By William Shaw
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The police are called to a residential street in St John’s Wood where an unidentified young woman has been strangled. Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen believes she may be one of the many Beatles fans who regularly camp outside Abbey Road Studios. With his reputation tarnished by an inexplicable act of cowardice, this is Breen’s last chance to prove he’s up to the job.
Breen is of the generation for whom reaching adulthood meant turning into one’s parents and accepting one’s place in the world. But the world around him is changing beyond recognition. Nothing illustrates the shift more than Helen Tozer, a brazen and rambunctious young policewoman assisting him with the case. Together they navigate a world on edge, where conservative tradition gives way to frightening new freedoms — and troubling new crimes.
Why didn’t you go when I told you, before we left the house?” The question is aimed at a small, short-trousered boy, moving angrily down the pavement. Nanny, hair wild in the October wind, drives the huge Silver Cross pram with her right hand and drags the little boy along the pavement with the left. Baby has abandoned Nee-Noo, her felt elephant, and is grizzling under the yellow blanket. They had gone to the park. None of the other nannies had been there. It was too cold, but the children’s mother insisted they go for a walk every morning before their elevenses. Mother believed in fresh air and exercise, though she herself preferred to stay home, sucking Park Drives and talking for hours and hours on the phone like it doesn’t cost anything and playing patience.
“I told you to go, didn’t I?” Nanny struggles onward, crab-fashion, each arm extended, one pushing, the other pulling. “Didn’t I?”
“I didn’t want to go when you said.”
Nanny is dressed in the ugly navy cape she hates. Her shoes are black tasseled loafers that should only be worn by grannies. Makeup is not permitted. Skirts below the knee. And as for the daddy. Wandering hands.
The boy already has the assurance of one who appears to know that Nanny is just a paid employee. Three pounds ten a week plus board and can be treated as such.
“I need to go now.” The boy’s consonants are clear and clipped. He comes from stock that believes that giving orders requires plainness of speech.
“Can’t you just hold it?” demands Nanny. The first leaves of autumn blow past the three of them. “Just for five little minutes?”
The boy considers for a second, then answers simply, “No.”
“Show me what a strong boy you are.”
“I am a strong boy but I need to wee-wee,” he says in a voice too deep for one his age.
Nanny wishes she was better at this. She is young and inexperienced. She took the job to escape life in the English provinces. Imagining Carnaby Street, she got St. John’s Wood and a small, spoiled boy who wears a blazer, woolen shorts and garters on his socks, and a father who wants to grasp her bum when the boy’s mother is not looking. Homesick and lonely, the seventeen-year-old’s only pleasure is her nights listening to Radio Luxembourg. The radio tells her there are more people like her somewhere in England and that stops her from going mad. Last night the disc jockey played “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and she wished her world was crazy like that, that the whole world would burst into flames.
They give her Sundays off, and what’s the point of that? Nothing happens on Sundays. She went down Kensington on her last day off just to look at all the clothes in the dark windows of the shops. She couldn’t have afforded any of what they sold anyway. She daydreams that David Bailey is going to spot her, dress her up in beautiful clothes to take her photograph and make her famous, but no one’s going to notice her looking like a middle-aged witch.
London just means she’s more aware of everything that’s happening out of her reach.
“What are you singing? It sounds horrid. Stop singing.”
Had she been singing? It was probably that Arthur Brown song going round in her head. She decides to try to ignore the boy, pushing onward up the pavement. She notices, under her yellow cotton blanket, Baby beginning to cry. It is almost feeding time.
“You were singing your pop music. Pop music is a horrid noise.” He parrots his mother.
In the Soviet Union, they say, pop music is banned. Brezhnev will send you to Siberia for listening to it. The same in Spain and Greece. Only they just lock you up there. And pull your fingernails out. And you’re not allowed to wear miniskirts either. Mother just bangs on the door when she plays hers and tells her to stop that degenerate swill. If all the teenagers in England got together they could kill everyone over thirty. Everyone old should die. Even her dad. She wouldn’t care. Were those black berries on the hedge she was dragging the boy past poisonous?
