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Authors: Ian Rankin

In the Nick of Time

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In the Nick of Time

 

Ian Rankin and Peter James

From the anthology
FaceOff

Simon & Schuster
New York   London   Toronto   Sydney   New Delhi

IAN RANKIN
VS. 
PETER JAMES

C
ombing characters from different fictional universes into the same story is something writers often contemplate, usually after one drink too many late in the evening at a conference or convention. The technical difficulties of that endeavor quickly intrude, and the “good idea of the night before” ends up in a drawer, never to see the light of day. So Peter James and Ian Rankin knew the challenges that lay in arranging a meeting between their two respective heroes.

For one thing Roy Grace and John Rebus are of different generations and backgrounds. They have vastly different ideas about law enforcement. For another, they operate five hundred miles apart—Grace in Brighton, a resort city on the south coast of England—Rebus in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. Both countries, while constituents of the United Kingdom, have different legal systems, different rules and regulations.

Night and day to each other actually.

So how, realistically, could these two men meet and do business together?

Fans of John Rebus know he's a big music fan, growing up in the early 1960s with The Who as his heroes. One of The Who's best-known albums,
Quadrophenia,
is set partially in Brighton, at a time when rival gangs (the Mods and the Rockers) would battle on its waterfront. For many people in the United Kingdom the pitched and brutal wars between the clean-cut, smartly dressed Mods and the long-haired, leather-jacketed Rockers are what Brighton is all about.

So here was the germ of an idea.

A crime from that era, brought to light decades later on a deathbed in Edinburgh. Rebus has to decide if it is worth investigating such ancient history and eventually asks Roy Grace for help. Along the way both men journey into the other's universe, coming to appreciate the differences and gaining an understanding of how the other views the criminal world.

Like I said.

It's night and day.

There was also room for both of the characters' sidekick/colleague to make an appearance and engage in some gentle sparring, too. The result is a story that adds to the mythology of both Peter's and Ian's series, while staying true to the spirit of all their books.

In the Nick of Time

H
IS NAME WAS JAMES KING
and he had something to confess.

His wife was waiting for Rebus in the hospital corridor. She led him to the bedside without saying much, other than that her husband had “only a week or two, maybe less.”

King was prone on the bed, an oxygen mask strapped to his gaunt, unshaven face. His eyes were dark-ringed, his chest rising and falling with what seemed painful effort. He nodded at his wife and she took it for an instruction, drawing the curtains around the bed so that King and Rebus were shielded from the other patients. The man pulled the mask down so it rested against his chin.

“ID?” he demanded. Rebus dug out his warrant card and King peered at the photograph before offering an explanation. “Wouldn't put it past Ella to rope some poor sod into pretending. She thinks the drugs must have done it.”

“Done what?” Rebus was lowering himself onto a chair.

“Got me imagining things.” King paused, studying his visitor. “You don't look much younger than me.”

“Thanks for that.”

“But it means you'll remember the Mods? Early sixties?”

“I'm not sure they made it this far north. We had the music, though . . .”

“I grew up in London. Had the Lambretta and the clothes. My wages either went on one or the other. Weekend trips—Brighton and Margate. I liked Brighton better . . .” King drifted off, his eyes becoming unfocused. There was a tumor in him that had grown too large to be dealt with. Rebus wondered what painkillers the doctors were giving him. He had a headache of his own—maybe they had a few pills to spare. There was loud wheezing from somewhere beyond the curtain—another patient jolted into life by a coughing fit. King blinked away whatever memories he'd been replaying.

“Your wife,” Rebus said. “When she called us she said there was something you wanted to say.”

“That's what I'm doing,” King retorted, sounding irritated. “I'm telling you the story.”

“About your days as a Mod?”

“My last time in Brighton.”

“You and your scooter?”

“And a hundred others like me. It was a religion to us, something we were going to take to the grave.” He paused. “And we hated those Rockers almost as much as they hated us.”

“Rockers were bikers?” Rebus checked, receiving a slow nod of agreement from King. “Pitched battles on the seafront,” he went on. “I remember it from
Quadrophenia
.”

“Anything and everything became your weapon. I always had
a blade with me, taken from my mum's cutlery drawer. But there were bottles, planks of wood, bricks . . .”

Rebus knew now what was coming, and leaned in a little closer toward the bed.

“So what happened?” he prompted.

King was thoughtful for a moment, then took a hit of oxygen before saying what needed to be said. “One of them—jeans stained with oil, three-inch turn-ups, leather jacket, and T-shirt—he starts running the wrong way, gets separated from the pack. A few of us peel off and go after him. He knows he's not going to outrun us, so dives into a hotel just off the esplanade. Far as I remember we were laughing, like it was a game. But it wasn't, not once we'd cornered him in one of the storerooms off the kitchen. Fists and feet to start with, but then he's got a blade out and so have I, and I'm faster than him. The knife—my mum's knife—was still sticking out of his chest when we ran.” King looked up at Rebus, eyes widening a little. “I left him there to die. That's why I need you to arrest me.” His eyes were filling with liquid. “Because all the years since, I've never gone a day without remembering, waiting for your lot's knock at the door. And you never came, did you? You never came . . .”

