Authors: Deborah Crombie
“He always answers his phone if he sees it’s me,” Alia went on. “Unless he’s in court, and then he tells me ahead of time. He knows I don’t call unless it’s important.”
Louise Phillips was Naz’s partner in his law firm, and Tim didn’t have her home number, either.
“I could take Char home with me,” said Alia, “but I don’t like to without his permission. I can’t think why he wouldn’t ring me if he was going to be late.” She sounded near tears.
Nor could Tim imagine a circumstance in which Naz Malik would miss an appointment without notice or fail to respond to his daughter’s nanny, and his anxiety spiked into fear. “Okay, Alia, let me think.”
He could leave Holly with his neighbors and be in Fournier Street within half an hour. “You stay there,” he told her, “and I’ll come straight over.”
But once there, he thought as he rang off, what could he do other than send Alia home?
He was going to have to find Naz Malik, and he was going to need help.
We carried on down Fournier Street. The back of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church loomed large over the Georgian town houses built by the Huguenots at a time when Spitalfields was known as Weaver Town.
Salaam Brick Lane
Hazel drove the secondhand Volkswagen Golf she had brought down from Scotland.
“I see you’ve joined the Sloane Rangers,” teased Gemma, the Golf having become the car of choice among the trendy in Chelsea. Having appointed herself navigator, she pulled her pocket-size A to Zed from her bag.
“They’re only Sloanie if they’re new and a gift from indulgent parents who don’t want their children to appear elitist,” said Hazel. “And this one has certainly seen better days.” She patted the dash as if consoling the car. “I was going to leave it behind, but then I considered the logistics of getting Holly from Battersea to Islington and vice versa with no tube stop on the Battersea end.”
They had crossed the Battersea Bridge and were driving east
along the Embankment. Gemma glanced at Cheney Walk, then away. Her London seemed to be ever more populated by ghosts, and there were some she was more willing to allow real estate than others.
“Tell me what you know about this friend of Tim’s,” she said. Tim had rung just as Hazel announced it was time to open a bottle of wine, which seemed rather fortuitous timing on his part.
Hazel had listened, then put the bottle back in the fridge as she rang off, her brow creased. “Tim wants us both to meet him at a house near Brick Lane,” she’d explained. “If you can, that is. A friend who’s a single father hasn’t come home, and Tim’s worried about him and the child.”
Gemma had agreed willingly enough, but now she added, “Do you think Tim’s overreacting? Surely it’s a miscommunication of some sort.”
“I used to tell Tim his pulse wouldn’t go up in an earthquake. I
him to be more emotional.” Hazel’s emphasis made clear what she thought of that folly. “So, no, I’d say that if Tim’s worried, he has reason.” She coaxed the Golf’s sluggish gears through a down change, then tapped her fingers on the wheel as they idled at a light. “All I know about his friend is that they knew each other at university and recently got in touch again. He’s a solicitor called Naz Malik. Pakistani. I’ve never met him. There was some sort of scandal with Malik’s wife and I take it Tim felt sympathetic.”
Gemma glanced at Hazel, taken aback by the bitter tone, but Hazel went on, “I’m really not sure why he rang, except that he knew you were visiting and he wanted your advice.”
Afraid any comment would open a conversational minefield, Gemma went back to her map. “When you reach Whitechapel, you’d better take Commercial Street. I think Brick Lane is one way in the other direction.”
The Saturday traffic was light and they made good time, turning away from the river at Tower Hill. Soon the stark spire of Christ
Church Spitalfields rose before them, and opposite, the dark brick facade of the old Spitalfields Market, surmounted by its new glass arcade.
Gemma had come to Spitalfields and to Petticoat Lane Market with her parents a few times as a child, and she had once been to Brick Lane on a Sunday with Rob, her ex-husband. She’d been a newly minted detective constable then, and Rob had bought cheap cigarettes and liquor that she’d been sure were smuggled or stolen. The street had smelled of rotting garbage, the buildings had struck her as dirty and squalid, and even by the standards of her Leyton upbringing the crowd had seemed raucous and unfriendly. She and Rob had ended up having a row and he’d called her—not for the first time—a self-righteous cow and she’d called him, well, she didn’t like to think about it. All in all, it had not been an experience she had wanted to repeat.
