Authors: Deborah Crombie
The dining room displayed the same mixture of simplicity with a dash of eccentricity—the chairs round the imposing round dining table were mismatched, the seat cushions covered in different fabrics. Here the chair rail held yellowing oil portraits, both bewigged men and beribboned women with the effeminate, unisex faces Gemma associated with eighteenth-century portraiture. Again, both chandelier and sconces held candles. But the room looked little used, and Gemma could imagine the difficulty of bringing dishes up from the kitchen.
She took a breath. Upstairs, then. At the first landing, she looked out. Dusk was falling, and threads of neon from the curry palaces on Brick Lane had begun to dart like lances at the dark shadow of Christ Church. When Gemma reached the first floor, she fumbled until she found a light switch.
The master bedroom faced the street. It felt almost monastic—simple white linen roller shades on the windows, white quilt on the dark, carved bed. But again the chair rail held the eye; hooks held strings of necklaces and beads, tiny bud vases in jewel colors arranged above. There was a woman’s vanity, its old mirror fogged, its surface littered with antique perfume bottles, a jumble of dangly
earrings, an ornate but tarnished silver-plate hand mirror, a lipstick. A sari-silk dressing gown tumbled across the dressing table chair.
The cupboards built into the end of the room, a modern addition, held men’s clothing on one side, mostly suits, with a few casual shirts and trousers.
Scent wafted out when she opened the other side, something spicy yet floral that Gemma didn’t quite recognize.
There were no business suits here. Dresses, blouses, skirts, many of which appeared to be vintage. A ruffled petticoat, canary yellow. Folded jumpers. T-shirts. Jeans. Boots and flip-flops, and a few pairs of very high heels.
The sense of presence was so strong that Gemma snapped the doors closed. She realized she’d been holding her breath.
Next, Charlotte’s room. A white, iron bedstead. A pony lamp. A pink, painted chest that Gemma suspected had been rapidly ransacked by Alia, as the contents of its open drawers cascaded out like the tiers in a fountain, bits of a little girl’s clothing flowing over the edges. And on the bedside table, a photo.
Sandra. Charlotte’s mum. The same corkscrew curls, but blond. An alert, intelligent face, pretty but not overly so. She looked directly into the camera, her lips curved in a slight smile. This, Gemma thought, was the face of a woman engaged with the world, not the face of a woman who had walked away from it.
Gemma went out, started up to the next level. Now the banister was plain, the steps narrower. She was moving into the old servants’ territory. This time she tried the back room first, a spare bedroom with a simple double bed.
The front room had been turned into a home office, immediately masculine, legal. A heavy desk. Glass-fronted bookcases with leather-bound volumes. A green-shaded desk lamp. Papers were scattered over the blotter, but a quick perusal revealed nothing but legal documents and what looked like case notes scribbled on a yellow pad.
There was no Rolodex or diary. There was a laptop, but it was closed, and Gemma decided it was beyond her remit to open it.
She went back to the stairs and continued to climb. Enough light filtered up to the top of the stairs for her to see that she had entered a large space rather than a hall. She felt for a switch, found it. Light blossomed, and Gemma breathed an involuntary, “Oh.”
The top floor
a loft. The windows were uncurtained, the myriad panes bouncing color back into the room. And color there was, captured in the pools of warmth cast by the simple cone-shaped lights that hung from the ceiling.
It took a moment for Gemma to organize what she was seeing. A large worktable filled the room’s center. One side of the table held scraps of fabric, loose sheets of paper covered with pencil sketches. On the other, muslin had been stretched over a wood frame about four feet square. Parts of the muslin were covered with fabrics; others were bare or held only faint penciled lines.
A collage, then. Unfinished, abstract, yet suggesting the bright flare of women’s dresses against dark brick. Gilded cording made Gemma think of bell-shaped birdcages. It was not birds that peeped through the bars, but women’s faces, eerily featureless.
Disturbed, Gemma turned away, examining the rest of the room. Everywhere, baskets held fabrics, multicolored, multitextured, some spilling out onto the floor.
One end wall held wooden cubbies filled with smaller, folded pieces. At the other end of the room, a simple white desk, and above it, a painting of a red horse. The desk surface held more sketches, notebooks, a jumble of Post-its, and the usual assortment of pens, pencils, and elastic bands. Gemma reached out, pulled back. She’d been careful, except for the light switches, not to disturb, not to leave prints, and again, this was beyond her remit.
She turned once more, to the back wall. It was covered in corkboard and festooned with drawings, both Sandra’s and Charlotte’s,
and—eureka for Gemma—photos. This was why there were no posed, tidily framed family portraits in the rest of the house. The photos were here, pushpinned, overlapping, candid—a family captured in the day-to-day act of living.
