Sample text for Playing with fire / Peter Robinson.


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The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, burn’d on the water,” Banks whispered. As he spoke, his breath formed plumes of mist in the chill January air.

Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot, standing beside him, must have heard, because she said, “You what? Come again.”

“A quotation,” said Banks. “From Antony and Cleopatra.”

“You don’t usually go around quoting Shakespeare like a copper in a book,” Annie commented.

“Just something I remember from school. It seemed appropriate.”

They were standing on a canal bank close to dawn watching two barges smoulder.…

The canal ran through some beautiful countryside, and tonight the usually quiet rural area was floodlit and buzzing with activity, noisy with the shouts of firefighters and the crackle of personal radios. The smell of burned wood, plastic and rubber hung in the air and scratched at the back of Banks’s throat when he breathed in. All around the lit-up area, the darkness of a pre-dawn winter night pressed in, starless and cold. The media had already arrived, mostly TV crews, because fires made for good visuals, even after they had gone out, but the firefighters and police officers kept them well at bay, and the scene was secure….

“Christ, it’s cold,” moaned Annie, stamping from foot to foot. She was mostly obscured by an old army greatcoat she had thrown on over her jeans and polo-neck sweater. She was also wearing a matching maroon woolly hat, scarf and gloves, along with black knee-high leather boots. Her nose was red.

“You’d better go and talk to the firefighters,” Banks said. “Get their stories while events are still fresh in their minds. You never know, maybe one of them will warm you up a bit.”

“Cheeky bastard.” Annie sneezed, blew her nose and wandered off.…

The young constable, who had been talking to the leading firefighter, walked over to Banks and introduced himself: PC Smythe, from the nearest village, Molesby.

“So you’re the one responsible for waking me up at this ungodly hour in the morning,” said Banks.

PC Smythe paled. “Well, sir, it seemed . . . I . . .”

“It’s okay. You did the right thing. Can you fill me in?”

“There’s not much to add, really, sir.” Smythe looked tired and drawn, as well he might. He hardly seemed older than twelve, and this was probably his first major incident.

“Who called it in?” Banks asked.

“Bloke called Hurst. Andrew Hurst. Lives in the old lockkeeper’s house about a mile away. He says he was just going to bed shortly after one o’clock, and he saw the fire from his bedroom window. He knew roughly where it was coming from, so he rode over to check it out.”

“Rode?”

“Bicycle, sir.”

“Okay. Go on.”

“That’s about it. When he saw the fire, he phoned it in on his mobile, and the fire brigade arrived. They had a bit of trouble gaining access, as you can see. They had to run long hoses.”

Banks could see the fire engines parked about a hundred yards way, through the woods, where a narrow lane turned sharply right as it neared the canal. “Anyone get out alive?” he asked.

“We don’t know, sir. If they did, they didn’t hang around. We don’t even know how many people live there, or what their names are. All we know is there are two casualties.”

“Wonderful,” said Banks. It wasn’t anywhere near enough information. Arson was often used to cover up other crimes, to destroy evidence, or to hide the identity of a victim, and if that was the case here, Banks needed to know as much about the people who lived on the barges as possible. That would be difficult if they were all dead. “This lockkeeper, is he still around?”

“He’s not actually a lockkeeper, sir,” said PC Smythe. “We don’t use them anymore. The boat crews operate the locks themselves. He just lived in the old lockkeeper’s house. I took a brief statement and sent him home. Did I do wrong?”

“It’s all right,” Banks said. “We’ll talk to him later.…”

Annie Cabbot joined Banks and Smythe. “The station received the call at one thirty-one a.m.,” she said, “and the firefighters arrived here at one forty-four.”

“That sounds about right.”

“It’s actually a very good rural response time,” Annie said. “We’re lucky the station wasn’t staffed by retained men.”

Many rural stations, Banks knew, used “retained” men, or trained part-timers, and that would have meant a longer wait — at least five minutes for them to respond to their personal alerters and get to the station. “We’re lucky they weren’t on strike tonight, too,” he said, “or we’d probably still be waiting for the army to come and piss on the flames.”

They watched the firefighters pack up their gear in silence as the darkness brightened to grey, and a morning mist appeared seemingly from nowhere, swirling on the murky water and shrouding the spindly trees. In spite of the smoke stinging his lungs, Banks felt an intense craving for a cigarette rush through his system. He thrust his hands deeper into his pockets. It had been nearly six months since he had smoked a cigarette, and he was damned if he was going to give in now.

As he fought off the desire, he caught a movement in the trees out of the corner of his eye. Someone was standing there, watching them. Banks whispered to Annie and Smythe, who walked along the bank in opposite directions to circle around and cut the interloper off. Banks edged back toward the trees. When he thought he was within decent range, he turned and ran toward the intruder. As he felt the cold, bare twigs whipping and scratching his face, he saw someone running about twenty yards ahead of him. Smythe and Annie were flanking the figure, crashing through the dark undergrowth, catching up quickly.

Smythe and Annie were by far the fittest of the three pursuers, and even though he’d stopped smoking, Banks soon felt out of breath. When he saw Smythe closing the gap and Annie nearing from the north, he slowed down and arrived panting in time to see the two wrestle a young man to the ground. In seconds he was handcuffed and pulled struggling to his feet.

They all stood still for a few moments to catch their breath, and Banks looked at the youth. He was in his early twenties, about Banks’s height, five foot nine, wiry as a pipe-cleaner, with a shaved head and hollow cheeks. He was wearing jeans and a scuffed leather jacket over a black T-shirt. He struggled with PC Smythe but was no match for the burly constable.

“Right,” said Banks. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing here?”

The boy struggled. “Nothing. Let me go! I haven’t done anything. Let me go!”


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Banks, Alan (Fictitious character) Fiction, Police England Yorkshire Fiction, Yorkshire (England) Fiction, Arson Fiction