Ever been hacked? Not like this. Disgraced ex-journalist Nada Navasquez discovers that however bad your life gets, someone out there would do anything to walk in your shoes. Welcome to London, the most heavily-surveilled city in the world, where ID thieves want a lot more than your credit cards.
This is the prologue and first two chapters of my novel, The Blanks. It’s a thriller about the difference between identity and ID, and the UK’s obsession with surveillance.
Even just an hour ago he had a name. He’d thought about how it would feel, knowing it was gone. Looking out across the river, he dropped his bag down on the stones of the bank. It hit the ground with a soft thud – not much of a sound. Some cash in a strange, brightly-coloured currency; a few clothes. Everything they’d allowed him to bring with him. He stood with his hands in his pockets and watched reflected lights flick and dip on the black surface of the water. The thing about a name, he thought, is that it only matters if there is someone there to call you by it.
The Thames was widening, creeping towards him, its edges swelling and breaking a pebble’s breadth at a time. They’d told him that the boat would come at high tide. But when would that be? Looking behind him, he could just make out the nettles that separated the little river beach from the towpath, and tried to judge how high the water would get, how long he’d have to wait. The woman would have the answer, but looking over at her he found, as usual, that he didn’t have the courage to ask. He’d always spoken to her as little as possible, because she was so cold: cold and vicious and cruel. He turned so that he couldn’t see her. With a stab of affinity he watched a lone swan, out late, wandering awkwardly on the opposite bank. It looked afraid. It had no home, he thought; no-one to look after it. Fear started to crowd in on him and he breathed in deeply, reminding himself to use what he learnt in the unit – find the source of the feeling, accept the feeling, choose to move it away. It was just a bird. He was projecting. He looked down and was surprised to find his hands had stopped trembling. He felt a bite on his face and brushed the insect away.
The woman, whose real name he had never known, was smoking. He imagined the heat from the smoke going into her lungs, thawing her temporarily. Maybe she smoked for the heat of it. She radiated cold, like a freezer with the door open.
Shivering, he wrapped his coat tighter around himself, and tugged at the scarf he’d made in Occupational Therapy sessions over the course of a full year in the unit. He had planned to ceremonially burn when he got to his destination. He smiled, thinking of it: Karen said even the winters there would be up in the teens and twenties. Goodbye then, London, he thought. I will miss you like an ulcer. Because it was a hard, damp place, London. Hostile. People wore the hostility as tight and close as their own skins. And he wasn’t just thinking that because he was ill. It was a truth. If he’d been born somewhere kinder, who knew? Maybe things would never have got as bad as they got. And you would never have met Karen, he reminded himself. Rough with the smooth.
Looking down he saw that the tide had snuck up on him, faster than he’d expected. He took a step back from the edge of the water, lost his balance and slipped on a smooth stone. As he fell he flung out an arm towards her but she stepped back. Even though she was standing close enough. Surely it was an instinct, an impulse, with most people.
After righting himself, he shook the brown river foam from his cuffs, staring out across the water. How a sea-going vessel, one big enough to go as far as he was going, could possibly make it this far upriver undetected was beyond him. Maybe they were sending a smaller boat first? It was one of many details he’d been told would be taken care of. Karen had said, when they’d last spoken, that he could forget the little details, that he’d done all the hard work now and he could relax, let himself feel like a pampered passenger. But he couldn’t. He felt like a child. A stupid child, again, as usual. He allowed these things to happen, without standing up for himself or taking responsibility for his own future. His mother was right. It would have been better if she had miscarried. He didn’t deserve to call himself a man.
He counted to ten in his head, to summon the courage to speak, and then to twenty, but nothing came out of his mouth at the end of it. So he started to count out loud. She turned to look at him, and he scratched vaguely at his temple to make sure there was no eye contact.
She lit another cigarette from the burning end of the first one, which she threw at the ground like a dart. After grinding it with her toe she picked it up, kicked the stones until the ash was gone, and put the butt in a little silver case.
“What?” she said at length, not looking up.
She was disgusted, he could hear it. His stomach clenched first, then his throat. He could only mumble, clenching and unclenching his fists in his pockets, telling himself, she’s just a human being. Just a person. “I’m – just counting.”
