Death doesn’t do much for anyone’s looks, but it was obvious the girl had never been a beauty. She was a big lass, but she had refused to let this dictate her wardrobe choices: a rubber ring of white flesh spilled out between the bottom of her tight yellow T-shirt and the top of her skirt. If you could call it a skirt, that was: the crushed purple velvet had barely begun before it ended, giving way to an expanse of pasty thigh topped with a flash of greying knickers. In other words, she looked exactly like the millions of girls who fell cackling out of chain pubs clutching bottles of unlikely-coloured alcohol every Friday night. Except, of course, for the fact that she was hanging from a tree.
Inspector Mike Braithwaite waited for the body to revolve until it was facing him, and squinted up through the hood of lank, rain-matted black hair that hung in front of its face. He would put her in her late teens, possibly older. Asphyxiation ages anyone, giving them the knotted brow and florid face of a long-term wino. It tends to loosen their bowels so that they smell like one too.
He turned to the white-overalled figure who stood patiently beside him, clipboard in hand. ‘What can you tell me about this girl, then?’
The pathologist smirked. ‘Quite a lot by the sound of it.’ She reached out and lifted the front of the corpse’s miniskirt with her pen.
‘It was one of the first things they taught us at medical school.’
They gazed at the Y-fronts and their unmistakable contents for a few seconds.
‘Right. Well. OK. What can you tell me about him, then?’
‘He needs to learn to accessorise,’ said the pathologist, bluntly. Hauled from her bed just after seven, she had been waiting in the rain for nearly an hour for the duty officer to turn up and have a look at the corpse in situ, at which point she would be able to get it down and stand some chance of being able to tell anyone anything.
The inspector looked at the corpse’s trainers and white towelling socks, which were slowly revolving about a foot above the muddy floor of the clearing. The woman had a point. His Marks and Spencers’ suit and Hush Puppies hardly qualified him as a fashion critic, but personally he wouldn’t have teamed yellow with purple, either.
‘Enjoyable as this is, do you think…?’ sighed the pathologist.
‘Hang on just one second.’ There was something else odd about the trainers. Dressy they might not have been, but clean they certainly were. He squatted down until his eyes were level with the soles. Apart from a splodge of grey chewing gum on the left instep, they were both clean and dry. The brisk walk from the nearest road had left his own shoes sodden through and added nearly an inch to his height in mud and rotting leaves. And it had already been raining by the time he went to bed the night before.
‘All right, go ahead,’ he told the pathologist and straightened up with only slight difficulty. The SOC officers came forward with a stepladder to take the body down and a younger black man in a smart, but now mud-dappled, suit who had been hovering on the edge of the clearing also took this as his signal to move forward.
‘Morning, Nelson. Nice start to the day.’
‘Could be worse, sir, it could be raining.’ The sergeant grinned damply.
‘So what’s the story?’
Vic Nelson drew a notebook out of his pocket, shielding its pages from the rain, which had begun to fall more heavily again. ‘Discovered by an old lady walking her dog at seven a.m. She usually goes up towards Putney, she doesn’t like this bit of the Common ‘cos she says there are “lurkers”’. He smiled at the phrase. ‘But she nipped over the road this morning ‘cos it was raining, and the dog was desperate, and this was the first thing she saw. She started screaming, along came a jogger with a mobile, and he called us. I’ve got statements from both of them.’
‘Well done.’ A sudden flurry of voices behind them made both men turn. The ladder had given a violent lurch to the side, leaving one officer clutching at the top and berating his colleague below. Where the soaking rope had touched his overalls a green stripe of mould disfigured the white.
‘That doesn’t look like it was put up last night,’ observed Braithwaite.
‘No, sir. Apparently it was a sort of swing for the kiddies. Put up by one of the local dads a few years ago.’
Braithwaite was impressed by Nelson’s conscientiousness. Not many officers would have stayed out in the rain long enough to find out that sort of incidental detail. Even his notebook was neatly laid out, with today’s date – 17th September – fastidiously inscribed at the head of the page. That would be enough to rouse the suspicions of any self-respecting magistrate, who would automatically assume it had been cooked up several days later in the station canteen. But Nelson had only made sergeant a couple of weeks ago. This punctiliousness probably wouldn’t last.
They watched as the body was successfully detached from the tree and laid out on a groundsheet. As the wet hair slid away from its face, his initial mistake seemed even more ridiculous. It was obviously a bloke, and a young one, too. He was broad-chested with a generous coating of puppy fat, but he had a long way to go before he developed a cleavage.
‘What does his T-shirt say?’ he asked Nelson, squinting at the white slogan that had been rendered all-but invisible by the sodden material.
‘Slut Machine,’ read the sergeant.
‘Ah,’ exclaimed the pathologist. ‘This is interesting.’ She gestured at the corpse’s neck. ‘You see this bruising, here?’
Braithwaite dutifully aimed his eyes in the correct direction, and hoped his look of polite comprehension was more convincing than Nelson’s.
‘That indicates sideways pressure. Assuming he started off there – ’ she pointed at the ivy-clad trunk of a fallen tree a few feet away – ‘it could just mean he throttled himself pretty effectively before he stepped off the trunk and let gravity do the rest – which would happen anyway as he lost consciousness – but it could mean that someone else was pulling on the rope.’
‘So it could be suicide or murder.’
She nodded apologetically. ‘Sorry.’
Bugger, thought Braithwaite. Suicide was painless, at least when it came to paperwork. A murder could leave them tied up for months.
‘Hard way to murder someone, though, isn’t it? Hanging?’ asked Nelson.
‘Not unknown,’ said Braithwaite, in an authoritative tone which might have suggested to the younger officer that he had been involved in more homicide investigations than was strictly the case. ‘It can be sort of a ritualistic thing – like an execution. A lot of gangland cases like that.’
‘Or lynching. Like the Ku Klux Klan.’
‘Uh-uh.’ Braithwaite thought it unlikely the Klan had opened a chapter in Barnes without anyone noticing, but he had been lecturing Nelson only yesterday about the importance of keeping an open mind.
The SOC officers had begun packing the corpse into a body bag ready for its trip to the mortuary. ‘I don’t suppose there’s any ID on him, is there?’ he asked hopefully.
‘Not a sausage, sir,’ replied one with a grin. ‘He didn’t have any pockets, or a handbag.’
‘See? No idea about accessorising,’ remarked the pathologist, shrugging off her overalls.
‘Still, bloke in a miniskirt, though,’ Braithwaite observed as the bag was zipped closed. ‘People tend to remember them.’
Superintendent Ivan Richardson had nothing against the gays. He had made sure of that when the order had come down from the new Met commissioner that crime against what he had learned to call the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community was a Respect Priority, and he’d spent several hours going through the records making sure that all references to a particularly ribald speech he had made at the Police Federation conference in 1988 had been excised. The only thing he minded was that they didn’t do anything near him, which meant that he was completely unable to demonstrate just what an inclusive, diverse and forward-thinking borough he was running.
He had managed to set up a community safety unit under the slightly bemused leadership of Tom Bourne, an inspector in the traffic division who, after 15 years of unexceptional service, had brought his boyfriend along to the nick Christmas party for the first time and found his career suddenly and unexpectedly fast-tracked. Sadly, however, their particular corner of South London had yielded very little in the way of hate crime, and Bourne had spent much of his time since his promotion installing window locks for pensioners and scrubbing out graffiti at bus stops. Now, however, a genuine dead transvestite had turned up slap-bang in the middle of Richardson’s patch, and with the rumour of a Chief Super’s vacancy on the Specialist Crime Directorate going begging, he intended to milk it for everything he could.
It was just the actual mechanics of the thing he had difficulty getting his head round. ‘So… Barnes Common. Is it known as a – ’ The superintendent paused, searching for the acceptable phrase from the thick pamphlet of anti-discrimination guidelines that he kept in his top desk drawer. ‘ – cruising ground?’ He aimed the question directly at Bourne before realising that this itself might be rather discriminatory and widening his embarrassed smile out to include Braithwaite and Nelson in the enquiry.
‘It’s not known for it, sir,’ replied Bourne, who had also had to read up on this sort of thing, his own outdoor leisure activities stretching no further than pottering round garden centres and the odd bracing walk in the countryside when they visited his boyfriend’s parents. ‘Generally, Brompton Cemetery tends to see most of the action at that end of town. But from what Inspector Braithwaite says, the area was quite secluded in amongst the trees, so…’
‘Needs must as the devil drives, eh?’ Richardson said, and instantly regretted it. ‘Not that the devil, er… And of course, we’ve no reason to think that this chap was, er, that way inclined, merely, ah… that is to say, er, it’s not necessarily the same thing, as we all know. He may have been transsexual or transgender,’ he said, the practised ease with which he rattled off the jargon disguising the fact that he had learned it from a hurried perusal of the official guidelines five minutes before the meeting, and was still unclear as to the difference between the two (he suspected it was something to do with whether or not you’d had the chop yet). ‘What do you think, Tom? It’s possible he may merely have been a cross-dresser.’
‘I love that phrase. It always makes me think of men getting very angry because they can’t get their trousers on,’ grinned Bourne, who saw it as his duty to protect his nominal community from being patronised as much as victimised, and always enjoyed the way the superintendent’s bald patch went red when he was embarrassed. He scanned the details of the corpse’s appearance from Nelson’s notebook. ‘Well, from what he was wearing, it sounds like he was most likely out on a stag night.’
Richardson’s visions of glory shimmered in front of his eyes. ‘What?’
‘Well, from the sounds of this, apart from the skirt he hadn’t gone to much effort. Most transvestites really go for it – shoes, make-up, the full stockings and suspenders. Whereas he was just in his Calvins.’
Richardson tried to picture the contents of his wife’s underwear drawer. He couldn’t remember the last time she had bothered with stockings and suspenders. ‘Couldn’t he just have been… trying something out?’
‘A fetishistic thing?’ Bourne grinned. ‘Perhaps. Or maybe he’s Scottish, and his kilt was at the dry cleaners.’
Braithwaite chuckled, and the superintendent glared at him. As far as he was concerned, Bourne making jokes about such matters was a valid form of self-expression, but if anyone else laughed at them, it was harassment. ‘I asked you to draw up a list of all the trans venues on our patch, Tom.’ He smiled serenely, pleased that he’d been able to find an opportunity to slip in the correct phrase.
‘Oh, was that connected with this investigation?’ asked Bourne innocently. ‘I didn’t realise. There are a couple of drag bars up in Vauxhall, as well as several clubs that specialise in S&M activities. I thought it was worth considering the possibility of auto-erotic asphyxiation. There’s details in here.’ He passed a copy of Boyz magazine, held open with a paperclip on the Rough Scene page, across the desk to Richardson, and watched with interest as his eyes widened and his head turned a vivid shade of purple. ‘I’ve never seen the attraction, myself,’ he said conversationally. ‘I mean, how do you discover that’s what you’re into? Do you just do your belt up a notch too tight one morning and think, oh, hello?’
Braithwaite thought it might be an idea to step in before Richardson’s blood pressure reached volcanic level. ‘I’ve been on the central computer and pulled up a couple of similar cases that would be worth checking out,’ he announced, standing up to disperse sheets of paper to everyone present. His still-damp shoes oozed unpleasantly. He had spread a significant amount of Barnes Common onto both the carpet tiles in the CID room and the thick shag pile of Richardson’s office.
The handouts did not include the most impressive aspect of his afternoon’s work – the fact that for the first time ever he had managed to log into the central computer network without asking for help from a younger colleague – but they did contain details of three cases involving violent attacks on transvestites: two stabbings in Lincolnshire for which a painter and decorator who claimed to have a personal hotline to the almighty was still serving life in a secure hospital (he had given himself up after abandoning a third attack when he realised his intended victim was not in fact an aberration in the face of God, but a well-built but undeniably female retired headmistress from Scunthorpe), and a cause celèbre from a few years back which had become known as ‘the Lola murder’, all the evidence having pointed to the victim having left a wine bar with a man who had failed to realise his gender until they were so intimately engaged that the evidence was unmissable, and subsequently been beaten to death. It remained unsolved. ‘I’ve put a call into the investigating office on that last one,’ he told Richardson. ‘He should be getting back to me tomorrow.
‘Where’s that?’ asked Richardson, who had subsided to a less alarming hue.
Which was bugger all use, thought the superintendent. What was the point of letting anyone in Yorkshire know what a good job he was doing? ‘I want a low-level alert put out to all boroughs,’ he announced. ‘I don’t think we should take any chances on this. Until we know otherwise, we’ll treat this as a murder investigation. It’s important that when we’re dealing with minority communities like this that we keep our backs covered. I mean… obviously I don’t mean. You know what I mean.’ He gazed up at the framed picture of himself with John Major when he came to open the new station at Battersea as if drawing strength from it. ‘I will not tolerate even the possibility of violence against the LGBT community on our patch.’
‘That could be seen as discriminatory to the fetish scene,’ pointed out Bourne, who couldn’t resist it. The superintendent’s scalp went as scarlet as a well-slapped bottom.
‘I’m taking a personal interest in this one,’ he announced, shuffling his papers and making sure the magazine was at the bottom of the pile. ‘Any queries – er, problems, are to be directed to me. Overtime is authorised. I want officers in both these drag bars you mentioned tonight, checking whether anyone recognises the victim’s description. A discreet presence, mind. I don’t want to cause a panic. And Inspector Braithwaite – ’ he gave him a pained look ‘ – I suppose you’d better do the rounds in Barnes and check whether there were any stag do’s last night.’
‘Right,’ said Bourne, standing up to leave. ‘You heard what the superintendent said. Last one in the pub’s a poof.’
George Starke, the proprietor of the Lipstick Lounge, aimed an apologetic moue across the counter at Sergeant Nelson, who shifted slightly uncomfortably in his seat. ‘What did you say he was wearing again?’
The bar was lined with neon, and Nelson’s notebook was bathed in a soft pink light as he checked his notes. ‘A yellow top and a purple miniskirt.’
Starke, a slim figure whose cropped bleached hairstyle looked several decades younger than the rest of him, pursed his lips. ‘Doesn’t sound likely. Yellow with purple? Are you sure? No, I’m afraid I don’t remember anyone like that at all. What sort of top was it? How was it cut?’
It was the sort of question Nelson’s girlfriend tended to ask, and was never able to provide a satisfactory answer for her either. ‘It was sort of… quite tight, and it came down at the front like this,’ he said lamely, sketching a neckline on his own shirtfront. ‘It had Slut Machine written on the front, in white lettering.’
Starke raised a pair of perfectly plucked eyebrows towards the ceiling. ‘It sounds like the sort of thing they sell to fourteen-year-olds in Top Shop. I can assure you none of our regulars would be seen dead in anything like that.’
‘Well, that’s really what I’m trying to ascertain,’ said Nelson with as polite a smile as he could muster.
Starke nodded apologetically. ‘Look, I’ll have a word with my staff when they get in. They might remember something.’
‘Thank you.’ Nelson looked around the deserted club, which, like Starke himself, was clearly designed to look its best in the hours of darkness and through an alcoholic haze. ‘And you don’t mind if I stick around tonight? Talk to some of your customers?’
Starke leaned across the bar and laid a manicured hand on Nelson’s sleeve. ‘You, sergeant, can stay for as long as you like.’
He gave a weak smile. ‘I think I’d better have a drink then.’
‘One pint of London Pride. No, no, put your money away, inspector. It’s on the house.’
‘Thank you very much.’ Braithwaite returned his wallet to his pocket and raised the glass to his lips. Funny how generous landlords could be when you ordered a pint before telling them you weren’t the licensing officer. ‘I’m investigating the death of a man whose body was found on the Common last night. I wonder if he might have been in here.’
The man folded thick arms across his chest, looking wary. ‘What was his name?’
‘I don’t know, I’m afraid.’ Braithwaite took another glug of the beer and wiped his mouth. ‘He wasn’t carrying any identification. But he was wearing a skirt.’
A look of understanding spread across the man’s face. ‘Oh, gotcha. I understand why you’ve come in, then. No, it was a quiet night last night. There’s no practice on Wednesdays, so we tend to just get the old boys in rather than the younger lads.’ He gestured towards some tables on the far side of the bar, which had been hauled together at the centre of a messy scrum of young men in rugby shirts who kept intermittently bursting out in loud cheers for no apparent reason. ‘That’s our second Fifteen, there. In with a shot at the Canterbury Shield this season, you know.’
‘Really?’ Braithwaite had no idea what this meant, but it was obviously a good thing. ‘The lad we’re looking for was in his late teens or early twenties. Shoulder-length black hair. Quite well-built, bit plump, around five foot ten.’
The man nodded. ‘Sounds like a good prop forward. Not one of ours though. Unless it was Tom Donnelly’s lad.’ He leaned across the bar and bellowed. ‘Gopsy! You seen Dolly Diggle today?’
One of the lads broke away from an elaborate round of toasts for a second and fog-horned back: ‘Yeah, he was round at Smegsy’s earlier!’
The barman turned back to Braithwaite. ‘There you go then. What exactly was this lad wearing?’
‘A purple miniskirt.’
‘Well, he’s not gonna be one of ours, then!’ He turned to an older woman who was polishing glasses at the other end of the bar. ‘Here, Donna! This policeman’s looking for a bloke in a purple skirt, reckons he could be one of ours!’ He shook his head incredulously. ‘Why d’you think they call us the Leprechauns, then? If he was in purple, he’ll be from the Merton Harriers.’
