Authors: Nicci French
Nicci French is the pseudonym for the writing partnership of
journalists Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. The couple are married and live in Suffolk. There are fourteen other bestselling novels by Nicci French, all published by Penguin.
was the first in the Frieda Klein series, followed by
Waiting for Wednesday
Friday on My Mind
is their latest novel and the sixth instalment in the Frieda Klein series.
To Kersti and Patricia
She isn’t afraid. Being stabbed doesn’t cause a stabbing pain. It had felt more like a punch, with an ache flowing through her body in waves, and then her legs had given way and she was on the floor, her knife rattling on the hard surface.
She hadn’t realized it was happening, even though it was with her own knife. She’d stolen it and kept it beneath her mattress and brought it with her, tucked into her waistband. But it had all gone wrong.
Now she is slumped on the tiled floor, her back against the wall. Her bare feet are wet and warm with her own blood.
She hears a voice and a light is switched on. Two strip lights hang from chains, giving out a dim, sour glare. One of them, the one on the left, flickers and buzzes. She looks down at her blood with a detached interest. It isn’t red, more like a sort of maroon, and it looks sticky and thick. Her head sinks back and she looks upwards.
She hears rushing feet, rubber soles squeaking on the tiles. All she sees at first is the green fabric of their scrubs. The faces lean in close, she feels hands on her body, clothes being cut away, muttering voices.
‘Where did she go?’
The woman doesn’t say anything. She tries to shake her head but it feels like too much effort.
‘Where’d you get the knife?’
The question doesn’t seem worth answering. More footsteps. She hears a man’s voice. One of the doctors. The Asian one. He sounds calm. A light shines on her, into her eyes, so that when it moves away, the darkness looks purple and swirly.
‘Messy,’ he says. ‘But it’s all right. Where’s the other one?’
‘There,’ says one of the nurses, pointing at a smeared footprint. Several more lead out into the corridor and down to the right, then fade away. The corridor is dark but the disturbance is attracting attention. From behind bars, there are groans and cries. Someone shouts for help, the same phrase over and over: ‘Get me. Get me.’ She is an old woman and that is what she always says, in a shout or a whimper, when she is awake and afraid, sometimes for the whole night. An orderly stands looking at the last footprint, then into the darkness down the corridor. He hears running footsteps behind and looks round. Two more orderlies in their white scrubs and T-shirts. One of them rubs his eyes. He has been asleep.
‘What do you think?’
‘She’ll be in rec,’ says the man.
‘How do you know?’
‘The floor’s locked down. There’s nowhere else.’
‘You bring the meds?’
He held up a syringe.
‘Have you got enough?’
‘For a fucking horse.’
‘She’ll be really wired.’
‘There’s three of us.’
‘Has she got a knife?’
‘She dropped it. It wasn’t hers.’
‘She might have another.’
They pad down the corridor. Looking into the shadows on either side, listening for a movement. The only light is from the moon, in stripes through the bars and across the corridor.
‘Can’t we get the lights on?’
‘Only from downstairs.’
The wind blows outside and rain splatters on the windows, like it’s being thrown, then a pause, then thrown again.
The recreation room isn’t really a room, but a space at the end of the corridor where it widens out into an area with chairs and a sofa. They can see the glow of the TV on the walls, as if a fire is burning. The men speak to each other in whispers.
‘Shall we wait?’
‘There’s only one of her.’
‘You saw what she did back there.’
‘Are you scared?’
‘I’m not scared.’
At first they can’t see anyone. The TV is silent but still on, a shopping channel, a flash of cheap jewellery. Empty chairs, a low table with an open magazine. They see a shape in the corner, hunched up, arms folded around itself. In the light of the TV they can make out the tattoos along the arms – faces, stars, spirals. One of the arms is stained dark. The head is bent down, hair obscuring the face. She is murmuring something they can’t make out and begins to move her head down, then up again, each time banging it back against the wall. One of the orderlies steps forward.
‘Calm down. We’ll take you to your room.’
She continues her low murmur. It isn’t clear if she even knows they are there. The orderly steps closer and she lifts her head and her thick mat of hair parts. Her eyes are as bright and fixed as those of a cornered animal. His skin prickles and for a moment he falters. In that pulse of hesitation she flies forward. It isn’t clear whether she is going for him or whether he is in the way. He falls back over the table with her on top of him. He lets out a scream. The other two orderlies try to drag her off. One eases his arm round the woman’s neck and pulls harder and harder but the man underneath is still crying out. An orderly raises his fist and punches her hard in the ribs, again and again. They all hear the soft thud of each blow, like a mallet sinking into earth. At last she releases her grip and they pull her away. Her whole body flexes and flaps even as they try to hold her still.
