Who is the man with no head?
Commander John Carlyle has enough on his plate with a dead film producer and a runaway actor, not to mention the alcoholic boss who's accused him of harassment. The last thing he needs is a headless corpse in the cells of a recently closed police station. Does the killing have something to do with the station's dark past? It seems more than coincidence but Carlyle has to identify the victim before he can solve the murder...
Release date: February 4, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 304
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‘Hm.’ Inspector Karen O’Sullivan, a single mother of two, didn’t have much spare time for reading crime novels.
‘There was one that started with a guy being blown up on the loo.’ Carlyle struggled to remember the title.
‘No, I think he was blown into the street, or something.’ Carlyle was still talking about the book ‒ maybe it was Freaky Deaky.
‘I’m talking about our guy.’ O’Sullivan pointed at the mess on the walls. ‘Not much left of his head.’
‘It’s not going to make identification any easier,’ Carlyle acknowledged. ‘Anything in his pockets?’
Careful not to get any mess on her jacket, O’Sullivan quickly checked the victim’s clothes. ‘They’re empty,’ she confirmed. ‘No ID.’ A young constable stuck his head through the door. As he clocked the headless corpse, the colour drained from the lad’s face and he retreated.
‘We should give him a name,’ Carlyle suggested. ‘“The Man With No Head” is a bit of a mouthful, don’t you think?’ He racked his brains for ideas. ‘There’s a Murray Head, actor and singer,’ he offered up an excruciating chorus of ‘One Night In Bangkok’, ‘or Travis Head, a cricketer.’
‘Travis,’ said O’Sullivan, ‘if only to shut you up.’
Carlyle was struggling to come up with a witty reply when they were interrupted by the sound of retching from outside the cell. ‘Who’s the snowflake?’
The inspector glared at him. ‘You cannot say things like that, these days.’
‘You’ve gotta be able to look at a dead body in our line of work,’ Carlyle protested.
‘And you’ve got to be aware of changing standards of workplace behaviour. Remember what happened to Kelvin.’
‘Yeah.’ Superintendent Jake Kelvin had been sacked after an ill-judged joke about a glazed ring went viral. A twenty-three-year career up in smoke because someone had taken offence at a somewhat risqué doughnut gag. Carlyle had laughed out loud when he’d heard it.
‘The union are fighting to try to keep his pension.’
‘Poor sod.’ The smell of vomit wafted through the cell. Carlyle wrinkled his nose in disgust. ‘Talk about contaminating a crime scene.’
‘Keep your voice down. You don’t want Gervase to make a complaint.’
Gervase? Carlyle stifled a chortle.
‘He’s a good boy, just a bit sensitive.’ O’Sullivan went to check on their colleague.
Carlyle listened as she sent the youngster out to get some fresh air, along with some coffee, before turning his attention back to the corpse. ‘What the fuck happened here, eh?’ This was clearly not a random killing. The victim had been brought to an abandoned building and executed in a unique way. It was personal and professional. The guy’s head had been efficiently destroyed, leaving the rest of the body largely intact. The corpse was well dressed, suited and booted in an expensive fashion ‒ Paul Smith, if he’d identified the lining of the victim’s jacket correctly. ‘Nice schmutter.’ The ensemble was finished off by a polished pair of double monks. ‘Nice shoes, too.’
O’Sullivan reappeared, a paper cup in each hand. She offered one to Carlyle. ‘Double macchiato.’
‘That was quick.’ Carlyle vowed to give young Gervase the benefit of the doubt, for now at least.
O’Sullivan took a sip of her latte. ‘I bet you didn’t expect to be back here, huh?’
‘I only moved out about a month ago.’ Carlyle drank his coffee in two quick gulps. ‘I was one of the last to leave.’ Paddington Green police station had been sold off and he had been sent back to his spiritual home, Charing Cross. ‘Some of the stuff that took place in these cells …’ He let the thought trail off. ‘This used to be our only purpose-built facility for terrorists. Al Qaeda, the IRA, they’ve had all sorts in here.’
‘And now it’s going to be turned into luxury housing.’
Carlyle grunted. People always moaned about property developers but at least they built stuff. He turned his attention back to the stiff. ‘He couldn’t have been here long ‒ doesn’t smell too bad. Then again, it’s like a refrigerator in here.’
