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I peered into the metal box without stepping inside. It had the familiar smell of all hospital lifts, handwash and antiseptic, an undertone of urine and fear. I had only managed the twenty-four-storey journey to the psychology department once, with my eyes closed, holding my breath. It wasn't the speed that got me, just the space itself. Tiny and airless, no windows to escape through. I forced myself over the threshold, keeping the door open with my hand, but panic kicked in immediately, a surge of adrenalin just under my ribcage. My reflection stared at me from the mirrored back wall. My face was white and pinched, eyes glittering with anxiety. I looked like a small blonde child dressed up in her mother's smartest clothes. I backed out of the lift and the doors snapped shut, almost catching my fingers. My only option was to take the stairs, all two hundred and seventy-eight of them. By now the signs on every landing were imprinted on my memory: oncology, urology, orthopaedics, X-ray. But at least the daily climb was keeping me fit -- at a steady pace the ascent took less than six minutes.
I was out of breath by the time I arrived at my consulting room, with just a few minutes to spare before the first appointment of the day. I changed out of my running shoes into a smart pair of heels. One of the unwritten rules is that psychologists must be well dressed, to convince their patients that the world is safe and orderly. But I needn't have bothered.There was a handwritten note on my computer, informing me that my morning appointments had been cancelled, and a police officer would collect me in an hour's time. For a second my legs felt weak. I pictured my brother locked in a holding cell, just like last time, swearing his head off at anyone who tried to question him or bring him a cup of tea. Then I remembered that my name was on the rota for Met duty that week, and my heart rate slowed again.
My inbox was crammed with new emails: an invitation to speak to the British Psychological Society in April, eight GP referrals, dozens of circulars from drug companies offering extravagant bribes. I should have worked on my case notes, but my eyes kept drifting towards the window. The sky was a dull January white, threatening to snow, but the view was still staggering. London Bridge Station laid out like a train set, with half a dozen miniature engines arriving or leaving, and to the east the Thames curving past Tower Bridge to Canary Wharf. Red lights were blinking on the roofs of banks, while the money men cheated at sums. In the opposite direction office buildings lined the river, almost as tall as St Paul's. To a girl from the suburbs it was still the most glamorous view in the world.
Switchboard called just after ten to say that a visitor was waiting for me in reception. When I reached the ground floor an enormous man was standing by the entrance. He was wearing a pale grey suit, and from a distance he looked almost completely round.
'Dr Quentin?' He walked towards me with surprising grace for a man carrying at least twenty stone. 'DCI Don Burns, from Southwark police. Thanks for giving me your time.'
His accent was an odd hybrid of raw south London and genteel Edinburgh. Behind his thick black-rimmed glasses, his eyes were small and inquisitive in the pale moon of his face.I offered a polite smile in reply, but felt like reminding him that I had no choice. The department was obliged to carry out assessments for the Met whenever a request came in. Any other work, no matter how important, was put on hold.
When we reached the car park, DCI Burns took several minutes to squeeze behind the steering wheel of his drab blue Mondeo. The car smelled of stale coffee, cooking fat and smoke. He must have stopped at McDonald's on his way to work, followed his breakfast with a quick fag.
'I could have walked to the station,' I commented, 'saved you a trip.'
'We're not going there. I'll fill you in on the way.'
He drove south, swearing under his breath at the traffic on Borough High Street. He seemed to have forgotten he had a passenger, completely absorbed in the journey, until we reached the embankment.
'Detective Chief Inspector. That's top rank, isn't it?' I asked.
He kept his eyes fixed on the road. 'Not far off. I look after most of the borough.'
'Quite a responsibility. Couldn't one of your underlings take me?'
'I didn't want them to.' We drove past Battersea Power Station. It looked like a massive table lying on its back, concrete legs pointing at the sky. 'We're going to see Morris Cley. Have you heard of him?'
'Vaguely. He killed someone, didn't he?'
'That's him,' he frowned. 'A prostitute called Jeannie Anderson in Bermondsey four years ago. He gets out of Wandsworth tomorrow because some hotshot lawyer got his sentence cut in half.'
'Unsafe evidence,' Burns sighed, 'which is total bollocks. He managed to con the judge into thinking Cley's got learning difficulties.'
'And he hasn't?'
'No way.' He scowled at the traffic jam ahead. 'Slippery little bastard pretends to be simple, but he kept us running round for weeks. I want to know how closely to watch him when he's out.'
'Sounds like he's not your favourite client.'
'Not exactly. The bloke's as dodgy as they get.' Burns gave the indicator an angry flick, like he would have preferred to snap it off and hurl it through the window. 'Guess who his mum's best mates were?'
'Ray and Marie Benson.'
I couldn't think of a reply. I knew plenty about the Bensons because a friend from the Maudsley had been consultant psychologist during the court case, and Ray and Marie had kept the tabloids happy for months. Pictures of the girls they killed appeared on every front cover, as if they were movie stars. Some of them were found under the patio of the hostel the Bensons ran off Southwark Bridge Road. One in the garden, another sealed inside a disused chimney, and a few more dumped on waste ground. Anyone who could read or owned a TV knew more than they wanted to about the couple's grisly recreational activities.
