The Dying Season
Martin Terry took a sip of Heineken, smacked his lips, and cast his gaze around the cramped battered interior of the remote pub.
Half past ten, a Wednesday night and – apart from a handful of people he didn’t know by sight – the rest of the clientele comprised the usual suspects. That was normal for the time of year – summer brought the grockles, the tourists who swarmed through the Kentish villages and clogged the narrow lanes, leaving discordance and litter in their wake.
Here, now, in the cooler aftermath of late September that cloaked the North Downs, a more sedate atmosphere had descended on the hamlet and surrounding houses.
Martin leaned his elbow on the pockmarked wooden bar, then wrinkled his nose and tugged his shirt sleeve away from the sticky patch of spilt drink that pooled across the surface.
The drip trays under the lager taps in front of him stank, a tangy bitter stench of stale beer mixing with the aroma of someone’s cheese and onion crisps from the table behind him turning his stomach.
In the background, a slot machine pinged and brayed while a pair of women in their twenties cackled and poked coins into it, the loose change clattering over the low voices around him.
Conversations were muted, a respectful distance being kept between the different groups gathered within the cramped space.
Talk here could mean anything from asking a favour to covering up for someone, and as Martin casually eyed the group of four elderly pensioners dressed in muted colours at the far end of the bar, he reckoned at least one of them was the poacher rumoured to have wrecked the barbed wire fencing over at the Parrys’ property last week.
It had taken two days to locate their daughter’s Shetland pony, and all because someone decided to drag a deer carcass across a field to avoid getting caught.
Nothing had been said in the pub, though.
The regulars were used to turning a blind eye, and the strangers who did venture inside on occasion rarely returned, such was the closed atmosphere that clung to the place.
The landlord, Len, nodded to him in passing, and Martin raised his half-empty glass in salute before watching the other man wrench open a low door behind the bar and disappear down the cellar steps in a hurry.
The sixty-year-old was adept at keeping his customers happy and the local police at bay, a skillset honed by the army.
So the rumour went, anyway.
Martin knew better than to ask.
A rush of cool air swept across his ankles as the solid oak door swung outwards. As always, the regulars paused their conversations to see who entered, then relaxed as a familiar pair of smokers ambled towards the bar reeking of nicotine, their habit satiated for the moment.
Lydia brushed past him, her dark hair tied into a top knot and her face flushed while she dashed towards a waiting middle-aged couple with two pints of ale.
‘Why does everything run out at the same time?’ she hissed under her breath.
‘Stops you getting bored,’ he replied, grinning when his wife rolled her eyes.
‘That’s what I tell her, but she don’t listen,’ Len grumbled, emerging from the cellar and wiping his hands on the tea-towel slung over his shoulder.
‘About time, Len,’ said one of the pensioners at the far end of the bar, an empty pint glass held out in hope. ‘I’m dying of thirst here.’
‘I should be so lucky, Geoff,’ the landlord shot back, smirking as the old man’s friends berated him. ‘I’m almost done. Just let me check it first.’
Martin watched as the man reached up to the shelving suspended above the fifteenth-century bar and selected a half pint glass, wrapped his hand around the pump and eased it back.
The familiar golden hue of locally brewed ale flowed into the glass, sloshing against the sides and forming a thin foam.
Holding it to the light, he then took a sip, savouring the flavours.
When he turned around, Geoff Abbott and his three friends were staring at him, almost salivating.
‘I’m not sure,’ Len said, lowering the glass and frowning. ‘Barrel might be off.’
‘What?’ Geoff’s mouth dropped open, his bushy eyebrows flying upwards. ‘You’re joking.’
Len grinned. ‘Four pints, is it?’
‘You bastard. Get on and pour them before you ring the bell for last orders.’
Martin smiled at the familiar banter, thankful that for once the place was calm.
Too many times, Lydia had returned home telling him stories of punch-ups in the car park, threats that may or may not have been carried out, and more.
The one thing Len wouldn’t stand for was drugs, so at least there was that.
