the penthouses, a part of the tower I had never been in before. The man used a key card that granted us access to these upper echelons. A muzak version of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ ended, faded out, and then faded back in again at the start. Like everything else in the building, the lift was decked with mirrors and reflective steel.
I looked at my shoes.
We stopped on the forty-fifth floor and the doors opened with an affected whoosh. Before the mechanized schoolmistress voice of the lift could finish speaking, the man had taken me firmly by the arm.
We moved down a long, tastefully minimal hallway, leaving Detective Sergeant Conway behind. We passed two other apartments, the only others on this level, before coming to a stark black door. The man used his card to open it and directed me into the lounge area of a large, anonymous residence.
There had been a lot of talk in the press about these penthouses. Only the ultra-rich need apply. The suite itself wasn’t quite worth it, but you weren’t paying for that. You were paying to be five hundred feet in the air. A once‑in‑a‑lifetime opportunity to look down on millions of people or, if your head was big enough, have them look up at you.
The room was dark, lit ambiently by the neon city below. Three walls of the lounge area were made of huge panes of glass, offering a near-panoramic view.
‘Take a seat,’ said the charcoal man. I stayed standing. ‘Fine. He’ll be with you in a minute.’ With that, he turned on his heel and walked towards the door. He opened it just enough for a person to pass through and made sure that it closed quietly behind him.
As soon as it shut I went after him, my eye to the peephole. The hallway was completely deserted and I wondered if he could have moved that fast. For a second I thought he might have squatted down out of view, but the idea was too ridiculous.
‘We’re alone, Waits, if that’s what you’re wondering.’
I turned to the voice. I could see the dark outline of a man against the glow of the city from outside.
‘How’d you get the shiner?’ he said, that unmistakable Oxbridge accent.
I touched my eye. ‘Right place at the right time.’
‘I thought Detective Kernick must have taken a dislike to you . . .’
‘He did seem disappointed that someone beat him to it.’
‘That was the impression he gave me as well.’ The man stepped into the dim light and smiled. ‘I should introduce myself. David Rossiter, MP.’
I crossed the room. He was a tall, commanding presence. In his mid-forties, wearing a tailored suit and projecting the warmth of a good politician. He gave the firm handshake of a man who meets people for a living, using both hands to cup mine. His skin was warm but his wedding ring was cold to the touch.
‘Do take a seat,’ he said. I sat down and after a slight pause, so did he. ‘Interesting.’
‘What’s that, Mr Rossiter?’
‘I motioned to the seat on my left, you chose the one on my right – and call me David.’ I smiled, feeling a dull ache across both my eyes. ‘You’re probably wondering why I asked you here, Aidan.’
‘Waits,’ I said. ‘I assume it’s not a social call.’
‘Very well then, Waits Do you follow politics?’
‘Only when I can’t help it.’
He smiled again. When he smiled, he looked directly at me, assuring me each time that I had amused him in some special way. I’d seen him on the covers of newspapers, giving war criminals the same look.
‘I wouldn’t want to presume you know who I am.’
‘You’re David Rossiter, MP.’
‘And what do you know of my career?’ he said, cradling the last word.
‘Only what the papers say.’
‘You should know better than most not to believe what the papers say. Disgraced Detective Aidan Waits . . .’
I ignored him. ‘Your father was an MP and did all right out of it. You were more idealistic, though; when your brother went into frontline politics, you were still grifting it as a barrister. You married young and it worked. But I suppose a man would make it work with a vodka heiress.’
The smile again.
‘You got into politics at a funny time. The Tories had spent four years out of power, and another four after you joined. In spite of that you brought credibility to the old boys. Didn’t toe the party line, spoke in favour of gay marriage, women’s rights. Even immigration. Just the right kind of reckless to be a cabinet MP. It was no surprise when you were made Secretary of State for Justice, particularly with the law background. And I suppose it helps that you’re a well-turned-out family man with two good-looking girls.’
‘You should write my biography,’ he said, the last word tailing off as he noticed that my hands were shaking. Without missing a beat, he stood and poured two large cognacs from a bar in the corner of the room.
‘Thanks,’ I said, as he handed one of them to me.
‘And where do you land, politically?’ he asked, sitting back down.
‘I’m still up in the air.’
‘Policy just seems too vague to solve the problems I come up against.’
He took a drink, swilled the liquid round in his mouth for a second and then swallowed. ‘Save the world one person at a time?’ I nodded. ‘There’s probably some truth in that.’ He shifted in his seat. ‘So what if I were to tell you about one person? One person who desperately needs saving?’
‘I’d tell you there are better people to do it than me.’
‘And I’ve already told you I don’t believe what the papers say.’
I took a drink. ‘I’d do what I could, but it’s nothing that old charcoal down the hall couldn’t manage. It’s probably less.’
He seemed to like that.
