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If snow hadnt fallen a l.., p.3

If Snow Hadn't Fallen (A Lacey Flint Short Story), page 3


If Snow Hadn't Fallen (A Lacey Flint Short Story)

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  And there she was. Unmistakable against the backdrop of white. A solitary figure in the park, wearing long, loose robes of black, on the exact spot where the man had died. I only saw her for a few seconds before the lights flicked on, but I could tell that she was both tall and slim, and, even standing statue-still, she gave the impression of both poise and grace. At the same time, her bowed head, her clenched hands, spoke of terrible sadness.

  I don’t believe in ghosts. The world we know has more than enough to scare us, without us conjuring up imaginary fears of our own. But there was something about the sight of her that struck me hard, causing an almost physical reaction. I was conscious of a constriction in my chest, a trembling in my hands, the slightest feeling of breathlessness.

  I made my excuses to the elderly couple and ran back down to the street. Whilst I had no real reason to connect the woman in the park with the crime, something about the graceful but slightly shapeless way the robes had hung around her body had made me think of the burka. And her head had been indistinct, as though a loose headscarf covered it. I was pretty certain she was a Muslim woman come to grieve alone at the spot where someone close to her had died. And that might not go well.

  Just over a week after the murder, the public mood remained highly volatile. There had been several racially tainted incidents, insignificant in themselves, but worrying in their number. Flowers had been left at the park for the man who’d died. And those same flowers had been pissed on by the less sympathetic. I really didn’t fancy the chances of a Muslim woman on her own, confronted by a few of our local yobs. I stopped at the park gates. After the murder, the Parks Department had increased security to the tune of two heavy-duty chains, secured with padlocks, around the gates. They were still in place.

  So how had my quarry got in? Climbing railings wasn’t too tricky – I was about to do it myself – but in an ankle-length robe? And, more to the point, how had she got out? Because she wasn’t there any more.

  I stepped closer, almost touching the cellophane-wrapped flowers that lined the railings. Still no sign of her. I found a crossbar on the gates that would give me enough height and scrambled up, swung both legs over and dropped to the ground.

  I was probably imagining the smell of petrol and charred flesh that still seemed to cling to the foliage in the park, but the footsteps that I could see ahead of me were real enough. She’d walked through the snow, the hem of her robes trailing wet and sodden, but she hadn’t entered the park via these gates.

  Getting edgy now – I really didn’t like this park – I stepped forward on clean, fresh snow until I reached the spot where Aamir Chowdhury had died. The woman had come from beyond the children’s playground. I could see her steps leading towards the spot and away from it again. I could also see the indistinct sweeping marks her robes had made as she walked here.

  Should I follow her or not? Her misery had been apparent, even from the top flat of a house yards away. Why would I intrude on the grief of a mother or wife? Except Aamir hadn’t been married, and the mother I remembered was much smaller and squatter than the figure I’d just seen. A sister seemed most likely. Or girlfriend. But Muslim women wearing burkas didn’t usually have boyfriends.

  And how often did you see a veiled Muslim woman out alone at night? I wasn’t sure I ever had before. These women were protected, guarded closely. Independence of movement, especially at night, was largely denied them.

  The park was long and narrow, with dense planting lining its perimeter. To my right, behind a curving wall of laurel bushes, was the young children’s play area. There were swings, a roundabout, a large tree-house complex with slides and stepping-stones. The eastern side of the park was aimed at older children and teenagers. There was a skateboard ramp and a BMX track. Ahead of me was a circular structure of sheltered seating.

  Without the snow, it would have been impossible to know where she’d gone. With it, I knew exactly where she must be; I just wasn’t sure whether I was going to follow her.

  And as though my thoughts had the power to conjure her out of the ether, she appeared. She must have sidestepped from behind the children’s slide, but to my snow-stung eyes it looked as if she’d materialized from nowhere. I judged her to be taller than me, maybe about five foot eight or nine, and very slim. Her veil was fastened tight to her head by a band around her forehead. Below the band, it flowed out gracefully to her waist. The burka spread out beneath it. I could see fingertips and large brown eyes; my imagination had to fill in the gaps, paint the picture of an oval face, perfect in its proportions, gleaming black hair falling in coils past her waist, soft, slender limbs and coffee-coloured skin. I raised my hand in greeting, and for a second or two we just stared at each other. Then she vanished.

