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Authors: Mick Herron

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Smoke & Whispers

BOOK: Smoke & Whispers

Smoke & Whispers

Also by Mick Herron

Down Cemetery Road
The Last Voice You Hear
Why We Die


Mick Herron

Constable • London

Constable & Robinson Ltd
3 The Lanchesters
162 Fulham Palace Road
London W6 9ER

First published in the UK by Constable,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2009

First US edition published by Soho Constable,
an imprint of Soho Press, 2009

Soho Press, Inc.
853 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

Copyright © Mick Herron, 2009

The right of Mick Herron to be identified as the
author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance
with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition
that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold,
hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover
other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition
being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication
Data is available from the British Library

UK ISBN: 978-1-84529-•••-•

US ISBN: 978-1-56947-•••-•

US Library of Congress number: 20090•••••

Printed and bound in the EU

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

To Juliet Burton


It was dark, but there were stars upon the water. They reflected from the lights strung on the bridges, from the windows of the still-lit buildings, from the yellow shuttle-bus pulling away along the quay, but most of all from the searchlights on the police launch: dabs of light that pricked out the body bobbing on the river like a chalk outline on concrete.

Small groups on the Gateshead Millennium Bridge watched events unfold.

‘There was a time the city would have been fast asleep by now.’

‘Welcome to the 24/7 society.’ The speaker scratched his nose. ‘Welcome to the twenty-first century, in fact.’

Fairfax looked at his watch, in retrospective validation of his comment. 11.24. On the far bank the Sage’s glassy surface threw back distorted impressions of Newcastle: loopy cartoon buildings shivering in a February wind. He said, ‘The CC coverage might’ve picked it up. If it came from a bridge.’

‘Suicide TV.’

‘The operators call it JumpWatch.’ Fairfax buried his hands in his overcoat pockets. ‘That’s if it came from a bridge,’ he repeated.

But if CCTV had picked it up, they’d have known about it sooner. An alert would have been sounded; the launch dispatched more quickly. Instead, the body had just floated quietly into view, and left to its own devices might have made it to the open sea. A pedestrian had spotted it, and belled the nines, as they used to say. From a mobile. Which sped things up, if that mattered to the body.

‘Said he thought it was the seal at first.’

‘He thought it was what?’

‘The seal. It often comes up here. Splashes about in front of the Baltic, draws a crowd. Didn’t they have a whale in London once?’

‘It died,’ Fairfax reminded him. ‘And it’s too cold for a seal.’

‘They live in the sea. I’m guessing they like the cold.’

In which case, it had come to the right place. Any colder and it could have put a T-shirt on and gone clubbing.

An unborn pun drifted away across the river. The body was that of a woman, Fairfax thought. Already, the business of establishing identity was under way.

Downriver, more light bled from the buildings lining the water: hotels, restaurants, bars – even closed for business they leaked electricity into the night, as if scared of the dark, or the predators it used to bring. But that city was long gone, or at least banished from its old haunts. The quayside wore new clothes these days; its warehouses torn down; the cranes that lined the waterfront just a memory. The rats chewing on its leavings were of an entirely new order; wore suits and power haircuts, and slit each other’s throats quietly in boardrooms, rather than noisily over snooker tables. The stakes were of an order that even the eighties’ sharks had never dreamed of. That stretch of land between the Baltic and the Sage was reputedly the most expensive in the country. All of which, Fairfax supposed, should have altered his lot beyond recognition: coppering the city was not the job it had been twenty years ago. But in the end, coppering always boiled down to the same thing, and sooner or later you had a body in the water.

On whose surface the borrowed stars twinkled, small flashes of illumination just that little bit younger than their sources on the bridges. Come morning they’d surrender to the larger glare of day, by which time a lot more light would have been cast on the body. It would have been recovered, for a start; would have gushed water like an old mattress as it was hauled on to the launch, and with torches shone upon it would appear fragile and monochrome: black hair, white skin, black jacket. Empty eyes. In too many ways, that was the whole story right there: the body, once retrieved, had empty, finished eyes. But it was all just beginning, too. Come morning, DI Andrew Fairfax would have learned more: scraps of knowledge pieced together from an unwrapped body on a slab; from clothing and pocket contents, driving licence and credit cards, all chipping in to produce an identity, even if its owner was no longer around. Zoë Boehm. Private inquiry agent, according to a sheaf of business cards in her wallet. Forty-six. Formerly of Oxford. No footage existed of her launching herself from the suicide’s favourite, the High Level, but she’d drowned all right, even though she’d received a blow on the back of the head first. A wound not necessarily inconsistent with a high fall into water.