Wandsworth Common appeared in the car window. Women were pushing prams along the footpaths, joggers running slow laps round the perimeter, like there was all the time in the world.
'Ever visited Wandsworth before?' Burns asked.
'I haven't had the pleasure.'
'Paradise,' he muttered. 'Sixteen hundred blokes, high as kites on every drug under the sun.'
The prison looked like a cross between a Gothic castle and a Victorian workhouse, with filthy windows and a gate bigenough to drive a juggernaut through. It was so vast it blotted out most of the sky.
'Welcome to England's biggest clink.' Burns flashed his ID at the entrance and we were waved inside.
The interview room was miles along a corridor that must have been white once upon a time. I was beginning to regret the clothes I'd chosen that morning. My skirt was too tight to take a proper stride, and my high heels clattered on the tiled floor like a pair of castanets. Rivulets of sweat were pouring down Burns's face.
'He's in the Onslow Centre,' he puffed, 'for his own protection. The bloke won't be getting many bon voyage cards tomorrow.'
'How did he kill the girl?' I asked.
'There's no nice way to put it.' Burns wiped his face with a large white handkerchief. 'Basically, he shagged her, then smothered her with a pillow.'
'They were in a relationship?'
'Christ, no.' He looked appalled. 'He says they were, but you'll see why not when you clap eyes on him.'
'I can hardly wait.'
Burns pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with a stubby index finger. 'She looked a bit like you, actually.' His gaze rested on me. 'Petite, green eyes, shoulder-length blonde hair.'
'You mean, I'm his type?'
'I'm afraid so, yeah.'
Footsteps grew louder in the corridor. I've always hated prisons. Everything about them makes me want to run for the door, especially the way sounds carry. You can hear keys twisting in locks half a mile away. When Morris Cley was shown into the interview room I could see why he had to payfor sex. Grey hair jutted from his skull in awkward tufts, and everything about his face was slightly wrong. Heavy eyebrows lowered above eyes that had sunk so deep into their sockets that I couldn't tell what colour they were. From the dullness of his skin I guessed that he hadn't been outside for weeks. When we shook hands he held my fingers for a few seconds too long. His touch was clammy, and it made me desperate to run outside, find somewhere to scrub my hands.
'Afternoon, Morris,' Burns barked from his seat in the corner of the room.
Cley's thin shoulders were hunched around his ears, his eyes flitting from the floor to the window and back again. He lowered himself on to the plastic chair cautiously, as if it might be booby-trapped.
'I hear you're going home tomorrow,' I said.
'No home to go to.' His voice was high-pitched and breathless.
'Rubbish,' Burns snapped. 'You're going to your mum's.'
'She's dead,' Cley frowned.
'How long ago did you lose your mum?' I asked.
Cley looked confused for a minute, then did a slow calculation on his fingers before answering. 'Five months, one week, two days.'
'I'm sorry to hear that,' I told him.
He studied the backs of his hands, thin fingers twisting into knots.
'What about you, Morris?' Burns's voice was cold enough to freeze anyone in listening distance. 'Are you sorry for what you did?'
The question had an immediate impact. Cley's head slumped over his knees, as if someone had cut the string that held him upright. 'It wasn't me,' he whispered. 'I never touched her.'
'Shut up,' Burns hissed in disgust. 'I'm sick of your rubbish.'
I kept my peace. It was easier to learn about Cley from watching his reactions than asking questions. His whole body was trembling, face still turned to the ground. A tear splashed on to the dirty lino.
'Don't give us any more play-acting, Morris,' Burns groaned. 'I had a bellyful the first time.'
When Cley eventually lifted his head his expression was a mixture of fear and resentment. He looked like a child who would rather run away than face another beating.
'Tell me what happened to you, Morris,' I said quietly.
'Jeannie was my friend, I gave her money sometimes. I wanted her to have nice things.' Cley's falsetto relaxed to a lower pitch as he remembered her.
'How long did you know Jeannie for?'
Cley considered the question carefully before answering. 'A long time. I saw her every week. I asked her to be my girlfriend.'
'And what did she say?'
His head lolled forward again and another fat tear landed on the knee of his grey prison-issue tracksuit. 'She said she wasn't good enough for me.' Cley struggled to regain control, rubbing his eyes with his balled fists.
'But you didn't agree?'
He shook his head violently. 'She loved me. I know she did, because she let me sleep in her bed sometimes.'
Burns gave a loud sigh and Cley's mouth sealed itself. There was a rime of dirt around the collar of his grey top, and I wondered how often he risked using the communal showers. No wonder he was being kept in the secure wing. There might as well have been a neon sign over his head spelling out the word victim. When we got up to leave, his eyes lingered on my face.
'Alice Quentin.' He repeated my name slowly, as if he was doing everything in his power to commit it to memory.
On the way back Burns stopped at a greasy spoon on Wandsworth Road.
'He took a serious shine to you,' he commented. 'You handled him well though. Some of my girls wouldn't stay in the same room, said he gave them the heebie-jeebies.'
