In an over bright, pristine kitchen he tugged the black, woollen cap over his closely cropped hair. The seam didn't sit quite right, and everything needed to be perfect. Frowning, he adjusted it. The tin of shoe polish lay open on the table, shiny and black. He scooped a thick stripe out of the tin and smeared it across his cheeks, wincing at the smell. He stared at his filthy fingertip and his lips twitched, the set of his shoulders only relaxing when he had scrubbed his hands clean, steam from the scalding water billowing into the air.
Once his hands were thoroughly dry he picked up the bag slung over his chair and opened the back door. One foot already outside he paused and turned round. He shook his head. Dropping the bag, he went back to the table, picked up the tin of polish and put the lid back on it, replacing it in a labelled box in the cupboard under the sink. He nodded. Better.
"No, I will not calm down!" The thickset man took the phone from his ear and glared at it as if that could somehow transmit the degree of his displeasure to the voice on the other end.
"No, you listen to me. The report is fabricated from nonsense statistics put about by people with nothing better to do with their time than to create mischief-"
The voice on the phone squeaked in his ear and his round face contorted with anger. He banged on the desk hard enough to shake it, the photograph frame in pride of place slipping. He reached out his hand to catch it before it fell. Outside the glass-walled office his secretary chewed her red hair and put her head down, typing furiously.
"You don't know what you're talking about. And no, I do not wish to make a statement."
"Yes, well, fame does not imply integrity, no matter what you idiots think."
This time the voice spoke for a long time and the man tapped at his keyboard, eyes widening at what he found on his screen.
"Oh, go fuck yourself!" he yelled and slammed the phone down. He smashed his fist against the desk again. This time the photograph fell.
He was so absorbed in what he was doing that he didn't notice her enter the room. She was almost on top of him before he saw her and he quickly tapped at the mouse, hiding what he had been looking at.
She closed her eyes, weary, shaking her head. The briefest expression of guilt passed over his face, blue eyes clouding, but then it relaxed into its natural shape, lips turned up at the corners as if he had a permanent, secret smile. Like the joke was on the world and only he was in on it.
Without a word, she handed him a manila folder. He took it, opened it and glanced over the first page. Then with deliberate care, he closed the folder, turned it around in his hands and tore through it, offering both pieces back to his wife. She pressed her lips together in a thin line, turned and walked out.
He watched her go and then threw the destroyed papers into the air.
James Hathaway stretched his arms across the back of the sofa, unshod feet resting on the coffee table. The room was mostly empty and, while he sat, a broad built man with rosy cheeks and matching rosy nose came in.
"We can move you, too," he said. "But you probably just want to shift your feet."
James grinned and lifted his legs, still crossed at the ankle, as the mover pulled the table out from under him. He dropped his feet. They touched bare floorboard.
She was a silent weeper, fat tears rolling down her heart shaped face. He put out a hand to cover hers, and she twisted her wrist under him, curling her fingers around his. They made an incongruous sight, the young, blonde woman with red-rimmed eyes and delicate bones and the much older black man, neat grey beard and jauntily placed hat. It didn't matter to them, though. They looked at each other with the ease of long-standing love, even as he dried her tears with his handkerchief.
By the untouched coffee cups a phone vibrated, the quiet buzz unheard in the chatter of the street café. The display read, 'Dad'. The woman reached over and pressed the button to reject the call.
Behind the bright red door all was chaos. Boxes were stacked in corners of the hall, trying to keep out of the way. There was a room earmarked for a study-cum-dining room that was a mess of I-don't-know-where-to-put-that and the front room was faring little better. Among the boxes, bookcases rested at haphazard angles as if they were not home yet.
Robbie Lewis sliced through packing tape with a penknife, snapping it closed and tucking it into a pocket. The boxes were all neatly labelled in thick, black marker, so he knew he'd find what he wanted. Sure enough, the photograph was at the top underneath a layer of newspaper. He took it out and brushed imaginary dust from it with his shirtsleeve. A younger version of Robbie stared back at him, arm around his Val, no clue either of them what was to happen.
He tried the mantelpiece first, but shook his head, picking it up again. Then the broad windowsill. That didn't do either. Robbie held the frame in his hand for a long time, tapping it against his finger. Eventually he took a deep breath and climbed upstairs, putting it on his bedside table. It was the best he could do for now.
The barn was comfortably lit and roomy, a workbench stretching along one wall, covered in tools and wood shavings. Butter yellow sunlight filtered in from high windows, drawn to the dust motes spinning in the air. Dressed comfortably in a green hoodie and jeans, Alfie sat hunched over at it, squinting through his spectacles at the round piece of wood in his hand. He picked up a bradawl and rubbed his thumb over the wood grain, placing the tool with care. As he turned his wrist the door slammed and the awl skidded across the surface of the wood, leaving a deep, irreversible scratch.
"For fuck's sake!" he exploded and swivelled around. "Oh," he said. "It's you."
Hathaway strode across the parkland, the SOCOs crouching in the grass in their white suits reminiscent of nothing so much as overfed sheep.
"Baa," he said as he passed one, and grinned against the levelled glare.
The door to the stone barn stood open, and Hathaway slipped inside past the uniformed officer standing on guard, arms folded and obviously bored. Doctor Laura Hobson and Inspector Lewis hovered like crows over the dead body, Hobson doing something medical and intrusive with a long, metal rod.
"Oh, that's just creepy," he said.
Lewis looked up. "You've seen dead bodies before."
"Not that," said Hathaway. "That." He pointed behind Lewis where a series of racks hung from the ceiling, wooden puppets of all shapes and sizes dangling from them by their strings, some painted and dressed, others wood-naked, waiting to be clothed. "Really creepy."
Laura turned her head. "Not a fan of the art of puppetry, Sergeant?"
"Absolutely not. I don't know what's worse, the forced manipulation or the sinister fixed grins. Stuff of nightmares, either way." Hathaway shuddered and redirected his attention. "Who's this then?"
The man's body lay across the floor, bloodstained hands resting on his abdomen. Blood from the small, round wound in his neck had also soaked through the man's hoodie, dyeing it rusty brown. It was even on his jeans. There had been a lot of blood.
"This is Alfie Byerley, late of this parish," intoned Lewis in a manner that made Hathaway think a certain reaction was expected from him.
"Oh? And he is whom exactly?"
Lewis made a semi-disgusted sound. "Come on, lad, you must've heard of Alfie Byerley."
Hathaway shrugged and looked over at Doctor Hobson who raised her eyebrows at him and smiled.
"Now look here, you two. I know you don't follow the football, but everyone knew Alfie Byerley. Famous for changing teams and burning bridges? The Professor, they called him, if they liked him. When they liked him. What they called him when they didn't isn't fit to repeat in present company."
"Oh, don't mind me, sir," Hathaway said, and Doctor Hobson laughed. "What have we got? Apart from murder, obviously?"
"How d'you know it was murder?"
Hathaway indicated the puppets, squinting at them out of the side of his eye. "Well, he was clearly skilled at this whole puppet-making malarkey so I'm thinking accidentally slipping and stabbing himself in the neck is out of the picture."
"Correct." Laura nodded.
Crouching down by the body, Hathaway inspected the wound. It was remarkably clean-edged, almost a perfect circle, but no more than half a centimetre across. "Murder weapon's very small," he said, tipping his head back to look at Lewis. "Got an artery by the looks of things. I imagine if one was contemplating suicide one would choose a means that was certain to succeed on the first go and not one that relied on hitting exactly the right spot. Repeated neck stabbing is not a dignified way to off oneself."
"Not a dignified way to..." Lewis shook his head and did his best to look disapproving. "Levity aside, you're right. What else does that tell us?"
Hathaway stood up and moved over to the workbench, hands behind his back, peering at the tools. "That it was a crime of opportunity? Why bring something that small and potentially non-life-threatening to a premeditated murder? No, probably the killer came in, argued with this Alfie chap, and it all got a bit heated so he-"
"Or she," interrupted Doctor Hobson. "Equal opportunities means the seamier side of things, too."
"Or she," agreed Hathaway, "He or she grabbed whatever was to hand and..." He made a stabbing motion in the air.
"Exactly so." Lewis nodded.
"So who would Alfie Byerley have made angry enough to kill him?"
"I can think of a few million," said Lewis. "Let's see if we can narrow it down, shall we?"
"See?" said Hathaway. "Stabbed with one of his own tools. I told you puppets were creepy."
"The puppets didn't do it, Hathaway."
"You say that," Hathaway said darkly. "But how can you be sure?"
A silent maid answered the door and led Lewis and Hathaway through a grand entrance hall, fire roaring merrily in a vast open fireplace despite the relative warmth of the day, and across the stone-flagged inner hall to a large kitchen. The kitchen was modern and well-equipped, yet managed to remain in keeping with the more historic character of the house. The room would be bright in the mornings when sun streamed through the large windows, but now its trajectory was well past and Rosalind Byerley's face was shadowed as she sat at the small table by the window. Her hands were wrapped around a delicate china cup and she appeared lost in thought.
"So sorry, ma'am," the maid began, and Rosalind raised her head in a series of short jerks. She shook her head and her blonde curls trembled.
"Don't be sorry, Tess, these gentlemen have a job to do. No one is to blame for that."
Lewis thought he may have caught a muttering under Tess's breath about how himself was to blame, much good might it do him, but he couldn't be sure. In the next moment Tess was offering tea and the moment had passed.
"No tea, thank you," said Lewis, and Hathaway demurred also. "Detective Inspector Lewis and Detective Sergeant Hathaway, Mrs Byerley. May I?" He gestured at a chair.
Rosalind nodded. "You can change the linens in the children's rooms, if you would," she told Tess. "I don't know what they mean to do, but it's best to be prepared, isn't it?"
"Yes, ma'am. But if you need anything, you hear?" She cast a hot glance at the two policemen, a mother lion's protective instinct. Lewis noted the grateful smile from Rosalind. Tess retreated, and Rosalind wrapped her hands back around the cup, shoulders hunching.
Lewis sat down opposite her, and Hathaway leaned on the kitchen island, all angles and lines.
"I am sorry," he said. "For your loss and because we have to ask you these questions at such a time."
She sipped her tea and looked at him out of clear, blue eyes. "It's your job, Inspector. And mine also, whether it's difficult or not."
"Thank you, Mrs Byerley." Lewis glanced at Hathaway who slid his notebook out of his suit jacket, flipping it open. "You found your husband, is that right?"
The curls trembled again, the only part of Rosalind that betrayed any emotion. "I did. We had some difficulties earlier today, and I wanted to see if I could induce him to listen to reason." She stopped and pulled her fine grey wrap tighter around herself. "Of course, as soon as I saw him, I knew he was lost to reason forever. There was...there was a lot of blood. I think I worried about my shoes."
Lewis saw Hathaway stiffen in disapproval. "Go on," he encouraged.
"I didn't get closer. If I stayed where I was I could pretend he was sleeping. That he'd spilled the red paint he needs for those awful puppets' mouths." She laughed a little and then pressed her fingertips over her lips, eyes widening. "Oh dear," she said, freeing herself again, "you must think me so terribly callous."
"Shock takes us all different ways," said Hathaway, and she turned round sharply to stare at him, a quiet flush rising to her cheeks, her eyes keen and searching.
"Yes," she said. "I suppose it does." She turned back to Lewis. "I didn't even scream. You would have thought I would. I scream when Tilly brings in her little presents and after seven years of mice, birds and frogs parading through the house you would think I'd be used to it. I'm not." She shuddered. "But I didn't scream for him. I came back here and took off my shoes and called the police."
She took a sip of tea, the cup rattling on the saucer as she set it down. "I don't know why I took off my shoes. There was no blood on them, you see. None at all."
"Can we have a look at them, ma'am?" Hathaway asked.
"Of course." Rosalind stood and crossed to an archway off the kitchen, her bare feet quiet against the slate floor. She disappeared and came back with a pair of low-heeled silver-grey shoes, the grainy shimmer of the material suggesting understated expense. "Here," she said, turning them this way and that. "No blood. I suppose one should be grateful for small mercies."
Hathaway took them from her, frowning.
"Can you tell me about the difficulties?" Lewis asked, distracting Rosalind and causing her to take her seat again. "The ones you were having with your husband."
Rosalind pressed her hands flat against the table. "I gave him divorce papers, he tore them up. I was, you could say, somewhat unhappy about his reaction."
"Unhappy enough to kill him?"
Rosalind's laugh was high and brittle. "No, Inspector. Unhappy enough to wish him dead, perhaps, but only because he would be out of my life sooner and with less fuss. I can't bear fuss."
"It's like blood, isn't it?" said Hathaway in a conversational tone. "Messy and difficult to clean up."
"Mostly noisy, I find," Rosalind said with an echo of a smile. "I had enough of that after years in the stands watching him play. Those are the two things I remember most from those days. The overwhelming wall of noise and the way he played as if the football belonged to him. Was part of him." She shook the memory free. "What a pity earmuffs went out of fashion so quickly back then."
"What was the reason for the divorce, if you don't mind me asking?"
"I do mind." Rosalind sat up straighter as if a steel rod pierced the length of her spine. "I didn't kill my husband, and if you think I was having an affair and my lover might want him dead then you would be so very wrong."
"I wasn't thinking anything," Lewis said mildly.
"Those being the only aspects that could possibly be relevant to Alfie's m...his death, you will forgive me if I ask you to change the subject."
"Of course." Lewis nodded at Hathaway.
"Where were you in the three hours before you found your husband's body, Mrs Byerley?"
"Here. I was supposed to go into town for a hair appointment, but after the...incident this morning, I couldn't face it."
"Did you see anyone? Talk to anyone?"
"Tess a few times, but she had her work to do. It isn't one of Jeff's days. He's our gardener. There's no one else." She curled her fingers tight against her palms.
"And you didn't see anyone unusual?"
"No. You must think I'm terribly unobservant, but I tend to get lost when I read. I barely notice time passing."
"What about security cameras?"
Rosalind gave a helpless shrug. "He didn't believe in them. Thought the government used them to spy and if we had them we'd be no better." She shook her head. "I'm sorry, I can't imagine being less helpful."
"Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to harm your husband, Mrs Byerley? Did he have enemies?"
This time the laugh was hollow. Rosalind clapped her hands together. "Oh, where would I even start? You must know how Alfie went on. There wasn't a single footballer in the league he hadn't offended on a personal level by the time he retired. Most of them forgave him, of course, he was so very charming and so very beautiful, but there were those that couldn't bear it. Couldn't bear that he could turn on them like that. But they're not killers. They have far too much to lose and besides, he's been a long time retired, why wait until now?"
"Let me see. Xan and AJ--our children--hate him and love him in equal measure. They wouldn't kill their father, of course. And then there's Sol."
"Sol Curtees. I suppose you could call him my husband's mentor. They've always had a unique relationship, but I know there have been difficulties lately."
"Sol Curtees the ex-Chelsea player?"
"I remember him," said Lewis. "Fantastic footballer he was, but the abuse he got." He turned to Hathaway. "Would make your blood boil," he said. "Remind me to tell you about it some time, Sergeant."
"I can't wait, sir. My doctor said my blood pressure was too low."
"He's right, Sergeant. We were misfits in that world, the three of us, and we suffered for it. Sol steered Alfie through the worst of it, but the two of us never quite...Well, we were too much the same in some respects." She paused and took another sip of her tea, eyes narrowing in displeasure. "Cold," she said and pushed the cup away from her.
"And then there's Wat Nicholas. The whole business with Alfie severing ties with his company has been all over the broadsheets. You must have seen it."
"Oh!" exclaimed Hathaway. "He's the whistle blower."
Rosalind smiled, a real one this time. "Not exactly. He merely publicised information that was made available to him through other sources. Nicholas is contesting it, naturally, and claiming that Alfie is personally responsible for the difficulties his company is now in, but it was the right thing to do. Children were suffering."
"It did look cut and dried," said Hathaway with an undertone that made Lewis look sharply at him.
"I think," started Rosalind, fading off and pressing her fingertips to her forehead. "I think I would like to lie down now, if that's all right? It feels like there are bees in my head, and I need to be quiet."
"Of course," said Lewis, getting to his feet. He took a business card out of his pocket and laid it on the table. "If you think of anything else I ought to know, please call. Anytime. Do you want me to call Tess for you?"
"No. No noise. I'll do very well on my own." Rosalind rested her hand on Lewis's arm for a brief moment. "Thank you for being kind."
Lewis gave a short nod. "You take care, Mrs Byerley," he said, and followed Hathaway out the way they had come in.
They crunched across the gravel, Hathaway matching his long stride to Lewis's shorter one with the effortlessness of years of practice. Hathaway had already unlocked and opened the door to his car when he looked back at the house. Pale limestone rubble walls and a neat Cotswold slate roof lent it a stately, yet unobtrusive air.
"It's not very footballers' wives," he said.
"What were you expecting?" The locks clunked in Lewis's car as he pressed his remote. "Is there not enough bling for you, then?"
Hathaway stared at him, long and lugubrious. "Never say 'bling' again, sir."
Lewis grinned. "Too hip for an oldster like me?"
"Or 'hip'. It's not that you're too old, exactly. George Clinton, now, he could say 'hip' and he's a good decade older than you. It's just-"
"I'm terminally uncool?"
"I didn't say that, sir," said Hathaway, lips twitching the barest amount. "There are some words that simply don't fit, you know? Let's see. The equivalent would be me telling you to bust our humps back to the puzzle palace to see if we could get a jump on the perp with the juice."
Lewis stared incredulously at Hathaway as he shrugged and lit up a cigarette, taking a long drag and exhaling, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on his boss.
"All right, soft lad, I get your point. Don't do that again, will you? It's unnerving."
Hathaway grinned. "Sir."
"Right," said Lewis, tapping the roof of his car. "Enough of this verbal claptrap. We've got alibis to check out. We'll start with the four names Mrs Byerley gave us and see if that shakes anything loose."
Hathaway blew out a long, considered line of smoke. "What about the movers? I'm not entirely sure I trust them all alone even if we are the long arm of the law."
Lewis drew his eyebrows down. "Hmm. You might be right." He tapped the roof again. "Okay, you get all your stuff in the house. I'll make a start on the interviews."
Hathaway nodded and dropped his cigarette butt on the gravel, grinding it out with his shoe, blowing the last of the smoke down towards his toes. He looked up again as he spoke. "Where do you want me to put the-" But Lewis was already in his car, engine running and not hearing anything Hathaway had to say.
The porter pointed the way and Lewis crossed the quad, climbing a twisty stone staircase and following the corridor along to the end. He knocked on the door. There was no answer. The porter had assured him the young man hadn't left the college grounds, so he couldn't be far away. Lewis knocked again and only as he was taking his knuckles off the door did he notice the doorbell. He should have seen it before--it was new and out of place against the whitewashed stone walls, the wiring hastily plastered over. He looked back along the corridor, scanning the other doors. All the same dark wood set in dark frames, gold numbers painted on them. Not a single doorbell to be seen. He frowned and pressed the button.
