Pete sipped his tea, his awful, weak, pissy tea. Why are coffee shops so useless at making tea, he wondered? He watched a barista working her way through a latte, tamping the coffee, frothing the milk just so, decorating it with a laurel – actually, miraculously, drawing on liquid. It was a privilege to watch an expert at work.
But give her a teapot, a tea bag, and some boiling water, and her beverage-making skills would utterly desert her. She would create a drink which defied the Brownian laws of motion, turning the water into a disturbing yellow, rather than the burnished reddish-brown of a properly brewed pot of tea.
Despite all this, Pete was grateful for this terrible cup of tea, because it had given him a distraction from the reason he was waiting in the coffee shop. They were seven minutes late. He had positioned himself behind a supporting pillar so that he could see them entering the cafe, but he would not be immediately visible to them. Marketa’s paranoia had soaked into him even more following his discovery that Jerzy’s laptop had been taken. He looked around the coffee shop. It was not busy at half an hour before closing time, a couple of Year 11 girls still in their school uniform were flicking things at each other, a wren-like old West Indian lady was pecking at a flapjack, her handbag open on the table in front of her, a media type with a lumberjack shirt and the sort of beard that later generations would surely deride, as his own did the mullet and wet perm, tapped away at a cream cracker-thin Apple notebook.
Then he saw them approaching, three white disembodied heads floating in the darkness of Cricklewood Broadway. As the Three Goths entered the coffee shop, Pete noticed the West Indian wren drawing her handbag a little closer to herself. He understood why, but wished for her sake that she knew The Iron Law Of Goths: the likelihood that a goth will harm you is in inverse proportion to the intimidating nature of his or her dress and the number of piercings. Pete stood and waved to them with his left hand, a tiny patch of red showing through the bandage.
‘Christ, mate,’ said Dom, the self-appointed spokesman of the Three Goths. ‘That little guy been beating you up again?’ Pete felt his own cheek. There was a tender bruise along the cheekbone from where he had been struck by the poker. ‘I had a bit of an accident with a fireplace,’ Pete explained. ‘It’s a short story.’
‘Thomas, mate,’ Dom said, ‘I haven’t brought any cash. Can you…?’ Thomas the Silent Goth silently rolled his eyes and shuffled over to the counter, his chains clanking.
‘So,’ said Dom. ‘What exactly do you have for us?’
‘Hm,’ said Pete. ‘I’ve sort of got you here under false pretences. I think you’ve got something I need.’
‘I told you,’ said Tom with the spider-web tattoo, scraping his chair as he stood up. ‘I knew he didn’t have anything, fucking weirdo funeral crasher.’
‘Just wait a second,’ said Pete. ‘Hear me out. I don’t exactly have something for you. But I have some information you really need to hear. Important information.’
‘How important?’ asked Dom.
‘It’s a matter of life and death.’
‘Did he just say that?’ asked Tom. ‘Is that really a thing people say?’ He sat back down warily.
‘Go on,’ said Dom.
‘OK,’ said Pete. ‘The thing is Jerzy was murdered.’
‘No fucking shit, mate? Here’s us thinking all them stab wounds were natural causes.’
Pete sighed heavily. ‘I mean he was targeted. It wasn’t just a burglary that went wrong. Somebody went to Jerzy’s flat to kill him. You see?’
‘I don’t see why anybody would want to kill Jerzy. He was just this guy, y’know,’ Tom pointed out, unnecessarily. Thomas the Silent Goth returned to the table with three lattes, and a ginger biscuit for himself.
‘It’s better you don’t know,’ said Pete, portentiously. He knew his audience. If you asked him he would deny it, but there was a part of him that was enjoying his new status as Keeper of the Secrets of Death. ‘What’s important as far as you’re concerned is he found something somebody didn’t want him to have, and he was killed because of it.’
Dom did not flicker, but, out of the corner of his eye, Pete saw Tom with the spider-web tattoo shudder.
‘And now,’ said Pete, ‘I think you’ve got that something.’
He stopped and waited for a reaction. Thomas silently munched his ginger biscuit
‘Don’t know what you’re talking about, mate,’ said Dom.
‘OK,’ said Pete. ‘Cards on the table. I reckon you’ve got Jerzy’s Realm Of The Sword DVDs.’
‘Shit,’ said Tom. ‘Are you saying somebody killed Jerzy because he hacked the makers of Realm Of The Sword?! Fucking hell!’
