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I was at home in Notting Hill, standing in front of my closet, looking at my shoes. And while anyone watching me could be forgiven for thinking that I was eyeing my heels, dreaming of walking down the fashion runway sometime soon...well, not.
I was actually wondering if I'd ever have another case to solve.
Despite my mom's well-laid plans to turn me into the next Karlie Kloss, all I wanted to do was solve mysteries-and I'd always felt that way. Well, ever since my granny started spoon-feeding me detective stories: Nancy Drew before I could read and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple reruns instead of after-school cartoons. By the time I was old enough to play Clue, I think it's fair to say that I was obsessed with the idea of becoming a detective.
Besides, as my granny liked to remind my parents, "It's in her blood, you know." Eye rolls would follow, but the fact was, Granny was right. My grandfather-Granny's husband-had been a detective with Scotland Yard. My fate was, as Granny and I saw it, sealed by destiny's kiss. So despite what my BFF and neighbor, Jenny Watanabe, liked to say-"You read up on Scotland Yard forensic techniques more often than you crack open Miss Vogue, Axelle. You do realize that's not normal?"-how could I resist the path I felt destined to follow?
Then, a few months ago, my parents, in a shrewd attempt to derail my sleuthing efforts, sent me to Paris for Fashion Week. However, the detective gods intervened, and fortunately for me, the biggest, juiciest mystery Paris fashion had ever seen landed in my lap. Okay, maybe not in my lap, but close enough. My Aunt Venetia, fashion editor supremo, became a suspect in the case of missing fashion designer Belle La Lune. I mean, what was I supposed to do-ignore the chance of a lifetime and make my granny spin in her grave? Do fashionistas wear socks with Birkenstocks?
So I did what I had to do and found Belle La Lune before the police did. Not that I talked about it afterward. Going undercover as a model to find Belle taught me: (A) that a real case was, like, a gazillion times better than Clue, and (B) that if I wanted to figure out more fashion crimes, I'd have to be discreet about my intentions.
That plan paid off when I was asked to hunt down a diamond thief in New York City during the fashion shows there.
Both the Paris and Big Apple cases had given me a dream start to my detective career...or so I'd thought. But, maddeningly, since returning from New York City three months earlier, I hadn't had a single case present itself. Nothing. Nada. Right now, I was feeling about as wanted as last season's trends.
Which was why I was staring at my heels, asking myself if another fashion mystery would ever come my way, when my mom rapped on my door and walked in, catching me by surprise.
"Ah! There you are!" she chirped. I could feel her eyes on my back. "Can't wait to get back on the runway, can you, darling?"
"Actually, Mom-" I said.
But I was interrupted before I could say anything more. "Well, I wouldn't worry, Axelle. The agency has kept you busy since you finished your GCSEs, and, with the resort shows starting this week, you'll be back in the thick of it before you know it. Speaking of which, didn't the agency say you had a fitting for the La Lunes tomorrow? And something about doing Jorge Cruz this week too?"
Argh! My mom-all she could think about was my modeling career!
She was right, though. My London modeling agency, Thunder, had kept me busy the last couple of weeks. After I first returned from New York City, I'd concentrated on studying for my GCSEs-these are the standardized tests all British high school students have to take-and I liked to think that I'd done well. But rather than fret while I waited for the results, I thought I'd accept some of the options my agency had run past me. If I put myself in the thick of things, so to speak, a juicy mystery might come my way. Not that this strategy seemed to be working.
I sighed and was just about to turn and face my mom when she stopped me in my tracks.
"And now the fashion world is even beating a track to our door," she said enthusiastically. "There is a fashion blogger downstairs and she's asked to see you. Her name is Tallulah Tempest, and from the little she's told me, it sounds as if she'd like to interview you. So there you go-no need for any of those detective dreams you used to harbor-your fashion career is here to stay! Can I tell her you'll be down?"
I shut the doors to my closet, leaned down, and scooped up Halley (my West Highland white terrier) from the floor, planting kisses on her head as I thought about it.
As far as I was concerned, there was only one reason a fashion blogger would have taken the trouble to find me at my home, and it didn't have anything to do with fashion-at least not right away. Because no matter who is looking for information-blogger, magazine journalist, interviewer (and often all they want to know is what a particular supermodel eats for breakfast)-anyone in the business always contacts a model's agency first, unless they know the model well. So for a fashion blogger to search me out at home...
Ellie's text from late last night came to mind-the one she'd sent just as she was about to board her flight from Miami to London. Surely Tallulah was the "someone" she'd been referring to. I looked at my watch quickly and saw it was still too early to call Ellie. She wouldn't be landing for another hour at least.
