The Other Passenger Page 2

Shouldn’t have sent him that last text.

‘What happened there?’ she asks, noticing my bandaged right hand.

‘Oh, nothing major. I burned my thumb at work. Didn’t I show you on Monday?’

‘I don’t think so.’ Noticing the music piping through the PA – the same loop of festive tunes we’ve been subjected to since early December – Gretchen groans. ‘I can’t take any more of this “happy holidays” crap, it’s so fake. You know what? I think I might just book a trip somewhere sunny. Call in sick for a few days and get out of here.’

‘Could be expensive over New Year.’

‘Not if I go somewhere the Foreign Office says is a terrorist risk.’

I raise an eyebrow.

‘Anyway,’ she adds, ‘what’s another grand or two when you’re already in the red?’

‘True.’ But I don’t want to talk about money. Lately, it’s the only thing I hear about. We pass the police HQ in Wapping, close to the zone change at which the westbound boats are required to reduce speed precisely as passenger impatience starts to build. We’re entering the London the world recognizes – Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, the Shard – and as the landmarks rise, Gretchen and Kit and their troubles sink queasily from my mind.

‘Enjoy Afghanistan, if you go,’ I say, when she prepares to disembark at Blackfriars for her office near St Paul’s.

She smiles. ‘I was thinking more like Morocco.’

‘Much better. Let us know.’ My joker’s grin shrinks the moment the doors close behind her and I rest my cheek on the headrest, stare out of the window. Seven fifty in the morning and I’m already done in. The water is high as we sail towards Waterloo, sucking at the walls with its grimy brown gums, and the waterside wonderland of lights that glows so magically after dark is exposed for the fraudulent web of cables that it is. It’s as quick to get off at Westminster Pier and walk across the bridge as it is to wait for the boat to make a U-turn and dock at the Eye, but I choose to sit it out. I hardly register the pitch and roll that once threw me into alarm or, for that matter, the great wheel itself, its once miraculous-seeming physics. Disembarking, I ignore the waiting ticket holders and stroll up the causeway with sudden sadness for how quickly the brain turns the wondrous into the routine: work, love, friendship, travelling to work by catamaran. Or is it just me?

It’s at precisely that moment, that thought – right on the beat of me – that a man steps towards me and flashes some sort of ID.

‘James Buckby?’

‘Yes.’ I stop and look at him. Tall, late twenties, mixed race. Business-casual dress, sensitive complexion, truthful eyes.

‘Detective Constable Ian Parry, Metropolitan Police.’ He presses the ID closer to my face so I can see the distinctive blue banner, the white lettering, and straightaway my heart pulses with a horrible suction, as if it’s constructed of tentacles, not chambers.

‘Is something wrong?’

‘We think there might be, yes. Christopher Roper has been reported missing. He’s a good friend of yours, I gather?’ ‘Christopher?’ It takes a moment to connect the name to Kit. ‘What d’you mean, missing?’ I’m starting to tremble now. ‘I mean, I noticed he wasn’t on the boat, but I just thought . . .’ I falter. In my mind I see my phone screen, alerts for those missed calls from Melia. Her heart-shaped face, her murmured voice humid in my ear.

We’re different, Jamie. We’re special.

The guy gestures to the river wall to my left, where a male colleague stands apart from the tourists, watching us. Plainclothes, which means CID, a criminal investigation. I read somewhere that police only go in twos if they think there’s a risk to their safety; is that what they judge me to be?

‘Melia gave you my name, I suppose?’

Not commenting, my ambusher concentrates on separating me from the groups gathering and dispersing at the pier’s entrance, owners of a hundred purposes preferable to my own. ‘So, if we can trouble you for a minute, Mr Buckby?’

‘Of course.’ As I allow myself to be led towards his colleague, it’s the coy, old-style phrasing I get stuck on. Trouble you for a minute, like trouble is a passing trifle of an idea, a little Monday-morning fun.

Well, as it transpires, it’s fucking neither.


27 December 2019

Still, at least they’re not escorting me back to their base in Woolwich.

DC Parry suggests we go to my place of work instead – ‘if that’s more convenient?’ They’d aimed to catch me at home before I left, he adds, only to get stuck in traffic and turn the car around – in effect, chasing the boat along the Thames. I suppose I should be grateful they didn’t board the thing and arrest me in front of my fellow commuters.

Calm down, Jamie. Noone said anything about an arrest.

‘So I don’t need a lawyer for this?’

‘No, it’s just an informal chat for now,’ the second detective says (for now?). He is light-skinned, shorter and slighter than his colleague, a little less polished. A few years older, too – mid-thirties, I would judge. Whereas Parry gives every impression of having been born to apprehend suspects, this one is closer to my model of a man. A little less goal-orientated.

Don’t be a fuckwit. What are detectives if not goal-orientated? This ‘informal’ business will be an illusion designed to catch the kind of blurted secrets that are not so easy to come by in the interview room, some killjoy solicitor at hand to crush any mode of questioning too maverick.

‘To be honest, I’d prefer not to go to my work. It’s a small café and there’s nowhere private to talk.’ The idea of squeezing into the staff room, little more than a walk-in locker, with two detectives from the Met, while Regan, my manager and a keen follower of local crime news, hovers outside vibrating with curiosity, is excruciating. ‘Could we just find somewhere quiet near here instead? I’d be really grateful.’ The implication is I’ll be more co-operative and, to my relief, the ploy works.

‘Fair enough, I don’t see why we need disturb your customers,’ the second guy says.

I can’t keep calling him that so I ask him to repeat his name.

‘Andy Merchison.’ He speaks brightly, as if we’re meeting at a party or a sales conference. Though the name sounds Scottish, his accent is one of those smooth, neutral ones that’s impossible to place. ‘How about up there?’ He’s spotted a corner of the upper terrace of the Royal Festival Hall, both secluded and deserted, since the place hasn’t opened yet.

Jesus, they’ve come for you so ridiculously early public places are still shut!

Calm down. It’s just routine.

‘Yes, fine,’ I say.

A friendly nod to a passing security guard and we’re alone, seated at a table and sheltered from the December wind that, fifty feet away, whistles off the water like a warning. No one can hear us here.

‘I need to text my manager and tell her I’ll be late.’ I produce my phone, tilt the screen away from the light. My eye catches the most recent message: an alert for those voice-mails from Melia. Melia Roper now, but still listed by her maiden name, still Melia Quinn to me.

Prev page Next page