Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
… he doesn’t look the sort of man one ought to allow in here.
Henrik Ibsen, Rosmersholm
Panting, his right knee aching, Strike used the handrail to pull himself up the last few steps of the metal staircase leading to his office. Two raised voices were reverberating through the glass door, one male, the other shrill, frightened and female. When Strike burst into the room, Denise, who was backed against the wall, gasped, ‘Oh, thank God!’
Strike judged the man in the middle of the room to be in his mid-twenties. Dark hair fell in straggly wisps around a thin and dirty face that was dominated by burning, sunken eyes. His T-shirt, jeans and hoodie were all torn and filthy, the sole of one of his trainers peeling away from the leather. An unwashed animal stench hit the detective’s nostrils.
That the stranger was mentally ill could be in no doubt. Every ten seconds or so, in what seemed to be an uncontrollable tic, he touched first the end of his nose, which had grown red with repeated tapping, then, with a faint hollow thud, the middle of his thin sternum, then let his hand drop to his side. Almost immediately, his hand would fly to the tip of his nose again. It was as though he had forgotten how to cross himself, or had simplified the action for speed’s sake. Nose, chest, hand at his side; nose, chest, hand at his side; the mechanical movement was distressing to watch, and the more so as he seemed barely conscious that he was doing it. He was one of those ill and desperate people you saw in the capital who were always somebody else’s problem, like the traveller on the Tube everybody tried to avoid making eye contact with and the ranting woman on the street corner whom people crossed the street to avoid, fragments of shattered humanity who were too common to trouble the imagination for long.
‘You him?’ said the burning-eyed man, as his hand touched nose and chest again. ‘You Strike? You the detective?’
With the hand that was not constantly flying from nose to chest, he suddenly tugged at his flies. Denise whimpered, as if scared he might suddenly expose himself, and, indeed, it seemed entirely possible.
‘I’m Strike, yeah,’ said the detective, moving around to place himself between the stranger and the temp. ‘You OK, Denise?’
‘Yes,’ she whispered, still backed against the wall.
‘I seen a kid killed,’ said the stranger. ‘Strangled.’
‘OK,’ said Strike, matter-of-factly. ‘Why don’t we go in here?’
He gestured to him that he should proceed into the inner office.
‘I need a piss!’ said the man, tugging at his zip.
‘This way, then.’
Strike showed him the door to the toilet just outside the office. When the door had banged shut behind him, Strike returned quietly to Denise.
‘He wanted to see you, I said you weren’t here and he got angry and started punching things!’
‘Call the police,’ said Strike quietly. ‘Tell them we’ve got a very ill man here. Possibly psychotic. Wait until I’ve got him into my office, though.’
The bathroom door banged open. The stranger’s flies were gaping. He did not seem to be wearing underpants. Denise whimpered again as he frantically touched nose and chest, nose and chest, unaware of the large patch of dark pubic hair he was exposing.
‘This way,’ said Strike pleasantly. The man shuffled through the inner door, the stench of him doubly potent after a brief respite.
On being invited to sit down, the stranger perched himself on the edge of the client’s chair.
‘What’s your name?’ Strike asked, sitting down on the other side of the desk. ‘Billy,’ said the man, his hand flying from nose to chest three times in quick succession. The third time his hand fell, he grabbed it with his other hand and held it tightly.
‘And you saw a child strangled, Billy?’ said Strike, as in the next room Denise gabbled:
‘What did she say?’ asked Billy, his sunken eyes huge in his face as he glanced nervously towards the outer office, one hand clasping the other in his effort to suppress his tic.
‘That’s nothing,’ said Strike easily. ‘I’ve got a few different cases on. Tell me about this child.’
Strike reached for a pad and paper, all his movements slow and cautious, as though Billy were a wild bird that might take fright.
‘He strangled it, up by the horse.’
Denise was now gabbling loudly into the phone beyond the flimsy partition wall.
‘When was this?’ asked Strike, still writing.
‘Ages .. . I was a kid. Little girl it was, but after they said it was a little boy. Jimmy was there, he says I never saw it, but I did. I saw him do it. Strangled. I saw it.’
‘And this was up by the horse, was it?’
