Loretta Lawson

Bombshell…..Loretta Lawson is back!

 

Loretta Lawson, the feminist detective loved by P D JamesSara Paretsky and thousands of readers around the world, is back in a stunning new adventure.

It’s July 2005 and she’s moved back to North London, a new job and a new boyfriend. But London’s changed and Loretta finds herself in a globalised city that’s become a haven for survivors of half a dozen wars – and religious extremists.

A balmy summer evening. A friend’s birthday party. Everyone’s relaxed until someone mentions the bombings which killed 52 people and paralysed London a week earlier. Has Loretta made a mistake? Should she have stayed in her comfortable canal-side house in Oxford?

She doesn’t think so – but then a midnight caller shatters her peace of mind. A cold-blooded murderer has struck close to home and Loretta struggles to cope with shock, a vicious late-night attack – and threats from Islamic extremists.

Fast-paced, complex and right up-to-date, Bombshell marks the return of one of crime fiction’s most popular heroines.

Praise for Joan Smith and Loretta Lawson:

‘I’ve always loved Loretta Lawson’      Sara Paretsky

‘I love Loretta’      P D James

‘Cannily plays with the conventions of the traditional British crime novel, presenting Lawson as an intelligent woman who is an outsider on account of her politics and her feminism’  Barry Forshaw in the Rough Guide to Crime Fiction

 

Now read this exclusive extract from Bombshell © Joan Smith, 2010:

 

Chapter One

Connie eased into the room to whoops and applause, using her elbow to hold open the door from the hall. In her hands was a serving plate and she wiggled her hips, playing to the gallery: ‘Come on, you lot, clear a space!‘

Hands shot out, bottles and glasses chinked. A tumbler rolled onto its side, dribbling cranberry juice onto the table cloth.

Fuck.’

A woman put out a hand: ‘Robin – ‘

‘Who’s drinking that stuff?’

They quarrelled good-naturedly among themselves, and Loretta leaned towards her neighbour. ‘Pass me the salt.‘

He stared at her.

‘The salt.’

She shook it onto the pink stain, keeping half an eye on Connie as she lowered the plate to a fresh round of cheers. In the middle was a sumptuous cake, its dark chocolate outer skin resembling creased paper. Inside, chunks of white chocolate had been fashioned into the shape of sweets.

‘It looks like a paper bag!’

‘Where did you get that?’

Connie grinned. ‘Loretta offered to bring a pudding. I had no idea it was going to be a work of art.’

They turned to look at her. ‘Where did you get it?’

‘Patisserie Valerie. I was in Old Compton Street – ’

‘Oh, I forgot!’

Connie darted from the room as Loretta explained that she had been rediscovering old haunts in London. ‘I went to Portobello market last weekend for the first time in years, I loved the fashion.’

Connie returned with a miniature version of a traditional birthday cake, the thick white icing studded with tiny candles. She said: ‘Blue for a boy, though it can’t really compare.’

The two cakes sat side by side among the debris left after the removal of the main course. The candles flickered and went out in a gust of wind from the open French windows. Someone produced a lighter, shaking it when it didn’t work.

‘This stupid thing – ‘

‘I thought you’d given up smoking?’

‘I have.’ The woman tossed the useless lighter onto the table.

Connie produced a box of cook’s matches. There was a sharp odour of sulphur as she struck one, and soon all the candles were alight again.

‘Come on, bro.‘

She nudged the man on her right, giving him a mischievous look. Her sleek dark hair was pushed behind her ears, and Loretta could see the resemblance in their faces: the same hazel eyes, translucent skin and long noses.

Connie’s brother said: ‘Do I really have to?’

She threw an arm round him. ‘This is your party, Felix, and you really have to.’

He took a deep breath as Connie launched into a mezzo-soprano version of ‘happy birthday’. His cheeks expanded as he blew out the candles.

‘Did you wish? You’ve got to wish.‘

‘Don’t tell anyone – ‘

Opposite Loretta, Felix’s good-looking friend Calum leaned forward to catch his eye. ‘Thirty-six isn’t it? Heading towards the big four-oh.’

’Watch it, mate. Thirty-five.’

Connie finished singing with a drawn out ‘happy birthday to you’. She was wearing a cream linen dress printed with cabbage roses, and clusters of garnets sparkled in her ears. Loretta regarded her fondly, wishing she had left herself more time to get ready instead of working until the very last minute. She’d had time only to roll up her hair, securing it with a comb on top of her head and allowing the rest to fall to her shoulders. ‘Very retro,’ Connie had observed when she opened her front door just after eight. ‘Goes with the dress, I wish I had your eye for vintage.’ Now Connie raised a knife over the birthday cake and received a torrent of unsolicited advice.

‘If you cut it there – ‘

‘Not like that. Some people only want – ‘

‘No diets tonight!’

‘Who wants a big piece?’ Connie sliced into the cake.

