If there is one thing that gets drummed into the heads of the kids around these parts, it’s this: Stay Away from Cenred Cole.
If only boys would learn to listen to their mothers.
To be fair, it was not Merlin who broke this rule. Well, that is to say, he did, otherwise he would not be in this mess, but he did not break it first. All he had been doing was what he’d been doing his whole life; trying to keep Will out of trouble. And how well that had worked out, because now Will was dead.
And Merlin was in deep shit
“I can’t decide if you are incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.”
Merlin didn’t need to answer that question. Stupid. Unbelievably, totally and utterly stupid.
“What exactly were you doing there?” The scary Detective Inspector looked at him over the top of her glasses and raised one perfectly-plucked eyebrow.
He shrugged and still didn’t answer.
“Merlin, I’m trying to help you here. Work with me.” She tapped her pen on the top of her pad and waited for him to speak.
He tried, he really did, but speech seemed beyond him. He could feel his throat closing over, stopping the words from escaping. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose till he could feel himself start to calm down. “They killed my best friend.” His voice came out as a pitiful croak that didn’t sound like him at all.
“Yes, but what were you doing there?” The steely undertone to her voice belied the softness of the expression on her face.
He studied the table top for a moment. “Will always looked out for me.” His voice cracked again and he looked up to find her watching him. “He was popular; I was the dorky kid who liked to draw and pretended he could do magic, but he never dropped me, and he always stood up for me. Even when I came out.”
She just watched, waiting for him to continue.
“On our estate, you’re no one if you’re not in a gang.” Merlin shifted uncomfortably and started chewing at a hangnail. “I’m no one, and I’m fine with that. But Will… he likes for people to like him. He started hanging out with Valiant, and then Valiant… got him involved with Kanen’s lot.”
“Valiant?” She sat forward and spared a quick frown at his hands.
“Paul Valiant.” Merlin pulled his hands away from his mouth and then sat on them for good measure. “He was at school with us. He was a bit of a bully. He hated me, and had loads of run ins with Will because of it.” Merlin gave a small shrug and looked back down at the table. He could still feel her watching him. “Since school, Will and him got closer, they worked together on the building site over at Westons.” Merlin shrugged again, unsure what else to do with a body that didn’t feel like it belonged to him any more. This body belonged to someone who had seen too much. Merlin’s body should be at home, watching that Star Wars marathon with Will that they never got around to.
“And was he there last night?” She scribbled something down in her notes.
He nodded. “He got Will to go with him. I tried to talk him out of it, Will I mean, but he wouldn’t listen. Said it would be fine. Said he wasn’t going to get involved.”
“So you went with Will?”
“He didn’t know I was there. I followed him.” Merlin started chewing on his nail again.
“Like I said, we always looked out for each other.” The finger would start bleeding soon. The pain felt good.
She looked at him like he was an idiot. Maybe he was. “I’m sorry, but that was unbelievably stupid.” Yeah, why didn’t she tell him something new?
“I didn’t know! How many more times can I tell you?” Merlin threw his hands up in the air. “I didn’t know Kanen would be there, I didn’t know there would be drugs and guns! I. Didn’t. Know.”
She checked her notes. “You are sure it was Harry Kanen?”
“Yeah, everyone knows Kanen.”
“So what happened?”
“Will’s got a big mouth.” Merlin fought back the tears that suddenly threatened; he could feel his throat trying to close up again, like he was being strangled. “Had a big mouth. Will had a big mouth.” He wouldn’t cry, he wouldn’t.
“He told someone about Kanen’s dealings?” She looked back through her notes.
“No! He wasn’t a grass!” Merlin sat up, ready to defend Will. Will wouldn’t grass, he wasn’t weak. Not like Merlin. “I mean he just never knew when to shut up. Always had to say what he was thinking. He didn’t like the way things were going, but he couldn’t just keep quiet, he had to tell them. Loudly.”
“I’m guessing Kanen didn’t like that?”
“You could say that. But it was this other guy…” He closed his eyes, not wanting to remember but forcing it anyway. “Sort of good looking, but not? Long dark hair. He was the one who did it.” Merlin shifted uncomfortably and started on the nails of the other hand.
