Meanwhile, in a wealthy suburb of Glasgow, a young woman is found savagely murdered. The community is stunned by what appears to be a vicious, random attack. When Detective Inspector Alex Morrow, heavily pregnant with twins, is called in to investigate, she soon discovers that a tangled web of lies lurks behind the murder. It's a web that will spiral through Alex's own home, the local community, and ultimately right back to a swinging rope, hundreds of miles away.
The End of the Wasp Season is an accomplished, compelling and multi-layered novel about family's power of damage-and redemption.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The End of the Wasp SeasonA Novel
By Mina, Denise
Reagan Arthur BooksCopyright © 2011 Mina, Denise
All right reserved.
The End of the Wasp Season
The silence startled Sarah from a hundred-fathom sleep. She opened her eyes to the red blink of the digital alarm clock: 16:32.
The yips of small dogs came from one of the gardens downhill, insistent, ricocheting off the ceiling and around the curved room.
Quiet. The radio was off. Sarah routinely left the radio on in the kitchen when she was here, tuned to Radio 4. The conversational coo took the edge off the emptiness. Heard from another room it gave the impression that the house was full of charming, chatty people from Hampshire. Burglars might find that strange in Glasgow but it was plausible in the exclusive village of Thorntonhall. Sarah left strategic lights on too: hall, stairs, anywhere that couldn’t be seen into. She had a talent for making things seem.
Quiet. This was not the burgling hour. The house was at the top of the hill, visible in daylight, especially at this time when neighbors were out in their grounds, critiquing the gardeners’ work or goading fat pedigree dogs around. A thief would have to be very confident or very stupid to break in now.
Exhausted and desperate to sleep, she considered an innocent explanation: either a fuse in the kitchen had blown or the old radio had finally stopped working. Everything in the house was old and needed fixed.
So she decided that the radio had died, smiled and shut her eyes, curling up under the crisp duvet, almost glad to have woken up for the delicious tumble back to sleep.
Her mind slid softly into the dark warm.
A sudden crack of floorboard at the bottom of the stairs. Her eyes snapped open.
She raised her head from the pillow, the better to hear.
A shoe scuffing over carpet, amplified by the stairwell and a hissed two-word instruction. A high voice. A woman’s voice. “Go on.”
Sleep-befuddled, Sarah sat up, imagining her mother on her stairlift, her whirring, inexorable rise to the landing. Her mother, pinch-mouthed and imperious. Her mother wanting answers: why did they fix on that care plan? Why was Sarah never there to bathe her? Why didn’t Cardinal Geoffrey conduct her funeral service?
She threw the duvet off and swung her feet to the floor, attempted to stand up but her drowsy knees failed her and she toppled back, landing awkwardly on the bed with an undignified bounce.
Exasperated with herself, she realized that she was vulnerable because she was at home. Sarah had been in strange places, scary places and managed to stay alert and calm. She always mapped the fire exits on the way in, arrived in charge and stayed in charge, but here she was defenseless.
But this was different to those stranger rooms because here she was a normal householder. She could call the police, ask them to come and help her.
Relieved, she flopped forwards over her knees, reached into her handbag at the side of the bed. Her nervous fingers fumbled past tissues and receipts and passport to the cold metal back of her iPhone. She pressed the button as she pulled it out and was delighted to see the face light up. She had turned it on as she stood in the aisle of first class, waiting to get off at Glasgow Airport. She didn’t always. Sometimes she left it off for twenty-four hours until she’d had a sleep. Now, using both hands to concentrate on the screen, she unlocked it, selected phone, selected keyboard, jabbed 999 and pressed call just in time to hear movement outside her bedroom door.
It was more of a sensation than a sound, air shifting on the landing. A body brushed the wall by the door, low down, as startling as cold fingers to the small of a bare back.
She shoved the iPhone into a little cave in the duvet and stood up.
The door moaned softly as it fell open.
It was not the ghost of her mother but two teenage boys, gawky, awkward. They wore baggy black jogging trousers and matching T-shirts, inside out, the seams showing all the way down the legs, along the arms. They wore the same black trainers too. The strange uniform made them look like the members of a cult.
Tentative at first, shuffling, they occupied the doorway. Not desperate but confident, boys on a dare.
She almost laughed with relief. “What are you doing in here?”
One of them was tall, shaven-headed. He couldn’t look at her and squirmed slightly at the sound of her voice, stood sideways in the door, his shoulder out on the landing as if he’d like to leave.
“Look,” she said, “get out of my house. It isn’t empty, this house…”
The other boy had longer hair, black and thick, but he wasn’t tentative. He was angry, standing square to the door frame, looking straight at her, taking in her face.
Sarah knew she wasn’t very pretty but she made the best of herself, was slim, had a good haircut. In a kind light she could be thought attractive. This boy wasn’t finding her so. He was disgusted by her.
The taller one elbowed his friend. The angry boy didn’t break eye contact with her but answered him with the jut of a chin, ordering him into the room. The tall friend flinched, giving a half shake of his head. They continued their conversation in micro-gestures, the angry boy holding her eye, hating her.
“My mother died,” she said, voice fading as it dawned on her that they weren’t surprised to find her here. “I still live—”
“Where’s your kids?” asked the angry boy.
“You’ve got kids.” He seemed very certain.
“No…,” she said, “I haven’t got kids.”
“Yes, you fucking have.” He glanced around the room as if her children might be hidden under the edge of the duvet, in the armoire, under the bed.
His voice was high, the voice from the stairs, but the accent was what she noticed: not Glaswegian, not west coast at all. It wasn’t even the tempered, indeterminate Scottish of the local kids. He sounded east coast but English: Edinburgh and London maybe. They’d come here, not stumbled across the house, but had traveled here. She suddenly had no idea what this was.
Sarah tried again. “You’re in the wrong house.”
But he looked at her and said firmly, “No, I’m not.”
The money. They must be here for the money. It was the only thing in the house they could have come for. And yet the cash was in the kitchen and this room was through a door, along a corridor, across a hall, upstairs. They had come here looking for her.
A little more confident now, she looked at them afresh. They weren’t getting the money. She’d deny all knowledge if they asked because she’d called the police now, and they would come and take the boys away and question them and she needed to sound innocent.
“Look,” she said, trying to sound reasonable, “you should go. I called the police a minute ago, they’ll be on their way. You could get in a lot of trouble being here.”
The angry boy held her eye as he slid his foot into the room, his toe touching the edge of the yellow Persian carpet, invading the sacred neutral space between them. He saw her bristle with alarm, she saw a spark of empathy on his face before it hardened and he jutted his jaw defiantly. He moved his foot forward again, half an inch, until it lipped over the fringed edge, telling her that he could come over to her, that he would come over.
Irritation shocked her awake and she took charge. “I know what you’re here for,” she said, stepping towards him, waving a hand towards the stairs. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with, you’ve made a mistake—”
“STOP.” The angry boy bared his teeth. “Get fucking back.” He took a firm step towards her, smiling now. His teeth seemed unnaturally dry and that scared her.
Sarah stepped backward to the bed. She could see the corner of the phone peeking out of the duvet. She flexed her fingers, a quickdraw gunfighter rehearsing.
His eyes slipped from her face, snaking across her T, down to her thighs, and he looked away, suddenly repulsed. She had no knickers on, she realized. She had been so tired when she got in that she’d pulled her coat off, dropped her shoes in the hall and tramped up the stairs, shedding her dress and knickers on the bedroom floor. The old T-shirt she slept in only came down to her thighs, barely covering her. She hadn’t slept for twenty-four hours. She was sore. Her mum had died. She deserved to sleep.
She shouted as loud as she could: “GET OUT OF HERE THIS INSTANT!”
The tall friend flinched but the angry boy didn’t even blink. His lower jaw jutted forward as if he’d like to bite her. It was the anger, the tinge of deep-rooted bitterness that she recognized and she suddenly knew his face.
“Who are you?” she said. “I know you.”
The tall boy was thrown by that, afraid, and looked at his angry friend.
“I definitely know you.” She wasn’t sure though: it was a grainy memory, as if he had been on television or in a newspaper. “I’ve seen a photo of you.”
The angry boy’s face pinked in blotches and he spluttered when he spoke. “Photo? You saw a photo?”
She shrugged awkwardly and saw that he was clenching his fists.
He raised one and punched himself hard on his heart. “…showed you a fucking photo of me?”
His voice was cracking on the upper register. The friend jerked his hand across, pulled the fist free from the chest and yanked him backwards. “Stop. Stop, man. Breathe, take a breath.”
