This book would never have been completed without the help of the following people. Firstly, my editor at Penguin, Beverley Cousins, whose patience and faith were greatly appreciated during the difficult circumstances in which I found myself writing the book, and whose expert editorial eye has since improved it immeasurably. Her assistant, Claire Phillips, also offered some helpful suggestions and alterations.
Secondly, I am extremely grateful to my agent, Araminta Whitley, who helped locate the real story in among my earliest drafts. She worked tirelessly to improve the book at every stage and was always at hand to offer advice, ideas and encouragement. Mark Lucas, Peta Nightingale, Lizzie Jones and the other wonderful folk at LAW also made vital contributions along the way. Thanks to you all.
I would also like to thank the following, all of whom helped in the writing of this book: Nick Barratt, resident genealogical genius; Professor Robert Forrest; Rachel and Paul Murphy; Lillian Aylmer and Gavin Houtheusen at The National Archives; Christine Falder at DeepStore; Wall to Wall productions; and my family, especially Irene and my Dad, for their love and support.
Finally, and most significantly, my wife, Emma, who died of breast cancer while this book was being written. Without her ferocious loyalty and the belief she had in me, I would never have begun writing it.
Or any other book, for that matter. I owe her everything.
She lives on in the heads and hearts of me, my son and many, many others.
Wearing the type of smile that often distinguished the half cut from the sober, Bertie stepped out of the Prince Albert on Pern bridge Road and immediately felt the icy blast of cold air on his face. It was invigorating; the rigours of a week's work, a bellyful of beer and the numbing warmth of the pub's fire had helped him forget how bitter it was outside, though word of it had been on the chapped lips of everyone who had come in for a drink. March, they muttered. Felt more like January.
After shaking his head to rid it of the fug of the pub, he glanced up at the clear, black sky. No fog; the wind had chased away the perennial smoke that blanketed the city at night. A nice change, he thought, to use his eyes and not instinct as he made his way home.
To his right he could hear the clatter of traffic on Notting Hill Gate. A man scurried past, head down, left hand holding his hat in place, the right gripping his coat across his throat.
Bertie did not even button his; he did not mind the cold. He was warm-blooded. 'My little bed-warmer,' Mary liked to call him, as they closed in to form a crescent shape together under the covers. Sometimes in winter, when he got into bed, she would raise a chilly foot -- she felt the cold terribly -- and place it softly between his legs to warm it. Made him jump. 'Back off, woman,' he would tell her. But she would giggle and so would he. He was incapable of getting angry with her -- and she with him, as she would prove in about fifteen minutes' time when he stumbled into bed near midnight with the smell of boo^e on his breath.
The thought of it? the thought of her? made him smile as he started weaving his way home along Ladbroke Road. The wind was at his back, blowing towards the Dale. Bertie was glad to have left that benighted place behind. Their life had improved immeasurably since he and Mary and the little ones had moved to Clarendon Road. It might still be on the edge of the Dale but it had felt like afresh start. For the first time in his life he felt able to breathe.
He crossed the road, passing the Ladbroke Arms and the police station ahead of the crossing with Ladbroke Grove, the lamp casting a halo of warming light over the few policemen standing outside having a smoke. He nodded at them as he passed. Ladbroke Grove was quiet so he crossed without pausing turned right and made his way up the hill. At the summit he toyed with going further on and turning on to Lansdowne Crescent, or cutting across the churchyard and down St John's Gardens. He chose the latter.
He went to the left of St John's, its cathedral-like spire pointing a bony finger into the darkness above him. As he passed the church he noticed something moving to his right.
Some poor beggar seeking shelter from the wind, he thought.
Then it was on him; hot, rancid breath on his cheek.
Before he could finish, the blade was stuck deep in his ribs.
The noise as it left his flesh sounded like a finished kiss.
The figure retreated into the darkness as swiftly as it had arrived. Bertie felt little pain, just bewilderment. His hands went to his ribs; there they felt the warm stickiness of his own blood. He sat back on the ground, as if pushed. He tried to call for help, but no words came. He raised his hands to his face and saw them slicked with his own blood. God save me, he thought, his breath becoming shallow.
Mary,' he whispered, thinking of her lying there, waiting for him to slip into bed so she could warm herself on him.
He lay back on the damp grass, aware of the smell of moist earth and the last pitiful throbs of his heart.
Finally, he felt the cold.
Detective Chief Inspector Grant Foster, stiff from lack of sleep, dragged his tall, weary frame from his brand- new Toyota Corolla, feeling the familiar ache of being hauled from his bed in the middle of the night. Even though he had stopped smoking six months ago he felt a pang for nicotine. Arriving at a murder scene had been one of those occasions when he would habitually spark up; part of a ritual, a summoning of will. He cracked his knuckles and sniffed the cold air.
Dawn was approaching over London and the sound of traffic on the distant Westway was evolving to a constant drone as early workers joined latenight stragglers on the road. Despite the frosty tang in the air and the last blustery breaths of the fierce wind that had blown all night, a mild warmth hinted at the first signs of spring. In less than two hours the sun would be up and the late-March day would begin. But Foster was in no mood to be optimistic.
When he sniffed the air, he noticed only one smell: trouble.
Detective Sergeant Heather Jenkins, her wild black hair tied back in a ponytail, fell in beside him as they crossed the road towards the church.
'It's a nasty one, sir.' Her strong Lancastrian accent flattened the vowel of her final word.
Foster nodded. 'Certainly sounds like it,' he said, speaking for the first time. His deep, rich voice seemed to emanate from somewhere down around his boots. 'Unlike the drunk the other night.'
Both of them had been woken when it was still dark the previous Sunday morning to attend what appeared to be the suicide of a tramp in Avondale Park. Foster, supposed to be having a weekend off, though no one had seen fit to inform those on duty, had left it to Heather, gone back to bed and tried to get some more sleep. Unsuccessfully. Four days later, he still resented the intrusion.
Heather made a noise down her nose to indicate her disbelief that Foster was still angry, not quite a snort, more a sort of reverse sniff.
'You can't let that go, can you, sir?' she said.
'Our workload is bad enough without having to poke around the cider-drenched corpse of some loser,' he muttered without looking at her.
'You don't reckon that tramp is entitled to the same consideration we lavish on other people's deaths? We don't even know his identity: don't you think we owe it to him to find out who he is and whether he had a family?'
'No,' he said emphatically. 'But have you checked with the Missing Persons Bureau?'
She nodded. 'Nothing that seems to fit so far.'
'Probably yet another loser no one gave a stuff about. One less piss-stained wino for the lads on the beat to sling in the drunk tank.'
From the corner of his eye he saw her shake her head slowly.