Loretta smiled, thinking it was good to be back in North London. Summery scents drifted in from Connie’s garden and Loretta could smell newly-cut grass from beyond the back wall. She knew from the legal documents relating to her own flat, which was next door to Connie’s house, that two big Victorian dwellings had been knocked together to form a block of flats, and the tenants were still clearing the rubble left by the builders when they demolished the wall between the two gardens. A sizeable area of grass had been left intact and Loretta had heard someone attempting to start a petrol mower while she was working that afternoon, followed by curses when the engine flooded. Shortly afterwards someone emerged with a strimmer and tried to tackle the overgrown grass, buzzing like an angry wasp for the next twenty minutes. ‘At least they’re clearing it up,’ Connie said when Loretta mentioned it, but half an hour ago they’d exchanged nervous glances when the new neighbours brought out a powerful sound system. For the last few minutes they’ been providing an unwanted soundtrack to the dinner party, playing something Loretta didn’t recognise, but the music stopped suddenly and she heard raised voices. The altercation continued for a while, then a door slammed and someone put on The Killers.

‘Sorry?’ Loretta realised that the man sitting on her right had spoken. He’d moved next to her when Connie suggested that the men change places for the pudding course, but so far they hadn’t exchanged words about anything except passing the salt. Loretta saw that he was holding out two plates.

He raised his eyebrows and said: ‘Cake – or cake?’

Loretta pointed. ‘I’ll have the chocolate cake. Unless you – ‘

‘I do not like sweet things,’ he said, and Loretta heard his foreign accent.

She took the plate, saying by way of apology: ‘I’ve got a sweet tooth.’

She plunged a fork into the dark chocolate and lifted it to her mouth. ‘Mmm, this is sensational – you’re really missing something.’ She glanced at him. ‘I’m Loretta Lawson, by the way.’

‘Hello Loretta. Marco DaLuca.’

He held out a hand and she squirmed in her seat so she could shake it. His was damp, and she had to resist the temptation to wipe her own when he let go.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Italy.’

‘Oh – ‘

She managed to hide her surprise. Connie had mentioned him when she listed who was coming to Felix’s birthday dinner, but Loretta pictured a stereotypical Italian with dark hair and olive skin. Marco DaLuca had a pale, angular face and he’d shaved his scalp, leaving a dark shadow which tracked his receding hairline. He must be from the North, Loretta decided, and glanced across the table at Calum, whose dark blond hair was even curlier than her own. He felt her gaze, turned from the black woman he’d been talking to and flashed a mischievous grin. Loretta had tried to engineer it so that she was sitting next to him for at least part of the evening but she’d been thwarted by Connie, who directed Calum to the other side of the table -

‘More wine?’

Marco was holding a bottle over Loretta’s glass. She hurriedly put her hand over it, aware that she was slurring occasional words. ‘No thanks. I think I’ve had enough.’

He gestured towards Connie. ‘How do you know our beautiful friend?’

Loretta’s nose wrinkled. Resigning herself to making polite conversation, she said: ‘I got to know her when I lived in Oxford, and I’ve just moved next door. That side.’ She pointed over her shoulder. ‘Not the whole house – I’ve got a flat on the top two floors. Connie found it and she did the conveyancing.’ She saw that Marco didn’t know the word and explained: ‘The paperwork. Legal stuff.’

Connie called from the end of the table: ‘Loretta’s the new girl on the block so you all have to be nice to her.’

Loretta shook her head, laughing. ‘Take no notice. Connie says you’re a client as well?’

‘Yes, and I do not know many people in London. It is kind of her to invite me.’

‘To dinner, you mean?’

He went on talking but Loretta’s attention wandered. She glanced at the man to her left and saw that his head was nodding on his chest, whether from the warmth of the evening or too much alcohol wasn’t clear. Straight brown hair flopped over his forehead and he was the only man wearing a tie, giving him the look of an overgrown schoolboy. Loretta was about to nudge him, but then it occurred to her that he might be just as much of an effort to talk to as the Italian on her other side.

‘Yes, Chelsea’s nice,’ she said absently, as Marco described a flat he’d looked at off the King’s Road.

She cocked her head, straining to hear a man at the garden end of the table – Robin, that was his name.

‘I’m sure Victoria would do it, if only I could get past her people,’ he was saying, fiddling with his black-rimmed glasses.

Loretta covered her mouth with her hand, stifling a giggle. She’d sat next to Robin during the main course and he talked endlessly about his documentary on the Spice Girls. The working title – Girl Power: the First Decade – had made her choke, and now she saw that his new neighbour Selena was looking no more impressed. She had taken off the pink jacket she wore over a floral dress, but still looked uncomfortable in the sticky heat. Robin sneezed for the third or fourth time that evening, pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose.

‘Why didn’t you stay at home?’ Loretta muttered under breath, hoping she hadn’t caught his cold. She leaned closer to Marco. ‘He’s making a film about the Spice Girls, can you imagine anything more boring?’ Marco looked blank. ‘You have heard of the Spice Girls?’

‘Everyone knows the Spice Girls. Who is making this film?’

Robin. End of the table, next to Selena – the woman with fair hair. She’s Connie’s GP. A doctor, you know?’ She paused. ‘He’s been trying to get an interview with Victoria Beckham, but he can’t get anyone to return his calls. I heard all about it over the main course.’

