It was later than he thought. He'd been in the back room of The Rose for hours, conducting business. Then he got talking, and more than talking, and now it was two o'clock on a wet autumn morning and people with homes to go to had long since gone. The rain-slick pavement shone under the street lamps but all the houses were dark. He grinned to himself as he hunched his collar about his ears. Most south coast towns took on a different kind of life after midnight. Dimmock just pulled the duvet over its head and went to sleep.
But that was to ignore the special qualities of the night. Some activities are best conducted after sundown. The kind, forgiving night had given him his best times. Everyone in a seaside town enjoys the summer season, but he liked the winter best. The long nights. It was September now, and already the evenings were getting darker. It was coming his time of year.
But there are things that are better done on a sunny day than a wet night, and changing a flat tyre is one of them. He stared at it in disbelief. The gutter was running and the cracked pavement was grimy; and the wheel nuts had undoubtedly been tightened by a gorilla with a metre-longspanner, and even if he could find a wheel brace in the deep recesses of his boot, all his instincts told him it would be the wrong size. He looked up and down the street. No one.
He could return to The Rose and sort it out in the morning. He could phone Colin to come and sort it out now - and see him hiding a grin every time they met for the next fortnight because he knew what it meant that he was leaving the pub at two in the morning. He might have been doing the accounts. But he wasn't, and Colin would know he wasn't.
He really wished he hadn't sworn at the last person who tried to sell him an AA membership.
A footstep on the pavement behind him made him look round hopefully. A lot of people in the same position would have felt a certain unease, but the night was his friend. And right now, someone willing to change a wheel for him would be too.
There were two of them. The older one was big, the younger one was tall. The older one had his hands fisted deep in the pockets of a dark raincoat. The younger one was wearing jeans and a leather jacket. Neither of them was smiling.
'Having a problem, Joe?' The older man's voice was as expressionless as the craggy face it issued from.
Joe Loomis expelled the startled breath he'd caught, but only halfway. Lots of people would be nervous to be approached on a deserted road in the middle of the night, but round here what they were most anxious about was being approached by Joe. Loomis himself generally feltpretty safe. There was only one shadow which, falling across his path, was enough to make him pause - but it was a big one. Just exactly this big.
'Mr Deacon?' he said, waiting for his heart to steady enough to do nonchalance. 'And you were doing so well for yourself. How long have you been back on the beat?'
The big man chuckled bleakly. 'You are my beat, Joe. I've a good team down at Battle Alley, they can deal with pretty well anything that comes up. Which leaves me free to deal with you.'
'Mr Deacon,' said Loomis again, reproachfully. 'I don't need dealing with. I'm not a problem.'
'You feel like a problem,' said the younger man softly.
Loomis peered into the darkness. 'Detective Sergeant Voss, is it? How are you? I haven't seen you since ...'
It was a sentence he'd have been better not starting. Not when he was outnumbered two to one numerically and about four to one by weight. He let it peter out and hoped nobody'd noticed.
They noticed. Detective Superintendent Jack Deacon finished the sentence for him. 'Not since you had your mates beat the living daylights out of him because you couldn't reach me.' You could have bent horseshoes round the iron in his voice.
'A misunderstanding,' demurred Loomis. 'Anyway, we cleared that up. I seem to remember that we cleared that up.' Possibly without knowing it, he rubbed his jaw with the side of his thumb.
Enjoying the recollection, Deacon took out his knuckles and blew on them. It isn't often that a senior police officergets the chance to deck someone with impunity. Only the memory of Charlie Voss's broken face, and the fact that if Division ever learnt how he'd reacted he could wave goodbye to his pension, kept Deacon from bursting into song every time he thought of it.
'We did,' he agreed finally. 'This isn't about that.'
'What is it about?'
'The reason you're still on the streets, and I'm still a policeman, is that that was personal,' Deacon explained carefully. 'This isn't. This is about the fact that I'm still a policeman, and you're still a pimp, a drug dealer and a racketeer. A trader in human weakness and human misery. You're a ponce, a parasite and a thug; and you're doing it in my town. And you're not doing it for much longer.'
It was true, all of it. But it isn't often a man like Joe Loomis hears the unvarnished truth about himself. He felt himself flushing, even though there was nothing there he'd take issue with. 'Mr Deacon - are you threatening me?'
'Yes,' said Deacon immediately. 'Oh yes, Joe, that was definitely a threat. I'm threatening to use every power at my disposal to put you where you should have been for the last ten years, and keep you there until old age and infirmity stop you posing a danger to my town and pissing me off. It's a threat, a warning, a promise and my birthday present to myself all wrapped up in one. Now.' He turned to his companion. 'Is that everything I wanted to say to Mr Loomis?'
DS Voss ticked off a mental checklist. 'Threat, warning, promise, gratuitous insults - yes, I think that's everything, sir. Unless you want to tell him to be on the next stage?'
Deacon shook his heavy head. 'I thought about that, Charlie Voss, but I decided against.' He spoke as if Loomis had not been standing right in front of them. 'I decided I'd sooner have him in Parkhurst than sunning himself on the Costa del Crime.'
'Then that's it.'
'Fine.' Deacon went to walk away, then something occurred to him. 'Oh, Joe - you're going to need some help changing that wheel. Some sod's broken a match in your valve. Lucky we came along, really. Lord only knows who you'd meet on these mean streets if it wasn't for the local police keeping an eye on things. But since we are here, I was going to suggest ...'
He waited until he thought he detected a glimmer of hope in Loomis's eye. ' ...that you call a friend, if you've got any. Just don't dial 999. That's not what we're here for.' And with that he strolled fifty metres up Rye Lane, got into his own car and drove away, with a smile on his face that Joe Loomis would remember for the rest of his life.
DS Voss had a flat in one of the red-brick Victorian villas in Pound Street. Deacon drove by on his way home. But when he stopped the car Voss didn't get out.
After a moment Deacon looked at him quizzically. 'You're thinking, Charlie Voss. I keep telling you, it's not a good habit to get into.'
Voss smiled dutifully. 'I'm just wondering if we did the right thing.'
'Marking Joe's card?' Voss nodded his ginger head. 'Didn't you enjoy it?'
'Of course I enjoyed it. That's the problem. Usually, if you're enjoying something that much you shouldn't be doing it.'
Deacon gave a crocodile grin. 'Everyone needs a little pleasure in life.' But the last four years had taught him that Voss only looked like an overgrown barrow-boy: he was in fact an experienced police officer with good instincts. 'You think I shouldn't have told him I'm coming?'
'Maybe not. It's going to make him careful.'
'He's been careful,' said Deacon. 'That's why he's been a major player in Dimmock for five years; why I've known he was a major player for four years, three hundred and sixty-four days; and even knowing I haven't been able to nail him. He is careful. Let's see if he can go on being careful when he's rattled.'
Voss nodded slowly. 'It's worth a try. And on the bright side, even if it doesn't work ...' He hesitated.
His smile was sunny. 'It was fun, wasn't it?'
CLOSER STILL. Copyright © 2008 by Jo Bannister. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.