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If snow hadnt fallen a l.., p.5

If Snow Hadn't Fallen (A Lacey Flint Short Story), page 5


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

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  ‘I know,’ I agreed, staring at the door with the chipped blue paintwork. ‘Let’s just get on with it.’

  We were in my car outside the home of Paul and Robert Bailey, two of the suspects in the Aamir Chowdhury murder. The Bailey brothers, nineteen and twenty-two respectively, lived with their mother and several younger siblings in a council flat roughly a mile from the park where Aamir had died. The woman in the passenger seat was Emma Boston, a freelance journalist whom I’d met in September, when the killer terrorizing London had used us both as pawns in an increasingly disturbing and violent game. Emma wasn’t a friend – I don’t make friends – but she was someone I was learning to respect and trust. More importantly, she wasn’t afraid to break the rules occasionally.

  Both Bailey brothers had been in trouble in the past. In addition to the incident in Karim’s shop, the elder, Robert, had spent six months in prison for handling stolen goods and a similar length of time in a young offenders’ institution for selling class B drugs. Paul, the younger brother, was the nasty one. Along with a string of charges and cautions in the five years that he’d been known to the local police, Paul had been the main suspect in the brutal beating of a young Asian man twelve months earlier. No one had any doubts that he’d done it, but the evidence to prosecute just hadn’t been there and he’d walked free.

  It took a long time for anyone to answer Emma’s knock. Eventually, the door was opened by an emaciated, wan-faced woman with two inches of grey roots showing in her dyed black hair. She could have been in her early sixties. We knew, because we’d checked, that the boys’ mother was thirty-nine. We explained that we were reporters, working on a story about wrongful arrests, but she didn’t seem to be taking much in. In fact, she’d been about to close the door on us when Emma mentioned the possibility of a fee. The prospect of cash worked like a charm and we were shown along a dark corridor lined with cardboard boxes and into a poky room that smelled of stale beer, smoke and body odours I didn’t want to think too much about. There were three men in the room. Emma showed them her press pass and introduced herself.

  Whilst we talked, the mother sat huddled in a chair in the corner, her eyes flickering from the TV screen to us and back again. I’m not sure she took in anything much.

  Although I’d seen photographs, it was difficult at first to tell which Bailey brother was which. Both were around five foot nine or ten, with a muscular build that was verging on fat and the grey complexion of people who’ve never eaten a vegetable in their lives. One had a slightly twisted face, the other a higher hairline. I learned after a few minutes that the twisted face with the dark-blue hooded sweatshirt was Paul. Robert had the receding hair and was wearing an Arsenal shirt with ketchup stains down the front. There was a third man in the room, whom we recognized as twenty-year-old Daniel Fisher, another of the five suspects, who lived near by.

  Emma had introduced me, as we’d agreed, as her assistant, without giving my name. My role was to observe, make notes and keep as quiet as possible. If these three men were guilty, they and I had had a very close encounter in the park that night. I wanted to get a closer look, to hear their voices, see if anything rang a bell. More importantly, I was keeping a sharp lookout for any sign that they recognized me. So far as I could tell, there had been nothing from either Bailey brother. They’d glanced at me and then turned their attention to Emma. Fisher, though, was a different story. He was watching me.

  If we learned anything today, Emma would pass it on to Tulloch. Her reward, if anything came of it, would be a story.

  ‘I’m looking into the possibility that you were set up,’ said Emma, as the Bailey boys fidgeted, scratched and sniffed. Fisher kept his eyes on me and on the notepad on my lap. ‘Due to pressure to meet targets, the Met have been keeping lists of young white men believed to have been involved in racial incidents in the past.’

  Robert Bailey pulled his face into something between a sneer and a sulk.

  ‘We think it’s quite likely,’ Emma went on, ‘that when something more serious occurs, the Met go through the list, find faces that seem to fit and tailor the facts to achieve an early result.’

  It was complete nonsense, but we needed these three to trust us. The younger Bailey brother enthusiastically agreed that he wouldn’t be at all surprised if Emma was completely right and that he’d long suspected as much himself. Of course, he didn’t use quite those words.

  Fisher was still watching me. In fairness, though, he seemed more interested in what I was writing than in my face.

