Authors: Deborah Crombie
“This is all there is,” Hazel said. “Tim’s run out of anything decent to drink. Not to mention he’s forgotten to fill the ice trays. And I can’t,” she added, her voice rising, “bloody find anything.” She opened the fridge door, then slammed it shut again.
Gemma stared at her in surprise, but Hazel didn’t meet her eyes. “Even water would be fine,” Gemma said after a moment, treading carefully, not sure what had triggered the outburst. “It doesn’t matter, really. Hazel, I just need to get Charlotte’s things together. Do you—”
“No. I don’t know where Tim’s put her things. I’ve just said I don’t know where anything is.” Hazel pushed the most recently filled glass into the others on a tray, causing them all to slosh, then went into the sitting room, wiping her hands on a tea towel. Gemma heard her say more calmly, “Holly, can you put Charlotte’s things in her little bag? Is it in your room? Good girl. Just bring it down when you’re done, and don’t miss anything.”
Then Holly clattered up the stairs, and Hazel came back into the kitchen, muttering, “…herd of elephants.” Her eyes were red. “I’m sorry,” she said to Gemma. “I didn’t mean to snap, and at you, of all people. It’s just that—last night, I thought Tim was manufacturing a drama. I never thought—poor little Charlotte—her father’s really dead?”
“Yes. I saw the body.”
“Oh, God.” With the tea towel, Hazel swiped at the spilled drink
on the work top. “Now I feel a complete bitch. Did he—was it suicide?”
“We don’t know.
don’t know,” Gemma corrected as she glimpsed Weller through the kitchen window, reminding herself that it wasn’t her case. “There were no obvious signs of foul play. We’ll have to wait for the postmortem.”
“Surely he wouldn’t have deliberately left that adorable child—” Hazel gestured towards the garden. “Will she be all right?”
“For the moment. I’ve fixed it so that she can stay with Betty Howard.” Gemma went to stand beside her friend. Lowering her voice, she said, “Mrs. Silverman told Charlotte her father was dead. I know, when we—the police—give a death notice, we get it over with as simply and quickly as we can, but for a child that young it seems awfully harsh—”
“No, Mrs. Silverman was right.” Hazel nodded in agreement. She had often worked with children in her therapy practice. “Allowing her to think her dad was coming home would be worse for her in the long run. She would have to be told eventually, and the deception would damage her ability to trust. Not that I would know anything about that.” Hazel folded the tea towel, then shook it out again, staring at it. It had a pattern of little red roosters on a beige background. “This is hideous,” she said. “Where
he find it?” She glanced at Gemma, then away. “And he’s painted the kitchen.”
“I noticed.” Gemma searched for the right thing to say. “It looks nice. But it’s…different.”
“Everything’s different,” said Hazel. “And I know it’s all trivial in comparison to what’s happened to Tim’s friend, but I didn’t think it would be so hard.”
“Dr. Cavendish, from what DI James has told me, you’ll be best placed to help us with inquiries into your friend’s death,” Weller was saying to Tim as Gemma came back out onto the patio.
She’d just given Charlotte a last hug, and a promise that she’d come to visit her later that afternoon. She didn’t know how much the little girl understood. She had clung to Gemma, and after a final fit of sobbing, she’d gone mute in Janice Silverman’s arms.
“I’ve already told Gemma everything I know.” Tim had emptied his glass of squash, apparently having no objection to its safety-glow orange color. Now he sipped at the melting ice cubes, then rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. “Naz loved Sandra and Charlotte. He’d never have done anything to hurt either of them. They were the perfect family.”
Hazel, having got Holly started playing in her sandbox on the far side of the garden, had come to stand at the edge of the patio. At Tim’s words, she winced.
“Perfect, except for the fact that Sandra Gilles disappeared,” said Weller.
Tim stared at him with dawning recognition. “You investigated the case. I remember Naz talking about you. You made him feel he’d done something wrong.”
“And had he done something wrong, Dr. Cavendish? You’d be the one he confided in, the one he felt safe with—”
“No.” Tim thrust his head forward. “Naz thought you’d not taken Sandra’s disappearance seriously, that you’d overlooked things. He said you’d never investigated her brothers thoroughly.”
“Sandra Gilles’s brothers had alibis for the day of her disappearance.”
“Given by their mates down the pub—”
“Naz Malik did not,” said Weller, ignoring the dig. “He said he was in his office, on a Sunday, but there was no corroboration.”
“You’re saying Naz had something to do with Sandra’s disappearance?” Tim was half out of his chair, his fists balled.
Weller raised a hand. “No, Dr. Cavendish. I’m merely saying that you can’t take anything for granted. Even from the mouths of friends.
Now, you tell me if your mate Naz Malik really thought his wife was coming back.”