There was no sound, so he pressed again. Nothing. Puzzled, he went to press a third time, but the door swung open and a face similar enough to the dead man's to make him catch his breath appeared. The dark-haired boy was tugging at something behind his ear, a long white wire leading from it dangling into nothing.
"You only have to press it once," he said reprovingly. "Unless you're trying to initiate a seizure, in which case carry on and I'll just call the porters."
"Come again?" asked Lewis, entirely wrong-footed. "It's broken, isn't it?"
The boy looked scornful. "No." He leaned out of the doorway and pressed the doorbell. Inside the room a light flashed bright and fast. Lewis could also hear a muffled buzz coming from the far corner of the room, where he could see the boy's bed.
"Oh," he said. "You're-"
"Deaf. Yes. Though I don't suppose it's any of your business. Who are you?"
Lewis held up his badge. "DI Lewis, Oxfordshire Police. Is it okay if I come in, AJ?"
AJ's eyes flashed and he bit his lip. "Yes, I...yeah, you'd better. God, I...Fuck. He's really dead, isn't he?" He stood aside to let Lewis enter.
"Yes, he is," said Lewis, gentle as down. "I'm sorry."
AJ nodded and crossed to his desk, covered in the standard student mess of papers and books. He continued disconnecting the wires from behind his ears and now Lewis was looking for them he could see the tan plastic of hearing aids close against the boy's short hair.
"Sit, I don't know, somewhere," AJ said, gesturing vaguely. "I think that's clean laundry on that chair so you won't catch anything gross if you shift it."
"I'm okay standing, thanks."
"Suit yourself," said AJ and went to sit on the broad window ledge. He stared out into the quad for a long moment and then turned round. "Do you know who killed him?"
"Not yet. We're working on it. I'd like to ask you a few questions, if I may?"
"Shoot," said AJ and then, horrified, "Wait, he wasn't shot was he? Mum didn't say."
"Not shot, no. Where were you between eleven and two today?"
AJ sucked in a long breath and then blew it out, puffing his cheeks. "I had a seminar with Professor Gordon from ten thirty till twelve. I had lunch with the rest of the group until just before one, I think? We were only in the cafeteria, you can check. And then back here to write an essay that's due tomorrow. I had a lecture at four, but Mum...she...so I haven't moved since."
"Don't you want to be at home with your mother?"
"I can't- There's nothing I can do. I don't want to be around it, the police and the tape and the, the, the violation. I've seen CSI, it's all so ugly. I don't want to think of him like that. Mum understands. She'll tell me when it's safe. You probably think I'm crazy now, don't you?" He jutted out his chin.
"I don't. I think you're a boy who's just lost his dad under traumatic circumstances. You're trying to protect yourself; that's smart."
AJ's head drooped again and he looked pathetically grateful and very young. Lewis's hand twitched at his side.
"Tell me about your relationship with your father," he said. "Were you close?"
AJ shook his head, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. "I wasn't what he wanted in a son," he said. "Don't get me wrong, my dad was so smart and he was a big thinker and reader, but his first love was football. I think he thought because of these," he said, indicating his hearing aids, "I would be all about the physical stuff because it would be easier. He was wrong. I'm crap at football. Totally uncoordinated. It's the hearing loss, you see, it affects my balance. He used to make me take all these classes, these experimental treatments that were supposed to fix me. They didn't work, of course. You can't fix what's not broken. I am who I am. I learnt that very early."
"So he pushed you away?"
"You could say that. He pushed me here, at any rate. He said that if it was God's plan to send him a defective son as punishment for all he'd done in his life then he wanted no part of God. So I told him I was studying theology and wanted to go into the church. As rebellions go, it was pretty mild."
AJ buried his head in his knees, his whole body shaking with laughter or with tears, it was impossible for Lewis to tell. Eventually he raised his head, his mouth curved in a smile, but his red-rimmed eyes telling a different story. "I hated him, Inspector. Except for when I loved him. God, now who have I got to rebel against? I might have to start watching football. How will I stand it?" His voice spiralled higher and he scrubbed a hand through his hair, standing it on end.
The air, thick with emotion, was almost too much to wade through, leaving Lewis pondering his next move, when the light flashed and the door opened without waiting. Two girls tumbled into the room all hair and legs, cutting through the atmosphere like a knife.
"Fred, we brought you the notes from- Oh! I'm sorry. We didn't know you were, um, occupied." said the taller of the two, face transforming from open playfulness to pinched worry in a split second.
"Sorry, Freddie," repeated the other girl, her own face not shifting from the calm, placid expression she wore. She cast a friendly look over to Lewis. "Do you want us to go?"
"If you could just give us a few minutes, ladies," Lewis said.
"I was asking Fred," said the girl, a hint of steel under the pleasant tone.
"What he said," AJ replied. "Thanks for the notes. You're lifesavers, you two."
"Fred?" Lewis asked when the door had shut behind them.
AJ shrugged. "I didn't even get my own name," he said. "I had to have his. With the 'junior' tacked on to prove I was always going to be less than he was. Would you want that? I suppose now I can drop the J if I want, but I'm Fred to all my friends. It's who I am when I get to be myself."
Lewis nodded. He was Robbie, Robert, Lewis, Inspector, sir, Dad--sometimes more than one at once. Names mattered. "What was he like, your dad?"
Fred tilted his head and stretched out his legs. "My father was a chameleon."
"What do you mean?"
"He had this incredible talent of being exactly what he thought was needed. Not to us. To us he was always, well, Dad, for better or worse. But out there? When he played for Liverpool it was all fast cars and terrible, terrible hair and playing the fool. He transferred to Everton and everything changed to cropped hair and bovver boots and braces. Hard as nails, training all hours. He even sold most of the cars. Manchester United and he was serious, a fighter--but in the good way--a drinker, always thinking. Back to Liverpool and it was like he'd never left. Only the terrible hair was different terrible hair. It's why they loved him. Part of why they hated him, too. Will the real Alfie Byerley please stand up?"
"Yeah. He knew who he was, but he kept it close. I don't think even Mum saw the whole of him. Sol came closest, probably. You should talk to him if you want to understand Dad better." He swung his legs back over the window ledge, standing up. "I'm sorry, I really have to write this essay."
"Oh, of course," Lewis moved to the door. He paused and then spoke in a rush. "If you don't mind me saying, you're doing very well for a-"
"For a deaf kid?" Fred shook his head, thick eyebrows climbing. "Seriously? Is that kind of thing even allowed in the PC policing climate? My ears don't work like yours, that's all. If you're gripped with the urge for detail you can always ask Mum about it. She has files and files. I think she's even kept the first earmoulds I had when I was two."
Lewis put up his hand in demurral. "I shouldn't have said anything. Sorry."
Fred rolled his eyes, dismissed him with a wave and turned to pick up the wires on his desk.
The van rumbled off down the street and James closed the door, leaning back against it and staring along the hallway. Everything was in, but most definitely not in its place. The stacks of boxes had almost doubled in size, and the only things James knew exactly where to find at the moment were the kettle and his Gibson.
It was, in a word, a mess. James stared at it for a while longer and, when it didn't automatically resolve itself, abandoned it as a lost cause.
The bedroom was richly decorated, deep red walls hung with tapestries and abstract, broad-stroked paintings of female nudes. The wide bed was covered in a rumpled woven coverlet of ivory and gold, and Xan sat at the edge of it, clutching the phone to her ear. She wasn't crying now, but the mascara-tinted stripes streaking down her face were barely dry.
"I'll tell them anything they need to know, of course I will, Sol. I just think that there are some things that are best left unsaid. It could all get so messy and I don't think I could stand the contempt."
At the other end of the line, Sol Curtees sat in a battered leather armchair, a glass of whisky in one hand and the phone in the other. "Hey, honey girl, it's gonna be okay," he said. "It'll work out, you'll see. Whatever it takes, I promise. We'll get through this together."
Xan nodded to herself. "I don't know what I'd do without you."
Sol laughed. "You'd get on fine. But pretend I didn't say that--I don't want you getting curious to find out." He took a sip of whisky. "I love you, girl."
"I love you, too, greybeard. As if I'd ever try."
They hung up. Sol kissed the top of the phone and then shook his head at himself, huffing out a short, sharp breath, forehead wrinkling. He took another sip of whisky and stilled, tears starting to his eyes. "Alfie," he said.
Xan put the phone back on the nightstand and sighed. A hand crept over her shoulder and she leant back into the touch. The hand swept back Xan's hair, exposing her neck, the long fingers' bronze skin a sharp contrast to Xan's paleness. Smooth, dark locks brushed against her arm as a woman pressed her lips against the curve of Xan's neck.
"You okay, my Xan?" the woman asked, punctuating her question with another kiss.
"Always better with you here," Xan replied and let her girlfriend slide her hand over her stomach and tug her back down into bed.
"Pretty swish, this," muttered Lewis to Hathaway as the lift doors opened and they stepped out into the executive offices of Strategos. Frosted glass panel corridors separated the queen bees from the worker drones, but even the usual drabness of cubicle culture was barely in evidence here with dividers made of coloured glass blocks or slender potted trees, even strange metal sculptures.
"Very swish," Hathaway agreed. "But tell me something weird about it, sir."
Lewis looked again. Barely a half of the 'cubicles' were occupied. A dead air hung over the place and no one lifted a head from their work to watch them as they passed. This was a company in trouble.
They passed by the silent workers into a double office at the far end of the floor.
"Wat Nicholas?" Hathaway asked the redheaded woman at the bean-shaped desk. "Johanna," he added, catching sight of the nameplate half-hidden by stacks of folders.
Johanna Wallace smiled at him. "I'm sorry, Mr Nicholas isn't seeing anyone just now."
"He'll see us," said Lewis, showing her his badge.
"I suppose he will," she agreed, looking worried. "I'll buzz you through."
She pressed the intercom, bangles jangling on her wrist.
"Johanna, I-" an irritated voice began, but Johanna cut him off.
"The police are here to speak to you, Mr Nicholas. Shall I send them in?"
There was a short pause. Then the tinny voice continued, "I don't imagine they're giving us any choice, are they? Why don't you get on home?"
"I leave when you leave, you know that," she said, and took her finger off the intercom. "Let's see him argue with that." She looked up at the police officers, measuring them with a shrewd glance. "He's had a bad time, lately. It's not all his fault, no matter what you've heard. Be kind, if you can."
"We're always kind," Hathaway said, and Johanna sat back in her chair, nodding.
"Maybe," she said. "Maybe you are."
Wat Nicholas stood as they entered the room. He was a short man, powerfully built but beginning to sag around the edges, the years of gravity and hard living catching up to him at last, tugging his cheeks and forehead into unsettled lines.
"How can I help?" he asked, leaning over his desk and holding out his hand to be shaken.
Introductions made, he gestured the two detectives to sit, waiting until they were settled before taking his own seat again. Hathaway sniffed, regarding him, and took out his notebook.
"Have you watched the news at all today, sir?" Lewis asked.
Wat frowned, eyebrows beetling together. "No. Should I? I had a bad morning, some unpleasant calls from the press and investors. Bastards, the lot of 'em." He stopped, moving a heavy glass paperweight from one side of his desk to the other. "I presume you know what I've been dealing with?"
Lewis nodded, encouraging him to continue.
"Well, I asked our Johanna to hold all calls. Couldn't abide any more, see? There are some days when the end of the rope isn't just near; it's frayed to flinders. Today was one of those. So, no. No news. Every time I turn it on these days they've got that atrocious photo of me from the Awards for Excellence Dinner when I'd had one or eight too many. Not pleasant for anyone, that."
Hathaway and Lewis exchanged glances, Hathaway smirking slightly. It was hard not to warm to this man who talked about his disastrous life with such a jovial air.
"You seem to be keeping your head in this crisis," Hathaway said.
Wat shrugged. "Plod on," he said. "That's what my dear old Dad always used to say. Of course, he lost both his legs in the war, so grain of salt, maybe."
Hathaway stifled a grin, but Wat caught him at it and beamed. Hathaway couldn't help but allow his grin back out in response. Lewis looked between them, grave.
"Listen, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Mr Nicholas, but this afternoon Alfie Byerley was found dead at his home. He'd been murdered."
"He what? But he..." Smile vanquished in an instant, Wat covered his mouth, shaking his head. He dropped his hand to his desk, picking up a letter opener and fidgeting with it. "He can't be dead. It's Alfie Byerley. He was going to live forever." Wat's dimpled chin quivered and he clenched his jaw tight, the dropped letter opener clattering on the desk as he rooted in a desk drawer, pulling out a glass and a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Lewis and Hathaway exchanged another glance as Wat poured himself a shot and knocked it back.
"Sorry," he said. "It's a shock. A hell of a shock."
"If you'll forgive me," Hathaway said, "shouldn't you be glad he's gone?"
"Why?" Wat poured another shot, knocking that back, too. "Because he can't hurt my company any more? Take a look around you, Sergeant; it's too late for that. Empty chairs and no morale. The stock price chart is like a black run at Gstaad. Does it matter who was in the right and who was in the wrong? No, it does not. We're in the shitter and I don't think I can pull us out whether the stupid sod's alive or dead." He reached out to brush his fingers across the photograph of his wife.
"Don't get me wrong," he continued. "We fell out, there's no denying that, and there's at least a couple of dozen people here who will testify that I've sworn up and down that I'd have the little fucker given half the chance, but..." He capped the bottle. "There was always something about him. He was...compelling. I tried hating him, it didn't take."
"So you forgave him?"
Wat snorted. "Not on your life. I've never been one for that turning the other cheek bollocks. But I am very, very sorry he's dead. In his own way he was a good man. Not the great one he thought he was, but good."
"We estimate time of death to be between eleven and two today," Lewis said. "Can you tell us where you were between those times?"
"Easy enough. I was here all day."
"You didn't leave the office?"
"Well, I stepped out to clear my head for a short while, but other than that, yes. Here all day." Wat picked up the letter opener again, placing it on top of a large pile of unopened post.
"How long is a short while?"
"About the same length as a piece of string?" He stopped and pulled a face. "Sorry. I get flippant in the face of stress. Coping mechanism, the wife calls it. An open invitation for a slap, I say. I don't know. Thirty minutes? An hour? No more."
"Did anyone see you when you were out and about, sir?" Hathaway's pen hovered over his notebook.
"No one I knew, no. Johanna was at lunch when I left. She was back before me, though. She's never gone more than sixty minutes. Very precise, our Jo."
"We like precision, don't we, Hathaway?" said Lewis.
"That we do, sir. That we do."
Johanna looked up as they closed the main office door behind them. "Well, there was no palaver, so I'm going to assume you took the high road. Or he did."
"Did you take your usual lunch hour today, Johanna?" asked Hathaway. "Your boss in there swears by your punctuality. He's obviously proud of you."
Johanna visibly swelled, her freckled face breaking into a broad grin. "Yes, the usual," she said. "I left at twelve oh three today and was back by one oh one. Two minutes to spare."
"And how long after you got back did Mr Nicholas return?"
"No more than five minutes," Johanna said. "No, wait. I had to nip along to Reprographics to chase them up again over the board presentation doobries and sometimes it takes a while to get through to them, you know? They are not the sharpest tools in the shed. So maybe ten? Fifteen? It was just after I got back from Repro. He very kindly let me blither about employing people with literal minds and no hygiene skills and then retreated into his lair. I haven't seen him since. Don't blame him, either."
The phone rang and she held up a finger, holding the detectives in place as she answered it.
"This is the office of Mr Nicholas, how can I help you?"
Lewis shook his head at her. They had what they had come for. Leaving, all they could hear was her voice, sharp and to the point, politely taking the caller apart.
"Wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of 'our Jo'," said Hathaway, sauntering back to the lift bank with his hands in his pockets.
"I liked her," said Lewis. "She reminded me a bit of Laura."
Hathaway pressed the down button and then leant against the wall, looking thoughtful. "I see it," he said, as the lift door pinged open. "Sir, do you-?" he pushed himself off the wall and followed Lewis into the lift.
"Do I what, Hathaway?"
The door slid closed.
Laura put the folder into Lewis's hands. He flicked through it as she talked.
"Nothing much more to report, really. The blow was at a downward angle and that combined with the splatter pattern suggests that the victim was seated when he was attacked. Doesn't give us a lot to go on in terms of height, but if I was having to guess, I'd say you're looking for shorter rather than taller. SOCO have been going through the barn with a fine-toothed comb and they reckon there's a missing bradawl. It would fit as a murder weapon. And such a sharp point wouldn't need as much pressure to pierce the flesh."
"What does that mean?"
"It rules in seven stone weaklings. Have you got any of those?"
"Not so far, but give us time."
Hathaway said, "Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?"
"Eh?" asked Lewis.
"You mean how was his general health apart from the being dead part? Good. Nothing immediately obvious. Not a smoker." She paused, raising her eyebrows at Hathaway. "Fit, healthy, knees starting to go a bit. Nothing you wouldn't expect from someone who ran around a piece of grass for a living."
"In some cultures football is considered an art form, some people tell me," said Hathaway, pursing his lips and indicating Lewis with a jerk of his head.
"Let's never go there, eh?" Laura said, leaning towards him with a conspiratorial air.
"It's a deal."
"Philistines," Lewis muttered. "Now can we solve this murder or what?" He stalked off down the corridor.
Hathaway followed behind, casting a last grin over his shoulder at Laura who wiggled her fingers in insouciant farewell.
Sol Curtees' small, central Oxford flat smelled strongly of garlic and spices. An empty plate lay on the coffee table, only a few remnants of sauce clinging to it. Hathaway looked at Lewis and tapped his stomach with a forlorn air. Lewis gave him the usual 'not now, Sergeant' look and went back to studying the room. It was not at all how he'd expected to find it. What he knew of Sol Curtees was from the football pitch and what he knew of footballers' homes he gleaned from the rubbishy magazines he sometimes found himself forced into looking at whilst trapped in doctors' waiting rooms.
There were no monstrous statues here, or three-inch shag pile carpets. Not even a 50-inch television, which anyone could be forgiven for thinking came as standard with your average top-flight footballer. This place was very different. Books filled almost every available surface so that there was barely any room for the simple furniture--a small sofa, an armchair, a coffee table, a square table under the leaded window and a wicker-backed dining chair that looked like it was on its last legs. It didn't appear as if there was any memorabilia from Sol's career on display at all. No art and no photographs either, and yet the atmosphere was not musty or academic.
"Bet you feel at home here," Lewis said to Hathaway, who was inspecting one of the many sets of shelves.
"Don't you?" Hathaway pulled out a slim paperback volume and inspected it.
Sol came back in carrying a tray of coffee cups and a full cafetière. He put it down on the coffee table, looking over at Hathaway. "Callirhoe. Beautiful people swept up in events beyond their control. Some things never change, right? Have you read Chariton, Detective?"
"Glanced at. I'm not one for overwrought swashbuckling, myself." Hathaway slid the book back in place, taking care not to disturb the surrounding volumes.
