This is chapter two of the crime thriller ‘Blood Read (Publish And Be Dead)’, which is officially ‘coming soon’. Chapter one is here. Needless to say, you should read that chapter first.
Blood Read (Publish and Be Dead)
Chapter Two: The Worst Day
There had been a period of his life (nine months reduced to five for good behaviour) when Tom Capgras was blessed with too much time on his hands. He spent most of it pondering a question posed by a cellmate: is there one day you could pinpoint, one that stands alone as the single worst day of your life?
The day the police raided the newsroom, stomping across the editorial floor as if it were a brothel with a side-line selling methamphetamine and fully loaded semi-automatics, sweeping protesting journalists out of their way, demanding access to locked rooms and desks, ripping through filing cabinets, taking the hard disk out of his computer, seizing his laptop and phone and finally leading Capgras away in handcuffs while the editor hurled abuse at them – that, at the time, was the worst day ever, without doubt.
Tom even announced it as such to anyone who would listen once Special Branch, or whatever they were calling themselves, had released him and he sat mulling it over, staring into a pint of warm beer in the Cloak and Dagger public house. “That was the worst day of my life,” he’d said, as if to make it official, sure that he was right. What, after all, could top the humiliation, the outrage, the frustration? Or the knowledge that he’d brought the power of the secret services down on his colleagues and on his newspaper?
But it did get worse. The day they found him guilty of trading in state secrets – that was worse. And the day a week later, when they sentenced him to nine months in prison, that was worse still.
The first day of the sentence was the worst yet. Though the second topped it. And the third. And on it went.
But life had picked up since then. He was out in under five months, and his editor stood by him, and though the tabloids stuck the knives in to support the establishment, the broadsheets were on his side, for the most part, in their better moments.
To many, he was a martyr or a hero. Easy for them to say: they didn’t have to do the time. But colleagues rallied round, co-workers helped him and editors offered work, though he never could go back to that newsroom, not full-time. And what use is a crime reporter with a phobia of uniforms, an intense distrust of the police? Freelance would do: get his head together, see what directions he wanted to take. His editor was secretly relieved, Capgras could tell.
But the bad, the ball-crushingly bleak life-can’t-be-lived-like-this-it’s-time-to-end-it-all-before-you-crack-in-public days were behind him. He’d been sure of that.
Certain of it.
It wasn’t far past nine o’clock and already his newly acquired literary agent had hanged herself. His hopes of a book deal had probably died with her. His future lay featureless and bare. The blame would creep up on him too – could he have saved her if he’d been on time? He’d overslept, abandoned his plans for public transport. The Norton was faster, but he’d still been late. Was it all his fault?
And there were questions to come, coppers, bureaucracy, grieving workmates, the tears. Then the journey home, the time spent staring into the distance, not knowing which way to turn next.
Bad day for him. Worse for Joanne.
Yet here was a ray of hope, bounding up the stairs, cheerily calling out to see if anyone was in the office: Joanne’s assistant Hannah Robertson, twenty-four, not long out of university, still in her salad days and keen as they come. She believed in Tom’s book, she’d said as much at their last meeting. It was an important story that needed to be told. She understood the work – defending the vulnerable, exposing corruption. Shining a light on abuses of power. She would fight his corner.
His agent might be dead but there was still a chance his career would pull through.
Capgras blockaded the door to Joanne’s office.
“Tom? What are you doing here?”
He filled the doorframe, “You can’t go in.”
She tried to look over his shoulder. “You sound upset. What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry.” There was no easy way to say it. Better than showing it to her though. She was not used to seeing death. “Joanne’s… gone.”
“I didn’t know she was here. She’s not expected in.”
He gripped the door tight so she couldn’t push it open. “You don’t understand. She’s dead.”
Wild eyes flickered, her mouth twitching, not wanting to face it. “Don’t say that, it’s not funny.”
Stay calm, he told himself, be measured, talk slowly. Help her through this. “She hung herself. Police are on their way. She’s gone. Trust me.”
Hannah shoved at the door, her face etched with fear. “She wouldn’t. I don’t believe it. She’s alive, we can save her.”
He stood his ground and refused to let her pass. Tom didn’t know her well. He’d met her twice, maybe three times if you counted brushing past each other on the narrow stairs. But she didn’t want to see this, even if she thought she must. “I took her down, checked, did everything. She’s gone. She’s cold.”
Hannah’s mouth writhed with suppressed anger.
“Wait for the police,” he said. “Evidence, all that.” He tried to ease her away from the door.
She pushed against him as though blaming Tom. He stood firm, letting her beat his chest with her fists. Her rage blew itself out, she wilted and the tears began to stream down her face. “She wouldn’t kill herself. She couldn’t.”
His thoughts exactly but where was the proof or even a clue that this death might be suspicious? “Why was Joanne alone? No one else is here.”
“We don’t start ’til ten, most days, you know that.”
He did know that but hadn’t thought twice about a meeting scheduled for nine. Hannah turned away from him, fumbling with her hair. Heavy shoes thudded up the stairs. Police: Capgras recognised the tempo. “Hannah, think, who would want her dead and why?”
She had no time to answer. Two uniformed officers swept into the room, taking charge with body language alone. Capgras gestured them towards Joanne’s office and steered Hannah to the relative safety of the reception desk.
