Chapter Forty-One

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In the drive Jesse revved the motorbike, its trademark pop pop . . .  pop pop ripping through the predawn silence.  A light went on next door, and as the police came rushing out to their patrol car, Meg and Finn on their heels, a curtain twitched in the magistrate’s house across the road: breakfast fodder, a tasty alternative to granola; more chew.

Meg wanted to jump into the car and follow, but Finn dissuaded her.  ‘He’ll look after Sarah,’ he avowed, not entirely sure that he could refrain from interfering if given the chance.  It was one thing to trust Jesse—another, to watch him in action.  Don’t make me regret this, Finn muttered fiercely under his breath, half-hoping the lad could read minds as well.

Sarah clung to Jesse’s back.  He drove slowly, wobbling a bit, weaving back and forth to give the police, and Sarah, the impression that he couldn’t quite manage the big bike.  Why else wouldn’t he just speed away?  At one point he even mounted the pavement, then after tearing up a section of neighbour’s lawn, wrestled the Harley back onto the road.  Once convinced the officers had seen Sarah under the streetlamps, Jesse gunned the engine and rode downhill in the direction of the river.  Neither wore helmets, so that Sarah’s hair streamed behind her like a banner in all its glory—a call to arms.

The air was fresh and cool, and Jesse would have enjoyed sharing the road, and the ride, with Sarah under other circumstances.  Now all he could think of was how to make it to a bridge fast enough to elude his pursuers, but not too fast to outrun them entirely.  He didn’t trust his skill on tight turns or against unexpected hazards, though he was grateful for the instruction Finn had given him.  ‘We’ll make a biker of you yet,’ Finn had said.  He’d even talked of buying a second Harley.  Meg had laughed at that, calling Jesse the perfect pretext.  Finn had always meant to take a lengthy motorcycle trip across the States and Canada.  Another of those things they wouldn’t get to.

Finn’s gun was tucked into Jesse’s waistband.

Jesse maintained a steady pace, riding through first one, then another roundabout, then several somnolent traffic lights.  Until now they had kept to residential streets, and aside from one couple returning late from a party—the man was unsteady with drink and singing loudly—and a black jogger whose teeth flashed in appreciation as they passed, there was no one on the roads.

At the next junction Jesse was forced to slow, for an all-night bus was just making a right turn directly across their path.  Jesse hit the horn and swerved round the bus, nearly skidding as he caught sight of a police car approaching, lights flashing, from the opposite direction.  Sarah dug her hands into his waist.  She shouted something that Jesse couldn’t make out.  The bus driver braked, sounded his horn, and flipped a vulgar gesture.  The police car switched on its siren at the same instant as Jesse regained control of the bike.  He rode hard past the police, heart pounding, but either they were lucky or the driver slow-witted, for they were halfway down the block before the police car made a U-turn.  Now there were two vehicles chasing them, and Jesse thought he heard another siren start up in the distance.  But it wasn’t far to the river.

The sky was lightening ahead of them.  A new dawn, Sarah told herself bitterly.  She tightened her hold on Jesse.  His back was rigid with tension, and she could feel his heart thudding against his ribcage.  Her own heart was beating almost as wildly, not just in fear of the outcome of this mad escape, but because she’d ridden pillion more than enough with her father to recognise that Jesse was nervous and uncertain on the bike.  On that last manoeuvre he’d clamped way too hard on the front brake.  He was usually so sovereign, so natural in the way he moved and swam and skated—and made love, she thought with a smile—in short, in nearly everything he did, that she found herself repeating like a litany under her breath: don’t let us fall, don’t let us fall.  She had the strangest sensation in her lower belly, not quite butterflies nor an ache nor cramps, and if she’d had a hand free, she would have massaged her abdomen to relieve the tension.

Shop fronts, most lit against night marauders, flashed by.  Jesse was avoiding the city centre, for he knew there would be more traffic and more people afoot.  He didn’t relish a collision, or a scene out of a blockbuster movie, with wrecks and bodies littering the street under revolving lights.

