A child’s cry jolted Brock from sleep. He blinked awake, wondering if it had been a dream. He held his breath, listening, then heard the almost human bark of the fox that lived in the railway cutting beyond the lane. That’s all, he realised, only that. He heard the answering mournful horn of an approaching train. There must be fog on the line, autumn arriving in earnest at last.
Now he was aware of other sounds, the clicking of the central heating pipes as they warmed, so it must be after five, which was when the timer switched on. He turned his head to read the illuminated numbers of the bedside clock. Five-fifteen. He would have preferred to lie for a while in the dark, sensing the day approach, taking time to think about one or two things. But there was so much to do, too much. He put on the light, pulled on his dressing gown and slippers, and padded down to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
Brock carried the mug of tea through to the living room and lit the gas fire. On the table in front of him were three documents, all urgent. He slipped on his reading glasses and heaved the first, a thick report, onto his lap. Its title was Stage 3 Restructuring of the Metropolitan Police Service: Discussion Paper, and the words Restricted Circulation were stamped across the top. The accompanying memo had urged its importance, while his secretary, Dot, had heard from friends working at 10 Broadway, headquarters of New Scotland Yard, that Commander Sharpe was apoplectic over it. Brock took a sip of tea and opened it reluctantly, scanning the index, then turning to the summary. Not much wiser, he skipped through ‘Chapter 1: Cost and performance criteria for alternative models of decentralisation’.
He sighed and his attention strayed to the second item on the table, a letter, neat blue words on cream paper. He set the senior management report aside, picked up the letter and began to read it once again.
I have to put this in writing, because I haven’t been able to find the words to say aloud . . .
He reached the end and sat lost in thought, feeling the drag of sadness inside him, the weight of time and loss. As if to emphasise this, his eyes moved to a small framed picture on the wall in front of him, a shabby little thing, a gift from a murderer. He remembered his first glimpse of it, long ago, above the mantelpiece of a house in Stepney as he kneeled on the floor with the body of Emily Crab, trying in vain to stop the flow of blood from her throat. Emily had ruined his suit but established his reputation on his first big murder case. Later, interviewing her husband, he had asked about the little picture, saying that it had looked to him like the work of the German artist Kurt Schwitters, whom he greatly admired. Walter Crab had been surprised and gratified by this recognition. He told Brock that during the war his mother had taken in a refugee, a man who had been hunted by the Gestapo from Germany to Norway, before escaping to London. The man was penniless, and Walter’s mother had accepted the picture in lieu of a month’s rent and board. When her friends saw it—an old bus ticket, a scrap of a newspaper headline and other fragments glued to a piece of cardboard—they laughed and told her she’d been had, and Walter had been mortified on his mother’s account. Brock was the first person who had ever admired it, and yes, on the back was the signature K. Schwitters, and the title, Merz 598a, London, 1943. Then Walter confessed to Brock that he had murdered Emily and that the alibi provided by his sister was false. On the day that Crab was sentenced, Brock received a brown-paper parcel in the mail containing the Schwitters and a carefully written note from Walter, gifting him the picture in compensation for Brock’s ruined suit. Ever since, Brock had regarded the little collage as an icon, a condensed statement of his own calling, gathering the discarded residue of people’s lives and making out of it some kind of pattern and sense.
Brock folded the letter and tucked it into the management report to mark the place he’d reached, then turned his attention to the third document on the table, every page of which he’d memorised over the weekend. It was a file marked Metropolitan Police, Case File Summary: Abductions of Aimee Jennifer Prentice and Lee Celine Hammond. He turned to the pictures of the missing girls, although they were already imprinted in his mind; Aimee with a cheeky lopsided grin and Lee, dreamy and pensive, as if she could sense the onset of puberty inside her slight body.
Pinned to the cover of the report was the memo confirming the formation of a Major Enquiry Team, headed by Detective Chief Inspector David Brock, which would take control of the case as from 0800 hours on Monday October 13. Brock checked his watch. Two hours. Time to go.
Copyright © 2004 by Barry Maitland. All rights reserved.