Snow began to fall over the city late on Thursday night, in mean little flakes at first, but then in plump silent gobbets. By dawn, when the security guard reached the school at the end of Cockpit Lane, the whole of London lay under a muffling blanket of white. As he checked the gates and fences he noticed what looked like a fresh trail leading through the snow beside the empty garage building next door, as if something had been dragged from its rear door. He was very much inclined to ignore it, but the garage was technically part of the school premises, and there had been a spate of fires recently. Investigating, he found the door slightly ajar. Inside, his flashlight picked out two figures curled up together on the bare concrete floor. He took them for children and might have said they were asleep, except that it was far too cold to be lying like that without blankets. They didn’t respond to his challenge, and he noticed a spatter of dark stains all around them on the floor. When he moved closer he made out plastic tape binding their wrists, and then the shocking wounds in the backs of their heads.
The murders in Cockpit Lane might have passed without much public notice except that the victims were two young girls, only sixteen years old, both shot through the head. They had also died in the constituency of Michael Grant, Member of Parliament for Lambeth North and a vigorous campaigner against crime in his inner South London community. The youngest black member of the House of Commons, Grant was a charismatic speaker whose compelling voice and handsome face were soon all over the media, describing the Cockpit Lane girls, Dana and Dee-Ann, as only the latest in a long series of tragic victims of,as he put it,an evil alliance of poverty, drugs, guns and criminal business interests operating in the district.
The press immediately dubbed the shootings a ‘Yardie’ massacre, despite police reservations about the use of the term, which implied the involvement of Jamaican immigrants. To the press it was Yardie because it was violent, guns and drugs were involved (crack cocaine was found in the girls’ pockets), and both the victims and just about everyone else in the neighbourhood were of West Indian origin.
By late afternoon, media interest in the tragedy had risen to such a pitch that Scotland Yard announced the formation of a Major Inquiry Team, led by Detective Chief Inspector David Brock and officers from Homicide Command, together with local detectives. They would be supported by members of the Operation Trident squad,which had been established some years earlier to combat gun crime in London’s black communities.
Beyond the hissing radiators, through the tall windows of the upstairs classroom, Adam Nightingale could see over the back wall of the school playground to the dazzling white wasteland beyond, across which the thin black lines of the railway tracks traced a sweeping curve. On seeing the snow, his mother’s first words that morning had been,‘That’s it, Adam, we’re goin’ back to Jamaica.’ They wouldn’t, of course. She always said that when it snowed, but he thought it was magic.
The class was unsettled, whispering and passing notes. When they’d arrived for school that morning they’d been met by the sight of ambulances and police cars blocking the Lane. They’d stood in huddled groups, lit by the strobing lights, straining to catch the squawk of the police radios. Gradually a little information had rippled through the excited mob, just enough to breed rumours and questions. Were the girls from Camberwell Secondary? Had they been raped? Throughout the morning, classes had been distracted by the sirens and the helicopters. When the bell rang for their lunchbreak, they’d rushed out into the street, hung around the police barrier and pestered the cops asking questions in the Cockpit Lane street market and searching the alleyways and backyards.
There were many empty seats when school started again in the afternoon,and the teachers struggled against the mood of distracted restlessness. Adam felt the horrible excitement more than anyone. It ate away at him and made him feel almost physically ill. He had his own ideas about what had really happened, but as usual no one was interested in what he had to say. It was the guns that fascinated them most and there had been much technical discussion about Uzis and Mach 10s, Brownings and Glocks, but the others only scoffed when he offered his opinions. He felt as if he might literally explode with frustration at the familiar sense of insignificance, of being excluded.
Mr Pemberton was oblivious to it all. He was drawing a graph on the board, a sweeping curve just like that of the rail line. A parabola, he said. Nobody paid any attention.
The train tracks formed one curving side of a triangle of railway land bordered by the school wall and by the back fences of the warehouses along Mafeking Road. The walls and fences were too high to climb, and so this inaccessible little bit of wilderness in the middle of crowded inner London had become an island of mystery to the kids of Camberwell Secondary. There were stories of valuable things buried there, of stolen goods thrown from trains, and of strange animals in hidden lairs. Adam’s mind often turned to these stories when he lay alone in bed at night, imagining himself a hero, penetrating the mysterious triangle and making a stupendous discovery.
Now the coppers were on the railway land, searching with sticks and metal detectors along the border against the school and garage where the girls were found. They must be looking for the killer’s gun, Adam thought, possibly thrown over the back wall. The sight of them filled him with anguish. Suppose those probing sticks, those powerful detectors, found something else, another prize, the great prize-his prize.
A train came rumbling around the bend from the Elephant and Castle direction, giving off vivid flashes of blue light where snow had drifted across the electric rail. In his nightly imaginings Adam had worked out a way of getting onto the triangle, in theory. In theory, because it would mean approaching from the other side of the tracks, and stepping over the high voltage electric rails that powered the trains. Adam shivered at the thought of that, imagining the treasure hunter turned to a cinder in a flash of blue.
Pemberton droned on, writing a formula with his squeaky marker, y=ax2+b, as if he could reduce the curve of the tracks, smooth and dangerous, to a few symbols on a board. From his desk by the window, Adam peered through his glasses at the undulating white landscape and was almost sure that he could make out the faint lines of fox trails converging on a darker patch, far beyond where the coppers were searching. He’d first spotted the foxes during a boring English lesson last year. This morning they’d have woken to find the entrance to their hide covered in snow, and if they’d dug themselves out and gone foraging they’d have left tracks that a hunter could follow back to their den, and to the trophies they might have hidden there, including, perhaps, the great prize. With a little glow he imagined the kudos, the respect, that would come to anyone who retrieved it. In his head he traced each stage of the journey he must make to reach it, replaying the various difficulties and the final triumph. He also imagined the awful possibility that the coppers would find it first.By the time the maths lesson came to an end, Adam had reached a decision. He couldn’t put it off. This was a day of awesome events. This time he would really have to do it.
He considered asking Jerry, his only real friend, to come along as a witness. But Jerry was clumsy, with big awkward feet. If you could picture anyone tripping over the third rail and going up in a ball of blue flame, it would be Jerry. So Adam decided to go alone, that afternoon, as soon as the cops had left.
When school finished Adam ignored the crowd gathering at the police tapes and hurried away down Cockpit Lane towards the footbridge over the railway. From up there he could see the straggling line of coppers leaving for the night, making their way back to the opening they’d made in the back fence to the Mafeking Road warehouses.Worried about the fading light, he ran across the bridge and up the lane on the other side until he found the gap he’d spotted in the fence, hidden now by a drift of snow so deep that he almost had to dig a tunnel to get to the other side. Then he was through, in forbidden territory, at the top of the railway embankment. Plunging down, he was shocked by the depth of the soft snow, up to his hips in places.When he reached the bottom he crouched for a while behind a clump of bushes, out of sight of a group of kids crossing on the footbridge. His heart was pounding, his body steaming inside his parka, his legs and feet soaking.
He waited until the footbridge was deserted and there was no sound of trains, then stood up straight and advanced across the ballast, stepping cleanly over the rails, one after the other. He was across. Exhilarated, he hurried on to the corner of the mysterious triangle, reaching it just in time to crouch at the bottom of the school wall as a train roared past. Ahead of him he could make out the hillock of snow he had seen from Mr Pemberton’s classroom, beyond which lay the fox trails. He made for it, falling flat as the snow collapsed into the mounds of