- Published: 18 August 2020
- ISBN: 9780857526601
- Imprint: Doubleday
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $32.99
the gripping Sunday Times bestseller
Tuesday, 22 May
Mary Lawson was the first to die. Leaving Euston station shortly before 6.45 a.m, she made straight for her favourite breakfast stall. A sprawling market of food stands had blossomed outside the main entrance, the hiss and clatter of espresso machines fighting the traffic and the telephone chatter. She joined a queue for fresh pastries and coffee. It was her ritual. A routine to take the sting from the savagely early commute into London. Car, train, breakfast, tube, office. Her contactless card was ready in one hand, she scrolled her phone’s news sites with the other.
A muggy May morning, the air still damp after an overnight deluge, she could hear the sound of screaming swifts that tore across the sky. She clicked her phone off, distracted by this stirring of early summer. Behind her, perched on a wet bench, a man enveloped in an oversized waterproof and grey baseball cap glanced up from his phone. His body suddenly tightened, his eyes flicking from the woman to his screen and back again. He lost the phone somewhere in the folds of his jacket and stood, slowly. He, too, looked to the skies.
She bought the food, smiled a few words to the vendor, then began to retrace her steps to the concourse. He was barely a metre away when she glanced at him, assuming he would be asking for spare change. He smiled. She only saw the knife as it pierced her chest. The man in the grey cap muttered three heavily accented, incomprehensible words and was still smiling as he held her close, withdrew the knife, then stabbed her again. Two inches lower this time. The only sound she made was a gasping, shuddering inhalation. By the time she fell, he was already running.
Two miles away, Harry Thomas had stopped for his first espresso of the day at the coffee cart in Kentish Town. He turned down the offer of a cut-price croissant, laughing and patting his stomach. He made it as far as the steps of the Underground when a jogger with a small rucksack slashed at his throat with a kitchen knife, pausing only to rebalance, mutter some words, then plunge it deep into his heart. The spilt blood and espresso pooled, then dripped down the steps.
At 6.55 Seth Hussain was crossing the road outside his Croydon flat when he was knifed by a man pushing a buggy. Sarah Thompson’s throat was cut on the 259 bus from King’s Cross; Brian Hall was stabbed then pushed in front of a tube train arriving at Pimlico. The last to die were Sathnam Stanley and Anita Cross – two more knives, two more punctured hearts.
It was 7.15. Seven murders in twenty-nine minutes.
Famie Madden paused by her gate, adjusted her headphones, selected The Magic Flute. Pressed play. The overture played, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns pulling her away down the street. She knew there were endless numbers of news podcasts that she should be listening to, but she ignored them all. Famie was a journalist of two decades’ standing but she had found she didn’t much care for the news any more. Didn’t want to read it, didn’t want to watch it. Instead the intricate melodies from the eighteenth century seemed to work a spell over her every time; her face might be firmly pressed to a Piccadilly Line train window with a carriage full of commuters keeping her there, but the German wordplay in her ears acted as a portal to another, happier place.
At Green Park she changed lines, sighed and checked her overnight emails. An essay from her student daughter Charlie had arrived ‘to check for spelling and all that stuff. Thanks Mum!’
Still useful then, she thought.
As the tube doors opened at Canary Wharf, she was too busy correcting syntax to worry about the corporate restructuring which was due to dominate her day. Head down, she negotiated her place on the escalator by instinct; hedging, adjusting, sidestepping. The elaborate shuffle-dance of the London commuter. She felt the warmth of the day reaching into the tube exit and smiled. It had been a long winter and a cool spring. Some heat on her face at last. She fished out her aviator sunglasses, swapping them with her round wire-rim frames, and glanced up at the scrolling news ticker which ran across the length of the granite-and-glass Peterson-IPS building.
It was an old habit. In spite of the redundancies, in spite of her resentment, in spite of everything, a part of her was always grudgingly impressed by the urgency and glamour of the fast-moving golden words. Today they told her the French farmers were rioting and that the US President was in Berlin.
She took the marbled steps three at a time, flashed her pass at security and took the lift to the fourth floor. Through the security doors, and the clocks said 07.55 UK, 02.55 New York, 08.55 Paris. Five minutes early. Another habit. The vast, double football pitch-sized newsroom was library-quiet; of the hundreds of black computers barely a third were occupied. The eight o’clock shift change would alter that, the desks filling quickly as London took back control of the global news flow.
In the low-ceilinged, ferociously lit space, the air-con was working hard to deal with the night-shift aromas of sweat, stale perfume and cold, congealing Chinese take-out. Famie took it all in and breathed deeply. The newsroom had always been her home-from-home, her comfort zone. It didn’t matter what battles had to be fought (and there were so many), here Famie knew what she was doing. She might have been a bad wife and poor mother, but this she could do. Here, Famie had always been at ease and in control.
Famie nodded at the EMEA editor, a smiling, tanned man in shorts called Ethan James who, in spite of his senior position – only the best got to be in charge of the Europe, Middle East and America desk – looked the same age as her daughter.
Time to go, old woman, she thought. It really is time to go.
Famie dressed young. Her look had barely changed since university: black bob, black T-shirt, khaki jacket, distressed jeans and black Converse. She had fiercely resisted her daughter’s suggestion she might want to dress like other ‘women of her age’. The thought filled her with horror. She had good skin, wore minimal make-up. Foundation and blusher maybe, lipstick never. A serious face, she was told. Wide, brown eyes. A silver hoop and a stud in each ear. Her running kept her trim and she knew she looked ten years younger than she was, but at forty-one and with a boss who looked twenty-one, Famie was becoming used to feeling ancient. Not to mention the lack of promotion, the salary tightening and the endless, joyless, fathomless restructuring.
