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CONNECTION


Janice Longbright had asked everyone else to leave the room. Once the door closed, she turned down the light a little and sat beside Owen Mills. She knew that he would only ever view her as the enemy, even if he had done nothing wrong. Sometimes, though, it was possible to lower the barriers set in place by age, race, gender, and authority just a little, enough to allow common gestures of grace to pass between two lives.

Owen, I want to talk to you, not because my job demands it, but because I want to understand a little more. Its hard to imagine this as neutral territory, isnt it? She looked up at the glaring light panels. I hate this room as much as you do. Probably more, because I see it nearly every day. God, its depressing in here. She moved a little closer. Seeing that we have to talk, would you rather be somewhere else?

Whatever. The quicker I can get away. He threw her a sullen glare.

Lets see how we get on. I can wrap this up more quickly if you give me an answer. Silence implies guilt, you know? At least if we talk, we can clear the air. How did you come to meet Lilith Starr?

Saw her around on the estate.

You probably see a lot of people on the estate, but you dont have to talk to them. What made you choose her?

Silence. Mills folded his arms defensively. Longbright narrowed her eyes, thinking. You asked her out?

Nothing.

You dated her?

Dated. What is that?

All right then, went out with. You went out with her. She stopped and watched him. You were still going out with Lilith Starr.

Silence, she saw, was starting to mean yes.

How long have you been going out with her?

Downcast eyes. A sigh, a refolding of the arms. Seven, maybe eight months.

You still at school?

They got nothing to teach me.

You went to St Michaels, Camden? Ive been there a few times. Cant say Id blame you for leaving. A real dump. The room had grown cold. April brought them take-out coffees. Beneath his padded nylon sweats, Owen was small. He had the look of a boy who had been teased, then bullied and finally ostracised by those around him in class. In Camden, kids sometimes killed each other for living in the wrong postcodes. I guess you and Lilith looked out for each other. A private thing. We all need someone wholl do that, Owen. The streets can be pretty bad, especially in winter. Did you think she was going to stay out all night on Monday?

No, man, she had a crib. The place was fine.

So it came as a surprise when she didnt return.

No answer.

She had a tattoo removed. Didnt she like it anymore?

No. Emphatic.

What was it, the name of an old boyfriend?

No answer.

I was thinking of getting one once, a picture of Sabrina- an English glamour model from the fifties with a tiny waist and a big bust, you wont have heard of her. I changed my mind when I discovered that her real name was Norma Ann Sykes.

Bust. You use weird words.

Everyone needs to find the language theyre comfortable with, Owen. I havent seen this removed tattoo, but apparently its a real mess. How did she get rid of it?

Cut it off with a penknife. The tattoo guy wanted too much to take care of it.

When did she do that?

Soon after I met her.

Was it because of you? Did you ask her to do it?

No answer.

Where did she go to get it done? That place in the market? Janice looked up at the ceiling, thinking. Lilith Starr. If I was planning a career in show business, its the kind of name Id pick. What made her choose that one?

Im not telling you anything more about her. You didnt know her.

Longbright kept her voice soft and low. I know she went out last night meaning to come straight back, then maybe met a couple of friends, maybe had a drink, got a little high, got wasted, forgot the time. She suddenly felt tired, arms and legs really heavy, dragging at her so she just wanted to rest, and sat down to get her breath back for a moment, but the night turned really cold. She meant to get up, knew you were waiting, didnt want to let you down, just five more minutes, you were already looking for her, but by then it was too late. Five minutes made all the difference between living and dying. You could have saved her if shed let you, youre really angry that she could have been so damned dumb. Five minutes to save a life, who wouldnt be angry? It had happened before, her staying late somewhere, but this time was different. She wanted to chill and she really chilled, so much that she died. The whole thing could have been avoided. Just bad circumstances. She looked across and saw a silver thread on his cheek.

Finish your coffee, Owen, she said gently. Im going to let you go home soon. I hope this doesnt have to go any further. Youve been through enough, kid.

It seemed that, whether they liked it or not, Colin Bimsley and Meera Mangeshkar were destined to be yoked together during their hours of work, even out of the office. Colin thought they should make the best of it and at least try to get on, but Meera was still fighting him every step of the way.

As they walked along the balcony checking door numbers, she found herself fascinated by her partners inability to pass plant pots or bicycles without tripping or becoming entangled. He was so determined to follow in his fathers footsteps and become a detective that the natural barrier of sheer inability seemed to elude him.

Banburys photograph of Lilith Starr had come through to Bimsleys mobile. The picture showed a puffy-faced girl with fiery red hair, a rather flat nose and small eyes, pouted lips and a formative double chin. She reminded the DC of Marilyn Monroes morgue shot. Photographs of the dead were never flattering; as the muscles relaxed, gravity dragged at the face to produce alarming effects. Neither of them was sure why Bryant and May had been so keen to get the photo sent.

Number seventeen is just here, Bimsley called, stopping before a council red door with a chipboard square fixed across a missing glass panel. Looks as if she was squatting.

He prised the loose wood from the window and reached in, opening the door. The flat was clean and bare, with strings of red plastic Christmas lights taped around the edges of the ceilings. The kitchen held a portable electric ring and an ancient microwave oven. A grubby sleeping bag and a chair covered in bright polyester undergarments indicated the bedroom. The few pieces of furniture looked as if they had been scavenged from the street, but several-a bedside stand, a sofa unit, a coffee table-had been amateurishly restored to good condition. What was missing was any clue to the identity of the squatter.

