It was a bunch of fishermen who finally found Billy Tate’s drowned body. A small, agitated knot of anglers crowding around a humped black shape that had been dragged out of the water and onto a concrete towpath. Behind Lewisham Asda and the London Bridge to Ladywell trainline Tate was born. Amongst the dogshit and the used johnnies. Slimy, wet and bloated up, Billy’s rebirth was from water thick with plastic bags and shopping trolleys, scattered newspapers and flyers floating like scum. I was amazed there was anything alive worth catching in there. Perhaps these guys were not fishing after all, but doggers waiting for the evening rush.
I was on the opposite side of the canal, squatting by the rusting metal lockhead and smoking a roach, watching as one of the men took a brave step forward to inspect the corpse, prodding with a stick before turning it over like a line caught Tench. Another was bent over and honking his guts into the canal while the rest, panic in their throats, tried to call the services.
If he smelled bad, Billy Tate must have looked a whole lot worse. Two weeks in the drink with the rats eating the soft bits and the eels eating the hard. It would make Ashton Kutcher look like Herman Munster so Billy had no chance – he was plenty ugly before he took that final dive.
I had to get closer though. Watching this caper unfold from the other side might be fun but it wouldn’t get me my phone back and the blues and twos would be here in under ten.
I took the iron bridge over the canal and headed towards the group. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to get at that SIM and I had no inclination to explain myself to these goons. The corpse in front of them should be distraction enough.
I got to the body before anyone clocked me, and I started searching. Breathing through clenched teeth. Quick as you like. The guts of a dead donkey was Calvin Klein compared to this filthy shitbag.
Black gunk and reams of river slime slid out of his pockets as I hunted for the Nokia. I glanced at his face and wish I hadn’t: a bloated sack, white and lumpy like rotted jellied eels. It turned my gut as finally, thankfully, the phone slipped into my filthy hand. Another birth. I delivered me a fucking prize baby.
And then a hand on my shoulder. Puker had sorted himself out and was mouthing something about the police. I stood up and before he could speak again I hit him once in the abdomen. Just hard enough to send him back into the canal, where he hit the water with a solid DUNK. A slam dunk.
It kicked off – sirens arriving, screaming at the top of the embankment as the men in front of me realised what had happened to their buddy. Uniform racing down the slope to my position on the side of the canal. And still the drowned body of Billy Tate at my feet like some rejected offering.
I moved fast, the phone gripped in a fist, past the slow hands of the fisherman who were scrabbling at the greasy water’s edge. Up towards the police who were running fast down the bank. Three of them with their bright yellow jackets like targets you couldn’t miss. I put my hand on the pistol grip as I sprinted up, the voices of the men behind me, trying to warn the uniform.
But they didn’t need warning. They saw me, they recognised me, they deferred to me. I held up my warrant card as they raced past, screaming at the men by the waterside to stand still and that they were under arrest.
I kept running, head down, all the way to the top until I reached the black BMW that was parked behind the patrols. Zabel’s car waiting for me and the phone.
Three taps on the smoked glass and the driver laid out a fat palm. I passed him the handset and with a smile he started the engine.