They came to an older part of the city where Jesse was suddenly confused by a warren of crooked streets, narrow alleys, and leaning half-timber houses.  He’d been here before, but only on the fringes, once or twice exploring the second-hand shops.  He took a right at a shuttered bed-and-breakfast, then, hesitantly, another right off the lane, which passed under a stone arch and began to curve back on itself.  The road surface became uneven, and soon they were bouncing over cobblestones.  Jesse was forced to reduce his speed, and he kept looking nervously over his shoulder.  Finally he pulled to a halt at the kerbside.  The sirens still sounded, but no longer right behind them.

Sarah worked the knots out of her shoulders and arms, then looked round.

‘Do you know where we are?’ Jesse asked.

Sarah nodded.  ‘I think so.  More or less.’

‘Far from the river?’

‘No.’  She pointed down a winding street.  ‘I think we’ll be OK if we take that lane.  We need to head downhill no matter what.  This is the oldest part of the city.  We’re maybe ten, fifteen minutes from the Old Bridge.’

‘Not Matt’s place and the boatyards?’

‘Nowhere near.’

‘Shit.  I was heading for the bridge near the Esplanade.  You know, by the concert hall.’

Sarah shook her head.  ‘That’s a good kilometre further south.  But this is even better.  We should be able to lose the police in here.  Let’s hide somewhere and wait till they’ve given up.’

‘That’s exactly what I don’t want.’

Sarah stared at him.  ‘You’re mad.  I thought you wanted me to help you get away.’  And to bring the bike back, she said to herself.  Finn had taught her the basics, too.

A girl listing under a large canvas bag full of newspapers came round the corner, eating an apple.  She stopped when she noticed them.

‘Something’s up,’ she said, waving her hand in the direction of the sirens.  ‘See anything?’

Sarah smiled a friendly greeting.  ‘A couple of patrol cars passed us on Morton Road.  An ambulance too.  Must be an emergency.’

The girl dropped her bag onto the pavement, and mirroring Sarah’s movements of a few minutes ago, swung her arms to ease the stiffness in her shoulder.  She grinned, then took a bite out of her apple.

‘Out early, aren’t you?’ she asked curiously.  ‘There are only the regulars about.’

‘Yeah, we’re heading into the country for a day trip, but we’re a bit lost.  What’s the best way to the Old Bridge?’ Sarah asked.

The girl gave them directions.  She seemed inclined to linger, but Jesse nodded, muttered his thanks, and headed the way she’d told them.  Once she was out of sight, however, he turned left and then left again, away from the river and towards the distant sound of the sirens till the police would be in range before long.  As soon as Sarah realised what Jesse was up to, she punched him angrily on the shoulder, now furious enough to risk losing her hold, or their balance.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ she shouted in his ear.  ‘Have you taken leave of your senses?’

‘Just do exactly as I say,’ he threw back over his shoulder into the wind.

Sarah thought it would serve him right if he did end up in prison.  Then she remembered the gun which right this instant was digging into her stomach; and which, each time she was thrown forward by Jesse’s erratic driving, scared her that it would somehow go off.

The sirens were much louder now.  One scheme after another cartwheeled through Sarah’s mind: jump off the motorcycle and force Jesse to stop; snatch the gun from his waistband and toss it into the gutter; or better yet, hold it to his thick stubborn idiotic head and threaten to shoot him.  If she weren’t so desperate, she would have laughed at her own idiocy, her insanity.  What was she doing, letting him run away like this?  And what madness had overtaken her parents?  This wasn’t the Dark Ages, or some Third World dictatorship where they tossed you into gaol, tortured you, and threw away the key.

Everything had happened so fast.  That, and the shock of the fire—all those deaths.  She shivered remembering Alex, whom she’d known since preschool, and clever, funny, sweet Stephen, who was—had been—a whiz at maths and had been tipped for a scholarship to Cambridge, or maybe M.I.T. in the States.  Oh god.  One minute they had been dancing . . . and now . . .  She swallowed and leaned her head against Jesse’s back.  The wind stung her eyes.