Tim sank back in his chair, his anger seeming to drain away. “No. Yes. Look at it from Naz’s viewpoint, will you? Either something terrible had happened to his wife and the mother of his child, whom he adored. Or everything he believed about his life was a lie, and his wife, his beloved wife, had voluntarily left him. How could he choose between those alternatives? So one day he believed one thing, the next, the other. But I think in his heart he thought something dreadful had happened to her…except…”
“Except what, Dr. Cavendish?” All Weller’s weariness seemed to vanish in an instant. Gemma found herself tempted to caution Tim, but she couldn’t—it was not her interview, she couldn’t interfere. And she wanted to know what he had been about to say as much as Weller.
“I—it was nothing. A rumor. I’d never repeat it if Naz were…here.”
“Go on. What sort of rumor?” asked Weller.
Tim, fidgeting, with obvious reluctance, glanced at Hazel, then back at Weller. “It isn’t anything—” He shook his head. “Some of the last commissions Sandra did were for a club in Spitalfields. A private club. The owner’s name is Lucas Ritchie. Naz heard—”
“Naz heard what, Dr. Cavendish?” prompted Weller.
“There was…talk…that Sandra was having an affair with Ritchie.”
From hence I only infer that an Englishman, of all men, ought not to despise foreigners as such, and I think the inference is just, since what they are to-day, we were yesterday, and to-morrow they will be like us.
The True-Born Englishman
“Why didn’t you tell us this?” demanded Weller.
“It didn’t occur to me—Naz only told me the last time we talked.” Tim glared back at Weller.
“And Mr. Malik didn’t think this was germane to our investigation of his wife’s disappearance?” DI Weller shot back. His large hands twitched, and Gemma felt sure his annoyance was not feigned.
“He only heard it a couple of weeks ago,” said Tim. “And he didn’t take it seriously. Sandra didn’t run off with Lucas Ritchie—Ritchie’s never left London. Naz went to see him.”
“Oh, he did, did he? And this Ritchie assured him he had nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance, and that was that? Was your friend really that naive, Dr. Cavendish? That’s not the only scenario.
If Sandra Gilles was having an affair with this man, maybe she wanted more. Maybe she threatened to expose him and he shut her up—”
“No! It wasn’t like that—at least not from what Naz told me. Look, according to Naz, Lucas Ritchie is single and well off, with no shortage of available women in his life. Who would Sandra have threatened to expose him to? She would have been the one with something to lose.”
“So maybe Ritchie wanted her to leave Malik. Maybe she refused and they fought.”
“No. Naz didn’t believe she was having an affair, and I don’t believe it, either. She wasn’t—she wasn’t that kind of person.”
“And what kind of person is that?” Hazel said, her voice shrill with fury. She’d been standing at the edge of the patio, listening, half forgotten by the others. “Did she come with some sort of guarantee? A
Tim looked horrified as he realized the import of what he’d said, but he defended himself. “Hazel, will you just not take everything so bloody personally? All I meant was that Sandra Gilles had no use for Lucas Ritchie’s lifestyle. She told Naz it was all gloss and window dressing, hype, and she valued real things, like her husband and her child and her work.” He faced his wife, not backing down. “You were not so different, once.”
By the time Gemma got away from Islington, she couldn’t face another visit to hospital. A phone call had reassured her that her mother was resting comfortably. She drove across London, feeling barely able to breathe in the car. The late-afternoon heat was stifling, and she was still tense from the atmosphere at the Cavendishes’.
Weller had left after telling Tim he’d want to speak to him again. “I’m not about to skip the country,” Tim had muttered, earning another dirty look from Hazel.
Hazel had followed close on Weller’s heels, refusing to speak to either Tim or Gemma. “I don’t understand,” Tim said to Gemma as they watched her drive away. “Everything she’s done has been her choice. Why is she so angry with me?”
“I’m sorry, Tim.” Gemma gave him a quick hug, not wanting to confess that Hazel’s behavior had shocked her as well. Tim had suffered the loss of a friend, and now he had to face the task of telling Alia, Naz Malik’s nanny, that Naz was dead. Gemma couldn’t imagine the Hazel she had known failing to express sympathy or being unable to put aside her own concerns in a crisis.
When she reached Notting Hill, the square brown brick house with its cherry red door seemed comfortingly, reassuringly familiar. She found the boys watching a video in the sitting room, the dogs sprawled lazily by the garden door.
She hugged Toby until he yelped, squirming, and Kit ducked away from her, grinning. “No squishing for me, ta very much.”
“Why aren’t you outside?” asked Gemma.
“Too hot. Dad said we had to watch something Toby liked, so it’s
again.” Johnny Depp swaggered across the screen, gold tooth glinting, and Toby folded himself cross-legged on the floor once more, transfixed.
