Michael White

The Art of Murder

‘The creative process is a cocktail of instinct, skill, culture and a highly creative feverishness. It is not like a drug; it is a particular state when everything happens very quickly, a mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness, of fear and pleasure …’

Francis Bacon (1909-92)

Chapter 1

Stepney, Wednesday 21 January, 8 a.m.

She came running down the street screaming at the top of her voice. As she ran, commuters heading for Whitechapel tube station moved out of her way thinking she was a madwoman. But she was not mad, she was simply terrified. She had just seen something that would make the strongest stomach somersault.

Her name was Helena Lutsenko, a Ukrainian immigrant. She had been in England for a little over six weeks and her English was limited to a couple of hundred words. In her petrified state, she could think only in Ukrainian. But even in her native language, there were few words to describe the horror of what she had just witnessed.

It was 8 a.m., halfway through the morning rush hour, and the Mile End Road in East London was awash with grey slush. It had snowed the previous night, and, as always in London, it had settled for about ten minutes before turning to a slurry unknown to pre-Industrial man: part water, part diesel, part city grime. The pavements were no better. The grey snow had been piled up to either side of a narrow footpath cleared for pedestrians, and although council road sweepers had been out since six, throwing around sand and salt, the icy strip of pavement was treacherous.

Helena slipped and just broke her fall by grabbing a lamp-post. The shock forced her to calm down a little. She could do nothing in this state, she told herself. She needed to explain something, something desperate, something barely imaginable. And she needed to explain it to anyone who would listen. Anyone at all. Pushing away from the lamp-post, she took measured paces and deep breaths. Approaching a young man dressed in a business suit and carrying a briefcase, she began to articulate her horror, but the commuter speeded up instinctively. Helena walked up to a middle-aged woman talking into her mobile phone. The woman looked at her as though she were insane and shouldered her away. Just another East European beggar, the commuter thought, and sighed. Then a young couple turned a corner. They were well dressed but relaxed-looking, graphic designers or ad execs perhaps, definitely not bankers or insurance grunts. The woman was wearing a Comme des Garcons ankle-length coat; the man had a Louis Vuitton satchel slung over his left shoulder.

‘Help me,’ Helena said as clearly as she could. She stood in front of the couple, one palm held flat against the man’s coat sleeve. He looked down at her hand, then glanced at the young woman beside him. She was ready to move on, but he was a little more patient.

‘Please help,’ Helena said.

The young man pushed a hand into his pocket and came up with a handful of small change.

‘No,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Not money. Come. I show.’

‘What?’ the young woman said suddenly and stared at the man. ‘What does she want, Tom?’

Tom Seymour shrugged. ‘Search me.’

‘Please, come. I show.’

‘Don’t like the sound of this,’ the young woman said, and took her companion’s arm.

There was something about the desperate stranger that moved Tom. He seemed to know instinctively that she was genuine, that she needed someone. She was clearly terrified. He turned to the woman beside him. ‘Trish, I think she needs help.’

‘Yes … help,’ the Ukrainian woman responded.

‘Tom, you don’t know her from Adam. She could be the front for a gang. Don’t be a twat.’

He sighed. ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ Then he tried gently to move Helena aside. ‘Have to go,’ he said to her.

Helena deflated like a balloon with the air sucked out of it and she burst into tears. Trish was already a pace away, but Tom hadn’t moved.

‘What’s happened?’ he asked.

Helena did not understand.

Tom put his hands out, palms up. ‘What is it?’

‘Man … dead,’ she said, tears flowing down her cheeks.

Chapter 2

Helena took Tom’s arm. Trish remained where she was, shaking her head, unsure what to do. In the end she simply said, ‘I’ll see you at the office,’ and walked away.

Tom turned back just in time to avoid colliding into another commuter. He and Helena dodged to the right. He pulled his arm free. ‘Where’re we going?’

She looked round at him, but said nothing.

They turned a corner, right, off Mile End Road, down Vallance Road. Fifty yards further on, they swung another right into a narrow lane, Durrell Place. For the first time, Tom began to worry, began to wonder whether he had done the right thing after all. Then he saw a sign up ahead: Berrick amp; Price Fine Art Gallery. He recognised the name from an article in GQ.

Helena ran ahead. Tom caught up with her at the door to the gallery. The front windows stretched for about twenty-five feet. They were blacked out, with the name of the gallery printed in silver lettering across the glass in an eccentric font, a cross between Bank Gothic and Marlett, all block letters and narrow serifs. The door stood ajar. From inside came the faint smell of stale alcohol and incense.

‘So, what’s this all about?’ Tom asked, dropping his shoulder bag to the ground at the gallery’s entrance.

Helena simply pointed through the open door.

‘Who are you?’ he said.

Helena looked puzzled for a second, then tapped her chest. ‘Me? Cleaner.’ Then she pointed again. ‘Man dead.’

‘Dead? You sure?’

She nodded.

He thought about calling the police, but curiosity had already got the better of him. He had come this far, he thought to himself, why back out now? Some part of him was suddenly excited.

‘Where?’ Tom asked.

Helena just nodded towards the door.

Tom took a deep breath. ‘Okay. You wait here.’

It was dark in the corridor, but an archway to his right led into a small room immediately behind the blacked-out windows. Bright halogen spots hung down in a cluster from the ceiling. Two walls were covered with vast canvases, blocks of pure colour, one a dark green, the other a deep purple. Under each stood a black leather and chrome sofa, original George Nelsons. Ahead was another archway that led into a much larger room, the display space.

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