  ‘I just need a bit of background to start with,’ said Emma. ‘You both live here with Mrs Bailey and two younger brothers. Any sisters?’

  We planned to ask about all the boys’ families in order to identify any young women. Back at the office, I’d put faces to names and see if any of the gang’s relatives were likely candidates for my woman in black. It took a while, because all the men really wanted to do was complain about police ignorance, and the Paki git who’d shopped them when they’d been nowhere near the effing park. After a bit of prompting, though, we found out that between them the gang had four sisters. I wrote down their names and ages.

  ‘I understand that young white women in this area receive a lot of unwanted attention from Asian men,’ said Emma, who was sticking to her script perfectly. ‘That they can be seen as easy targets.’

  With an impressive number of expletives, Robert Bailey agreed that young white women were often seen as easy pickings by men from Asia and the Middle East.

  ‘What about Aamir Chowdhury?’ asked Emma. ‘Did any of the women you know mention that he’d made a particular nuisance of himself?’

  For the first time, the men seemed less sure of themselves. The Bailey brothers looked at each other. Fisher dropped his eyes to the carpet.

  ‘Did he bother any of your sisters?’ I asked, unable to keep quiet any longer. All three looked directly at me. Fisher’s eyes narrowed.

  ‘Never had no hassle like that with him,’ said Robert Bailey, after a moment.

  ‘He filed several complaints against the five of you,’ said Emma. ‘For bothering him at home and for harassment of Mr Karim. And he was a witness in a shoplifting incident that you were involved in about a year ago.’

  ‘Fucking fix,’ muttered Fisher.

  ‘Just a bit of banter, innit?’ said Paul. ‘Never meant nuffink by it.’

  According to the reports, the ‘bit of banter’ had included threatening and abusive racial taunts, obscene graffiti on property and broken windows. Aamir’s car tyres had been slashed several times and the paintwork of his car scratched.

  But you heard of similar problems all over London. They rarely ended in the extreme violence that Aamir had suffered.

  ‘We’ve heard a rumour that Aamir was seeing a white girl,’ I said. ‘Possibly even a married woman, and that that was the reason behind the attack. Did you ever hear anything like that?’

  Fisher and the younger Bailey stared at me. Robert shook his head.

  ‘Any of you married?’ I asked, although I knew that none of the five were. ‘What about long-term girlfriends? Might he have been bothering one of them?’

  ‘I seen you somewhere before?’ asked Fisher, and at my side I saw Emma give a tiny, nervous start.

  I looked up and met Fisher’s eyes. They were dark, like his hair. His skin was sallow and his features thin and angular. ‘It’s possible,’ I said. ‘I don’t live too far away. Very close to the park, actually.’

  He nodded and seemed to lose interest.

  ‘Can you think of any reason why Aamir Chowdhury would have been attacked in the way he was?’ asked Emma. It was the last question we’d planned. We would leave after this.

  ‘He was a black twat,’ said Fisher. ‘Got what he deserved. But the filth won’t pin it on us. ’Cos we weren’t there.’

  We got up to leave, not without handing over cash, and Robert Bailey came with us to the door – more, I think, to make sure we left than out of politenes
s. Emma went first, I followed, and, approaching from the opposite direction, I saw what had been hidden from view as we had come in. A dark-blue coat, hanging amidst others from hooks on the wall. With a triangular fluorescent patch on the shoulder.


  ‘FLINT, WHAT HAVE you been up to?’

  Trouble. When DI Tulloch called me Flint, it meant she was seriously pissed off. I switched my mobile on to hands-free.

  I was stuck in traffic on Holland Park Avenue, having dropped Emma off at her Shepherd’s Bush flat a few minutes ago. It’s a glitzy part of London, Holland Park, and if you stare for long enough at its houses, cars and gilded, gift-wrapped shops, you might forget that the presents in the windows are just empty boxes, and that for everyone who can afford to live and shop here, there will be someone else huddled in the cold, for whom Christmas is nothing more than an aching reminder of a broken life.

  In the meantime, Tulloch was still waiting for me to tell her how I’d spent the last few hours.

  ‘It’s my day off, Ma’am,’ I tried. ‘I met a friend for a drink. Just dropped her off.’