"Axelle? Should I tell her you'll be down?"
The name Tallulah Tempest rang a bell. Hmmm... I felt a ripple of excitement. If my suspicions about her visit were correct, then I didn't want to waste another second. I set Halley down on the floor.
"Don't worry, Mom," I said as I pecked her on the cheek and walked past her. "I'll go and see her now."
Tallulah was standing looking out over our garden from the window of our living room. As I shut the door behind me, I quickly ran my eyes over her. I liked her at first glance.
Tall and whippet-thin, with raven-black hair that was shaved on one side of her head, she wore a short, tight, black leather skirt under a slouchy patterned pullover. This was accented with a loose, black snood around her neck, black tights, and ankle boots decorated with studs. The latter looked like something I'd seen on the Valentino runway when I'd done Paris Fashion Week. From the gold chain across her chest hung a tiny, bright-turquoise, quilted-leather Chanel handbag. Tallulah looked both fierce and exotic in that fashion-y way London has become known for: edgy, unstudied, and mysteriously cool. Furthermore, her self-possession and quiet confidence were tangible.
I caught a quick glance of myself in the large mirror across the room as I approached her. My big, geeky glasses and unbrushed hair definitely brought my score down in the style stakes. On the other hand, all the better to blend in as a detective, I told myself.
She turned and extended her hand, keeping her blue, kohl-rimmed eyes on me.
I saw her eyes dart rapidly over my shoulder to the door as we shook hands. The action took less than a second, but it was enough to make me understand that, whatever she had to tell me, she'd prefer to do it without being overheard.
Without a word, I led Tallulah out through the back door, Halley at my heels, and down to the bottom of our somewhat wild but romantic garden. There I searched for a key under a stone and opened the garden-shed-cum-teahouse that didn't get as much use as it should.
Although it was a cool, sharp morning for the end of June, we'd had a couple of warm weeks, and the roses and peonies were in full bloom, their fragrance heavy in the moist air. The last of the morning mist had burned off, and overhead, the clouds scuttled by at a rapid pace. Halley chose to do a reconnaissance tour through the garden rather than join Tallulah and me in the shed.
"Ellie sent me," she said before we sat down. "She told me you could help..."
I nodded. So Tallulah was the mystery person Ellie had messaged me about. That was good, I thought, because knowing I could trust her made things much easier. We'd be able to move along more quickly-if this was indeed a case.
"She says you're a...a Sherlock Holmes in the making..."
I raised my eyebrows at Tallulah. "She did?" I asked. Coming from my modeling BFF, Ellie B (non-modeling name: Elizabeth Billingsley), that was high praise indeed. Ellie always teased me for being too single-minded about my detective pursuits, so the compliment was nice to hear-especially as I doubted I'd ever hear it directly from Ellie's lips!
"I...I was surprised she sent me to you. I know you as a model, but I didn't know..."
I watched her struggle to describe what I do. To help her, I said, "That I help out with...tricky situations?"
She nodded. "It's not something you advertise, exactly, is it?"
"Not at all. I keep this interest of mine quiet-I have to. I wouldn't be able to gather half the information I do if everyone knew I was a detective."
"Of course," Tallulah said. "And just to reassure you, nobody, apart from Ellie, knows I'm here."
"No problem." Tallulah took a breath before continuing. "I'm not sure where to begin..."
I said nothing, waiting for Tallulah to start without my prompting. This was one of my grandfather's interviewing techniques, and I knew from experience that it worked. The rule is, when someone is nervous yet wants to spill a secret, do not-under any condition-interrupt him or her. Sit quietly and let them unwind their story at their own pace. Pushing for information will only scare them off.
"My brother, Gavin, is a fashion photographer-or, rather, he's working in fashion to make ends meet. He's studying photojournalism. That's what he'd like to concentrate on eventually. But he's very talented with the camera, and the fashion world loves his work-his portraits especially. Anyway"-Tallulah fidgeted for a moment before finally sitting still and looking me in the eyes-"Gavin's in the hospital." She let out a big sigh before continuing. "He was found unconscious on the Thames Embankment near Westminster Bridge on Sunday. The police told us he'd had a vicious blow to his head."
I was shocked. "Will he be all right?" I asked.
Tallulah nodded slowly. "Eventually, yes, the doctors think so. But right now it is a bit touch-and-go. He's in an induced coma."
"For how long?"
"If he continues to respond as he has been doing, then they'll bring him out of it by the end of the week."
