An unputdownable crime thriller that will have you hooked
Also by Victoria Jenkins
Detectives King and Lane:
The Girls in the Water
The First One to Die
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A Letter From Victoria
The Girls in the Water
The First One to Die
‘Let’s play a game.’
The voice sounded muffled, as though she was hearing it under water. The girl’s ears were still ringing from the blow to the head she had suffered earlier and she felt sick with the pain that coursed through her. She had returned to consciousness to find herself bound to a chair, her arms and legs tied tightly. If her eyes hadn’t been covered and her vision cast into darkness, she would have recognised too that her short-lived state of unconsciousness had also rendered her sense of sight temporarily impaired. She realised she had never felt scared before, not properly; not like this.
Why were they doing this to her?
‘I’ll count to three, and after three, one of us is going to touch you. A; ll you have to do is guess which one of us it was. Easy.’
The girl felt tears escape from under the fabric pulled across her eyes. She didn’t like this game. She wanted to go home. She tried to cry out, but whatever was stuffed into her mouth made the sound escape as little more than a muted sob.
‘Come on,’ a second voice said. ‘Do it. Touch her.’
Knowing she couldn’t free herself, the girl’s body tensed, every limb shuddering with fear. This couldn’t be happening to her. She had heard about things like this – had seen the stories on TV, things she hadn’t wanted to see – but they didn’t happen around here. They didn’t happen to her.
The sound of a slap, sudden and sharp, cut through the horrible silence that had fallen over the room. The girl felt nothing, but heard a small whimpering sound somewhere else in the room, the sound of a caged animal, trapped and tortured, before a scuffling crossed the floor, the noise falling towards her.
She felt a hand on her arm, shaking, and then a quiet voice that whispered in her ear. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s looking lovely in here.’
Alex sat on the sofa in Chloe’s living room drinking a cup of tea. The last time she had been over to the house had been about six weeks earlier, when Chloe had still been in the process of moving in. Chloe hadn’t had many material possessions, so moving from Alex’s house into her own rented home had been fairly straightforward and hassle-free. The emotional impact of moving was something both women knew might prove a little trickier to manage. Chloe hadn’t lived alone since the attack earlier that year and she was still having nightmares from her ordeal, but she had known she couldn’t rely on Alex forever.
‘Thanks. I was quite lucky, really – the place didn’t need much doing.’
Alex glanced at the windowsill, where a framed photograph of Chloe and her boyfriend Scott stood. The photo had been taken sometime during the summer; Chloe was wearing a strappy dress and Scott was looking at her as though she was the only person in the world. No one had ever looked at Alex in that way, or if they had, it had happened too long ago for her to be able to recall.
‘How long before he moves in, then?’ she asked with a smile.
Chloe rolled her eyes. ‘Bit soon for that. I don’t think he could cope with some of my bad habits. You can warn him if the time ever comes.’
‘Must be nice to have your own space back.’
‘Yeah, definitely.’ Chloe shot Alex a look, embarrassed. ‘I didn’t mean …’
Alex smiled. She knew what Chloe meant. The young detective constable had worked and lived with her for the previous eight months, but Alex took no offence at her appreciating her own space back. Chloe was twenty-seven; she needed her independence. Alex had thought she would feel the same, yet Chloe’s moving out had only served to highlight an emptiness that she feared she would never be able to fill alone.
‘Handy for work, too.’
Chloe was living now only five minutes from the police station, an easy walk into work. The terraced house overlooked the river and stood in an area far more built up than the flat in which she had previously lived before moving in with Alex. It seemed she had made the decision to surround herself with life, and placing herself near the safety of the station seemed no coincidence either.
‘Yeah, I have wondered about that, though. Bit too easy, maybe.’
Alex finished her tea and stood. ‘You’re still welcome to come over whenever you want, you know that, don’t you? I’m already missing your veggie lasagne.’
‘Charming,’ Chloe said, taking the empty mug from her. ‘You just miss me for my cooking.’
Alex shrugged. ‘At least I’m honest.’
‘I’ll bring some food parcels to the station for you.’
Alex left Chloe’s house and drove home to her own. It was already dark, the nights now drawing in early, and only the string of headlights that ran along the A470 gave away the fact that it was still rush hour and not the depths of night-time. Less than fifteen minutes later, she pulled up outside her house and cut the engine. She lived in the imposing semi that had once been her marital home, and it seemed bigger now she lived there alone once again. In the first couple of months on her own, she had lost count of the number of times she’d felt this way upon returning to the place: not wanting to go inside; dreading the long hours that stretched between night and morning, dragging her along amid their quietness.
She took her bag from the passenger seat beside her and got out of the car, slinging it over her shoulder. Chloe had had the right idea, she thought. Leaving everything behind and starting again seemed an increasingly appealing option. She wondered whether she might be able to do the same. Would she be brave enough? She didn’t need all this space to herself, and besides, there were too many ghosts in this place. Even from the pavement she could almost feel them waiting there, watching her. If she left, would they follow?
Pushing her bag further onto her shoulder, she fumbled with her keys as she tried to find the one for the front door. Before making her way up the steps, she could already feel something was wrong. An unsettling sense of unease fell over her and she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had invaded her private space. The feeling was quickly justified. Streaked across the front door, in lurid red letters that had run in bloody tears like something from a horror film, was the word ‘WHORE’, spray-painted in angry capitals that seemed to scream at her.
She stopped on the path, halted by the assault on her home. She turned to look behind her, as though the person responsible might still be there, then hurried back down the steps and looked up and down the street. She knew doing so was pointless – whoever had done this was now long gone – but the wave of unease that had swelled in her chest at the sight of the graffiti made her feel in that moment that she was no longer alone, that someone might still be there, waiting to witness her reaction. The irony of her thoughts struck her: hadn’t she just been lamenting her recent isolation?
She returned to the house and went inside. She turned on the hallway light before closing the front door and double-checking the lock was firmly fixed in place behind her. She hadn’t wanted to be alone, yet the thought of someone else being inside the house with her now filled her with an unsettling doubt.
Be careful what you wish for, she thought.
Mahira Hassan muted the television when she heard a noise at the front door. It was late – much later than she had planned to stay up that night – but her sons’ non-appearance by 11 p.m. had triggered a familiar anxiety that she was unable to rid herself of. Late nights inevitably meant trouble, at least where her oldest son Syed was concerned.
She stood from the sofa at the sound of stumbling in the hallway. One of the boys slammed the door shut behind him and Mahira hoped they hadn’t woken Faadi, who was upstairs in bed. Padding across the living room in a pair of slippers, she went to the doorway and watched her sons as they removed their shoes in the hallway, neither of them noticing her standing there. Syed shoved Jameel, laughing unreservedly as his brother fell against the radiator.
‘You’ll wake Faadi.’
Syed turned, surprised to see his mother still up so late. ‘Very sorry, Mother.’
There was no apology in the words and Mahira tried to ignore the sarcasm with which they were spoken. Behind Syed, Jameel straightened himself, still fighting to remove the shoe from his right foot. When he turned to look at her, he made no attempt to hide the bruising that patterned his left eye, angry and swollen.
‘What’s happened now?’
‘It doesn’t look like nothing.’
Syed sighed and stepped past his mother, heading into the living room. He scanned the room for the remote control before unmuting the television and sinking back into the sofa, apparently without a care in the world.
‘It was nothing,’ he repeated with a shrug. ‘No big deal.’
‘Let me take a look at it at least.’
Reluctantly Jameel followed his mother through to the kitchen. He sat at the table while she searched the freezer for a bag of peas, wrapping it in a clean tea towel and handing it to him. ‘It’ll take down the swelling.’
He pressed the bag to his face, but it wasn’t enough to conceal his reddened, bloodshot eyes or the watery glaze that was fixed upon them. Mahira had seen those dilated pupils before; knew all too well what they meant.
‘Are you going to tell me what happened now?’
Jameel ran his free hand across his closely shaved head. His mother hated this look on him. It made him appear to be someone she knew he wasn’t, not really.
‘It was just some idiot.’
‘You wouldn’t know him.’
With a sigh, Jameel moved his hand from his face and put the bag of peas down on the table. ‘Gavin Jones. They call him Spider.’
Mahira knew him: he used the shop fairly regularly, mainly for cans and cigarettes. He had a tattoo of a spider’s web that circled his elbow. He had never given her any problems. ‘Are you going to report it?’
Jameel shook his head. ‘Don’t make a big deal about it.’
‘If he did this to you, then you need to report it.’
It occurred to Mahira that Jameel’s reluctance to report the incident to police was perhaps a suggestion that Gavin Jones wasn’t entirely to blame for whatever had happened that evening.
‘Fights don’t start themselves,’ she said.
‘Bloody hell.’ With a scrape that echoed around the kitchen, Jameel pushed his chair back and stood. ‘He said something, all right?’
‘Okay. What did he say?’
‘I don’t know, Syed heard him. Now just leave it, will you?’
She watched him stride to the living room, wondering when her middle son had become so much like his older brother. It was unfair of her, she thought; he had a way to go before he really became like Syed. How long would it be, though, before the gradual changes in his attitude and behaviour amounted to the whole: a new, different son to the one she had known these past nineteen years?
Jameel had always looked up to Syed, always wanting to be just like him. For his own sake, and for all their sakes, Mahira hoped it wasn’t going to happen.
‘Jesus Christ.’ DC Chloe Lane put a hand to her mouth: an ineffectual attempt to hide her reaction to the horror that awaited them in one of the former hospital wards. It hardly resembled a person. What had once been human was now reduced to a charred and blackened mess of rags and barely identifiable remains. The scene-of-crime officers were going to have their work cut out for them, as were the fire-scene investigators who were on their way.
‘What was he doing up here?’ Alex wondered, thinking aloud.
The room was bleaker than the bulk of black night sky that stretched beyond the building, the fire having spread rapidly. Fire crew had responded quickly to the 999 call that had been made, with the station being just a few streets away. Alex hoped this would mean that evidence had been preserved. Lifting forensic evidence from fire scenes was always a laborious process, with a myriad of complications. Those complications would be passed on to the incident room, where they would be felt by the rest of the team.
She leaned closer to what remained of the body, her capacity for the brutalities of murder having broadened during her years as a detective. Each time she thought she had seen it all, someone else proved that evil knew no boundaries.
‘How could anyone do this to someone?’ Chloe said quietly.
