- 1 -
Hampstead’s wealth lay unconscious along the edge of the Heath, Mercedes and SUVs frosted beneath plane trees, Victorian terraces unlit. A Starbucks glowed, but otherwise the streets were dark. The first solitary commuter cars whispered down East Heath Road to South End Green. Detective Constable Nick Belsey listened to them, faint in the distance. He could still hear individual cars, which meant it was before seven am. The earth was cold beneath his body. His mouth had soil in it and there was a smell of blood and rotten bark.
Belsey lay on a small mound within Hampstead Heath. The mound was crowded with pine trees, surrounded by gorse and partitioned from the rest of the world by a low, iron fence. So it wasn’t such an absurd place to seek shelter, Belsey thought, if that had been his intention. His coat covered the ground where he had slept. A throbbing pain travelled his upper torso, too general to locate one source. His neck was involved; his right shoulder. The detective stood up slowly. His breath steamed. He shook his coat, put it on and climbed over the fence into wet grass.
From the hilltop he could see London, stretched towards the hills of Kent and Surrey. The sky was beginning to pale at the edges. The city itself looked numb as a rough sleeper; Camden and then the West End, the Square Mile. His watch was missing. He searched his pockets, found a blood-stained serviette and a promotional leaflet for a spiritual retreat, but no keys or phone or police badge.
Belsey stumbled down a wooded slope to the sports ground, crossed the playing field and continued along the path to the ponds. His shoes were flooded, water seeping between his toes. On the bridge beside the mixed-bathing pond he stopped and looked for early swimmers. None yet. He knelt on the concrete of the bridge, bent to the water and splashed his face. Blood dripped from his shaking hands. He leaned over to see his reflection but could make out only an oily confusion of light and darkness. Two swans watched him. ‘Good morning,’ Belsey said. He waited for them to turn and glide a distance away then plunged his head beneath the surface.
- 2 -
A squad car remained in the East Heath car park with the windshield smashed, driver’s door open. Blood led across the gravel towards the Heath itself: smear rather than spatter, maybe three hours old. Faint footprints ran in parallel to the blood. Belsey measured his foot against them. The metal barrier of the car park lay twisted on the ground. The only impact had been with the barrier, it seemed. There was no evidence of collision with another car, no paint flecks or side prangs. The windshield had spilled outwards across the bonnet. He stepped along the edge of the broken glass to a wheel-lock lying on the ground and picked it up. It must have come straight through the front when he stopped. He was lucky it hadn’t brained him. He put the lock down, collected a handful of wet leaves and wiped the steering wheel, gear stick and door handles.
Belsey left the car park, onto the hushed curve of road leading from Downshire Hill to South End Green. He walked slowly, keeping the Heath to his left and the multi-million pound houses to his right. Everything was perfectly still. There is a golden hour to every day, Belsey thought, just as there is in a murder investigation: a window of opportunity before the city got its story straight. He tried the handles of a few vehicles until the door of a Vauxhall Astra creaked towards him. Belsey checked the street, climbed in, flicked the glove compartment and found three pounds in small change. He took the money and stepped out of the car, shutting the door gently.
He bought a toothbrush, a bottle of water and some cotton wool from an all-night store beside the hospital. It was run by two Somali brothers.
‘Morning, Inspector. What happened?’
‘I’ve just been swimming. It feels wonderful.’
‘Okay, Inspector.’ They gave shy grins and rang up his purchases.
‘Still haven’t made Inspector, though.’
‘That’s right, boss.’ The owners didn’t look him in the eye. If the damage to his face worried them, they didn’t seem inclined to enquire further. Belsey collected his change, took a deep breath and walked up Pond Street to the police station.
Most London police operated out of modernist concrete blocks. Not Hampstead. The red, Victorian bricks of the station glowed with civic pride on Rosslyn Hill. Above the station lay the heritage plumpness of the village and, down the hill, the dirty sprawl of Camden Town began. Belsey sat at a bus stop across the road watching the late turn trickling out of the station, nocturnal and subdued. At eight am the earlies filed in for morning parade. He gave them five minutes then crossed the road.
The corridors were empty. Belsey went to the lockers. He found the first aid box and took paracetamol, a roll of bandage and antiseptic. He removed a broken umbrella from the bin and prised his locker open: one spare tie, a torn copy of The Golden Bough, but no spare shoes or shirt. Belsey returned to the corridor and froze. His boss, Detective Inspector Tim Gower, stepped into the canteen a few metres ahead of him. Belsey counted to five then padded past, up the stairs to the empty CID office and sat down.