Tallulah turned away quickly, but her clenched jaw and fists told me how hard it was for her to talk about the situation. It took her a moment before she turned back to face me.
"So what happened to him on Sunday?" I asked.
"We think he was attacked..."
I thought for a moment. "Was he missing anything?"
Tallulah shook her head.
"Was he going to meet somebody?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. He told me that he had to ‘check something'-those were his precise words-near Westminster, but he didn't tell me what. And he didn't mention that he was planning to meet anyone, although I've got a strange feeling that he was. It's odd though. He doesn't usually keep secrets from me. Normally we each know exactly what the other is up to. Gavin and I have always been close," she explained when she saw my eyes widen, "and since we both moved to London at the same time, we've only gotten closer-especially with both of us working in fashion. Anyway, to answer your question, no, he hadn't noted anything in his agenda about a meeting on Sunday morning." Tallulah paused and then, looking me straight in the eyes, she said, "The police are convinced it was just a random mugging."
"Because of the missing camera?"
"Yes. And because of the images from the CCTV surveillance cameras at that location-there was nothing unusual on the footage they have, just a couple of elderly people, a blind lady, and a few joggers. Also, they say that stretch of the Embankment is a target area for muggers because of the tourists, even so early on a Sunday. The police estimate that Gavin was attacked shortly after eight o'clock because that's the last time he was seen unharmed on CCTV. He was found at eight fifteen." She hesitated for a moment before continuing. "But I don't think it was a random mugging. I think someone was looking for something-something my brother has."
"What makes you say that?"
"After I visited Gavin in the hospital, I went back to our flat in Camden. Someone had broken in and searched it while I was away." For the first time I saw a tiny chink in her cool facade. She suddenly started picking at the dark-purple polish on her nails.
"Searched? Like, everything turned upside down, every drawer emptied, kind of searched?"
Tallulah nodded. "I've never experienced anything like it-and I don't want to ever again. It's been horrible staying there, but I feel I have to do it for Gavin."
Apparently I'd been right about her self-possession and confidence. Not many people could stay alone in a flat that had just been ransacked. I listened as she continued. "I've cleaned the flat up as well as I can, but I didn't want to tell my parents. You see...they're worried enough as it is. I did call the police though."
"Well, because nothing was taken, they didn't seem to think there was much they could do. They filed a report, and that was that."
"Could it have been a burglary that went wrong? Perhaps whoever broke in was disturbed before they managed to take anything. Maybe a neighbor's dog barked, or someone went up the stairs. Is there a stairwell in your building?"
Tallulah nodded. "Yes, but our neighbor on the floor above us was away for the weekend, and the store below us-it's a secondhand bookshop-is closed on Sundays. So I doubt the intruder was caught by surprise."
"Hmmm...so they went through everything in the flat?"
She nodded. "They were methodical, rifling through every book. They even cut into our mattresses, but neatly along the seams, so I didn't notice right away."
"Yet they took nothing?"
"Not even a Q-tip."
"So you think the attack and the break-in are connected?"
Tallulah nodded slowly. "I do, yeah... That's what I feel, even if the police don't. And like I said, it's why I've come to see you. I want to get to the bottom of this-with or without the police."
I was quiet for a moment before asking, "So what do you think they were searching for? What do you think they attacked your brother for?"
She clicked open her little turquoise Chanel handbag and carefully pulled something out of it.
"This," she said as she placed a small object in my hand.
It was a flash drive.
"So why do you have it?" I asked as I plugged the flash drive into my laptop.
I'd quickly gone into the house and fetched the laptop from my bedroom. Now, back in the garden house, I was sitting at the round table, while Tallulah stood behind me.
"Gavin gave it to me on Sunday morning before he left the flat. He said, ‘Make sure you hold on to this. Don't let it out of your hands. It's valuable.' I tried asking him about it, but he was in a rush to leave. Thinking about it now, maybe he was just trying to evade my questions. Anyway, he told me again that he had to check something near Westminster, and that he'd see me later.
"I didn't really give the stick much thought at the time because I figured he'd be back soon and could explain everything. Besides, Gavin has masses of flash drives that he uses on a daily basis. So I slipped it into this handbag," she said as she lifted her tiny Chanel crossover, "and it hasn't left my side since."
"Did he seem nervous or scared about what he was going to do, or whoever he was going to meet?"
"No. But then again, Gavin isn't the type who gets nervous...although..."
"Although?" I prompted after a moment's silence.
