Authors: Deborah Crombie
“So who does benefit from Naz’s death, then, if not Azad? Did Naz have a will?”
Phillips rolled her eyes. “Naz was a lawyer. Of course he had a will. I’m the executor. Naz and Sandra both left everything in trust for Charlotte.”
“But they didn’t name a guardian?”
“No. That was the thing, you see.” She rubbed at one of her ragged cuticles. “It was…awkward. They couldn’t make a decision. There was no one they trusted.”
“With Charlotte, or with their money?” Kincaid asked.
“Charlotte. I don’t think either of them cared that much about the money, except as it provided for their child.”
“Will there be much?” Kincaid thought of the house in Fournier Street, and of prices he’d seen in the area estate agents’ windows.
“Yes, a good bit, I think. The value of the house may have dropped a bit in this economy, but it will still be worth a small fortune. They didn’t owe much on it. And Naz was always careful. They didn’t spend much on themselves, other than what they put into fixing up the house, and he invested the rest.”
Kincaid thought for a moment. “All this is assuming, of course, that Sandra Gilles doesn’t walk back into the picture tomorrow.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” said Lou Phillips. “And as long as Sandra is missing, things are going to be very complicated, indeed.”
“I’m going out for a bit. I’ve got to run an errand.” It was the mid-afternoon lull, and Gemma had caught Melody in the corridor outside the CID room. “All the case assignments are up-to-date. Ring me if anything urgent comes up.”
“What are you up to?” Melody said quietly. “You’re not going to see Charlotte’s grandmother, are you?”
Gemma wasn’t in the mood to confide in anyone. “I just need a bit of fresh air.” It was true enough, Gemma told herself. Although the weekend’s brutal heat had relented, it was still warm, and her office was miserably stuffy. Her head was splitting from staring at the computer screen, and she was beginning to wonder why she had ever wanted a promotion to a desk job.
“I won’t be long,” she added, and with that, she ran down the stairs and out the front door of the station. On the steps, she bumped into a uniformed male constable, who grinned and said, “Where’s the fire, guv?”
“Corner shop,” she said, smiling back.
“Coffee and ciggies for me, then,” he called after her, and she waved back.
She turned into Ladbroke Grove. Having decided not to take the
car, as she didn’t want to get caught in rush-hour traffic coming back, she walked up to Holland Park and took the District and Circle to Kings Cross. There, she changed for Old Street, and as she stood on the platform, closing her eyes against the warm wind from a train going in the opposite direction, she mulled over what she was doing. It might be rash, but she felt compelled by the bond she had formed with Charlotte. Who would act if she did not?
What she hadn’t told Melody was that she’d rung Doug Cullen and asked him to look up an address in Sandra Gilles’s file.
“Roy Blakely?” Cullen had asked. “Who’s he?”
“According to Tim, Blakely was the last person to see Sandra Gilles the day she disappeared. I just want to talk to him about Sandra. I don’t know that he has any direct connection with Naz Malik, so don’t worry, I’m not trespassing on your investigation.”
“That means you’ve told Duncan?” Cullen had said suspiciously.
“No, but I will.” Gemma had begun to feel irritated. “Just give me the address, Doug. I’ll sort it out with him later.”
But by the time she climbed the stairs at the Old Street tube station and emerged, hot and sweaty, into the street, she was beginning to wonder if this had been such a good idea after all. Then she looked up and saw the
, and felt again the odd sense of connection with Sandra she had experienced that first night. Yes, she needed to do this, and if it stepped on toes she would just have to deal with the consequences.
She walked on down Old Street, her stride relaxing into a long, easy swing. As she neared Columbia Road, she turned off into a side street and consulted the address she’d scribbled on a scrap of paper, then her A to Zed. A few more minutes brought her to a cul-de-sac filled with relatively new flats. They seemed more like town houses, Gemma thought as she looked at them more closely, houses with two stories and sloping red tile roofs, set in blocks surrounded by pleasant landscaping.
Roy Blakely’s flat was on a corner of one such block. It had a
neatly tiled front entrance, and the front door stood open. Gemma peered in as she pushed the bell, but the interior was in shadow and her eyes hadn’t adjusted from the glare of the sun. She heard the faint sound of a television, then footsteps, and a man entered the hall.