Braithwaite stared glumly down into his beer. It was going to be a long night.
The woman had abandoned her half-hearted glass cleaning and wandered down to their end of the bar where she was studying Braithwaite with interest. Her outfit was well-designed to draw attention to a generous cleavage but above it was a wide, friendly face topped with what was either a dye job that had long since grown out or an exceptionally bad set of highlights. ‘What’s it all about, then?’
Assuming this was not a philosophical inquiry, he told her. ‘A body was found on the Common last night. A young man. We’re trying to identify him.’
Her colleague was not finished yet. ‘And he thought he might be one of ours! In purple!’
‘Shut up, Don, and make yourself useful and collect some glasses.’ To Braithwaite’s relief, the man lifted the hinged flap in the bar, waddled off to the other side of the room and joined in a tuneless chorus of Bestiality’s Best, Boys. ‘Now, where was this lad found exactly?’
‘Up by the football ground. Near the junction with Queens Ride.’
She frowned. ‘Well, that’s weird.’
He gulped at his beer. ‘Why’s that?’
She chewed her bottom lip, transferring vivid red lipstick onto her teeth. ‘It’s just when I was driving home last night after locking up here, there was a car parked on the verge there, up by the trees. I thought it was weird at the time.’
Braithwaite pushed his half-full glass aside and pulled out a notebook. ‘Can you remember what sort of car?’
‘Oh, I’m no good at that,’ she said, waving a hand dismissively in his direction. ‘It was a black one, or blue, it’s hard to tell under the streetlights, isn’t it? About the same size as mine, I think. That’s a Fiesta. To be honest I didn’t notice much, I was too busy looking at the bloke getting in it.’
A sudden burst of ‘rip-roar-a-tie-tie-ay’ threatened to drown her words out. ‘You saw the driver?’ gasped Braithwaite. ‘What did he look like?’
‘Slim. Dark hair, short like yours, but a bit more of it, if you don’t mind me saying so.’ A trio had broken away from the group and was standing at the other end of the bar bashing beer glasses on the counter and calling in her direction. ‘Just hold on a second! I only saw him from behind. He was wearing a black suit, I remember. Looked a bit shabby. I’m sorry, would you excuse me, officer? If I don’t keep this lot topped up with lager they tend to start weeing in the glasses.’
‘Was there anything else?’ he called after her as she disappeared up the bar, chiding the rowdy customers. ‘Anything at all you can remember?’
‘He had a nice arse,’ she called over her shoulder, and the room erupted into raucous cheers. Braithwaite just hoped Nelson was having a more civilised evening.
‘Have we got any lesbians in tonight? Ooh yes, I thought I could smell something.’
Nelson sighed and edged further into his corner of the bar, trying to avoid the basilisk stare of the terrifying vision on stage. Eight feet from the tip of her bride-of-Frankenstein wig to her platform heels, a vision in ice-blue rubber, she had sashayed onto the stage just after nine, introduced herself as Krystal Meths and set about roundly abusing the front few rows of the audience. The resulting gales of laughter achieved what 100 decibels of Europop had failed to do, and forced him to abandon his attempts at questioning the clientele. Not that it had got him anywhere, anyway. Most of the customers had assumed initially that he was trying to pick them up, subsequently that he was trying to pick an 18-year-old in a purple miniskirt up, and finally, when he grasped what he was actually talking about, that they were in imminent danger of being murdered themselves. It was all very well for Richardson to talk about being discreet, Nelson mused. You try keeping something low-key in a room full of drag queens.
He supped at the bottle of Stella he had been nursing for the last three quarters of an hour and scanned the room once again. While many of the bar’s customers had moved away from the stage to escape the attention of Ms Meths, others seemed to be positively encouraging it. One in particular – a man who had made no concession to the bar’s theme and was instead wearing a black suit with an open collared shirt – had made his way to the front of the stage, and was standing with his hands in his pockets, a smile on his face and his gaze fixed intently on her performance. Nelson looked round for George Starke to ask if the man was a regular, but the bar owner seemed to have disappeared.
After five minutes or so of good-natured abuse, Krystal introduced the first act, one Dixie Wrecked, who came on stage as a cowgirl complete with stetson and bullwhip and sang her way through a version of Calamity Jane that was decidedly unsuitable for family audiences. As she launched into the second verse of Just Blew Everyone In The Windy City Nelson’s phone rang, and he abandoned his bottle and went out on to the pavement to answer it.
‘Hello, sir. How are you getting on?’
‘Not bad,’ Braithwaite told him. ‘No one recalls seeing a man in a skirt, but I’ve got a description of a man who was seen parking his car not far from where the body was found at about midnight. Might be nothing, but we ought at least to try and eliminate him from our inquiries.’ He outlined the barmaid’s description, not forgetting any details.
‘Right,’ said Nelson thoughtfully, glancing back through the smoked glass doors. The man in the suit was still standing transfixed in front of the stage. His hair was brown, and his arse appeared, in the sergeant’s disinterested opinion, not to be entirely aesthetically unpleasing.
‘How about you? How are you getting on?’
‘Oh, not brilliantly.’ Even at this distance, he had to raise his voice over the sound of Dixie’s whip cracking away. ‘I think all I’ve done is given them something new to gossip about. It’s like Chinese whispers. One bloke just asked me if it was true that there was a serial killer trying to murder every drag queen in the country.’
‘Most of these sort of routine inquiries don’t turn up anything,’ said Braithwaite apologetically. ‘But you never know when you might get lucky.’
‘Hmm,’ said Nelson. He realised he had been very obviously staring at the stranger’s bottom for several seconds, felt momentarily embarrassed, and then remembered that no one in the bar would pass judgement.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ said Braithwaite. ‘Don’t stay out any longer than you need to.’
‘No, it’s all right, sir,’ said Nelson thoughtfully. ‘I think I might stick around for a while.’
Nelson had been told many times during his two years as a constable that police work was ninety per cent perspiration and ten per cent inspiration, and he put the phone down on Braithwaite with a thrilling feeling that all that sweating on the beat might be about to pay off. By eleven that evening, however, he was ready to reconsider. Dixie Wrecked had been followed by a blonde and a redhead who he wouldn’t have realised were meant to be Agnetha and Anni-Frid unless he had recognised the Abba songs they had spent twenty minutes miming along to, then Krystal had run a tombola – Nelson was now the proud owner of a six-inch black rubber butt-plug, which he had every intention of losing on the way home – before Dixie had returned in eveningwear and pearls to sing Hardons Are A Girl’s Best Friend and My Arse Belongs to Daddy. Throughout all this, the man in the suit had not moved from his spot at the front of the stage. While the rest of the crowd milled around, mingling, chatting and yo-yoing between the bar, the gents and their tables, he had not once looked away from the stage. He had finished his drink more than an hour ago, but not made any attempt to get another.
Nelson had been just about to move in and try to engage his target in conversation – an interesting challenge, since he really did want to know whether he came here often – when his path had been blocked by a chubby young man in a sequinned T-shirt who had introduced himself as Matthew and treated him to such rapid questioning that he felt he now had some idea of what it must be like to be on the other side of the table in the interrogation room. They had covered music – establishing that Nelson, perhaps uniquely in this establishment, did not know the difference between Diana Ross and Donna Summer – favourite drinks, shoes and fashion designers, before Matthew got round to asking Nelson what he did for a living.
Squinting over his shoulder at his target, the sergeant answered without thinking. ‘I’m a p – ’
‘A what, sorry?’
Fixed on his new course of action, Nelson had no desire to reveal his original purpose in coming to the Lipstick Lounge. He racked his brain for another job that began with P.
Matthew looked intrigued. ‘A pirate? So where do you do that?’
‘Oh, south of the river mostly,’ Nelson said absently. His target was finally moving. He slipped through the crowd and went through the door to the gents, which was situated to the side of the stage. Matthew glanced round to see what he was looking at.
‘Sorry, are you looking for someone?’
‘No, no,’ Nelson assured him. A fat lot of good at undercover work he was turning out to be. ‘It’s just… I’m just really into drag queens.’
‘Ok.’ Matthew looked at him quizzically. ‘I’ve never seen you here before.’
‘No, I… I’m new in town.’ Dixie had finished her song, and the crowd were applauding and moving away from the stage. Nelson tried his best to keep an eye on the door of the gents through the throng of moving bodies. He didn’t want to lose the bloke now.
Matthew seemed to have finally got the message and was moving away. ‘I’m going to just… I’ll see you around.’ Nelson nodded a curt goodbye. Thank God for that.
The door of the gents opened, and his target emerged. But he wasn’t alone. Dixie Wrecked was with him, a long overcoat thrown around her dress. The man was carrying two large bags. Nelson remembered from his own visit to the gents earlier that evening that there was a door marked Private through there; it must lead to the backstage area. If his hunch was right, Dixie was about to do something very dangerous indeed.
He made to follow the pair but with the end of the cabaret, every customer in the place was fighting to get to the bar, and a throng of sweaty bodies blocked his route. He pushed his way through, but by the time he reached the doors of the bar the couple were long gone. He looked up and down the street in desperation.
‘No thanks.’ A queue had built up outside the bar, but through the crush of people he thought he caught a glimpse of a familiar wig. He sprinted after it, sidestepping a pool of fresh vomit and vaulting a young woman whose friends seemed completely unconcerned about the fact that she was unconscious on the pavement. There, dead ahead, was Dixie Wrecked about to get into a car with the man. ‘Stop!’ he shouted, and then added ‘Police!’ for good measure. Dixie looked round, as did everyone else on the street, but she slid into the passenger seat anyway. He was vaguely aware that other footsteps had joined in the chase behind him, but the whole of his energy was devoted to getting the car before it could drive away. As he closed the last few yards on the stationary vehicle and got a hand round the door handle, a voice yelled, ‘Dixie, he’s a murderer!’, and he only had a second to register that it wasn’t him speaking before the door swung open and hit him full in the face, knocking him back onto the pavement and into a world of intense pain.
He blacked out for a second, but his vision returned just in time for him to see an ice-blue platform boot heading for his stomach – although sadly not in time to stop it from reaching its destination. Winded, he attempted to curl his body into a foetal ball, but someone was on top of him, rolling him on to his front and yanking his arm up behind his back with enough force to make some rather pretty white stars flash across his extreme close-up view of the pavement. Someone else sat on his legs. Rather than attempt to struggle, he concentrated hard on trying to get his breath back in order firstly to explain and then to arrest everyone in the vicinity.
‘Who is he?’ he heard Dixie ask from on top of him.
‘He was hanging around all night,’ said Matthew’s breathless voice. ‘With what everyone was saying about the murder, I didn’t think it was worth taking any chances. I went back to tell George but before we could call the police, the bastard had shot off like a rocket following you. Go through his pockets.’
Nelson felt a hand going through his jacket and pulling something out. Oh God, he had forgotten the butt plug.
‘Sick bastard! Was he planning on using that on me?’ Dixie gave Nelson’s arm another sickening twist.
‘He’d have to come through me first,’ said an unfamiliar voice. ‘Turn him over and let’s have a look at him.’
Four pairs of hands bundled Nelson over onto his back, and he gazed up into the faces of Dixie, Krystal, Matthew and the man from the bar.
‘Oh, shit,’ said Krystal Meths, pulling off her wig and turning into a very worried- looking George Starke. ‘It’s the nice policeman I was talking to earlier.
Braithwaite leant back in his chair and howled with laughter. He laughed until the tears streamed down the side of his face, and then he wiped them away with a tissue and laughed some more.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s not funny.’
Nelson regarded him stonily.
‘It’s just…I mean… who was the bloke?’
The sergeant rubbed his arm, which was still aching. ‘Her manager. He was driving her to another gig in Soho.’
‘And was it him who gave you the kicking?’
Nelson paused for a moment, and decided to try and extricate some of his self-respect from the situation. ‘Yeah. He was quite a big guy.’
‘Oh.’ Braithwaite wiped his eyes and picked up a piece of paper from his desk. ‘It’s just that in the report I got Kennington to fax over this morning, the constable who was first on the scene says you were being sat on by two drag queens.’ He dissolved into giggles again, along with several of his colleagues who had abandoned any pretence of working and were listening in on this moment of pure comedy gold. Nelson was never going to hear the end of this one.
‘He also says he’s got your butt-plug if you want to drop in and collect it some time.’
The roar of laughter that followed this made the windows of the CID room rattle. Nelson stood up with as much dignity as he could muster. ‘I think I might go to the canteen,’ he announced.
‘Good idea,’ chuckled Braithwaite, who, while feeling sorry for the young sergeant, knew that tradition dictated he could not be allowed to forget this embarrassment at any point in the near future. He pulled out his wallet and extricated a crumpled fiver. Here you go, breakfast’s on me. And get me an egg butt – er, sandwich, would you?’
He had failed to find anything edible in his own kitchen that morning, his unscheduled trip around Barnes the night before having got in the way of a planned trip to the supermarket to stock up on supplies before his daughter arrived for the weekend. He smiled at the prospect. Braithwaite only had access to his daughter once every fortnight, and it was not nearly often enough. If two weeks felt like a long time to him, it was an age to an 11-year-old, and he regularly found that the enthusiasms that filled Olivia’s mind on one of her visits, and which he had dutifully read up on and even designed possible itineraries around, had faded away by the next. Just a few months ago he had been informed in no uncertain terms that ponies, June’s Best Thing Ever, were completely beyond the pale by July. ‘Only babies like horses,’ she declared witheringly when they were already halfway to the riding stables where he had booked (and paid for) a lesson, and he had been forced to kiss goodbye to 50 quid and pull over to the hard shoulder to search through the AA guidebook and see what else Hertfordshire had to offer to someone whose only passion in life was now, apparently, something called Beanie Babies.
The obvious solution would have been to ask to see Olivia more often, but this was something he shied away from for reasons that were not quite clear even to himself. Braithwaite remained on good terms with Cassie, his ex-wife, largely because it had never occurred to him not to – he was not, after all, the one who had ‘fallen out of love’ after a decade and a half of marriage. He even thought Rupert, the gym instructor who she had since set up home with, seemed a decent enough bloke, if a bit smarmy for his tastes. But his professional life had brought him into contact with too many cases of divorces turned sour, families where children were made both weapon and victim, to risk any such result for Olivia. Cassie might not – probably would not – object to him having Olivia one day every weekend, or even dropping by to help her with her homework during the week. But she had surprised him with one life-shattering decision out of the blue already, and he wasn’t about to give her the opportunity to do it again.
Had it really been so out of the blue? According to his sister Susan, he should have seen it coming. He had arrived on her doorstep one night five years previously, bearing two bottles of red wine and a solicitor’s letter, and they had spent a good evening demolishing all three. Susan, who was still single in her late thirties and had long-since declared herself happily on the shelf, had quizzed him on whether he had ever suspected Cassie of anything, and the best he could dreg up was a dishonourable (and quickly checked) twinge of suspicion when she started going to Salsa classes by herself six months previously, at which Susan positively cackled.
‘And you didn’t realise?’
He had gazed at her befuddledly.
‘Salsa is Spanish for “desperate for a shag”. It’s the last gasp of the sexually frustrated. The ones who are too boring for speed dating and too old to go to work with a hangover after picking someone up in a bar. Think about it. It’s not dancing, it’s wanking to music.’
‘I don’t think…’
‘Honestly, Michael, it’s like putting a sign up saying “vagina available, all reasonable offers considered”. The last, sad stand of the ovaries before they wave a little white flag and retire. The realisation that you’ve exhausted the dating pool and you’re going to have to make do with what’s left.’
‘But I was left!’ Braithwaite had tried to protest, but his voice came out all strangled and high-pitched. It must have been something to do with the wine. A few months after that Olivia told him that Mummy was spending lots of time with Rupert who taught at her dance classes, and he considered ringing Susan to tell her she was right, but by then she was deep in the throes of a whirlwind romance with a mackerel fisherman she had met on the internet. She moved in with him four weeks later and proceeded to have three babies in quick succession. He was always meaning to go and visit them, but the Hebrides were such a long way away.
Nelson had slunk back in with his sandwich, managing to keep his head down and avoid any further taunts from his colleagues. Braithwaite swapped the greasy package for the pathologist’s report on the Barnes Common body, which had been waiting on his desk when he turned up that morning. It narrowed the corpse’s age down to between 18 and 20, though beyond that it was unable to offer much in the way of clues as to who he was, or how he died. There were friction burns on his hands, and fibres which matched the rope beneath his fingernails but, as the report helpfully pointed out, this could either mean that he had been struggling to release it, or attempting to tighten it. While there were no signs that the boy had been struggling with anyone, that didn’t necessarily mean there was no one else involved.
‘Not much use, is it?’ observed Nelson, biting into his own sandwich and expelling a small jet of egg yolk onto his chin.
‘Well, it does point out that he wasn’t wearing any make-up or nail polish, which suggests he wasn’t a habitual transvestite,’ Braithwaite pointed out, rubbing his own chin in the vain hope that Nelson might copy him.
‘Which means I was really wasting my time last night,’ said the sergeant gloomily.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that. You made a very early start on providing material for your retirement speech.’ He chuckled and sipped his coffee, which was, as usual, entirely tasteless – not that this really mattered, as the canteen served it at such a scalding temperature that it deprived the drinker of the use of his taste buds anyway.
