TILL DEATH DO US PART?
A standalone psychological thriller about toxic friendships, domestic abuse and the secrets that families keep buried.
Philomena McCarthy – a dedicated young officer - has defied the odds to join the Metropolitan Police despite because her father is notorious London gangster. Called to the scene of a domestic assault, she rescues a bloodied young woman, Tempe Brown, the mistress of a decorated detective. The incident is hushed up, but Phil has unwittingly made a dangerous enemy with powerful friends.
Determined to protect each other, the two women strike up a tentative friendship. Tempe is thoughtful and sweet and makes herself indispensable to Phil, but sinister things keep happening and something isn't quite right about the stories Tempe tells. When a journalist with links to Phil's father and to the detective is found floating in the Thames, Phil doesn't know where to turn, who to blame or who she can trust.
Release date: January 4, 2022
Print pages: 352
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When You Are Mine
Four Months Ago…
I was eleven years old when I saw my future. I was standing near the middle doors of a double-decker bus when a bomb exploded on the upper level, peeling off the roof like a giant had taken a tin opener to a can of peaches. One moment I was holding on to a pole, and the next I was flying through the air, seeing sky, then ground, then sky. A leg whipped past me. A stroller. A million shards of glass, each catching the sunlight.
I crashed to the pavement as debris and body parts fell around me. Looking up through the dust, I wondered what I’d been doing on a London sightseeing bus, which is what it looked like without a roof.
People were hurt. Dying. Dead. I spat grit from between my teeth and tried to remember who had been standing next to me. A tattooed girl with white earbuds under hacked purple hair. A mother with a toddler in a stroller. Two old ladies were in the side seat, arguing about the price of movie tickets. A guy with a hipster beard was carrying a guitar case decorated with stickers from around the world.
Normally I would have been at school at 9:47 in the morning, but I had a doctor’s appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist who was going to tell me why I suffered from so many sinus infections. Apparently I have narrow nasal passages, which is probably genetic, but I haven’t worked out who to blame.
As I lay on the street, a man’s face appeared, hovering over me. He was talking but he made no sound. I read his lips.
“Are you bleeding?”
I looked at my school uniform. My blue-and-white-checked blouse was covered in blood. I didn’t know if it was mine.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
He moved away.
Around me, shop-front windows had been shattered, covering the sidewalk and roadway with diamonds of glass. A pigeon lay nearby, blown out of the sky, or maybe it died of fright. Dust had settled, coating everything in a fine layer of gray soot. Later, when I saw myself in the mirror, I had white streaks under my eyes, the tracks of my tears.
As I sat in the gutter, I watched a young policewoman moving among the injured. Reassuring them. Comforting them. She put her arms around a child who had lost his mother. The same officer reached me and smiled. She had a round face and brilliantly white teeth and her hair was bundled up under her cap.
My ears had stopped ringing. Words spilled out of her mouth.
“What’s your name, poppet?”
“And your last name?”
“Are you by yourself, Philomena?”
“I have a doctor’s appointment. I’m going to be late.”
“He won’t mind.”
The police officer gave me a bottle of water so I could wash dirt from my mouth. “I’ll be back soon,” she said, and she continued moving among the wounded. She was like one of those characters you see in disaster movies who you know is going to be the hero from the moment they appear on-screen. Everything about her was calm and self-assured, sending a message that we would survive this. The city would survive. All was not lost.
Standing in front of the mirror, sixteen years later, I remember that officer and wish I had asked for her name. I often think about bumping into her again and thanking her for what she did. “I became a police officer because of you,” I’d say. “You were my childhood hero.”
I laugh at the thought and stare at my reflection. Then I pull a face which is supposed to reduce my chance of wrinkles but makes me look like I’m busting for the loo. My mother swears by these exercises and recommends them to all her clients at the beauty salon, most of them older women who are desperately clinging to their looks, while their husbands get to age gracefully or disgracefully, going to seed, without a care.
Leaning closer to the mirror, I consider my face, which looks heart-shaped when I bundle my hair up into a topknot. I have gray eyes, a straight-edged nose, and an overly large bottom lip, which Henry likes to bite when we kiss. My eyebrows are like sisters rather than distant cousins because I refuse to let my mother near them with her tweezers and pencils.
I am working early today, with a shift starting at seven. Henry is still in bed. He looks like a little boy when he sleeps, his dark hair tousled and wild, and one arm draped across his eyes because he doesn’t like to be woken by the bathroom light. Henry could sleep for England. He could have slept through the blitz. And he doesn’t mind when I come in late and put my cold feet on his warm ones. That must be love.