Loretta’s bare arm brushed Marco’s. He was wearing a pale grey polo shirt – she had to admit that he was better-dressed than most of the other men – and once again she noticed that his skin was clammy. She poured herself a glass of water and said: ‘You know, you remind me of someone. We haven’t met before, have we?’

He shook his head slowly. ‘I do not think so.’

‘I know! That footballer. He’s incredibly famous.’ Loretta struggled for the name. ‘French guy, you know who I mean. Zidane!’

He smiled politely, as though he’d heard the comparison before. ‘You like football?’

‘Me? No, I don’t know anything about it.’

He sat back in his chair. ‘I used to play but now I am – excuse me.’

The woman on his other side was asking him a question – simpering, Loretta thought crossly. She glared at the woman but Marco inclined his head and listened, smiling and nodding. She heard him say: ‘I do not know yet. I have several irons on the fire.‘

In the fire,‘ Loretta said without thinking.

Marco turned back with a questioning look and Loretta felt her cheeks grow warm. She said in a rush: ‘So you used to be a footballer? Looks like you still go to the gym a lot. What is it you do? What brings you to London?’

He paused. ‘I am a trainer. Maybe you say coach?’ He made a jogging movement with his arms.

Loretta screwed up her eyes. ‘You mean a personal trainer?’

He nodded. ‘I work with people who want to get fit. Athletes, people who are – have been injured. What about you? Maybe you are a lawyer like Connie?’

‘No, I’m a lecturer – I teach English. I’ve got a new job, that’s why I moved back to London. I haven’t started yet, not till September, which suits me fine because I also have a website.’

She paused, thinking she was speaking too quickly for him. From the neighbours’ garden, there was a thunderous burst of rap. She caught Connie’s eye and her friend pulled a face, signalling mock-alarm. When Loretta turned back to Marco, he was putting something in his mouth and dry-swallowing.

‘Headache?’

‘I – maybe I am having a cold.’

Getting a cold – we say getting. Like Robin.’ She glanced at the TV producer. ‘Perhaps something’s going round.’

Marco tucked a small brown bottle in the pocket of his chinos. With what seemed like an effort, he said: ‘You know all these people? They are your friends?’

‘They’re Connie’s friends, not mine, though I’ve met one or two of them. Graham’ – she indicated a man with thick grey hair brushed back from his forehead – ‘is a lawyer, he does mainly libel cases, defending them I mean. I’m not sure what his partner does – he’s the Asian guy, other side of Selena. And Calum’s a mate of Felix, I think they were in the army together.’ Calum heard his name and their eyes met again.

‘I did not know Connie has this brother.’

‘I – sorry? Oh, he’s been out of the country. In Sierra Leone, he’s working in an orphanage. Kitty Kumara’ – she indicated the black woman on Felix’s right – ‘has something to do with it. She raises funds in this country, I think.’

‘Does he live in this house?’

Marco glanced round the dining room. A chandelier of Venetian glass hung over the table, its reflection glittering in the silver-gilt mirror on the chimney breast, and there were carnival masks on the rose-pink walls. Following his gaze, Loretta thought that the decoration hardly looked masculine.

‘No,’ she laughed. ‘I’m not sure where he lives but he has a flat.’

‘Connie does not have a – boyfriend?’

‘She’s divorced.’

Loretta wondered why Marco was asking so many questions. She gave him a sideways look: was he interested in Connie personally as well as being one of her clients? Connie hadn’t talked about him with any particular warmth but Marco had the kind of rugged looks that some women found attractive. He didn’t seem to have a WAG in tow – Loretta looked down at her chocolate-smeared plate, telling herself off for being patronising.

Marco changed the subject: ‘You are selling things? On this website?’

Loretta threw back her head and laughed. ‘Hardly. It’s called Missent.’

‘Miss – ?’

‘Missent-dot-com. It’s a pun.’ She pulled a face. ‘Obviously not a very good one. A play on dissent. I publish articles on politics and foreign affairs, basically from a feminist point of view. I try and go beyond the rather limited agenda you get in national newspapers – ‘

Marco looked at his watch. Loretta sighed: ‘What time is it?’

‘Ten past eleven.’ He glanced at the other guests. ‘How long will they stay?’

‘No idea. Do you have to get the tube? They keep running till after midnight – ‘

‘Loretta!’ Connie called again. ‘Why don’t you get Marina to write something for your website? She’s a forensic anthropologist and she’s been working in Srbrenica.’ Connie shot a glance at Felix. Their eyes met, she flushed and added: ’I mean, she can tell you about it herself.’

Marina was sitting between Kitty and Calum, and Loretta looked at her with interest. She had straight dark hair, cut diagonally across her forehead, and prominent brown eyes. Loretta realised she had been staring and said hastily: ‘I was just reading something about Sre – Srebrenica.’ As she stumbled over the word, she realised she really had drunk too much. To cover her embarrassment, she said: ‘The bodies are still being identified, is that it?’

Marina inclined her head. ‘We’ve just identified the two thousandth victim – ‘

‘After so long?’

‘The ones we’re working on were exhumed and reburied so the bones are co-mingled, but we’ve got a database of relatives’ DNA – ‘

A glass overturned and red wine pooled on the table. Marco dabbed at it and muttered under his breath.

