Authors: William Shaw
Table of Contents
In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.
At the end of the summer a man takes his sick father to hospital.
The French have voted in de Gaulle again. Robert Kennedy has been shot. The Americans, stuck deep in Vietnam, are swinging behind the Republican, Richard Nixon, instead. The Soviets have just sent the tanks into Prague. It is autumn 1968. And London is always London and the rain that has been falling on it all summer is still falling.
The nurse behind the desk is plump and has a distracting moustache. She holds a gnawed biro in one hand and asks questions like, ‘Any allergies?’
It is late night, or maybe early morning. The man is tired. It feels as if he has not slept for days. ‘No.’
And, ‘Next of kin?’
‘Just me.’ Because he’s thinly built the man looks taller than he is. He is in his early thirties, from a generation that still dresses conventionally. A pale mackintosh. Cherry Blossom Light Tan shoes. A grey suit.
‘Any other relations?’ she asks him.
‘No one at all?’
The man shakes his head. The weariness shows in the dark skin beneath his eyes.
She takes her pencil and writes ‘NONE’ on the form.
It has been a long night. One of too many.
‘Where can you be contacted in an emergency?’
‘I’m a policeman,’ says the man, as if that’s an answer. And he gives the number of his local station in Marylebone.
‘There’s a waiting room at the end of the ward, if you like,’ she says, pointing with her biro. Somewhere a radio plays an idiotic song by Alma Cogan.
‘No. I’d better go now,’ he says. ‘I’ll be back later to see how he is.’
The policeman is usually good with details but will remember little of this. Days of looking after his father between shifts has left him exhausted. Long disturbed nights after work. The dribbles of luke-warm soup around the old man’s mouth. The bed baths and bedpans. Always the startled look in his father’s pale eyes. Bringing his father to hospital today is a relief. He has had enough.
But he will regret that he did not stay longer. Really, there was no need to go straight back to work. He could have stayed just a few more hours. This is the cold black stone that will sit in his chest.
It has been a bad year. Right now he just wants to keep moving. To pause for too long would be to give in to the sadness of it.
As he goes to the stairwell to leave the building he is surprised to find that the world outside is still dark and quiet. He checks his watch. Ticka-ticka Timex. It is still only twenty minutes past five. The days have been so disorientating, so fractured. He had been inside the hospital so long he had imagined it would be daytime now, but it is still three hours before he needs to be at work. It would make sense to stay.
He pauses on the cold staircase. Not enough time to go back to the flat he shares with his father and sleep. And if he catches the bus to Marylebone, he will be much too early.
So he sets off walking. Out of the hospital, into the silent street.
He walks down through to Islington, down Caledonian Road, past torn posters advertising Judy Garland at the Talk of the Town, all the time cold wind at his back. The pavements are still empty, save for the occasional man returning from a night shift, or nurse waiting for the first bus.
It is six by the time the man reaches King’s Cross and the sky is the colour of cigarette ash. The postmen are delivering letters. The milkmen are delivering milk. Men in pinstripes are starting to arrive from their suburban homes, leather briefcases swinging as they walk.
‘They say it might be days yet,’ he tells the office typist, who arrives at work forty minutes after him. She is young, wears a lot of hairspray and bright cardigans. She has smudged her mascara, he notices, but he doesn’t tell her.
‘You poor love,’ she says.
‘Don’t worry about me,’ he says, ‘I’m fine.’ He keeps his head down, hoping she’ll get the message that he doesn’t want to talk about it.
‘I can get you something from the canteen, if you like?’
For an hour or so he sits at his desk, sharpening pencils, pretending to type reports.
And when the call comes in about some firemen discovering a body in a burned-out house in Carlton Vale he volunteers to be the officer at the scene without even thinking about his father. It will give him something to do.
He is down the stairs and out of the office and into the CID Wolesley in less than two minutes. An unexplained death is something to occupy the mind.
‘Paddy. Message for you.’
He doesn’t hear the voice, first time.
‘Are you up there, Paddy?’
Or the second. The man is squatting, examining the remains of a room, concentrating on what he sees.
A room. A fireplace. A dull ooze on the floorboards.
They have taken the body away earlier that morning. All that remains is this dark stickiness that had escaped from the roasting skin.
The detective sergeant is absorbing it all. An empty can of lighter fuel. Floorboards seared black. An old armchair burned back to the springs. He is taking it all in. He has seen worse. It would have been a quick death.
He hears this time: ‘What?’
‘Someone on the radio asking for you, sir.’
The house had been long derelict. One of a row bombed out during the war and still not pulled down. The walls bare, the plaster falling from the ceiling. Everything is uniformly black after the fire. He takes a last look around the room because so much depends on what you find in these first few hours. This is what he is good at.
‘Coming,’ he says quietly, picking up the empty can of fuel.