‘So what’s our next move?’ asked the sergeant.
‘Door-to-doors around Barnes Common,’ said Braithwaite without much enthusiasm. ‘We need to try to circulate the description we got last night, see if we can find the man in the car. Since you’ve already done your bit trying to track him down, I thought you could stay here and check through the missing person records. Whoever this lad is, it’s likely someone’s noticed he’s not come home by now.’
Nelson perked up. ‘Can I do the door-to-doors instead, sir? Only I… I’d quite like to be out of the station today.’ Ever the optimist, the sergeant figured if he could keep his head down until after the weekend, his colleagues might have found themselves someone else to take the piss out of by Monday.
‘Oh, go on then,’ sighed Braithwaite, who had a rather better understanding of the way police officers’ minds worked. ‘Take Constable Atkins with you.’ He waited until the sergeant was disappearing through the double doors of the CID room before calling after him, ‘You probably won’t find anything. I just hope it’s not too much of a drag for you!’
Neither the missing persons records nor the door-to-doors turned up anything of use. By the end of the day, Braithwaite was picturing a rhinestone-studded memorial in the middle of Barnes Common: the Tomb Of The Unknown Tranny.
Their lack of success did however mean that, for once, Braithwaite was on time to pick up Olivia. He parked his Rover in the drive of Cassie and Rupert’s house, behind the girly 4×4 that his wife’s lover insisted on driving, the name of his gym emblazoned in pink on its side. Braithwaite averted his eyes and ignored with difficulty the fact that its tax disc was out of date – charging him would not get the weekend off to a good start – and rang the doorbell of the house the only two women in the world he had ever loved now called home.
Cassie answered the door, but Olivia was right behind her, and she bounded into his arms with a delighted cry of, ‘Daddy!’ Lifting her into an embrace made his back twinge again, but he wasn’t about to complain.
‘I’ve packed her homework. She needs to do her history and read three chapters before Monday,’ Cassie told him as she handed over Olivia’s backpack. It was a new one, pink like the last, but decorated with a cartoon character he didn’t recognise but who was, according to the writing beneath her, a ‘party girl on the move’. ‘I’ve written down Rupert’s new mobile number for you if there are any problems,’ she continued, passing him a folded piece of paper.
Braithwaite nodded to Rupert, who was standing in the kitchen doorway, brawny arms folded across the front of his sleeveless vest.
‘If I had my own mobile, Dad wouldn’t need Rupert’s number…’ piped up his daughter.
Cassie rolled her eyes. ‘We’ve done this one, Livvy.’ She leant over to kiss her daughter goodbye. Braithwaite was still holding her up, and a familiar perfume entered his nostrils as his ex-wife’s head came close to his own.
‘Well, have a nice time,’ he blustered as he lowered Olivia to the floor. ‘We’ll see you on Sunday.’ The front door closed behind him before he had even started down the path.
His daughter slipped a small hand into his as they walked to the car. ‘Susie Leather’s dad moved to America,’ she announced.
He tried to recall the classmate she was talking about, failed, and settled for a non-committal, ‘Did he?’ as he fiddled with his keys.
‘Now she’ll only see him at Christmas, and in the holidays,’ she continued as she settled into the passenger seat.
‘Is she sad about it?’ Braithwaite reversed out of the drive.
‘Yes, very,’ said Olivia as she began to rifle through the CDs in the glove pocket, trying to find something acceptable. ‘But she’s going to get to go to Disneyworld.’
They ate beans and cheese on toast, Olivia’s favourite, in front of Animal Hospital. She was tired after a long week at school – Cassie had mentioned that she was finding the new year hard – and they made a deal that she would go to bed at eight thirty if he promised on his life to video Friends so she could watch it in the morning (she had only seen every episode a minimum of four times). After he had kissed her goodnight, he poured himself a generous glass of whisky and started flicking through the channels, muting the sound occasionally to listen to the sound of her breathing in the bedroom next door. At least that was one advantage of living in such a small place these days. He used to have to get up and go upstairs to check on her. As usual, he dozed off in his chair before the end of the news, but somehow it was an infinitely more pleasant way to spend an evening when you weren’t the only one in the house.
The next morning was not so easy. Olivia seemed quite happy just to sit around in her pyjamas watching music video after music video, flicking between the channels in the higher reaches of his Sky box to watch seemingly identical bands miming to only marginally different tunes. After a while, he noticed that several of them were accompanied by barely literate and mildly pornographic text messages from viewers scrolling across the bottom of the screen, and decided it was high time she got dressed so they could get going for the day.
‘Getting going’ meant a quick trip to Sainsbury’s, lunch in McDonalds, which pleased Olivia enormously because ‘Rupert says our bodies are temples and we shouldn’t put McNuggets in them’, and therefore pleased him too, and an afternoon at the local City Farm. Olivia stroked a baby chick and fed a new-born lamb with a bottle, which prompted a long discussion of her future career plans – she was torn between becoming a vet or a waitress – but she seemed oddly unsettled, and kept asking him what the time was. In the farm café over a coffee and a milkshake (he persuaded her to go for banana rather than chocolate in vague deference to Rupert’s feelings on the matter), he asked her what was wrong.
‘I just want to get home before six o’clock.’ She blew bubbles in her milkshake, and, in an almost Pavlovian response, he immediately told her to stop it, though he wasn’t sure what harm it actually did.
‘What happens at six?’
‘Fame Factory’s on.’
‘Oh, not another pop show!’ He wasn’t sure how many more boy bands he could take.
‘No!’ Sighing theatrically, his daughter delved in the depths of her backpack and pulled out one of her magazines, passing it to him open on a full page advert. It showed an enormous eye in close-up. He was vaguely aware of having seen it on various advertising hoardings during the past few weeks.
‘Who will catch Eric’s Eye? Find out on Saturdaythe twentieth of September, when the Fame Factory opens its doors for the biggest talent competition the UK has ever seen,’ he read out loud. ‘Don’t miss Fame Factory!’ He looked at his watch and supped up the remains of his coffee. ‘Well, we’d better not then.’
Olivia smiled with relief. ‘It’s supposed to be really funny. Anna Chesterton saw this advert for it and there was this really fat woman who couldn’t sing at all.’
‘It sounds brilliant,’ he said dryly. ‘Come on, have you got everything?’
‘SEVEN THOUSAND contestants. A FULL WEEK of auditions. TWENTY elimination rounds. ONE record contract up for grabs. Who will qualify to enter the FAME FACTORY?’
And ONE presenter who NEEDS elocution lessons, thought Braithwaite, as the weird cadences drifted through the kitchen door to where he was chopping vegetables. Gliding round the supermarket that morning – she had insisted on pushing the trolley with a technique that consisted of getting it up to a breakneck speed and then sprawling on top and surfing along until her progress was halted by a shelf or passing pensioner – Olivia had declared that lasagne was ‘probably’ her favourite food, so lasagne she was getting. It was years since he had cooked a lasagne – unless you counted the ready-made ones he regularly decanted from freezer to microwave at the end of a long day at work – but he was feeling quietly confident. Anyway, he was cheating and using white sauce from a jar.
He scattered the peppers into the pan where the mince and onions were already sizzling and poked his head round the door of the sitting room. ‘Is it good?’
His daughter nodded enthusiastically without looking away from the screen. ‘That’s Eric. He’s one of the judges.’ The camera was revolving around a sharp-faced, brown-haired man in an expensive looking shirt, while the presenter outlined the ‘LITERALLY DOZENS of CHART-TOPPING acts’ whose success was apparently entirely down to him. Braithwaite hadn’t heard of any of them.
‘And it’s just for singers, is it?’
‘Mmm. The rules say you’re not allowed to play an instrument.’
It seemed a generous definition of talent competition to Braithwaite, but he didn’t say anything. Before the divorce, Olivia had been taking piano lessons, but they seemed to have fallen by the wayside. If he’d had his way she’d still be playing, but then it wasn’t as if there was room for a piano in his flat.
A flurry of on-screen computer graphics heralded the arrival of the first contestant in the audition room, which was liberally decorated with the show’s logo, a double F in vast pastel letters reminiscent of the SS insignia. It fitted in well with the programme’s titles, which had depicted what looked like a marching army holding microphones instead of guns.
‘What are you going to sing for us?’ asked the mysterious Eric on screen, his voice deeply unenthusiastic.
‘Angels by Robbie Williams’, replied the hapless auditionee. He was about 17, with pale skin that looked grey and sweaty under the television lights. Braithwaite knew the song – it was one of those ones that somehow sank into your consciousness even if, like him, you hardly ever listened to the radio – but he wouldn’t have recognised it from this lad’s rendition. It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t hold a tune – most of the notes were somewhere in the neighbourhood of where they should be, if not exactly next door – it was the oddly over-theatrical manner in which he performed it. Eyes screwed up, fists clenched at the end of wildly waving arms, he looked like he was delivering an oration at a Mediterranean funeral rather than a pop song. Thankfully, the judges interrupted before he had a chance to tackle the second verse. ‘That was more like Robin Williams than Robbie Williams,’ said the deadpan Eric, to delighted titters from Olivia. Braithwaite wondered if she knew who Robin Williams actually was.
‘Execrable. I hope to God you’re not the standard of auditionee we’re going to get throughout this series, or we might as well all pack up and go home now,’ the judge continued. Braithwaite slipped back to the kitchen to stir the pot. The mince had started to burn.
Snatches of several other faintly familiar songs floated through the wall as he layered the pasta and sauce into the oven dish. Copacabana, rasped out in a Yorkshire accent by someone who was definitely not a showgirl. A leaden He Ain’t Heavy. My Heart Will Go On, twice. Interspersed with this came waspish comments from the judges – ‘If you’d been singing on the Titanic, the passengers would have been grateful when it sank,’ Eric told one of the wannabe Celine Dions – and delighted giggles from Olivia, who kept up her own running commentary for his benefit. ‘You’ve gotta see this one, Dad!’ she would shriek occasionally, and he would poke his head round the kitchen door to watch for a few seconds as another hapless victim trilled his or her way through a few tremulous bars before the spotlight moved onto the judges for them to perform their own masterclass in withering putdowns. Julia – he had missed the bit where her surname and qualifications had been revealed to the world – was obviously cast as the good cop to Eric’s bad, doling out syrupy sympathy to every contestant and even managing to squeeze out a tear after one contestant’s no more than competent rendition of Wind Beneath My Wings. Matthew, who sat at Eric’s right hand, appeared only to be there to make up the numbers, contributing nothing beyond a rambling anecdote about the first time he had seen the Beatles and insisting on calling everyone ‘kid’, which seemed quite endearing until it became painfully obvious that it was just because he couldn’t remember their names.
Most of the contestants seemed to fall into two types he ran into regularly at work: the underdressed girls who stood shivering on the fringes of fights on Friday nights saying limply, ‘Leave it, he ain’t worth it’; or the kind that regularly pitched up at the front desk of the station requesting sponsorship for ‘wacky’ charitable activities, the sort that only a mother or a local newspaper reporter could love. He found the whole spectacle rather depressing.
He had to admit, however, that one auditionee stood out. Slightly older than the bulk of the contestants, and pretty in an elfin kind of way beneath a mop of plum-coloured hair, she made her way shyly to the spot marked on the audition room floor and introduced herself.
‘Such a pretty name,’ oozed Julia.
‘And what made you want to enter Fame Factory?’ asked Matthew, selecting one of the stock questions they fired at all the contestants. Usually, this resulted in a standard stammered answer about their friends and family always saying they had a great voice, but the girl seemed to really stop and consider the question, chewing her bottom lip for a few seconds as if deciding whether or not to unburden herself. Even Eric looked up for his notes for the first time. He looked pleased with what he saw.
‘I think… it’s really for my mum.’ She spoke with a lilting Scottish accent. ‘I used to sing in the church choir when I was a kid, and my mum always used to say I had a lovely voice. But she died when I was fourteen, and I stopped singing then. I went a wee bit off the rails and ran away from home and got into heroin and all sorts. Then last year I met my boyfriend and we both decided we were going to help each other get clean. And neither of us has taken any drugs for eight months now, and we’ve got a place, and I’m always singing at home, and when Si brought the paper home with the advert, he said I should go in for this, and I wasn’t going to, but then I thought, if mum was still alive she’d have loved for me to do it. So here I am.’ She gave a nervous laugh and spread her hands wide. She was lovely, thought Braithwaite, who decided he could delay checking the oven for a couple more minutes.
She certainly had the judges’ undivided attention now. ‘It must have been really hard,’ said Julia, her eyelashes batting away as if her life depended on it.
‘It was. But we got each other through it. I couldnae have done it without him.’
‘What are you going to sing for us?’ asked Eric quietly.
‘Nothing Compares To You,’ said Dawn, and proceeded to give so perfect a rendition of the song that Braithwaite’s arms rose up in goose pimples. The producers had cut most of the performances that night down to just a few seconds, but they let this one run in full. She sang with her eyes closed, swaying slightly on the spot as if her skinny body was too fragile to contain the enormity of her voice. When she finished, all three judges spontaneously began to clap. Dawn looked bashfully down at the floor, wiping her eyes and nose with the sleeves of her jumper.
‘Just out of interest, what made you choose that song?’ asked Eric.
She hiccoughed into her sleeve, a tear visible on the side of her face. ‘It was the one they played at my mum’s funeral,’ she said, in a voice that was almost inaudible.
‘Well, well done, it was very brave of you to come along today. I’m very glad you did. I don’t even have to consult with my colleagues here – you’re definitely through to the next round.’
Dawn burst into excited tears and ran up to the judge’s table to envelop a grinning Eric in a bear hug. How ridiculous, thought Braithwaite, who found he had suddenly got something in his eye. When Dawn was followed by her boyfriend Simon, with whom she obviously shared her bottle of hair dye but not her talent, he nipped through to the kitchen and was pleased to see that the lasagne was not only nearly done, but actually resembled the one in the recipe book. ‘How long does this go on for?’ he asked Olivia.
‘Just till seven. We could eat our dinner on our knees.’ It was as if she had read his mind.
‘No, I want you at the table,’ he replied, holding up a hand to silence any argument. He was old-fashioned, and liked meals to be eaten round the table, as a family. And since he only had actually had a family once a fortnight, it was a rule he was determined to stick to. He went into the kitchen and rummaged through the drawers for a handful of cutlery, placemats and glasses, balanced a couple of paper napkins on top, walked through to the sitting room and dropped the whole lot on the floor.
The dead man from Barnes Common was on his television screen, indisputably alive and belting out What’s New, Pussycat? in his Slut Machine T-shirt. And then he was gone.
‘What was that?’ he demanded of Olivia, who had jumped out of her seat at the noise. The screen was now showing two black kids, a brother and sister by the look of them, harmonising badly on The Rivers of Babylon.
‘What?’ asked his daughter worriedly.
‘What they were just showing?’ He realised he was scaring her and lowered his voice. ‘Just now, the man with the long hair.’
She shrank back into her seat, defensively. ‘It’s just what’s coming up next week.’ She looked at the carpet. ‘You’ve broken that glass.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ He crossed to the sofa, grabbing the remote control and turning the volume up to a level that could probably be heard in the next street, let alone the neighbouring flat. A woman in a long velvet dress which was probably intended to appear elegantly draped around her ample frame but actually made her look upholstered, was belting out Hey Big Spender. The boy from Barnes Common was nowhere to be seen.
‘Do you want me to get a dustpan?’ his daughter asked in a small voice.
‘No, leave it. Go and wash your hands. And don’t step on the carpet without shoes on.’ He was barely aware of her presence as she picked her way round the edge of the room to the bathroom. The screen was swamped by a flurry of graphics, and the closing titles began to scroll down the screen. Braithwaite flicked the mute button, and sat back on the sofa, deep in thought.
‘Don’t even bother taking your coat off.’
Nelson, who had steeled himself ready to be greeted with a reference to either Lily Savage, Dame Edna or Danny La Rue, was only too happy to comply. He allowed himself to be steered back out of the office and down the station stairs as Braithwaite outlined his weekend discovery.
‘And it was definitely him?’ he asked as they emerged into the car park.
The inspector nodded. ‘He was wearing the same yellow T-shirt and everything.’
‘And the skirt?’
‘I don’t know. They, er, only showed him from the waist up.’
‘Hold on,’ said Nelson as they approached the car. ‘There was something about that show in the paper this morning.’ He pulled a crumpled copy of the Sun out of his jacket pocket and leafed through it. ‘Here.’
Braithwaite had finished the article by the time Nelson had negotiated the security barriers that had recently been erected to stop terrorists getting into the police station, and were also doing a magnificent job of stopping police officers getting out. It was largely made up of an interview with Eric Lestrade, who was, apparently, the new acid-tongued terrorist of telly, the man dubbed ‘Evil Eric’ by shell-shocked contestants in TV’s biggest-ever pop talent-show. Though Lestrade claimed in the first paragraph to be ‘determined to find the next Robbie or Kylie, because I know they’re out there’, he seemed more interested in boasting about his own talents (he was, apparently, ‘the man behind boy band A*Sxual and Heart2Heat, the biggest hit of the summer’) while belittling those of anyone who had dared audition for him. ‘Ninety per cent of the kids we saw last week had zero talent, and I’m only doing them a favour by telling them so,’ he told the paper. ‘Besides, you could have the voice of an angel but if you’ve got a face like a bag of spanners, I’m going to tell you so. In the long run, I’m doing you a favour.’ Several of his harsher put-downs from Saturday night’s show were printed in a box alongside the interview under the simple heading, OUCH! Maybe truer than you think, thought Braithwaite.