‘Let me.’ Loretta reached again for the salt, thinking that more of it was going on the table than on the food.

Connie said: ‘Calum was in Bosnia, weren’t you?’

Calum grinned and shook his head. ‘Kosovo, actually.’

Connie grimaced. ‘I always get the Balkans mixed up.’

‘You and half the country. Once I got back from Kosovo and my neighbour asked me what Sarajevo’s like these days. And she’s a journo, supposedly.’

Loretta finished dealing with the stain. She lifted her head. ‘If you‘d like to write about your work, Marina, I‘d be very interested. Everyone remembers the massacre – ‘

Robin said loudly: ‘Christ, what a job. I mean, bones. How do you stand it?’

His face was flushed, and Loretta thought he was well on the way to being drunk. Marina’s brow creased and she said coolly: ‘Bones are my field, whether they’re two thousand years old or ten in this case. I’m using my knowledge to give people closure – ‘

‘Like South Africa?’ Selena suggested. Loretta thought she’d heard a faint South African accent.

’I don’t know much about South Africa. But if your husband or son disappeared overnight you’d want to know what happened. This happens to have been a civil war, but it’s the same when anyone goes missing.’

‘Like last week.’ The lawyer, Graham, nodded in agreement. ‘All the phone lines were down, Satish was frantic. He was about to start ringing hospitals when I managed to reach him.’

‘They weren’t down,’ Calum said. ‘The mobile networks are turned off in emergencies. Only people with a certain level of clearance can use them.’

Heads swivelled to look at him.

‘Really? Like who?’

‘The emergency services, obviously – ‘

Connie wailed: ‘It’s Felix’s birthday, for god’s sake! Can’t we get through an evening without talking about that?’

There was a short silence while everyone thought about the suicide-bombings in London six days earlier, in which 52 people had been murdered. Then they all began talking at once and Graham leaned towards Loretta.

She strained to hear him. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t – ‘

Graham’s glance slid to her neighbour. He frowned: ‘How long’s he been like that?’

She turned and saw that a line of saliva was trickling from the man’s mouth. Loretta grimaced. ‘Oh, he’s well out of it.’

Graham raised his voice: ‘I was commiserating – you must wish you’d stayed in Oxford.’

‘No, not really – ‘

‘I use the Piccadilly line every day. Last Thursday I decided not for any particular reason to walk to the office, which probably saved my life. Russell Square – well, it was like a war zone. One of our partners was at Aldgate, she was knocked out and a nurse told her she was lucky. There were bodies in the next carriage.’

Robin joined in. ‘We’re thinking of selling the house in Notting Hill and buying a place in the country. I could stay with my brother during the week and Belkis can work from home, she more or less does that anyway.’ He shot Connie a guilty glance. ‘We’re having the house valued on Monday.’

His wife had said very little during the evening, looking bored and playing with the gold bangles on one of her wrists. Catching her eye now, Loretta appealed to her: ‘Are you really worried, Belkis? It could happen anywhere.’

Robin spoke for them both: ‘We’ve got two kids under the age of 10. I’m not going to take the risk.’

Loretta lifted her hands in the air. ‘I lived in London when the IRA were setting off bombs. The chances of being caught in a terrorist attack are infinitesimal – ’

‘It’s all because of this terrible war,’ Belkis interrupted, throwing her straight black hair back from her face. ‘You can’t blame young Muslims for getting angry – ‘

‘Hang on,’ said Loretta. ‘I opposed the war but that doesn’t mean – ‘

‘Blair is just Bush’s poodle.’

Loretta’s neighbour jerked awake: ‘Wha-a-a? I have to disagree with you there!’

‘You think it’s our fault?’ Calum inquired mildly.

Connie clapped her hands, startling them into silence. ‘Stop it, all of you!’

Felix put a hand on her arm. ‘Hey, Sis. People have strong feelings.’

‘That’s the trouble,’ said Loretta. ‘It’s all about feelings. People don’t think.’

Satish said quietly: ‘Whatever your view of the war, I don’t think anyone in this room would want to live in an Islamic state.’

There was an awkward silence. People shuffled their feet and moved their chairs.

‘Actually, Connie, we should be getting home.’ Robin started to get up, clutching the back of his chair to steady himself. ‘Promised the – the babysitter. She charges double time after midnight.’

Graham signalled silently to Satish, and they rose at the same time.

‘You two haven’t got a babysitter!‘ Connie protested.

‘No, but one of us has to walk the dogs.‘

‘The dogs?’ Connie pulled a clown face. ‘You mean your babies! It’s not even midnight.’

Loretta felt in her bag and took out a card for Marina. She passed it across the table. ‘Here’s my email address.’

‘Thanks, let me give you mine.‘

Selena got up. ’Nice to meet you, Loretta. Call the practice if you want to register.’

Loretta nodded. ‘Thanks, I will.’

Connie wailed: ‘Robin, Belkis, you’re not really going to desert us? You can’t leave London.’

Robin edged round the table, Belkis close behind him. ‘Weekends in the country, you’ll see more of us than ever.’

