Monday morning. 9:16 a.m.
A small and airless room above the health center on Cottingham Road.
Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy, uncomfortable and ridiculous on a plastic school chair, knees halfway up to his ears.
He notices that his left leg is jiggling up and down. Damn! The shrink must have seen it, too. He decides to keep jiggling it, so she doesn't read anything into his decision to stop.
He catches her eye.
Stops jiggling his leg.
"Aector, I'm not trying to trick you. You don't need to second-guess yourself all the time."
McAvoy nods, and feels a fresh bead of sweat run down the back of his shirt collar. It's too hot in here. The walls, with their putty-colored wallpaper, seem to be perspiring, and the painted-shut windows are misting up.
She's talking again. Words, words, words ...
"I have apologized, haven't I? About the room? I tried to get another one but there's nothing available. I think if we gave that window a good shove we could get it open but then you have the sound of the road to contend with."
McAvoy raises his hands to tell her not to worry, though in truth he is so hot and uncomfortable, he's considering diving head-first through the glass. McAvoy was dripping before he even walked through the door. For two weeks it has felt as though a great wet dog has been lying on the city, but it is a heat wave that has brought no blue skies. Instead, Hull has sweated beneath heavens the color of damp concrete. It is weather that frays tempers, induces lethargy, and makes life an ongoing torture for big, flame-haired men like Detective McAvoy, who has felt damp, cross, and self-conscious for days. It's a feverish heat; a pestilent, buzzing cloak. To McAvoy, even walking a few steps feels like fighting through laundry lines of damp linen. Everybody agrees that the city needs a good storm to clear the air, but lightning has yet to split the sky.
"I thought you had enjoyed the last session. You seemed to warm up as we went along." She looks at her notes. "We were talking about your father...."
McAvoy closes his eyes. He doesn't want to appear rude, so bites his tongue. As far as he can recall, he hadn't been talking about his father at all. She had.
"Okay, how about we try something a bit less personal? Your career, perhaps? Your ambitions?"
McAvoy looks longingly at the window. The scene it frames could be a photograph. The leaves and branches of the rowan tree are lifeless, unmoving; blocking out the view of the university across the busy road, but he can picture it in his imagination clearly enough. Can see the female students with their bare midriffs and tiny denim shorts; their knee socks and back-combed hair. He closes his eyes, and sees nothing but victims. They will hit the beer gardens this afternoon. They will drink more than they should. They will catch the eye, and emboldened by alcohol, some will smile and flirt and revel in the sensation of exposed skin. They will make mistakes. There will be confusion and heat and desire and fear. By morning, detectives will be investigating assaults. Maybe a stabbing. Parents will be grieving and innocence will be lost.
He shakes it away. Curses himself. Hears Roisin's voice, as always, telling him to stop being silly and just enjoy the sunshine. Pictures her, bikini-clad and feet bare, soaking up the heat as she basks, uncaring, on their small patch of brown front lawn.
Had he been asked a question? Oh, yeah ...
"I'm not being evasive," he says, at last. "I know for some people there are real benefits to what you do. I studied some psychology at university. I admire your profession immensely. I'm just not sure what I can tell you that will be of any benefit to either of us. I don't bottle things up. I talk to my wife. I have outlets for my dark feelings, as you call them. I'm okay. I wish my brain didn't do some things and I'm grateful it does others. I'm pretty normal, really."
The psychologist puts her head on one side, like a Labrador delicately broaching the subject of a walk.
"Aector, these sessions are for whatever you want them to be. I've told you this. If you want to discuss police work, you can. If you want to talk about things in your personal life, that's fine, too. I want to help. If you sit here in silence, that's what I have to put in my report."
McAvoy drops his head and stares at the carpet for a moment. He's bone tired. The hot weather has made his baby daughter irritable, and she is refusing to sleep anywhere other than on Daddy. He spent last night in a deckchair in the backyard, wrapped in a blanket and holding her little body against his chest, her fingers gripping the collar of his rugby shirt as she grizzled and sniffled in her sleep.
"The rowan tree," says McAvoy, suddenly, and points at the window. "They used to plant them in churchyards to keep away witches. Did you know that? I did a project on trees when I was eight. Sorbus acuparia, it's called, in Latin. I know the names of about twenty different trees in Latin. Don't know why they stayed in my mind but they did. Don't really know why I'm telling you this, to be honest. It just came to me. I suppose it's nice to be able to say something without worrying that people will think I'm being a smart-arse."
The psychologist steeples her fingers. "But you're not worried about that at this moment? That's interesting in itself ..."
McAvoy sighs, exasperated at being analyzed by anybody other than himself. He knows what makes him tick. He doesn't want to be deconstructed in case the pieces don't fit back together.