Sol smiled and pushed down the plunger on the cafetière, pouring the coffee. "I thought about living an ascetic life, once," he said. "But pirates are too much fun."
"I agree," said Lewis. "Nothing wrong with a peg leg and an eyepatch. Milk, please, no sugar," he added to Sol's raised eyebrow enquiry.
Coffees handed around, Sol settled in his armchair. "You've come to talk about Alfie, haven't you?"
"Yes. I'm sorry for your loss, sir. Mrs Byerley said you were close?"
There was an expectant pause that remained unfilled. Lewis shifted on the cramped settee, his knee glancing against Hathaway's.
"I have to ask where were you between eleven and two today?"
"Here, mostly. I met a friend for coffee this morning and came straight back. I'm writing a book, you see, and my publisher's breathing down my neck. We do this dance every chapter, you think she'd be used to it by now. But no. Deadlines and me? Not exactly the best of friends."
"Can anyone confirm your whereabouts?"
Sol shook his head. "Just me and my laptop, same as always."
"You never married?"
"It never held any appeal for me, Inspector. I don't share my space easily."
Hathaway nodded, and Lewis cast him a shrewd look.
"How was your relationship with the deceased, Mr Curtees?"
Sol rubbed his neat goatee and breathed out heavily. "Strained."
"There are certain things I'm discussing in my book that he disapproved of. And by 'disapproved of' I mean hated. We had a couple of fights. Not knock-down-drag-outs, but the next level up from sparring, whatever that is. No one walked away a winner, if you know what I'm saying?"
"What sort of things did he disapprove of?"
Sol circled his hand in the air. "Stuff from way back. Coals he didn't want raked over. I guess I thought any heat was good heat and he didn't agree."
"I'm going to have to ask you to elaborate, sir."
"You want the whole truth and nothing but, huh? Settle in then, guys, and if you need something stronger than coffee there's a bottle of Scotch behind you."
Hathaway's stomach growled right on cue and Lewis suppressed a smile.
"So, wind the clock back more years than I want to think about. There's a boy, name of Alfie Byerley, and he's playing for the England Under Eighteens against France at Highfield, and he's beautiful. I mean, beautiful. The way he plays, his perfect face, perfect body, perfect control. He's going to be a star. Only the thing is that he's smart. The kind of smart that needs more than tactics and strategies to keep his brain occupied, so he turns down a contract with the team I'm playing for--Arsenal--and goes to university.
"We meet one time, when he waits for me after training, and he's not shoving the usual autograph book in my face and not slinging the more usual insults, either. He says, 'I'm going to be just like you and I want you to teach me how.' I laugh because there's this beautiful white boy with his perfect hair and sweet, sweet smile and his whole life ahead of him, and he wants to be like me? He wants to be called faggot, poof, queerboy just because he prefers broadsheets to Page Three? He wants to have people make monkey noises at him, throw bananas on the pitch? He wants chants and songs about how he takes it up the-? You get me."
Hathaway sat up straighter and Lewis felt the tensing of his arm as they pressed together. He gave Hathaway a sharp look, but the man's face was calm and impassive.
"I say why would you want this, to be spat on, reviled?" Sol said. "He says--and I'll never forget his face--he says, 'they don't know you, but I do.' I can't believe him. It's been so bad so long I can't trust anyone. I send him away. But he writes. He's neck deep in studies and training and still he writes. He tells me about his life, about his dreams and his fears. He asks my advice, he flatters and he charms, and I give in. I do what he wants. I become his guide."
"How do you mean?"
"I teach him the tricks of the dressing room so that when he gets there he won't face what I faced. I show him ways to be himself without bringing the shit raining down on his head. That you can be quick and smart and be the core of yourself, but project an image that means they won't eat you alive."
"AJ said his father was a chameleon," Lewis said.
Sol nodded. "He was, and sometimes, I think, particularly early on, he would lose sight of who he was. I was sorry for that, but the alternative was so much worse and I wanted to protect him from it."
"You loved him," said Hathaway, and it wasn't a question.
"Oh, yes." Sol's smile was instant, broad and warm. "I loved him very much. He was beautiful and charming and talented, of course I fell in love with him."
"And did he return your feelings?"
"God help him, he did. Or he thought he did." Sol's eyes wrinkled with good humour. "Oh, I didn't fuck him, Sergeant, if that's what you're thinking. Nothing ever came of it. I may have loved him, but he was an arrogant little sod. Everyone gave in to him. Everyone. And he threw them all away like old pairs of shoes. My self-respect was hard earned. No way was I going to hand it on a plate to Alfie Byerley, no matter how much my heart may have wanted it. I'm no one's pet."
"He didn't mind the rejection?"
Sol laughed so hard coffee slopped over the sides of his cup. "Alfie had trouble understanding the concept of rejection. You saw him. 'Beauty is a short-lived tyranny', it's true, but in Alfie's case it was lifelong. His beauty tyrannized him as much as it did everyone who fell under his sway. He never could get his head round the idea that there were people who would not take the first available opportunity to be with him."
"But he married young. How does that fit in?"
Sol put his cup down, fished a tissue out of his trouser pocket and dried his fingers. "Ah, Rosalind. That was unexpected. The pregnancy and the marriage."
"So he got her in the family way before they'd signed the register?" Lewis raised his eyebrows.
"He got her pregnant the first time he got her into bed, the prolific sod. They'd been together a few weeks. He did the right thing by her."
"Did he love her?"
"He did, in his own fashion. And she was the perfect wife for him. Beautiful, cultured, elegant." Sol sniffed. "Patient."
"You stayed friends, though, when he married?" Lewis asked.
"No one else understood. We faced the world down together. I think...I think if we'd tried to untangle ourselves then we may have come out of it missing a limb or an organ or two. We were," Sol hesitated, as if to be sure he chose the right word, "important to each other."
"How did Mrs Byerley take to all this?"
"How shocked would you be if I told you we never got on?" Sol shrugged. "Why would we, when he was still trying to persuade me to sleep with him even after they were married? He wasn't always as subtle as he'd've liked to believe. We kept our distance, Rosalind and me. The children I met a few times while they were growing up, but mostly I saw Alfie away from his family. I did give the daughter a summer job the year she turned eighteen. Nice girl. No side."
Hathaway's stomach growled again and Lewis elbowed him in the ribs.
"I can't help it, sir," Hathaway said. "I'm caught up in events beyond my control."
"Which bits were getting into the book, then?" Lewis asked, ignoring his Sergeant.
"All of it. None of it. Some. I write it and I delete it. Write and delete. One minute I think the world has to know everything so it can get the hell over itself and grow the hell up, and the next I think fuck 'em, why give them more mud to sling? They won't see the love story and Alfie knew that. Better than anyone."
"So it's not publish at all costs?"
Sol's lips thinned. "If all costs means killing Alfie to get him out of the way? No. Never." He stood. "Look, I think I'm going to have to ask you to leave now, it's late. Your Sergeant's stomach can vouch for that."
Hathaway nodded in silent agreement.
Rosalind stood at the door to her husband's study, staring at the scattered paper on the floor. The police had asked her not to touch anything and so she hadn't, not even the torn documents that seemed to reprove her by their still presence. She had always been good at doing her duty; she still had all her Girl Guide badges.
Fred appeared next to her, slipping an arm around her shoulders. She leant into him.
"Did you tell them about the letters, Mum?"
Disengaging from his hold, she walked into the room, stepping carefully so as not to disturb anything. She walked to a set of drawers under the window and pulled open the top drawer to reveal piles and piles of rich, cream envelopes all covered in the same handwriting.
"No," she said. "Do you think I should?"
"I think the time for pretending the guy doesn't exist is gone, don't you?"
Rosalind nodded and shut the drawer.
Hathaway crumpled his empty chip paper and tossed it overhand into a bin as they passed.
"Much better," said Hathaway through his final mouthful, shoving his hands in his pockets.
They walked along the dark cobbled street back to the car.
"Was there ever any proof that Sol Curtees was gay, sir?"
Lewis stopped so Hathaway did, too. "No. Nothing. No solid rumours even that I can remember. Mind we're going back a bit now. I was in Sixth Form when he burst onto the scene."
"Oh to have known you so young, sir." Hathaway's smile was fleeting. "So they labelled him based on what? The newspaper he read? Really?"
Lewis pressed his lips together and gave a slow shrug. "It didn't take much. The wrong paper, the fact he'd been to university, the way he dressed. None of it meant anything of course, but to your average football fan..."
"The monkey noises and the bananas, that was all black players. But the gay stuff, that was mostly Sol."
Hathaway's face was a picture of horror. "And I have never been more glad of my lack of interest in football in my life."
Lewis pulled a face in sympathy. "It's better now, if that helps? Not perfect, but better."
"It doesn't really, sir, but thanks for trying." Hathaway started walking again. "What now?"
"Now, the daughter. And then..." Lewis paused as a gaggle of giggling students swarmed around them and faded into the distance. "And then home."
There was a second of silence and then Hathaway, with a hint of incredulity, said, "Right?" Then he looked at Lewis and grinned. "Right."
"You're not Xanthippe Byerley," said Lewis to the young, almond-eyed woman who opened the door.
"What gave it away?" She smiled, close-lipped. "It's too late for salesmen, are you the police?"
"We are, ma'am." Lewis and Hathaway produced their badges." "DI Lewis and DS Hathaway, to be precise. Is Miss Byerley here? We'd like a quick word."
The woman nodded, stepping aside to let them come in. "She's in the kitchen. Go through." She pointed to the closed door at the end of the hall. "But don't be long, hnh? It has been a hard day and I'm running her a bath."
"Got it," said Lewis.
"Bubbles?" asked Hathaway. "Very soothing, bubbles."
Lewis gave him a push in the back. "Get along with you." He shook his head in apology at the woman.
She was halfway up the stairs when he called out, "What's your name, ma'am?"
She stopped, leaning over the banister. "Jamila. Jamila Hanoune," she said, and continued on her way without waiting for a reply.
"Candles," muttered Hathaway, walking down the hallway. "They're good, too. I've heard."
In the kitchen were no hunger-inducing smells of cooking, but a strong odour of bleach. A woman with blonde hair pulled back into a tight ponytail stood at the kitchen counter in pink rubber gloves and a white terry bathrobe at least two sizes too big for her, scrubbing at the surface, her back to them.
Hathaway coughed and she jumped, almost spinning in the air to face them.
"Oh, crap, you scared me," she said. "Who the hell are you and why are you in my kitchen?" Her hair and pale complexion marked her out as her mother's daughter, but the set of her jaw was entirely compliments of Alfie Byerley.
"We're police officers, Miss Byerley." Hathaway pointed to himself, "Detective Sergeant Hathaway," and then jerked a thumb at Lewis, "and that's the boss, Detective Inspector Lewis. Sorry for the fright."
"I would shake, only," Xan held up her gloved hands, dropping the sponge she was holding on the counter.
Lewis nodded. "Does the cleaning help?"
Giving him a sharp look, Xan said, "Yes. For a time. What can I do for you?"
She squeezed her eyes shut. "No more crying," she said. "Not today." She opened them again and took a long breath, exhaling through rounded lips. "What about him?"
"I spoke to AJ earlier--Fred--and he told me he and your father didn't get on. What about the two of you?"
"Oh, sit down. I can't do this standing up. That one's too tall, I'll get a crick in my neck," Xan said, and gestured them to the breakfast bar. Hathaway moved his stool back to break the straight line and slouched.
Xan's mouth quirked. "Nicely done," she said. "Where were we?"
"You were going to tell us about your relationship with your father."
Xan sighed. "If you'd asked me when I was a little girl, I'd've said perfect. He was the best dad. He took me all over, played with me, never minded if I wanted to kick a ball about in the garden or paint his nails, it was all the same to him."
"That doesn't sound like a man your brother would recognise," said Lewis. "Why is that?"
"Well spotted, Inspector. Poor Freddie. I was six when he was born. The first few years were all about why he wasn't doing what he was supposed to with his speech and language and listening and then getting it all sorted out. For me, though, it was mostly business as usual. I suppose I could distract Dad out of the worst of it. And then...I think he got it into his head that Fred would never amount to much, academically, which is just...I don't think he ever really understood, you know? Not because he couldn't, but because he didn't want to listen because it meant admitting he'd produced something less than perfect."
She chewed her lip. "I could be way off. I've put this together from scraps over years. Anyway. Dad pushed Fred to be something he wasn't made to be for whatever reason he had. Me, he left alone. Was it a son thing? Was it a deaf thing? I don't know. But we had different fathers when we were kids, definitely."
"So what changed?" asked Hathaway.
"How do you mean?"
"You said, 'if you'd asked me when I was a little girl', implying your answer has changed. Has it?"
"Oh, yes. He was a cunt." Xan laughed at the pair of shocked faces. "What? You see a short-arsed woman and you think, 'ladylike'? You think words like that should never pass my lips?" She shook her head. "Somebody needs to examine their preconceptions," she said. She chewed her lip again. "Look, I don't use that word lightly. When you're a kid, you think your parents are perfect. I really did. I thought my dad knew everything and could solve everything and that the whole world would be wonderful as long as he was there with me.
She squeezed her eyes tight again and shook her head as if shaking off a memory. "But when that image is shattered." She shuddered. "You can't claw it back, no matter how you try."
"What shattered it?" Lewis asked.
Xan reflected, pulling at the fingers of one glove, snapping the rubber with sharp cracks. "I don't think it was one thing. I grew up. I saw more. The way he treated Fred, Mum, other people he was supposed to care about. You know, he used to make Fred practise standing on one leg for hours at a time. Of course, he couldn't do it, so he'd pick up his leg, wobble and stumble. Over and over again. And each time Dad would just tell him to do it again. He never cried. All he wanted to do was please his dad, so he kept at it. 'I'll get it this time,' he'd say. I cried. I remember one time when Fred was seven that Dad said no dinner until you manage five seconds. Fred ate at ten o'clock. It was a bloody miracle he ate at all. I went to my room and I cried." Xan went to rub her eye with the pink glove, thought better of it and rubbed it on her sleeve instead.
"And the mirror crack'd?" Hathaway said.
"From side to side," she agreed. "Though I don't think the curse ever truly came upon me. I knew he wasn't perfect and there were things about him I couldn't stand on a gut level, but we still had fun. He loved me and I couldn't help loving him, too."
"So how were things with the two of you before he died?"
"They haven't been great for a while." Xan crossed her hands in her lap and chewed her lip again. "He didn't always approve of my lifestyle choices, and I wasn't prepared to change who I was to suit him."
Lewis smiled. "And by 'lifestyle choice,'" he air-quoted the words, "I take it you mean Jamila?"
"Who wouldn't?" asked Xan, with a sudden grin that transformed her face and exposed to Lewis and Hathaway who she was in happier times. "Have you seen her? She's gorgeous."
Lewis pushed out his bottom lip, pretending to consider, and was rewarded with a genuine laugh, startlingly loud. "Go on then," he said. "If you're twisting my arm, I'd have to say yes."
"Ha!" said Xan. She turned and looked expectantly at Hathaway.
"Objectively? Yes. Subjectively, not my type."
"Give over. You don't have a type," said Lewis.
Xan and Lewis looked at each other, confused. Lewis shrugged.
"He went to Cambridge," he offered, as if that were all the explanation needed.
"Oh, I see," said Xan in mock-understanding, drawing out the long vowels. "Poor thing."
Hathaway ignored them loudly. "Just for our records can you tell us where you were between eleven and-" The kitchen door opened and Jamila stood in the doorway.
"Xan, ġaliya, your bath will get cold."
Lewis turned and held up two fingers to her. "Two minutes?"
"Two," she agreed and stayed where she was.
"As I was saying. If you could tell us where you were between eleven and two?"
"Is that when he-?"
Hathaway nodded and Xan scrunched up her face again, relaxing after a long moment.
"Eleven and two, that's easy. I was on a web conference with some clients in France. We were scheduled only to go to one, but there were some technical questions about the launch that got us bogged down. I signed off just after two."
"We'll have to check names." Hathaway's pen was poised over his notebook.
"I can do you better than that. I can give you the video log and save you the trouble. I keep all meetings for live projects because you never know when a client is going to turn around and threaten to withhold payment for not doing something they only think you said you would. Was I born yesterday? I do not think so."
"That would be great." Hathaway flipped his book closed with a satisfied air.
"Hang on a sec, then." Xan slipped off her stool and pulled off the rubber gloves, tossing them in the sink. Her hand tangled briefly with Jamila's as she passed before she disappeared from sight.
"How's she holding up?" Lewis asked Jamila.
Jamila shrugged, leaning her head on the doorframe. "Worse and better than you would think," she said. "It's hard, such a brutal and unexpected death. My family--my community--back home, we have rituals that, I think, ease the pain of passing. Here, there is more chaos. It doesn't surprise me that she can't find her way."
"Rituals can be important," nodded Hathaway, standing and tucking his stool back under the breakfast bar.
"I can't imagine you're too sorry he's gone," Lewis said, "What with him not approving of you."
"Any death before its time is a sad one." Jamila shook her head at him. She let out a private laugh. "Besides, I think he approved of me a little too much, perhaps."
"Oh?" But there was no more time for questions because Xan returned and handed Lewis a memory stick.
"Everything you need is there. Can I have my bath now?"
Lewis tucked the flash drive in his jacket pocket. "Thank you, Miss Byerley. Of course you can. You enjoy the bubbles on Hathaway's behalf, now."
The house was in no better state than James left it.
"So much for the magical moving-fairies," he said.
Robbie draped his jacket over the newel post and rolled up his sleeves. He opened his mouth to speak only to be interrupted before his first word.
"If you say, 'no time like the present', I'm going to have to call myself out to another murder. Fair warning."
"How about 'if I trip over one of these boxes and break my leg, who do you think is going to have to get me upstairs to the loo?'"
James pulled off his jacket and hung it over Robbie's. "Where do you want me to start?"
Robbie grinned. "Let's just order by room first and see what we've got energy left for. Or, more importantly, what you've got energy left for."
James gave him a look.
"What? There have to be some advantages to being an old man."
Something puzzled its way across James's face. He looked like he was about to say something, but then he turned and picked up a box, inspecting it.
"Study," he said, and carried it through.
Some time later, Robbie opened the fridge and retrieved a couple of bottles of beer, handing one to James who was sitting on the counter, socked feet beating a soft rhythm on a cupboard door. Robbie took a swig and then put his bottle down, turning back to unpacking a box full of saucepans.
"What do you think? Cupboard next to the cooker?"
James furrowed his brows, lips pressed together.
"It's not that complex, man. That cupboard or somewhere else?"
"I'm trying to work out if I'm the kind of person that cares where saucepans go or not. It could alter the course of my life. It's not a decision that should be taken lightly."
Robbie stared and then tapped James's leg with the back of his hand, shaking his head. "Sometimes," he said, and left it at that.
James tipped his head back and smiled. "That cupboard will do nicely."