Connie followed them into the sitting-room, the dining room already half-empty. There was a distant roll of thunder, not unexpected after the sticky heat of the day, and Loretta turned in time to see a flash of lightning light up the back garden. She heard shouts from the far side of the wall, the neighbours running for shelter as a squall of rain battered the tall trees above their heads. A shower rattled against the open French windows.

‘Baz,’ somebody squealed, halfway between a protest and a laugh. ‘I’ll fucking get you, Baz.’

Loretta got up and closed the doors, cutting off the sound. She thought about Calum, and at that moment he materialised beside her. ‘I’ve been trying to talk to you all evening.’

‘I know.’ She gave him a sideways glance. ‘We can’t go on not meeting like this.’

‘You have another one of those cards?’

‘Of course.’

She reached for her bag, frowning when she saw that Marco was still sitting at the table, and extracted a card. Calum took it and lifted a hand in mock salute. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

He moved away.

There was a sound. Loretta turned and saw that Marco had dropped his head onto his folded arms. Sweat glistened on the back of his neck.

‘Are you all right?’ She stepped towards him. ‘Marco?’

He lifted his head.

‘You look feverish. Can I get you anything? Water?’

Felix stuck his head into the room. ‘Bye Loretta.’ He glanced at Marco. ‘What’s up with him?’

‘I don’t know. I’ll keep an eye on him.’

In the sitting-room, Marina was thanking Connie for dinner. Connie sounded flustered. ‘Not at all. It’s good to see you again after all this time.’

Felix joined them. ‘Thanks Sis, see you Sunday?’

‘Sunday? Oh, lunch at Ma and Pa’s.’

Their voices faded as they moved into the hall. In the dining room, Loretta studied Marco. He really did look unwell, and she didn’t think he was faking it to get a chance to be alone with Connie. Loretta frowned, wishing that Selena – the only doctor at the dinner party as far as she knew – hadn’t been one of the first to leave. Gazing round the room, she caught sight of her reflection in the wall mirror and saw that her own cheeks were flushed. Strands of hair were coming down and she began fixing them.

‘You look ravishing.’ Connie came up behind her and her dark head appeared in the mirror, next to Loretta’s blonde one. ‘We make a good pair, don’t we? Satish asked me how old you are, trust a gay man. I said what does it matter, Loretta’s discovered the secret of eternal youth.’

Connie’s expression darkened. ‘I can’t believe that bloody argument. Everyone knows Felix was in Iraq….and Calum. I could’ve strangled Belkis.’

‘What does she do?’

‘She’s a researcher. She actually works very hard, Robin’s the one with ideas but without her…..She’s working on his documentary about the Spice Girls.’

‘Oh no!’

‘Did he tell you about it?’

‘At length.’

They both laughed. ‘Tell me about Calum,’ Loretta said, too quietly for Marco to hear.

‘Aha! What do you want to know?’

‘Is he single?’

‘I knew there was something going on with you two!’

Loretta said lightly: ‘He came on his own tonight, didn’t he?’

‘He was married but it fell apart when he was in Iraq. He left the army and – ‘

Marco groaned.

Connie released Loretta. She gave her a puzzled look. ‘God, I didn’t realise he’s still here!’

‘He’s not feeling well.’

Connie frowned. ‘We’ve all had rather a lot to drink.’

‘I’m not sure it’s that.’

‘He was knocking it back when he was next to me,’ Connie said grimly.

‘I think he might need a cab, unless you want to put him in a spare bedroom.’

‘No thanks. Shit.’

Loretta looked at her and Connie waved a hand. ‘This might be awkward – at work, I mean.’

She raised her voice: ‘Marco, I’ve got paracetamol, would that help?’

He lifted his head and gave her a glazed look. He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and his eyes wandered towards the garden. He gave a start: ‘The – the doors,’ he croaked, gesturing with his hand.

‘You want them open?’

Loretta went to the French windows and checked that the rain had stopped. She opened them, allowing a cool breeze into the room.

‘Better?’

Marco nodded.

Connie said: ‘I suppose this is the point where I start making black coffee.’

‘It can’t do any harm.’

A phone cheeped. Marco jerked upright and fumbled in his trouser pocket. When he drew out his mobile, Loretta saw that his hand was shaking slightly. He started reading a text.

Loretta touched Connie’s arm. ‘I’ll help you.’ She collected half a dozen pudding plates and stepped through the French windows, taking a short cut to the back door. Connie followed.

Loretta unloaded the plates. ‘Where’s your coffee? Instant will do.’

‘For an Italian?’

‘It’s midnight. This isn’t a café.’

‘I have my standards.’ Connie grinned. ‘And a jar of instant….’

She took down a jar of Nescafe and handed it to Loretta. As she spooned coffee into a mug, there was a roll of thunder in the distance. Connie glanced into the garden. ‘I suppose I can’t chuck him out in this,’ she said.

They returned to the dining room. Marco’s chair was empty and the two women looked at each other. Loretta turned and saw that he’d moved into the sitting room, where he was huddled in an arm chair.

She called out: ‘Marco, we’ve made coffee. Do you want it in there?’

‘Yes, I – yes.’ He looked up and accepted the mug from Loretta. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘You can’t help not feeling well.’

