Authors: Deborah Crombie
By late afternoon, she had made a dent in things. She was opening up the last case report in her inbox when Betty Howard rang her mobile.
Picking up the phone, she said, “Hi, Betty. Is everything okay?” Her instant fear was that Betty had had another call from the caseworker.
“Oh, everything is all right, Gemma,” Betty said softly. Gemma could hear the music from an afternoon children’s program on the telly in the background. “It’s just that little Charlotte keeps asking
me for her ducky pencils, and I’m not rightly sure I know what she means. I’ve given her every pencil in the house, and none of them will do. I can’t console the poor thing, and I’m that worried.”
Casting her mind back over the things she’d seen in Sandra’s studio, Gemma thought she remembered a cup of colored art pencils in a mug on Sandra’s worktable. “I might know the ones she means. They were her mum’s. Maybe Charlotte was allowed to play with them.”
“Is there any way you could get them for her? And she’s needing some more clothes, too. I’d be glad to buy some things for her, and I’ve got the allowance from the social, but it might be better for her to have her own things. Something familiar, you know.”
“Let me see what I can do. I’ll ring you back.”
The Fournier Street house was no longer officially a crime scene—had the investigating team turned the keys over to Naz’s executor, Naz’s partner, Louise Phillips? And if so, would Phillips give Gemma permission to go in the house and get some things for Charlotte?
She pulled out the little notebook she kept in her handbag and flipped back through the pages until she found the number she had written down for Naz and Louise Phillips’s office that first night. Glancing at the clock, she saw that it was not yet five—hopefully Phillips would not have left for the day.
She punched in the number. A woman answered on the first ring with a brusque, “Malik and Phillips.”
“Could I speak to Louise Phillips, please?” asked Gemma.
“Speaking.” The voice was no less brisk. “Receptionist’s gone home for the day. What can I do for you?”
Gemma explained who she was and what she wanted. “I wondered if you could meet me at the house? Of course, I’d need your approval for anything I took for Charlotte.”
There was such a long pause that Gemma thought Phillips meant to refuse her request altogether.
Then Louise Phillips said, so slowly that Gemma thought the brusqueness had been a cover for exhaustion or grief, “I haven’t been in the house. I just—I couldn’t—Why don’t you meet me at my flat, in an hour or so. I’ll give you the keys. You can pop them back through my letterbox when you’re done. And you can make a list of anything you remove, for protocol’s sake, but I’ll assume you’re trustworthy. You’d better be”—she gave a hoarse laugh—“because at this point I’d be none the wiser if you walked off with the entire contents.”
Phillips gave Gemma an address, then added, “You’ll find the place easily enough. It’s just off Columbia Road.”
So the house has a mission, and it believes that the natural state of human intelligence is not—like a painting—flat or square, but like this room it extends out and all around us. The house plots to work its magic to ensure that each visitor goes away with that perception. It may already have begun to happen to you.
18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields
Although the sun was far from setting, the neon signs burned over the curry palaces of Brick Lane. Many of the restaurants advertised air-conditioning, but the doors stood open, and the pervasive smell of Indian spices mingled with the dust and petrol fumes of the street.
Some of the less prosperous places had touts outside to lure tourists in with practiced patter, although Kincaid seriously doubted whether the restaurants ever gave the refunds so persuasively offered.
Ahmed Azad’s place, however, was easily picked out by its sleekly modern frontage. The closed front door hinted at real air-
conditioning, and the interior Kincaid glimpsed through the window was minimalist, with brick walls, gleaming wooden tables, and sculpted leather chairs. There was the barest hint of an Indian theme in the deep orange-red patterned place mats and coordinating linens. The prices posted on the menu in the window were a little high, but not stratospheric, and there were quite a few diners, even at the early hour.
Sergeant Singh had told him that there would be queues later in the evening, even on a weeknight, and that the food wasn’t “half bad.” He guessed that coming from her that counted as a compliment. “Angla-Bangla, of course,” she’d added, “but they do it well, and they manage to sneak in a few more authentic dishes.”