The saucepans found their home, the plates and cups, too. Even the odds and sods found spaces to live in, though James rightly pointed out that they'd forget where they were half the time and end up with three unused replacements.
"I've got a problem with the case, you know," said James, rolling the knife and fork drawer closed.
"Oh, yeah? What's that?"
"I like our suspects. Can we find some other ones?"
"Let's clear these first, shall we? And keep an open mind."
James sniffed. "If we must." He picked up his half-empty beer bottle. "I've asked for the phone records for Byerley and have Hooper running background checks on everyone we've questioned so far. He should-" James stopped dead.
"Should we be talking about this?"
"What? Our case?"
"Yes. It was one thing talking shop when I'd come round to yours after work or at the pub, but it's different now, isn't it?"
Robbie rested his elbows on the counter perpendicular to James. "Is it?"
They stared at each other. James broke first. "What I'm trying to say is that we used to go our separate ways at the end of the night, have space and time to decompress and now all we have are separate bedrooms. Shouldn't we try to keep work away?"
Robbie frowned, thinking. "How many times do I send you home with bedtime reading?"
"And how often do you stay up working or keeping up to date?"
"More than is probably healthy."
"Yeah. Me too."
"Well," Robbie shrugged. "It's complicated, isn't it?"
"Unless you're one of those protowhatsits. Why don't we sleep on it, eh? I'm knackered. Long day tomorrow, most likely."
"Protozoa. Even my young bones are creaking," said James, taking the beer bottles and rinsing them out. "I'll see you for breakfast?"
"Seven sharp," said Robbie. "I'll make the toast."
They hovered on the doorstep, staring at the two cars side by side in the driveway.
"One car? Two cars?" James muttered.
"Red car, blue car," countered Robbie.
"Too early. What?"
Robbie lifted his eyebrows in mild surprise. "You never had Dr. Seuss as a kiddie? That doesn't seem likely. You can be very Seussical." He walked down the steps. "Our Tony loved them."
"Mmm," said James with a noncommittal air. "Back to the here and now?"
"Two cars, I think." Robbie pointed and pressed his remote. "I know it's not very save the planet, but we may well need to split up and I don't want to waste time running back here for the car we left behind."
"Very sound reasoning." James tossed his keys and caught them a couple of times before opening the driver's door. His eyes flicked between Robbie, the house and the two cars as if there was something he wanted to say, but wouldn't.
"What?" Robbie spat out sharper than perhaps he'd meant.
"I was thinking two steps ahead, that's all. You know me; once a chess player..."
Robbie tensed. "Well, don't. Unless it's about who killed Alfie Byerley, in which case have at it."
The smile on James's face was dangerous if you knew how to read it right and Robbie had had years of practice.
"Right," Robbie said. "Last one to the station gets to explain to our favourite custody sergeant what happened to his World's Best Dad mug. I hear he's only boxing three times a week now."
James's face relaxed. "You're on."
Xan knelt in front of the toilet bowl, arms resting on it, head bowed. Jamila sat on the bath behind her, stroking her head and holding her hair out of the way.
Xan spat and lifted her head, staring with bloodshot eyes into nothing. "Why isn't he here?" she wailed. "He should be here. Bastard. Bastard. This isn't fair."
"I know, ġaliya, I know," soothed Jamila.
Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent was not looking quite as put together as usual when she wandered into Lewis and Hathaway's office. There were poorly concealed black rings under her eyes and a few strands had escaped her customarily perfectly coiffed hair.
"Late night, ma'am?" asked Lewis, drawing an arrow with a question mark at the end from the picture of the victim on the murder board.
"Not one of my choosing. My husband is, apparently, Alfie Byerley's biggest fan. I spent last night watching him rail against the injustice of it all and listening to unedited highlights of Byerley's career, life and times. The only reason I'm not extremely well rested is that he was very loud. And occasionally I needed to duck an over-excited arm. I wanted to sleep through it, believe me. Can we solve this quickly? Some sort of closure may make things better for Mr Innocent."
"I'm sorry for his loss, ma'am," said Robbie with a small smile. "We're doing our best."
"And what is that? Where are we with all of this?"
Hathaway pushed himself off the desk he was leaning on and positioned himself by the murder board. "Not terribly far, I'm afraid," he said. "It turns out that your husband's beloved Alfie Byerley was not exactly the image he projected. Of the five suspects we started with only one--the daughter--has a solid alibi. The others all had means and motive. We're digging deeper."
"I think a trip back to the family home. We need to get a look at his computer and his papers. See if he's been keeping secrets. And that Sol Curtees character..."
"What about him, Robbie?"
Lewis sucked in a breath through his teeth. "I don't exactly know, ma'am. There was something. Not bad. I couldn't quite put my finger on him, you know? I thought I had him worked out, but he slipped away."
"Like a ball of mercury," said Hathaway.
"Yes, li- Hang on a minute," said Lewis as his pocket began to ring. He pulled out his mobile. "Lewis...Hello, Mrs Byerley, what can I do for-" He listened, nodding at no one in particular. "Of course, we'll be straight round." He hung up and looked over at Hathaway. "To the family home," he said. "Nice when plans align, isn't it?"
"What did she want?" asked Innocent.
"She has something we need to see."
"Intriguing. Let's hope it leads to the break you need. For my beauty sleep if nothing else." She turned and walked out. "No cracks, James, I will hear them even if you don't think I will."
Hathaway grinned and grabbed his jacket. "One car or two, sir?"
Hathaway tapped away at the computer keyboard, Fred hovering over his shoulder suggesting passwords and folders to check. Across the other side of the study, Lewis stood with Rosalind, fistfuls of letters in his hands.
Lewis scanned through the letters, the scrape of papers against each other sharp in the air. They were all very similar: obsessive attention to details of Byerley's everyday life, declarations of undying love and admiration, vague references to 'the glory days' and plaintive questions and comments about Byerley's family, as if the author felt he should be allowed into the fold. Every letter was signed, 'Your loving Paul'. Except there were one or two of the most recent letters where the tone slipped into darker territory.
"Better dead than a nothing?" Lewis said.
"I think...I think he's talking about Alfie's choice to stay out of the spotlight for the last few years. He couldn't know about all the invitations and requests that were still pouring in. Alfie turned most of them down. Neither of us wanted..."
"Fewer opportunities to view the beloved," said Hathaway. "A stalker's lot is not a happy one."
"Why didn't you tell us before?"
Rosalind twisted a curl around her finger. "I'm sorry, Inspector, it honestly didn't occur to me until AJ suggested it might be something you'd want to know about. I met him once, by accident, when I was walking in our bluebell woods. Last spring, I think it was. He was horrified and very apologetic. He seemed harmless enough. Alfie never minded him."
Fred lifted his head. "He used to call him My Premier Stalker. I think he was pleased someone still cared."
"Lots of people still cared," reproved Rosalind.
Fred snorted and Hathaway took out his handkerchief and wiped the monitor.
"Where does he live, this 'loving Paul'?"
"I don't know, but I can guarantee where you'll find him."
"And where's that?"
"He'll be at the funeral home. I doubt he'll leave my husband's side until he's safely in the ground. Not even then, perhaps."
"Maybe he'll pine away like Greyfriars Bobby," said Hathaway from behind the computer screen. "Who will bring him sandwiches? That's what I want to know."
Lewis tutted. "Have you got anything useful?"
"Not yet. It doesn't look like there's a lot going on here. A half-finished novel about--you're going to be shocked--a puppeteer ex-footballer. Many, many photos of himself looking handsome in various poses. Things to do with the puppet-making, household expense spreadsheets, that kind of thing. Nothing unusual."
"Right. We'll go through financials and phone records with a fine-toothed comb when we're done with this Paul fella. DC Bhatia's at a loose end now that the Relf case collapsed. Get her to come up and finish off here. We need to go and stalk a stalker."
Settle's Funeral Home was set in an acre of parkland, a modern building built to look old with an echoing, marble-floored entrance hall and a broad, shallow-stepped staircase sweeping up to the first floor. It hovered politely on the verge of tasteless without ever tipping over.
"Funeral homes," muttered Hathaway. "Your loss is our gain. Ugh."
"Bit unusual this, isn't it?" Lewis mused.
"You'd think Mrs Byerley would've gone with something...I don't know..."
Hathaway leaned in close and murmured in Lewis's ear. "Perhaps it's her final revenge."
Lewis transmuted his smile of amusement into one of greeting as a man in a dark suit walked towards them, matching dark hair slicked into sleek obedience. When he stopped, he clasped his hands together and his face assumed an expression of sympathy so practised it could have been made of plastic.
He tipped his head slightly and said in a voice as smooth as treacle, "Good morning, gentlemen. I am Joseph Settle. How may I be of assistance today?"
Lewis discreetly flashed his badge. "We're here on official business, Mr Settle. We're looking for Alfie Byerley's viewing room."
Joseph Settle pursed his lips, eyes lighting with interest. "Of course, sirs. If you'll follow me?" Catching Hathaway's eyes wandering towards the staircase, he added. "Offices and the family suite, sir. We live 'above the shop' as t'were. Macabre to some, convenient to us, sir. This way."
They followed Joseph Settle through a door and along a long corridor.
"Mr Byerley has our largest room, sirs. As befits his status. And if you'd like to look in on the deceased, my sister, Belinda, has done a beautiful job with him. Not that it took much. That bone structure, sirs. Proof that God exists, if proof were needed."
He opened the door to a large room filled with chairs, at one end of which stood a coffin on a plinth, lid raised. There were tables set along two sides of the room that were jammed with bouquets and other floral displays. Flowers even covered some of the chairs. No wonder Byerley had needed the space, even if the flora did appear to be his only visitors. At first glance it looked like the room was unoccupied. Lewis and Hathaway dismissed Joseph Settle and went further in.
"Careful," said Lewis. "He could be hiding in the lilies."
"Which ones, sir?"
"All of them."
There was the smallest sound behind them and they whipped round to see a skinny man with close-cropped hair and ratlike features standing behind the door. He stared at them like a rabbit caught in headlights, nose practically twitching with nervous energy.
"Police," Lewis said, and he and Hathaway showed their badges in unison.
The man's eyes widened even more and he unfroze, making a bolt for it.
"Why do they always do that?" asked Hathaway, already running after him, dodging through the chairs.
Lewis ran, too. He could see the man halfway down the corridor, Hathaway closing on him. "You are making me run in a funeral home!" Lewis shouted. "This is not on!"
It was the door to the entrance hall that was his undoing. The Settles' insistence on all things stately meant that it was heavy and opened slowly whether you liked it or not. Hathaway grabbed the man by the collar of his donkey jacket before he could put a foot through the doorway.
"I only ever want to talk," said Hathaway, hauling him round and setting him on his feet. "Why do they always run? Is it the way I smell?"
The man screwed up his face in incomprehension.
Hathaway sighed as Lewis jogged up to them. "You're the only one who gets my humour, sir," he said.
"That's because you came with a manual. I always read the manual." Lewis turned his attention to the man. "What's your name?"
The man hesitated, eyes flickering from side to side, nostrils flaring.
"Your real name," said Lewis. "If you're going to make one up, at least be subtle about it."
"Paul," sniffed the man, dragging his sleeve across his nose. "Paul Tark. And I didn't do it."
"So, Paul Tark, do you think running from the police is the sign of an innocent man? And what exactly is it that you didn't do?"
"Whatever you're trying to fit me up for. I didn't. I was just...I was just keeping him company, that's all."
"We don't fit people up any more, do we, Hathaway?"
Hathaway looked Tark up and down. "Only if we really, really don't like them, sir."
Tark slumped against the wall as if his strings had been cut. He held out his hands. "Then you'd better take me in. I know when I'm beat."
Lewis and Hathaway exchanged looks. "The paperwork, sir."
"The extra fuel costs."
"Perhaps we should question him first."
"Perhaps we should."
"That suit you, Mr Tark?"
Tark, who had been following the conversation with his eyes, nodded.
Hathaway opened the door. "Generally, I'd say, 'after you,'" he said.
"He's chivalrous like that," Lewis agreed.
"But I'm afraid I'm going to have to make an exception. I've done my exercise for today."
"I won't run. Cross my heart."
Lewis touched Tark's elbow and they followed Hathaway through into the entrance hall.
Joseph Settle was attempting to look busy rearranging a large vase of flowers set to the side of the staircase.
"Ah, Mr Settle, just the man. Have you got somewhere we can take Mr Tark here for a little chat? Don't want to put off the...visitors."
"Of course, sir. Right this way, sir."
Settle took them upstairs and showed them into a small room with three easy chairs and a low table on which stood a box of tissues. The décor was far more subtle and subdued than anything else they had seen in the funeral home, imbuing the room with a calm atmosphere. A gentle scent of lavender hung in the air.
"This is our relaxation room," said Settle. "Sometimes clients find it difficult. Death, you know, it takes everyone in different ways. We like to have a less formal space where they can feel more comfortable."
"Very admirable," said Lewis, directing Tark to the chair farthest from the door.
"If there's anything else, sirs?"
"We'll call." Hathaway ushered Settle away from the threshold, closing the door behind him. He leaned on the back of the unoccupied chair. "Right," he said. "Now where were we?"
"You were gonna invade my civil liberties," said Tark, chin quivering with defiance, but eyes black with fear.
"Oh, yes, we're good at that," agreed Hathaway, mild as milk. "You're a very dedicated stalker, aren't you, Paul? Where exactly does it tell you to stop in your stalker's handbook? When the first handful of soil is thrown on the coffin? When you can be sure the worms have taken every last strip of flesh from his bones?"
"Don't!" Tark banged against his forehead with rigid fingertips. "I can't expect you to understand, but don't."
Silent communication passed between the two police officers. Lewis took over.
"You loved him, didn't you?" he said, accentuating his natural lilt.
Tark stopped banging, but kept the fingers pressed to his head. "Yes," he said.
"And you're only here to pay your respects and to make sure he stays safe."
"I didn't have no suit. I have got a lot of black clothes, though. I wore the best ones. He deserved that much."
"Was it the first time he played for Liverpool that you realised how special he was, or the second? I'm assuming...because of your accent..."
"The first. The first ball he ever kicked for the 'pool, I saw it. Me dad had me on his shoulders and he showed me Alfie and he said, 'watch him, son, he's gonna be a star,' and I did and he was. My star."
"Must have broken your heart when he left for Everton."
Tark dropped his hands and raised his head, shaking it. "No. He had to do what was best for him, didn't he? I mean, that's what people do, they leave and if you're lucky--if you're really, really good--they come back. And he did. And I knew then that he would always be there for me." Tark dug into his eyes with the heels of his hands. "And he was. Until yesterday. Now, I..."
"What about your dad?" asked Hathaway.
"Did he come back?"
Tark bridled, all sharp corners and angles. "I never...he never..." He slumped. "No."
Tark's mouth dropped open and his brow furrowed, as if trying to puzzle out what Hathaway could possibly mean. "Thanks," he said with an uncertain tip of his voice.
"To go back to yesterday," said Lewis. "Can you tell us where you were between eleven and two?"
Tark shook his head so violently that the chair creaked. "I can't, I can't."
"Was it somewhere you shouldn't have been?"
"Even if I can't see him, I know he's there, you get me?"
"Not really, no."
"It isn't always...I don't want to disturb anyone, see? It doesn't have to be...I just want to be near."
"So you were trespassing?"
Tark nodded, mute.
Tark shook his head again, lips pressed tight together.
"Come on, Paul, you're not helping yourself here."
"But I am helping her," said Tark and immediately clamped both his hands over his mouth, face tight with horror.
"Who?" Hathaway slammed the top of the chair with a flat palm and Tark jumped. "Who are you helping?"
A muffled keening bled through the cracks and crevices of Tark's self-inflicted gag and he began to rock backwards and forwards.
"Tell us. I promise that's the best way for everyone. Because we will find out. We are very good at our jobs. Very."
Tark's nostrils flared as he sucked in sharp breaths. He dropped his hands, taking a tissue from the box and beginning to shred it. "In the bluebell woods--Alfie's bluebell woods--there's a hut. More of a shack, really. The roof leaks and window's half smashed and it leans a bit more every time the wind blows hard. But it's...any port in a storm, you know? No one goes there, not even the kids, not for years. Just me. I tidy up. I never leave a mess. Only the spiders know I was ever there. But sometimes she leaves me things." He stopped, shaping the tissue shreddings into a pyramid and reaching for another tissue.
"When we had all that snow last winter, she left me one of them silver blankets, the emergency ones? And sometimes there's food or something to read. A puzzle book once. She's a kind lady."
"Who is, Paul?"
Tark gnawed on his bottom lip, looking more like a rat than ever. He looked up at Lewis. "Rosalind Byerley."
Lewis's eyes widened with shock. "How do you know?"
"Saw her do it once, didn't I? 'sides, she's the only other person comes in those woods."
"And how do you know she wasn't leaving things for her future visits? How do you know you weren't stealing from the 'kind lady'?"
"The first time ever it was a handful of strawberries. She grows them, yeah? And they were wrapped in one of my letters. She was telling me it was okay."
"Was this before or after you met her?"
Tark tipped his head to one side, eyes narrowing. "Told you about that, did she? I tried to explain, but I'm not good with...but she seemed to get it. She didn't call you lot or anything or scream or run away. She heard me out. I ran off, though--wasn't waiting for her to change her mind. And then, a couple of weeks later, the strawberries. It was like..." Tark scooped up the shredded tissue and opened his hand, rubbing it through his fingers. It fell to the floor like blossom from a tree.
"It was like permission. Like I was wanted."
"And you'd never been wanted before, had you, Paul?"
Tark jiggled his leg and looked down, wetting his lips.
"Did she make you rethink your affections?"
Tark shook his head.
"Did she make you want her instead?"
"Did you start to think that maybe instead of watching Alfie, you could be him?"
Tark's leg jiggled faster now and his head shook more violently.
"Did you kill Alfie Byerley so you could be with his wife?"
"No!" exploded Tark. "I would never. I would never. I would never. I would...She was kind. I didn't want...I've never wanted...it's not how I...I would never kill him for her. Not even after...No!"
Lewis took out a letter from his pocket and unfolded it with deliberate care, placing it on the table in front of Tark. He tapped his finger over the line where Tark had written that it was better to be dead than a nothing. Tark recoiled from it, curling in on himself like a woodlouse at a simple touch, and then burst into tears.
"Well, that went well," said Hathaway to Lewis. "Station?"
In a cheerfully bright kitchen, a woman in bunny slippers and a burgundy velour leisure suit stared at a tabloid splash about Alfie Byerley's murder. She rubbed a thumb over his picture, sighed, and then rolled up the paper and stuffed it in the bin, the lid clacking as it swung wildly to and fro.
She looked out of the window into the small back garden. All she could see of the boy was his bottom sticking in the air as he did something in the flowerbed that involved his head being under a bush.
"What on earth," she muttered. She crossed to the back door, pulling it open.
"Leave the poor bush alone, love," she called. "While it still has some leaves on at any rate. It's nearly lunchtime. Come on in. You'll need a good scrub."