“Turn right just after the church,” she told Hazel.
“Hawksmoor, isn’t it?” Hazel glanced up through the windscreen. “Impressive, but not exactly your warm and fuzzy neighborhood sanctuary.”
Gemma had to admit that the angular silhouette of the church seemed a bit forbidding, and the proportions a bit odd, as if the spire carried too much weight.
As they turned right, she saw the short stretch of Fournier Street, its darkly severe houses anchored by the church and the crumbling facade of a pub at the top end, while the bottom end provided a perfect frame for the Bangla City supermarket on the opposite side of Brick Lane.
“There’s Tim’s car,” Hazel said tightly, as if her ill feelings extended to the battered Volvo. She found a small space nearby for the Golf, and when she had maneuvered into it, she and Gemma got out, checking the house numbers against the scribbled address.
“It’s this one.” Gemma looked up at a house set in the terrace
on the north side of the street. Although adjoining, each house was set off from its neighbors by slight differences in the architectural detailing and the state of repair. This house looked well tended, its brown brick contrasting with trim work and wrought-iron railings painted a soft green.
The front door was offset, so that the ground floor had only two windows to one side, while the first and second floors had three windows across. The top floor was recessed, so that Gemma just glimpsed light glinting from what looked like loft or studio windows. The front door sported a hooded canopy supported by ornate brackets, also painted pale green, and the arched shape of the canopy was echoed in the slightly arched brickwork above the windows.
Before they could ring the bell, the door opened and Tim bounded down the steps, taking Gemma’s hand and giving her a peck on the cheek. “Thanks for coming.” He was tall, with unruly hair and a beard that had always seemed to Gemma to add to his air of rather puppyish awkwardness. But he had an endearing earnestness about him as well, and Gemma wondered if it was this that generated confidence in his patients.
“Hazel—” He turned to his wife, belatedly, for she had already mounted the steps. “Thanks. I—”
“Any word from your friend?” Hazel asked.
“No. I’ve kept Alia until you arrived. I thought Gemma would want to talk to her. Alia is Charlotte’s nanny,” he hastened to explain, ushering them into the entrance hall.
The space was dominated by a polished oak staircase, spiraling dizzyingly upwards in symmetrical right-angle turns. But the grandeur of the staircase was offset by the iron boot rack near the door, festooned with pairs of polka dot wellies in varying sizes, and a jumble of hats. A bicycle stood beside it, a helmet hanging by its chin strap on the handlebars.
The walls were painted the same warm green as the exterior trim,
and through an open doorway Gemma glimpsed a comfortable-looking sitting room.
“Charlotte is your friend’s little girl?” Gemma asked.
“Yes. She’s not quite three. Naz was supposed to come for a visit, and we were going to let the girls play. But that was hours ago, and he never showed up at our house, or came home, and he’s not answering his phone. Look, let’s go down to the kitchen. You should talk to Alia.”
He led them to the back of the staircase, where a much less ornate flight led down into an open plan dining/kitchen area that stretched the length of the house.
Light from the well at the front fell on a sofa slipcovered in a cheerful dahlia print, and at the back, French doors opened onto a small garden. Cupboards and a large dresser lined the walls, and a trestle table stood in front of an enormous fireplace.
The air smelled of Indian spices, and a young Asian woman sat at the table, trying to coax a child to eat. The young woman was slightly plump, with straight black hair pulled back into a haphazard ponytail. When she looked up at them, her eyes were red-rimmed behind the lenses of her dark-framed glasses.
But the child…Gemma stared at the little girl, transfixed. Her light brown hair formed a mass of corkscrew curls almost as tight as dreadlocks. Her skin was the palest café au lait, and when she glanced up, Gemma saw that her eyes were an unexpected blue-green. She wore little Velcro-fastened trainers, and a dirt-smudged overall over a pink T-shirt. The ordinary clothes seemed only to emphasize her unusual beauty.
At the moment, however, she was turning her head away from the offered fork, and the young woman looked at Tim in appeal. “I made samosas,” she said. “A treat for Mr. Naz and Charlotte. My mum is always telling me I need to learn how to cook so that I can get a man, which is really stupid.” She shrugged. “It’s a Bangladeshi thing. But I don’t mind cooking for
.” Her nod included Charlotte and,
Gemma assumed, the absent Mr. Naz. “Come on, Char,” she wheedled, pulling the child into her lap. “Just a bite.”
