Authors: Deborah Crombie
Once in the car, a quick glance at her A to Zed proved that she was even closer to the park than she’d thought. She drove, trying not to anticipate, trying not to make assumptions, but when she had passed the east side of the park and reached the short dead end that was Audrey Street, the cluster of police vehicles confirmed her fears. This was a major incident, most likely a death.
She went on along Goldsmith until she could make a U-turn, then found a spot for the car. Walking back to Audrey Street, she held her identification up to the uniformed constable manning the first temporary barrier. “Inspector Weller?” she asked.
The constable nodded towards an iron gate at the entrance to a footpath that looked as if it led up into the park. Blue-and-white
crime scene tape stretched across the opening. Behind the tape stood a man Gemma would have picked out without the constable’s direction.
Heavyset, rumpled gray suit, gray hair buzzed short. She thought of the Royalty Protection officers she’d seen in Beigel Bake the evening before—he might have been cut from the same cloth. When she reached him, holding out her ID as she ducked under the tape, she saw that his eyes were gray as well, the color of flint and about as friendly.
“Not my team,” he said. “You must be James, then.”
She nodded. “Inspector Weller. What’s going on here?”
Weller stepped aside to allow a white-suited crime scene tech to pass, and Gemma saw that there was a crime scene van among the marked cars in the street. He gave her an assessing stare and she wished she’d worn something more professional than jeans, tank top, and sandals. “How about you tell me what you knew about Naz Malik?”
. Past tense. Her heart sank, but she said evenly, “It was in my message. Mutual friend rang me, worried that Mr. Malik hadn’t turned up for a visit. Have you found him?”
“Did you meet Naz Malik at any time?”
“No,” Gemma said sharply, not liking the feeling of being interrogated. “I’d never heard of him until yesterday. Why—”
“Seen a photo?”
Gemma thought about the house on Fournier Street, empty, and the family photos pinned to Sandra Gilles’s corkboard. “Yes. Yesterday, when I went to the house.”
Weller frowned at the cars in the street, seeming barely to hear her. She saw the glint of pale stubble on his jaw, the crinkled pouches of skin beneath his eyes. “Still waiting on the damned pathologist,” he muttered, then looked back at her, including her in the scowl. “Suppose you’d better have a look, then. I could use a second ID.”
He turned and started along the path. It was a gentle incline,
lined by blooming shrubs and a brick wall to the right. After a few yards it forked, and Weller followed the left-hand branch.
The paved walkway narrowed slightly. The vegetation thickened, trees arched overhead, and along the left-hand side primitive-looking waist-high wooden slats provided a barrier. Gemma could see nothing but green ahead and behind. The spot felt as isolated as if it had been plucked out of the heart of the city and set down in alien countryside. An apt metaphor, she thought as the path twisted and she saw the cluster of white-suited SOCOs, looking like space invaders bent over a prize.
But it was a broken section of fencing they were examining, she saw as she drew closer, and the ground beyond. A white-suited photographer moved in an awkward squat, increasing the surreal quality of the scene.
And then she was near enough to see the object of their activity—in the undergrowth beyond the broken fence lay a man’s body, facedown, his limbs splayed, like the extrusions on a jigsaw piece.
The techs moved back when they saw Weller. Eyeing Gemma again, critically, he pulled paper boots and gloves from one of his jacket pockets. While she put them on he said, a little more conversationally, “Early morning jogger. Noticed the broken section of fence, then the shoe.” He pointed. “When she realized the shoe was attached to a leg, she waded in to investigate. Ballsy of her, but likely buggered up my crime scene.”
Recognizing the proprietary tone—she had used it often enough herself—Gemma glanced at him as she finished snapping on the gloves. “You said second ID. You were the first?”
Weller nodded. “Interviewed him a dozen times over his wife’s disappearance.”
