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There was a pause as she held the smoke in her lungs. She smiled as she let it out again, and then said, ‘Why?’
‘Henry went out again, and he goes out a lot. I’m confused, that’s all. He wants me to give everything up for him, for the group, but does he give everything up for me?’
Gemma sat up, her face more serious now. ‘You know things are happening. He has to arrange things, and so he has to meet people.’
‘But he could phone, or email or something.’
‘Haven’t you noticed yet, that we have nothing like that? They can trace where you are and intercept what you are saying. He told you that. Didn’t you understand?’
‘Of course I did. I just thought there must be a better way to organise things.’
Gemma frowned. ‘You ask a lot of questions.’
John paused before he answered. ‘Just curious, that’s all.’
Gemma looked at him, her head cocked, serious for a moment, and then she asked, ‘So how old are you? Thirty?’
‘Twenty-five,’ he said. ‘I’ve got an old face, that’s all.’
‘I like your face,’ she said, her voice softer. ‘Come here.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t think we should. I can hear people moving around.’
‘Henry told me to make you happy,’ she said, and then she giggled, her hand over her mouth. ‘I can see that you are happy.’ Gemma parted her legs. Her hips were bony and thin.
John closed his eyes for a moment and tried not to think of how she had been.
‘Is Henry always going to approve everything?’ he said, and opened his eyes again. ‘How can we be free if we need Henry’s approval?’
‘Are you questioning Henry?’
John shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t do that, you know that.’
‘We have to fight for our freedom,’ Gemma said. ‘You do believe that, don’t you? We are building for something big that will make everyone take notice, and if you don’t believe that, well, there’s no point.’
John nodded, and took a deep breath. ‘I believe in us, you know that.’
‘So come back to bed, because if Henry decides that this shouldn’t happen anymore, it will stop, and I don’t want that, because I want to please you. And you want to please Henry, don’t you?’
He nodded. ‘Yes, I want to please Henry.’ His voice sounded weak.
John went to the bed again. Gemma’s arms went around his neck and he felt her body begin to press against his. He closed his eyes as his resolve weakened, as she guided him towards her.
Sheldon’s heartbeat was drumming fast again as he skipped up the stone steps to the Lancashire Express offices. Tracey Peters was behind him, walking with a crime scene investigator. There was a uniformed officer in a fluorescent green jacket by the corner of the building, someone’s arm around her. Further along, on a low stone wall, there were people gathered in a huddle.
The newspaper was produced from a large millstone building on the road that sloped down into the valley. It reported on the towns and villages along the Yorkshire border, with courtroom stories and council meetings, road crashes and summer fetes, its articles padded out by items pulled from the internet. Whenever they got a story that was big in Oulton, its base, the paper ran it for as long as people were still interested, and sometimes even beyond.
As Sheldon got near to the large double wooden doors at the top of the steps, someone stepped in front of him. Sheldon recognised him as Jim Kelly, the newsdesk editor, a man in his fifties who smelled of cigarettes and dressed like a journalist cliché, from the grubby blazer to his crumpled cords.
‘Inspector Brown, I was hoping it would be you,’ Kelly said, sweeping his greasy flick of hair over his head.
Sheldon stopped. He’d had press attention in the past, not much of it supportive, with the Express at the heart of it. ‘I hope this isn’t some kind of trick to get a quote,’ he said.
Kelly smiled. ‘It’s better than that, follow me,’ and he headed into the building, Sheldon walking quickly to keep up.
‘Seeing as though you’re here, Inspector,’ Kelly said, over his shoulder, ‘have you got anything I can print?’
Sheldon didn’t answer. Kelly had never been kind to the police in his reporting, and so he wasn’t going to get any special favours.
Kelly shrugged and just kept on walking. Sheldon thought he could see the trace of a smirk.
There were no people left inside, just small clusters of desks and computer monitors, the walls lined with framed front pages. The chairs were pulled untidily away from desks, as if people had left quickly. Their footsteps echoed as they walked, the ceiling high and arched, the building an old Methodist chapel converted fifty years earlier.
