The Bird Yard
The vast metal ball hung from the jib, held still by its own dead weight. He felt the weight of that ball as if it were an extension of himself, a responsibility that kept him in the cab for hours on end.
Operating cranes of this nature was a vocation of sorts. It kept men like him apart from the rest of humanity, his workmates bringing the occasional offering of tea or cigarettes. He took their gifts as a God might take any sacrifice, mindful that their lives were in his hands and aware that the slightest sign from him could send them running for cover.
Below him on ground that glittered with frost, two workmates came out of a house. Victorian and four storeys high, it stood at the end of a row, its downpipes lurching from crumbling walls like badly broken limbs.
It stood as testimony to the days when properties such as these were inhabited by people whose families could not be considered old or connected; people made cruel by the fear of family scandal or the sudden loss of their comparatively insignificant wealth. They clustered together, away from the terraced slums that had spread away to the north. The slums were gone now; only these houses remained, the downward spiral from flats to squats having led to an order to condemn them some years before.
His workmates gave the all clear, then retreated to wasteground that stood between these and a second row of properties.
He watched them retreat and noted where they stood There were twenty-odd men on this job and he could have told you where each of them was at any given moment. Their lives depended on him knowing, and he kept his eye on them all, watching the patterns they made as they drifted apart then came back together like flotsam.
Positioning the crane came automatically. Fifteen years on the job and you stopped having to think about it. All he thought of was safety, because some of the casual labourers could get a little careless. It wasn’t the threat of masonry falling down around them that he worried about. Not even the most casual of labourers was stupid enough to stand close to a building that was about to be brought down, but the less experienced among them didn’t appreciate that dust could be a killer, that thin shards of brick could blind them, that splinters of wood could pierce like a bullet and scar or maim a man.
They were standing well back, their mouths covered by masks, their eyes protected by goggles; safety helmets on. Some were leaning against a fence of corrugated iron that marked the boundary to what had once been vast garden. But it was no longer a garden, not what he would have called a garden at any rate.
Mesh that was fixed to the fence swept up to the roof of the house. At first, he took this to be some bizarre attempt at security, but as the crane rumbled past, the birds that the mesh contained began to swarm, and it was then that he recognized the garden for what it was; an aviary of gigantic proportions.
He slowed the crane and watched as some of the birds made for trees planted within the aviary. Others made directly for the house where they darted through open windows, and the oddness of it, the mere fact that the house was clearly an extension of the aviary, pulled his mind from the job for a moment. But only for a moment. Safety was everything, and he dragged his attention back to the task of checking his workmates’ positions: they were still where he’d seen them seconds ago, well away from danger, and mindful of his approach.
He turned the crane away from the aviary, the noise of the engine deafening, and as he lumbered across the wasteground towards the property he was about to demolish, he reminded himself that the birds were none of his business. The area had long-since attracted the more dysfunctional elements of society, and if somebody wanted to build a gigantic aviary, that was their affair; just so long as they understood that he had his job to do, that ultimately, the crane would move in and the birds would have to go.
At moments like these, he felt himself to be all-powerful; as though, if he wanted to, he could bring the entire world down with that large metal ball, and as he pulled a lever that felt surprisingly light in his hand, the ball began to swing, gathering momentum, blotting out a sun the colour of ice.
There was a real skill to demolition. People didn’t know that, he thought. People didn’t appreciate that you couldn’t just go smashing into a building, not even a relatively small building such as this. There was a certain satisfaction in knowing, almost instinctively, where the weak spot was, positioning the ball just so, giving the wall what seemed like the gentlest of taps, then sitting back and watching it come down.
But it didn’t come down. That was the thing. It didn’t come down at all. The side of the house bowed but withstood the contact whereas the wall at the front shuddered and imploded.
He knew what had happened: the side wall had been repointed or perhaps even rebuilt at some stage whereas the mortar that held the brick at the front had disintegrated on impact. The masonry it was meant to hold had collapsed to reveal the rooms within, and something within those interior rooms was drawing his workmates towards them.
They moved slowly, faces raised to the sky, skin made pale by a film of dust from mortar reduced to a powder, and as he watched them, some removed their goggles; others removed their masks. He shouted out to keep them back, to tell them the house was unsafe, but none of them acknowledged his cry of warning.