Sarah stole a glance at the iPhone, looking for a glow of hope but saw nothing.
The angry boy sputtered still: “Fucking handbag! Fucking get her phone!” He was changing color, paling, looking at the floor by her feet. His friend followed his eye and let go of him, stepping long-legged, colonizing the precious distance in two careless steps. He dropped to a crouch by her feet, shoving a rude hand into her favorite handbag. He was less than a foot from her thigh and Sarah uncrossed her legs, baring herself at him, shocking him into a freeze.
But the angry boy was unmoved by the sight of her. “Squeak, fucking move.”
The crouching boy tore his gaze away, pulled his hand out of the handbag. He was holding a cell phone. It was a brick, the sort of phone a pensioner would have. Red plastic with big buttons, small screen with a picture of a palm tree on it. It did look puzzling up close because the screen didn’t light up—it was a phony phone. Dismayed, Sarah realized that she had forgotten about it. She always forgot about it and she should have used it.
The boy held the phone up over his head to show his friend by the door. The angry boy’s face twitched. “What else is there?”
The crouching boy shoved the brick phone into his pocket and reached into her handbag again. He seemed pleased to find her purse. He stood up, held it up triumphantly.
Sarah almost laughed with relief. “You want money?”
But they were focused on the purse, the tall finder stepping back to his friend, still holding the purse high. They were little more than muggers, stupid kids wearing inside-out clothes and she realized that they were hiding a school logo.
She watched the angry boy yank at the zip on her purse. She knew that nose, the short splay, the wide, round nostrils. She knew it very well. She guessed:
“I know your dad—”
She was right: he hesitated in tugging the zip open so she said it louder, “I know your dad.”
The tall thin boy looked from her to the angry boy, panicked, and she raised her voice: “You’d better get out of here. What do you think he’s going to say when I tell him you’ve broken in?”
A dad. That could be anyone. A sniveling dad, powerful or a pathetic drunk. Maybe Lars had decided he didn’t trust her and wanted it back. Lars. It was Lars’s nose.
“Lars!” she blurted. The angry boy looked hurt.
For a moment she expected him to drop the purse, give it back, apologize, back out. For a moment her blood slowed and she caught her breath. Bitter Lars, hurt, thrashing Lars who despised her but needed her and had never needed anyone. Lars wouldn’t flinch from killing her if it suited him. But it didn’t suit him. Lars hadn’t sent these boys.
The angry boy was looking at her, that self-same deep hurt in his eyes, his lids lowering to hate. He kept looking at her as his rude fingers fumbled inside her purse, scissoring around a couple of big notes and a taxi receipt, drawing them out.
Sarah took her chance and lunged for her iPhone. As she toppled onto her side, her fingers found the cold metal, wrapping hard around it because she knew it was slippery. She held it up, stabbed at the face, it had locked itself while on the call and she tried to slide it open, missing twice:
“POLICE! HELP ME! TWO BOYS ARE IN MY HOME—”
The angry boy was next to her. He grabbed her clenched hand, pulling her upright, easily yanking the smooth phone from her fingers, but Sarah continued to shout at it: “—IN MY BEDROOM. ONE—I KNOW HIM—”
They all froze, looking at the phone, imagining themselves heard, suddenly conscious of an audience in their play. The angry boy was the first to break out of it: slowly he lifted the phone to his ear and listened.
A smirk erupted on his face. He jabbed a finger at the screen, hung up and threw it on the bed.
They stood close together, a tight clump of animosity in the rambling husk of a house.
Behind her the tall boy shuffled a foot, moving close until his breath was hitting her hair. She felt the moisture from it settle on her ear. The angry boy read the desolation on her face and she saw his eyes brim with fury at it.
Behind her shoulder the breathing was getting faster, more shallow.
Once, in a hotel in Dubai, Sarah had met a client and had dinner with him. He was a fat man. She remembered the sadness about him, desperate, distant, and though she tried to make conversation, he remained quiet throughout the meal and drank a good deal, which wouldn’t help. In the lift up to the room she rehearsed her speech: it happens to everyone sometimes, isn’t it just as nice to touch and talk, the next time they could use a pill if he wanted…On the bed, facing down into a pillow as instructed, she heard that same breathing behind her, rapid, suddenly animal, and she turned around to glimpse a flash of metal in his hand. She’d kicked him off the bed, grabbed her clothes and run. She only got away because he was too fat to chase her.
“I’ve got money…,” she said to no one.
“Money?” said the angry boy quietly. “You think this is about money?”
“Then what is it about?” she shouted as loud as she could, hoping it would make them back off. “What the hell are you doing here? This is my fucking house.”
But neither backed away. The angry boy’s eyes met hers.
She was crying now, her hands out in entreaty. “Have I done something to you? I’ll tell, you know, I will.”
He broke eye contact, looked around the room, unconcerned.
Sarah understood abruptly: he wasn’t afraid that she would remember his face because he had come here to kill her. She would never get to leave this house. She would never get out of here.
She couldn’t die here, in a cold, run-down house she had been fighting to escape her whole life, with a bare backside and two insolent kids coming into the room that was once her nursery.
Through a shimmer of tears she saw the space between them, the open door beyond.
Sarah put her head down and ran.
Kay sat by the window, looking down at the bowl, smiling at it. It was worth a lot, she was sure. She shouldn’t really be using it as an ashtray. If she took it on the Antiques Roadshow she would be the last one on, the high value surprise that drew a gasp from the crowd when the expert revealed the price at auction, just for insurance purposes.
She sighed and looked out over the gray city. Castlemilk was built on a hillside that afforded a view of the whole of Glasgow. In any other city that view would have been reserved for the rich, the Cathkin hillside would be scattered with big houses and fancy gardens, but not here. She never really understood that. Too far out of the town maybe.
The city looked gray from the window, street lights were starting to blink on, dirty yellow, but maybe it wasn’t the city that was gray. The kitchen window was gray, a sheen of dirt she could never wash off because it was on the outside of the glass on a window that didn’t open far enough. She often looked up to the windows as she hurried up the hill from the bus stop and saw the matte coating on the glass and wondered at windows that could never be washed. Who the fuck thought that was a good idea? On a good day it was an oversight by the planners. On a bad day they hated the would-be residents, thought them filthy and low and beneath having clean windows, begrudged them the greatest view in the whole city.
She tapped the ash from her cigarette, slow, tap-tap-tap, punctuation points in a conversation with an invisible adversary across the table. Two seats, one on either side of the table top. Five of them in the house and table space for two.
She took a deep draw of her cigarette, felt it scratch down her throat and fill her lungs, and smiled to herself, realizing that it was the one. Every day, twenty cigarettes a day, six, maybe seven, draws in each and she only ever enjoyed one of them. One draw out of a hundred and twenty every day. It was a smoking cessation exercise, to show her how little she enjoyed smoking and how pointless it was. It wasn’t working. She just enjoyed that one draw all the more for knowing how rare it was. Tap-tap-tap. She smiled at the ashtray. Tap-tap. A bit of burning red tobacco fell off and she stopped, rolled the tip into a neat little cone around the gilded silver slope.
The doors were hanging off the cupboards, the chipboard worktop swollen with water where the plastic had come off. They’d been promised a new kitchen, had been down to the housing office and picked out the worktop and doors from a choice of three, but that was months ago.
Kay heard a bedroom door open in the hall. Marie stepped over to the kitchen, looking away from Kay, as if she happened to be passing. At thirteen, Marie was so self-conscious she was almost housebound. She was wearing yet more nail varnish, blue this time, and a matching hair band. Her cheeks shone, pink circles on her chubby face.
“Have you got make-up on, pet?”
Marie was suddenly, inexplicably embarrassed. “Shut up.” And she stormed back into her bedroom.
Kay bit her lip to stop herself laughing. Marie once cried with shame because Kay said she liked Ribena in front of a boy from her class.
“Darlin’,” she shouted, “we’ve crisps.”
Marie hesitated, strode back across the hall with her head down, looking away from her mother. Feeling blindly on the worktop she found the multipack somehow, took out a packet of salt and vinegar.
“Like your nail varnish.”
Marie glared at her. “Well, then, I don’t.”
Kay sighed, “Give us a fucking break, Marie. Or my crisps back.”
Marie resisted a laugh, snorting through her nose with a bit of snotty follow-through. Shocked, she touched her wet top lip and looked at her mother accusingly. “For God’s sake.”