‘No!’ said Pete.
‘I mean it’s not like they’re worried about spoilers. All the story’s in the books. Why would they…’?
‘Stop it. HBO did not kill Jerzy,’ Pete said. ‘I can’t believe I’m having to make this clear.’
‘Right, so,’ said Dom, ‘what’s this got to do with us?’
‘Kuba said you took some of Jerzy’s DVDs, and his Realm Of The Sword DVDs are missing, so…’
‘Nah, we haven’t got them, mate,’ said Dom. ‘Barking up the wrong tree there. Yeah, we’ve taken some of his DVDs, but they’re not Realm Of The Sword.’
‘So what did you take?’
‘Are you working for insurance, or solicitors, or something?’
‘Then it’s none of your fucking business, mate. Just some of his DVDs. He said we could. No idea what’s happened to his Realm Of The Sword DVDs. Is that it?’
‘Hang on a second,’ said Pete, ‘you had a conversation, what, when you were playing your games of Dungeons & Dragons? And Jerzy just happened to drop in the conversation, oh, by the way, guys, if I die in the next few months, feel free to drop round and take any DVDs you might want? Is that what happened?’
‘Yeah,’ said Dom. He looked at the other goths, who nodded in corroboration.
‘Sounds a bit unlikely to me,’ said Pete. ‘A bit morbid, don’t you reckon?’
‘We’re goths, mate,’ said Dom.
Pete exhaled. ‘Look, I reckon there’s something on those DVDs he didn’t want to fall into the wrong hands, and he asked you to make sure they weren’t found, which is all very well, but…’
‘Yeah, well,’ said Dom, ‘we haven’t got them. Can’t help you, mate. Is that it?’
‘Yeah,’ said Pete.
‘There’s nothing more to say then, is there?’
Pete and the Three Goths sat in silence, punctuated only by the not quite as silent as previously suggested crunching of a ginger biscuit.
‘So why are you still here?’ Pete asked after a while.
Dom gave Pete a contemptuous look and pushed a black lock away from his eye. ‘We haven’t had our lattes.’
Pete slammed the front door behind him as he entered the entrance hall on Croft Road. He knew as surely as anybody could know that the Three Goths had those DVDs. It was as plain as the stud on Thomas the Silent Goth’s face. So why were they so reluctant to admit it, to let go of them? Did they know what was on them? Did they know about Karl Chapman? But, no, Tom was surprised, genuinely surprised.
He rifled through his pigeon hole – more junk mail – and stared at the door to Jerzy’s flat. This business with the Three Goths was just one more locked door, he thought. He had managed to get past that one, he would just have to get past this new one. He was going to have to find another way to convince them. Or maybe he could burgle them? After all, he had set a precedent, and…
Pete turned around.
‘Jesus, Pete,’ said Donna. ‘Every time I see you you’re covered in blood.’
‘It’s just a scratch,’ said Pete.
‘What scratched you? A tiger?’
‘A lion,’ said Pete. ‘Got on at Oxford Circus. Think there must have been a mix-up.’
Donna laughed, which was a relief.
‘How’s work?’ asked Pete. That is a good, safe question, he thought. A decent and neutral way to keep a conversation going. It shows interest and does not scream, ‘Please carry on talking to me and like me again.’
‘Terrible,’ said Donna. ‘I was just saying to Nora that this merger is going to leave me with so much work. We can’t possibly take on another four boroughs, and still…’
‘Yes, flatmate Nora. We can’t take on four more boroughs because…’
‘You have a flatmate?’
‘You don’t take in very much, do you, Peter Brophy? I live in a two-bedroomed flat in London and I don’t have a boyfriend. Of course I have a flatmate. How do you manage on your own?’
‘I spend a ridiculous proportion of my salary on a two-bedroomed flat. It’s a lot of money, but I need my space,’ said Pete. I don’t, he thought. I hate my space. My space is everything that is wrong with my life. ‘So, your job…?
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ said Donna. ‘Basically we’re having to rationalise – and I’m putting rationalise in quotes – because wankers in the midlands thought Ed Miliband looked weird, and it’s making my job fucking horrible. Well, you did ask.’
‘Yeah, fucking people. They want decent public services, but ask them to pay for them…? And we’re the ones who’ll get it in the neck when something goes wrong because we’re too fucking stretched. I fucking hate people.’
‘Is that why you went into the NHS?’ asked Pete.
‘Shut your face, Scouse Boy,’ Donna laughed.