Exasperated, he jumped from the cab and stormed towards them, dust raining down from the still, cold air; then he saw what they were looking at and stopped, mid-stride, appalled.
The implosion had revealed a pair of alcoves. The one nearest the road had been sealed over at some stage, but as the wall caved in, plasterboard had fallen away to reveal a bundle of rags.
There was something about those rags, thought the driver, something that spoke to some primeval fear within, for he saw, almost immediately, that they weren’t rags at all, that in fact, they were clothes that loosely concealed a shape that made him recoil. He spoke to the foreman. “Jacko,” he said, “where’s your mobile?”
The foreman reached into the pocket of a duffel, pulled out his mobile phone and said, “Who do you want me to call?”
For a moment, the driver wasn’t sure. Who did you contact first, the boss or the authorities?”
He pulled the goggles from his face as if by doing so, he could also rip the image from his eyes, but the image remained – a birdlike neck, and lips peeling back from the teeth.
A sound he recognized, a sound that sometimes weaved its way through his dreams forewarned him of danger. “Police,” he said, and the house, as if deeply offended, hurled bricks from the rooms above as the men started running for cover.
Fourteen years with Greater Manchester Police had given Detective Superintendent Parker sufficient experience to know that the victim was walled up alive. No-one had arranged the body like that, and no-one had closed the eyes which were so finely skinned, the iris could be seen beneath the lids.
In life, that bundle of rags had clawed at the walls, had cried, had screamed out for mercy, and his cries had gone unheard. Parker considered the possibility that he had suffocated, but thought it more likely that the cause of death would prove to be dehydration. Then again, thought Parker, perhaps not. Perhaps the fact of his incarceration, the certainty that he’d been left to die had done the trick. Perhaps, thought Parker, he had simply died of fright.
He studied the small coiled form, the fingers to the mouth, and because he could imagine only too well what the victim had suffered, found he couldn’t stand to dwell on what he might have gone through prior to death, so he forced himself to concentrate on the room where he had been found.
The alcove was divided from its twin by a cast-iron fireplace, paper hanging from the chimney breast like strips of shredded skin. There had once been some pattern to it, some border where in other houses picture rails were fixed.
Behind him the strobe-like effect of a flashing blue light blinked against his surroundings, and as he turned to signal a uniform to switch the bloody thing off, he saw bricks, rubble debris, all of it covered by frost. Even the workmen looked frozen, cold and shock having turned their faces the colour of powdered stone.
He stared across wasteground to the houses opposite. These, too, were properties that had once been owned by the professional classes, but Parker had only ever known the area as a dealers’ paradise. Now, not even the junkies remained, rotten floors and biting cold having driven them from the squats. The entire row was unoccupied with the exception of the house with its makeshift aviary, and as he made his way towards it, finches swarmed like schools of tropical fish towards the trees.
Some flew into the house; others found holes in the mesh and escaped, only to return, for although the yard was far removed from the habitats that had allowed their various species to evolve, it represented security and they were loathe to leave it.
Ultimately, the aviary and the house it protruded from would be razed to the ground. Parker didn’t know when, and he didn’t much care. He only knew that his prime suspect was in there, watching him, and he caught the movement when Roly stepped back from a window. He melted into the shadows and remained there, but not before Parker saw him, and not before Roly saw Parker make his way to Roly’s Yard.
Along with the office that went with his rank, Parker had inherited a photograph. In it, bobbies wore the type of uniform most members of the public would still recognize today, their faces adorned by sideburns of extraordinary proportions.
They had stood in three rigid lines awaiting the flash from a camera, and if, for many of them, it had been the only time in their lives that they had been photographed, there was no indication in their oddly solemn expressions that they felt any sense of occasion.
They were standing to attention in front of a building that no longer existed, a building that had been demolished in the sixties to make way for the station that Parker was based at now. The surrounding buildings were in keeping with this brighter, newer building, but its window looked out on a city that his forebears would have had little difficulty recognizing.
