Sleep When You're Dead Taster


Chapter 1

His heart was going to burst if he had to keep running. His lungs ripping and shredding as he forced too much air into them. Each jolt of the pavement shuddering through the rubber soles of his boots and up his spine, breaking into his skull and rattling the bullet inside it.

The man in front, swerving through the Londoners and tourists, risked a look behind, and Michael North pushed himself onwards. He had to catch this maniac before he used one of those butcher’s knives gaffer-taped to his hands. Screams now as the evening crowds around the Tower of London began to realize what was going on. Irritation at the rudeness of being shoved to one side replaced by a stark and primal terror. Or was the knifeman already cutting victims into pieces? Don’t let him have killed some innocent, North had time to pray, before arterial blood sprayed into the air ahead of him and the piercing shriek of a young girl cut through the screams, then another and another, till the hurting of strangers was all he could hear.

Anger then, and North stopped caring about his own pain, running cold and clean into it, using it as fuel to power himself onwards and on to Tower Bridge. The government agent could take pain, had before, and would again. The knifeman ahead of him, he powered across the road, narrowly avoiding a black cab, a London bus – the squeal of brakes – hurdling the crash barrier. He’d barely been aware of the distant sirens, the red lights, the metal gate stopping traffic as he shoved his way through the mass of people running the other way. The jostle and push of the stampeding crowd coming in his direction, everyone running, falling on to their hands and knees, stumbling to their feet again, helping each other up, knocking each other down. Their desperation to get away hampering North’s own attempts to shoulder his way through.

In his peripheral vision, glass and lights, and the sense of something bobbing in the water beyond the fortress, a tall-masted boat, if he had to guess. North wasn’t wasting time that he didn’t have by checking. Everything focused on the whereabouts of the knifeman. The shrieks and screams getting louder as North closed down the distance between himself and his target. The crowd ahead was blocking the knifeman’s route. Let the lunatic through, North thought. Don’t let anyone else get hurt. He’s mine. And his frustration exploded into something dark and violent.

The cast-iron gate blocking the pedestrian way over the bridge was closed. Undeterred, the knifeman leaped for it, clung, then scrambled over. He kept running.

North followed.

With a lurch, under his feet the bascule of the bridge began to lift, and it felt like hope. This was the moment – the knifeman would have to stop, and when he did North was going to kill him where he stood with his own damn knives. And as he thought it, his eyes locked on to his target and the world shrank away to just the two of them. The running man was tall. A shabby workwear jacket, a glimpse of a beak nose – the strangely elongated arms. Time slowing. Tick tock. And North’s heart slowed, the pulse in his ears and the rise and fall of his breath – in and out – muffling the sounds of chaos around them.

The deck shifted and instinctively, North leaned forward. He kept moving, hard and fast, and ahead of him the knifeman turned again, further around this time. A grimace as he spotted North behind. A hand half raised beckoning onwards, as if he didn’t want to be alone. North felt his mouth open as he yelled something. Didn’t take in what he himself was shouting. Stop! he figured. But the man didn’t seem like he was able to stop.

North was closing in on him now – his hand reaching, his fingers ready to grasp hold. But almost as if he sensed the danger, the knifeman picked up his pace and North was forced to do the same.

The sensation of running uphill as North took the slope of the bridge faster than he’d thought possible. Surely the guy wasn’t going to do what it looked like he was going to do?

Was he? The running man would have to stop. A lick of pleasure at the anticipation of bringing the guy down.

But instead of stopping, the knifeman disappeared out of view – he had leaped into the void. Jumping from the top of the lifting deck into nothingness was madness. North’s rational brain knew that, just as he knew he shouldn’t follow.

Was he already in the Thames? Was he dead? North was only seconds behind the other man. But they were seconds during which the deck of the bridge kept lifting. No, if there was one thing North shouldn’t do, it was to make an impossible jump after a desperate lunatic. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Shouldn’t make that jump. But even as the gap between one side and the other grew wider, North’s body readied itself – a thousand tiny subconscious calculations tweaking every muscle, tendon and ligament.

It would be an act of stupidity, if not downright suicide, to follow a madman off an opening bascule bridge, in hope rather than expectation of landing on the other side. North would almost certainly die. He really shouldn’t make the leap, he knew, even as his lungs sucked down more air in preparation for it, and his mind tried and failed to persuade him to slow down. His body was breakable. Shouldn’t his body be listening to what reason was saying? But still, North kept building speed, running faster, harder. Pumped. Because his priority was not and never would be his own breakable body, it was the predator with knives instead of hands. The predator who – if he wasn’t in the Thames or dead – could already be slipping and sliding down the far side of the bridge to scythe and carve his bloody way through innocent Londoners, and North couldn’t have that. Anything was better than that. Wasn’t it?

The climb getting steeper.

No! he ordered himself. Abort mission! he told his body. Because making the jump was the act of a reckless lunatic. And he wasn’t a reckless lunatic.

Was he?