‘OK, who’s Slot?’ A balding man in front of two screens was stretching, looking around.
Famie raised her hand. ‘Right here, Lucas.’
‘Oh, hi Famie.’ He raised his hand in salute. ‘Pretty quiet overnight. There was a nasty-looking fire in Paisley but that was sorted. No deaths. That’s it.’ Lucas managed a weary smile. ‘All yours.’
Famie slid into his chair.
‘Horribly warm, Lucas.’
‘The seat or the weather?’
‘Mainly the seat.’
The man laughed as he picked up his bag and walked away.
Famie stared at the computer monitors in front of her: large, widescreen and in need of a serious clean. She used her glasses cloth to remove some of the more recent smears, then scanned the incoming, fast-moving type that rolled in front of her. She enjoyed being Slot more than she admitted. For a few hours she could forget her anger at the way she had been treated, forget her worries about the future, forget even that she missed her daughter. For this shift, the ship was hers. If she snapped a story, it had the International Press Service stamp. It had happened. It was official.
She wiped her glasses clean, tucked a few loose strands of hair behind her ears and waited. The TV screens on the wall showed CNN, Sky News, BBC and Al Jazeera (adverts, weather, weather and more adverts). A coffee appeared. She looked up. Sam Carter, another sub-editor, scrawny and dishevelled, waved a small bag of sugar at her, his eyebrows raised.
Famie shook her head. ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’
Carter shrugged and ripped the packet, pouring the granules slowly into his own cup. ‘Suit yourself,’ he said. Pale skin, white polo shirt, supermarket jeans, brown moccasins. A rugby player’s nose. Rapidly receding hairline.
Famie smiled. ‘I like to at least start the day feeling righteous, Sam. You know that.’
‘I’ll give you till eight thirty, tops,’ he said. ‘How are Charlie’s exams going?’
Famie didn’t reply. The Metropolitan Police had confirmed a stabbing at Euston station and she quickly sifted then snapped their statement.
BRITISH POLICE REPORT A FATAL STABBING IN CENTRAL LONDON DURING MORNING RUSH HOUR
‘Euston is unusual, isn’t it?’ Sam’s mouth was full of pastry but his words were clear enough.
‘Hardly gang territory,’ agreed Famie, ‘unless you count the permanently furious commuters. They can be vicious.’
‘Pictures!’ called a voice, and Famie stood to see a screen running a Twitter video of a woman lying face down in a road. Black hair, red scarf, lots of blood.
‘Do we know that’s her?’ she asked.
‘We don’t,’ came the reply. ‘Posted by an account called Birdie 99. It says, “This just happened. Sure she’s dead. Guy ran off. I literally feel sick.” That’s it.’
Famie looked at the image, a feeling of disquiet settling on her. She wouldn’t snap the picture, she needed it verified, but it looked right to her. She glanced up from her terminals – the UK bureau was now full; desks occupied, computers on. A hand went up by the wall. Tommi Dara glanced at Famie then back to his screen.
‘More film, Famie. Another Twitter account, same shot but further away. It pans from the stalls, it’s definitely Euston.’
That was two sources, but Famie wanted more.
‘Can we get someone there? Police say a statement is possible.’
‘On it,’ called Tommi, his eyes narrowing behind large owl-round glasses. Black, late twenties, loose dark curls, undercut with neat, faded sides.
The Slot phone rang. Famie hooked the headset around her head.
‘It’s Famie Madden.’
‘Famie, it’s Serena, there’s been a stabbing—’
Famie cut across her. ‘We have it, thanks, Serena. Getting someone to Euston now.’
She was about to hang up when she caught her friend’s tone: ‘Didn’t say Euston. This is Kentish Town. There’s a body on the Underground steps.’
Famie’s heart kicked up a notch. She raised her head, pulled the headset away from her mouth. ‘Serena has another stabbing. Kentish Town.’ Back to the headset. ‘OK, talk to me, Serena.’ She heard disembodied shouting and sirens from the phone, then Serena’s voice. Measured but taut. Famie typed fast.
‘There’s a man, a white man, mid-thirties maybe, with his throat cut, lying at the bottom of the steps. The entrance to the tube is closed now but there’s blood everywhere. I arrived shortly after it had happened, I think. A really nasty one, Fames – chest and neck injuries. Paramedics and police here now. One of the staff told me he’d seen a man running away, heading into town.’
‘Stay there, Serena. Thanks.’
TWO PEOPLE STABBED TO DEATH IN SEPARATE ATTACKS IN LONDON, WITNESSES SAY
Two stabbings, separated by two miles. A coincidence probably, a busy morning certainly.
‘More film from Euston!’ It was Tommi again. ‘Famie? You should see this.’
His voice sounded strangled and she looked up. He beckoned her over, pointing at the screen as she approached. This image of the dead woman was of better quality and taken from a different angle. Famie studied the bloodied clothing, the tangle of limbs and the slack-jawed face and, suddenly faint, realized she knew who it was.
‘The full moon rose over us,’ Layla sang, while she carefully joined two pieces of metal together in the broiling, cramped welding bay.
In all the years that Elinora Gassbeck had been matron of the Little Tulip Orphanage, not once had the Rules of Baby Abandonment been broken.
At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis.