Big horse, God made you mine
‘Have you noticed,’ Joanna said as they sped along the M4 towards London, ‘how the self-drive hire business has been completely taken over by that Dutch firm?’
‘What Dutch firm?’ Slider asked unwarily.
‘How long have you been thinking that one out?’
‘I resent the implication that my wit isn’t spontaneous.’
‘I resent your having been away,’ he countered. ‘It was daft going to Switzerland when it’s cold enough here to freeze the balls off a brass tennis court.’
‘Do you think I wanted to go?’ Joanna said. ‘Beethoven Eight six times in one week - and in a country where they still think fondue is cuisine.’
Despite the best efforts of that husband-and-wife circus act May Gurney and Cones Hotline, he had got to the airport in time to meet her. Though it was the umpteenth time he’d done it, there was still that thrill when she came out of the customs hall doors with her fiddle case in one hand and her battered old fits-under-the-seat-in-front travel bag over her shoulder. It had bothered him when she came through with the trumpet section, Peter White and Simon Angel. Put those two horny young bloods – only one of them married (and it was a well-known fact that blowing the trumpet had a direct effect on the production of testosterone) – together with a curvaceous love goddess like Joanna Marshall, and it spelled trouble with a capital Trub. But she had kissed him and pressed herself against him with an avidity that had had the lads whooping, so his pride was assuaged, and he led her off like a prize of war to find the car.
The Orchestra of the Age of the Renaissance, despite the handicap of a name that wouldn’t fit across a poster unless it was in characters too small to read, had come in as a life-saver. Its fixer had called Joanna as a last-minute replacement for the pregnant deputy principal, whose blood pressure had gone over into the red zone. Post-Christmas was always a drought period for musicians, but this year was particularly bad. Her own orchestra had nothing for two months and freelance work was as rare as elephants’ eggs.
Joanna’s thoughts were evidently on the same track as she watched the chill, bare fields of Middlesex reel past the windows. ‘Do you know what’s in my diary between now and March?’
‘Yes,’ he said, but she told him again anyway.
‘Two Milton Keynes dates and one Pro Arte of Oxford – and I’m lucky to get those.’
‘Why are things so bad?’ he ventured.
‘They’re just getting worse every year,’ she said. ‘Fewer people going to concerts or buying records, and more and more musicians pouring out of the colleges. And then,’ she made a face, ‘we all have to do this blasted “outreach” crapola, going into schools and encouraging more of the little beasts to take up music. If we had any sense we’d be breaking their arms, not telling them what a fulfilling life it is, ha ha.’
‘Have you just come home to complain at me?’ he asked, trying for a lighter note.
She didn’t bite. ‘Seriously, Bill, it’s getting to be a hell of a problem. The Phil’s in financial trouble and there’s more amalgamation talk. That old chestnut, “Can London sustain four orchestras?” The Government’s threatening to withdraw the grant from one of us, and everybody knows we’re the likeliest.’
‘But all this has been said before, and it never happens,’ Slider comforted her.
‘Even if it doesn’t,’ she said, sounding very low, ‘we aren’t getting enough dates to live on.’
‘We’ll manage somehow,’ he said. ‘Tighten our belts. We’ll get through.’
‘Hah!’ she said. She didn’t elaborate, for which he was grateful, but she meant, of course, how much belt-tightening can you do when your salary already has to go round an almost ex-wife and two school-age children?
But she wasn’t a whiner, and a moment later she said, ‘Peter and Simon were telling me on the plane about this wonderful scam for parking in the short-term car park while you’re on tour. All you have to do is borrow a tuba.’
‘Well, of course it only works if you’re touring with a big orchestra. Anyway, apparently a tuba is a big enough mass of metal for the automatic barrier to mistake it for a car. So, when you get back from tour, you walk up to the entrance barrier holding the tuba in front of you, and it issues a ticket, which you then use to get out, throwing away the original one. You pay for ten minutes instead of two weeks. Voilà.’
‘Should you be telling me this? I am a policeman.’
‘That’s what makes you so sexy.’ Her warm hand crept gratefully over his upper thigh. ‘I’m glad to be back,’ she said. ‘Have you missed me?’
