The summer of 1976 was the hottest in living memory. In the Botanical Gardens at Kew, a lost little girl stumbled upon a deserted gallery. Dizzied by the heat, she thought she saw a woman lying dead on the ground. But when she opened her eyes, the woman had gone. Forty years later, Stella Darnell, the detective's daughter, is investigating a chilling new case. What she uncovers will draw her into the obsessive world of botany, and towards an unsolved murder that has lain dormant for decades.
About the Author
Lesley Thomson is the author of The Detective's Daughter series.
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The House with No Rooms
By Lesley Thomson
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2016 Lesley Thomson
All rights reserved.
The iron ball suspended from the crane, black against the night sky, was a reverse of the moon. To a nocturnal wanderer, wisping cloud above a chimney could be smoke from a hearth. A laburnum twisted around the windows of one house and a magnolia tree flourished in front of another.
Rounding the corner of the L-shaped street, this rambler might stop short. The windows had no glass and the door of number 21 hung askew. Curtains at number 25 billowed like flitting phantoms. The houses were so many gap-toothed skulls.
Behind façades, walls had been pulverized, the guts clawed out. Against a heap of rubble some wit had propped a door – number 17 – suggesting that our visitor could enter, hear a kettle whistling and smell dinner on the stove.
Foot-scrapers, doormats and clipped hedges indicated a lost existence. A plaster gnome gazed balefully from beneath a laurel bush. Many front doors in the abandoned street were locked. Unable to absorb the uprooting from their homes, residents had secured against intruders and pocketed the key. Useless when intruders came armed with much more than a jemmy.
Rose Gardens, once lively with children kicking balls, playing hopscotch and kiss chase, neighbours chatting, was a 'ghost street'. Only eight houses were occupied, huddled behind a hoarding that offered no protection against swirls of brick dust and the insistent boom of demolition that shook walls, rattled windows and frayed nerves.
The swathe of destruction stretched west towards Hounslow and east to Hammersmith Broadway as if a warring enemy, oblivious to civilian collateral, had bombed all in its path. Weltje Road, Riverside Gardens, Black Lion Lane, Rose Gardens: street after street had been cut in two or wiped from the map.
This wholesale destruction of urban fabric wasn't military: the 'enemy' was municipal. Leafy Victorian and Edwardian suburbia that had obliterated meadows and orchards were, in their turn, being erased for the extension to the Great West Road.
At number 25, light flickered through plaster-matted curtains. The parlour, once reserved for special occasions and respectable visitors like the vicar or the rent collector, was choked with dust and its waxed floorboards splintered. Two figures, their shadows grotesque in the light of a rubber torch, hunched by a gas fire as if warming themselves at the cold grey elements.
'This is silver. It'll fetch a few bob.' A boy, stocky, bull-like, bit on the casing. 'We've had a good night.' He grinned at no one in particular.
'You'll break it.' His companion ducked out of the light. 'There's someone out there! I said we shouldn't of come.'
'It's my mum's house. We can come when we like.' The stocky boy swung the torch and revealed a zigzagging line of a missing staircase on the wall. There was no ceiling. Above, as if suspended, was a bedroom grate. It was a house with no rooms.
Dangling the trinket from its chain, the boy with the torch crept with feline ease across smashed wood and plaster to the front window. The walls were papered with a pattern of daisies, his mum's favourite flower. With slicked hair, denim jacket and jeans, his chiselled good looks were more James Dean than Cliff Richard. He twitched the curtain as his mum had done every night, waiting for her husband even after he was dead. He scanned the rubble-strewn street with the unblinking eyes of a psychopath for whom even rage is calculated.
'Sweet sixteen, ready with a cheeky grin', Smiler was the apple of his nan's eye, and the bane of his mum's life, 'never here when I need him'.
'You're cray-zee!' He shone the torch into the other boy's face and giggled, a strangely girlish sound given his bulk.
'There!' The other boy pointed across the room. Tall and streaky-bacon thin, he made dipping motions as if he might hit his head on the ceiling that wasn't there.