It was why, for the most part, the police were never called – or better yet, didn’t show up unannounced and uninvited.
There wasn’t much that the landlord couldn’t sort out himself, despite his age.
The scars that criss-crossed his sun-damaged features stood testament to the number of times Len had thrown himself into the middle of a brawl, often welcoming the same people back into the pub after only a week of being banned.
It was the way it was in here.
As far as Len was concerned, said Lydia, if people didn’t like it then they could drink at the posh place down the road and pay more for their drinks.
Which was why this place stayed popular amongst the stalwarts. It was cheap, and the tourists took one look at the ramshackle exterior as they drove by, then kept going.
Martin shook his head and turned in his seat to stretch his legs out, grateful for the chance to relax after a nine-hour shift stacking shelves.
There were about twelve people dotted around the tables spread throughout the pub, plus the four pensioners who sat anchored at the bar.
Two separate tables were taken by couples, heads bowed over their drinks as they spoke in low voices, the occasional giggle from one of the women carrying across to where he stood.
He ran his eyes over two men sitting beside the stone hearth, the grate filled with a dried flower arrangement Lydia had put together as a focal point during the summer months, most of it now scattered around the base of the vase, remnant twigs poking upwards in defiance.
Whatever it was the two men were discussing was proving problematic, the younger jabbing his finger at the other. His face was in shadow, and the other man had his back to Martin so he couldn’t make out whether he knew him.
He looked away, checked the rest of the room for any trouble and then caught Lydia’s eye and waved her over from where she had been standing by the till sipping a lemonade.
‘Do you know the two blokes over by the fireplace?’ he murmured.
She drained her drink, crossed to the dishwasher under the bar to his left and then returned, shaking her head.
‘Never seen either of them before,’ she said. ‘Trouble?’
He wrinkled his nose. ‘Heated conversation.’
‘I’ll give Len a heads-up.’ She glanced over her shoulder towards the clock on the wall. ‘Time’s up, anyway. They won’t be our problem for much longer.’
The clang of the large brass bell above the till was followed moments later by Len’s baritone soaring across the heads of those at the bar calling for last orders, and Martin watched as a steady stream of drinkers made their way towards Lydia for a final pint.
It wasn’t quite a Friday night stampede, but it was busy enough and the next ten minutes were filled with the sound of last minute arrangements, muttered agreements that would never be spoken of beyond the four walls of the bar, and underneath it all the sound of the till ringing in the cash that passed across Len’s fingers.
Twenty-first century or not, the landlord still refused to accept plastic and the associated paperwork trail that came with it.
Eventually, chairs scraped back, and the front door swung on its hinges as the pub emptied and people made their way home.
At the other end of the bar, Geoff drained the last of his pint, slapped the empty glass on a sodden cardboard coaster and pulled a navy wool hat over his thinning hair, despite the warm night outside. He grinned at Len, aimed his thumb towards one of his companions, and removed a pipe from his jacket pocket.
‘I’ve got a lift home, so I’ll see you tomorrow night.’
‘Cheers, Geoff.’ Len lowered the front of the dishwasher and wafted the air with a tea-towel as steam rose into the air. ‘Watch how you go.’
He reached in for the first of the glasses, moving to one side as Lydia joined him, and swore loudly as the hot surface scalded his fingers.
While the pair of them worked, Martin scanned the room, noting the two men who had been arguing were now making their way towards the exit.
‘Thanks, gents. Have a safe trip home,’ Len called.
Neither acknowledged his words.
The older of the two gave the front door a shove, not waiting to hold it open for the younger man who hurried after him, his voice raised.
‘I wonder what that was all about?’ Lydia said, reaching up to hang wine glasses by their stems as she dried them.
‘No idea,’ said Len, unruffled. ‘What time did they come in?’
‘Just after you went upstairs to get more change for the till. They ordered a couple of pints of IPA, didn’t say much, and then moved across to that table.’
Len shrugged. ‘Probably wanted somewhere private to talk, rather than their local. You know how it is.’