‘So where are we going?’ asked Nelson. ‘ITV?’
He shook his head. ‘It’s made by an outside company. Portmanteau. The producer’s a guy called Kyle Pennington. No one there seems to pick up their phone before lunchtime, so I thought we’d go over and surprise him. They’re based up in Waterloo.’
‘I’ve never been in a telly studio before,’ remarked an impressed Nelson.
Braithwaite shot him a withering look. ‘It’s just their office, I think. And don’t start getting stars in your eyes, either. TV’s not all that, you know. We had one of those fly-on-the-wall teams at the station a few years ago. It was one of Richardson’s ideas, not long after the Lawrence inquiry: meant to show we were Open and Accountable and whatever the other buzz words were at the time. Even he had to admit it was a mistake in the end. They rearranged the evidence at a burglary scene to get a better shot; ruined a stake-out after six weeks of preparation by trying to record vox-pops with passers by and stopped one of the uniform teams on their way to a fatal stabbing to ask them to run to the car again because they hadn’t got any film in the camera the first time.’
Nelson, who had been inspired to join the police force largely by endless viewing of America’s Grisliest Killings! Cops on Camera! and a hundred other similarly-punctuated reality shows on Sky, muttered something noncommittal and concentrated on finding the best way through the rush hour traffic.
Portmanteau was housed in a shabby building at the back of Waterloo station, its exterior at odds with the gloss and glamour of the programmes which were produced there, though the reception inside was doing its best with some egg-shaped sofas in primary colours and an aquarium full of depressed-looking tropical fish. The walls were decorated with publicity stills from some of the shows the company had produced: When Au Pairs Go Bad; Ex:Rated and Inside The World’s Fattest Porn Star.
Braithwaite showed his warrant card to an unimpressed receptionist and asked for Kyle Pennington, only to be told that he was ‘on location’; after some persuasion, the girl agreed to try and find someone else to answer their questions, but unless that person was to be found in the pages of the copy of heat magazine she was listlessly flicking through, it seemed unlikely that her quest would be successful. After five minutes sitting in spectacular discomfort, the policemen were rescued by a woman who arrived through the front door clutching a cappuccino and asked if she could help them at all. She was tall, with cropped hair bleached to within an inch of its life, and she was wearing vivid red lipstick and the sort of butterfly-wing glasses Nelson had last seen in photos of his mother from the 1970s. She introduced herself as Jacqui O’Riordan, assistant producer on Fame Factory, and invited them to follow her up a dingy staircase to her office.
‘I’ve never seen that girl on reception before. I’m not sure she even works here,’ she commented as she led them into a large, open plan room on the second floor, slipping off her black puffa jacket to reveal what looked like a genuine Victorian corset teamed with a low-cut pair of blue jeans from which a red thong protruded. She gestured them towards a much more comfortable looking couch, which sat at one end of the room against a bare brick wall. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘I’m trying to trace a young man who auditioned for your show. I believe he’s going to be featured in next week’s programme.’
‘What’s his name?’
Braithwaite gave an awkward smile. ‘That’s the thing. We don’t actually know. I… a source has informed us that he appeared in the “coming next week” section on Saturday. Would it be possible to look through the footage from the auditions?’
‘Sure, if you want to.’ She stood up and led them down the corridor, past a staff kitchen which was rather better equipped than the one in Braithwaite’s flat, and into a large room which was almost entirely lined with bright yellow boxes on shelves. ‘We haven’t actually cut next week’s show yet, but all the material is going to be taken from this section here.’ She indicated an area around four feet wide and eight shelves high. ‘The labels say whether they’re audition, interview or colour material. If you get started now, you should be done by the end of the week.’
‘Right, I…’ Braithwaite spluttered, gazing at the vast expanse of yellow that surrounded him. O’Riordan let him suffer for a moment, then laid a reassuring hand on his arm.
‘I’m joking. It’s all cross-referenced in here.’ She took down a ring binder from one of the empty shelves and looked at him expectantly. ‘Now, you said he was in the trailer, right?’
The pale flickering from the bank of screens was all that illuminated the editing suite. On them, four identical Eric Lestrades stood up, stretched, made a remark to their fellow judges that made them all roar with laughter and sat down again, all in the space of about half a second. Then the view cut to a long shot of the audition room into which a young man with shoulder-length black hair scuttled and stood nodding rapidly as the camera moved in close.
‘Is that him?’ asked O’Riordan. Braithwaite nodded, and she moved her hand on the tracker ball on the panel in front of her.
On the screens, the boy halted, spoke briefly, then began nodding again and rapidly exited the room backwards. The clock in the top left hand counted down. He had got no further than the door before he started to come back in again at a normal pace.
He was wearing the yellow T-shirt, its Slut Machine logo displayed proudly across his chest. But he had teamed it with a pair of blue jeans, the unfeasibly baggy sort kids seemed to be wearing these days, the better to display a few inches of arse crack and their underpants to the world.
‘What’s your name?’ drawled Eric Lestrade on screen.
‘You can call me G-Man,’ said the boy, and made a very peculiar gesture with both arms.
‘Oh, I remember him,’ muttered O’Riordan. ‘Yeah. Yes, he came in on Tuesday. I remember, because it was right at the end of the day and we were starting to worry that we hadn’t had anyone spectacular since lunchtime and then he walked in like the answer to our prayers.’
‘He was good?’
‘No, he was awful. So knew we’d definitely use him.’
Braithwaite thought he had misheard her. ‘No’, she clarified, ‘to get into the audition shows you have to be either really outstanding, or preferably really, really bad. We only had forty-eight minutes to fill, so there was no way anyone in the middle was going to get screen time.’
Once again, Braithwaite wondered how they got away with defining Fame Factory as a talent show. O’Riordan rewound the video slightly, and they watched the boy cross his arms in front of his chest and wiggle his fingers again. It was the sort of move you might – just might – have been able to carry off if you were wearing a cape in a wrestling ring, but even then you’d be pushing it.
Eric appeared to agree, looking back impassively as his companions chortled. ‘Is that what your mother calls you?’ he drawled.
The boy dropped his hands to his side, abashed. ‘No, I’m actually called Gareth Morgan,’ he admitted, in a broad Welsh accent. Nelson began jotting down notes in the open pad on his lap.
‘Right. And what’s all this about?’ Lestrade waved his arms around like a camp magician.
‘It’s my signature move,’ said Morgan, blushing. ‘I just thought it looked cool.’
‘You thought wrong,’ said Lestrade, stony-faced. He allowed the silence to go on just long enough to become really uncomfortable, before saying, ‘Let’s hear your song, then.’
Morgan, apparently undeterred by the reception his opening pose had received, adopted a stance which looked rather like the front row of the all-Blacks preparing to do the Haka. It appeared, however, that it was meant to be an impression of Tom Jones, as he started belting out What’s New, Pussycat? It was rather hard to judge whether he had any musical talent, as he bellowed the song rather than singing it, making up for the lack of a backing orchestra by providing a sort of sign-language interpretation of the lyrics, clenching and pumping his fists with each ‘woah-woah-woah’ and gesturing dramatically at his cute little pussy-cat nose, eyes and lips in turn. When he reached the climax of the song and slid onto his knees with a reprise of the arm-crossing pose, the judges could hold it in no longer and burst into helpless laughter. Even Eric cracked a smile.
‘Well, G-man, that was a complete Gee-saster,’ he chuckled. The weak grin vanished from Morgan’s face.
‘What d’you mean?’
‘I have actually heard pussycats that yowl more tunefully than that. Did you honestly expect to get through to the next round?’
The boy’s lip quivered. ‘I thought I’d stand out.’
‘You did that all right!’ chortled Lestrade. ‘Let’s see what the others thought. Julia?’ He turned to the woman on his right, who tilted her head to one side, her face a mask of sympathy.
‘It really didn’t work,’ she said in a warm, gooey voice. ‘Maybe you should look at doing a different kind of comedy.’
The camera zoomed in on Morgan’s bewilderment. ‘But it wasn’t supposed to be funny!’ he said desperately.
‘Well, it was!’ Lestrade cackled. ‘Listen, I’ll give you a bit of advice, son. Lose the theatrics. Drop all the gestures – ’ he waved his arms around epileptically. ‘Kill off G-Man, because he’s doing you no favours at all. It’s just possible you’ve got some singing talent hidden away beneath all that lot, but if not, just give up now and do something else with your life.’ Beside him, Julia nodded, her expression still sickeningly sympathetic.
‘Jak? Someone said you had the police in here. What have you been doing, you naughty girl?’
O’Riordan hit the pause button, and a giant tear was halted in its progress down Gareth Morgan’s cheek on the screens in front of them. All three of them turned round. A middle-aged man with a razor-cut that failed to hide his receding hairline was standing in the doorway of the edit suite.
‘Oh, Kyle, hi. This is Inspector Braithwaite and Sergeant Nelson. This is Kyle Pennington, my boss. They’re investigating one of the contestants, Gareth Morgan.’
Pennington glanced at the screens as he came forward to crush Braithwaite’s hand in his own. ‘Yeah, yeah, I remember him. G-man.’ He chuckled. ‘What’s he done?’
‘Died,’ said Braithwaite. ‘He was found hanged on Friday morning. The day after he auditioned for your show.’
O’Riordan’s jaw dropped. ‘You’re joking!’
‘Blimey!’ Pennington looked at the screens, then grinned. ‘Bloody lucky we didn’t use him in the show on Saturday, then!’
If Lestrade could do impassiveness, it was nothing compared to the look Braithwaite was giving Pennington now. The producer’s smile faltered, then disappeared completely. ‘I mean… Look, you’re not trying to say this is connected to his audition in some way, are you? I hardly think… they all sign consent forms, you know, to say that we can use the footage. And we do warn them that the judges will criticise their performances. You can’t really…’ Pennington was spluttering now, unsure how to deal with this sudden intrusion of real life on reality television.
Braithwaite let him squirm for a couple more seconds before turning back to Jacqui. To her credit, she looked devastated. The colour had completely drained from her face. ‘I need to inform Gareth Morgans’ parents, Miss O’Riordan. Could you give me their address please?’
‘Of course.’ Her hands trembled as she flipped through the pages of her file.
‘You’ve got a bit of a trip ahead of you. They’re in North Wales. Llandudno.’
Braithwaite’s Rover finally pulled into Ap Gruffud Close as the sun was beginning to dip behind what Nelson had gleefully informed him was Little Ormes Head. The sergeant’s map-reading had held out as far as the outskirts of Holywell, where the road signs descended into a series of unlikely combinations of consonants and they had had to call the local force, who had already been round and broken the news to Gareth Morgan’s parents that morning, for help. That didn’t aid them much, either since Nelson had waited several seconds for the constable at the other end of the phone to stop clearing his throat and start giving him directions before realising he was already halfway to Prestatyn.
They spotted Mr Morgan immediately. A big man with a rugby player’s build, he was stood at the window of number 12 staring out into the cul-de-sac. Braithwaite raised a hand as he got out of the car, but the man’s eyes didn’t appear to be taking in anything beyond the windowpane at all.
They bore the same blank look as they scanned over the selection of photographs that Braithwaite laid out on the immaculate tablecloth in the couple’s dining room a few minutes later. They had collected them from the mortuary that morning. The grey of the corpse’s skin was bleached even further by the flash of the camera: it made the livid marks on his neck even more apparent.
‘That’s my son,’ said Mr Morgan, his voice barely more than a whisper.
Nelson slid the photographs together and scooped them from the tabletop like a croupier, and the trio rose and went through to the sitting room where Mrs Morgan was waiting. She rose as they entered, twining a Kleenex round her fingers, and looked to her husband, who gave an almost imperceptible nod and gently took her tiny hands between his own much larger ones.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Braithwaite pointlessly.
The couple sank onto the sofa, Mrs Morgan sagging into the crook of her husband’s protective arm. He gave them a few moments to themselves, lowering himself into a floral-patterned armchair and indicating that Nelson should do the same. There were photographs of Gareth dotted all around the room, from a pair of silver-framed baby snaps above the gas fire to a set of school photographs in chronological order on the wall behind the settee, charting his progress from tousle-headed infant to blushing teenager hiding his acne scars behind collar-length greasy curtains.
‘Do you know what Gareth was doing in London?’
‘No,’ trilled the boy’s mother, looking nervously at her silent husband as if she needed his permission to to talk, before continuing in a lilting accent that he had to concentrate to understand. ‘He told us he was going shopping in Chester and then staying at his friend Rachel’s. We said it was all right as long as her parents didn’t mind and they were in separate rooms. But then when he didn’t come back at the weekend, Alun called the Evanses and Rachel’s away in France till next week. Gareth hadn’t been there at all.’ Her voice suddenly heightened at the end of the sentence, and she pressed the tissue to her mouth.
‘When did you last speak to him?’
‘On Wednesday night,’ said Mr Morgan gruffly. ‘He called at about seven to say he was stopping over.’
Braithwaite glanced at Nelson, who had his notebook open on his knee. ‘He didn’t mention a programme called Fame Factory to you at all?’ Mr Morgan looked at his wife, who shook her head, bewildered. ‘Only it seems he travelled to London to audition for it. He went in front of the judges at around half past six on Tuesday.’
‘On the telly?’ Mrs Morgan looked bewildered.
‘Yes. Although of course, the footage won’t be shown now.’
‘Oh.’ She actually looked disappointed, which on reflection, Braithwaite thought was the most depressing thing about the entire afternoon.
‘Singing, was it?’ said Mr Morgan, gruffly.
‘Er… yes.’ Braithwaite tried not to catch Nelson’s eye. Singing was probably a charitable description of Gareth’s performance.
‘Ah, well, he’s always been a singer. In the Eisteddfod, he was, with his school choir.’ Both Morgans looked pleased at the memory.
‘Mmm. This was… a different sort of style, really. How would he have got to London? Did he drive?’
Mr Morgan shook his head. ‘He was having lessons. No, he asked for a lift to the station. That’s when we thought he was just going to Chester. I’d never have taken him if I’d known.’
Braithwaite nodded. They had checked the times of the trains between London and Llandudno on the way up. The last one left just after six pm. ‘Did Gareth have any friends in London? Anyone he could have called, or stayed with?’
Mrs Morgan looked bewildered. ‘No. Not at all. He’d only ever been there once. On a school trip, it was. Years ago.’
‘And you’ve no relatives down there?’
Mr Morgan seemed to take this as a personal affront. ‘Certainly not.’
Braithwaite sighed. Now came the awkward bit. ‘Mr and Mrs Morgan, I’m sorry to have to ask you about this, but Gareth’s body was found in… slightly unusual circumstances. Did he ever wear… women’s clothing at all?’
Mr Morgan’s reaction was so explosive that they could probably have heard it from the other side of the border. Unfortunately it was also in Welsh. Red-faced, he harangued them for a good minute, showering them with spittle all the while, before his wife was able to calm him down and supply a succinct translation: ‘No.’
‘Why the bloody hell are you asking that?’ bellowed Morgan.
Braithwaite shrank back into his armchair and aimed for his most mollifying tone. ‘I’m afraid when his body was found, he was wearing a skirt.’
Morgan was off again, bursting up from his wife’s protective arm and storming off out of the room. Through the wall they could hear him pacing up and down the hallway, emitting a stream of spluttered words that Braithwaite was quite grateful he couldn’t understand. Left on the sofa, Mrs Morgan lowered her head into her hands. Braithwaite leant forward to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder, but before he could reach her she looked up, dry-eyed.
‘I’m sorry about my husband,’ she said, wearily. ‘Alun’s very traditional. He didn’t even like Gareth having his hair so long. They used to have terrible rows. Alun expected him to follow in the same line of work as him, but Gareth didn’t want to.’
Braithwaite nodded sympathetically. ‘Mining, was it?’
She looked confused. ‘No. He’s an accountant.’
‘Oh. Right. Er, I wonder if we could have a look in Gareth’s room?’
The bedroom was dominated by a large poster of a bare-chested 50 Cent, which would support Superintendent Richardson’s theory, and another of an even more scantily clad Rachel Stevens, which, unless it was there to provide sartorial guidelines, appeared to shoot it down in flames. Nelson thought he had got lucky when he unearthed what he thought was a gay porn mag under the bed, but Braithwaite was able to identify it as a pop magazine aimed at girls Olivia’s age: he even recognised the bronzed torso on the cover as belonging to one of her favourites, someone called Danny, though he would be hard put to define exactly what the young man did for a living. It fell open on a page of classified ads: ringed in pink fluorescent marker was an invitation to ‘Come And Show Us What You’ve Got!’ at open auditions for Fame Factory at an exhibition centre in Wembley the previous week. Gareth Morgan had obviously been very determined his parents should not find out about his little excursion.