Alex left the question unanswered. Chloe had seen enough evil in her life to know that sometimes there was no explanation for it, no matter how much they might seek one. In many ways, the senselessness was the most difficult thing to accept.
The abandoned hospital was in Llwynypia, just a few streets from the main road that linked Tonypandy with the smaller villages that stood between it and the top of the Rhondda valleys. Despite its central location, the trees and shrubs that lined its boundaries kept the derelict buildings fairly secluded. This particular room – still bearing evidence of its former use as a ward – was located at the back of the main hospital building, used now as little more than a brick canvas for spray-painted names and lewd graffitied drawings.
Despite the ravages of the fire, the remnants of messages sprayed and scrawled upon the peeling paintwork could still be seen on the far wall. Alex wondered for a moment whether whoever had been responsible for this person’s death had been brazen enough to leave behind a signature. Whatever else they might find here, this was going to prove to be no accident.
Her thoughts roamed for a moment back to her own front door. She hadn’t mentioned the graffiti to Chloe. What was the point? How many people had thrown verbal slurs and insults at her during the duration of her career, and much worse besides? The call from the station about the fire had come in not long after she had arrived home, so she hadn’t yet had time to speak to any of her neighbours. She doubted anyone would have seen anything. Her front door was pretty secluded from the street and it was nearing the end of October, already dark by 5.30.
Returning her focus to the scene, Alex took in the details of what lay before her. A pile of burned wooden planks and an array of charred debris covered the body, forming a human bonfire. The scene was gruesome and macabre, like something from a horror film. Its structure had held surprisingly well against the force of the flames that had consumed it.
‘What’s that?’ She gestured to the doorway through which they had entered the scene. By the wall, at the edge of the fire’s reach, there was a single trainer. She picked her way through the debris and lifted the shoe with a gloved hand. It was a brand she recognised from years back and wouldn’t have thought was still in production. The single shoe looked battered and worn, as though the owner had been wearing it all these years.
‘Remember these?’ she asked, nodding at the trainer.
Chloe shook her head. Alex had thought it unlikely; she hadn’t seen a pair of trainers of this make since she was a teenager, before Chloe had even been thought of. If the shoe belonged to the victim then it was likely this wasn’t a young person, although at that moment it was impossible to tell anything for sure. She had made the assumption that it was a man, though even that wasn’t certain.
There were three scene-of-crime officers in the room, all kitted out in protective white overalls. They roamed the room like ghosts, their silence only adding to the eeriness of the place. Alex gave one of them the trainer and it was placed into a clear plastic bag. She and Chloe moved aside, giving the SOCOs space to work closer to the victim.
‘Know how long this place has been left derelict?’ Chloe asked.
‘Ex-husband’s niece was born here. How old would she be now … twenty-eight? Twenty-nine? It closed not long after that.’
‘You heard from him at all recently?’
‘No, and he’d better keep it that way.’
A near reunion with her ex-husband almost a year earlier had led to disaster, leaving Alex suspecting she might be better off single for the rest of her life. Most days, the prospect didn’t seem too bad, but the attack on her home had made living alone less appealing.
They went back out into the corridor. It was a mess: loose wiring hanging in a tangled web from the ceiling, broken plastic panelling lying in sharp shards underfoot; an abandoned trolley still laden with medical paraphernalia resting beside an open doorway into what had once been another ward, sitting there as though waiting for the ghost of a nurse to retrieve it.
‘Place gives me the creeps,’ Chloe said.
‘Fascinating, though, don’t you think? As though time’s just stopped here.’
Chloe pulled a face. ‘If you say so.’ There was a noise at the end of the corridor that made her start.
‘That’ll be the fire-scene investigators.’ Alex picked her way across the debris to meet the men who had entered the corridor, all dressed in full protective clothing and armed with an expansive collection of equipment.
‘Detective Inspector King. This is Detective Constable Chloe Lane.’
One of the men introduced himself in reply and shook the hand Alex offered him. ‘Suspected arson?’
Alex nodded. ‘One victim, gender as yet unknown.’
‘It’s not the first fire we’ve had up here,’ the man told her. ‘I don’t know how many times we’ve said this place needs to be pulled down. It’s become a magnet for trouble.’
Alex led the investigators through to the room where the body lay, then turned her attention back to Chloe. ‘We need to find out if there are any cameras on any of the streets nearby,’ she said. ‘The call came in from a telephone box about two minutes from here – perhaps there’s CCTV somewhere. Let’s do a door-to-door, speak to the residents in the nearest houses. It’s a long shot, but if there’s regular trouble up here perhaps someone’s kept enough of an eye out to have seen something suspicious.’
‘I still don’t get why anyone would choose to come into this place.’
‘Curiosity, I suppose. Some people love derelict places.’ She watched for a moment as the fire-scene investigators set about their work. Until the pathologist arrived, they would have no details regarding their victim. ‘The call that came in was anonymous,’ she continued, thinking aloud. Something wasn’t sitting right with her. The fire hadn’t had time to spread beyond this room, meaning that whoever had placed that call had done so soon after the blaze had been started.
‘Think whoever it was might know more?’ Chloe asked.
‘They certainly knew about the fire quickly enough. And why else would you withhold your name? Whoever it was, they ended the call as quickly as they’d made it.’
One of the SOCOs had crouched beside the burned body and was using a gloved hand to retrieve something from amid the charred remains. Alex understood Chloe’s reaction to the place: there was an eerie, haunting atmosphere that was static in the air around them. It seemed an ironic place to die: a building where healing had happened; a place where lives had begun and been saved. It was almost impossible to imagine it now as it might have been then, clean and sterile, bustling with life.
Alex turned at her name. The SOCO was holding something up with a gloved hand, beckoning her to take a closer look.
‘Looks like part of a sleeping bag,’ he said.
Alex looked again at the remains that lay beneath the stack of blackened debris. Had the victim been sleeping rough in the hospital building? The circumstances of this person’s death now seemed all the more tragic. Had they sought shelter here; been killed in the place they’d considered the closest thing to a home?
Who had ended a life so brutally and callously here, and why had they done it?
Mahira Hassan couldn’t sleep. She lay in bed – the right-hand side of the mattress always hers – unable to drift off as she tried to fight back the barrage of thoughts that thundered through her brain. There was usually the incessant rumble of her husband’s snoring in the bed beside her, and his being away with work again should have meant a much-needed night of uninterrupted peace. For twenty-six years Mahira had been able to count on her fingers the number of nights she had spent without her husband sleeping by her side, but the last year had seen him away with work more often. Rather than missing him, she more often than not these days found herself glad of the break.
She wondered whether he was asleep in his hotel room, imagining that he would be. Youssef always slept soundly. How could he sleep so deeply, she wondered, knowing everything that had happened? How would he react to the news of what had happened again that evening?
She heard a noise on the landing; the soft padding of feet descending the staircase. Slipping from beneath the duvet, she slid her bare feet into the slippers that waited at the bedside and reached for the dressing gown draped over a chair. Edging around the bed, she left the room and headed downstairs.
In the kitchen, Syed was standing at the fridge, illuminated in the darkness by its strip light. He was wearing a dressing gown and his bare feet were exposed, showing a shock of thick dark hair at his ankles. Her eldest son had once been such a source of pride – a good child, hard-working and respectful – but age had changed him. Sometimes Mahira would experience thoughts as she was looking at him – strange, unwelcome ideas that she didn’t think it natural for a mother to feel. She loved her son, but she didn’t like the person he had become. The thought felt dirty, sinful.
She was his mother. Surely anything he had become was in some way her doing?
Syed turned slowly, sensing someone behind him.
‘How many times?’ Mahira said, gesturing to the orange juice carton in his hand. ‘Use a glass.’
She moved to the cupboard, took a glass from one of the shelves and put it on the worktop in front of him, banging it down with a force greater than she had intended. Her son took the glass and half-filled it.
‘This has to stop, Syed.’
He glanced at his mother over the rim of the glass as he drank. ‘It’s just orange juice,’ he said, his lips curling into a smirk. He shook his head, flicking a wave of dishevelled hair from his face.
He had been such a handsome boy growing up, Mahira thought. He had known it, but it hadn’t spoiled him. Now, his arrogance and anger were making him ugly. Exasperated, her hands moved to her hips. Where had this insolence come from? This wasn’t how they had raised their sons. ‘You know exactly what I mean.’
‘Speak to Jameel in the morning,’ Syed told her, before draining the last of the juice. He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. ‘It’s nothing to do with me.’
Mahira tutted. Her hands slid from her hips and slipped into the pockets of her dressing gown. ‘It’s always something to do with you, Syed. Every time there’s a fight, you’re there in the background somewhere.’
Syed went to the sink, turned on the tap and briefly held his used glass beneath the flow of cold water before standing it upside down on the draining board. ‘Defending my brother’s honour.’
‘Rubbish,’ Mahira said with a sigh. ‘Goading him, more like. Don’t you think this family has been through enough without you making things worse?’
When her son stepped towards her, she felt a ripple of fear that began in her stomach and raced up to her throat. She suspected it was foolish of her, yet there was always an element of doubt; a nagging thought that ticked at the back of her brain, reminding her not to be complacent. Syed was not to be trusted, not completely. She had seen the results of his anger. She had seen the way his silences could fester over time, manifesting themselves in outbursts of violent rage. Who was to say they wouldn’t one day be directed at his own family?
‘When are you going to see things as they really are?’ he challenged. ‘If people left us alone, we wouldn’t need to fight. As it is, there’s hardly a day we go out without some idiot insulting us. You want us to avoid people, is that it? What would you have us do – stay locked up in this place forever?’
He eyed the room with contempt, as though ‘this place’ had become unrecognisable as home. The truth, she knew, was that it never had been home. Their home had been back in Cardiff, where the children had grown up. Uprooting their lives had been done with the best of intentions, but it was already proving to be a mistake; one she knew there was no going back from. Where had she gone wrong? Mahira wondered. She had done everything she could, given them everything she had, yet it never seemed to be enough. No matter how hard she had tried to keep her boys on the right path, Syed had been intent on dragging himself elsewhere, taking the rest of them with him.
‘You can’t control how other people behave,’ she told him, ‘but you can control how you react to it. You don’t have to fight, Syed. You don’t have to encourage Jameel to fight. You have the choice to walk away.’