‘Does a one-legged duck swim in circles?’
‘Nice hot bath and an early night tonight,’ she said.
He’d just got to the bit where the motorway narrows to two lanes and his attention was distracted. ‘I suppose you must be tired,’ he said absently, keeping his eye on a BMW that didn’t want to move in.
Her hand slid further up. ‘Who said anything about sleeping?’
The office was its usual hive of activity when he got in. DS Jim Atherton, his bagman and friend, was sitting on a desk reading – of all things – The Racing Post.
‘What do you reckon for the first race at Plumpton, Maurice?’ he said.
‘Shy Smile,’ DC McLaren answered, without looking up from the sausage sandwich and Daily Mail that were occupying him. Atherton opined that McLaren read the tabloids only because the broadsheets needed two hands, which meant he couldn’t eat and read at the same time.
‘Are you sure?’ Atherton probed. ‘Everyone else gives Ballydoyle.’
‘Not after that frost last night. Ballydoyle likes a bit of give in the ground.’
‘Shy Smile?’ Atherton pressed.
‘She’ll walk it,’ said McLaren.
‘How d‘you know about horses anyway?’ Anderson asked, clipping his nails into the waste-paper basket. ‘I thought you grew up in Kennington.’
‘Y’don’t have to have a baby to be a gynaecologist,’ McLaren answered mysteriously, sucking grease and newsprint off his fingers.
Slider, at the door, said, ‘It would be nice if you could at least pretend to be usefully occupied when I come in. Give me an illusion of authority.’
‘Didn’t know you were there, guv,’ McLaren said imperturbably, rolling a black tongue over his lips.
‘That much is obvious.’ Slider turned to Atherton. ‘And why are you reading the racing pages? Since when did you have the slightest interest in the Sport of Kings?’
‘Ah, it’s a new investment ploy,’ Atherton said, unhitching his behind from the desk. ‘I’m thinking of buying a part share in a racehorse. I saw this ad in the paper and sent off for the details. I’m going to put my savings into it.’
‘Have you been standing around under the power lines without your lead hat again?’ Slider said mildly.
‘Well, there’s no point in leaving cash in deposit accounts, with interest rates at rock bottom,’ Atherton said. ‘And anyway, it’s not a gamble, it’s a scientific investment. Serious businessmen put big money into it. This Furlong Stud is a proper company: they’ve been putting together consortia for years. It’s all in the information pack. It’s no more risky than the stock market, really.’
‘What’s the name of the poor wreck of a horse they’re trying to flog you?’ Slider enquired.
‘The one I’m looking at is called Two Left Feet,’ Atherton announced, and when Slider groaned he said, ‘No, it’s a really cute name, don’t you see? All horses have two left feet.’
‘Mug punter,’ said McLaren pityingly, turning a page. ‘It’s sad, really. Bet on the name, every time. Here,’ he recalled suddenly, looking up, ‘talk about names, did you see that story in the paper a bit since, about those two Irish owners who tried to register a colt, and Tattersalls wouldn’t allow it? They wanted to call it Norfolk and Chance.’
‘I’m worried about you,’ Slider said, as Atherton followed him into his office. ‘You didn’t used to be irrational.’
‘How do you know?’ Atherton said cheerfully. ‘Anyway, I need a bit of excitement in my life. I used to get it chasing women, but now I’m settled down in cosy domesticity, I have to look elsewhere for that thrill of danger.’
‘I wish I thought you were joking,’ Slider said, going round his desk. He shoved fretfully at the piles of files that burdened it. They bred during the night, he was sure of it. ‘What’s this steaming pile of Tottenham?’
‘Case files. Ongoing. Mr Carver’s firm passed them over, Mr Porson’s orders. They’re down four men again, with the ’flu.’
‘Carver’s firm are always catching things,’ Slider complained. ‘What do they do, sleep together?’
‘I wouldn’t be a bit surprised,’ Atherton said. ‘It’s worse than it looks, anyway. Most of it’s to do with that suspected fags-and-booze smuggling ring.’
‘Take ’em away,’ Slider decreed. ‘I’m too frail for gang warfare at this stage of the week.’