I glance at my phone. It’s not even six and already I have four voicemail messages, all of them from my stepmother, Constance. I don’t normally refer to Constance as my stepmother because we’re so close in age, which embarrasses me more than her, and my father not at all. What a cliché he turned out to be—running off with his secretary.
I play the first message.
“Philomena, sweetie, did you get the invitation? You haven’t replied. The party is two weeks on Sunday. Are you coming? Please say yes. It would mean so much to Edward. You know he’s very proud of you… and wishes…” She doesn’t finish the statement. “He’s turning sixty and he wants you with him. You’re still his favorite, you know, despite everything—”
“Despite everything,” I scoff, skipping to the next message.
“Philomena, darling, please come. Everybody will be there. Bring Henry, of course. Is that his name? Or is it Harry? I’m terrible with names. Forgive me. Oh, let me check. I’ve written it down… somewhere… yes, here. Henry. Bring Henry. No presents. Two weeks on Sunday at four.”
Constance has a posh, braying voice that makes every utterance sound like “yah, rah, hah, nah, yah.” She is the granddaughter of a duke or a lord who gambled away the family fortune a generation ago and “doesn’t have a pot to piss in,” according to my uncles, who call her “the duchess” behind her back.
Henry stirs. His head appears. “What time it is?”
He raises the bedclothes and peers beneath. “I have a present for you.”
“Please come back to bed.”
“You missed your chance.”
He groans and covers his head.
“I love you too.” I laugh.
Outside, a dog begins furiously yapping. Our neighbor Mrs. Ainsley has a Jack Russell called Blaine that barks at every creak and cough and passing car. We’ve complained, but Mrs. Ainsley changes the subject, pointing out some act of vandalism or petty crime in the street which is more evidence that society is unraveling and we’re not safe in our beds.
It’s an eighteen-minute walk from Marney Road to Clapham Common tube station, along the northern edge of the common, past sporting fields and the skate park. I am wearing my “half blues,” with my hair pinned up in a bun. We’re not allowed to wear our full uniform when traveling to and from work. Periodically, a politician will suggest the policy be changed, arguing that police officers should be more visible as a deterrent to crime. Cops on the beat. Boots on the ground.
I can picture my morning commute if I were in uniform. Random strangers would complain to me about schoolkids putting their feet on the seats or playing music too loudly. I’d hear how their neighbor doesn’t recycle properly or has a dog that keeps crapping in their front garden. If trouble did break out, how would I call for backup without a radio? And if I made an arrest, where would I take the offender? Would I get overtime? Would anyone thank me?
I catch a Northern line train to Borough, which is six stops, and walk two minutes to Southwark Police Station, stopping to buy coffee at the Starbucks across the road. The skinny barista is called Paolo and he keeps up a constant patter as he presses, steams, froths, and pours. He offers the ladies “extra cream” or a “sticky bun,” making it sound like a sexual proposition. His brother works the sandwich press and occasionally adds to the banter.
While I wait for my order, I think about my father and his sixtieth birthday party. I haven’t spoken to him in six years and haven’t been in the same room with him for nine. I can remember that last meeting. Jamie Pike, the coolest boy I knew, was fumbling in my knickers in our front room. One moment he had his hand down my pants, acting like he’d lost a pound coin, and the next he was flying backwards and slamming into an antique sideboard, where a William and Kate wedding plate toppled from a stand and shattered on the floor next to him.
My father marched him out of the house and spoke so sternly to Jamie that he never so much as looked at me again. A few years ago I bumped into him at a cinema in Leicester Square and he literally ran away. He might still be running, or hiding under his bed, or checking his doors are locked. My father has that sort of reputation. He is steeped in myths and stories, many of them violent, hopefully embellished, but all of them spoken in whispers in dark corners because nobody wants to discover if they’re true.
Jamie Pike isn’t the reason that I’m estranged from my father. My parents’ divorce set us on separate paths. I chose to live with my mother, and Daddy chose not to care, or care enough to fight for me. Yes, he sends me birthday presents and Christmas gifts and makes overtures, but I expect more from someone who broke my heart. I want him to grovel. I want him to suffer.
When I applied to join the London Metropolitan Police, I knew it was going to be difficult. Not just the job—policing a city of nine million people—or the other responsibilities of counter terrorism and protecting foreign embassies and the Royal Family. I was up against history, tradition, misogyny, and the baggage that comes with my family. The form asked me to list my connections with any known criminals. I named my father and three uncles. I watched the recruiting inspector read my application and felt as though the oxygen were being sucked from the room. He laughed, thinking it was some sort of joke. He looked past me, searching for a hidden camera or whoever had put me up to this. When he realized I was serious, his mood changed and I went from being an applicant with a strong CV and a first-class degree to being a fox asking permission to move into the henhouse and set up a barbecue chicken joint.