He sipped from the mug.

Connie said in a resigned voice: ‘I suppose we might as well sit down.’

Marco’s mobile cheeped again. He took it out, read another message and began keying in a reply.

Connie said: ‘You’re popular tonight.’

Without lifting his head, Marco said: ‘It is work.’

‘David Beckham needing a bit of advice about his exercise regime? I hope you charge overtime.’

Marco put his mobile away. Connie rolled her eyes, but Marco’s colour was better and Loretta decided that her friend was in control of the situation. She got up.

‘I must go. Thanks, sweetheart, it’s been a wonderful evening. Bye Marco, hope you feel better.’

Connie said pointedly: ‘We’ve all got work in the morning. I’ll see you out, Loretta.’

In the hall, Loretta paused with her hand on the latch. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask you, what’s the name of the gym you go to?’

‘Jumpers – I know. Come with me some time, see if you like it.’

‘Love to. Good luck with….’ She inclined her head in the direction of sitting room.

Connie sighed. ‘I have to be polite but…..’

‘He won’t stay long. I bet he’s in the gym by seven.’

‘Working on that six-pack.’

‘His?’

‘Your mind was elsewhere.’

They giggled and exchanged a hug.

Loretta skipped down the path and heard the front door close softly behind her. At the gate she turned right, thinking about what Connie had told her about Calum. Absorbed in pleasurable speculation, she dawdled on the pavement, taking time to fish out her house keys.

A cold squall of rain hit her.

‘Shit!’

She bolted through the gate and stuck her key in the front door.

* * * * *

 

Chapter Two

A piercing noise woke her from a light sleep. Loretta struggled up onto her elbow: ‘What? What time is it?’

The buzzing came again, this time in longer bursts.

‘What’s wrong with….’ She reached for the radio alarm. Her hand closed on air, and suddenly she understood what the noise was.

Christ,’ she said, swinging her feet to the floor.

Someone was pressing the entry-phone, down at street level. Loretta padded over to the window and pulled back the curtain, peering anxiously into the dark road. Who the hell was trying to get into the building at this unearthly hour? She angled her head but he must be standing right up against the front door -

Abruptly the buzzing stopped. Loretta moved back to the bed, reached for a glass of water and emptied it down her dry throat. Could it be kids? Someone who’d stayed too long in a bar on St Paul’s Road while the second storm of the night raged overhead? Loretta hadn’t been asleep for more than fifteen minutes, finally dozing off as the thunder grumbled off into the distance, and now she was wide awake. She cursed silently, slipped her feet into a pair of flip-flops and went onto the landing. There was nothing to be frightened of, no one could get into the building without a key, and in any case the unknown visitor seemed to have moved on. Just in case, she crept downstairs in the darkness and felt for the handset of the entry-phone. She said softly: ‘Hello? Is anyone there?’

She could hear nothing. She spoke into the handset again, becoming aware of the low electronic hum which re-assured her that it was working. She put it down gently, wondering if her first idea – drunks playing a stupid joke on their way home – had been correct. She groped for the light switch, and then someone coughed.

Loretta froze, convinced that the sound had come from inside the building. Her hand dropped and she peered down the stairs, making out the lighter shape of her front door. She took a step towards it, holding her breath, and heard the security chain rattle. Then someone was pounding on the door and she stumbled, clutching at the wall for support.

‘Loretta!’

She straightened: it was a woman’s voice.

The pounding came again: ‘Open the door – it’s Sandie.’

Loretta ran in to the kitchen and seized her keys from the table.

‘Coming,’ she called, almost tripping down the short flight of steps. She fumbled with the chain, wrenched open the door and stared aghast at her downstairs neighbour.

‘Sandie – oh my god.’

The woman was standing at the top of the internal stairs, clasping a washed-out robe around her thin frame. Her hands were streaked with blood.

‘Are you hurt? What’s – ‘

Loretta reached out a hand and Sandie glanced down. She said impatiently: ‘It’s not mine. You gotta come.’

Sandie turned and started back down the stairs, calling over her shoulder, ‘I’ve called an ambulance and I’ve put him in the recovery position but I dunno how bad he is.’

‘Who? What’s happened?’

Sandie rounded the bend in the stairs and Loretta followed, clutching the banister to steady herself. She kicked off her flip flops, unable to see much because the hall light had clicked off. Sandie prodded the switch as she passed and the hall flooded with light.

Loretta said again: ‘Oh my god.’

The man on the floor was still, blood from a head wound pooling on the sisal carpet. Sandie knelt, touched him on the shoulder and looked up at Loretta. ‘You know any first aid?’

Loretta’s stomach lurched. She crept down the last couple of stairs: ‘How – how did he get in?’

‘He rung the bells! Didn’t you hear?’

Loretta stopped dead: ‘Marco?‘

‘That his name?’

There was blood on his grey shirt and his breathing was shallow. Loretta dropped to her knees. ‘Is he – ‘

‘He’s not dead. He was talking when I found him.‘

Loretta took another look at the wound, cupping her hand over her mouth. The front door was open and she lurched towards it. ‘Shut the door, what if he comes back?’