And he starts to make his way carefully down the charred stairs holding the empty can between finger and thumb. The black grease that coats walls after a house fire is everywhere. He already has it on his shoes but he’s trying hard not to get it on his jacket.
At the bottom of the stairs, a man in a fireman’s uniform says, ‘Went up bloody quick, by the look of it,’ and then hacks and gobs onto the bare floor.
‘Right,’ says Breen. He holds up the can. ‘This what started it?’
‘Got to be,’ says the fireman. ‘Too quick not to be petrol or something like it, poor stupid bugger.’
‘Did it himself? By accident?’
‘See it every now and then, yep.’
‘Could this have caused such a big fire?’
The fireman stuck out his lower lip. ‘Maybe,’ he said.
Breen nods and steps outside.
‘On the radio now, sir.’
Breen gets into the passenger seat and lays the can on the dashboard, then pulls out a handkerchief and wipes the smut off his hands.
‘Delta Mike Five,’ he says into the receiver. ‘Breen here.’
And he should have called up the hospital then when the first message came through. Though it was probably already too late. The doctor will say it was a urinary infection that finally killed him, but his father had been dying for years, burning away slowly from the inside.
His father had almost killed himself in a fire six years ago, leaving the gas on under a pan. He had escaped with a bandaged arm. It was the first sign that he was unravelling. After the fire he had moved in to Breen’s care.
So, Tomas Breen, builder, of Knocancuig, Tralee, dies alone that September afternoon. At the same moment as the nurse places the sheet over him, his son is staring hard at a different body, one as black as the room it was found in, in a white-tiled room in another hospital, half a dozen miles away. He stares at the dead man in the hope that something will start to make sense. An unidentified dead man in a cold room.
Breen kept the photos of the burnt body in his in-tray. Three black-and-whites. One of the man’s disfigured face, teeth showing through burnt lips. One of the whole corpse, taken from the side. One of the whole room, showing the position of the body. Every now and again, as the weeks went past, they rose to the top. Sometimes the other officers in Marylebone CID caught him looking at them, peering closely.
Skin cracked like a spit-roast pig. Pale flesh and fat showing from below. Knees bent slightly.
Autumn turned to winter and the identity of the body remained a mystery. Other cases came and went. Nixon won.
Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen started to clear his father’s belongings out from his flat, but never quite finished the job. He bought his first Beatles record, but only played it a few times. Music like that was for a younger generation. He thought about combing his hair differently and maybe growing his sideboards longer, but didn’t. He was thirty-two. It would look ridiculous.
Precisely why the fire had started remained unexplained, officially at least, though Wellington, the police surgeon, said that a bottle had been found melted into the skin of the corpse. That and the empty can of lighter fuel meant it was probably an accident, and though Breen still questioned whether a single can could have created such an intense blaze, nobody else seemed that bothered by the fact. It was
some drunken vagrant attempting to light a fire to keep himself warm in the wet weather, most likely. That was enough for Wellington.
Breen kept at the case longer than he knew he should. He returned to the white hospital room several more times to look at the charred corpse. Most of the skin on the man’s face had been burned away, so it was hard to know what he would have looked like. There were no obvious signs of trauma on the flesh that was left. The longer he remained unidentified, the longer it seemed likely that he had been a dosser. Breen began to assume he had been one of the thousands of Irish labourers who were flooding into London now, desperate for work. Wellington confirmed this when he told Breen there were traces of concrete dust in the material on his trousers.
Breen wrote notes. He knocked on doors of boarding houses and asked if any of their tenants had done a bunk. He drew maps, marking out the locations of all the building sites in the area. He visited the Garryowen and the Palais on the weekend, where they danced to showbands playing ‘Boolavogue’ and ‘Liverpool Lou’ and other teary waltzes. In the Irish dance halls there were two or three men to every woman. Anyone know of a man who’s gone missing? One less would give the rest of us a bloody chance.
At first other officers ignored his obsession. The man’s father had died recently. He was not himself. Good man, Paddy Breen. Not one of the boys, exactly, but, you know, a good man.
But as time passed, Breen knew they were becoming irritated by him. This was not a real case for a CID man. Bloody Paddy Breen. Still wasting time on that no-hoper. Not pulling his weight.
There was other work to be done. Real people who had died in fights and robberies. Not alky immigrants whom nobody would miss anyway. Bloody Irish. Paddy excepted, of course. It was clearly just an accident so why was he so bothered about it?
‘Don’t waste your effort on jobs nobody’s going to thank you for,’ Sergeant Prosser had said, more than once. Breen noticed how it
infuriated Sergeant Prosser that a fellow officer could waste so much time on a lost cause.
The inspector was kinder, letting Breen have his way at first. Once, in late November he caught Breen with the photos laid out on his desk. They were a little dog-eared now, yellowing already.
‘For God’s sake, Breen’ he said. Very quietly. One man to another.
