Authors: Deborah Crombie
While working in the eerie darkness of those deserted Spitalfields nights—and with the room and myself working towards the same goal—I have never felt so close to the past.
18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields
Alia had set down Charlotte’s little pink bag and got as far as the front door when Charlotte realized she meant to leave without her. “Lia!” she screamed, latching onto Alia’s leg with the tenacity of a limpet.
Loosening the child’s grip, Alia knelt and hugged her. “You go with Dr. Tim, Char. I’ll see you soon.” She looked up at Gemma, helplessly, her eyes filling.
Gemma reached down and gathered Charlotte into her arms, automatically settling her on her hip as she opened the door. Afternoon was fading into evening, the shadow from the great spire of the church seeming to loom over the narrow street. There were more cars now, and the sounds of voices and television drifted from a few town house windows, left open in the August warmth.
The child’s body was tense, unyielding. Strands of her hair tickled Gemma’s nose, smelling of baby shampoo and, faintly, curry.
“Lia,” Charlotte wailed again, “want to go with you.” She wriggled, then lunged towards Alia, almost causing Gemma to lose her balance. Gemma gripped Charlotte more tightly, feeling her small, firm body and the heat radiating through her thin T-shirt.
“Go,” Gemma mouthed at Alia.
Alia gave them an uncertain smile, then turned and walked swiftly towards Brick Lane, head down, her heavy leather handbag on her shoulder.
“You’d better go, too,” Gemma said to Tim. Charlotte was crying, but silently now, fat tears running down her cheeks as she watched Alia disappear around the corner. “You’d like to play with Holly, wouldn’t you, love?” Gemma coaxed, but Charlotte wept unchecked. Reluctantly, Gemma handed her to Tim, then fetched her things.
She looked so small, nestled in Tim’s arms, but she must have found his familiarity comforting, because when Gemma offered her green plush elephant, she took it and hugged it against her chest. “Will you let Bob play with Holly, too?” asked Gemma, and got a solemn nod in response. “Good girl.”
“We’ll see you later?” asked Tim, not looking reassured.
“I’ll ring beforehand if there’s any news.” Alia had left her keys, so Gemma and Tim had agreed that Gemma would take them to Islington once she’d had a look round the house.
Tim nodded, then carried Charlotte to the Volvo, carefully strapping her into Holly’s oversize safety seat in the rear. He got in and drove away without looking back.
“I can stay,” said Hazel. “I could help you. Then I can run you to Islington to drop off the keys.”
Gemma heard the note of entreaty in her friend’s voice, and was tempted. But the tension between Hazel and Tim was distracting her, and she felt suddenly that she needed to be alone in the house, to
concentrate, to get a feel for who these people were and what might have happened.
“I need to make phone calls, and I don’t know how long that will take.” She checked her watch. The first call was personal and urgent—she needed to tell Duncan where she was and what she was doing. “You go on,” she added to Hazel. “I’ll get the tube from Liverpool Street when I’ve finished. I’m trespassing, really, without Tim or Alia here, and I’d rather you not be guilty by association.” She didn’t say that the house might be a potential crime scene, and the less disturbed, the better.
“But I—” Hazel left the sentence unfinished, but the silence spoke clearly—she didn’t want to go home.
Impulsively, Gemma hugged her and kissed her cheek. “I’ll ring you in just a bit. I promise.”
When Hazel reached the Golf, she turned back. “I’ve been a bitch, haven’t I? It’s just—” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I hope Tim’s friend is all right.”
“So do I,” said Gemma.
Duncan Kincaid was stretched out on the sitting room sofa, the Saturday
scattered across the coffee table and the floor, a dog across his chest, a cat on his feet. The garden doors stood open to let in the slightest breath of early evening, but the air was muggy and Geordie, the cocker spaniel, was making him sweat.
“You’re taking up too much real estate, buddy,” he said, but he felt too lazy to make the dog move and merely stroked his dark gray ears. Geordie gave a huge doggy sigh of contentment and settled himself more firmly against Kincaid’s rib cage.
That afternoon, Kincaid had paid a call on the tenant in his flat in Carlingford Road, and had taken advantage of the visit to Hampstead to take both boys and both dogs to Hampstead Heath.