“You from the gas board, darlin’?” he asked, looking at her approvingly. “Damn sight better than the last geezer they sent.” His accent was decidedly Cockney, and he was solidly built, perhaps in his fifties, with muscular shoulders shown off by his white T-shirt. His thick silver hair was cut short, and fine silver down glinted on his bare forearms.
“Mr. Blakely?” said Gemma.
“In the flesh. What can I do for you?”
“My name’s Gemma James, and I’d like to talk to you about Sandra Gilles.”
Roy Blakely’s friendly face was instantly shuttered. “Can’t help you, darlin’, and I’ve got work in me garden. So—”
“Mr. Blakely, wait. I’m a police officer, but I’m not here officially. I’m here because I’m concerned about Charlotte Malik, Sandra’s daughter. Did you know that Naz Malik was dead?”
“I heard from some mates who saw it in the paper, yeah. I’m sorry about that. But what’s it to do with me? Or Sandra? Look, I’ve told the police everything I know about that day a hundred times.” He started to swing the door shut.
Gemma made a last-ditch attempt at persuasion. “You knew Sandra well, didn’t you, Mr. Blakely? What would you say if I told you that Sandra’s mother was petitioning for custody of Charlotte?”
“Gail?” He paused, his hand still resting on the door, and scowled at her. “You said you weren’t here ‘officially.’ What the hell does that mean?”
“It’s a long story, Mr. Blakely, and it’s a hot day. If we could just talk somewhere cool…” She pushed the damp hair away from her face.
“You criticizing my Cockney hospitality, darlin’? That’s a right insult, that is,” he said, but the scowl was less fierce. “All right, then. Come and sit in the garden, and I’ll make you something to drink.”
He pushed the door open wide, and Gemma followed him into a sitting room that was dimmed by the light pouring in from the double glass doors in the back. The doors stood open to an oasis of green, splashed with bright colors. The voices she’d heard were louder, and she realized it was the radio rather than the telly, playing somewhere else in the house. She recognized a BBC 4 presenter, and caught something about gardening.
Then she stepped out onto a flagged patio shaded by the house, surrounded by raised beds so thick with plants that there was not an inch of bare soil. She recognized brilliant orange and yellow roses shaped into trees, a profusion of bee-swarmed lavender in one border, a drift of plumbago in another, and a lemon tree. As for the rest, she was hard-pressed to come up with names. The spicy scent of the lavender tickled her nose.
Two carved wooden chairs stood to one side, and a long worktable against the rear of the house held pots and tools and seed trays.
Roy Blakely shifted a chair for her, then came back a moment later with a plastic tumbler of water, cold from the fridge.
“Thanks.” Gemma took it gratefully. “I walked from Old Street. Your garden is lovely. Did you design it yourself?”
As Blakely sat on the edge of the other chair, Gemma noticed the mud stains on the knees of his jeans.
“I’m a one-man
, darlin’,” he said. “Now, what’s this all about? Are you telling me that little Charlotte is with Gail?”
Gemma set her glass down on the flagstones and leaned forward. “Not yet. Charlotte’s in foster care for the moment. But Gail is her nearest living relative, so unless the court has good reason to decide against her petition, Charlotte will go to her.”
He grimaced, then said, “And what do you have to do with any of this?”
She explained about Tim and Naz, and how she had come to be involved in the investigation into Naz’s death, and how she had helped arrange a temporary placement for Charlotte.
“But my friend told me that Naz and Sandra didn’t want Charlotte to have anything to do with her grandmother,” she continued, “and I’ve since heard some other things that make me think…I’m afraid of what will happen to Charlotte.”
Blakely shook his head. “I never thought—when Sandra disappeared…I know it was tough for Naz, caring for a child on his own, but I thought he was the coping sort. I never imagined—what the hell happened to him? The rumors floating round could sink a ship.”
“We”—she caught herself—“
don’t know exactly, but it looks like he was murdered.”
“Murdered?” Blakely stared at her. “Why would somebody want to kill Naz Malik? Nice bloke. Good father, good husband. Helped people out when they needed it.” He shrugged his powerful shoulders. “Although, since Sandra’s been gone, he’s been a bit of a walking ghost. Not quite all there. I have to admit I was beginning to wonder if he could go on without her, if you want the truth.” He hesitated, then said, “You’re sure he didn’t—”
“The pathologist and the local police believe it was murder. Scotland Yard’s been called in.”