"He was excited. I mean, you'd have to know him to have noticed, but I saw that he was excited about whatever he was going to do. And then, like I said, he seemed evasive. Normally, he confides in me about everything. I remember thinking it was like he knew something he shouldn't. What's that expression, ‘like the cat that got the cream'?"
"Uh-huh." I nodded.
"Well, that was Gavin on Sunday morning."
"You said the attack must have happened at around, or just after, eight a.m.?"
"Did your brother often go out so early on a Sunday morning? He must have left your flat by seven."
She shrugged her shoulders. "He actually left the flat at six forty-five. Like all photographers, Gavin loves the morning light. Yes, it was early, but not unusual for him-not if there was something he was keen to photograph or investigate."
I nodded and made a note of the time. "And when your apartment was ransacked, did they take Gavin's computer? Surely he'd downloaded whatever is on the flash drive onto his computer too."
Tallulah nodded. "He did. I checked as soon as I got his computer back. But you see, at the time of the break-in, his laptop wasn't in our flat. He'd taken it to a friend's the day before for safekeeping. When I called the friend to tell him about Gavin, he told me he had the computer."
Tallulah and I both fell silent as I mulled everything over in my mind.
"Is there anything else you can tell me? About Sunday, I mean," I asked eventually.
I saw Tallulah hesitate for a moment, as if deciding whether or not to say what was on her mind.
"Any little thing?"
"Well, there is one slightly odd thing I noticed...but only later on, at the hospital."
"This may have nothing to do with anything-I mean, the police didn't even notice, but..."
"Tell me anyway," I said. "Details-even ones that seem insignificant-can sometimes say a lot."
After a moment she said, "I picked up my brother's clothes at the hospital to take them home."
"And his shoes, socks, and the bottom half of his jeans were wet-not soaking wet, they'd had some time to dry. But my point is, it wasn't raining on Sunday morning. His jacket, for example, was bone dry. So why were his jeans and shoes so damp?"
Good question, I thought-and one I had no immediate answer for. In my notes, I labeled the detail "TBLI"-To Be Looked Into.
The contents of the flash drive had finally downloaded. I clicked open the only folder on the stick-Gavin had named it Close-up-and Tallulah pulled a chair up next to mine as I started scrolling through the images.
"I don't understand," I said. "There doesn't seem to be anything suspicious or even odd about these images. In fact, they're really beautiful photographs; Gavin's good."
The images were of fashion designer Johnny Vane. He was one of a small handful of Brits-like Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, and Christopher Kane-who had started very small in London and managed, through sheer creative talent, to build strongly individualistic and highly identifiable brands, putting London back on the fashion map as they did so.
The photos were all of Johnny and seemed to be "day in the life" reportage. By the look of it, Gavin must have taken the photos just before the Vane fashion show a couple of months earlier. Many of the pictures showed Johnny at work in what I presumed to be the Vane design studio-sketching, pinning fabric, and so forth. There were also photos of Johnny and his team doing fittings with various models, and even some interior shots of his streamlined, stylish home. (At least I presumed it was his home.)
A large number of sleek portraits of Johnny rounded out the contents of the stick. In all of them, he wore what seemed to be his trademark look: spiky hair, perfectly clipped salt-and-pepper stubble, black leather biker jacket (the knock-off versions of his famous Vane biker jacket were cult favorites at my school), black skinny jeans, black shirt, biker boots, studded fingerless gloves (he seemed to wear these all the time-even in the photos of the fittings!), and an assortment of silver rings. The lighting was beautiful, and even the candid shots had a strong sense of composition. Gavin clearly knew what he was doing.
Of all the photos on the flash drive, however, it was the last one that really caught my eye, precisely because it was not beautiful and slick. In fact, it seemed to be a photo of a photo-and an old one at that. Furthermore, the careless way the old picture had been photographed, lying on a nondescript brown envelope and with little attention paid to cropping or lighting, suggested that the shot was a candid one.
Otherwise the original photo in the picture was charming. It was of two young boys-they looked to be about five or six, and possibly twins. They stood knee-deep in water, smiling and happy, with one boy holding the other in a big bear hug.
Presumably, I thought as I looked at it carefully, one of those boys is the young Johnny. All the other photos on the stick were of him, so it seemed likely that this one must be too...although I'd have to find a way of verifying that.
"What are these photos for?" I asked Tallulah. "Why did Gavin take them?"
"They were for an interview with Johnny Vane, something one of the fashion magazines-Harper's Bazaar-hired my brother to do. I think Gavin said something about the story running next month, in time for Johnny's anniversary-twenty years since he first established himself as a designer. Incidentally, this is an edited selection of the photos he took. Gavin sent the same choice of images, minus the old one, to Harper's Bazaar.
