‘It starts with the striking of a match’ – Read an excerpt from Firewatching, the ‘clever and compulsive’ debut thriller by Russ Thomas
More about the book!
Jonathan Ball Publishers has shared an excerpt from Firewatching, the debut novel from Russ Thomas!
Firewatching is a taut investigative thriller bursting with character and tension, introducing an enigmatic, fresh lead detective unlike any you have met before – Detective Sergeant Adam Tyler.
The book comes recommended by none other than Lee Child, author of the wildly successful Jack Reacher series.
‘Firewatching is a UK cop novel with a pitch-perfect blend of the best of the old and the best of the new – all the traditional strengths and charms are here, with a fresh and relevant 21st-century edge. I loved it.’ – Lee Child
Read the excerpt:
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Tuesday, 13 September – 0 followers
It starts with the striking of a match: the thin, dry snap of red powder scratched on white. It is the sound of chemistry-of sulphur, phosphorus, and glass. It is a warm and gentle caress, a pair of thick, strong arms that take hold of you, envelop you, and tell you everything is going to be all right.
But you shouldn’t have come back. You know that now.
You should never have returned to this crumbling Victorian mansion, like something from a horror film, with its grand architecture and Gothic features. The rusted iron gates that lie discarded in the rhododendron bushes. The long, winding, weed-infested driveway. The house itself, squatting in faded glory, brick-blackened and scarred, windowpanes cracked and stained with milky cataracts.
The workmen unload their long pipes of scaffolding from the van, laughing and joking, questioning each other’s parentage and boasting of their sexual prowess. They lift their tools and cans of paint, and slip back into the gaping maw of the house, back to their great work of restoration.
These hired hands dig at your past, knocking down walls that were placed for a reason; unearthing all the buried secrets. You can hear him now, just as before, and only now do you realise that he never really went away. He was there all that time, lying dormant, waiting to be found. Waiting for you to drop your guard. His voice grows louder as he surfaces, clawing his way up through your mind, echoing and barrelling around inside your head. He looks out through your eyes … and then he screams.
You reach for another match, feel the warmth and the beauty and the comfort offered … but it’s over far too soon, the wood consumed from top to bottom in mere seconds, the flame drawn down into your empty hand, where it gutters and snuffs until there is only the cold and the damp and the dark.
The scream is louder now, and this time the match will not be enough.
This time the whole world will burn.
POSTED BY thefirewatcher AT 5:45 PM
The man with the scar on his cheek looks down from the window of the apartment building and wonders if someone has thrown a blanket over Sheffield. Summer has swaddled the city in a haze reminiscent of the smogs of its industrial heritage. Sunlight is funnelled through rows of terraced houses just as molten iron once sludged and pooled in the blast furnaces and steel mills of the Don Valley. It spills down from the hills and through the parks, weaving its way between the trunks of trees and out onto the ring road.
From several stories below, the man hears the deep bass rumble of music. The latest addition to a chain of real-ale pubs. This city, with its proud tradition of industry and purpose, now courts only leisure. Productivity turned to idleness, he thinks. And the devil makes work for idle hands.
He turns to look back at the estate agent standing nervously behind him. He looks over the open-plan living room the agent just referred to as ‘a blank canvas’. Whitewashed walls, not so much as a hint of magnolia; the cheapest kind of laminate flooring, all spongy underfoot where the surface hasn’t been prepared properly. The man wonders if they even bothered to clean away the blood before they laid it.
The flat is unbearably hot, the air so thick he can taste it. He feels the sun pushing in through the south-facing glass, the heat rising up from the apartments beneath. He wonders what it would be like to live here. Like being buried alive, he imagines. Still, at least it would be cheap to run.
The estate agent struggles to hide his nerves. He smiles too much. And his eyes flick constantly toward the bedroom, betraying the fact he knows full well the history of his ‘one-bed pied-à-terre‘.
The agent finally meets the man’s eye, doing his best to avoid the scar. ‘Of course,’ he says artfully, ‘the rooms are much larger than you usually get in this type of property.’ He crosses to the window and looks out for himself. ‘And the views …’ He seems content to leave it at that, unwilling perhaps to push his luck.
