‘Yes. Here. That’s me.’
I stare down at the young man who stands below me ankle deep in the mud of the banks of the Thames. He has sandy hair that hangs in curtains on either side of a soft, freckled face. He’s wearing knee-high rubber boots and a khaki gilet with multiple pockets and is surrounded by a circle of gawping people. I go to him, trying to keep my shoes away from the mud.
‘Good morning,’ I say. ‘I’m DI Samuel Owusu. This is Saffron Brown from our forensics team.’
I see Jason Mott trying very hard not to look as if he is excited to be in the presence of two real-life detectives and failing. ‘I hear you have found something. Maybe you could explain?’
He nods, eagerly. ‘Yes. So. Like I said on the phone. I’m a mud-larking guide. Professional. And I was out here this morning with my group and this young lad here,’ he points to a boy who looks about twelve years old, ‘he was poking about and opened up this bag.’ He points at a black bin bag sitting on some shingle. ‘I mean, rule number one of mud-larking is no touching, but this was just sitting there, like someone had just dropped it there, so I guess it was OK for him to open it.’
‘Small,’ she says. ‘Possibly a child. Or a small adult.’
‘But definitely human?’
‘Yes, definitely human.’
I hear a voice calling down from the riverside. It is Jason Mott. I sigh and turn calmly towards him.
‘Any idea how old they are?’ he shouts down. ‘Just by looking?’
Saffron smiles drily at me. Then she turns to Jason. ‘No idea at all. Give your details to the PC by the car. We’ll keep you posted.’
‘Thanks. Thanks so much. That’s awesome.’
A moment later Saffron pulls a small skull from the black bag. She turns it over on the plastic sheeting.
‘There,’ she says. ‘Look. See that. A hairline fracture.’
I crouch. And there it is. The probable cause of death.
My eyes cast up and down the beach and along the curve of the river as if the killer might at this very minute be running from view with the murder implement clasped inside their hand. Then I glance back at the tiny ash grey skull and my heart fills both with sadness and with resolve.
There is a whole world contained inside this small bag of bones.
I feel the door to the world open, and I step inside.
1: July 2018
Groggy with sleep, Rachel peered at the screen of her phone. A French number. The phone slipped from her hand, onto the floor and she grabbed it up again, staring at the number with wide eyes, adrenaline charging through her even though it was barely seven in the morning.
Finally she pressed reply. She drew in her breath. ‘Hello?’
‘Bonjour, good morning. This is Detective Avril Loubet from the Police Municipale Nice Cote d’Azur. Is this Mrs Rachel Rimmer?’
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Speaking.’
‘Mrs Rimmer. I am afraid I am calling you with some very distressing news. Please, tell me. Are you alone?’
‘Yes. Yes, I am.’
‘Is there anyone you can ask to be with you now?’
‘My father. He lives close. But please. Just tell me.’
‘Well, I am afraid to say that early this morning the body of your husband, Michael Rimmer, were discovered by his housekeeper in the basement of his house in Antibes.’
Rachel made a sound, a hard intake of breath with a whoosh, like a steam train. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘No!’
‘I’m so sorry. But yes. And he appears to have been murdered, with a stab wound, several days ago. He has been dead at least since the weekend.’
Rachel sat up straight and moved the phone to her other ear. ‘Is it – do you know why? Or who?’
‘The crime scene officers are in attendance. We will uncover every piece of evidence we can. But it seems that Mr Rimmer had not been operating his security cameras and his back door was unlocked. I am very sorry, I don’t have anything more definite to share with you at this point, Mrs Rimmer. Very sorry indeed.’
Rachel turned off her phone and let it drop onto her lap.
She stared blankly for a moment towards the window where the summer sun was leaking through the edges of the blind. She sighed heavily. Then she pulled her sleep mask down, turned onto her side, and went back to sleep.
