Fred’s only five but he’s got a way of looking at you like the puppy when she knows you’re lying. ‘No more scraps, girl. All gone,’ but Budge always knows Dad’s lying and she starts whining even before he shuts her outside. There’s as smeary spot on the sliding door where she puts her nose when she’s looking at you, begging to be let back in.
‘I want Mummy,’ Fred hiccups. ‘Where’s Mummy?’
He’s twisted the sleeping bag so that Archie can’t see the zipper. There’s a long dirty streak up the side of the bag where the cement floor’s rubbed. The sleeping bag smells bad, like everything else down here. Fred smells bad, and so does Archie.
He says, ‘You’ve got to lie still. It’s night time, go to sleep.’
‘It doesn’t feel like night-time,’ Fred whines.
There are no windows down here, so Archie can’t show Fred the dark outside, the way he would at home. He shows Fred the watch face, even though Fred’s only just learning to tell the time. ‘Little hand’s on the eleven, see? That means it’s eleven o’clock.’
‘I want a banana,’ Fred sobs. ‘Elevenses I have my banana.’
‘That’s eleven in the morning. This’s eleven at night.’
Fred’s face is so white it shows through the dark. ‘Then I want Mummy to tuck me in.’
Archie’s skin’s too tight around his neck. ‘You are tucked in,’ he says. ‘I tucked you in.’
He rolls away so that his back is turned to Fred. It’s mean, but it’s what Archie does at home so he thinks maybe Fred will take the hint and go to sleep. After a bit, he decides it must’ve worked because Fred’s gone quiet, except for a couple of sniffs, and that whistle in his chest. His face is white but it’s a hot white, like when the sun’s gone behind clouds.
The whistle in his chest means something’s wrong inside.
Archie knows his brother’s hungry, because he’s hungry too. If he was back home he’d say, ‘I’m starving,’ but he’s scared to say hat here, in case it’s true. In case they really are starving, him and Fred. Archie won’t tell lies, and he won’t say things – terrible things – that might be true. In case it makes them come true, like a jinx, or a dare.
When Fred says, ‘Mummy’s never coming, nor Daddy,’ Archie tells him to shut up. It’s the only time he gets angry with his brother. ‘Of course they’re coming. Shut up.’
Archie blinks his eyes open in the dark. He doesn’t need to pretend for Fred, not right now. Even if he’s awake, Fred can’t see. He saw the watch because it’s got a little light in the side, but it’s too dark for Fred to see Archie and anyway, Archie’s turned away. He could pick his nose or cry – he could cry for Mum and Dad, as long as he cries quietly – and Fred won’t know. He can’t see Archie’s face, just the back of Archie’s t-shirt where the label sticks up.
Archie should’ve put on pyjamas, at bedtime. He made Fred put on pyjamas, but it was hard work and by the end of it, Archie was too tired to be bothered with his own, so he’s gone to bed in his t-shirt and shorts. It’s the first time he’s done that: broken the rules. He should’ve brushed his teeth, too, but he didn’t. He made Fred brush his teeth and then he pretended he’d done his, when Fred was using the bucket.
It scares Archie that he’s started breaking the rules, but it also makes him feel brave, like when he stood up to Saul Weller at school. Instead of hitting Archie harder, Saul gave him a bro-fist. Sometimes it pays to break the rules.
The t-shirt label tickles. Archie’s neck is bony, and every bit of him hurts. He’s cold all the time. If he was home, he’d pull the duvet higher. The sleeping bag won’t be pulled. It’s sweaty inside, and it stinks. Archie hates the stink almost as much as he hates the dark, although he’d never admit it, not to Fred, not even to himself.
At home, their bedroom’s at the top of the house. Mum used to say she’d put up special curtains to block out the light, but she never did and Archie was glad because he doesn’t like the dark and besides there’s a tree outside their window where a blackbird nests. They couldn’t see the bird if the curtains were special.
Archie wishes there was a window down here.
But all he’d see would be earth, packed and black. Even if the window was in the roof, like the one in Saul Weller’s house –
All he’d see would be earth.
They’re buried, underground.
The thought makes Archie sick, makes his wrists skip like he’s run a race. A sour taste leaks into his mouth, like puke coming up. He doesn’t want to think about it. He screws his eyes shut and thinks of the blackbird, its yellow beak and blinking eye, watching through the branches of the tree at the top of the house where the light comes in and puts stripes across the foot of his bed, and Fred’s.