They came to a wider, shop-lined street.  After fifty metres Jesse braked suddenly and pulled into a car park, narrowly missing a row of wheelie bins whose lids were gaping.  The streetlamps, still illuminated, cast a weak yellowish glow, so that the last of the night looked nicotine-stained like an old man’s crooked teeth.  Empty tins, crumpled papers, polystyrene burger boxes, something wrapped in newspaper, and what might have been a pile of rags lay scattered near the bins.  A cat yowled and streaked away, and Sarah thought she saw a shape like a large mouse or a rat slithering to safety.  Jesse put out a foot and idled the engine.  Without a word, he reached behind him and pulled out the gun with his left hand.  His body was tensed, rigid—as tightly coiled as a poacher’s steel trap.  It defied contact.  He looked in the direction of the sirens, now so strident that Sarah could feel the vibrations, a brazen bombardment of every nerve and cell.  More of this, and her cranial sutures would crack apart like an eggshell.

‘What are you doing?’ Sarah asked urgently.

Jesse didn’t answer—couldn’t answer.  He hunched forward over the handlebars and raised the weapon, his hand perfectly steady.  Unable to see his eyes, Sarah could nevertheless sense their colour, honed to stiletto blue.  Heat radiated from his back, singeing the fine hairs along her skin.  She swallowed, her mouth suddenly filled with coppery saliva.

‘Jesse,’ she said.

He shook his head, muttered something unintelligible.

The sirens shrieked closer.

In a whirl of blue light and ear-splitting cries the patrol cars moved in.  They weren’t travelling fast; the motorcycle had disappeared, and the policemen were now trying to catch sight of their quarry.  There were only two cars, but from the sound of it, a third was in the area, trawling an alternate route.

Jesse waited until the cars were nearly abreast.

‘Now.’

Jesse fired a shot at the nearside wing of the first car as it drew level, then another into the air.  It was enough.  The police car swerved but recovered quickly; it had only been nicked.  The driver in the car bringing up the rear was able to brake in time.  Jesse shouted for Sarah to hold on, gunned the motor, and sped in the same direction.  The Harley quickly overtook the patrol cars.  As Jesse flew past them, he brandished his gun openly, then managed to stay on the road while he tucked it away again.

The road dipped downhill, past a church set behind a low brick wall.  The sun was just beginning to flush the sky, and the mossy red bricks glowed with the first light.  Jesse took care on the descent, yet still just narrowly avoided a crash when the bike juddered over a pothole.  They could see the river ahead of them now, flowing soberly beneath the humped shape of the Old Bridge and past the narrow bank where flea-market stalls jostled for breathing-space on the first Saturday of every month.  A few small boats were moored at the stone jetty.  It might easily have been a scene from an impressionist painting—another, almost foreign city.

But then Jesse reached the bridge and recognised the spot where he’d slept, and a bit further on, the place he’d met Sarah.  He hadn’t been back since that morning in July.  If he’d had time to think about it, he might have found something fitting—ironic even—in the coincidence.  Only there was no time for him to reflect (and neat solutions were a little too contrived for his taste, for his brand of subtlety).  The police were nearly upon them.

The bridge was indeed several hundred years old, with cracked and lumpy tarmac covering the once glittering paving blocks of local sandstone.  The five-span structure was high enough to allow for most river traffic, its centre span nearly twice as long as the side spans, and considerably higher.  Stone cutwaters protected the piers.  But this was not a main thoroughfare for motor vehicles.  Instead of a crash barrier, a simple iron guard rail had been set above the original parapets—the whole not much more than waist high.  As a concession to modern needs, a narrow walkway, too meagre to be called a pavement, had been added in recent years, but the bridge was still wide enough for two-way traffic—in a pinch.

Jesse rode straight to the middle of the bridge.  There were no pedestrians, and no cars, although a dirty white pickup—a Renault, he thought—and a delivery van could be seen approaching along the road on the opposite bank; and close behind, police cars racing to the scene.  Jesse smiled in satisfaction.

‘Get down, Sarah.’

Sarah sprang from the bike.  Jesse switched off the engine but left the key in the ignition.  Then he too dismounted, holding the Harley upright while he scanned the bridge.  ‘The kickstand,’ Sarah reminded him.  He grabbed his rucksack and slung it over a shoulder.

‘Remember, do exactly as I say,’ he said.

