Main The Ash Doll

The Ash Doll

The past had been buried. But now someone has remembered . . . Prolific lawyer Charlie Priest has bet his career on one case, but when his star witness turns up brutally murdered on the first morning of the trial, things start to fall apart. Priest knows there's a vicious killer out there, but as the bodies begin to pile up, he soon realises that he's caught in a web of corruption that protects a deadly secret: one that threatens to tear him and those he cares about apart. And Priest has demons of his own to battle, suffering from dissociative disorder, a condition so destructive that it leaves him questioning the truth of his own existence. Can Priest uncover the truth before it's too late?
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Praise for

‘James Hazel grabs you from the off and doesn’t let go until the very end’


‘A compelling mystery that has you tearing through the pages. Charlie Priest is a genius creation. He’s brilliant and border-line dysfunctional but you can’t help liking him. Highly recommended’


‘Shiver inducing . . . irresistible, The Mayfly is really top notch. Intelligently constructed, characters to die for and a truly sterling opening’


‘Addictive . . . wonderfully macabre . . . With this marvellous cast, Hazel’s thriller certainly keeps rolling along at a cracking pace . . . You will be guaranteed to be on to a winner with The Mayfly’


‘A compulsive and engaging read’


‘Dark, gory and compelling . . . I was hooked from page one and didn’t put it down’


‘A heart thumping page-turner’


‘A strong debut’



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66



About the Author

Letter from Author

Extract from The Mayfly


This book is dedicated to Grace, who once asked if I was a bald man with glasses. For the record, I am not (at least, not yet).

‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be;  careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.’

Romans 12:17–19

‘Eye for eye . . .’

Exodus 21:24

Chapter 1

1 November 1989

Rose scrambled up the last few feet of hillside where the incline banked sharply, and mossy turf gave way to a stone ledge running across the cliff. The light was fading and the air was cold and damp. She hurried over the crest but knew that she had to watch her step. As the path narrowed, only a series of rotting fence posts joined with wire separated her from the waves crashing on the scree below.

There was a small gathering of people ahead of her where the path widened out before it disappeared altogether as the cliff ended abruptly, falling away at an almost perfect right angle where it would eventually meet the flatter coastline. As she approached, one of the figures broke from the group and hurried to meet her.

‘Thank goodness, Rose,’ the woman gasped. Rose recognised her as the tall widow who kept the flower shop in the nearby village of Tome, but the name eluded her.

‘I came as soon I could,’ Rose explained, sensing the panic in the flower-woman’s voice.

‘Not a moment too soon.’

The flower-woman ushered Rose through the group who parted for her, their grim faces barely registering in the dusk. There were a few she recognised from the town and even a couple she could put names to. Being two months into her post with the local constabulary, she felt she really ought to know all of them, but Rose was damned if she could tell one face from another in this light.

‘What took you so long, Officer?’ growled a voice obscured beneath the hood of a raincoat. The garment would have swamped a basketball player, let alone the dumpy character wearing it. She ignored the insinuation and allowed herself to be led to where the wire fence cut across them and a yellow sign warning of the dangerous sheer drop swung precariously in the wind.

Near the edge, a cracked wooden sign bearing the name of the cliff jutted out of the ground at an angle: DEVIL’S POINT.

‘Who found her?’ asked Rose to the flower-woman.

‘Vern was leading his history group up here.’

‘What was a history group doing up here at this time of night?’

‘Well, it’s more of a ghost walk, if you ask me. The cliff is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a Celtic sailor who—’

Rose raised her hand irritably and the woman had the good sense not to continue. Rose lowered the wire and stepped over it; it was astonishing how brittle the safety perimeter was.

She stopped and stared ahead. Behind her, the dying sun was plunging into the horizon, its final burst of energy igniting the foot of the night sky with a deep crimson gloss. Rose swallowed hard. Standing on the edge of the cliff, her hair caught in the breeze, was a young girl of no more than ten. She faced outwards towards the sea, her hands outstretched, looking for all the world as if she might suddenly sprout wings and dive into the grey abyss.

She looked back, as if the flower-woman might be able to offer some explanation. She was met with an array of blank faces.

‘Hello?’ Rose called gently, careful not to startle her.

At first, the girl did nothing but, when Rose called again, she turned her head and Rose caught a glimpse of a pale, tear-stained face.

‘Sweetheart, I’m a police officer. You’re standing very close to the edge. Can you step back towards me?’

The girl didn’t move. Rose edged forward. The girl was perilously close to the brink – a strong, unexpected gust might be enough to send her over.

‘You’re safe, honey. You just need to turn around, slowly and carefully.’

The wind whipped around her face as Rose lowered herself to the girl’s level. She was seven or eight metres from Rose but, given the proximity of the danger facing her, she might as well have been a thousand miles away. Her heart racing, Rose extended her hand.

‘Can you tell me your name?’

The girl shook her head, almost imperceptibly.

‘Can you tell me where you’re from?’

Another slight shake.

Rose was about to move towards her when someone spoke from behind. The small man hidden in the oversized raincoat.

‘Officer, look.’

Rose followed the outstretched hand to the girl’s midriff, and down to where a ragged skirt flapped across her thin, bare legs. At first Rose thought it might be dirt. It had rained hard the night before and the ground was muddy in places.

But the rust-coloured patches running from underneath her white dress to her heels weren’t mud.

‘Honey,’ she whispered, ‘what happened to you?’

Chapter 2

Present Day



























































































Chapter 3

Vincent Okoro sat with his arm draped across the back of the front bench of court thirteen, which creaked under the weight of his muscular frame. The trial bundle was spread across his lap but his interrogation of it was limited to idly flipping through the pages, only giving cursory attention to the text. Anything else would have been pointless: he knew the contents intimately.

He was vaguely aware of the hum of people around him. Behind, two men and a woman sat nervously shuffling around, not quite sure how to find a comfortable pose on the ancient wooden pews that served as seating in the Royal Courts of Justice. To his left, an usher draped in ill-fitting robes was moving papers around with great purpose, although the end result eluded Okoro. High above him to the back of the court, a scattering of journalists were engrossed in the soft lights from their smartphones and tablets, trying to find something productive to do before the trial started.

It was a disappointing turn-out. Given the media attention the case had enjoyed for the past two years, he had hoped for more of a journalistic presence on day one of Elias v. The Real Byte Limited. But then it was early. The start time was an hour and a half away. Not even the claimant and her team of blood-sucking lawyers had arrived in court, although rumour suggested they had been milling around the public cafe earlier filling their time with croissants and anecdotes.

Still, an hour and a half to go – and no sign of Priest, or their first witness.

Okoro sighed heavily, and threw the bundle back under the bench. He turned around and was surprised to see behind him another figure who must have ghosted into court.

‘Hello,’ Georgie Someday said brightly, her green eyes peering curiously at him.

‘How long have you been there?’ Okoro asked.

‘Three minutes. I didn’t want to disturb your reading.’

‘I’ve read it before. Where’s Priest?’

‘He rang to say he’s on his way.’

‘Is he with Simeon?’

Georgie grimaced. ‘He didn’t mention that.’

Okoro found himself sighing again, but with more vigour. Simeon Ali – his crucial witness – could make or break this case. Without his evidence, it could well be a very short and humiliating trial.

Maybe the lack of journalists at the back wasn’t so bad after all.

‘Go and phone Priest,’ Okoro instructed. ‘Find out where he is and get confirmation that Simeon is turning up on time this morning and looking like the million-pound witness he is.’

Georgie nodded, brushed a strand of ginger hair out of her face and scurried out.

‘Morning, Okoro.’ A gruff voice directed Okoro’s attention to the claimant’s side of the courtroom where a hunched figure was lining bundles up on the front bench.

‘Hagworth.’ Okoro acknowledged his opponent with a curt nod, which the old silk returned before getting back to the job of trying to make his bundles stand upright – a task that Okoro surmised was being hindered by his shaking hands and milky eyes.

‘Fine morning,’ Hagworth muttered.

Okoro shrugged. ‘I thought there might be more press.’

‘There are some reporters busying themselves in the lobby. Parasites. But enough to give you some publicity, if that is what you desire.’

Okoro grunted in a way that was intended to be non-committal. Dickie Hagworth QC was one of the most experienced libel lawyers in private practice but that didn’t stop him from being an objectionable snob.

‘A fine suit,’ Hagworth observed.

Okoro looked down and inspected his eighteen stone of muscle bulging out of an Armani three-piece. He looked back up, not sure what to say. Hagworth rarely said anything for no good reason.

‘You certainly look the part, Okoro. I hope you don’t take the loss too hard.’ The QC smirked and picked up another bundle.

Okoro leant forward, the bench creaking under the movement, and rested his chin on his hand thoughtfully. Then he said, ‘It’s going to be tough for you back at the gentlemen’s club, Hagworth. Trying to explain how you got beat by a black man.’

In front of him, Hagworth’s line of files collapsed, sending papers scattering across the courtroom floor.

Chapter 4

The morning sun glistened off the frost-covered grass as the procession slowly trailed over the brow of the hill, the church behind them and the vista falling away ahead. Crows lined the fence like sentries, watching the proceedings with avid curiosity. The ground was damp and the day smelt of fresh dew. Only the distant rumble of traffic reminded the gathering that the burial ground was only a few miles outside of the city.

The hole was already dug, ready to accept the casket, which was now lowered into the ground. At the far end, the vicar read the familiar set of words, shivering slightly in the cold. Charlie Priest stood at the back, hands thrust deep into his pockets, trying not to be recognised, but it wasn’t easy. At six foot three with broad shoulders and a strong, athletic build, Priest wasn’t good at merging into the background. With bright blue eyes and drifts of soft brown hair, he cut a rugged and striking sight. Several people had already turned around to look, nudging each other and whispering. They knew who he was. Through the crackle of their hushed chatter, Priest caught one electrifying word drifting on the breeze: Mayfly. He was the man who Kenneth had hired to find his son’s killer. The man who had undone everything for the Ellinders.

The ceremony had been mercifully short. Two tuneless hymns and a generic eulogy read to a modest gathering of family and well-wishers. Kenneth Ellinder’s life had been reduced to fifteen simple minutes before his remains were swallowed by the earth.

When a bearer threw the first handful of dirt over the coffin, Priest turned to go. He had paid his respects and discharged what would have otherwise been a nagging burden. He had felt his phone vibrate several times in his inside pocket; no doubt Georgie trying to ascertain his whereabouts at Okoro’s request. The Priest & Co. in-house counsel would be furious, but the trial wasn’t starting for another hour and a half and Okoro always over-prepared. Besides, Priest’s job was done. Everything had been meticulously organised. All he had to do was wind Okoro up, put Ali on the stand and watch the media lap up the hype.

