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If snow hadnt fallen a l.., p.7

If Snow Hadn't Fallen (A Lacey Flint Short Story), page 7

 

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


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  My phone! I’d just made a call on a mobile phone in a fog of flammable fumes. Just about the worst thing I could have done except … Don’t switch on the lights! For God’s sake, Lacey, don’t switch on the lights.

  The letter-box was pushed against my fingers again and this time it moved. So I ran. I know, it was stupid, it was an act of mindless panic, but I couldn’t help it. I ran to the bathroom and grabbed every towel I could lay my hands on. The only really effective way of dealing with petrol fires is by using specially made chemical foam, and I didn’t have any of that. Failing a foam-filled fire extinguisher, my best chance would be to smother the fire with sand (didn’t have that either) or something heavy enough to separate it from oxygen. Like wet towels. I ran the bath and basin taps to soak the towels and, a tiny bit reassured that I hadn’t yet heard an explosion, risked opening the bathroom door again.

  I couldn’t hear a thing. Not even the traffic outside.

  I ran across the living room and shoved the smallest of the towels into the letter-box to jamb it shut. The largest I wrapped round myself, leaving just the smallest gap to see out of.

  Still no sound from outside. Did I dare hope they’d gone? Then the best and most beautiful sound in the world. That of a police siren, heading my way.

  18

  ‘WE DIDN’T RELEASE information about the masks,’ said Anderson. ‘Or rather, we said the assailants were masked, but without giving any details. Lacey, are you sure about the ones you saw tonight?’

  Half an hour later, I was having another new experience – being interviewed in bed. My flat was awash with police officers and firefighters. The firemen were cleaning up the petrol and nailing the letter-box shut; the coppers – those who weren’t talking to me – were searching the garden. Anderson had given me time to shower, then, seeing me shivering, had suggested I sit on the bed and wrap the duvet around myself. Mizon had made me strong, sweet tea.

  ‘Positive,’ I said. ‘Alien, goblin, wolf. Wolf seemed to be in charge again. The Queen and the zombie must have been out front.’ I half laughed, managing to splutter tea down my chin. ‘All the time I was trying to hold the letter-box shut, I kept seeing HM,’ I went on, ‘in one of those pearl-encrusted brocade dresses she wears, trying to light a match on her tiara.’

  I didn’t need to glance up to know exactly what kind of look was being shared above my head.

  ‘Can’t be the same masks, though, Sarge,’ said Mizon. ‘Aren’t they in the evidence store back at the station?’

  ‘They certainly should be,’ agreed Anderson. ‘So our friends bought exact replicas, because they knew that’s what would put the wind up Lacey the most.’

  ‘When they go down for twenty-five years, I’m sure the knowledge that they were spot on will prove some comfort,’ I said, more to keep up team morale than because I had any real confidence that the arrest and conviction would come about.

  A blast of cold air hit us as Tulloch came in from the back garden. In spite of everything, I really had to admire the way she could look so good at 3.30 a.m. on a December morning. Her skin and hair were perfect. Her fitted coat was the colour of pale amber and her black boots shone like those of a household cavalry officer. At the sight of the three of us, sitting on my bed like some sort of grown-up slumber party, her eyebrows raised, but she made no comment.

  ‘Well, I’m sure you’ll all be encouraged to learn that a very clear print was left outside that our guys are pretty certain matches one in the park on the night of the murder,’ she said. ‘If it’s confirmed, then we know Chowdhury’s murderers were here tonight. Question is, why?’

  I couldn’t look at her.

  ‘We were just talking about that,’ said Anderson. ‘What I don’t get is why now. If Lacey had been able to identify the men in the park, she’d have done so already. The fact that they’re still at large means she can’t. So why choose now to put the frighteners on her?’

  ‘Lacey, what did you do?’ asked Tulloch in the tone a mother uses when she’s waiting for one of her kids to own up to filching the biscuits.

  ‘I went to talk to the Bailey brothers at home this afternoon,’ I admitted. ‘Daniel Fisher was there too. I think he recognized me.’

  ‘Shit and corruption,’ said Anderson.