‘I’m not going to stand by and let you—’

But Sarah didn’t have time to complete her sentence.  Jesse whirled her around, threw his arm across her neck, and held the pistol to her head.  Then he dragged her a few metres from the motorcycle.  He couldn’t tell if they were being observed with binoculars or a scope.  Sarah was too stunned to protest.

‘Stand in front of me with your back to the wall,’ he said.

Jesse released her for a moment as he straddled the cast iron rail, his shoulders sloping under the weight of his rucksack.  Her breath caught in her throat as she turned her head to gaze at him, his face pale—ethereal almost—and his hair wild and wilful and beautiful as ever in the early light.  A brisk breeze off the river stirred it, and an incongruous thought swept through Sarah’s mind—I should cut it again.  Sudden tears misted her eyes.

‘Sarah,’ he said—an admonition, a plea . . . a promise?

Against her better judgement, Sarah blinked away her tears and did as he asked.  She had run out of ideas.  Why didn’t he tell her what lunatic trick he was about to pull?  One thing she was sure of—he would never hurt her, or let her come to harm.  Leaning against him, she shut her eyes and allowed herself to drift back to the darkroom, to remember the last quiet minutes they’d had alone.  His arms around her, his lips, his skin . . . 

‘Sarah!  Stay with me now.’  Jesse’s voice was low and urgent.  She was swaying a little, and he couldn’t afford for her to collapse or panic at a crucial moment.  ‘I know you’re tired.  Overwhelmed by everything.  It won’t be much longer now.  I promise.’  He looked quickly left and right, assessing the risk.  But what did it matter if they saw?  He knew what they would assume.  He brought his arm round her neck again.  The gun rested on her breast.  He bent his head, lifted her hair with his hand, and brushed his lips along the nape of her neck.  ‘I promise,’ he repeated in an entirely different tone.  He could feel her shiver.

‘Sarah?’ he asked.

‘I’m all right.’

Jesse transferred the gun to his left hand.  The parapet was broad enough for him to kneel.  He brought his other leg over the guard rail, finding a position he could hold comfortably for a while.  Nothing stood between him and the river.

Three police vehicles and a van, sirens wailing and lights flashing, sped onto the bridge from the direction that Sarah and Jesse had come, but slowed almost immediately.  The first car swung across both carriageways, barring the road, and stopped.  The other two drew up just behind, angled with front-ends meeting so that the barricade was complete.  Undoubtedly armed response units, possibly manned by specialist firearms officers.  The van came to a halt at the rear, while a second van remained on Old Bridge Street, blocking access to the bridge.  Two additional patrol cars pulled up on either side of the second van, from which policemen emerged to redirect traffic, which was beginning to pick up.  More patrol cars and several motorcycles could be seen down below on Charles Quayside, the narrow cobbled street hugging the riverbank.

On the opposite shore four squad cars and a third van had now reached the bridge.  Two remained behind along the access road.  It didn’t take long for the others to race to the scene—lights coruscating, sirens screaming, brakes squealing—and take up their positions.  They also refrained from crowding Jesse.  He could see clusters of onlookers gathering on both banks, even at this early hour.  Policemen were having no trouble keeping them back, however, for their numbers were still small, and most of them had got out of bed within the last few minutes.  The media had not arrived yet.  It was just after dawn, and once the drivers turned off their sirens, surprisingly quiet.

The police had effectively placed a tight cordon around Jesse and Sarah.

For a moment nothing happened.  Sarah had the strangest sensation that this was all a bad dream, a nightmare.  Her lids were heavy.  If she could just manage to raise them, the chase scene would be replaced by the walls of her bedroom, her warm duvet, and Jesse’s arm draped drowsily across her shoulders.  It was still cool.  The sunrise glazed the pale morning with red.

‘Drop the gun.’

Jesse’s arm tightened around Sarah’s neck.  She could smell the warm cinnamon of his skin, overlaid by the faint but not unpleasant tang of his sweat.  His breath was on her hair, against her neck.  Her heart was beating loudly; his as well, barely contained by the wall of his chest.

‘Jesse,’ she whispered, ‘please.’

‘It’s the only way,’ he said.  ‘Tell Finn . . . tell them I’m sorry.  Tell them it’s what I deserve.  Tell them it’s the only way to stop the fire.’