He was halfway down the hill when he felt a hand on his arm.

‘Charlie,’ said a voice that was neither pleased to see him nor overtly hostile.

Priest turned round and there she was. ‘Jessica.’

She stood on the elevation at his level, the breeze gently playing with her hair, her eyes fixed on his. For a moment he just stared, searching. But he couldn’t read her. This mysterious woman who haunted his dreams stood so close that he could smell the sweetness of her skin, a sensation that was both familiar to him and, at the same time, despairingly alien.

‘Say something,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry for—’

‘Not that.’ She broke her gaze and let her eyes drift into the middle distance. ‘Where were you?’

Priest didn’t know. So much had happened. He had first met Jessica Ellinder the previous year, at his office, with her father. Reluctantly, Priest had agreed to investigate the apparent murder of Jessica’s brother, Miles. The case had almost been the undoing of him and had ended with him exposing her family’s links with a secret neo-Nazi cult.

Jessica was the only positive thing that had come out of that case. They had agreed to meet – Priest had wanted to meet. But he never turned up.

‘Charlie. Where were you?’ she repeated.

‘I’m sorry,’ he offered, but he knew it wasn’t enough.

She nodded. He didn’t need a psychology textbook to tell him that she was disappointed, and angry, but whether that was because she had wanted to see him again or because she wasn’t used to being stood up was beyond him.

He looked down and pushed the earth around with the toe of his shoe, his inadequacy enveloping him. How could he explain it to her? Whenever he tried to sound out the reason in his head, it sounded pathetic, but the root cause was a mantra that had arisen from the ashes of his past: whenever I touch something special, it just seems to wither in my hands. In a world where nothing seemed real, Priest had found that people, especially lovers, eventually faded away. At least this way, Jessica would always stay real to him.

‘How are you?’ Priest asked, feebly.

For a horrible moment, he thought she might do what he felt he deserved and slap him across the face, but instead she released her hand from his arm, as if she had just realised, with embarrassment, that she was still touching him.

‘I’m doing better than perhaps I should be,’ she conceded.

‘Maybe we could start again?’

‘From which point? The point at which I was shown a picture of my brother impaled on a spike, or before that?’

He faltered, although he felt justified in doing so. ‘Starting again doesn’t necessarily have to mean going back to any particular point. Perhaps it’s about rebuilding what we have.’

‘Which is what exactly?’

‘I have absolutely no idea.’

At last, a statement he was sure of. He shouldn’t have stood her up, but maybe there was hope – maybe he could atone. He carried out a quick mental calculation. The trial started in ninety minutes. He had to travel halfway across London to the Strand and negotiate the plethora of cameramen lining the High Court entrance, which would take him to the point where the trial was scheduled to start, but Okoro’s patience would have worn thin way before then.

Inside his jacket pocket, his phone resumed its familiar, angry buzz.

‘Meet me tomorrow night,’ he said, his heart in his mouth. ‘Come over to mine. We can shut ourselves away from the world for an evening. I’ll attempt to cook you something. Do you like lemon sole?’

‘You’re asking me out on a date? At my father’s funeral.’ There was no trace of humour in her voice.

Priest shuffled his feet again. On reflection, he did seem to have set a record for inappropriate passes.

For a full agonising minute, she said nothing, but continued to stare at some imperceptible spot behind him. For every excruciating moment that passed a feeling of hopelessness set in until, finally, she nodded.

‘You’d better be there, Priest. Or God have mercy.’

Chapter 5

Georgie Someday had never been one to panic. To her mind, she was more of a fretter. The difference was subtle but important. A panicker abandons logical thought in favour of irrational dread. A panicker assumes the worst, but fails to formulate any sensible strategy for dealing with it. A fretter, on the other hand, uses anxiety positively. A fretter calculates all possible outcomes and designs coping strategies for as many as conceivably possible.

Having said that, standing in the Royal Courts of Justice Great Hall, clutching her phone, with half an hour to go before the trial was due to start and still no sign of Priest or the defence’s star witness, Georgie was experiencing a sensation she thought was, in truth, much closer to panic than fret.

She put her phone away and removed her glasses to clean them for the eighth time before passing back through security and out onto the Strand. People bustled past, pulling coats tightly around them, ignoring the glare of television cameras lining the entranceway to the High Court. Close by, she overheard a solemn-faced presenter standing rigidly in front of a camera:

‘Operating globally with a combined turnover of over fifty-five million pounds, the Elias Children’s Foundation is one of the largest charities in the UK established for the benefit of child victims of war, domestic violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. Its operations include an African education programme, disaster and emergency response schemes, HIV and AIDS prevention and care programmes, and programmes aimed at stopping the exploitation of child soldiers for terrorist purposes. It’s not for profit but don’t let that label fool you – this is big business.

‘I’m outside the High Court today because the charity’s founder and CEO, Alexia Elias, is suing small independent online magazine, The Real Byte, for libel following an article about her they published in 2014. You may remember that in 2009 a scandal broke out at the Elias Foundation when it was discovered that a small branch office had been funnelling charity funds to an organisation known as the Free People’s Army, a terrorist cell operating in northern Turkey.

‘Following extensive investigations by the Charities Commission, that office was closed down, with Turkish police arresting several Elias Foundation employees.’

She decided to hang around. Although the way the reporter kept brushing her hair back vainly was beginning to grate on her, she was interested to know how accurate the reporting was. So far, not too bad.

‘In 2014, The Real Byte published an article alleging that not only was Alexia Elias fully aware of the Turkish scandal involving her charity, but she had received bribes from terrorists totalling four hundred thousand pounds to keep quiet about it. This is day one of a four-week trial here at the High Court in which Alexia Elias hopes to clear her name . . .’

Georgie went back inside, nodding at the security guard on her way in. What might make more interesting reporting, she thought, was if The Real Byte solicitor, Charlie Priest, her employer, didn’t turn up in the next half an hour accompanied by the magazine’s main witness. It was this thought that was making her stomach churn.

‘Come on, Charlie,’ she said to herself through gritted teeth. ‘Now’s not the time to be late.’

Until 2012, Simeon Ali had been an Elias Children’s Foundation employee working at their Turkish branch. Georgie had never met him. As far as she was aware, Charlie had only met him a few times. He kept a very low profile and with good reason – Alexia Elias and her husband, Dominique, were powerful figures with powerful friends, and connections that went right the way to the top of government. There were plenty of images of Alexia sitting in conferences – a broad smile across her face – drinking tea with Cabinet ministers doing their rounds across social media. A lot of influential people had backed the Elias Foundation and its charismatic CEO. A lot of people had put their hands deeply into their wallets. In Georgie’s view, the charity had survived the Turkish scandal because of some very good spin. During the press conference in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, Alexia Elias, surrounded by PR managers and lawyers, had produced the performance of a lifetime:

‘We are hurt, and we are betrayed, but we will not succumb to evil, nor we will shrink in the face of oppression. We will rise up, in union, and remember why we are here, who we are and what we stand for.’ Then, with a tear in her eye: ‘We are the Elias Foundation, and we shall not be beaten by a tiny group of weak-minded traitors. I will use every resource available to me to right this wrong.’

After assuring the press that the corruption had been isolated and contained, the weeping CEO had stepped down to embrace her husband in a moment of rehearsed solidarity before giving way to her press officer to mop up any question from the awe-struck crowd.

The suggestion that Alexia had been lying when she said she knew nothing about the scandal until it was too late was unthinkable. The idea that she had been a part of it was heresy.

Nonetheless, a trace of doubt remained, and Alexia Elias was not without her critics. So far, though, the voice of dissent was small, confined to people who had been labelled conspiracy theorists: dismissed as part of the same group who supposedly believed the Rothschild family controlled the world and Hillary Clinton was an alien. Although perhaps the non-believers weren’t as insignificant as some first thought: The Real Byte’s advertising revenue had doubled following the media’s coverage of the libel action.

There were two things in Priest & Co.’s favour: the first was that the magazine’s insurers were funding the trial, albeit with considerable reluctance, and the second was that Alexia had openly taken the moral high ground and decided to only sue the magazine itself and not Tomas Jansen, its owner, personally, which would have complicated matters. Jansen might have even needed separate representation.

But even with a third party paying the bills – for now – there was considerable risk. Insurers would always find a reason not to pay, or only partially pay out, if they backed the wrong horse. For The Real Byte and Priest & Co., the stakes were about as high as they could get.

She tried ringing Charlie one more time, this time leaving a message. She hoped it made it clear she was anxious to hear from him without completely betraying the panic that had now gripped her.

Damn, damn, damn!

She glanced back to court thirteen but decided it would be best not to report back to Okoro until such time as she had some positive news. As she did, she saw an older gentleman lope across the lobby looking rather harassed. This, she surmised, must be Dominique Elias, Alexia’s husband. His witness statement had struck her as being rather curt. He loved his wife and regarded her as the very personification of integrity and professionalism and of course he would have known if she had received bribes of that level. All very businesslike and matter-of-fact.

Her mind had wandered, and it took a few seconds to register the voice in her ear.

‘Miss Someday? Hello?’

Georgie spun around and found her personal space had been filled by a young woman with long, blonde hair which looked bleached, beaming at her. She was tucked inside a black coat and was clutching an iPad. She was pretty. With such a sparkling smile, she might even be called striking were it not for a certain air of detachment visible through her eyes. Georgie groaned inwardly.

‘Yes?’ she asked.

‘Elinor Fox – independent. You’re with Priest & Co., aren’t you? Could I ask you about the trial?’

‘You mean you’re independent or you’re from the Independent?’ replied Georgie, folding her arms.

The dazzling smile faltered slightly and Georgie rejoiced in its retreat. ‘The former.’

‘Sorry, I can’t talk to journalists.’

Fox continued, undeterred, ‘How are your clients bearing up?’

Not too badly, was the honest answer, considering that the future of their magazine depends on winning this case. The Real Byte was a small outfit which had stumbled on a big exclusive and were paying the price. The magazine’s executive editor, Tomas Jansen, was born and graduated in Denmark and had started The Real Byte five years previously when the demand for quick, accessible online news was starting to increase exponentially. He had written the Elias article, with some input from his managing editor, Gail Woodbead. Their small team was completed by Karl Jones, the magazine’s technical director. Those three – and a handful of external contributors – comprised the entirety of the magazine’s human element.

Elinor Fox was apparently still speaking. ‘Miss Someday?’

