In the fourth row of seats at the Blue Note club, George Carter was shifting in his seat. He didn't mind free tickets - in fact, he was well fond of them. But he had doubts about this evening. Not the music, though he preferred the modern leading-edge funk of Parliament and Curtis Mayfield to this particular crooner; he was also a good ten years younger than anyone else in the audience and he felt slightly out of place. The problem Detective Sergeant Carter had was currently sitting in the front row.
Steve Sullivan was back in town. Three years ago Carter had all but seen Sullivan jailed for the National Anglian bank job in Kingston, but the case was thrown out for lack of evidence and a dodgy brief. Since then Sullivan had been living it up on the Costa del Sol. Carter had filed him under Unfinished Business.
That he was back in town portended something. It was obvious. The faces either side of him looked familiar too, though Carter couldn't place them. It was too dark.
"Follow him, George," Carter's boss, Detective Inspector Regan, had told him the previous morning. So Carter had.
The band launched into the first number, soulful chords echoing around the basement club. The mood was expectant. Finally a dark figure appeared stage right, and strode on. The crowd went wild.
The man in black stepped up to the microphone and turned to face the audience through his trademark dark glasses.
"Hello London," said Roy Orbison.
Hello yourself, Carter thought sourly as he kept an eye on the broadshouldered Sullivan. But when the singer got into the song, Carter had to admit he was enjoying it; Orbison's soulful voice touched something, and the yearning in songs like "Only the Lonely" spoke to him of the loneliness of his copper's life, especially since his wife, Alison, had been killed in a hit and run accident. Carter had tried to fill the void with hard work and the occasional fling, but it was never enough. He flashed a quick smile at the woman to his right. She was a few years older than him but fair-looking, slender and redhaired, and she gave him a pleasant smile back.
Less pleasant was the grin on Sullivan's face as he looked around him between songs, a panatella clutched between his teeth. He looked straight at Carter and his brow furrowed. Then he looked away but among the noise of the crowd Carter could have sworn he heard the man mutter,
"Sweeney," to the bloke beside him. A light flared: the man lighting his cigarette. It lit up a face that was now blindingly familiar.
Ernie Lowe, Carter thought. Ernie bloody Lowe. One of the best petermen currently outside Parkhurst or the Scrubs, and not known for his non-violent tendencies. Now, if Sullivan was not only hanging out with Ernie Lowe but also treating him to a ringside seat, something really was going on.
"Mates of yours?" the woman next to him said cheerily.
"Not really," Carter said. "Just some people I used to know. Can't say we got on."
"Know what you mean," the woman said. "Bloke on the right there looks like the Old Bill to me."
"Really?" Carter said. "Why's that, then?"
"Trouble," said the woman. "Like he wants someone to nick."
Well, thanks very much, Carter thought, subsiding into his seat, and saved by the singer walking up to the microphone once more and launching into "Pretty Woman".
"Are you a fan of the man in black?" The woman asked him.
"No," said Carter, "I'm more of a Caped Crusader boy myself."
"Funny," she said. "I'm Alice."
In the interval, he kept an eye on Sullivan. The big fellow mooched around in the bar, half-hidden by milling audience, drinking a glass of brandy. Lowe, dressed in a long black leather coat, stuck close to him. Carter bought Alice a glass of white wine but had orange juice himself, claiming he needed to drive home. Sullivan would stay for the second half, he figured. Then as he and Alice were going back to their seats, Sullivan made his move.
"Hello, Sweeney," he said, standing foursquare in the aisle in front of Carter.
"Hello, Steve," Carter said equably. "I wish I could say it was pleasant to see you, but I can't."
"Sweeney?" Alice said.
"Flying Squad, love," Sullivan explained. "Your boyfriend's a cozzer, or didn't he tell you? This is harassment, Carter."
"I dig the music, man," Carter said. "That's no crime. It's just coincidence that we're both here."
"Bull," Sullivan said. "Beat it, lovey, I've got some business to attend to."
"Boss," said Ernie Lowe, "I think Mister Carter wants to take a little walk." Carter looked down and could see the muzzle of a gun protruding from Lowe's coat.
"Retraining, is it, Ernie?" Carter asked. "Safebreaking too easy for you?"
"The kitchens," Lowe said. Carter walked, obediently.
They went through a door at the side of the auditorium, Lowe motioning Carter through. When they were on the other side, Carter threw himself to one side and kicked at Lowe's gun hand, sending the gun skittering across the tiled and near-empty kitchen. A man at the far end looked up in surprise from the snack he'd been making himself.
Lowe punched Carter in the side of the face. It hurt, but not so much that Carter couldn't use his boxing training and smash Lowe in the mouth. The heavy staggered back and fell against a fridge, bleeding from the gums.
"Stay away," Lowe said. "Sweeney. Leave us alone."
"Too late," Carter said, leaping forward and seizing Lowe by the throat. "You're nicked."
"I don't think so," Lowe said, chopping at Carter's neck. He's a big lad, Carter thought. Take a lot to bring him down. Carter drove the man further into the kitchen. Then Lowe landed two punches that dazed the Sergeant and made him close his eyes for several seconds.
Carter finally opened his eyes, shook his head to clear it, and was aware of a dark figure standing before him. Behind the figure there was a shimmering veil of coruscating light Carter could not understand. With a cry of anger he launched himself at the man and drove him at the veil of light which tore down from its hanger as the man fell into it. Carter wondered that all the fight seemed to have gone out of Lowe, and began to roll him up in the plastic sheeting. He pulled it good and tight over the man's body and rolled it over, until he had his assailant trussed up.
Behind him there was a dull smack, followed by a larger thump.
Carter stood woozily and looked down at the man he'd rolled up.
"Oh my god," he said. It wasn't Ernie Lowe. It was Roy Orbison, who had been in the kitchen making himself an interval snack. Carter turned very slowly.
Lowe's comatose body was slumped on the tiles. Alice was standing over him with a rolling pin in her hand.
"Got him," she said. "I think you'd better let Mister Orbison get on with his performance."
"Right," said Carter. "I'd buy you a drink only ..."
"You're tied up," Alice said. "I quite understand, George."
She handed him a square of white paper.
"Call me," she said and strolled out. "Sweet dreams, baby."
Slowly George Carter began to free Roy Orbison from the catering-size roll of cling film.