His face changed color. “Money laundering. Extortion. Racketeering. Theft. Your family is a pox on this city. Are you seriously suggesting I allow you to join the police service?”
“I cannot be held responsible for the past actions of my family members,” I said, quoting the regulations.
“Don’t lecture me, lassie,” said the inspector.
“I’d prefer not to be called ‘lassie,’ sir.”
“That’s the name for a dog or a young girl.”
My mouth, running off again.
My application was rejected. I applied again. Another rebuff. I threatened legal action. It took me four attempts to gain a place at Hendon, where the instructors were harder on me than any of the other recruits, determined to have me fail or drop out. My classmates couldn’t understand why I was singled out for such brutal treatment. I didn’t tell any of them about my father. McCarthy is a common enough surname. There are twenty-eight thousand of us in England and almost the same number in Ireland. A person can hide in a crowd that big. A person might even disappear, if only her father would let her.
At Southwark Police Station, I get changed into my full kit: my stab vest, belt, shoulder radio, body camera, collapsible baton, CS spray, and two sets of handcuffs. My hair bun fits neatly beneath my bowler hat, so that the brim doesn’t tilt down and restrict my field of vision. I love this uniform. It makes me feel respected. It makes me feel needed.
Although only five foot five, I’m not frightened of confrontation. I teach karate two evenings a week at Chestnut Grove Academy in Wandsworth, and occasionally on weekends. I can block a punch and take a fall, but more importantly, I can read a situation and stay cool under pressure. I don’t practice karate because I’m mistrustful of people or frightened of the world. I like the discipline and improved fitness and how it speeds up my reaction times.
Twenty officers gather in the patrol room for the briefing. Our section sergeant, Harry Connelly, has a quasi-military bearing and weight around his middle that puts pressure on his buttons. Certain jobs need to be followed up from the night shift. Crime scenes guarded. Prisoners escorted to court. A suicide watch at a hospital. Outstanding warrants to be served.
“We had a confirmed sighting overnight of Terrence John Fryer, a violent escaper, wanted for drug use, supply, and manufacture. He tried to break into his girlfriend’s house in Balham. You have his mug shot. He’s dangerous. Call for backup if you see him.”
Paperwork and follow-up calls are the bane of a copper’s life. Every LOB (load of bollocks) from an MOP (member of the public) generates a report and a response. Forms in triplicate. Statements. Updates. Liaising with other services.
“Morning, partner,” says Police Constable Anisha Kohli, falling into step beside me.
Kohli gets called “Nish” and is the station heartthrob. Tall and lean with milk-chocolate skin, he was born in East Ham and has never been to India, but he still gets peppered with questions about arranged marriages, the caste system, and cricket.
“Why do people treat me like I’m fresh off the boat?” he once asked.
“It’s because you look like a Bollywood star.”
“But I can’t sing or dance or act.”
“Yeah, but you got the looks, baby.”
We sign out a patrol car, which doesn’t smell of piss or vomit. I’m grateful for that.
Nish gets behind the wheel and I radio the control room. Our first jobs are a reported burglary in Brixton and a series of cars that were vandalized near Peckham tube. Nish and I work well together. Instinctively, we choose who should take the lead in asking questions. Some of the more experienced officers aren’t sure how to treat female constables, but things are getting better. One in four officers are now women, and the ratio is even higher in management.
The morning is a mixed bag of accidents, burglaries, a bag snatch on a Vespa, and a dementia patient missing from a nursing home. Nobody on patrol ever says, “it’s quiet,” because that’s considered bad luck, like an actor naming that “Scottish play.”
After three years I can plot my way around South London based on the crime scenes that I’ve attended. A hit-and-run on this corner. A jumper from that building. Cars set alight on that vacant block. Some locales are more famous or infamous than others, and some crimes are so shocking that the victims’ names are seared into the history of a city: Damilola Taylor. Stephen Lawrence. Rachel Nickell. Jean Charles de Menezes. Most people look at London and see landmarks. I see the maimed, broken, and the addicted, the eyewitnesses, the innocent bystanders, and the bereaved.
At midday I’m picking up coffees from a van near London Bridge when the control room radios about a domestic in progress. A neighbor can hear a woman screaming. The address is one of the newer warehouse developments near Borough Market. Nish pulls into traffic and gives a blast of the siren to clear an intersection. He looks at the dashboard clock. “This one kicked off early.”