"Aector? Look, is there somewhere else you would rather be?"
He looks up at the psychologist. Sabine Keane, she's called. McAvoy reckons she's divorced. She wears no ring, but it's unlikely she'd been saddled with a rhyming name from birth. She's in her early forties and very slim, with longish hair tied back in a mess of straw and gray strands. She's dressed for the hot weather, in sandals, linen skirt, and a plain black T-shirt that exposes arms that sag a little underneath. She wears no makeup and there is a blob of something that may be jam halfway up her right arm. She has one of those sing-song, storytelling voices that are intended to comfort, but often grate. McAvoy has nothing against her and would love to be able to tell her something worthwhile, but is struggling to see the point of these sessions. He's grateful that she learned to pronounce his name the Celtic way, and she has a friendly enough smile, but there are doors in his head he doesn't want to unlock. It doesn't help that they got off to such an inauspicious start. On his way to the first session, he had witnessed her involvement in a minor incident of cycle rage. It's hard to believe in somebody's power to heal your soul when you have seen them pedalling furiously down a bus lane and screaming obscenities at a Volvo.
McAvoy tries again.
"Look, the people at occupational health have insisted I come for six sessions with a police-approved counsellor. I'm doing that. I'm here. I'll answer your questions and I'm at great pains not to be rude to you but it's hot and I'm tired and I have work to do, and yes, there are lots of places I would rather be. I'm sure you would, too."
There is silence for a second. McAvoy hears the beep of an appointment being announced in the waiting room for the main doctor's office downstairs. He pictures the scene. The waiting room of sick students and chattering foreigners; of middle-class bohemians waiting for their malaria pills and yellow-fever jabs before they jet off to Goa with their little Jeremiahs and Hermiones.
Eventually, Sabine tries again. "You have three children, is that right?"
"Two," says McAvoy.
"Youngest keeping you up?"
"Comes with the job."
"It's your duty, yes?"
"Tell me about duty, Aector. Tell me what it means to you."
McAvoy makes fists. Thinks about it. "It's what's expected."
"By everyone. By yourself. It's the right thing."
Sabine says nothing for a moment, then reaches down and pulls a notepad from her handbag. She writes something on the open page, but whether it is some clinical insight, or a reminder to pick up toilet paper on the way home, McAvoy cannot tell.
"You've picked a job that is all about duty, haven't you? Did you always want to be a policeman?"
McAvoy rubs a hand across his forehead. Straightens his greenand-gold tie. Rolls back the cuffs on his black shirt, then rolls them down again.
"It wasn't like that," he says, eventually. "Where I grew up. The setup at home. The script was kind of written."
Sabine looks at her notepad again, and shuffles through the pages to find something. She looks up. "You grew up in the Highlands, yes? On a croft? A little farm, I believe ..."
"Until I was ten."
"And that's when you went to boarding school?"
McAvoy looks away. He straightens the crease in his gray suit trousers and fiddles with the pocket of the matching waistcoat. "After a while."
"Expensive, for a crofter, I presume." Her voice is soft but probing.
"Mam's new partner was quite well-off."
The psychologist makes another note. "And you and your mother are close?"
McAvoy looks away.
"How about you and your father?"
"Off and on."
"How does he feel about your success?"
McAvoy gives in to a smile. "What success?"
Sabine gestures at her notes, and the cardboard file on the floor at her feet. "The cases you have solved."
He shakes his head. "It doesn't work like that. I didn't solve anything." He stops. Considers it properly, and shrugs. "Maybe I did. Maybe I was just, well, there. And when it was just me, on my own, when nobody else gave a damn, I ended up thinking I shouldn't have bothered. Or maybe I should have bothered more."
There is silence in the room. McAvoy rocks the small plastic chair back on two legs, then puts it down again when he feels it lurch.
After a moment, Sabine nods, as if making up her mind.
"Tell me about Doug Roper," she says, without looking at her pad.
Involuntarily, McAvoy clenches his jaw. He feels the insides of his cheeks go dry. He says nothing, for fear his tongue will be too fat and useless to make any sense.
"We only get the most basic details in the reports, Aector. But I can read between the lines."
"He was my first Detective Chief Superintendent in CID," says McAvoy softly.
"And what? You've probably heard of him."
Sabine gives a little shrug. "I Googled him. Bit of a celebrity policeman, I see."
"He's retired now."
"And you had something to do with that?"
McAvoy runs his tongue around his mouth. "Some people think so."
"And that made you unpopular?"
"It's getting better now. Trish Pharaoh has been very helpful."
"That's your new boss, yes? Serious and Organized Crime Unit, is that right? Yes, you mentioned her last time. You mention her quite a lot."
McAvoy manages a faint smile. "You sound like my wife."