Come morning, all of that. At the moment, what Fairfax had was a floating body.

He said, ‘Valentine’s coming up.’

Valentine’s always saw a needle in the suicide figures: the first Monday of the New Year was the divorce lawyer’s favourite day, and all those filed papers would be turning up on doormats round about now, just as shop windows filled with heart-shaped balloons and cuddly bears. Everywhere the newly-single looked, they’d be seeing red. For some, it was the last straw. But then for some, the last straw was the first within reach, as if the whole bundle had been handed to them the wrong way round. For some, not much encouragement was needed to go jumping to conclusions.

Which Fairfax was doing himself. Whatever the statistics said, there were always anomalies. Accidents kept on happening, and murders never stopped.

‘Well, we’ll see,’ he said.

A hook on a stick snagged the body, and the heavy process of dragging it on to the launch began.


Fires have to be tended carefully, in case they go out; except those that have to be fought fiercely, in case they don’t. Which was a way of saying that events could be one thing or could be another. There was no way of telling without getting close.

There’d been a body in the water. That had an end-of-story feel to it, but still: she had to get close.

She’d come to Newcastle on a stopping train, and when she alighted beneath the high arched spaces of the station, what mostly struck her was the cold; a five-degree drop en route, and it hadn’t been warm to start with. Carrying only a holdall, she picked her way through people hauling suitcases on wheels – edged past others on benches, holding gently steaming cardboard cups – and found the exit, where she paused to check the map she’d downloaded that morning. Nearby was a bar whose tables spread on to the concourse. A group of young men in short-sleeved shirts sat at one, hoisting glasses in a toast that mostly consisted of vowels.

Short sleeves, she thought. Jesus.

Taxis waited outside, but she wasn’t going far. She turned right. Her route took her past a large hotel and the Lit & Phil, then a confusing array of traffic lights and road signs before bending to the right between what appeared to be matching warehouses: big wooden structures with metal shutters blinding their doors and windows. Cars hurried past, looking for a motorway. She reached a corner, checked her map, and turned right again, down a high- arched tunnel under the railway line. At the far end, where the road turned cobbled, she found the Bolbec Hotel. Above her a train rattled north.

And somewhere in front of her, unseen from here, flowed the river, down which the body identified as Zoë Boehm had floated the week before.

A fire that had definitely gone out.

Number 27 – second floor – had that twice-breathed air of all hotel rooms, and was decorated to suit an era long expired. Ranks of fleur-de-lys marched up and down the wallpaper, and curled round the lampshade’s fringed hem. The colours that weren’t green were either cream or red, and the carpet’s reds were interspersed with deeper reds; not so much a pattern as a palimpsest, though what stories her hotel carpet hid, she didn’t want to know. The bathroom was tiny. Sarah put her bag on the bed, used the loo, then washed her hands and face. The activity splashed colour into her cheeks, and she thought, observing the reaction in the mirror, that she looked suddenly older: a more weatherbeaten, less maintained Sarah Tucker. Back in the bedroom she turned the lamp on and the overhead light off. The room’s colours changed; became warmer. Sitting on the bed, she pulled out her mobile.

‘Russ? It’s me. I guess you’re not back yet.’ She paused, her words drying up in these unfamiliar surroundings. What did she want to tell him? That she’d arrived safely: ‘I got here okay. Train a bit late but . . . And I’ve checked in at the hotel, the Bolbec Hotel. I’ll let you have the number later, but you’ve got my mobile.’ Well, of course he did: they’d been living together three years. From somewhere below the window came a shout that might have been ecstasy as easily as pain. ‘I’ll try to call later. But I’ll probably have an early night. Love you. Bye.’

For a moment she sat wondering if Russ had been there while she was speaking, though why she should think that, she couldn’t say. Russell wasn’t terribly happy that she’d come away – well, that was unfair; wasn’t happy about the ordeal she was about to undergo – but he knew it had to be done, and would have come with her if she’d asked. She hadn’t. This was something she had to do alone: again, she couldn’t have put the why into words. Something to do with taking leave, she supposed. The friendship she’d shared with Zoë had been mostly celebrated in its absence, but there’d been a bond between them which you couldn’t have forged with evenings in wine bars, or shopping for shoes. Not
had been
, she corrected herself.
. There
a bond between them until the world proved otherwise, which it would have the opportunity to do very soon.