"My arm's tired," complained Tark, waggling it where it hung handcuffed to the Jesus handle.
"So are mine," said Hathaway. He looked over at Lewis. "I think it was that last box of books."
"Not my fault," said Lewis, keeping his eyes on the road. "You're the reader."
Hathaway stretched his legs out in the footwell and rolled his head to face Lewis. "What should we do for dinner tonight?"
Tark sat up straight, Hathaway catching his sharp, interested expression in the mirror. "Wait. Are you two, like, together?"
Now Lewis did take his eyes off the road, looking at Hathaway with something that hovered between amusement and alarm. If he'd been expecting Hathaway's usual stonewall of a face, then this time he would have been mistaken. A hint of mischief played around Hathaway's eyes, though his mouth was settled in the same downturned curve it always took at rest.
"Not exactly," Hathaway said, not taking his eyes off Lewis.
"'Not exactly'? What does that mean, 'not exactly'?'
"It means none of your business."
"You know," muttered Lewis, "this is probably something we need to have a chat about."
"Telling...things. Or what comes up. You know. In general conversation. That sort of..."
"It's not like it's a secret, though, is it? HR know because of payroll and addresses."
"But that could be...I don't know. Sharing. Housemates. Whatever that's called these days."
"Isn't that true on some level?"
Lewis's knuckles whitened on the wheel. "You know that's not...I can't have this conversation now, Jim. But you know, don't you?"
He sounded worried and Hathaway pulled an apologetic face. "Of course I do," he said. "And I think, generally, that people can infer whatever they like. We shouldn't have to say or not say anything."
Tark lunged forward, sticking his face as far between the front seats as it would go. "You wanna know what I think?"
"Not really, no," said Hathaway, pushing him back.
"I think that it doesn't matter what shape a family is." He threw himself back against the seat. "I just wish I had one."
They stood silently, shoulder to shoulder, looking through the observation window into the interview room. Tark had taken off his jacket and hung it over the back of his chair. He was stretched out in almost a perfect diagonal, feet under the table and head tipped back, his back a hypotenuse. It looked horribly uncomfortable.
Lewis sipped at his coffee, reminiscent of dirty dishwater not just in taste, but in the vague sensation of grease that remained no matter how often the company swore they cleaned out the machine. He pulled a face. "It's too neat," he said.
Hathaway hummed his agreement.
"Neat can be good," said Chief Superintendent Innocent from behind them. "In fact, the CPS love neat, it's one of their favourite things, next to a guilty plea and a nice slice of Battenberg."
"Unfortunately for them and us, most murders don't come wrapped in cheery paper with a pretty bow on top, ma'am," said Hathaway.
"Thank you, James, I am aware of that. I'm just saying don't overlook neat. Not everything is a trick question. I know that boggles your erudite mind, but so it is. Sometimes a pipe is merely a pipe."
"He doesn't seem the murdering type, ma'am," Lewis interjected before Hathaway could reply. "He lacks gumption."
Innocent sighed. "Find out for sure then, Robbie. And then catch the actual murderer soon, would you? The press interest is horrendous. I'm holding off on a press conference because a witness appeal isn't likely to provide us with anything new given the circumstances, but I may have to capitulate if we don't get somewhere soon. And it will be ghastly. You thought there was a media circus with Nicky Turnbull. Compared to what's coming, you'll look back on that as a pleasant stroll in the University Park, believe me."
"I'm legitimately terrified," said Lewis, deadpan. "And we're going as fast as we can."
"Yes, well. Go faster," said Innocent, turning on her heel and leaving.
"More haste, less speed," muttered Hathaway.
"Too many cooks spoil the broth," Lewis replied, jerking his thumb towards Innocent's retreating back.
"There's no time like the present."
"Strike while the iron is hot."
"A watched pot never boils."
"Suppose I'd better get in there, then."
"I suppose so."
"Let's recap," said Lewis. "You spent the morning in the bluebell woods."
"Writing letters, yep," Tark said. He was slumped forward, chin resting on fisted hands on the table.
"And you scarpered when you-"
"Heard the sirens. I thought they were coming for me."
"And you found out Byerley was dead-"
"When I heard it on the radio." Tark tipped his head back to look up at Lewis. "We've been through this. Can I go now?"
"Why? Have you got somewhere to be?"
Tark's head drooped forward again. "No."
"So you might as well stay here and chat with me."
"I've told you everything already."
'Have you? What about the death threats?"
"They weren't death threats. They were warnings."
"Warnings about what?"
Tark shook his head. "You won't get it."
"Try me. I'm smarter than I look."
Tark narrowed his eyes and then seemed to come to a decision. "The world, it moves so fast these days. You don't jump up and down reminding it you exist, it forgets about you so quick you have to wonder if you were ever there at all. Alfie was a superstar, so he had more time. Grace time. But it was fading, all of it. There was going to be nothing left. He just...he stopped. I know the whole managing thing didn't go as well as he wanted with the...but there were other things he could've done. Why have Gary Lineker when you could have Alfie Byerley coming to you live every week of football season? No contest. They would've had him, too, but he..." Tark shook his head again, sighing. "Fading. It wasn't right."
"And you didn't want your wagon hitched to a fading star, did you, Paul?"
"No, it wasn't like that. I was worried about him. He was my...He would have hated it in the end, being nothing. I know he would. What's the point of all the money if it doesn't come with respect?"
"Why do you think he stepped out of the limelight?"
"Secrets and lies. Fear of being found out."
"Found out as what?"
Tark shrugged. "Don't know. But it always comes back to fear, doesn't it? Me, I was scared of being caught. Your boy, he's scared of picking a side. You're scared of what happens if you get this wrong. Mrs Byerley, she was scared of..."
Suddenly, Tark sat bolt upright, gnawing on his thumb joint.
Lewis's brows furrowed and, outside the room, Hathaway took a step closer to the observation window. "What is it?"
Tark licked his lips. "Did she tell you about the prostitutes?"
Lewis startled back in his chair, throwing a glance over towards where Hathaway stood behind the one-way mirror, catching only his own surprised reflection. "What prostitutes?"
"Alfie Byerley visited prostitutes?"
"Not all birds, neither. He was into some weird stuff, I think. I didn't want the details."
"And you know about this, how?"
Tark looked pityingly at Lewis. "I listen. I follow. I know. I am, as pathetic as it is to admit, very good at stalking. Now bang me up or let me go, would you? I'm tired and sad and I really want to go home." He sniffed and rubbed his nose with his sleeve.
Lewis's chair scraped as he pushed it back. "Okay," he said. "Go on. I can't hold you on suspicion of being creepy and seeing as the stalkee's dead and never complained I can't hold you on that either. Try not to find anyone else to stalk, eh? Join a library. Take an evening class. Be better, man."
"I'll try," said Tark, standing and putting his jacket back on. "Thanks. For, like, listening and that. You've been...it was better. Than I thought it would be, being here. It was better."
"My pleasure," said Lewis dryly, gesturing to the uniformed officer to escort Tark out. As he sat thinking, Tark's voice faded down the corridor, chattering to the PC about whether he had time to go to the chemist to pick up his snaps.
Hathaway sat on the edge of his desk, watching Lewis go over the phone records report. "Anything?"
"Nothing unusual. He must have had another phone to organise his assignations."
"'Assignations' makes it sound very romantic, sir. Or at the very least, intriguing."
"Aren't you intrigued, James?"
Hathaway's mouth stretched in a taut line. "Not really, no. It's just sex for money."
"Weird sex for money. Also, in case you'd forgotten, prostitution is still illegal in this country."
"And thereby hangs the problem."
"Sex as a bargaining tool."
Lewis shook his head. "Don't let Innocent hear you. She'll think you're bucking to open a bordello." He stopped flipping over pages and looked up. "You're not, are you?"
"Not today, sir."
"That's all right, then."
There was a knock on the door and Hathaway slid off his desk to answer it.
Detective Constable Ranjeeta Bhatia handed him a folder. "Financial records," she said. "They're mostly chaotic because the whole thing about 'more money than sense'? Totally applies."
"But..." said Lewis, beckoning her in.
"But," DC Bhatia continued, unbuttoning her suit jacket as she perched in the exact spot Hathaway had been seconds ago, "there are semi-regular chunks of money going into a specific account. Substantial amounts, but not consistent in size or date of payment. It's a NatWest account and the sort code gives us a branch in Oxford. We've been able to get an address. It's in the front of the folder."
Hathaway peeled the Post-it from the cover and gave it to Lewis.
"Good work, Ranjeeta," Lewis said, smiling at her. "Maybe I can convince the Chief Superintendent to lend you to me more often."
Ranjeeta smiled back, standing up. "My guv'nor keeps me pretty busy," she said, adding, "But never say never, hey?" as she left.
"So, we have prostitutes and a mystery caller," said Lewis. "You have to be a bit intrigued now."
Hathaway dropped the folder on Lewis's desk. "Go on, then. If it makes you happy."
Lewis caught the amused smile and reflected it back. "Right. You go and have a chat with the lovely Mrs Byerley about her husband's shenanigans--I'm off to find out what lies behind door number one."
This time, Tess led Hathaway through the neatly-clipped formal garden. They walked down a path, the espaliered trees standing guard along its length showing the earliest signs of fruiting, and arrived at a small herb garden. Rosalind Byerley knelt at the edge of the bed, grubbing out weeds with gloved fingers. She didn't appear to notice their approach until Hathaway's shadow fell over her, and then she looked up, mouth rounded as if she was about to speak but seemed to think better of it.
She pulled off her gloves and tugged headphones out of her ears, fumbling in the pocket of her gardening apron for her iPod.
"Oh, do excuse me. Let me just..." She pressed the pause button. "Hello, Sergeant, how can I help you?" She held up her hand to him and he helped her to her feet.
"I have a few further questions for you, Mrs Byerley."
She nodded, dismissing the hovering Tess with a simple look. "Please take those sunglasses off, Sergeant Hathaway. I hate not being able to see someone's eyes when I'm talking to them. That's why the phone is so horrible. You can miss so much."
"The eyes are the window to the soul, you mean?" asked Hathaway, folding the arms on his sunglasses and sliding them into his jacket pocket.
"For eyes can speak and eyes can understand," replied Rosalind.
Hathaway raised his eyebrows. "You know George Chapman?"
Rosalind squinted up at him, shading her eyes from the sun. "Yes. I found him through Keats. A happy accident. People let him down a lot. He said, 'Promise is most given when the least is said.'" She took Hathaway's arm and steered him round the herb bed towards a small door in a honey-coloured stone wall. "Alfie always talked a lot."
Hathaway looked down at her, thoughtful. "Mrs Byerley, I don't know how to put this without sounding indelicate."
She laughed. "Do I give the impression of being so easily shocked?"
She stopped at the door, opening it onto another walkway, this time along a long, rectangular pond. "I'm not," she said. "Not these days. Too much water. Too many bridges." She took Hathaway's arm again, walking slowly by the pond. Silent orange and silver fish flashed through the water, every now and then disturbing the calm of the surface.
"Okay, then, indelicate it is. Did you know that your late husband visited prostitutes?"
Her laugh was startling, and this time it was Hathaway who stopped dead, jerking his arm away. Rosalind's hand fell useless to her side, fingers fluttering.
"What must you think of me?" she said. "Yes, I knew. Yes, I was distressed when I found out." She turned her back on Hathaway to stare into the pond. "Can you imagine the scandal if it had become public knowledge? I could. Horrible reporters, people pretending to be kind and just wanting to know all the sordid details. And poor Rosalind, the wife that never knew. Bless her, it must have been so difficult."
She turned back round, her face set and angry. "I didn't want my role to be diminished to the supportive, brave, wronged wife. Or to be the shrill woman scorned. How tiresome. How reductive of a holistic life. So, yes. I threatened him with divorce when it all came out. It was an entirely natural reaction. But-" her face relaxed, "there were some...sexual practices I had never been comfortable with, and Alfie had always respected that, even if he wasn't resigned. It could have been a marriage deal breaker if he hadn't been able to find an outlet. Better he went to sex workers who were prepared to do what he wanted. I saw that in the end. He was always very discreet and so were they. And as dreadful as it was for a while, I never wanted him dead because of it. Rather wish the sun dead for only shining in the daytime."
"That was very enlightened of you."
"I don't know that it was. My world has never been black and white, Sergeant. Not even as a child. You can love someone who hurts you. I learned that very young."
Hathaway offered his arm and she took it. They walked in silence for a few seconds, the faint rumble of farm machinery and the low-throated calls of wood pigeons providing a subdued backdrop to contemplation. "Then why the return to divorce?"
Rosalind's fingernails were sharp even through two layers of cloth. "He wasn't always a very nice man. I looked at the future, and I realised I deserved better."
"You've said there wasn't anyone else?"
Rosalind relaxed her grip. "There wasn't. I don't trust my choices any more. Unlearning is a difficult thing to do."
"Yes," Hathaway nodded. "Yes, it is."
She looked up at him with an expression of curiosity, but he simply said, "Is there anything else we should know?"
Twisting her head away, Rosalind said, "I'm not sure if..."
"The smallest thing can be all it takes, Mrs Byerley. Wasn't it Chapman who said, 'Let no man value at a little price a virtuous woman's counsel'? I know you and your husband weren't on the best of terms, but surely you want to help catch his killer?"
"I do." Rosalind turned back, twisting a curl round her finger. "Have you spoken to Sol?"
"How about my daughter?"
"You don't think your daughter-?"
"No, no! It's not that."
"Then what is it?"
"Families are complicated, aren't they?" said Rosalind, searching Hathaway's face with questioning eyes.
Rosalind withdrew her arm. "You might as well have kept your sunglasses on," she said.
Hathaway regarded her with a steady gaze. She met it without flinching. "I'm sorry," he said.
"So am I. But I'm glad you think I'm a virtuous woman." She smiled and offered her hand. "Goodbye, Sergeant."
Lewis checked the door number against the dog-eared Post-it in his hand. The address he was looking for was a neat, nondescript house in a neat, nondescript street. The net curtains twitched as Lewis opened the creaky gate, but he couldn't see anyone behind them. There was no doorbell, only a simple brass knocker, but Lewis barely had time to lift it before the door was opened by a tired-looking woman who must have been in her late thirties. She looked at him expectantly.
He showed his badge. "Detective Inspector Lewis."
"The police!" she said. "And me with my bunny slippers on."
"Are you the house owner?"
"What's this about? I got all the right papers. The mortgage is up to date. Who said it wasn't?"
Lewis held up his hands. "Wrong track," he said. "I'm sure everything's in order. I just needed to know you live here."
"Five years," she said. "And it's looking twice as good as when I got it. Should've seen the back when I first moved in. Death trap, that's what it-"
"So you're Melanie Gorham?"
Melanie nodded, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "That's me."
"Can I come in? I'd like to ask you a few questions about Alfie Byerley."
Panic flew across Melanie's face for the briefest of moments before it was replaced by scorn. Too late. Lewis knew what he had seen. "Alfie Byerley the football star? What would he want with the likes of me? You must've got me mixed up with another Melanie Gorham."
"I don't think so." Lewis pulled out the highlighted bank statements from his inside jacket pocket and showed them to her. "That's your account number, isn't it, Melanie?"
"I'm not good at remembering numbers," she tried and then jerked round as a small voice called from upstairs.
"Mummy! Can I have an ice cream?"
"Mummy's busy!" she called back. "Go and play in the garden."
But then came the sound of thundering footsteps and a little boy, no more than five, peeped around his mother's legs, wide eyes staring at Lewis.
"Who's that?" he asked, pointing.
There was no escaping it, and Melanie knew it. The child was, without doubt, Alfie Byerley's son. The same prominent, dimpled chin, the same bright blue eyes. And, when Lewis introduced himself, the same sweet smile. Melanie sighed and took a step back, taking hold of the boy's hand. "You'd better come in," she said.
"If you go and play outside until I call you, you can have ice cream today and tomorrow. Think of that!" Melanie said to her son in a cajoling tone.
He cast Melanie the familiar agonized look of a child who is torn between a new excitement and the predictable wonder of ice cream, almost vibrating with the intensity of making a decision. Eventually he yelled, "I scream, you scream!" and clattered out of the room. "One scream, two scream," he sang.
"And don't slam the-!"
The kitchen door crashed.
"Door," Melanie finished with a shake of her head. "There's no point pretending, is there?" she said to Lewis.
"Is there anyone who's met him who doesn't know?"
"You'd be surprised. It's amazing what people will believe."
"So tell me the truth," said Lewis, sinking rather than settling into the sofa. "It'll be a relief."
"Maybe it will." Melanie tucked her legs up under her, stroking the ear of one of her slippers, taking comfort where she could find it. "Yes, Alfie gave us money. Yes, Alfie was happy to be his dad. He was in bits because he couldn't acknowledge him. His other son, AJ, he wasn't...My Mark, he loves football. He's always out there playing it. Has been since he was old enough to stand. He was kicking balls before he could climb stairs. And Alfie would come every chance he had and..." Melanie tugged a crumpled tissue out from her sleeve and blew her nose on it. "I don't know how to tell him his Uncle Alfie won't come and see him no more."
"He didn't know Alfie was his father?"
"Not on your life. He's a little kid. How's he gonna keep quiet about his dad? I knew, when I decided to keep him, I knew. It was never going to be glitz and glamour and the high life for us, but I was grateful, you know? To have a bit of Alfie to myself."
"Were you lovers?"
Melanie laughed. "Lord, no. I mean, we had sex, obviously, duh, because Mark. But not lovers. We were...It was a business transaction, if you know what I'm saying?"
"I was one of his regulars. He didn't have no set patterns or nothing. Alfie always said that it was better that way, less traceable. So I wouldn't see him for months and then there he'd be, large as life and twice as wicked and I'd see him two or three times a week for a little while and then boom! Gone again. Off to one of the others, whoever they were. Went on that way for, oh, three years, probably. And then I found out what ninety nine percent effective really means. Twenty-six hours of screaming pain and then eighteen years hard labour. Don't you even think I'd be without him, though."
"What happened when Alfie found out?"
"Well, I didn't twig until he was off again, did I? So by the time he came back, I was five months along and it was too late to do anything about it even if he'd wanted me to. But he was happy. So happy. Especially when we found out it was going to be a boy. The sex stopped. It didn't need to have if he'd wanted to carry it on, but I think he thought...I don't know. I think he had all these ideas about the mother of his child. He was too clever for me, Alfie. He lost me with half the stuff he used to talk about." The lines at the corners of Melanie's eyes crinkled as she remembered.
"When he was here, he was here," she said. "Most clients, they were somewhere else in their heads, even when they were about to...you know....Especially then. But Alfie, he was always here, when he was with me first, and then when it all changed and he was with us. We was a weird little family, but I liked it. And he took such good care of us. Now how am I going to pay for the house?" Her brow darkened. "If I catch whoever did this, I'll kill 'em myself. That's my boy's future that they've jeopardised. Bastard."