“I need to go.” The boy pipes up again. It is so inconvenient of him. In this part of London you can’t just wee anywhere. The young nanny looks around, wondering if she could knock on one of the doors of the white-painted houses with the posh cars parked outside and ask to use their WC. But she is shy and unsure of herself.
“I’m going to wet my shorts,” the boy announces. “I really am.”
Mummy, Baby and Alasdair have elevenses together before Mummy’s mah-jongg and sherry session with her friends. It would not do to arrive back home with him wet. She grabs the boy’s hand tighter. “This way,” she says, yanking little Alasdair determinedly halfway across Hall Road.
“Ow. You’re hurting me.”
“No I’m not. Hurry.”
She is tired and angry. The place she has chosen to cross is a poor one. It is on a slight curve of the main road. She cannot see the traffic coming towards them from the north.
“Quick,” says Nanny, now halfway across and beginning to realize the danger. But the little boy in gray shorts and jacket is fiercely strong, pulling against her as she tries to maneuver her two charges across the remaining tarmac.
In this absurd tug of war she is winning, but as she approaches the curb on the other side, the momentary concentration it takes to tip up the wheels of the enormous pram gives Alasdair the chance to slip her hand.
“Alasdair. Come here now!” she screams.
Alasdair ignores her and stands, arms folded, in the middle of the road.
“You stupid boy.” Nanny pushes the pram onto the safety of the pavement before lunging to grab Alasdair. The child leaps back further, grinning. Nyah-nyah.
Around the corner spins the inevitable black cab, doing at least forty, orange light on “For Hire.” Even at that speed, Nanny can see the horror on the cabbie’s face as he swerves, eyes wide.
On the tarmac, Alasdair is too shocked to move. He stands alone, face suddenly white, eyes wide.
The taxi skids to a halt thirty yards down the road near a red phone box. Luckily, he had been a good driver. He had kept control of the vehicle even when its wheels hit the curb and bounced back into the road. There is a second of absolute, total, world-stopped stillness before the driver’s window slides down, and the tweed-capped head emerges, craning backwards towards the teenage nanny who has now captured the wayward heir in her arms.
“You stupid fucking bint.” And then for emphasis, in a voice still tremulous with shock, the taxi driver shouts again: “You stupid stupid stupid fucking bint.”
“See what you did?” shouts Nanny. “See what you did?”
The boy’s lip is trembling. She turns left down a side street looking for privacy. He does not resist her now.
“Stupid boy.” If he were her younger brother she would have whacked him a good one by now.
A little way down the side street she has ducked down, she notices a smaller driveway to some flats behind. They are modern, built on a bombsite, and newer than the big Victorian houses on the main road, but their proportions are mean and ugly in comparison and already they have a neglected air. A piece of cardboard taped to the front door says Concierge bell not working. Even here it’s hoity-toity. Not caretaker, mind you. This is N.W.8. A row of small padlocked sheds stands on the left-hand side of the small entrance. Beyond that, down the short muddy pathway to where a few clotheslines crisscross an area of tarmac, there is a pile of rubbish. A rusting bicycle, sodden cardboard, an old stained mattress, springs emerging from the cotton.
She pulls the boy down the alley and looks to left and right and up at the net-curtained windows of the yellow-bricked flats. No one seems to be watching them.
“There,” she shoves the boy by the shoulder. “Do it there.”
“Here?” says the boy, looking at the pile of rubbish.
“Yes. There. Hurry up.”
She is still shaking. She imagines the boy’s body flying upwards, struck by the cab. A limp shape on the black roadway. There would have been such a fuss. And of course she would have got all the blame. She pulls a hanky from her pocket and wipes the wet from her eyes. There is a pause.
“I can’t if you’re watching.”
“I’m not watching,” she protests. She turns her back and waits for the boy to pee.
She knows what will happen, of course. The boy will tell on her for calling him stupid, for letting go of his hand in the middle of the road. “Listen. I promise I won’t tell your mummy that you were a naughty boy in the road. That can be our secret, can’t it?”