He was slugging down a large black coffee and I fought the urge to tell him to lay off the caffeine. The last thing his heart needed was a chemically induced workout. Beads of sweat had gathered on his forehead, as though sitting down was just as exhausting as standing up. The exchange at the prison had taught me more about his personality than about Cley's. Obsessive, struggling to empathise, stress levels hitting the roof.
I stirred sugar into my cappuccino. 'What's Cley's IQ?'
'Less than fifty, but that means bugger all. Playing dumb's his party trick.'
'You told me he didn't have learning difficulties.'
Burns shrugged. 'The little shit probably cheated in the test.'
'But you're positive it was him who killed the girl?'
Burns nodded vigorously, double chins rippling. 'Open and shut: his semen inside her, and bob's your uncle, unanimous guilty verdict.'
'Was there any other proof?'
'He was her last punter.' Burns gave me the long unblinking stare that liars always favour. 'Trust me, it's all there.'
'Right.' I watched him drop his gaze.
'Okay, the case was a bit light on forensics but Cley had no alibi, nothing to defend himself with.'
'So that meant he was guilty?'
'With respect, Dr Quentin, that's water under the bridge. All I need to know is how closely to watch him when he gets out tomorrow.'
'So you can blame me if he kills someone else.'
Burns's small mouth twitched with irritation or amusement.
'Based on a thirty-minute observation I'd say he's got learning difficulties, with the mental ability of a seven- or eight-year-old. Possibly he's clinically depressed, and he's still grieving for his mother, but no, I don't think he's an immediate threat to anyone.'
'You're positive about that?'
'Except to himself, when he realises no one's going to take care of him.'
'My heart bleeds.' Burns took a deep breath then slowly levered himself to his feet.
It was twelve thirty by the time we arrived back at the hospital car park. Burns's beady eyes observed me as I undid my seat belt.
'I'll ask for you again, Dr Quentin.'
'And why's that?'
'Because you don't fuck about.'
'I assume that's a compliment, Inspector.'
'It is. We had some bigwig from the Maudsley last year, for ever reeling out jargon, dazzling us with his intelligence.' His mouth puckered, like he had swallowed something sour.
I watched as Burns's Mondeo wove through the parked cars nimbly. The man behind the wheel could have been an athlete at the top of his game.
I saw three patients that afternoon. One for anger management, an agoraphobic and a girl called Laura with such advanced anorexia that I wanted to admit her immediately, but there were no beds. Six different wards refused to helpbefore a staff nurse finally buckled and agreed to keep one free the following day. After my last appointment, I checked my email. One hundred and thirty-six messages with red flags, screaming for an answer. I could have stayed there until midnight and still not emptied my inbox.
At seven I changed into my running gear and headed for the best part of the day. Soon I was running down the stairs so fast that it felt like flight, vaulting three steps at a time. When I reached the street the freezing air made me gasp. Commuters traipsed by, hands in their pockets, bracing themselves against the dark. As soon as I got to the river path the stress of the day evaporated. By HMS Belfast I was picking up speed, wondering why anyone ever bothered to go on board. The posters gave too much away, revealing the cramped living quarters where sailors slept in bunks as narrow as their bodies, stacked in alcoves like dinner plates. It would take ten seconds in one of those cabins for my claustrophobia to kick in.
I made myself run at intervals, jogging for a hundred metres then sprinting until my lungs burned, passing huge Victorian warehouses converted into expensive restaurants. By the time I reached China Wharf I'd been going for twenty minutes. I stopped by the railings to let my breathing steady. The water was oily and black, lights from the bus boats catching its dirty surface. God knows how many secrets were hidden underneath. I made my way home at a slow trot, enjoying the rush of endorphins - nature's reward for nearly killing yourself.
There was no sign of my brother Will's ancient VW camper van when I got home. Usually it was sitting in my parking space on Providence Square. Maybe he'd decided to move on, park his troubles outside someone else's flat. The security door to the building had been left open as usual. A woman on the second floor worked from home as a reflexologist and her clients never remembered to pull it shut behind them. I tookthe stairs to the third floor and let myself in. The red light on my answer-machine blinked at me.
'I wondered if you'd seen your brother.' My mother's voice petered out, but soon regained its emotionless Home Counties calm. 'I'll have to ring tomorrow, I'm going to the Phillipses' for dinner.'
The second and third messages were from Sean.
'All I can see is you in my bed, wearing red silk stockings,' he sighed. 'Call me, Alice, as soon as you get this.'
I deleted the messages then investigated the contents of the fridge. One ciabatta roll, past its sell-by date, a piece of mozzarella and half a family-sized bar of chocolate. I chopped up a few sun-dried tomatoes and smeared a dollop of pesto on the dried-out bread, covered it with slices of cheese and stuck it under the grill.
Curled up on the sofa, I planned my evening. I would turn off my mobile, eat chocolate in the bath, and for once go to sleep alone.
CROSSBONES YARD. Copyright © 2012 by Kate Rhodes. All rights reserved.