  ‘Lacey, are you mad?’ said Mizon, at exactly the same time. Tulloch said nothing, but I could feel her eyes on me.

  ‘It probably was them who killed Aamir,’ I went on. ‘I think I’ve seen one of them in the street watching me. And I believe they’ve been hanging round the park, too.’

  ‘Why would they do that?’ asked Anderson.

  ‘I think there was another witness,’ I said. ‘My woman in black. I think she saw what happened and she made the phone call. I think she can identify them and they know it.’

  ‘Sorry to interrupt.’ One of the firemen was in the doorway. Mizon straightened up on the bed and pulled her collar straight.

  ‘We’re just about done,’ he went on, addressing me. ‘We’ve cleaned up and no one’s getting anything through your letter-box without some serious tools. I recommend you get one of those wall-mounted mail-boxes tomorrow. I’ve left you a couple of foam-filled fire extinguishers.’

  ‘Thank you,’ I said.

  ‘I’ll show you out,’ said Mizon, jumping up and following him from the room, leaving me to face Anderson and Tulloch.

  ‘OK, I know I shouldn’t have done it, but it worked,’ I said. ‘We all know the investigation had stalled. I kick-started it.’

  Anderson got up too. ‘Ma’am, do you need me to organize getting them picked up?’ he said.

  ‘In hand,’ replied Tulloch. ‘They’re all on their way to Lewisham. From what I’ve heard, though, they were all tucked up in their own beds when our chaps came knocking. It won’t be easy to shake them.’

  ‘Two of them will be covered in petrol,’ I said.

  ‘They weren’t last time,’ replied Tulloch.

  ‘I rattled them,’ I said, with increasing confidence. ‘The fact that you’re not ripping my head off means you know I’m right. They panicked, and if we can make them do it again, they could give themselves away.’

  ‘The fact that I haven’t yet ripped your head off doesn’t mean I won’t,’ snapped Tulloch. ‘First, I want to know who you’ve had sleeping in your shed. Lady in black garments, by any chance?’

  Shit! She’d come back. Before locking the flat last night, I’d taken a spare duvet and pillow and more food out to the shed. If the woman in black had been found by the gang – I was up, heading out. Tulloch put up a hand to stop me.

  ‘Stay where you are,’ she told me. ‘And talk.’

  I talked. No point not doing.

  ‘This is a friggin’ mess,’ said Anderson, when I’d done. Tulloch showed no sign of disagreeing. Nor could I, in fairness.

  ‘It’s obvious what we have to do next,’ I said, as Mizon, pink-faced from her encounter with the burly fireman, came back. ‘Surveillance on the park to find the burka woman before they do. And we have to rattle them some more.’

  ‘And we do that how, exactly?’ asked Tulloch.

  ‘We have to make them think we have something on them and that I’m the key. They’ll come after me again, and next time, we’ll be ready.’

  Tulloch and Anderson looked at each other and shook their heads in disbelief. If they’d practised the move before coming out, it couldn’t have looked more coordinated.

  ‘The security on this flat is first rate,’ I said. ‘Scotland Yard installed it. So we reactivate the surveillance equipment, and next time they come calling, we have them.’

  ‘So you’re suggesting you make yourself bait?’ said Anderson. ‘Again?’

  I shrugged. ‘Well, I’ve had some experience,’ I said.

  Tulloch was shaking her head.

  ‘Three killers were in my garden tonight,’ I reminded her. ‘Another two at my front door. The footprint will confirm that. It took nearly twenty years to bring Steph
en Lawrence’s killers to justice. Do you really want a case like that on your CV?’

  Tulloch dropped her head into her hands. ‘Mark will kill me,’ she muttered.

  19

  I’M NOT A good sleeper at the best of times, and this was hardly one of those. After everyone left I dozed, had a few odd, short dreams, and time after time found myself staring at the ceiling, listening for movement outside. At around half past four in the morning, I heard it. The door to the shed was being pulled shut.

