Shane Mcintyre didn’t enjoy life, he survived it. Thrown out of school at fifteen, he’d drifted through ten wretched years of casual labour, usually broke, always moving on. Barely able to read or write, Shane accepted life at face value and for him, it worked. If he pressed a switch or turned a tap, lights came on and water flowed. But he’d no idea how.
He drank, he thieved and when he had to, used his bulk and his fists to get what he wanted.
‘All brawn and no brains,’ his mother would sigh, quenching what little self-confidence might have flickered in her great, gormless tower of a boy. The only remnant of the dysfunctional family he rarely saw was a Swiss Army knife left to him by his uncle Maurice. Shane treasured that knife, called it his ‘valuables.’
It was late November, he’d taken up with a gang of illegals, sharing their damp, cramped caravan. Today was good, they had work, scattering leftover Tarmac on a deaf pensioner’s driveway. He was thick as a plank but Shane was a grafter, followed orders, got on with it while others whinged. With the spades all taken, he’d shrug and use his hands to scrape fistfuls of treacly mess from the heap and fling them into the battered barrow.
Vlad was their leader, their gangmaster. He drew Shane aside and stretched up to whisper in his ear. ‘We do big job tonight. You want come?’ he hissed, in his clipped Romanian accent.
Shane stopped, scraping the worst of the muck from his fingers and flicking it in sticky balls at the whitewashed wall of the bungalow. ‘What you mean, big job?’
‘Like copper, big lots,’ Vlad whispered, eyes darting right and left as he spoke. ‘Few hundred quids each, fuckin’ easy. You in?’
It sounded good to Shane. After all, didn’t Vlad drive a fancy BMW and wear a flash gold watch? He nodded and went back to work.
They left in a wreck of a Transit, just after midnight. Five of them, hoods up, squatting in silence among the filthy shovels, the stink of tar in their nostrils. Vlad drove, weaving down backstreets and lanes to avoid the sodium glare and cameras of the bypass. Deep in the countryside, he turned off along a narrow, gravel track, killed the lights and crept along by moonlight. He pulled up after half a mile, tall trees to one side, a high metal fence on the other. ‘We here, out!’ he spat. ‘Speak quiet now.’
The shapes huddled round the van, breath clouds hanging in the freezing night air. Huge silhouettes of equipment stood humming behind the fence and the damp air crackled and fizzed in the network of wires high above. They climbed onto the roof of the van and squatted, Vlad directing in a low, urgent voice. Now extended to its full height, an aluminium ladder was slowly lowered to form a bridge from van roof to fence top.
‘Shane!’ whispered Vlad. ‘You longest, you climb out for cut wire.’ The big man hesitated, not understanding the task ahead of him, until someone thrust a pair of long-handled cutters into his hands and shoved him hard in the back. ‘Go, you idiot’, commanded Vlad. ‘Go on! It safe!’
It took him several minutes to crawl across, cutters stuffed in his belt, hands slippery with sweat and tar. The fence sagged and wobbled under his weight as he reached the end of the ladder. Vlad’s voice hissed across to him in the moonlight. ‘Big shiny gold one Shane, cut big shiny one!’ Shane could see several shiny things and froze, confused. ‘It safe, fucking idiot!’ The voice now carried a growing anger. ‘Cut it! Cut it! Oh Jesus!’
Legs dangling over the last rung, Shane steadied himself with one hand, drew the cutters from his waist and slowly stretched them towards the nearest cable he could see glinting in the moonlight.
The purple thunderclap lit up the sky, blasting the gang from the van into the nettles below. As they limped and staggered off down the lane, of the ladder, a large section of fence or Shane Mcintyre, there was no trace. Flames licked around the van’s tyres and a wall of thick black smoke drifted across the substation into the woods beyond.
The investigators had little to go on, apart from a burned out van and a curious, twisted cinder the length of a tall man, welded at one end to the 400,000 volt conductor.
Beneath it, an engineer came across a small puddle of hardened red plastic and at its centre, the blade of a tiny penknife.