When a body is hauled from the River Tyne, Sarah Tucker heads North for a closer look. She identifies the dead woman as private detective Zöe Boehm, but putting a name to the corpse only raises further questions. Did Zöe kill herself, or did one of her old cases come looking for her? And what’s brought Sarah’s former sparring partner Gerard Inchon to the same broken-down hotel? From derelict shipyards to its glitzy new quayside, Newcastle shows a different face everywhere Sarah looks. But then so do all the people she encounters, gangster, barman, scientist, cop – Sarah can’t trust anyone. Nor can she leave until she’s found the answer, however dangerous that discovery might turn out to be…
Release date: April 1, 2009
Publisher: Soho Crime
Print pages: 288
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Smoke and Whispers
It was dark, but there were stars upon the water. They reflected from the lights strung on the bridges, from the windows of the still-lit buildings, from the yellow shuttle bus pulling away along the quay, but most of all from the searchlights on the police launch: dabs of light that pricked out the body bobbing on the river like a chalk outline on concrete.
Small groups on the Gateshead Millennium Bridge watched events unfold.
“There was a time the city would have been fast asleep by now.”
“Welcome to the 24/7 society.” The speaker scratched his nose. “Welcome to the twenty-first century, in fact.”
Fairfax looked at his watch, in retrospective validation of his comment. 11:24. On the far bank the Sage’s glassy surface threw back distorted impressions of Newcastle: loopy cartoon buildings shivering in a February wind. He said, “The CC coverage might’ve picked it up. If it came from a bridge.”
“The operators call it JumpWatch.” Fairfax buried his hands in his overcoat pockets. “That’s if it came from a bridge,” he repeated.
But if CCTV had picked it up, they’d have known about it sooner. An alert would have been sounded; the launch dispatched more quickly. Instead, the body had just floated quietly into view, and left to its own devices might have made it to the open sea. A pedestrian had spotted it, and belled the nines, as they used to say. From a mobile. Which sped things up, if that mattered to the body.
“Said he thought it was the seal at first.”
“He thought it was what?”
“The seal. It often comes up here. Splashes about in front of the Baltic, draws a crowd. Didn’t they have a whale in London once?”
“It died,” Fairfax reminded him. “And it’s too cold for a seal.”
“They live in the sea. I’m guessing they like the cold.”
In which case, it had come to the right place. Any colder and it could have put a T-shirt on and gone clubbing.
An unborn pun drifted away across the river. The body was that of a woman, Fairfax thought. Already, the business of establishing identity was under way.
Downriver, more light bled from the buildings lining the water: hotels, restaurants, bars—even closed for business they leaked electricity into the night, as if scared of the dark, or the predators it used to bring. But that city was long gone, or at least banished from its old haunts. The quayside wore new clothes these days; its warehouses torn down; the cranes that lined the waterfront just a memory. The rats chewing on its leavings were of an entirely new order; wore suits and power haircuts, and slit each other’s throats quietly in boardrooms, rather than noisily over snooker tables. The stakes were of an order that even the eighties’ sharks had never dreamed of. That stretch of land between the Baltic and the Sage was reputedly the most expensive in the country. All of which, Fairfax supposed, should have altered his lot beyond recognition: coppering the city was not the job it had been twenty years ago. But in the end, coppering always boiled down to the same thing, and sooner or later you had a body in the water.
On whose surface the borrowed stars twinkled, small flashes of illumination just that little bit younger than their sources on the bridges. Come morning they’d surrender to the larger glare of day, by which time a lot more light would have been cast on the body. It would have been recovered, for a start; would have gushed water like an old mattress as it was hauled on to the launch, and with torches shone upon it would appear fragile and monochrome: black hair, white skin, black jacket. Empty eyes. In too many ways, that was the whole story right there: the body, once retrieved, had empty, finished eyes. But it was all just beginning, too. Come morning, DI Andrew Fairfax would have learned more: scraps of knowledge pieced together from an unwrapped body on a slab; from clothing and pocket contents, driving licence and credit cards, all chipping in to produce an identity, even if its owner was no longer around. Zoë Boehm. Private inquiry agent, according to a sheaf of business cards in her wallet. Forty-six. Formerly of Oxford. No footage existed of her launching herself from the suicide’s favourite, the High Level, but she’d drowned all right, even though she’d received a blow on the back of the head first. A wound not necessarily inconsistent with a high fall into water.
Come morning, all of that. At the moment, what Fairfax had was a floating body.
He said, “Valentine’s coming up.”
Valentine’s always saw a needle in the suicide figures: the first Monday of the New Year was the divorce lawyer’s favourite day, and all those filed papers would be turning up on doormats round about now, just as shop windows filled with heart-shaped balloons and cuddly bears. Everywhere the newly-single looked, they’d be seeing red. For some, it was the last straw. But then for some, the last straw was the first within reach, as if the whole bundle had been handed to them the wrong way round. For some, not much encouragement was needed to go jumping to conclusions.
Which Fairfax was doing himself. Whatever the statistics said, there were always anomalies. Accidents kept on happening, and murders never stopped.
“Well, we’ll see,” he said.
A hook on a stick snagged the body, and the heavy process of dragging it on to the launch began.
Fires have to be tended carefully, in case they go out; except those that have to be fought fiercely, in case they don’t. Which was a way of saying that events could be one thing or could be another. There was no way of telling without getting close.
There’d been a body in the water. That had an end-of-story feel to it, but still: she had to get close.
She’d come to Newcastle on a stopping train, and when she alighted beneath the high arched spaces of the station, what mostly struck her was the cold; a five-degree drop en route, and it hadn’t been warm to start with. Carrying only a holdall, she picked her way through people hauling suitcases on wheels—edged past others on benches, holding gently steaming cardboard cups—and found the exit, where she paused to check the map she’d downloaded that morning. Nearby was a bar whose tables spread on to the concourse. A group of young men in short-sleeved shirts sat at one, hoisting glasses in a toast that mostly consisted of vowels.
Short sleeves, she thought. Jesus.
Taxis waited outside, but she wasn’t going far. She turned right. Her route took her past a large hotel and the Lit & Phil, then a confusing array of traffic lights and road signs before bending to the right between what appeared to be matching warehouses: big wooden structures with metal shutters blinding their doors and windows. Cars hurried past, looking for a motorway. She reached a corner, checked her map, and turned right again, down a high-arched tunnel under the railway line. At the far end, where the road turned cobbled, she found the Bolbec Hotel. Above her a train rattled north.
And somewhere in front of her, unseen from here, flowed the river, down which the body identified as Zoë Boehm had floated the week before.
A fire that had definitely gone out.
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