He draped the tea-towel over his shoulder then turned his attention to the till, programming in the closing sequence for the day and removing the coin tray to take upstairs to the office after he locked up. ‘Do you want to do the Sunday lunchtime shift? Rose has got her daughter and family visiting so she’s asked for the day off.’
‘That all right?’ Lydia turned and cocked an eyebrow at Martin. ‘We could do with the money, after all.’
‘Go on then. Just the lunchtime, mind. We promised your mum we’d––’
When the first shot echoed through the walls, Lydia’s eyes widened like a fox caught in headlights.
‘What the fuck?’ Martin spun to face the door, the bar stool tumbling to the floor.
‘What’s going on?’ said Lydia, edging to his side, shaking.
Len spun away from the bar. ‘Gunfire. Get down.’
Taking one look at the other man’s face, Martin did as he was told, dragging Lydia with him.
‘Martin…’ she whimpered.
A second shot exploded out of the night, the report filling his ears and turning his stomach. He cringed lower to the floor, wondering if he could reach the door to lock it before the gunman turned his attention to those remaining inside, then saw Len shake his head, features pale.
‘Stay where you are,’ he hissed, before holding up a hand.
Martin strained his ears, willing his heartbeat to cease its pounding so he could hear if someone was approaching, but there was nothing.
Nothing but a stunned silence.
Detective Inspector Kay Hunter eased her car to a standstill behind a faded grey panel van, eyes widening at the scene beyond her windscreen.
Flashing blue lights strobed across the night sky from three Kent Police vehicles splayed across the gravel, their rooftop LEDs reflecting off the branches of a horse chestnut tree that leaned at a precarious angle in one corner of the car park and then filtered across the façade of the downtrodden pub.
Shadows merged as one between the lights – lumbering figures in protective coveralls with heads bowed at the perimeter of the property, and taller silhouettes that weaved between them while gripping assault rifles.
The radio clipped to the plastic dashboard holder beside Kay squawked with activity as commands were issued back and forth, devoid of all emotion, while her superiors coordinated the manhunt from their Northfleet headquarters.
Access along the lane behind her had been blocked by uniformed constables and as she climbed from her car, a tactical officer in full body armour crossed to where a liveried armed response vehicle had been abandoned in haste.
His colleagues moved out of the shadows and towards an inner cordon, the blue and white tape stretched across the car park separating the vehicles from the pub’s weather-beaten front door.
Light pooled out from the opening, the people milling about inside visible through the grime-laden windowpanes.
The tactical officer’s gloved hands cradled his semi-automatic rifle with a casualness belying the uniformed presence around her, and he nodded in recognition as she loosened a cotton elastic over her wristwatch and tied back her hair.
‘Are you okay for me to proceed?’
‘We declared the scene safe twenty minutes ago, and we’ve allowed forensics access to the body. We’re all done here. The shooter made a run for it, and the bloke who copped it isn’t going anywhere. Not now.’
She bit back a grimace. ‘How bad is it?’
‘Put it this way, he ain’t going to be winning any beauty contests.’
‘What’s the latest on the shooter?’
‘There are roadblocks being established on all major routes, but that’s all I know at the moment. We’ve checked the immediate area and confirmed he’s nowhere to be found. All of the outbuildings and nearby houses are clear.’
‘Who’s in charge of the scene here?’
He jerked his head towards the cordon. ‘Paul Disher. He’s the tall bloke standing over there next to the pathologist.’
Raising her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the strobing lights, Kay hurried across the uneven gravel, unwilling to waste another second.
She paused when she reached the first cordon.
A crumpled form lay beyond the plastic tape, a man’s body splayed out across the dirt and stones on his stomach with his face turned away from her, his arms outstretched as if trying to break his fall.
As the emergency lights ebbed around him, his dark-coloured clothing alternating in hue, the questions already started to form in her mind.
‘Detective Inspector Hunter?’
Kay turned her attention away from the victim to see a tall sergeant in his forties heading towards her. ‘You must be Paul Disher.’
