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If snow hadnt fallen a l.., p.4

If Snow Hadn't Fallen (A Lacey Flint Short Story), page 4


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

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  There were no photographs anywhere.

  As I appeared, a man in his fifties rose to meet me. He’d been sitting in a chair by an open fire, reading a newspaper. He folded it carefully and inclined his head before stepping forward and holding out his hand for me to shake.

  ‘I’m Hassam Chowdhury,’ he told me. ‘Detective Flint, is that right?’

  I would hardly have known him for the semi-crazed, grief-stricken man I remembered from the park. This man was traditionally dressed in loose cotton trousers and a long pale-brown tunic. He wore a knitted cardigan in deference to the cold, but it didn’t seem at odds with the rest of the outfit. His hair was cut short, his hairline receding, but there was no grey in his beard. He was tall and well-built, and every movement he made seemed considered and precise.

  I heard a sound behind me and turned to see another man enter the room. Early thirties. Traditionally dressed. Bearded. This would be the eldest son. Aamir had been the second son.

  ‘I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr Chowdhury,’ I said, before turning towards the women in the room. ‘For all your family’s loss.’

  The women barely acknowledged me, continuing with their food preparation. I could smell lamb, frying onions and something sharp that was making the insides of my nostrils twitch. The kitchen was a little old-fashioned. Several dozen gleaming copper pans and utensils hanging from the ceiling gave it an exotic appearance, as did the tied bunches of dried herbs interspersed among them.

  There were four women. The short, plump lady in her fifties I recognized as Aamir’s mother. Another, who looked much older, was presumably Mrs Chowdhury senior. A woman in her mid twenties was chopping dried apricots, and the youngest, still a schoolgirl, sat at the table, books spread out in front of her.

  All four wore traditional Pakistani dress: flowing trousers and embroidered tunics, headscarves that had been allowed to fall loose around their shoulders. I paid particular attention to the two younger women. The one standing might be tall enough to be my woman in black, but I wasn’t sure. She had a thin, proud face and a long, slender nose. Her eyes, when they looked into mine, were black and impossible to read. The younger girl never once looked up.

  Mr Chowdhury motioned that I should sit down and I took the armchair on the other side of the fire. All the time he and I were talking, the women carried on with their work. Their movements were slow and quiet. They said nothing to each other. I knew they were aware of every move I made and every word I said.

  ‘You have something new to tell us?’ Mr Chowdhury asked.

  ‘It’s only a small thing, but we thought you would appreciate knowing,’ I said. ‘The masks that were found on Union Street, which we believe were worn by your son’s attackers, have been examined by our forensic experts and we’ve just had the report back. On one of the masks, they found very small traces of DNA.’

  The reaction was muted but clear. I sensed the two sons moving behind me. Their father seemed to lean a little closer.

  ‘Unfortunately, it doesn’t take us much further forward at this stage,’ I went on quickly, because Tulloch had drummed it into me that I must not give them false hope. ‘I don’t know how much you know about DNA, but it doesn’t always give the certain answers that people seem to expect.’

  One of the sons said something in Urdu to the other.

  ‘Meaning?’ asked the father.

  ‘Because the five men we arrested that night are all known to the police,’ I went on, ‘we have their DNA on record. It’s been standard procedure for some time when people are taken into custody. I’m afraid, though, that we haven’t been able to establish a match between any of them and the DNA we found on the mask. We’re sending it back to be examined again. We may find more a second time. On the other hand, it could have come from someone completely unconnected with the attack. The person who sold the masks, for example.’

  Mr Chowdhury nodded his head slowly.

  ‘The reason we wanted you to know,’ I said, ‘is that if news gets out that we’ve found DNA and not brought any charges, people could get very angry. The general public seem to equate DNA with cast-iron proof. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.’

  ‘I understand,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’

  ‘There is another reason why I wanted to come here this evening,’ I said. ‘I was in the park the night your son was killed. I live very close by and I was on my way home when I heard the call from our Control room.’