2: June 2019
I am Henry Lamb. I am forty-two years old. I live in the best apartment in a handsome art deco block just around the corner from Harley Street. How do I know it’s the best apartment? Because the porter told me it was. When he brings a parcel up – he doesn't need to bring parcels up, but he’s nosey, so he does – he peers over my shoulder and his eyes light up at the slice of my interior that he can see from my front door. I used a designer. I have exquisite taste, but I just don't know how to put tasteful things together in any semblance of visual harmony. No. I am not good at creating visual harmony. It’s OK. I'm good at lots of other things.
I do not currently – quite emphatically – live alone. I always thought I was lonely before they arrived. I would return home to my immaculate, expensively renovated flat and my sulky Persian cats and I would think, oh, it would be so nice to have someone to talk to about my day. Or it would be so nice if there was someone in the kitchen right now preparing me a lovely meal, unscrewing the cap from a bottle of something cold, or better still, mixing me something up in a cocktail glass. I have felt very sorry for myself for a very long time. But for a year now, I have had houseguests – my sister Lucy and her two children – and now I am never, ever alone.
There are people in my kitchen constantly, but they’re not mixing me cocktails or shucking oysters, they’re not asking me about my day; they’re using my panini maker to make what they call ‘toasties’, they’re making hot chocolate in the wrong pot, they’re putting non recyclables in my recycling bin and vice versa. They’re watching noisy, unintelligible things on the smartphones I bought them and shouting at each other when there's really no need. And then there’s the dog. A Jack Russell terrier type thing that my sister found on the streets of Nice five years ago scavenging in bins. He’s called Fitz and he adores me. It’s mutual. I’m a dog person at heart and only got the cats because they’re easier for selfish people to look after. I did a test on-line – What’s Your Ideal Cat Breed? – answered thirty questions, the result came back: Persian. I think the test was correct. I’d only ever known one cat before, as a child, a spiteful creature with sharp claws. But these Persians are in a different realm entirely. They demand that you love them. You have no choice in the matter. But they do not like Fitz the dog and they do not like me liking Fitz the dog and the atmosphere between the animals is horrendous.
My sister moved in last year for reasons that I barely know how to begin to convey. The simple version is that she was homeless. The more complicated version would require me to write an essay. The halfway version is that when I was ten years old our (very large) family home was infiltrated by a sadistic conman and his family. Over the course of five years the conman took control of my parents’ minds and systematically stripped them of everything they owned. He used our home as his own personal prison and playground and was ruthless in getting exactly what he wanted from everyone around him, including his own wife and children. Countless unspeakable things happened during those five years, including my sister getting pregnant at thirteen, giving birth at fourteen, leaving her one year old baby in London and running away to the South of France when she was only fifteen. She went on to have two more children by two more men, kept them fed and clothed with money earned by busking with a violin on the streets of Nice, spent a few nights sleeping rough, and then decided to come home when (amongst many other things) she sensed that she might be in line for a large inheritance from a trust fund set up by our dead parents.
So, the good news is that yesterday that trust finally paid out and now – a trumpet fanfare might be appropriate here – she and I are both millionaires, which means that she can buy her own house and move herself, her children and her dog out, and that I will once more be alone.
And then I will have to face the next phase of my life.
Forty-two is a strange age. Neither young, nor old. If I were straight, I suppose I’d be frantically flailing around right now trying to find a last-minute wife with functioning ovaries. As it is, I am not straight, and neither am I the sort of man that other men wish to form lengthy and meaningful relationships with, so that leaves me in the worst possible place to be – an unlovable gay man with fading looks.
Kill me now.
But there is a glimmer of something new. The money is nice, but the money is not the thing that glimmers. The thing that glimmers is a lost jigsaw piece of my past; a man I have loved since we were both boys in my childhood house of horrors. A man who is now forty-four years old, sporting a rather unkempt beard and heavy-duty laughter lines and working as a gamekeeper in Botswana. A man who is – plot twist – the son of the conman who ruined my childhood. And also – secondary plot twist – the father of my niece, Libby. Yes, Phineas impregnated Lucy when he was fifteen and she was thirteen and yes that is wrong on many levels and you might have thought that that would put me off him, and for a while it did. But we all behaved badly in that house, not one of us got out of there without a black mark. I’ve come to accept our sins as survival strategies.