Pete felt the tension sinking away. Maybe things were not lost with Donna after all. Maybe, he thought, when this stupid Jerzy business was over, I could explain everything and why has she stopped laughing?
‘Seriously, Pete, what happened to you?’
Well, Donna, it’s a funny story. I stole the key to Jerzy’s flat from the lettings agent, made an imprint of it with clay, melted some zinc in a crucible I bought over the internet, made a copy of the key, and used it to get into Jerzy’s flat so I could find the files which the man who killed Jerzy was looking for. And then Kuba turned up at the flat and attacked me with a poker. Typical, isn’t it?
‘Um, I was climbing over some railings as a short cut on my way to the bus stop, and I slipped, and, well…’ He held up his bandaged hand.
‘Bloody hell, Pete, you do get in to some scrapes, don’t you? And what happened to your head?’
Pete felt his bruises. ‘Um, I hit my head when I fell…’
‘What, on the railings?’
‘No, on the ground.’
Donna examined him. ‘Must have been a hard surface,’ she said. ‘Bruise like that. Tarmac, was it?’
‘Yeah, yeah…’ said Pete.
‘So why aren’t there any scratches? I mean, you hit your head on Tarmac, you’re going to have some scratches around the bruise. But nothing…’
Pete tried to think of a reason.
‘This is one of your little fibs again, isn’t it, Peter?’
‘No… Yes… Look, I can’t tell you what happened. It’s complicated and…’
‘I don’t really give a shit, Pete,’ said Donna. ‘It’s none of my business.’ She draped a scarf around her neck and opened the front door. ‘When you decide to stop lying to me, maybe we can have a proper conversation.’ She closed the door behind her, pulling it shut gently, but firmly.
Pete slumped onto his sofa and heard it creak and exhale. It was probably for the best. He had seen the films. He should not have a girlfriend while he was trying to find evidence to convict a murderer. She would just be a terrible distraction. A terrible sexy distraction. This must be what it feels like to be Batman, he thought. Prick.
He scrolled through his call history. Alice, twice – he should have called her back, but he was still angry with her for not telling him about Sara’s baby – and Orlando, checking on his well-being. For an annoying twat, he could be a lovely man. And then he reached the unknown number.
He pressed it. After a couple of rings, there was an answer. ‘Hello?’
‘It’s Peter Brophy again.’
‘Oh, look, mate, don’t start this again…’ said Dom.
‘Are you on your own?’
‘Give me a sec.’ Pete could hear a muffled conversation over the phone, a woman’s voice, perhaps, a television in the background, and then silence. ‘Go on.’
‘Do you still live with your mum? How old are you?’
‘I said, “Go on”.’
‘All right. I’m not stupid,’ said Pete. ‘I’m a bit slow sometimes, but I’m not stupid. Why did Jerzy tell you to take those DVDs? Why those specific ones?’
Dom sighed. ‘Look, if I tell you, will you leave us alone?’
Dom began, his voice low. ‘Right, well, we were talking about porn stashes one night, a few months ago, like a couple of weeks before he died.’
‘And Jerzy said there were a few things he’d kept that he wouldn’t want anybody to know about, if you know what I mean. And we made a pact, y’know, if any of us died the other three would go round and clear them out.’
‘I see,’ said Pete.
‘I mean, we didn’t think we’d actually have to do it that soon, y’know?’ Dom laughed nervously, like a reflex.
‘So you picked them up. What did you do with them? Obviously you didn’t look at them…’
‘Obviously I looked at them.’
‘Couldn’t see anything. Just Realm Of The Sword.’
I knew it, thought Pete.
‘I mean,’ said Dom. ‘I suppose he could have encrypted them. But then why would he be arsed about his mum finding them?’
‘Look,’ said Pete, ‘did he actually say it was porn?’
Dom thought for a moment. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Or did he just say it was something he didn’t want people to find?’
‘I don’t… I can’t remember.’
‘Look, can I at least borrow them? Just for a couple of days. If I’m right, then we might get some justice for Jerzy. If I’m wrong, no harm done. What do you think?’
Dom was silent for a while.
‘No,’ he said, and he ended the call.
Five minutes later, after he had stopped kicking things, Pete started to calm down. His brain was barking suggestions at him, but they could not all pass through the bottleneck of his consciousness. Tea. Make tea. Put the kettle on, then wash the cup.