With a roll of his eyes, Syed stepped past her and headed back to the hallway. ‘No we don’t.’
She sat at the kitchen table and listened to her son go back upstairs. She wouldn’t go back to bed now; there was no point. She wouldn’t sleep, not after this. She waited, lost within her worry, the ticking of the clock on the far wall and the whirring of the fridge the only sounds to break through her thoughts. When those thoughts threatened to take her to places she didn’t want to visit, she got up and went to the sink to wash properly the glass that her son had left unclean.
From the worktop where she had left her mobile charging before she had headed up to bed earlier that evening, the phone began to ring. Mahira crossed the room quickly, not wanting the noise to disturb the house. She wondered who might be calling her, knowing that at this time of night it was only likely to signal bad news.
No number. She answered, and her fears were substantiated.
Faadi Hassan sat on the edge of his bed and stared at the calendar that hung on his bedroom wall. It was something he did almost every day, always with the same thought: that time would pass and nothing would last forever. He pulled his school jumper over his head, disappearing for a moment within its itchy confines. If he could have stayed there all day, hidden from the rest of the world, he would have.
The following week was the half-term holiday. The thought of a week off would be enough to get him through that last day at school, just as every half-term he spent counting down the days until the next holiday. He heard a noise on the landing outside his room, then Jameel banging a fist on the bathroom door, telling Syed to get a move on and get out of there. Faadi reassessed his wish for the week to be over. At least at school he was free of his brothers.
He heaved his bag onto his shoulder and went out onto the landing. Jameel was standing outside the bathroom, drumming a slow, repetitive beat on the door.
‘Off to school, Fatty?’
Faadi winced. He hated the nickname his brothers had given him. The more he hated it, the more pleasure they took in calling him it, and try as he might, he couldn’t help but react every time he heard it. He had never been any good at hiding his feelings. If he was upset, tears would catch at the corners of his eyes no matter how hard he tried to fight them back. If he was happy, his face couldn’t help but show it; his thin lips would stretch into a surprisingly wide smile and there was a sparkle in his eyes that his mother never failed to miss.
He could just about remember how it felt to be happy, but the feeling was one that already seemed so distant.
‘What happened to your face?’ he asked his brother.
Jameel had a split lip. There was dried blood at the corner of his mouth and his left cheek was swollen and bruised. If he was ashamed of or embarrassed by his injuries there was no evidence of either.
‘Never you mind,’ he said, waving a hand in Faadi’s direction as though swatting away a fly. ‘You just run along like a good boy and enjoy your day at school.’
There was a click at the bathroom door as Syed undid the lock on the other side. He appeared in the doorway with a white towel wrapped around his waist and his bare chest still damp from the shower. Faadi felt his face flush at seeing his brother’s body; at the sight of the thick mass of dark hairs that covered his chest and the taut skin that clung to his narrow waist. He felt his arm move instinctively in front of him, concealing the bulk of his own stomach.
‘What are you staring at?’ Syed clicked his fingers, ushering Faadi away as though he were a disobedient dog. ‘Go on … get yourself to school.’
Faadi went downstairs to the kitchen, where his mother was loading clothes into the washing machine. Her long dark hair was pulled back from her face into a ponytail that swept the length of her spine. From behind, she looked like a much younger woman, but her face had grown older in the past couple of years, with a collection of worry lines now revealing her age.
He spoke to her, but when she didn’t acknowledge him, he repeated his hello, wondering if she had heard him. Eventually she turned and looked at him, giving him a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Then she stood and arched her back, placing a hand at the base of her spine and steadying herself against the kitchen unit. She had been crying. There had been a time when she had once hidden any tears she might have shed, but during those past few days it seemed she was now past caring who might be witness to them.
‘Are you okay?’
She nodded and ran the back of her hand hastily across each eye in turn. ‘No,’ she said. Tears followed, thick and fast; awkward for them both.
‘What’s happened now?’ Faadi asked. He didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t used to outbursts of feeling such as this and he stood fixed to the spot, unsettled by his mother’s sadness and not knowing what to do with his hands. He wasn’t very good with other people’s emotions. He never knew how to deal with his own.
His mother shook her head. ‘Never you mind. You just concentrate on school.’ She stepped towards him and ran a hand across his thick, short-cut hair. He never minded when she did this at home – if anything, there was something in the gesture that made him feel safe – but she would occasionally do it in public, when each time Faadi would feel his cheeks grow hot and wish the ground would swallow him up.
‘Mum …’ he began.
‘The shop,’ Mahira said, knowing that keeping anything from him was pointless. He was thirteen years old now; she couldn’t wrap him up and keep him safe forever, despite how much she wanted to. If he didn’t hear it from her, he would hear it from someone else. ‘There’s been a fire at the shop.’
Faadi pulled a face. ‘I don’t understand. When?’
‘During the night. Look … it’s nothing for you to worry about, okay?’
‘But what happened? Why didn’t you wake me up?’
His mother gave another sad smile. ‘What could you have done, eh? No point in us all being tired this morning, was there?’
‘Do Syed and Jameel know?’
Her face changed again, a darkness falling over her. ‘No, not yet. Please … don’t say anything to them. Let me do it.’
Faadi shifted the weight of his rucksack from one shoulder to the other. ‘You’re not going to be there today then?’
‘I’ve got to wait to hear from the police. I might be able to go there later today.’
‘Dad going with you?’
Mahira shrugged. ‘He may not be back from work today.’
‘I’ll come with you,’ Faadi said hurriedly. ‘After school … if you’ve not already been.’
His mother smiled, and for the briefest moment there was light in her eyes. ‘You’re a good boy, Faadi, you know that? Don’t ever change.’ She looked away for a moment. ‘Go on,’ she said, returning her attention to the washing in an attempt to hide her sadness. ‘Get yourself off to school now.’
‘Promise you’ll call me to let me know,’ Faadi insisted.
Mahira looked back at him, her best smile fixed firmly in place. ‘I promise. Now go … you don’t want to be late.’
Alex and Chloe stood in the stifling heat of the terraced house’s front room, assaulted by the heat being pumped out by the five-bar gas fire that was fixed to the wall. Alex remembered her own parents having a similar fire, decades earlier when she had been a teenager, before they’d had central heating installed. The smell of it evoked a number of memories, all of which she was loath to return to in the aftermath of everything the last year had thrown at her. That single fire in the living room had been relied upon to heat the whole house, yet she couldn’t remember ever having felt cold as a child. Sliding two fingers beneath the collar of her shirt in an attempt to peel the cotton from her sweating neck, it was obvious why not.
‘Cup of tea for either of you?’
The woman who lived there must have been at least eighty years old, though she had the energy of someone far younger. Chloe watched with a mixture of disbelief and admiration as she bustled about between them, clearing her teacup from the side table and plumping the floral cushions on the sofa as though welcoming long-awaited guests. She wondered whether the ringing of the bell that morning had signalled the first signs of human life beyond the house the woman had experienced for a while, and the thought filled her with a curious sadness that managed to make the oppressive heat of the small room even more unbearable.
‘Not for me,’ Alex said. ‘Thank you, Mrs …’
‘Adams,’ the woman told her. ‘Doris Adams, but please, just call me Doris.’
Doris gestured to the sofa and Alex and Chloe took a seat at either end, their mirrored positions with legs crossed and elbows on the armrests making them look for a moment like a couple of misplaced bookends. Alex noted the crocheted furniture protectors beneath her sleeve and behind her head and felt another twinge of nostalgia that tugged at her stomach. An approaching birthday was signalling fresh fears of ageing; fears she knew were futile, but that she was unable to shake off.
‘We’re speaking to everyone on the street,’ Alex explained. ‘Did you see or hear anything over at the hospital last night?’
Doris shook her white-haired head. ‘I didn’t hear anything until the sirens came screaming past. Fire again, was it? Been quite a few up there over the past couple of months.’
Alex nodded. ‘So there are trespassers over there regularly, you think?’
‘Places like that are always going to attract them. Drug addicts, kids messing about … Such a shame when you think of what the place used to be like.’
‘Have you always lived here?’ Chloe asked, slipping the sleeves of her jacket from her arms. If she left it on any longer she was at risk of melting inside it.
‘Sixty-four years,’ Doris said proudly. ‘Moved here when I got married, but I only came from just up the road. I was a nurse over at the hospital, you know. C2 ward sister.’
She got up from her chair and went to an old-fashioned sideboard, where she opened the top drawer. She pulled out a photograph album, velvet-covered and frayed at the corners, and crossed the room to sit between the two detectives on the sofa.
‘There,’ she said, turning a few pages and pointing to a photograph that was protected behind a thin page of clear plastic. ‘That’s me.’ The black-and-white image showed a row of female nurses standing for a photograph, all in full uniform. Doris was second from the right, little more than in her early twenties. Her hat was tilted on her head and she was smiling proudly for the camera. She was quite striking, Alex thought, the sparkle behind the old lady’s eyes making her still recognisable as the young woman in the picture.
‘It’s a lovely photograph,’ Chloe told her.
Alex stood and turned to the window, though little could be seen through the net curtains that kept the room hidden from the world beyond. The only view from this room would be the houses on the other side of the street, but she wondered whether the hospital’s derelict buildings were visible from the bedrooms upstairs. She doubted anything useful could be seen from this distance anyway. Most of the street had now been spoken to and it already seemed they were wasting their time. It appeared that at this time of year everyone was inside with the television on and their curtains drawn by six o’clock in the evening.
‘You must have been very sorry to see the hospital close,’ she said.
It seemed a dreary prospect: to have lived in the same house for all those years and to watch the places around you – the things that had once formed the shape of your life – crumble and disintegrate, left to go to ruin. The small town a mile or so further along the main road was evidence of the area’s decline: shops stood empty, buildings boasted boarded-up doorways and windows; the air above each street seemed to hang dreary and grey, as though even the sky had given up on what lay beneath it.
‘Well now,’ Doris said, closing the album and smoothing the front of her pale blue skirt over her knees. ‘Everything must come to an end, mustn’t it?’
‘Sadly true,’ Alex said, turning back to the room. ‘Thank you for your time, Mrs Adams. If you do think of anything, no matter how small it might seem, please let us know.’
Doris stood and followed the two women back out into the narrow hallway and to the front door. The detectives thanked her and stepped out into the October air. Out on the street, Chloe breathed in a cold lungful, grateful to have escaped the heat of the house.
