Taking a green pen from a neat, multi-coloured row on a flip-up table attached to the inside of his van, Vance made an all-clear note on a clipboard’s sheaf of paper. Carefully folding the top leaf of paper over, he held it in place with an elastic band. There was something comforting about the analogue process, unlike the cool, impersonal digital recording equipment. His laptop’s screen threw a pale glow onto Vance’s face, the clipboard and Marvin the Rat who sat on the table edge, rubbing his front paws over his snout. There was a distinct possibility that somewhere in the Police Department Technical Surveillance Unit’s regulations, pet rats were banned from government vehicles. Vance hadn’t bothered to check. He also hadn’t sought permission to take a pee against a nearby tree. If the target in the bugged apartment could seek relief, so could his eavesdropper. He liked the 17th Century term for someone who stood under the rain-protecting eaves of a house, against the wall, away from the “drop” of water in order to listen to those inside. Better than his nickname at the station: Lenny the Lurker.
Breaking the tip off a KitKat wafer, he placed it under Marvin’s nose. The pair sat quietly munching, both watching the digital audio waveforms flickering up, down and across the screen as the target clattered in his kitchen before switching on a TV crime series. Noise activated software cut out the dead air when no one made a sound. When the software switched off, so did he.
One week earlier, he’d slipped Marvin back into his cage with an apple core, taken a canvas bag bearing a cable TV company’s logo, and broken into the target’s apartment. A few quality pieces of furniture competed for space with a bachelor’s flotsam – discarded gym gear, a trail bike with a puncture, three empty wine bottles. Vance needed an object that was least likely to be moved. In one corner, a slightly shabby teddy bear had been converted into a side light. Cutting the bear’s lower seam, Vance switched on a thumb nail sized microphone and inserted it into the stuffing. “Next time I’ll buy you dinner first.” He patted the bear’s head and closed the door softly.
Tonight, the audio waveforms only quivered in excitement when the higher pitch of a TV advertisement interrupted the program. Then knock, knock. Two sharp jumps on the laptop screen. The apartment door squeaked open.
“It’s late,” the target said.
“I’ve got a watch,” said the visitor.
Vance narrowed his eyes, moving closer to the screen as if it was a window. He thought he knew that voice. The door squeaked shut. Were they both in the room? Vance regretted not planting a camera.
Something broke. Too heavy for glass. Ceramic. The target groaned. “What did you do that for?” There was sound of sweeping, with shards of pottery being collected and spilled into a garbage bin.
“I’ll keep breaking things ‘til I find the money,” said the visitor.
“The shipment only arrived at the hospital this morning. We need 24 hours to see if they spot the drugs are counterfeit. Once they start dispensing them we’re clear. You’ll get your money.”
“No time to wait. You have two minutes. I’m booked on the 10am flight to Honkers.”
Vance’s head snapped up. That pretentious, ex-pat term for Hong Kong. The only person who ever used it without irony was his brother. He had recognised the voice. James.
The target’s own voice became strained. “Put that away.”
“Let’s be reason…”
Vance had heard enough silencers to identify the metallic spitting sound. A thud. One body down. Then the sound of furniture being overturned. James was ransacking the apartment. Next the bear hit something very hard or vice versa. Vance hovered the cursor over the recording button. It would take him seconds to erase the file. A technical hitch, he’d explain. Blame it on the bear. He’d confront James as he came out of the apartment. Demand answers.
Rising on his hind legs, Marvin sniffed the air. That’s all I need, thought Vance. A rat with a conscience. The counterfeit drugs at the hospital were the catch. If I hit “delete” on the audio and I say I didn’t hear what the men said, then how would I know about the drugs?
The apartment door squeaked shut. No, he couldn’t face James now. He needed time to think. He was a senior constable in rank only. He’d never arrested anyone and he’d lost his police issue handcuffs soon after graduation. A car’s engine kicked in and the vehicle pulled away. Vance’s hand hit the release on the sliding side door. Too late, all he could see were tail lights.
Vance slid the door shut. Another problem. Which hospital? How many might die while he dithered. Marvin sniffed the air again. “Some plan,” said Vance aloud. Did rats understand irony? “So … I’m meant to throw them off the scent.” Reaching for the police two-way radio resting by the laptop, he called it in – all the details except his brother’s current address. The address he gave was a year out of date.
The sky was brightening as Vance parked outside the suburban bungalow. There were lights in the kitchen windows and a newspaper on the front lawn. Walking up the driveway, he rehearsed his demands. Say which hospital, say which drugs, say who else was involved and he’d give James six hours’ head start. That’s if the real police didn’t get here sooner. A pair of headlights like searchlights silhouetted him. He froze, breathed deeply and turned.
James was clambering out of a taxi, dragging a roll-on suitcase. “What’s wrong?” he called.
The taxi reversed, leaving them standing metres apart. Vance approached, hands clenching and unclenching. “Change of heart, you callous prick? Murder a man, peddle fake drugs, and now you’ve come back with a guilty conscience?”
“Are you mad? Murder? When?’
“Jesus, man, I just got off an overnight flight from Honkers. I’ve been working there all week. Check it out. Are you playing copper at last?”
So, thought Vance, it wasn’t James’ voice. Let’s see. I’ve provided false and misleading information to my colleagues, I’ve attempted to pervert the course of justice, I’ve left patients at an unknown hospital in danger, I’ve allowed a murderer to escape, and I’ve destroyed my relationship with my brother.
“On the bright side,” said James, throwing his arm over Vance’s shoulders and guiding him to the front door. “You’re here in time for breakfast.”
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Copyright 2017 GREG FLYNN