It's May 2013 and Neil is looking forward to a normal enough week until a Monday morning phone call from Rocky. A schoolgirl has disappeared, the sister of one of Neil's old students.
Without expecting they can do much Neil and Rocky agree to help. Before the day is over the two of them and Gere are entangled in a high-octane adventure that will take them from New Romney to the Black Sea.
I know I wrote it but I think it works. Humour, excitement, a bit of pathos and Neil Mackenzie's honest and irreverent take on the world.
Here's the first chapter of the prologue, followed by the first time we come upon Neil.
Giles Grantham-Smyth MP was in a good mood. Not yet fifty, he could justifiably claim to have already achieved most of his life goals: great wealth, a happy marriage and a growing public reputation. His was an influential voice on the right wing of the Tory party and he’d even managed to evolve into an eccentric media darling. Decades earlier, at Oxford, he’d privately entertained hopes of one day becoming Prime Minister and who could confidently say that his secret dream would never be realised? Granted, there were others amongst his peers with similar ambitions and equally compelling credentials: their mere existence lessening his chances of realising his ultimate goal - but at least the dream was still alive.
Things are made so much easier for a man of average ability when one’s family has the wealth and pedigree that Giles’ possessed. It had not only eased his entry into Eton, Jesus College and the City, it had also opened doors in the Conservative Party. Britain is still a long way from being a meritocracy, and men like Giles aren’t judged by the same criteria as others. Finding a safe Tory seat in the South West, for example, had been a formality. His local party had almost fallen over themselves in securing his adoption, dismissing more suitable and better-qualified local candidates in the process. His charm and political provenance had smoothed over the dichotomy between Giles’ views and the quaint One-Nation philosophy of Conservatism to which most of his supporters in that rural backwater adhered. There was an overlap of course: low taxation and an unquestioning regard for the traditions and heritage of the country - themes Giles made a point of emphasising whenever he was in his constituency and which beguiled his supporters enough to blind them to his real agenda.
What many in his local party and the thousands who unthinkingly voted for him in elections didn’t know, was that Giles’ commitment was to a different vision of the country than that held by his supporters. His dry humour and eccentricities deflected their gaze from the cold, calculating inner man who hated the kind of country delivered to him by previous generations of politicians. He loathed the influence of Europe and what he perceived as Britain’s loss of sovereignty. The cost of social welfare was crippling the country. Given the chance, he would dismantle everything and usher in a bright new future of deregulation: an enterprise culture producing wealth on a vast scale.
He had an intriguing day ahead of him: at eleven, instead of making the short walk to Parliament from his strategically placed town house, he would be meeting a potential investor at the headquarters of St George’s Investments. He relished living in the heart of the capital, where the smell of power and moneyed privilege was almost tangible. Over his breakfast, he considered his options: walk or take a taxi. He settled for the latter – it would be interesting to hear what the cabbie had to say about the state of the nation. He considered it research: discovering the views of the man in the street was as much a part of his brief as an elected representative as giving interviews or speaking in debates. Usually he found the drivers of black cabs implacably opposed to the inexorable erosion of British values represented by immigrants and, more specifically in their case, the rise of Uber and its habit of offering a cheaper and more convenient means of getting about for London’s savvy population. Giles hated the way that the country of his youth was being eroded by the customs of the people from the EU and elsewhere. Folk who disregarded ordinary Britons’ sense of society and their place in it.
All of his three children were at boarding school of course, so it was just he and his wife Rebecca at breakfast. They were served by Janice, their live-in housekeeper who looked after the household affairs that Giles and Rebecca were far too busy to deal with. She was her usual chirpy self and kept Giles amused with her one-woman, mostly disparaging, commentary on the leadership skills of the present incumbent of 10 Downing Street. His own view was that the Prime Minister was an intellectual lightweight who was too eager to appease everyone except people like himself who had the interests of the country at heart. The vested interests of business and the left wing of the party held sway – for now.