Inspector Bailey was an old-school policeman. Decent enough, but a stickler. He didn’t like to see officers stepping out of line like this. Where would you be if coppers went around just investigating the cases that got under their skin? ‘Still think he’s a labourer of some sort, do you?’ Inspector Bailey asked.
A pause. ‘Your father was Irish, wasn’t he, Sergeant?’
Bailey had nodded. Had given Breen an uncomfortable look. Other people in the room stopped their typing and listened. ‘And he was a builder, I believe?’ said Bailey. ‘Your late father.’
‘It’s understandable that a man is upset when his father dies,’ he said.
Breen didn’t answer.
‘Buck up, Paddy,’ the inspector said, briefly laying his hand on Breen’s shoulder before walking away, shutting himself in the small room that was his office.
And there was an embarrassed pause in the CID office. At the next desk Constable Jones, the youngest officer in CID, was staring, mouth open. Breen glared back at him until Jones looked down at his typewriter and pretended to be searching for a letter among the keys. The gentle hum and clatter of the office returned.
Breen knew what was going on in their heads. Paddy was not thinking straight. His obsession was nothing to do with the burnt man. This was about his father. It was like a penance.
Sometimes there was no answer. Sometimes things didn’t work out. There was not a solution to every crime. People died alone and
unloved. He had never really bothered to find out who his father was when he was alive. He had not been curious enough.
Even if he did find out all about who the burnt man was, it wouldn’t change a thing. Breen knew that.
So, the night of Sergeant Michael Prosser’s leaving drinks at the Princess Louise, Breen decided to let it go.
That was it. The case would not be solved. Some things were never mended.
He had to get on with life. He was picking himself up. The world were changing. After six years of looking after his sick father, going home straight after work, he had started to come alive. Last week he had taken a woman back to his flat and made love to her.
A mistake, probably.
She had been a little drunk. A WPC.
But it was the first time he had been with a woman in years. He had felt the blood pulse in his body again.
He would tidy up his flat. Finally sort out his father’s belongings. It was almost December. Next year would be different. 1969. The future was here. He should start living in it.
So he got up early the next morning. Last night at the Louise, everyone else had been drunk. Breen was not like the other officers. He rarely drank much; he was out of practice.
The others had stayed, singing, buying rounds and punching each other on the arm. Sloshing pints onto the sodden pub carpet. Breen had slipped out without saying goodbye to anyone. They would not be in till later. He could have some time to himself. He had plans.
On the Circle Line on the way in, a jester walked into Breen’s dirty old carriage. He was dressed in green and blue and was shaking a stick covered in bells.
‘Morning, comrades,’ he cried out.
The train was stationary at King’s Cross. Men lifted their newspapers a little higher or stared harder at the adverts on the other side of the carriage: ‘Give Capstan This Christmas’. Or at the wooden floor, ridges packed with old fag ends.
The people Breen travelled with relied on the morning journey to work to be soothingly dull. A nothingness before the grind of work.
‘Good cheer to you all, good folk of London town!’ A shake of bells.
The man’s hair was long. He wore a string of wooden beads around his neck. There was a new word the British had started using: ‘hippie’.
‘Be merry! Free yourselves from the chains of oppression.’
A man in a pinstripe suit sitting opposite Breen rolled his eyes. ‘Merciful God.’
In his gaudy costume, the jester began trying to hand out what looked like paper scrolls. Breen noticed he was wearing open sandals. And his feet were engrained with black dirt. A traveller sitting next to Breen took one of the pieces of paper, but when Breen held out his hand the jester ignored him.
‘Don’t I get one?’ Breen asked. The new Cathal Breen. Ready to engage with the world again.
‘Don’t encourage him,’ hissed pinstripe man.
The jester looked Breen up and down. ‘Methinks you probably wouldn’t like it,’ he said, moving on.
Further up the carriage, he held out another roll of paper to two office girls sitting side by side. They were too shy and pretended he wasn’t there, folding their arms tightly, looking down at their shoes and giggling.
‘Have you got a licence to do that?’ the pinstripe man called down the carriage.
The jester stopped and looked back. ‘Have you got a licence to wear that suit?’
The office girls burst out laughing, open-mouthed, shocked. They were still trying to stifle their laughter when the train jerked into motion. The man in the suit said, ‘I’ll report you to the police.’
Breen wondered, Did you actually need a licence to hand out material on the Underground?
After the jester had passed on through the connecting door into the next carriage, the man next to Breen unfurled his small scroll, looked at it for a second then scrunched it up and dropped it on the floor.
Breen leaned down and picked up the paper. It was an advertisement of some kind. An old woodcut print of a head with the top of the skull removed, showing the undulations of the brain underneath. Below were the words: ‘Alchemical Wedding, Royal Albert Hall, 18 December 1968’.