The man ignores him and heads straight to the door that opens into the bedroom. He has to push hard against the spring-loaded mechanism, and he imagines the room wants to keep him out. His pulse quickens. He half-expects to see the tableau as he remembers it-walls coated in arterial blood, the girl lying splayed across the futon, her head bent unnaturally backward, her dark, lifeless eyes staring up, pleading with him for help. The organs. Laid out in neat little piles around the room, liver, kidneys, spleen; like choice cuts in a butcher’s window.
But there are only the same whitewashed plaster walls, the same uneven faux-wood flooring. It has been a little over three years since the butcher came for the girl in this flat, and now she lies in the Abbey Lane Cemetery, her innards restored.
The man feels a fat bead of sweat launch itself from his armpit and streak down his right-hand side. He resists the urge to scratch it away. The fire door pushes back against his outstretched arm.
Behind him, the estate agent clears his throat. ‘En suite?’ he says faintly.
But the man doesn’t bother to look. He’s seen enough. He’s disappointed, though he never really expected to find anything after all this time. He tarries now, only out of some perverse pleasure he takes in discomforting the agent. He steps back into the living room, allowing the bedroom door to shut them out. ‘Eighty-five thousand,’ he says, as though giving it some serious consideration. And then he realises he actually is considering it. He needs a new place, and it really is a good buy.
The estate agent nods encouragingly and echoes his thoughts: ‘I doubt you’ll find better at this price.’
The agent’s opportunism irritates him. ‘So what’s the catch?’ he asks.
The obsequious salesman wrings his hands, and the man with the scar remembers the warm, clammy palm he was forced to shake when he arrived.
‘The owner wants a quick sale. It’s been on the market for some time now.’ The agent glances once, quickly, at the bedroom door. ‘I understand the vendor is open to offers …’
‘I’ll give it some thought,’ he says. A good deal is a good deal, after all. If he could get past the fact a woman was once gutted in his bedroom. Could he get past that? Perhaps, for the right price.
Back downstairs the agent leaves him at the entrance to the building with another sweaty handshake. ‘I’ll call you toward the weekend then,’ he says. ‘Give you a chance to give it some serious consideration.’
‘You do that.’
The agent begins to turn and then, almost as an afterthought, says, ‘Sorry, remind me what the name was again?’
‘Tyler,’ says the man with the scar. ‘Detective Sergeant Adam Tyler.’
The ever-present grin on the estate agent’s face finally slips. His hand falls away to his side, and he wipes his damp fingers down the right leg of his trousers. He turns and hurries away to his car.
Now Tyler is the one smiling, the scar tugging at the corner of his mouth.
The pedestrianised city centre is beginning to empty, security gates inching their way protectively across shop windows. Tyler stops outside an estate agent’s window. This evening’s visit has reminded him he really does need to find a place and start putting some of his meagre salary toward a mortgage instead of into the equally slippery palm of his landlord. He scans down past the country mansions of the Peak District through the detached leafy suburbs, to the bottom row and his own more modest price range. It leaves him a choice of three: a bungalow in a highly sought-after part of town (in need of extensive modernisation); a studio over a Chinese takeaway (easy access to local amenities); and a first-floor flat (ideal starter home for young professional) in the apartment block in which he’s already renting. All of them are significantly more expensive than the butchered girl’s place.
He catches sight of his own reflection in the window, where the scar on his left cheek stands out, livid and inflamed. It’s always worse in hot weather; no wonder the estate agent seemed so edgy. The town hall clock chimes the half hour.
He might be getting a bit hung up on the girl. He knows her name, of course, knows all the names of the cases he reviews, but he prefers to distance himself whenever he can. He has a tendency to get too close, as the detective chief inspector often reminds him. Review, append, move on. How would she feel about him revisiting a three-year-old crime scene?
He considers, not for the first time, whether the Cold Case Review Unit (or ‘sea-crew,’ as it is so inelegantly referred to by his superiors) was ever really intended to get results. He suspects it was more of a PR stunt, a way for the force to show that no stone was ever left unturned. The plan was simply to apply new techniques to old cases. It envisaged new DNA evidence, advanced techniques for lifting fingerprints, centralised databases that threw up previously unlinked crimes and pointed out the similarities between them.