She left in a huff, remembering to take the crisps with her.
Kay took another draw. A bad one, sour, sore. One of the ones that made her wish she didn’t smoke.
“Where’s my trainers?” Joe was standing in the doorway, his skinny frame in silhouette. “Is that crisps?”
Without waiting for an answer he padded into the gloomy kitchen, rummaged in the multipack bag and pulled out two packets of cheese and onion.
He dropped one packet on the counter. “Where’s my trainers?”
“Why don’t you look with your eyes.”
“Because it’s easier to look with my mum.” He opened the packet of crisps, took some out and shoved them into his mouth.
Joe was charming, that was his trouble; he charmed people into doing things for him all the time. Kay didn’t want to encourage it. “Fuck off, I’m having a menopause.”
“Seriously, where’s my trainers?”
She turned back to the filthy window.
She slumped over the table, defeated. “Where did you take them off?”
“At the door.”
“Have you looked at the door?”
“No. Will I?”
She didn’t answer.
He turned and looked at the laundry bin that sat behind the front door. She kept it there to put in all the shit they dropped. It was clear plastic and she could see the trainers smashed into the side.
He spotted them too, grunted, and padded over to the bin.
He’d be out for hours now. He was that age where standing on a street corner was irresistible, fascinating, the company of his pals hypnotic. Kay remembered that herself. It wasn’t even that far in the past, four kids ago, but still not beyond her memory to recall the excitement of it, the pull of it. Hormones. Now she had four kids, all steps and stairs, all of them hitting their teens at the same time. They were all bouncing off the walls.
“Hey,” Joe called to her from the hall. She looked and found him sitting on the floor, pulling his trainers on, legs sprawled.
“You look fed up sitting there in the dark.”
Blindsided by his charm yet again, she brightened. “I’m all right, son. Just chilling.”
“Sure? I’ll bring you in a bag of chips if ye like.”
“Nah, I’m all right.”
She watched him pull his jacket out of the laundry bin. He slipped it on in one of his improbable moments of grace, and opened the front door, stepping out to the yellow gloom on the landing, leaving a puff of cold drafting through the hall.
She liked Joe best. It was wrong to have favorites but she did. They were all teenagers but he was the only one who noticed she had feelings. He tried to cheer her up sometimes.
Kay took another draw. It was getting dark outside the windows but she couldn’t be bothered getting up to put the light on, so she sat in the gathering gloom, enjoying the quiet pause before starting the tea and the next round of chores. Down on the street she heard the noise of boys shouting and running, the leather slap of a football. She imagined an audience of girls clustered to the side of the concrete. Out beyond that she saw the city, the barrier of tall flats in the Gorbals, the bright city center and the jagged tower of the university.
The light from the hall caught the side of the ashtray, the red enamel petals glinting, catching the snake of coiled silver wire that master craftsman’s hands had formed in Moscow. She sighed, savoring the colors. Gustav Klingert—she’d checked the hallmark on the internet; 1880-ish.
Kay sat back to see it better. It was a small bowl, tucked in tight around the rim. The inside was gilded silver, slightly worn so that the watery sheen of the cold silver showed through the warm glow of gold. On the outside the enamel background was yellow, with red flowers and white and blue leaves picked out in wire. A small line of blue dots articulated the rim and base.
She reached forward and touched it with her fingertip, feeling the rims of the twisted wire around the little pools of luminous enamel. It was the red that caught her the most. The red enamel was clear, transparent, like the inside of a fruit jelly. She didn’t even know how to say the name of the style, Ros-tov fin-ift. She liked that it was unpronounceable. It made it feel as if it came from another universe, like Obi-Wan Kenobi.
It was not for the likes of her at all. But the patterns of Russian enameling came from peasant embroidery. Poor women had designed those patterns and the color schemes, they sewed them onto their own tablecloths and the hems of their clothes, working hard in cold, dark houses, pricking their fingers. They were poor women with a deep aching need for beauty to keep them moving through the dark, make them feel alive.
And then, hundreds of years later, jewelers took their designs and made them into expensive things like this bowl, clasps for belts, tea caddies when tea was a luxury, items so expensive the sewing women could never afford them. She was one of those women, those sewing women, sitting in the gloom, and the intricate patterns spoke to her of the beauty to be made from nothing, of the importance of seeing the beauty in things and appreciating it, even through a dirty window.
Kay knew that of all the people who had owned or used or seen this bowl in the last one hundred and thirty years, none of them had loved it as much as she had, stroked it in the long dark nights when she couldn’t sleep, tracing the little coils of silver wire snaking through the pools of brilliant color.
In the freezing early morning rain Alex Morrow stood by a raw grave, holding the tasseled end of a golden rope.
The fiction of it bothered her. They weren’t lowering him eight feet down with these curtain ties, the real work was being done by the motorized straps under the coffin. But the funeral director had ordered them in hushed tones to take an end of rope each: herself and Danny, a grizzled man who was her dad’s cellmate for years, two cousins, a childhood friend, and one of the funeral directors. They stood around the hole they were putting her father into and went through the charade, while the other funeral guy operated the machine that actually lowered the box into the ground.
When the box reached the bosom of the earth they all looked up for guidance. The funeral director at the graveside dropped his rope into the hole sadly, waiting as the rope snaked away and dropped with a dull thunk onto the coffin below. He nodded into the hole, solemnly, as if he had finally come to terms with the death of a man he didn’t know existed until he got the job of burying him. He looked at the other bearers, saw them wondering what the hell to do and swept his hand to the hole, telling them to follow his lead.
One of the cousins straightened his arm and dropped his tassel straight in, not touching the sides. He watched it fall, his mouth open in a slight smile, enjoying the drop. The cellmate chucked his in dutifully, turning away before it hit the wood. Danny flicked his wrist, as if he was chucking away a sweetie wrapper, knew littering was wrong but didn’t give a shit. Morrow just opened her fingers and let it fall into the hole, trying to give the gesture no meaning, fully aware that her studied carelessness was an eloquent summary of her feelings for her father.
Behind her, Crystyl whimpered loudly. She was wearing a gigantic black hat with black silk roses sewn all around the rim, staggering occasionally when her stilettos sank into the muddy ground. Danny was embarrassed by her. She’d never met the dead man.
Morrow turned to walk away but found herself kettled in by the long mound of loose earth covered over with vibrant green AstroTurf.
It was a small turnout, pathetic, but more than he deserved. They weren’t there for him—most of them were men and most of them were there out of loyalty to Danny. She despised the lackeys. They dressed like Danny, did their hair like his, supported his team. It was a loyalty born from mutual greed and self-serving ambition. The enmity was mutual: they knew she was a cop.
Danny caught up with her as she walked carefully through the mud to the path.
“Thanks for coming,” he said formally, falling into step with her though she was striding fast and brisk away to the path.
Morrow pulled her coat closed against him. “He was my dad too.”
“I know, but just—thanks.”
“Well, you know, thanks for organizing it.”
“Aye, no bother.” He was shoulder to shoulder with her, walking up the steep hill to her car as if they were together, hurrying over a path deep with black granite chips that demanded a slow gait. Danny wanted something.
He gave her the look, the heavy lidded watch-your-fucking-step-with-me look. “Brian didn’t come?”
Danny had never met Brian and she never wanted him to either. “Couldn’t get the time off work.”
Danny nodded, smiled at the ground. She sensed that he knew Brian still wasn’t working. She had asked Brian not to come. She did it because he was a good person, not fit to resist the snaky charms of Danny. Two minutes in his company and Brian would be doing him a favor, getting sucked in. That was how Danny roped people in: ask a small favor, give a small favor, lend a bit of money to a needy cousin and then, before they knew what was happening, a perfectly good-living person was driving a car packed with heroin from Fraserburgh. Safe contact was no contact. They arrived at her car, a tired old Honda Brian had bought in a moment of romantic nostalgia for their past, and Morrow fumbled for her keys in her bag.
Behind them, down the hill at the graveside, Crystyl struggled loudly with her grief, and a henchman of Danny’s, dressed in a funereal tracksuit, stood an arm’s length away and handed her a packet of Handy Andies.
“Crystyl’s taking it hard,” said Morrow, allowing herself a dig as she pulled her keys out.
She could see his jaw flex out of the corner of her eye.
“Alex, a woman’s going to phone you. A psychologist. About John.”
Morrow stopped and looked at him. John, not Johnny, not JJ, not Wee John. Sunday name. Serious. “You gave someone my name in connection with John?”