He flicked through the piles of CDs stacked up by the portable hi-fi: bog-standard chart pop by the look of it, names familiar to him from the weekends when Olivia commandeered his car radio, interspersed with the odd disc which he guessed from the aggressive poses, peculiar spelling and amount of gold jewellery on the cover contained hip-hop. There was a CD in the machine, too: it must be the last thing Gareth had listened to before he headed off to London and the unknown. He flicked the play button and the rich sound of Tom Jones filled the bedroom. ‘I’ve got flowers and lots of hours to spend with you…’ Turning, he found himself reflected in the full-length mirror on the open wardrobe door. This is where he practised, he thought, throwing a half-hearted G-Man pose. It looked only marginally more pathetic when executed by a balding 46-year-old.
‘Anything?’ he asked Nelson, who was rifling through the clothes in the wardrobe.
The sergeant shook his head. ‘Jeans. T-shirts. School uniform. Mind you, his mum probably went through all this lot every washday. He’s hardly going to leave anything where she could find it, is he?’
Braithwaite sat down on the edge of the single bed, which released a musty cloud of teenage boy-smell. He felt suddenly very sad and old. ‘I talked to a mate who was on the beat up in Kings Cross a few years ago. He said if you go along the streets behind the station late in the evening and look in the bins, they’re full of wigs, and plastic breasts, and size-12 stilettos. Blokes come down from the north for the day, tell their wives it’s a business trip, then go around town for the day dressed up as a woman.’
Nelson paused in his study of a pile of dirty underwear. ‘And you think that’s what he was doing?’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t know, Nelson. Maybe. I certainly can’t see it going down well here. You saw how his father reacted to the idea.’
‘Yeah, well.’ The sergeant abandoned the pants and gingerly picked up a sock which lay in the corner of the room. ‘I don’t think I’d be that keen on a son of mine wearing dresses, either.’
Braithwaite sighed, picking up the magazine and leafing through its pages again. Nelson wasn’t a dad yet, he mused: he still had the luxury of sweeping statements. He didn’t know that if you could just get them through to 18 knowing they were safe and happy, anything else came as a bonus: he suspected that if a teenage Olivia came home and announced she was a lesbian, he’d just be delighted that she was less likely to get pregnant before she had finished her education.
‘Come on,’ he told Nelson when it became very apparent they were not going to find anything useful. They went back downstairs to find a still-smouldering Mr Morgan reinstalled in the sitting room, although he was now willing to receive them with both grace and English.
‘I won’t have my son talked about that way,’ he told them. ‘I just won’t. It’s bad enough that he’s dead. I don’t want to hear anything bad about him. And I don’t want anyone else thinking anything bad about him, either.’
‘I promise his death will be treated with complete discretion,’ Braithwaite assured him.
THE KILLER JUDGEMENT
Storm over Fame Factory suicide
‘Kill yourself,’ urged Evil Eric
Braithwaite stared at the front page of the Sun in its rack in the corner shop, a pint of milk dangling from his hand. The face of Gareth Morgan, contorted by its efforts to replicate Tom Jones, stared back at him.
‘Are you queuing, mate?’
‘What? No. Sorry.’ Braithwaite dodged out of the way of the man behind him and snatched up a copy of the paper from the rack. His heart was already in his mouth. By the end of the second paragraph, he had a feeling it might be about to make its way onto the newsagent’s floor.
ITV’s Fame Factory was plunged into chaos yesterday when it emerged that one of the contestants in the hit talent contest committed suicide after being snubbed by judges.
Millions of viewers tuned into the show last Saturday. But they were unaware that one of the thousands of hopefuls who dreamed of success in the contest was ALREADY DEAD.
Gareth Morgan, 18, performed Tom Jones’s ‘What’s New, Pussycat?’ under the stage name of ‘G-Man’. But judges laid into his performance, with record company boss Eric Lestrade, dubbed ‘Evil Eric’ by viewers, dubbing his performance ‘a real Gee-saster.’
He told Milne to ‘Kill off G-Man, because he’s doing you no favours at all.’
Hours later, Morgan hanged himself from a tree near the audition venue.
Last night, campaigners called for the programme to be banned. ‘This is the inevitable end result of so-called reality television,’ said Norman Rosie of the Voice of the United Listener and Viewer Association (VULVA). ‘The people behind this programme should hang their heads in shame.’
There was criticism from inside the industry too. ‘This sort of televised cruelty has simply gone too far,’, said TV presenter Noel Edmonds. ‘The public don’t want to see humiliation and nastiness on their screens, they want good, old-fashioned family entertainment.’ A contestant on Edmond’s Late Late Breakfast Show also died in 1986.
Insiders at Portmanteau, the company that makes Fame Factory, say that police visited their offices to view footage of Morgan’s audition which was too shocking to be broadcast.
‘Everyone here is devastated,’ said a source. ‘Eric is known for his sharp tongue, but in this case, it looks like he may have gone tragically too far.’ Lestrade was unavailable for comment.
‘Oh, fuck,’ whispered Braithwaite.
‘This is not a library, my friend,’ the newsagent pointed out helpfully. ‘If you want to buy a pornographic magazine, I suggest you do so while my wife is out in the stock room.’
‘Bloody hell! There’s an opinion column, too! Look, babe!’
Nelson beckoned over his girlfriend Chantal, who abandoned her toast-buttering, and came over to peer over his shoulder at the newspaper he had pulled from the pile she had delivered each morning before departing for the offices of the PR company where she worked. It proclaimed:
SUN SAYS: TOO HIGH A PRICE
Seven thousand people turned up to Fame Factory auditions for their chance at fame last week.
Six million more tuned in to watch on Saturday – across the country, from grandmothers to children, many of us laughed and cried along with the young hopefuls.
But of those seven thousand, one young man is dead.
Today, those behind the show must ask themselves some hard questions.
Did their criticism of contestants go too far? Should they have taken more care of the hopes and dreams of the young singers who take part in the show?
We may never know why Gareth Morgan took his own life. But one thing is certain.
Even in the name of good family entertainment, a young life is too high a price to pay.
‘It’s not really much of an opinion, is it – Killing People Is Wrong,’ she mused, before spotting the distressed look on her boyfriend’s face. ‘What’s the problem, babe? They don’t mention you.’
‘Exactly!’ spluttered Nelson. ‘What if my boss thinks it was me that leaked it?’
Chantal leafed back to page three, where she was pleased to learn from the News in Briefs column that Becca, 19, concurred with the newspaper’s controversial editorial line. ‘Why would they think that?’
‘Because there’s only a certain number of people that could have leaked it. Inspector Braithwaite and I only informed his parents the day before yesterday. There’s no way they would have gone to the papers. Which just leaves…’
‘The only people who are actually quoted in the piece?’
Nelson’s brow furrowed. ‘But why would Noel Edmonds…?’
Chantal gave him a scathing look. ‘Remind me how you got to be a detective? Insiders at Portmanteau…’ she read out. ‘‘Everyone here is devastated,’ said a source.’
Nelson looked blank. ‘But why would they want to? I mean, it makes their show look terrible!’
She shook her head, pityingly. ‘Yeah. So terrible that I’ll definitely be tuning in this Saturday. Insults so bad they can actually push a man over the edge? This I’ve got to see.’
This was the problem with having a girlfriend who worked in PR, thought Nelson. She was a bit too good at reverse psychology. That was why he always seemed to end up buying her expensive clothes she assured him she didn’t need.
He scanned the front page once more, trying to find a flaw in her argument. ‘But what about this Norman Rosie guy? He doesn’t sound very impressed, does he?’
She gave a mirthless laugh. ‘Ha! Norman Rosie’s a professional whinger. When we were launching that perfume last year – you know, the one with the naked lesbians in the advert – we called him up to get a quote for the press release. Offered to bike him over a bottle for his opinion, but he was quite happy to tell us it was an affront to civilised values and a further undermining of the institution of marriage without so much as a sniff. It got us a whole page in the Daily Mail.’
He looked at her, impressed. ‘I never knew you were so crafty.’
‘I’m not.’ She chugged her coffee. ‘It’s just basic PR. Fame Factory will put on at least million viewers this week, I guarantee it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to organise a fight between two glamour models for that club opening tonight, and I’m running late.’
‘I’m not happy about it. Not happy at all.’ Superintendent Richardson hurled the now well-leafed copy of the Sun onto his desktop.
Braithwaite shook his head. ‘Apparently they didn’t even contact the press office. If they had, we would at least have been able to correct some of the inaccuracies.’
‘Exactly!’ said Richardson with feeling. They could have ensured his name was in the piece, too. Preferably next to a well-crafted quote expressing disappointment with the operational procedures for guaranteeing the safety of participants in television shows, whilst remaining ‘hip’ to the nature of modern Reality formats. Something like that, anyway.
Encouraged by the superintendent’s vehemence, Braithwaite pressed on. ‘We’ll need to put out a statement pointing out that we’ve come to no conclusion about the manner of Gareth Morgan’s death. And…’
‘Ah.’ Richardson halted him with a raised finger. ‘Will we, though?’
‘Pardon?’ Braithwaite glanced round at Nelson and Bourne, who had accompanied him to the hastily-arranged meeting. They looked equally blank.
The superintendent pulled the newspaper back onto his blotting pad and smoothed down its front page thoughtfully. ‘I mean, the balance of probabilities does make suicide the most likely explanation, does it not?’
‘Well… it’s really too early to say,’ spluttered Braithwaite, who had been under the impression that this was the very last conclusion the superintendent had wanted him to come to.
‘He was under pressure at home over his choice of career. He had just faced a humiliating rejection at the auditions, and he knew the whole country was going to see it.’ Richardson counted the points off on his fingers one by one. ‘He’d found himself stranded in a city he didn’t know, with no way of getting home that night. A lot of pressure for a young man to deal with.’
‘But… but there’s the skirt,’ said Braithwaite lamely. ‘We’ve still found no explanation for that, or what happened to the jeans he was wearing at the audition.’
‘A last cry for recognition,’ said the superintendent, jabbing a fourth finger in the air triumphantly as he suddenly spotted how he could turn the situation to his advantage. ‘From your account of the interview with his parents, he was obviously raised in a transphobic environment. He clearly intended it as a statement, a message to a world that would not allow him to be what he wanted to be. It’s obvious.’
‘But we’ve got no evidence that he did want to be anything!’ protested Braithwaite. ‘I spoke to the girlfriend in France yesterday, and she said…’
Richardson waved his quartet of fingers dismissively in his direction. ‘Pshaw. He was probably hiding it from her as well. Didn’t she say their relationship hadn’t reached a sexual stage?’
Braithwaite nodded. Rachel Evans had turned out to be a devout chapel-goer who was spending her fortnight in France volunteering at an orphanage, and had fervently denied that Gareth might have been interested in getting into her knickers in either sense of the phrase.
‘Well, there you are, then. It’s possible he hadn’t even come to a decision about his own sexuality. The lad was only eighteen, after all. Don’t you think, Tom?’
Bourne didn’t look convinced, but rose to the occasion, anyway. ‘Well, you know the old joke: what’s the difference between a straight student and a gay one?’ All three of his colleagues looked blank. ‘Eight pints of lager?’
‘Right,’ spluttered Richardson, who had gone as purple as Morgan’s miniskirt. ‘There we are, then. Prepare the file for the coroner recommending a suicide verdict, and pass it on to me for approval before you submit it.’
‘I’m really not sure…’ Braithwaite began to protest. ‘There are a lot of things that just don’t add up. We don’t know why he was on Barnes Common, for a start, and we still haven’t managed to trace the driver of the car that was seen parked nearby. And I still think there’s something we’re missing about the skirt.’
Richardson gave him a withering look. ‘Come on, inspector. What other explanation is there? Do you really think it’s likely that someone drove him to Barnes Common for their own perverse reason, hanged him and then put a skirt on him after he was dead? It’s a ridiculous idea! No, we can tie this whole thing up today. Get the file to me by the end of the day. I might see if I can put together some sort of statement for the press in the meantime…’
If Braithwaite’s report on the death of Gareth Morgan had been hedged any more comprehensively, it would have qualified for greenbelt status. He emphasised the ambiguous findings of the pathologist, transcribed the Llandudno interviews in full, drew up a timetable of his movements on 16th September with a big blank space representing the eight hours which remained a mystery, and even attached a map to demonstrate just how far it was from the audition venue to Barnes Common and the number of other venues attractive to the novice rough-sleeper in between.
Superintendent Richardson barely looked at it, having just received an invitation to appear on Newsnight and debate the ethics of television with the chairman of Channel 4 and one of the more lucid contestants from the previous year’s Big Brother, and merely replaced the covering letter with one emphasising his own personal involvement in the investigation before instructing his secretary to forward it to the coroner.
Braithwaite went home determined to avoid all further mention of Fame Factory until Olivia’s next visit in ten days’ time, and despite the best efforts of the Daily Mail, which dusted off the logos for a multi-purpose campaign it ran periodically, entitled Ban This Sick Charade, and devoted its front page to the show for the rest of the week, managed to maintain his resolution until around quarter past ten that Friday evening, when he was woken from a fitful doze on the sofa by the sound of a familiar voice warbling, Nothing Compares To You. For a second, he thought he had slept for a full 24 hours, but Dawn Mackenzie was quickly replaced on the screen of his television by the considerably less attractive face of the ex-editor of the Daily Mirror, who, since he was fired, could always be relied on to say something fatuous as long as there was a camera nearby and an appearance fee on offer. ‘Well, the last thing we need to see is headlines about “the Curse of Fame Factory”’, he opined, in a stroke inventing the phenomenon he was trying to condemn. ‘The fact is that shows like this do attract some, shall we say, slightly unusual people. I think the producers of this show have really just had astonishingly bad luck. I think it would be a great shame if it discouraged the host of stable and balanced youngsters – some of them really quite talented – who have taken part in this competition. I’ll still be tuning in this Saturday, because I think it’s just fantastic family entertainment.’
Braithwaite felt his fist twitching, but luckily at this point an off-screen voice pointed out that ‘not everyone agrees, however,’ and the image on the screen switched to an older man in a blazer sitting in a suburban living room, its walls decked with hunting prints and patterned china plates. He was, the subtitles informed him, Norman Rosie of VULVA, and he was angry.
‘It doesn’t surprise me at all. We saw teenagers, little more than children, encouraged to drink and paw at one another on Channel Four last year. This year we’ve already had incest at the licence payer’s expense. This is really the thin end of the wedge, and I think it’s time the television companies woke up to the fact that there are thousands of people in Britain who don’t want cruelty and sodomy in their homes, and certainly not before the nine p.m. watershed. If they have any decency, they’ll take this show off the air and apologise to the parents of this poor boy, and while they’re at it, they’ll apologise to the British people as well.’
More footage followed of singers from last Saturday’s episode as Braithwaite scrabbled for the remote control, which seemed to have been eaten by the sofa. ‘Seven point five million viewers tuned in to the first episode of Fame Factory last week,’ the voiceover informed him. ‘That makes it one of the most popular programmes of the year so far. The question producers are asking themselves now is whether the death of Gareth Morgan will be enough to make them switch off tomorrow. Sheena Brighouse, ITV News.’
In the studio, Trevor McDonald had put on his most serious face, although it was quite hard to spot any difference. ‘We can talk to Sheena Brighouse now outside ITV network centre,’ he announced, and she appeared on a screen behind him, sheltering from the pouring rain beneath a large umbrella bearing the ITV logo. Given that she was presumably around twenty feet away from the studio, Braithwaite wondered if it might not have been easier to invite her inside.
‘Sheena, what’s been the reaction from the show’s producers so far?’
‘Well, Mark, this evening they’ve issued a statement expressing their deepest sympathies to Gareth Morgan’s family, and saying what a tragedy it is that such a young talent should be lost to the world. And we’ve just heard that tomorrow’s show will be specially extended by half an hour, and dedicated to Gareth’s memory. That’s at six o’clock tomorrow night, on ITV.’
His fingertips finally located the remote deep in the sofa’s innards and clicked the programme off before they could fit in any more shameless plugs for the show. That quest over, he began to cast around for his mobile. He had been planning to have a very quiet weekend, but he suddenly felt the need to be out of the house at six the following evening.
One week later, there were no such excuses. When he asked Olivia on Saturday morning what she wanted to do that weekend, Fame Factory was the first thing she mentioned. It was also the first time she cracked a smile since he had picked her up the previous evening. She had spent Friday alternating between silent and stroppy, claiming her sausages and mash tasted wrong and flatly refusing to go to bed at the usual time, insisting without much conviction that she was allowed to stay up until midnight at weekends at home. Braithwaite wondered if big school was proving more difficult than she would admit. Cassie had looked tired, too when he had gone round to pick her up, her eyes lacking their usual sparkle. Rupert hadn’t been in.
It was such a relief to see her showing enthusiasm for something that he broke one of his unspoken rules and discussed his work with her for the first time.
‘I was at the offices where they make that show last week.’
She looked at him, her eyes narrow with suspicion. ‘Where they make Fame Factory?’
‘Yes. Well, they don’t film it there, but I met the producers and saw all the videos of the singers.’ She still didn’t look convinced, and he smiled across at her. ‘Honest, I was!’
He worried for a second that she might ask him why he had been there, but she seemed to accept this as one of those grown-up mysteries that needed no explanation. ‘Did you see Dawn?’
‘No. It was just the producers I spoke to.’
‘What about Evil Eric?’
That nickname again. Everyone seemed to have picked up on it. ‘No. But I think he might have an office there.’ Perhaps this wasn’t all that impressive a story after all. He decided to change tack. ‘Is Dawn your favourite?’