But Tyler has taken his remit a little further than that. New technology is all well and good-at twenty-nine he hardly considers himself a Luddite-but sometimes he finds it’s far simpler than that. All it really needs is a fresh pair of eyes. The sifting through of old case files, the re-interviewing of witnesses and retired colleagues. A question not asked that should have been. The DCI indulges him, as long as he gets results. And he does get them, more often than not. Still, she doesn’t appreciate him lingering too long on any one case.
A chant starts up in a nearby pub, someone downing a yard of ale. He checks his phone while he waits for the lights to change at a crossing and finds a string of missed calls from Sally-Ann. He listens to three increasingly excitable messages reminding him about the meeting tonight and considers whether he still intends to go.
He looks again at his watch. He hates this time of day. Sometimes, when people find out what he does for a living, they ask him whether he struggles to sleep at night, in light of all the horrible things he must see. But sleep has never been a problem for Tyler.
No, it’s the early evening that troubles him. The time when people with lives untouched by tragedy are preparing meals for loved ones, and wondering if they have PE tomorrow and whether or not the kit’s been washed. The time that Mum gets home from work and the kids come in for tea. That’s the time that reaches out to remind him of all the horror in the world. It’s the time when the news breaks.
He hovers with one foot on the crossing. Left would take him to Sally-Ann, right would take him home. He turns left.
He decides not to call her back, for as disjointed as her voicemails are, Sally-Ann is far worse on the phone. She’s forever hesitating, as though waiting for her first sentence to reach its destination before embarking on the second. Inevitably they end up speaking at the same time and the conversation descends into a Norman Collier-style faulty-mic routine. Instead, he texts her: On my way.
O’Hagan’s is a sports bar and Irish theme pub combined; between each of a dozen or so television screens hangs a pithy limerick picked out in Gaelic script: ‘It’s no health if the glass is not emptied’; ‘The wine is sweet, the paying bitter’; ‘Go carefully with a full cup.’ There’s a match on, and the place is filled with a mixture of football fans and the early evening work crowd, a clashing chequerboard of groups: red and white, black and grey. The voices of the largely male crowd create a deep bass rumble of background noise, a roiling sea of testosterone. He wonders who chose the venue since it doesn’t exactly fit the group’s style.
He forces his way to the bar, ignoring the disgruntled looks of people who have been waiting patiently to be served, too scared or too polite to kick up a fuss. He catches the eye of the girl behind the bar and raises a hand. She comes straight to him. He uses the time while he waits for his pint to scan the crowd, and spots Sally-Ann waving enthusiastically from a booth at the back wall. He acknowledges her with a dip of his head.
Once he has his pint, he makes his way across to her just as the collective rise and fall of an almost-goal cheer cuts across the room. She greets him with a bone-crushing hug and a kiss that misses both cheeks.
There aren’t many people who make him feel small, but Sally-Ann manages it. She’s an inch or two shorter than he is, but the heels she’s wearing tonight give her the edge. She’s well built, what his parents’ generation might generously have called statuesque. The lads at the station are less charitable. They treat her the same way they do the oversized photocopier, like she’s an obstacle to be negotiated rather than a human being. Not just the lads, either. Other women, too. There’s something in the way people look at her, he’s noticed, as though her physique is a condition that might be catching. For some reason none of them can see beyond the excess flesh to the pretty woman underneath. Probably because she hides it so well. She has savagely cropped blond hair that looks as though she might have taken the scissors to it herself, and wears elaborate Gothic outfits that succeed only in emphasising her size and shape. It’s as though she’s ashamed of her appearance and yet stubbornly defiant at the same time. He likes that about her. Tyler has no problem with rebellion.
Tonight she’s wearing a long-sleeved black velvet top with furry frills at the cuffs and collar, skinny-fit jeans that turn her thighs into dark-blue sausages, and ruby-red heels à la Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. There’s a bit more personality to the outfit than the one she wears for work, but essentially it’s the same. He feels the dampness still gathered in the armpits of his own thin cotton T-shirt and wonders how she’s managing not to pass out in the heat.