FOURTEEN

It always amazed him. How death drew a crowd.

Though it was obviously less of a novelty for him than it was for most people, Thorne still found the fascination strange. It wasn’t as though any of them were actually going to see anything. The men in the shiny suits like the ones off the telly weren’t suddenly going to come trotting out and carry the body across. They weren’t going to pull back the sheet and invite everyone to take a good look, maybe fire off a few quick snaps for friends and neighbours.

And yet, there they were.

While those in the adjacent streets of Stoke Newington laid out school uniforms, ironed shirts for the morning or just drank tea and grew miserable as Sunday fizzled out, a few lucky punters were outside, making their own entertainment. Thorne pushed his way through them: the cluster of gawpers fragmenting for just a moment; one or two exchanging snippets of whispered guesswork as they came back together; as a pissed-off uniform raised the tape for Thorne to duck under.

‘Shouldn’t this lot be indoors watching Antiques Road-show?’ the copper asked.

Thorne pressed on towards the house, heard a child somewhere behind him asking if he was the man who’d come to chop up the dead body…

There was as much of a gathering inside, and at the back of the house. Inside, it was as though there were at least two teams of SOCOs working the scene; investigators squeezing past one another in the narrow hallway that ran between the kitchen and the living room, where Paul Skinner’s body had been found. In the first few minutes Thorne spoke to three different photographers and video cameramen and, approaching the body, he half expected to see Phil Hendricks battling it out with rival pathologists for prime position.

Hendricks looked up from his Dictaphone. ‘Head smashed in, I’d guess with a hammer, much the same as the first victim. Dead at least twenty-four hours. And you need to call your girlfriend.’

‘Still pissed off?’

Leaning to one side, Hendricks pointed to what was left of Skinner’s head. ‘What do you think?’

‘You crack me up,’ Thorne said, stony-faced.

Hendricks grinned, pleased with himself. ‘OK, she’s probably happier than our friend with the hammer, but then she did eat a lot of ice-cream. I’m not an expert, obviously, but isn’t that supposed to be a major giveaway?’

‘I’ll ring later on, if I get a chance…’

Thorne pushed on towards the back of the house, stepped through sliding patio doors on to a small paved area: a round table, umbrella and chairs; a rotary washing-line; a grime-covered barbecue on wheels.

There was barely room to move.

The patio was heaving with the overspill from the crime scene and more besides: ambulancemen and a mortuary crew, waiting until they were needed; a CSE or two catching their breath, or using it to smoke a crafty fag; a woman dispensing tea and coffee from catering-sized flasks.

But the majority were in the Job.

A few in uniform, but most wearing whatever they’d had on when the call had come through: Sunday best on one or two; jeans and puffa jackets; black tie on the poor bugger who had been dragged from a charity dinner. They stood around, muttering to one another in awkward groups of two and three. Like guests at an unconventional barbecue party.

Thorne’s team were all there, obviously, and he saw several officers from others on the same unit. He also recognised DS Richard Rawlings, with a group he guessed were from Albany Street. Nunn had joined a couple of officers he seemed to know well. And there was no shortage of brass: Trevor Jesmond was one of two chief superintendents; making the rounds, doing his level best to smile when he caught the eye of the area commander.

There were more coppers than Thorne had clapped eyes on at any crime scene he’d ever attended.

Especially if you included the dead one.

Eventually Thorne managed to grab Russell Brigstocke and guide him towards a corner of the patio. The light from a pair of carriage lamps attached to the back wall made the DCI’s face look even paler than it had been earlier in the day.

‘Skinner told you he didn’t want protection, didn’t he?’ Brigstocke said. ‘Was adamant about it, according to Holland.’

‘He wasn’t hugely keen, no,’ Thorne said. With so many experts around, he was not surprised that the process of covering arses had already begun.

‘Right. And actually, we got protection officers in position pretty quickly, all things considered.’

‘You don’t need to convince me, Russell.’

‘The wife’s screaming blue murder, saying we should have done more, but I think we did all we could.’

A uniformed officer brought them both teas in Styrofoam cups.