‘Pin her down.’
They turn her over onto her front. One grasps each arm and the third sits on her back but she still kicks at the air. He pulls the plastic tip off the hypodermic needle with his teeth.
‘Keep her still.’
He jabs the needle into the woman’s thigh and eases the lorazepam slowly into her. He tosses the needle to one side and lies down across her legs, holding them still. She wriggles under him, squealing and crying. He smells her: tobacco, sweat, the hot reek of fear, almost like sexual excitement. At first there is no change but then, after a minute, the movements and the sounds fade away and the body seems to die under him. He counts slowly to twenty, just to make sure. They stand up and step back, panting, from the prone body on the floor.
‘Are you all right?’
One of the orderlies raises a hand to his neck. ‘She bit me.’
‘She’s fucking strong. Three isn’t enough.’
‘It wasn’t her fault. They came for her.’
‘They’ll come worse for her next time.’
The wind tunnelled down the road towards Frieda Klein and the rain fell steadily. She walked through the darkness, trying to tire herself out. This time of night, the small hours when the streets were almost deserted and foxes scavenged in the bins, was when she felt London belonged to her. She reached the Strand and was about to cross over to get to the Thames when her mobile vibrated in her coat pocket. Who would ring at this time? She pulled it out and looked at the screen: Yvette Long. Detective Constable Yvette Long.
‘It’s Karlsson.’ Yvette’s voice was loud and harsh in her ear. ‘He’s been hurt.’
‘Karlsson? What happened to him?’
‘I don’t know.’ Yvette sounded as if she was holding back tears. ‘I just heard. It’s all a bit confused. Someone’s been arrested, Karlsson’s in hospital. He’s being operated on. It sounds serious. I don’t know any more. I had to call someone.’
‘I’m on my way.’
She pushed the phone back into her pocket. St Dunstan’s was in Clerkenwell, a mile away, maybe more. She hailed a taxi, and stared out of the window until she saw the grimy upper floors of the hospital ahead.
The woman at Reception couldn’t find anyone called Karlsson on the system. ‘Try A & E,’ she said, pointing to the right. ‘Across the courtyard. There’s a corridor directly ahead.’
At A & E Reception, Frieda had to join a queue. A man at the front was asking why his wife hadn’t been seen yet. She’d been waiting for two hours. More than two hours. The receptionist explained to him very politely and very slowly how the queues were managed according to urgency. Frieda looked at her phone. It was twenty past four in the morning.
The man seemed reluctant to leave. He restated his complaint more loudly, then got into an argument with a tracksuited teenager behind him whose right hand was wrapped in a grubby dishtowel. An old man in front of Frieda turned round to her and sighed. His face was greenish-grey. ‘Bloody waste of time,’ he said. Frieda didn’t reply. ‘My wife made me come. It’s just my arm. And my indigestion.’
Frieda looked at him more closely. ‘What do you mean? What do you feel like?’
‘It’s my indigestion.’
‘Like a clamp round my chest. I just need some Alka-Seltzer.’
‘Come with me,’ said Frieda, and she dragged the confused man to the front.
The man at Reception stopped his complaint and looked round. ‘There’s a queue.’
Frieda pushed him aside. ‘This man may be having a coronary,’ she said.
The receptionist looked puzzled. ‘Who are you?’
‘Coronary,’ said Frieda. ‘That’s the word you need to hear.’
And then there were a few minutes of shouting and banging doors and the man was lifted onto a trolley and suddenly it was calm again and Frieda and the receptionist were looking at each other.
‘Is he your father?’
‘I’m here about Malcolm Karlsson,’ said Frieda. ‘Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson.’
‘Are you a relative?’
‘Are you a colleague?’
‘Then I’m sorry. We can’t give out information.’
‘Actually, I was a colleague. We did work together.’
The woman looked doubtful. ‘Are you a police officer?’
‘I was employed by him and he’s a friend.’
‘At least let me know his condition.’
‘Excuse me, could you please step aside? There are people waiting for treatment.’
‘Do you have a supervisor?’
‘If you don’t move aside, I’ll call security.’
‘All right, call security, I can –’
She looked round. Yvette was out of breath, her cheeks flushed. She fumbled in her bag, produced her badge and showed it to the receptionist. Frieda saw that her hands were trembling. The receptionist took the badge and examined it closely, as if it might be a prank. Finally she gave a sigh. ‘Through the door on the far side of the waiting room and ask there. Is this woman with you?’
‘Sort of,’ said Yvette.
‘Please take her with you.’
‘Nobody knows anything,’ said Yvette. She pushed open a swing door out of the waiting room and the two women almost collided with a uniformed officer.
‘Is Karlsson here?’ said Frieda.