WDC Swilley, who had answered the phone out in the office, came to the door now, her posture suddenly galvanised, which, since Swilley was built like a young lad’s secret dream, was hardly fair on the two within. ‘We’ve got a murder, boss!’ she announced happily.
‘Gordon Bennett, what next?’ Slider said. ‘It shouldn’t be allowed on a Friday.’
‘Phoebe Agnew!’ Atherton enthused as he drove, with an air of doing it one-handed, through the end of the rush-hour traffic. How come so many people went to work so late? ‘I mean, I know she’s a bit of a thorn in the copper’s side—’
‘In spades,’ Slider agreed.
‘Yeah, but what a journalist! Took the Palgabria Prize in 1990, and winner of the John Perkins Award for ‘97 and ‘98 – the only person ever to win it two years running, incidentally. And she really can write, guv. Awesomely chilling prose.’
‘Well, don’t get so excited. You’re not going to have a conversation with her,’ Slider pointed out.
Atherton’s face fell a fraction. ‘No, you’re right. What a wicked waste!’
As they turned off the main road they found their way blocked by a dustcart. It had a selection of grubby teddy bears and dolls tied to the radiator grille. Why did scaffies do that, Slider wondered. With their arms outstretched and their hopeless eyes staring ahead, they looked depressingly like a human shield.
Atherton backed fluidly, turned, and roared down another side street. ‘Anyway, AMIP’s bound to take the case from us,’ he said.
The Area Major Incident Pool took all the serious or high-profile crimes and, these days, virtually all murders, unless they were straightforward domestics. Judson, the present head of 6 AMIP, was an empire-builder. He was that most hated of creatures, the career uniform man who had transferred to CID purely in pursuit of promotion.
‘Judson’s welcome to it,’ Slider said. ‘He’ll probably enjoy being crawled over by the press.’
‘You are in a doldrum,’ Atherton said, turning into Eltham Road, which was parked right up both sides, like everywhere else in London these days.
‘You can’t have a single doldrum,’ said Slider. ‘They always hunt in packs. This is it. You’ll have to double park.’
‘It’s the reason I became a policeman,’ said Atherton.
The house was one of a terrace, built in the late nineteenth century, of two storeys, plus the semi-basement – which Londoners call ‘the area’ – over which a flight of wide, shallow steps led up to the front door. Eltham Road was in one of the borderline areas between the old, working-class Shepherd’s Bush and the new yuppiedom, and a few years ago Slider would have said it might go either way. But rising incomes and outward pressure from the centre of London were making his familiar ground more and more desirable in real-estate terms, and there was no doubt in his mind now that the ‘unimproved’ properties in this street soon wouldn’t recognise themselves. Anyone who had bought here ten years ago would be sitting on a handsome profit.
The house in question was divided into three flats, and it was the middle one which had been occupied by Phoebe Agnew, a freelance journalist whose name was enough to make any policeman shudder. An ex-Guardian hack with impeccable left-wing credentials, she had made a name for herself for investigating corruption, and had concentrated in late years on the establishment and the legal system, exposing bad apples, and sniffing out miscarriages of justice with the zeal of perfect hindsight.
Slider was all for rooting out bent coppers; that was in everyone’s interest. His biggest beef with Agnew was that she had been instrumental in the release of the Portland Two, attacking the evidence that had got a pair of exceedingly nasty child-murderers put away. Well, the law was the law, and you had to play by the rules: he accepted that. Still, it galled coppers who remembered the case to hear Heaton and Donaldson described as ‘innocent’, just because some harried DC at the time had got his paperwork in a muddle. And who was the better for it? The Two had been quietly doing their porridge, and would have been up for parole in a couple of years. Getting them out on a technicality had simply banged another nail into the coffin of public confidence. According to eager Guardian polls, half the population now believed the police went round picking up innocent people at random for the sheer joy of fitting them up.
Well, now Phoebe Agnew was dead. The biter bit, perhaps – and theirs to identify the guilty dentition.
At the front door PC Renker was keeping guard and the SOC record. With his helmet on and his big blond moustache, he looked like exotic grass growing under a cloche.