There were more shots of Naz and Charlotte than of Sandra, an indication that Sandra was the primary photographer. Gemma studied a photo of Naz with Charlotte in his lap, recognizing the setting as the kitchen sofa.
Tim had given her a description: Nasir Malik, forty years old (Tim assumed, as they were at uni together), medium height, medium build (a bit thin these days, since Sandra’s disappearance, Tim had added), dark hair and eyes, deep olive complexion, glasses.
What Tim had not conveyed was the slight professorial air, the seriousness of the gaze through the wire-framed specs, the unexpected charm and warmth of the smile.
Gemma rubbed at the hair that had risen on her arms. She had ruled out obvious evidence of foul play or a visible suicide note.
What she had found was the certainty that Naz Malik had not given up hope of his wife’s return.
Breakfast after a morning at the market would be a salt-beef sandwich with mustard on rye from the Beigel Bake at the top of the street.
On Brick Lane
The kitchen had grown dark while Gemma was upstairs. She flicked on the lights, then, feeling exposed, closed the heavy inside shutters over the street windows. The French doors at the back still stood open to the garden, and when some capricious current moved the heavy air, she smelled garlic and spices and the hot, prickly aroma of frying oil.
Her stomach rumbled, and she realized she’d only nibbled for lunch, having expected to have tea with Hazel, and that had been hours ago. Hazel had left Alia’s samosas on the work top, the baking pan covered with aluminium foil. Gemma lifted the foil and took one, feeling she was trespassing, but she certainly didn’t want to go digging round in the fridge.
It was good, she thought as she tasted the potato mixture, but would be better warm. She looked round for a microwave and realized
there wasn’t one. The cooker and the fridge seemed the kitchen’s only concessions to mod cons. Studying the room more carefully, she saw that the great Welsh dresser just fit beneath the low ceiling, and she wondered if it had been part of the original kitchen furnishings. The hearth, too, was enormous, and she guessed it had been the working fireplace when the kitchen had been the dark, subterranean heart of the house.
The kitchen was still the heart of the house. She gazed at one of Charlotte’s drawings, stuck haphazardly on the fridge door. Now she could see their faces, Naz and Sandra, here in this room with their child.
She finished the samosa and wiped her fingers on an embroidered tea towel. It was enough to keep her hunger from distracting her, and she had things to do. Sitting at the table, she searched in her handbag for a notepad and pen and took out her phone.
First, she called Mile End Hospital, then the Royal London, identifying herself. Neither reported a casualty fitting Naz Malik’s description. Gemma wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed.
Next, she rang Bethnal Green Police Station, working her way through the phone-tree options until she got a real live person, a duty officer who identified herself as Sergeant Singh. From her voice, Gemma imagined her as young, slight, and pretty, but she spoke with a competent briskness.
“I’d like to speak to the detective investigating the disappearance of Sandra Gilles,” said Gemma, having offered her credentials. “It would have been in May.”
“Oh, right. Weird one, that.” The sergeant’s tone was conversational. Gemma wondered if Bethnal Green was quiet at dinnertime on a Saturday night. “Inspector Weller handled that, but he’s not available this weekend.”
“Surely you’ve got a mobile number, or some other contact where he can be reached.”
“Um, no, actually. He’s gone to his son’s wedding in Shropshire.
Said he’d throw his mobile in the toilet if anyone rang.” The hint of humor was replaced by alertness. “That case is months old. Why is it so urgent?”
“Because Sandra Gilles’s husband seems to have disappeared this afternoon.” Gemma gave her the details. “I know it’s early for an official alert, but under the circumstances I think you can make an exception.”
“I’ll pass it along.” All levity had disappeared from Singh’s voice. “What about the little girl? Do we need to contact social services?”
“She’s with a family friend for tonight.” Gemma passed on Tim’s address and phone number, added her own contact information, then said, “Listen, could you leave a message with your Inspector Weller, just in case he checks in? Ask him to ring me at his earliest convenience.”
She hung up, knowing she’d taken all reasonable steps, but feeling restless and dissatisfied. Checking the notes she’d made while talking to Tim, she rang directory inquiries, trying to track down a personal number for Louise Phillips, Naz Malik’s partner. But although it was a common name, she got no matches. Louise Phillips might be ex-directory, or might have only a mobile, as was so often the case nowadays.
A computer search might yield better results, however, and Gemma knew no one more able to follow threads on the Internet than her colleague at Notting Hill, DC Melody Talbot.