She made another call. ‘I’m supposed to speak to an Inspector Fairfax. Detective Inspector.’ She waited. ‘When will he be there?’ It was after six. Policemen went home too. She was put through to his voicemail, and told it who she was. ‘I’m the friend of, of Zoë Boehm’s. The woman whose body was found. Whose body you think was found.’ The river lapped quietly, not far away. She looked at her watch again. It had little new to tell her. ‘I’m told there’s still not been a formal – that you need an actual identification made. By someone who knew her.’ She thought: Why am I telling him this? He already knows. Arrangements had been made. Sarah had spoken to officers from three different forces. She recited her mobile number. ‘I’ll be there in the morning. Thanks.’

That done, she unpacked her bag. It didn’t hold a lot; what she was wearing was going to have to see her through tomorrow. She’d worn black jeans for the journey; black boots, white blouse, a black V-neck, and probably resembled an off-duty nun. Her coat was on a hanger now. It was thigh-length, very dark blue, and from midway up buttoned diagonally towards her right shoulder. She’d loved this in the shop, though had wondered since if it didn’t look vaguely military. But no one saluted when she wore it, and Russ claimed it looked good on her.

Perhaps she should call him again. She could do with hearing his voice. Thinking so, she touched the diamond ear studs he’d bought her last birthday, when she’d turned forty. It had felt okay, on the whole. The studs had helped.

. . . They’d never argued much, and Sarah took more pleasure in this than she would have done in the opportunities for letting off steam argument allowed, or the traditional ways of making-up it fostered. But they’d had disagreements, and her being here had provoked one. ‘There must be somebody else,’ he’d said. ‘Family. Didn’t she have family?’

Russell was tallish, dark – thinning a little on top – and had kind brown eyes. He didn’t swagger; didn’t roll. He was doing neither now, but his words had been gathering momentum for hours. Sarah was sure he’d tried to block them, but it must have been like holding a door shut against an incoming tide.

‘I don’t think so.’

They were in their kitchen, sitting at the large wooden table which bore the scars of years of farmhouse work. Both were city-bred, and neither went out of their way to fake rural credentials, but the table had been here when Russ had bought the house, and no way was he getting shot of it. Here in this same kitchen Zoë had once arrived, trouble trailing at her heels. That was the first time Russ had met her. It had been a memorable occasion.

And now he’d said carefully, ‘You don’t

‘Russ, you know how it was. We didn’t have an . . . ordinary friendship.’

‘You mean, the kind where you stay in touch and share details about each other’s lives like, for instance, whether you have family or not?’

‘She saved my life.’

He reached for her hand, and she gave it. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. I’m not trying to make this harder for you. And I’m sorry as hell about what’s happened, you know that.’

She did know that. He had held her while she cried.

‘I’m just worried it’ll upset you more. Identifying her . . . remains.’

‘It’ll upset me ten times as much if I don’t know for sure.’

‘Don’t know what for sure? That she’s dead?’

‘Don’t know what for ‘Yes. That she’s dead.’

‘It was in the paper, Sarah. There was ID on the body.’

‘But no one formally identified her.’

‘They don’t need that these days. They can do a dental check. DNA. Whatever.’

‘I need to know for myself, Russ. Reading it in a newspaper, or some kind of official letter – it’s not enough. I need to

Because Zoë had been slippery in life, and there was always the hope she hadn’t lost this quality in death. There was a certain statistical foundation to this. Death happened to everybody, but could only happen to Zoë once. That made the odds
Everyone else: Zoë
. If you approached the issue from this direction, you’d obviously want proof before you began to mourn.

But these weren’t terms to use with Russ, who would doubtless find a way to dismiss them.

Before she could find an alternative argument, he was talking again: ‘Sarah, I loved Zoë, okay? I mean, I didn’t know her well, but I didn’t have to. I owe her a debt I’ll never be able to repay. But . . .’ He reached out; added his other hand to the one that was already holding hers, and stroked her fingers. ‘But the way she lived, what she chose to do with her life – I’m not saying it was always going to end this way. But I don’t want you being drawn into it again.’

‘It’s not a question of that. It’s not about being
drawn in
– what would that mean anyway?’

She meant what she said: what did it mean? If Zoë was dead, and Sarah satisfied herself of that, how did it implicate her? Did Zoë being dead mean part of Sarah would die too? Is that what Russ meant?

He said, ‘Sarah, you only know her body’s been found because you saw it on the web.’