She fixed him with a piercing look. “You’re telling me that Cole pulled the trigger?” She rifled through her papers and pulled out a photo. “This man?”
“Cole?” Merlin looked at the picture and nodded. “You mean Cenred Cole?” A sudden chill took hold him. “Oh my god!” Merlin could feel the panic that surely should have claimed him back at the warehouse start to close in on him. “That was Cenred Cole? I let my best mate meet up with a gangster! Oh god. They left him to bleed out on the tarmac. I went there to look out for him, and all I did was watch him die…” Merlin choked back a sob. “He just shot him. Like he was nothing. Pulled a gun, shot him, and then went on with business.”
“There was nothing you could do, Merlin.” She pushed a glass of water towards him and he gulped it down gratefully. “If you’d gone in there you’d be dead too. But you called us. We got there before they could move Will’s body, before they could dispose of the drugs. And with your evidence, we can actually put these bastards in jail.”
“But I didn’t save Will.” It was almost a whisper, he didn’t even think she’d heard him.
“I’m sorry, Merlin, but Will was dead from the moment he set foot on that building site.” She sighed and threw down her pen. “They were never going to leave a witness. We will get these bastards, I promise.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Inspector.” He looked her in the eye. She couldn’t promise him this if she didn’t mean it.
“I’m not. We will get them.” There was such steely determination in her face that he believed her. “We need you to give evidence, but let’s start with some detailed descriptions, maybe sit down with an artist.”
“I could draw them for you, if you want. Kanen, Cole. And there was this big Scottish bloke Cole was doing the deal with. Ugly. I’m not a bad artist, I could draw them.”
“That would be wonderful.” A smile graced her face for the first time. “I’ll sit you down with one of our artists anyway, just to make sure it’s all official. Let’s take a break now, while I get things set up
When he was a kid, Merlin believed he had magic. He swore he could make things move with his mind.
Of course, as he got older, he learnt that this was nonsense. There is no such thing as magic, so how could he possibly have it?
Perhaps if he had, he could have saved Will.
He was pretty pleased with his rendering of the men who’d been at the building site. He hadn’t even finished shading the image of the second man before the Inspector had snatched it from him and immediately phoned someone to say they had an I.D. on Cenred Cole and Stuart Hengist. She seemed excited.
“Thank you, Merlin. We’ll still need to do a formal ID, but this is a massive help,” she said, staring down at his sketches with a satisfied smile.
“What? But they’ll kill me!” Merlin looked up in a panic. He’d done his bit.
“It’s fine, they’ll be behind one-way glass, they won’t see you. You’ve already painted a lovely target on your back, though,” she added with a shrug.
“You just said they wouldn’t see me!” He fought the urge to start biting his nails again. He’d kicked that habit when he was thirteen.
“Merlin, your best friend died in very violent circumstances and someone called the police. Cole is not stupid, he’ll work it out pretty quickly.”
“He didn’t know I was there!” Merlin said quickly.
“Of course not, if he knew that you’d be dead already,” she said bluntly. “But men like him have a way of finding things out. Besides, you’ll be called to testify in court.”
“What? No! Nonononononono, I can’t do that!” To hell with it, he started biting at his thumb.
“What did you think was going to happen? With your testimony, we can finally put Cenred Cole behind bars. We have him for drug running, murder, and theft, all on your evidence. We know where to look, how to gather more evidence, but without you, we’re sunk.” The look she gave him left no room for arguments.
“I thought you could just, I dunno, use the pictures.”
“You’re an eyewitness, Merlin.”
“We’ll put you in witness protection.” There was that look again. Damn it.
“Like in films?” He tucked his hands under his armpits if for no other reason than to give him some nails left to carry on biting tomorrow.
“Pretty much, but sadly less glamorous, I’m afraid. We’ll move you to a new location, get you away from Manchester, give you a new identity, history – a new start.”
“What about my mum?” He couldn’t abandon his mum.
“She can go with you. You’ve made her a target too, they’ll try to get to you through her.”
“I can’t tell mum!” Merlin glanced around as if he was expecting her to walk through the door.