  ‘And, earlier, you hung around Amelia Chowdhury’s school, waiting for her to come out,’ said Tulloch as the traffic lights changed and I pulled forward again. ‘The family have filed a complaint against you.’

  ‘For what, exactly?’ I asked, as a rather soggy Santa Claus ran out in front of the car and raised his hand to thank me for not turning him into road pizza.

  ‘For questioning a vulnerable juvenile without the permission of her parents,’ said Tulloch. ‘Of course, had I let slip you were doing it without the authorization of the Met, you really would be in trouble.’

  ‘Siblings often know more than parents,’ I replied. ‘If Amelia knows something about Aamir that’s important, she’s far more likely to tell us when the parents aren’t around.’

  ‘Flint, can I remind you that the Chowdhury family are the victims here? The last thing we need right now are accusations flying around that we are not investigating this case properly and that we’re trying to suggest Aamir contributed to his own death.’

  ‘No disrespect, Ma’am, but the Chowdhury family aren’t the victims,’ I said. ‘Aamir was the victim and you are the last person I’d expect to shy away from questions that need to be asked just because they’re insensitive.’

  Tulloch was silent.

  ‘I apologize,’ I said. ‘That was uncalled for.’

  ‘No, you’re quite right. Where are you?’

  ‘Just coming up to Notting Hill Gate.’

  ‘You can be with me in twenty minutes,’ she said, and gave me an address I recognized. It was the flat where Aamir Chowdhury had lived.

  I drove forward a few yards, wondering whether I’d confess about my other unauthorized interview that day. Knowing what I’d done would put Tulloch in a difficult position and for no real gain. OK, Daniel Fisher had seemed to recognize me, but he and I both lived within a mile of each other. True, there’d been a jacket in the hallway just like the one the mysterious man in my street had been wearing, but there were plenty others like it in London. Both facts validated the prime-suspect status of the gang, but neither took us anywhere closer to proving their guilt.

  I stopped again outside a chocolate shop festooned with gold Venetian masks. They were rich, gorgeous creations, lavish with feathers, ribbons and diamanté, but each one had eyes that were black and empty. I sat there, waiting for the lights to change, thinking that my woman in black was the exact opposite of these elaborate masks. She was nothing but eyes. And then I remembered the other masks I’d seen recently, the ones worn by Aamir’s killers, and wondered if I’d ever be able to look at a mask again without shuddering.

  I fixed my eyes straight ahead on the traffic, the lights, the people scurrying along the pavement, and thought that their pre-Christmas stress was almost visible, hovering above them like warm breath in cold air.

  I don’t do Christmas. With no family and little in the way of friends, it’s a bit tricky. If I’m not working, I stock up on DVDs and library books and batten down the hatches. This year, though, I had leave booked. This year I planned to spend the day with someone who by then would be serving a life sentence for multiple murder.

  Hey, maybe this year would be different.

  ‘You have to be like Caesar’s wife in a case like this,’ said Tulloch half an hour later, when I joined her on Aamir’s doorstep and kicked the snow off my boots. ‘We all do.’

  ‘Whiter than white?’ I suggested. Tulloch glared and then gestured for me to go ahead.

  Aamir’s flat was on the first floor of an early-twentieth-century house. At the top of the stairs, I spotted the crime-scene tape around one of the doors and stepped to one side. Tulloch unlocked the door.

  The flat was four good-sized rooms – living, bed, bath and kitchen – and was contemporary and Western in style. It did not seem like the home of a scion of the Chowdhury family. The living space was decorated in shades of oatmeal and ivory. Apart from traces of grey fingerprint powder, it was immaculately tidy.

  ‘Quite stylish, isn’t it?’ Tulloch said.

  ‘Feels like the sort of place you would live in,’ I replied, as I stepped further into the room and peered into a gleaming white kitchen. The stark cooking area bore no resemblance to the crowded kitchen at the Chowdhury family home, where every work surface was crowded with implements and exotic ingredients and gleaming copper hung from every inch of ceiling.

  ‘I wanted you to see it,’ she went on, ‘because of your theory that Aamir might have been seeing a white woman. I admit this does feel to me like the taste of an educated Western woman.’