As he looked out onto landmarks he had first learned to navigate by as a boy, it struck him that he knew every square inch of Manchester. He felt he belonged there, and saw nothing remotely unadventurous about the fact that he was bringing his own kids up a mere stonesthrow from where he himself had been born. Their friends were the sons and daughters of people that Parker had known all his life, and there was nothing wrong with that, thought Parker; nothing wrong with continuity, and the feeling of security that could be derived from it.
Detective Inspector Warrender broke into his thoughts by knocking on the door, then walking in. “Sir?” he said, and Parker turned from the window.
Warrender, ten years younger than Parker, was sharp, good at his job, and even better at knowing instinctively when to take something straight to a senior officer. “We’ve got a missing kid.”
Parker wondered whether Warrender had any idea of the extent to which those words could turn him cold. He had long-since come to the conclusion that it was something to do with having had kids of his own. Warrender, still unmarried, still playing the field as he put it, couldn’t possibly know that the news of a child having gone missing or having come to harm always had a greater impact on parents. “How old?” he said.
Twelve, thought Parker. His youngest boy was twelve, his eldest fifteen and driving him up the wall with bands like Oasis, Blur, and The Verve.
“When was he last seen?”
“Maybe – his home life could be better, and he’s been known to play truant from school…”
Already, Parker was assessing the situation. Twelve was a bit young to be buggering off on a whim, though you never knew – hormones could kick in with a vengeance even at that age, though some kids of that age simply took off over problems that seemed insurmountable to the emotionally immature.
“Something else,” said Warrender. “He vanished about a hundred yards from where Joseph Coyne disappeared.”
That was enough for Parker. “Let’s go,” he said.
Half an hour later, Parker knocked at the door to a semi on a council estate that had the distinction of being one of the largest in Europe. “Mrs Maudsley?” he said, showing his ID, and the elderly woman who had answered the door led him through to a room where other officers were already present. They stood when Parker walked in, and stayed standing even though he acknowledged the deference they showed him.
She was nervous, this elderly woman, aware that Parker was something very senior to the uniforms who had taken details relating to her grandson’s disappearance, and also superior to Detective Inspector Warrender who had followed in their wake. Parker picked up on her nervousness and reassured her swiftly. “This is routine, Mrs. Maudsley. Gary’s only twelve, so we want to find him, don’t we?” He smiled, and it didn’t wash.
“You don’t think something’s happened to him?”
Under normal circumstances, Parker would have replied that youngsters disappeared every day of the week. Most trailed home in a day or so, the argument, fear, or sheer curiosity that had led them to try their wings having paled to insignificance by comparison with the discomfort of spending a couple of nights on the streets. Some, however, didn’t come home of their own accord, and when that happened, the police started a search, logged their name on the Missing Persons Index and hoped for the best. “The odds are against it,” he said, and that was true enough in that, statistically, most kids who did a disappearing act were found safe.
“All he did was nip to the shop, and that was it – I haven’t seen him since.”
She might just as easily have been describing the way in which Joseph Coyne disappeared, thought Parker, and Mrs. Maudsley added, “Just likethat lad from Adelphe Road.”
“We don’t want to go jumping to conclusions,” said Parker, comfortingly, but she wasn’t listening:
“Nobody’s ever found him. “I see his mother from time to time. She’s not the same person.”
Parker, who still kept in regular contact with Joseph Coyne’s mother, was only too aware that she wasn’t the same person, just as he was aware that of late, she’d been putting rather more faith into what clairvoyants and mediums had to say than in anything the police might come up with. Part of him didn’t blame her in that the police had very little to go on, and even less to say by way of explanation or comfort. Consequently, her Where do you think he is? was invariably met with some platitude, and it must have come as some relief to find someone prepared to commit themselves one way or another. He only hoped she didn’t come up against someone who would take advantage of her vulnerability and encourage her to part with what little money she had in order to receive “advice” from the other side.
The last time he’d seen her, he’d promised that the investigation into Joseph’s disappearance would never be wound down, and she’d interrupted as if telling him something he didn’t already know: “It’s been five years, Mr. Parker. Chances are, he’s dead.”
Mrs. Maudsley added: “One of your lads found our Gary’s watch,” and Parker, turning to Warrender for confirmation, was told that it had been found at the top of the road. He was also told that Warrender had seen a boy of roughly Gary’s age hanging around. Warrender had approached him with, Are you a friend of Gary’s? but the boy had replied that he wasn’t, that he’d just seen some coppers pickin’ up the watch and he’d wondered what was goin’ on, that’s all.