Lewis said nothing for a moment, and then, "She seems very nice, Mrs Byerley. I think you'll find-"
"No," Melanie interrupted, getting to her feet. "No, I can't. Mark will be wanting his ice cream." She pressed her lips together and watched as Lewis struggled to extricate himself from the soft embrace of the sofa cushions.
He stood, panting a little. "One more second and I'd've had to arrest that settee for attempted murder," he said, raising a weak smile from Melanie. He walked to the front door. "Think about what Alfie would have wanted you to do. For Mark's sake, if nothing else."
"We'll see," she said, and walked away down the hall.
Hathaway took a long drag from his cigarette, blowing the smoke out through his nose.
"Is she really that sanguine about the whole prostitute thing?" said Lewis at the other end of the phone.
"Yeah." Hathaway leaned against his car, staring back up the gravel drive towards the house. "They had it all worked out."
"Does that seem strange to you?" Lewis poked at the air conditioner in his car. It had been playing up lately, and it was a warm day.
"Mutually assured monogamy isn't the only relationship dynamic. You should know that. Real life is more complex." Hathaway took another drag and spoke as he exhaled. "As is the wife."
"Huh," said Lewis, giving up and trying to extricate himself from his jacket without putting down his phone. "You like her?"
"What are you doing? You're making some very unusual noises. Is there something you want to tell me?"
"I'm taking my jacket off," said Lewis with an irritated edge.
"Then I'm sure there is something you want to tell me."
Lewis could sense the smirk even if he couldn't see it. "Because it is hot," he snapped. "In the car. Where I am. Alone."
"Easy, sir," said Hathaway. "You can get arrested for that."
"I know where you live," Lewis practically growled down the phone.
Hathaway grinned and sucked on his cigarette. "Yes, I like her. I wasn't expecting to knock on the door and find someone in, if you understand my meaning."
"Rarely. But yes, I know."
"What about the kid?"
"Yes, Mark. Don't Xan and Fred deserve to know they have a little brother?"
Finally free, Lewis tossed his jacket onto the passenger seat. "It's not our business."
"You're probably right." Hathaway dropped the butt on the floor and ground it out. "Still..."
"No," said Lewis.
Johanna wandered back to her office, carrying a long, shallow box. The door was closed and the box too unwieldy to shift to one hand. Refusing to be defeated, Johanna bent and used her elbow to lever the handle. The door swung open and Johanna smiled, going straight through to Nicholas's inner office without knocking. She'd been considering seeing if she could do the same handle trick with her knee, but it turned out to be unnecessary; the door stood ajar.
Wat Nicholas was nowhere to be seen. Johanna walked over to his desk and dropped the box on it.
"Now where are you, you wee bugger?" she said.
Xan paced the squares in the living room rug with meticulous care as she listened to Sol's phone ring and ring.
"C'mon, Sol, pick up, pick up, pick up," she muttered. Turning, she glanced out of the window and saw Jamila coming back from the shops.
"Pick up," she urged, but there was nothing, and Xan hung up before Jamila reached the doorstep.
Tark hummed as he rode, a tuneless dirge. He swung off into the alley running behind his house, dismounting as he got to his gate, the only one in the row not half hanging off its hinges. He wheeled his bike along the path, locking it to the drainpipe next to the back door. Once inside he took off his helmet and hung it on the hook by the door, looping his fluorescent belt three times over it. He pulled out a packet of photographs from his back pocket and put them on the counter. From the other pocket he took a rolled up booklet and dropped it next to the photos. He picked up the kettle and filled it, the booklet unfurling enough to reveal the programme for his local Adult Learning Centre.
As it boiled, he picked up the packet and turned to the small kitchen table. It was already covered in photographs--so many they overlapped each other--some faded, some glossy and new. Most were candid shots of Alfie Byerley caught at the end of a long lens, unobserving, yet observed. Tark picked up a recent one, Alfie frozen mid-stride as he walked between the house and the barn. He looked lost, as if he'd raised his foot with one intention, but had no idea what to expect when he put it down again. Tark pressed the photograph to his lips.
Putting it back down, he turned his attention to the new packet, flipping it open.
James half-sprawled across the bench outside the square-paned windows of The Crown Inn, making happy noises around a ham and cheese sandwich.
"What is it with you and food?" asked Robbie. "You've been ravenous these past few days."
Washing his mouthful down with orange juice, James mopped up the dregs of his coleslaw with his crust. "Don't know," he said. "Nervous energy? A close encounter with tapeworms? Unexpected physical exercise?"
"Hefting a few boxes? Nah." Robbie fiddled with his spoon, moving the last of his soup around in circles. "What have you got to be nervous about?"
James shrugged, rolling up the crust and eating it in one bite. He picked up his cigarette packet and tapped the bottom, pulling one out. "You done?" he asked Robbie through lidded eyes, lighting up on receiving a nodded reply.
"James," said Robbie, stern, when his partner failed to speak.
He blew the smoke out of the side of his mouth. "Life," he said. "Change." He tapped his cigarette on the ashtray. "And all that jazz," he added with a small wave of his hand.
Robbie scraped at peeling varnish on the table. "I slept really well last night," he said. "I don't usually. In strange places."
"Me, too. Both things."
There was a silence for a few moments and then James said, "Sir. No, Robbie. No, you see, that's the problem."
Robbie jerked his head up. "What is?"
James twisted the stub of his cigarette in the ashtray. "Well, we're on lunch break so is this officially work time or outside work time? Do I call you 'sir' or 'Robbie' or 'His Majestic Highness'?"
"I'd go for the latter, myself," said Robbie with a smile. "I've always fancied myself as a Majestic Highness."
With forceful motion, James swung his legs under the table, sitting up straight. "That's not...Seriously, Robbie, it's giving me a headache just trying to think round it."
"No wonder you're eating for two. You and your brain." Robbie took a sip of his drink. "I don't doubt you could go mad, trying to work out the ins and outs. I could go batty myself. Maybe it's best we don't overthink it."
"But overthinking is my métier. Or cross to bear. I've heard it both ways."
"It's not possible, is it, though? Complete separation of work and home."
James shook his head deliberately. "I don't think it is, no. Not without a quick detour to Bedlam. So we should just--what?"
"Time and place, Jim. Time and place and common sense, and that should cover it."
"I can manage that." James rested his chin on steepled fingers and nodded with his whole body. It made Robbie smile.
Before he could marshal his thoughts to reply, his phone began to ring, vibrating on the table.
"Lewis." His smile faded as he listened. "Okay. Yep. We'll be right there."
"What have we got?" Hathaway said, as Lewis hung up.
"Dead body, Bury Knowle Park." Lewis stood up, tossing his car keys to Hathaway. "You can drive, Hathaway. Work off that excess energy."
"Right," said Hathaway, only hesitating a split second before adding, "sir."
"All ready for you," said the SOCO, handing scene suits to Lewis and Hathaway. "Initial processing all done."
"Who found him?" asked Lewis, shaking out his suit.
"That scrawny lad over there with Neil. He's going to think twice before he tries to sniff glue in a public lav again."
"Thank you," said Lewis, voice tinged with undirected antipathy. "That'll be all for now.
The body was easy to find, a thin trail of blood running under the cubicle door: a silent cry calling attention to the tragedy that had happened here. He was curled into a corner, jammed between the toilet bowl and the wall, as if he had crawled into the smallest space he could find to die, no sign that he'd even tried to find help. A baseball cap sat low over his eyes, hiding his face, and Lewis knelt down in front of the body, lifting up the cap with a pen.
"Oh, no," he said. "Oh, Paul, what happened to you?"
"Paul? Paul Tark?" Hathaway's voice came from up high, and Robbie looked up to find him peering over the cubicle wall.
"Yeah," he said. "I can't see much, with the positioning and everything, but I'd say he's probably been stabbed." He shook his head at the corpse. "Paul, what did you get mixed up in now?"
"Coming through," said Laura from behind him. "Shift out of the way, Robbie, and let the expert do her thing."
Robbie stood and they did a little one-two shuffle in the doorway, exchanging positions. "Are you staying up there?" he asked Hathaway.
"Good viewpoint," Hathaway replied. "There's another one free on the other side."
"I'm too old to be clambering on toilets."
Hathaway shook his head. "No, you're not," he said with a fond smile. "Up you get."
Lewis narrowed his eyes and then flapped his hands in ungracious defeat in Hathaway's general direction. He went into the vacant cubicle and climbed onto the toilet with somewhat less dexterity than his younger colleague had managed.
"Well done, sir," said Hathaway, with his best patronising grin. "It's like being back at school, isn't it?"
"Not my school," said Lewis, at the same time as Laura looked up and said, "Yes."
"So many stories, so little time," said Hathaway. "What happened to our unlucky stalker, Doctor?"
"Unlikely, but I'll have to have him out of here to be sure. The wound looks like it directly pierced his heart." She picked up his hands. "There's grazing on the knuckles, which indicates he tried to fight back, or that he hit out in a confined space."
"Like a toilet cubicle."
"Like," Laura agreed, "a toilet cubicle." She twisted round and beckoned the hovering SOCO to come and take photographs.
When he was done, she said, "We can move him now."
"Dead how long?" asked Lewis.
"I'd have to take body temperature to be sure, but he's still warm and rigor hasn't set in. Not long. Did you say he was your stalker? Did I know you had a stalker, Robbie? That's weirdly impressive."
Lewis tutted. "Not my stalker. Paul Tark. He was Byerley's. We had him in the station this morning. Let him go ten thirtyish. It'll be on record." He sighed. "I thought I got through to him. I'd hoped, anyway."
"You don't know you didn't, sir," said Hathaway gently.
"He did something stupid that got himself killed, didn't he?"
"Maybe he was doing something brave," Laura suggested.
"You don't think it's possible...no." Hathaway shook his head.
"It's just conjecture."
"We've got nothing else at the moment," said Lewis, watching Paul's body being extricated from the cubicle, lifeless arms falling to his sides, ratlike features smoothed out in death. "Conject away."
"What if he found out who Alfie Byerley's killer was?"
"And confronted him?"
"Yeah," Hathaway disappeared from view as he hopped down from his vantage point. He reappeared in the doorway of Lewis's cubicle, offering his hand to help him down.
"I'm not a bloomin' damsel in distress," said Lewis, taking the hand anyway. "So our stalker turns investigator and gets killed for his trouble. That's plausible."
They leant against the wall watching Laura work.
"It's not a mugging anyway," she said, showing them the wallet she'd taken from his jacket pocket. "Credit and debit cards, some cash. So you can rule that out as a motive."
"Could be a random act of violence."
"In the middle of the day?" Hathaway sounded doubtful.
"Unlikely, I know."
"Did he even have time for anything that wasn't stalking? I mean, wasn't that basically a vocation for him?"
"It certain seemed that way," Lewis agreed. "The second killing theory is definitely looking good. But who?"
"That I do not know, sir. We should probably try to find out at some stage."
"Being as how that's what we're paid for?"
"Hey, Laurel and Hardy," said Laura, smiling up at them, "are you two having a house-warming party?"
The men turned to each other, Lewis scratching the top of his head with stiffened fingers and blinking slowly in perplexed thought, and Hathaway standing with hands on his hips, head tilted, an expression of long-suffering on his face.
Laura laughed. "I give up with the pair of you," she said. "I'll need to get your Paul back to the morgue. He's been dead less than two hours, and that's all you're getting from me until I've got him stripped down on my slab." She waggled her eyebrows at Lewis who rolled his eyes.
"Paul," said Hathaway, dropping down beside the corpse, "what kind of fine mess did you get yourself into?" He closed his eyes for a brief second, lips pressed in a thin line.
Lewis rested a hand on his shoulder. "Come on, Sergeant. Let's find out if we can see what he saw."
Paul Tark lived in Headington, only a few minutes walk from the park. Lewis let them into the small, terraced house with the keys he had retrieved from the body. The door opened directly onto the front room and to chaos: books pulled from shelves, slashed sofa cushions with their insides spilling out and hundreds and hundreds of photographs spread across the floor, the now empty boxes tipped at haphazard angles.
Hathaway peered over Lewis's shoulder. "I'm guessing this is more than a lack of house pride," he said. "Someone's been here."
"You always were observant," said Lewis, easing his way inside, trying to disturb as little as possible. "I'm going out on a limb and saying our killer was after photographs."
"A fine limb," agreed Hathaway, crouching and looking around him at all the pictures. "There's one of Alfie. Oh, and another of Alfie. And look! Alfie picking his nose." He looked up at Lewis, half-squinting. "They're just like us common people really, aren't they, celebrities?"
"Keep looking," said Lewis, going through into the kitchen. "At least he was photogenic."
"What's it like in there, sir?" Hathaway called, pushing aside some of the top layer of photographs.
"Messy. Less in the way of-" Lewis stopped dead. The booklet lay where Paul had left it on the counter, the edges curling in on themselves. He picked it up and smoothed it out.
"Sir?" Hathaway's voice floated in from the other room.
Lewis tapped the booklet with a finger and sighed. "Good for you, lad," he said, and set it down.
"Sorry," Lewis said, going to stand at the threshold between the rooms. "It wasn't anything."
Hathaway lunged forward with an incredulous, "You are kidding me," and grabbed a photograph. "That's...okay, that could be a game changer."
"What have you got, Sergeant?"
Hathaway stood and handed the photograph over to Lewis without a word, eyebrows raised in expectation, practically bouncing on his toes.
"You could call it a game changer," said Lewis. "You could definitely call it that. You could also call it a breach of the public indecency byelaws. Shouldn't you warn me before you hand me porn, Hathaway?"
"I was thinking more May to December romance, sir. Nothing wrong with a little bit of healthy passion."
"He's older than me," said Lewis. "How would he have the stamina?"
"Ex-footballer. He's well-trained."
"Is that in the Byerleys' grounds?"
Hathaway plucked the photo out of Lewis's hand and studied it. "I think so. Do you think Alfie knew? Do you think Jamila knows?"
"I think I have a picture of Sol Curtees and Xanthippe Byerley," Lewis scrunched up his face, "doing stuff, and a whole new avenue of enquiry."
"Benefit of the doubt, sir. Maybe Sol had something stuck in his throat and his pants simultaneously and Xan was using the only methods she had available to save him from imminent death."
"Worthy of a soap opera, that," said Lewis. He took the photo back again. "Right, I'll pick up Sol. You stay here and see if you turn up anything else."
"Oh, they love that," said Hathaway, but it was too late, Lewis was gone. "So," he said to himself. "Do we think Paul waited for the money shot?"
"What's all this?" asked Lewis, shouldering his way through the small mass of officers crowding out the observation room.
The immediate response was a lot of shuffling of feet and looking everywhere but at Lewis. Finally one of the uniformed officers spoke. "It's Sol Curtees," she said, pronouncing the name with reverence.
Lewis looked at her out of the side of his eye. "Congratulations on your detecting skills, Constable. I'll start worrying for my job now, shall I?" He looked around the room. "Anyone else? You'd think we'd never had anyone famous in before."
"To be fair, guv," said Ojo, the custody sergeant, who practically had his nose squished to the glass, "we haven't. Not like him anyway. He's amazing. First generation Black British, got to university and played top flight footie? Gave kids like me hope, yeah?"
"Didn't the gay stuff turn you right off?" said DC Hooper from somewhere over in the corner. "Thought you lot hated all that. Good on you, I say."
"Hooper," warned Lewis in a dark voice.
Ojo shrugged. "No one listens when he talks," he told Lewis. "And, yeah, so some people believe everything they hear, but rumours are just rumours."
"You didn't believe them?" asked Lewis.
"I didn't care." Ojo looked back through the window at Sol, who looked cool and relaxed, white linen shirt open at the collar. "I was a kid when he retired. I'd seen him playing for England. For England. Man kicked ass and took names. Did I care what he did when the stadium went dark? Nah. You learn what you're taught, Inspector, and some of us were lucky enough to have better teachers than others."
Lewis nodded, thoughtful. Then he clapped his hands together. "Get out of here, you lot," he said. "You've got jobs to do. Let me get on with mine."
Without waiting to see if he was obeyed, he turned and went through into the interview room.
"You've got quite the fan club out there," he said by way of a greeting, indicating the one-way mirror with a jerk of his head.
"And hello to you, too, Inspector." Sol didn't turn round to look.
Lewis took a seat. "You've got my custody sergeant in a right old tizz," he said. "Let's hope I don't have to book you. The paperwork could go quite spectacularly awry." He paused, looking Sol up and down. "Apparently you're his hero."
Sol laced his fingers together on top of the table. "It's not something you ask for," he said. "When you're a child, you think you want to be a hero, rescuing everyone and taking the glory. But when you grow up, you realise that you want it to be someone else's job, because rescuing is hard work and it never ends. It just becomes something else. It becomes responsibility."
"So you wouldn't call yourself a responsible man?"
"Oh, yes," Sol smiled. "I'm very responsible. That's what makes it so hard to walk away from: the hero thing." He paused and, for a moment, looked incredibly sad. The expression faded and he said, "You should read my book. When I finally write it."
"Why don't you give me the edited highlights?"
"How the boy became the man, you mean? Are you trying to understand me, Inspector Lewis? Gotta tell you, I'm not sure I've got myself figured out yet, and I've been working on it for sixty years.
"Call it nosiness, then," said Lewis with a small smile. He leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "and something for the lad that's shining out of my custody sergeant's eyes."
Sol leaned back in his chair. "Okay," he said. "A brief rundown of the early life of Solomon Curtees, born in a back room in Brixton, first generation British born of Jamaican parents, Eddie and Elesha. He grew up with a ball at his feet and his nose in a book. Found a teacher that saw something in him and gave him extra lessons out of school. Made him see how big the world was. How vast and amazing. First in his family to go to university, God bless the grant system and God fuck Thatcher straight to Hell. His dad wanted him to go to the local poly to learn something useful, but Sol knew what he wanted so off he went to University College London to study Classics." He scratched his beard and took a sip of water before continuing.
"It was harder than he'd even expected. He faced prejudice and the worst kind of snobs at uni and incomprehension at home and came close to giving up many times. Many, many times. He only survived by being the best damned footballer the university had ever seen. He was scouted by Arsenal and signed the day he graduated. His dad never lived to see that day. He died three months before in a freak accident on the Tube rails he was supposed to be fixing. Probably for the best, his auntie told him a few years later. It would have killed him to hear his only son called a faggot. He tried to be grateful for small mercies. It didn't take. He went off and lived the high life, and back home his mum took flak from the community. Not everyone, but enough. She stood her ground, though. She said, 'he's my son; I leave the judging up to God.' She was always the best of us."
Sol sighed. "He tried--he really tried--to be the man she thought he was. To live with honour as the man he pretended to be. To be a role model and be strong and good-hearted and everything that makes a hero. He never worked out if it was harder to live up to someone else's expectations or live down to his own. He grew up, and he wasn't always sure that was a good thing."
He raised his eyebrows. "You get me now, Inspector? You puzzle me out?"