‘No comment,’ Georgie said.

‘Not even one little quote?’

‘Not one. Thank you.’

Fox pinched her face together in what appeared to be a sympathetic gesture but which was obviously a manifestation of huge disappointment and utter contempt.

Then Georgie saw something flit past her vision. She scanned the air around her, then saw a bee land behind Fox. She stiffened and moved around the reporter, who looked puzzled.

‘Sorry,’ said Georgie, motioning to the insect. ‘I’m allergic to bee stings. It’s called anaphylaxis.’

A voice crackled over the PA system – ‘All parties in Elias v. The Real Byte Limited to court thirteen. That’s all parties in Elias v. The Real Byte Limited to court thirteen, please’ – and Georgie took the opportunity to go back inside, giving the bee and the reporter a wide berth.

Once inside, she looked around, realising that she would have to explain to both Okoro and the clients that they would have to proceed without Charlie and Simeon for now. Just don’t shoot the messenger. Wait! Is that . . . ?

A figure bounded up the court steps and threw his keys and a phone into the security box. He looked up and waved at her. She pointed to her watch and Charlie Priest waved her away, as if they had all the time in the world.

He collected his things from the box once it had passed through the scanner then started to usher her across the lobby to court thirteen. ‘Did you miss me?’

‘Vincent will be very angry,’ Georgie advised.

‘No doubt. How’s Dickie looking?’

‘Richard Hagworth QC?’

‘Yes. Dickie.’

‘He looks OK, I guess.’

‘Oh, come on, Georgie. I’ve seen Ikea tables with more movement in their joints. Now, where’s Simeon?’

Georgie stopped.

‘I thought he was with you?’

Chapter 6

Charlie Priest knew a lot about disaster management in litigation. Rule number one was to preserve the illusion that no disaster existed. Nothing was more fragile than the short period of time between parties shuffling into court and the moment the chambers door swung open and the judge manifested himself or, in this case, herself. Trials were made and broken in that vacuum where time stood still. The slightest breeze could be enough to dislodge the nerve of a witness or an advocate; a case that took years to prepare could be undone in seconds.

So Priest ignored the burning sensation developing in the pit of his stomach and announced his entrance into the courtroom by letting the ancient wooden door deliberately crash against its frame, which drew a turning of heads from the occupants of the front bench. Even the journalists lowered their phones to see who had disturbed the calm.

‘Dickie.’ Priest nodded to the QC as he joined Okoro. Hagworth neither returned the gesture nor rejected it but stared curiously at him from behind a pair of round glasses perched on his crooked nose.

Unimpressed, Okoro hadn’t moved other than to look up from behind the bundle he was holding. He gave Priest a look that suggested, in no uncertain terms, that he regarded his unpunctuality with considerable annoyance. When Priest reached across to place a file on the table Okoro whispered in his principal’s ear.

‘Where in the name of Jesus have you been, Priest?’


‘A what?’

He placed a reassuring hand on Okoro’s shoulder and turned to the three bemused faces sitting behind him. Shaking each hand in turn he addressed the oily-haired man sitting on the edge of the bench.

‘Tomas, how are you doing?’ Priest asked, smiling.

‘We were expecting you a little earlier but—’

‘Just checking a few things for you but all done now. Gail, hi. Karl, love that tie. Listen, Tomas, have you heard from Simeon?’


Tomas shifted his weight while Gail leant across him anxiously. Priest had thought when he first met The Real Byte team that, despite the obvious discomfort Tomas felt in his own skin, he might have been having an affair with Gail Woodbead. She was a good foot taller than him and had the air of a retired headmistress but there was an obvious tension between them, the kind that lovers might share. So perhaps it was unsurprising that, in this critical moment, Tomas now exchanged a worried look with her. Karl Jones, The Real Byte technical director, was slumped back in his seat and might not even have been a noticeable occupant of the bench were he not taking up most of it. His frame was oversized, cumbersome, bulging in places that weren’t supposed to bulge. The fat pulled at his jowls, giving him a frog-like appearance. He also insisted on lugging an enormous holdall bag with him everywhere, which now sat at his feet, although goodness knows what was in it.

Priest nodded and breathed in hard, a thousand possibilities surging through his head.

‘Did you speak to him last night?’

‘No,’ said Tomas, anxiety creeping into his voice. ‘I thought he was meeting you before court.’

‘We agreed he would be here at nine thirty and we would meet in the foyer. You’ve not seen him?’

‘I haven’t. This is disturbing news, Mr Priest. Our case—’

Priest put his hand on Tomas’s arm to steady him. ‘Slow down, Tomas,’ he urged. ‘They’re watching you.’

He nodded subtly. Over the executive editor’s shoulder, he saw Alexia Elias nudge Hagworth and gesture in their direction. Fortunately, it took Hagworth the equivalent of three moon cycles to manipulate the sagging muscles in his neck and make his head turn, by which time Tomas had understood the point and had lowered his voice.

‘When did you last speak to Simeon?’ Tomas asked.

‘A few days ago. Everything was fine, and everything will be fine, I’m sure. We have his statement and he won’t be giving evidence until this afternoon, possibly not even until tomorrow. I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.’

Priest heard the words tumble out of his mouth but even he was unconvinced by them. This was the principal risk that he and Okoro had considered. Throughout, Simeon Ali had demonstrated a deep-rooted desire to ensure that the court, and the world, was presented with the truth, but he had proved to be an aloof character, insisting that almost all communications were carried out by email or Skype. They had met a few times, at a train station outside of the city in the summer, and even then, the meetings had been like a clandestine encounter straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel.

‘He seemed so sure of himself,’ offered Gail, leaning further across Tomas. ‘I can’t believe he’s lost his nerve at this moment.’

‘He was convinced somebody was watching him,’ said Tomas. ‘We should have done more to ensure his attendance, Mr Priest.’

‘Short of bundling him in the back of my car and holding him hostage I’m not sure what,’ Priest remarked, ignoring Tomas’s intonation.

‘I take it you’ve rung him?’ asked Gail.

He glanced over at Georgie who had just lowered her phone. She shook her head.

‘Straight to voicemail,’ she explained.

‘Let’s not worry just yet.’ Priest smiled and turned back to whisper confidentially into Okoro’s ear. ‘Did you hear all that, old man?’

Okoro replied in a low growl, ‘As I understand it you want me to win this case without my star witness, relying purely on hearsay evidence from non-independent witnesses. Is that right?’

‘Yes and I pay you bloody well for it, too,’ Priest hissed back. ‘But I realise it’s a tall order so why don’t we try an alternative approach under which you buy me time and I go and find our witness?’

‘That’s fine because, doing it my way, Dickie’s going to have a bloody field day.’

Chapter 7

Priest’s exit from court thirteen was far less grand than his entrance and would have been entirely unnoticed had it not been for Alexia Elias’s grey eyes watching his every step.

Outside the courtroom, he passed several robing rooms, finding vague amusement with the sign pinned to one of the doors – MEMBERS OF THE BAR ONLY. As a solicitor-advocate, Priest was perfectly entitled to pop in and use one of the wire coat hangers to store his overcoat, but the thought couldn’t have been further from his mind. Firstly, because he did not own an overcoat and, secondly, because Charlie Priest generally hated other lawyers. Those that he didn’t were merely the exceptions that proved the rule.

As he passed myriad portraits of stony-faced judges he couldn’t name and didn’t care about, he tried to reflect on the present situation. Simeon’s no-show was bad news but it wasn’t his firm’s one hundred per cent win record that troubled him. It was the grey eyes of Alexia Elias that had tracked his quiet withdrawal from court. There had been mounting media pressure backed by a plethora of very high-profile individuals against The Real Byte and, indirectly, its lawyers. The Turkey scandal aside, the Elias Children’s Foundation had benefited tens of thousands of children across the globe. Its brand stood for everything that was good in humanity. This trial meant everything for both sides.

Litigation disaster management rule number two: if you have to call Mother Teresa a whore, make sure it’s a charge that sticks.

In the Great Hall, he paused. People were milling around every-where. Mostly worried-looking parties and pompous-looking counsel, mixed in with the occasional tourist photographing the court’s cathedral-like architecture. As he looked down to the entrance a familiar feeling of disconnection began to creep over him. The Great Hall was still there in all its Victorian glory and the people were still bustling around the security checkpoint, but Priest no longer felt that he was a part of the scene, it was as if he had stepped backwards and found himself looking in to the stage rather than out of it.

For a moment, he wavered between worlds, like Alice staring down the rabbit hole, contemplating the leap. But in his mind, Alice didn’t look like Alice. She looked like Jessica Ellinder.


He felt a tug on his arm. The rabbit hole vanished. The image of Jessica dissipated. A pair of startling green eyes stared at him.

‘Charlie? Are you OK?’

He shook the feeling of drowsiness off. ‘Fine. Everything’s fine. Thank you.’

‘Were you having one of your disassociation moments?’ asked Georgie.

‘Of course not. I only get those when I’m stressed.’

Priest waved the notion away before it occurred to him that he had never discussed his dissociative disorder with his assistant solicitor. He hadn’t really discussed it with anyone. Not that he was ashamed of the condition that caused breakdowns in his perception of reality, but he didn’t see the value in talking about it. Besides, he counted himself lucky. There are generally six recognised classifications of dissociative disorder but many sufferers of one of the most common – depersonalisation disorder – have their lives utterly wrecked by the condition, living in a permanently emotionless, unreal world. Priest had experienced that early on, but the symptoms had faded with time. Now he was able to function ninety per cent of the time without giving the slightest hint of his vulnerability, except on occasions where, like now, he felt his grasp slip slightly.

He shook the feeling off, refocused. It didn’t feel like the onset of an episode. Just a glitch in his own personal matrix.

‘How do you know about it, by the way?’ he asked, meaning the disorder. When she didn’t immediately answer, the detail suddenly seemed unimportant. ‘Moreover, why aren’t you in court? I pay you to be in court, not diagnose complex personality illnesses.’

‘Vincent said I should go with you,’ Georgie said firmly.

‘What about the clients?’

‘He said you might need more looking after than them.’

‘No, he didn’t. Okoro would never say that.’

Georgie at least had the decency to look slightly sheepish. ‘That may have been my interpretation of what he said.’

Priest smiled and she smiled back. She had an infectious smile. He remembered seeing it for the first time when she had walked into the interview room and presented a CV bursting with commendations, awards and an Oxford first. Priest’s policy was to only ever ask one interview question. None of the pro forma questions and aptitude tests candidates were subjected to in the recruitment processes of the supposed elite practices – the so-called Magic Circle firms. Priest found the best measure wasn’t something Freud had conjured up. It was his gut.