There had been method in his madness—a couple of hours of
Frisbee throwing, ball chasing, and hunting for imaginary buried treasure had worn everyone out sufficiently to give him a rare bit of Saturday-afternoon peace. The boys were upstairs in their rooms, and the faint thump of bass from Kit’s iPod speakers provided an oddly comforting counterpoint to doggy snores.
When his mobile rang, he stretched towards the coffee table, fumbling for the phone, and dislodged Geordie in the process. “Sorry, mates,” he said as Sid, their black cat, raised his head and gave a hiss of displeasure at the disturbance.
Expecting Gemma, he was surprised by the name on the caller ID. Why ring him and not Gemma? A little jolt of dread made him sit up as he answered.
He listened, made the appropriate responses, and by the time he’d hung up, the dread had settled in the center of his chest like a fist.
When the mobile rang again, he was still sitting with the phone in his hand, staring blankly at the oil painting of a hunting spaniel over the fireplace, a gift to Gemma from his cousin Jack.
This time it was Gemma, and he took a moment to compose himself before he clicked on, saying brightly, “Hullo, love.”
Before he could go any further, she launched into a complicated story involving a missing friend of Tim Cavendish’s, and when he could get a word in edgewise, he said, “Wait. Where did you say you are?”
“Spitalfields,” she answered. “I don’t know how long I’ll be. I need to talk to someone on the local force. Do you know anyone at Tower Hamlets?”
“Um, not below senior command. I’d try CID at Bethnal Green. Gemma—” It was on the tip of his tongue to ask her if this was something that really merited her involvement, but he knew as soon as the thought crossed his mind that he would be wasting his breath. She would do what she thought was right, and it was not his place to caution her.
“I’m sorry about dinner,” she said, misinterpreting his silence.
“The boys want pizza. We’ll save you some.”
“I’ll ring you as soon as I’m on my way home. Duncan—” She hesitated, then said, “This will probably come to nothing, but—”
“But you don’t think so.”
“Even if the husband strolls in claiming he had a bit of temporary amnesia, what happened to the wife? She’s been missing for three months.”
He recognized the tone—Gemma with the investigative bit between her teeth—and hoped that either there was a simple explanation or that the Tower Hamlets CID were not territorially prickly. On the other hand, a distraction might prove helpful at the moment. He was still debating whether or not to mention the phone call when Toby came in. He was carrying an umbrella from the stand in the hall, swinging it in arcs across the floor the way he had seen a man using a metal detector on Hampstead Heath, and adding buzzing and clicking noises as sound effects.
That definitely flipped the disclosure needle over to negative. “You’d better go now,” he told her, “or you’ll be treated to a dissertation on buried treasure, Cap’n Jack and talking parrots included.”
“Oh, dear.” Gemma laughed. “I won’t ask. Okay, then. I’ll ring you soon.” The connection went dead.
Toby stopped buzzing. “Was that Mummy?”
“Why didn’t I get to talk to her?”
“Because she was busy. She’ll be home later.”
“Why was she busy?”
Kincaid took a breath. “Because she’s out with Auntie Hazel.”
“What is she doing with Auntie Hazel?” Toby swung the umbrella tip dangerously near a vase of lilies on the coffee table, and Sid vanished beneath the sofa.
“What’s girl stuff?”
“I don’t know. Do I look like a girl?” Kincaid made a monster face that prompted a giggle. “Promise me you won’t say ‘why’ or ‘what’ for one minute.”
“Why?” Toby asked, still giggling.
“Because—” Kincaid lunged and caught him deftly, removing the umbrella. “Because I want to know if there’s room in here for pizza.” He squeezed Toby round the middle, then tickled him until he shrieked.
“I want pizza, I do,” Toby gasped between wriggles.
“No. Buggy pizza.”
“He means the place on Pembridge Road,” said Kit, coming into the sitting room. Kincaid realized the music had stopped upstairs. “The one with the car in the window,” Kit went on. “He’s convinced it’s a Volkswagen bug, even though I’ve told him it’s not.” This comment was delivered with all the world weariness of a fourteen-year-old contemplating a five-year-old’s silliness.
Looking up at his son, Kincaid thought he’d got taller and thinner overnight. Kit’s iPod earbuds dangled from his jeans pocket, and his blond hair was going darker. It needed cutting. No spots yet, Kincaid thought gratefully. Maybe Kit would be spared that teenage trauma.