She wrinkled her nose, deep in thought. ‘I think so. I like her singing. But I like Paul, too. And Chris. Can I vote for her tonight? It’s the first round in the studio.’
‘We’ll see,’ he said in a way that he knew was boringly adult. The phone lines probably cost a fortune. But he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to call just the once.
‘What are we going to do until then?’
He looked out of the window. Damp brown leaves gusted and twirled in the tiny rectangle of grey sky that was visible from his kitchen window. ‘How about going to the cinema?’ he asked. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to the pictures. He knew it was with Cassie, and he thought it had been a Bond film. He had a sneaking suspicion it was one of the Roger Moore ones. ‘Let’s have a look in the paper and see if there’s anything we fancy, shall we?’
Two hours of anthropomorphic animals with American accents later, they emerged from the cinema, Olivia in a much better mood and her father both stiffer and considerably poorer. The prices had gone up and the seats got less comfortable since Roger Moore’s day.
Fame Factory had already started by the time they got back, and the first singer was at the microphone in the middle of an over-illuminated stage decorated in the same pastel colours as the programme’s opening titles. A painfully skinny, dark haired girl he didn’t recognise, she was singing a ballad as wispy and insubstantial as herself. With a sigh of, ‘Oh, it’s Sara,’ Olivia settled herself on the sofa without even bothering to take her coat off, and he decided to delay tea – she had consumed her own bodyweight in popcorn, anyway – and sit down next to her and watch the thing himself. Like it or not, he was obviously going to be watching the series (or at least alternate episodes of it), and the fewer times he had to pipe up, ‘Who’s that then?’, the less irritated his daughter would be.
The contestants had been given a makeover for their first studio appearance, which hid the spots and imperfections of their auditions beneath a thick layer of orange TV-standard foundation. It made them all look even younger than they were – the ballad girl looked barely older than Olivia – something which sat oddly with the songs they were singing, most of which he would have regarded as old-fashioned when he was their age. The Look of Love floated past, followed by The Long and Winding Road, Dock of the Bay and, God help us, he thought, Unchained Melody, an abomination that had been a particular highlight of his parents’ thin collection of 78s. Olivia could never have heard of any of them, and he was sure that if he had suggested she listen to the originals she would have responded with her ‘barfing’ face, a particularly charming habit she seemed to have picked up lately. But she sat beaming through the whole show, and even started to hum along with some of the tunes by the final chorus. Peculiar. Maybe it was something to do with copyright, he mused. Or perhaps the producers just thought younger viewers would assume the songs were brand new ones that the contestants had written themselves.
Eric and his companions seemed to have toned down their mock outrage for the live shows, and swapped it for an scarcely less offensive kind of over-effusive encouragement: every singer seemed to have ‘done themselves proud’ or ‘really shown us what you can do’. Once again, Dawn Mackenzie stood out from all the rest: looking nervous but radiant in a floor-length plum-coloured dress which had obviously been chosen to match her hair, she sang I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself and Braithwaite found himself almost holding his breath, the better to appreciate the wistful fragility of her voice. Whatever else you might say about this show, he had to admit they had found one undeniable talent. He might even phone in a vote for her himself.
At seven thirty, the show drew to a close with a series of brief clips of the night’s performances and what must have been the tenth reminder of the premium rate voting line numbers, and he lifted the remote to switch off, suddenly guilty that he hadn’t started cooking yet and Olivia was going to be late in bed again.
‘No! Fame On’s on!’ shrieked Olivia.
‘What?’ His daughter appeared to be babbling ungrammatical nonsense.
‘It’s on the digital. I’ll show you.’ She took the remote from his hand and pressed a mysterious sequence of buttons which made the Fame Factory titles flash up on screen again.
‘I thought it was finished?’
‘It is, but now there’s Fame On, on ITV2. They talk to all the contestants behind the scenes.’
‘Well…’ He looked at the screen, where a blonde woman in a top which appeared to be a couple of sizes too small for her was pursuing Eric Lestrade across the studio, now revealed to be rather shabby and much smaller than it had looked when the performers had been on stage. ‘Who’s that?’ Braithwaite asked Olivia.
His daughter wrinkled her nose with distaste. ‘Tina Pringle. She’s the presenter. She used to be in a band.’
‘You don’t like her?’
‘She’s sad.’ Olivia drew every possible ounce of emphasis out of the single syllable. ‘She’s started going out with Paul, just so she can get in the papers. Such a wannabe.’
She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. ‘The one who sang, When a Man Loves a Woman.’
‘Ah.’ He frowned. ‘Doesn’t that make him the wannabe, then? Surely, if she’s already been in a band, she’s more famous than him?’
Olivia looked at him with infinite pity. ‘Oh, Dad.’
Realising he was never going to understand this mysterious new world, he stood up. ‘How long’s it on for?’ He had a faint feeling, which he couldn’t quite explain, that it was somehow worse for her to watch the satellite channels than the proper ones.
‘Only half an hour. Oh, please!’
Seeing a conflict looming, he decided to play the UN peacekeeper. ‘All right. You can watch it until tea’s ready, but then it’s going off as soon as I say so.’
He broke his own word, because when he brought two steaming plates of spaghetti bolognese through twenty minutes later, Tina Pringle was brandishing a microphone in the face of Dawn Mackenzie, who looked barely less nervous than she had on stage. ‘You were just fantastic tonight,’ she was telling her. ‘And there’s someone here who wants to congratulate you.’
A man he recognised as Dawn’s boyfriend, the one the judges had rejected the week before, came on and hugged her. He looked grumpy. ‘Wash your hands,’ he told Olivia.
‘Simon’s so proud of you. We all are,’ cooed the presenter. ‘What are you two going to do this evening to celebrate?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ trilled Dawn in that lovely Scottish brogue. ‘I’ll probably just go back to the house and chill out with Simon. Try to calm down a bit.’ She brushed a tear from her eye, smiling.
‘Well, you deserve it,’ said Pringle, laying an over familiar hand on her arm. ‘You’re shaking like a leaf. Come here.’ She enveloped Dawn in a hug, possibly because she couldn’t think of anything else to say, and then gave her boyfriend one for good measure, too. ‘You look after her,’ she told him, and the couple stood awkwardly in the background as she turned back to camera, looking for all the world like a rabbit trapped in a pair of headlights and pressing a finger desperately to her earpiece. ‘Let’s… let’s just have a reminder of Dawn’s performance, I think,’ she announced, and the television promptly cut to an ad break.
‘Right, switch off this rubbish and wash your hands,’ Braithwaite told Olivia, but she had already left the room.
His mobile rang as he was washing up the breakfast things on Sunday morning.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you, inspector. I know you’ve got your little girl this weekend.’
Janine Thompson had been working in the control room for as long as he was in the force. She was, if not exactly a friend, one of the people at the station he was quite fond of. They had enjoyed a lengthy lunch break in the canteen together the other week, during which he had told her all about his misgivings in the Gareth Morgan case, which he had previously only shared with Nelson.
‘It’s OK, Jan.’ It wasn’t OK. He was planning on taking Olivia on a boat ride up to Greenwich today. ‘What’s up?’
‘There’s been a body found. In Crystal Palace Park. That’s near you, isn’t it?’
‘Not far.’ He cradled the phone on his shoulder and peeled off his rubber gloves. ‘Haven’t you got anyone else that can go?’
‘No, I know you’re not on call. I can send out Sergeant Willis if you’d prefer. It’s just – the constable on the scene reckons she’s got a positive ID.’
‘Well, who is it?’
He listened for a moment, the milk from the cereal bowls slowly curdling in the washing-up water.
‘They’ve got big, life-size models of dinosaurs there. If you can just wait in the car for half an hour or so, we’ll go straight down and see them afterwards.’ He was doing calculations in his head as he drove, working out how long it would take to get her back to Cassie’s afterwards and how much trouble he would be in when she found out where he had taken her.
‘Can I have the radio on?’
‘Of course you can.’ He ignored a no left turn sign and pulled into the inexplicable one-way system around Crystal Palace. ‘And we’ll have ice cream when I’m finished.’ If they were still doing ice cream. They were into October now, after all.
He pulled up next to a squad car which was parked on the patch of scrubby wasteland where the great Victorian greenhouse itself had once stood, locked Olivia in with dire injunctions not to get out of the car or talk to anyone, and set out towards the looming bulk of the Eiffel Tower-like radio transmitter which dominated the landscape for miles around. To his right, a row of concrete sphinxes gazed out across the vista of Bromley below. Someone had given the nearest one a spray-painted moustache and glasses. It didn’t make it look any more impressed.
He could see a small crowd gathering in front of the strip of blue and white tape that was strung across the path ahead of him, but it wasn’t until he rounded the hedge of closely-planted conifers that surrounded the foot of the radio transmitter that a pair of uniformed police officers came into view. He recognised one of them, Holly Atkins, and nodded a curt hello before ducking beneath the tape and striding across thick grass still wet with dew to the corpse that was crumpled in the shelter of the trees. She was lying face down, but he recognised her hair straight away. That vivid purple that had made her look so alive on his television screen the night before.
Dawn Mackenzie was wearing a black vest top and jeans, and half of a scuffed leather jacket – that is, her right arm was through the sleeve, but the rest of the garment was splayed on the ground beneath her. Her left arm, stretched out by her side, was bare, its skin grey, mottled with an old pattern of scars, puncture wounds that had long since healed over. Only one was fresh. A syringe lay on the ground beside her, half full of blood. She had obviously started to flush back, thought Braithwaite: pulling the plunger back out again after injecting heroin ensured a better hit. The trouble was, it also sucked the life force out of you.
He turned away and looked out across the park below him, bright in the sharp autumn sunshine. It was silly. He felt like he knew the girl. But he had only ever seen her on television.
Recalling himself to professionalism as he had done a thousand times before, he strolled back to the tape barrier where a large woman was talking to the other constable. She had that particularly resonant voice unique to the British ruling classes: what it lacked in volume control it made up for with the crispness of its consonants. ‘It’s really the last thing we need around here,’ she was booming. ‘Heaven knows what it will do for house prices.’ The constable did not appear to think this was a sentiment that needed to be recorded in his notebook.
‘Who found her?’ Braithwaite asked as he arrived. He addressed his question to the policeman, but it was the woman who answered.
‘I did.’ She held out a podgy hand, and for a second he thought she was just displaying her collection of expensive-looking rings to him before he realised he was supposed to shake it. ‘Katherine Colquhoun. I’m chair of the local history society. Are you in charge?’
Braithwaite nodded, though he had a feeling the question was redundant. Katherine Colquhoun looked like the sort of woman who automatically took over the organisation of any situation in which she found herself. Keep her here for more than an hour and she would probably rustle up a tea urn and some nice biscuits. ‘Inspector Braithwaite. South London CID.’
‘We came across her half an hour ago.’ She gestured magisterially to the shuffling group of be-anoraked men and women behind the barrier. ‘I was leading one of my Potty About Paxton tours. He was the architect of the palace, as I’m sure you know. This was the site of the North Transept. I was about to show these people the remains of the aquarium.’ She eyed Braithwaite with displeasure, as if the disruption of the morning’s history lesson was entirely his fault.
‘And did any of you move the body at all?’
‘Doctor Chaudri checked to see that she was dead.’ The imperious hand waved once more, and a tiny Indian man wearing an immaculate suit beneath his anorak and scarf stepped forward from the group, raising a hand like a naughty schoolboy.
‘I did not move her. It was very apparent that she had passed away. Rigor mortis has already set in.’
Braithwaite nodded, and turned back to Mrs Colquhoun. ‘And you called the police immediately?’
‘Doctor Chaudri used his mobile. I won’t carry one. Beastly things.’
‘Hmm.’ Braithwaite turned on his heel and sought out Constable Holly Atkins, beckoning her out of earshot of the group.
‘Forensics on their way?’
‘Yes, sir. Had a little bit of trouble getting through to the duty pathologist, but she’s on her way from the golf course now.’
Braithwaite gazed down at the roof of the athletic stadium which sat incongruously in the middle of the Victorian park. ‘You know who she is, do you?’
Atkins nodded. ‘It’s weird, isn’t it, sir. This is the second, isn’t it?’
‘That we know of,’ he said gloomily.
‘The Curse of Fame Factory,’ she muttered, and he looked at her sharply.
‘You can stop that straight away, constable. Until we know otherwise, this is a simple overdose by a known heroin user. And I don’t want anyone suggesting anything else.’ He jerked his head towards the milling group behind them. ‘None of this lot strike me as Fame Factory viewers. D’you think they know who she is?’
She shook her head. ‘Didn’t seem to when we were taking their statements.’
‘Right. Well, if you’ve got contact details, you can send them all home. And I need you to call in to the station and get me a home address for Dawn Mackenzie. And get them to rustle up a search warrant, too. I’ll take your pal and pay a visit to her boyfriend.’
‘Yes, sir. Anything else, sir?’
He sighed deeply, plunging his hands deep in his coat pockets. ‘Yes, Atkins. How do you feel about dinosaurs?’
It was what Olivia would have wanted, Braithwaite told himself as they drew up outside the shabby Victorian block where Dawn Mackenzie and Simon Trachtenberg had shared a flat. If she had known that he was investigating Dawn Mackenzie’s death – which she didn’t, and he wasn’t ever going to tell her – then she would have agreed that his finding out exactly how she had died was more important than spending an hour with her looking at an inaccurate version of prehistory rendered in concrete. And Atkins was a nice girl who seemed like she would be good with kids. And it might be possible to bribe Livvy not to tell her mother when he delivered her home that evening.
Such was Braithwaite’s ability for self-delusion that, if questioned, he would probably have insisted that his reasons for questioning Trachtenberg himself were entirely professional. Yes, he had a duty to find out the circumstances which had led to Dawn Mackenzie’s death. Yes, it would be irresponsible for him not to look into the coincidence of her death coming so soon after that of Gareth Morgan. But the truth was that a little part of Braithwaite – probably the same bit that had worshipped Suzi Quatro and collected posters of Cheryl Ladd 30 years previously – had fallen in love with Dawn Mackenzie when she had first entered his living room a fortnight ago, and that little part of him wasn’t going to let her death go unavenged.
Naturally, this didn’t in any way cloud his judgement of Simon Trachtenberg, who opened the door looking, in his opinion, like a shifty, feckless and thoroughly nasty piece of work. He was unshaven and still wearing the black jumper and leather trousers he had had on in the television studio the night before, and he didn’t appear to have slept. Anxiety was written all over his face, and when he saw the uniformed policeman at Braithwaite’s side, it turned into outright panic.
‘Oh God, no! What’s happened to her?’
‘Mr Trachtenberg, could we come in? I’m afraid we’ve got some bad news.’
He stood back to allow them in to the dingy communal hallway. A door at the end stood open, but Trachtenberg could not wait, and continued his wailing as he led them towards it. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have thrown her out, but I couldn’t let her do it in the flat, I just couldn’t!’
Braithwaite was puzzled. ‘I’m sorry. You couldn’t let her do what?’
The flat was tiny, its shabbiness disguised by the simple medium of patterned material which had been thrown and draped over every available surface. Even the lamps were shrouded in tie-dye cloths, giving the place a peculiar kind of rainbow gloom. Trachtenberg crashed down on a low sofa, its surface busy with paisley, and plunged his head into his hands. ‘Tell me she’s OK. You’ve arrested her, but she’s OK, right?’
Braithwaite sank down onto the chair opposite him, its seat much harder than the velvet cover suggested. ‘I’m afraid Dawn is dead. Her body was discovered in Crystal Palace Park this morning.’
Trachtenberg threw back his head and howled at the ceiling. ‘No! Oh God, no!’
Braithwaite looked at the uniformed constable, who was hovering awkwardly by the sofa. ‘Why don’t you put the kettle on and make us all a cup of tea?’ He gave the sobbing Trachtenberg a few moments, but when it became apparent he was not about to pull himself together, he spoke in a voice that was gentle but authoritative. ‘When did you last see Dawn, Simon?’
Trachtenberg blinked away tears. ‘We got back from the TV studios last night. She was in this show, you know – ’ Braithwaite nodded ‘ – and we got back about nine thirty. She was so hyper. It had gone really well, and she was on such a high. I wanted us to celebrate. I’d saved up some money from my Giro and got a couple of bottles of red wine in from Costcutters. But she said she wanted something better. She said she could get some smack, someone had offered her some … she knew how pissed off I would be. We’d been clean for so fucking long!’ He screwed his fists into his eyes.
‘So you refused to take any heroin with her?’ prompted Braithwaite gently.
‘Of course I did!’ exploded Trachtenberg. ‘I’ve been clean for nearly nine months! I don’t ever want that muck inside me again!’
‘But Dawn did?’
He nodded, his face crumpling into tears again. ‘She said we could just have one hit. To celebrate. Like you can just do that. And when I said I wouldn’t, she said she was going to do it, anyway. She said she deserved it.’
‘And you threw her out of the house?’
His eyes were screwed tightly shut, his whole body rocking with emotion. ‘I had to!’ he howled. ‘I couldn’t let her bring that stuff into the house! I couldn’t… I couldn’t trust myself not to!’
The constable arrived back with three steaming mugs and placed them on the coffee table apologetically. ‘I could only find herbal.’ Braithwaite nodded irritably.