‘What a lovely woman.’ She slipped her coat back on. ‘She doesn’t seem to know about the death at the hospital. Everyone else on the street appeared to have heard about it.’
‘She might not have left the house for days. Come on,’ Alex said, unlocking her car. ‘I think we’re wasting our time here. Let’s go and find out how Dan’s getting on with the missing persons database.’
* * *
Back at the station, they found DC Daniel Mason at his desk in the incident room, lost in the pages of the database. It never failed to surprise and sadden Alex that so many missing persons cases existed; even now, with so much technology and so many resources available that it seemed impossible anyone should be able to just disappear.
‘Any joy with the hostels?’
The remains of the sleeping bag found among the burned remains suggested that someone – presumably their victim – had been using the hospital for shelter. There were few facilities for homeless people in the Rhondda valleys, but in recent years a couple of hostels had been opened that offered free beds for those who might find themselves having to sleep rough.
Dan shook his head. The flecks of silver in his hair were beginning to compete for dominance and he was wearing the look well. ‘Homelessness is still Cardiff’s problem, by all accounts.’
‘Missing persons?’ Chloe asked.
‘I don’t know what I’m looking for,’ Dan said despondently as Alex and Chloe sat either side of him. ‘I think we need to wait until we get the post-mortem report back … I don’t even know if I’m looking for a man or woman at the moment, do I?’
Alex had realised that morning when she had assigned Dan the task of checking the database that doing so at this stage would probably prove fruitless, but patience had never been her strong point. With little else to go on, she had to try to cover any possible angles. DC Jake Sullivan had been helping with house calls on the street behind the hospital, while the rest of the team was looking into details of any CCTV footage in the area. So far, they were drawing a blank on all fronts. Alex hoped the pathologist would be true to her word and would get the post-mortem report to her by the end of the day.
She was SIO on the case, but she would be expected to report back to Detective Chief Inspector Thompson later that afternoon, and she needed something to offer him. No permanent appointment had been made since Superintendent Blake had retired during the summer, and in his absence Thompson had temporarily transferred from Bridgend. The man seemed decent enough, but it was obvious he resented being taken away from his own team.
‘The fire at Llwynypia Stores last night,’ Alex said, perching on the edge of Dan’s desk. ‘Also arson?’
Dan nodded. ‘Window at the side of the building was smashed – petrol-soaked rag thrown in.’
‘No tape. Camera was put there just to act as a deterrent.’
Alex rolled her eyes.
‘Think they’re linked?’ Chloe asked. ‘The residents we spoke with this morning said fires at the hospital aren’t unusual, though. Fire investigation team said the same.’
‘Fires aren’t that uncommon round our way either,’ Dan said, turning in his swivel chair and scratching his head. ‘Starting mountain fires is like a sport during the summer.’
Dan lived in Pentre, just up the valley from Llwynypia. He had been born in the valleys, had grown up there and was raising his own two daughters there. He was well known locally, and despite him being with the police, even the regular offenders had a respect for him that was rarely extended to his fellow officers. There had been occasions when he had been involved in the arrest of members of his own family, yet there never seemed to be any lasting resentment towards him.
Yet again, Alex’s thoughts were drawn back to her own house and to the graffiti sprayed across it. If only she had Dan’s personable nature, she thought. Clearly someone still had a lasting resentment where she was concerned. She knew she could just choose to ignore it, but a nagging doubt had been gnawing away at her all day. It was obviously not a random slur, and for someone to put themselves to the trouble of finding out where she lived and then going to the house meant that they were intent on unsettling her at the very least.
At worst, she didn’t like to consider what they might wish upon her.
‘We’ll have to wait for the fire report,’ she said. ‘Have the owners been back to the shop yet?’
Dan shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’
‘Find out. And if not, I’d like you two to go with them. We need as many details as possible – who was the last person there before the fire broke out, what security measures they’ve got in place, if any, who had access to the shop … get as much as you can. They’ll have been asked all this already, but perhaps the fire at the hospital changes things. If there is a connection between the two, we don’t want to miss it.’
They needed details of the victim whose body had been burned at the hospital, but Alex realised that this might prove difficult. The corpse had been so badly burned that identification would be a challenging process. She would call the pathology lab at the hospital in Cardiff and arrange to visit the place later that day. Speaking face to face with the pathologist often proved far more useful than simply reading the report.
She couldn’t see any reason for the two fires to be connected, but that didn’t mean they should be ruling out the possibility. The shop had been empty when the fire had been started, but had whoever was responsible for the blaze been aware of that?
In Alex’s experience, it was always worth assuming the worst.
‘You can’t see them.’
Julie Morris stood in the doorway of the terraced house with her arms folded across her chest. She smelled of cheap hairspray, and the curls that hung about her shoulders suggested she wasn’t planning on spending her evening in front of the television.
‘I’m going out.’
‘So let me look after them while you’re out then.’ Gavin Jones raised an eyebrow expectantly, knowing that Julie was going to find any excuse she could to prevent him from seeing his sons. She’d always hated him, and when the boys’ mother had died five years earlier, she had seemed to blame him for it, as though he’d been the one behind the wheel of that car.
‘No,’ she said flatly. ‘Look at the state of you.’
She was referring to the black eye Gavin was sporting that evening; actually less of a black eye and more of a green swelling that had yet to develop to its full glory. How many times had Julie seen this particular look on him over the years? She had lost count. She didn’t know what her daughter had ever seen in him.
‘It’s nothing,’ Gavin said with a shrug. ‘I got jumped.’
Julie rolled her eyes. She had heard it all before. Gavin was always the victim, always in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing was ever his fault. Being caught red-handed with enough drugs to keep an addict satisfied for a fortnight hadn’t been his fault either, and his attempts to fob off the jury with a claim of personal use had been swiftly quashed by the judge, who had handed down an eighteen-month sentence. Six years after his release, he was still making claims of getting his life back together, never quite able to answer the question of when he was actually intending on finalising those plans.
Her daughter might have fallen for the fake charm, but Julie was no fool.
‘So who’s looking after the boys if you’re swanning off out?’ Gavin wanted to know.
Julie narrowed her eyes. ‘I’m not “swanning” anywhere – I haven’t had a night out in God knows how long. You might not have noticed, but I’ve had my hands full looking after your kids.’
‘Exactly. So let me give you a break.’
Behind his grandmother, Gavin’s younger son appeared in the hallway. He was dressed in a pair of blue and red Spider-Man pyjamas that were too small for him now – the ankles halfway up his shins and the sleeves stretching at his elbows – and he was carrying an iPad that tinkled with the repetitive music of the game he was engrossed in.
‘Curtis! Come here, son!’
Gavin leaned forward, his bulky arms outstretched towards the boy, who looked up from the iPad briefly before turning his attention back to its screen, oblivious to his father’s attentions.
‘There we go,’ Julie said smugly, her lips curling into a triumphant sneer. ‘Hardly knows who you are. You can’t just turn up once every few months when you’ve got nothing better to do.’
Gavin’s jaw tensed. ‘Where’s Tyler, then? Let me guess … he’s doing your babysitting tonight, is he?’
With a loud sigh, Julie slid the safety chain back in place. She was too slow to shut it: Gavin slammed his shoulder against the door, using his weight to hold it open against her.
‘Tyler!’ he shouted.
‘Gavin, do yourself a favour before I call the police, and just fuck off.’
Julie gave Curtis a tap on the bottom with her bare foot, directing him back into the living room, while Gavin continued to attempt to push his way into the house, his bulk making it impossible for Julie to get the door shut.
God, she hated him. He turned up when he felt like it, always managing to throw their lives off balance in the process. He hadn’t cared about them too much after their mother had died, and he had missed most of their birthdays since. They got a visit every now and then; a visit that inevitably made Tyler upset and left Julie having to answer a succession of questions she didn’t really want to have to address. They were doing fine without him. They had always been better off without him.
She heard Tyler trudging down the staircase behind her, his skinny frame as always managing to make the noise of half a dozen elephants. He was still wearing his school uniform, too lazy to have bothered to change into anything more comfortable. She’d asked him how his day was, but all she’d got was a grunt in return. It was just a phase, she told herself. He was thirteen: they were all the same.
‘Fancy going for some food, son?’ Gavin asked, speaking over Julie’s shoulder.
‘He’s eaten already.’
‘He’s a growing boy. Needs to keep his strength up, don’t you, son?’
Tyler, tousle-haired and nonchalant, shrugged his skinny shoulders.
‘Tyler …’ Julie began.
‘There’s that new pizza place down the road just opened. We could try there, what d’you reckon? Come on,’ Gavin coaxed, shooting his son a smile. ‘I’ll throw in dessert as well, if you think you can manage it.’
Julie watched resignedly as Tyler reached for his coat from the row of pegs that lined the hallway wall. She had spent the past five years trying to dissuade him from seeing his father, but the boy was a teenager now and anything she tried to keep him from would only become more appealing, Gavin included. She was getting too old for all this, she thought. She’d done her time with her own kids; she hadn’t ever thought she would end up having to raise her daughter’s as well. They weren’t bad boys – she’d known a lot worse – but Tyler was getting to that awkward age when he’d argue with anything she said, and if stopping him seeing his father meant things in the house would get worse, then she really didn’t have the energy to resist. It wouldn’t take him long to see Gavin for what he really was. Let Gavin hang himself, she thought.
‘Better phone your friends,’ Gavin said, pulling a feigned expression of disappointment. ‘Can’t leave Curtis on his own, can you? Social would be round like a shot.’
Julie turned to him, keeping her face hidden from sight of her grandson. ‘Fuck you,’ she mouthed.
Gavin gave her a smile.
They followed the police officers into the shop, where strips of crime-scene tape hung from the doorway and flapped about in the breeze. Faadi hadn’t heard the man’s name when he had introduced himself; he had been too distracted by the young woman with the blonde-tipped hair who had smiled at him kindly and in doing so made his face flush with a heat he suspected might be visible. She didn’t look like a detective. For a start, she seemed too young – around the same age as his brothers, he guessed – and she was far too pretty. Then there was the fact that she seemed just too … well, just too nice. Not like the detectives he had seen on TV shows, who were mostly old and grumpy.
He watched his mother fight back tears as she studied the burnt-out carcass of the shop. An acrid, dirty smell lingered in the air – air that still looked grey – and the skeletons of what had once formed their livelihood lined the walls: charred shelving units, blackened cans and shrivelled plastic; the dusty ashes of piles of newspapers and magazines.