He kept the lights off, blinds closed, grabbed the night’s crime sheet and checked he wasn’t on it. A fight in a kebab shop, two break-ins, a missing person. No Belsey. He searched the desk drawers for his badge and warrant card and they were there, oblivious: E II R, Metropolitan Police; a crown in a silver explosion. So this was what was left of him.
He ran a check on the totalled squad car and it came up as belonging to Kentish Town Police Station. Belsey called.
‘This is Nick Belsey, Hampstead CID. One of your cars is in the East Heath car park… No, it’s still there… I don’t know… Thanks.’
Belsey locked himself in the toilet and stripped to the waist. He studied his face. A line of dried blood ran from his left nostril across his lips to his chin. He ran a finger along the blood and judged it superficial, apart from a torn lip, which he could live with. His right ear was badly grazed and his right cheekbone hurt to touch but wasn’t broken. Dark, complex bruises had begun to bloom across his chest and right shoulder. He cleaned the wounds and spat the remaining fragments of broken tooth out of his mouth. He looked wired, both older and younger than his thirty-eight years. His flat detective eyes were regaining light. Belsey removed his trousers and dampened the bottoms and rinsed his suit jacket so the worst of the Heath was off. He hung his coat up to dry, put his trousers back on, then returned to the office. He looked under his colleagues’ desks for a pair of dry shoes but couldn’t see any.
The call room had sent up a list of messages for him – calls received over the past few hours. They had come from several individuals he had not spoken to for years, and some distant relatives and an old colleague. You tried to get hold of me last night… He didn’t remember calling anyone. A vague dread pressed at the edges of his consciousness.
He opened the blind in front of the small window beside his desk. The night had evaporated, the air turned hard, with thin clouds like scum on water. It was an extraordinary day, Belsey sensed. A midwinter sun hung low in the sky and there was a clarity to it all. A man in shirt-sleeves opened up a chemist’s; a street cleaner shuffled, sweeping, towards Belsize Park tube station. Bankers and business people hurried past. Out of habit Belsey wondered if he should cancel his cards, but the cards had cancelled themselves a few days ago. His old life was beyond rescue. It felt as if without the cards he had no debt, and without the debt he was free to run.
The important thing was to stay calm.
Belsey smoothed the sheet of jobs on his desk: one fight, two break-ins, a missing person. His plan formed. The control room had put an alert note by the missing person half an hour ago. It meant they thought someone should take a look, although adult disappearances weren’t police business, and it was probably just the address that caught their eye: The Bishops Avenue. The Bishops Avenue was the most expensive street in the division, and therefore one of the most expensive in the world. No one pretended the rich going missing was the same as the poor.
He stuck a message on the sergeant’s desk – ‘On MisPer’ – and signed out keys for an unmarked CID car. Then he went downstairs, checked there was enough petrol in the tank and reversed onto Downshire Hill.
- 3 -
He drove steadily. The occasional Land Rover passed, commuters dangling cigarettes out of tinted windows. But the worst of the school run was half an hour off, the traffic still fluid. Belsey climbed to Whitestone pond, past early joggers, past the Spaniard’s Inn and turned left, down into the secluded privilege of The Bishops Avenue.
Stand-alone mansions lined the road, each asserting its own brand of high-security tastelessness. The Bishops Avenue provided a home to sheiks, princes and tycoons, running broad and gated for a kilometre down from the Heath to a dismal stretch of the A1 and across the main road to East Finchley. It was a world in itself, inscrutable and aloof from the rest of the city. A woman stood on the drive of number thirty-seven with a black jacket over a cleaner’s pink uniform. She was pale, blonde, smoking with rapid, shallow puffs. The house behind her loomed with gormless pomp. It boasted two storeys of new red bricks, white window sills, white columns either side of a black door with a high-gloss sheen. Tiny trees in black pots guarded the front. A flagless white pole stood in the centre of the semi-circular driveway; pink gravel led around to the back of the property.
The woman gave a glance at his scars and then at his police badge and went with the latter.
‘I haven’t touched anything.’ She spoke with a Polish accent and a line of smoke out of the side of her mouth.