Kelly must have seen Sheldon looking at the empty office, because he said, ‘We thought they ought to wait outside until you’d finished.’ He pointed towards a desk at the end of the room, facing out so that it looked over all the others and towards the door. Kelly’s desk. There was a white cardboard box on it, like a cake box. ‘It was handed in at the front desk, in a plastic bag.’
‘Who delivered it?’
‘I don’t know. We don’t have someone at the front all the time. It was left on the desk, that’s all I know.’
Tracey went to the box first, but then let the investigator get in front so that he could take some photographs. Once he had finished, he stepped aside to let Tracey get a proper view.
‘There’s something written on it,’ she said.
Sheldon looked at Kelly, who nodded and said, ‘The face of greed. Has a certain sort of message to it, don’t you think? A great headline.’
‘Did you open the box?’ Sheldon said, his mouth dry, starting to guess what might be inside.
‘I didn’t know what was in there,’ Kelly said, defensively.
The crime scene investigator passed Sheldon a paper mask and a bonnet to put over his hair. Sheldon snapped them on and then went over to the box, pulling on latex gloves, Tracey moving to one side. He took hold of the box by the corners. A trickle of sweat made his eye sting as he started to lift off the lid slowly.
As the lid came off, revealing the contents, Sheldon had to take deep breaths in and out, to calm himself. He gagged but clenched his teeth and forced himself to stay in control. He glanced at Kelly over his paper mask, who said, ‘I spent the first ten years of my career taking photographs of road accidents. These things don’t bother me.’
Sheldon scowled and then closed his eyes to ready himself for what he would see when he looked in the box again. His forehead was moist. He counted to three and then opened his eyes.
There was white tissue, but most of it was smeared dark red. In the middle, nestling in the paper, was a face, except that it looked more like a grotesque mask. The edges of the skin were smooth, as if it had been cut away with a very sharp knife, but Sheldon could make out the more ragged pieces of flesh and muscle stuck to the underside, where someone had reached into the cuts with their fingers and pulled the face away.
But it wasn’t just the sight of the face that made Sheldon’s pulse quicken and a flash of sweat cover his cheeks. It was the feeling that he recognised the person, even though the face had no form, torn away from the bones that had once made the features unique.
He thought back to the body tied to the bed. It had been hard to guess the age. There were tattoos that made him look younger, Maori swirls on the upper arms and onto the shoulders, but the body looked older, pale and flabby.
The face in the box answered that question, the skin soft, a small dark goatee on his chin.
Sheldon’s knees weakened. It couldn’t be him. Jim Kelly was saying something, but the words were indistinct mumbles.
Memories rushed back at him. A dead woman, a large house, the floor wet with spilled booze, but there were no glasses lying around. The dishwasher was running but there was no one there. He had moved through the rooms, looking for an answer to the call that had come in, that a young woman was dead. Then he had found her, floating underwater in the swimming pool, almost at the bottom, naked.
Jim Kelly’s voice became louder. Sheldon opened his eyes and apologised. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’
‘Do I get a quote now?’ Kelly repeated. ‘Is it who I think it is? Billy Privett?’
Tracey said, ‘Shit,’ behind him, but Sheldon shook his head. ‘This does not make the paper yet.’
Kelly smiled. Sheldon guessed that he had already taken photographs, ready for syndication when the time was right, and he had the exclusive.
Sheldon turned away and headed for the exit, not bothering to say goodbye, knowing that the day ahead had got a whole lot more complicated.
Charlie walked to the courthouse most days. It was when he got his day together, when he worked out how long each case would take, what he was going to say to his client, what excuses he would spin to the Magistrates. This time, he had Donia with him and his routine was disrupted. All he could hear were the click-click of her heels, like little jabs in his head shaking the last remnants of his hangover.
‘You don’t say much,’ Donia said, when they were almost at the court building. There was a slight tremor to her voice.
He considered her for a moment. She was staring at him, expectantly. He stopped. At least it made the heels go quiet.
‘I have my routines,’ he said. ‘I’ve been doing this job too long to care too much, and so don’t expect me to gush about it. One of my habits is a quiet walk to court. I was just sticking with it.’
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