It was true. In the absence of phone calls, in the absence of letters, in the absence of anything resembling regular keeping-in-touch, Sarah had developed the habit of Googling Zoë occasionally, to see if she was cropping up in newspapers. Perhaps, she now thought, she’d always been expecting something like this. To fire up a search engine, and have the first thing it rolled over be Zoë’s body.
Found in the river Tyne last night has been identified as
one Zoë Boehm
she’d read. The river Tyne. She’d looked from the list of references eating up her screen to the postcard on the desk in front of her, and thought how strange it was that these connections could be made so easily; so flippantly, almost.
Found in the river Tyne
. The same Tyne flowing through Zoë’s postcard, which had arrived the previous week.

‘I don’t know what difference that makes,’ she told him. And told him, too, that she’d made her mind up; that this was something she was going to do.

Russ had this quality: he knew when to stop making objections.

She’d brought the postcard with her. It lay on the laminated sheet on her bedside table, the one explaining how the telephone worked; where to go when the hotel caught fire; what time breakfast was served. All useful information, but she’d have preferred this clarity to be transferred to the postcard; its message set out in simple, basic terms, perhaps with a telephone number attached, or a list of available times.

Once, years ago, Zoë had arrived when Sarah was in big trouble. ‘I can’t just walk away,’ she’d told Sarah. Neither could Sarah, now.

Having arrived, having unpacked, having made her calls, Sarah felt somewhat paralysed. It was a not unfamiliar response to unfamiliar surroundings: should she stay here, where the few possessions she’d brought at least allowed her to feel she’d made a mark, or head out and lay claim to somewhere else? If Russ were with her, there’d be no contest. Alone, and in a city not different enough to feel exotic, the temptation was to hunker down: stay in her room, read, get through tomorrow when it came. Go to bed early. Have a bath. Options unfolded like a flower, all of them safe and time-consuming. She wandered into the bathroom, to reflect a while.

The face that looked back at her was the one she’d grown into, with even the changes that time had wrought seeming expected, as if they’d always been buried beneath the skin, waiting for the right moment to appear. Lines at the eyes threaded outwards, and on bad days her chin would sag if she didn’t hold her head at a tilt. But holding it so gave her a defiant edge, which made her feel more confident, and thus better able to cope with a fat day . . . Her brown hair, which she now wore short, tufted in a way that could look artfully achieved, but was mostly down to its having its own ideas about how it should grow. That was the process in a nutshell, really. Your body did what it was going to do. You took steps in mitigation, but the face you were growing into was already there.

What she thought now – an attitude she’d achieved these past few years – was that hers wasn’t a bad face, and allowing for the age-old default female setting of wishing she looked completely different, she was happy enough with it, except for the chin, and perhaps those lines at the eyes. And now she reached into her handbag, withdrew her spectacles case, and put her glasses on. Okay: this, maybe, her face hadn’t been prepared for. Evolution took slow steps, as she understood it. Aged thirty-nine, she hadn’t worn glasses; aged forty she did. Maybe, in another ten years, she’d have grown used to the way they made her look, but she wasn’t banking on it.

Russ liked them. He said they made her look ‘studious, but still up for it’. Russ could be depended upon to say the right thing, particularly if he’d had a fortnight to prepare.

But this was ridiculous: standing here hamstrung in a hotel bathroom. She brushed her hair. She’d go out. At the very least she’d head down to the bar, and have a drink. It was surprising, actually, that it had taken this long to notice she hadn’t had one yet.

At the doorknob she paused, and looked behind her. She’d planned to ask for the room Zoë had had, but when it came to the crunch, found herself unable – how would she frame the request? Hold herself out as another private detective? Did the staff know that’s what Zoë had been? Or even, come to that, that Zoë had been pulled out of the river a week ago? She’d checked out of the hotel before that happened. Ludicrous to think the staff kept a check on erstwhile guests; possible, too, that Zoë Boehm hadn’t used her real name when checking in. Sarah herself wouldn’t have known she’d been here had it not been for that postcard.

I’m in this mausoleum called the Bolbec Hotel. I swear at
nights you can hear the mice laying plans.

The picture showed the Gateshead Millennium Bridge after dark; a graceful arc reflected in the water; an oval the river might pour through.

Unlike Zoë to drop Sarah a line. But was it unlike Zoë to jump off a bridge? She didn’t know. She didn’t know. Was the picture a clue? It might have been. She’d thought she’d known her friend but – she didn’t know.

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