‘If you were me, how would you conduct this interview?’

Priest had laid out his only interview question to another fresh-faced candidate and sat back, waiting for the usual diatribe of executive bollocks which might include repeating large sections of the About Us section of the Priest & Co. website or, if he was lucky, a Google-assembled analysis of the reform of conditional fee arrangements in personal injury work.

To his surprise, Georgie Someday had met his gaze and spoken without a hint of sarcasm.

‘I wouldn’t. Asking me questions isn’t going to tell you anything about me you won’t get from your receptionist. That’s why your candidates have to turn up an hour early.’

Priest had faltered. She had smiled awkwardly and, without being able to stop himself, he had smiled back. Awkwardly.

Later, as he had poured over the headnote of a Court of Appeal authority, Maureen, his chain-smoking receptionist, had poked her head around the door and directed a series of gruffly constituted words in unambiguous tones at him which had landed Georgie her training contract.

‘You better bloody hire that girl, Priest,’ she had said. ‘Your tea’s in the kitchen.’

‘You seem distracted,’ Georgie observed as they negotiated through the jumble of lawyers and clients cluttering up the High Court entrance. ‘You know: even more than usual.’

He dismissed her. ‘No, no. This is just as it is, Someday. Follow me.’

She took him by the arm and was about to lead him away from the court when a voice stopped them. Priest turned and saw a small man hunched up against the side of the court, a cigarette stuck to his lip. His hair was grey and wiry and his skin had the purple stain left by years of alcohol and fags.

‘Excuse me?’

He immediately regretted having spoken so when it became clear that the man who had addressed them was Dominique Elias. He must have slipped out at some point for a smoke after the cameras had packed up.

‘I said, I wonder if you get a kick out of what you do, Mr Priest?’ Elias croaked.

Priest hesitated and felt Georgie tug on his arm, but something stopped him from doing what he should do and move on.

‘Sorry, Mr Elias. I can’t talk to you. Professional rules. You know how it is.’

Elias ignored him. ‘How do you think it’s going to be after this, Mr Priest? When the judge throws you out of court? Did you ever stop to think about the children we look after? All that charity money wasted on legal fees that could have gone to helping kids who need our help. How many of them do you think have died because of you and that poxy online operation you’re representing?’


Elias made to say something but stumbled into a fit of coughing. When he’d finished, his face was red. One eye was a little bloodshot. ‘You have a lawyer’s conscience, I see.’

‘No,’ said Priest, calmly. ‘I just have a better understanding of moral causation than you.’

‘Hm. And what do you know about moral causation?’

‘Your side brought the claim, Mr Elias.’ Priest was relaxed – in fact professional rules prevented him from talking to Alexia, since she was a party to the proceedings, but Dominique wasn’t, so the conversation wasn’t illicit. There is no property in a witness. ‘Remember: you picked the fight.’

‘Didn’t have much choice, did we? Your client published that filth.’

There was more; Dominque was about to say something else but he stopped. Something had caught his eye, further up the road on the other side of the High Court entrance. He winced, squinted as if he saw someone he vaguely recognised. Then slunk back against the wall. Priest followed his eyeline but it was impossible to tell from the group of people mingling outside who had distracted him.

Assessing that the exchange was at an end, Priest doffed an imaginary cap. ‘Good luck in court, Mr Elias.’ He turned and led Georgie away, sensing Elias watching them all the way. When they reached the Tube entrance, he noticed Georgie was still holding on to his arm.

Chapter 8

The little girl sits in front of the wall, staring at the cracked bricks; her hands resting on her lap. There is a window above her, too high to reach unless she climbs on a tower of boxes and, even then, she can only just peek through the opaque glass and see the top of the church spire. The basement is behind her, she is so close to the wall. The floor is made of stone but there is some carpet spread across the far side: the unwanted ends, a mishmash of colours. It is dusk, neither the sun nor the moon has dominance in the sliver of grey sky she can see through the window.

A woman paces behind her, muttering. She is angry, rightly so. The girl had managed to nick the corner of her mouth with her nails, drawn a little blood. The girl hadn’t meant to hurt the woman. She had just wanted to feel the woman’s skin, see if it stretched like hers, was warm like hers.

The woman is ranting, but the girl only hears it in waves of muffled white noise.

‘Again . . . I didn’t want any of this, you bring it upon yourself . . . do you know what happened? Do you . . . you aren’t mine, not mine . . . I don’t see why I should put up with you, everything was fine before . . .’

The girl closes her eyes but she can still see the wall in front of her, and its crevices, like the lines across the woman’s furrowed brow.

‘He hates you, you know . . . those things he does with you, don’t think they are acts of love . . . nothing like that . . . I know love when I see it and . . .’

Suddenly the ranting stops. The girl stirs. It’s cold – it’s never warm in the basement. Even in summer, the sun only shines directly through the little window for a few hours and what little warmth finds its way into the room is soon absorbed into the bare walls. In the winter, the window leaks and the rain trickles down the brickwork, flowing through the grooves, and collecting in a puddle at the foot of the wall. If it rains all day, the pool is so big it spills over into the sunken recess in the floor. The girl is waiting for the day when the water fills so high that the recess is like a lake into which she can dive.

The white noise has stopped. The girl risks opening one eye. Maybe the woman has gone. Maybe this time she might be left to sleep. She is left alone for long periods of time, her meals thrown down the stairs from the house above like a dog’s. But she doesn’t mind – it’s better than when the woman rants at her, sometimes hits her. And that’s better than when she has to get dressed for him. That’s the worst.

The girl’s relief is short-lived. The woman is still there, but closer suddenly. In her ear. This time the words form clearer in the girl’s head – not fully formed but almost complete.

‘She brought you here, that bitch of a mother of yours, you know. You were a child, ugly and fat. I didn’t want you but he saw something in it for him – a profit, of sorts . . . then she killed herself, your mother. That’s how little she thought of you – delivered you here into his hands then hanged herself on a tree a week later . . . poor wretch, how pathetic . . .’

The girl remembers nothing, but senses the woman isn’t lying. Why would she lie? Why would they compound her misery with deceit when everything they do is already so wicked?

The girl doesn’t move. Knows better not to. The woman hovers nearby, her breath on the girl’s neck. The girl listens, smells the woman’s perfume, a sickly, arresting smell. That is the smell of the outside world, thinks the girl. The sickly, arresting smell of freedom.

The girl shivers.

Satisfied, the woman withdraws without warning, leaving the girl to calm her beating heart. This time, she leaves the lights off and the girl is left in semi-darkness.

Chapter 9

Georgie held on as the Tube rattled along. The carriage was hot and airless – most of the seats had been taken and she was squashed up against the corner, conscious that every time the train lurched around she fell on to Charlie’s shoulder.

Five stops down the train pulled in to Bethnal Green and Georgie looked up at Charlie. ‘Is it this one?’

Charlie frowned. ‘No. I don’t think so.’

‘It’s Mile End next.’


Georgie waited. A few people had alighted and an old man had hauled two bags of shopping into the aisle and had stood opposite them. The signal for the doors shutting toned, which is when Charlie leapt up.

‘Actually, it is this one.’

She barely made it as the doors slammed shut behind her.

‘Come along, Someday!’ Charlie called back over his shoulder.

‘Where are we going?’ Georgie puffed as she took two steps for every one of his to keep up. They weaved in and out of busy commuters but somehow he seemed to just keep marching straight ahead as people parted around him like the Red Sea. Georgie, on the other hand, was constantly ducking and sliding past the crowds – less Moses and more of a fairground dodgem.

‘Tomas was never very forthcoming when it came to revealing the original source of the article, was he?’ Charlie called back, ignoring her question directly.

‘Simeon is a bit of an enigma,’ Georgie agreed.

‘Tomas’s original idea was to run a justification defence based on the documentary evidence he had amassed about the Turkey scandal without Simeon.’

‘But nothing directly connects that to Alexia.’

‘That’s right. Some of it’s helpful. There are chains of emails that link to Alexia eventually but nothing that nails the point. It’s all circumstantial, Hagworth will say. Anyway, after I told them I wouldn’t take the case Tomas contacted me and said, albeit reluctantly, that the source for the original article was Simeon Ali, who worked for the Foundation at the time of the scandal and was based in Turkey. He’d since moved to London.’

‘And you think that Simeon wasn’t involved with the siphoning of funds to the Free People’s Army?’

They skipped up the last few steps and out into the street at such a pace that Georgie lost track of which station they had just come from.

Charlie crossed the road and rounded a corner into a residential street lined with tall Victorian terraces set back from the pavement and fronted with black iron railings.

‘I recognise this road,’ said Georgie, turning a full circle and taking it in.

‘That’s right,’ Charlie agreed, heading about halfway down before turning into one of the pathways and pressing a doorbell.

‘This is your sister’s house,’ Georgie said, recognition suddenly hitting her.

‘That’s right.’

‘Why . . .?’

The door swung open and Sarah Boatman tumbled out. She seemed surprised and, with a bag over her shoulder already, Georgie guessed that she was just on her way to work.


Charlie cleared his throat. ‘Good morning.’

‘I’m just . . .’

‘I only need a second.’


Georgie stood in Sarah’s hallway looking at the pictures on the wall. Most of them were of Tilly, Charlie’s six-year-old niece, in various situations, invariably with a grin spread across her impish face.

There were a few of Sarah holding her as a baby. Sarah’s hair was a different colour in every photo but each time she looked nowhere near as tired and run-down as a new mother should be. She had the Priest family blue eyes and Charlie’s smile. Her husband, Ryan, was noticeably absent from the photographic montage. Georgie had never met Ryan – she had only met Sarah a few times – but she was aware of Charlie’s deep-rooted dislike of his brother-in-law which he did very little to hide. Luckily, it didn’t seem as if Ryan was home. Tilly, presumably, was at school.

She shuffled closer to the kitchen so she could make out the voices a little better – not that this was in any way a form of eavesdropping but there were some particularly stunning landscape shots further down that caught her attention.

‘Do you mind awfully if I have the spare keys to Bristol Road?’ she heard Charlie ask.

‘Why?’ Sarah sounded wary.

‘Because I’d like to gain access.’

‘Charlie, I’m sure there are loads of people out there who find you endearing but to me you’re really quite annoying.’

‘Thank you.’

‘The property’s let, remember?’ Sarah pointed out.

‘It appears the tenant may have absconded.’

Georgie distinctly heard Sarah exhale heavily. ‘What have you got yourself into this time, Charlie?’