Blakely’s hands twitched and flexed, as if he were uncomfortable in not having something to do with them. She thought he’d paled a little beneath his tan. “And Sandra?” he asked. “Have they found out something about Sandra?”
“No, though they can’t help but wonder if Naz’s murder and Sandra’s disappearance are somehow connected. Are you certain there’s noth—”
“Do you think I haven’t gone over every single word said that day a million times, trying to find something, make some sense of it?” He turned towards her, his knuckles now white where he gripped the
chair arms. “I’ve memorized every word she said. I dream them. And there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that explains where she can have gone.”
“I’d like to hear, if you could manage to tell it one more time,” Gemma said softly.
He leaned back again, closed his eyes. When he spoke, it was carefully, as if every word mattered. “She came late, just as we were beginning to shut down the stall. I looked up, and she was standing there with Charlotte on her hip, watching me. I said something like, ‘Come for the best of the lot, have you?’ because we always joked about me saving the knockdowns for her at the end of the day. Charlotte piped up, wanting a cupcake, but Sandra told her to wait. And then she said, ‘Roy, can I ask a favor? I’ve an errand, but I won’t be long. We have to meet Naz at two.’
“Charlotte wanted to help with the flowers. Sandra set her down. Then she looked at her watch. And now, when I look back at it, I think she hesitated for a minute, a fraction of a minute. But then she kissed Charlotte, and waved at me, and walked away. The next time I looked up, she was gone. That’s it,” he finished roughly.
“Did she have anything with her?” asked Gemma, trying to imagine the scene.
“Just her handbag. But I used to tell her she could get the bloody London Eye in that thing.”
“Did she look different, or sound different—”
“No!” Blakely rubbed a hand over his mouth, as if he were making an effort to maintain his patience. “No. She had on jeans and a T-shirt. I don’t remember what color the shirt was. I’ve tried. Some days she tied her hair back, but that day it was loose. I don’t think she had on any makeup. There was only—there was only that bit of hesitation, like she almost changed her mind about what she was going to do. Or maybe I’m just making that up.” He shook his head. “But it wasn’t like Sandra to hesitate. Once she made up her mind to do something, God forbid you got in her way.”
“She worked for you a long time?” Gemma asked.
“All through high school and art college. Even after she and Naz married she liked to do her bit. But I’d known Sandra since she was a tot. Truth is, I’d known Gail since
was a kid. Grew up on the same council estate.”
“So why didn’t Sandra and Gail get on?”
Roy shrugged. “The wife always said Sandra must have been one of those babies substituted at birth—a changeling.”
“Billie. She’s on holiday in Spain. A girl’s jaunt—hen party for our niece.”
Gemma shied away from the mention of hen parties. “You have kids?” she asked.
“No. I suppose that’s one reason we were always so fond of Sandra, not that she wasn’t a mouthy little thing sometimes. Took after her mother there, but in a good way.”
“You haven’t told me why Naz and Sandra didn’t want Charlotte to have anything to do with Gail.”
Blakely was silent for a moment, then he said, “You know that Sandra never knew her dad, and that her sister, Donna, and the boys are her half siblings? And Donna and the boys have different fathers as well.”
“But the boys have the same father?”
“Yeah, he stayed around for a bit, that one, although I think he was gone by the time Terry was born. It was Donna’s dad stayed the longest, but he was a right tosser. Lived off Gail’s benefits.”
“Gail never married any of them?”
“No. Gail’s mum helped out with the kids, but she’s gone now. That was the old Bethnal Green, extended families, everyone helping each other out. Not that it did much for Gail, but it at least kept Sandra from going the same way as her mum. She’s got no judgment, Gail. She could never keep her knickers on, from the time she were twelve. Blokes have been taking advantage of her ever since, includ
ing those useless sons of hers. And she never cared a fig for either of the girls.”
“But Sandra managed to make something of herself in spite of her family,” said Gemma.
“And they didn’t thank her for it, believe me. Called her ‘hoity-toity’ and ‘jumped-up cow.’”
“Her brothers, too? I heard they didn’t get on. And that Naz thought they might have had something to do with her disappearance.”