Danny sucked his teeth and looked hard at the granite chips around his feet. John was the son Danny had at fourteen. The mother was eighteen, a sex symbol on the South Side, a trophy for a young thug. Alex remembered hearing about it when she was at school and feeling strangely proud of Danny. She was fourteen herself and someone her age having a baby seemed ludicrously sophisticated. But John’s life had not been a credit to teen parenthood. He grew up fast and brutal.
“Is he having a hard time inside?” she said, trying to care.
“Hmm.” Danny was grinding his jaw so hard he was having trouble speaking.
He looked away and managed to open his mouth. “That thing…with that woman—”
“Fifteen isn’t a woman, Danny.”
He looked straight at her and she saw the hate in his eyes. His breathing was short, fast, as if he’d hit her if he could. “You never fucking stop, do ye?”
She looked at her car key.
“He’s my fucking son. Isn’t that why we both hated him”—he pointed back to the dirty hole in the wet ground—“because he never gave a shit about us? John’s my son and I’m fucking trying.”
The back of his neck flushed pink and Morrow looked away, begging him not to cry. Danny cleared his throat and whispered, “I’m trying.”
Trying to care about a rapist son who carved open the milk-white thighs of a fifteen-year-old girl with a Stanley knife. At a party. That was the part of the story that the newspapers couldn’t get over: that a party was going on outside the door while he did that to her in the parent’s en suite bathroom. A middle-class girl at a private school. A clever girl who drank too much and let bad boys in. They had run the gamut of social panics: teen drinking, gangs, knife crime, teen sex. It felt as if the story would never run out of juice, until John was arrested and all the coverage became prejudicial to his trial.
Danny might be trying to help John but he was the problem too: everyone in the city knew John was guilty because Danny was his father. If Danny had a speck of doubt about John’s guilt then the boys who had named him to the police would be missing. The guilty verdict had been a foregone conclusion.
“Is he going to get help in prison?”
“Why did you tell them to contact me? I’m not going to lie about him, Danny. His previous’ll be listed in the trial papers anyway.”
“It’s not because you’re polis, it’s because you’re family. They want a history, it’s just facts they’re after.”
Morrow tutted as she fitted her key in the driver’s door. “Danny, we’re hardly a family.”
He nodded at that. “But you’re all I’ve got.”
“Can they not talk to his mum?”
Danny shook his head. “Hospital. Nuts.”
“What about his granny? She’s alive, isn’t she?”
“Hmm.” Morrow didn’t say it out loud either: JJ had kicked his granny about and been charged with it. The granny would have even worse things to say about him than Morrow did.
Together they looked down at Crystyl again, still crying as she was led away from the graveside. The smattering of men standing around looked away, embarrassed, thinking perhaps that even dead psychopaths deserved more decorum.
“If I speak to her,” said Danny, “it’s going to end up being all about me. I’m trying to stay away from it all, create a distance, or else he’ll get killed in prison by some wee prick making his bones. It’s too messy. The woman just wants a bit of background.”
“What does she want to talk about?”
“Background about John’s life. Information about his life. Where he lived and who with and that.” Danny swiveled on his heel, facing away from her, his breathing short and hesitant. “I’m not dodging it, Alex. I’m trying to do the right thing. It’s harder for me to ask you for a favor.”
She’d slag Danny off. That was what he wanted, it would help John. But most of the information she could offer would be on his young offenders’ record anyway. They must have done social reports when he was charged with assaulting his gran. She looked down at her hand. The key was in the door, her hand was on the key, all she had to do was turn it, get into the car and leave. “I don’t know all that much about his background—”
“It’s not about treatment, it’s for sentencing—how likely he is to do this again to another lassie. We don’t want him getting out if…”
Morrow paused for a long deep breath. Danny really knew how to work her: save the girls, don’t kill JJ, be better than our dad. He knew where her buttons were and how many times to press them. For a moment it occurred to her that maybe this time their interests were the same, that it was the reasonable thing to do. She considered it until the exotic sense of filial warmth set off an alarm. She hadn’t come out of all of that chaos and joined the police by being reasonable. She hadn’t stayed out of it or married a man as nice as Brian by doing what Danny thought would be best.
She turned the key, opened the door to her own world and put one foot into the car.
“No. I won’t. And Danny, after this…” She opened her hand, repeating the gesture she had at the graveside, letting the golden tassel fall. She dropped into the driving seat and shut the door.
Danny looked at her through the windscreen, for just a moment. Heavy set, shaved head and square shoulders, his style was intended to intimidate. And now he stood there with his small teeth bared in a tight slit of a mouth, his chin down, glaring at her.
She’d never seen that expression on his face before and felt a pang of fear run through her, through the twins in her belly, through her nice old car. Danny broke jaws and slammed car doors on hands. Danny stabbed a man in the face with a bottle. Danny did those things when he felt he was owed or when he wanted something. Alex felt strongly that this was the last time they would speak kindly to one another, and she was aware that the choice to move away had been hers.
Keeping her breathing steady, she started the engine, and drove past him, carefully taking the high path down the far side of the cemetery, glad when the funeral party disappeared from her rearview mirror.
She made it to the gates before her work phone jingled a vulgar cheery tune. It was Bannerman. She pressed a button on the hands-free and his voice crackled into the car:
“Where are you now?”
No hello, no preliminaries, just a bark. She hadn’t spoken to him yet and he already sounded pissed off at her. “Leaving the cemetery.”
“Sir, you need to ask me how it was.”
“Do I?” It wasn’t a challenge, it was a genuine inquiry. Bannerman had been promoted above her and, though the move wasn’t unexpected, it had a surprising effect on him. They had shared an office for months and Morrow knew he was insecure, she’d guessed that from the phony persona he seemed determined to act out, the tousled hair, the sun-kissed cheeks, from his aching need to be popular and appealing. What she hadn’t expected was for the opinion of those beneath him to mean so little so suddenly. He shed all that, was acting for a different audience now. Now he was angry all the time, was heavy handed, harsh and haranguing. The men on their crew loathed him, a fact which he bore with a degree of pride. Even more bizarrely she had suddenly become very popular with the men, possibly on the basis that her surliness was at least sincere.
“Why do I have to ask you?”
“Because it’s good manners to pretend to care about a family funeral.”
“OK: how was your auntie’s funeral?”
“How old was she?”
“Um, quite old. Eighties, I think.”
“Fair enough, then…,” said Bannerman.
“Yeah.” She glanced in the mirror and saw an old lag, hands deep in his pockets, limping up the path behind her. “Suppose so.”
“Well…” He stalled, as if stale platitudes about death were hard to come by. “Great. Anyway, we’ve got a murder in Thorntonhall, if you’re finished there.”
She looked in her rearview mirror and smiled. “I am finished here, sir.”
Thomas sat down on the pebbled beach, waiting, hoping Squeak would know to come here. He should have been here by now. A chill wind came off the long stretch of water ahead of him. Thomas could see sheep on the hills ahead, tiny dirty-white dots on the exposed grass. They’d been for a visit to a farm once, long time ago. The annual day out was to a farming show as well. It was a holdover from a time when most of the boys at the school would be inheriting an estate and cared about sheep. No longer. They were a different crowd now. The talk in the bus on the way back from the farm was all of whether you could actually shag a sheep and how smelly and greasy they were.
The pebbles on the beach were black, not of the soil around here, dumped by a landscaping lorry. He picked one up to chuck it at the rippling water but stopped himself. Kids did that. He wasn’t a kid anymore. He put it down and heard a footstep behind him.
Squeak sat down next to him, a little bit away.
They both had their jackets zipped up to their chins, their hands tucked tight into the pockets. Lunchtime in the big hall followed by free association. Twenty-one minutes and counting before they were missed. They had arrived by different routes, Squeak through the woods because he was coming from the chapel, and Thomas by the cemetery so that if anyone saw them they could say they happened upon each other.
Though they hadn’t been to this bit of beach together for ages, Thomas had known Squeak would find him. They knew each other.
When they both started school at eight they were the only two kids in their year. Most families, most boarders, waited until later. Thomas’s dad had started at six but that was regarded as too young now, damaging. They started at eight and everyone pitied them, knew that either there was trouble at home or their parents didn’t like them. So they grew close to each other, grew into each other, developed a language almost, blinks and looks, names for kids who picked on them and words for why they picked on them. Games with rules no one else understood.
Squeak sighed at the water and Thomas glared at him. They had a lot to talk about but neither could find the starting point. They were each in their own private torrid stream, rolling through resentments against each other, secret worries, and shame, not of what they had done so much as what each thought of the other.