‘The woman who found him, is she one of the squatters?’ A group calling itself the Anti-Capitalist Rainbow Front had broken into Paddington Green earlier in the week and announced plans to convert it into a community centre.
O’Sullivan consulted her notebook. ‘Laura Taylor. She was having a look around and found a key to the cell block.’
‘It was locked?’
‘Apparently. Anyway, she went upstairs and told her mates. They held a vote and decided to call the police.’
‘I suppose we should be grateful.’
‘I got diverted here on my way to work. When I saw it was an unusual one, I thought you’d be interested.’
‘Thanks.’ Carlyle had first come across O’Sullivan on his return to Charing Cross, but he had already marked the inspector’s card. In his book, she was a good cop and a reliable colleague. ‘What does the pathologist say?’ It suddenly dawned on him that they were alone. ‘Where is everyone?’
O’Sullivan pointed at a fragment of twisted metal lying on the concrete floor. ‘Your man Travis had his head blown off by a grenade. Someone suggested the rest of the body might be booby-trapped, so everyone’s downed tools. They’re waiting for the bomb squad.’
‘Booby-trapped.’ The commander’s eyes widened. ‘But you just stuck your hands in his pockets.’
O’Sullivan was unconcerned. ‘If there was another bomb,’ she reasoned, ‘the squatters would’ve set it off.’
‘Maybe … but maybe not.’ Not wishing to test her theory, Carlyle promptly ushered her out of the door. ‘Let’s go upstairs.’
‘This used to be my office.’ The furniture hadn’t been removed and a couple of paint pots stood in the corner, testimony to a protracted redecoration project, which had only been completed the week before he left and the station closed.
‘Handy for going down to the cells and torturing people, I suppose.’ Sitting in front of his desk, Laura Taylor didn’t look up from her phone. The green-haired eco-warrior didn’t smell too good, but she was fresh-faced and clear-eyed. Beneath a patina of grime and attitude, the commander imagined she was quite pretty. Her given age was twenty-four, she looked barely out of her teens, and he estimated she was a rough contemporary of his own daughter.
‘What were you doing down there?’ Carlyle belatedly noticed the bruise on her cheek. There were deep scratches on the back of her right hand as well.
‘I was having a look about.’
‘Put the phone away,’ he said brusquely.
The woman looked askance but did as she was told.
‘You were exploring,’ Carlyle recapped.
Taylor clasped her hands together and placed them on her lap. ‘I needed a bit of time to think.’
‘About the guy who hit you?’
She touched her face. ‘How did you know?’
Lucky guess. ‘What happened?’
‘I thought you wanted to talk about the dead guy.’
Travis wasn’t going anywhere: he could wait. Carlyle softened his tone. ‘Just tell me what happened to you.’
‘He hit you?’
‘I won’t press charges.’
‘One step at a time. Maybe I’ll just take him down to the cells and rough him up a bit.’
‘You?’ She looked at the physical specimen in front of her, clearly unimpressed. ‘I don’t think so.’ The beginnings of a smirk appeared at the corners of her mouth. ‘You’re old enough to be my dad.’
‘Older,’ Carlyle admitted. ‘But I’m still sprightly enough to handcuff him to a toilet and break out the electric cattle prod.’
Her face hardened. ‘Fascist.’
‘That’s right, I’m a fascist pig, whose job is to smash the …’ he paused to check the flier on his old desk ‘… Anti-Capitalist Rainbow Front and shut down your basket-weaving workshops.’
Taylor looked genuinely confused. ‘Basket-weaving workshops?’
Carlyle changed tack. ‘Just tell me the name of the bloke who hit you or I’ll have you and all your mates taken to a police station that’s still open and placed in the cells there for a few days.’
‘This is police brutality.’
Carlyle casually confirmed it was so.
‘I don’t talk to cops.’ Taylor pouted.
Carlyle smiled. ‘Neither do I.’
Staring into space, she mumbled, ‘Reuben’s not a bad guy. He’s not violent.’
‘He hit you, though.’
‘We had a fight. He caught me with his hand.’
He punched you in the face. Carlyle took a deep breath. ‘I’ll have a quiet word.’ She started to protest but he cut her off. ‘Don’t worry, he won’t be arrested.’
‘It was an accident.’