“Mr Emrys,” she said, sounding weary as she took off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I’m not sure you really seem to grasp the seriousness of this situation. If we investigate Cenred Cole in relation to this incident, he will know someone talked. When you disappear, it will be pretty clear who. He will come after you. He will come after your family. If he can’t get to you directly, he will go after your mother.”
“Shit.” Merlin buried his head in his hands. “What the fuck have I done? Mum has nothing to do with this!”
“It’s fine, Merlin.” He heard her say as she patted his arm awkwardly. “It’ll be fine. We will protect you, and your mother.”
“Yeah, then I only need to worry about her killing me instead of Cenred Cole.” He looked back up at her and attempted to smile. His face didn’t comply.
She put her glasses back on on. “I promise, we will do everything in our power to keep you both safe. Do you have any other family?”
“No, just me and Mum. My dad left before I was born.” He shrugged. People always looked at him with sympathy when they found that out and he hated it.
“What about grandparents? Aunts, uncles, cousins?” she pressed. “Because you won’t be able to contact them.”
“No, no one. I know nothing about my Dad’s side of the family, and Mum never talks to her parents, so I never knew them either.”
“Right. Well that makes things easier.” She nodded to herself. “We’ll move you both to a safe house tonight. One of our officers will collect your mother and pack a bag for you, it’s not safe to go back to your flat now.”
“I can’t go back at all?” He probably shouldn’t have been surprised, and yet still he was. “What about… Will… the funeral?” Hardest words in the world.
“It’s really best you don’t go. For your own safety. I’m sorry.”
Merlin put his head on his arms and finally allowed himself to cry. If you had told him this morning that this was how his day would turn out, he would have locked Will in the flat and never let him leave. His best friend was gone forever.
Hunith surprised Merlin. He expected her to fly off the handle and yell at him. And then she just… didn’t.
As soon as she arrived at the safe house, she pulled him into a hug. “I’m so proud of you, my darling boy.”
“Seriously?” He pulled away to look down at her. “I thought you were going to tear me a new one.”
“Merlin, don’t be crude.” She reached up and smoothed down his hair. “Are you alright?”
He felt tears forming again and didn’t answer. He didn’t need to, his mum always knew. And he might have cried, but if he did, only Hunith knew.
If Merlin had had magic, he’d turn back the clock to yesterday and stop all of this from happening.
Leaving wasn’t really so hard, as it turned out. The only things he cared about in Ealdor were his mum and Will, and Will was gone.
Merlin had never fitted in there, and his friends were few. He liked books and sci-fi and thought he was magic; most of the meatheads he grew up with liked sitting on the swings in the park and getting drunk on cheap cider. He wasn’t going to miss any of them. Except Will.
Merlin’s possessions, which looked horribly meagre once they’d been brought to the safe house, were mostly things he could easily have left behind, except maybe a few things of Will’s that he wasn’t allowed to keep anyway.
The police had taken his phone as soon as he’d been brought into the police station. It was old, and definitely nothing like smart, with about two hours battery life on standby and five minutes if he actually tried to use it, so he wouldn’t really miss it. He’d have liked to have kept some of the messages from Will though.
His clothes were mostly cheap and well mended. The Detective Inspector from yesterday had mentioned new clothes to go with his new identity, which just made him feel guilty for profiting from Will’s death.
The only thing really that he wanted to keep was Will’s beloved Man City football hoodie that had been left in his room. He stashed it at the bottom of his bag and didn’t tell a soul, not even his mum.
Every night he dreamt of Will. The gunshot. How black Will’s blood had looked in the moonlight. In his dreams, Merlin wasn’t at a safe distance, too far away to help. Instead he was standing next to Will, staring down at him as Will gazed back and begged for his help.
Sometimes, it was worse than that. Sometimes it was Merlin who pulled the trigger. Other times it was Merlin staring down the barrel of the gun, hearing the bang, collapsing to the ground. Sometimes Will stood beside him and watched him die. Some nights it was Will who shot him.