The child shook her head, lips clamped firmly shut, but leaned back against the young woman’s chest.
“Your daddy will be home soon, and he’ll be cross if you haven’t had your tea.” The young woman’s attempted sternness ended on an uncertain quaver, and Tim stepped in.
“Alia, this is my wi—” Tim regrouped in midword. “This is Dr. Cavendish.” He gestured towards Hazel, then Gemma. “And this is Gemma James. Gemma’s with the police, and I thought she might—”
“Police?” Alia’s eyes widened in alarm. “I don’t want—I didn’t mean to get Mr. Naz into any sort of trouble.”
“I’m just here as a friend, Alia,” Gemma said quickly. “To see if I can help.” She slipped into the chair beside Alia’s at the table. “Why don’t you tell me about your day.”
“My day?” From Alia’s expression Gemma might have asked her the square root of pi.
“Yes.” Gemma smiled, trying to put the girl at ease. She gave Hazel and Tim a glance that they interpreted correctly, taking seats at either end of the sofa. Turning back to Alia, Gemma asked, “Do you usually look after Charlotte on a Saturday?”
“No. Mr. Naz likes to spend as much time with her as he can on the weekend. But he rang this morning and asked if I could come in for a couple of hours. I thought he had to go to the office, but when he left he didn’t have any papers or nothing. Mr. Naz is a solicitor. But then Dr. Cavendish will have told you,” she added uncertainly.
“And Mr. Naz didn’t say where he was going?”
“No. Just that he’d be back in time to take Charlotte with him to visit Dr. Cavendish.” She looked from Tim to Hazel, obviously confused by the two Dr. Cavendishes, but this wasn’t the moment to enlighten her.
“Was there anything else different in what he said, or how he looked?” Gemma asked.
Alia’s broad brow creased as she thought. “He only gave Charlotte a kiss. Usually he picks her up and swings her round.” At the sound of her name, Charlotte put her thumb in her mouth.
Perhaps he had been distracted, Gemma thought, but she went on matter-of-factly. “Then what did you and Charlotte do? Did you go out?” She smiled at the child but got no response.
“Just in the garden.” Alia glanced at the back doors. “Charlotte has a sandbox, and it was nice outside. Then Mr. Naz had got mangoes, so we made a lassi in the blender. Mr. Naz had said he’d be back by three, so I had everything tidied up by then. But he didn’t come home.”
Gemma took in the neat kitchen. One of the work tops held the baking sheet Alia had used to heat the samosas, and a Tupperware container. The fridge, a retro Smeg, was adorned with magnets and bright crayon drawings, an ordinary scene in a household with a child. But something here was not ordinary at all. Thinking that Toby, now almost six, had not stopped talking since he’d learned how to form words, she smiled again at Charlotte and said, “Hi, Charlotte. I’m Gemma. Did you make those nice pictures?”
Charlotte merely gazed back at her, expressionless.
Wondering if the child was developmentally delayed, she said softly to Alia, “Is she very shy?”
“Shy?” Alia sounded startled. “Oh, no, I wouldn’t say that. It’s just that…since her mum…she doesn’t talk much, especially round strangers.”
“She doesn’t see her mum?”
Alia stared at her, the finger she had been twining in Charlotte’s curls suddenly still. “You don’t know about Sandra?” she whispered.
Gemma shot an accusing glance at Tim, who shrugged, mouthing “No time.”
“No. I’m afraid I don’t.”
Tim sat forward, hands on his knees as if holding himself down. “It was in May,” he said. “I saw an appeal Naz put in the papers
afterwards. That’s why I got in touch.” He glanced at Charlotte, then seemed to choose his words even more carefully. “She—Sandra—left the baby with a friend at Columbia Road. It was a Sunday, just as the market was winding down. She said she had an errand and she’d only be gone a few minutes. She never returned.”
A domestic dream, with a low crooked ceiling and large dresser stacked to its full height; a table of scrubbed pine covered with wooden bowls and baskets, all spilling over with green vegetables, white turnips, brown onions and bright orange carrots. This is undoubtedly the house’s kitchen…
18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields
Gemma and Hazel both gaped at Tim, but it was Hazel who got in the first word. “She disappeared? This man’s wife disappeared, and you didn’t tell me?”