“Which you do when you’re about to say something. So what is it?”
His skin prickled. Just ask. “I was wondering… it just looks – ” he took a breath, steadied himself. “Are you sure we’re supposed to meet it here?”
“Yes.” He could hear the loathing. “I’m sure. Anything else?”
He concentrated on his breathing, like he’d been taught. Calm. “The time?”
She checked her wrist, took a drag on the cigarette. He watched her, her profile glowing intermittently as the cigarette brightened and dulled. Nothing on her face gave anything away. Trusting her never came easily to him, but it was too late to think about that, this far in. The buttons had all been pressed, the deals sealed. All that was left was to stand and wait for the boat. Approaching the water’s edge she flicked the ember of the cigarette away towards the river and it was taken by the wind. He watched the little light fly off and disappear, drowned, eventually. She, who he knew was unmoved by the beauty of little things, rummaged again in her bag, and moved off behind him. He wondered if he’d ever have to see her again. He very much hoped not.
A tick of pain in his neck. He flinched, then jerked away, thinking at first that it was the bug back for more. Then his legs went from under him. This time she caught him. He turned to grab at her, to hold on, scratching at her as he did it. She lowered him down and he felt the cold needle leave the spot just below the angle of his jaw. Before he had a chance to ask the obvious question, the answer arrived. Alcohol. He had been sober seven years, eight months and fourteen days, and his memory of drunk was an old one, but he knew it in seconds. She had injected him with alcohol.
“Why did you – ,” he started, but the slur on his mouth was too heavy and he could hardly hold up his head. Not just alcohol, then. Something else, something quicker.
He could only feel himself now from a little way off, disconnected. There was the squeak of a cork, and she was propping him up and pouring something over his mouth. Reflexively he closed his mouth but he didn’t have the strength to turn his head away. His lips were prised open, and he had to swallow. Brandy. An awful lot of brandy, first warm then hot then blazing. As he started to think he would drown she stopped, and he coughed, fighting to inhale. Then she poured again, until the bottle was empty. He knew he should fight her off, get the hell away from her but he couldn’t see how to do it. It was an effort even to breathe. He tried to think it through, what was happening, what he needed to do, but his thoughts kept splitting and drifting before he could finish them. A creeping, cloying, airless embrace was closing him down.
The rain started up again, but all he could do was watch it fall down into his eyes. He couldn’t blink. His breathing was slow. Too slow – there was not enough air. He willed his lungs to do it more, open up, open faster, but nothing he could do would wake them. His tongue slumped back against the top of his windpipe, slack and unresponsive like it had been bought from a butcher’s and shoved into his mouth.
She rolled him over, his chest to the ground, face to one side. His tongue moved out of the way and he gasped, overcome with the relief of sucking in weak breaths. He could breathe, just. He was going to be OK. Blinking, he watched her kneel. She felt for something else in her bag, then brought it out. He saw the glint of silver and then Karen was there in his head saying, here it comes, old boy. Don’t be afraid. But it wasn’t a knife: it was nail clippers. She was cutting his nails. His nails! Cutting them and taking the cuttings and putting them in the little silver case. Then she lifted his hand and bent the fingers and carefully, firmly, dragged them over his arms, scraping his skin. Why? Think. But the alcohol was misting his thoughts and he couldn’t stay with it.
Standing up, her job finished, she said, “He needs it more than you do.” Through the fog in his head he knew what she meant. “He will put it to better use.”
He felt his heart retch, because he saw it now. Everything she wanted from him was hers. He walked into this. He allowed himself to be stripped entirely, and made expendable. He would not be allowed to walk out.
She repositioned his head, not roughly, not gently, just did it. One side of his mouth was against the mud, and he tasted it as his saliva drooled down to dilute it. The sheen of water on the mud became still and he saw a reflection of a wisp of his hair. Without surprise he found himself knowing that this would be the last time he would see his own face. Because these were not people who messed around.
The paralysis in his brain released its grip and he tried again to move, to stand, but all the effort was in his head. Nothing happened. His fingertips were too heavy to lift; his legs concreted into the debris of the river beach. His tongue hung from his mouth, the tip crushed between his teeth and the stones. With everything he had he willed his limbs to move but they did nothing.