“What happened? How did he—”
“Why don’t you tell
Gemma wasn’t sure if this was a challenge or if Weller genuinely wanted her opinion. Looking back at the body, she felt her own
reluctance. This seemed uncomfortably personal, but putting it off wasn’t going to make it any better. The day was warming fast and the flies were gathering—would have been gathering since daybreak—and the smell would ripen quickly in the heat. Her hands had already begun to sweat in the gloves.
She eased through the gap in the fence and crouched, trying to resist brushing at the flies as she cataloged the details. “Clean, well-groomed, male,” she observed. “A little thin, but not obviously malnourished. The clothes match the description given by Naz Malik’s nanny—tan trousers and a casual polo shirt.” Only his right hand and arm were visible. The left was tucked beneath his body. “There are a few minor scratches on the backs of his hand, consistent with contact with the undergrowth.” She bent closer, this time giving in to the impulse to swat at a fly, looking carefully at the back of the victim’s dark hair, and at the leaf litter round the edges of the body. “No obvious signs of trauma, or of blood seeping from a wound we can’t see. No smell of alcohol.” She looked up at Weller. “ID?”
“Wallet was accessible, in his back pocket,” he answered.
Carefully, Gemma moved round to the other side. From what she could see, the victim’s profile certainly matched the photos she’d seen of Naz Malik. But something was missing—She looked at the crime scene techs. “Anyone turn up his glasses?”
“No, not a trace,” said a plump woman who wore oversize glasses herself.
“And was the body positioned exactly like this? Nose down in the soil?”
“Said we were waiting for the bloody pathologist, didn’t I?” Weller sounded tired as well as irritated. “Of course we didn’t move him. And fortunately the jogger had more sense than most.”
“Was he already dead when he fell, then?” Gemma was asking herself as much as Weller.
“Either that or too incapacitated to move. Drugs, maybe,” Weller speculated.
“He didn’t do drugs,” Gemma protested. “Not according to my friend. Maybe he was ill—”
“And just managed to break the fence while having a heart attack?” Weller didn’t bother to moderate his sarcasm.
“You can’t know—”
“I suspect you are both theorizing in the absence of fact.” The voice that interrupted Gemma was clipped, precise, and made Weller jump.
Glancing up, Gemma saw that a man had come up behind Weller. He was Asian, thirtyish, with skin slightly darker than Naz Malik’s. His short jet-black hair was gelled into spikes, and he wore frayed jeans and a black T-shirt that said
THE ROTTEN HILL GANG
on its front. He also carried a pathologist’s kit.
“Good God, man,” said Weller. “You want to give me a heart attack?”
“Maybe you should get your hearing aid checked, Inspector.” The man opened his kit and pulled on gloves.
“And you, Rashid—you decide to have a lie-in this morning, or what? We’ve been waiting more than an hour.”
“I had another case, in Poplar, and unfortunately, levitating across London is not on my list of accomplishments.” The pathologist gave Gemma a speculative look, and she realized that his eyes were not the expected brown but a dark gray-green. “You have a new colleague, Inspector?”
Gemma stood, lurching awkwardly on the uneven ground, and spoke before Weller could reply. “Gemma James. Detective inspector, Notting Hill.”
“Bit off your patch,” said the pathologist, looking interested.
Weller didn’t offer an explanation. “Inspector James, this is Dr. Rashid Kaleem, esteemed Home Office pathologist and local wiseass.”
There were a dozen or so accredited Home Office pathologists practicing in Greater London and the southeast, many of whom Gemma had met in the course of her work both at the Yard and at
Notting Hill. But if Kaleem were new to the service, he and Weller appeared to have an established relationship, and in spite of the banter it seemed friendly enough.
Gemma made way for Kaleem, trying to retrace exactly her steps back to the path.
Kaleem worked efficiently, snapping photos with his own digital camera, murmuring observations into a pocket recorder as he conducted his external examination. He then eased up the tail of Naz Malik’s polo shirt to insert his temperature probe, and Gemma looked away from the sight of Malik’s exposed back. It was somehow worse than blood or a wound, that expanse of smooth, bare skin.