“When would I have had the chance?” protested Tim.
Standing, Hazel balled her small hands into fists. “You rang up this man you hadn’t seen in years because his wife disappeared? And you offered him counseling? That’s—that’s unethical. And just sick.”
Tim looked up at her. “It wasn’t like that. I just thought Naz needed to talk. I never charged him. And since when are you the
queen of ethics?” The bitterness on both sides was out in the open now, blistering as acid, the air in the room charged with animosity. Charlotte started to cry.
“I don’t understand.” Alia looked from Tim to Hazel. Hugging Charlotte tighter, she whispered, “Hush, Char, it’s all right.”
“What either of you think, or did, isn’t the point right now,” Gemma said sharply. The simple fact of a man missing an appointment and failing to ring his child’s nanny had suddenly become infinitely more complicated, and Hazel and Tim’s bickering was not going to help. Rapidly, Gemma considered options.
“Tim, I think you should take Charlotte home with you for the moment, if there’s no immediate family to call in. It’s too much responsibility for Alia, and—”
“I can take her,” put in Hazel. “I can take both the girls.”
Gemma shook her head. “Charlotte knows Tim and has been to the house with her father; it will be a familiar environment. And Tim has a relationship with her father, whether personal or professional. You don’t.”
She turned to Alia, who was still gently rocking Charlotte. “Alia, would you mind taking Charlotte upstairs and getting some overnight things together for her?”
“Okay.” Alia looked from her to Tim uncertainly. “But—but what if Mr. Naz comes home and we’re not here—”
“You and Dr. Cavendish can both leave notes for him, and Dr. Cavendish will leave messages on his phones. Tim, do you have his mobile and his office?” When Tim nodded, Gemma turned back to Alia. “And Dr. Cavendish and I will both get your phone number. We’ll let you know just as soon as we learn anything. And you’ve done a great job looking after Charlotte today.” Gemma smiled, wanting to reassure the girl, but her copper’s instinct was sending up fizzing red flares.
“But what should I—”
“Change of clothes, pajamas, toothbrush, hairbrush.” Gemma thought a moment. “Does she have a special blanket or stuffed toy?”
“A green elephant. She calls him Bob.” Alia’s face relaxed into a half smile. “I don’t know why.”
“Okay. Bob, then. Make a game of it, if you can,” Gemma added quietly as Alia got up, hefting Charlotte onto her hip.
When Alia left the room, Hazel moved to clear the dishes from the table, her movements sharp with disapproval.
Gemma could deal with soothing her friend’s ruffled feathers later. She turned to Tim, who said, “Gemma, do you think—could something really have happened to Naz?”
“I don’t know. But I think it would help if I knew exactly what happened to your friend’s wife.”
“No one knows. That’s what I was telling you. She just vanished into thin air. There was a missing-person appeal, telly and newspapers. The police investigated. They even—well, they even treated Naz as a suspect.” Tim’s tone was defensive, and below his beard his exposed neck turned a telltale red. Hazel, her back to them as she dried the baking sheet, had gone still.
Dangerous territory, this, and Gemma thought she would have to traverse it carefully if she didn’t want an explosion of hostility between the two whose cooperation she needed. She sat beside Tim on the sofa, near enough to touch. “Let’s back up a bit. You said your friend’s wife is called Sandra. Is she not Pakistani?” Although the name, combined with the daughter’s light-colored hair and eyes and frizzy curls, made it a likely conclusion, she had to ask.
“No. Her name was Sandra Gilles.” Tim used the past tense, Gemma noticed. “She grew up in a council flat in Bethnal Green, still has family there. A mother, half brothers and half sister. The family disapproved of the marriage, and Naz and Sandra disapproved of them. ‘Layabouts,’ Naz said Sandra called them. Or worse. Sandra wouldn’t let them have any contact with Charlotte. It infuri
ated her that they criticized Naz, who had worked his way through school and studied law, when none of them had ever held down a decent job. They weren’t pleased with Sandra’s success as an artist either—said she ‘gave herself airs.’”
“She was an artist?” Hazel had left her tidying up and slipped into one of the dining-table chairs, looking intrigued in spite of herself.