  I got up and tugged on clothes and trainers, surprised at how calm I felt, but somehow I didn’t think it was the masked men out there. My first move was into the living room to make sure the letter-box was holding firm. It was. A peek through the curtains told me that no one was at the front door. In the conservatory I held my breath to keep the glass from steaming up. Nothing in the garden that I could see. I had my torch. Before venturing out, I was going to shine it into every dark corner. I also had a very sharp knife, the best impromptu weapon I could find. Then the shed door swung open and there was the woman in black, spinning on the spot in a slow, lazy circle.

  I watched for a second or two. She hadn’t switched on the shed light, it was almost impossible to make out what she was doing. Twirling? Dancing? The open shed door seemed hardly to bother her. I risked the torch, sending a long white beam across the garden to focus on the rotating dark figure. Whose feet weren’t touching the ground.

  I reached her in seconds, but it took valuable minutes to cut her down. She’d lifted the punchbag off its ceiling hook and tied a length of strong, nylon rope in its place. The other end of the rope was tight around her neck. If she’d had some experience of making nooses, I’d almost certainly have been too late. Her neck would have broken the second her body fell. At it was, she was slowly choking to death, her weight conspiring with the rope to cut off air. When I got the rope off the hook we both fell to the floor. At that stage, I had no idea whether she was alive or not, but the rope was still dangerously tight around her neck. I managed to loosen the knot, and in doing so pulled away her veil. Her eyes flickered open.

  I looked the woman in black in the face for the first time, saw the shape of her head, her hair, features that I recognized. As she took a huge, painful gasp and began breathing again, everything became clear. I helped her sit, before closing the shed door and putting on the light. I wrapped the duvet around her, sat down opposite on the mat and gave her time.

  I knew now, finally, what had been bothering me about the night Aamir was killed. The crowd had been too quick to conclude that the attack had been racially motivated. The angry crowd of Asian men had arrived too soon. We’d been watching a carefully staged performance. Smoke and mirrors. Looking at the photograph on Aamir’s bedroom wall, taken during a dance performance, I’d almost got there. I’d just been too focused on the white woman at its centre. I’d missed what else it had been telling me.

  The face opposite mine was Asian, dark-skinned and fine-featured, every bit as beautiful as I’d expected. The form still gasping for breath was tall, slender and agile; the body of a dancer, who could move gracefully across snow-covered ground and climb like a monkey. Only the hair was different to the picture I’d carried in my head. The gleaming, ink-black hair I’d imagined was no more than an inch long over the entire, perfectly formed head. I couldn’t think why I hadn’t realized sooner. The woman in black was a man.

  ‘I saw your photograph,’ I said. ‘On Aamir’s bedroom wall. I’m so sorry.’

  He started to cry then. Soundlessly, his face buried in his hands, he wept for the man he’d loved, and for his own life, which he’d been on the brink of ending. I watched his shoulders rise and fall for several minutes, then I moved closer and wrapped my arms around him. He wasn’t much wider than a girl, but so strong; able to support his dance partner high above his head. This was the man who’d been Aamir’s proposed companion at the Rambert Dance Company, the man who’d shared the double bed in his stylish flat, the secret the Chowdhury family had been ashamed to share with the police.

  There is little tolerance for homosexuality among devout Muslim communities. To many it is an abomination, a crime against God and nature, possibly the worst form of disgrace a man or woman could inflict on their family. Aamir Chowdhury had been a practising homosexual and it had cost him his life.

  ‘Were you there, the night Aamir was killed?’ I asked. ‘Did you see what happened to him?’

  He nodded and tried to speak, but it was a second or two before I could make out anything above the sobs. ‘They tricked us into meeting there,’ he got out at last. ‘I got away. He didn’t.’

  It had been this man, the key to it all, whom I’d seen running away that night. ‘So you know who killed him?’ I asked next. He let his head drop and rise again in a simple act of confirmation.

  ‘Was it the five men we arrested?’

  Eyes the colour of oiled chestnuts gleamed back at me. ‘You know who killed Aamir,’ he told me.

  I did. I just didn’t want it to be true. At that moment I’d have given anything for Aamir Chowdhury to be the victim of nothing worse than racial hatred. But I knew I’d have to face it some time.