"I know because I checked his emails when I got his computer back from his friend. Anyway, photographing Johnny Vane for Harper's Bazaar was a real coup for Gavin because this is the sort of reportage work he'd like to do more of. He was super excited when his agent called him about it, although I suppose now he'll regret ever having taken it on."
I shrugged my shoulders. "Maybe the attack had nothing to do with these pictures. We just don't know yet. Then again, maybe Gavin was on the trail of something important. And if we can uncover what that was, maybe he'll feel it was all worth it, once he recovers." I paused for a moment as thoughts crowded my mind. "Speaking of which, you said that the doctors hope to wake him up at the end of the week, right?"
Tallulah nodded. She'd gone quiet again, and her face was tight with agony and fear. "Like I said earlier, it's a bit touch-and-go right now, but, yeah, the plan is to wake him on Friday evening-hopefully. Why?"
I scrolled through the photos again and again, Tallulah by my side. But apart from that last slightly odd picture, nothing obvious jumped out.
When I mentioned this to Tallulah, she said, "Yeah, that's the problem, isn't it? Nobody looking at these images could possibly believe that there was anything strange or sinister about them, but my brother would never ever have said, ‘Don't let it out of your hands,' if he didn't have a good reason. And he wouldn't have taken his laptop to his friend's unless he was worried someone might want to steal it. I've never known him to do that, not even after his first shoot for Italian Vogue, when he was so worried he might lose his photos that he made copies on ten different sticks, just in case."
Tallulah was flustered, and color had risen to her cheeks. I watched as she stood up suddenly. A look of frustration flashed across her face, and her eyes narrowed in anger as she crossed and uncrossed her arms. "I'm sure the images on this flash drive, our flat being searched, and what's happened to my brother are related-I'm sure of it! I want to find who has done this! I want to find the person responsible for hurting my brother!" She stopped and breathed deeply, then fiddled with her fingernails in silence.
I turned back to my laptop and flicked through the images. "Have you any idea why your brother named the file ‘Close-up'? I haven't seen any close-ups on the stick at all."
"I hadn't thought about that, but it's typical Gavin," Tallulah said as she bent over my shoulder to look at the screen. "He tends to give his files slightly coded names. They always have something to do with the content of the file, but usually the connection is only obvious to him. I remember once looking at a bunch of photos he was editing. They were all on a file labeled ‘Elle,' so I thought they were something he'd shot for Elle magazine. But, no, they were photos he'd taken for some Japanese magazine editorial inspired by the actor Elle Fanning."
After a few moments, I heard Tallulah move behind me again. It sounded as if she was looking through her handbag. I turned around just as she pulled out a phone and offered it to me. "It's Gavin's," she explained. "Surprisingly enough, the attacker didn't take it. Gavin had it zipped up in an inside pocket of his jacket, so I guess they didn't notice it. Anyway, I thought you might find it useful. I've had a look and couldn't see anything suspicious, but maybe you'll have a better idea of what to look for."
I took the phone and asked Tallulah for the code.
"Oh yeah." Her mouth broke into the first semblance of a smile I'd seen since we'd shaken hands. "That might help... I have it written down somewhere. Hang on." She rummaged in her tiny bag again. "Oh, I don't have it on me right now, but I'll look it up as soon as I'm back home and send it to you. Luckily I know where he keeps his passwords."
"Fine," I said.
"So, Axelle," she said as she watched me, "you will take on this case, won't you?"
I nodded slowly. "Yes. Yes, I will...but we won't have much time."
Tallulah raised her eyebrows.
"Remember I asked you when your brother is expected to regain consciousness?"
"Well, I imagine whoever put him in the hospital will still want to get their hands on this stick. Unless they found what they wanted on the memory card in Gavin's camera."
Tallulah shook her head. "He changed memory cards for every job. I even saw him put a new one in on Sunday morning. Whoever has the camera won't have found much-if anything."
"And they didn't find anything in your flat, so I reckon the only option they have now is to threaten Gavin into handing the stick over the first chance they get."
"I hadn't thought of that." Tallulah's voice sounded distressed, and she started picking at her nails again.
I watched her for a moment before saying, "There's another scenario we have to consider too..."
"Gavin probably got a good look at his attacker, right?"
"Well, it might not just be the stick the attacker's looking for now."
Tallulah didn't say anything, but she stopped picking her nails and stared at me.
"They'll also want to stop Gavin from identifying them..."
"By silencing him for good."