Jane Casey's next riveting mystery featuring beloved detective Maeve Kerrigan will keep listeners riveted from the opening scene to the stunning conclusion.
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After the Fire
By Jane Casey
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Jane Casey
All rights reserved.
There were 224 residents of Murchison House on the Maudling Estate in north London, and on a cold gray late November day not one of them was expecting to die. Some were hoping to die. Some were waiting to die. But no one actually expected to die that day.
Murchison House stood eleven stories high, an uncompromising slab of cement social housing that dated from the seventies and looked it. Five other tower blocks of varying sizes stood around Murchison House like siblings in an unhappy family. The estate loomed over the surrounding houses, the narrow streets of Victorian terraces built for the working classes that had been slowly, painfully gentrified. Murchison House was never going to be gentrified. Bulldozed, perhaps. In another city, another country, the views would have made it a desirable place to live, but it had taken Londoners a long time to embrace high-rise habitation. Apart from the Maudling Estate, there wasn't a tall building for miles. That meant the inhabitants of Murchison House could see a great deal of London, and a great deal of London could see Murchison House, and to at least one person in the building it felt a lot like torture.
Drina was very familiar with torture.
It was afternoon, around four, she guessed. She sat in the corner of a room in a flat on the top floor, as the gray sky darkened outside the window and the day slid away. She sat on the floor, on a mattress, with her legs stretched out in front of her, because there wasn't anywhere else to sit. There was the mattress, and a lumpy duvet without a cover, a hook on the back of the door and a mirror nailed to one wall. There was a big window with an aluminum frame that didn't fit properly, leaving gaps for the wind. The window itself was locked. All the windows in the flat were locked. Every now and then Drina reached up and tried to open one, almost as a reflex. Someone might have forgotten. Or the window might have broken. These things happened, she'd heard. Mistakes.
These things happened to other girls, though. Drina was never that lucky. Although what she would do if the window was open, she didn't know. Shout? But they would hear her before anyone else did. The flat was bugged. Even when they weren't actually inside the flat with the girls, someone was nearby — in another flat, or in a car parked below. Close at hand. Cry for help, and the only attention she would attract would be the wrong kind. It wasn't worth the risk. What did that leave? Jumping? It was a possibility. Sometimes she felt like jumping, just to be free for a couple of seconds. Just to get to decide one tiny thing in her life.
Drina lit another cigarette from the butt of the one she had been smoking, then ran her fingernails through her hair. It felt brittle. The bleach was killing it. But blonde was popular with the customers.
There were two other bedrooms and two other girls in the flat, but they wouldn't try to talk to her. It was too dangerous to talk. It was too dangerous to be suspected of planning to escape. Drina had heard — the men had told her — the last girl who had tried to escape hadn't made it out of the tower block alive. She'd left it in a suitcase that was carried to the boot of a car and driven to a riverbank near an industrial estate. They hadn't found her body for weeks, the men said, laughing. Months. Her face was gone, eaten away by decomposition and the river rats. Her fingerprints had disappeared along with her flesh. She'd never been arrested, so there was no DNA to match to her remains. No one had reported her to Interpol as a missing person. No one had ever traced her journey back to Murchison House. No one had ever even found out her name.
"What was it?" Drina had asked, because she was young, and stupid, and she still asked questions then. "Her name?"
They hadn't remembered either. She was gone, the girl, as if she'd never lived. Someone, somewhere, mourned her — maybe. If they knew she was dead.
All Drina had to do, sitting there, was turn her head to see the streets of London, until they disappeared in a gray haze on the horizon. She looked, sometimes. Sometimes she didn't. Sometimes she just sat and smoked. Today was a smoking day, except that it hurt her mouth. Then again, everything hurt her mouth. Drinking from the small bottle of stale water by her side. Eating, if they gave her anything to eat. A day when she wasn't working was a day when she was costing them money, and they weren't generous people. She could work with cracked ribs and bruised limbs and internal abrasions — she had, frequently. She couldn't work with bruises on her face, though. They'd been angry with her. As if it had been her fault.
As if she could have stopped it.
She had to hand it to the men who'd put her in the room; they couldn't have found a better place to hide her. No one could see her, so high above the ground. The flat faced north; the other towers were to the east and west of it, out of her line of sight. The neighbors to the left and the right were invisible, even from the flat's tiny balcony. It was designed for privacy, or the illusion of it. There was no one above them; the men joked that they were in the penthouse. Nothing but the best for Sajmir's girls, one of them said, and took the girl standing next to Drina into one of the other rooms, where she had screamed until, abruptly, she stopped. The flat below seemed to be unoccupied. Sometimes Drina lay with her cheek pressed against the dusty carpet and tried to hear sounds, but there was nothing.