He nodded in response, the bulk of his armoured vest hiding his uniform. ‘I’m leading the tactical team. Your colleague got here a moment ago – he headed straight inside the pub.’
‘Sounds like Barnes to me.’ Kay gave a faint smile, then jerked her chin towards the broken man on the floor. ‘What can you tell me so far?’
Disher took a set of protective coveralls from a junior officer before passing them to Kay, reaching out to steady her with his hand while she tugged on the matching booties.
‘The landlord, Len Simpson, said this bloke and an older one were in the pub before the shooting,’ he explained, lifting the cordon while she ducked underneath. ‘He says he’s never seen either of them before, and that they were arguing. Not loudly, but enough that anyone close by could see it wasn’t a friendly conversation.’
‘Was there a fight?’ Kay fell into step beside Disher and followed him across to where the man’s body lay.
‘Not inside the pub. Simpson says the two men were among the last to leave, along with a group of four of his regulars and a local couple. With Simpson at the time was Lydia Terry, who works for him, and her husband Martin. The first shot was fired between five and ten minutes after all the customers had left.’
Kay circled the dead man, her gaze sweeping over the fingernails, bitten to the quick and crusted with dirt, the worn shoe soles, and then––
She blinked, then forced herself to move closer.
What was left of the man’s face was little more than a pair of eyebrows that seemed surprised to find the rest of his features missing.
A bloody mass replaced what had been eyes, a mouth and nose, and when she lowered her gaze to his chest, another gaping wound glistened in the poor light.
‘Don’t ask which one was first, I won’t know for sure until I get him back to mine.’
She straightened at the voice to see the Home Office pathologist Lucas Anderson returning to the cordon, his face grim.
‘Suffice to say, he was trying to run away when he was shot – those are the exit wounds you’re looking at,’ he added.
A pair of younger men unfolded a gurney and rolled it to one side out of the way, awaiting further orders.
‘One in his spine to stop him, the head shot next?’ she suggested.
Lucas waggled a gloved finger at her. ‘Possibly, but that’s all you’re getting out of me at the moment. I’ll get the post mortem done within the next forty-eight hours for you.’
She gave him a curt nod, then turned back to the sergeant.
‘There wasn’t anything in his pockets, but there’s a cheap-looking watch on his left wrist. He isn’t wearing a wedding ring, either.’
‘There’s no sign of any rings having been removed from his fingers,’ said Lucas, crouching beside the dead man and sweeping his torch over his hands.
‘What about the clothing?’ said Kay. ‘Does that match what the younger bloke was wearing who Len Simpson saw earlier?’
‘Barnes showed him some photos on his phone, and he reckons it’s the same bloke,’ said Disher.
Kay straightened, patted Lucas on the back before he turned to his two assistants, then walked with the sergeant back to the cordon.
‘All right, thanks Paul. Good work getting this under control tonight. I’ll take over the scene now so you can catch up with the rest of your team in case the shooter’s located. Do you think you could attend the briefing tomorrow? I’d like you to be on hand to help me coordinate any arrest once we’ve identified who the shooter is.’
‘Will do, guv.’
Stripping off the protective suit, gasping for fresh air as she tore away the hood from her hair, Kay scrunched the whole lot up and shoved it into a biohazard bin set up by the CSIs at the perimeter, then turned at a familiar shout.
Detective Sergeant Ian Barnes hurried towards her, suit jacket flapping under his arms as he side-stepped a pair of constables to reach her.
‘Evening, guv.’ He wrinkled his nose when he peered over her shoulder. ‘Did you take a look?’
‘I did, yes. Not pretty, is it?’
‘I can’t remember the last time we had a shooting incident to deal with.’
‘It’s been a while.’ Turning her attention to the pub, she saw three pale faces at one of the lower windows, their features blurred by the grime across the panes. ‘And I suppose nobody saw anything?’
Her sergeant managed a wan smile. ‘Even so, I’m sure you’ll want a word.’
Kay set her shoulders, then nodded. ‘Damn right I do.
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