‘Well, if there’s another accident, give me a call.’ He held out a business card until she took it. ‘I’m sure the Anti-Capitalist Rainbow Front doesn’t endorse that sort of thing.’
First impressions count. Carlyle’s initial take on Reuben Barnwell was less than favourable. The guy oozed slacker arrogance. ‘Shouldn’t you be focusing on the guy whose head was blown off?’
‘Do you know anything about that?’
‘No, why should I?’ Barnwell looked round the room. ‘This is harassment. I should complain to the IPCC.’
Carlyle was surprised the squatter had heard of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. ‘This just is me doing my job,’ he said equably.
‘No one could ever doubt it,’ came the sarcastic reply.
‘Why did you hit your girlfriend?’
‘It was an accident.’ Barnwell tried to change tack. ‘Laura told me you used to work here.’
‘You must’ve been sorry to see it close.’
‘It’s just a building. I do wonder why so many police stations are closing, though.’
‘You’re losing the battle.’
‘The battle to save capitalism.’
‘Capitalism will destroy our planet and ultimately our civilisation. Only by ending capitalism, and finding a new system, immediately, can we hope to survive in any meaningful way to the end of this century.’
The guy sounded like an actor reciting his lines. Something was a bit off. ‘How old are you?’ Carlyle asked.
Barnwell stiffened in his seat. ‘What’s it to you?’
‘You’re way too old for a teenage girlfriend.’
‘Mind your own business, copper. Anyway, for your information Laura’s twenty-four.’
‘However old she is, if you hit her again, I’ll have you arrested.’
Barnwell stroked his chin. ‘Are you threatening me?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Good. Well, I’m glad we sorted that out.’ Jumping from his seat, Barnwell bounced towards the door. ‘Nice meeting you, copper. I’ll give Laura your best.’
Assistant Commissioner Gina Sweetman looked aghast. ‘How much did they cost?’
‘Bloody hell, Gina, what kind of a question is that?’ Superintendent Susan Moran looked around the dimly lit dining room. It was well after midnight and they were almost the last diners in the hotel restaurant. Not that the place had been packed to begin with. For the cost of a single starter, they could have enjoyed a full meal at Pizza Express down the road. Moran hoped her boss would be picking up the tab on her expenses.
‘Go on, I’m curious.’ Sweetman took a slug of Chardonnay, wincing as the wine settled uncomfortably in her stomach. It was their third bottle of the evening and she was doing most of the drinking. ‘How much?’
Moran swilled the wine in her glass. ‘Five and a half grand,’ she whispered. ‘Plus VAT.’
‘I should’ve got a doctor’s note saying it was for medical purposes, rather than a cosmetic thing ‒ would’ve saved me the tax.’ Moran peeked at her boss’s chest. ‘Remember that, if you ever think about—’
‘Not a chance,’ Sweetman scoffed. ‘I wouldn’t waste my money. I’m sorry to say it, Susan, but you’ve been a right mug.’
‘It’s my money.’ Moran overlooked the fact she had availed herself of the Monkseaton Clinic’s zero per cent financing offer to get the job done. ‘And it’s my business.’ She searched in vain for a waiter who could bring them the bill. The final day of their Senior Women in Policing conference was due to commence in less than five hours. Moran had signed up for a networking breakfast on the theme of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace and How to Stop It. As far as her career went, stopping harassment in the Metropolitan Police was at least two decades too late, but hey-ho. Maybe the next generation of female officers would benefit, or the one after that. Ultimately, it was the superintendent’s considered view that the only way you could ever deal with the problem was to staff the force entirely with women. It was a good idea, but not one that would ever come to pass.
Finally, she caught the eye of a nearby waiter and signalled they wanted to settle up.
‘We haven’t finished the wine yet.’ The assistant commissioner grabbed the bottle, filling her glass almost to the brim.
‘I’ve had enough. Time to call it a night.’
‘Never could stand the pace, could you?’
The assistant commissioner’s eyes blazed with alcohol-fuelled righteousness. ‘We’ve worked together for, what, fifteen years?’ Her words were becoming more slurred by the minute. ‘No, sixteen.’