No other explanation. Breen chucked it into a litter bin on the way into work.
Inspector Bailey arrived just after half past eight; mackintosh, tweed hat and a rolled umbrella. He looked disappointedly around the almost empty office and at the three photographs laid out on Breen’s desk and grunted, then closed his office door behind him, as he always did.
Sergeant Prosser’s leaving party had been a big night. Longest serving officer in D Division, CID. Reputation for banging up hard ones. Liked to do things the old-fashioned way, avoiding paperwork.
Good riddance to bad rubbish, as far as Breen was concerned.
A voice said, ‘Oh my God. I feel like crap. Does my mouth still smell of brandy?’
Marilyn, the office secretary, hair teased up with spray, was standing by her desk, hands cupped over her nose, trying to smell her own mouth. She reached in a drawer and pulled out a packet of Disprin. ‘Want some, Paddy?’
‘There’s going to be some heads, today,’ she said.
Breen liked Marilyn. It wasn’t easy to be a woman in this office, but she had arrived a couple of years ago and set about firmly organising the men, turning their unmethodical piles of paper into neat, alphabetically organised files. ‘Should have seen the state of some of them, going home.’
She disappeared down the corridor into the kitchen and returned with a glass of water.
Prosser’s resignation had been a surprise to most people in CID. A big crowd had turned out and stayed until the small hours drinking pints and brandies. Men huddled in corners. But why’s he really going? He’s a copper’s copper. One of the best. Plus, Prosser’s got a crippled kiddie to support. Loved the job. Makes no sense at all.
‘How many tickets do you want for the Ball?’ Marilyn said.
Breen groaned. ‘God. Is it that time already?’ D Div Christmas Ball. Dress suits, rum punch and Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen at the Cumberland Hotel. Breen said, ‘I better take one, then.’ All proceeds to the Orphan’s Fund.
‘Just one? Aww,’ Marilyn said. ‘No one you want to invite?’ She was standing over him clutching a wad of pale tickets.
Marilyn came closer again. Voice lowered. ‘Not asking that WPC Tozer?’ The woman he had slept with. One night only.
Breen looked at her. Did she know? It didn’t take much for a rumour to do the rounds. ‘Do you think I should?’
Marilyn said, ‘God, no, sir. She’s not your type.’
‘Bit of a handful. Goes with a lot of men.’
Breen blinked. ‘You shouldn’t spread rumours.’
‘Who says it’s a rumour? There must be some girl, Paddy. Someone suitable. Nobody comes to the Christmas Ball on their own. Come with me if you like.’
‘Thought you had a boyfriend already, Marilyn.’ Danny Carr.
A short, Brylcreem-haired boy who sat around all day doing sweet Fanny Adams.
‘Just pulling your leg, Paddy,’ she said. ‘Useless prannock was so drunk last night he chucked up in my handbag.’
Marilyn was always threatening to drop Danny, but never did. He’d been out of work since early summer.
‘Marilyn, where do you keep the 728s?’
She lifted her handbag and sniffed at it. ‘I cleaned it out with Vim twice when we got in and it still stinks. What do you want a 728 for?’
Marilyn blinked. ‘You’re going on holiday?’
‘What? Proper holiday?’
‘You never go on holiday. Well-known fact.’
‘That was before my dad died,’ said Breen. ‘Now I can. I decided last night. It would do me good, I think. Help me get on top of things again.’
Marilyn was still peering into her bag. ‘Good for you, Paddy.’
Caring for his father had meant he had rarely gone out with other coppers in the evening and never left London for long.
‘I was going to ask for the week starting December the ninth.’
She looked up from the handbag. ‘Blimey, Paddy. You’ll be lucky.’
‘I’m due at least two weeks.’
‘This time of year? What do you want to take a holiday in December for?’
Breen said, ‘My dad left me some money. I thought I might use some of it to go and see where he grew up. Never been. I want to try something new.’
‘No harm in asking, I suppose,’ she said. ‘Paddy. What’s that smell? Is that your socks?’
Marilyn sniffed the air. ‘Can’t you smell it?’
‘It’s your handbag, I expect.’
She tried her bag again. ‘You hear the news this morning?’ she said. ‘Ruddy great gas explosion up in NW8. Blew a house to bits.’
She was right, though, thought Breen. Something did smell.
‘Happening all the time now, isn’t it? Gas leaks. Bloody Gas Board, you ask me. Bunch of useless…’ Back in May the side of one of London’s huge new tower blocks collapsed after a gas explosion on the eighteenth floor. In all the papers. Four people crushed to death. Marilyn dropped a piece of paper on his desk. ‘Holiday form,’ she said, with a wink. ‘Might as well give it a try.’
He looked at it. A Roneo’d sheet of yellow paper. Length of leave requested. Special circumstances. He placed it into his in-tray.