“Textile collage. Naz helped her through art college—Goldsmiths—when they were first married. She’d become quite successful—gallery showings, some big commissions. Naz said she loved her work.”
“Any marital difficulties?” Gemma asked.
“No.” Tim was vehement. “They had everything. They’d been married almost ten years when Charlotte came along. They’d almost given up on having a child. They were devoted to each other, and Sandra was a fiercely good mum.” The tension in the air had risen again, palpably, with the recitation of uncomfortable parallels. Tim and Hazel had also waited a long time to have a child, and Hazel had been a model mum.
“He told you a lot,” Hazel said now, with an edge of sarcasm.
Tim bristled. “Why do you have a problem with that? He had no one else to talk to.”
“How do you know he didn’t just tell you what you wanted to hear?” Hazel retorted.
“Stop it, the both of you,” said Gemma, exasperated, even though she knew Hazel was right. What Naz Malik had told Tim might have nothing to do with the truth. Whether one was grieving or guilty, a sympathetic audience gave one the liberty to paint life as one wished it to have been. And although that in itself might be useful, they needed to move on. “Tim, you said the police investigated Naz. They didn’t find anything?”
“No. Not a bloody thing.” He stared at them, as if daring contradiction.
“Okay.” Gemma touched Tim’s knee, giving credence to his
statement. “So tell me about the day Sandra disappeared. You said it was in May, in Columbia Road?”
“She and Charlotte were supposed to meet Naz for a late lunch in Brick Lane. Naz had gone into the office—”
“On a Sunday?”
“He was preparing an important case. But they always went out for Sunday lunch together. Naz waited at the restaurant for an hour. Sandra didn’t answer her phone. Then Sandra’s friend Roy rang Naz and said Sandra had left Charlotte with him at the market, saying she’d be gone just a few minutes, but she hadn’t come back. He’d finished breaking down the stall and didn’t know what to do.”
“Breaking down the stall? This friend has a flower stall?”
Tim nodded. “Roy Blakely. Sandra worked for him on Sundays all through school and art college. She’d known him since she was a child—he was like a dad to her.”
“And she didn’t tell him where she was going?”
“No. Several people who knew her from the market reported seeing her in Columbia Road, but there was nothing after that. Just nothing. Naz was frantic, but at first not even the police would take him seriously. Then when they did, they searched the house for signs of…of foul play.” He swallowed, looking round uneasily, and Gemma imagined the SOCO drill: luminol, prints, any evidence of violence, alien DNA, fiber transfer. What if Sandra had gone back home unexpectedly that day, found her husband there with a lover?
“They questioned everyone Naz knew,” Tim went on. “His partner, his clients, his neighbors. Naz said no one ever looked at him the same way afterwards.”
“They were doing their job,” Gemma said.
“I know. But it didn’t help, did it? They didn’t find her, and now Naz is gone, too.”
Gemma paused, listening. She heard movement and a soft murmur from upstairs, not just Alia’s voice but a child’s counterpoint. Charlotte was talking. Quietly, she said, “Tim, you may know more
about Naz’s mental state than anyone else. When he rang wanting to see you today, was he upset or anxious? Do you think he might have been contemplating suicide?”
Tim’s face blanched. “No. I mean, I know he was grieving, and angry, but he’d never have done that to Charlotte. And if anything, he sounded…” Looking puzzled, he groped for a word. “Excited.”
“That doesn’t rule out suicide,” said Hazel, pragmatic, but it seemed to put Tim on the defensive again.
“I’m telling you, Naz wouldn’t do that. There has to be some other explanation.” He looked at Gemma. “Can we report him missing?”
“Not officially, no. Not until tomorrow. But considering the circumstances, the local nick should be put on alert. I’ll see if there’s anything in the system yet that might be connected, check out hospital admissions, have a word with the neighbors. And if you’ll give me Naz’s partner’s name, I’ll see if I can get a home number or address.” There was the thump of footsteps on the stairs, the sound of a childish protest.
“Tim,” Gemma said hurriedly, “I’d like your permission to have a look round the house, see if there’s a note or a phone number, anything that might be helpful. Unofficially, of course.”
“There’s no one else to ask.”
“Right. Okay.” He straightened his shoulders, taking on the weight of this responsibility.
“And, Tim,” Gemma added, “I’ll need a description.”