They hadn’t spoken since they got into the car at Thorntonhall, Squeak driving and smoking, Thomas busying himself with wet wipes for the entire two-hour drive. He’d used two whole packets and now smelled like the world’s biggest baby, the sickly perfumed oil stuck to his face, leaking into his eyes, under his nails. His bath day was two days away and the smell of the wipes made him want to vomit, made him think of Nanny Mary, disgust so intense it felt like his gut was rotting.
“There weren’t any kids,” said Squeak.
When they got back after the drive, Squeak had parked in the village. They scaled the school wall and crept through the grounds, coming through the back field, staying away from the trip-lights around the back of the boarding block. Thomas didn’t care if they were caught. He wanted to be caught. But Squeak insisted that they climb in Thomas’s window, left open for the purpose, and they stood in the dark, looking away from each other until Squeak muttered “g’night” and left for his own room.
They had seen each other at breakfast this morning, across the refectory floor. Squeak looked tired, red eyed, spooning porridge into his mouth mechanically, his blank eyes roving around the room, stalling on Thomas’s face, just for a moment, and then moving on.
Now the water lapped softly at the stones. Squeak pulled his tobacco tin out of his pocket and opened it, taking out a small smoke, lighting it and drawing hard. He held his breath, rolled his eyes back with relief and exhaled before offering it across.
Thomas took it, unable to refuse. He faked a draw, holding on to it for long enough, taking in a little but not breathing deep down. He handed it back.
“Not into it?” said Squeak, letting him know he’d noticed.
“Nah.” Thomas leaned back on his elbows, his quick furtive glance at Squeak’s back belying his relaxed posture. Suddenly convinced that Squeak knew he was pretending to be relaxed, he sat up. “You sleep?”
Squeak glanced back over his shoulder, looking down, in a way that seemed despising, or maybe it was just his position. “Not bad.” He looked away and took another draw. A deep draw, like he was stopping himself from saying something, swallowing it down.
Thomas couldn’t stand it anymore and snapped at him, “You got something to say to me?”
Squeak turned slowly. “Me? Have I got something to say to you?”
Blindsided by the strength of his reaction, Thomas flinched. Squeak flicked the spliff into the lake. “What the fuck would I have to say to you? There weren’t any kids.”
Abruptly, Thomas’s eyes brimmed. His chin convulsed into a tight ball and Squeak was in his face, fingernail an inch from his eyeball. “Don’t you fucking cry. You fucking took me there. You said it was her, you said you knew. Don’t you dare fucking cry.”
He let go and sat back, looking furiously over the water.
Thomas whispered, “He told me—”
“Did he say her name? Mention that house?”
He hadn’t. He hadn’t said any name in particular. Thomas got her number from his dad’s desk, tracked down her address from an old text.
Shocked into taking a deep breath, Thomas stopped his crying pang. His chin relaxed and he rubbed the wet off his eyes roughly as he imagined someone walking past the lakeside and seeing them and thinking it was some sort of lovers’ tiff.
A rumor like that would stick to you, follow you for the rest of your life even if you fucked every bitch in Fulham.
He was walking in a London street with his father once, last Christmastime; it was cold and everything had started to go wrong.
His father was being named publicly, on the internet first and then in the papers. They were shopping for gifts and they ran into a man his father knew.
The man was impressive, handsome and fit for a fifty-year-old. He was smug. Thomas remembered him pointing out a sports car and saying it was his Christmas present to himself. But his dad was dismissive of him, condescending. When they walked away his father said that the man had been in the year below him here and once got an inadvertent erection in the showers after rugby. He snickered about it, said they never let him forget it. He was called Stander forever after. Thomas laughed about it because his father said “erection,” and it seemed funny, but when he thought about it afterwards, really considered it, the story scared him. It wasn’t the suggestion of being a homo that frightened him, no one really cared about that, it was the vulnerability, being so raw in front of everyone, a private thing made public. Now he tried to avoid games when he couldn’t have a wank just before it, didn’t want to get that sort of name for himself.
Squeak took another smoke out of his tin and lit it, a cigarette this time, drawing hard, pulling his cheeks in, opening his mouth and letting the smoke curl into a fist outside his mouth before sucking it back in again.
“That’s how you get cancer, throat cancer,” said Thomas, he’d heard it somewhere.
“Letting the smoke linger in your mouth. Cig smokers get lung cancer but cigar smokers get face and throat cancer. Because they do that. My dad told me.”
Squeak looked angry again. “Does he know yet?”
Thomas shook his head. “He wouldn’t call until study anyway. He knows the rules.”
“Didn’t have mobiles when he was here, I suppose.”
“They used to ring the two big black telephones in the back corridor and a passer-by would answer it and then run off to find you, like a mug,” he smiled, knowing he sounded like his father. “Other end of the school sometimes but they’d do it.”
Squeak didn’t care. “Tastes nice, though, when you blow it out and suck it back.”
Thomas smiled, tentatively, sad really but a smile nonetheless. Squeak talked through a mouthful of smoke, “You should smoke. You’d look older if you smoked.”
“Hmm.” It wasn’t a dig. Thomas didn’t care that he looked so young. Squeak was more ashamed of how thin he was and how his ribs stuck out at the bottom. They knew everything about each other. Thomas suddenly realized that it explained why yesterday had thrown them so much. For the first time since they were eight they had surprised each other. Surprised by what had happened.
“Shock and awe,” he pondered aloud.
Squeak had to look at him to see if he was taking the piss or starting something. When he saw it was neither he smiled. “Shock and awe?”
Thomas nodded sadly at the lake. “Was though, wasn’t it? Yesterday.”
Squeak drew on his cig again. When he exhaled he was grinning. “Fucking A.”
All the houses in Thorntonhall were big and lonesome. Even the smaller cottages were nestled in ostentatiously large gardens or had massive extensions hidden at the back. The hedges along the road were groomed into immaculate angles.
The arrangement of the village didn’t make sense to Morrow, looking out of the passenger window. On the outskirts the houses were tall Victorian villas, but towards the center they had seventies flair, angled roofs and big picture windows. She wondered if the center of the village had been bombed in the war.
Her driver took a sharp left down a tree-lined avenue towards the incident address. Away from the main road the houses were even newer, beige brick mansions monkeying the style of the older villas but with double garages, double glazing, double everything.
The avenue forked into two driveways at its end; a brand-new road of yellow chevrons led downhill to a modern ranch-style mansion and the uphill fork was a strip of raw-edged tarmac, leading up to a crumbling gray flint country house.
“I don’t get this place,” she said. “Where’s the shops round here? Why would you build a mansion down the hill from that mess?”
“That’ll be the original estate house,” said the driver, quietly nodding uphill.
“The estate?” Morrow sat forward.
The driver seemed embarrassed suddenly and Morrow had to strain to hear her. “Well, this one, the house we’re going to, it’s the oldest house on the highest position. See how the older houses are further away? All the land would have belonged to this house once. They’ve been selling it off in bits, furthest away, then closer, finally these giant new houses.”
Morrow looked at the gloomy old mansion, saw what the driver meant. She felt a shivering thrill of realization, saw the village grow up in her mind.
“How d’you know that?”
But the driver was reluctant to show her cards. “Just…watch a lot of architecture shows…TV.”
They craned forward as the car pulled up the steep incline, Morrow eager to be there and re-feel the synaptic twang. This was not the original driveway, she thought, trying to add to the driver’s conclusion, because a horse and carriage couldn’t have taken the sharp ascent. It was a new access to the property, built when the real driveway was sold off for the mansion with the chevron road. She looked at the driver for the first time. She was a new recruit but older, thirties maybe, had a just-out-of-uniform formality to her. She was pretty and dark with a fantastically Persian profile. And she was English.
Morrow didn’t press her. At the top of the hill the tarmac gave way to gravel, the car losing pull. They came around the front of the house and saw DC Harris, looking worried, standing next to two squad cars and a big forensics van.
The façade was pleasingly symmetrical and solid, built of gray stone, small windows and a big green front door at the top of a short flight of steps.
“What style is that then?”
The driver glanced up. “Georgian.”
“How can you tell?”
The driver frowned and looked at the house. She knew the answer, Morrow could tell, and she could see where the reluctance to admit it came from. A broad knowledge of architectural forms wasn’t much of a bonus in the canteen, and being a woman, older and English would already set her miles apart from the rest of them. The force was all about belonging, about them and us.