A shaft of sunlight penetrated the trees, burning Gemma’s bare shoulder, and she realized she had forgotten to put on sunscreen. Shifting position slightly, she watched as Kaleem took more close-ups of Malik’s head. Then, without asking for help, he gently turned the body over.
“Lividity is fixed,” he said. “I don’t think he was moved. What time was he last seen yesterday?”
When Weller looked at Gemma, she answered, “He left his house around two yesterday afternoon. That’s the last confirmed report.”
Kaleem shook his head. “Rigor mortis is still fully developed. There are other factors, of course, but in this heat, if he’d been dead almost twenty-fours hours, I’d expect it to be passing off.”
“If he died before sunset, it’s likely someone would have seen the body last night,” Weller said, frowning. “Although the park stays open till half past nine this time of year, so it would have been fully dark by closing—”
“He might have been here for some time before he died—perhaps between the park closing and the early hours of the morning.” Kaleem put the last of his things into his kit and stood up. “I’ll know more when I get him on the table.”
Weller didn’t seem ready to end the discussion. “If he took drugs, then came here to die, or if he took the drugs here—”
“You’re assuming this was a suicide, Inspector?” Kaleem’s voice was sharp.
“The man’s wife went missing three months ago,” Weller explained. “He had reason enough, especially if he was involved in her disappearance—”
“Regardless of the victim’s personal circumstances,” broke in Kaleem, “if this was suicide I’d say this man had an odd sort of assistance.”
Weller stared at him. “What are you talking about, Rashid?”
“I’ve been doing this job for ten years, Inspector, and I’ve never seen a person fall with their head in that position. Even if this man was dead when he fell, the impact would have turned his head to one side or the other. I’d guess this man died of suffocation, regardless of any other incapacitating factors.”
Weller looked at him blankly. “Suffocation?”
“His breathing would have been severely restricted by the position of his head.” Dr. Kaleem glanced at Gemma, as if expecting an ally. “And I’d wager you that someone made quite sure it stayed that way.”
There was a strong sense of an artists’ community at that time in Brick Lane. The rich and famous were yet to move in, the streets still felt like unexplored territory and it was possible to survive financially in the area on very little.
On Brick Lane
Dr. Kaleem had released the body and ordered it to be sent to the mortuary at the London. “I’ll see how soon I can get him into my schedule,” he told Weller as they walked back towards the street.
“You can put any old ladies eaten by cats in the cooler for a bit,” Weller told him, clapping him on the shoulder.
“I do have my priorities, Inspector, thanks very much,” Kaleem retorted. “I’ll ring you as soon as I have a prelim.” Then he flashed Gemma a brilliant smile and jogged across Audrey Street. He slipped through the police cordon, bag swinging, and disappeared from view.
“You two know each other well?” Gemma asked Weller, wondering at the barbed familiarity of the exchange.
“Snotty-nosed little Bangladeshi from a council estate,” said
Weller, gazing after him. “I used to sort out the kids who bullied him when I was on area patrol. Gave him ideas above his station.” This was uttered fondly, and with the closest thing to a smile Gemma had seen. “Who’d have thought he’d end up a bloody forensic pathologist? His father beat the crap out of him if he caught him with a book, and his mum never learned to speak English. Rashid practically lived in the Whitechapel Library—the Idea Store, they call it now,” he added with a snort of disapproval, “and put himself through medical school driving a minicab. Bet his old man’s turning in his grave.”
“Why didn’t his father want him to read?”
“Strict Muslim. Thought anything other than the Koran would corrupt the boy. Right bastard, old Mr. Kaleem. I suspect the missus gave thanks to Allah when he died. Heart attack. Keeled over right in the middle of his dinner.” Weller stuffed his hands in his already baggy pockets and shrugged. “Rashid was surprisingly cut up.”