  She was right. I thought briefly of the young women on the list I’d made at the Baileys’ house, the sisters and girlfriends of the suspects, and simply couldn’t see a woman from that background in this flat.

  I began a slow prowl around the room. The bookshelf was busy, but the books seemed to be mainly medical textbooks. On the top shelf was something book-shaped wrapped in purple cloth.

  ‘That’ll be the Koran,’ said Tulloch, who was watching me. ‘There’s also a prayer mat in a bedroom cupboard.

  ‘Shoplifting incident aside, I’d barely expect someone like Aamir to come on to the radar screen of our five suspects,’ I said. ‘He was educated, a doctor, he obviously had money. It doesn’t make sense.’

  ‘He spent a lot of time in their neighbourhood,’ said Tulloch. ‘His own family lived close by. A lot of people in the area report seeing him or his car fairly regularly.’

  ‘Do you burn someone to death because they’ve caught you shoplifting?’

  ‘Most racist murders I can think of are provoked by much less. Isn’t that the point? It’s about skin colour, not actions.’

  I reached the bedroom and paused on the threshold. How exactly, I wondered, had Aamir’s parents felt about the double bed in the room? Weren’t Muslim men supposed to be celibate until marriage? Or, if some level of experimentation were permitted, surely they wouldn’t entertain their partners at home?

  ‘Anything on the Shahid Karim money-laundering lead?’ I called back over my shoulder.

  ‘Nothing we can prove so far,’ replied Tulloch. ‘Karim seems to be quite close to Aamir’s older brother. We’re keeping an eye on it.’

  On the wall facing me was a large, framed photograph of a modern ballet. Lilac smoke filled a large, empty space in which androgynous figures stretched and twisted their bodies into impossible shapes. In the forefront was a male figure wearing leggings that matched his pale-brown skin so closely he almost looked nude. Both his arms were stretched high, and balanced on his hands in a manner that looked impossible, certainly for any length of time, was a waif-like fair-haired woman with large eyes and a heart-shaped face. There was something about the way she hung in mid-air, head back, hair flowing down, that looked decidedly sensual.

  ‘That’s unusual,’ said Tulloch, joining me in the doorway. ‘Muslims don’t usually d
isplay images of people on their walls. Not even family photographs.’

  I remembered the lack of photographs in the Chowdhury home and stepped closer.

  ‘Obviously a dance fan, though,’ she went on. ‘He had two tickets to see the Rambert Dance Company three days after he died. We have no idea who he was planning to go with.’

  ‘That’s not the Rambert,’ I said, looking at the printed text in the bottom left-hand corner of the poster, then back up again at the beautiful, slender woman at its centre. ‘London City Ballet. Recent production. Do you think we can find out who she is?’

  Tulloch stepped closer and took a photograph of the poster with her phone. ‘I’m sure we can,’ she said.

  She turned to leave the room, then looked back at me. ‘What?’ she said.

  ‘Not sure,’ I replied, still looking at the poster. ‘But there’s been something bothering me about the night Aamir was killed, something I’m missing, and for some reason, being here is making me think of it again.’

  ‘Something you saw or heard but that didn’t register properly?’

  ‘Probably. It’s no good, I just can’t think.’

  ‘So don’t force it.’

  I followed her into the living room. ‘Any feminine toiletries in the bathroom?’ I asked.

  She shook her head. ‘Just male stuff.’

  ‘I still think he had a girlfriend,’ I said.

  ‘Your mysterious woman in black,’ said Tulloch. ‘Did she show up again?’

  I told her about my stake-out the previous evening. When I got to the part about the woman foraging in the bin for food, her face took on a sceptical look.

  ‘Lacey, she sounds like one of the homeless. She probably found the burka in a dustbin somewhere and is wearing it for warmth.’

  ‘So why’s she hanging around the park?’

  ‘Same reason anyone else would,’ said Tulloch. ‘Curiosity. To relieve the boredom. On the off-chance someone leaves something valuable behind amongst the tributes.’

  I thought back. The woman I’d seen, albeit cloaked in loose black robes, had looked strong and agile. Homeless people tend not to be. I was still in the bedroom doorway and my eyes went back to the ballet poster. Dancers were notoriously strong and fit.

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