‘Nothing you need to worry about.’

‘Don’t patronise me or so help me God—’

‘I didn’t mean it like that,’ Charlie placated. ‘I mean – it’s nothing. Really. The guy just didn’t show up at court this morning, that’s all.’

‘The thing on TV about the Elias Foundation? Wow, I really hope you know what you’re doing.’

‘Fortunately, I know a really good PR agent if it turns out that I don’t.’

‘You’re going to need more than a good PR agent if you lose that trial, Charlie. They’re talking about it everywhere – I’m even getting shit about it from clients.’

Georgie took a few steps further towards the door and strained to listen as Charlie asked, ‘From who?’

‘As if I’d tell you that.’

‘Why wouldn’t you?’ asked Charlie, seemingly offended.

‘Because you’d do something stupid like sue them.’

‘If they were lucky.’

‘Mm. Keys are behind you, in the top drawer.’

‘I am most obliged for your assistance, oh magnificent sister.’

‘Piss off back to court, Charlie.’

She heard the rattle of the drawer. Turned quickly and tried to look as though she was casually strolling up and down the hallway and not listening intently to every word when Priest emerged from the kitchen.

‘Come on, Someday,’ he said, leading her to the door. ‘Thanks, Sarah.’

Georgie looked back over her shoulder. Sarah leant against the door frame, arms folded. As Georgie turned, Sarah caught her eye.



Sarah hesitated before shifting her weight and turning to walk back into the kitchen.

‘For God’s sake, look after him.’

Chapter 10

At the stroke of ten the chamber’s door to court thirteen opened and Justice Peters swept in, nodded curtly to the congregation in front of her and sat down, rigid and businesslike, in the high-backed leather chair.

She looked older than Okoro remembered from the last time he had been before her. Her hair was tied back but it was greyer than at the preliminary hearing six months earlier. Back then she had berated Hagworth for not having properly complied with the disclosure order and hadn’t been particularly impressed with Okoro either, even though he had complied.

At least she was consistent. She hated everyone.

‘Good morning,’ Peters grumbled without a trace of warmth. She looked up at the advocates for the first time and picked up a bundle from in front of her. ‘Mr Hagworth—’

Slowly, Hagworth rose to his feet.

Okoro glanced behind him but the door at the back of the court had been shut. He risked checking his phone – nothing. Although The Real Byte was the defendant, they would present their case first, as was customary in a libel trial. The statement complained about would be assumed defamatory unless the contrary was proven. Okoro only had three witnesses – Tomas Jansen; Gail Woodbead, who had had some input in writing the article; and Simeon Ali himself. Tactically, it would make the most sense if Ali went first. Indeed, the trial might be over quickly if Hagworth couldn’t produce anything in cross-examination to damage Ali’s credibility.

Putting Tomas on the stand first was going to cause some confusion. Okoro braced himself for the interrogation.

Hagworth began, ‘Your Honour, may it please you, I represent the claimant in these proceedings, Alexia Elias, who seeks damages and other relief against the defendant, an online magazine with a small following—’

‘Yes, yes, I know all that.’ Peters waved at Hagworth irritably. ‘I have your skeleton argument. Can we not just get on with it? Mr Okoro?’

Okoro got to his feet with caution, every second he delayed might be precious. Behind him, he heard The Real Byte staff shuffling around. Panic was starting to set in, despite Priest’s warning to them about remaining poker-faced. Across the courtroom, he sensed Alexia staring at him expectantly. He couldn’t see her face, but he knew exactly what expression she was wearing. One of mock sympathy. Without Ali, The Real Byte was as good as bust and she knew it.

‘Your Honour,’ he said, tentatively. In the pause between his words, he heard nothing. Not the rustling of papers, not the creaking of the benches. Not the sound of breathing. The courtroom held its breath.

Sensing Okoro’s hesitancy, Peters looked up.

‘Well?’ she said.


Sarah’s rental property was ten minutes’ walk south in a nondescript urban nucleus comprising mainly of Chinese takeaways, pawn shops and places where you could, apparently, secure a loan of up to five thousand pounds in less than three minutes; that was assuming you were prepared to accept an APR figure that was the same length as the shop’s telephone number.

Priest led Georgie down the street past a group of men huddled together at the entrance to a William Hill. They were examining a ticket carefully. From what Priest could gather, a particular greyhound had crossed the line first and a dispute had developed between them as to who owned the winning ticket. Priest guided Georgie across to the other side of the street.

Further down they walked under some badly constructed scaffolding. Someone wolf-whistled behind them from a third-storey balcony but Georgie seemed oblivious, engrossed as she was in asking Priest more questions about the arrangements that had been made for Simeon.

‘So Simeon lives at a house your sister owns?’ she asked.

‘It’s actually one of a few we have together but Sarah keeps the keys and deals with the paperwork. I’d just lose them if they were under my control. When our parents died, they left us a small portfolio.’

‘What about—’ Georgie blurted out but then, flushed, covered her mouth quickly. ‘Oh, I—’

‘You mean what about William?’ said Priest, referring to the eldest Priest child, who was currently serving an endless sentence in a maximum security psychiatric hospital just outside London. Eleven years ago, he had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to a string of murders that had earned him notoriety as one of the country’s most prolific serial killers. In a decision that was as controversial at the time as William’s crimes were outrageous, the Old Bailey had absolved him of responsibility but passed down an indefinite hospital order. William Priest would never see the outside world again.

‘Yes. Sorry. I didn’t mean to . . . you know.’

He smiled, although the memory of William’s trial still haunted him, particularly the last walk out of court. After they had escorted William away, Priest had walked out into the sunshine to a sea of cameras and microphones, but that didn’t bother him. What bothered him was the bereaved; the families of the dead. He could deal with the angry ones, the ones who shouted abuse, cursed him. They were fine, understandable. What drove him to the brink were the quiet ones; the ones who didn’t say anything, just looked at him with wide, questioning eyes. Ghosts’ eyes. ‘It’s OK. To be honest, it’s Sarah who disallows any mention of Wills. I kind of like the guy, apart from the killing and the madness.’

By the look on her face, he surmised that Georgie wasn’t quite sure whether she was supposed to laugh or not.

‘So,’ she prompted instead, ‘Simeon.’

‘Ah. So, eventually, I got to the bottom of what The Real Byte’s defence was. Now, as you know, there are only a limited number of defences to libel.’ Priest paused, waiting for her to fill in the gaps.

‘Justification, fair comment, qualified or actual privilege.’

‘Spoken like a true legal nerd. Here, the only plausible defence is to establish that what was said was actually true, meaning that it’s necessary to demonstrate that Alexia actually not only knew about her organisation’s links with terrorism but also received bribes to keep quiet about it. This is what we call justification, as you know. What I quickly identified, however, was that Simeon Ali rather regretted his little whistle-blowing expedition, so he was reluctant to come forward and reveal himself as the source of The Real Byte’s article when called upon.’

‘So you got him a safe house as part of the deal?’


‘Are we allowed to do that?’

‘Technically, we’re not doing anything wrong, but it would give Hagworth the opportunity to attack Simeon’s credibility if he found out that we were safe-harbouring him, at our cost. That said, Simeon genuinely feared for his life – what else were we supposed to do?’

They slowed as Priest glanced at the building numbers. This was definitely Bristol Road but exactly where the flat was, he was infuriatingly unsure about. Indeed, he wasn’t sure exactly where any examples of the Priest portfolio were – that was Sarah’s domain. He checked his watch. The trial would have started and Okoro would be on his feet. Hopefully, Peters would allow him to put Tomas Jansen up first, but she was an awkward old bird, so there was no guarantee of any indulgence from her. They carried on. Behind them, Priest heard a car slowing down.

Georgie continued, ‘In what way do you mean his life was in danger?’

‘You don’t become instrumental in cutting off funding for a group like the Free People’s Army without making some seriously dangerous enemies along the way. These are people even Okoro is worried about and, as a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Okoro doesn’t scare easily.’

‘So, Simeon not turning up for court is . . . ?’

‘Inconvenient. Let’s leave it at that.’

Priest stopped outside a shop no wider than a doorway. A sign above it advertised laptop and PC repairs for a very reasonable price that would be waived if lost information could not be retrieved.

‘It’s this one,’ he announced.

‘He lives in an electronics store?’ Georgie sounded sceptical.

‘He lives above an electronics store.’

He indicated up, directing Georgie to a single window above the shop looking out across the street to a run-down Methodist chapel.

‘How do you get through to the flat?’ she asked.

By way of an answer, Priest opened the door to the shop and walked in. Inside, a narrow counter ran up the left-hand side of the small galley. The wall on the opposite side was plastered from floor to ceiling with little bags containing computer parts: virtual memory, motherboards, sound cards, hard drives, unspecified bits of random circuit board. At the end of the counter, a scrawny man in his early sixties stared at the carcass of a desktop computer through thick-rimmed glasses.

‘Hello,’ said Priest. ‘It’s Graham, isn’t it?’

‘No. It’s Gary.’

Priest faltered, then recalled that this had happened the last time he had met Gary. I simply cannot get this guy’s name into my head.

‘I’m sorry. Gary.’

‘You’re Priest,’ Gary said, looking up only momentarily from his examination. Evidently, he recalled their last encounter.

‘I’m looking for the tenant.’ He nodded at the ceiling.

‘Haven’t seen him for the last couple of days.’

‘Can you be a bit more specific on when you last saw him?’

‘It’s in the back. Look for yourself.’

‘I’m obliged.’

Priest skipped past him with Georgie following, through a set of beads hanging from a door frame. He recalled that this led to a small set of stairs to the flat above.

‘He seems friendly,’ she remarked as they reached the top and faced the door to Simeon’s flat.

‘I keep calling him Graham by mistake. That’s going to grate on you after a while.’

Priest knocked loudly. He still had a policeman’s knock. Generally, he disliked sounding arrogant at someone else’s door but that and the pension were legacies from ten years in the Met. It was fruitless anyway. Simeon understood the importance of the trial. If he hadn’t turned up, he was hardly going to open his door readily.

He was mulling over some theories. One, Simeon had bottled it because either he was lying all along and his conscience had got the better of him or, more likely, his paranoia had stripped him of the necessary confidence required to show his face in public. Two, he had been paid off by the defence. Three, something more sinister had happened.

He dwelt upon the third possibility. Simeon had drawn some attention to himself by coming forwards, but the Free People’s Army was a relatively small and poorly resourced operation, especially now its illicit funding had been stopped. It was based in Turkey with modest aspirations of jihad compared to its more ambitious cousins working for Daesh. In other words, the reality of the threat was significantly less than Simeon’s perception of it.