‘This was definitely arson?’ Mahira asked, her voice unsteady as it tripped over the question.
The female detective – Chloe Lane, Faadi remembered; he had been paying enough attention to catch her name – nodded. ‘I’m sorry. This must be very difficult for you.’
There was a single window in the storeroom at the side of the building. It had been smashed with a house brick that had been found beneath a set of shelving, and a burning rag had been used to start the fire. The rag had been taken to the lab for testing.
Faadi watched his mother take a tentative step into the blackened depths of the room, carefully picking her way through the debris of what remained of her business. ‘We’ve reported so many things,’ she said, her voice tinged with both sadness and anger. ‘Theft, vandalism … verbal assaults. You’ve seen the abuse scrawled on the walls out the back. No one has listened to us. I thought the police were supposed to take a zero-tolerance approach towards hate crime?’
It was a phrase that had been used a lot recently in the Hassan household, particularly by Faadi’s two older brothers. This was the first time he had heard his mother use it, though. Every time Syed and Jameel got into yet another argument or fight, the words would reappear, staining the air like the mention of a relative no one wanted to be reminded of. It seemed to Faadi a strange phrase. If someone stole something from somebody, they must have hated that person in some way, if only during the act of stealing. If they hadn’t hated them, even if only for a split second, would they have been able to take something from them? If someone fought with another person, that must mean they hated them in some way or another. You had to hate someone to hurt them, didn’t you? No matter what crime Faadi imagined, each one involved a perpetrator who, if only for the briefest of moments, had been capable of hate. It seemed to him that every crime was a hate crime.
He had said so once. The idea had been met with a slap to the head from Syed, accompanied by the suggestion that he keep his fat nose out of things he was too young and too stupid to understand.
‘Your complaints have all been logged,’ DC Chloe Lane was saying. ‘But this is the second fire to take place overnight in the area … We’ve no reason at the moment to believe it is a race-related matter.’
‘The fire up at the hospital, you mean?’ Mahira asked. ‘You think that what happened here might be linked to that?’
‘We don’t know yet,’ the male officer told her. ‘Forensics are still looking at the cause of the other fire.’
A cold shiver swept the length of Faadi’s body. He had heard about the fire in the old hospital; everyone had been talking about it in school that day. Bad news and gossip spread much like fire did: thick and fast, leaving nothing in their way unharmed. He knew a dead body had been found there, and that the person had been set on fire. It didn’t quite seem real. Things like that only happened in films and on TV, not right here on their doorstep.
Another thought occurred to him. If the person who had started the fire at the hospital was the same person who had set fire to the shop, had that person been hoping somebody might still be inside there too?
Were they trying to kill someone?
He didn’t want to think about it. The person most often inside the shop was his mother. His father had another job – he was a sales representative for a stationery company – and though his brothers were supposedly employed by his parents to help out at the shop and give his mother some time off at weekends, the reality was that they tended to turn up for a couple of hours before making their excuses about needing to leave. They were always going to interviews for other, more permanent full-time jobs, but the interviews never seemed to go their way.
What if his mother had still been inside the building when the fire had been started? Had someone wanted to hurt her? The thought filled Faadi with sickness and he swallowed nervously, his focus still fixed on the shop floor.
‘Are you okay?’
He was snapped from his thoughts by Chloe’s voice, calm and soothing. She was looking at him with kind brown eyes, her lips turned up in a half-smile that Faadi realised was intended to make him feel better. He nodded, finding himself tongue-tied. There was a smear of foundation lining the young woman’s jaw, and he wondered why the policeman with her hadn’t told her about it.
‘People are saying that the fire at the hospital was started deliberately,’ Mahira said, ‘and not that the person just happened to be inside and got caught up in it.’ She glanced at her son warily, but Faadi knew exactly what she meant. The victim at the hospital had been set on fire purposely. The thought horrified him, making his own body flare with a sudden and uncomfortable heat.
The male officer looked at him with caution, as though he was deliberating over his choice of words before he spoke them. ‘We can’t say anything for certain yet.’
Faadi looked around the room, following his mother’s eyes as they continued to absorb the mess that had been made of the place. The family had moved here for a new life; a fresh start. Now, looking at the ruins of her business, Mahira knew it had been their biggest mistake. They should have faced their problems in Cardiff – no matter what that had meant for Syed. Sometimes it really was a case of better the devil you knew.
‘As soon as we find out more,’ the male detective continued, ‘we’ll let you know. In the meantime, have you been in contact with your insurance company?’
Mahira nodded. It was the last thing she wanted to think about having to deal with, but she had already contacted them and they were in the process of establishing their investigation. From what she knew of insurance companies, she assumed that meant they would be assessing the ways in which they might be able to avoid a payout.
‘You have my number if you need anything, Mrs Hassan,’ Chloe said. She reached out and put a hand on Mahira’s arm, leaving it there for just a moment. ‘If there’s anything you need or anything you think of that might help the investigation, please contact us.’
Faadi watched his mother nod. She was unable to make eye contact with the other woman, as though doing so might unleash the tears she had been struggling so hard to hold back. ‘Thank you,’ she muttered.
Faadi didn’t really know what she was thanking her for.
Helen Collier, head pathologist at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, ushered Alex into the sterile lab. What remained of the fire victim was laid out on the steel examination table beneath a clinical white sheet that temporarily hid the horrors of what had once been a living, breathing human being. Alex had mentally prepared herself for the sights and smells that awaited her at the lab, though she knew nothing could ever really ready her. In her eighteen-year career with the police, she had been exposed to the most brutal effects of the most heinous of crimes: she had seen bodies bruised and battered; stabbed, drowned and tortured. She had seen burns victims before, although nothing quite like this one. It had been barely recognisable as a corpse at all, and she assumed dental records would prove the only method of identifying it.
‘You don’t need me to tell you,’ Helen said, ‘but this isn’t pretty.’
Helen was small and bird-like, and her soft voice contrasted with everything the room represented. Alex had wondered previously why the woman had chosen this particular career path, although she assumed the same question could be asked about her own choice of job. There was a quiet life waiting somewhere for her, she was sure of it, but it didn’t look set to ever find her. Perhaps she would only choose to shun it if it did.
‘The fire was started post mortem,’ Helen said. ‘I suppose we can be thankful that he wasn’t burned alive.’
Helen nodded. ‘You ready?’
She pulled the sheet back from the body. The victim looked gruesomely recognisable in his prone position upon the steel table. His chest had been cut open and his internal organs removed; his blackened flesh cracked and fallen away like ashes.
‘Bodies tend to assume a certain position when they’re burned prior to death, but it was evident at the scene that this wasn’t the case here. He was lying flat, outstretched, his arms by his sides rather than lifted in the way that might be expected if he’d been burned while still alive. In those cases, victims tend to adopt a pugilistic stance, with the arms raised and fists clenched.’
Alex waited to hear where Helen’s explanation was leading. She was still trying to block out the awful smell that emanated from the remains of the victim.
‘The blood test determined a low carboxyhaemoglobin level.’
‘He didn’t breathe anything in?’
Helen shook her head. ‘I’d say categorically that he died before the fire was started. He had sustained a number of injuries before death – fractured collarbone, broken wrist, several cracked ribs.’
‘Any of them old injuries,’ Alex asked, ‘or are we talking shortly before death?’
‘I’d say he endured a prolonged and vicious assault not long before he died.’
Alex forced herself to look again at the nameless body laid bare before her. Had this man gone to the hospital alone and been followed there, or had someone gone with him? Had the fire been started in an attempt to conceal the crime?
‘His face,’ she said. ‘Injuries there too?’
Helen nodded. ‘Definitely, although the fire has made it difficult to differentiate between the inflicted injuries and the cracking of the skin caused by the extreme heat.’
‘So what are we looking at?’ Alex asked, thinking out loud. ‘He was beaten to death before his body was set on fire?’
‘Not necessarily beaten to death.’ Helen moved to the table and pulled the sheet back over the body, seemingly in an attempt to spare Alex any further gruesome details. The effort was made in vain: once she had seen something, it stayed with her indefinitely. Until the person responsible was identified and made to face justice for their crime, she wouldn’t allow the images to leave her. Even then, she always knew she would never truly be free of them.
‘Analysis of the lung tissue found that the man suffered from restrictive lung disease,’ Helen continued. ‘There was considerable scarring to the tissue. In basic terms, he would have struggled to get enough air into his lungs during times of stress or exertion. His liver shows evidence of long-term alcohol abuse. It’s all in the report,’ she said, gesturing to a file waiting on the far worktop near the lab’s computer. ‘I’ve emailed you a copy as well. My estimation would be that the assault brought on a panic attack and the victim struggled to inhale sufficient oxygen to survive it.’
Alex’s mind was running into overdrive. She would need the report from the fire-scene investigators before drawing any conclusions, but a picture of their victim and the moments leading up to the start of the fire was beginning to emerge.
‘Any idea of his age?’ she asked, thinking back to the trainer that had been found at the scene.
‘It’s quite difficult to establish an age in this case,’ Helen admitted, ‘but the condition of the lungs and heart would suggest somewhere between forty and sixty. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific.’
Alex shook her head, acknowledging the apology but dismissing it as unnecessary. At least they now had somewhere to start looking on the missing persons database, although the faster her brain worked, the more she suspected any attempt to identify their victim in this way would still prove fruitless. There were too many missing people and the description they had so far was too broad.
And perhaps their man wasn’t on the system. Not everyone who went missing was reported as such. Some people were just lost.
Gavin Jones and his son Tyler sat in the far corner of the room, staring in awe at the shared pizza they had ordered. It was so big it took up half the table, but Tyler was hungry enough that he reckoned he could probably have given the majority of it a good go by himself. He reached for the crust and tore off a slice, dropping it onto his plate as the hot cheese burned his fingertips.
‘Steady,’ Gavin said, giving the boy a smile. It wasn’t reciprocated, but Gavin hadn’t expected it to be. It was going to take more than a pizza to win Tyler back over. During these past five years Julie had had plenty of time to fill the boy’s ears with poison against him. He had probably heard all sorts, most of it lies.
‘So how’s school going?’