‘What’s your name?’ Belsey said.
‘And you clean for the missing individual?’
He walked past her to the steps. ‘Anyone in?’
Belsey looked up at the shuttered windows. He climbed the four smooth, stone steps to the door but the maid held back.
‘They lived alone?’
‘Are the alarms all off?’
‘When did you last see him?’ Belsey said.
‘I’ve never seen him.’
‘You’ve never seen him?’
‘How do you know he’s missing?’
‘There’s a note.’
Belsey pushed the door. It opened to reveal a hallway the size of a small church, with marble floors and a chandelier. At the back, two curling flights of red carpeted stairs parted around a tall, waterless fountain. Belsey stepped in. His damaged form appeared in elaborately framed mirrors. He climbed the red stairs to the first floor and checked three bedrooms with white carpets and scatter cushions, and a bathroom with stone sinks, a Jacuzzi and soap dishes like gold scallop shells. He found face wash made out of Japanese seaweed, and rolled up towels tied with silver ribbon. He didn’t find any suicide. Most home suicides were found in bathrooms, less often in bedrooms. The occupier wasn’t in. Only one of the bedrooms appeared to have been used recently, its bed sheets tangled. Belsey opened the cupboards until he found a pair of snakeskin loafers. He took his wet shoes off and slipped the loafers on. They were loose but perfectly comfortable. There was a wallet on the bedside table filled with cards in the name of A. Devereux. No cash. He checked the bedside drawer but found only cufflinks and a Harrods carrier bag. He put his old shoes in the bag and took them downstairs.
The fridge in the main kitchen had an inbuilt TV and radio. It had a display that told you when the contents were about to go off. Right now it said ‘chicken portions’ although Belsey couldn’t see any chicken inside. He found one bottle of champagne unopened, some granary bread, cheese, jars of olives and marmalade, semi-skimmed milk and half a microwave goulash. The milk smelt fresh. The freezer contained a bag of prawns and a bottle of vodka. He couldn’t find any coffee. There was a stainless steel toaster on the side, beside a rack of wine bottles. He put two slices of bread in the toaster and filled the kettle.
Belsey wandered the length of the ground floor corridor while the kettle boiled, admiring the new books on shelves and modern art on the walls. The frames were florid and golden, the art bare and abstract. He walked through a dining room with glass candlesticks and floor-length drapes, to a study with oak panelling and a billiards table set up on a Persian rug. The suicide note was on the table’s baize, black ink on headed stationery:
I’m sorry. For a long time I thought I could continue the way things were, but this is no longer the case. For the past year I have felt as if the sun has gone out. Please believe that I know what I am doing and it is for the best. I have tried to ensure that all paperwork is in order so that you have no cause for further aggravation. Alex Devereux.
How polite, Belsey thought. There was no addressee. Maybe it was for the staff. Who signed a suicide note with their full name? The paper was heavy, watermarked. It carried the Bishops Avenue address and a motto: ‘Hope Springs Eternal’. Belsey checked Devereux’s handwriting against paperwork in the desk and it matched. He felt the temperature of the taps in the en suite bathroom and checked the window locks. A door on the top floor opened when Belsey pulled the bolt. It led onto the roof. Belsey stepped outside and exhaled in wonder. An infinity pool rippled in the morning breeze, encircled by deckchairs. No corpse floating. Below him, beyond trellis panels, Belsey could see the lawn and a tennis court, the edges of the property, playing fields and then the Heath itself, branches scratching the sky.
He wandered back down into a main living room and experimented with the control for a plasma screen above a marble fireplace. He buttered his toast and read the note again while he ate. Then he went out and threw his ruined shoes into the back of the unmarked car. Kristina was sitting on the wall.
‘Any signs Mr Devereux was in trouble?’ Belsey asked.
‘How long have you been working for him?’
‘Anything unusual about the house today?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What line of work was he in?’
‘He was a businessman.’
Belsey walked around the side of the house to the garden. Frost coated the lawn. There were sculpted pathways, wrought iron furniture, the usual cameras and razor wire. No one pretended the rich killing themselves was the same as the poor, but no one pretended it was for different reasons either.
The maid handed over her keys to the place with an air of solemn ceremony. Maybe this was what they did where she came from, Belsey thought. Maybe they saw it all the time.
‘Would you like a drink?’ Belsey asked.
‘No,’ she said.