Warrender had said, What’s your name, son? but the lad had edged away, and Warrender had asked a female officer to see if she could get anything out of him. She’d returned a short time later and had told him the boy’s name was Nathan, that he lived locally, that he went to school with Gary, but that he wasn’t particularly friendly with him, and Warrender, who was more interested in the watch than in Nathan, had left it at that.
“Strap was broke,” said Mrs. Maudsley, and then she fell silent, as if afraid to suggest that it had been wrenched from Gary’s wrist.
“Straps break all the time,” said Warrender, “especially flimsy, plastic straps,” but she wasn’t daft. She gave him a look with pale grey eyes that were cloudy with age, but astute.
“Do you have a photo of Gary?” said Parker, and Mrs. Maudsley nodded towards a school photo standing on the mantelpiece.
Parker picked it up and studied it as if lifting the image of Gary Maudsley clean off the photographic paper and imprinting it onto the fabric of his own memory. Gary was a fresh-faced kid, the hair light brown, his grin more a smirk than a smile, the tie of his school uniform imaginatively knotted. Cheeky little bugger, thought Parker, but something lay behind that cheeky grin, something that spoke of his life as having been hard.
“What was he wearing yesterday?”
“Bomber jacket and jeans,” said Mrs. Maudsley.
Mentally, Parker stripped the photograph of its school uniform and in his mind’s eye, he dressed the boy in a bomber jacket and jeans. It made a difference: Gary seemed older, a little more streetwise perhaps.
“Where’s his mother?” said Parker.
“Morocco” said Mrs. Maudsley. “She writes from time to time.”
Say no more, thought Parker. “What about his dad?”
“Sheffield. He married again after Frances upped and left.”
In those two, brief comments, Parker had Gary’s life in a nutshell. His mother had buggered off, and his dad had left gran to bring up a kid that didn’t fit into the new life he’d made for himself. It happened all the time. “Well,” he said, “a lot of kids take off for a day or so, and then they turn up safe.”
That alone was a greater reassurance to Mrs. Maudsley than anything else he could have said. Maybe Gary was out there, somewhere, perfectly all right, in which case, she’d kill him when she got her hands on him. She smiled a fraction.
“Can I see his room?” said Parker, and she took him upstairs to a room where, already, a couple of officers were searching through Gary’s belongings. They acknowledged Parker but carried on, and Parker stood by the door, watching them work.
The room overlooked the back of the house where the strip of lawn that passed for a garden was divided from identical strips of lawn by hedges that were high and untidy.
“This is it,” she said, and Parker nodded. As rooms went, it was typical for that of a lad of twelve; the posters on the walls mainly relating to bands even Parker had heard of. Blur, Oasis. No surprises there.
There was a bird cage by the bed, a cage minus the usual treadmill, mirror, and cuttlefish shell that Parker associated with the hobby of keeping cage birds, and, indicating it, he said: “Gary kept a bird.”
“It died,” said Mrs. Maudsley. “He’d only had it a week or so. Found it dead one mornin’.”
Unusual, thought Parker. He wasn’t an expert on cage birds, but he was under the impression that, sensibly cared for, they lived for a good few years.
His eye passed over a plastic cassette case box filled with cassettes and settled on muddy clothes that were hanging out of a bin. A badge on the side of the shorts informed him that this was Gary’s P.E. kit, and lightly, he said, “He left you a bit of washing then?”
She smiled a little shakily, and Parker continued, “Better get it clean – you never know when he’ll need it – I was a great one for giving a filthy kit to my mam the morning of a game.”
“You think he’s alright, then?”
Parker didn’t reply. Maybe that strap had caught on something, or maybe it had been wrenched from Gary’s wrist – he didn’t know, but the very fact of it worried him, just as it had worried Warrender.
“Where the hell is he?” she suddenly said, emotion she’d held in check spilling over into words that sounded as if they’d been spoken in anger.
He couldn’t look into those pale grey eyes, afraid that his own might betray a fear that was every bit as great as that which had her in its grip.
“We’ll find him,” he said, but he didn’t add that he’d promised much the same to Joseph’s mother, or that to date, he had failed to keep that promise.