At ten thirty Giles entered the offices of St George’s Investments. They occupied the top two floors of a fifteen-storey block just off Angel Lane. Giles’ office commanded a panoramic view of the Thames and the London skyline: its purpose was purely for impressing potential investors. Giles himself hardly ever used it - Parliament and the pursuit of power came first. He announced himself to his secretary Glenda and asked her to call John Clarkson to come and see him. John had done all the groundwork in preparing for today’s meeting with Igor Shostav and Giles wanted a last-minute chat to make sure he was fully abreast of what the Russian wanted and what St George’s Investments were offering him.
A few minutes later there was a tap at his open door and John appeared. A Cambridge graduate, John was the brains behind operations at St George’s. It was Giles’ face and reputation that brought clients through the doors, but it was John and his team who kept them happy. He was shrewd and ruthless and knew every tax avoidance scheme in the book, as well as most of the big players in the City. His association with Giles had made John a rich man in his own right, even if his own millions didn’t compare to Giles’ vast wealth.
John Clarkson was a dark, handsome, convivial man, a little overweight after twenty years of taking an endless stream of clients to lunch, but still interesting and attractive enough to make him popular with men and women alike. Tall, black-haired and clean shaven, there was a faint Heathcliffian air about him that was utterly at odds with the self-control that was a constant feature of his professional life.
‘Come in John,’ Giles intoned in his measured Oxbridge accent. In his view he was upper class and considered his accent as a badge of honour rather than something to be apologetic about.
‘Morning Giles,’ John greeted him brightly, the barely perceptible elongation in his vowels revealing his humbler Leytonstone upbringing. He came in and sat down opposite Giles.
‘So, this Mr Shostav.’ Giles said thoughtfully, looking at the notes John had prepared for him. ‘Russian businessman from Moscow. He has a considerable amount of money for us to look after according to you. The first thing I should ask is about the legitimacy of his investments.’
‘He’s Russian,’ smiled John. ‘But I’ve done some digging and no red flags, if you’ll forgive the pun, to speak of. Another one who was in the right place at the right time back in the eighties. Friend of Putin apparently but you know the score: you have to stay the right side of Mr P if you want to continue to be rich and out of jail.’
Giles smiled knowingly. He was a great admirer of the Russian leader. Yes, there were aspects of Putin’s regime and the leadership cult that surrounded him that caused the Englishman some disquiet, but at least he’d made Russia strong again and a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. Britain needed, in his opinion, someone just as ruthless.
‘Do we know how much he is willing to invest?’
John seemed to take a deep breath. ‘A hundred million.’
‘Good God! Sterling?’
‘Yes. It would make him one of our largest individual investors.’
‘Well,’ Giles smiled faintly through his glasses. ‘I had better not put him off then, had I?’
The briefing with John lasted twenty minutes, leaving Giles ten minutes to gather his thoughts before the Russian arrived. He wondered what Igor Shostav’s motives were for investing with St George’s? Was he squirreling away part of his fortune out of reach of the long arm of Putin or was it simply more money laundering? Most of the money originating from Russia was, how could he put it, of questionable provenance anyway and the City knew it. His attitude, along with almost everyone else’s, was that it might as well be invested in London so long as its origins were convincingly enough disguised from the authorities. They mostly turned a blind eye anyway. And since then there were no legal impediments to these investments, Giles wasn’t of a mind to consider the moral implications too deeply.
At eleven John collected Giles and they went down to reception to greet their potential new client. Igor Shostav was not as Giles had imagined. The former had the slim athletic build of a man twenty years younger than his sixty years. His skin was smooth and healthy looking and his grey eyes appraised Giles forensically as they shook hands. For some reason Giles felt vaguely uncomfortable, but years of meeting important people kept him from manifesting any outward sign of disquiet. He told himself that within an hour it would all be over: a deal would have been done and everyone would be the richer for it.
I picked up Rocky’s voicemail after I’d come back from the gym. It was Monday, May 13th, 2013 at eight-forty-five in the morning. My mobile was lying on the kitchen table - I never take it with me because I like to be disconnected from the world when I’m honing my pecs – but I picked it up when I saw it flashing an alert.