There was a scuffle and groans. Smiler focused light on an old man with a grey beard and straggling hair. He lay collapsed on boards where there had once been a bed-settee on which the cat would preen itself. Closer inspection showed that his lined face betrayed experience, not years. He was in his forties, dressed in an ill-fitting single-breasted suit, rheumy eyes flicking about him. His body, although wasted, was taut. He was ready for action, if incapable of taking it. The demob suit and boots with gaping soles identified him as a soldier who, back on Civvy Street, had missed out on the spoils of victory.
'I seen everything. I know the bloke you robbed. He fought at the Somme and at Dunkirk, not like you toe-rags,' he spluttered. 'I'll set the law on you and you'll hand that stuff back.' Energy spent, he sagged against the wall.
'Let's go.' The taller boy tugged at the curtain, peering out.
'You heard, he'll tell the police.' Smiler giggled at the word 'police' as if it were rude.
'Give him that silver thing. It's got initials – it'll be hard to fence.' The reedy boy added plaintively, 'I said we shouldn't have gone and we shouldn't be here.'
'That'll get at least a guinea,' Smiler murmured.
'I'll see you get nothing.' The soldier pointed at the thin boy grasping the curtain. 'I know your dad.'
'You better shut up!' the thin boy jabbered, his fear palpable.
The soldier was scrambling to his feet. 'You're a disgrace to your old man. A snivelling coward. That learning's taught you nothing.' He swayed towards the boy and grabbed his arms. In the crude light, they appeared engaged in a weird and ugly dance before the man crumpled to the floor.
The boy stood above him. Something in his hand glittered in the torchlight.
'You stabbed me.' The soldier sounded astonished.
'What you gone and done?' Smiler played the torch over the man.
'I tapped him!' His voice reedy, the boy clung to the curtain as if to his mother's skirts, eyes blinking, face chalk-white.
'Help!' The soldier's voice rang out, surprisingly strong. A dark patch spread through his shirt front.
'You did an' all!' Smiler sniggered through fingers clamped over his mouth. He took the knife off the taller boy and, with an easy action, stooped and severed the man's windpipe, stepping away to avoid gouts of blood, black as oil, flooding from his neck. Gurgles carried into the rafters as air bubbled through blood and life ebbed.
The silence was interrupted by a sound that both boys had known all their lives: a flock of geese honking as they flew towards the River Thames.
'He's dead.' The taller boy's own windpipe contracted, his voice reedier still.
Smiler wiped the knife clean on the man's trousers; the fabric was stiffened with dirt. He sucked on his teeth, making a kissing sound. 'He was vermin. A nobody.' He giggled as if the joke were a good one.
'He fought for his country.' The taller boy was shaking. 'I tapped him,' he said again.
'Fought, my eye!' Smiler kicked the dead man's boot. 'State of him. Couldn't fight Hitler's cat!' He sniggered. A tinkling sound.
The dead man's eyes glinted through half-closed lids.
'He's alive!' The taller boy tottered backwards, knocking the torch from the other boy's hand. The light went out.
'Get a grip!' From somewhere in the dark, words swallowed in a gale of merriment.
'We could've talked him out of it.' The bleating boy scrambled in the rubble for the torch.
Smiler found the torch and aimed it at his friend. 'Stop whining. You'll get us strung up. You killed him.' Serious now.
'I didn't mean it!'
'This is your knife and, like he said – you heard him – you stabbed him. I put him out of his misery. You're a murderer and a thief. You perpetrated two crimes. There's a long word to stick up your jacksy with your highfalutin baloney!' He held the light under his chin, which made him look more of a cadaver than the body at his feet.
'I'll explain to the police,' the taller boy said.
'Listen Swatty-Boy, you're eighteen. You'll hang by the neck until you're dead. I'll get Borstal and walk free.' Smiler pushed the knife into a canvas air raid warden's bag slung across his chest. 'You did right. He was a liability and at this rate so are you. Come 'ere!'
'We could implicate him,' the eighteen-year-old stuttered.