But when she rang Melody’s mobile, it went to voice mail. Gemma left a brief message, apologizing for disturbing her on a Saturday night. As she hung up, she chided herself for having assumed Melody would be available. Melody was, after all, young and attractive, and the fact that she didn’t share details of her personal life with Gemma didn’t mean she didn’t have one.
Still, Gemma was curious. Most of her colleagues were only too willing to share their off-duty exploits in excruciating detail. Why not Melody?
“She’ll have the sautéed foie gras.”
won’t.” Melody Talbot gave her father a tight smile. “You know I can’t stand foie gras.”
“The foie gras is one of the Ivy’s specialities,” Ivan Talbot announced, although Melody wasn’t sure if the comment was directed towards the attentive waiter, who certainly bloody well knew, or their dinner guest. “Let’s make that four,” her father added, steamrolling over her protest, as usual. “I should think Quentin is game for a little adventure.”
The Quentin in question was the latest victim of Melody’s father’s campaign to find her a suitable husband. A junior employee of her father’s, Quentin Frobisher was tall, sandy haired, freckled, and not actually bad looking in the very English way that Melody didn’t particularly fancy. Not that she would for a moment admit she found him even passable.
She had met her parents and their guest just outside the Ivy, and on the short trip through the restaurant’s foyer, she had hissed at her father, “You said he was an ‘ordinary chap.’ No one named
is an ordinary chap.”
Now, she huddled back against the banquette, wishing she were anywhere else on earth. Why had she let her father bully her into this? And what if someone from work saw her?
Not that any common or garden-variety coppers were likely to be found in one of London’s most famous and exclusive restaurants on a Saturday night. But although the Ivy reserved a good two-thirds of its bookings for “regulars,” it was not particularly expensive, and anyone with a bit of time and determination could theoretically get a table.
She herself had been seduced by it tonight. Her parents had brought her here for special occasions since her teens, and she loved it—the distinctive diamonds of multicolored stained glass over the
door, the streetlamp shining through the blue crescent moon, the paintings, the grand mural in the dining room, the crisp-starched white tablecloths. And most of all, the sense of the well-oiled machine ticking away above the unseen chaos of the kitchen below, creating a perfection she seldom experienced in her workaday life.
That reminder was enough to snap her back to reality. She tugged at the décolleté of her dress and gave another nervous glance around the room. Work—at least her work—and this sort of play didn’t mix. God forbid she should run across some emaciated celeb wannabe snorting coke in the ladies’ loo and have to choose between duty and exposure. She shuddered. At least no one would have the nerve to use a camera in the sacred precincts of the Ivy—she was very careful not to be caught in photos with her father.
He had picked the intermediate sitting, between the pre-theatre and post-theatre crush. Unusual for him, as he liked to see and be seen, but perhaps he’d thought it was the only way he would get her to accept the invitation. He was looking quite pleased with himself, in fact. Although it was against the Ivy’s policy to give favored clients special tables, tonight they had got a four top at the back of the room, perfectly positioned to observe the other diners.
“Do sit still, darling, and stop picking at your dress,” her mother whispered. Her mum had bought the dress from a new designer she was patronizing in Knightsbridge, and her eye had been, as usual, sharp enough to guarantee a perfect fit. The dress was black, snug as a glove, with an off-the-shoulder plunging neckline that made Melody acutely uncomfortable. She’d always been self-conscious about her broad shoulders and rather generous bust.
“Nonsense,” her mother had told her that afternoon when she’d dropped by Melody’s flat, bearing her gift in a scented, tissue-stuffed, beribboned bag. “You really must learn to maximize your assets, darling.” She zipped Melody into the dress, then stepped back to admire her handiwork. “Very fetching. And you
have legs. One would never know it with those dreadful off-the-rack trouser suits you wear.”
Melody had a runner’s calves, a legacy of her public-school days and the jogs she still managed round Hyde Park when work allowed, but she thought the muscles just made her look chunkier and did her best to cover them up.
“And for heaven’s sake, do something with your hair,” her mother had added, kissing her on the cheek. “I’m sure Bobby can squeeze you in.”
And so Melody had slunk into one of the toniest salons in Kensington on a Saturday afternoon, emerging an hour later freshly shorn, but feeling she’d won a small victory by having refused even the most discreet of highlights. Her thick, glossy brown hair, kept in a chin-length bob, was one of her few vanities.
Now she gave another defiant tug at the neckline of her dress and scowled at her mother. But her mum merely twinkled back at her, and Melody felt her mouth relax into an unwilling smile. It was almost impossible to stay irritated with the Lady Athena Talbot, née Hobbs. Since childhood she had been known simply as Attie, and Melody doubted she’d ever encountered anyone, male or female, who had not been instantly smitten.