The boy doesn’t answer.
“I don’t need to tell her. So let’s keep it between ourselves.”
The boy is still silent.
“I’ve got a packet of Spangles in my room. I’ll give you some.”
“I don’t want to wee here,” says the boy solemnly.
“Oh for goodness’ sake.” She turns angrily. He is standing there, hands at his undone flies, looking straight at the pile of debris. He looks pale. It must be the shock from the near miss with the taxi, she assumes. “What’s wrong with here? I thought you wanted to go?” She assumes this is part of some upper-class tic he has learned. We only urinate in the proper place. “Get on with it. Baby needs to have her feed.”
“I don’t want to wee-wee on the lady,” he says.
For a second, Nanny does not understand what he is saying. What lady?
The boy starts to cry. It’s a whining noise that lacks his usual volume and indignation. Something is wrong. Then, as she bends down to the height of the small child, she catches sight of a dark glimmer, from under the bottom of the dirty orange mattress. In the darkness she makes out a nose, a lip, curled up, frozen in Elvis-like half-sneer. A woman’s face, eyes open and glistening unblinkingly in the squalor of the pile of rubbish.
Amazingly, Baby has drifted back to sleep through the shouting and the squealing of brakes of the near miss on Hall Road, but Nanny’s brief staccato scream is enough to wake her now. She begins to howl up a storm. Curtains twitch. Faces appear at the windows of the flats above.
It had been a mistake to go to work yesterday.
Breen had not been himself. He had not been ready. He had been tired. He had stayed on too long after his shift because he had not wanted to go back home to be alone.
The details of what had happened last night were not clear to him. There had been a knife. There had been blood. There had been fear. Afterwards, he had scribbled notes in the hospital corridor but when he had tried to read them later at home they made little sense. He could not understand why he had behaved the way he did.
The nurse had said Sergeant Prosser would be OK. They were only flesh wounds though he had bled a lot. Breen had hung around the hospital to see him for himself but it was 1:30 in the morning and the nurse in her starched white hat had hissed, “He’s asleep, poor man. Go home to bed, get some sleep yourself and let the bugger be.”
He had not slept.
Now, stepping off the Number 30, he walked slowly into the wind. A route he’d taken a thousand times before. Each street corner was familiar, yet vivid. Things he had never noticed before included a paving stone cracked in three by two parallel lines, a front door with a postcard of the Virgin Mary on it, held with rusty drawing pins. The quality of grayness in the morning light seemed more menacing.
A few yards ahead, a GPO van pulled up. By the time Breen was level with it, the driver was already pulling thick wads of letters from the belly of the postbox, stuffing them into a hessian sack. As he passed, one single white letter slipped from his hand and fell on the pavement. Immediately, a gust of wind caught it and flipped it over, sent it skeetering back from where Breen had just come.
“You dropped one,” called Breen, pointing at the letter that was tumbling away down the street.
The postman didn’t even look up, just gave the tiniest shrug, then clipped up the top of the postbag. Breen set off running after the letter. The first time he was close to it another blast lifted it tumbling down the street again. The second time he caught up with it, stamping his shoe down on the envelope. “Got it,” he shouted, but when he looked round the postman and his van were already gone. He posted the letter back into the box and walked on.
Turning off into Wigmore Street, his skin began to feel clammy and his scalp had started to prickle. His pace slowed. He tried to suck in air more evenly, exhale more slowly. He paused and took out a packet of No. 6. Cigarette number one. A scabby-footed pigeon pecking at a crust of sandwich fluttered away, wing beats startlingly loud. He looked around for a bench or something to sit on to catch his breath, but there wasn’t one. And he was already late.
The familiar music of one-finger typing and unanswered telephones. The smell of smoke and floor polish.
The desk sergeant didn’t even look up from his paper as Breen walked past. He almost managed to make it to his desk before anyone said anything. It was big John Carmichael who spotted him first, new leather jacket, white shirt pinching slightly at his fleshy neck, fag stuck to his lower lip.
“What happened, Paddy?” he asked quietly.