Gemma wondered if it had been Weller who’d informed Kaleem that his father had died. Then the enormity of what
had to do struck her. “Oh, lord. I’ve got to tell Tim. And we’ll have to ring social services. There’s no one for Naz Malik’s little girl to go home to.”
Weller had said he’d follow Gemma in his own car, leaving Gemma grateful for a few minutes alone. Her Escort had been parked in the sun, and she swore as the driver’s seat scorched the backs of her thighs through her jeans. She rolled down the windows and started the car. Hot air blasted from the vents into her already-burning face as she carefully reversed and turned the car round.
She debated ringing Kincaid, but didn’t want to talk without pulling over, and DI Weller, in an old white BMW that looked as rumpled as Weller himself, stayed right on her tail.
All too soon she’d reached Islington, and still she had no idea how to break the news to Tim. Death notification was always difficult,
but telling a friend was so much worse…She realized that the last time she’d had to break such news to someone she knew well, it had been Hazel.
It felt odd now, pulling up in front of the detached house in the leafy square, rather than turning into the side road and parking in front of the garage that had been her flat. Last night, in a hurry to get home, she had handed Tim the keys at the door. She hadn’t actually been in the house since Hazel had moved out. Although they had kept up with Tim, he had come to them, or they had occasionally met him out for a drink or a meal.
Then, to her surprise, she saw Hazel’s car parked in front as well, and after yesterday’s tensions she wasn’t sure if her friend’s presence would be a help or a hindrance.
Weller found a spot nearby and got out of the BMW, closing the door as carefully as if it had been the newest model. He looked tired, and she realized he must have driven back from Shropshire that morning. Perhaps his rumpled look was more circumstantial than habitual.
When he reached her, he nodded back at his car, and she felt embarrassed that he’d seen her studying it. “Putting two kids through uni doesn’t leave much for upgrading the old wheels,” he said, as if in apology. “And besides, they don’t make the Beamers the way they used to. I’ve got quite fond of the old girl.” He looked up at the house. “This your friend’s? Not bad digs.”
“He’s a therapist,” said Gemma. “Well, they both are, Tim and his wife, Hazel, but they’re separated and Tim’s kept the house. They share custody of their daughter, and it looks as if Hazel’s here, too.” The explanation seemed awkward, but she didn’t want to have to make it in front of Hazel and Tim.
“He kept the house?” Weller gave her a curious look, but followed her up the walk without further comment. Gemma rang the bell, aware of his large presence beside her, aware of the sweat trickling down her neck, and the sound of her own breathing. No one an
swered, and there was no sound from within the house. Gemma rang again, and waited. After a moment, she said, “Let’s try the garden. They must be here unless they’ve gone to the park.”
As she led Weller back into the street, an older-model Ford drew up and pulled into the curb. The driver seemed to check the house number against a note, then spotted Gemma and Weller. “CID?” she called out briskly as she opened the door and got out.
Weller introduced himself, then Gemma.
“I’m Janice Silverman.” She pumped their hands with the same cheerful energy. “Social services.” She was, Gemma guessed, in her forties, with short, wavy, graying hair, and even in the August midday heat she wore a serviceable but lint-specked black sweater and skirt.
“Didn’t expect you so quickly,” said Weller, sounding genuinely impressed.
“I’m super-social-worker. Changed in a phone booth.” She gave them an unexpectedly impish smile. “Seriously, I was in the neighborhood, just leaving a council estate in Holloway, so thought I wouldn’t keep you waiting. What’s the situation here?”
“Father found this morning. Suspicious death. Mother missing for the last several months.” Weller pulled at his collar, the sun glinting off the stubble on his chin. He nodded at the house. “Friend of the father. Kept the child last night when the dad didn’t come home.”
“And the child”—Silverman glanced down at her notebook—“a little girl? She’s two? Has anyone spoken to her yet?”