Now he could smell it – cold, mossy, wetter than just the rain. One of his arms was splayed up above his head, pointing towards the river. First his fingers, then his hand was submerged in freezing water as the tide came in.
She picked up his bag, and then her feet moved out of his sight. He listened for her to deliver her line, some final fuck-you. But her footsteps faded and were gone. And it was funny because even then, even after what she’d done, he wished she had said goodbye.
So here it came. His mouth was open, he tasted mud, salt. Dead leaves. The river was in his mouth now, and in his nose. He found his eyes had shut and he couldn’t open them. It didn’t matter. He didn’t have to see the water to know how this ended.
Nada Navasquez stood in front of the mirror by the front door of her flat, and rolled her eyes. Fuck’s sake. She’d had countless lessons in wearing heels from disbelieving friends who thought that it was just a matter of practice, that of course Nada could wear them like any other woman. Wrong. She could not. In order to not fall over, she had to stand like she was now, feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Like she was about to shit standing up. Also, aesthetics aside, the shoes fucking hurt. She kicked them off, and went to the bathroom to take the stupid make-up off, too. She had her mother’s Scottish skin and her father’s Spanish hair, and no amount of facial colouring-in was going to make the two sides agree. Simply put, she looked a dick in make-up.
Face clean, she pulled on her normal boots, undid the black shirt again and redid the buttons so they matched the right holes. She shoved her hands down her denim shorts to hoik her tights up so there weren’t too many saggy bits by her knees, checked there was no crap in her teeth, grabbed her coat, screen, and card, and left.
It took an hour to get to the place on Greek Street. She clocked Mae from the doorway, while she was still in the queue. The place was his choice. When he asked her a week ago what she was planning to do for her twenty-eighth, she had asked – with what she thought was obvious sarcasm – if he could arrange a fabulous party for her, and could it please be a cocktail bar for media wankers in the middle of Soho, with cocktail prices to make your eyes bleed, and nothing on tap. It was, she had thought, fair to assume that Mae knew she was joking. That it had been a fucking joke.
But here it was – exactly as she’d described it. And there he was – Detective Sergeant Benjamin Kwon Mae, looking remarkably at home, his newly-shaven head inches above nearly everyone else’s. Easily the coolest person she had ever known, but with the style awareness of a physics undergraduate. She made herself look away, think about something else for a minute. She concentrated instead on the labels of the spirits, backlit on glass-brick shelves behind the bar, seeing what she could identify from this distance. Maker’s Mark. Absolut. Midori. Best not to dwell on how he looked. It made the edges of their friendship go a bit furry, and she didn’t like fur. She liked the hard lines they’d come to agree on, ones she could poke and nudge and lean on, safe in the knowledge they wouldn’t break. Kahlua – or was it Amarula? Captain Morgan, Havana Club. She knew without asking that they wouldn’t have any decent ales. She’d be lucky to get so much as a Newky Brown, somewhere like this.
There. Mind averted. Jolly good.
He was leaning one elbow on the bar, looking faintly amused by the orange-coloured liquid he was drinking out of a ludicrous glass. She walked up to him, swiped the cocktail, sniffed it suspiciously, and downed it. It was sweet and sticky and tasted like undiluted alcoholic squash. She made a face, burped, and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand.
Mae took the glass delicately from her hand and placed it on the bar. He ducked down, his mouth next to her ear. “You,” he shouted over the thud-thud-thud of the inane music, “are a truly revolting creature. You have no class, and no manners.”
Nada did a little bow. “Thank you.”
“Happy birthday, you skanky little cretin.”
“It’s tomorrow, you balding cocksucker.”
He frowned, thoughtfully tapping his lips with his index finger. “Hold on. Is the insult that I am a cocksucker who is balding, or that I suck balding cocks?”
She laughed. “You’re going to die single.”
He shrugged in agreement, but he was already looking away. Rather anxiously. She followed his line of sight – he was looking at the queue.
“So you did invite people,” she shouted over the music.
Mae scratched his chin and kicked at a spot on the floor. “One or two. A few.”
“Who?” Nada poked him in the chest when he shrugged and tried to look away. “Fucking who, you dickhead?”
“Couple of blokes from Meansov.”