Nish presses a buzzer on the intercom. The neighbor answers and unlocks the main door. She is waiting on the fourth floor, an elderly black woman in a brightly colored kaftan and slippers. Her ankles are as wide as her toes.
“Mrs. Gregg?” I ask.
She nods and points along the hallway. “I can’t hear them anymore. He might have killed her.”
“Who lives there?” I ask.
“A young woman. The boyfriend comes and goes.”
“The owner works in Dubai. Rents the place out.”
“You said you heard screaming,” says Nish.
“And stuff breaking. She was yelling and he was calling her names.”
“Have there been other fights?” I ask.
“Nothing like this.”
“OK. Go back inside.”
We take up positions on either side of the door. I have one hand on my baton and my legs braced. Nish knocks. There are muffled voices inside. He knocks again. A chain unhooks. A lock turns. A woman’s face appears. Late twenties. Dark hair. Attractive. Frightened.
“Hello, how are you?” I ask.
“We had a report of a disturbance. A woman sounded upset. Was that you?”
“Who else is in the flat?”
Nish has braced one foot against the door to stop it being shut.
“Can we come inside?” I ask.
“You must have the wrong address,” she says. “I’m fine.”
“What’s your name?”
“Is it short for Temperance?”
“No, it’s a place… in Greek mythology. The Vale of Tempe.”
“What about your last name?”
“It’s a question that we have to ask.”
Tempe’s eyes go sideways.
“Who else lives here?” asks Nish.
“My boyfriend. He works nights. He’s sleeping.”
“You said you were alone.”
She hesitates, trapped in a lie.
“Can you open the door a little wider?” I ask.
“We have to check on your welfare.”
Tempe edges it open, revealing her swollen left eye, which is filled with blood, and a split lip that has twisted her mouth out of shape. Even with a damaged face she looks familiar, and I wonder if we might have met before.
“What happened to your face?” I ask.
“It was an accident.”
Her gaze shifts to the left again. There is someone standing behind the door.
I motion with my head and mouth the words “Is he there?”
I cup my ear in a listening gesture.
“Maybe you should wake your boyfriend and tell him we’re here,” says Nish, speaking more loudly.
“No. Please. I’m fine. Really, I am.”
She tries to shut the door, but Nish has his foot in place and matches her effort. Tempe backs away. The front of her dress is stained with blood and her lip looks like a large marble has been sewn beneath the broken skin.
A man steps from behind the door and shoves Tempe out of the way. Shielding her. He’s shirtless and shoeless, wearing a pair of gray tracksuit pants that hang low on his hips. Late-thirties. Smiling.
“How can I help you officers?”
“We had a report of a woman screaming,” says Nish.
“Screaming? Nah. Must have been the TV.”
“The young lady has injuries.”
“That was an accident. She ran into a door.”
“What’s your name, sir?”
“Let’s not go there,” says the man, who has a Roman centurion tattooed onto his shoulder and scars on his chest and stomach. “I’m a copper, OK? This is all a misunderstanding.”
I glance at Nish, looking for guidance, but nothing has changed in his demeanor. He asks the man to step outside.
“My colleague is going to speak to Tempe alone. You’re going to stay here with me.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“She has a black eye and a split lip.”
I step past the man, who throws out his arm to block the doorway. I duck underneath.
“You don’t have permission. I know my rights,” he complains.
The hallway has a broken bowl on the floor and a smear of blood on the wall. Tempe is in the living area, sitting on the sofa, with her chin resting on her knees. She has found a bag of frozen peas in the freezer and is pressing it to the side of her face. She has long, slender feet that are calloused around her toes from wearing high-heel shoes.
Her boyfriend is still arguing with Nish.
“What happened?” I ask.
“I made him angry.”
Her accent is Northern Irish. Belfast, maybe, but softer. She is two inches taller than me, with almond-shaped eyes that are pale green. Again, I feel as though we might have met, but I can’t place her.
Voices are drifting from outside, where the argument continues. I distract Tempe with a question.
“You live here?”
“Is your name on the lease?”
Tempe lowers the frozen peas. Her left eye is almost completely closed.
“Your cheekbone might be fractured. You’ll need an X-ray. I’ll take you to hospital.”
“He won’t allow that.”
“He’ll have to.”
I take a photograph of her face. “Lift your chin.” I take another. “Pull back your hair.” And another.
“Any other bruises?”
“Change your clothes. Put the dress in a plastic bag.”
“I’m not pressing charges.”
“Fine, but I’m taking you to hospital.”