Within twenty-four hours of Gary’s disappearance, the whereabouts of every paedophile known to be living in the Greater Manchester area had been spewed from a computer, but the name that leapt out at Parker was that of Douglas Byrne.
Parker, who knew him of old, had questioned him when Joseph Coyne went missing, and now, as he stood in front of the shop where Byrne ran his business, Parker was reminded of nothing so much as the corner shops of his childhood.
In places such as these, he’d bought fags in ones and twos, had dipped his hand into plastic trays to pull out sweets that were dusty, had gazed up at shelves where meat was tinned and stacked beside bottles of Tizer. The thought of the sticky red liquid brought the taste to mind, and with it the slightly damp smell of countless slovenly women, the sheer weight of their body-mass crushing the backs of their slippers to squalid flatness.
Shops like these, shops which were as integral a part of his childhood as the sight of a woman sweeping the pavement in front of her own front door, were gone now, and the businesses that replaced them were of the here today, gone tomorrow variety. In that regard, the shop had lasted longer than most in that video shops as small, as ill-situated, and as badly stocked as this were failing by the dozen. But Parker wasn’t there to look at the books or to question how Byrne paid his bills. The shop was a front for under-the-counter stuff. That much Parker knew.
He and Warrender walked in to the chaos of videos crammed into makeshift shelving without thought to genre or condition. Their covers spoke of the film industry having stopped dead somewhere around the mid-seventies, odd images half obscured by yellowing, dog-chewed plastic.
There was a counter of sorts, and Dougie, with his immaculately kept finger-nails and hair that was receding before its time, was standing behind it.
The minute he saw Parker, he appeared to shrink a fraction in a way that suggested resignation as much as nervousness. “Dougie,” said Parker, and Byrne replied:
“I’m not talking to you without a solicitor present.”
“This isn’t about Joey,” said Parker.
Byrne slipped out from behind the counter, locked the door to the shop, then turned to Parker, saying, “So what’s it about?”
Nodding in the direction of the upper rooms, Parker said, “Upstairs.”
Byrne led them through to the back, then up a flight of stairs that led to a bedsit. It wasn’t the first time Parker had seen the room, and if it was small and dark, at least it was clean and functional – more than Byrne deserved in Parker’s view.
Byrne indicated the only available chair as if inviting him to use it, but Parker preferred to stand, as did Warrender, who positioned himself by the door, and although the proximity of the man and his belongings made him feel like scrubbing himself down, Parker attempted to sound non-judgmental as he said, “Local lad’s gone missing.” He produced a photograph of Gary Maudsley and passed it to Byrne, adding: “Know him?”
Byrne slumped onto the bed, holding the photo in hands that were white and soft. He looked at it for a good few seconds, then handed it back to Parker. “No.”
“Not even by sight?”
“He lives locally – I thought he might have come into the shop at some point.”
“Well he didn’t.”
Parker, his eye on shelves filled to bursting with horror films and cartoons said: “I’d hate to find out down the road that he was ever in this shop. It wouldn’t look good for you Dougie.”
Byrne made no comment, and he added: “Think carefully, Dougie – you’ve never even bumped into him on the street, maybe?”
“Not that I can remember.”
“You said you’d never laid eyes on Joseph Coyne, but it transpired that you’d been seen talking to him the morning he disappeared.”
Byrne stood up, agitated, and went to the window where he gazed out on the street below. “I told you, he walked up to me, asked me the time,” and Parker, who had always felt vaguely insulted by the lack of imagination that had prompted Byrne’s feeble explanation for his conversation with Joseph, let it go, for once. Turning from the dismal outlook to face Parker, Byrne added, “There’s countless blokes done worse than me. How come you’re goin’ at me?”
“Joseph lived less than a mile from this shop. You were seen talking to him the morning he disappeared, and now another lad’s gone missing, one who also just happens to live about a hundred yards away from here.” Byrne looked shaken as Parker added, “You see my point, Dougie – I’d be bloody daft not to question you, wouldn’t I…”
“When is it going to stop, that’s all. When do I get the chance to shake off the legacy of one, stupid mistake?”