“So I see.” The dogs were panting gently. “Where is your dad?”
“Doug called him into the office, something about reports that had to be finished by Monday morning. He said for you to ring him.”
Gemma hoped that meant she was forgiven for her bad temper of the night before, and she realized she’d been mentally criticizing Hazel when she’d been guilty of behaving unreasonably herself.
“Would you two like to pay Erika a visit?” she said on impulse. “We could walk.”
“Too hot,” said Kit.
“We could get an ice cream afterwards.”
Toby dragged his attention from the screen. “Yay, Mummy! What kind?”
“Yeah, okay, so I’m susceptible to bribery,” agreed Kit.
“Let me give Erika a ring, then get cleaned up a bit.”
It wasn’t until they were walking down Ladbroke Road a few minutes later, Gemma having taken a quick shower and changed, that she confessed to an ulterior motive.
“I want to see Erika, too,” she said, “but while you’re visiting I need to stop by Betty Howard’s for a few minutes.”
“You’re going to see Wesley’s mum without us?” Kit stared at her suspiciously. “Why can’t we go? Betty always wants to see us.”
“Of course she does, but this time it’s a bit complicated.” She explained that Betty was taking care of a little girl named Charlotte who needed a place to stay for a while, and that Charlotte wasn’t ready to meet anyone else new quite yet.
She knew she would have to tell them about Charlotte’s parents, but she wasn’t eager to broach the subject with Kit. Kit merely said, however, “You won’t be gone long, will you?”
Gemma had become friends with Erika Rosenthal in the course of investigating a case when she had first been posted back to Notting Hill. In the past few months they had become even closer, when the unexpected appearance of an antique brooch at auction had opened a window into the older woman’s troubled past.
A retired academic with no children of her own, Erika had taken a special interest in Toby and Kit, and the boys considered her family—a courtesy grandmother. They saw Erika, in fact, much more often than they saw Gemma’s or Duncan’s parents. Toby’s dad, Rob, had walked out on Gemma when Toby was an infant, and Rob’s parents had cut off all contact, thereby helping their son avoid paying maintenance for Toby. Good riddance, as far as Gemma was concerned.
And as for Kit, his maternal grandparents had proved even more difficult. After a failed attempt to gain custody, they were allowed only supervised visits with Kit, and so had stopped making any effort to see their grandson. Kit’s relationship with his grandmother
had been unpleasant at best, abusive at worst, and if he missed his grandfather, he never said. He had quickly become attached to Duncan’s parents, and was fond of Gemma’s, but his relationship with Erika was special. They were in many ways kindred spirits, despite the differences in age and background.
When they reached the house in Arundel Gardens and rang the bell, Erika answered immediately, beaming at them and brushing back the snow white hair escaping from its usual twist. She wore a flowered pinny and had a smudge of something on her cheek. “Ah, kitchen help,” she said. “What good timing.”
“Are you making something for us?” Toby asked as they followed her into the hall.
“No. I’m having a guest for dinner, and the entrée must be something very French. It’s too hot to use the cooker, so I’m making a seafood salad, and I thought Kit could help me with the calamari.”
“What’s calamari?” said Toby.
Kit wiggled his fingers at him. “Squid.”
“Ooh, yuck,” Toby pronounced, but the smell of garlic, lemon, and fresh herbs coming from the kitchen made Gemma’s mouth water.
“I can do squid,” Kit added with relish. “You disembowel them.”
Laughing, Erika said, “Well, before you start your operation, I have a little treat for you both, just some things I picked up at the market yesterday.” From a shelf, she fished an antique double-decker bus for Toby, and for Kit, a book, its cover stained and musty. Looking over Kit’s shoulder as he opened it, Gemma saw that it was filled with beautifully detailed, colored zoological drawings. Kit exclaimed in delight and leaned down to kiss Erika’s cheek.
“It’s brilliant,” he said. “Where did you find it?”
“One of the stalls on Portobello Road itself. Lucky this one didn’t fall into the hands of the print dealers,” Erika added, touching a finger to the book. Many old, and sometimes rare, editions containing botanical or zoological drawings were bought in job lots by the
print dealers, who cut them from the books and matted them to sell individually.
“These are lovely, Erika,” said Gemma, “but you’re spoiling the boys.” For a moment she regretted leaving them, even for the few minutes it would take her to visit Charlotte at Betty Howard’s—she had little enough time with Kit and Toby as it was. But she couldn’t get little Charlotte Malik’s face out of her mind, and she had made Charlotte a promise that she had to keep.
“And who better to do that?” Erika countered with a twinkle. “When I get fish gutting in return?”
“You’re very cheerful today.” Gemma eyed her affectionately. “You said your menu had to be French—would your guest by chance be French, as well?”