‘Right up by the horse. That’s not where they buried her, though. Him. That was down in the dell, by our dad’s. I seen them doing it, I can show you the place. She wouldn’t let me dig, but she’d let you.’
‘And Jimmy did it, did he?’
‘Jimmy never strangled nobody!’ said Billy angrily. ‘He saw it with me. He says it didn’t happen but he’s lying, he was there. He’s frightened, see.’
‘I see,’ lied Strike, continuing to take notes. ‘Well, I’ll need your address if I’m going to investigate.’
He half-expected resistance, but Billy reached eagerly for the proffered pad and pen. A further gust of body odour reached Strike. Billy began to write, but suddenly seemed to think better of it.
‘You won’t come to Jimmy’s place, though? He’ll fucking tan me. You can’t come to Jimmy’s.’
‘No, no,’ said Strike soothingly. ‘I just need your address for my records.’
Through the door came Denise’s grating voice.
‘I need someone here quicker than that, he’s very disturbed!’
‘What’s she saying?’ asked Billy.
To Strike’s chagrin, Billy suddenly ripped the top sheet from the pad, crumpled it, then began to touch nose and chest again with his fist enclosing the paper.
‘Don’t worry about Denise,’ said Strike, ‘she’s dealing with another client. Can I get you a drink, Billy?’
‘Drink of what?’
‘Tea? Or coffee?’
‘Why?’ asked Billy. The offer seemed to have made him even more suspicious. ‘Why do you want me to drink something?’
‘Only if you fancy it. Doesn’t matter if you don’t.’
‘I don’t need medicine!’
‘I haven’t got any medicine to give you,’ said Strike.
‘I’m not mental! He strangled the kid and they buried it, down in the dell by our dad’s house. Wrapped in a blanket it was. Pink blanket. It wasn’t my fault. I was only a kid. I didn’t want to be there. I was just a little kid.’ ‘How many years ago, do you know?’
‘Ages … years … can’t get it out of my head,’ said Billy, his eyes burning in his thin face as the fist enclosing the piece of paper fluttered up and down, touching nose, touching chest. ‘They buried her in a pink blanket, down in the dell by my dad’s house. But afterwards they said it was a boy.’
‘Where’s your dad’s house, Billy?’
‘She won’t let me back now. You could dig, though.
You could go. Strangled her, they did,’ said Billy, fixing Strike with his haunted eyes. ‘But Jimmy said it was a boy. Strangled, up by the-‘
There was a knock on the door. Before Strike could tell her not to enter, Denise had poked her head inside, much braver now that Strike was here, full of her own importance.
‘They’re coming,’ she said, with a look of exaggerated meaning that would have spooked a man far less jumpy than Billy. ‘On their way now.’ ‘Who’s coming?’ demanded Billy, jumping up. ‘Who’s on their way?’
Denise whipped her head out of the room and closed the door. There was a soft thud against the wood, and Strike knew that she was leaning against it, trying to hold Billy in.
‘She’s just talking about a delivery I’m expecting,’ Strike said soothingly, getting to his feet. ‘Go on about the-‘
‘What have you done?’ yelped Billy, backing away towards the door while he repeatedly touched nose and chest. ‘Who’s coming?’
‘Nobody’s coming,’ said Strike, but Billy was already trying to push the door open. Meeting resistance, he flung himself hard against it. There was a shriek from outside as Denise was thrown aside. Before Strike could get out from around the desk, Billy had sprinted through the outer door. They heard him jumping down the metal stairs three at a time and Strike, infuriated, knowing that he had no hope of catching a younger and, on the evidence, fitter man, turned and ran back into his office. Throwing up the sash window, he leaned outside just in time to see Billy whipping around the corner of the street out of sight.
A man heading inside the guitar shop opposite stared around in some perplexity for the source of the noise. Strike withdrew his head and turned to glare at Denise, who was dusting herself down in the doorway to his office. Incredibly, she looked pleased with herself
‘I tried to hold him in,’ she said proudly.
‘Yeah,’ said Strike, exercising considerable self-restraint. ‘I saw.’
‘The police are on their way.’
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘No,’ he said through gritted teeth.
‘Then I think I’ll go and freshen up the bathroom,’ she said, adding in a whisper, ‘I don’t think he used the flush.’
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