Black British journalist Sam Dean looks for stories, not missing persons.
But when an old friend asks for help tracking down a White Conservative MP’s daughter, he feels he can’t say no.
Especially as Virginia’s disappearance is tangled with the fate of Roy, a young mixed-race boy who reminds Sam of his own son.
A trail of secrets leads Sam into the backstreets of Black British culture, to the crossroads of race and class where you’ll find seedy walk-up flats, betting parlours and smoky nightclubs.
‘The best British thriller in years…’ Marie Claire
‘It’s a winner, involving bent MPs, snatched heiresses, sex, drugs, and double dealing’ Time Out
The doorbell rang just after I had closed the door. That meant that whoever was ringing had watched me come in and knew that I was there. I moved to the window and looked out cautiously while I was wondering what to do. I wasn’t expecting anyone, so it had to be someone I didn’t want to see.
Through the slit in the curtains all I could make out was a smooth blond head. Underneath it was an elegant, grey pinstriped suit. As I peered out the doorbell rang again, and I retreated in case he looked up and saw me watching him.
I walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on. I didn’t know anyone who looked like that. It could only be a bill collector. TV, rent, rates. I could take my pick. But somehow he didn’t quite look the type.
Something stirred in my memory, and I went back to the window. Just then he looked up and saw me watching him, and in that instant I recognised him.
He waved with the same nonchalance he’d always cultivated. Then he pointed and I went down the stairs slowly, wondering how and why Peter Holmcroft had found his way to my door after all this time.
We sat on either side of the kitchen table just the way we used to nearly twenty years before. Pete had produced a bottle of bourbon, my favourite drink, when I could afford it, and I was surprised that he’d remembered after all this time.
But when I thought about it, it wasn’t all that surprising. We had shared a flat as students, and there was a sense in which the years in between had somehow disappeared as we sat there. This was Pete, who I had known, for a time, as well as I was ever to know anyone.
‘Well,’ he said, raising his glass, ‘here we are again. What’s going on?’
I shrugged. I was broke. I knew a lot of people, but I didn’t like any of them very much. There was little to tell.
‘I keep reading your articles,’ Pete said. ‘You’re famous.’ He grinned, creating a short pause. ‘In a very small way.’
I was familiar with this game too. We’d have to insult each other for a little while at least.
‘The last time we were together, you were dressed in a pair of greasy jeans and an extremely smelly T-shirt, planning boring ways of embarrassing your family. What happened?’
What had happened was that he now looked very prosperous. The grey suit looked as if it had been made for him. His fair hair was styled and every time he moved I caught a whiff of some pricy aftershave.
‘You look like a right dolly,’ I said. ‘What are you doing now?’
He laughed. His look became a little sly, as it always had when he was about to pull some kind of stroke.
‘I work for an MP,’ he said. ‘Grenville Baker.’
I nodded. I knew about Baker. He wasn’t just an MP. He was one of those who’d become natural heirs to power. Connected by birth to a couple of powerful political families, he had inherited old money and become a figure in the electronics industry before going into Parliament. For the last year or so he’d been talked of as a future Cabinet member, and he was already a regular on the TV talk shows. If he was going places, it was clear that Pete was going with him.
‘I heard you’d joined the Conservatives,’ I said.
This was putting it mildly. He’d become a minor guru of the New Right, a fact which had made me laugh when I first heard it, because Pete had made a fetish of not opening a book while he was a student. He’d recently written one though, on the death of the Welfare State. He gave me the sly look again. It made his blue eyes look slightly crossed.
‘Well you couldn’t see me joining Labour, could you? Trying to conceal my origins and spending my evenings at meetings with the kind of objectionable shits who used to infest the students’ union?’
He had talked like this in those days too. I’d talked like that myself. For different reasons, of course, but it was the same crap.
‘Mind you,’ he said, laying his finger to the side of his nose, ‘it’s done me no harm having gone to a gritty university like London. Makes me an intellectual, especially when they find out I lived for years with a black man. That doesn’t go down so well with the troops, but the bosses find it interesting.’
His cynicism began to depress me. In our student days it had been an amusing pose which he used as a shield. Now it was a way of life.
‘Cut the bullshit,’ I said. ‘Is this a social visit or what?’
‘Well, I did want a small favour.’
‘Ah hah,’ I said. ‘What can I do for you?’
For a moment I thought I knew what it might be. A surprising number of people imagined that I could write flattering profiles about them. I couldn’t, but it was a common mistake.
Pete took a swallow and set his glass down firmly. He stared me straight in the eye with a sincere and intense blue gaze which he must have learned in some school for aspiring politicians.
‘It’s not for me exactly. Baker’s got a little personal problem with which you might be able to help.’
I frowned. This was becoming weirder and weirder. I could just about imagine Pete needing a favour from me, but Baker had as much to do with my life as the jet plane I could hear passing overhead.