‘Doc Cameron’s inside, sir,’ he reported, ‘and the photographer, and forensic’s on the way. Asher’s upstairs with the female that found the body – lives in the top flat. Bottom tenant’s a Peter Medmenham, but he’s not in, apparently.’
‘Probably at work,’ Slider said. The front door let into a vestibule, which contained two further Yale-locked doors. They were built across what was obviously the original hall of the house, to judge by the black-and-white diamond floor tiles. One gave access to the stairs to the top flat; the other was standing open onto the rest of the hall and Phoebe Agnew’s flat. It had been the main part of the original family house, and had the advantage of the fine cornices and ceiling roses, elaborate architraves and panelled doors; but it had been converted long enough ago to have had the fireplaces ripped out and plastered over.
There was a small kitchen at the front of the house, a tiny windowless bathroom next to it, and two other rooms. The smaller was furnished as an office, with a desk, filing cabinets, cupboards, bookshelves, personal computer and fax machine, and on every surface a mountain range of papers and files that made Slider’s fade into foothills.
‘Oh, what fun we’ll have sorting through that lot!’ Atherton enthused, clasping his hands.
‘We?’ Slider said cruelly.
The other room, which stretched right across the back of the house, was furnished as a bedsitting room.
‘Odd decision,’ said Atherton. ‘Why not have the separate bedroom and the office in here?’
‘Maybe she liked to get away from work once in a while,’ Slider said.
‘I suppose it saves time on seduction techniques,’ Atherton said, always willing to learn something new. ‘Shorter step from sofa to bed. I wonder what she spent all her money on? It wasn’t home comforts, that’s for sure.’
The furnishings were evidently old and didn’t look as if they’d ever been expensive. There was a large and shabby high-backed sofa covered with cushions and a fringed crimson plush throw, which looked like an old-fashioned chenille tablecloth. In front of it was a massive coffee table, of dark wood with a glass inset top, on the other side of which were two elderly and unmatching armchairs. One had a dented cushion, and a bottle of White Horse and a glass stood on the floor by its right foreleg. The other was a real museum piece with metal hoop arms and 1950s ‘contemp’ry’ patterned fabric. There was a folded blanket concealing something on its seat. Slider lifted the edge and saw that it was a heap of papers, correspondence and files, topped off with some clean but unironed laundry. The quickest way to tidy up, perhaps.
Along one wall was a low ‘unit’ of imitation light oak veneer, early MFI by the look of it, on top of which stood a television and video, a hi-fi stack, a fruit bowl containing some rather wrinkled apples and two black bananas, a litre bottle of Courvoisier and a two-litre bottle of Gordon’s, part empty, some used coffee cups and glasses, and a derelict spider plant in a white plastic pot. The hi-fi was still switched on, and several CDs were lying about – Vivaldi, Mozart and Bach – while the open case of the CD presumably still in the machine was lying on the top of the stack: Schubert, Quintet in C.
Along another wall were bookshelves with cupboards below, the shelves tightly packed, mostly with paperbacks, but with a fair sprinkling of hardback political biographies. ‘Review copies,’ Atherton said. ‘The great journalistic freebie.’ Slider looked at a title or two. Hattersley, Enoch Powell, Dennis Healey. But Woodrow Wyatt? Wasn’t he a builder?
The window was large and looked over the small, sooty garden, to which there was no access from up here. It was the original sash with the lever-lock, which was, he noted, in the locked position. Of course, someone breaking in that way could have locked it before departing by the door.
‘But then, why should they?’ said Atherton. ‘The Yale on that door’s so old and loose a child could slip it. You’d have thought someone in her position would have been a bit more security-minded.’
Slider shook his head. ‘Obviously she was unworldly.’
‘Other-worldly now, if you want to be precise.’
The right-hand end of the room was furnished with a wardrobe, a tallboy, a low chest of drawers doubling as bedside table, and a double bed, pushed up into the back corner and covered with a black cotton counterpane. The wardrobe was decorated with a variety of old stickers: CND; Nuclear Power – No Thanks; Stop the Bloody Whaling; Troops Out of Vietnam; and, fondly familiar to Slider, the round, yellow Keep Music Live sticker. Instead of pictures there were posters stuck up on the magnolia-painted walls, amongst them a very old one of Che, a couple of vintage film posters, some political flyers and rally leaflets, and some cartoon originals which were probably pretty valuable. The room, though tidy, was scruffy and full of statements, like a student bedsit from the early 1970s. Given the age and status of the occupant, it seemed a deliberate two fingers raised at conventional, middle-class expectations.