The woman blushed a little. “Um, well, everything’s kind of square and the windows are a giveaway. See the three windows on the first floor?” Morrow looked up, saw three small windows equally spaced along the first floor with sash openings. “That’s typical, but it’s late Georgian.” She pointed to the green front door in a square porch, sitting at the top of six steps. “That’s Georgian. You get doors like that in Bath and Dublin. Did you see the oval rooms at the back?”
“The middle rooms at the back of the house come out in a semicircle. That’s Georgian. That extension there,” she pointed to a block attached at the side, built in the same stone but with long tall windows in a set of three, “that’s neoclassical. That’s later. Victorian.”
Morrow looked at her. She was wearing a suit too expensive for someone of her rank. “Where the hell are you from?”
“Surrey. East Molesey.”
“What are you doing up here?”
“My partner got a job up here and I applied. Late recruit.”
It showed. She wasn’t intimidated by Morrow’s rank, had none of the schoolyard politics about her. “What did you do before?”
“Had my own business, electronics.”
Morrow grunted. They were dangerously close to making pleasant conversation. She wondered if “partner” was code for “lesbian partner” or just a common term in Surrey. She didn’t seem butch but then lesbians didn’t anymore. “They treating you OK?”
She shrugged a shoulder and looked away, blinked. In short no, they weren’t, but she wasn’t letting it get to her and she wasn’t going to tell on them.
Morrow was impressed. “Good for you. Ambitious?”
She looked at Morrow, gave a sharp nod, eyes cautious behind. No one admitted to being ambitious nowadays.
“Good. When you get promoted over their heads they’ll say it’s because you’re female. You’re smart, that’s against you, so’s being a bird and being English and—well, yeah.”
The driver pretended not to understand the unspoken but her mouth twisted in a thwarted smile as she pulled on the handbrake. They sat together and watched Harris walk over to the car. His skin was as Scottish as it was possible to be without actually being tartan: white on the brink of blue. He had small eyes, black hair and a ridiculously small mouth that barely met the width of his nostrils.
“Look,” muttered Morrow, as Harris walked over to the car, “I won’t tell anyone you said that, about being ambitious.”
“Thanks, boss,” she said quickly.
“You’re smart though, so you know, keep close and, um…” Morrow was suddenly aware of how short her time was, how soon she would be irrelevant. She wanted to be helpful but had nothing concrete to offer. “I’ll take your ideas and pass them off as my own.”
She meant it as a stupid joke but the driver thanked her again, their voices overlapping.
They opened the doors and stepped out at the same time. Morrow was relieved Harris was there so they couldn’t speak to each other anymore.
“Aye,” Harris frowned at the driver, “you—on the door-to-doors. Specifically: saw anything? Knew the residents here? And whether they’ve been up recently. We need to know whether anything was stolen. Wilder’ll take you.”
The driver nodded and walked over to DC Wilder lingering by the cars.
“Who is that?” Morrow asked when the woman was out of earshot.
Harris looked. “DC Tamsin Leonard.”
Harris grunted noncommittally. Morrow could have slapped him. Since the last round of pay increases DCs were getting a better wage and overtime for every extra minute over their shift. It was a disastrous decision. The men were making more than the DSs and didn’t need to stay on for days at a time until a case was resolved. Now, fingering someone for a promotion would be a betrayal and the smart ones were hiding among the donkeys. But the disenchantment went deeper than that. Bannerman’s rudeness had made it a point of pride among the men to hide their lights, as if being good at their job was helping Bannerman be a prick. The belligerence was bedding in. Morrow felt that she was watching it harden from a habit into the culture of their team.
She looked up at the roof of the Georgian house, pretending to check the property over, glad of the excuse to arch her back. “Been in?” she asked.
Harris nodded uncomfortably at the ground. “Hmm…”
“What?” she said. “Mess?”
“Bad mess,” he said quietly.
“Last twenty-four hours. Probably yesterday evening.”
Morrow looked up. The roof tiles were clustered, sitting not quite true. Lumps of dead leaves peeked out over the gutters around the roof. Standing in full view at the side of the house, a septic tank slumped on rusting stilts. On the far corner, above a window, a tiny yellow hexagon housed the alarm, but the plastic was sun faded and the blue lettering no longer legible.
“This is one of those worth-a-fortune/cost-a-fortune houses, isn’t it?”
Harris nodded at his notes. “How was your funeral?”
“It wasn’t mine.”
“No, I know—”
“It was my auntie’s.”
She’d had to lie. She’d already said her father died because she couldn’t bring herself to admit that her son had. Not for a long time. Eventually, she admitted that Gerald dying was the cause of her depression, but she’d still pretended her dad died around the same time. They made her sit for session after pointless session with a counselor in the welfare unit. She did her time, knowing nothing would help and all her bosses would ever see was the time sheet. Her father’s death was one lie she wasn’t prepared to admit to. It freed her, broke the link with the infamous McGraths and she felt triumphant, claiming he was dead when he wasn’t. It made her feel as if she had killed him.
“Yeah,” said Harris, “your auntie.”
“It was all right, anyway.”
She looked up again. The house had been dearly beloved of someone at some time: an apple tree in the front garden was overloaded with fruit, unpicked, dropping and rotting in the overgrown lawn. The flower beds had been turned but not replanted.
She found it depressing—it made her think of Danny and John and the frailty of family, how easily, despite all the parts being in place, everything could suddenly turn to shit. “Where’s the cash?”
Harris looked at her, the little “o” of his mouth like an undelivered kiss. “In the kitchen.” He raised his eyebrows. “There’s more than we thought. It’s in euros.”
They smiled up at the house. Five-hundred-euro notes usually meant money laundering, usually meant drugs. It was the highest denomination note available in a dependable currency and needed far less space than hundred-dollar bills. “How much?”
“God, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands?” He grinned. “Wait till you see it.”
“Someone in there with it?”
“Aye, Gobby. He’s glad of the sit down.”
She felt herself warm to the house. “She had the money but she’s not spending it? Is it someone else’s? Maybe she didn’t know it was there.”
Harris shrugged. “Possible, not likely. Wait till you see where it is.”
If it was drug money it could lead them to a team, a big international operation. It could make for a nice tidy case, give them extra clean-up.
“It’s something well organized anyway ’cause it’s not loose cash. It’s got bank bands on.”
“You know this area?”
He shook his head. “Been in and around for an hour or so, haven’t seen a soul in the streets but workmen and gardeners.”
“Ma’am?” Leonard had hurried over from standing with Wilder. “Boss called. Says your phone’s turned off so he called him.” She pointed back at Wilder, standing a hundred yards away holding his work mobile and looking shifty. He had been wise enough not to come over with the news. “Wants to talk to you.”
“Does he now?”
At her shoulder, Harris coughed a wry comment.
Leonard didn’t understand what was going on. “Yes?” she said uncertainly.
“Say you couldn’t find me.” She turned her back abruptly and asked Harris, “So what’s the story?”
“Female, twenty-four years old. Her mother died here recently—”
“That hers…?” She pointed to a steel ramp leaning against the steps to the front door.
“Yeah, mother was in a wheelchair.”
“Carers coming in and out?”
Harris checked his notes. “Round-the-clock care. Found a set of accounts in the living room.”
“God, aye. Makes me want to save up paracetamol for my own mother, looking at that.”
“Maybe the money was for that?”
“You’d keep it in a bank then, wouldn’t you? If it was straight.”
In their peripheral vision, they saw Leonard edge away.
“Check the agency they used, find out who was coming, who had keys and so on.”
They watched Leonard arrive at Wilder’s side and say “I can’t find her” to him. Wilder held the phone out to her. Morrow was glad to see Leonard hold her hands up and back off.
“Shit runs downhill,” observed Harris pleasantly.
Morrow allowed herself a smile. “So, victim’s name?”
“Sarah Erroll.” Harris paled slightly.
“You look ill, Harris.”
“Oh…” He tipped his head up the stairs to the green front door, cringed and glanced down at her stomach. “I dunno…”
Morrow tutted at him. “For God’s sake, don’t start that.”
She looked back at him. Harris was genuinely not sure that she would be all right. It bode ill, she thought; Harris was fairly hardened.
She looked up the steps to the open front door. A white-suited scene-of-crime officer was kneeling inside, examining the lock, but the house yawned black beyond him. “Who found her?”
“Lawyer was expecting her at his office, a meeting about the estate details from her mother’s death. She didn’t arrive so he came here…”
It didn’t sound right. “That was sinister enough to warrant a visit?”