“She’s almost three,” said Gemma. “And no, she’s not been told anything.”
“Best let me handle it.” Silverman sighed, and some of her vitality seemed to dissipate. “Mother disappeared, you say?” She shook her head. “That seems particularly hard under the circumstances. Still”—the briskness came back in force—“best get it over with.”
“No one’s answering the door,” Gemma explained, and as she led them round the side of the house they heard children’s voices coming from the garden.
Her flat looked just the same, except that the black garage door was shiny with new paint. Tim must have been busy with DIY, she thought. But when she glanced in the windows by the garden gate, she saw the familiar furnishings, the black half-moon table next to the tiny kitchen, the modern steel-and-leather chaise she and Duncan used to call the torture lounger, the neatly made bed with its bookcase headboard. It seemed only the fresh flowers Hazel had always left for her were missing, and the untidy flotsam of Toby’s books and toys. She felt eerily out of sync, as if her life had zigzagged back on itself.
And today, she saw as she looked over the wall, it was not Toby and Holly playing in the garden, but Holly and little Charlotte Malik. Tim sat on the patio, a beer on the flagstones beside his chair. Hazel, wearing the same cotton shorts and sleeveless blouse as the previous day, pushed the little girls on the swings.
When Gemma opened the wrought-iron garden gate, Holly flew out of the swing and ran to her, shrieking, “Auntie Gemma! Auntie Gemma! Come and push me!”
Gemma picked her up and hugged her. “I’ve missed you, too, poppet. But I can’t push you just now. I’ve got to talk to your dad.” She let Holly slide to the ground and sent her on her way with a pat.
Tim stood slowly, taking in Gemma’s face and the presence of the man and woman beside her. Hazel let Charlotte’s swing come to a rest. Then, looking down at the child, she called to Holly, “Come push Charlotte’s swing for a bit, sweetie. It’s your turn.”
“But I don’t want—”
“Now,” said Hazel, in a tone that brooked no argument. Holly went, her expression sulky, but she glanced back at her mother as if sensing something amiss. Hazel crossed to the patio and stood a few feet from Tim.
Gemma made the introductions. “Tim. Hazel. This is Detective Inspector Weller, from Bethnal Green. And Janice Silverman, from social services.”
“It’s bad news, isn’t it?” said Tim, starting towards them.
“I’m sorry, Tim.” Gemma touched his arm. “Naz Malik was found dead in Haggerston Park this morning.”
“What—How—” Even though Tim had seemed prepared, he swayed a little. “I don’t—”
“Why don’t we sit down, Mr. Cavendish.” Weller steered him back to his chair. Tim sank into it, grasping the arms as if they were anchors, and Weller pulled up another. “We don’t yet know exactly what happened to your friend,” continued Weller. “If you could go over what you told DI James, here—”
“But I—” He looked across the garden and lowered his voice to just above a whisper. “Charlotte. Oh, Christ. What about Charlotte?”
“She’ll have to go into foster care,” Janice Silverman explained, “until we’ve contacted any relatives.”
“But Naz had none. He was orphaned, and the aunt and uncle who brought him up here died a few years ago.”
“There’s the wife’s family.”
Tim shook his head. “They didn’t see Sandra’s family. Didn’t want Charlotte to have anything to do with them. Why can’t she stay here?”
“Do you or Mrs. Cavendish have any legal status regarding the child?”
“Well, no, but she’s comfortable here. She knows me, and Holly—”
“We’re separated,” broke in Hazel. “Tim and I are separated. We share custody of Holly, so she’s only here during the school week.”
“Then it would certainly be unsuitable for the child to stay with you, Mr. Cavendish. Now, I’ll need to talk to her, and then I’ll get the placement machinery rolling.” She glanced at the children, her expression softening. The girls had stopped swinging and were watching the adults. “Charlotte is the younger of the two?”
“Yes,” said Tim.
“Perhaps you could call your little girl, Mr. Cavendish?” suggested Silverman.