  I followed of course – I’m a detective – but I went slowly. There was something about her that – not intimidated me exactly, but certainly demanded respect. She wasn’t someone to be chased and jumped upon.

  She’d gone behind the slide again. I reached it and stopped, full of misgivings. There was no way out of this park, which made running a bit pointless. So why had she disappeared, if not to lure me here?

  ‘I’m a police officer,’ I said to the painted-metal framework around the steps. ‘A detective,’ I added to the snow-covered steel of the slide.

  Nothing. A rustling that could have been snow falling from leaves. I looked down. There were footprints, but too many to be sure which she’d left last. And it was too dark in this corner of the park to have any reasonable idea where she’d gone.

  ‘I’d really like to talk to you,’ I told the toddler swings. Unsurprisingly, they showed little enthusiasm for the suggestion.

  I started walking again, skirting the edge of the playground. When I peered around the other side of a small climbing wall, there was nothing there. No one in the tree house.

  Snow was falling again and I was getting very cold. The woman clearly didn’t want to be found and, if I were being honest now, something about her had unnerved me. I was going home.


  ‘I KNOW HOW she got out.’

  I must have jumped a foot in the air. The street had been empty. I’d climbed down the steps to my front door – very gingerly, they were steep and narrow even without a covering of snow – and had been about to slip the key into the lock. Instead, I stepped back and looked up. Above me, peering over the railings a little like Juliet on her balcony, was the pale, pretty face of a young boy.

  ‘Barney? What are you doing? You’ll freeze to death.’

  ‘I saw you in the park,’ he told me. ‘I watched you climb in. I saw her, too. I know how she gets in and out.’

  I walked back up the steps. Barney was wearing shoes but no coat. I didn’t know him well – I make a point of not knowing anyone well – but I knew he lived with his father in the house next door. I had the impression that they owned the whole house, rather than a part of it, and just let out the basement flat. Just the two of them. No mother that I knew of.

  ‘You saw me just now?’ I asked.

  He nodded. ‘My room is at the top of the house,’ he said. ‘At the back. I saw you climb in and look for her.’

  I wondered whether the officers carrying out door-to-door enquiries had thought to talk to children.

  ‘Barney, can I have a quick word with you and your dad?’

  ‘Dad’s not in,’ he told me. ‘He had to work late. You can talk to me.’

  Not as easy as Barney might think. I couldn’t talk to him alone, either in his house or my flat.

  ‘Look, just stand inside the doorway so you don’t get wet,’ I said. He did so, and I stood on the step outside. ‘You said you know how she gets in and out,’ I added. ‘Does that mean you’ve seen her before?’

  He nodded. ‘I think so,’ he admitted. ‘I can’t be sure, because until the snow came it was too dark in there, but I’m pretty certain I’ve seen someone moving around. It’s always the eyes you notice, in the dark. And cigarettes, sometimes, alth
ough she never has a cigarette.’

  There was something about the thought of this young boy watching eyes move in the dark that I found rather creepy.

  ‘So how does she get in?’ I asked him.

  ‘There’s a missing railing,’ he told me, without hesitation. ‘It’s the twenty-first along, counting from the north-eastern corner. I can only see the missing spike from my room, but I’ve been down to look and the whole of the railing is missing. No one big could get through, but a kid or a lady could.’

  ‘So why didn’t I see it?’

  ‘It’s behind some bushes. You can squeeze past the missing railing, through the bushes and you’re in.’

  ‘Any idea how long she’s been coming to the park?’

  ‘I’ve only noticed her a couple of times,’ he said. ‘She looks sad, doesn’t she?’

  ‘She certainly does,’ I agreed.

  ‘Do you think she was anything to do with what happened there? You know, when the man got burned?’

  A horrible thought struck me. ‘Barney, did you see that?’