Nada groaned inwardly. Why had he even asked them? He knew she hadn’t seen any of her old workmates since she’d lost her job. “And? Who else?”
“Few of those uni ones.”
Whom she had also not seen for years. Nada stuck her hands in the back pockets of her shorts. “But they’re not coming, are they?”
He looked at his shoes. “Doesn’t – ah – doesn’t look like it. No.”
Nada didn’t care. Why would she care? It wasn’t like any of these people were close friends. There had been a time at Meansov, the TV company she’d worked at, when she’d thought some of her workmates were actual mates. But that was before. Nada’s dishonourable discharge spelt the end of whatever those relationships had been, and the evidence was right here, in their absence.
But it wasn’t his fault. She nudged him in the ribs, tried to change the atmosphere. “OK. Never mind. Listen: I’ve got a You Must Choose.”
He visibly loosened at the mention of their favourite game. “Hit me.”
“OK. Either, you drink here for free for the rest of your life, but you can’t ever go to another pub or bar ever. Or, you always have to go to the Magpie, but you have to drink whatever that shit was,” she said, indicating the glass, “and every time you order it everyone goes quiet and shakes their head and secretly thinks you’re – ” she widened her eyes and gave it her best stage whisper, “a great big lesbian.”
He poked his tongue in his cheek. The Magpie was a time-warped, sticky-wallpapered CAMRA pub they went to sometimes when they’d misbehaved elsewhere. Mae loathed it. “It’s a tough one,” he said, making a big deal of stroking his beardless chin. “Free drinks here, you say.”
“Yup. But you have to drink them here. With all these vaginas.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Go easy. You did specify a bar with media wankers. These are your people, Nada.” He was joking, of course, but the moment he said it Nada could see he knew he regretted it. “I’m sorry, that was – ”
“Whatever. It’s fine.” She leaned over and grabbed the barman by the wrist before he walked straight past her again, and ordered two beers. She put her card against the reader. “Not a media wanker any more, though, am I?”
Fact was, she had loved her job. She had loved the codebreaking, the way an investigation opened itself out to you like a lily if you knew what questions to ask. More than anything she’d loved the adrenaline of the undercover work. Nothing came close to the secret thrill of wearing the rigs, tiny cameras concealed in her clothes, in buttons and hairclips and behind logos. Listening and smiling cutely when the children’s homes boss who fed half-rotten scraps to the learning-disabled kids in his care bragged about his profits, knowing that your rig was recording everything in crystal-clear HD video and audio.
It had taken her eight years to build her career, and about twenty-four hours to destroy it. The Department of Identity and Data Control had just been formed to in time to dovetail with the new PrimaFace surveillance systems going online, and they’d publicly made it one of their aims to snare journalists who paid for data they shouldn’t have had access to. When the DIDC’s stooge arrived on the source scene, Nada had been the first to use him. She checked his references, missed the hole, and bought the information he was offering. And that was that – career over.
She tipped the last of her beer down her throat and slammed the empty bottle on the bar. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.” Hunger flexed in her stomach. “And you’re in luck,” she added, “because I’m feeling generous.”
She looked away. He always did that. He knew she hated it, but he still did it. But she wasn’t going to have the conversation with him tonight. “No, Mae. I was going to say I’d buy you a falafel. But not if you’re going to be an idiot.”
He stuck out his lip then was suddenly serious. He pulled his screen from his pocket and read something. “Ah, Christ.” He made an apologetic face.
Nada didn’t have to ask. “Doesn’t matter. Go.” She didn’t really even resent it any more, the way his work took precedence over everything else. Not so long ago it was the other way around.
He made a face. “There’s a body. Sorry. Make it up to you tomorrow?” But he didn’t wait for an answer before shouldering his jacket on and making for the door.
There could only have been a couple of units in the cocktail, but it had obviously flipped the switch marked ‘competent’ that was somewhere in Mae’s head. He rubbed his hand over the stubble on his scalp, trying to clear the head with another good lungful of riverside air. Come on, Ben, he told himself. Focus. You’re obviously doing something wrong.
He got up and stepped back from the corpse at his feet, eyes on his screen. Had he just pressed the wrong button? PrimaFace wasn’t giving him an ID on the body. He turned the screen over, frowning, then closed down the portal. If in doubt, turn it off and turn it on again, like he told his granddad. Maybe it was down for some reason.