  The man visibly stiffened. ‘You were the off-duty police officer we heard about?’

  I agreed that I was. ‘I saw your son’s attackers,’ I went on. ‘As far as we know, I’m the only witness of the attack itself and it’s largely my fault that the police don’t have a better description of them. It was dark and it happened very quickly, but I wanted you to know how sorry I am about that.’

  ‘Your sorrow does not bring my brother back. And it does not compare to ours.’

  I turned to face the son who’d spoken. The youngest – and the only one not wearing traditional dress. ‘I know that,’ I said.

  ‘You put the flames out,’ said the father, and I was glad to turn away from the accusation I could see in his son’s eyes. ‘And you put water on his burning skin. He would have suffered much more had it not been for you.’

  For a second the man’s pain shimmered across his face. He almost seemed about to break down again, to scream the way he had in the park. Then it was gone.

  ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t save him,’ I said. ‘I won’t disturb you any longer.’

  I got up and took a card from my pocket. ‘If you need to contact me at any time,’ I said, leaving it on the table. I avoided looking at any of the women, but I made sure the card was close to the girl doing homework.

  ‘If you don’t mind my asking,’ I said, just before I left the room, ‘was your son engaged to be married?’

  All movement in the kitchen stopped.

  ‘Why do you ask?’ said Mr Chowdhury.

  ‘I know he didn’t live here with you,’ I said, ‘and I understand that’s quite unusual in your culture. I just wondered if he was preparing to be married.’

  ‘My son was a doctor at St Thomas’s,’ he replied. ‘He worked on call and had to be within a twenty-minute journey of the hospital. He used to say that it made very little difference, that my wife and my daughters were round at his flat so much that it never really felt as though he’d moved out.’

  I risked a smile, and saw it returned. He made a strange, old-fashioned, Eastern gesture. I’d never seen it before, but it had the feel of a blessing about it. As I left, I turned to the mother one last time. She met my eyes with her large, brown ones and I had a feeling that however long I stood there, she would continue looking back.

  ‘I don’t know, Ma’am,’ I said over the phone to Tulloch a few seconds later. ‘I left a card behind so they can contact me if they choose, but you were right, it probably was a waste of time.’

  ‘Probably,’ she agreed. ‘There was something I should have mentioned before, but I just didn’t think of it. I tried to call you back, but you must have put your phone on silent.’

  I pulled my phone out. Sure enough, one missed call from Tulloch.

  ‘The Chowdhury family are Pakistani in origin,’ Tulloch went on. ‘Both parents were born there. But the burka isn’t traditionally worn by women from Pakistan. There are a few exceptions, but it’s generally women from the Arabian countries – you know, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran – who cover themselves completely. Whoever you saw in the park last night, we can’t assume it was a family member.’

  I hadn’t thought of that and admitted as much.

  ‘Chin up, Flint, we’ll get there.’ Tulloch sounded a lot more optimistic than I did. ‘We’ve actually got another lead,’ she went on.

  ‘Oh? Anything you can share?’

  ‘Let’s just say our prime witness, Mr Karim, isn’t the upstanding citizen he’d have us believe. We think he’s involved in
some small-scale money laundering. And he’s very close to the Chowdhury family. It’s not impossible either that Aamir was involved too and they had a difference of opinion professionally, or that Aamir found out and was threatening to blow the whistle. Either way, we’re going to bring him in first thing tomorrow.’

  That certainly was a good lead. There had always been something about Karim’s testimony that had struck me as just a bit too convenient.

  ‘Fingers crossed,’ I said.

  ‘In the meantime, I’m at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital,’ she said.

  ‘How is he?’ I asked.

  ‘Sore, tired, fighting off an infection, can’t stand on his feet for more than five minutes without collapsing, and grouchy as a bear with an axe in its skull. The bad news is, he’s probably going to live.’