‘Eighteen.’ Moran could still clearly remember her first posting, Stockwell police station. She had met Gina Sweetman, already an inspector and marked for greatness, at the end of her second week out of training college. Over the years, Moran had clawed her way further up the greasy pole than seemed possible for a girl from a poor part of north London. Sweetman, meanwhile, had risen to dizzying heights, promotion after promotion, until she’d found herself only two steps away from the Metropolitan Police’s top job. Virginia Thompson had won the race to become London’s first female police commissioner but there was no reason why, with a bit of luck, Sweetman couldn’t follow in her footsteps.
‘So how come you do this without talking to me about it first? It doesn’t matter how hard you work now, you’ll always be known as the woman who had the boob job.’ The assistant commissioner gulped more wine, as if she feared the drink might be taken from her at any minute. ‘Your career is finished.’
She was woken by a text from Gina Sweetman: Too much booze. V. sorry. Think you are great professional. Bygones?
Bygones, my arse. Resisting the temptation to send a sharp reply, Moran struggled out of bed and slipped into the shower. Turning the water up as hot as she could stand it, the superintendent tried to wash away the profound irritation caused by her boss’s inappropriate tirade.
The sorry episode had left her as upset as anything that had happened to her during her time on the force, with the possible exception of the initiation ceremony she had been put through in her very first week on the job. Decades later, she still bridled at the memory of being branded in a back room of the Griffin public house. Bent over the snooker table, skirt up around her ears, gritting her teeth while a couple of senior officers had inked her backside with the station stamp.
Embarrassed at the memory, she angrily soaped the violated buttock. It couldn’t happen today. At least, she hoped it couldn’t.
Downstairs, Moran found herself sitting in the middle of the hotel’s misnamed Grand Ballroom, the only woman at a table of six at the Sexual Harassment networking breakfast, gulping down some much-needed caffeine. Sweetman was nowhere to be seen.
‘The rules of the game have changed.’ On a platform at the far side of the room, the event’s sponsor, an entrepreneur called Victoria Dalby-Cummins, was droning on about the need for men to start bucking up their ideas, big-time.
I bet no one’s ever inked your arse cheek with a rubber stamp. Moran caught the eye of Terry Brunel, a loud Yorkshireman on the Met’s Approved Contractor list, who had recently won a contract to refurbish half a dozen police stations in north London. The procurement panel of the Building and Infrastructure subcommittee of the Capital Projects Group had awarded the deal; Moran was a member of all three entities. Brunel was hosting the breakfast as a thank-you. As the speech ended, he nudged Moran’s arm with his shoulder. ‘Gina told me about your … thing.’
Brunel’s eyes flicked down to her chest. ‘I thought you looked different. I couldn’t put my finger on it.’
You’re not putting your fat fingers anywhere, Moran vowed.
‘I’ve always wondered, you know, if they feel like the real thing.’ Brunel wiggled his fingers in anticipation.
‘Terry, for Christ’s sake.’ Flushing with embarrassment, she pushed back her chair, trying to get out of reach of the Yorkshire Groper.
‘Are you pleased with them?’
‘Are you kidding?’ Moran got to her feet before the pervert could lunge at her. ‘Fuck off.’ Resisting the urge to punch the man in the face, she stormed from the room.
Hermione Lacemaker wandered through the hotel lobby, glancing at a sign advertising a Sexual Harassment breakfast in the Grand Ballroom as she made for the lifts. A young concierge started to smile then checked himself, not wanting to appear uncool. Hermione was pleased at being recognised, despite hiding behind a pair of ostentatiously large sunglasses. Then again, Goodbye Crazy had opened last week and her face was on posters everywhere. According to her agent, the film had taken less than twenty thousand on its opening weekend, making it one of the ten worst performers of the year so far. That wasn’t Hermione’s problem, though. With more than seven hundred thousand Twitter followers and her own YouTube channel, she was a performer in demand.
Waiting for the lift, she ran through a list of some of the scripts currently before her. There were a couple of family cartoons, a toy tie-in, a superhero flick in which they wanted her to play a badger, and a couple of rom coms. For a woman who had already played Ophelia at the National, not to mention lead roles in a couple of well-received BBC dramas, it was all rather thin artistic gruel, if well remunerated. Hermione craved cash and kudos. Hopefully, Kenny Schenk would come through with both. Over the last four decades, the producer’s movies had grossed seven Oscars and twenty-two nominations, not to mention incredible amounts of cash.
Hermione’s agent, Graham Hughes, had called, burbling about an ‘incredible’ script. ‘Take this part and a nomination’s guaranteed, absolute bare minimum.’
