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The rumours quickly became legends, with nude pool parties, orgies in the bedrooms, and drunken stock car races in the back garden. The police were called often in relation to noise; mainly from the cars he raced and crashed in the field he owned at the back. Sheldon once heard about a young female officer who went to the house because of a noise complaint, and when she walked into the pool room, she was the only person wearing clothes. It was only her pepper spray and baton that kept it that way.
Then one night changed everything.
Someone had called the police anonymously, said that something had gone wrong at the party. Sheldon went with a young cadet. The house had been insecure; the gate unlocked, the front door open, and when they’d crept through the house, it had been deserted. There had been a clean-up though. The dishwasher had been full of glasses, and if there had been DNA on them to establish who was there, it evaporated with the steam that rushed for the ceiling as Sheldon opened it to check.
And in the pool, there had been Alice, her body just brushing the numbers etched into the tiles.
Sheldon had dived in to pull her out, but his attempts to resuscitate had been futile. Alice was dead. It wasn’t the body that had fuelled his anger though. It was how the investigation floundered that had got to him. He had started to lose sleep, waking up in the middle of the night, sweating, clutching at his chest.
He was dragged back to the present as Tracey appeared behind him.
‘It’s too warm in here,’ she said.
Sheldon agreed and nodded, his forehead moist, his shirt stuck to his chest. ‘I think it’s supposed to make everyone get naked.’
He backed out of the pool room to make his way to the stairs, edging past Christina, who was still on the bottom step, her chin resting on her hand.
Sheldon remembered which was Billy’s room. He glanced into some of the others on the way, and they were pretty much unchanged. Some were set out with soft chairs and large screens, while others were party rooms, with floor cushions and red cloth covering the window. Christina’s was different. It was tidy, with cosmetics and perfumes lined up in front of a mirror.
Billy’s room was just the same as it was a year earlier. There was a large round bed in the middle of the room, with a mirror attached to the ceiling above it, the bed covered in red silk sheets. It was a cliché of luxury, more sleaze than style. The computer was on a desk next to the bed, and when he gave the mouse a nudge, the screen came to life.
He sat down to start browsing as Tracey went through his drawers.
He went to the emails first, but as he scrolled through, he saw nothing of interest. It was mainly racist jokes circulated amongst friends and confirmations of purchases. There was nothing to help in the documents folder either, just invoices that had once been received as attachments and a few manuals for the gadgets he had around the house.
Sheldon was just about to go to the pictures folder when he heard Tracey whistle. As he turned round, she was holding a piece of paper.
‘It seems that Billy wasn’t all heart,’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
Tracey showed him a piece of paper that was ragged along the edge, as if it had been torn out of a notebook, with a list of names with numbers alongside. ‘It looks like a dealer list.’
As Sheldon looked, what he saw was all too familiar, because a list of names and numbers usually meant one thing: a list of drug debts.
‘So Billy was charging for whatever people were taking on party nights,’ Sheldon said. ‘No longer the generous millionaire.’
Tracey nodded. ‘It looks that way. He might have put pressure on the wrong person.’
Sheldon sighed. ‘We’ll have so many lines of enquiries that we’ll need a road map soon.’
He turned back to the pictures folder. When he clicked on it, he saw that it was organised into party dates. He clicked on one, and it was what he expected. Men leering at the camera, drinks in their hand, some women giggling, and as Sheldon scrolled through, the women ended up naked. The men became more exuberant as the photographs progressed, the women more vacant, with the latter ones being the most graphic. It seemed that Billy was more interested in taking pictures than he was in taking part.
Sheldon scrolled backwards, wondering if Billy had got blasé as the months wore on, that whatever he had removed from the computer a year earlier, when they were investigating Alice’s death, had made its way back onto it. It was just the same. There was no folder for the night of Alice’s death, or for the few weeks before then. It had made it hard to find out who had been going to Billy’s parties just before Alice died. A young woman had died, and all Billy could think of was to remove evidence.
There was a noise behind him, a slight cough. When he looked round, he saw that Christina was watching him.