Often, he woke up screaming so loud he woke Hunith, and she’d come and hold him like she had when he was five and thought the bogeyman lived under his bed. She had always told him the bogeyman wasn’t real, but now he knew better. The bogeyman was very real. His name was Cenred Cole.
Merlin trained himself not to scream. Not to wake his mother.
The safe house they were holed up in was horrible. It wasn’t the house itself, per se, so much as they fact that they were not allowed out, not allowed to make phone calls and were watched constantly for nearly a month.
“Merlin.” George, an officious young police officer came into the room followed by the Detective Inspector. “We have your new papers.”
Merlin took the papers from him dubiously. He’d been hoping they’d have some say in who they were going to be. “No way.” He looked in horror at his new passport.
Alan Simpson, according to his passport, was seventeen years old from Cheshire.
“Ok, point number one – no, never and no. I am not going to be called Alan, only major twats are called Alan!”
“Language, Merlin,” Hunith said mildly.
He’d had a teacher back in year eleven called Alan DuBois. In his own way, Mr DuBois had been as big a bully as Paul Valiant. Mr DuBois was one of those teachers who wanted to be liked by the popular kids, and that had meant picking on the unpopular ones. Merlin was easy to pick on, he’d weighed about seven stone soaking wet, and had no father and few friends. He’d hated Alan DuBois with a passion.
“Point number two,” he continued. “What the fuck do you mean, seventeen? I’m twenty! I spent a long time waiting to be old enough to vote and buy alcohol! I’m going to miss the referendum!”
“You can vote by post or proxy under your real names,” the D.I. said. “And you have a young face, you’ll easily pass for seventeen.”
“Can I drink by proxy too?” He shook his head and frowned back at the passport. “Point number three, Cheshire, seriously? I doubt I’m posh enough to even set foot in Cheshire!”
“Actually, my mum came from Cheshire,” Hunith said.
“It’s ok for you,” he glanced over at his mother’s documents, “Mary.”
Merlin folded his arms and glared at them all in turn. Not that it did any good.
“We can’t change the paperwork now, Alan,” George said, barely sparing him a glance.
After about a fortnight, they moved to another safe house, a flat down in Milton Keynes, which was every bit as bad as the first, or possibly worse. Still, at least they were allowed out now. “If anyone asks, you just moved and are staying here till you can move into your new house. Say as little as possible,” George told them.
Then there were the back stories. Merlin’s father was apparently Jack Simpson, a businessman from Chester who had recently died, prompting Hunith to make a new start. In reality, Merlin’s dad had left long before Merlin had been born, and Hunith never spoke about him – in fact it was the one topic guaranteed to make her really angry, and Merlin had learnt to avoid it.
They ended up in Milton Keynes for three months. Three miserable, depressing, awful months. They had no jobs, no money, no friends. Merlin spent most of his time on the sofa, watching daytime telly and cookery programmes until he was sure he would go insane from boredom.
Eventually, George came back to say they were moving. Their new home was to be a town in Gloucestershire called Camelot, and hopefully that was where they were to stay.
A place had been arranged for Merlin at the local art college, the story going that he’d missed too much of his first year due to his father’s illness and had to start again. He wasn’t complaining – he’d never had the chance to do A-Levels at Ealdor Comprehensive, no one did.
Hunith’s back story was that she’d been a doctor’s receptionist, which was certainly a step up from working the till at Asda. She was given actual training on what the job entailed, and even got to work a few shifts in a practice in Milton Keynes, which at least got her out of the safe house a few mornings. She had an interview lined up with the local GP in Camelot.
“But I’ll be lying!” She said with great indignation. “I can’t lie at a job interview.”
“You can, and you must, Mrs Simpson,” George told her.
They’d made a point of that now; never Merlin or Hunith, never Emrys, always Alan or Mary Simpson to get them used to their new identities. Even his mum had started calling him Al, which was at least preferable to Alan.
Then there was the practising. Who are you, where do you come from, what’s your mother’s name, what was your father’s name, what happened to your father? Over and over again until they got it right, until the witness protection people were happy with them. And then they’d do it all again the next day.
Merlin hated every moment of it, although admittedly he didn’t really want to get himself killed by messing up, so he practiced.
Soon. They’d be free soon.