Skinner’s body had been discovered by the very men put outside his house, front and back, to protect him. Anne Skinner, alarmed at not being able to raise her husband on the phone, had called one of his mates at Albany Street. He’d got hold of someone at Homicide and, a few calls later, the protection officers were kicking in the front door.

‘Brooks must have got inside some time between your visit and the surveillance team being put in place late afternoon.’

‘Maybe he was watching the house,’ Thorne said.

Brigstocke nodded towards the cordoned-off area around the back door. ‘Easy enough for him to get in,’ he said. ‘Broke a window and reached inside.’ He looked as though he wanted to spit out something bitter. ‘You’d have thought a fucking copper would have known better.’

‘Any prints?’

‘Plenty, apparently.’

They drank their tea, and Brigstocke filled Thorne in on a few more unpleasant details. Looking around as they talked, Thorne caught Rawlings looking his way more than once; and Nunn drawing a colleague’s attention to him before turning back to mutter something.

When Brigstocke was beckoned by the smallest of nods from Jesmond, he walked slowly back towards the house, like a man on his way into an oncologist’s office.

A little later, Thorne caught up with Hendricks when the pathologist came out to get coffee.

‘Your man’s on a roll,’ Hendricks said. ‘That’s three bodies in a week. He’s paying for my holiday.’

Thorne stared towards the back door and spoke as much to himself as to his friend: ‘They didn’t find the murder weapon.’

‘Sorry?’

‘He took it with him this time.’

‘So, he’s being careful.’

‘He’s left prints at every murder scene, left the weapon behind every time. It’s a bit bloody late to start being careful, isn’t it?’

‘Judging by how much force he used on that poor bastard’s head, he’s not exactly thinking rationally.’

‘He’s cool. That’s what you said.’

Hendricks shrugged. ‘Maybe I should stick to what’s going on inside dead people.’

Thorne let out a long, slow breath. Watched it drift up into the fug of blue-grey cigarette smoke that had formed above the patio. He noticed that several empty cups had been tossed into the narrow flower beds around its edge. Something else for the widow to complain about. ‘You’re probably right,’ he said, eventually.

‘What are you thinking?’

‘You don’t want to know.’

‘Please yourself.’

‘I’m not sure I want to know.’ Over Hendricks’ shoulder, Thorne saw Rawlings moving past people, making his way, grim-faced, in their direction. He glanced back at Hendricks. ‘This should be fun.’

Hendricks saw what was coming and stepped away, suddenly fascinated by a hover-mower leaning against the fence.

‘Rawlings.’ Thorne had been prepared for some hostility as he proffered a hand, but saw that Skinner’s friend was fighting back tears as much as the urge to punch somebody.

‘I can’t decide,’ Rawlings said. ‘I don’t know whether I’d rather have ten minutes alone in an interview room with the cunt who did this or fifteen with the cunt who organised the fucking protection.’

‘It’s a tough one.’

‘It’s OK, I know it wasn’t your call.’ He turned and stared blackly towards the corner where Trevor Jesmond and the area commander were deep in conversation. ‘The fuckers with the pips tell the likes of us what to do, right?’

Thorne said nothing.

‘Knew him ten fucking years. More. Only worked together for a couple of months, but we really hit it off, you know? Don’t know if it was the football or something else, but we clicked.’

‘Where was that?’

‘What?’

‘You and Paul working together.’

‘Flying Squad, late nineties. I was just moving on and he was getting his feet under the table. Like a fucking lifetime ago now…’

Thorne nodded sympathetically; watched as Rawlings looked back towards the house again, as he muttered ‘cunts’ and gave the dampcourse a kick. He couldn’t help thinking that Rawlings swore too much and wondered if he might be one of those coppers who was equally excessive when it came to sentiment; to showing it at moments like this. The righteous anger at the death of a fallen comrade; a great mate, a good copper; ‘just let me get hold of the bastard’… all that cobblers.

He remembered seeing Rawlings stroll into Skinner’s house thirty-six hours before, being greeted warmly by the wife. It had crossed Thorne’s nasty, suspicious mind for a moment or two then, that it wasn’t just Millwall FC that Rawlings and his friend had in common.