The body was on the bed.
Freddie Cameron, the forensic pathologist, straightened and looked up as Slider approached. He was as dapper as a sea lion, a smallish, quick-moving man in a neat grey suit, with a dark waistcoat and, today, a very cheery tartan bow-tie – the sort only a very self-confident man or an expensive teddy bear could have got away with. It was the kind of bow-tie that had to be sported, rather than merely worn, and Cameron sported it, jaunty as a good deed in a naughty world.
‘Bill! Hello, old chum,’ he warbled. ‘Good way to end the week. How’s tricks?’
‘Trix? She’s fine, but I’ve told you not to mention her in front of the boy,’ Slider replied sternly.
Freddie blinked. ‘Ha! I see they haven’t knocked the cheek out of you, anyway. You know who we’ve got here?’
‘I do indeed.’
‘There won’t be many tears shed for her in the Job, I suppose. Sad loss to journalism, all the same.’
Slider raised his eyebrows. ‘I didn’t think you read the Grauniad.’
‘Indy man, me,’ Cameron admitted. ‘But she wrote for that occasionally, and the Staggers, which I read sometimes. Got to keep an open mind. I always liked her pieces, even when I didn’t agree with her.’
‘Someone didn’t agree with her,’ Slider said, and – there being no more excuse for ignoring it – for the first time looked directly at the corpse.
What had been Phoebe Agnew was sprawled on her back, one leg slipping off the edge of the bed, toes touching the carpet. Her arms were flung back above her head, and her wrists were tied together and to the bedhead with a pair of tights. Her auburn hair, long and thick and loosely curling, was spread out around her like a sunburst, vivid against the black cloth, seeming to draw all the life and colour out of the room. It was amazing hair in any circumstance, but if, as Atherton had told him, she was around fifty, it was doubly so, because the colour looked entirely natural.
She was wearing a large, loose, oatmeal-coloured knitted sweater and was naked from the waist down; a pair of grey wool trousers and scarlet bikini briefs lay on the floor at the foot of the bed. Slider flinched inwardly, and felt a stab of pity for the woman, so exposed in this helpless indignity. It was always the worst bit, the first moment of acknowledging the person whose life had been taken from them without their will. There she lay, mutely reproachful, beseeching justice. A body is just a body, of course, but still it wears the face of a person who lived, and was self-aware, and who didn’t want to die.
The nakedness seemed worse because she was not young: there is an arrogance to the nakedness of youth which defies ridicule. In life she must have been good-looking, perhaps even beautiful, Slider thought, noting the classical nose, the wide mouth, the strong chin; but no-one looks their best after being strangled. The face was swollen and suffused, the open eyes horribly bloodshot; her lips were bluish, and there was blood on them, and in her left ear; and round her neck was the livid mark of the ligature. The ligature, however, had been removed.
After all these years, the first sight of a corpse still raised Slider’s pulse and made him feel hot and prickly for a moment – almost like a kind of violent teenage embarrassment. He took a couple of deep breaths until it subsided.
Atherton looked away, shoving his hands into his pockets. Tall and elegant, gracefully drooping, he looked as out of place in this room as a borzoi in a scrapyard. ‘Wonder why they took one ligature and left the other,’ he said.
‘Maybe the one round her neck was traceable in some way,’ Slider said. ‘Time of death, Freddie?’
‘Well, she’s cold and stiff, so that puts it between eight and thirty-six hours, according to the jolly old textbook. It’s not over-warm in here, and though she looks reasonably fit she’s no spring chicken, so I’d put it in the middle range, say twelve to twenty-four. Not less than twelve, anyway.’
‘So we’re looking at sometime yesterday, probably evening or afternoon,’ Slider said. ‘And I suppose the cause of death was strangulation?’