Hazel reacted first. She called Holly to her, then, taking her hand, said, “Mummy needs some help in the kitchen, sweetheart. It’s hot—we’ll make some cool drinks, shall we?”
Holly went with her willingly enough, glancing back only once at her playmate as she entered the house.
“Do you have to tell her? About her dad?” Gemma said quietly to Silverman.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” Silverman went to Charlotte and knelt beside her swing, Gemma following. “Charlotte, I’m Miss Janice. I’m going to be looking after you for a bit.”
Sliding from her swing with her thumb in her mouth, Charlotte looked from Silverman to Gemma, her eyes wide.
“Your daddy’s had an accident, Charlotte,” Silverman went on gently. “He was hurt, and he died. That means someone else will take care of you now. I have a nice friend you can stay with, where you’ll be very safe.”
Slowly, Charlotte removed her thumb from her mouth. “Don’t want to,” she whispered, shaking her head. “I want my daddy.”
“Your daddy is not coming home, Charlotte. I’m sorry.”
“My mummy is coming home,” Charlotte stated with conviction.
Silverman glanced at Gemma, then said, “Well, that may be. But your mummy isn’t home now, so you’ll have to stay with someone else. Why don’t we—”
“I want my daddy!” Charlotte’s wail ended on a hiccupping sob, and when Janice Silverman reached for her, she threw herself at Gemma.
Gemma gathered Charlotte into her arms, cradling her head and feeling the dampness of the child’s tears against her shoulder. The girl smelled of the newly mown garden grass, and faintly, of chocolate. Tightening her grip, Gemma murmured, “You are a little love, aren’t you?” and suddenly found she couldn’t bear the thought of this precious child being turned over to a stranger.
“Look, Mrs. Silverman,” she said, “can’t I take her? I’m a police
officer. I’ve got two boys, and my—partner”—she’d been about to say
and realized she couldn’t, not yet—“my partner and I could look after her until things are sorted.”
“She’s obviously formed an attachment to you. Have you done any foster care?”
Silverman shook her head. “Then you’re not in the system. I’m sorry, but you’d have to be evaluated, and we need someone who can take her right away. I’ll just—”
“Wait,” said Gemma as inspiration struck. “I know someone. Just let me make one phone call.”
“I’ve a friend,” Gemma explained when the still-tearful Charlotte had been coaxed into Tim’s arms. “She’s fostered children before. If she’s willing, would that be acceptable?”
“If she’s in good standing,” Silverman said cautiously. “I’d have to speak to her myself, and do a check.”
“I’m sure she’d be fine. She’s the mother of the friend who helps look after our kids. She’s great with them.” Gemma knew she was over-explaining, and that it was as much to reassure herself as Janice Silverman. Excusing herself, she walked to the back of the garden and looked out over the garage flat as she made the call, fingers crossed.
When she heard Betty Howard’s cheerful voice, West Indian accent still intact after more than forty years in Notting Hill, she breathed a sigh of relief. “Betty, it’s Gemma. I’ve a favor to ask.” She explained the situation as succinctly as she could.
“Oh, the poor child,” said Betty. “I’d be glad to take her, Gemma. Only thing is, I’ve got the costumes for carnival—”
“We could help out,” Gemma offered. Betty had sewn elaborate costumes for the Notting Hill carnival since the seventies, and Gemma knew what a time-consuming job it was. “If that would make a difference.”
“Wesley should be able to pitch in a bit,” said Betty, in a considering tone. “Though it would mean less time with your two. But if you could take the child the odd hour or two in the evening, I think we could just manage.”
“You’re a dear, Betty. I’ll let you speak to Mrs. Silverman, then.”
When Betty had given her information to Janice Silverman, and the caseworker was calling her own office to confirm them, Gemma went into the house to put together Charlotte’s things. She found Hazel in the kitchen, pouring orange squash into glasses that held a few meager ice cubes.