'Imp-li-cate? What a whopper!' Smiler jammed the torch against his crutch and did a thrusting motion.
'Leave something we robbed so the police think it was him.' The reedy boy was urgent.
'Like what?' Smiler yawned, bored.
'Where he's gone, he don't need to tell the time!'
'Like you said, he's vermin. The police won't put themselves out looking for his murderer.' The older boy blanched as if, despite everything, he hadn't realized that it was murder.
'It's a bleeding Rolex!' Smiler protested.
'We've got the cash and the ring. And that silver thing. The watch is worth more as a decoy.'
'OK.' Smiler seemed to see the sense in this. 'We'll use the ring. It comes from your share.' He fished in his bag and eventually found a gold signet ring. He thrust it at his friend. 'You do it, since you're so clever.'
The other boy giggled, a whinnying. 'Stick it on him!'
Perhaps to get it over with, the older boy quickly grabbed one of the man's hands. It was bony and wasted so the ring slipped easily on to his second finger.
'Get his feet.' Smiler was coldly efficient. 'We need to shift him.'
With trembling repugnance, his friend took hold of the corpse's ankles. A boot slipped off revealing a foot netted in a threadbare sock.
They hauled the man across the floor. The older boy dry-retched as a diabolical stench filled the air.
'You shat your pants!' Smiler laughed gaily.
'Get a move on, or the watchman will catch you!'
The taller boy faltered. 'When they level out the ground, they'll find him.'
'So you're a road-builder now?' Smiler snarled. 'There'll be nothing left of him. Like you said, if they find him, he's got the ring so they'll think he did the house.'
Neither boy could know that Smiler was right and that it would be twenty years before the body of the soldier was discovered, one summer's afternoon in a very different world.
Much in the scullery was unchanged from when the house had been lived in. A length of fabric was slung in front of the sink. Curtains – decorated with more daisies – framed a window in which there was still glass. Below a geyser was a scouring brush and a packet of Tide. A streak of lime ran from taps in a butler sink. Worn flagstones beat a path to a privy in the yard.
'Be a laugh if Mum was here, cooking up tripe and onions, singing to Music While You Work!' Sniggering, Smiler opened a door to cellar steps blocked at the bottom by masonry. The boys heaved the corpse into the cavity. Streams of mortar dust trickled out of cracks in the wall when they trod on loose joists. Shovelling with bare hands, they heaped bricks and wood over the body.
They heard footsteps in the street.
'The watchman!' The older boy was paralysed with panic.
'This way.' Smiler shut the cellar door and went out to the yard. He had often entered and left his mum's house by the back gardens; his knowledge came in handy now.
They kept in the shadows past the Bemax factory and along the towpath. They climbed the steps to Hammersmith Bridge and, halfway along, stopped by the plaque for the dead soldier. Not out of respect or even irony, but because it was their meeting place.
'Throw the knife in.' The eighteen-year-old pointed at the river below. 'Throw everything in. It's evidence.'
Smiler's shoulders shook with laughter. Then he sobered and, eyes glittering, said, 'If I have to tidy up your mess, you pay. I'll hold on to the knife. Call it an investment. We'll stick close, like brothers, yeah? I'm in charge. Agreed?' When the other boy didn't reply, 'Agreed?'
* * *
Around the corner from Rose Gardens the St Peter's Church clock chimed three times. Sonorous notes, as if tolling for the murdered dead.
On the ink-black river, a police barge chugged up from Barnes. Lapping from the wash carried on the night air. An officer on the deck scoured Hammersmith Bridge for some lost soul who might, in the blue hours before dawn, leap into the unforgiving waters. He saw no one.CHAPTER 2
'... The river, on from mill to mill,
Flows past our childhood's garden still;
But ah! We children never more
Shall watch it from the water-door!
Jack stopped chanting as he was deafened by a piercing whoop-whoop, rising and dipping and rising again. Coupled with a beep, it hurt his ears. A passenger had set off the emergency alarm. It was the soundtrack to Jack's recurring nightmare in which he was driving an empty train through tunnels, thinking: Who pulled the emergency handle? But now he was awake and his train – the last one of the night – had been standing room only to Earl's Court.