She slammed it and went back to kneel beside Sandie. She clasped the woman’s bony arm. ‘What happened? The police – ’

‘I told you, I called them, and an ambulance.’

Hardly daring to touch him, Loretta laid her fingers on Marco’s cold forehead. ‘Marco? Marco, can you hear me?‘

He groaned, and his eyelids fluttered.

‘Oh thank god. It’s me, Loretta.’

His eyes opened but failed to focus. Blood was congealing along the edges of his head wound. She clasped his hand, shuddering as she felt his lifeless fingers. ‘Has he – are there any other injuries?’

‘Not that I can see.’

Loretta squeezed his fingers. ‘Marco, it’s going to be all right, the ambulance is on its way.’ She turned to Sandie. ‘Have you got a blanket? He’s freezing.’

Marco’s fingers curled round hers. He tried to say something.

‘We’re going to get you to hospital, OK? I’ll stay with you – ‘

He made an effort, his fingers tightening. He croaked: ‘C – Connie.’

‘What about Connie? You want me to get her?’

‘She – ‘

Loretta tensed. ‘Did – did this happen at Connie’s house?’ She leaned close to him, feeling his breath on her face. ‘Marco, is Connie all right?’

‘She the lady next door?’ Sandie was dragging a duvet into the hall from her flat. She lowered it onto Marco with surprising gentleness, and tucked it round him.

‘Yes, he says – ‘

Loretta got to her feet, not sure what Marco was trying to tell her. Her knees locked and she steadied herself against the wall. ‘Stay with him, I’m going next door.’

‘Maybe you better wait – ‘

Loretta ignored Sandie and pulled open the front door. Running down the path, her bare feet slid on the wet tiles and she almost went down. She grabbed the gate post to save herself, pivoted into the street and sprinted towards Connie’s house. She lifted her hand to ring the bell, her other hand bunching her nightdress, and stopped in mid-air: Connie’s front door was open. Not wide open, not enough to see into the house, but anyone – whoever had just done this to Marco – could walk in or out. In an unsteady voice, she called out: ‘Connie? Connie?’

There was no answer. Loretta pushed the door and it swung inwards.  The hall was dark, and she was afraid to step inside.

‘Hey – ‘

Loretta whirled round. A man was at the gate.

‘Are – are you all right?’

She took a step back.

‘Is that blood?’

She looked down and saw stains on her night-dress.

In a gentler voice he said: ‘You’re hurt. Let me help you.’

He took a step towards her and extended his hand. Loretta shrank back. ‘Don’t – ‘

‘I’m a doctor. No, really – look.‘

He held out a laminated ID card which hung round his neck. Loretta stared at it, her eyes flicking up to his face. He had dark hair and glasses, like the man in the photograph.

‘Have you been attacked?’

No. ’

‘What about in the house? Someone’s hurt inside?’ The man edged closer, his movements careful now. ‘Do you want me to go first?’

Loretta shook her head. She turned and pushed the front door back hard against the wall, her eyes darting from side to side. She groped for the light switch, locating it as the doctor came up behind her. It came on and she blinked.

Loretta croaked: ‘Connie? Where are you?’

She peered into the sitting-room. In the corner, a standard lamp sprawled across an armchair. She took tiny steps into the room, spotting drops of blood on the carpet. Her hand covered her mouth: ‘Oh no.’

In the dining room, chairs lay overturned. The table cloth had been dragged halfway to the floor and there were long red lines on the fabric, as though a bloody hand had trailed over it. An empty wine bottle nestled against a chair leg.

‘Don’t touch anything.’ The doctor’s hand gripped her shoulder and she jumped. He moved past her, skirting round the dining table. He said: ‘Oh fuck.’

‘What?’

He dropped to the floor by the open French windows. He lifted something. Loretta edged forward. He was holding a limp hand.

Loretta swayed. For a few second everything went black.

The doctor called over shoulder: ‘Stay back.’

Connie was lying between the open doors, her head on the paving stones. Her dress was dirty, streaked with mud and blood. The water pooling round her head was pink. The doctor held her wrist, feeling for a pulse.

‘Is she all right?’ Loretta clutched her hands together.

He glanced up. ‘Of course she isn’t –‘

Loretta’s face crumpled.

The doctor got up. ‘Hey, I’m sorry.’

He put his arm round Loretta’s shoulders and helped her into the sitting-room. He guided her to an armchair, the one Marco DaLuca was sitting in when she left, and pushed her into it. ‘Take deep breaths.’

Loretta struggled, trying to peer over his shoulder. ‘Connie – ‘

The doctor crouched in front of her, his ID card dangling against his shirt. ‘That woman, does she live here?’

‘Is she – ‘

He was getting impatient. ‘I told you, she’s dead. Do you live here?’

Loretta’s body convulsed.

‘Sorry,’ he said again.

She lifted her head. ‘I can’t – how? What’s happened?’

‘She’s been shot.’

Shot?’

‘You didn’t know? I thought you were – ‘ He stared hard at Loretta, shaking his head. ‘Christ, I don’t know what the hell’s going on here.‘

A siren blared in the road outside and was abruptly cut off. The doctor peered over Loretta’s shoulder. Sounding relieved, he said: ‘You did call the police.’