I was in a goodish mood, basking in the hormonal glow of a necessary job well done and looking forward to some toast and a strong coffee. My morning was clear and then I was due to drive over to Sevenoaks to take the afternoon shift of a tailing job Calverley Investigations were doing on behalf of a jealous husband. It was the usual stuff: checking out whether his attractive wife was behaving herself while he was out earning millions and ignoring her.
I picked up the phone and listened to Rocky’s message before I started making my breakfast. While the coffee was brewing, I called him back.
‘Morning,’ I said when he’d picked up. ‘What’s all this ‘call me back pronto’ stuff? Has Bambi broken a fingernail or something?’
I heard Rocky chuckle involuntarily. Gere, our partner was an easy target for piss-taking – in fact we all were but as he got the hump the easiest, he inevitably suffered the most.
‘No, he’s fine. Believe it or not though, we might have something serious on our hands for a change. A girl’s gone missing in Tunbridge Wells yesterday. Her big sister called the office asking for you - apparently you taught her back when you were respectable, and she thought you – that is we - might be able to help.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘The one who called was - let’s have a look – right, yeah, Sharon White. Her sister, the one who’s missing, is Dominique.’
I surprised myself by realising who it was almost immediately. ‘Yes, Sharon, I remember her. She must be mid-twenties by now; went to Oxford, I think. Her family lived down in High Brooms near the station. Have they told the police?’
‘Yeah, but you know what it’s like: the kiddie’s seventeen and they’ll want to give it a bit longer before they do anything drastic.’
‘You’re joking! I’d have thought something like this would have gone straight to the top of their agenda. Police cuts are one thing but not being arsed is a bit different. There must be something else.’
‘Yeah you’re right Sherlock. Dominique’s parents got a text that afternoon from her phone saying she needed some space or something. Sharon says it’s definitely not from Dominique, but the boys in blue weren’t convinced and are giving it forty-eight hours. Kids her age go AWOL all the time apparently, even in TW. So, Mum and Dad had to fill out a form and hand over a photo of Dominique and then wait for the wheels of law enforcement to start turning.’
‘And they’re still waiting, or they wouldn’t have called us. They obviously don’t know Sharon – she doesn’t mess about and if she says a text’s not from her sister then it won’t be.’
‘Right, I got the impression she wasn’t a woman to mess around when she called, but it was her mum and dad who went to the police so maybe they weren’t as convincing?’
‘So, what happened?’
‘Sunday afternoon her sister goes out to visit her friend and never arrives. No sign since except the text. Sharon would like us to start looking as soon as poss. I said we’d pop around this morning.’
‘Blimey, that’s a bit out of out of our area of expertise,’ I said flatly, stating the bleeding obvious: Calverley Investigations – us – had about as much experience in child abduction as I had in flower arranging. ‘Shit, I hope we can do something to help; they’re a nice family.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Rocky agreed. ‘What time can you get to TW?’
I looked at the clock on the kitchen wall. ‘Ten thirty if I step on it. I’ll give you a buzz when I’m ten minutes away.’
‘Great, I’ll send you the address and meet you there. Gere’s up in Sevenoaks on the De Winton job.’
‘I know, I was taking over from him at one. He’s going to be thrilled about staying there all day.’
‘Yeah, let’s hope she shags someone before he gets too tetchy.’
We laughed and rang off. He texted me the address a minute later while I was eating my toast and trying to remember all I could about the Whites. I’d been to their house years ago. Sharon was in my class at the time and had been having some sort of problem at school. She was a bright, no-nonsense type and prickly if you weren’t careful. I didn’t blame her for that because it must have been difficult going to a school where most of the girls came from middle-class backgrounds while she lived in what was virtually a two up, two down in one of the less desirable parts of Tunbridge Wells. When I was a kid, my mother never had two pennies to rub together so I empathised.