The young man looked at Frieda in puzzlement and Yvette held out her badge. ‘How is he?’
‘Is he in danger?’
‘Danger?’ said the officer. ‘He’s along there. In the cubicle at the end.’
Frieda and Yvette walked past the other cubicles. From one came the sound of a woman sobbing. They reached the final cubicle, screened with a blue curtain. Yvette looked at Frieda questioningly. Frieda pulled the curtain back. All at once, Frieda saw a young female doctor and, on the bed, Karlsson, half sitting up, in his white shirt, his tie, and the trousers of his suit, with one side cut almost away to reveal a bruised and swollen leg.
‘I thought …’ Frieda began. ‘We thought …’
‘I’ve broken my fucking leg,’ said Karlsson.
‘They’ve got him,’ said Yvette. ‘He’s in custody. He’ll pay for this.’
‘Pay for what?’ Karlsson glared at them both. ‘I fell over. He started to run and I started to run and tripped over a broken paving-stone. It’s the sort of thing you get up from and brush yourself down and keep on running but it turns out I’m an old useless fucking idiot. I fell and heard it, like a stick snapping.’
‘Yvette phoned me,’ said Frieda. ‘We thought it was something terrible. I mean really terrible.’
‘What does this look like?’ Karlsson looked at the young doctor. ‘Tell them. It’s a fractured what?’
‘Tibia and fibula,’ said the doctor.
‘There’s going to be an operation,’ said Karlsson. ‘With nails and screws.’
‘We’re waiting for the consultant. He should be on his way.’
‘Does it hurt?’ said Yvette.
‘They gave me something. It’s strange. I can still feel the pain but I don’t care about it.’ There was a pause. Karlsson
looked down at his bruised shin. Frieda could see now that it wasn’t quite straight. ‘It’s going to be weeks. Months.’
The doctor looked embarrassed. ‘I’m going to see what’s happened to the consultant,’ she said. She pushed her way through the curtain and they were left alone.
‘Can we get you something to eat or drink?’ asked Yvette.
‘Better not,’ said Frieda. ‘Not if they’re going to operate.’
When Karlsson next spoke, he sounded woozier, slurred, as if the drugs were taking hold. ‘This is all your fault.’
‘Me?’ said Frieda. ‘I haven’t seen you for weeks.’
‘You got me reinstated,’ he said. ‘You and your friend Levin. If you hadn’t done that, I’d be safely at home.’
‘I don’t think it’s exactly –’ Frieda began, but Yvette interrupted her.
‘Frieda was going to jail,’ said Karlsson. ‘You know. And I was going to be disciplined or fired or arrested or all three. The reason none of this happened is that a man called Levin appeared.’
‘From the Met?’ asked Yvette.
‘I don’t think we’re supposed –’ began Frieda, but Karlsson interrupted.
‘Oh, no. Not him.’
‘He never said. He was keen on Frieda. Interested. But he never said why.’
‘He said I owed him. But I don’t know what that means.’
‘It’s dangerous,’ said Karlsson, ‘owing someone a favour. I’ve sat across the table from people who said, “I was just doing it for a friend.” I’d point out that they’d killed someone and they’d say, “But I owed him.” As if that was a defence.’ He sank back on the bed. The effort seemed to have tired him. ‘So you haven’t heard from him?’
‘I didn’t say that. In fact, he recently left a couple of messages on my voicemail.’ He’d left four, asking her in an amiable voice to call him as soon as she could. ‘I haven’t got back to him yet.’
Karlsson didn’t seem to be paying attention. ‘The doctor talked about screws and bolts in my leg.’
‘You said that.’
‘I’ll set the alarm off going through Customs.’
‘So Levin’s going to steal you away from me.’ Karlsson spoke dreamily.
‘Nobody’s stealing Frieda away,’ said Yvette. ‘The police aren’t going to employ her again. Not after last time.’
‘Thanks, Yvette,’ said Frieda. ‘Not that I want to be employed.’
‘I’ll always employ you,’ said Karlsson.
‘That won’t be possible.’ Yvette sounded cross now.
‘This is just the drugs talking,’ said Frieda. ‘You need some rest.’
Karlsson shifted on the bed and flinched. ‘What I need is some more drugs. What day is it anyway?’
‘Saturday,’ said Frieda. ‘But not yet dawn.’
‘I hate Saturday.’
‘Nobody hates Saturday.’
‘That’s the thing. You’re supposed to like Saturday. Going out on Saturday and getting drunk and having so-called fun. It’s compulsory.’
‘Well, you won’t be going out tonight,’ said Frieda.
‘Now that I can’t, I almost want to.’
Karlsson was speaking drowsily and before anyone could reply he was asleep.