There was no doubt that Alexia Elias and her husband had a lot to lose from this trial personally. They were well resourced but, if The Real Byte’s story was true, would they cross the line to avoid discovery? It was not totally inconceivable that Simeon’s disappearance was precipitated by their actions. But then why leave it this late in the day to pay Simeon off?

He knocked again. They waited. A little clock in the back of Priest’s mind ticked a further minute on. There might not be a trial left to save if they didn’t get to the bottom of this quickly. He slipped the key into the lock and released the latch.

A wall of hot air hit them. If Simeon had quit the property, he had left the heating on full blast before he left. They ventured in. Priest fiddled with the thermostat on the wall.

The flat was uninspiring. A dimly lit hallway from which sprouted a small kitchen to the left that stank of rotting food and sour milk and a sitting room to the right comprising a leather sofa that had seen better days, a flat screen TV and a few bookshelves. Further back, the flat ended abruptly with a bedroom and bathroom opposite, complete with seventies avocado-coloured suite. Priest made a mental note to encourage his sister to modernise the older rental properties.

‘Simeon,’ Priest called, although it was obvious he would receive no reply.

Georgie had made her way to the bedroom.

‘There’s a few clothes here,’ she reported. ‘And a suitcase – looks fairly new.’

‘Who absconds without taking a new suitcase with them?’


Priest pushed the bathroom door open but again there were no useful clues. A toothbrush holder welded to the sink and a month’s supply of unused toilet paper. A towel left on the floor, but everywhere was dry. The bathroom didn’t seem to have been used recently.

‘This kitchen’s a mess,’ Georgie shouted from down the hallway. Priest joined her and was inclined to agree. There were dirty dishes piled high in the sink; half-empty tins of tuna on the side. The tap was running slightly. Priest flicked the handle and the water trickled momentarily before stopping.

‘If he’s done a runner then he did a good job of making it look as though he intends to come back,’ Georgie said.

Priest clicked his tongue. She was right. Everything looked just a little wrong. The plates were piled in a way that was too perfectly aligned, the towel in the bathroom had been placed in just the right position so he had rubbed the door against it, the clothes were too many to suggest abandonment but too few to amount to a convincing collection.

‘This has been staged for us,’ he said slowly.

‘By whom?’

‘No idea – maybe Simeon himself. Did you see the chair in the living room?’

‘Yes. The grooves in the carpet were far too big to be un-noticeable.’

‘I agree. It’s been moved but in a way that was intended to make it obvious that it had been moved.’


‘I’ve seen something like this before,’ Priest muttered. ‘You used to see these kinds of set-ups at scenes of domestic violence. We’d get called out but by the time we got there the wife already had a broken nose from tripping on the stairs or whatever lame excuse she could come up with and the husband had gone about making the house look like he hadn’t kicked seven bells out of her. It was the same atmosphere. Everything was too still, too serene to be real. Like a film set.’

‘Why would someone do that here?’

‘I don’t know. There are so many questions, but right now only one that matters: where the fuck is Simeon Ali?’

Chapter 11

Vincent Okoro had experienced his fair share of advocacy meltdowns. Even the best counsel was prone to them. It comes from thinking about the situation too much. Like walking along a tightrope and then becoming suddenly very conscious of the drop, which usually precedes falling.

Mrs Justice Peters was glaring at him down her absurdly curved nose and Okoro had the sudden feeling that he was back in his old headmistress’s office explaining why, yet again, his homework was late.

‘I asked a simple question, Mr Okoro,’ she said coldly. ‘Mr Hagworth raises the point that your main witness’s statement contains various allegations that are rightly to be regarded by this court as hearsay. I am asking whether a hearsay notice was served and, if so, whether I might peruse a copy?’

Okoro fumbled around in the bundle. He knew the notice had been served – Priest would never have missed a point like that – but where the damn thing was he couldn’t recall. Where the hell is Georgie when you need her? The bundle seemed alien to him all of a sudden.

‘A copy is here at page a hundred and nine, Your Honour,’ said Hagworth, positively brimming with the glee of having to come to Okoro’s aid.

‘Thank you, Mr Hagworth. Ah, yes. I see. It would make sense for Mr Ali’s evidence to be dealt with first, would you not agree, Mr Okoro?’

‘I think not, Your Honour,’ Okoro replied. ‘The defence wishes to call Tomas Jansen first. He is, after all, the executive editor of The Real Byte and thereby best placed to give the court the benefit of some insight into the magazine’s intentions behind the article, which will enable the court to put Mr Ali’s evidence in better context. He is also the article’s primary author.’

Peters’s eyes narrowed and Okoro was reminded of a large crow peering over the fence at a rabbit carcass. ‘Am I not able to understand evidence unless you are spoon-feeding me context, Mr Okoro?’

‘Of course, Your Honour. But—’

‘Good. Then we may hear from Mr Ali first.’

‘I fear greatly, Your Honour, that this may not be possible. As it is, Mr Ali is not present in court.’

Peters nodded before consulting the papers in front of her and making a fuss of producing a particular document. Okoro started to wish the ground might swallow him. He glanced around at The Real Byte staff behind him and cast what he hoped was a reassuring glance. He received cold stares of apprehension in return. To his right, he noticed Alexia Elias smiling to herself.

‘The notice of hearing,’ announced the judge, adjusting her spectacles and studying the document, ‘is dated over nine months ago. Your witness knew where he had to be and when, didn’t he, Mr Okoro?’

‘He did. But it appears that, nonetheless, he has not yet arrived.’

Hagworth was on his feet and, as Okoro feared, looking to capitalise on the defence’s misfortune.

‘Your Honour, the conjectures against my client are poorly pleaded but, if sustainable at all, are only so on the evidence of Mr Ali. If he can’t be bothered to turn up to court to attest to the truth of his statement and make himself available for cross-examination, then I invite you to bar the defendant from relying on his evidence, tentative and ill-conceived as it was anyway.’

Mercifully, Peters looked indecisive. ‘I’m not sure that’s the right approach, Mr Hagworth.’

‘Your Honour, my client has been defamed. The defendant raises only one defence – that of justification. They can only establish that if they can adduce cogent evidence of Mrs Elias’s alleged wrongdoing. The allegations are serious and, if proven, potentially ruinous for Mrs Elias. She, her husband and a very reputable and important charity have already been irreparably damaged by these misconceived allegations based on the flimsiest of evidence which we are now told cannot be substantiated. It really is an outrage that Mr Okoro now seeks to reorganise his witnesses to cope with the gaping hole in his case. The claimant should not—’

‘Yes, yes, Mr Hagworth, I get the point,’ Peters mumbled. ‘What have you to say, Mr Okoro?’

Okoro stood up and tucked his fingers firmly into his lapels. As it happened, Hagworth’s intervention had given him the opportunity to think things through. Two years’ work would stand or fall on what he said next. He heard the bench creak behind him, the journalists poised in the public gallery breathe in, and felt the weight of responsibility crushing his shoulders. Why was it so damned hot in this courtroom?

Peters waited expectantly. Three of the slowest seconds of Okoro’s life ticked by before he took a deep breath and said: ‘Your Honour, it was understood with Mr Ali that he would attend court this morning. My instructing solicitor is making urgent enquiries as to his whereabouts. While it is an inconvenience, I suggest that justice would be better served by a short adjournment than a rearrangement of the defendant’s witnesses to enable Mr Ali’s intentions to be established. We can then avoid wasting any further of the court’s time.’

‘That’s extremely unsatisfactory.’ Peters folded her arms and glared at Okoro. ‘What do you say, Mr Hagworth?’

‘I concur wholeheartedly with Your Honour’s sentiments. Extremely unsatisfactory. My application is for the trial to continue, for Mr Okoro to present his evidence and for the defence being barred from relying on Mr Ali’s witness statement.’

‘What if Mr Ali turns up on Monday?’ asked Peters, but in a way that suggested she was offering Hagworth the opportunity to stick the knife in, rather than testing the parameters of his submission.

‘Well, that would be unfortunate but our laws are based on the here and now and not what may or may not occur. In the same vein, if the claimant, my client, had failed to issue these proceedings within the one year limitation period then we would be relying on the mercy of the court to allow this action to be prosecuted. In the absence of a very good reason, we would not expect the court to allow us salvation. The claim would die. Similarly, what explanation has the court been offered for Mr Ali’s absence? None. Why therefore should Mr Okoro be allowed a second bite of the cherry?’

Peters looked over at Okoro and raised an eyebrow. A sinking feeling started to eat away at him. He supposed the captain of the Titanic must have experienced a similar sensation when he realised that there was an iceberg stuck in his ship’s hull. He rose again.

‘I understand my learned friend’s point, Your Honour, but the situation here is not the same as the one he hypothesises over. In the case of a claimant missing the limitation period, the fate of her claim was at least in her hands. If she failed to get proceedings up and running before the claim became statute barred, then she is the author of her own misfortune and should not attract the court’s sympathy. Here, the circumstances are outside of the defendant’s control. The reason why we cannot offer the court an explanation for Mr Ali’s absence is because we do not know why he has absented. The interests of justice suggest that, in such a case, the defendant ought to be given the opportunity to ascertain where Mr Ali is and, if necessary, issue a witness summons for his attendance.’

‘He would then be a hostile witness, Mr Okoro,’ Peters pointed out.

‘Then so be it. Why should The Real Byte be stripped of the opportunity to treat Mr Ali as hostile, if that is what he has become? The advantage of starting on Friday is that there is a natural point to start again on Monday. The claimant would hardly be prejudiced. Besides, I’m sure Your Honour would benefit from a reading day.’

It was a risk, since the implication was that Peters wouldn’t have already read the five bundles of evidence that lined the shelf behind her.

Another three painfully slow seconds passed.

Peters looked up at the array of anxious faces staring at her. Then she picked up her papers and banged them on the desk decisively.

‘We’re adjourned until Monday,’ she said with great displeasure. ‘If your witness isn’t in court by then, Mr Okoro, then his evidence is barred.’

Chapter 12

Priest led the way back through the laptop repair shop, passing Gary who barely looked up, and back out onto the street.

‘What now?’ Georgie asked.

He looked up the road. There was a row of cars parked on one side, mostly with their wheels up on the pavement. On the other side, the fracas between the betting shop men had developed and one of them was accusing the other two of stealing his ticket. People making their way past were steering well clear.

Bollocks! Where have you gone, Simeon?