In Nice, celebrating her BFF’s birthday, Hermione scanned the synopsis. ‘It’s a medical movie, right?’
‘Jeez, Hermione, it’s a love story. Didn’t you read the synopsis I sent you?’ Hughes began reading: ‘“After contracting a fatal illness at the age of twenty-five, Seymour Davis is sent to a sanatorium and given only months to live. There, he strikes up a bromance with crazy-genius inventor Philip Bunce and devotes the rest of his life to helping his fellow patients and the disabled.” It’s wonderful, truly amazing. No robots. No aliens. No cartoons.’
‘Sounds interesting,’ was as far as Hermione was prepared to go at this stage.
‘There’s not even any sex in it, as far as I can see.’
‘At the moment.’ Hermione knew how easily that could change.
‘The script’s got Oscar written all over it. You’re up for the part of Davis’s wife.’ Hughes named a handful of Hermione’s peers. ‘There are other names in the frame but, from what I hear, you’re currently their number-one pick. It’s not a lot of screen time but a shoo-in for a Supporting Actress nod.’ He paused for breath. ‘They want you to take a meeting, here in London, tomorrow morning.’
‘For God’s sake, Graham, I’m having a few days off.’ Hermione chugged a beer as she watched Ella, the BFF, allowing herself to be chatted up by some Latin-looking bloke at the bar. ‘What’s the rush?’
‘Because Kenny’s in town.’ Hughes named a hotel on Park Lane. ‘He wants you to have breakfast in his suite.’
Hermione’s stomach lurched downward. ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding. Everyone knows the guy’s a total pervert.’
‘A pervert with more Oscar nominations than almost any other person on the planet.’
‘Remember how Becky said he tried to rape her once?’
There was silence on the line. Then Hughes responded, in a low voice, ‘Remember how Becky used to have a career? Last I heard, she was auditioning for a job on a Turkish cruise ship.’
Finishing her drink, Hermione looked over to the bar. Ella and the Latin guy had vanished. The clock behind the bar told her there was still time for her to make the last flight of the day back to London.
‘Do you know how hard I’ve had to work to get you this meeting?’ the agent whined. ‘I need you to be there. This is a great opportunity – it’ll help take your career to the next level.’
‘If he gets out of line,’ Hermione insisted, ‘I’m outta there.’ She wondered why the line sounded familiar before recalling it came from her first big Hollywood movie, Space Convicts. She’d had four lines and that was the only one that hadn’t ended up on the cutting-room floor. Still, Space Convicts had proved a valuable career stepping-stone. Her love scene with a werewolf-like alien had been voted the forty-sixth Best Sci-Fi Movie Moment by readers of the They Live fan website. Hermione was very glad her parents, who were more into Truffaut and Godard, had never seen the film.
‘It’ll be fine,’ Hughes insisted. ‘Kenny’s dynamite. He needs to explode sometimes.’
‘Well, he’s not exploding over me.’
‘Ha-ha. Look, there’s nothing to worry about. He never travels alone ‒ there’ll be lots of his people around. And you’re a big girl. You know how to look after yourself.’
You know how to look after yourself. Coming out of the hotel lift, Hermione wondered if she should have brought her pepper spray. It was illegal, but pretty effective. One of her exes, Giles, had volunteered to let her test it on him; the poor boy had never been the same since. She giggled at the memory of Giles rolling around on the floor, squealing like a stuck pig.
If things did get lairy, there was a rape alarm in her bag. The alarm wasn’t as good a pervert-deterrent as the pepper spray, but it made a hell of a racket. Hermione doubted whether the noise would be enough to get the hotel’s management to open up an eight-grand-a-night suite in good time, but it had to be better than nothing.
Striding down the corridor, she arrived at the Clinton Suite and rapped firmly on the door. After a few seconds, a pale assistant, dressed head to foot in black, opened the door. Hermione was vaguely aware of meeting him at a party in New York with Giles. To the best of her recollection, he was called Wayne, or Dwayne, something in that general ballpark of crap names.
‘Right on time.’ The gofer smirked. ‘Thank you for coming.’ Stepping aside, he watched her enter a reception room that was bigger than her entire flat in Shepherd’s Bush. The far end was given over to a large pictur. . .
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