“Very out of character, apparently. She was steady, always where she said she’d be. Important papers. He came to find her and did. He’s still inside.”
They had been there for nearly an hour. Morrow wasn’t just late because of the funeral, she’d had to drive back to the station to dump her car. Officers were not allowed to use their own vehicles on police business, in case they ran someone over or got followed home. “Still here? Get him out. Get him to the station—why’s he still there?”
Harris drew a sharp breath. “Intruders came in around the back. We’re doing forensic there but also trying not to bring him out past the body. He’s kind of trapped.” He cleared his throat. “The men are calling her ‘nice legs.’”
“Something happen to her legs?”
“No—‘shame about the face.’” He hissed a breath in through his teeth. “’S a mess.”
Morrow groaned. It was bad for a victim to have a dehumanizing nickname just one hour after the start of an investigation. It was hard enough as it was to get the men to admit that they cared. There was only one thing worse than a violent death, she thought, and that was a humiliating or funny death. No one gave a shit then and it impacted on the quality of the investigation.
But there must be some pity in it: Harris looked pale, sad, and his eyes searched the gravel as if he’d lost something and it worried him.
Morrow looked away and muttered, “What, is it sexual?”
Harris paused to draw breath and she flinched. She hated sexual murders. They all hated them, not just out of empathy with the victim but because sexual crimes were corrosive, they took them to hideous dark places in their own heads, made them suspicious and fearful, and not always of other people.
“No,” he said, finally, sounding unsure, “not superficially. No sexual assault. She was fine-looking though. Slim…there’s photos. We should think about that as a possible motive, maybe.” Harris took a deep breath and tipped his head sideways to the house, eyebrows raised in a question. “Not joking, it’s bad, boss.”
She was suddenly very angry. “You keep saying that, Harris—yes, you have managed to get that over.”
He smiled at the ground. “OK.”
She slapped his arm hard with the back of her hand. “Talk about a bloody buildup. You should do trailers for the movies.”
As they set off for the steps Morrow was affecting barely contained fury and Harris was smiling, no longer worried for her.
Anger was her trump card, the sole emotion that could sweep sorrow to the curb. Stay angry, stay detached. Everyone was worried about her doing the job because she was pregnant. She could feel herself fading in the eyes of the big bosses, becoming an invisible factor, dying in their eyes. They made ludicrous suggestions that her pregnancy might make her forgetful, emotional, incapable. Actually, the pregnancy had sharpened her mind and brought her into the day. She never wanted it to end. She knew her dread was partly about her son’s sudden death, but she had spent time in the special care unit once, as a cop, when she was sent to guard a newborn awaiting adoption. The mother had tried to stab it through her own stomach and they were afraid she would get out of her room and come for it. While Morrow was there a nurse had told her the statistics about twins. For now she lived moment to moment, enjoying it while she could, savoring the visceral minutiae of this time before, the taste of food, the depth of sleep, the intimate wriggles inside her skin. She had never been more acutely in the present than she was now.
They took the steps up to the house together, watching the ground for traces. The stone was spotted with lichen, the balustrade moss-covered. A rotting cast-iron boot scrape was sunk into the bottom step, lions rearing on either side, their noses and ears eroded to stubs.
The door at the top of the steps was green, heavy, solid, and a forensics guy was kneeling down, taking scrapings from the brass lock. The intruders hadn’t come in this way, but they would have to prove that no other method of entry had been used. A recent home-invasion case had failed because a wily defense had created reasonable doubt by suggesting a possible second entrance by an unknown crew. It came as an order from the top: they had to use their limited resources proving negatives while hairs and fiber traces got blown around hallways.
Harris followed behind her and when, for a moment, she tottered on the doorstep, she felt his palm brush her back. She was only five months gone but she was already enormous. Her center of gravity was shifting every time the twins moved. She smiled back at him and heard him give a little snorting laugh.
The shallow porch inside the door had a black stone floor. A worn oak bench sat on one side beneath a series of coat hooks, empty, apart from one gray woolen jacket on a hanger. It was unusual, chic, with round lapels, a tight waist and a flare at the hips. A red label with gold writing was just visible. On the door jamb a holy water font hung on a string from a nail, the little semicircular sponge inside dried up and yellow.
“Papes?” she said, wondering instantly if the word was offensive.
Harris nodded. “Suppose.”
She shouldn’t have said that. She was sure the word was insulting. “That’s unusual, isn’t it? I thought you couldn’t be a landed toff and a Catholic. They couldn’t inherit land or something…”
Harris shrugged. “Maybe they’re converts.”
Morrow expected to see a line of muddy wellingtons in the porch. Instead, a pair of elegant black velvet high heels were casually discarded on the floor, one upright, one collapsed on its side. They were new: the scarlet sole was barely scratched. Next to them lay a small Samsonite wheelie bag: a molded white plastic oval with a crocodile-skin pattern punched out on it. It was a hand-luggage bag, very new, and clean, with a first-class British Airways luggage tag looped through the handle. She stepped over and looked down at it. Glas Intl from Newark, dated yesterday, in the name of Erroll. It was a very small bag to take to New York.
She pointed to the handle. “It’s hand luggage but she checked it in. What did she do that for?”
“Maybe. She have other bags with her?”
“Not that we can see.”
She pointed at it. “Get that dusted and take it in, I want to see what’s inside. Call US immigration. Her visa entry form will have a note of which hotel she was going to stay in and how long for.”
Harris scribbled in his notebook.
“What have we got on her so far?”
“Not much at all. Next of kin on the passport is her mother, who’s dead. We found her national insurance number but it looks like she’s never worked.”
“Might be right. She could be living on family money?”
“Still pay income tax, wouldn’t you? On interest or something?” Harris looked at the first-class luggage tag. “She had money.”
“Could she have worked abroad? Or be married? Have another name?”
Morrow looked into the dark hall. “The kitchen cash could be her inheritance, hidden for tax reasons.”
“In new five-hundred-euro notes?”
“Aye, right enough.” They were in it now, talking in shorthand, half voicing half thoughts, seeing through the same eyes. She thought again that it was a shame Harris wouldn’t put himself forward for promotion. For him it wasn’t just about the money, it was personal: he loathed Bannerman. She saw Harris flinch when the man’s name came up in his company, and when any routine humiliation was visited by Bannerman on one of the troops they looked to Harris. She was hoping to be out of the department when it came to a head.
Through an inner door the reception hall was imposing but windowless. Two large oak doors led off it; one into a giant empty living room with faded blue silk wallpaper, one to a shabby library. The right-hand wall was punctured with a large flat arch leading to the Victorian extension and the stairs.
The darkness was exacerbated by wood paneling up to waist height and deep chocolate wallpaper flecked with gold. All the light in the room came from the arch. The brown wallpaper on the left of the hall had faded to a striking orange diagonal where the sun hit it: a pale smear of time across the wall.
The black and white tiled floor was pitted and grimy. Like the porch, the hall was curiously devoid of furniture and effects. She could see empty spaces, lighter tiles, darker wallpaper, where furniture had been removed and pictures had been taken down. She pointed at them.
“Burglary?” Harris suggested.
Morrow looked at a six-foot-high square of brighter paper on the wall. A giant dresser had stood there for a long time. “They’d have needed a hell of a big van.”
It caught her eye because it was clumsy: through the opening to the stairwell, lying against the wall, was a red mobile phone. It was a chunky, inelegant handful that lay comfortably on its side. It didn’t match the velvet high heels in the hall.
“What is that? Her mother’s phone?”
“That,” smiled Harris, “is a taser disguised as a phone: 900,000 volts.”
“They left it?”
He shrugged. “They left it or it was hers, we’re not sure. They’re available in the US.” He nodded back to the suitcase. “She went there a lot, nearly once a month according to her passport.”
Morrow was surprised. “The money coming from there?”
“She didn’t seem to be going anywhere else.”
The taser phone could have been left there by the intruder. Traceable objects left at the scene were sometimes hidden, fell under car seats, slid under heavy furniture, dropped down the side of settees but sometimes they were found in full view. Most people scanned a room as they left it, but in the heightened state of awareness after the commission of a crime people sometimes remembered to take their cigarette butts but forgot they’d left their car outside.
She stepped back and looked around the hall again, bringing her eye to the phone afresh. Very visible. It seemed unlikely that they dropped it and didn’t spot it on the way out. All it would take was a backward glance. There was nothing in the hall to lose it behind. “I think it might be hers. Has there been a threat, a recent break-in?”