Waiting for it to power back up, Mae squinted out across the stretch of river in front of him, careful not to let any of the mud from his waders slop onto the body by his feet. The tide was on its way out. This far up the Thames, it would soon be reduced to a trickle sandwiched between two mudbanks, a quarter of its breadth at high tide. On the other side he could just make out a couple of cars in the Kew Gardens’ carpark. The carpark that his new DI had said was prettier than the whole of Brentford put together, when she’d transferred from Oldham. Oldham, for Christ’s sake.
He took a deep breath – diesel. Which was better as an aroma than decomposition, especially that fishy, briney decomposition you get with a drowning. The body was blueish and had an oily sheen to it, but it hadn’t been there for long enough for the stink to set in. Not least because it had been out here by the river, which was only a couple of degrees warmer than the cosy bunkbeds at the morgue. He watched Sigrid and Sigrid, the two Norwegians from Crime Scene Forensics, wheel their gurney down the pontoon they’d just finished building out of temporary trackway panels. They parked the gurney and stood beside it, scratching their brainy blonde heads about the best way to get the body up.
He called over to them, his hand against his forehead like a visor against the glare of the sun. “I can give him a piggy back, if you like?”
Big Sigrid, so called because she was six-one, blinked down at him. Mae didn’t think she ever got any of his jokes; possibly any of anyone’s jokes. Possibly it was cultural – high suicide rate in Norway and all that. He glanced at Little Sigrid, who was, predictably, looking away. At five-eleven, Little Sigrid was far from little, and she was also the most timid black-belt he had ever met. She was practically a ninja, but didn’t like arguments and she bit her nails and never spoke above a whisper when sober. (But, Mae remembered with an inward smile, she was an animal when she drank.) She hadn’t said a word to Mae at any volume since a night out about two months ago. Half of CID had gone out and got hammered to celebrate netting a serial rapist. Little Sig had tried to take Mae on in a drinking competition and lost, and then tried to get him into bed. It wasn’t like he’d treated her badly; he hadn’t been rude about it when he turned her down. He just figured it wasn’t exactly gentlemanly, boning her after fifteen vodkas, however hot she was, however much she insisted.
Anyway. He stamped the mud from his waders and went over. Tried to be personable.
“So,” he said, mostly to Big Sig, “What’s the story?”
She breathed in through her nose. She liked her pauses. “Are you asking me what – ”
“What circumstances do you believe led to the death of the hitherto unidentified deceased male, Sigrid.” He was supposed to be back at the office by now, working out how to notify the family. Mae didn’t really have time for silliness.
The slightest incline of the eyebrows. “Initial tox scan indicates a blood alcohol content of point six two.”
“Jesus.” Highest he’d ever got was point two one, and he’d woken up with the lyrics of ‘Snooker Loopy’ tattooed in Sanskrit on his shoulder blade.
She ignored him, not taking her eyes from the screen. “No classified drugs, no pharmaceutical drugs. He’s got a couple of scratches but there are no obvious signs of struggle. His lungs are full of water.”
Mae nodded to the river. “This water?” Because there had been a drowning down at Hammersmith a few months back where two days had gone by before they noticed the detergent in the victim’s lungs that meant she’d been drowned in the bath before being dumped in the river, and by then, the husband had taken his window and swerved. It was all rather embarrassing, and everyone at Brentford, including Mae, had laughed heartily at their colleagues’ mistake, glad it was nothing to do with them.
It was certainly nothing to do with Big Sig, who was looking hurt he’d even asked. “Yes, this water.” She tutted quietly, and scrolled down through the notes on her screen. “His feet are dry, by the way. He was already in this position when the tide came in, and he was on high enough ground that the water didn’t lift him up. Torso wasn’t moved by the water.” She zoomed in on a shot of the victim’s arm that showed the divot in the stony, muddy ground beneath him. “His arms floated for a little while then settled again.”
“When’s the PM?”
“He’s booked in for Crimescope imaging in an hour, then post-mortem tomorrow at noon.”