  He was Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury, Dana’s best friend and my – my what, exactly? I was still trying to work that one out for myself.

  ‘I’m sure he’d like to see you,’ she said in a casual voice that was fooling no one, least of all me. I’d known Mark Joesbury just three months, and in that time he’d arrested me on suspicion of murder and I’d got him shot. Last time I’d seen him he’d been minutes away from bleeding to death. As had I. I raised my left hand and the sleeve of my coat fell back just enough for me to see the bandage. The wound beneath was healing; skin is pretty efficient that way. Wounds inside were a different matter entirely.

  See him? All I had to do was walk through the door of the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, ride the lift a few floors and there he’d be, the man who’d spent most of our short acquaintance believing me to be a cold-blooded killer. He could never know just how close to the mark he’d been. So I could not go to see Mark Joesbury. Not now; probably not ever.

  ‘You know what, Ma’am?’ I said. ‘I think the Chowdhury family know more than they’re telling us. When I asked if Aamir was about to get married, there was a definite reaction. Do you think he could have been seeing a white girl? That maybe it was a Romeo and Juliet thing?’

  ‘If he was seeing a white girl, I wouldn’t expect her to be hanging round the murder scene in a burka, would you?’

  Well, there was no arguing with that one. But someone was hanging round the murder scene in a burka, and whilst I didn’t yet know why, I had a feeling it was important.


  I DROVE HOME, made a flask of hot coffee, found a waterproof-backed rug, a torch and a pair of binoculars and left the flat again. I live in the basement of a Victorian house with three further floors. I’m the only one with my own front door, but because post for me often gets pushed through the main letterbox, I have a key to the upper part of the house.

  The occupant of the first-floor flat was watching TV and I walked quietly past and up to the second floor. There were two doors at the top of the stairs: the first led to the remaining flat in the building, the other out on to the flat roof.

  I’d only been up here once before, but I remembered the views around this part of London being reasonably good. From my basement flat or my garden I hadn’t a hope of being able to see into the park, but I knew the top floors of these houses offered a pretty good view. Which meant that from the roof would be even better. If my woman in black were to return this evening, I’d see her.

  I stepped out of the roof door beneath a cloud that looked close enough to touch and into air that stung like tiny needles. More snow had been forecast and, judging from what was happening above me, I didn’t imagine it was too far away. I found a chimney block that would offer some shelter from the wind, cleared away the snow around it and settled down to wait.

  Up on the rooftop, I was too high to see the slush, or the footprints, or the yellow pools where animals had urinated. Up here the purity of the snow covering was still complete and the colours of the city, so much richer at this time of year, were intensified as the white background reflected them back.

  Despite the waterproof rug wrapped around and beneath me, it was bitterly cold. Even with regular doses of hot coffee, I soon felt as though even getting up would be too hard. But I had a perfect view of the park. I watched a dog, sniffing frantically the way they always seem to do in the snow, dragging its owner around the perimeter. I saw two teenage boys, hoods covering their faces and jackets pulled up around their ears, jog across the recreation ground and disappear into the distance. I watched headlights continually criss-crossing the city’s roads until I was so mesmerized I could barely blink.

  I think I’d fallen into a cold-induced stupor when she finally appeared. I must have watched her for several seconds before it dawned on me that she was actually there. I pushed myself up from the chimney. My watch told me I’d been waiting an hour. I hadn’t noticed her arrive, or slip into the park between the railings. I just saw her flowing black robes moving over the snow towards the place where Aamir had fallen. She reached the spot and crouched low like someone doubled up in pain. This was grief, plain and simple. This was grief so painful she was having difficulty functioning. This woman, whoever she might be, had loved Aamir Chowdhury, was devastated by his death.

