Irwin was sat on the top step of the Albert memorial on the eponymous square. Rather than looking at the gothic majesty of Manchester town hall he was staring down a side street which opened onto the north west corner of the square. Bootle Street Police station was off this street and Kay Woods was going to appear out of it at any moment.
Irwin ran his hand around the back of his chinos until he found the gun in its holster. He checked the grip for the fifth time, just to be sure he could draw it quickly if he needed, then adjusted his shirt to conceal it again. The security briefing he’d had on his exit review had said he should be armed at all times. Lately he’d become lax, locking the Glock in the gun safe under the bedside cabinet.
The only times Irwin had been injured, indeed the only times he’d been in danger, had been ones when he was carrying a gun. And only once had a firearm saved his life, compared to dozens when brains, and occasionally fists or improvised weapons, had sufficed. Carrying a gun didn’t make him feel safer. Today, however, it might be a necessity.
When she appeared, Kay looked as uncomfortable as Irwin felt. Even from a distance he could tell she was wearing a bulletproof vest under her blouse. There was something about the unconscious roll of her shoulders that said she was still getting it to sit right. And she was wearing a jacket which was too heavy for the warmth of the day, no doubt to hide the gun she would have been given as well as covering the extra weight the vest would give her. She wore flat, sensible, crook taking shoes. If he ever caught her in heels she’d be nearly his height. Her expression gave away the anger she felt at having this job thrust on her.
Irwin stood and headed to meet Kay, holding himself straight and putting on the game face. There was no way he could let Kay see any of his worries. This was going to be a full-on job, she needed to see his seasoned and blase persona.
“What’s going on?” Kay opened with, trying to put him on the back foot from the off.
“And you’ve been called in?”
“We should walk and talk. That way.” Irwin headed for the central library, making her follow him. When she had stopped fuming and sprinted to catch up with him he started. “Six are running an op in Paris.” he held up a hand to cut off the obvious question. “They found a middling arms dealer on the verge of a big sell and turned him with threats and offers of a new life. He’s set up the deal so that it’ll let them sneak some maguffin’d guns into circulation and trap a few bad guys. Problem is, there’s a third party they hadn’t bargained on who’ve gone and stuck their noses in. They’re running a tiger kidnapping to get the cash from the deal. They’re holding the stooge’s wife and son. Somewhere here, in Manchester.”
“And MI6 called you and asked you to help out. Why not come straight to us?”
“Snobbery. Bad blood. I don’t know. They may not have called your top brass, but they did sort of go straight to you. Your DI’s in good with them, that’s how I got my consulting gig in the first place. So once they knew I was on board they gave him a call and asked for a favour.”
They had rounded the library and crossed the tram tracks and now they were heading south on Oxford Road. “Six’s man’s got an apartment on Whitworth Street West, down near the Hacienda. We should check there first. Luckily the main door’s key code entry and I now know the code.”
They crossed the road by the Palace Theatre and headed down Whitworth Street West. On their left, across the road, the railway ran along brick elevated track. The arches housed a theatre, restaurants, shops and clubs. On their side of the road new apartment blocks mingled with older landmark buildings such as the Ritz nightclub. Beyond the buildings ran a canal.
Irwin began piecing together escape routes from the road. There was one footbridge and a lock gate along the stretch of canal they were paralleling. Unless you were n the right place that probably wasn’t the best way out. At the eastern end of the street the railway side was little better. There were two street tunnels under the tracks,the longest of which offered no cover or hiding place in its length. The western end of the road was better. The last few arches before the next junction were open, even if they only opened onto the wide open space of car parking and landscaping around and office building. Irwin decided not to get chased down Whitworth Street West if he could help it.
The apartments weren’t in the block that marked the end of this stretch of the street- built where the Hacienda nightclub had once ruled- but the one before it. Irwin pulled out his work phone and brought up a message. He tapped the override keycode into the pad by the door then pushed it open when it buzzed. “Do you have a code for the apartment as well?” Kay asked.
“I may have to pick the lock.”
Kay wanted to call Irwin out on that statement, but he showed no sign that he might be mocking her. They were in a foyer which ran through the building to fire doors onto the canal towpath. On one side of the fire doors was a lift, on the other stairs. Irwin considered the options then led the way up the stairs.
“Seriously?” Kay asked when she caught him up, “You can pick locks?”
“I’m no master thief, but I’ve got the tools and a bit of training. Every month or so I’ll buy a lock and practice on it.”
“I thought you were just an analyst.”
“Everyone needs hobbies. Lockpicking is one of mine.” Kay obviously didn’t believe him. “The desk jockeys at Six had a sort of informal field craft club. We’d teach ourselves stuff like that and get together every so often to do challenges.” And there had been more formal training, including armed and unarmed combat, which Irwin had signed up for. Adrenaline training with an ex-SAS man was one of the reasons he was still alive.
They were approaching the second floor. Irwin signaled for quiet. Kay bristled at being told what to do by a civilian, but hushed her next question nonetheless.
Irwin stood before the door to the second floor corridor and considered his next move. He started talking as he pushed the door open. “Which apartment did you say Sue’s was?” As he spoke he stepped into the hallway and looked left and right as if confused. The glances up and down the hallway told him it was empty and his ruse was unnecessary. Kay, momentarily confused, followed him.
“That way.” Irwin announced after further orientation. The apartment was at the end of the corridor on their left. They were halfway to it when they noticed the door was ajar. Not fully open, but more like someone hadn’t pulled it all the way closed.
Irwin’s right hand slipped round and under his shirt and came back with his Glock. Kay managed to keep herself from any exclamations. She merely scowled and reached inside her jacket. Irwin nodded when she showed him her gun.
They approached the door as casually as they could manage whilst holding guns low but ready. Kay took position on the nearside of the door whilst Irwin jumped across and flattened himself against the wall by the far side. On closer examination it became obvious why the door hadn’t shut properly. The lock was mangled from some form of brute force version of what Irwin had suggested.
They studied the door, listening for movement beyond it. After a while Irwin shrugged and and reached out with his left hand to push the door open. It swung a little way and there was no reaction from inside, so he pushed it completely open and stepped through.
Kay stood guard as Irwin opened the first door off the hallway and checked the bathroom. “Clear.”
Kay checked the next room- a child’s bedroom- and they alternated the other rooms. There was no-one in the master bedroom, guest bedroom, toilet or the main open plan kitchen cum living/dining room. On the breakfast bar which marked the boundary between kitchen and living room there was a half finished bowl of breakfast cereal- some sugary rubbish which had turned to mush in the milk. The stool the bowl had been set before had been knocked over backwards. Across from the cereal was a mug of coffee, still half full. Kay pressed the back of her hand against it, “Not that warm. They’ve been gone an hour or more.”
Irwin holstered his gun. “Of course they are. The Jedi would never give me an easy job.”
Other fiction by Ian Pattinson