It was a lame question, but he didn’t have much else to start with. He didn’t really know anything about his own son, but it had been obvious years earlier that things were going to go that way. Besides Julie doing her best to keep the boy from him, there was Tyler himself. Studying his son as he chewed a mouthful of pizza, Gavin realised not for the first time that the two of them had nothing in common. Tyler was nothing like him. In fact, Gavin had wondered years earlier whether the boy was even his. A DNA test reluctantly agreed to by Tyler’s mother had years ago proved he was, yet Gavin still found it hard to believe.
‘Fine. Yeah … it’s fine.’
Tyler was at the start of Year 9; Gavin at least knew that much. He couldn’t remember much about Year 9 at school – he hadn’t been there most of the time, and when he had bothered to turn up, his mind was always somewhere else – and he could already feel the conversation drying up before it had even begun. He wondered whether his son got bullied. He was a prime target, what with the shoulder-length hair and the pale skin, although apparently that sort of look was back in fashion. Maybe elsewhere, Gavin thought, but he couldn’t see it catching on round these parts.
‘Not long left,’ he said. ‘Couple of years and you won’t have to go any more.’
‘I like school,’ Tyler said flatly.
Tyler took another bite of pizza, while Gavin aimlessly prodded with a knife at the slice on his own plate. He wasn’t particularly hungry, and the tomato base that had been added too liberally was spilling from the edges of the melted cheese, oozing onto the plate like fresh blood on an operating table.
‘Look,’ he said, knowing he couldn’t spend much longer submerged in this uncomfortable silence. ‘Your nan’s probably said a lot of stuff about me. She’s poisoning you against me, that’s what she’s trying to do. She doesn’t want us to be friends, I don’t know why. Don’t believe her lies, okay, Tyler?’
Tyler looked blankly at him across the slice of pizza he was holding near his chin. There was a thin string of cheese caught at the corner of his mouth. ‘You’ve been to prison,’ he said. ‘That’s not a lie.’
‘I know,’ Gavin said, leaning across the table. ‘But it was years ago and I never did anything to hurt anyone, Tyler. Only myself. You believe that, don’t you?’ It wasn’t strictly true, but he figured that what the kid didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. It was all a long time ago now and a lot had happened since then. He had served his time: didn’t that mean he was entitled to a fresh start?
Tyler was looking at him sceptically. That was another reason why Gavin had doubted his paternity: the green eyes. They were almost too green, unnaturally so, as though the boy was wearing contact lenses. Tyler leaned back in his seat and reached both arms behind his head, gripping his hair in his hands and pulling it into a knot. To Gavin’s horror, his son pulled an elastic band from around his wrist and used it to tie his hair back into a bun.
‘What about your face? You’ve been in a fight.’
Gavin had wondered how long it would take before the bruises were brought up. He had already prepared his answer, which mostly involved telling Tyler the truth. He could afford it on this one. ‘I got jumped, that’s all.’ It wasn’t entirely a lie. Those Hassan brothers had been looking for trouble – everyone knew they were both always ready for a fight wherever they could find one – and he had only given them what they were after.
‘It wasn’t your fault, you mean? That’s what Nan says you always say.’
Gavin forced himself to bite his tongue, something he’d always had trouble doing. He was going to have to play the long game here, he thought; chip away at Tyler bit by bit until he realised that his nan wasn’t exactly a saint either. It was okay: Gavin wasn’t in a rush.
In fact, he thought, as he watched his son take another slice of pizza, he had all the time in the world.
She strikes a match and watches it burn right down to her fingertips, feeling the heat assault her skin before she drops it to the ground. She watches the flame die at her feet. It is cold in the yard, just days now from the end of October, and the sky is already ablaze with the sparks and sounds of fireworks. It has been like this for weeks. She listens to the screeches, the hisses and bangs as she lies in her bed at night, wishing the month away, wishing November and then Christmas away, always hopeful for the start of a new year despite the disappointment that each inevitably brings.
She has to have hope for something else, something better. Something more. Without it, what does she have to look forward to?
A rocket flares skywards, released from the back garden of one of the terraces in the streets behind her house. She tilts her head and follows its ascent, keeping watch as it explodes in a kaleidoscope of shapes and colours. She loves oranges, yellows, reds. The colour of flames. She loves the heat that seems to radiate from them, their warmth so close she can almost touch it.
There has always been a fascination with fire. As a child, she loved to watch the bonfires that would be lit at the park every 5 November. Left alone, she could watch a single flame as though hypnotised by it, lost in every flicker and every curl of heat. She liked to arrive early and watch as the bonfire was assembled, her favourite part always being the moment when the floppy-limbed guy was added to the dried-out stack of wood.
It wasn’t real; she knew that. It was just pretend, and everything was different when it was just pretend.
She moves a foot to the burned-out blackened match on the ground and brushes it to one side with a sweep of her slipper. She tilts her head and follows a stream of colour as it screams across the sky.
She wonders for a moment how it might feel to burn.
The following morning, Alex, Chloe and the rest of the team gathered in the station’s incident room for a briefing. Alex now had both the post-mortem report from the pathologist and the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service investigators’ report, and put together, they made some of the suspicions she had begun to develop at the mortuary the previous day seem more than a possibility. She had stayed up late reading the reports, and the two sugared coffees she’d already drunk since arriving at the station that morning had done little to deter the tiredness she now felt tugging at her temples.
‘Okay,’ she said, bringing the low-level chatter that had passed around the team to a close, ‘we’ve now received both the post-mortem and fire-scene investigation reports and quite a few things have come to light. As we already know, the victim was male, aged between forty and sixty. He suffered from restrictive lung disease and is believed to have died as a result of restricted lung capacity either shortly following or during a brutal and sustained assault. The attack took place in the room where his body was recovered and he was set alight after death. Petrol was used as an accelerant.’
‘Someone set fire to the body in an attempt to conceal their crime?’ DC Daniel Mason asked.
‘Perhaps,’ Alex said. ‘Although I’m not convinced.’ She reached to the computer keyboard on the desk beside her and clicked on one of the already opened windows. A voice recording was paused, waiting to be replayed. ‘The 999 call came in at just after nine forty in the evening. It was made from a phone box on Station Road. We now know there are no CCTV cameras anywhere in the area, and I’d guess that whoever made the call was already aware of this.’ She clicked the recording.
‘Hello, you’ve requested the fire service … What is your emergency please?’
‘Fire. Old Llwynypia hospital.’
‘There’s a fire at the old Llwynypia hospital?’
The line was bad, made worse by the muffled noises that disturbed the sound of the voice making the call. It sounded as though the mouthpiece might have been purposely obstructed.
‘Could you tell me your name, please, caller?’
‘Now … please …’
‘Are you inside the building? Is there anyone else with you?’
At that point, the line went dead.
Alex minimised the window on the screen and returned her focus to the team. ‘Why end the call so abruptly if there was nothing to hide?’ she asked. ‘Why not answer the questions? My guess is that whoever made this call knows how the fire started.’
‘So that would ruin Dan’s theory that it was started to conceal the assault?’ Chloe said. ‘If you think we’re listening to the murderer?’
‘Not necessarily. But why set a fire in order to conceal a crime and then alert the authorities to it? Makes no sense.’
‘Why call then?’ The question came from DC Jake Sullivan, who was sitting on a desk at the back of the room, one leg crossed over the other.
‘I don’t know,’ Alex admitted. ‘Could be a number of reasons. Panic. Guilt. That’s something we may be able to work out a bit further down the line, once we’ve established who our victim was and why he was attacked. The fire-scene report holds a few possible clues about who he might have been, or at the very least some details about his life. He was lying on a sleeping bag at the time the fire was started. There were a couple of items of clothing found elsewhere in the room, along with empty beer cans. It’s highly likely our victim was homeless and was using the hospital for shelter.’
There were a few murmurs among the team.
‘Not many people sleeping rough up that way, are there?’
The question came from DCI Thompson, who was standing at the back of the room. He had always struck Alex as a curious figure, slight in frame and aloof in demeanour, and she had trouble imagining him out on the beat as a younger officer. He must have been eaten alive, she thought, although perhaps he had come to the job straight from university and been fast-tracked towards CID as a result.
‘Not according to recent figures,’ she admitted, ‘but they’re at least eighteen months old now.’
‘It might explain why no one has reported him missing,’ Dan said.
‘Perhaps. Now, if we work on the theory that this man was homeless, then either someone knew he was using the old hospital as a base, or someone happened to find him there by chance. Let’s say for a moment it was chance. Did he interrupt something? Might it be the case that he wasn’t expected there and was beaten to keep him silent?’
‘Silent about what, though?’ queried Chloe.
Alex raised her hands, surrendering to the lack of information. ‘These are the things we need to find out. I think going public with the known details of our victim needs to be our next step. Homeless or not, someone must know who this man is. We know there have been other fires up at the hospital, so maybe someone unconnected to this incident was aware it was being used as a shelter. I’m giving a statement to the press this afternoon. In the meantime, we need to speak to as many people in the local area as we can, in particular, shop owners, bar staff – anyone who may at some point have come into contact with the victim, who was also suffering from liver disease associated with years of heavy drinking. If we can get a possible ID, we may be able to find him on our database if he’s got previous. It’s a small community; people tend to know each other. If anything comes up, I want to know about it straight away, please.’
There was further chatter as the team dispersed, but Alex called Dan over, asking him to wait behind. ‘I think we should hold off before returning to the missing persons database,’ she told him. ‘If we do manage to get an ID today, it’ll save you a lot of time. You don’t fancy doing this statement for me, do you?’ It was asked with a roll of the eyes.
‘Go on,’ Dan said with a smile. ‘You know you love it.’
Alex made no secret of her dislike of press statements and TV appeals. On previous cases she had often been known to pass them over to Superintendent Blake, but she didn’t think DCI Thompson would appreciate the request.
‘Thanks for nothing. Well you’d better be around after it, so I’ve got someone to slag the press off to once I’m done. I’d usually bend Chloe’s ear, but she’s going to canvass local businesses with Jake.’
Dan smiled again. ‘I didn’t know you weren’t a fan of the press. You never mentioned it.’ He glanced over his shoulder at DC Jake Sullivan, who was standing at the doorway. ‘Still on thin ice?’
It was no secret that Alex wasn’t keen on DC Jake Sullivan. There was nothing specific he had done that had annoyed her, but maybe that was the problem: she wasn’t that sure what it was he actually did.
She rolled her eyes again. ‘He could be worse, I suppose. It’d be a good start if he lost the bravado.’
