The two figures moved quickly through the lightly falling snow, pausing only to check that they'd arrived at the right building.
"2145. That's it. You ready to be famous, Mattie?"
Matt eyed the front door with trepidation, then took a deep breath. "We all get fifteen minutes, right?"
Ronnie nodded. "Better go in, mate, before the paparazzi arrive. Lucky for us this happened so late. Place'll be a zoo when the word gets out."
They rang the doorbell and were led by a distraught housekeeper up the stairs to a bedroom where they found a physician standing over the corpse of a young girl.
"If I didn't know better, I'd think she was sleeping." Matt's eyes began to look around the room for some indicator of what had happened while Ronnie questioned the physician and housekeeper. It was a typical, albeit well-appointed, teenager's bedroom. Nothing was out of place save the dark brown stain on the rug from an overturned mug of hot chocolate. That would have to be taken into evidence, the carpet tested for residue.
Ronnie joined him. "Housekeeper found her when she came up to check on her before going to bed. Called Dr. Taylor here when the girl didn't respond. He's her physician; says she's had no health problems to speak of. Parents are vacationing in New Zealand for the holidays."
"Housekeeper doesn't think so. No note, says she's a quiet, but happy girl, lots of friends, new boyfriend." Ronnie snapped his notebook shut and walked over to the housekeeper, who was on the phone with the girl's parents. "I think we need to get a forensics team here." She nodded, then wept as she relayed the message to the parents.
Matt stared at the figure on the bed. "Just what you want to come home to at Christmas."
"Poison." Ronnie peered over his glasses at the hastily scribbled note on his pad. "Potassium cyanide, to be exact. Mixed into her evening hot chocolate."
"Suicide?" Natalie sipped her coffee, her brisk step setting the pace for the two detectives flanking her sides. The sooner they got this one sorted out the better; the media frenzy surrounding the fourteen year old heiress's death had really put the pressure on.
"Not sure," Matt offered. "There's no note, and her friends and family say she's been on top of the world."
Natalie raised an eyebrow at the inflection in Matt's voice. "Top of the world?"
Matt's smile was wry as he nodded. "New boyfriend."
"Just don't make it for a suicide, guv." Ronnie took a bite from his pastry. "That's a pretty unusual way for a young girl to choose to die."
Natalie nodded. "The parents?"
"Out of the country on holiday. Should be landing at Heathrow," Ronnie glanced at his watch, "in 20 minutes."
"Servants? Who was watching her?"
Ronnie crumpled the empty wrapper and tossed it into a rubbish bin. "On her own, looks like, although the housekeeper has quarters on the first floor."
"Well, if it's not a suicide, someone had to have access to the house to poison her. Who has keys?"
"According to the housekeeper, her two best friends, her personal trainer, her mum's personal trainer, a stylist, dad's PA," Matt looked over at Ronnie. "Am I missing anyone?"
Ronnie checked his list. "I think that covers it."
Natalie sighed, then looked encouragingly at the two detectives. "Don't let me keep you."
"Ready to start picking apart these phone records? I've got takeaway." James breezed past his stationary colleague, his arms filled with papers and hands carrying a grease-spotted paper bag. He set the items down before turning to see what on the television had so thoroughly captured her attention.
"That poor girl," Alesha whispered. "I can't imagine what she could have done in fourteen years of life to deserve this." She pointed to the screen; for the three days since the discovery of her body, Portia Clarence's entire life history—and the hint of some unsavory photographs—had been fodder for television and paper tabloids alike.
"Poor girl, poor parents," James replied as he handed her the carton of fried rice and a pair of chopsticks. "I can't imagine losing a child, much less having her life under such public scrutiny." He removed the lids from the containers, then took up his own set of utensils. "I've got the records for the Braxton case."
Alesha lowered the volume on the set before joining him at the table. Stacks of financial documents and communication records for their current case, a murder for hire, were momentarily pushed aside in favor of a quick lunch. James could tell that she was preoccupied as she pushed at her food.
"What's the word from our detectives?"