‘What happened yesterday morning?’ Thorne asked. ‘After we saw you.’

‘Come again?’

‘Did you stay long?’

Rawlings took a second, then smiled sadly. ‘Paul was all over the place, in a right old fucking state. Trying to persuade Annie to take the kids and piss off to her mum’s. She started kicking up a fuss and Paul was shouting the odds, so I thought I’d best make myself scarce. I couldn’t have been there more than half an hour, forty-five minutes, after you left. He said he’d bell me later, after the game. We’d usually talk about the match on the phone if we weren’t watching it together, you know? But he never did…’

Thorne nodded. He and his father had done the same thing until the Alzheimer’s had got too bad. Before social niceties had gone out of the window, and the old man had begun to swear almost as much as Richard Rawlings. ‘So did you go?’ Thorne asked. Rawlings blinked, not understanding. ‘The game?’

Rawlings shook his head. ‘Listened to it on the radio in the end. Bleeding Doncaster equalised in the last fucking minute…’

The crowd at the front had dispersed by the time the body was brought out just before ten-thirty. The area commander and the DCIs were a picture of solemn outrage, while Nunn and his DPS cronies pulled the right faces, even if they knew rather more about Paul Skinner than most people. Rawlings stood with his head bowed and his fists clenched. A couple of the boys in Met Police baseball caps took them off as the stretcher went past.

Once the mortuary van was on its way, Thorne took his final chance to speak to Hendricks, who immediately asked if he had called Louise yet. Thorne admitted that he hadn’t, neglecting to add that it would probably be better for both of them if they didn’t talk until the following day.

‘Shouldn’t go to bed on an argument,’ Hendricks said.

‘She could always call me…’

Brigstocke came quickly down the path towards them, a look on his face when he caught Thorne’s eye that said ‘private’. Thorne passed the message on to Hendricks, who was happy enough to leave them to it. He said that he’d phone mid-morning with the PM results, try to provide the team with a more accurate time of death.

‘He was dead by full time,’ Thorne said. ‘If that’s any help.’

Brigstocke watched Hendricks move away, then stepped closer to Thorne. ‘They’ve authorised live listening.’

It wasn’t a phrase Thorne had heard often, but he knew what it meant – that it was a serious step. ‘Who’s the subject?’ Brigstocke stared at him like it was a stupid question, and Thorne realised that it was, a second after he’d asked it. ‘Me. Right?’

Since the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, intelligence gathering had changed as radically as anything else. RIPA had laid down strict guidelines about such things as unlawful interception and monitoring of transmissions, with heavy penalties for those in breach of them. Thorne knew well enough that, when it was deemed necessary – when there was ‘imminent threat to life’, for example – such things went on. But the public, and indeed the majority of police officers, remained unaware of the covert technical support unit, on call to any branch of the Met, that installed the bugs and then listened in. The unit that gathered information which was totally inadmissible as evidence but would be given to those working on the case to use as they saw fit.

A unit, like a handful of others, that existed but didn’t exist.

Thorne wasn’t a suspect, and, crucially, would be giving his consent to such ‘intrusive surveillance’. But there were others whose privacy would be compromised, whose consent would never be sought, and Brigstocke was at pains to point out that the operation would therefore remain extremely sensitive. He told Thorne that so much as mentioning it to anyone outside the senior command structure could result in a prison sentence. ‘You OK with that?’

‘Yeah, I suppose.’ The thought of prison was enough to give anyone pause for thought, but Thorne was as worried about how much his life, its details, its ordinariness, would become a mundane aspect of someone else’s day at work. He winced at the idea of sweaty coppers wearing headphones, pissing themselves as Louise called him a nutter.

It was only a small step up from someone going through your rubbish.

‘What are we talking about?’ he asked.

‘Home, office and mobile phones,’ Brigstocke said. ‘You still have that pay-as-you-go?’

‘Yeah, but I’ve only just bought it, haven’t I? There’s no way Nicklin could have given Brooks that number.’