Most of the diners, Kincaid saw, were in Western dress, but there were very few women. When he stepped inside, he was met by a blast of cool air, and then by a barrage of aromas that made his mouth water.
The waiters looked as sophisticated as the interior, all young men dressed in black shirts and trousers. Kincaid wondered if there had been anything about Azad’s great-nephew that made him stand out of the mix.
It was not one of the waiters who came forward to greet him, however, but Azad himself, wearing another expensive-looking suit cut for his rotund frame.
“Mr. Kincaid,” Azad said, shaking his hand. “To what do we owe the pleasure? Have you come to sample our cuisine?” Although his tone was friendly, his dark eyes were sharply alert.
“I’ve heard it’s very good, Mr. Azad, but I’ve just come for a chat, if you have a minute.” Kincaid’s stomach was telling him that it was a long time since he’d had lunch. But as tempted as he was by the aromas, he didn’t want to put himself at a disadvantage with Azad by becoming a customer.
“I take it this chat will not require my solicitor’s presence?” The question seemed to be rhetorical, as Azad smiled and motioned him
forwards. “Come into my office. Perhaps you would like to try a chai tea?” Without waiting for Kincaid’s response, he signaled one of the waiters and barked an order in rapid Bengali.
He led Kincaid through the restaurant and into a small room to one side of the partially open kitchen. The office was clean and utilitarian, but the walls were adorned with fine photographic prints of a lush, green landscape that Kincaid assumed must be Bangladesh.
By the time Kincaid had taken the chair Azad offered, one of the black-clad waiters appeared with a glass mug of a milky, fragrantly spicy tea.
“You serve alcohol?” Kincaid asked, having noticed wineglasses on some of the tables.
“I don’t drink it, Mr. Kincaid, but this is a business.” Azad shrugged his padded shoulders. “If you want to be successful, you must please the customers.”
“It seems you have quite the City clientele.” Kincaid sipped his tea and found, rather to his surprise, that it wasn’t as sweet as he’d expected, and that he liked it.
“They have money to spend, and a little more refined taste than the average tourists, who just want their chicken tikka masala. But why should this be of interest to you, Mr. Kincaid?”
“Because I was wondering what you could tell me about Lucas Ritchie and his club.”
Lou Phillips lived in what Gemma guessed was a newer terrace, near the bottom end of Columbia Road, but the buildings were unusually constructed. While the ground-floor flats had little open patios, each pair of first-floor flats seemed to open onto a shared balcony, served by its own staircase.
Gemma checked her address again—yes, Louise Phillips’s flat was one of the first-floor pair at the end of the building, the one with the jungle of plants and flowers filling the balcony.
The one with the German shepherd dogs. There was an iron gate at the top of the stairs, and the two big dogs sat just inside it, watching her with what seemed a friendly interest.
A young man came out of the left-hand flat. He had spiky, bleached-blond hair and stud earrings, and wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the enigmatic slogan GOT SLIDE? Giving the dogs a casual pat as he went by, he clanged out the gate and clattered down the stairs. As he passed Gemma, he said, “’ullo, love,” and gave her a cheeky grin.
Had he come from Louise Phillips’s flat, wondered Gemma? But no, according to the number, Phillips’s flat was the right-hand one. At least the dogs seemed friendly enough.
But when Gemma started up the stairs, both dogs stood, and the larger one gave a sharp bark. Gemma stopped, unsure of what to do. The doors to both flats stood open, and she was about to call out when a man wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt came out of the left-hand flat. He had brown hair drawn back in a ponytail, impressively muscled legs, and a pleasant face, and he carried a large old-fashioned watering can.
“You here to see Lou?” he called down to her. “Don’t mind the dogs. They’re a good combination of doorbell and burglar deterrent, but they won’t hurt you.”