One of the policemen went into the office while the other peered around the door, keeping half an eye on Capgras and Hannah. They exchanged code words and cryptic numbers, but the meaning was clear. Another suicide as far as they were concerned.
Capgras sat Hannah on a chair and handed her a phone. “Call the partners,” he whispered. “Alert them, get them here.”
He approached the older of the two policemen, late twenties by the look of him, with the stern face of a man who’s seen too much of life already. And of death.
Capgras gestured towards the door that led to Joanne’s office and the scene of her hanging. “Don’t take this on face value.”
“In what way, sir?”
“Call CID, just in case.”
“We’ll do what’s required. Have a seat, sir. Someone will take a statement from you,”
It meant get lost. Capgras ignored the hint. “This doesn’t look right, doesn’t feel right. Joanne wouldn’t do this, not here, not now.”
“It always comes as a shock. Please stay out of the way.”
The man launched into another rapid-fire exchange of acronyms and code words with his colleague.
An ambulance crew arrived at the top of the stairs followed by a woman police officer who began to take names. She asked Capgras to outline what he saw when he first got there, but she was going through the motions. He’d seen it before, a thousand times. He needed to get her thinking. Focus her attention where it was needed. “Notice the noose. Joanne could never have tied that. And the books on the floor as if there had been a scuffle.”
She did her best to look patient, but it wasn’t working.
Hard to blame her. He sounded like one of the amateur sleuths that plague police investigations with unwanted theories. Capgras had dealt with dozens of them himself in his day: rebuffed by the cops, they would turn to the press as an outlet for their suspicions, hunches and oh-so-rational deductions.
Perhaps the coppers were right: mind your own business, leave murder enquiries to the professionals. He was too close, affected by the death, not thinking straight.
He gave the policewoman the facts, the time of his arrival, seeing the cleaning lady how she must let him in. She didn’t look like a killer, but she might have seen something. The WPC took a note of his phone number and said someone would be in touch.
Capgras doubted it.
As the agency staff arrived in dribs and drabs, they milled around, faces drawn and pale at the horror of death brought into their workplace. The ambulance crew emerged from Joanne’s office with her body on a stretcher, covered with a blanket. The crowd parted to let them through. A young intern rushed for the bathroom and locked herself inside sobbing audibly. A woman in her forties with horn-rimmed glasses had taken charge of the reception desk and was doing her best to hold the place together but she was close to cracking herself by the looks of her.
Finally, one of the senior partners arrived and urged everyone to keep out of the way while the emergency services put things in order.
In order, yes. But they couldn’t put things right. Joanne should not be dead. How old was she? Early fifties, plenty to live for, intelligent, successful. Beautiful, even. She’d have been a catch in her day. Capgras wondered if there were troubles at home, or in the business. Had she, like so many, suffered unspoken depression half her life? She didn’t seem the type but who did?
Hannah, her face haggard, was being comforted by the woman on reception. This was Tom’s chance. His moment had arrived. Yet he paused. Was it too soon? Should he wait, do it next week, next month? But the tide was ebbing on his career. His book would be left high and dry in the flotsam and jetsam of discarded words.
He approached the two women, leant on the desk and waited.
The receptionist gave him a look: it was meant to be steely, but her eyes glinted with tears.
“Tom found the body,” Hannah said.
“Joanne called me in, we were to go and see a publisher.”
“There was nothing scheduled.”
What did she mean by that?
“I didn’t know of a meeting,” Hannah said. “I thought Joanne was off today.”
“She wasn’t due in,” the receptionist said.
“She emailed me, asked to get in early for a chat, then we’d go to the publishers to discuss a deal. We should contact them, so they can rearrange. Or whatever. Only polite. To tell them…”
“I don’t know of any meeting.” The receptionist consulted a desk diary. “Nothing in here.”
Hannah looked up an online calendar. “No, nothing.”
“I got an email from Joanne,” Tom said. “It’s all in there.”
He tried to show them on his phone.
“Forward it to me. Which publisher?”
“It doesn’t say.”
“Oh, well, difficult for us to call them then. You don’t look dressed for a meeting…”
“I was late. Didn’t think anyone would mind. Investigative reporter, after all. Got to look the part.”
“Tom, we should leave this. Another time.” Hannah’s body language shepherded him towards the door. How did she do that?
He longed to argue, to make them see sense, to find out about the meeting, to call every publisher in London if necessary, but they wanted him gone. He sensed their need to retreat into the familiar, the team, the family, and to grieve for the one they had lost. “Another time, sure.” He turned and made for the door, trudged down four flights of stairs, shoulders hunched, his hopes in tatters and his nerves frayed. With each step he saw an image of Joanne swinging from the rope.
Something was wrong about this: timetables, schedules, holidays, emails, all of them out of joint. It was a mess. But no one would want to hear his doubts. And maybe they were right. Who would want to kill Joanne? How could a literary agent develop enemies?
He stepped into the mayhem of London and paused on the pavement, wondering what to do with the rest of his day. It was too early to start drinking, even for a journalist. So he shambled towards the sanctuary of his motorbike, the one thing in his life that never changed, never lied, never died, and never backfired.