The photographs of the dead man still lay on his desk. These people who come to London, build its homes and power its factories, and leave so little trace of themselves. His father had been one of them.
It had felt good to try, at least. But he knew he would get no further with this, so it was time to let it go.
He opened the bottom drawer to put the photographs away there once and for all. That’s when the stench filled his nostrils.
Somebody had defecated in the draw of his desk. Not a cat or a dog. It was human excrement. The shit lay, a pale, moist curl, staining the pale-blue police manual it sat on. Someone must have squatted down, trousers around their ankles, drawer open.
Breen blinked a couple of times and slammed the door shut.
‘What’s up?’ said Marilyn.
‘Nothing,’ said Breen. And instead of putting them away in the stink-filled drawer, he returned the photographs of the burnt man to his in-tray.
Dust still hung over NW8. It had fallen molecule thin on the bonnets of cars and the leaves of shrubs. It lay palely on the tops of things, other surfaces dark. Dust shadows. It had fallen on the piles of brick and broken glass, on a pair of spectacles that sat on the lawn and on a pot of geraniums that stood by what had once been a front door.
A woman police constable walked carefully towards the ruined house. In each hand she held a mug of tea. Her flat shoes printed the dust with small, careful steps. Shreds of paper decorated the trees.
The streets around were quiet. Somewhere a radio sang:
I love Jennifer Eccles,
I know that she loves me.
A cold, dull London morning now the rain had stopped. A black cat padded across the street in front of her and stopped to look around, trying to figure out what was wrong, then slunk under an Austin.
I know that she loves me.
The stink of burnt wood and plaster was stronger, the closer the policewoman walked. Two bored coppers stood at the door, watching her approach.
On the door, in fact. It had been blown flat, a scorched copy of
still poking through the letterbox. The two policemen perched
on the wood, like a raft, to avoid getting their polished boots any dirtier.
‘Plonk sighted. Six o’clock.’
‘Uglier every year.’
‘Don’t bloody spill it, love. Won’t be any left.’
‘’k sake, woman.’
But they didn’t make a move towards her.
‘You got sugar?’
She said nothing, but handed them the tea.
‘What about biscuits?’
‘God, I fancy a biscuit.’
‘They find anyone in there?’ she asked.
‘You spilt half of it.’
‘Go back for biscuits, will you? I been here an hour. I didn’t have my breakfast ’cause of this.’
‘Get them yourself. What do you think I am? Your mum?’
One face of the house had been blown completely away. Above, loose timbers jutted from the roof. It must have been a big house. Posh.
‘Still a big crowd?’
‘Only about fifty. Mostly just wanting to know when they can get back into their houses.’
They turned at the sound of a van, loud in the empty street. On its side: the words ‘GAS SERVICE’.
The man behind the wheel looked pale and nervous. He shut off the engine, wound down the window and said, ‘Are my fellows still in there?’
‘How long before we can go in?’
‘Not my department,’ said the man from the Gas Board, getting out of the car. He wore black-rimmed glasses, a khaki warehouse coat and had a small Hitlerish moustache. Pipe bowl sticking out of the top of
his coat pocket. He joined the two men and the woman on the door, looking into the remains of the house.
‘Bloody Nora. Hell of a bang, weren’t it?’ said the Gas Board man, looking around him.
‘Who’s that?’ asked the woman constable.
Halfway down the street was a man with long hair dressed in an army surplus store greatcoat, bending over a Hanimex, methodically taking photographs. How had he got there? People were getting panicky about their plumbing. People remembered the photographs of flats crumpled like cards in one of the brand-new blocks. And now this. Explosion Levels Maida Vale House.
‘Oi! Do you have permission for that?’
It was so quiet in the street you could hear every snap of the shutter, even though he had to be twenty-five yards away. The thinner of the two coppers bent to put his tea down carefully on the edge of the door, then started to make his way through the rubble.
‘The public ain’t allowed…’
The photographer calmly took another frame, then another.
Past the rubble, the copper broke into a trot. Finally the photographer swept the long hair out of his eyes, turned and ran swiftly away down the street, disappearing around a corner back towards the barricades.
‘How come he got through?’ said the gas man. ‘I had a nightmare getting past your men. Your lot don’t know what you’re bloody doing, ask me.’
‘No harm done,’ said the woman. ‘He’s only taking photographs. Besides, there’ll be a nice picture of you in tonight’s papers.’
‘We should have bloody nicked him.’
‘Will there?’ said the gas man, standing a little straighter. ‘Do you reckon?’
One of the policemen tipped up the dregs of his cup and reached into his jacket pocket for a pack of ciggies.
‘I hope you’re not thinking of lighting that,’ said the gas man.
The copper hesitated, then pulled a cigarette out of the packet. ‘You’d smell if there was still gas.’
‘Oh you would, would you?’