“A little something for my friend Henri, yes,” Erika admitted, smiling. “Now, if you will run your errand, I’ll make tea in the garden when you come back. And I think you promised ice cream? Perhaps you could pick some up.”
Leaving the boys in the kitchen, she walked Gemma to the door. “This is very sad, about the little girl,” she said quietly. Gemma had told her a bit of Charlotte’s story over the phone. “But children are very resilient, and she is in good hands.”
“Erika…” Gemma paused on the threshold. “Do you think a child that young understands what death means? If she should ask me…”
“Yes, that might be difficult. You don’t know her references. Were her parents religious?”
“I don’t know.” Gemma considered what she’d been told about Naz and Sandra, and what she’d seen in their house. “I’m inclined to think not.”
“Then I think I would wait and see how she makes sense of it. She might surprise you.”
Gemma turned into Portobello Road at Elgin Crescent, stopping a moment to look up the hill. The street, baking in the late-afternoon heat, seemed alien in its Sunday-afternoon emptiness. The arcades were shuttered, the stalls down, and the pubs seemed to be doing only desultory business. Even her friend Otto’s venerable café in Elgin Crescent was closed, it being his rule that Sunday afternoons were reserved for time with his daughters.
There was something about the deserted landscape that appealed to Gemma; for a moment she felt as if she owned the street, in all its cheerful and slightly Mediterranean tattiness.
She turned and walked north, down the hill, and turned into Westbourne Park Road. Betty Howard and her son, Wesley, lived in the same flat Betty’s parents had first occupied in 1959, fresh off the boat from Trinidad. Betty and her husband, Colin, had bought it from the slum landlords who had once owned it, and had brought up their six children in it. But Colin had passed away a few years ago from an early heart attack, and Wesley’s five older sisters were grown and gone.
Wesley liked to tease his mother, saying he only stayed because he couldn’t afford the rent on his own place. But while that was as true for Wes as it was for any young person in London, Gemma knew that he worried about his mum and didn’t like the idea of leaving her on her own.
Reaching Betty’s building, she pressed the buzzer for the top-floor flat, and when the door released, climbed the stairs. Betty opened the door just as Gemma reached it, holding her finger to her lips.
“She’s asleep, poor love,” Betty said quietly, giving Gemma a quick hug. She wore her usual bright headscarf, today in turquoise, with just a little graying hair showing against her dark skin. “It was the oddest thing,” she went on as she led Gemma into the sitting room. “When Mrs. Silverman left, the little thing, she cried and cried. Not even Wesley could comfort her. Maybe she’s not used to our dark faces.
“Then she spied those fabrics in the corner. She went right to them, burrowed in like a mole, and was out like a light. I took her little trainers off without waking her. Will you look at that?”
At first glance, Betty’s sitting room seemed a chaos of color and texture. But a closer inspection revealed that the first impression was deceptive, a product of many things occupying a small space. A multitude of clear plastic boxes held collections of buttons, feathers, braiding, sequins, and spools of thread. The sewing machine, a new and expensive model, sat on a table at the front window, where Betty could overlook the street as she sewed. As well as her work on costumes for carnival, she made slipcovers, drapes, Roman blinds—“Anything that can be stitched together”—as she liked to say. Her father had been an upholsterer and had taught Betty to sew as a tot. She’d left school at sixteen to work for a milliner and had been proudly following the family tradition ever since.
Looking where Betty pointed, Gemma saw the bolts of cloth stored between the sofa and the window. There were silks and taffetas in rainbow hues, heavy brocades and satins, gauzy nets, and one roll of gold lamé.
Charlotte had indeed burrowed in between the bolts, pulling a fold of the shimmering gold cloth over herself like a blanket. Only her curls showed at one end and her stockinged feet at the other.
“A little princess,” said Betty. “Going right for the gold.”
“Oh, I should have realized,” whispered Gemma, her chest tightening. “It looks like home to her. Her mother’s an artist who works with textiles. She had her studio in the house.”
“An artist? Mrs. Silverman said the mother went missing?”
“Yes. In May. And now this. Her dad…” Gemma pushed away the image of Naz Malik’s body, with the flies buzzing round it in the heat. It would be cold now, on a trolley in the mortuary.
“She’s an odd mix, this little one,” said Betty. “Striking. Her mother white, her father Pakistani, Mrs. Silverman told me, but with that hair, I’d swear she’s got more than a drop of West Indian in her.
Wesley will have his camera out, soon as her tears have dried, mark my words.”
“Where is Wes?” asked Gemma.
“Bread-and-butter shoot. Molly Janes, the fishmonger’s daughter, it was her birthday party this afternoon. I don’t envy Wesley having to deal with a pack of sweets-fueled children in this heat.”