‘I wouldn’t like to commit myself until I’ve got her on the table. There are no other apparent injuries, but I’m not blessed with infra-red vision, and it’s getting dark as Newgate Knocker in here. These hypoxia cases are notoriously tricky, anyway. But she certainly has been strangled.’
‘There doesn’t seem to have been a struggle,’ Slider said. ‘No furniture overturned or anything.’
‘She may have been drugged, of course,’ Cameron said. ‘Which is why I reserve judgement on the cause of death. Have you seen enough? Well, let’s get the photos done, then, and we can get her out of here.’
Slider left him to it and went to look at the kitchen. It must have been fitted in about 1982, with cheap units whose doors had slumped out of alignment, and daisy-patterned tiles, all in shades of brown: pure eighties chic. The electric cooker was old and flecked with encrusted spillings that hasty cleaning had missed. The fridge was also old, with leaking seals, and filled with a clutter of bowls containing leftovers: bits of food on plates, ends of cheese in crumpled wrappings, an expiring lettuce, and tomatoes that had gone wrinkly. A bottle of skimmed milk was past its sell-by date and there was a platoon of yoghurts, one of which had a crack down the side of its carton and was dribbling messily. The comparative tidiness of the bedsitting room was evidently only skin deep.
The sink, with draining boards and a washing machine under it, had been fitted into the bay window. There was a plastic washing-up bowl in the sink. In it, and on the draining boards, was a collection of dirty utensils: plates and bowls, knives, forks and spoons, saucepans and various serving vessels. It looked as though there had been a dinner, featuring some kind of casserole, vegetables and potatoes followed by tiramisu. The last wasn’t hard to guess as the remaining half of it was still in its glass dish sitting on top of the grill hood of the gas stove. There were several empty bottles standing at the back of the work surface – three wine and one brandy – though there was no knowing how long they’d been there. They might not all appertain to the same meal.
The meal surprised him a little. Knowing Phoebe Agnew’s politics, he would have bet on her being a vegetarian. And actually, given the state of the flat and the fridge, he would have expected her to be above cooking, just as she was apparently above home-making. The cookery books lying open amid the clutter of the work surface suggested a certain lack of practice in the art. Casserole Cookery, with the unconvincing, orange-toned food photographs of the seventies by way of illustration, was obviously old but had not, to judge from the lack of food splashes, been heavily used in its life. It was open at Italian-Style Chicken With Olives and had a fresh smear of tomato paste on one edge. The other book, New Italian Cooking, was brand new – so much so that the page had had to be weighted to stay open at Tiramisu.
So she had entertained someone to a home-cooked meal yesterday and gone to some trouble about it: in his experience women never got out the cookery books for a man they were sure of. But was it the murderer she had cooked for? Or had she been dozing off the effects of the grub and booze when someone else called to cancel her ticket?
‘Guv, come and look at this,’ Atherton called.
He was in the bathroom. Being windowless it had one of those fans that come on with the light. It was as ineffective as they usually are: the room had that sour smell of rancid water you get in towels that have been put away damp. It needed redecoration: the Crystal tiles staggered crazily over the uneven walls, the grouting on its last legs, and the paint on the woodwork was lumpy and peeling. There was a calcium crust around the taps, and the bath and basin were mottled white where the hard water had marked them, which looked particularly nasty since the suite was brown.
‘My whole life just flashed before me,’ Slider said. A brown bath had been the dernier cri when he first married.
There was a washing line strung over the bath, on which hung more undies from a well-known high street store. Naturally she would shop at Marks and Engels, Slider thought. He counted six used towels – on the rail, over the edge of the bath, stretched over the radiator, and ‘hung up on the floor’, as his mother used to say.
‘And the plug hole’s clogged with soapy hair,’ he commented, looking, though not too closely, into the sink.
‘Never mind that, see here,’ Atherton said, and drew back for Slider to look into the lavatory bowl. The sad little rubber ‘o’ of a condom looked back at them.
‘She definitely had company,’ Atherton said.
‘We already knew that,’ said Slider. ‘Better fish it out.’
‘Don’t whine. You’ve got gloves on.’