She was surrounded by people, and alone. But she never felt quite as alone as when she was face to face with the men who paid for her body.
* * *
Mary Hearn was on the tenth floor of Murchison House, not quite below Drina's flat, and she was also sitting by the window, though Mary had a chair. It was a smaller place, ideal for a woman on her own, the man from the council had said. Her old house wasn't suitable, with all the stairs. Much better for her to move into a newly renovated flat in Murchison House, where there was a lift to take her up and down and she didn't have to worry about the roof leaking, or the garden. Mary had liked the garden in her old house. She had taken care of it, even though it was small. She had hung up birdfeeders and pulled out weeds and got on her knees to clip the small patch of lawn with the old shears that had been George's. The garden caught the sun in the morning and she had often gone to stand outside and lift her face up, her eyes closed, so the light could warm her. It felt like a blessing. It felt like a message from George, who had died thirteen years earlier after a short fight with the cancer that had ravaged him. He'd died quietly, while Mary sat by his bed. He'd said her name, and turned his head, and died. Upstairs. In the room where she slept. It still smelled of him — not in a bad way, but of Brylcreem and Shield, the soft green soap he'd preferred, and the warm smell that was him. His clothes hung in the wardrobe. He was still there, even though his body was gone. He was all around her.
She hadn't liked to say any of that to the man from the council, though. He was trying to help her. Keep her safe. Stop her from hurting herself on the stairs, or in the bathroom that wasn't really suitable for someone of her years, he said. His voice was very loud and he spoke slowly, as if she was foreign, although he was the one who had been born overseas somewhere. India, maybe. She hadn't liked to ask in case he was offended. People didn't like you to ask these days. They were all Londoners. But what if they wanted to talk about home? What if they thought you didn't care enough to ask? It was difficult, Mary thought. Impossible to do the right thing.
He was still talking, while she was thinking, words like bricks walling her into an unwanted new life. She tried to tell him she was happy, but he didn't listen. He was too busy telling her she could do her shopping, that there was a supermarket on the estate that would be much more convenient than the local shops she'd visited all her life, where the people behind the counters knew her and talked to her.
They'd been sorry to see her go, when she went. They'd signed a card. Her neighbors had too. Young Kevin from next door had helped her to pack up her belongings for the move. The big move, everyone called it.
She'd sat up the night before and wept. Howled like a baby. She didn't want to leave her house. She didn't want to leave her friends. She had been happy there, most of the time, except for George's illness.
But they were expecting her to go. She hadn't liked to upset anyone. They had gone to so much trouble with the cards and the send-off. Besides, the council were selling off the house, Young Kevin had told her — not so young any more with his bald head and three big children, but he would always be Young Kevin to her. They would make a lot of money from the little three-bedroom house she'd lived in since her marriage. People wanted them now. They paid silly money for them and then gutted them so they could spend more money doing them up. Young Kevin started talking about school catchment areas but it didn't mean anything to Mary. She and George hadn't had children, so they'd never needed to know about schools.
Eight months she'd been living in Murchison House. Eight months since she'd lost her home. Mary stared sightlessly at the streets below, not seeing any landmarks that made sense to her. From up here, all the roads looked the same. Eight months and the lift had been vandalised three times. The other lift wasn't working. It hadn't worked in all the time she'd lived there, and no one seemed surprised that it hadn't been fixed. Eight months. In eight months, Mary had been mugged twice — once in the corridor, once in the car park. No one had seen anything. The first time, she called the police. Someone came a few days later, a community officer. She took a statement and shook her head at Mary's bruises and said she would be back, but that was the last Mary had seen of her.
Two kind West Indian ladies picked her up the second time, the time in the car park, and took her to a different flat in a different building and gave her tea that was full of sugar and too hot to drink. Mary had tried, all the same. She didn't want to put them to too much trouble. Her wrist hurt and she felt dizzy and she wanted more than anything to go home, but home was the tenth floor of Murchison House now, not Greenlea Road. And all that was waiting for her in her flat was the television, the view over the streets that were suddenly strange to her, even though she'd lived in them all her life, and the crumbs on the ledge of the tiny balcony. She still tried to feed the birds — not that the sparrows and the blue tits and the finches from the old house could find their way to her now. A couple of battered pigeons visited now and then, hobbling on maimed feet. They were sullen, distrustful birds, their red-rimmed eyes fixed on Mary as they pecked at the food. They didn't like her any more than she liked them, but the pigeons were all she had, and she was all they had, so Mary kept shaking her crumbs out on the balcony, and sat, and watched for the flurry of wings that meant she wasn't alone.