The dogs’ tails had started to wag at the sound of the man’s voice, and they looked pleased with themselves, as if they knew they were being talked about. Gemma kept climbing, still with a bit of trepidation, but as she neared the top the man called the dogs to him. “Jagger, Ginger. Sit,” he commanded. The dogs sat, but their tails were wagging furiously. Their black and reddish-tan coats were glossy, and the expressions on their alert, intelligent faces seemed almost human.
“Jagger and Ginger?” said Gemma, stopping at the gate.
“As in Mick Jagger and Ginger Baker. My partner manages rock bands. The names are his little homage to the greats—although I
doubt any of his current crop are likely to fill their boots. Except maybe Andy there,” he added, nodding in the direction the young man had disappeared in. “I’m Michael, by the way.” He came forward and opened the gate.
Gemma stepped through, and the dogs seemed to consider the gate shutting behind her as their release signal. She stood still as they came charging towards her, then let them sniff her thoroughly with their long, damp noses. She was glad she was wearing trousers and not a skirt.
“Here, I’ll call them off—,” began Michael, but Gemma stopped him.
“No. They’re lovely. They’re just getting acquainted with my dogs.”
“Ah, no wonder they like you. I take it you’re not here for Tam?” When Gemma shook her head, he glanced into the open door of the right-hand flat, calling out, “Lou, you’ve got a visitor.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” said the same slightly irritable female voice Gemma had heard over the phone.
A moment later, a woman appeared in the doorway. “Sorry, sorry,” she said. “Had to get out of the business suit and the bloody tights before I died. It should be against the law to wear things like that in this weather. You’re Gemma?”
The shorts and halter top Lou Phillips had changed into should have shown off her coloring, but Gemma thought her dark skin had a grayish tinge to it, and her bared shoulders were unflatteringly bony. Her dark hair was scraped up into a ponytail that lacked the élan of the one worn by her neighbor Michael.
“I’ve got the keys,” Phillips went on, without waiting for an answer. “If you’ll just make me a list of the items you take and return it with the—”
“Actually,” Gemma broke in, “I was hoping we could have a chat.”
Louise Phillips stared at her for a moment, then sighed. “All
right. I suppose we can talk. But only if you like gin and tonic. And we’ll have to sit on the balcony. I can’t smoke in the flat, or Michael and Tam won’t let the dogs come in. Don’t want them exposed to secondhand smoke.” She rolled her eyes at this, but Gemma saw that there were two chairs on her side of the balcony, and an ashtray between them. “And they make me wash out the ashtray every day,” Louise grumbled as she led Gemma into the flat. Sotto voce, she added, “I cheat when it’s cold. I open the back window.”
“You’re not fooling anyone, Lou,” Michael called from the balcony, but his tone was affectionate. “We can smell it on the dogs’ coats.”
“Nazis,” Louise called back, but she smiled. “How Tam survives taking the bands to rock clubs, I don’t know. But now even those have been taken over by the no-smoking brigade.”
The flat was cluttered, apparently furnished with cast-off odds and ends, and most surfaces were covered with books and papers. The small kitchen at the back, however, was relatively neat, and Gemma suspected it was because Lou Phillips didn’t cook.
There was a lime on the cutting board, beside a tall glass and a bottle of Bombay gin and another of tonic. “Easy on the G for me,” said Gemma. “And heavy on the T. Have to drive.” She watched as Louise got another glass and filled both with ice, gin, and tonic, adding only a splash of gin to Gemma’s.
“Have you been here long?” Gemma asked. “It’s an interesting flat.” She accepted the drink Louise handed her. Tasting it, she found it delicious, the tartness of the lime and the bitterness of the tonic the perfect antidote to the heat.
“Ten—no, eleven years.” Louise was already pulling the cigarette packet from her shorts as they walked back through the flat. “I found it just a few months after Naz and I bought the practice.”
When they reached the patio, Louise sank into one chair, her cigarette already lit, while Gemma took the other. She saw that the ashtray was indeed clean.
Michael had gone inside the other flat, but the dogs remained, stretched out on the cool concrete, panting gently.