‘You’re not giving me a preview of the next scandal, are you? What is it? Sex, drugs or thieving?’
Pete gave the comment a small smile. ‘It’s his daughter, Virginia. She’s a student, and in the last couple of weeks, she’s disappeared.’
I knew about Virginia too. She appeared from time to time in the gossip columns as one of the crowd at some dance or club. They always described her as the ‘daughter of the prominent MP’. I’d seen a picture of her on stage at a fashion show for charity and another on the arm of a pop musician. She was a slim blonde, not pretty, not plain, who I wouldn’t have recognised from the smudgy newspaper prints.
‘She shares a flat with friends in Notting Hill. She hasn’t been there for a while, and her parents are worried.’
‘I didn’t know parents like them worried about not seeing their kids for a few days,’ I said. ‘Isn’t disappeared a bit strong?’
He considered. His expression changed, the professional frankness vanishing. His eyes brooded.
‘She usually keeps in touch.’
‘Why don’t they try the police?’ I knew the answer to that. You can call them in, but you can’t call them out again. Most of the time.
‘Come off it. The police won’t actually go out looking and in any case she might turn up tomorrow.’ He paused. ‘And, no one knows what’s going on, of course, but the circumstances might just possibly require discretion.’
‘No scandal, eh?’
‘A scandal’s unlikely,’ he said. ‘But we’d rather not attract any more attention than necessary. All they need is to locate her and be sure she’s all right. You know what kids are. She’ll probably turn up, astonished that anyone noticed anything.’
‘So why bother?’
‘They’re parents and they’re worried. I’d find her myself. But we’ve got a conference coming up and a possible Cabinet reshuffle. I’m up to my neck in it. In the circumstances . . .’ He cocked an eyebrow at me and let the sentence trail off.
‘In the circumstances you all want to make sure that there’s nothing nasty happening which the bosses might get a whiff of. Just at this crucial juncture.’
Pete’s smile was positively frosty.
‘Baker simply wants to make sure that she’s all right.’
‘So why me? I mean I appreciate you thinking of me, man. But I’m a journalist, and I’m black. Sure as hell Baker doesn’t want me fooling around with his daughter.’
‘All this is confidential,’ Pete said quickly.
‘Pete. Who cares if some second-class Sloane Ranger ducks out of college? You think I’m going to flog that to Nigel Dempster?’
Pete laughed. ‘Same old Sammy.’
‘Never mind the flannel, old cock. Why me?’
He smiled, rested his elbows on the table and put his clasped fists in front of his mouth, with his chin supported by his thumbs. Then he took them away, leaned forward and gave me the intense look. He compressed his lips, screwed his mouth up, and raised his eyebrows. His expression said that he was going to be frank.
‘Well. That’s just it you see. You’re the only black person I know well enough to trust.’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’
‘Everything, I suppose. She’s been chums lately with a young black man. It’s possible that she’s with him. That might be it.’
Pete sighed. ‘It’s probably better if you talk to Baker about all this.’ He took out a card and scribbled on it. ‘Here’s his address. If you’re interested he’ll be at home this evening, and he’ll expect you for dinner.’
He reached over and put the card on the table in front of me. I didn’t move.
‘This is ridiculous, Pete. Being black doesn’t actually qualify me for locating people, even if there is a black youth involved. I’m kind of intrigued, but I’m not interested, you know.’
‘Do me a favour, Sam. As a friend. Go and talk to him. He really wants you to.’
‘But why, Pete? Why me? The guy doesn’t know me from Adam.’
‘He’s read you. That’s how we both thought of it. A few months ago we were reading an article of yours in the Guardian and I said I knew you. Yesterday he asked me about you. I said if you agreed you’d keep quiet about it.’
‘What have you got to lose?’ he said. ‘You’re a freelance. You’re accustomed to looking up facts and all that. What’s the difference? He’ll pay you.’
I picked up the card and looked at the address.
‘Go and see him,’ Pete said. He poured me another shot of bourbon and winked. ‘Okay?’
I nodded. He was right. I had nothing to lose, and I was curious.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’ll go.’
I thought he looked a little surprised. Perhaps he’d been prepared to do a lot more persuading. Perhaps he’d been prepared for me to show him the door. But he’d caught me in one of those moments when the only job I had on hand was to count my last pennies.
Work didn’t come easy for a black man in my trade, and I was twisting slowly in the wind. Any likely proposition would have caught my interest, but everything that Pete had said hinted at a secret drama that made my instincts twitch.
Whatever it was had been dropped in my lap like a gift-wrapped package, and I couldn’t resist the urge to open it up.
‘I’ll tell him then,’ Pete said.
‘Don’t worry,’ I repeated. ‘I’m on my way.’