* * *
On the tenth floor of Murchison House, three flats to the left of Mary Hearn, the Bellew family were eating. It wasn't dinner, exactly. The kids were back from school and they came home hungry, always. Carl Bellew liked to eat when he was watching television, too, and he was always watching television. He was a big man, heavy with muscle that was well-covered in fat. His size was his best asset. You didn't need to be clever, or quick-witted, or even quick at moving when you were as big as Carl.
"Still sitting there? What a surprise." His mother scuttled into the living room, her handbag over her arm like the Queen's.
He didn't look away from the screen. "Leave it out."
"You haven't moved all day. All day you've been sat there. What have you done with yourself? Watched telly, that's all."
"Mum." One word. A warning. Not that he'd ever hit her. He wouldn't dare. But the kids were lying on the floor watching the telly and even though they didn't seem to be listening, you never knew. He didn't want them asking questions. He didn't want them thinking he was weak, either.
"You're lazy, Carl," Nina Bellew snapped. "You need to get up and get going. Bring in some money for your family."
Carl looked around, eyeing the room. Pictures on the walls. Curtains at the windows. Games consoles stacked up by the wide-screen television. "We don't need any money."
"Stupid." She leaned over and jabbed her finger into the soft flesh that padded the back of his neck and bulked out the top of his shoulders. "Stupid and lazy. When are you going to call round to number thirty-four?"
"I will, I said."
"That was two days ago. They'll be wondering if you're ever going to come. Didn't realize you were so well off you could walk away from a couple of hundred quid, Carl. If you don't go, I will."
"You?" He laughed halfway through lifting a can of Coke to his mouth. "Yeah, all right. You can go."
"I'm telling you —"
"And I heard."
Nina turned, giving up on him for the time being, and screeched, "Debbie?"
"What is it?" Debbie Bellew leaned into the living room, her face shiny with sweat from the heat of the kitchen, where she had been ironing in clouds of steam. "Everything all right?"
"Only that I'm dying for a cup of tea, not that anyone cares."
"Sorry, Mum." Debbie called her mother-in-law "Mum" because she had no choice. Nina insisted. Nina Bellew couldn't have been less like Debbie's round, comfortable mother, who'd died twenty years earlier. Debbie missed her every day. She sometimes wondered if she would have married Carl, had her mother still been alive. She had been lonely, and scared, and young when Carl started to court her. He had seemed like the answer to her prayers.
Carl had been a mistake.
"Have we got any cakes?" Nina demanded.
"A sponge. Better for me teeth. I can't be doing with crisps or whatever it is they're eating." She peered down at the children, who were having a low-level fight. It wasn't vicious or loud enough for anyone to feel they had to intervene, yet. "You won't want your dinners," Nina said loudly.
Nathan rolled over. "What's for tea?"
"Fish and chips," Debbie replied.
"From the chippy?"
"No, I'm making them."
Nina kicked him, not gently. "Enough of that. You're lucky to have anything to eat. When I was a girl we got one meal a day. By the evening your stomach'd be wondering if your throat had been cut." She laughed, though no one else did. "Sponge cake, Debbie. Got any?"
"No, sorry." She felt in the pocket of her jeans for some coins. "Nathan, you wouldn't run down to the shop —"
"Nooooo." Nathan flopped face down on the floor, burying his head in his arms. "I'm not going."
Becky turned and grinned at her mother, waiting for her brother to get in trouble. She was too young to go and she knew it.
Debbie couldn't face a fight. Not again. "I'll go myself. I won't be long. I'll make you your tea when I get back, Mum. Unless —"
Carl hunched up one shoulder in a silent message that was at least as effective as his son's howling. No chance.
"I won't be long," Debbie said again.
"It might take you a while," Carl said. "Lift's broken again."
"Again? But they only fixed it last week." It had been broken for so long, she'd thought she'd got used to the stairs. Strange how you resented it, though, when it was broken again. It was the disappointment, that was all. The hope and then the disappointment. Debbie had had just about enough of disappointment.
She hurried to the door and lifted her anorak off the hook, wondering if she needed to get anything else. It was no joke, going up and down all those stairs. On the other hand, it gave her time she wouldn't otherwise have. No one would expect her back for ages.
Debbie left the flat with an unusual feeling of freedom. On her own, for once. No one talking to her. No one asking her to do anything or get anything. No one interrupting her. She took her time about heading for the stairs. What was wrong with taking a few minutes for herself? Time to think.
Excerpted from After the Fire by Jane Casey. Copyright © 2016 Jane Casey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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