As it often is in life, by taking an interest and trying to help I also benefited. Sharon’s dad kept my succession of Fords on the road back in the days when I needed a cheap and reliable mechanic. I liked Sharon’s mum and dad a lot: they were friendly and refreshingly well-informed for a family where Sharon was the first to ever contemplate university. They must have been feeling desperate: Rocky and I were going to have to be at the top of our game to make any headway in finding Dominique. My post-gym euphoria was evaporating faster than a cross-eyed contestant’s confidence at a beauty pageant.
The traffic was less annoying than usual and I reached the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells by ten. I came off the A21 and eventually took a right onto Sandhurst Road which, after about a mile, goes down to the station at High Brooms. The Whites’ place was nearby in a broad cul de sac, arranged so that each house had a couple of designated parking bays out front. The houses were small, modern looking semis, built back in the seventies, and I remembered the street as soon as I pulled into it. Sharon’s dad’s Nissan and Rocky’s Ford Focus were parked in front of the Whites’ so I put the Mazda in one of the neighbouring bays.
Rocky got out of his car as I turned off the engine and I did likewise. We grinned at each other.
‘Wotcha, been here long?’ I said.
‘No, just got here.’
‘Okay, let’s see what’s up. Better leave off mentioning fees etc – unless Sharon has made it big or married somebody with money, the Whites aren’t the sort we usually work for.’
I walked to where he was standing and together we turned and went up the short path to the Whites’ red front door.
He nodded. ‘I’d deduced that Slick. If we can’t do a good turn now and again what’s the point?’
I rang the bell and said quietly. ‘Jesus, what happened to the avaricious cunt you used to be? All right, time to be serious.’
He stifled a spontaneous grunt of laughter at the sound of footsteps approaching the door from within.
It was Sharon. Understandably, she looked tired: the open, sparkling blue eyes that I remembered from the sixth form were wearied by lack of sleep and worry. Her light wavy brown hair that she still wore in a long bob needed a brush, but she summoned up a watery smile when she saw us.
‘Hi Dr M,’ she said. ‘I’m so glad you could come.’
‘Hi Sharon,’ I grinned and gave her a peck on the cheek and a brief hug before stepping back and introducing Rocky.
‘This is my partner Jamie,’ I said. ‘You spoke to him on the phone. You’d better start calling me Neil as well.’
Sharon smiled at me before turning towards Rocky. ‘Yes, that’s right. Hello again, come through.’
She stepped aside, and Rocky followed me into a narrow hallway and through an open door into what I remembered was the lounge. It was a long, open plan room with a dining table and chairs at the other end and a leather three-piece suite and a telly in the part where we were standing. Mrs White was standing on the beige fitted carpet in front of the sofa facing us as we came through the door. She gave me a brave smile as I entered, looking as careworn as one would expect and haphazardly dressed in an ill-matching skirt, blouse and cardigan ensemble. I took a couple of steps forward and we shook hands.
‘Hello Janet,’ I smiled. ‘I’m really sorry to hear about Dominique. I hope we’ll be able to do something to help. This is Jamie my colleague.’
Mrs White kept her smile going for Rocky and motioned us to sit on the sofa which was more comfortable than it looked. She was much like an older version of her daughter: thicker in the waist and face but still the sharp eyes behind glasses on a well-shaped nose.
‘I’ll make us some drinks,’ announced Mrs White. ‘You’re better at explaining things,’ she said to Sharon. ‘What would you all like?’
Rocky indicated his preference for a glass of water, knowing I would give him grief later if he’d asked for a coke. He claimed to have cut down on the disgusting calorie-rich bottles of sugar and I’d made it an irritating habit, so far as he was concerned, by reminding him of those assurances whenever he strayed. He never had a go at my smoking, but my lungs were invisible whereas his waistline was getting less and less so. I said a black tea would be great.
Sharon perched on one of the armchairs opposite us as her mother left.
‘What are you doing these days?’ I asked her in an attempt to break the ice. ‘It must be five years since you were at Mid Kent.’
‘Two thousand and seven, so six next month, she said with little expression. ‘I’m a solicitor actually. Just qualified. I live and work up in town.’