  He shook his head. ‘I was downstairs with Dad, watching TV,’ he said. ‘We didn’t know anything was going on until we heard the sirens. Dad wouldn’t let me go out to look.’

  ‘Quite right too.’ I looked at my watch. ‘Look, is he back soon? It’s getting quite late for you to be on your own.’

  Barney’s eyes fell away from mine. ‘Any time,’ he said. ‘I’d better go in now. Bye, Lacey.’

  I watched him close the door and heard the lock turn. I didn’t like the idea of him being on his own, but on the other hand, I’ve never imagined it’s easy bringing up a kid alone. And he seemed a bright, sensible boy. On a whim, because I really make a point of not getting involved – with anyone – I scribbled my mobile number on a square of paper, along with a note. Call if you need me. I pushed it through his door and turned back to the street.

  I was on edge after my adventure in the park, still jumpy, alert for anything out of place. Otherwise, I might not have noticed the man on the other side of the road, some seventy yards away, watching me.

  Five foot eight or nine, medium build, in jeans, boots and a dark, padded jacket, with a hood pulled up around his head. Although I could tell he was looking my way, I couldn’t see his face. His hands were tucked into his pockets and he stood half hidden inside a doorway, clearly trying not to be seen. He might have succeeded had his jacket not had triangles of a lighter-coloured, fluorescent fabric on the shoulders and cuffs. It wasn’t a jacket I remembered from the night of the murder, but people can have more than one jacket, can’t they?

  I started to walk towards him, reaching in my own pockets for my warrant card and radio, but a second after I moved, so did he, stepping out of the doorway and heading off towards the main road. I picked up speed, he did the same. He reached the corner and turned. I was too far behind but I carried on, making my way through the snow as best I could. I got to the main road, but even with all the snow, there were still too many people around. He’d gone.


  THE NEXT DAY I went to consult my plastic surgeon, which, in all honesty, is not something I ever thought I’d say. But in the midst of the Ripper investigation, I’d been at the centre of an attempted apprehension of a suspect in the early hours of the morning. On Vauxhall Bridge, he and I had had a difference of opinion about the wisdom of plunging into the Thames. He’d won. His victory, though, was short-lived and his body had been pulled out of the river by the Marine Policing Unit some days later. I fared a little better, managing to cling to some lines and be fished out like floating jetsom. For weeks afterwards I looked like the loser of a prize-title fight, and, specifically, my nose had been broken just above the bridge. As it had happened in the line of duty, the Met was paying to get it put right.

  Mr Induri sat me down, shone bright lights, poked something long and sharp up both nostrils and took photographs from so many angles I wondered if he’d missed his vocation as a portrait photographer. Finally he projected one of the shots on to a white board behind his desk and picked up a felt-tip pen.

  ‘I like to take a conservative approach,’ he said, redrawing the outline of my nose in a thin black line. ‘When I work on a nose, I want the end result to be the patient looking better, not different. In your case, we’re largely trying to sort out some damage and get back to where we were before. Is that fair?’

  I agreed that it was, and then he asked me if I was involved in the investigation into the Aamir Chowdhury murder. I nodded warily.

  ‘I knew Aamir,’ he said, adding a few curves to the end of the nose. ‘He was doing a rotation with me here when it happened. Have you made any arrests yet?’

  This was the first time I’d come across someone who had actually known Chowdhury. I’d been aware that he worked at St Thomas’s, but it’s a big hospital.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘It was a terrible thing to happen. And the investigation is still ongoing, I’m afraid.’

  As Mr Induri stepped back to consider his line-drawings from a different angle, something made me ask, ‘Did you know him well?’

  ‘Rhinoplasty is a mixture of science and art,’ he answered, drawing more lines around the nose on the white board, as though the subject of Chowdhury had never come up. ‘The nose has to work. Fitness is very important to you, I see that from your file. You need to be able to breathe easily and well.’

  I agreed again. Since my nose had been broken, it had been difficult to keep up my usual regime of exercise. The oxygen just wasn’t getting through the way it used to.