Sabine cocks her head. "She means a lot to you?"
"My wife? She's everything ..."
"No. Your boss."
McAvoy's leg starts jiggling again. "She's a very good police officer. I think so, anyway. Maybe she isn't. Maybe Doug Roper had it right. I don't know. I don't know anything very much. Somebody once told me that I would drive myself insane trying to understand what it's all about. Justice, I mean. Goodness. Badness. Sometimes I think I'm halfway there. Other times I just feel like I'm only clever enough to realize how little I know."
"There's a line in the report we have that says you take the rules very seriously. Can you tell me what you think that might mean?"
McAvoy holds her gaze. Is she making fun of him? He doesn't know what to say. Is there something in the file about his adherence to the rule book? He's a man who completes his paperwork in triplicate in case the original is mislaid and who won't requisition a new Biro from the supply closet until his last one is out of ink.
He says nothing. Just listens to the tires on the bone-dry road and the sound of blood in his ears.
"The report says you have lots of physical scars, Aector."
McAvoy tries to be an honest man, and so does not reproach himself for the answer. He is okay. He's as well as can be expected. He's getting by. Doing his bit. Making do. He has plenty of glib, meaningless ways to describe how he is, and knows that were he to sit here trying to explain it all properly, he would turn to ash. At home, he's more than okay. He's perfect. With his arms around his wife and children, he feels like he is glowing. It is only at work that he has no bloody clue how he feels. Whether he regrets his actions. What he really feels about the corrupt, pitiless Detective Superintendent whose tenure at the head of Humberside Police CID only ended when McAvoy tried to bring his crimes into the light. Whether noble or naive, McAvoy's actions cost him his reputation as rising star. This gentle, humble, shy giant of a man was made a distrusted, despised pariah by many of his fellow officers. He was dumped on the Serious and Organized Crime Unit as little more than accountant and mouthpiece, expected by all to be chewed up and spat out by the squad boss, Detective Superintendent Trish Pharaoh, with her biker boots, mascara, and truckloads of attitude. Instead she had found a protégé. Almost a friend. And at her side, he has caught bad people.
The burns on McAvoy's back and the slash-wound to the bone on his left breast are not the only scars he carries, but they have become almost medals of redemption. He has suffered for what he believes.
Sabine puts down her pen and pulls her phone from her bag. She looks at the display and then up at McAvoy. "We have half an hour left. You must want to get some of this off your chest."
McAvoy pulls out his own phone to check that she is right, and sees that he has had eight missed calls, all from the same number. He pulls an apologetic face and before Sabine can object, calls back.
Trish Pharaoh answers on the second ring.
"Hector, thank fuck for that. We've got a body. Tell the shrink to tick your chart and let you go. You're in fine shape. Let's just hope your gag reflex isn't. This one's going to make you sick."
Tick-tock, tick-tock, turn signal flashing right. A bluebottle buzzing fatly against the back window. Horns honking and the drone of a pneumatic drill. Shirtless workmen lying back against the wall of the convenience store on the corner; egg-and-bacon sandwiches dripping from greasy paper bags onto dirty hands.
The lights turn green, but nobody moves. The traffic stays still. Two different radio stations blare from open windows. Lady Gaga fights for supremacy with The Mamas and the Papas ...
A city in the grip of a fever: irritable, agitated, raw.
McAvoy checks his phone. Nothing new. Tries to read the sticker on the back windscreen of the Peugeot two cars in front, but gives up when the squinting makes his temples sweat.
Looks right, at the Polish convenience store: its sign a jumble of angry consonants. Left, at the gym with its massive advert for pole-dancing fitness classes. Wonders if any of the immigrants in this part of town have become champion pole dancers ...
He's at the bottom of Anlaby Road, already regretting his decision to turn right out of the doctor's office He's driving the five-year-old minivan that he and Roisin had settled on a month ago. There are two child-seats in the back, leaving McAvoy constantly worried about being asked to chauffeur any more than one colleague at a time.
The lights turn green again, and he noses the car forward, into the shadow of a boarded-up theme pub. He remembers when it opened. A local businessman spent more than a million on revamping the building, convinced there was a need for a sophisticated and luxurious nightspot in this part of town. It lasted a year. Its demise could serve as a mirror for so much of this area. The bottom end of Anlaby Road is all charity shops and pizza parlors, cash- for- gold centers and pubs where the barman and the only customer take it in turns to go outside for a cigarette. The streets are a maze of small terraced houses with front rooms where a man of McAvoy's size would struggle to lie down. Once upon a time, the people would have been called "poor but honest." Perhaps even "working class." There is no term in the official police guidance to describe the locals now. Just people. Ordinary people, with their faults and flaws and wishes and dreams. Hull folk, all tempers and pride.