In the depths of the red-brick arteries of London The Black Rat moved, lit only by the dim ruby glow of the lamp at his wrist. To his eyes though, behind those mysterious blood-red lenses, the sewage tunnel was lit up as clear as day, as was the dead man’s wallet.
With seemingly effortless grace The Rat paced along the side of the tunnel, hunkered down and leant to the side from the curve of the wall, balanced precariously on a ledge barely more than a brick wide. He didn’t need to look, he knew where he was going. After that incident it wouldn’t be long before the body ended up in the morgue, though given what he now knew it was likely they’d get their own man to examine the body. There was a very small window of time to get there and to get some more expert advice.
“don’t worry mr wilkins,” he breathed through the mask, “we’ll get to the bottom of this.” He tucked the dead man’s wallet into the depths of his ragged coat and picked up the pace, as fast as he dared go next to this river of filth.
Gladys sat, smoking, balanced precariously on a stool and frowning over her glasses at the telephone. Working nights was bad enough, checking corpses in and out from mindless drunken accidents or car crashes. Every once in a while she’d get a nice juicy murder in and things would get exciting for a while but not this time. Sure it was a nice juicy murder but she wasn’t supposed to touch the body. She was supposed to leave it alone until the morning when Doctor Bassett would be able to get in and take a look. She didn’t see what was so bloody important about this corpse in particular. She’d looked him over briefly, just another dead black guy, an occurrence that – while still rare – had happened enough in her career to make her blasé. Poverty and drugs never seemed to lead to a happy ending for anyone.
There was a subtle creak from the door and an all too familiar stink. A noise and a smell that always seemed to mean trouble for her.
“Rat,” she said, without even turning around. Stubbing out her Silk Cut in a kidney dish.
“i need to take a look at your fresh meat.”
“I didn’t think you were here for a social call,” Gladys sighed and hopped down off her stool, barely five feet two inches, petite, blonde and quite bosomy, she wasn’t what most people might have thought of when it came to a mortuary attendant or a doctor. Still, she gave off that world weary cynicism that so many medical professionals seemed to share. “Here we are, a John Doe, Jamaican , apparently associated with some important anti-drugs operation,” she flipped back the sheet to reveal the body and stood close by. “I’m not supposed to examine him. Supposed to wait for Doctor Bassett in the morning.”
“his name is gareth wilkins. i think he was a drug dealer but drugs and money were planted on him. after he was beaten to death.”
“There wasn’t anything on him.”
“because i took it.”
“That will be why the police are after you then.” Gladys smiled and leaned over the corpse on the slab, she couldn’t touch, but she could look.
“oh? They’re after me?” The Rat leaned against the other side of the slab and regarded her with those expressionless red lenses.
“Well,” Gladys looked back at him over her glasses. “Someone of your description. There aren’t many people of your description.”
“noted. Can you take a look for me?” His black gloves gestured over the body and his head tilted to one side, questioningly.
“Well, if I do too much they’ll know, but I can give you some basics.”
The Rat folded his arms and stepped back to let her work.
“The beating occurred some time ago, perhaps as much as twenty-four hours,” she gestured with the tip of a chewed biro as she talked, suddenly all clipped professionalism. “The cause of death was one of these blows to the skull, but the rest were certainly no fun either and probably would have killed him. I’d have to open him up to be sure… and I can’t do that.”
“do you know what was used to kill him?”
“Again, not without getting full access to the body but I’d say a variety of instruments. Bats, maybe a tire iron, possibly a crowbar.”
“what about a truncheon?”
“Could be,” Gladys leaned closer and pointed at a series of bruises along the dead man’s legs. “These look likely candidates, but I’d need to test it.”
The Rat pushed up his sleeve and revealed one muscular, scarred, hairy arm, lined with bruises from the copper’s truncheon. “does this help at all luv?”
Gladys held his wrist and twisted his arm in the light, leaning towards him and back towards the corpse. “Hard to tell, different muscle density and colouration…”
“but if you had to make a judgement?”
“Yes, it’s the same,” Gladys sighed. “You’ve got no respect for proper process. Do you?”
“very little. if i did i wouldn’t have been able to help you, would i?”
“True enough. Still, one day you’re going to jump in with wrong information,” Gladys folded her arms and gave him a witheringly challenging stare.
There was no time to answer though. There was a clattering of doors and voices, Glady’s head flew up. “That’s Bassett’s voice, he’s not meant to be here until the morning. You’d better go.”
The Rat nodded to her, pushing his sleeve back down and moving to the door as she re-covered the corpse with the sheet and perched back on her stool, lighting a fresh cigarette and trying to look nonchalant. The Rat shoved open the door and stepped out into the corridor, straight into the view of the oncoming mob.
Red lenses took in the crowd as Rat and the men faced off, a brief pause as they stopped in surprise and then the copper with the bloodstained bandage on his nose jabbed out a finger. “Dassa bassa ‘o fuggin’ popped meh!” That seemed to break the spell and the uniformed police started to run towards him. There was another, bullish man next to the doctor at the back in an ill fitting suit and raincoat, a little more wary than the others.
The Rat paused, just long enough to flip his pursuers the V-sign and then ran, dragging what he could into the corridor behind him to slow them down, pounding towards the exit as the blue-suited goons did their best to catch him. A flying boot smacked open the double doors at the end of the corridor, out into the back lot but he turned, quick, slamming a spanner from his belt between the handles and then lunging forward again, back into the dark.
The doors slammed outwards, the spanner rattling between the handles. It didn’t take them long, rearing back and ramming their shoulders into the door until the spanner fell free with a clatter onto the pavement and the police burst out, one of their caps falling off and rolling across the floor. Of The Rat there was no sign, not a one. They fished out their torches and started shining them out into the back lot, but all they could find was an open manhole, slid aside, but not closed.
The man in the suit emerged not long after, frowning as he looked down into the hole. “Spread out, check around, maybe he didn’t go down there after all.” He remained while they vanished into the dark, distant circles of light getting smaller and smaller while he remained in the light from the doorway and fished his radio out of his suit, holding the mic up as he glowered into the open hole.
“Unit 9, unit 9, this is Inspector Ague. Gather at the usual spot to discuss the last case. There’s a problem. Acknowledge. Over.” The radio crackled and distorted voices came back, one at a time.
Balanced precariously above the lamp that hung over the door, The Black Rat watched, impassive masked face fixed upon the Inspector and listening with keen interest as the Inspector’s men checked in, counting them off. Three sergeants reporting in and talking about passing the message to their men. That could mean as many as thirty police, all involved somehow in the death of Wilkins. Long odds.
The inspector stuffed his radio back into his jacket and wheeled about smartly on one Cuban heel, marching back through the doors as The Rat slipped back down and watched him through the window. To get to the bottom of this, he would have to follow them, into the very belly of the beast, wherever and whatever that was. This was way beyond the death of Wilkins. It was something bigger, something far, far bigger.