“I’ll find out.”
She filed it away, aware of the soothing sense of calm that came over her when she spotted an incongruity. She noted them and waited patiently for the meaning to make itself known. This looked complex and distracting, the sort of case she’d mull over in her bath, as she rubbed the baby oil on her belly at night, as she dodged calls from a psychologist assessing her rapist nephew. She warmed at the prospect, as others would in anticipation of a football match, a concert, a drunken night out. It was the promise of utter absorption.
Morrow approached the arch that led into the Victorian extension and a big room so light it was slightly dazzling after the darkness of the reception hall.
The forensic team were still processing the scene; she could see their shadows shifting on the wall, hear the crisp crumple of their paper suits around the corner.
She led Harris towards the body and felt him staying in her blind spot, trying to hide behind her. He was bracing himself for what he knew was coming up.
It was another large, empty room, this time papered in time-yellowed cream, veined with blue, speckled with birds faded to an almost invisible pink. Turning the corner, they saw the edge of a white plastic stairlift chair folded flat against the banister at the bottom of a wide wooden stairwell. It was new, clean and the remote control was perched on the armrest, ready for use.
“Careful…,” muttered Harris behind her.
She was about to turn and reprimand him when she saw the woman’s feet, far apart from one another, toenails painted scarlet. Morrow’s weight shifted half an inch and, confronted with the full sight, she lost her breath. She had expected disgust, had defenses against that, but against sheer, suffocating pity she had nothing.
The woman had come down the stairs, in a hurry, holding the banister maybe. She must have fallen backwards and they killed her where she lay. Her legs had fallen open at the knees, the orchid of her genitals assaulted the eye. The neck was still intact, the rest of the body apparently untouched. It was a nice body. Slim brown legs, slender sun-kissed thighs.
But the worst of it for Morrow was that she had clearly not been positioned like that: her feet were uneven. Sarah Erroll had dropped there, died there and had been left. The killer had not looked at her, thought how to demean her and set her in a way that was undignified. They had left her there carelessly. Her vulnerability was unbearable. Morrow understood the distancing joke about her legs now: it was only a matter of time before the officers came to despise Sarah Erroll, as if she had chosen to be found like this, because the reality of it was too pitiful.
She stepped over, took a breath and tried to look at the injuries but she found herself examining the banister: delicate struts, deep warm wood. SOCOs were taking fibers from the dried pools of blood on the stairs, white-suited, their little boxes of kit, white plastic vanity cases, littering the steps.
Morrow tried again but her eye would not stay where she put it. It skitted off the face to the window high above the stairs, to a painting of a greyhound hung on the wall, to a bloody footprint on the stair next to her.
It was natural, she knew that: the need for order in a face. When injuries were this catastrophic there was nothing to anchor the gaze, no starting point for the human map. It took an act of will to force your eyes over it, a cold determination to orientate yourself.
She remembered a scene-of-crime photograph from a helicopter crash on a hillside on the Western Isles. The front of the chopper had been cut off so the pilot’s body was clear and crisp in the picture when it was projected onto the cinema screen in the dark room in Tulliallan Police College. He was sitting upright, his right hand still resting easily on the throttle. She remembered the confusion she felt looking at that face: red but not bloody, no eyes, no lips but the teeth were there, a strangely shortened nose. She remembered the feeling of disorientation as her eyes slid around the picture until she suddenly saw Munch’s The Scream hanging down at the pilot’s side like a deflated balloon. His face had been sliced off by the rotor blades.
Morrow took a breath and forced herself to look at the red pulp at her feet, made her eyes stay out of respect for the woman, to set an example. The lobe of one of her ears had become detached and nestled under the shoulder, a fleshy comma, speckled pink.
It was easier to look at photographs back at the station, often more effective for finding patterns or traces, but the officers in the hall would see her looking closely at the woman, tell each other and it would set the tone. No nonsense, no hysterics, look straight at it and say what you see.
The effort of looking made her breathing shallow, her heart rate slow and the blood drain from her extremities. She was standing so still that the twins in her belly mistook horror for sleep and performed sinister somersaults around each other.
She was looking at a blunt-trauma split in the skin, feeling the babies dance a slow sensuous ballet in honor of the mess, when the flesh pulsed suddenly and Morrow lurched back, thinking the thing alive.
She looked up. A SOCO ghost stood at the top of the stairs, face obscured, eyes guilty. A door had been opened on the first landing and the light had shifted on the body.
It began as a nervous titter. Someone in the hall laughed and she looked around. Suddenly everyone in the hall was laughing, embarrassed in the circumstance, and the laughter became relief, a normalizing expressing of shock and disgust, puffed out in great hearty gusts, echoing around the hall and snaking up the stairs, punching through the oppressive silence in the old house.
Morrow tutted. “Calm down, for God’s sake. As if you’ve never seen a bit of pudding before.”
Thomas was watching a wasp die on the window ledge when Goering came for him. The sun burned hot through the windows, a shaft of yellow like a pathway to heaven, lying low over the long lawn in front of the old house, burning in through the glass that gravity had warped and two hundred years had tinged yellow. The wasp was struggling to get onto its stomach, antennae writhing, the little comma body contracting, the essential shape of it the trap that killed it.
End of the wasp season.
They all died, it was natural. At this time of year, when the rain set in and their time had come, the wasps found their way into every room at the front of the old mansion house, through rotting window frames, burrowing under stones and through vents, making their way inside to die.
He watched the insect struggle and wondered whether they knew death was coming. Maybe they understood its inevitability and chose not to drown, but to curl up in the dry. Or maybe evolution afforded them the luxury of self-delusion, that they genuinely thought they could escape in here.
He watched the wasp contract like a small child over a tummy ache, curl up tight, still struggling, hoping for a future. Thomas wanted to get up and step over and use a ruler to flip it onto its side, give it another minute or so of delusion, a final sense of triumph before it died. But Beany was invigilating library time, his skinny limbs dangling from his long thin body, making sure their faces were pointed at the page they were supposed to be reading. That’s as much as they could control you. Make you point your face at the front of the chapel, at the book, at the massive angry boy thundering towards you down the rugby pitch. But they couldn’t control what you thought about it. Not unless you told someone else and they reported you.
Beany, thirty-something but still boyish, willowed between the tables in the library. He nodded at favorites, flicked fingers at the inattentive, making them pretend to read the books they had chosen. Library time. It said in the prospectus that it built a lifelong thirst for self-education. Lack of staff. It used up a small portion of the endless study time they had. They only let them watch TV once a week and then it was in a giant hall with a hundred other boys and the TV tuned to such a fucking weak program that no one wanted to see it, X Factor or some shit.
Thomas liked this room. The library was in what would once have been the drawing room of the house. The ceiling was so high that the seven-foot-tall bookcases hardly made it halfway up the walls. Two enormous sash windows looked out over the lawn towards the trickle of a burn and the rolling Perthshire hills. A big vista. He liked to imagine he owned this house, that this was his drawing room, that everyone else would fuck off and he could do the cornicing justice, fix the windows and be alone.
It was pseudo Adams. The cornice plastering had been repainted during the summer, different colors picking out the grapes and leaves. It was just like the estate’s management to get it so wrong: the grapes were green and the leaves coiling around them yellow. Thomas imagined that they’d made a mistake at the beginning, started with the grapes and only realized their mistake when the pot of yellow came out. No one else seemed to have noticed.
The room was quiet, apart from the shuffle and fidget of boys, jumpers being pulled off, discreet sniffs. Pages fiddled with. Beany whispered “stop that” and everyone looked up to see Donald McDonald grinning. He’d been cleaning his nails on the edge of the pages again.
Abruptly, the big black door to the drawing room opened, not quietly, not creepingly careful, anxious not to interrupt, the way the library door was usually opened, but flung open so it bounced on its hinges. Hermann Goering caught the back bounce with the flat of his hand, intimidating the door to a dead stop. He filled the doorway. Everything about Goering was big and square, from his giant rugby shoulders to his oddly geometric head. Adamant black eyes scanned the room, stopping on Thomas.
“Anderson,” he said and stepped back, staring straight at Thomas, ordering him to come.
Thomas stopped breathing. He fumbled his jumper, balling it into his satchel, shoving it in so that the arms hung out like spaghetti over the edge of a pasta pot. He turned to his books but Goering spoke again, louder this time: “Leave it.”
Excerpted from The End of the Wasp Season by Mina, Denise Copyright © 2011 by Mina, Denise. Excerpted by permission.
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