‘Our IT friend must know more than he’s letting on,’ Priest mused, although deep down he felt that Gary wasn’t going to be any more helpful than he already had been. He turned back towards the shop but stopped when Georgie called out.

‘Charlie, wait.’

He turned around and saw the door of a blue VW Beetle open and a woman a little older than Georgie step out onto the pavement. It didn’t seem like a particularly significant event, although the woman was quite attractive. He looked at Georgie for an explanation.

‘She’s a reporter,’ she warned as the woman started to stride purposefully towards them. ‘She collared me outside the court earlier.’

‘Hello there!’ the woman called before reaching Priest and extending her hand. He groaned inwardly. I don’t have time for this. He took her hand for the sake of civility but tried not to look at her. Perhaps if he didn’t make eye contact she might go away.

‘Elinor Fox,’ the reporter said, smiling. ‘I’m covering the Elias trial. You’re the magazine’s solicitor, right?’

‘Listen, Miss Fox,’ Priest began, ‘I’m really sorry but right now I’m a little tied up. Could we—’

‘I hear one of your witnesses hasn’t turned up at court and I was just wondering if I could help in any way?’

Priest took a moment before answering, allowing the words to digest. Help in any way?

‘A kind offer,’ he said. ‘But not one that I can possibly take up. Besides, you’re missing all the action in court. It’s far more interesting in there than it is out here.’

Priest felt irritated by her presence – he couldn’t go back into the shop and interrogate Gary with her hanging around waiting to print whatever he said, but equally he knew better than to be overtly rude. Litigation disaster management rule number three: never annoy the press without good reason.

Fox was still talking. ‘Look, I know everyone’s a little wary of the papers but I’m trying to get to the bottom of the Turkey scandal. I’m not interested in you or The Real Byte. I just want to publish the truth about Alexia Elias.’

‘Then wait until the case has finished.’

‘Which witness hasn’t turned up? It’s Simeon Ali, right? The whistle-blower?’ She was probing further, stepping closer to him so he had to take a step back towards the shop.

‘How did you know we were here?’ Georgie asked Fox.

‘I got a tip-off that Simeon lived on this road. I guessed this is where you’d start looking.’

‘Have you been here before?’

Fox smiled, non-committal.

He caught on to Georgie’s line of questioning. ‘I take it you don’t know where Simeon is, Miss Fox?’

Fox cocked her head to one side. ‘If I did, why would I be here?’ She nodded to the electronics shop. ‘I take it he’s not at home.’

He thought about probing further, but something told him Fox was genuine when she said she didn’t know where Simeon was. And why would she? ‘Look, we can’t talk to you,’ he said. ‘You might as well give up on that. I’m too long in the tooth to be talking to the press.’

‘Oh, come on.’

Priest noticed the change in her voice – it had softened – and he couldn’t resist looking at her. She was biting her lip, half smiling, staring at him intently. For a moment, Priest thought he recognised her but the notion disappeared as quickly as it had come.

‘I can help,’ she assured him, taking another half-step forward. She reached to her side, then looked down. ‘Damn. I left my bag in the car. Can I just get a quote from you? Something really simple?’

Priest glanced across at Georgie. She was standing at the side of the pavement, arms crossed and looking distinctly unimpressed.

‘As I’ve said. I can’t help you.’

‘Honestly, it won’t take a minute. Let me just grab my iPad.’

Fox was heading back to her car but with her head turned, her smile unfaltering. Georgie stepped forward.

‘Maybe we should just go.’

He nodded. ‘She’s very enthusiastic.’

They turned to cross the road, but, before they reached the kerb, Priest looked back. Fox was standing behind her car with the boot open and Priest might have turned away again had he not caught sight of her face.

He stopped and felt Georgie collide with his back.


Fox looked up, ashen. In the moment it had taken Priest to fully turn around, her entire complexion had transformed. The colour in her face had drained away, the smile extinguished. Their eyes met and she mouthed something inaudible.

‘What is it?’ Priest asked her. Georgie’s eyes darted between them, confused.

‘There’s . . .’

Fox slammed the boot shut. Staggered back on to the pavement, her hand now covered her mouth.

Priest exhaled in frustration. He strode back towards her, met her eyes again but saw nothing but bewilderment, and something else. Something malignant.

He followed her outstretched hand, pointing to the back window.

He peered in.

A cold sensation flooded through him – a feeling akin to being suddenly drenched in icy water.

‘What is it?’ Georgie whispered, alarmed.

Priest straightened up. ‘It’s not a what,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s a who. Simeon Ali.’

Chapter 13

In a pebble-dashed semi-detached house at the end of a nondescript suburban street, the owner was sitting in a room surrounded by computer screens.

There were three in all, working from a server gently humming in the corner of the room. It was all new equipment, bought at great expense to a custom specification. The server had been difficult to install; the owner liked to keep the heating as high as possible, cold was an irritant, so the server needed two large fans positioned either side of it to keep it cool.

It had been a difficult morning, weaving in and out of the crowds, dodging the cameras outside the High Court. And what good would it do? The trial was listed for four weeks, and at the end of it, would there be justice?

Maybe not in court, but the owner would see to it anyway. Trial or not, there would be justice.

Justice and retribution.

There was little to do but wait, so the owner was drawn to the computer screen, idly filtering through the search history, wincing at the terms that had been inputted, wondering if the computer realised what sordid material it had produced.

At the bottom, a familiar term: ‘The Girl of Devil’s Point’. The owner clicked on it but knew what would come up. A conspiracy blog written by some useless pervert who supposedly collected strange stories and commented on them. As if he knew anything. The owner scanned the blog but there were no new comments – there hadn’t been for months. Just the original story and a few mindless remarks from various users. ‘Spooky’ and ‘that’s fab’. Morons, the lot of them.

The blog’s author had moved on, apparently realising that no one was interested, and started a new page about ‘The Green Children of Woolpit’. The owner read on, vaguely interested, although already familiar with the legend. In the twelfth century, two children are found in the Suffolk village of Woolpit with green skin speaking a language no one understood. That was it, basically.

The owner clicked back to the blog about the girl of Devil’s Point. Who was she? Where did she come from? What happened to her?

The blog was full of stupid questions and no answers.

The owner turned around and looked at the wall behind. It was covered with photographs from top to bottom, some squeezed together so tightly that only an inch or so of wall was visible. The owner picked one of the photographs and stared at it. It showed a boy of ten standing in front of a house on a hillside, the sun at his back and, in the distance, the sea. The owner found it a very calming image.

Although, like the green children of Woolpit, it wasn’t real.

The owner replaced the photograph and retrieved the novella, flipped through the pages, held it tentatively, like it was charged with something dangerous. The owner had read the novella countless times, but there was always a little detail emerging, a new hidden message in the text. The writing was exquisite. It had taken the owner a long time to figure out that the novella was more than a simple story. It was a portal, a window into a secret past. A key.

The owner read from the passage again:

When she wakes, she finds the sheets are wet with God knows what. She blinks. A little sunlight, enough so she casts a weak shadow.

The girl rubs her eyes. She has no concept of time; it is raining outside. She can smell the mildew on the walls; she doesn’t know what it is but she hates it.

She stumbles to a table nearby. There is a wooden doll. She picks it up. The doll has yellow hair in pigtails and a red dress. She is smiling at the girl, but the smile is worn and almost faded completely. There is a key at the back, so the doll plays music. The girl winds the key and the tune strikes up.

Ting, ting, ting.

The doll is her friend. The feel of the doll in her hand – the slight vibration created by music – comforts her. Sometimes, the girl talks to the doll; tells the doll all her secrets, the things she’s thinking. The things she could do in the outside world.

She tells the doll that she hates the man and the woman and wishes they were dead.

But the thought throws the girl into panic. The basement is all she has known. The man and woman are the only people she has, unless you count the wooden doll. Maybe the girl doesn’t want to see what the real world is like. Maybe it’s worse than this.

There is a toilet in the corner of the room. She hears the pipes creaking at night, like poltergeists laughing at her in the dark. She wonders if she could flush herself away – where she might end up. The sea perhaps? The ocean?

The girl shakes the thought out of her head.

It is futile.

She is already dead.

Chapter 14

Priest rubbed his hand down his face and stared again at the body slumped in the boot of Elinor Fox’s VW.

The reporter seemed to have lost her voice when she had lifted the boot for Priest to check Simeon’s pulse. It was a pointless act – Priest had attended enough murder scenes to know a corpse when he saw one. The cause of death wasn’t obvious – no wounds or blood – but Simeon’s face was horribly contorted. His jaw was locked open and dislocated at an angle. His eyes bulged out of their sockets, the yellowy skin around them stretched taut across angular cheekbones; the image vaguely reminded Priest of Edvard Munch’s iconic painting, The Scream.

He straightened up and, turning to Fox, said, ‘My witness is dead in your car, Miss Fox. Any comments you may have on that state of affairs would interest me greatly.’

Fox was fiddling with her hands, occasionally running them through her hair. She looked shocked, and as any good actor will tell you, shock is one of the simpler human reactions to mimic convincingly. Priest wasn’t sure what he thought of her just yet.

He watched her closely as she mumbled a reply: ‘I don’t know how he got there.’

‘OK.’ Priest nodded and pulled his phone out of his pocket before turning back to the car.

‘Wait!’ Fox spluttered, moving forward and taking his arm. ‘What are you doing?’

He looked over his shoulder at her and got a good look at her eyes. They were wide and alert with dilated pupils – startled prey.

‘There’s a dead body in the boot of your car,’ he explained slowly. ‘I thought I might let the police know. What do you think?’

‘Well, can’t we just talk this through first?’ Priest noticed her hand was shaking as much as her voice. Georgie had moved away from her, as if she might catch some contagious disease. ‘I mean . . . I don’t know anything about this.’

‘So you’ve said. In which case, you’ll have nothing to worry about.’

‘What?’ she bleated. ‘It’s my car. Are they going to believe me?’

‘We’re going to find that out pretty soon,’ said Priest, examining his phone. Although given that my ex-wife is the Assistant Commissioner of the London Met and most of her colleagues hate me, I suspect we’re both in for a rough ride over this one.

‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’ Fox had started pacing around frantically. She fumbled in her coat pocket and pulled out her own phone and started tapping away on the screen. ‘I’ll have to phone my boss.’

Georgie grimaced. ‘Your boss?’

‘I have deadlines to meet,’ Fox said with venom before turning her back on Georgie and putting the phone to her ear.

Priest had found what he was looking for in his own contact list and was about to hit DIAL when Georgie took his arm.

‘Charlie, I don’t trust her.’

Priest looked Fox up and down.