“Are you the green thumb?” Gemma asked, admiring the profusion of flowers and plants, only a few of which she recognized.
“Lord, no. That’s all Michael’s doing. He’s a floral designer, and living so close to Columbia Road is mecca for him. I kill everything I touch, and Tam’s not much better.”
“Did Michael know Sandra, then? From when she used to work the market with Roy Blakely?”
“Oh, Michael knew Sandra. But then it seems that everyone knew Sandra.” Louise exhaled a long stream of smoke and ground out her half-finished cigarette. “Sandra had a way of insinuating herself into people’s lives.”
“Insinuating?” Gemma asked, a bit puzzled by the word choice.
“I don’t mean that in a negative way. It was just that Sandra was interested in everything and everyone, and she made connections, and the connections made connections…”
Gemma thought about the unlikely-seeming thread between Sandra, and Azad, and Lucas Ritchie, and Pippa…and imagined those tendrils multiplied, exponentially. “How could someone who knew so much about everyone else reveal so little about herself?” she asked, as much to herself as to Louise. “No one I’ve talked to seems to know anything about Sandra’s background, or her relationship with her family—except maybe Roy Blakely, and that’s only because he’s known her family for years.”
“Naz knew enough,” Louise said flatly. Lighting another cigarette, she dropped the cheap plastic lighter. It rolled off the table to clatter onto the concrete, but Louise didn’t reach for it.
“What do you mean?” Gemma tried to keep the quickening of interest from her voice.
“And why does it matter to you?” The gaze Louise Phillips fixed on Gemma was sharp, a reminder that Phillips was, after all, a lawyer, and that, regardless of the gin and tonic, not much slipped past her.
“Because I care what happens to Charlotte,” Gemma said simply. “And I don’t believe that Sandra’s mother will provide a good—or safe—environment for her,” she added, thinking that such an understatement only touched the tip of the iceberg.
“Naz would have agreed with you.” Draining her gin and tonic, Louise placed her glass on the table with great deliberation. “And I let him down.”
Ahmed Azad didn’t blink. “Why should I be able to tell you anything about this Mr. Ritchie?”
“Because you belong to his club,” Kincaid answered.
“Ah.” Azad drew out the word, and his small smile conveyed no humor. “I see someone has been indiscreet. But no matter. It is no great secret, although some of my more—should we say, observant—brothers might be less than approving.”
“Was it Sandra Gilles who introduced you to Lucas Ritchie?”
“As a matter of fact, it was, yes. They were old friends, I believe, and Sandra thought our association might further my business interests.”
“And did it?” Kincaid asked, drinking more of his tea.
Azad glanced out at the restaurant and lifted his hand in an encompassing gesture. “It is always good to have connections. I could not run this restaurant strictly on the custom of Bangladeshis, and some of my…connections…have provided the occasional cash infusion. With a good return, I must say.”
“And yet you’ve had trouble with the white community, I understand, Mr. Azad. Vandalism, was it?”
“Do you call throwing rocks and gasoline bombs through the window ‘vandalism,’ Mr. Kincaid? Perhaps you do not take it any more seriously than did your colleagues?” Although Azad’s voice remained level, Kincaid sensed a deep-coursing anger.
He wondered what it took for this man to keep it buried when he
socialized with the white, City types at the club in Widegate Street—men who had never known prejudice, never experienced the violence of a Molotov cocktail, never trembled in fear of a mob.
“I’m sorry the police weren’t more helpful, Mr. Azad,” he said genuinely. “Do you have any idea who might have been responsible?”
Azad looked at him for a long moment, then stood and walked over to one of the lush, green photographs on his office wall. Studying it, he said, “It is always our dream, Mr. Kincaid. To make our fortune here, then to go home to Sylhet as rich and respected elders, the envy of all our neighbors and relatives. But for most of us, it does not happen. Our lives are here. Our children’s lives are here. We do not want to make difficulties with those who become our friends, our associates.” He fell silent.