She leant back against the doorjamb. ‘I’ve remembered some of the names.’
‘Tell me at the station,’ Sheldon said, and as he walked towards her, she held out her wrists mockingly, as if she was about to be arrested.
Sheldon ignored her and brushed straight past. He wasn’t in the mood for games, and there was something about Christina that troubled him, except that he couldn’t quite work out why.
Charlie’s hangover started to clear as he walked back to the office with Donia. He had been too harsh on her. She was just a kid, and he had been like her once, filled with eagerness about a legal career. It was the way his life had turned out that had killed the dream, which wasn’t her fault. And he could tell from the occasional grimace that she just wanted to sit down and take off her shoes. They looked brand new, and her heels were probably shredded. There was a time when work experience was just that, a taster. Now, the kids treated it like a job interview, and got themselves the clothes to match.
‘So why the law?’ he said, turning to her.
She perked up, seemed surprised by the attention. ‘It looks interesting.’
‘It can be, depending on what you do. Although that’s one of the problems, because it seems like the more you can earn, the more boring it gets. The worthy stuff is the best, and you get to keep your conscience, but you’ll be poorer than your clients. Get a nice suit and a bright smile and flaunt yourself around the big city money pits, and then maybe you’ll have a decent life.’
‘I’m from Leeds. Will I have to move away?’
Charlie smiled. ‘No, Leeds is good. I went to university there.’
‘Do you? How?’
Donia looked flustered. ‘I saw it on a profile somewhere. I researched you before I arrived.’
Charlie thought about that, and couldn’t remember when he had ever put his university in a profile, but he let it go. The internet can tell you anything now.
‘So why are you here?’ Charlie said.
Donia seemed to think about that, but then said, ‘I need the work experience.’
‘But you’re a long way from home.’
‘The placements in Leeds were all taken up.’
Charlie shrugged. It was her summer, and all law students need work experience. The colleges keep taking the money, but there are no jobs anymore, not unless you know an uncle or aunt with a law firm. So they write to him, begging for some experience. And he lets them come, because it’s free labour. Sit them behind a barrister in the Crown Court or interview witnesses, and they can even make the firm money.
‘What have you made of it so far?’ he said.
‘What I expected, although can I say something?’
‘Well, I’ve been wondering how you would be, and I thought you would seem happier.’ When Charlie looked surprised, she added quickly, ‘I’m sorry, that’s rude of me, but this is going to be my career too, and so I want to know whether it will make me happy.’
Charlie smiled. Donia knew nothing of his past, or how he lived his life. She was looking at the superficial. She saw his name on a sign, the status as a lawyer. She didn’t see the panic about the bills being paid when the legal aid money arrived late, or the nerve-shredding fatigue of a night at the police station after a long day in court, with paperwork still to do.
‘Your career will be what you make it,’ he said.
They were on the street that led to his office, past the charity shops, and the newsagent who had abuse yelled at him most weeks and had to replace his window a couple of times a year, the price of being the first Asian shopkeeper in the town. Charlie tried to make excuses for the ones who had done it when they were taken to court, but the newsagent was still friendly to him.
As they got closer to the office, Charlie saw the group he had seen before, with the dyed black hair and black clothes. The older man was in the doorway of an empty bingo hall, the neon letters fixed to the wall now dark and dirty. The rest of the group were sitting on the pavement, listening to him talk.
The older man seemed to watch Charlie as he went past, and so he and Donia slowed down as they got near, to listen to what they were saying. The older man stopped talking when he saw that Charlie was watching.
‘Don’t stop on my behalf,’ Charlie said. ‘I’m curious.’
The ones sitting on the floor looked at the standing man, who pulled his hair back before saying, ‘You ready to hear the story?’ His voice was low and slow.
‘What story is that?’
He smiled at Charlie, and everyone else smiled when he did so. ‘You’re not ready.’
‘Try me. Or try this – why are you hanging around here?’
‘You sound nervous. You’ve no need. You’re part of the law machine that ties everyone together.’
‘So you know who I am?’
‘Everyone knows who you are.’
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