Tempe goes to the bedroom and I look around the apartment, which is tastefully decorated, although everything looks like it came from a furniture showroom, one of those places that puts fake books on the shelves and empty bottles of wine in the bar fridge. There are no personal items like photographs or souvenirs or knickknacks. Nothing that creates a signature or gives an insight into the occupants.
Tempe clears her throat. She is standing in the doorway wearing a modest woolen dress with a cowl neck. She collects her handbag from the table, making sure she has her phone.
“What about your passport?”
“Why do I need that?”
“It’s good to have proof of your identity—in case you don’t come back.”
“I’m coming back,” she says adamantly.
I take her forearm as we walk along the hallway. Nish is still arguing with the boyfriend.
“Why are you writing stuff down? I told you, nothing happened.”
“Why does the young lady have blood on her dress?”
“It was an accident.”
“Yeah, so you keep saying.”
“You won’t be writing this up. I’m a detective sergeant stationed at Scotland Yard. The Intelligence Unit.”
Nish sounds less certain than before. “I need your name.”
Tempe tries to step around him, but the boyfriend grabs at her hair. I knock his arm aside and push her behind me, before bracing my legs, one forward, the other back, letting my hands hang ready at my sides. This time he lunges at me. I dance back a step and perform a rising cross-block with open hands.
Suddenly, enraged, he swings a punch, but I grab his attacking arm from inside and back-fist him in the jaw. Dropping to one knee, I trip him backwards, turning him onto his chest and twisting his arm high up the middle of his spine.
All of this happens so quickly that Nish hasn’t had time to unholster his Taser or extend his baton. Taking cuffs from my belt, I snap them on his wrists.
“I am arresting you for assaulting a police officer. You do not have to say anything. But if you do not mention now something which you later use in your defense, the court may decide that your failure to mention it now strengthens the case against you…”
The man has blood on his teeth. “You’re finished! You’re both fucked!”
“…a record will be made of anything you say, and it may be given in evidence if you are brought to trial.”
“I am Detective Sergeant Darren Goodall. I want my Police Federation rep.”
I glance at Nish, who is taking notes but looks dazed. “Can you arrange transport to the station? I’ll take Tempe to the hospital.”
Feeling calm, almost weightless, I lead Tempe along the hallway to the lift.
Goodall shouts after her. “Not a word, bitch! Not a fucking word!”
Inside the lift, Tempe pins herself against the mirrored wall, wrapping her arms around her thin frame.
“How did you do that?” she whispers.
“You dropped him like a… like a…” She can’t think of a word. “He was twice your size. It was like something you see in the movies. What are you? Five six? A hundred and thirty pounds?”
“On a good day.” I laugh, the adrenaline starting to leak away.
“Do they teach you that in the police?”
“You were so fast. It was like you knew exactly what he was going to do before he did it.”
“I knew he was right-handed.”
“That’s the hand he used on you.”
Tempe touches her swollen eye, making the connection in her mind.
We’ve reached the patrol car. Tempe sits in the backseat and I get behind the wheel. We can see each other in the rearview mirror on the windscreen.
“Is he a detective?” I ask.
“How long have you been seeing him?”
“A year. He’s married. Does that shock you?”
“All part of the rich pageant,” I say, but instantly regret the comment because it sounds flippant and condescending. I shouldn’t be mocking an institution that I’m about to embrace.
Tempe pulls at the collar of her dress. She’s fidgeting, wanting to busy her hands. We’ve stopped at the traffic lights and I take a moment to study her face, not the bruising, but the half which is undamaged. Thoughtful. Sad. Lonely.
Ten minutes later we walk into the Urgent Care Centre at Guy’s Hospital. The waiting area is full of the broken, beaten, and accident-prone. A black woman with her arm in a sling looks at me with undisguised hatred. She has two small kids clinging to her skirt. What have I done to deserve such loathing? Put on a uniform? Kept the streets safe?
A triage nurse takes down Tempe’s details and then we sit side by side in the waiting area. A different nurse gets Tempe an ice pack, which she holds gently against her cheek.
“Has he hurt you before?”
“Will you make a statement?”
“I’m not stupid.”
I don’t blame her. If Darren Goodall is a police officer, he will know exactly how to handle a complaint like this one: what to say and who to call and how to twist the details. He’ll claim that Tempe hit him first or that he was trying to protect himself. It will be her word against his. No contest.
“You look so familiar,” I say. “I could swear that we’ve met before.”
“I don’t think so,” says Tempe.
Then it comes to me—the memory of a pretty girl with dark hair who was three years ahead of me at St. Ursula’s Convent in Greenwich.
“We went to school together,” I say. “But your name wasn’t Tempe.”
“It’s my middle name. I hated being called Margaret.”
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