I nodded and grinned. ‘I always knew you’d be a hotshot. Right, you’d better tell us about Dominique. If it’s okay with you we’re going to record this, and Jamie will take some notes as well. I’m going to butt in a lot to save me forgetting what I was going to ask you if I left it to the end.’
Rocky and I both pulled out our mobiles and set them recording and Sharon, after a moment’s hesitation to collect her thoughts, started to speak. Jamie pulled a small notebook and a pen out of a side pocket of the jacket he was wearing.
‘As I told Jamie, it was yesterday,’ she said slowly. ‘Dominique had arranged to see her friend Isabelle and left here at about twelve to walk over to her house. I think they were going to go shopping in town.’
‘Where does Isabelle live?’
Sharon wrinkled her brow. ‘Rydal Drive I think. Past Rose Hill School near the end where the road kind of peters out and the woods start. Mum’ll have the number.’
‘I know the area,’ I said. ‘I used to go running around there a lifetime ago when I lived up near Mid Kent. So that’s a good half an hour on foot I’d say. I looked at Rocky for confirmation.
‘Sounds about right,’ he said, stroking his goatee with the end of his pen. ‘Can you tell us what she was wearing Sharon?’
Sharon looked surprised at Jamie’s question. ‘Oh gosh no, but mum will. Mum!’
Mrs White appeared from the door to the kitchen, that was set in the wall up in the dining room section of the lounge.
‘What was Dominique wearing mum?’
The older lady stopped and thought for a moment. ‘Jeans I think, red sleeveless top and sandals. She was carrying her shoulder bag – I think she and Isabelle were going to do some homework together.’
‘Blue denim – the jeans I mean?’ Rocky said encouragingly.
‘No black, sorry I should have said. Skinny-fit.’
Mrs White disappeared back into the kitchen to finish making the drinks and I carried on.
‘As far as you could tell, was everything okay with Dominique?’
Sharon looked at me slightly nonplussed.
‘Well, obviously I can’t be sure but as far as I know she was fine. We spoke on the phone every couple of days. Her studies came first so she’d steered clear of boyfriends, although I think she’d had plenty of offers. She was hard-working and and wanted to go to a good uni.’
Single-minded like her sister. ‘What was - is she intending to study?’ I asked.
Sharon laughed for the first time. ‘Medicine, don’t ask me why – I nearly pass out at the slightest bit of blood.’
Mrs White returned with a tray of drinks and a plate of shortbread biscuits and put it on a little wooden table between the two armchairs. She handed out the drinks and offered Rocky and me the biscuits. Shortbreads are a weakness of mine, so I took one. Rocky declined and glanced at me. I ignored him.
I took a sip from my cup. ‘Janet, Sharon says Dominique seemed fine on Sunday. Is there anything you noticed – you know, problems with schoolwork, boyfriends etc?’
Mrs White shook her head. ‘No, no not really. As for Sunday, she’d got up about eleven, had a spot of breakfast and then got ready to go out. She was a bit quiet, but she could have been tired from working late on Saturday.’
‘She has a Saturday job?’
She nodded. ‘Yes. She and Isabelle do waitressing over at The Royal Kent. Isabelle’s dad is the manager there. It’s most Saturdays plus the occasional evening.’
‘That’s handy,’ I grinned. ‘She didn’t mention work over breakfast I suppose?’
‘No, nothing. She just said it had been okay when I asked. As I said, she didn’t say much. She did ask if Jim could give her a lift over to Isabelle’s, but he was doing a service for someone.’
Her words trailed off and she pulled out a hanky from her sleeve and blew her nose. I could imagine the couple’s self-recrimination. In the old days when I knew him, Jim had his own lock up where he worked on punters’ cars at the weekend. He must have still been doing the same sort of thing. It was a moot point anyway – for whatever reason Dominique had walked over to Rydal Close.
As gently as I could I said. ‘Sharon says that you got a text from Dominique. Do you mind if I have a look at it?’
Mrs White’s face frowned in remembrance and she pulled out an old mobile from one of the pockets in the cardigan and passed it over to me after she’d accessed the texts on it. I sensed that Sharon was bursting to say something.