There must be something here, said Meera, wrenching open a wardrobe door and pulling tiny T-shirts aside. Everybody leaves a few signs behind.

Be careful with her belongings, warned Colin. She took the trouble to press her clothes and hang them up.

Shes dead, Colin; she doesnt care what happens to this stuff anymore. She kicked aside a pair of worn high-heeled boots and rooted about in the back of the wardrobe. Nothing of any value here. There never is. White-trash clothes and junk jewellery. Crack whores will try to sell their family photo albums for drug money.

You have a pretty ugly view of people, you know that?

I dont go around with my head in the clouds, if thats what you mean. Last summer, over in Parkway above the Adidas shop, two junkies kept an old woman tied to a bed for three weeks while they systematically emptied out her bank account and tortured her to death. When she was gone, they put her body in a bin bag and threw it into the Regents Canal. You think my view of them should be something other than ugly?

Its just that we dont know anything about this girl, except that she probably split from home and came here nine months ago. Looks like she tried to keep this place decent.

Shed need to, if she was turning tricks on the premises. Meera spoke over her shoulder while she was trying the second bedroom door. The Alsatian mongrel that leapt out had been maddened by starvation and confinement. Mangeshkar yelled in surprise as the dog sprayed spittle, twisting its head to bite her throat, knocking her to the floor.

In the next second Bimsley reached the animal, forcing his elbow into its jaw, bringing his other arm around to grip it in a headlock. Hold the door open, he shouted, lifting the thrashing animal from its feet. Then get out of the way.

He struggled along the hall and hurled the Alsatian onto the balcony, where it regained its feet and charged the front door, but was unable to reach them through the narrow gap.

Bimsley returned to the bedroom and pulled Meera to her feet, checking her neck and face. You all right?

A bit shaken, thats all. She brushed herself down and looked at him. Hows your arm?

Bimsley checked his elbow. Im good. Padded jacket, no broken skin.

I guess she locked it in there before she went out.

Someone will remember the dog even if they dont know her.

I suppose I should thank you.

You dont have to. Whats that?

Mangeshkar had knocked the sofa back as the Alsatian bowled her over. She held up the library book revealed beneath it. Women Who Cant Stay Faithful, by Felicity Bronwin. Lilith Starr was into self-help books. Incredible how people can delude themselves.

What do you mean?

Come on, Colin, she overdosed in a shop doorway. She had bigger problems than staying faithful. Meera threw the paperback onto the sofa. Lets get out of here.

Wait. Bimsley picked up the book and stared at the back cover, turning it around for Meera to see. The authors shot looks a lot like her, dont you think? Family resemblance? He took out his mobile and thumbed open the image of Lilith Starr in the morgue. In death it had become almost identical to the photograph on the book. Looks to me like Felicity Bronwin might be her mother. This is probably why she changed her name.

It was one-fifteen on Wednesday morning, and DS Janice Longbright was fighting to stay awake. She had drunk two Red Bulls and a Starbucks grande latte with an extra syrupy shot, but her eyelids were succumbing to forces beyond her control. She would sleep on John Mays couch tonight, but not until she had written up notes of the days events, something Arthur Bryant always insisted upon doing before going home.

She was puzzled by Owen Mills.

The boy had finally admitted that yes, Lilith Starr was his official girlfriend, and that they had argued the previous night. She had left his flat a little after four A.M., heading for Camden High Street, where she expected to score hash and cocaine. When she had failed to return, Mills had walked over to the spot on the south side of the canal bridge, at the entrance to Inverness Street Market, knowing that dealers always congregated there. After wandering around the area for what seemed like hours, he had finally found her lying in the doorway. He didnt think she was breathing, couldnt find a pulse, so he called the emergency services, refusing to give his name, and watched from the opposite corner while a constable checked her out, then had her loaded into an ambulance.

He knew she was dead because the ambulance had driven away in silence, without its lights or siren. And he knew that shed be taken to the Royal Free or UCH, because those were the two hospitals where all A &E cases were taken. But hed called both, and nobody in admissions had checked her in. So then he had called the morgue at Bayham Street, because she wasnt the first dead junkie he had seen removed from the pavements of Camden Town.

Longbright had looked into his wide brown eyes and seen a strong intelligence cloaked with a mistrustful attitude. She had no reason to disbelieve his story, but felt sure there was something that he had decided not to tell her about their relationship. She thought back to their final exchange about his visit to Oswald Finch, just before she allowed Owen to leave the PCU.

I didnt argue with him, didnt hurt him. I didnt know him, hadnt ever seen him before. He was okay about letting me see her. Unzipped the body bag, explained why she died. He showed me the notes he was writing. I must have put my hand on them, and the ink came off. He was using this old pen. But I swear I didnt take them. I was there five minutes, thats all.

You wanted something to remember her by, said Longbright. You took the neck chain. Can I see it?

Owen had clutched the chain tight to his throat. Its all I got of her now.

She knew she should have persisted, keeping him longer at the unit, but the PCU made its own rules, and those were set by the two old men she had always relied upon to make all her decisions.

Now, until they were safely back in London, the responsibility for everything that happened in the following hours would rest with her.


FORTITUDE | White Corridor | HUNTERS