Let me start at the beginning. The first sign that something was wrong was the police patrol car parked outside the house, along with a black Ford Capri. The next thing I noticed was that the front door was wide open, and people I didn’t recognise stood talking in the hallway, one of them a uniformed police officer.
I flew up the front steps two at a time and went in. Or tried to. Before I got far, the uniformed officer held out his arm to bar my way.
‘Oy, you can’t go in there,’ he said. ‘It’s a possible crime scene.
‘What do you mean? I live here.’
He consulted his clipboard.
He screwed up his eyes and ran his finger down the list. It can’t have been that hard to find my name; there are two bedsits on the ground floor, two in the basement, two on the first floor and a one-bedroom flat at the top. Seven of us altogether. It was student accommodation.
‘Nicholas Hartley. First floor?’
One of the men he had been talking to was peering over the officer’s shoulder at the clipboard. ‘It’s OK, Glen,’ he said. ‘Let him through.’ Then he looked at me. ‘Come on, son, show me where you live.’
‘What’s going on?’ I asked, but he just gestured for me to get going.
The stairs creaked as we walked up, but other than that, the house seemed quite silent. I opened the door to my lowly bedsit, and the man followed me inside. Within moments he was joined by a colleague, and the room felt overcrowded. Both men were burly, like rugby players, one only slightly shorter than the other. But what he lacked in height he made up for in girth. He was balding and had a nose that had clearly been broken more than once. The other, who had led me up, was younger and slimmer, with cropped ginger hair and freckles. Both wore navy overcoats open over baggy suits, and their well-shined shoes were crusted with mud. I took off my parka and tossed it on the bed, along with my satchel. It was cold in my room, but I didn’t really have the presence of mind to bung a coin in the meter and turn on the gas heater that occupied the large, disused fireplace. I was discombobulated. No doubt that was their intention. They kept their overcoats on.
‘Mind if we come in, Nick?’ asked Baldy.
I was about to say that it didn’t look as if I had much choice, seeing as they were both already over the threshold, but I stopped myself in time. Somehow, I got the impression they wouldn’t have much of a sense of humour. Not on the job, at any rate, and they certainly acted as if they were on the job.
‘Do you mind telling me who you are and showing some identification?’ I asked, shutting the door behind them.
‘Not at all.’ Baldy took a wallet from his pocket and flipped it open. ‘DI Glassco, and my colleague here is DC Marley. Like him.’ He pointed to a poster of Bob Marley I had on my wall.
‘A fan of his, are you?’ asked DC Marley.
‘I like his music,’ I answered.
‘Hmph. Give me the Beatles any day. Student, are you?'
As Marley spoke, DI Glassco started conducting a casual search of my room, poking around in drawers, on top of the wardrobe, peeking behind the moth-eaten curtain that hid the kitchenette with its hotplate and sink. His movements made me nervous.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’ve just started my final year. What are you doing here? Have you got a search warrant?’
‘No, but if you like,’ said DI Glassco, ‘I’ll stay here with you while DC Marley runs out and gets one.’ They both stared at me, blank expressions on their faces.
‘Forget it,’ I said. ‘Just hurry up.’
‘Why?’ asked Glassco, lifting the edge of the mattress. ‘Got somewhere you have to be? Something you have to do?’
‘An essay to write,’ I said.
‘Mind if I sit down?’ Marley asked. ‘My feet are killing me.’ There were only two small armchairs in the room, rescued from a local bonfire a year ago. Marley eased into one of them and gestured for me to take the other. ‘We won’t bite,’ he said.
I sat. Glassco leaned against the fireplace, tapped an Embassy Regal from a packet of twenty and lit it. I took my tin of tobacco from my pocket and started to roll an Old Holborn. I heard a thud from upstairs. Alice’s room.
‘What’s happening up there?’ I asked, remembering the patrol cars outside.
‘Never you mind about that,’ said Glassco. ‘We’re taking care of things. The uniforms are searching and protecting the scene till the SOCOs come.’
‘What scene? What crime?’
‘You know the lass who lived up there?’