‘Course you would,’ said the constable, pulling out the Swan Vestas.
‘Give me a minute to get to a safe distance then,’ said the gas man. But he didn’t move.
The copper pulled out a match. ‘You’re jokin’ me?’
The man in the beige coat said, ‘Wait till I’m two hundred yards away and then you’re welcome to find out whether I am.’
The copper pursed his lips, sighed, put the fag back in the packet and said, ‘I’m bloody gasping.’
‘We shut off the valve at the top of the street, but a bang like that could have fractured the main. Happened all the time during the war.’
‘But gas? You’d smell it.’
‘Gets down in the ground. That’s the trouble,’ said the gas man.
From inside the ruined building came the sound of banging. One of the firemen, making the place safe before they could enter.
‘My bloody boots will be wrecked,’ said one of the bobbies.
There was a loud shout, followed by a rumble, then the sound of falling bricks. Another wave of dust blew out of the door.
Then a gust of laughter.
‘You clumsy bloody divvy.’
The gas man was pale. ‘What the hell are they playing at in there?’
‘You’re shaking. You should try a cigarette.’
‘Listen,’ said the policewoman.
They listened. After the crash of falling masonry, the house had fallen silent again.
‘They stopped laughing,’ she said.
And they had. All at once the laughter and swearing from inside the house had ended.
A fireman emerged, the blue of his serge almost totally obliterated
by dust. He looked at the two policemen. ‘Something you should see,’ he said. ‘Something bloody… weird.’
The crow’s feet on either side of his eyes cracked the dust on his face. The woman noticed his hands were trembling.
‘You OK?’ she asked.
He looked at her angrily. ‘Course I am.’
‘Christ sake, woman,’ said one of the coppers, like it was her fault for asking.
‘You all right?’ Sergeant Breen asked Temporary Detective Constable Tozer, shouting above the noise of the siren.
‘Me? I’m fine,’ she shouted back. They were in Delta Mike Five, the old Wolesley radio car whose gearbox crunched every time Breen put it into second.
He hesitated before saying, ‘I meant to call you.’
‘Course you did,’ said Tozer.
She looked out of the window. Awkwardly thin, early twenties, in clothes that never seemed to fit quite right. Lank hair cut to a bob. ‘I wasn’t by the phone, waiting for it to ring, if that’s what you were wondering.’
‘Of course not.’
She dipped into her handbag. ‘I suppose you told all the lads,’ she said.
‘What do you take me for?’
‘That’s something, anyway,’ she said. ‘Want a fag?’
He shook his head.
‘Were you avoiding me?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Busy, that’s all.’
‘Fair enough,’ she said. ‘I been busy too. Getting ready to go home.’
Tozer had handed in her notice. She was leaving too. She had joined CID from the Women’s Section as a probationer, hoping to do more than just interview women and children, or direct traffic, which was
all you were supposed to do as a WPC. But it wasn’t much different in CID either.
‘I mean,’ said Tozer. ‘It was just a bit of fun, wasn’t it, you and me?’ Then, ‘Christ. Must have rattled a few windows.’
Breen had pulled up outside the house on Marlborough Place. Or what was left of it. A grand, three-storey Victorian mansion, half of it completely blown away.
The Gas Board were still not allowing people back into their houses. They crowded behind the line of policemen, craning necks. A couple of press men with twin-lens reflex cameras complained about the way they were being treated. Breen recognised one from the local
. ‘Oi, guv. What’s going on? Get us in there, can’t you?’
Things like this never happened around here. After the firemen had discovered the body news had spread fast.
‘I was expecting to see you last night,’ Breen said. ‘At Prosser’s leaving do.’
‘Didn’t fancy it much, be honest,’ Tozer said. ‘Don’t even know why Prosser’s leaving. Many there?’
‘Everyone,’ he said.
‘Rats from the sinking ship,’ she said.
Breen approached one of the three constables standing on the door. Two men, one woman. ‘They found a body, they said. Where is it?’
‘In the kitchen. What’s left of it.’
A fireman came out of the building. ‘Got a cigarette?’ he asked, brushing down his sleeves.
‘I said no bloody smoking,’ said the gas man.
‘Give it a rest. That guy’s smoking over there. ‘If he can, I can.’ He pointed to a press man hovering at the front gate.
Tozer pulled a packet out of her handbag and offered him one. ‘You a copper?’ asked the fireman.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘For the next four weeks.’ She wasn’t cut out for the
force, they said. Breen wanted to tell her that he’d miss her, but he hadn’t found the right opportunity. Not yet, anyway.
‘Why isn’t you in uniform then?’ asked the fireman.
‘Didn’t match my nail varnish,’ Tozer said. The fireman looked down at her hand. She wasn’t wearing any.
‘Safe to go in?’ asked Breen.
‘Fire’s all extinguished. But, ask me, whole lot could go any sec,’ said the fireman. He took a long pull on the cigarette Tozer had given him.