  She stayed still for long minutes. Long enough for me to take several photographs, although I had no idea how well they’d come out. Long enough for me to focus the binoculars, although even with their help I couldn’t see much more than I already knew. Young, tall and slim, graceful. I couldn’t decide whether to run down in the hope of heading her off, or wait and see what she did. When I was just about to leave, she moved. Faster this time, but not heading for the way out. She walked to the covered seating area and then to the waste-bin fastened to one wall.

  I watched as she peered into the bin. She seemed to be moving the rubbish around, to be looking for something. I adjusted the focus on the binoculars and saw her lift something out. She held it to the light, then raised her veil and pushed it beneath. Movement beneath the veil made it pretty obvious what she was doing. She was eating whatever she’d just taken from the bin.

  The woman in black was starving.


  I WASN’T WORKING the next day, which was lucky, because DI Tulloch would never have given me permission to do what I planned. My first stop was at St Thomas’s hospital. I found Mr Induri, explained that the visit was in connection with my work rather than his, and he was happy enough to walk me to the cafeteria and introduce me to some of his younger colleagues, who’d also known Aamir. I talked to them for as long as they could spare, and as subtly as I could kept turning to the subject of Aamir’s love life. Did he date anyone on the hospital staff? Was there anyone he was particularly friendly with? When I came across a young, good-looking woman, I paid particular attention. Women in love have a habit of giving themselves away.

  After three hours, I was getting suspicious glances from hospital security and I’d learned nothing. Aamir had been universally respected and valued as a young doctor, but nobody had befriended him. Not because of anything they didn’t like, they added quickly, but because he had given so little of himself away. Those who knew anything about his background and culture told me that it would have been highly unusual for him to have a girlfriend. There would probably have been an arranged marriage in line for him: a young girl of good family, perhaps born and brought up in Pakistan, waiting somewhere in the wings.

  From the hospital, I went to the Islamia girls school that Aamir’s sister Amelia attended. I watched several dozen girls leave the premises and managed to spot her as she walked past me.

  ‘Hello, Amelia. I know this is distressing, but I really want to find out what happened to your brother,’ I said.

  After the first shock of recognition, she refused to look me in the eye. ‘We know what happened to my brother,’ she replied to the air just to the left of my shoulder. ‘And we know at whose hands. You simply do not have the competence to prove it.’

  According to the file, this girl was fourteen.

  ‘I just want to find out a bit more about his life,’ I tried agai
n. ‘Siblings often confide in each other. Tell each other things they wouldn’t tell their parents.’

  A shudder seemed to run through her entire body. ‘Dutiful sons and daughters keep nothing from their parents,’ she told me.

  ‘Can you think of anyone I can talk to?’ I asked. ‘Anyone he was friends with? I’ve been to the hospital, but no one seems to have known him very well, although they all speak highly of him.’

  She continued to look past me, as though if she concentrated hard enough I would just disappear.

  ‘He challenged those men in the newsagent’s shop last year,’ she said angrily. ‘He saw them stealing and he kept them there until the police arrived. His courage got him killed.’

  ‘We know that he was brave,’ I said. ‘Everyone I’ve spoken to admired him. It’s important to us that we find out what happened.’

  ‘Just words.’ She tried to push past me.

  ‘I saw a woman last night in the park where he died. A veiled woman. Was it you?’

  Her eyes met mine then. She was shocked, maybe a bit scared, and I pressed home my advantage.

  ‘Amelia, he was a young man. Cultural and religious constraints aside, he must have had a life.’

  ‘Amelia!’ The woman pushing her way towards us wasn’t someone I recognized. She was older than the girls around us – someone’s mother, maybe, or older sister. She and Amelia had a rapid exchange in Urdu. Then the older woman faced me.

  ‘You will excuse us now,’ she said. ‘If you have more questions, you must ask Amelia’s parents.’

  Taking Amelia by the shoulder, she steered her away and the two of them walked off down the street.


  ‘YOU’LL BE IN a whole heap of shit if anyone finds out you’ve done this,’ said Emma.

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