‘Simon, do you know where Dawn was planning to get the drugs from?’
He shook his head. ‘She said she had to go round and collect it from someone. A mate. She wouldn’t tell me who.’
‘You haven’t met up with anyone in the last few days who might have offered it to her?’
He shook his head again, his lank hair swishing from side to side in front of his downcast head. ‘We’re not in touch with anyone who still does smack. We can’t be.’
Braithwaite took a sip of the insipid liquid in his mug. Trachtenberg was genuinely in shock, anyone could see that. But he knew from experience that junkies – and the first thing every rehabilitation programme taught you was that there was no such thing as an ex-junkie – were cunning buggers who would do anything to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. He would not be doing Dawn justice if he took her boyfriend’s story at face value.
‘Show me your arms, Simon.’ He spoke quietly, but left him in no doubt that it was an order. And as angry as Trachtenberg looked about it, he obeyed, pulling off his jumper and wrenching back the sleeves of his T-shirt to defiantly display scrawny arms that bore the same join-the-dots pattern of old scars as Dawn’s, but nothing fresh. He was telling the truth about that, at least.
‘Happy?’ Trachtenberg almost spat the word at him.
‘Thank you. You’ll appreciate that I have to check. And I’m sure you won’t mind if some of my colleagues search your flat as well.’
‘What for? You don’t think I gave it to her? Look, I’m telling you, we were clean!’
‘Well, in that case you won’t have anything to worry about, will you?’ Braithwaite put his mug, still almost full, back down on the table and stood up. ‘I’m extremely keen to find whoever gave Dawn the heroin that killed her. So, if you find you can remember anything that might help, you let me know. Constable Pearson will see me out.’ He unlocked the front door of the flat and strode out into the dark hallway, pausing to have a quick word with the constable. ‘I’ve got to go and collect my daughter now, but I’ll radio in and get a couple more officers over here to help with the search. And a sniffer dog if I can. Be thorough. But for God’s sake be as unobtrusive as you can. The last thing we want is the press getting hold of this.’
Braithwaite clicked the lock and threw the front door open, and was greeted by a lighting strike of flash bulbs. The parking space at the front of the building was crowded with people, and most of them appeared to be pointing cameras, notebooks or microphones at his face.
– ‘Can you confirm that Dawn Mackenzie is dead?’
– ‘Have you arrested her boyfriend?’
– ‘Is it true she was ritually murdered?’
– ‘Do you believe in the Curse of Fame Factory?’
He slammed the door again and plunged the hallway back into darkness.
When Braithwaite and Cassie had still been married, they had spent most Sunday mornings with the papers spread out across the breakfast table as they filled their arteries with the one meal he knew how to cook, a full English breakfast she insisted on referring to as the Weekly Lardbucket. At nine a.m. on Monday, the desk in Richardson’s office looked rather similar, though the conversation going on around it was considerably less affectionate.
The Mirror had gone with, THE CURSE STRIKES AGAIN, illustrated with a picture of Dawn Mackenzie he had last seen in a frame in Trachtenberg’s sitting room. The Mail had DYING TO BE FAMOUS: NUMBER TWO. The Sun had excelled themselves with DAWN OF THE DEAD, and even the Guardian had got in on the act with REALITY TV IN CRISIS AS SECOND DEATH ROCKS SHOW.
Braithwaite cringed as Richardson flicked through the Mirror’s four pages of coverage and got to the picture of him emerging from Trachtenberg’s front door, a look of gormless horror on his face, but thankfully the superintendent made no comment. Most of the other papers had gone with the pictures of the dog team arriving to search the place, or the ones of Trachtenberg being led out under a blanket three hours later to be taken to a safe house (his mother’s), which they had all without exception captioned as him being arrested. Braithwaite looked much better in those ones. He had finally picked up Olivia at five o’clock that afternoon, by which time she had worked every trick in the book on Constable Atkins and persuaded her to buy her not only ice cream but lunch at McDonald’s, complete with two milkshakes and an apple pie, all of which she threw up over the hall carpet when he delivered her back to her mother’s. He still might have got away with it if it wasn’t for that.
‘The entertainment editor for the Press Association walks her dogs in Crystal Palace Park every morning, apparently,’ said Julian Molloy, the head of the press office at Scotland Yard, who had driven over that morning to help deal with the situation. ‘She arrived on the scene just after the body was discovered, recognised the girl and was out of the way and on her mobile before the officers arrived on the scene. You can read her exclusive in the Sun. Calls you a ‘hunky cop’, Mike.’
‘So she’s blind as well as stupid,’ growled Richardson from behind the Daily Mail. This time, the paper had managed to record his central role in the investigation into the death of Gareth Morgan. Only they had assigned it to someone called Superintendent Robinson.
‘Well, I don’t think we come out of it too badly,’ the PR man continued. ‘The focus still seems to be almost entirely on the programme makers and whether they did enough to protect their contestants, and there’s very little about the police investigation at all.’
‘So where do we go from here?’ asked Richardson.
Molloy sat back, smoothing down a tie that looked as if it cost about as much as Braithwaite’s entire suit. ‘Well, we needn’t assume that we’re going to remain out of the media spotlight. The papers will be looking for a way to take the story forward, and my colleagues on the duty desk say they’ve already started getting calls this morning. I think it’s time for us to take the initiative and give them something to play with. Call a press conference for this afternoon.’
‘And say what?’ asked Richardson.
Molloy looked at him blankly. ‘Well, that’s really up to you, superintendent.’
‘Oh no. Press Relations are what we pay you for,’ insisted Richardson, glowering.
Braithwaite cleared his throat, nervously. ‘It’s just an idea, but could we possibly consider telling them the truth?’ Both heads swivelled to look at him. ‘I mean, that there’s no connection between the deaths that we’ve been able to find? I mean, as far as we know all we’ve got here is one suicide and one accidental overdose. The only thing they had in common was that they both auditioned for the same TV show.’
An amused smile played around Molloy’s mouth. ‘So we should tell them the Curse of Fame Factory is real?’
‘Of course not.’ That wasn’t what Braithwaite had meant at all.
‘Well, it’s probably what they’ll write, anyway. We’ve only got two options, suspicion or superstition. That’s rather good, isn’t it? We should use that. But I agree, the superstition angle does deflect away from us quite neatly, so that’s the one we should go for. I suppose there is absolutely no chance they were both bumped off, is there?’ He looked between Braithwaite and Richardson, his eyebrows raised.
‘Absolutely not,’ snapped the superintendent, before Braithwaite could say anything. Infuriatingly, the coroner had refused to follow his recommendations and had chosen to record an open verdict on the death of Gareth Morgan, and he had received a letter from the Morgan family’s solicitors the day before complaining that in the course of an interview with Sky News, he had ‘outed’ their son as both a bisexual and a transvestite, which they irritatingly (and, in his opinion, small-mindedly) continued to insist he was not. With his application for the SCD job safely in the internal mail system, there was no way he was going to reopen that can of worms now.
Braithwaite decided to concentrate on the present. ‘The heroin found in Dawn Mackenzie’s bloodstream was a particularly strong batch. It wasn’t cut with anything. If she had been clean for eight months, her resistance would have been down anyway. It looked like she died almost instantly.’
‘Great!’ beamed Molloy. ‘Then we can tell them our efforts will be concentrated on tracking down the rest of this batch of “killer heroin” and ensuring that it doesn’t claim any more lives. That’s good. Maybe you should actually get some officers on to that.’
‘Thanks for the tip,’ said Braithwaite dryly. He had had undercover officers all over Brixton since six o’clock the previous evening.
‘Good,’ continued the blissfully unaware PR man. ‘And we’ll need to clarify the situation about the boyfriend. He’s not under suspicion, is he?’
‘No,’ admitted Braithwaite. The search of the flat had turned up nothing stronger than the herbal tea bags. Wherever Dawn had got her fatal dose of heroin from, it wasn’t from Simon.
‘Right. Well, we’ve covered our backs then. Then it’s just condolences to the family, plea for privacy, the usual stuff, and we can round up within a half hour. Who do you want to put up?’
Molloy looked expectantly at Richardson, who could usually be relied on for media appearances, but the superintendent avoided his eye. The truth was he had a problem with drugs. There wasn’t a clear line coming down from the Yard: he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be arresting dealers at the moment or turning a blind eye. Knowing his luck, if he took a hard line today, tomorrow the Commissioner would make a speech lauding crack houses as a shining example of community enterprise in action. It wasn’t worth the risk.
‘I think this would be a good opportunity for the inspector,’ he announced, holding up the double-page spread in the Mirror. ‘He’s already the, er, face of this particular investigation.’
Braithwaite sighed. He wished he had managed to get a haircut at the weekend.
Molloy gathered his notes together and stood up. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be up there with you. The TV news always prefer it if there’s three people on the podium, but don’t worry about that, I can grab one of the interns from the press office and put them in a uniform.’
‘No, it’s all right, Sergeant Nelson can do it,’ said Richardson.
Molloy looked surprised. It wasn’t customary to let anyone beneath the rank of inspector speak to the press. ‘I don’t really think…’
‘No, no,’ Richardson assured him, waggling his eyebrows in a frantic attempt to communicate what he would never have dreamed of saying out loud. ‘I’ll introduce you. I think he’d be very suitable.’ He was damned if his borough was going to be represented by an all-white set of faces. And there was no actual need for the sergeant to open his mouth.
‘Right,’ said Molloy doubtfully. ‘In that case, I’ll see you at Scotland Yard at about quarter to three?’
‘Can’t we do it here?’ asked Richardson, who had been mentally rearranging the conference room to better display the station’s Investors In People awards.
‘Uh-uh. There’s no way Fleet Street will come this far out of town.’
‘We’re only in Battersea!’
‘Not a chance. I’ll see you this afternoon, inspector. And you might want to think about that tie.’ With firm handshakes all round, the PR man swept out of the room.
‘… no evidence that the participation of both these unfortunate young people in the television programme Fame Factory was anything other than a coincidence. So in conclusion, I would offer the sincere condolences of the Metropolitan Police to the families of all the deceased, and ask the ladies and gentlemen of the press to show respect to them and restraint in the reporting of these cases. And I will now take questions from the floor.’
Molloy’s tactic with press conferences was to make them as stilted and tedious as possible in the hope that any rolling news channels which took a live feed would find it so boring that they would cut to something else before the officer in charge could cock up anything too badly. The script he had written for Braithwaite was no exception. Even Nelson had zoned out somewhere in the middle, but then he had been concentrating on maintaining the serious look he had been practising in front of the mirrors in the toilets and worrying about whether Chantal had managed to set the video OK.
Judging by the flurry of hands which had shot up around the room, however, the reporters had not been discouraged from asking for more.
‘Adrian,’ called Molloy, pointing to the familiar and reliable figure of the Observer’s crime correspondent Adrian Gibson, who asked a predictable question about whether they knew where the batch of extra-strong heroin that had killed Dawn Mackenzie came from. Since they still didn’t – no other dead junkies had turned up to point them helpfully in the right direction – the answer didn’t take long, and Molloy’s finger moved on to single out a young, rather horsy-looking woman in a crop-top who was sitting in the front row.
‘Kelly Jefferson, Up All Night on the Daily Mirror. Who do you want to win Fame Factory?’
A murmur spread around the room. ‘I beg your pardon?’ asked Braithwaite. He was still trying to work out why the woman had told him about her shift patterns instead of giving her job title.
She repeated her question impatiently. ‘Who do you want to win Fame Factory, and do you think these deaths will affect the voting?’
Around her, the other journalists were tutting and chuckling amongst themselves. Adrian Gibson was shooting a look of undisguised loathing in her direction. ‘I… I have no idea,’ spluttered Braithwaite. ‘I really don’t have an opinion on that.’
The woman rolled her eyes, exasperated. ‘Well, do you think the other contestants will feel safe, or might we see some of them pull out of the programme?’
Absurdly, Braithwaite could feel his face reddening. ‘Look, as I’ve made clear, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that these deaths are connected. They both just happen to have appeared on the same programme, and what the other the other contestants decide to do is entirely up to them. It’s nothing to do with me.’
Jefferson jotted down, Refused to be responsible for safety of remaining contestants: up to them whether to take risk, on the pad on her knees. ‘So you don’t think Evil Eric’s criticism of Gareth Morgan had anything at all to do with his suicide?’ she asked.
‘That’s not what I said. Look, I’m afraid I’m not going to say anything about Fame Factory or this supposed “curse” you seem so keen on writing about, so I think we should stop talking about it. Who’s next?’
Agreed Evil Eric to blame: “afraid” to talk about curse of Fame Factory, wrote Jefferson, and sat back with a smile.
Molloy allowed a further five questions – thankfully, none of them as vacuous as Kelly Jefferson’s – before calling the press conference to a halt, and ushering the relieved officers out through a door at the back of the room. ‘You did well,’ he said, clapping Braithwaite on the back. ‘Nice stonewalling with that bimbo from the Mirror. Cheeky of them sending their showbiz girl along, but I doubt she’ll be able to get anything out of that.’
Outside, on the steps of Scotland Yard, Kelly Jefferson punched a number into her mobile. ‘It’s Kelly. Tell that wanker of a news editor to clear a right-hand page for me. This stuff is way too good for the column. I’ll have five hundred words of dynamite for him just as soon as I’ve got some decent quotes out of Portmanteau.’
‘Kelly, my love, I will have something for you in an hour. Yes, I know I owe you one. Yes, you would have made a much better job of it than the Sun. Yes, she is a fat goth slag, I know: my bad. Listen, I promise you something even better, my darling. Something that will blow your socks off. All right, half an hour. Appreciate it. Mwah.’ Kyle Pennington slammed the phone down and looked round the Portmanteau boardroom. ‘Bitch. Right, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just promised the Up All Night column an exclusive, so we need to decide our approach as a matter of urgency.’
Jacqui O’Riordan was the first to speak. ‘Tribute programme. That’s all we can do. We’ve got the VT footage I shot with Dawn last week for Fame On. Nice “poor little rich girl” stuff from when we went shopping for outfits. Great stuff about her mum, and I got her to cry in Selfridges. We’ll film some teary stuff with the boyfriend and cut it in. And then we’ll get the other contestants to sing all her favourite songs. The viewers will be bawling their eyes out before the opening titles are finished.’
‘Bollocks,’ drawled Eric Lestrade from the other side of the table. ‘I know we’re all upset, but let’s talk facts. Fact is, she was a weak, silly cow who wasted her talent by giving in to temptation. I’ll do a piece to camera warning the rest of the contestants that if I get even so much of a hint that any of them have sniffed, smoked or snorted anything stronger than an aspirin, they’ll be out of this competition on their arses quicker than you can say zero tolerance.’
O’Riordan rolled her eyes. ‘God, Eric, who died and made you David Blunkett?’
‘I’m a man who’s seen more kids in the music trade piss away their career for the sake of getting high than you’ve had hot dinners, darling!’ snapped Lestrade, his eyes flashing.
Pennington, who was rather partial to what he liked to call ‘a few toots of the old Bolivian marching powder’ himself, leant forward to defuse the situation before the pair could come to blows. ‘Thank you, Eric, for the suggestion, and for your willingness to put yourself in front of the camera so selflessly. As it happens, I think we should go for something somewhere in between. Milly, remind me about the boyfriend?’
The youngest and lowest-paid person in the room consulted the notebook in front of her. ‘Simon Trachtenberg, twenty-seven, auditioned onthe thirteenth of September, sang Perfect Day, failed to make second round, audition and reality footage with Dawn Mackenzie broadcaston the twentieth of September, studio guest on Fame On on the third of October…’
‘OK, OK, I don’t need his inside leg measurement, thanks. Has he been released by the police?’
‘He was never arrested,’ O’Riordan cut in. ‘I spoke to his mum this morning. She’s very indignant about the whole thing, talking about suing the papers – says he hasn’t touched drugs since February and it was all the fault of that stupid cow – her words – for dragging him back into it.’
‘Perfect. Right, here’s what we’re going to do: promote Simon to the live rounds to take Dawn’s place. Eric, you can do your “Just Say No” shtick – he’s the man who managed to resist the temptation to which his girlfriend so tragically succumbed, blah blah – and Jacqui, you can edit the Dawn footage together into a nice montage with her singing, Nothing Compares to You. Or the one she did last week – whichever one the rights are cheapest for. And we can get the other contestants on stage for a minute’s silence. It’ll be perfect.’ He sat back and beamed at the incredulous faces round the table.
‘But… he can’t sing, Kyle!’
For once, Lestrade seemed to be in agreement with O’Riordan. ‘He was flatter than a hedgehog on the M6!’
‘And I recall you very wittily telling him so, Eric. It needn’t be a problem. I’ll get the voice coaches to work on him, and we’ll give him tunes even he can’t cock up for a few weeks until the audience forget about Dawn and vote him out. Come on Eric, you know the routine – I’ve heard what A*Sxual sounded like before you got your hands on them.’
‘Yeah, but they don’t actually sing on their records,’ pointed out Lestrade, but he held up his hands in agreement. ‘OK, it sounds good to me. Three weeks of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Geri Halliwell it is.’
O’Riordan looked less happy. ‘Well… it’ll make good telly.’
‘And that, my friends, is what we are here for. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to run it past Johnno at ITV and then get back to that hag at the Mirror. Apparently, she got some great quotes out of the inspector and she’s going to splash him right across the front page.’