Brigstocke nodded. ‘Well, that’s good. At least you’ll have some privacy. They’ll do email as well, obviously. And intercept the post.’

‘Can’t I open my own sodding post?’

‘I don’t think so.’

Thorne’s eyes widened with sarcasm. ‘I promise I’ll pass on anything from the murderer. Anything that isn’t a final demand or a pizza menu.’

‘It doesn’t work like that, Tom.’

Thorne sighed, shook his head. ‘Whatever.’

‘We need this sorted,’ Brigstocke said. He looked towards the phalanx of police officers, and beyond, at the house of the one that was on his way to the mortuary. ‘Things have got very bloody serious now…’

Later, Thorne would reflect on the perfection of the timing, and wonder if Marcus Brooks had been watching them at that moment. Staring down from the window of a nearby house.

The tone sounded from his jacket pocket just as Brigstocke was out of earshot. He thought the message might be from Louise. When he saw that it wasn’t, saw the unidentified number appear, he scrolled down quickly; wondered whose picture he would be looking at this time.

There was no photograph. Just a simple text message: He was dead when I got there.

Brooks. Telling Thorne the same thing he’d told Sharon Lilley all those years before.

Not hoping for anything, Thorne dialled the number from which the message had come. He tensed when it rang and almost shouted out loud when the call was answered.

‘Marcus…?’

There was just the faintest breath, and the sound of distant traffic for a few seconds before the connection was broken. As Thorne thrust the phone back into his pocket, he turned to look at the house and suddenly understood something.

He was dead when I got there.

Brooks hadn’t been describing the murder for which he’d been arrested in 2000. He’d meant this one. The message was about Skinner.

Looking back later, when arrests had been made and bodies buried, and regret had been fuelled by cheap lager, Thorne would be unable to put his finger on exactly why he did what he did next.

It was nothing specific…

Stupidity, instinct, a tendency towards self-destruction… because the fuckers weren’t going to let him open his own letters. Whatever the reason, Thorne watched Nunn, Rawlings, Brigstocke and the rest moving slowly towards their cars, and he was no longer sure he could trust anyone. The copper who, together with Paul Skinner, had set up Marcus Brooks for a murder he may well have committed himself had got away with so much for so long. He was obviously very accomplished when it came to covering his tracks.

Thorne at least had to consider the possibility that the man might be closer than he realised.

There were long stares at the roadside now; nods exchanged between the ranks. There were promises made and a deal of gung-ho back-slapping. These people shared this terrible loss equally and were bound together by a determination to nail whoever had murdered one of their own. A copper’s death seemed to count for so much, relatively. Seemed, on the surface at least, to mean more than that of a biker, or those of a young mother and her child. Was the suffering of Paul Skinner’s family really any worse than that of Ray Tucker’s or Ricky Hodson’s? Or of Marcus Brooks?

If a copper’s death was so important, then catching a copper who was also a killer should carry equal weight, shouldn’t it?

Thorne looked at them, fired-up and full of it. And knew that, standing where he was at that moment, he was not one of them.

That was when he made the decision.

He knew he didn’t have much time: Brooks might well be disposing of the SIM card at that precise moment. He had probably done so already. For the best, Thorne thought. It was a fucking insane idea anyway…

He couldn’t use his usual mobile; they’d be checking it. And the new one, the safe one, was back at his flat…

Hendricks was just climbing into his old, silver Renault estate, when Thorne all but pulled him out, on to the pavement. ‘I need to borrow your phone.’

‘What?’

Thorne snapped his fingers, fought the urge to reach into Hendricks’ pockets and search for it. ‘Just give it here, Phil…’

He walked away fast up the street, navigating through the phone’s menu as he went. His hand trembled a little as he keyed in the text, then the eleven digits of his unmonitored, pay-as-you-go phone number. Then he leaned against a low wall and entered the number Brooks had called from.

He pressed ‘SEND’ and waited. Watched as the graphic of an envelope span across the screen and the words appeared: Message sent.

Almost breathless, Thorne stabbed at the keypad, dialling the number once more.

He got a dead line.

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