‘The ignorance of youth.’
‘I wouldn’t know … I can’t remember that far back.’ She glanced at her watch and sighed. ‘Wish me luck, then.’
Sian Foster was nearing the end of a long eight-hour shift. With every bleep of the scanner and every item that was passed along the checkout, she felt herself become more and more distant, until eventually the motion became hypnotic. She glanced at the screen that showed the bill total and recited the amount as though it had been programmed into her tiring brain.
‘Seventeen pounds forty-two, please.’
‘And I’m not even going to get a hello?’
She looked up from the screen. Gavin Jones had bagged up the items she had scanned and was waiting with a raised eyebrow. She hadn’t noticed him there; he could have been anyone.
‘Sorry,’ she said, giving him a half-smile. She pushed her short hair behind her ear and fought back the flush she could feel developing at the base of her throat. ‘Long day.’
‘You were miles away. Anywhere nice?’
‘Anywhere but here,’ Sian said, taking the twenty-pound note he offered her. She shoved it into the till and counted out his change.
‘What time are you finishing?’
She looked over at the clock on the far wall. Every hour that passed felt more like four. ‘Twenty minutes.’
‘Right,’ Gavin said, taking the carrier bag of shopping from the checkout and hooking the plastic handles over his wrist. ‘I’m taking you for a drink. No excuses,’ he added quickly, sensing her imminent refusal. He had asked her out a couple of times previously and each time she’d either turned him down or had a last-minute reason why she couldn’t make it. ‘I’ll wait over in the café for you, all right? Don’t stand me up in Asda … I’ll never live it down.’
As she began to scan the next customer’s shopping, Sian wondered why he was still pursuing her despite everything. Plain old Sian, nothing much to look at; nothing much going for her really. Hadn’t her ex-husband reminded her enough times that no one else would look twice at her? So why Gavin Jones – notoriously popular despite being a renowned troublemaker – would be interested in her was a mystery. There was only one way to find out, but it was something she had promised herself she wouldn’t do. Men like Gavin were bad news, and she had known bad news before, too many times. She was a magnet for it.
Twenty minutes later, Sian clocked out, collected her things from her locker in the staffroom and headed towards the main doors of the supermarket. Rain lashed down against the windows of the store and she zipped her jacket up to the neck, preparing herself for the walk home.
‘You’ve broken my heart, Sian Foster,’ she heard a voice say behind her as she passed the flower stand, its buckets bursting with colour against the drab car park that lay beyond it.
She turned, feeling a burst of her very own shade of red flood her face. ‘You’re very persistent, aren’t you?’
‘It’s borderline stalking.’
‘Do you mind, though?’
‘If I did, would you stop?’
Gavin hurried to keep up with her as she left the building. She was keen to keep the exchange from the prying eyes and ears of anyone she worked with. It was a cliché, but it was true that round their way everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business, and if they didn’t, they made a point of finding someone who did. She had been the source of enough gossip over the years; she didn’t want to create any more.
Rain hammered down in noisy thuds on car roofs, turning the concrete ground to a shimmering sheet. Sian pulled her hood up over her head and held it in place in an attempt to keep the rain from her face.
‘So you don’t mind then,’ Gavin said, taking her arm and turning her to face him. ‘Sorry,’ he said, when he saw the look she gave him. He pulled his hand away quickly. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have grabbed you. I was only messing.’
‘I know,’ Sian said, glancing back to the supermarket entrance to make sure no one had seen them.
‘I didn’t mean—’
‘It’s fine,’ she said quickly, cutting his explanation short. She grimaced as the rain lashed at her face, its icy bite pinching her skin. ‘Look … can we just get out of here, please.’
She accepted his offer of a lift, not wanting to attempt the ten-minute walk back to her house. Accepting the lift would mean taking him up on the drink he had mentioned earlier, but she couldn’t let him drop her home, not with Keeley there. Like so many other things, that was something that could wait. She would only feel the need to explain herself, not that there was really anything to explain.
And then there would be the inevitable conversation about Nathan.
Gavin pulled into the pub car park and cut the engine. The rain was already beginning to ease; from here, Sian thought, she could be home in less than five minutes. ‘Wait a minute,’ she said, putting a hand out as Gavin reached for the door. Her hand rested on his arm for a moment and she retracted it quickly. ‘Sorry … I just … I don’t know if this is right.’
She could feel his eyes on her, the weight of his stare making her feel uncomfortable. She had wondered on several occasions why she liked him when she knew he was so obviously wrong for her, but it had always been the same. There hadn’t been many men in her life, but they had all been wrong. At the age of thirty-five, she still hadn’t learned.
‘I just don’t think Keeley and Tyler would be too happy about it, do you?’
Gavin shrugged. ‘What’s the problem?’
‘They’ve been seeing each other a while now. I’m not sure they’re going to be too happy about their parents … you know …’
‘Their parents what?’ Gavin asked, turning in the driver’s seat. ‘This doesn’t have to be a big deal, Sian. It’s up to you. I know you’ve said before about things with your ex and everything, and I get all that. I’m not looking for anything heavy either. And the kids … they’re thirteen, for God’s sake. They’re just kids – it won’t last. You can’t let your daughter rule your life.’
‘She doesn’t,’ Sian snapped defensively.
‘Whoa,’ Gavin said, raising both hands in mock surrender. ‘Easy. I was just saying, that’s all.’ He shifted towards her and ran his hands along the length of her arms, stopping at her shoulders. ‘You know what your problem is, don’t you?’ he continued, squeezing gently. ‘You need to learn to relax.’
Sian closed her eyes as she felt his breath against her skin. It was a nice thought, in theory. She couldn’t really remember what relaxing felt like, it had been so long since she’d last allowed herself to do it. Keeping herself knotted was the only way she knew how to survive. Her whole body was a coiled spring, taut and tightly wound, waiting for life’s next problem to ricochet off her: work, Keeley, Nathan, Christian. Her ex-husband was recently released from prison and it would only be a matter of time before their paths crossed. He wouldn’t do the decent thing by moving somewhere else. Being decent was something that had never occurred to Christian.
When Gavin kissed her, Sian kissed him back. The kiss felt nice, though she knew what she was doing was wrong. Gavin Jones had a reputation – the kind that preceded the man himself – but just for that moment it was cast to one side. The moment was short-lived.
‘I can’t do this,’ she said, pushing him away.
Gavin nodded and sat back. ‘So you keep saying.’
‘I need to get home,’ she said, opening the car door. ‘Sorry.’
She slammed the door behind her and Gavin watched as she hurried across the car park and back to the main road. Sian Foster was a challenge, he thought, but it was nothing that deterred him. He liked a challenge.
Alex glanced down at the buttons on her shirt before putting on her jacket. It was always the last thing she checked before addressing the press. Nothing would help skew attention from the case in hand like the unintentional flash of a detective’s bra. It was a sad fact that journalists’ attention could be so easily swayed, and that nothing was more enjoyable to them than finding ways in which to undermine or bring embarrassment to the police. And any scandal would be jumped upon; in Alex’s experience, they actively searched for it. Years earlier, she had naively assumed that the press would work alongside the police, with a mutual interest in the pursuit of justice. Now, older and wiser, she realised that nothing was allowed to get in the way of a good story, least of all the truth.
She had joined the police service eighteen years earlier and during that time had experienced multiple cases in which journalists had been responsible for misrepresentation. At their worst, she had seen them jeopardise convictions, unwittingly empowering guilty men to walk free. Almost a year earlier, they had been responsible for bringing shame to Chloe, tarnishing her with a reputation she was still having to work hard to banish. As far as Alex was concerned, any form of relationship she might have previously had with the press was now dead.
She resented what she was about to face, as brief as this statement would inevitably be. The cameras that would be pointed accusingly towards her, questioning why more hadn’t yet been done; the microphones that would be shoved in her face as soon as she was finished speaking; the inane questions that would pour from the mouths of local journalists, despite her standard closing sentence that she had no further information to offer. The statement she was about to give that day was to be a short one – there was little at this stage that they were able to disclose – but she hoped that in making public at least a few details of their victim, someone might come forward to identify him. Surely someone must have known this man and missed him in the time that had passed since Thursday night.
She addressed the waiting press outside the police station in Pontypridd.
‘There have been a number of cases of arson in the Rhondda valleys over the previous few months, but this latest incident sadly involves loss of life. On Thursday night, a fire was started in one of the buildings that formerly made up the hospital in Llwynypia. At this stage we can give very few details about the victim other than that he was male and aged between forty and sixty. We have reason to believe he may have been homeless and using the hospital building for shelter, and are therefore keen to speak to anyone with links to the homeless community who may be able to offer identification of the victim or his family.’
She paused, deliberating over her next words: words that had been carefully prepared in advance. Poor phrasing could easily lead to misinterpretation, and that was something the press would inevitably jump upon. She didn’t want to create fear among the public with any suggestion of murder, though there was no doubt that murder was what they were dealing with. Had the man’s attacker known that he was already dead before the fire was started?
‘If anyone has any information regarding the fire, or any details regarding a missing person that may help us identify the victim of this incident, please contact the number shown on the screen below.’
Alex moved away from her audience, but the questions that were thrown at her came too quickly for her to escape them. A young man with an oversized beard that looked as though something might have recently been living in it thrust a microphone towards her.
‘DI King, do we know how the fire was started?’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, turning sharply back to the press and avoiding eye contact with the man. ‘That’s really all we have for you at the moment.’
She headed back into the station and closed the door on the babble of chatter and gossip that swelled behind her. A sigh of relief involuntarily escaped her.
‘Well?’ asked Dan, meeting Alex in the corridor on the first floor. ‘How did it go?’
‘Let’s hope for the best, as always. Likely a waste of time, but we’ll have to wait and see.’
She feared the statement would lead to an inevitable stream of calls from time-wasters, as seemed to be the case with every television appeal they put out. Occasionally there would be a scrap of something useful among them – something that would make the countless dead ends worthwhile – but the occasions on which this happened were few and far between, though they were enough to merit putting themselves out there and hoping for something that might move an investigation forward.
‘Guess what I’ve just heard,’ Dan said, lowering his voice conspiratorially.
Alex pulled a face. ‘Christmas is coming early this year? Jake just worked out how to use the coffee machine without breaking it?’
