But someone is stalking the city's most destitute citizens. Three homeless men have recently been kicked to death, each brutalized corpse discovered with a banknote pinned to its chest. With nothing to lose, Thorne volunteers to try to find the killer—taking to the streets he knows so well from his days as beat policeman and as a homicide detective, but this time joining the squalid ranks of life's rejects. In this harsh and harrowing netherworld, with its own rules and moral codes, a shocking link between the brutal crimes and a fifteen-year-old atrocity could end up costing Thorne what little life he has left.
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By Mark Billingham
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Mark Billingham
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He woke up in a doorway opposite Planet Hollywood, with a puddle of piss at his feet that was not his own and the sickening realization that this was real, that there was no soft mattress beneath him. He exchanged a few words with the police officer whose heavy hand had shaken him roughly awake. Began to gather up his things.
He raised his face slowly skyward as he started to walk, hoped that the weather would stay fine. He decided that the emptiness at the center of him, which might have been simple fear, was probably even simpler hunger.
He wondered whether Paddy Hayes was dead yet. Had the young man charged with making the decision pulled the plug?
Moving through the West End as it shook away the sleep and slowly came to life was always a revelation. Each day he saw something he had never seen before.
Piccadilly Circus was glorious. Leicester Square was better than it looked. Oxford Street was even shittier than he'd thought it was.
There were still plenty of people about, of course. Plenty of traffic. Even at this time the streets were busier than most others in the country would be during the rush hour. He remembered a film he'd seen on DVD, set in London after most of the population had been turned into crazed zombiesby some plague. There were bizarre scenes where the whole city appeared to be utterly deserted, and to this day he didn't really know how they'd managed to do it. Computer tricks, like as not. This--the hour or so when the capital showered, shaved, and shat--was about as close as it ever came. Far from deserted, but quite a few zombies shuffling about.
Most of the shops would be shut for another few hours yet. Very few opened their doors before ten these days. The caffs and sandwich bars were already up and running, though. Hoping to pull in passing trade for tea and a bacon sandwich, for coffee and croissants, in much the same way that the burger vans and kebab shops had tempted those weaving their way home only a few hours earlier.
Tea and a sandwich. Normally he'd have spent the previous night gathering enough together to get himself something to eat, but today someone would be buying him breakfast.
Halfway along Glass-house Street, a man in a dark green suit stepped out of a doorway in front of him and tried to pass. They moved the same way across the pavement, and back again. Smiled at each other, embarrassed.
"Nice morning for a dance . . ."
The sudden knowledge that he'd clearly encountered a nutcase caused the smile to slide off the man's face. He turned sideways and dropped his head. Shuffled quickly past, muttering "Sorry" and "I can't . . ."
He hoisted his backpack higher onto his shoulder and carried on walking, wondering just what it was that the man in the suit couldn't do.
Return a simple greeting? Spare any change? Give a toss . . . ?
He walked up Regent Street, then took a right, cutting through the side streets of Soho toward Tottenham Court Road. A strange yet familiar figure, stepping in unison alongside him, caught his eye. He slowed then stopped, watching the stranger do the same thing.
He took a step forward and stared into the plate glass at the reflection of the man he'd become in such a short time. His hair seemed to be growing faster than usual, the gray more pronounced against the black. The neatish goatee he'd been cultivating had been subsumed under the scrubby growth that sprouted from his cheeks and spilled down his throat. His red nylon backpack, though already stained and grubby, was the only flash of real color to be seen in the picture staring back at him from the shop window. The grease-gray coat and dark jeans were as blank, as anonymous, as the face that floated above them. He leaned toward the glass and contorted his features; pulling back his lips, raising his eyebrows, puffing out his cheeks. The eyes, though--and it was the man's eyes that told you everything--stayed flat and uninvolved.
A vagrant. With the emphasis on vague . . .
He turned from the window to see someone he recognized on the other side of the road. A young man--a boy--arms around his knees, back pressed against a dirty white wall, sleeping bag wrapped around his shoulders. He'd spoken to the boy a couple of nights before. Somewhere near the Hippodrome, he thought. Maybe outside one of the big cinemas in Leicester Square. He couldn't be certain. He did remember that the boy had spoken with a thick, northeast accent: Newcastle or Sunderland. Most of what the boy had said was indecipherable, rattled through chattering teeth at machine-gun speed. Head turning this way and that. Fingers grasping at his collar as he gabbled. So completely ripped on Ecstasy that it looked as though he was trying to bite off his own face.
He waited for a taxi to pass, then stepped into the road. The boy looked up as he approached and drew his knees just a little closer to his chest.
The boy turned his head to the side and gathered the sleeping bag tighter around his shoulders. The moisture along one side of the bag caught the light, and gray filling spilled from a ragged tear near the zip.
"Don't think there's any rain about . . ."
"Good," the boy said. It was as much a grunt as anything.
"Staying dry, I reckon."
"What are you, a fucking weatherman?"
He shrugged. "Just saying . . ."
"I've seen you, haven't I?" the boy asked.
"The other night."
"Was you with Spike? Spike and One-Day Caroline, maybe?"
"Yeah, they were around, I think . . ."
"You're new." The boy nodded to himself. He seemed pleased that it was coming back to him. "I remember you were asking some fucking stupid questions . . ."
"Been knocking about a couple of weeks. Picked a fucking stupid time, didn't I? You know, with everything that's going on?"
Excerpted from Lifeless by Mark Billingham Copyright © 2006 by Mark Billingham. Excerpted by permission.
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