‘Alice? Yes.’ I noticed that he used the past tense, but the significance didn’t really dawn on me fully until later. At the moment, I was simply confused and stunned to find myself being questioned by the police. I had never had any sort of contact with the law before.
‘Know her well?’ Glassco asked.
I paused. ‘Her name’s Alice Poole. She’s a social sciences and politics student. Parents are quite well off. Own a brewery in Lincolnshire. That’s why she can afford the Penthouse.’
‘What we call it. The upstairs flat.’
‘Oh, I see,’ said Glassco. ‘A joke, eh?’
‘When did you last see Alice?’
‘Around seven. I was just getting back from the chippy and she was on her way out.’
‘She didn’t say, but it seemed pretty obvious to me that she was going to her boyfriend’s place. Mark. They were supposed to be heading down to London for a demo this weekend. She was carrying a smallish rucksack. The weather was terrible, though. It was pissing down and the wind was blowing even worse than today. The roads were bad. Flash floods. I don’t know if they got off this morning or not. I don’t even know if they were planning on driving or taking the train.’
‘Owns a car, does he, this Mark?’
‘Yes. A Morris Marina. Dark blue.’
‘What demo were they going to?’
‘Does it matter? Ban the bomb. Reclaim the Night. Out with Thatcher. You name it.’
‘Bit of a commie, this Alice? A Bennite?’
‘She’s just very political. Socialist. Marxist.’
‘CND, women’s lib and all that?’
‘All of the above. And then some.’
‘Red Brigade? IRA? Baader-Meinhof Gang? Weathermen?’
‘I wouldn’t go that far. No. Alice is pro-peace, against violence.’
‘A political what?’
‘No. I mean, I’m not really interested.’
‘Did they often go away to demos and suchlike?’
‘I suppose so. They’ve been down to London before, am couple of times. I think Mark has friends there.’
‘Did she say anything to you when you saw her?’
‘Just something about it being a miserable night.’
‘Yes. Neither of us wanted to stand around in the street talking.’
‘How did she seem?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Was she upset about anything? Did she seem worried, angry, frightened?’
‘No, nothing like that. Not that I noticed. Just normal, I suppose. If anything, she seemed in a hurry. It might have been the weather.’
Glassco squinted down at me. ‘Sure that was the last time you saw her?’
‘Yes. I told you. Why would I . . . ? What’s wrong? Has something happened to Alice?’
‘Why would you think that?’ Marley asked.
‘Just the way you’re behaving. What you’re not telling me. You’re not here for no reason.’
‘Ah. I can tell why they let you into university,’ said Marley. He glanced up towards Glassco, who gave him a curt nod.
‘Where have you been?’
‘Let’s start with today,’ Marley asked.
‘The university, I had lectures.’
‘Nineteenth-Century Novel, and a Shakespeare tutorial.’
‘And last night, after you saw Alice Poole?’
‘I was here.’
‘Working on an essay I had due for today’s tutorial.’
‘Essay about what?’
‘Shakespeare’s use of silence.’
‘What silent plays would those be, then?’ Marley asked.
‘The Tempest. Measure for Measure. Hamlet.’
‘I thought Shakespeare’s plays were full of people talking.’
I said nothing. I knew he was baiting me.
‘So, you were here all night? In this room? Working on this essay?’
‘And reading. Yes. Mostly.’
‘Mostly? You did go out, then?’
‘I finished my essay earlier than I thought I would, so I went to the pub for last orders. The Hyde Park. Just up the road, on the corner.’
‘I met some mates there. It was nothing arranged. Just casual, like.’
‘It would have been about a quarter to ten, something like that. I had two pints then came home.’
‘Is that what you usually do on an evening?’
‘Sometimes. If I’ve got any money in my pocket.’
‘You’d be able to give us the names of these mates you were drinking with, would you? They’d vouch for you?’
‘If they had to, yes. I’m not lying.’
‘No one said you were, son,’ said Glassco, smoothly taking over from Marley. ‘We just have to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s in our job. We’ll be asking everyone else here the same questions. What’s the boyfriend’s second name?’