  ‘Aamir kept himself to himself,’ said Mr Induri. ‘Young men from devout Islamic backgrounds often do. No one seems to have known him too well. But he was intelligent and hard-working. Always very polite. And respectful – towards the patients as well as his colleagues. It was a dreadful thing.’

  ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Especially for his family.’

  Mr Induri placed his hands on his hips, looking from my face to the one on the white board. ‘Unimaginable,’ he agreed, before bending forward at the waist, removing his glasses and peering at me. ‘This is not just about science. A surgeon needs a good eye,’ he said. ‘You need to know what looks good. I like to think I know what looks good.’

  ‘I hope so,’ I said, as he turned from me once more. ‘I think I saw his sister last night. At the park where it happened.’

  Mr Induri nodded. ‘Yes, I think he mentioned sisters,’ he said. ‘And brothers, too. I got the impression of a large family. Now, we can smooth out these bumps and ridges fairly easily. The scarring will be around the nostrils and not noticeable after the first few weeks.’

  I didn’t want to think about scars. ‘Did you ever meet any of his family?’

  ‘No. I think I saw a lady waiting for him outside one day – she could have been a sister … We’ll have to take some tissue from your scalp and maybe even some cartilage from your ear, so there’ll be secondary healing sites, but nothing to cause us too much concern. What I would really be tempted to do, in your case, is make it a bit longer. Can you see? ’

  I looked again at the picture on the wall. Mr Induri had extended the length of my nose by roughly a quarter of a centimetre, giving something to my face I didn’t think I’d seen before. Then he flicked photographs to a profile shot and started drawing again.

  ‘You’ll now have perfect classical proportions,’ he said. ‘Before, you were a tiny bit snubbed. Now, perfect.’

  As I left the hospital, I realized I had to talk to Aamir Chowdhury’s sister, if indeed it had been her in the park the previous night. And also that I’d just agreed to spending several thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on giving myself a bigger nose.


  ‘I’M NOT SURE, Lacey. Any suggestion that we’re being insensitive could reflect very badly on us right now.’

  ‘I know. Which is why I need something from you. Something new to talk to them about. And I was with him when he died. It’s natural
I would want to visit them at some stage, isn’t it?’

  ‘We’re on a real knife-edge with this one. Maybe I’d better come with you.’

  I hadn’t told DI Tulloch that I was in my car at the end of the street where Aamir Chowdhury’s family lived, that I was seconds away from knocking on their door. I wasn’t even sure what I hoped to gain. I just knew there was something odd about the woman in the park and that odd things were always worth following up. Tulloch had agreed with me that it was unusual, but was nervous about my going to visit them alone.

  ‘Ma’am, no disrespect, but you can be a bit scary at times. And this girl could be very young. No one’s scared of me.’

  ‘Well, I’m a long way from agreeing with you on that one. OK, it’s worth a go. What are you wearing?’

  Shit, I hadn’t thought of that. ‘Trousers,’ I admitted, ‘but otherwise pretty respectable. Shirt, sweater. Do I need a headscarf?’

  ‘No, you’ll be fine. Just be modest and respectful. Can you manage that?’

  Given that she was on the end of a phone line and couldn’t see me, I allowed myself to bristle. ‘It’ll be a push, but I’ll give it my best shot.’

  ‘Ring me the minute you’re done.’

  An evening meal was being prepared as I was led along the narrow hall of the Chowdhury house. I’d removed my shoes just inside the front door; one of Tulloch’s last-minute pieces of advice had been that domestic cleanliness is very important to Muslims. The young man in his twenties who’d answered my knock had taken my coat.

  Somewhere in the house I could hear a television set, then silence and the opening of an upstairs door. I had a sense of the house coming together, of it focusing on one common point of attention. Me.

  I followed the man, who I assumed was Aamir’s younger brother, into a large open-plan kitchen that was largely Western in décor and awash with floral prints. There was one painting on the wall, of a scene that I thought was probably Mecca, and several framed verses in Islamic calligraphy. Otherwise, only the bookshelves which covered the wall around the fireplace hinted at the Asian ancestry of the room’s occupants. And the occupants themselves, of course.

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