Maybe so and maybe not. But the truth was North was a predator as much as any lone wolf with knives for hands. The rhythm of his pace was out of step with the rhythm of his heart, everything disconnected and out of sorts. And there was a moment when North wanted to laugh. Roadrunner. Himself as a kid watching a cartoon wolf running straight off a clifftop, his furry legs a blur as he tried to stay up, the long drop down into the canyon. Always the same. The cartoon wolf never learning from history – an endless plummet to his doom. And if ever there was a time to listen to reason rather than follow some primitive instinct, it was right this second. There would be police on the other side of the bridge, he assured himself. It wasn’t up to him alone to stop the bad guy and save the world. He had done everything he could. North gave himself permission to pull away from the chase, to stop before it was too late, but his body wouldn’t stop moving. Wanting to stop and wanting not to stop. Because he hadn’t done everything. Not yet anyway.

North knew his own folly even as his knee bent, taking the weight, powering up through the ground, forcing the kinetic energy through his glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and calf muscles, the heel and ball of his foot, lifting off, scissoring through the cold spring air, reaching with every fibre for the other side of the bridge. The Thames below. Travelling through the cold biting air. Desperate for the hard landing of the bridge. Still reaching, grasping only air, reaching further. Willing himself to reach the other side, which was still moving away from him.

Rueful – life sweeter with each and every passing second. Had he thrown what he had left of it away? The nothingness above and below him wanting him, claiming him.

But not giving up. He’d learn to fly if that’s what it took.

The impact as his forehead and then his fingers found the edge of metal, and his body swung forwards, before smashing into the iron-girdered underbelly of the bridge with enough brutal force to knock what breath he had left clear out of him. Relief flooded his system. He wasn’t falling. Then a dazed kind of panic – he hadn’t made it to the other side. Instead, he hung from the lowest edge of the bascule, his arms nearly wrenched from their sockets, his grip clenched tight, the certainty of the waiting churning Thames below.

His head rehearsed the manoeuvre his body would have to make a split second before his body took over again to pull himself upwards through his fingers to the edge of the roadway, first one hand and then the other. He heaved and straightened out his arms, brought first one leg up and then the other. The pavement under his knees the best thing he’d felt since forever.

His head throbbed with pain.

A shadow fell over him and with it came the rank smell of unwashed clothes and animal decay. He was too close to the edge, he realized, staring at the trainers that belonged to the shadow man. Cold wind on the nape of his neck and that immense waiting nothingness behind him – the fear of the infinite drop. The sound of the city in the distance, sirens and traffic, the slap and brown churn of the river below.

He had to stand up.

Some trick of the light or the blow to his head had turned everything North could see into black and white and shades of grey. The only real colour, the bloodied blades of the knives that dangled from the sleeves, their tips weeping fat crimson tears. North lifted his gaze, sure that even that movement was enough to take him over the edge. His eyes met the black pools of the other man’s as he leaned over him and he saw a dark kind of welcome there. North kept his own hands in view as he rose unsteadily to his feet, swaying, his heels still hanging over the edge, attempting to keep his weight forward. Bleary from the blow, he eased himself forward an inch, two, so that the soles of his feet made full contact with the road surface. He felt himself tip forwards and then backwards and forwards again. And the mouth of the other man widened into the kind of smile that told him the lunatic was delighted that North had made it across to his black and white world, because now North belonged to him.

The weight of a bony hand on his shoulder as the knifeman spoke into his ear. The accent was Scottish. ‘5…8…2 – it was a chant of sorts. The swing of a leather bag on a cord around the scrawny neck. ‘5…7.’ North tried to catch hold of their meaning, but the numbers meant nothing to him. He thought he caught his own name, but that was impossible. The man was a stranger. Bad breath, foetid, as if something had died inside. More numbers that he couldn’t hold on to. North resisted pulling away from the stench, and the bulging cheekbone knocked against him, the stubble of the man’s cheek prickling his own skin. ‘We all have to die, Brother.’ As the man spoke, North felt the left hand crawl to the top of his head, the blade catching and cutting as it went, before resting there as if in bloody benediction, all the time the scratchy voice growing quieter and more sinister, as if imparting a secret. ‘1…2…2…6…0…4. You’ll be first in line…’ The knifeman swung his other arm wide, the knife gripped tight in it, the silver gaffer tape sodden with blood. ‘…Brother.’ The final word a roar.

The knife began its arc, and North turned his head and watched the knife moving through the air as if hypnotized.

North knew that he would never make old bones. And there were any number of ways a man in North’s line of work could die. But as the sun came out from behind a cloud, he chose not to die right here, right now, at the edge of the world and at the hands of a lunatic. No, this wasn’t how it ended, he told himself, blocking the scarecrow’s arm with his own forearm. Because he had a choice in this at least. Death was inevitable, but he could choose how he died. And using the palms of his scraped-about hands, North pushed himself away from the madman, then stepped backwards away from the edge of the bridge, out into the waiting air, the endless rushing drop down into the abyss, and the shocking embrace of the River Thames.