His voice had become a whine, and Parker, who hated him all the more for it, said, “Some legacies are bequeathed for life, Dougie – you can’t molest a kid and expect society to forget.”
Byrne looked up, sharply, beads of sweat breaking out on a forehead that reminded Parker of nothing so much as a slab of lard. “I know how the police think – you can’t have been done for molesting a kid and not know how they think, so I know what you’re thinkin’, Mr. Parker…”
“Smarter than me then,” said Parker. “Half the time, I haven’t a clue what I’m thinkin’ Dougie – too bloody busy with paperwork.”
“…I’m a soft target. Pin it on me, and suddenly, your life gets a lot easier. It stands to reason I’m gonna be accused…”
“Calm down, Dougie – nobody’s accusing you of anything…”
“…and anyway, how do you know that anyone’s responsible for anything? For all you know, he might just have fucked off with a mate…”
He was right. Parker had to give him that, but he was far from finished:
“Where were you, yesterday?”
Parker didn’t react to it, he just watched the soft white fingers as they fondled the flabby white palms.
“Can anyone confirm that?”
“It was quiet. Hardly anybody in – there never is in the afternoons – I’ll have to have a think…”
Parker smiled down at the man, wanting nothing more than to pick him up, pin him against the wall, and push him through the brick. He allowed his tone of voice to do the job for him as he said, “You do that, Dougie – you have a think, and when you’ve thought, give your solicitor a bell – tell him to cancel any holiday arrangements he might have in mind – chances are, you’re going to need him shortly…”
They left him, walking out and onto the street where the air seemed sweeter somehow, and made their way round the side of the property to a pair of large wooden gates.
Parker opened them to reveal an area that stood at the back of the shop. There had once been a lawn of sorts, but now there was only soil, the earth impacted and rutted by the wheels of a mini-van belonging to Byrne.
Up against one wall stood a concrete coal bunker, and in looking at it now, Parker could recollect a time when coal men had lugged hessian sacks into his own back yard, emptying them into one that was similar. Those days were gone, along with the smog that had hung over houses like these, but in properties where owners were too idle to rid themselves of the unsightly reminder of the past, such bunkers remained.
He walked over to it, lifted the lid, and found it to be empty, the interior wet with damp, the sides stained black with coal. Five years ago, it had stood several feet to the left of where it was now positioned, because during his initial investigation into Byrne, Parker had ordered his men to shift it and dig out the ground that it covered.
His men had dug to a depth of several feet, but they hadn’t found Joseph’s body. What they had found, was a metal flyte case that had been buried quite close to the surface, and Parker’s men had lifted it out from the soil.
Once back at the station, Parker had invited Byrne to open it, but Byrne had denied that the case was his, and he had then been obliged to watch as one of Parker’s men had jammed a chisel under the lock and had wrenched it apart. He had seemed infuriatingly satisfied when Parker had seemed bewildered by its contents, but that lack of comprehension had been momentary: the flyte case hadn’t contained pornographic videos, photographs, address books, or any of the items that Parker had hoped to find, but what it had contained were clothing catalogues.
It hadn’t made sense to Parker, not until he’d flicked through them and had found substantial sections devoted to children’s clothing.
Most of the garments had been modeled by six to nine years old, their faces bright with happiness, their smiles devoid of guile, and the knowledge that Byrne had used these images for his own gratification had made Parker want to vomit. Worse than that, it had made him want to succumb to the temptation to beat the shit out of Byrne. He had turned to one of his men, his voice shaking: Get him out of here, and Byrne had been led back to the safety of his cell.
In thinking back to those catalogues with their images of children in fireproof pajamas, Parker realized that you couldn’t make any child fireproof, not with men like Byrne on the street, predators who were waiting their chance to grab them.
Is that what had happened to Joey? thought Parker, and he couldn’t help wondering whether Byrne had struck again. Both Gary and Joseph lived within a hundred yards of one another, and in close proximity to Byrne’s shop. He hoped to God he was wrong.
“What now?” said Warrender, and Parker closed the lid of the bunker, replying:
“We get a warrant to search the place, and we watch him. Put him under surveillance.”
He looked up and found that Byrne was staring down at them, his face pale, his mouth sullen, as if he were being picked on, for reasons he couldn’t quite fathom.