‘In fact, Waits, you’re the only person who can help me. What does the name Zain Carver mean to you?’
I didn’t say anything.
‘This morning,’ he went on, ‘I spoke to your superior. Terrific chap by the name of Parrs.’
‘Why am I only just hearing about it?’
‘You’ve been living off the beaten track. It took Detective Kernick a few hours to find you.’
‘Well, I’m glad he was so discreet about it. That beamer blended right in.’
‘My apologies. Special Branch get too comfortable blending into affluent areas.’
‘And here’s me blending into the bad ones.’
‘That’s why you’re here . . .’
‘I can’t talk to you about Carver until I’ve spoken to Superintendent Parrs.’
Rossiter considered me for a moment then took a phone from his jacket pocket, holding it out for me to take.
‘I’d rather you dialled,’ I said.
He smiled, scrolled through his address book and waited for an answer. As usual, Parrs picked up immediately.
‘Have your man Waits here,’ said Rossiter into the mouthpiece. ‘Looks the part. Very authentic. Even accepted a drink on duty. Won’t speak to me until he’s spoken to you, though.’ He held the phone out again and I took it.
‘Waits,’ said Superintendent Parrs. His Scottish accent was a low growl. ‘You’ll extend the Minister every courtesy. We’ll speak tomorrow.’ The line went dead and I handed the phone back to Rossiter.
‘Zain Carver,’ he said.
‘And what’s he to you?’
‘A weak link, if I’m lucky.’
‘It’s your job to get close to him?’
‘I have a feeling my job’s about to change.’ He didn’t say anything. ‘If Carver succeeds it’s because he’s a one-off. A businessman among thugs. It’s my job to see if that’s exploitable.’
‘Three ways, really. With the right pressure applied, he might inform against other dealers. He isn’t the biggest or the brightest, but might topple someone who is. Alternatively, he might tell us which police officers are on his payroll. Most interestingly, he could just be a frontman.’
‘A frontman for what?’
‘There might be a dozen people above him who we’ve never heard of.’
‘I’m curious, what do you get out of all this? I mean, your name’s mud now . . .’
‘My name wasn’t much to begin with. Why am I here, Mr Rossiter?’
He took another drink. I heard his teeth collide with the glass.
‘What do you know about my daughter? My youngest, Isabelle.’
‘Pretty girl and pretty young. Eighteen, nineteen?’
‘She’s seventeen,’ he said. ‘And mixed up with this Carver character.’
‘She’s a minor, then. Send a squad car round and bring her home.’
‘That was what Superintendent Parrs suggested. I’m afraid it may take a little more finesse.’ I could see thick spots of rain hitting the panes of glass surrounding us. For a few seconds I could distinguish every one of them, then they became heavier, faster, until the room was wrapped in a blur. I waited. ‘A well-read lad like you might remember when Isabelle was last in the news.’
‘She collapsed,’ I said. ‘Exhaustion.’
He didn’t move.
He nodded. ‘Isabelle suffers from depression. Part of the inheritance from her mother’s side. There’ve been other attempts, but none so forceful as the last. There was too much blood, too much disturbance to keep the papers out. So we gave them exhaustion.’ He was staring somewhere off to my right, reliving it all. ‘I went to the editors myself and begged them.’
‘I see,’ I said.
‘Do you?’ he returned, before moderating it into a different question. ‘Do you know the only thing worse than your daughter stabbing herself in the neck?’ I shook my head. ‘Her waking up, coming home, and hating you for saving her life.’ He finished his drink. ‘She spoke to me, Waits. Said she understood her condition, understood there’d be black days. And said very calmly that this wasn’t one of them. She was thinking clearly and couldn’t forgive me for calling the ambulance.’
‘Takes a long fall for an MP’s daughter to end up with a Zain Carver.’
‘Well a long fall’s what she had,’ he said. ‘She got involved with them through a friend, I think. Far as I know, she’s been living there at Fairview for a month.’
‘A month?’ He didn’t say anything. Fairview was the name of Zain Carver’s home. A large Victorian property, south of the city in a young, student-dense area. It was infamous for its house parties, attracting everyone from university heartthrobs to local celebrities. ‘I don’t know what Parrs told you, but my orders have been to stay on their periphery. I’ve seen cash handovers, drunk with low-level dealers—’
‘And some job you’re doing of that,’ he said. ‘As of today, your orders have changed. You’re to cross the threshold. Get your hands dirty. Make contact with the main players.’
‘And your daughter?’
‘I can’t risk having her brought home by the police.’
‘With respect, sir, the papers listened once, they’ll listen again. Anyway, what’s a scandal next to getting her home?’
‘Scandal?’ he said. ‘I’d give up this job in a heartbeat if it brought her back.’ I believed him, but that should have been my warning. He talked about Isabelle like she was dead already.