“Bugs it is, then,” Kincaid said, standing. “We’re not waiting for Gemma.”
“Who was that on the phone?” asked Kit.
“Gemma. She’s still tied up with Hazel.”
“No. Before that.”
Kincaid cocked an eyebrow at his son. “What? Are you spying on me?”
“No.” Kit’s fair skin still showed color too easily. “It’s just—I was sitting on the stairs. I like doing that, sometimes.”
Keeping order in the universe, Kincaid thought with an inward sigh. Although this summer had been easier, Kit still tended to take
personal responsibility for the well-being of everyone in his orbit. “It was Aunt Cyn,” he answered, all trace of teasing gone.
Kit frowned. “Why was she calling
Glancing at Toby, who was once more preoccupied with his umbrella, Kincaid gave a small, negative shake of his head. The news would be no more welcome to Kit than to Gemma, but he would have to tell Gemma first.
Her sister, Cyn, hadn’t wanted to do it, had instead asked him to be the bearer of bad tidings. Perhaps, to give Cyn credit, she just hadn’t felt able to talk about it.
The bone marrow tests had come back, Cyn had said. Neither she nor Gemma nor any of their children were a match. And their mum, Vi, had taken a turn for the worse.
Gemma stood in the hall, the silence of the house settling round her like an exhaled breath. She felt suddenly alien, an interloper in a life interrupted.
But having cleared the decks with Duncan and the boys, she meant to follow through on her promises to Tim and Alia, and she had better have a look round the house before she started making phone calls.
She touched the handlebar of the bike parked so neatly between the door and the stairs. A man’s racing bike, but not, to her relatively inexperienced eye, terribly new or terribly expensive. It, like the house, looked well used and well cared for. A flower decal was stuck on one side of the businesslike safety helmet. Charlotte’s handiwork, Gemma guessed, and thought it said something about Naz Malik that he had left it on. And if Naz rode the bike regularly, she wondered why he had not taken it that day.
Trailing her fingers across the newel post, she hesitated, then decided to start with the sitting room. She stepped through the doorway and stopped, taking in impressions. The wide-plank flooring
continued from the hall. It looked as though it might be original to the house, as did the solid wooden shutters covering the lower half of the casements.
Paneling, shutters, fireplace surround, all simple, all in the same soft green. Sofa and squashy armchairs were slipcovered in a paler shade. A large petit point wool rug anchored the furniture, its colors so faded she could barely make out the floral design. But there the neutral palette ended.
Floral still lifes, many unframed, were propped on the chair rail around the circumference of the room. It was an odd but appealing effect, bringing the high-ceilinged proportions of the Georgian design down to a more human scale.
Large baskets scattered about the room corralled toys, but from one a tattered sock monkey seemed to have made a failed attempt at escape. One foot had caught on the basket’s edge, and he hung upside down, his stitched features frozen in a grimace of surprise.
The lamps and tables were simple, but a brass chandelier filled with candles hung from the ceiling, and several sconces mounted on the walls held candles as well.
At one end of the sofa, another basket held piles of newspapers beginning to yellow. Gemma touched a finger to the top sheet—it came away covered in dust. The banner identified the paper as the
, dated mid-May.
On the other side of the fireplace a chaise and floor lamp formed a reading area. Both chaise and lampshade were covered in an unexpected patchwork of floral chintz, so whimsically bright it made Gemma smile. Books had been stacked on the floor beside the chaise in tottering piles. Gemma knelt beside them, reading titles. Some were coffee-table size—Georgian architecture and decoration, textile design, histories of painting and furniture. But there were also books on the East End, novels with page corners carelessly dog-eared, and children’s picture books, including many of Toby’s favorite Shirley Hugheses.
On top of the largest stack, which seemed to serve as an end table, sat a blue stoneware mug. It looked as if its owner had been interrupted in the midst of a cup of tea, but when Gemma examined the mug, she found it empty and spotless.
She stood again, catching her own reflection in a great, gilded mirror over the fireplace. She tucked a strand of her hair, now growing long again, behind her ear, and saw that she’d transferred the smear of dust from the newspapers to her nose. Lacking a tissue, she rubbed at the mark with the back of her hand while examining the display on the mantel. A cracked creamware jug. A child’s drawing of red stick figures under yellow clouds, framed. A porcelain border collie, its expression so lifelike she reached out to stroke it.
There were no photos.