So by the afternoon he’d know if there were invisible bruises under the skin that might make the difference between a murder investigation and a straightforward, half-day, accidental death. Everything so far pointed towards the latter. Just a drunk falling asleep before the tide came in. A seriously unlucky drunk, too because it looked like he’d only just managed to get himself drowned. He was lying at right angles to the river, head towards it. If he’d been the other way round, or a few feet further up the bank, he would have woken up this morning with nothing worse than a bit of a cold and a headache. He would have got up and walked away and gone and cracked open a fresh Tennent’s Super.
Mae pushed his hands into his pockets, watching Little Sig jump down into the mud and start unpacking the gear they’d use to get the body up. He was about to walk away when he remembered the problem.
“Have you ID’d him?” he asked them both.
Big Sig turned the corners of her mouth down and shook her head.
“What, you mean haven’t got PrimaFace on that?” Mae asked, indicating her screen. She cocked her head.
“No. I mean, it’s not my job. Doesn’t matter to us who he is.”
Such compassion. “Do you mind if I borrow your screen for a sec?”
She passed it over slowly. “Don’t do anything silly with it.”
Mae brought out his own screen and fired the mugshot he’d just taken of the floater over to hers. Then he ran the picture through PrimaFace. This wasn’t right.
“Anything wrong with the system, that you know of?”
Mae breathed out heavily, then handed the screen back. “No reason.” He walked off, thinking. There had to be something wrong – the network was down, something like that. Because he’d just scanned that dead man’s face through the force’s newly upgraded, specially commissioned PrimaFace portal on two separate cutting-edge, police-issue screens, and both times PrimaFace had failed to generate an ID match. He got on his bike and headed back to the nick.
At the station, Mae called tech support to confirm with them that nothing was up. It wasn’t. He ran the face through PrimaFace from three different machines. He tried calling McCalloch after that, but she’d diverted her calls to voicemail. It was just before three thirty in the morning. He let his eyes rest just for a minute. When he woke, it was seven twenty two. He washed his face in the gents, bought a disposable toothbrush from the dispenser, then set off to find his boss.
DI Heather McCalloch was a serious-looking Scot who, ten months of the year, whether she was inside or out, wore a black leather trenchcoat that always reminded Mae of the Third Reich. Her mug of coffee (‘black as hell, sweet as fuck,’ as she described it, which was a nice little phrase the first time you heard it but which very, very swiftly got bitingly annoying) was halfway to her lips when he entered.
“Morning, Fucknuts,” she said with a nod. Her usual acknowledgement. It was nothing personal. “You look like shit.” She jerked a thumb towards the office he’d just come from. “I need you to co-ordinate a door-to-door. That drowning can wait, by the sounds of it.”
He stood behind the chair opposite her desk, waiting to be asked to sit, and when he wasn’t asked, he sat anyway. “I need to run something by you.”
She poked her tongue into her cheek, appraising him. “Is it that, just this once, you’ve noticed that everyone else appears to be doing their jobs correctly and that you don’t need to make a big fuss about anything?”
It was completely unfair that Mae had got this reputation with her. He was just thorough. She made it sound like he was obsessive. “There’s no profile on the body on PrimaFace.”
“I know. Weird.” She drank some coffee, looking at him over the rim. She wiped the corners of her mouth with her fingers and thumb. “Sigrids say he’s a drunk. Accidental death. Drowning.”
“Well, the Sigrids aren’t a coroner.”
McCalloch gave him that look. “No, detective, they’re not. But I’m happy for you to sit on it for today. Act of kindness. Considering the astonishing workload I know you’re labouring under.” She cocked her head. “I’ve noticed that the pile of torn-out crosswords I kindly saved for you had dwindled not a bit.” She paused to bite a piece of skin from beside her nail, not taking her eyes off him. She spat, daintily. “Hmm?”
Mae willed his face not to colour. She’d been ribbing about the way he was trying to improve his vocabulary ever since she found out he was doing that evening course in poetry at the City Lit. It was the first and last time he would ever leave a prospectus lying around.
“There’s no surveillance on him. He’s got no ID profile. Nothing. I ran the DNA myself – there’s nothing, no name, no medical records. It’s like he literally materialised here, dead.”
“Materialised, got so pissed he couldn’t see, maybe sang a song or two, fell asleep, then fucking well drowned.”