‘We need to see the body before they pull the place down,’ said Breen.
‘I could tell you all you need to know,’ said the fireman. ‘Some bastard sliced him up like a Sunday roast. Sorry, miss,’ he said to Tozer.
‘Who knows about that?’ said Breen.
‘Just us firemen.’
‘Keep it to yourselves, OK? How do you know it wasn’t just the blast?’
‘During the war I seen all sorts of things happen in explosions. Never one skin a man, though.’ The fireman turned to Tozer. ‘What about after this, you and me and some of the lads—’
‘Skinned?’ said Breen.
‘Like a ruddy banana. Not all of him, mind. What about a coffee bar or something, love?’
‘Don’t really think so,’ Tozer said.
‘Pardon me,’ said the fireman. Then to Breen. ‘Only asking out of politeness. She’s got a face like bag of spanners, anyway.’
‘You haven’t been able to get the body out?’
‘Not our job, mate. Too risky in the circumstances.’
Breen said, ‘I want to see him for myself before anything else falls on him.’
‘Only I’m not supposed to let anyone in,’ said the fireman.
‘I’m a policeman,’ said Breen.
The fireman hesitated. ‘Your funeral, mate. They’re bringing a ’dozer to pull the lot down. It’ll be here any minute.’
‘Come on then,’ said Tozer.
‘Oi!’ said the fireman. ‘Go careful. Don’t want to be hoicking out three bodies.’
‘You don’t have to come,’ said Breen to Tozer.
‘I know,’ she said.
What he should have said was, ‘You’re not supposed to come.’ If she got hurt there would be a stink. But it would be good to have her there with him.
Leaving the fireman, they went inside, walking through the empty door-frame into what was left of the hallway. An upright umbrella stand, unbothered by the debris; a large brass ceiling lamp lying on the hallway floor. They stepped past it, picking through lath and plaster. Air thick with the tang of brick powder and smoke. Breen caught his foot in something and looked down. His shoe had gone through the canvas of a painting. He tried to kick it off but stumbled, falling against the wall where the picture had hung. Plaster dust fell from the ceiling onto him. Tozer laughed.
‘It’s not funny,’ said Breen.
She reached out a hand to him and he took it, bent down, and tugged the frame off his foot. There was a ripping sound. At first he thought it was the canvas, but looking down he saw a triangle of material hanging loose from his trousers.
‘Blast,’ he said.
‘Come on. I’m sure Marilyn could mend it for you.’
‘Everyone knows she fancies you, Paddy.’
‘Soft spot for her, have you?’
‘Don’t be a cow.’
Towards the back the damage was worse. The rear of the house had caught fire after the explosion and still stank of smoke. The firemen had supported the door to the kitchen with a loose plank. Breen had to squeeze himself past, careful not to dislodge it.
‘Well, she’s certainly got a soft spot for you,’ said Tozer.
‘Stop it,’ he said, looking down at his jacket. There was a long smear: that would need dry cleaning too.
The kitchen had taken the worst of the blast. An entire wall had been blown away on the right side. The ceiling from the room above had given way, so that a large twisted metal bed now lay in the centre of what had been the kitchen. The room still dripped with water from the fire hoses.
Scrambling over the rubble, Breen managed a glance at his brogues. If he wasn’t careful they would be ruined.
Tozer was already next to the fallen bed. She stood on the sopping mattress, grabbing a brass bedpost to steady herself. Breen struggled his way around to join her.
The man lay awkwardly, legs trapped under a fallen beam. Propped against the remains of a chair, his head was leaning back, eyes wide open. His corneas were covered in an even sheen of dust that had continued to fall on him, long after the fire had been extinguished. It made him look blinder than he already was. Like one of those blank-eyed Roman busts in the British Museum.
The dusty body was like nothing Breen had ever seen. It was skeletal, bones poking through the skin, as if the man had been starved to death.
‘You not going to be sick or anything?’ said Tozer.
Breen approached the man, took a deep breath, then knelt down and tried to brush the dust from the side of the dead man’s face. It was crusted on by the water poured over everything by the firemen.
Breen’s squeamishness at death was a new thing; useless in his line of work. The skin had been gently fried by the heat of the fire, but not roasted, as his other body had been. But from his upper arms to
his wrists the skin had been peeled away. Not carefully. Chunks of muscle had been torn off in the process, and the remains hung, loose and singed.
The dust brushed off the wounds easily. The blood underneath was dry. ‘He was dead long before the explosion,’ said Breen.
Even without the dust, his skin looked pale, his eyes sunken. Breen started picking the half-bricks and splinters off the man’s body.
‘God there. Poor bugger,’ said Tozer. She knelt down and joined in removing the debris. He was propped up in the rubble at a jaunty angle, body already stiff from rigor mortis. He seemed to be completely naked.