I read out the message for the tape’s benefit:
‘Hi Mum, things arent to good and I need some space. Taking a few days to get my head straight. Love D xxx’
‘That’s not Dominique,’ stated Sharon as soon as I’d finished. ‘She’s not
illiterate for a start and she just wouldn’t send a text like that.’
Her mother nodded, squeezing her nose again with her hanky.
‘Do you mind if I scroll up and see what her usual texting standard is like? I said and proceeded to do so when Mrs White nodded her assent.
I could see at once that Dominique knew the difference between to and too and how to use apostrophes. I looked up from the screen and grinned.
‘Yep, whoever wrote that didn’t go to Mid Kent. I’m surprised the police weren’t more on the ball.’
‘It’s shocking,’ said Sharon angrily. ‘It’s like being in a nightmare we can’t wake up from.’
‘I can imagine,’ I said, doing my best to sound sympathetic. ‘We’ll do our best, although I can’t promise anything.’ That felt like the biggest understatement since Rocky, Gere and I had started out as private investigators. Only the police with their vast wealth of resources would stand much of a chance of success unless we had the largest slice of luck since the discovery of Viagra. ‘Have you got a recent photograph of Dominique that we could borrow?’
Sharon was ready for that and passed a couple of sheets of thick paper over to us from where they had been waiting on the arm of her chair. I stretched out and took them from her and looked at them with Rocky. A slim, very pretty girl with long straight brown hair was looking out at us from the photo. She was standing smiling in front of the White’s house.
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘When was this taken?’
‘The first day of her year twelve,’ said Janet. ‘I hope it’s clear enough – we printed them off before you came. The other one’s a copy of her school photograph.’
‘Yes, they’re fine,’ I smiled. ‘Okay, the last thing I need to ask you before we get going is about Isabelle. How long have they been friends and so on?’
Sharon and her mum looked at each other before the former spoke.
‘Ever since they both started going to Mid-Kent isn’t it mum?’
Mrs White nodded, and Sharon continued. ‘I think they’re quite close. Certainly, best friends – she mentions her a lot when she phones me. As mum said, Isabelle’s dad is the manager or something at the Royal Kent hotel and they do waitressing jobs up there when her dad needs an extra pair of hands for weddings and so on.’
Rocky cut in. ‘What’s her surname, Sharon?’
‘Ferguson, I think.’
Her mum nodded to confirm this was right. I was running out of things I wanted to ask, and I looked at Rocky to see if he had anything else.
‘I think I’m done for now,’ I said. ‘You?’
He shook his head.
‘Right, I think that’ll do for now unless either of you wants to add anything you think we might find useful. Jamie and I need to get going and see what we can do.’
‘Where are you going to start and, er, can you give us some idea of your charges?’
It was Sharon, but her mum had glanced at her nervously to prompt her. They’d probably had talked about the cost before we arrived and were understandably anxious.
‘Oh,’ I said, trying to come up with the right form of words. The Whites weren’t going to take a handout, but I didn’t want their money either. ‘Forget it - this is for old time’s sake. The amount of times Jim got me out of the shit with my old Sierra I think I owe you a couple of days. If it goes beyond that we can talk about it then. Deal?’
Sharon looked at me suspiciously but there was relief mixed in with the incredulity. I switched off the voice recorder on my phone and stood up holding it and the photos of Dominique to end the discussion. Rocky gamely followed suit.
A few minutes later we were walking back out to our cars. We paused next to his.
‘Whad’ya think?’ I said.
‘Not a lot,’ he admitted. ‘You?’
‘Yeah, if it’s opportunistic then we’re screwed. We’re never going to find a random nutcase. If it’s not there’s some hope - we ought to retrace her steps first I suppose. The police could track her mobile signal but we’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. After that I could go and interview Isabelle - I haven’t been back to school for months but I’m pretty sure the Head will let me see her. There’s not much else we can do, is there?’
‘Not really,’ he chuckled grimly. ‘Let’s hope we get lucky. Come on then, let’s go over and have a look at Rydal Drive.’