I have not seen Phineas Thomsen since I was sixteen and he was eighteen. But last night at my niece’s birthday party, my niece’s boyfriend, who is an investigative journalist, told us that he had tracked him down for her. A kind of uber-thoughtful birthday present for his girlfriend. Look! I got you a long-lost dad!
And now here I am, on a bright Thursday morning in June, cloistered away in the quiet of my bedroom, my laptop open, my fingers caressing the touchpad, gently guiding the cursor around the website for the game reserve where he works, the game reserve I intend to be visiting very, very shortly.
Phin Thomsen was how I knew him when we lived together as children.
Finn Thomson is the pseudonym he's been hiding behind all these years.
I was so close. An F for a Ph. And O for an E. All these years, I could have found him if I’d just thought to play around with the alphabet. So clever of him. So clever. Phin was always the cleverest person I knew. Well, apart from me, of course.
I jump at the sound of a gentle knocking at my bedroom door. I sigh. ‘Yes?’
‘Henry, it’s me. Can I come in?’
It’s my sister. I sigh again and close the lid of my laptop. ‘Yes, sure.’
She opens the door just wide enough to slide through and then closes it gently behind her.
Lucy is a lovely looking woman. When I saw her last year for the first time since we were teenagers, I was taken aback by the loveliness of her. She has a face that tells stories, she looks all of her forty years, she barely grooms herself, she dresses like a bucket of rags, but somehow, she still always looks lovelier than any other woman in the room. It’s something about the juxtaposition of her amber hazel eyes with the dirty gold streaks in her hair, the weightlessness of her, the rich honey of her voice, the way she moves and holds herself and touches things and looks at you. My father looked like a pork pie on legs and my lucky sister snatched all her looks from our elegant half-Turkish mother. I have fallen somewhere between the two camps. Luckily, I have my mother’s physique, but sadly more than my fair share of my father’s coarse facial features. I have done my best with what nature gave me. Money can't buy you love but it can buy you a chiselled jaw, perfectly aligned teeth and plumped up lips.
My bedroom fills with the perfume of the oil my sister uses on her hair, something from a brown glass bottle that looks like she bought it a market.
‘I wanted to talk to you,’ she says, moving a jacket off a chair in the corner of my room so that she can sit down. ‘About last night?’
I fix her with her a ‘yes, I’m listening, please continue’ look.
‘What you were saying, to Libby and Miller?’
Libby is my niece. The daughter Lucy had with Phin when she was fourteen. Miller is her journalist boyfriend. I nod.
‘About going to Botswana with them?’
I nod again. I know what’s coming.
‘Were you serious?’
‘Yes. Of course I was.’
‘Do you think – do you think it’s a good idea?’
‘Yes. I think it’s a wonderful idea. Why wouldn't I?’
‘I don’t know. I mean, it’s meant to be a romantic holiday, just for the two of them …’
I tut. ‘He was talking about taking his mother; he can't have intended it to be that romantic.’
Obviously, I'm talking nonsense, but I’m feeling defensive. Miller wants to take Libby to Botswana to be reunited with the father she hasn't seen since she was a baby. But Phin is also a part of me. Not just a part of me, but nearly all of me. I've literally (and I'm using the word literally here in its most literal sense) thought about Phin at least once an hour, every hour, since I was sixteen years old. How can I not want to go to him now, right now?
‘I won’t get in their way,’ I offer. ‘I will let them do their own thing.’
‘Right,’ says Lucy, doubtfully. ‘And what will you do?’
‘I’ll …’ I pause. What will I do? I have no idea. I will just be with Phin.
And then, after that. Well, we shall see, shan’t we?