‘Arrogant twat,’ said Tozer. ‘It’s not like he was any oil painting, exactly.’
‘What?’ said Breen, brushing the greyness off the man’s face.
‘That fireman,’ said Tozer.
Breen hesitated. ‘Jesus,’ he said, flinching backwards.
‘Look at his throat.’
‘God there,’ said Tozer again.
Beneath the dead man’s chin, a long dark line. His throat had been cut.
The two stared at him for a second. The man’s legs were trapped under a charred wooden beam, but you could see the skin had been yanked off from his ankles to his knees. A young man. Handsome, possibly. It was hard to tell.
He tried to pull the beam away, but yanked his hand back instantly. The wood was still hot from the fire.
‘Where’s all the blood?’ said Tozer. ‘I mean, if somebody cut his throat you’d expect to see blood.’
Breen nodded. ‘It’s odd. Somebody cleaned him up. They must have,’ he said.
Crouching awkwardly to inspect the body was giving Breen cramp. He straightened, realising he was trembling slightly. ‘You’re very calm, looking at all this.’
‘Used to dead things, you know,’ said Tozer. ‘Seen as bad on the farm. It’s not all that I mind. It’s laughing boy outside. Glad I’m leaving the job,’ she said. ‘Be honest, I’ve had enough of it.’ Temporary Detective Constable Tozer was going back to Devon to work on the family farm. Soon she would be done with the job; done with him.
The sound of bells and sirens. More police arriving outside.
‘Know what? It’s like he’s been bled dry,’ said Tozer. ‘Like a ruddy pig.’
Breen gazed at the disorder surrounding him. ‘Look for a knife. Whatever could have been used to skin him.’
‘What? In all this?’
The roof creaked above them. A sudden trickle of broken brickwork poured down into the middle of the room. Dust filled the air.
‘We should get out,’ said Tozer. ‘They said it’s not stable.’
Breen looked around. At a crime scene you were supposed to look for the small things that seemed out of place. Here, everything was out of place. This was a bomb site, like the ones he had played on during the war. They had scrambled over bricks, finding reminders of of life among the ruins. A doll. A chequebook. A corkscrew. The children collected them greedily. Talismans of the impermanence of their parents’ world. Evidence that when they were told that everything was going to be all right they were being lied to.
‘You OK?’ said Tozer again.
Only the gas cooker seemed to have come out unscathed, knobs still twisted fully on.
‘I’m not flipping dressed for this,’ Tozer said, hair thick with dust, tights snagged. She carried on picking away bricks from around the dead man.
‘You don’t have to be in here.’
She didn’t answer. In the remains of the study, a desk lay covered in debris. The drawers were half open, as if somebody had gone through them. He pulled out one that was full of correspondence. Taking out a pile of papers, he put it on top of the desk and looked around for something to put it on.
‘Oi, copper!’ called a voice from outside the building. ‘You OK?’
‘Fine,’ said Breen.
‘The boss says you should come out now. It’s going to go.’
‘In a minute.’
‘I’ll bloody catch it if you get squished.’
They would tear the building down. This crime scene would be gone. He had to see whatever he could, grab whatever he could.
He found another picture frame, face down, and picked it up. It would act as a tray. He placed the pile of papers on top of it and looked around some more, but it was hard to know where to start in the chaos.
‘What about upstairs?’ he said. They were running out of time.
‘What’s that you’ve got?’ asked Tozer.
‘Just some papers,’ Breen said. ‘If there’s anything you think might give us information about him, grab it.’
‘Right you are.’
Bedrooms could reveal things about a man. An unmade bed. Or a secret in a sock drawer.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Breen looked around for somewhere to put his pile of documents. The telephone table had been knocked on its side. He laid the picture frame across the fallen legs and went upstairs.
The late November light was thin. It was hard to make things out, but Breen could still see that the main bedroom was curiously undisturbed by the mayhem of the rest of the house and the street outside. The bed unslept in.
The bedroom itself was a surprise. An oriental fantasy. Moroccan lamps hung from the ceiling. Indian cotton drapes surrounded the
bed. The bed showed no obvious signs of a crime of passion. On the dressing table sat statues of Indian gods, next to a cluster of cut-glass atomisers. On the walls, more paintings that looked familiar. Very modern. He thought he recognised the pale fleshy pink of one of the fashionable painters who got drunk in Soho. Others were less recognisable, but they seemed not to have been collected out of the usual sense of duty, or the urge to fill the walls with things that looked right. They had been chosen by someone who clearly loved each one and had positioned them with care.
He wondered about taking the paintings off the wall to save them. They would all be destroyed with the house. It seemed a waste. But there was no time.
He returned to the wreck of the kitchen, where Tozer was picking through the rubble.
Voices from outside: ‘Oi! Coppers. Come out now.’