Fred murmurs in his sleep, ‘Mummy. Mummy . . .’
He has to keep quiet. They both have to keep quiet. That’s the first rule, and the most important one. They promised to keep quiet. Archie curls his hands and fits a fist into his mouth to stop him from hushing Fred, from saying, ‘It’s all right. She’s coming, it’s all okay,’ because it’s wrong.It’s wrong to tell lies, especially to your little brother.
DS Noah Jake watched Debbie Tanner swinging between the station’s desks with her cake tin, like a burlesque dancer collecting big tips. DS Ron Carling dipped a hand into the tin with his stare on DC Tanner’s chest as if someone had stuck it there: googly eyes. She had a stupendous chest; it managed to make her plain white shirt look like a basque.
‘Muffins,’ she said. ‘Homemade.’
Carling took a muffin from the tin, making appropriate noises of approval. He’d put on three pounds since Debbie joined the unit.
Noah’s phone buzzed: a text from Dan. Not work-safe, not remotely. Noah wiped the text with his thumb, holding in a smile. The cake tin landed under his nose.
Debbie said. ‘I made them fresh this morning.’
Noah let out the smile. ‘Thanks. It’s a bit too soon after breakfast for me.’
What time did she get up, to bake a tin of muffins before 9am?
‘I’ll leave one for later.’ She plucked a muffin and placed it next to Noah’s keyboard, where it pouted at him from its paper cup.
‘DS Jake, a minute?’ DI Marnie Rome beckoned from the doorway to her office, looking pin-neat in a charcoal suit, her short red curls tidied back from her face.
Noah got to his feet, pocketing his phone.
DC Tanner followed him into Marnie’s office, swinging her tin. ‘Muffin . . .? I make them with courgette. It’s much better for you than butter. Not that you need to watch your figure.’ She patronised Marnie’s flat chest with a sympathetic smile, reaching her free hand for the pot plant on the edge of the desk, feeling with her fingers for the soil packed around its roots.
Marnie sat behind her desk, nodding at Noah to take the chair on the other side.
The plant was a cactus which, when it was in the mood, gave out spidery white flowers. It was giving them out now,but Debbie checked the soil anyway, as if to say someone as busy as DI Rome couldn’t be relied on to look after a cactus. Noah winced at the familiarity, but Marnie simply said, ‘How’s the paperwork going, detective?’
‘I’m right on top of it,’ Debbie promised. She turned on her heels and wove her way back to her desk, prow and stern swaying dizzily. No wonder Ron Carling and the others stared.
Noah didn’t stare. He was watching DI Rome. She had her case-face on: a new line, thin as a thread, at the bridge of her nose. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Bodies,’ she said. ‘In Snaresbrook . . .’
‘How many bodies . . .?’
‘Two.’ She held his gaze steadily and with a measure of sympathy. ‘Young children.’
His first case with dead children; well, he’d known it would happen sooner or later. ‘Snaresbrook, that’s . . .’
‘Out east, past Leytonstone . . . Not our usual stamping ground.’ Marnie put back her chair and stood, waiting while Noah did the same. ‘But it’s under the Met’s jurisdiction and I know this place, or rather I know the street. So they put the call through to here.’
‘What place? I mean, how do you know it?’
‘Blackthorn Road.’ Marnie picked up her bag. ‘I headed up an investigation there, eighteen months ago.’
Before Noah’s time with the MIT. ‘What was the case?’
‘Domestic, with complications.’ Clipping the words back, her eyes already in Snaresbrook, working this new case.
‘Complications . . .?’ Noah echoed.
‘A missing child. For a while it looked like an abduction, or worse.’
‘But it wasn’t?’
Marnie shook her head. ‘We found her safe and well. There’s no obvious connection between that and . . . this.’
The way she said this made Noah’s skin creep. ‘Except this happened on the same street.’
‘Four houses down. And some time ago, judging by what they’ve found. And where they found it.’
She read his look of wary enquiry. ‘Underground. This was a burial, but not in the usual sense. I don’t know much more than that. I’ve asked DS Carling to take a first look at Missing Persons. You and I need to get over there.’
Noah’s imagination was conjuring images, each worse than the one before.
A burial, but not in the usual sense . . .
Marnie touched his elbow briefly before she nodded at the door. ‘Let’s find out.’