He made himself soften his facial muscles. He inhaled though his nose, then let it out. “The Port of London Authority cameras cover ninety-nine-point-seven percent of the tidal Thames, including the beaches. This spot is in the point-three percent of the city’s waterways in a PLA blindspot. No surveillance. PrimaFace doesn’t even have a hit on him stored in NonReg.”
“Right. But he died here. There’s no bullet holes, no stab wounds. There’s no sign of struggle. Tox scan is clean, and he wasn’t hanged, strangled, bludgeoned, run over, skinned alive, tickled to death. He wasn’t even held underwater.”
“The point I’m making is – “
“The point I’m making is that everything says he wandered too close to the river, fell asleep when the tide was out, then drowned in three inches of water.”
“But listen to what I’m saying! The guy has no profile!” This was Mae losing his cool. She let the silence settle and turn awkward for a second. “OK. You know how I’m the Inspector.”
He put his hands in his pockets and went into an at-ease stance. Here we go. “Yup.”
“And how my degree’s from Oxford and yours is from – remind me?”
He looked out of her window. Two squirrels were sitting in a tree, unaware of each other. “Left school at seventeen, Ma’am, as I’m fairly sure you know.”
“Och, yes, right you are. Ergo, I know everything you know and quite a bit more and if you patronise me I’ll break your legs?”
He bit back a smile – she was much better at deadpan than he was. She winked at him and indicated the door with a movement of her head. “Door-to-door? There’s eight uniforms out there, walking around bumping into each other. They need programming and sending out.” She pulled her keyboard over and feigned engrossment in whatever was on the screen.
Mae turned to leave, then he turned back again. “When was the last time you heard of someone who had literally no surveillance hits?”
She looked up at him then opened a drawer and took out sharp, box-fresh pencils. Without smiling, she inserted the blunt end of a pencil into each nostril, then feigned slamming her head forwards onto the desk. Mae looked at his feet, trying not to smile. She took the pencils out, wiped them with a tissue, and replaced them in the drawer.
As if nothing had happened she said. “Yes. There was that Swede, the illegal. You know…?”
She meant Katanka. “He was Icelandic.” Mae knew she’d bring that up. The one case, the only one literally ever, in which someone dodged the cameras. The case which every whining lame-ass brought up every time they wanted to make a point about how PrimaFace isn’t worth the money, blah frigging blah.
It went like this. Katanka was an Icelandic nanotechnician who needed to work in the UK but couldn’t get a visa, thanks to a conviction. So he snuck into England via Wales and managed to evade PrimaFace surveillance for all of three weeks by wearing a balaclava and using an umbrella to move between his employer’s flat and his place of work. Katanka now resides at Her Majesty’s pleasure, where his every move, presumably, is watched in real time, just to be sure. It was nearly two years ago. And in the meantime, the boffins had built PrimaFace an alert system whenever it spotted umbrellas but no rain.
“I suppose I meant this decade,” Mae said. “I’m just saying that given the complete lack of information here it seems highly likely to me that someone else is involved. What did he do, paddle here from France just so he could get pissed and die?”
McCalloch cleared her throat and waited a few seconds. “Finished?”
Mae didn’t reply. There wasn’t any point.
“Listen, Mae,” she told him, her tone relaxing slightly. “I know we’re missing some data that we’d usually expect to be available. But the Sigrids have seen dozens of accidentals and I’m telling you, the coroner is going to agree with them. So please just leave it. Don’t make me keep chasing round town making sure you’re not getting your rodent-built hillocks and your Himalayan ranges mixed up.”
She blinked. “Mountains and molehills?” She rolled her eyes. “Wasted here, I am.” Her desk phone rang, and she raised its screen and answered it.
“Ma’am.” Mae couldn’t see her on the screen but he’d know Little Sigrid’s voice anywhere. He willed McCalloch not to mention his name.
“Ms. Nordstrom,” McCalloch said into the screen. “I’m here with DS Mae, who is beginning to piss me off. What have you got?”
Little paused very briefly. “Uh. Hello, DS Mae. Yeah.” She cleared her throat and spoke a little more loudly and quickly than she usually did. “So we’ve got Crimescope back and there were no subdermal haematoma except obvious places like knees and buttocks. He’d been drinking heavily, stomach contents were basically just brandy.”