‘Her reaction seems genuine enough,’ he said, trying the words out to see how they sounded to himself more than anything.

Georgie looked around nervously. ‘Poor Simeon. I just can’t comprehend it. What do we do now?’

Priest scratched his chin, pained. Then came to a decision.

‘Report back to Okoro and tell him to make a paper application for a restricted reporting order and a longer adjournment to be heard on Monday morning. Tell him the restriction on reporting is particularly important. A media frenzy isn’t going to help.’

‘Oh, come on, Charlie. The first thing she’ll do is post a picture of the body on Twitter. She’s probably phoning in the headline right now.’

Priest looked over. Fox was strutting up and down the pavement speaking into her phone. An old man walking a dog passed her and received an angry glare after she stumbled into him.

He waited and took a moment to think. The elephant in the room right now is the ‘m’ word. Nobody stuffed into the rear of a hatchback died from natural causes. But the Elias Foundation, as desperate as they are, surely aren’t capable of . . .

He thought about Simeon Ali. A man he had only met a few times. A man who had seemed sincere – a quiet and thoughtful individual who had displayed an air of sadness in the slow and mechanical way he spoke, the long pauses between statements as he gathered his thoughts. A man who knew right from wrong, but never wanted or asked for any of this.

Priest clenched his fist.

A man who deserved so much more than this undignified end. An unnerving thought struck Priest. I wonder how much of this is my fault?

‘She’ll do whatever she’s going to do, Georgie,’ said Priest in the end. ‘Go and deliver the news to Okoro but tell him not to pull the plug on the trial. Simeon might be dead, but we’re not. We’re going to find out what happened to him and if that means tearing the Elias Foundation apart from the inside then that’s what we’re going to do.’

Georgie nodded. He noticed a tear in her eye – he hoped she would be OK. It was a curse of her intellectual maturity: sometimes he forgot she was only twenty-five, and whereas a body in the boot of a car wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence for him, he did at least have ten years’ experience of being a CID officer in a major crime unit to draw upon.

So Priest offered her the most encouraging and positive gesture he could think of, which turned out to be a rather lame pat on the shoulder followed by the words: ‘Chin up.’ Oh, very good, Nelson. Another rousing speech.

‘What are you going to do?’ she asked, offering him the courtesy of a smile as he took his hand away.

He looked back down at his phone and the glowing red button marked DIAL. ‘I’m going to phone an old friend.’

Chapter 15

Priest sat back in an extraordinarily uncomfortable office chair as best he could and watched Detective Chief Inspector Tiff Rowlinson read through his statement. It was less than ten degrees outside but Rowlinson’s windowless space situated in the middle of the eighth floor of Holborn Police Station was curiously warm. Priest had removed his jacket but hadn’t ruled out the possibility that Tiff kept the temperature deliberately high to make his guests feel prickly. So far, Rowlinson hadn’t said anything but the wry smile spread across his face suggested that he found great amusement with Priest’s latest predicament.

Finally, he put the statement down and stared across at him.

‘I leave you alone for five minutes and now look what you’ve got yourself into.’

Priest clicked his tongue. ‘How long have you been on secondment here?’

Rowlinson had been part of the South Wales Police Major Crime Unit before he had been brought across to fill in while the Met reshuffled its budget-struck pack, again. They had previously worked together when Priest was a detective inspector (Rowlinson had started his career in London at a similar time to Priest, although he was a few years older). Indeed, Rowlinson represented about the only friend Priest had retained after he had left the police and the pair had found themselves forged together again last year when investigating a series of gruesome murders that turned out to be the work of a secret neo-Nazi cult known as the House of Mayfly. It was a case that had scarred them both, in different ways.

‘A few weeks. Part of the Met’s efforts to learn from other forces and possibly also because half the staff here are off with some strange sickness bug.’

‘Or stress,’ Priest suggested.

‘Yes, and that.’ Rowlinson cupped his hands behind his head and leant back in his chair. ‘I interviewed your new friend Elinor Fox earlier, by the way. She’s a looker, if ever I saw one.’

‘I hadn’t noticed.’

‘Are you still single, Priest?’

‘Tiff – you know it would never have worked out between us,’ Priest said. He wasn’t in the mood for humour and Rowlinson’s enjoyment of the situation was irritating. Rowlinson laughed – he had a good-natured laugh, Priest considered. Not like his own, which was more like an old car stalling.

‘Her story holds up,’ Rowlinson commented. ‘The car’s parked outside her house in Blackheath. She keeps the keys on the side in the kitchen. It’s normally locked but occasionally she forgets. She left home at seven and parked her car around the corner from the High Court. What puzzles me is how she knew to find you on Bristol Road.’

Priest shrugged. ‘She said something about a tip-off, but Simeon’s address was in the trial bundle. Maybe she managed to get a copy from somewhere. Hagworth leaves his papers lying around all over the place.’

Even as he said it, Priest wasn’t convinced, but Rowlinson seemed satisfied and was carrying on. ‘Anyway, she never checked the boot, save when she collected her kit bag after an hour at the gym last night at around eight. So whoever dumped the body in the boot, assuming it wasn’t her, had several opportunities between eight last night and seven this morning.’

‘You don’t think she’s got anything more to do with this other than owning a convenient place to dump a body?’

‘She’s a person of interest.’ Rowlinson nodded his head – the smile had waned a little. ‘But she seems genuine. Questions are: who killed Mr Ali? Why? And why dump the body in Fox’s car?’

‘Cameras?’ Priest asked, hopeful.

‘Nah. CCTV blackspot. Typical.’

‘Sarah’s going to kill me. She’s down as the landlord of the flat where Simeon was staying.’

Rowlinson sighed. ‘I’m going to need to talk to her.’

‘I know. Go easy on her.’

‘You have my word. And she’s not a priority. A few days’ time, I’ll get round to it. Besides, the flat’s not a crime scene as far as I can tell and I can’t get Forensics there until tomorrow. So for Christ’s sake don’t go poking around there.’

Priest nodded, appreciative. ‘How was Simeon killed?’

Rowlinson stretched his arms out and yawned, before leaning across the desk and idly flicking through Priest’s statement. Priest guessed he was trying to work out whether their friendship extended to giving him more information than he already had – but they’d been through a lot together and Rowlinson had Priest to thank for closing the file on the man who had mutilated himself in a wood in South Wales last year, Rowlinson’s own Mayfly victim. A debt was owed and Rowlinson knew it.

‘There will be an autopsy early next week. I don’t know when exactly. Spending cuts mean I can’t get hold of a duty pathologist until the weekend to oversee moving the body but the budget won’t allow for an overtime funded examination, and it’s too late to do it today, not even in a case like this.’

‘But the early indications are . . . ?’

‘Looks like he was asphyxiated. We found traces of cling film in his mouth. There were no defensive wounds, but there’s a needle mark in his neck. Eyes were bloodshot, classic sign of suffocation. We’ll know more when we get a tox report.’

‘This is a murder investigation then?’

Rowlinson rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘Yep. More damn paperwork.’

‘She’s going to print everything, you know that, right?’

‘Fox? She’s a journalist, not much I can do about that. We live in an age of open justice and all that bullshit.’

‘Couldn’t you agree an embargo with her?’

‘No, someone from Corporate Communications tried, but there’s not much we can do, short of getting an injunction.’

He had to agree. The authorised professional practice for police media relations didn’t apply since Fox’s information had come as a result of her direct involvement with the event that precipitated the investigation, not because she was a journalist. Rowlinson’s hands were tied. It was only a matter of time before Simeon’s death, and the murder investigation, would be public knowledge.

‘Anything else I can help you with, Tiff?’

Rowlinson sucked in some air. He seemed to be contemplating something, then: ‘No, you’re done for now. Try and stay out of trouble, won’t you?’

Priest got up, stretched. ‘Later, alligator.’

‘And Priest?’ Rowlinson called him back as he made to leave. ‘Not that I want to sound corny, but – don’t leave town.’


Priest turned right outside Holborn Police Station with the intention of making his way back to the office in order to contact Tomas Jansen, who was probably climbing the walls. Priest had telephoned him on the way to the station to relay the news. Jansen had been cold, and it had irritated Priest that his first thought was where this left the trial. He didn’t express any sympathy for Simeon.

‘What do we do now, Charlie?’

‘I don’t know yet. I’ll contact you after I’ve spoken with the police.’

‘The trial?’

‘Can wait. For now.’

Priest heard footsteps running up behind him and his name being called; he turned around warily.

‘Mr Priest?’

‘Miss Fox.’ The reporter was coming towards him, a cigarette in her hand. Her hair looked ruffled, most likely the result of being constantly played with, and a dark line of dislodged mascara under one eye suggested she had been crying at some stage.

‘It’s Elinor,’ she told him.

‘They let you go then, Elinor,’ said Priest, trying a smile. The effort wasn’t reciprocated.

‘On the condition that I stay in London and don’t contact anyone else involved in the Elias case.’

‘Whereupon you promptly walked out of the station and accosted the defendant’s solicitor.’

Fox slipped her arm into his, used the other to take another long drag of the cigarette. They walked down to the end of the road; he let her dictate the pace. She was clearly anxious, the shake in her hand hadn’t got any better, but some of the overconfident reporter mannerisms he had seen when they had first met on Bristol Road had returned.

‘Who were you speaking to on the phone after we first found Simeon?’ Priest asked when they reached the crossroads. Busy commuters ghosted past them, weaving in and out like worker ants. The traffic was backed up and a set of temporary lights had been installed around several open holes surrounded by cones.

‘I told you. My boss, Max.’

‘You’re freelance. You don’t have a boss.’

She took another drag. ‘Everyone has a boss, Mr Priest. Even freelancers. Don’t you?’

‘Not for a while.’

She smiled, but not with her eyes. ‘Lucky you. What about a girl?’

‘Not for a while,’ said Priest, less certainly. Fox still had her arm linked into his. Priest suddenly felt very conscious of it – and of her stare. He looked around and wondered what Jessica would think if she were standing on the other side of the road, watching him.

‘Assuming that your boss knows about what happened, I imagine Simeon’s death is now public knowledge?’

She looked at the floor and found something interesting to move around with her foot. ‘They can’t stop me. I haven’t signed a confidentiality agreement.’

He decided to change track. ‘What’s your interest in the Elias case?’

‘I think there’s more to it than your libel action,’ she said in a ponderous tone. ‘And given the body in my boot I feel pretty vindicated, don’t you think?’

‘What about The Real Byte?’

Fox shrugged. ‘They’re run by Tomas Jansen. I don’t know much more than that – nothi