Lewis said, "Not entirely, no," and slid the photograph over to Sol. "This hero-responsibility thing, how does it work with her? She thinks you're her hero, so it's your responsibility to sleep with her?"
Scowling, Sol picked up the photo. "Who took this? Who saw it?"
"If you could answer my questions first?"
Sol's laugh was scornful. "Xan doesn't do heroes. That's not what it's about."
"Then why don't you explain it to me?"
Sol pressed into the corners of his eye sockets with his thumbs. "I made a promise."
"Two men are dead. You need to talk to me voluntarily or I'll hold you for obstructing a police officer. Now isn't the time for promises."
"Two men?" Sol dropped his hands and sat up straighter.
"Talk to me."
"Right." Sol sipped at the water again. "PG-rated version. I barely saw Xan growing up, that part of what I told you was true. And I did give her a job the summer she left school. One of my charities was needing a web redesign and Alfie suggested she help out, get some experience before she went to university. We didn't spend a lot of time together, but enough."
"Enough to start a relationship with a kid?"
Sol regarded him with a steady gaze. "And there's the judgement," he said. "Right on schedule. But no. No, I didn't. She was eighteen and not much more than a schoolgirl. No need to grow up fast with all the silver spoons she had. Kids are not my scene. I liked her, yes. I liked her a lot; she was smart and fun and she had all the brand new opinions on all of the age-old subjects."
He laughed. "I liked to listen to her. We became friends. I think maybe for both of us it was about Alfie at the beginning. Seeing him through the eyes of someone he loved, almost. But we moved past that pretty quickly. In a way, history repeated itself; she went away to university and we wrote. Keyboards and email instead of pen and paper, of course. Times change."
"And you changed?"
"How do you mean?"
"You wouldn't sleep with Alfie, but you'd sleep with his daughter?"
"I don't think you're understanding how different they were. Xan doesn't know how to hide--it isn't in her. She is her own, true self and it's beautiful."
"What did you write about?"
"Are you sure this is relevant?" Sol murmured, but answered anyway. "Everything and nothing. How bad the hall food was. How to tell true friends from those wanting to get closer to her father. How many times you could wear socks without washing. How she was in love with a beautiful girl called Jamila."
"So she was seeing Jamila at university?"
"Yes. They've been together over five years."
"Then how did you fit in? She didn't strike me as a..." Lewis trailed off, a word stuck behind unhappy lips.
"A what? A cheater?" Sol sighed. "Why does everything always have to be so neat and narrow? She has a girlfriend and you have photographic proof that we're involved sexually, so she has to be having an affair."
Lewis furrowed his brows. "Well, doesn't she?"
"No," said Sol. "Are we sleeping together? Yes. How long has it been going on? Just over two years. Does Jamila know? Yes. Are we all three happy with our positions in our respective relationships? Yes."
"If everything is so above board then why did you lie?"
"I didn't lie. I simply-"
"Withheld the truth. I've heard the line before." Lewis rolled his eyes in disgust. "A lie of omission is still a lie."
Sol jutted his chin, nostrils flared. "Why do you think we lied? Do you even see your face? Arrangements--families--like ours are frowned upon. We're outliers, statistical anomalies, subverters of your precious norm. Why would we put ourselves out there for show and speculation? What we do is nobody's business but ours. It wasn't relevant."
Lewis banged the table. "I decide what's relevant. And how the hell do you think anyone's going to learn to accept anything outside this so-called norm if you hide it all away and pretend it's not happening? You have to see it to understand it."
"Spoken like a true empiricist," said Sol.
They stared at each other for a long moment, neither willing to back down.
"Did Alfie know?"
"Is this the lifestyle choice Xan said he had trouble with?"
Sol shook his head.
"So a lesbian or bisexual or whatever daughter is a-okay, but a daughter with a girlfriend and a boyfriend is not? Or was it the specific boyfriend he objected to?"
"He was jealous," Sol said, folding his arms and tucking his hands into his armpits. "He denied it, of course, but then he turned up drunk on my doorstep and tried to kiss me, so obviously that kicked his plausibility out through the window."
"How long had he known?"
"We told him two months ago. We wanted him to get used to the idea before--oh, God--before we told him that she was pregnant."
Lewis flopped back in his chair. "She's pregnant?"
Sol's serious expression dissolved into a broad grin. "She is. I've never been so scared in my life. Or so excited. Do you have kids? Is that normal?"
"I thought you didn't do normal," Lewis said with a sarcastic lift to his tone. But he softened and carried straight on. "Two. All grown up. We're onto the new generation now--I've got a granddaughter. The apple of my eye, she is. And yes, totally normal. You wait till the first time you hold your baby. You'll be making all kinds of promises about how you'll be there forever to protect and love them, and your heart will be beating so hard with the sheer terror you're somehow going to mess this all up that you think you'll have a heart attack on the spot and prove yourself a liar." Lewis paused, eyes alight with memories. "Best days of my life, those," he said.
"I can't wait," said Sol, thumb drifting over the photograph, brushing Xan's hair.
Lewis sat up straight. "Won't be exactly the same if you're banged up for killing Xan's father, though, will it? What happened, Sol? You went round to try and patch things up, he wouldn't do it because you rejected him again, or because he saw you happy in a way that he didn't have a hand in, or because you knocked up his baby girl. You had a row, it got out of hand and you stabbed him? And then Paul Tark got onto you. Said he had proof you were sleeping with Xan, that you killed Alfie, and you met him and killed him, too. Is that how it went?"
"That sounds a whole lot more interesting than what I've got written in my book so far, Inspector Lewis," said Sol, scratching his temple. "Maybe I should put you on to my publisher."
"Straight answer, Sol."
"No, none of that happened. Xan told Alfie about the baby three days before he died. He didn't take it well. He kept calling her and saying nasty, abusive things. Things he couldn't take back. Things she was going to have to live with. We thought it was best to cut all ties, at least until he'd had time to calm down. We stopped answering his calls. We tried to get on with our lives and now he's dead and making us miserable for different reasons. Nice work, Alfie."
Sol stopped, sipping at his water. "Paul Tark?" he said. "That the guy that snapped this Pulitzer-worthy photograph? Who the hell is that? I never...Wait a minute." Sol leaned forward. "Is that Alfie's stalker? He was called Paul. Long lens creepy camera shot--it would fit."
"You knew him?"
"I knew of him. We all did. He was a running joke. Sometimes Alfie would get drunk and maudlin and complain the world was out to screw him over and then he'd say, 'at least Paul loves me,' and we'd drink a toast to the guy's health."
"He was a stalker. You laughed at him, Alfie courted him, Rosalind fed him. Didn't it bother anyone that he was around all the time, in places he shouldn't be?"
"I don't know what to tell you." Sol shrugged. "Alfie was beloved by millions of people who only knew him at a distance. It was like Paul was the distillation of that. All he wanted to do with his life was to love Alfie and be near him. You've got to admire that dedication."
Lewis rubbed his forehead. "I don't think I'm ever going to understand you," he said. "For the record, can you tell me where you were around lunchtime?"
Sol clapped his hands together. "Oh, this is easier than last time," he said. "I can do this one. Long lunch with my publisher. We met at Brasserie Blanc just before twelve and I was there until I got the call from you to come in for this lovely talk. I wonder if she's still at the restaurant. I think she wants me to work the murder into my book. She's not very subtle."
"We'll be checking your alibi's watertight, mind, Sol."
"You do that. An innocent man has nothing to fear."
Lewis sipped his bitter green tea and tried not to pull a face. He perched on the edge of the wicker bowl chair and did his best to stay very still, conscious that movement either way might end in more humiliation than he was prepared to deal with at this particular juncture. On the sofa opposite, Xan sat with Jamila, no space between the two of them, hands entwined.
"Yes, everything Sol said is true," Xan corroborated. "I live with Jamila and I also see him. Very occasionally, Jamila sleeps with other women. Not since I got pregnant, though." She exchanged a pleasant look with Jamila. This was something that had been discussed many times. "That's her choice."
"What kind of family do you call that?" Lewis said, unable to stop himself.
"Happy?" Xan squeezed Jamila's hand. "Mostly. I mean, a dead father, like him or not, has to be a bump in the road, right? But happy, the three of us."
"Nearly four," said Jamila.
Xan smiled at her. "Nearly four," she echoed.
Lewis shook his head. "But how does it work?"
"How does anything?" asked Jamila. "We all find our own paths. If we are lucky, we find people to walk some of the way with us."
Xan looked at Lewis's puzzled face and laughed. "Don't get us wrong, Inspector Lewis, we're not Stepford perfect. We argue and negotiate and sometimes there are pebbles on the path and sometimes big, fuckoff boulders, but you fix it, don't you? When you love someone." She leant her head on Jamila's shoulder.
"And you don't think Sol could have killed your father in an argument about you and the baby?"
"God, no!" Xan sat up, eyes round with horror. "Never. He couldn't. He wanted to build bridges, not burn them. You believe me, don't you?"
Lewis narrowed his eyes, standing with extreme care, the wicker creaking under his shifted weight. He put the teacup down. "Yes," he said. "I think I do." Hand on the door, he stopped and turned back towards the two women. "I nearly forgot," he said. "Congratulations."
Hathaway had retreated to the bathroom: the only room in the house free of photographs. He perched on the edge of the bath. No eyes followed him here except for his own reflection in the mirrored medicine cabinet.
"And the alibi checked out," Lewis was saying, "so that's one more off the list."
"That should please the Super," said Hathaway, his voice echoing off the tiled walls. Bathrooms and churches: surprisingly similar. Both confessionals in their own way, the bathroom a mirror to your body, the church to your soul. "One down, some more to go. Who does that leave us with? The wife, the son and the ex-business partner?"
"Or someone we haven't thought of yet."
"Anything at the house?"
"Plenty of creepy stalking stuff--it's been a real eye opener. I could start my own stalking experience now. But who to stalk, that's the issue? I'll have to have some kind of selection process. Delicate business, choosing your stalkee."
"No stalking, James."
"You never let me do anything fun," complained Hathaway, tone immediately brightening as he continued. "Nothing that will help, no. Mostly there's a great big mess. What we really need is a maid to come and clean it all up." Hathaway jerked in realisation, nearly losing his balance. "Damn! That is, sir, the maid. Tess. We completely forgot about her. Massively protective of Rosalind and at the house at the right time."
Hathaway could hear Lewis berating himself for missing the obvious, even though he didn't speak a word.
"We got a witness statement, though, didn't we? Tell me we at least did that."
"We did." Hathaway soothed. "There was nothing in it. Bland and full of details on the secrets of hand-washing clothing items of a delicate nature. I didn't think."
Lewis sighed. "Neither did I. Get over to the house for a chat, would you? I'll stay here and get the background checks running."
"She's not here," said Tess, opening the door.
Hathaway smiled up at her from the bottom of the steps, hands in his pockets. "Then it's a good thing I came to see you."
"Oh," said Tess, nonplussed. "I suppose that's all right. You'd better come through."
She led him across the great hall and took a key out of her apron pocket, unlocking a small studded door. It let on to a cosy, cottage sitting room, overstuffed with chintz furniture and porcelain knick-knacks. It could be considered to be a serious assault on the eyes, though sadly not an arrestable offence.
"This is lovely," said Hathaway. "I see there's a shepherds and their lasses theme happening here."
Tess sent him a sharp look, which melted into one of mild embarrassment. "Most of this was my mam's. I can't bear to throw it out. Mrs Byerley, she's always on at me to declutter, take back control, but it's memories, isn't it?" She picked up the nearest ornament and brushed imaginary dust off it with her fingers before putting it back exactly as she had found it.
"So you live here?"
"Yes. With Mam before she died, but now it's just me. Sit down."
Hathaway did as he was told and Tess plopped onto an armchair with a soft, "Oof."
"How can I help?" she asked. "Only I've got the dryer on so I can't stop for too long."
"Just a few questions to fill in some details for us." Hathaway took out his notebook. "You seem to be very fond of Mrs Byerley. How did you come to work for the family?"
"Oh, we go back a long way. Mrs Byerley, she's more than my employer; she's practically family. My mam worked for hers until the arthritis got her, rest her soul. There was just the two of us--mam and me--and Mrs Hipwell treated us so kind. Wanted to send me to college and everything, get my secretarial qualification or some such. But I didn't want to leave them, so I stayed. And when Ros-when Mrs Byerley got into trouble and got wed, I came with her. They were babes in the wood, her and him, they'd never have survived without me."
"You've been very loyal."
Tess sniffed. "Did you know we were born on the same day, her and me? Could've been twins. Them two out of the Bible--Jacob and Esau. Her all blonde and beautiful and delicate, with her posh clothes and her posh schools. Me...well...hair black as pitch, sturdy, with a face only a mother could love, wearing hand-me-downs from my cousins and off to the local village school."
"So you resented her."
"No." Tess shook her head. "Never. I know how it sounds, but I never wanted to be anyone that wasn't me. I always loved her, and I felt sorry for her."
"She always seemed so trapped. Like, what she was supposed to do weighed her down. You know, all that guff like behaving in a certain way, growing up all ladylike, marrying an important man and giving him kids and all that. Nothing else was supposed to matter. But she was a real smart one, she was. Could've been anything she wanted. I thought himself might be what she needed to break free, but she fell pregnant and made herself a whole new prison."
Hathaway looked at Tess with newfound respect. "And you stayed with her all this time."
"She's never going to be alone, not as long as I live. She's out of that jail cell now, and I'm buggered if I'm going to let her find a new one to trap herself in. It's not too late for her."
"Not for you either," Hathaway said.
Tess looked at him. "I don't matter," she said, brisk and blunt with a scornful shake of her head.
"Oh, but you do." He paused to let that sink in and then continued. "What did you think of Mr Byerley, Tess?"
She snorted. "Squanderer."
"What do you mean?"
"He had everything and he squandered it. He was no better than my colander, leaking everywhere."
"Did you never like him?"
"No, I liked him a lot once. When they were first married and he couldn't do enough for Mrs Byerley. When Xan came along and he was the father I wish I'd had. It was only later, when the cracks got too big to plaster over that I...but even then you see? He had charm. These last five, six years, though. It was like he was restless away from the spotlight, took it out on all of us, but Mrs Byerley most, and yet he wouldn't go back, not for love nor money--not except for the Strategos thing and we all know how that turned out. Didn't make sense to me. And it made the worst of him sharp and clear, no leaven in his bread."
"Did he ever physically hurt Mrs Byerley?"
"He never stooped to that, no. He used his words. Very good at that he was. Using them and not using them. Tore her to tatters, even if she wouldn't say it."
Hathaway leaned forward. "I imagine that was hard to watch."
Tess pursed her lips, a tight, white line rimming them. "Yes, it was. I don't think I even realised how angry I was all the time until he was gone. It was like one of them things...a black hole...inside me, eating me up, and now poof! Vanished. I don't know where to put myself half the time, I really don't."
"You're glad he's gone, aren't you?"
"Quicker than a divorce," said Tess, and then, "Oh, I'm sorry. You must think I'm a hard-hearted cow."
Hathaway shrugged. "He hurt someone you love. Why would you care what happened to him?"
"Is that what you told him the day he died? Did you visit him in the barn to remonstrate with him about tearing up the divorce papers? He wouldn't take any notice, would he?"
"Sounds like the kind of man that would have laughed at you. And all that anger that you've had to keep locked up for so long. Surely it couldn't hurt to let that out just a little, could it? You never meant to hurt him, only threaten-"
"Stop!" Tess shouted, face contorted with distress. "How could you think...? I would never. Never." She burst into tears, loud howls of misery that made Hathaway's eyes widen in alarm.
He shifted off the sofa, kneeling in front of her, and pulled out his handkerchief. "Here," he said. "Take it."
She snatched it from him and caught her breath, the howls subsiding. She blew her nose with a violent report, dark eyelashes clumped and wet with tears. "I didn't kill him," she said. "I'm not saying I didn't sometimes wish him off the face of the earth, because I did. But I didn't kill him."
Tess blew her nose a second time, inspecting the contents of the handkerchief before crumpling it up and handing it back to Hathaway. Face doing its best to fight mild disgust, he gingerly took it in a pincer movement and dropped it in his jacket pocket.
"I'll swear on anything you like," she said. "Those lie detector test things, I'll take one. I didn't do it."
Hathaway stood up, looking down at Tess appraisingly. "I don't think that will be necessary," he said gently. "But I'll bear it in mind. I'm sorry I upset you, Tess."
She pressed her lips together in a thin line and shook her head. "I've been thinking I should cry," she said. "And now it's over and done with and I can get back to work. That dry cycle will be just about finished."
The smell of woodsmoke caught at the edge of Hathaway's senses as he walked back to his car. Something about it pulled at him, and he swerved from his path and followed the scent, seeing a thin column of smoke writhing skywards from what seemed to be behind the barn. Hathaway's stride lengthened and his walk turned into a jog across the parkland.
"Die, you little fucker," he heard Fred saying as he rounded the corner of the barn. "If I never see you again, it'll be too soon."
"What's going on here...ohhh," Hathaway said, realising exactly what it was Fred was doing. "Nice."
Fred looked up, startled and a little embarrassed, one of his father's puppets dangling from his hand by its leg. "I really don't like them," he said.
"Me either." Hathaway came closer to the bin incinerator. There was a pile of a few puppets by Fred's feet. "May I?" he asked. "It would be cathartic. Let's just say childhood trauma and leave it at that."
Fred grinned at him. "Help yourself."
Hathaway stooped and picked up one of the puppets. It was an ugly old man with a hooked nose and a pouting bottom lip, dressed in a striped nightdress with matching nightcap. He held it over the incinerator, the heat licking at his wrist.
"Say something," said Fred. "It works even better that way."
Hathaway frowned, and then said, "Devil's really coming to get you this time and Judy gets a new life." He dropped it, then caught it again by the tip of its nightcap, flames already claiming its feet. "Screw you," he added. "Seriously. Screw you." And he dropped it all the way in, leaning over as if to make sure the puppet couldn't escape its fiery death. The charred corpses of other puppets were piled in the bin, still burning, but they were not the only things in there. Hathaway could see curled pages mottled with smoke and something that looked very like the edges of a photograph. He squinted against the smoke, but it was impossible to make it out any clearer.
"Doesn't that feel good?" said Fred.
"Yeah." Hathaway straightened up and smiled. "Actually, it does."
"Told you," said Fred, and dropped another puppet on the fire. "That's for my tenth birthday, you arsehole."
"What are you really burning, Fred?"
Fred looked up at him, eyes smarting, though whether from the smoke or something deeper it wasn't clear. "I'm burning the bad away," he said.
"I hope it works," said Hathaway, reaching out to touch the boy's shoulder.
"So do I," said Fred to Hathaway's retreating figure, and pulled something from his pocket.
"See, that's better, isn't it?" said Robbie, picking up the last empty box and flattening it with expert ease. "Another box-free room. We'll be finished by the time Evie is old enough to run away to her granddad at this rate."