Five years to the day after his divorce was finalised, Michael Braithwaite stood on white sand and looked out across an expanse of turquoise sea.
The fact that it was close to freezing and a gale-force wind was hurling a fine mist of frothing surf across the sand, numbing his extremities and making his ears sing, made the moment slightly less than idyllic, but it was refreshing all the same.
He scrambled up the rocks towards the outcrop behind which the more sensible Susan was sheltering. He pressed his back into the wet rock alongside her and giggled with relief.
‘Bracing, isn’t it?’
He had no breath to agree, and could only nod, grinning stupidly. His sister slipped a gloved hand in his and passed him a mussel shell, its purple iridescence like a jewel in his palm. He turned it over and over, wondering.
‘And you do this every day?’
‘When I can,’ she shouted over the sound of the wind. ‘Hugh doesn’t always get back before dark. But I like to get away from the kids and come down here whenever I can.’
‘I can see why!’ he bellowed. Out in the bay, the winter sun was low over the incredible colours of the sea and sand. ‘I’ve never seen anywhere like this place! It looks like the Caribbean!’
She yelled something back, but the wind took it, and she leaned right into the hood of his coat to repeat herself. ‘I said, they have slightly better weather!’
Braithwaite nodded, beaming. ‘I wouldn’t change it for the world!’ His sister smiled fondly at him and punched him on the arm, the blow softened by affection and the five layers of clothing he was wearing to keep out the cold.
He scrambled to the top of the rocks, closed his eyes, threw out his arms and let the driving wind blow the stress and strains out of his body. November was never a good time of year for him, the darkening evenings recalling hours spent in solicitors’ offices and long nights alone. And it hadn’t exactly been a good autumn, anyway. The Fame Factory deaths had proved to be rather more than a nine day wonder, thanks to the efforts of Kelly Jefferson and Kyle Pennington, who between them had dreamed up a number of headlines that had ensured his unlooked-for presence in the newspapers had been extended well into the elimination rounds of the competition. He’d had sod-all support from his superiors, either. Richardson had been in a foul mood with him ever since a chief inspector Robinson from Essex constabulary had been invited onto the GMTV sofa to discuss the case by a researcher relying on the cuttings file.
It had come as a surprise when the Human Resources department called to point out that he had nearly four weeks of leave piling up – since he was no longer able to take Olivia away on holiday, he tended not to bother going at all – but he had decided to take it as a sign and called Susan that evening to ask if she fancied a visit from her fascist brother. Although she did point out that November was perhaps not the ideal time to see the Outer Hebrides for the first time, she said there was nothing she would like more, and when she told him that Hugh refused to have a television in the house and that the only paper they ever took was the West Highland Free Press, the deal was fixed.
When he was sure that the very last vestiges of London had been blasted out of his body and scattered across every corner of the island – and he no longer had any feeling in his face – he scrambled back down to join a giggling Susan and they headed back to the house across the meadow above the beach, disturbing a flock of dunlin which erupted from the grass just a few inches ahead of his feet. Susan’s eldest, Grainne, came running out to meet them, her sister Aileen waddling after her as fast as she could with her wellies on the wrong feet. Braithwaite scooped both girls up, planting a kiss on two frozen cheeks, and carried them into the welcoming warmth of the big open-plan kitchen and sitting room, where Hugh was holding their six-month-old brother Hector in one arm and stirring a vast saucepan of meaty broth with the other. Before too long, five out of the six of them were tucking into it with relish.
Two hours later, Braithwaite’s enthusiasm for Snakes and Ladders was all but exhausted, and he was glad to swap the girls, who could quite happily have gone on playing all night, for a bottle of Islay malt which Hugh passed to him as he shepherded his daughters upstairs. He poured three generous glasses and sat nursing one at the battered kitchen table, enjoying the patterns the open peat fire threw on the walls and listening to the sounds of bedtime floating down from above. He would love to bring Olivia up here some time, if Cassie would let him. She used to love the beach, and she had never met her cousins. Grainne, who was four, was intrigued by the concept of having a real life 11-year-old to play with and had asked him at least once every day so far if Olivia was coming, as if he might be keeping her locked up in his luggage as a special treat which he would otherwise forget about.
‘You all right, bro?’ asked Susan as she came into the kitchen and took a bottle of formula milk from the fridge.
‘Mm. Uh-huh.’ Braithwaite pulled out a tissue and blew his nose. His sister came and stood behind him, a hand squeezing his shoulder. Together, they watched the milk revolve in the microwave.
‘They’re lovely kids,’ he told her. ‘You’re very lucky.’
‘Oh, they’re all right on a good day.’ The microwave pinged and she headed for the stairs. ‘Put some music on, would you? Something cheerful.’
Hugh might not have approved of televisions, but his hi-fi system left nothing to be desired: a big old three-speed turntable was attached by a forest of wires not only to a state-of-the art Bang and Olufsen CD player and amplifier, but also to a flat-screen iMac – presumably the very computer on which he had first met Susan, out there in the cold loneliness of cyberspace. His CDs were laid out in alphabetical order on a set of racks nailed to the wall high out of his children’s reach, but it was to the collection of vinyl LPs in crates on top of the sideboard that Braithwaite went. These were ordered more haphazardly, and he spent a happy few minutes leafing through them, recognising some familiar images from his own teenage years: the lunar landscape of Tales from Topographic Oceans, the heraldic crest of A Night at the Opera, even a couple of bikini-clad lovelies promising more than the Top of the Pops albums could ever deliver. And here was a happy memory: Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, with its group of slightly awkward-looking naked women sitting together in the dark. He had been handed a copy of this album (or the cover at least; he didn’t remember there being any record inside) in the playground during his first year at secondary school and instructed to hide it in his satchel and not let his mum find it. It had obviously been through many pairs of hands before his: it was dog-eared and yellowing and, if memory served, unpleasantly sticky. Somehow, he knew without being told that he was only allowed to keep it for a week or two before it was his solemn duty to pass it on to a younger, smaller classmate. In the event, he didn’t have much choice in the matter: Susan had found it hidden in his wardrobe when she was looking for a spare set of hair rollers for her Girl’s World and shown it to their mother, and that had been the end of that. And now here she was with a copy of it in her own front room.
He lingered over the record for a second, trying to decide whether he was feeling up to Hendrix’s blend of voodoo and howling feedback, but then spotted a familiar androgynous face lurking behind it. It belonged to someone who had obviously decided that panda eyes and a mass of split ends were not enough of a style statement in themselves and topped off the look by putting what appeared to be a bucket on his head. Beneath it, blocked out in red capitals, was the name that had caused him so much confusion when he had spotted it also adorning packets of lard in his mother’s kitchen: T.REX. It had to be this one. He remembered dancing with Susan in her bedroom to Telegram Sam, their thumbs hooked in the belt-loops of the drainpipe jeans they had persuaded their mother to flare out with triangles cut from old cushion covers, bellowing along at the tops of their voices and, when they were finally told to turn it down, engaging in earnest conversations about how exactly cosmic seas resembled bumble bees and speculating as to why anyone’s uncle might have had an alligator chained to his leg.
He put it on the turntable and let the irresistible plinky-plonky guitar of Metal Guru fill the room. His foot was tapping even before Marc Bolan began to sing and he essayed a brief boogie as he crossed the room to pick up his drink, thankfully stopping before Hugh came in. He nodded his approval and the two of them sat side-by-side on the sofa, enjoying the music in companionable silence, which suited Braithwaite just fine since, although he liked his brother-in-law a great deal, he found his accent almost completely incomprehensible.
Susan got Hector off to sleep and joined them during, appropriately enough, Baby Boomerang, taking up a position in front of the fire and downing half her tumbler of whisky in one go. Hugh looked slightly shiftily at her. ‘Er… we usually… er,’ he said, and tailed off.
Susan shook her head exasperatedly and turned to her brother. ‘Hugh wants to know if he can have a spliff, or if you’ll arrest us.’
‘Oh!’ Braithwaite exclaimed, discombobulated. ‘I’m not on duty, so don’t worry about me. Er. It’s fine, honestly.’ He’d been in similar situations before – when he had joined the force at 18, most of his friends from school had been too stoned to notice for several weeks – but it was so long since he had been out socialising with anyone who wasn’t a work colleague that the topic just hadn’t arisen for a while. And he hadn’t been aware that Susan smoked dope, but then again, if she had done, she was hardly likely to have told him, was she? Christ, he felt more like her granddad than her brother. To cover his embarrassment, he reached for the bottle and topped up their glasses. A few more of these and he wouldn’t be bothered about anything.
Hugh skinned up quickly with a practised hand, and opened the top half of the stable-style kitchen door to smoke it, flicking the glowing ashes out to be carried away by the wind. After a while, he swapped places with Susan, and went to sit cross-legged in front of his records, flicking through them and chuckling occasionally to himself. Braithwaite tried to shake off the feeling of being the uncool kid at the party. He tried to concentrate on the music, and then realised he was tapping out the drum riffs on the arm of the chair and humming along, which made him feel even more self-conscious.
‘D’you want any of this, Michael?’ asked Susan in the gap between two songs.
‘Oh, no,’ said Braithwaite automatically, and then suddenly felt very, very bored with being a sensible policeman. ‘Yes, actually I really do.’ He crossed to the kitchen door before he could change his mind again and took a deep toke on the remains of the joint, which glowed back into life in his fingers. The smoke hit the back of his throat and made his eyes water, and he coughed harshly.
‘Careful, it’s strong stuff,’ said his sister. ‘A friend of ours in Tolstadh grows his own… but I’m not supposed to tell you that, am I?’
He grinned at her, flapping his hand to disperse the smoke. ‘I can hardly go and arrest him now, can I?’ He took another drag and felt a smooth warmness spread through his body. ‘God, I haven’t done this for –’ he tried to do the calculation, but didn’t feel quite up to it – ‘nearly thirty years.’ He took another long drag, and decided it might be easier to give up talking altogether and just look at the view through the doorway. In the distance the moonlight glittered on the roaring sea. He could hear the calling of seabirds over the sound of the music.
His sister was laughing at him. ‘I’ve missed you, bro,’ she said, and enveloped him in a hug.
‘I’ve missed you, too,’ he told her, and then, with a shriek of ‘Oh, man,’ Bolan announced the arrival of their very own tune. ‘D’you remember this?’ roared Braithwaite, tucking his thumbs into the belt-loops of his corduroy trousers (he had to suck his stomach in to get to them, which hadn’t been a problem in 1972) and throwing himself into something that was meant to be the funky chicken but actually looked more like a half-stuffed turkey. Susan dissolved into giggles.
‘You laugh now!’ he chortled. ‘I remember you crying when Dad wouldn’t let us watch him on Top of the Pops!’
‘Oh, God, yeah!’ She reached out to take the joint back. ‘What was it he said? “I don’t pay my licence fee to watch poofters on the telly!”’ She imitated their father’s booming tones.
‘That’s it!’ He grinned, delighted that she remembered. ‘And you said, “He’s not a poofter, he’s a Gender Bender!”’
Her face was alight with remembered outrage. ‘He was! It said so in Jackie!’
‘I thought he was going to belt you!’
‘I think he would have done if I hadn’t stormed out of the room first!’ She shook her head and took a last toke on the spliff, swearing as it burned her fingers, then wandered off in search of an ashtray, observing as she went that Bobby was all right and just out of sight, around a semi-tone off Bolan pointing out the same thing. He remembered their father’s outraged face. A factory foreman, he had been unable to countenance anything that lay outside the narrow confines of the snug bar at the local and the editorial pages of the Daily Mirror. A bit like Alun Morgan, in fact.
He wandered back to the sofa and slumped down beside Hugh, who was rolling another joint on the coffee table. ‘What happened to Marc Bolan?’ he asked blearily. ‘Was it drugs that got him in the end?’
Hugh shook his head, scattering crumbs of tobacco from the Rizla he was licking. ‘Car crash. On Barnes Common.’
His words cut through the fug in Braithwaite’s brain. ‘Where?’
Hugh looked confused. ‘It’s in London, isn’t it? I’ve got the details somewhere. Here.’ He passed the now completed spliff to Susan, and crossed over to the CD racks, pulling out a copy of T-Rex’s Greatest Hits. ‘I got it for the bonus tracks,’ he said sheepishly, and passed the booklet across to Braithwaite.
From the moment he was expelled from school at age 14 to the day his first band John’s Children was banned by the BBC for suspect lyrics in their song ‘Desdemona’, it was obvious that young Mark Feld was a true child of the revolution, he read. He flicked ahead to the last page of text.
On September 16 1977, just two weeks before his 30th birthday, Marc was returning from a night out in a South London restaurant when the purple mini driven by his girlfriend Gloria Jones span out of control on Queens Ride, a leafy road in the middle of Barnes Common, and collided with a tree. Marc was killed instantly.
The LP came to an end and the room was plunged into a sudden silence, broken only by the sound of the stylus arm ticking and gliding its way back onto its holder. Braithwaite suddenly felt very sober. There was a rumbling feeling in his gut, and it had nothing to do with the combination of whisky and dope. He sat and stared at the paragraph in front of him. 16th September. Barnes Common. A purple mini.
‘Why don’t I know this stuff?’ he demanded in frustration.
‘Because you were listening to the bloody Partridge Family,’ his sister snorted from the kitchen doorway.
He turned to Hugh, who was at the sideboard, leafing through his collection in search of something to suit the mood. ‘Crystal Palace!’ said Braithwaite sharply.
His brother-in-law turned and looked at him quizzically. ‘I haven’t got any. Are they a band?’
‘No, no, it’s a place. What happened there?’ He looked round at Susan, who looked bemused but did her best.
‘I went on a date in a pub there with that bloke who said he worked in wildlife conservation but turned out to be a taxidermist.’
‘No, no, someone died there. A girl. A few weeks ago. And I think someone else might have done. Someone famous. How can we find out?’
Hugh straightened up, sensing the urgency in Braithwaite’s voice. ‘I can have a look on the net, if you like.’
‘Yes. Let’s.’ He scampered across the room and sat down in front of the futuristic-looking machine, but realised he had no idea of even how to turn it on. Hugh reached over his shoulder and pressed a mysterious series of buttons which brought the Google home page swimming into view.
He typed, crystal palace + died. ‘OK?’
He counted back on his fingers. ‘Putfourth of October, too.’ They watched as the screen went white, and then obstinately refused to do much else for several seconds.
‘Sorry,’ said Hugh, retrieving his glass from the coffee table. ‘Broadband hasn’t quite made its way to the Western Isles yet. Here you go.’
Together, they scanned the page of results. They consisted almost entirely of football fixtures. Braithwaite sighed in exasperation. ‘All right. Try putting in “famous”. And maybe “musician”.’
Hugh typed dutifully, but the results that came up were even more random. And there were apparently 372,000 of them. ‘What’s this about, Michael?’ asked Susan.
‘I need to know if there were any famous singers who diedon the fourth of October,’ he snapped. ‘It’s really important.’
‘Hang on,’ said Hugh. ‘Here, let me in there. I’m sure I can find something.’
They swapped places, Hugh sitting down at the keyboard and Braithwaite pacing up and down in the space between the coffee table and the fireplace. Susan watched from the kitchen, concerned.
‘Here we are,’ said Hugh, after what seemed like an age. He had pulled up a garishly-coloured site on the screen, headed OnThisDay.com. ‘Fourth of October, 1970. Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose.’
‘That’s it!’ he nearly screamed, bounding across the room and spilling his drink all over the carpet. ‘Where did she die? Was it Crystal Palace?’
A couple of clicks of the mouse brought the answer. ‘No. In Los Angeles. The Landmark Hotel on Franklin Avenue.’
The sense of disappointment was crushing. For a few vital minutes there he had thought he was onto something. But it was obviously just the dope talking. God. Three tokes on a spliff and he was behaving like one of those ridiculous old hippies who saw cosmic patterns in everything and insisted that if you watched The Wizard of Oz at the same time as listening to Dark Side of the Moon, you would realise something other than the fact that neither of them was very good.
‘Are you OK?’ asked Susan, coming up to him and laying a hand on his arm.
‘Yeah. Yeah. I’m fine. I just… it was just an idea. It doesn’t matter. I might go and get some fresh air.’ He brushed past her, embarrassed. He felt such an idiot. He was supposed to be forgetting about work for this week, and instead he had dragged it along, an unwelcome guest who had spoiled the party. And besides, he had spilt whisky all over his sleeve.
Outside the kitchen door the island lay still in the moonlight. Somewhere out to sea, a lighthouse was hurling its rhythmic signal out across the horizon. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs with the fresh, ice-cold air and gazing up at the vast canopy of stars that glittered above him. At least this couldn’t be more different to London. All he could see out of his own kitchen window was the sodium glow of streetlights and the red lights on the radio transmitter at the top of the hill.
The Crystal Palace radio transmitter.
The one you could see all over South London.
The one that might be several thousand miles from Los Angeles, but was absolutely and undeniably a Landmark.
Braithwaite burst back into the sitting room and reeled to the peg where his jacket and fleece were hanging. He tore them down and began to search frantically through the pockets. ‘My mobile… I need my mobile!’
‘You’ll never get a signal,’ warned Susan, but her brother was gone, out into the howling wind that was battering the island, leaving the couple sitting bewildered by the fire.