Dan laughed. ‘Slow down … we’re not quite there yet. You remember Christian Coleman?’
‘As if I could forget.’
Christian Coleman had been well known to South Wales Police for over a decade, having made more visits to Pontypridd station’s cells over the years than a duty solicitor. His police record ran longer than the River Taff and had only been brought to an end when his son had attempted to kill him by lacing a takeaway curry with antifreeze.
‘He’s been released.’
‘Already?’ Alex held the door open for Dan and followed him through to the incident room.
‘I know. Makes a mockery of the whole bloody system, doesn’t it?’
Despite the fact that Christian Coleman had been a wife-beater and all-round thug, he’d been sentenced to just five years in prison. That had been little more than two years earlier.
‘I wonder what the family make of it.’
‘His ex-wife had a restraining order against him, didn’t she? Don’t know whether that still stands.’
Alex’s eyes scanned the room, though she took in none of the details of the team at work. Her thoughts were elsewhere, back at home: back on the hateful graffiti that had been sprayed across her front door.
She was the one who had interviewed and charged Christian Coleman following the brutal assault that had left the mother of his two children hospitalised. She had also appeared in court to give evidence against him, as had his ex-wife. He had tried to break Sian Foster during their years of marriage, but an underlying streak of determination saw her take the stand to make sure the man who had wrought such cruelty on her family was finally brought to justice.
And what had been the last thing Christian Coleman had said to Alex before he’d been sent down? I’ll fucking kill you, you ugly whore.
She shook herself from her thoughts. There were plenty of people who had called her all sorts of things over the past two decades. It was just a word; it didn’t mean anything. Focusing her attention on the evidence board at the back of the incident room, she resolved not to waste any further time thinking about it.
Jameel and Syed Hassan sat in the corner of the supermarket café, neither of them touching the coffees they had ordered. Syed looked as though he hadn’t had much sleep; his eyes were heavy and his focus shifted uneasily, not knowing where to rest. He ripped open a sachet of sugar and tipped it into his coffee before staring at the surface of the drink, lost for a moment in the direction of his thoughts. ‘Gavin Jones,’ he said eventually.
‘What about him?’
‘Well, what are we going to do about him?’
Jameel’s delayed response was met with his brother’s trademark impatience. Syed leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on the table. ‘The fire,’ he said slowly, as though Jameel had somehow managed to forget about it. ‘Obvious who started it, don’t you think?’
Syed rolled his eyes. ‘You two get into a fight and a few hours later the shop is torched. I wouldn’t call that a coincidence, would you?’ He sat back and looked around, making sure no one was near enough to overhear the conversation. ‘So what are we going to do?’
It was meant to sound like a challenge; they both knew it. For a long time now Jameel had needed to start sticking up for himself, and with Syed’s help that was exactly what he was now beginning to do. He was getting better, but he still had a long way to go. Gavin Jones seemed as good a place as any to start.
‘We don’t have any proof, though.’
In his lap, Syed’s hands curled into fists. ‘Who else would have done it, eh?’
Jameel, tall and slim, stretched his long legs from beneath the table, shifting uncomfortably as Syed’s focus bore upon him. ‘Well … like you keep saying … we’re not exactly popular round here.’
He watched his brother’s jawline tense. ‘Don’t be an idiot, Jameel. If you’re not man enough to deal with the problem, I will.’
‘I didn’t say that, did I? Okay … let’s deal with it. What are you suggesting?’
Syed stirred his cooling coffee aimlessly and glanced down at the shoppers moving around like ants on the ground floor of the supermarket. ‘Hallowe’en coming up,’ he said, not meeting his brother’s eye. ‘And what does everyone love to do for Hallowe’en?’
Jameel stared at him vacantly and shrugged. ‘Eat sweets?’
Syed ground his teeth. Sometimes he wondered whether Jameel really was this stupid. That was why he needed help and guidance. He could look after himself when he had to, but he never had the foresight to realise when he needed to put his guard up. He needed to learn when to stop a situation before it became one. That was where Syed was happy to step in. His mother saw it as goading. Syed preferred to call it the teaching of self-preservation.
‘Dress up,’ he said, expelling the words through gritted teeth. ‘People like to dress up at Hallowe’en.’
Jameel’s dark eyes widened as the possibility of what his brother might be suggesting began to sink in. ‘So what do we do?’ He looked at the shop below. ‘You want to get some outfits today?’
‘Not from here,’ Syed said, rolling his eyes. ‘You want a hundred witnesses to be able to say they saw us leaving this place with them?’
For a moment Jameel fell silent, burned by the scathing tone of his brother’s criticism. Syed was always putting him down, trying to make him look stupid. He was sick of it. It was about time he showed him just what he was made of.
‘Okay,’ he said finally. ‘Tell me what you think we should do.’
‘A long shot,’ Chloe said to the woman behind the counter, ‘but we’re trying to identify a man who may have been sleeping rough around here.’
DC Jake Sullivan was standing behind Chloe, his attention momentarily distracted by one of the betting shop’s televisions. Like the couple of elderly men who were seated on high stools to the side of him, he was transfixed by the race that was playing out on the screen: mesmerised by the stampede of hooves, the blur of colour, the manic tones of the commentator as the horses reached the home straight. Chloe couldn’t abide any form of sport that involved animals. Horse racing in particular seemed unnecessarily cruel.
‘Is this about that fire up at the hospital?’ the woman asked. She leaned forward across the counter, bringing with her a cloud of sickly-smelling perfume.
Chloe nodded. ‘How did you hear about it?’
The woman shrugged and picked at a purple-painted nail. ‘One of the regulars was in earlier talking about it. News travels fast round here, like. Specially bad news. You don’t know who he was then?’
Chloe turned. One of the old men had stood from his stool and was pulling his raincoat on, continuing to curse as his companion stared at the television open-mouthed as though willing the race results to somehow alter.
‘Stupid animal. They should put the lazy bugger down.’
An uncharitable response flitted through Chloe’s brain and she held back the temptation to share it. Where was the appeal in this? she wondered. A few minutes of anticipation that resulted in inevitable disappointment and certain financial loss. She would rather give her money away than help further line the pockets of a betting shop owner.
Perhaps she was being unfair, she thought. Hadn’t she once known what desperation felt like? There had been a time when she would have done anything for money. And she had. She wasn’t really in a position to judge.
‘You must get quite a few regulars in,’ Jake said, breaking Chloe’s train of thought. ‘Anyone you might usually see who’s not been in over the past couple of days?’
The woman sat back and pulled her jet-black hair back from her face, knotting it in a bun with the elastic band she wore around her wrist. ‘We get plenty of regulars, but only a few you could set your watch by. The others are in and out all over the place. I can’t think of anyone I’ve noticed who’s not been in recently.’
Chloe retrieved her mobile phone from her pocket and showed the woman an image from it. It was a photograph of the trainers the victim had been wearing; not the pair retrieved from the hospital, but an internet image of the same style.
‘Ever noticed anyone wearing these?’
She wasn’t surprised by the perplexed look the question received. Expecting this woman to have noticed the shoes of every customer who walked through the doors of the betting shop was more than a long shot.
‘They’re quite distinctive,’ she added hopefully.
The woman shook her head. ‘Sorry.’
Chloe thanked her and left, with Jake following behind. They stepped out into the afternoon air and scanned the street for the places they had not yet been. There wasn’t that much to work with: a café that appeared to have no customers, a boarded-up TV repair shop that looked as though it hadn’t been in business since the nineties; a women’s clothing shop that bore a forlorn-looking ‘CLOSING DOWN SALE’ sign on its front window. The busiest place was the Spar, but the staff there hadn’t had anything of use to share.
‘Never seen any homeless people round here,’ Jake said as they headed back to the car. ‘Think the DI has got it wrong?’
‘Just because you haven’t seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.’ Chloe folded her arms across her chest in an attempt to stave off the cold. It wasn’t yet November, but it already felt as though winter had taken a grip. Being homeless at any time of year must be a miserable experience, she thought, but during winter and with the approach of Christmas it must be especially desolate.
Jake had a point, though. She had never seen anyone sleeping rough this side of Cardiff. There were shelters with emergency beds, and a recent rise in food banks meant that those who were in need were able to eat, but where were these people the rest of the time? Homelessness was on the increase in the capital; to think that it wasn’t spreading elsewhere would be naïve. And yet, somehow, the homeless managed to make themselves invisible. Or maybe everyone else was responsible for making them so.
Youssef Hassan had spent the past year looking tired, but that evening he looked more weary than his wife could ever remember having seen before. He sat at the dining room table and stared at the meal Mahira had cooked, having barely touched it. It was his favourite curry and she had made it especially for him. Even during the preparation, she had known she was likely wasting her time. She was trying to recreate something – a past family life she longed for, though she knew they had long left it behind; that things were never going to be the same again. Watching her sons across the table, she knew in her heart which of them was to blame, though she still couldn’t bring herself to speak the words aloud.
‘We need a reminder of some house rules,’ Youssef said, sitting back in his seat and trying to assume an air of authority. ‘Have you heard what people are saying about you? My own sons, discussed in the street like common thugs.’
The arguing had started as soon as he’d returned home. First he had been told about the fight and then Mahira had had to tell him about what had happened to the shop. She had listened to the raised voices, wondering when all this would finally come to an end. It was always the same – Youssef would shout for a while, lay down his set of rules, but by the time morning arrived, things would all be swept under the rug again, ignored as though nothing had happened.
She had once thought her husband a strong man, but in recent months she had begun to question whether the act was greater than the reality.
Youssef caught Jameel’s eye. The bruising on his son’s face remained livid, broadcasting the fight he had got himself embroiled in on Thursday night. ‘You’re not to go out again until those bruises are gone.’
Across the table, Syed laughed. It was subdued, subtle, but there nonetheless.
‘Do you have something to say about it?’ Youssef challenged.
The words said one thing, but the tone with which they were spoken said another. Mahira studied her husband with sadness. He was a broken man. He didn’t have the strength to go through this again, not now, after everything else.
‘He’s nineteen,’ Syed said with a shrug. ‘You can’t tell him what to do.’
In his lap and hidden beneath the table, Youssef’s hands clenched into fists. Syed was always doing this. Always challenging; always disobeying. He was the reason they’d been forced to leave their old life behind, yet here he was trying to sabotage what might become of their new one.
‘He lives in my house,’ Youssef said, the words now sounding more like those of the