"Matt and Ronnie are starting to think it's a suicide," Alesha sighed. "Turns out the boyfriend broke up with her on Facebook the day before."
James swallowed and took a drink from his soda. "What's Facebook?"
Alesha's eyes grew wide, then she smiled. "Online social space—sort of a cyber water cooler."
James crooked his head toward her. "That seems a bit rough." He shook his head and grabbed the nearest file folder. "I thought the internet was supposed to bring us together."
Alesha nodded as she turned the set off. "Words can hurt no matter where they appear."
"There's got to be some way to charge her." Matt's frustration was clear in his voice as he leaned into the wind that whipped over the bridge. "She might as well have put the poison in her cup." He stared over the edge at the Thames.
"I don't really understand. What happened?" Alesha sipped at the tea to stave off the chill.
"Emily Hart pretended to be a sixteen year old boy and seduced Portia to get back at her for some perceived slight to her daughter, Julia. She did it up proper—photographs, phone calls, sent her flowers—the works. Once Portia trusted the boy enough to send him those pictures of herself, Emily broke off the relationship and then threatened to post the photographs if Portia didn't stop trying to contact her. We think that's what pushed the girl over the edge." Matt stared at the water below. "How can a mother do that to someone's child?"
"I think you're expecting that grown up to act like a grown up." Alesha stood next to him, her shoulder rubbing against his arm as they stared into the river together. "It sounds like she got too swept up in some schoolgirl drama. She should have known better, but there's no indication that she—or anyone—knew how fragile Portia was."
He shook his head. "Fourteen years old, whole life ahead of her." He took a sip of his coffee. "Surely you and James Steel can find a way to stitch her up for this."
Alesha frowned. "I'll talk to James. No promises."
Matt nodded. "Thanks."
George rose from the armchair, a general air of dismissal in his demeanor toward his office visitors. "You have no case, James. I won't have you dragging this office into a public spectacle without a clear cause to do so, and you don't have one. And don't," he shifted his focus to Alesha, who appeared ready to protest, "give me some half-cocked rationale for why we should apply a duty of care in this case." He walked behind his desk and sat down, the vast expanse of wood lending strength to his already formidable position. "Unless you can find a clear and legally compelling reason to charge her, one that will stand up to all measure of public scrutiny, I don't want to hear anything more."
James cast a glance at Alesha, who was staring intently at the grey carpet. "Right." He rose with her, holding the door open as she walked out. As he stepped across the threshold, he turned to face George. "She deserves to be punished."
"And she will be, I've no doubt, but not by the CPS." George put on his glasses and began to go through the files on his desk.
James's eyes lit up at Alesha's suggestion. "Yes," he nodded thoughtfully, "we could make a case for false representation, especially when she—" He stopped short, then started rifling through a stack of papers. "Alesha—the emails Emily sent to Portia about the photographs: what were the dates on those?"
Alesha looked puzzled for a moment, then grinned widely. "Around November 13, I believe." She, too, began searching the files, her eyes gleaming as she pulled out the right folder from the stack. She nudged James with her elbow and opened the file. He read over her shoulder, his own smile widening as the pieces fell into place.
"We've got her."
Alesha finished the last of the wine in her glass. "Sorry we couldn't do more. James tried to get George to prosecute for wrongful death, but we knew that was a long shot. Too little evidence, too high a profile, too high a risk for too little return." She smiled at Matt. "The child pornography solicitation charge was the toughest we could get."
"At least she'll do some time in prison." Matt's lips were set in a tight line as he signaled the bartender to bring another round. "I don't know why this one hit me so hard." He ran his fingers along the smooth ridge of the bar, stopping just short of touching Alesha's hand.
"I do." She covered his hand with hers and squeezed it tightly. "People who are parents should look out for people who are kids." She released his hand and brushed the smooth skin at his jaw. "Even when the kids aren't their own flesh and blood."
She could see the faintest hint of a tear welling in the corner of his eye. As quickly as it surfaced, it was gone, and he was hunched over his pint and watching the news footage on the bar's telly. A reporter recounted the sordid details surrounding the heiress's death as images of her family and friends at the graveside flashed across the screen.