‘No, yes – ‘

‘They’re outside.’ The doctor gripped her arms. ‘Look at me. Have you any idea who did this?’

His face blurred.

‘Lean forward. Head between your legs. That’s it.’

One of his hands rested lightly on her neck. The other reached for her wrist, checking her pulse as he had felt for Connie’s a moment before. After a few seconds, Loretta struggled into a sitting position and he released her.

‘I was here – I went home – ‘

‘You don’t live here?’

No.’

He took in her nightdress. ‘Where do you live?’

‘Next door.’

‘What’s your name?’

She moistened her lips with her tongue. ‘Loretta.’

‘OK, Loretta. I’m Theo. So how did you know what had happened here?’

‘I didn’t!’

He rocked back on his heels. ‘It’s ten to one. You just happened to pop round in your nightdress?’

‘Marco said – ‘

‘Who’s Marco? Does he live here?’ He glanced at the door into the hall, as though expecting someone else to appear.

Loretta suddenly remembered the scene next door. She pushed the doctor away and got unsteadily to her feet. ‘You’ve got to come – ‘

‘Where? Next door?’

Yes. Someone’s hurt – hurry.’

From the hall she saw the police car, its front doors open, parked in the street next to an ambulance.

‘Oh thank god.’

She pulled the doctor through Connie’s gate, dragging him up the path to her own front door which was blocked by a couple of men in uniform.

‘Hold it,’ a policeman said, stepping towards her.

‘Is someone injured here? I’m a doctor,’ Theo explained again.

The policeman hesitated.

Theo held up his ID card. ‘I’ve just come off shift. If someone needs help – ‘

The policeman had a quick word with his colleague. They parted: ‘In you go, sir.’

Theo hurried into the hall, where the ambulance crew were bending over Marco. Theo introduced himself and there was a quick exchange of information with the paramedics. Theo called out to Loretta. ‘What’s his name?’

She edged forward. ‘Marco.’

Theo knelt beside the prone form. One of the paramedics lifted Marco’s eyelids, shining a torch into his eyes; there was a dressing on Marco’s head and they were giving him oxygen. Theo asked a question in a low voice, leaving Loretta temporarily forgotten.

Loretta.’ Sandie was crouched on the stairs, furiously smoking a cigarette. She beckoned and Loretta slid past to join her, collapsing on a lower step with her shoulder against the wall.

‘Want a fag?’

Loretta shook her head. ‘I – I don’t smoke.’

‘Neither do I, ‘cept in emergencies.’ Sandie studied Loretta’s face, then pinched out her cigarette. ‘Christ, girl, you look terrible. Stay there.’

She returned from her flat a moment later with a glass of water, standing over Loretta to make sure she drank it. It tasted strange, with a sour taste that burned her throat.

‘Rescue remedy,’ Sandie said. ‘I just had some.’

Loretta coughed and handed the glass back as the ambulance crew began loading Marco onto a stretcher. The woman said: ‘One, two, three – lift.’

Loretta leaned forward, trying to remember the doctor’s name.

‘Theo?’

He turned, recognition widening his eyes with a jolt. ‘Laura – ‘

‘Loretta. Will he be all right?‘

‘He needs a scan, there may be internal bleeding. Does he live here? Is he your boyfriend?‘

‘No, I only met him tonight.’

The doctor’s eyes widened. ‘Bloody hell.’

Loretta flinched. Behind Theo, the paramedics wheeled the stretcher out of the house. He said grimly: ‘He might go into cardiac arrest, will you be all right here?’

Loretta nodded.

‘Sure?’ He looked at Sandie. ‘Can you make her some tea? She needs loads of sugar.’

With a final glance at Loretta, Theo followed the stretcher out of the house. One of the policemen stood back, allowing them to pass. He stepped into the hall and Loretta recognised the PC with sparse red hair who had spoken to Theo.

‘Miss?’ He looked from Loretta to Sandie and back again. ‘Can either of you ladies tell me what’s happened here?’

Loretta pushed herself into a standing position.

‘You the householder, miss?’

‘I live….upstairs.’

‘It’s you who knows the injured gentleman, is that right?’

‘Yes, I mean I know who he is. Marco – ‘ Her mind went blank.

He was taking out his notebook. ‘You don’t know his surname?’

‘I – I think it’s DaLuca.’

‘D – A – ‘

Loretta said faintly: ‘Before you write anything down, there’s something else – ‘

‘L – U –

‘Connie. My neighbour. She’s been – I think she’s been shot.’

‘Shot?’

Sandie and the policeman glanced at each other. There was a moment’s shocked silence, then Sandie said: ‘You what?’ She started to get up. ‘Listen, if there’s some nutter on the loose – ‘

Loretta forced herself to look at the policeman, who was staring at her with open astonishment.

‘She’s in the dining room. At the back. On the floor.’ Her voice broke and she whispered: ‘The front door’s open.’

The policeman turned abruptly and called to his colleague. ‘Raj!’

‘Yeah?’

‘Seems like we got a situation here.’

He reached for his radio and started calling for reinforcements.

 

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