‘It’s the principle of the thing,’ Atherton grumbled. ‘I was fashioned for love, not labour.’ As he reached fastidiously into the bowl, he was reminded of an anecdote. ‘The plumber I use now and then told me about how this woman called him out one time because she wanted a new lav fitted. He asked her if she wanted a P-trap or an S-trap, and she went bright red with embarrassment and said, “Oh – well – it’s for both, really.”’
‘Get on with it,’ Slider said. Outside there was the sound of reinforcements arriving, and a voice he hadn’t expected. ‘Is that the Super? What the chuck’s he doing here?’
‘The voice of the turtle was heard in our land,’ said Atherton. He secured the floating evidence and followed Slider out.
It seemed to have got even colder, and the sky was now featureless, low and grey, like the underside of a submarine. Detective Superintendent Fred ‘The Syrup’ Porson was on the doorstep, draped in a wonderful old Douglas Hurd coat of military green, voluminous and floor-length. What you might call army surplice, Slider thought. Behind Porson stood three of his DCs, presumably brought in the same car – the Department was short of wheels, as always.
‘Ah, Bill,’ Porson said. The cold air had given his skin a greyish tinge. With his big-nosed, granite face he looked remarkably like one of the Easter Island heads; the preposterous toupee was like a crop of vegetation growing on the top. ‘What’s the current situation, vis-à-vis deceased? Let’s have a stasis report.’
Porson used language with the delicate touch of a man in boxing gloves playing the harpsichord. It was one of the endearing things about him – as long as you didn’t suffer from perfect literary pitch.
‘It looks as though it wasn’t suicide, sir,’ Slider said. He recapped briefly, while Porson tramped restlessly on the spot like a horse, using his hands thrust into his pockets to wrap the strange coat about him.
‘Hm. Yes. Well. I see,’ he said. He seemed in travail of a decision. ‘You are aware, of course,’ he said at last, ‘that this ‘flu epidemic has precipitated a crisis situation, Area-wide, with regard to personnel? It’s a problem right across the broad, and as such, AMIP has asked if we’d be prepared to keep the case.’
Slider raised his eyebrows. ‘It’ll be high profile, sir.’
‘The highest of the high, to coin a phrase,’ Porson agreed. A few tiny pinpoints of snow were drifting down, settling on the eponymous rug. It looked as though it was developing dandruff. Slider dragged his eyes away – Porson didn’t like the wig to be noticed. ‘The papers will be full of it,’ Porson went on. ‘Our every movement will be scrutinised with a tooth-comb. I’m well aware it’ll be no picnic, believe you me. But the fly in the argument is’, he explained, ‘that AMIP’s even worse hit, absentee-wise, than we are. Half their manpower’s been decimated, plus they’ve got three other major investigations on the go as well. So the upshoot is, they’ve asked if we’ll do the premilinary work, at least to begin with.’
Slider shrugged. Upshoot or offshot, his was not to reason why. ‘I hope the budget will stand it, sir,’ he said.
‘Don’t you worry about that.’ Porson seemed relieved at his docility. ‘I’ll sort all that out with AMIP. Well, now I’m here you’d better show me round, recapitate what you’ve got so far.’
Slider obliged. Only as Porson was leaving did he think to ask, ‘By the way, sir, how did AMIP hear about it so soon?’
Porson gave a grim smile. ‘They heard it from Commander Wetherspoon. Some reporter rang him at ten this morning, asking who was heading the investigation.’
‘Good God,’ said Slider.
‘So you see the problem.’
He tramped off down the steps to the car, his coat brushing regally behind him. Atherton, at Slider’s shoulder, said, ‘Given who she was, I suppose there was never a cat in hell’s chance of keeping the press out of it.’
‘Not a toupee’s chance in a wind tunnel,’ Slider agreed.
‘That’s not an original toupee, you know, it’s an elaborate postiche,’ Atherton said. Another car pulling up further down the road caught his attention. Two men got out and headed towards them with an air of restraining themselves from running. ‘I hope the Super’s sending us some more uniform – the vultures are beginning to gather,’ he said.
‘If you stand around there you’ll get your picture taken,’ Slider warned. ‘Time to go and talk to the female that found the body, I think.’
BLOOD SINISTER. Copyright © 1999 by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.