Willow slender, Attie Talbot moved like a girl, and could still turn the heads of men half her age. The unfortunate Quentin was, in fact, ogling her, and Melody was tempted to kick him under the table.
Her father, however, was as adept at reading signals as Melody. He reached over and patted her mother’s hand, in the process flashing Quentin a smile with just a hint of shark beneath its avuncular surface.
Quentin flushed and looked away. Point for the old man, Melody thought—territory duly marked, peon put in his place. Her father did subtlety very well.
As a teenager, she’d enjoyed the fantasy that her father had married her mother for her money, but even then she’d known it for a lie, concocted to salve her own jealousy. You had only to see the way they looked at each other still—stomach turning, really. Her mother’s
money and title had simply been a bonus. Her father, a grammar school boy from a Newcastle council estate, had possessed the intelligence, the drive, and, above all, the ambition to succeed on his own merits.
And succeed he had, the single thorn in his life his uncooperative only daughter.
“Melody’s in police work,” he said now, having chosen the wine.
“File clerk,” Melody countered hurriedly, manufacturing what she was sure was a ghastly smirk. “Toiling in the basement and all that.”
“Notting Hill,” her mother put in helpfully. “And of course you don’t toil in the basement, darling. Don’t be silly. She has quite a nice flat there,” she added for Quentin’s benefit.
“Really?” Quentin eyed her with a bit more interest. “Some nice clubs round there. I—Um—” He seemed to realize that admitting to clubbing might not be the most appropriate way to impress the boss. “Pubs,” he amended. “I had drinks at the Prince Albert the other day. With some mates.”
Melody wasn’t about to tell him that she lived just down the road, but she had to say something to forestall her mother. “Bit nauseatingly yuppie, don’t you think, the Prince Albert?”
“I—Um. Yes, a bit, I suppose. But didn’t like to refuse an invitation, you know.” The more Quentin floundered, the more he sounded like something out of a Wodehouse novel, and his eyes were taking on a deer-in-the-headlamps glaze.
Melody actually found herself feeling a bit sorry for him. He might not be all that bad, but then, knowing her father’s methods, she put aside any kind thoughts and probed a bit. “Frobisher. Would that be the Derbyshire Frobishers?” she asked, having no idea if there were any Derbyshire Frobishers.
“No. Hampshire,” said Quentin.
“Quentin’s father publishes several county magazines,” explained her father. “Quentin is getting a bit of work experience in London.”
Ah, Melody thought. That explained it. Two birds with one stone.
Solve problem of daughter while buttering up heir to possible future acquisition. And if Quentin was indeed sharper than he seemed, she would have to be very, very careful.
Her phone rang, making her jump. Cursing herself for having forgotten to turn it off, she fumbled in her handbag, all eyes on her. When she’d fished the offending instrument from the bottom of her bag, she glanced at the caller ID and froze. Gemma. She felt a moment of unreasoning panic. She couldn’t answer. Not here. Not now. She could not gracefully explain to her boss where she was and who she was with, nor could she lie with an audience.
Swallowing, she pushed Ignore, then switched the phone off. “I think I’d like a glass of champagne for starters, Daddy,” she said, smiling brightly.
Gemma went back through the house once more, checking that the lights were off, shutting doors. As she returned to the hall, the emptiness of the house seemed to close in behind her. Hurriedly, she let herself out and locked the dead bolt with the key. The thought of home, warm and light and cluttered from the boys’ Saturday activities, was suddenly almost irresistible, but first she had to return Naz Malik’s keys.
She stood on the pavement, feeling the thick, damp evening air, slick as butter, slip round her bare arms and legs. If she got the tube from Old Street, it was only one stop on the Northern Line to the Angel in Islington, and from there a ten-minute walk to Tim’s.
She turned left, then left again, deciding to walk up Brick Lane rather than Commercial Street. At the corner, the smell of curry was enticingly strong, but even if she’d had the time, the Brick Lane curry houses didn’t seem places a woman would comfortably go in for a meal on her own.
But as she walked northwards, the curry palaces quickly gave way to small shops and businesses—textiles, barbers, hairdressers,
travel agents, moneylenders—all catering to the Bangladeshi community, and all closed except for the newsagents or grocers. From the open door of a newsagent’s came the wailing chant of Asian music, monotonous but oddly appealing to her unaccustomed ear. The street signs were in English and Bengali, and the streetlamps, their delicate tracery in red and green metal inspired by Indian design, festively framed the narrow street.