And then she knew.

‘No!’

There was only one thing Jesse could think of to say to her, and no time to say it.  Not here, not now.  He remembered the lines he’d typed, Shakespeare’s lovely words: when I wak’d I cried to dream again.  He whispered them under his breath.  How had things gone so wrong?  He rested his cheek on the crown of her head, then sagged against her in sudden weariness, in desolation.  He felt her stiffen, not in protest, but to support his weight.  For a moment he wondered if he should give it up, relinquish the gun and let them bring him in.  He was so tired.

‘Throw the gun down and let the girl go,’ a voice ordered.

Jesse lifted his head and stared round.  Then he straightened his back, stretched and rotated his shoulder blades—my wingblades, Emmy used to call them.  The rucksack dragged a little on one shoulder.  He slipped his right hand into his pocket to feel for the top.  Still there.  In order to ease his muscles, he shifted his weight from one side to the other, raising each leg slightly off the parapet.  He would have liked to rub his knees, the back of his neck, but made do with these surreptitious measures.  They would be observing him closely.  And the fire—he stoked it now, not much, just enough to reassure himself.  Thunderbolts wouldn’t liberate him from this situation, not in a century of silicon gods.  He would not legend the world for them.  Let them come to it themselves.

Men wearing protective body armour and helmets were swarming from the vans, all variously armed, all carrying shields.  They scattered to prearranged locations.  Two men, presumably sharpshooters, already crouched in position, one to Jesse’s left, one behind the open door of a car on the right.  They were at least fifteen metres away.  A policeman with two dogs on leads waited by the van blocking Old Bridge Street.

The officer in charge of the operation had alighted unhurriedly from his vehicle.  He was of medium height, smooth-shaven, his cropped hair mostly silvergrey; tanned, fit; he could have easily been a TV cop, except for the slight stutter.  He carried no visible firearm and wore a bulletproof vest.  A bullhorn dangling from his right hand, he stood in front of his car, careful not to make any threatening gestures.  Jesse could see that the man wasn’t wearing an earphone.  Wasn’t that standard procedure?  A maverick, maybe.

‘I’m unarmed.  Let me come and speak with you,’ the man said.

He placed the bullhorn on the ground, lifted his arms above his head, and pivoted slowly in place.  Leaving the bullhorn where he’d placed it, he ventured a step or two closer.

Jesse called out to him, ‘Stop right there.’

The officer did as instructed.  He addressed Jesse again, his voice now clear and confident and measured; he’d got his stutter under control.  This was an educated man.  He had been well-trained for such incidents.  Jesse wondered briefly whether the speech impairment had been deliberate, a way to disarm his suspects.

‘Why don’t you tell me what you want?  I’m certain we can come to an arrangement.’

Jesse said nothing.

‘You’re Jesse, aren’t you?  My name is Richard, Richard Howell.  I’m Chief Inspector.  You can trust me.’

Jesse laughed.

‘Let Sarah go and no one will shoot.  If there’s a problem, we can talk about it.  There’s no need for anyone to get hurt.’

Jesse didn’t reply.

Howell took another step forward.

Jesse waved the pistol and called out, ‘No further.  Or I’ll kill her.’  He held the gun to Sarah’s head.

She had to try.  ‘No!  He doesn’t mean that.  You’ve got to stop him.  He wants to—’ Jesse clamped his hand over her mouth and shook her head roughly.  ‘I’m warning you, I’ll kill her right this second,’ he yelled.  Then dipped his head and hissed, ‘Not another word.’

Howell stopped, holding up his hands in a placating gesture.

‘Fine,’ he said.  ‘Whatever you want, Jesse.  Just tell us what we should do.  We don’t want anything to happen to Sarah.  Nor to you.’ 

‘I had nothing to do with the fire,’ Jesse said.  A lie, but as much of the truth, of himself, as he was prepared to offer them.

‘I spoke to Finn not half an hour ago.  I expect you don’t know we’re friends.  He’s already got a good lawyer lined up for you.  You don’t need to do this.  Nobody has to get hurt.  You’re young.  Sarah’s young.  You’ve got your whole lives ahead of you.  Put the gun down.  Let’s just talk.’