“Right,” McCalloch said. “Well, I was just using my management skills to get it through your colleague’s beautifully tanned and shaven skull that the gent you’ve got all zipped up and cosy and on his way back to the morgue for his PM tomorrow is there of his own volition. Am I right?”
“You don’t have to answer that, Sigrid,” Mae said, looking at McCalloch, who knew as well as he did that that kind of assessment was not Sigrid’s job. Ignoring McCalloch’s stare he went around McCalloch desk so that Little Sig could see him. “What else?”
Little Sig looked at her notes, at McCalloch, anywhere except at Mae. “We’ll get the forensic pathologist to run betahydroxy buterate.”
McCalloch sighed. “English, please.”
Mae folded his arms, doing his best to make no judgment. “Tells us if he was an alcoholic.”
“Or had been in the past,” Little Sigrid added. Mae caught Little Sig’s glance and rolled his eyes at their superior’s ignorance. She smiled, then corrected herself and went back to her notes. “Uh – oh yes. He wasn’t blue.”
McCalloch stared at her. “Oh… kay?”
Without thinking Mae said, “Being blue means hypercarbia – when the body takes in too much carbon dioxide.”
“Oh, I see. Hypercarbia. That well-known condition we all encounter every day.” McCalloch turned slowly to stare at him, a look of amusement on her face. “Is this something you picked up from one of your crosswords, or have you been reading The Forensics Examiner again?”
Mae felt the heat in his face. “Just interested in my field, Ma’am.”
“Excellent. Do elucidate.”
He shrugged. “You’re drowning and your body’s doing everything it can to get air in, but you get end up with a body full of water. Sigrid’s saying that if he was drowned by a third party, chances are he would have been panicking, so the hypercarbia would have left a mark. It turns you blue.” He turned to Little Sig. “Just because he wasn’t hypercarbic doesn’t mean for sure someone didn’t give him a helping hand, though, right?”
“It’s not completely conclusive, no.”
McCalloch laughed and held up a hand. “OK, eggheads. Thanks.” She cut the call to Sigrid and leaned over and gave Mae a shove. He went back around the desk and stood there.
Refusing to meet his eye, McCalloch said, “I’ve got things to do. In twenty minutes time, I’m going leave my office and visit my chiropractor. But before I do that, I’m going to walk past your desk and thank you sardonically for sitting behind it and doing what the taxpayer pays you to do. Alright?”
“Let me just talk to Press about getting a picture released, see if anyone knew him.”
She slumped. “And tell our beloved public that their controversial multi-billion pound facial recognition system has failed to film a drunkard drowning himself? Why would we do that, Mae? What possible benefit could that be to the people of Greater London?”
And there it was. He’d had a feeling that politics were involved. Ever since PrimaFace and the centralised data system went online, top brass seemed to have a new agenda involving singing its praises at all times, never breathing a word to criticise it.
“Please, ma’am. Just a few hours. Does the fact that we don’t have a single frame of PrimaFace surveillance of him not strike you as something approaching really fucked up, ma’am?”
She didn’t even blink. “No. I’d say it was unusual. I’d say that in the absence of anything else, you’re looking at a great big, time-sucking, resource guzzling white dwarf of a dead-end, and in twenty-five years when you’re old and grey and retired we’ll file it under ‘F’ for Fucking Glaringly Obvious Accidental Death anyway. But listen. If the lab gives us anything interesting, it’s yours. OK?”
This wasn’t good enough. “That could take days. I need to look at this now.”
“The answer’s still fucking no. Stop being a big whiny bitch. Fuck your few hours. It’s what’s known as an unhappy coincidence. I know there are thousands of cameras in London – ”
Good Lord. She wasn’t serious. “It’s two point nine million.”
“ – but there are blindspots too, and the fact that someone died in one is a coincidence. Sounds similar to evidence, but is very different.” Her desk phone rang again and she reached over to answer it. “Do your job and file it, detective. Haven’t you got other shit to solve?”
Mae got the impression that the question was rhetorical from the way she started talking into the phone and turned her back to him. He left her office and went back to wedge himself behind his own desk. Drumming his fingers on the table, he took a nice deep breath, then very calmly called his boss a name that he knew perfectly well should never be used to describe a lady.