“Anyone know how Prosser is?” Breen asked.
Jones, the youngest one in the office, looked up and said, “Look what the cat sicked up.”
He thought he heard someone mutter the word “cunt.”
Jones, red-faced with anger at him, said, “He says you ran and left him on his own to face the Chink with the blade.”
All eyes on him, Breen moved past them and sat at his desk. The morning light filtered through the canvas blinds. Olivetti typewriters filled with triplicate forms, white on top, yellow in the middle and pink underneath. The picture of the Queen. Blackstone’s Police Manual and Butterworth’s Police Procedure. Green enamel lampshades hanging from the ceiling, comfortably coated in dust.
“You just bottled it and ran out on a fellow copper.”
“Shut up, Jones. More to it than that, isn’t there, Paddy?”
Jones said, “I’m just saying what happened, that’s all.”
A black-and-white photograph of a charred arm sat at the top of Breen’s in-tray. His stomach lurched. He turned it upside down.
“Prosser should get a medal. As for you…”
“Now, now,” said Carmichael. “Come on. How are you then, Paddy?”
“Why you even sticking up for him, Carmichael?”
“We were worried about you, mate.”
“Stop it, Jones.”
“Prosser said you ran so fast he thought you were training for the Mexico Olympics.”
“Have you seen him?”
“Went to the hospital this morning. He’s OK. No thanks to you. What in hell were you thinking?”
“Come on, lads. Give the man a break. We all have our bad days.”
Jones snorted. “Be fucked.”
“Language!” shouted Marilyn from the other side of the room. “That’s enough.”
“Oooooh,” hooted Jones. “I’ll give you some language, love.”
The door to Bailey’s office opened. All heads looked down. The one-fingered typing restarted.
“Ah,” said Bailey. “I was wondering what the noise was. Breen. Inside, please.” He nodded towards his office.
He closed the door behind Breen, then sat slowly in a chair behind his desk. He was a thin man with a lined face and deep-set eyes. A white speck of toothpaste stuck in the corner of his mouth. Stubble left in the cracks of skin by his safety razor.
“Have you written your report into what happened last night?”
“Not yet, sir.”
Bailey chewed his bottom lip, then said, “Make sure you write it all down while it’s fresh in your mind.”
In Breen’s two years in D Division, he had seen younger men leapfrog Bailey, becoming Superintendents, joining C1 or one of the other close-knit units like the Flying Squad. Men promoted over his head, men going places, who walked with the swing of people who know they are on the rise. Bailey played by the rules. He was from the army generation. Honest, stiff-backed, hard-working. If he smoked, it was Senior Service, never an American brand.
“I visited Prosser this morning in hospital.” Bailey rolled a yellow pencil back and forth on the table. “He’s not so badly hurt. He’ll be up on his feet in no time. Naturally, he wouldn’t tell me precisely what happened.”
Bailey looked Breen in the eye. “So I’m asking you.”
A pause. Breen looked at Bailey’s desk and saw there was a dark blue folder with his name written on the front. His records. “It was dark,” Breen said. “There were two men in the shop. One of them pulled a knife.”
Bailey took off his black-rimmed spectacles and polished them with a cotton handkerchief, lifting them occasionally to breathe moisture onto the glass.
“I’m quite aware of what the men are saying. They think it’s your fault Prosser was injured. They think you were windy and left him to face the assailant alone.”
“Please don’t be obtuse, Sergeant. I expect that from a man like Prosser, but not you. Start at the beginning. You presumably heard there was a robbery in progress?”
Breen couldn’t help looking at that speck of toothpaste. “Yes, sir. On the radio.”
“What were you doing in a car? Your shift was long over.”
What had he been doing? He was not sure. Above all, he hadn’t wanted to go home to an empty flat to start to clear out his father’s belongings. “I was driving around looking for vagrants, sir.”
“Oh, for pity’s sake.”
“We think that the body in the fire last week was probably a tramp. I thought if I could find one…”
Bailey shook his head. “That’s not proper CID work,” he said. “Uniform can do that.”