The thwack-thwack of chopper blades insinuated itself only gradually into Jesse’s consciousness.  At first he hardly noticed the low rhythmic throb, for his attention was focused on the scene in front of him.  He had to find the exact moment when he could make his move.  How many rounds were in the magazine anyway?  There were more policemen than he’d anticipated, and it would require all of his concentration and split-second timing to bring this off.  By the time he realised that they had called out a police helicopter, it was already overhead.

Jesse glanced up.  Shit, he thought.  A sniper had a scoped rifle trained on him from the open door of the chopper.  If they shot at him from behind, would he be flung forward onto the bridge?

‘If you don’t want me to kill Sarah, then clear the bridge.  The whole area.  Once we’re away, I’ll set her free.’

‘Jesse, these are some of the best marksmen in the country.  You don’t stand a chance.  Not that way.’

There was a short silence. 

‘Think about it, lad.  These men are good.  So good they can shoot off a single ear or hand or testicle.  Or arrange for you to be a quadriplegic for the rest of your life.  If you imagine it’s a merely a choice between living and dying, think again.’

There was a longer silence.

‘If I let Sarah go, you won’t shoot me?’

‘My job is to save lives, not take them.’

Sarah was beginning to shiver again.  It was time to get her to safety.  It was time to end it.

‘OK, I’ll let Sarah go.’  Jesse released her as he spoke.  ‘Go on,’ he whispered to her.  ‘I need you to do this for me.’  When she hesitated, half-turning to plead with him, he nudged her forwards with his free hand.  ‘Please, Sarah.  Go over there and into the car.’

Slowly, as though dazed, she stumbled the short distance to where Howell was standing, Finn’s gun trained on her the entire time.  Howell whispered something to her.  She shook her head and turned to stare at Jesse.  Her lips were moving.  Howell signalled to one of his men, who came over and led Sarah to the car.  She refused to get inside, however. 

‘Now you, Jesse,’ Howell said.  ‘Put down the gun.’

‘First call off the chopper.  It’s making me very jumpy.’

Howell pursed his lips, thinking it over.  Then he nodded and stepped back to his car, leaning down to speak to a figure seated in the vehicle—the operator in charge of communications, Jesse presumed.  All at once the pressure behind his sternum ballooned, this was it, there might never be a better opportunity.  Fuck the sniper.  With a deep breath, Jesse braced himself as best he could, rose to his full height, took aim, and began shooting.

With a harsh cry Sarah started forward, but Howell seized her by the arm so that she lost her balance and sprawled onto the ground.  He shouted, ‘Don’t shoot.  Hold your fire.  For god’s sake, lads, hold your fire!’ but it was too late.  The noise was deafening.  Sarah looked up in terror.  For a fraction of a second she thought she saw Jesse gaze at her, thought she saw him smile, saw his lips move, heard him say ‘I promise.’  Then terror, real terror, exploded over her, the world gone red.  She screamed as she saw him recoil.  No.  God no.  There was a moment which seemed to expand to a lifeline, when the noise became whited silence, and Sarah heard nothing, not even her own screams, and the scene was happening inside her head.  Then with a hoarse inrush of sound, time contracted like a womb and flung Jesse from the bridge.  No.  He ignited instantly in a roaring inferno, hung for a breathless heartbeat in the air, his body a human firework no a nuclear detonation no a fiery incandescent nova.  Images flickered across her blurring vision . . .  Jesse a bird Jesse no Jesse . . .  Jesse . . . 

And then he was gone.

The sun was hot red ball over the river.  Tongues of flame licked an obstinate truth from the dark, secret, oily waters—a deathly hush as the guns fell quiet.

‘Jesus,’ breathed Howell.  He shuddered and turned aside.  The boy had been a blazing torch as he fell from the bridge.  He must have wired himself—that white-hot flash, the detonation which had deafened them for a few seconds.  Even that bird—kestrel, wasn’t it?—almost hadn’t made it away.  There would be nothing much left to recover.  Only just a kid.  What a screwed-up world.  But Howell was a professional, and he gave the necessary orders: for boats, for divers, for a forensic team, for all the consequences of a police incident.

It would be a long day.