"Don't you believe it," said James, taking the box from him and going to store it with the others in the hall. "When we moved from Crevecoeur, my parents took boxes with them they hadn't even unpacked from the last place they lived before I was born."
"And they didn't think if they hadn't used it in twelve years maybe it wasn't worth keeping?"
"I'm not even sure they knew what was inside them." James came back into the room and flopped onto the sofa. "Maybe that was the point. If they didn't open it, there would be some kind of forgotten family heirloom inside that would bring wealth and happiness and joy forever. If they did, it was probably old lampshades and sheets. Schrödinger's moving box."
Robbie sat down next to him. "I don't get that," he said. "Why take more than you need to? I always have a good clean out before I move."
"Yes, well," said James, giving him a incisive look, "you are quite the expert on moving, aren't you? You haven't stayed still for more than twelve months since you came back to Oxford. I'm running out of room under L in my address book. No wonder you want to travel light."
Robbie looked anywhere but at James. "Settling down is hard," he said. "And I was only on yearly leases; it was just as easy to move as to have to renegotiate."
"I might take issue with your definition of easy," James murmured. "We don't have a yearly lease here," he added, still looking at Robbie.
"No." Finally, Robbie looked back. "I think I'm finished with moving for good. It'll make our Lyn happy, that. She's been on at me for ages."
"Think of the hassle," said James, leaning his head on the back of the sofa. "Valuers, surveyors, estate agents, people wanting to view when we have to rush off to a body. Mortgage lenders." He shuddered.
"Doesn't bear thinking about, does it?" Robbie said. "Lucky we don't have to. I'm looking forward to getting that garden into shape. I was thinking there might be room for a fruit tree."
James closed his eyes and smiled.
They sat in silence for a few minutes and then James patted at his pocket and Robbie said, "You're not smoking in the house."
"I know," said James with amused exasperation. "But tit for tat, Robbie. If you get a rule, I get one, too."
"Of course." Robbie folded his hands on his lap and waited.
"Whoever cooks doesn't wash up. And the washing up has to be done the same night. No encrusted pans in the morning." He pulled a face.
"Anything for your delicate constitution," Robbie smiled.
"Oh, I'm sure we'll think of something, but that'll do for now."
James stood up, pulling his cigarette packet out, but instead of going out, he walked over to the mantelpiece, head craned in inquiry. The mantelpiece was home to photographs of Lyn, Lyn's husband Dom, Tony and baby Evie. They smiled out of their frames, as much a part of Robbie's life here in stillness as they were at the end of a phone, or a webcam in Tony's case. James recognised all of them, even being able to place in which of Robbie's many flats they had first appeared. He frowned and loped out of the room, cigarettes dropped forgotten on the coffee table.
Robbie heard him running up the stairs, and then a series of muffled thumps above his head. He didn't have the floor plan quite memorised, but he was almost sure that James was in his bedroom. He was about to call up to him to tell him to shift, when James came running down the stairs again and back into the room.
In his hand he held the photograph of Robbie and Val. Robbie stared at him, wordless, as James set it in pride of place.
"There," he said. "Now, it's home."
"Jim," said Robbie, his voice thick and raw-edged.
"Did you know that you're the only person that calls me that?" James said without turning round, straightening frames that didn't need straightening.
The morgue was, as usual, playing merry havoc with Lewis's senses. To look at it, it was modern and clean; all flat, sharp surfaces and bright lights chasing out the shadows. The smell, however, took Lewis back to other worlds entirely; the musty insides of his mam's wardrobe where he'd hide if he knew he was going to get told off, the parlour at Val's grandma's where they tried courting under the gaze of a million eyes--dead butterflies pinned and preserved in cases that covered the walls. He shook his head, as if that could take the disparate experiences and press them into one.
"You've got something for me?" he asked Laura, meeting her just inside the door.
"Ask and ye shall receive," she said with a smile. "Murder weapon on your Paul. It looks like it's a thin blade, sharp, but not overly so. You're not looking for some kind of super knife. It would've hurt like hell, poor sod." She looked back over her shoulder at the white sheet covered figure on the slab. Turning back, she continued. "There was gilding on the handle, some had flaked off into the wound. Now what could that be?"
"Right, so thin, not particularly sharp, gilded handle. Hmm." Lewis wrapped his hand around his chin, thinking. "Ceremonial dagger?"
"Too wide, I would have thought. But then they never let women into these secret societies, so who am I to say?"
"Probably the nipple baring," said Lewis. "Could cause riots. Not a dagger, not a kitchen knife, not a workman's tool. What kinds of things get gilded?"
"Presents, keepsakes, souvenirs; take your pick."
Lewis furrowed his brows. Laura flipped through her report, the crackle of paper setting off a tickle deep in his brain. "A letter opener?" he said.
Laura nodded, impressed. "That would do it."
"Who would kill someone with a letter opener?" Lewis asked with scorn. "That's not exactly...oh!"
"Tell you later," shouted Lewis, already out of the door and dialling James's number.
Melanie gripped her son's hand tightly as they walked up the drive. Her palm was damp with nervous sweat, but there was no way she was letting Mark slip from her grasp. The house didn't seem as frightening as she'd imagined it. Still, her heart hammered in her chest and she hummed a little tune to calm herself.
"That house is big," said Mark, skipping by her side.
"Isn't it, though?" she said. "Bet there's lots of places to play hide and seek."
"Coooool," breathed Mark.
They were close enough now that Melanie could see that the door was open and two women stood there, a dark-haired woman wearing an apron that looked like it was covered in flour and, in front of her, Rosalind Byerley, a football tucked under her arm and a welcoming smile on her face.
"It's gonna be all right," Melanie said, though whether to herself or to Mark she couldn't be sure. "I think it's really gonna be all right."
"Hello, fellas," said Wat, getting to his feet as Johanna showed them into the office. "To what do I owe, and all that?"
"Just a couple more questions," said Lewis.
Wat sat down again, frowning at the grave look on Lewis's face. "Ask away," he said.
"There was another murder yesterday. A man called Paul Tark." Lewis paused at the name, but Wat didn't twitch. Lewis exchanged a look with Hathaway and continued. "We think the two might be connected. Paul was--how do I put it?--linked closely to Alfie Byerley."
"Wait, they were...?" Wat used the universal gesture of pointed and circled fingers to fill in what his tongue didn't want to say.
"No. They weren't."
"Can you tell us where you were yesterday lunchtime?" asked Hathaway.
"Another lunchtime murder? You think the murderer gets crabby 'cos of low blood sugar? You could be looking for a hypoglycaemic, Sergeant."
His face pained as if he didn't want to have to insist, Hathaway said, "Just answer the question, Mr Nicholas."
"Well, I was right here, wasn't I? Same old same old. I'll get Johanna in. She can tell you." He pressed the intercom. "Johanna, can you just step in here for half a tick? I won't keep you from all that pressing grovelling you're doing on my behalf, I promise."
"I'll be counting the seconds," Johanna replied, and the two police officers turned to watch as she entered the room. She brought a small bundle of post with her, which she handed to Wat. "I think there might be a bit of hope in one of those," she said. "I feel it in my bones."
"To be fair, Jo, you also said you felt it in your bones that Cameron and Clegg were sleeping together and would announce it on Budget Day, so you won't mind me if I check for myself." Wat dropped the post on his desk, picking up the top letter and thumbing it open. He hissed as the paper sliced at his thumb and stuffed it in his mouth, sucking. "Bloody paper cuts," he mumbled around the offended digit.
"Literally," said Hathaway, glancing at his nails with apparent nonchalance as he added, "Where's your letter opener, sir? Saves on the plasters."
Wat took his thumb out of his mouth, stared at it and wiped it inelegantly on his jacket sleeve. "Don't have one," he said.
Johanna tutted. "Yes, you do. Margie gave it to you because of all the paper cuts, remember? She said she was sick of you worming your way out of the washing up because of complaining about how the soapy water stung your poor, wee fingers." She rooted around on his desk. "It was here yesterday before you went to that meeting."
"Shut up, woman," said Wat through clenched teeth, every last shred of jovial good humour vanished from his face.
Johanna took a step back, shocked.
"What meeting?" asked Lewis.
"It wasn't in the diary," she said, hands wringing together unconsciously. "I'm not sure. What's this about?"
She shook her head. "I left at twelve as normal, but I came back early because there was too much to do. He wasn't here when I got back to my desk and that must have been twenty-five-past at the latest. He didn't get back until just after two. I was out on the floor working through some systems errors with Christine, but I saw him get out of the lift."
Hathaway folded his arms, disappointed. "Do you want to think up a new excuse or do you just want to confess and make it easier for us?" he asked Wat. "We've got unpacking to do--less paperwork would be fantastic."
Wat stared at Lewis and Hathaway, a storm casting shadows over his sunny face. They stared back, and Johanna looked between them, agitated, bangles jangling as she twisted her hands together. "What's happening?" she asked. "You don't think he's a...Oh, god, you do. You do. Mr Nicholas--Wat--tell them you wouldn't. Tell them."
"Call my lawyer, our Jo," said Wat, and Johanna burst into tears.
Hathaway found himself standing by the observation window again, the Chief Superintendent by his side. Wat Nicholas's lawyer was corpulent and bald, the warm day in combination with the small size of the room causing him sweat profusely. Every few seconds he would dab at his forehead with an oversized white handkerchief.
"The lawyer looks more guilty than the suspect," said Innocent. "Are we sure we don't have the wrong man?"
"And what happened to 'his brow is wet with honest sweat'?"
"That man has never seen the inside of a smithy in his life," Innocent said. "No, he's a cold sweater, if ever I saw one."
"Looks overwarm to me. Don't all lawyers have the guilt gene removed on entering the bar? I thought it was SOP."
"You may have a point." Innocent took a step closer to the window. "When is Lewis going to say something?"
"When he's ready."
In the interview room, Lewis took off his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves, leaning forward with his elbows on the table.
"Why did you do it, Wat?" he asked. "Was it the money?"
Wat and his lawyer exchanged looks. "No comment," Wat said.
"Would he not come back to you? Did you beg him to change his mind and retract his statement? Did he laugh in your face? Did you feel the red mist rising, Wat? Was it impossible to control?"
"No comment," Wat ground out through gritted teeth, fists clenched on his knees.
Lewis leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs. "We called the house," he said, voice light and conversational. "She's not there. We asked at the neighbours and no one's seen her in a week, your Margie. Or your boys."
Wat's chest rose and fell a little faster, but he said nothing.
"DC Bhatia had a lovely chat with Mrs Winters. You know her; she's the char at the Sullivan place. She told my officer that she'd seen your Margie trying to get a big suitcase into the back of her four by four and yelling at the kids for running riot." Lewis rubbed under his nose with a finger. "She's a helpful sort, Mrs Winters, so she went over to help out. Very grateful, apparently, your Margie. Told Mrs Winters she didn't know when she'd be back and to help herself to the snapdragons because she wanted to know someone would enjoy them. Thoughtful lady, your Margie." He paused, adjusting his shirtsleeves. "Only she isn't, is she? Your Margie, that is. Not any more."
Despite the heat in the room, Wat was pale. "Don't say that," he said. "She'll always be my girl."
Lewis shook his head. "No. And let's face it, Wat, she abandoned a sinking ship. What kind of person does that to a husband? You're better off without her. Your sons, too, if that's the example she's setting."
"No!" yelled Wat, standing up and thumping the table. "She's not like that. It's not like that! It's all my fault. She couldn't bear it, you see, watching me rage and despair. Like some caged animal, she said. It frightened her. I frightened her." He collapsed back onto his chair, burying his head in his hands. "How could I do that to her? How could I make her so scared she'd leave? I only wanted her to come back and I couldn't think how. I thought maybe he could help me. He always knew the right things to say. I thought, if I can get him back on board I won't have a reason to rant and rave and everything can get back to normal."
"Wat," warned his lawyer.
Wat turned red-rimmed eyes on the man. "I can't stand it any more," he said. "I've smashed every mirror in my house because I'd rather have the bad luck than see this stupid mug. This stupid, idiot mug."
"Talk to me," said Lewis, his gentle voice redirecting Wat's attention. "It's okay, Wat, just talk to me."
"Bugger," said Hathaway.
"What? We're on the verge of a confession. Robbie's working his magic again. What could you possibly have to be unhappy about?"
"I liked him."
Innocent's mouth twisted in sympathy. "Life does have a nasty habit of disappointing one, doesn't it? It's probably supposed to make the good parts sweeter, but really, it's just a nuisance."
"Something like that, ma'am," agreed Hathaway, returning his attention to the interview room.
Wat seemed older and heavier, somehow, tucked into himself with sad eyes and drooping jowls. "I didn't mean it," he said.
"Didn't mean what?" prompted Lewis when Wat failed to continue.
"To kill Alfie."
Wat's lawyer rolled his eyes and threw up his hands in despair.
"Ignore Marcel Marceau," said Lewis. "You didn't mean to kill Alfie."
Wat shook his head. "I just wanted to talk. I wanted him to change his mind or something, but he was...God, he was a right bastard. He said I didn't care if I crippled children and made their lives a living hell just as long as my boys were all right. He said I was self-serving and vile and all sorts, and he wouldn't let me get a word in edgeways, not one. He wouldn't let me tell him how the report was skewed and that we'd already made significant changes to our practice in the East. I kept trying, but he sneered and he, he, he browbeat me and he wouldn't listen to reason and I said, 'Alfie, please,' and I picked up the bradawl, just to threaten. Just to make him stop, like. I never meant to harm him, I swear."
He stopped, head drooping as if weighed down by remembrance.
"He laughed. He said, 'What do you think you're going to do with that? Chisel me into submission?' And then he said I was pathetic and then I couldn't...so I...and it went in so easy, so easy, and then he wasn't saying anything else. So I ran. God help me, I ran."
Lewis sighed. "It happens, you know, Wat. And we could have sorted something out with the judge about how it was all an accident and in the heat of the moment, but there's this one thing."
"What?" Wat looked up.
Lewis's eyes were steel. "You deliberately, and with malice aforethought, murdered Paul Tark in cold blood."
"I-I-I..." stammered Wat.
"Any leniency you might have expected flew out of the window the second you stabbed him to death. Do you understand me?"
"Tell me why, Wat. Explain to me why you couldn't stop at Alfie. What did Paul know?"
Wat looked at his lawyer, desperation in his eyes. The lawyer shrugged. Might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. Wat licked his lips.
"He phoned me yesterday. Said he had some information about Alfie's death and could we meet? We did. He had photos. There was a deer, see, that he'd been taking pictures of, and in the background of some of the shots there was the barn and there was me, going in. Time and date stamped and that was me screwed six ways from Saturday. He knew my face because of that bloody Awards Dinner mugshot."
"Why did he come to you? Why not straight to the police?"
"He said he wanted to give me the chance to give myself up. Said it would go better for me. Said he was making positive changes in his life and maybe I'd want to as well."
Lewis pressed his fingertips into his temples and closed his eyes for a second. Outside in the observation room, Hathaway leaned his forehead against the window.
"So you killed him."
"I panicked. I thought I already had my punishment for Alfie because I'd lost Margie and the boys. I couldn't face prison, too."
"Don't tell me this wasn't planned. You took the weapon with you."
"It was just in case," Wat pleaded. "You have to believe me."
"I don't have to believe anything," said Lewis, voice like stone. "Wat Nicholas, I am arresting you for the murders of Alfie Byerley and Paul Tark. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence." He turned to the uniformed officer standing silent in the corner of the room. "Get him out of my sight," he said.
"I'm so sorry," said Wat as he was ushered from the room. He seemed half the man he had been only two days before, barely able to fill his suit, let alone the room. "I'm so, so sorry."
Lewis did not look up. Once the room was quiet he stood and with slow movements unrolled his shirtsleeves, fastening the cuff buttons. He looked over to the one-way mirror with tired eyes. Behind it, Hathaway stuffed his hands in his pockets and let out a long, deep breath.
"Good result," Innocent said.
"If you say so," said Hathaway.
In the small, sterile room, Xan lay on the bed with her gently rounded belly exposed. She giggled as the cold gel hit her skin, squeezing the two hands that were holding hers--Sol stationed by her left shoulder and Jamila by her right. The technician placed the sensor against her abdomen and pressed firmly, looking at the screen as she moved it over the surface of Xan's abdomen, searching for the best position.
"Look," she said. "There's the face, can you see it?"
The black and white image was grainy, but there it was, the rounded shape of a baby's head, dark shadows where the eyes would be.
"It's so real," breathed Sol and Xan laughed, her breath catching on a sob.
"It's our baby," she said, awed, and then, "Oh, fucking hell, what did we do?"
Jamila laughed. "It's all right, Xan. See its little fist? That's the solidarity salute. This one already knows right from wrong. It will be easy."
"I wish," said Xan, frowning as her phone began to ring. "Sorry," she said to the technician. "You, er, carry on."
Jamila fished the phone out of Xan's pocket and held it to her ear.
"Hello?" As she listened, silent tears began to spill down her cheeks. After a short while she said, "Thank you for letting me know," and turned her head away. Jamila hung up.
Sol and Jamila looked at Xan, concerned.
"They caught him," she said. "It's over."
"I want to say something profound about life ending and life beginning," said Sol, "but it's too sad."
Jamila nodded and reached across Xan to take his hand, the three of them connected. The baby on the screen, oblivious to the grief in the room, stretched out its arm.
The paperwork took what felt like forever, each 't' crossed and each 'i' dotted with methodical, dispirited care. Back home, Robbie colonised the middle of the couch whilst James brought beers from the fridge, handing Robbie a glass with his bottle and collapsing in the corner beside him.
"I wasn't sure if you'd want the glass or if you'd be okay with the bottle."
"Depends on the beer," Robbie said. "Glass for this one. Always coasters, though. Val could never abide the watermarks on the furniture and it rubbed off on me."
"Coasters, check," said James. "Where are they?"
"In the coffee table drawer. Probably."
James leaned forward and opened the drawer, taking out a couple of coasters and dropping them on the table. "There you are. Coast away." He flopped back, slouching down and putting his feet up on the coffee table. "We'll get the hang of this, sir. Robbie."
"Aye," said Robbie, pouring out his beer and taking a sip, putting the glass on the table well out of the reach of James's long toes. "That we will." He stretched over, picked up the remote from the arm of the sofa and switched on the TV. The warm voice of Monty Don filled the room.
"Really? Gardening? After the day we've had?" James sighed and let his head roll, temple grazing Robbie's shoulder. "All right, if you insist, but I reserve the right of veto if you try and watch more than one home improvement show in one sitting. Also, I have a standing date with BBC4's music output, just for your information."
"Fair enough, bonnie lad," said Robbie, patting James's knee. "Now shut up, will you, while I find out about key culinary herbs. You never know what'll come in handy."
"If you say so," said James. "I can see I'm going to be riveted. Poke me if I snore."
James wasn't snoring, but Robbie poked him anyway.