·  ·  ·

Back in his second-floor tenement flat, Rebus smoked a couple of cigarettes and dug out his vinyl copy of The Who's
Quadrophenia
. He flicked through the booklet of photos and the little short story that accompanied them. Then he lifted his phone and called DI Siobhan Clarke.

“Well?” she asked.

“It's archaeology,” he told her. “Summer of sixty-four. I'm assuming it landed on my lap because someone mistook me for Old Father Time. Didn't even happen in Edinburgh.”

“Where, then?”

“Brighton. Mods and Rockers. Blood in the nostrils and amphetamines in the blood.” He exhaled cigarette smoke. “Nearly fifty years ago and a confession from a man with days left to live—always supposing he did it. Stuff the hospital is giving him, he could be telling us next he's Keith Moon's long-lost brother.”

“So what do you think?”

“I just wish he'd asked for a priest instead.”

“Worth bouncing it south?”

“You mean to Brighton?”

“Want me to see if I can find a CID contact for you?”

Rebus stubbed out the cigarette. “King did give me a couple of names, guys who were there when he stabbed the victim.”

“The victim being?”

“Johnny Greene. The murder was in the papers. Frightened the life out of King and that was the end of his Mod days.”

“And the others who were with him?”

“He never saw them again. Part of the deal he seems to have made with himself.”

“Fifty years he's been living with this . . .”

“Living
and
dying with it.”

“If he'd confessed at the time, he'd have served his sentence and been rid of it.”

“I thought it best not to bring that up with him.”

He heard her sigh. “I'll find you someone in Brighton,” she eventually said. “A burden shared and all that.”

He thanked her and ended the call, then slipped the first of
Quadrophenia
's two discs out of its sleeve and placed it on the deck. He'd never been a Mod, couldn't recall ever
seeing
a Mod, but at one time he'd known this record well. He poured himself a malt and turned up the volume.

FOR THE FIRST TIME IN
several months, after an unusually high spate of murders in the city of Brighton this spring, Roy Grace finally had some time to concentrate on cold case reviews, which was part of his remit in the recent merger of the Sussex and Surrey Major Crime branches. He had just settled at a desk in the cold case office when DS Norman Potting entered without knocking, as usual, his bad comb-over looking thinner than ever and reeking, as normal, of pipe tobacco smoke. He was holding an open notepad.

“Had an interesting call earlier this morning from a DI in Scotland, Chief, name of Siobhan Clarke. Pity is, she had an English accent. I've always fancied a bit of Scottish tottie.”

Grace raised his eyes. “And?”

“One of her colleagues went to see a bloke in hospital in Edinburgh—apparently terminally ill, wanted to make a deathbed confession about killing a Rocker in Brighton in the summer of sixty-four.”

“Nineteen sixty-four? That far back, and he's dying—why couldn't he keep his trap shut?”

“Maybe he reckons he'll avoid hell this way.”

Grace shook his head. He'd never really got this religious thing about confession and forgiveness. “Just your era, wasn't it, Norman?”

“Ha!”

Potting was fifty-five but with his shapeless frame and flaccid face could have passed for someone a good decade older.

“I've had dealings with Edinburgh. Don't know anyone called Clarke, though.”

Potting looked down at his notebook. “Colleague's name is Rebus.”

“Now
that
name I do know. He worked the Wolfman killings in London. Thought he'd be retired by now.”

“That was definitely the name she gave.”

“So what else did she say?”

“The deathbed confession belongs to one James Ronald King. He was a Mod back then. The bloke he killed is Johnny Greene.”

A phone rang at one of the three unoccupied desks in the office. Grace ignored it. The walls all around were stickered in photographs of victims of murders that had never been solved, crime scene photographs, and yellowing newspaper cuttings. “How did he kill him?”

“Stabbed him with a kitchen knife—says he took it with him for protection.”

“A real little soldier,” Grace said sarcastically. “Have you checked back to see if there's any truth in it?”

“I have, Chief!” Potting said proudly. “It's one of the things DI Clarke asked me to find out. A Johnny Earl Greene died during the Mods versus Rocker clashes on May 19, 1964. It was one of the worst weekends of violence of that whole era.”

Grace turned to a fresh page in his policy book and made some notes. “First thing is to get the postmortem records on Greene and a mugshot and send them up to Scotland so Mr. King can make a positive ID of his victim—if he wasn't too wasted at the time to remember.”

“I've already requested them from the coroner's office, Chief,” Potting responded. “I've also put a request in to the Royal Sussex County Hospital for their records at the time. He might have been brought in there if he wasn't dead at the scene.”

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