He went into textbook mode. He didn't brake – when the P.E.A. sounded, a driver should never stop between stations – but continued 'down road' to Kew Gardens. His watch read '11.43'. One, one, four and three. Numbers were signs. His head throbbed from the noise so that he couldn't make sense of the meaning.
Ninety per cent of emergency alarms, as Jack, a District line driver and trainer for London Underground, would explain to novice drivers, were due to accident or 'malicious intent'. His last two had been a hen party dressed as meerkats who activated it outside Richmond station and an electrical fault at Barking. However, he instructed his students to 'follow the drill because one day the emergency will be real'.
The monitoring system flashed up that the alarm had been set off in the sixth car. This was in the middle section of the train, where regular commuters for Kew Gardens station tended to sit so as to alight by the exit. Pressing the talkback button, Jack spoke into the handset, talking only to those in the sixth car.
'Hello, I am your driver. The passenger emergency alarm has been activated. Please could someone tell me what is happening there?'
'Can anyone hear me?' The clatter of the train came through the handset. Possibly a fault or a lone passenger had pressed the alarm and passed out. In his ear, so close that he looked to see if someone was in his cab, was a whisper:
'A woman is unconscious.'
As the train slowed to berth at Kew Gardens station, Jack slammed his palm on the whistle-button and sounded a blast to alert station staff. Addressing all the passengers he told them that there would be a delay. His tone was warm because, as he reminded his trainees, 'if you frighten passengers, you risk them becoming ill too'. He asked for any doctor on board to make their way to the sixth car. Jack was comfortable with emergencies.
At the headwall telephone he updated the signaller at Richmond, the voice from the sixth car replaying in his head: 'A woman is unconscious.' Someone had used that phrase when his mother died. But he had been a toddler then so couldn't trust his recollections.
Most passengers had left at Gunnersbury. There was no one in his car; only three in the second; one man in the fourth had slept through his announcement. In time to his steps, Jack continued the rhyme in his head. The voice was his mother's, as ethereal as the wind.
'Below the yew – it still is there –
Our phantom voices haunt the air
As we were still at play —'
'What's happening?' A man fell into step with him.
'I'm about to find out, sir.'
'Jack bloody Harmon! What are you doing here?' the man exclaimed and, looking at him properly, Jack's heart sank. Martin Cashman was the last man he wanted to see.
A senior detective in the Met, Cashman had worked with Jack's friend Stella's father, Terry Darnell, and frequently declared that 'Tel was my best mate'. Since Darnell's death three years ago, Cashman seemed to think that it was up to him to look out for Stella. She didn't need looking out for. Cashman made no bones about his dislike of Jack. The feeling was mutual, but when Stella was there, they kept it under wraps. She wasn't here now. The two men bristled.
'This is my train.' Jack was the little boy who, some thirty years ago, had built railway tracks in the garden at his school using lolly sticks for struts and dampened earth for mortar. A boy called Simon had scoffed at him. 'There's nowhere for the passengers to get out.'
'I've left the doors open; they can leave if they want,' Jack snapped at Cashman.
'The Underground is the jurisdiction of the transport police.' Go away.
'I was on my way home. I'm a copper; we're never off the clock. What's occurring?' Cashman's hair was short with a flick at the front and thick with product. He wore a sleek grey suit and pointy lace-ups. Jack had never seen the officer, who must be approaching fifty, looking so smart. His habitual style was the unstudied negligence of creased suits and unkempt hair.
'Shouldn't you be cleaning for Stella?' Cashman kept pace with Jack.
Cashman was a detective, nothing escaped him, so he'd remember that Jack sometimes worked for Clean Slate when he wasn't driving trains. He was putting Jack in his place.
'It would be helpful to have you along until the transport police arrive,' Jack conceded. Cashman would stay regardless of his permission.
Excerpted from The House with No Rooms by Lesley Thomson. Copyright © 2016 Lesley Thomson. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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