Think about what you know, he told himself as he made the tea. Dom had the discs. That much was clear. Dom lives with his mother. He dresses like a goth and lives with his mum. Where? Where does he live?
Facebook! Why had he never thought of Facebook? Yes, he knew Jerzy had a profile, because he was a person living in the year 2015, and he had looked at it months before when he was trying and failing to find out who the woman in the picture was. But after he drew a blank he lost interest. Now he switched on his laptop and pulled up Jerzy’s profile again. He scrolled through Jerzy’s friends and found Dom – Dominic Lambert. Dom’s own profile was minimal, but that did not matter. He had a name. One quick visit to a directory website later he had found the only Dominic Lambert living with his mother within five miles of Cricklewood Broadway. In five minutes he had done something it would have taken a private detective days to do 20 years previously, and all it took was the unwitting decision by society to invade its own privacy in the service of sharing pouting selfies and cat GIFs.
Three quarters of an hour after that, Pete was standing outside a small terraced house in Willesden which he could never hope to afford. This is stupid, he thought, this will never work. Mess this up and you lose everything, he told himself. He stepped under the porch and listened to the sound of the television in the living room. He adjusted his tie and rang the doorbell. He could hear a brief argument about who was to answer the door and what sort of time it was, and then the door opened.
‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ asked Dom.
A woman’s voice drifted from the living room, over the sound of the television. ‘Who is it, darling?’
‘Nobody, mum, it’s…’
‘Home Office Inspectorate, madam, just a spot internet check,’ called Pete.
The woman stumbled out of the living room in her slippers. She was a Russian doll, a onesie wrapping a person surrounding a number of brandies. ‘Dominic! What have you been doing?’
‘It’s all right, Mrs…’ Pete glanced at the official looking clipboard he had brought with him. ‘… Lambert, there’s no evidence of any wrongdoing. This is just a standard spot-check under the Communications Act 2015. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear and all that. Ha ha ha,’ he laughed mirthlessly. ‘You’ve nothing to hide, have you?’
‘Dominic…?’ asked Mrs Lambert.
‘Then show him your computer. Go on…’
Pete followed Dom as he trudged up the stairs and into his bedroom. He looked around. It had black walls, a black ceiling, and a purple carpet, presumably the line beyond which Mrs Lambert would not cross. Mrs Lambert, it was immediately clear, was the only woman who had ever been in this room. A bedside lamp with a Transformers shade vainly attempted to illuminate the room, but its light was sucked in by the Stygian walls, like a cough in a crowd. Dom closed the door.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ he whispered.
‘Not sure,’ said Pete. ‘OK, let’s lay it out. You’re what – 29? 30? And you live with your mum. I can’t imagine what the state of your browsing history is going to be like. I do know you have a stash of something, though, that you really don’t want her to find.’
Dom stared at him.
‘Give me the discs and I’ll give you a clean bill of health. Your mum will think she’s raised Little Goth Fauntleroy.’
‘And what if I don’t?’
‘Erm, blackmail is such an ugly word, isn’t it?’
‘You fucking bastard.’
‘Look, Dom, I’m desperate. You’ve got no idea of the lengths I’ve gone to to get this far. And you’ve got no idea what Jerzy’s got you into. Believe me. Just give me the discs. Do me a favour and I can do you a favour.’
Dom stared at him, trying to pick out the details of his face in the blackness. ‘Fucking funeral weirdo,’ he said in the end. He opened a drawer in his desk and took out four discs. ‘Fine, take them. But I want them back.’
‘And the other one. Don’t play games,’ said Pete.
‘Jesus,’ said Dom. He opened the drawer again and took out the final disc.
Pete shoved the discs into his coat pockets. ‘Thank you,’ he said, and he opened the bedroom door.
‘Thank you for your cooperation,’ he said, as he skipped down the stairs. He was met in the hall by Mrs Lambert, clutching an iPad. ‘Do you need to see this?’ she asked.
Pete took the tablet from her and swiped a few times. ‘Yes, that’s all in order,’ he said. ‘You should be proud of your boy, Mrs Lambert. Clean as a whistle.’
‘Oh, I didn’t doubt it,’ Mrs Lambert said, with a quick glance at Dom, who was halfway down the stairs.
‘I’ll let myself out,’ said Pete. ‘Cheerio.’
He slammed the door behind him, walked up the street, and slumped against a garden wall, his heart thumping, his legs barely taking his weight. His head span, he bent double over the wall, and, for the first time since he was 16, he threw up.