  ‘His family,’ I said.

  20

  WE TALKED FOR the rest of the night. His bruised throat was obviously painful but he managed to tell me that his name was Hashim, that he was twenty-four years old and that he and Aamir had known each other for just over a year. They’d talked about moving away from London, finding a place where no one would know them, of marrying. They’d talked about it in the way some of us talk about winning the lottery, in the way I sometimes dream of a future with Joesbury.

  It was never going to happen. Although they’d done their best to be discreet, rumours of the relationship had reached Aamir’s family. His parents had tried to persuade him to go back to Pakistan, to marry a girl from their home village, never to see Hashim again. Aamir had refused, and his loyalty to the man he loved had killed him.

  ‘Was Aamir’s father one of them?’ I asked, remembering the softly spoken man, who’d been so calm, so dignified in his grief.

  ‘Yes,’ said Hashim. ‘And his uncle, two brothers and a cousin. His father was the wolf.’

  The city started to wake up and still we sat talking, huddled under a duvet in my shed. After seeing the attack on Aamir, Hashim had been living rough, using a stolen burka to move around unrecognized, foraging food wherever he could, knowing that the men of Aamir’s family were still looking for him, that they were watching his mother’s house constantly. He hadn’t dared go back there, as much out of concern for his family’s safety as his own.

  As the blackness of the sky started to fade, I broached the subject of Hashim making a statement.

  ‘You don’t know what you’re asking,’ he told me.

  ‘We’ll protect you,’ I said, wondering if we could.

  ‘You’ll never prove anything,’ he said. ‘Any number of people from the community will give them alibis, stand up for them. You think that man, Shahid Karim, really saw five white men running from the park that night? They will all lie.’

  ‘What about Aamir’s mother?’ I said. ‘His sisters? Surely—’

  ‘The last time Aamir saw his mother, she disowned him,’ Hashim said. ‘Even if she and his sisters know, they won’t go against the men. The same thing would happen to them.’

  I remembered the atmosphere in the Chowdhury household. The polite hostility, the edginess, the eyes that couldn’t quite meet mine.

  ‘You’ll never bring charges,’ said Hashim. ‘You’ll have to let them go, and when that happens, they’ll come for me. Or my family.’

  Round and round we went, in endless circles. I tried to point out that forensic evidence would convict them, no matter what alibis family members came up with. I told him about the footprint found in my garden just hours earlier. I told him there were places we could hide him, until it was all over.

  ‘Even if you manage to
put one or two of them away,’ he said, ‘these families stretch out for ever. So many cousins. I’ll never be free. Not while they know I’m alive. And what happens when they decide to threaten my sisters? Or my mother?’

  ‘I get that they’re determined,’ I said. ‘But so are the police. They tried to kill a police officer tonight. Every officer in the Metropolitan Police wants a conviction now. Me more than anyone. They want to kill me as well as you.’

  As an attempt at solidarity it failed. ‘They didn’t come here for you,’ he told me. ‘They know better than to attack a copper. They were looking for me. I heard them talking about what you said to Amelia. If they’d bothered to check the shed, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.’

  Hashim got to his feet and, on legs that felt stiff and heavy, I did the same. He opened the shed door and stepped out into the cold air of a December morning. The sun was on its way up and somewhere, on the rooftops of London, it would be possible to see the most wonderful sunrise imaginable. I knew that because the last of the night sky shone a rich petrol blue, the light in the east was just starting to turn gold and the heavy clouds above us were the colour of blood.

  ‘What do you want to do?’ I asked him as we walked the length of my garden.

  ‘I won’t come back here,’ he told me. ‘They’ll be watching this place. I won’t bring trouble on you again.’

  ‘Do you have money? A passport?’

  ‘At home,’ he said. ‘I can’t go there.’

  ‘Hashim, what will you do?’

  He put a hand to his neck, where the nylon rope had burned a thick red welt into his skin, and shrugged. ‘I’ll go to the river,’ he said. ‘No second chances that way.’ He walked to the gate and pulled back the bolt.

 
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