“So you drove to the shop in response to a call from Control. Did you and Prosser enter the shop together?”
Breen hesitated again. “No, sir.”
“Prosser got there first, sir.”
“He’s an idiot,” said Bailey. “He should have waited for another officer.”
“He must have known I was just behind.”
“How could he have known that? He’s a liability. But you went in after him? What, two, three minutes?”
“I suppose it must have been…”
“And there was this man holding a knife. He had his arm round Prosser’s neck and was holding the knife out at me.” Breen realized he was holding out his right hand in front of him over the desk, prodding it towards Bailey. He laid his hand back on his lap.
And? How could he explain what happened next? He had no idea why he panicked. He ran. Back out of the shop towards his car, crouching down behind it, heart thumping, hands shaking. How was he supposed to put that into words?
“I made an exit, sir.”
Bailey gave a small grunt. “So I suppose it’s true what they’re saying. You left Prosser on his own?”
“That’s when Prosser was wounded, fighting off the assailant?”
Bailey replaced his spectacles and looked at Breen. “This was what time?”
“Just gone nine.”
“You left another officer alone with an armed and dangerous man? The men will not like that one bit.”
Bailey looked at him but said nothing.
“Is that all, sir?”
“You’ve been on the force, what, twelve years?” Tugging at his ear.
“Thirteen.” Enough to be due a small pension to supplement his income as a factory nightwatchman, or a PE teacher in a comprehensive. What other jobs did ex-policemen do?
“This kind of incident can wreck a career forever.”
“Maybe I should take a couple of days off,” said Breen. “Get back on top of things. I’ve had a lot going on.”
Bailey’s face twitched. “You were perfectly entitled to take time off when your father died,” he said quietly. “If you’d have taken a couple of days off then maybe this would never have happened… but I’m not giving you time off now. That would be a mistake.” Bailey went back to rolling the pencil back and forth over the blotting paper on his desk. “These things are no good,” he said. “If you turn your back on them, they fester. People talk. Tell me, why doesn’t Prosser like you?”
“I wasn’t aware he didn’t, sir.”
“Don’t play simple, Breen. You know he doesn’t like you.”
“I’m not one of the lads, I suppose.”
Bailey opened the folder and picked through sheets of paper. “You don’t live on our turf, do you?”
“Stoke Newington, sir. I was stationed there before I moved to Marylebone.”
Bailey stood and walked slowly to his windowsill. He grew African violets there. They were lined up in a small row of terracotta pots sitting on jam-jar lids. The east-facing light was ideal for them. He kept a small bucket outside the door to the yard that collected rainwater for the plants. Tap water was too strong for them, he said.
“Prosser is not a good policeman. He’s uncouth and does what he pleases,” said Bailey, his back still to Breen. “Nor am I convinced of his integrity. I barely recognize the force I joined these days.”
A familiar speech. They’d all heard it a hundred times.
“You, on the other hand… until now you’ve been a diligent old-fashioned copper. Steady. One stupid incident and Prosser’s a hero. And as for you. Talk starts. It doesn’t go away unless you make it. Better to face it down.”
He turned to face Breen again. “How’s the investigation into the body in the fire going?”
“Nothing yet, sir.”
Bailey grunted again, overfilling one of the plant pots so water spilled over its saucer onto the carpet. “Bugger,” he said. “Pass me a tissue, will you?” He pointed to a box of tissues on his desk. Breen pulled one out and handed it to him.
“We are a small team here at Marylebone. There is not room for enmity and division. Whatever his merits, Sergeant Prosser is popular. He has influence. An incident like this only boosts his reputation at the expense of yours. We don’t want that, do we?”
On his desk, positioned so Breen could see it too, Bailey kept a silver-framed photograph of his wife, round-faced, soft-skinned, smiling.
“Report. On my desk this afternoon.”
“You resigned yet, then?” said Jones. People looked up, curious.
“Shut up, Jones, or I’ll clock you one,” said Carmichael.
- On Sale
- Feb 11, 2014
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Mulholland Books