‘Woodcroft. Mark Woodcroft.’
‘You sound as if you don’t approve.’
‘I can’t imagine why you’d think that. You’re reading things into what I say. Anyway, what about him?’
‘We’d like to find him, that’s all, ask him a few questions. Know where he lives?’
‘St John’s Terrace,’ I said. ‘Just across the park. But I told you, they were planning on going away. Maybe they went despite the weather.’
‘He might have gone to a demo in London,’ Glassco said.
‘The boyfriend. But she definitely hasn’t. Did you see them go?’
I felt my blood turning to ice water. ‘No. Of course not. What do you mean, she hasn’t gone anywhere?’
‘Is it likely they changed their minds?’
‘Alice could be impulsive. I don’t know about Mark. And like I said, the weather was bad, though it did stop raining later.’
‘Do you own a car?’
‘Me? Good Lord, no. Can’t afford one. I never even learned to drive. Besides, I hardly need one here. The university’s in easy walking distance.’
‘We can check, you know. The driving and all.’
‘What about Alice?’
‘No. She could afford one, but she hasn’t learned to drive yet, either.’
‘Can you help us find the boyfriend?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t. I’ve told you all I know. I don’t know much about him. He’s not a student, so he won’t be in a lecture or anything.’
‘What does he do? Where does he work?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t even know if he does. Work, that is.’
‘But he’s got a car, you said. He must have a bob or two. Any idea where he might have got it from?’
‘No. Maybe he did have a job. I don’t know. Maybe he’s unemployed now. Just because I live in the same house as his girlfriend, it doesn’t mean we’re mates or anything. We don’t live in one another’s pockets.’
‘You must see him around the place.’
‘Occasionally. He spends some time here with Alice. They split their time between his place and hers.’
‘So you don’t like him?’ said Marley.
I gave him a sharp glance. ‘I didn’t say that.’
‘It’s just the impression I get from your tone, the expression on your face whenever his name comes up.’
I let the silence stretch for a moment, then said, ‘I don’t think he’s right for her, that’s all.’
‘I just don’t trust him. There’s something about him. Something a bit off.’
‘“A bit off”?’ Glassco repeated. ‘What does that mean? Alice Poole obviously didn’t feel the same way.’
I shrugged. ‘I don’t particularly like him, now that you mention it. I’m sure there are people you don’t like, too. But what I’m saying is that I don’t keep track of him. I don’t have any idea what he does or where he goes.’
‘How long has he been living with her?’
‘They’re not technically living together, but they’ve been going out since the beginning of term, maybe even longer. The summer. I don’t know.’
‘Couple of months, at least, then,’ said Glassco. ‘When was the last time he stopped over?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t keep tabs on them.’
‘Days, weeks, months?’
‘It was earlier this week sometime. Maybe Monday.’
‘How did they seem together?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t have her flat bugged. I didn’t see them together.’
‘What can you tell us about her?’
‘Alice? Like I said, she’s a student.’
‘Bright lass, then, is she?’
‘She takes her studies seriously. Works hard. She’s just like anyone else, really. Perhaps more radical than most.’
I glanced away, down at the threadbare carpet. ‘I suppose so.’
‘Fancy her yourself, did you, Nick? You’re not queer, are you?’
‘No, I’m not,’ I said. ‘Not that there’d be anything wrong with it if I was.’ I felt myself flushing and knew my anger must be obvious to Glassco and Marley. Maybe that’s what they had been trying to do, make me lose my temper in the hope I’d give something away. But about what? They exchanged glances, then Glassco stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray on my work table – pinched from the local pub – and they both just stared at me.
‘Sorry,’ said Marley finally. ‘Didn’t mean to embarrass you or upset you. If you really did like her, I’m afraid we’ve got some bad news.’
‘What? Has something happened to her? A car crash or something? Has he hurt her?’ Though I had a terrible inkling of just what was coming.
‘Worse than that,’ said Glassco. ‘I’m sorry to be the one telling you this, son, but Alice Poole was found dead this morning.’
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