Sneak Preview of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ (Secretly Written by J.K Rowling)

Pro­logue            68813_495762773837687_1167583344_n

The buzz in the street was like the hum­ming of flies. Pho­tog­ra­phers stood massed be­hind bar­ri­ers pa­trolled by po­lice, their long-snout­ed cam­eras poised, their breath ris­ing like steam. Snow fell steadi­ly on to hats and shoul­ders; gloved fin­gers wiped lens­es clear. From time to time there came out­breaks of desul­to­ry click­ing, as the watch­ers filled the wait­ing time by snap­ping the white can­vas tent in the mid­dle of the road, the en­trance to the tall red-brick apart­ment block be­hind it, and the bal­cony on the top floor from which the body had fall­en.

Be­hind the tight­ly packed pa­parazzi stood white vans with enor­mous satel­lite dish­es on the roofs, and jour­nal­ists talk­ing, some in for­eign lan­guages, while sound­men in head­phones hov­ered. Be­tween record­ings, the re­porters stamped their feet and warmed their hands on hot beakers of cof­fee from the teem­ing café a few streets away. To fill the time, the wool­ly-hat­ted cam­er­a­men filmed the backs of the pho­tog­ra­phers, the bal­cony, the tent con­ceal­ing the body, then repo­si­tioned them­selves for wide shots that en­com­passed the chaos that had ex­plod­ed in­side the se­date and snowy May­fair street, with its lines of glossy black doors framed by white stone por­ti­cos and flanked by top­i­ary shrubs. The en­trance to num­ber 18 was bound­ed with tape. Po­lice of­fi­cials, some of them white-clothed foren­sic ex­perts, could be glimpsed in the hall­way be­yond.

The tele­vi­sion sta­tions had al­ready had the news for sev­er­al hours. Mem­bers of the pub­lic were crowd­ing at ei­ther end of the road, held at bay by more po­lice; some had come, on pur­pose, to look, oth­ers had paused on their way to work. Many held mo­bile tele­phones aloft to take pic­tures be­fore mov­ing on. One young man, not know­ing which was the cru­cial bal­cony, pho­tographed each of them in turn, even though the mid­dle one was packed with a row of shrubs, three neat, leafy orbs, which bare­ly left room for a human being.

A group of young girls had brought flow­ers, and were filmed hand­ing them to the po­lice, who as yet had not de­cid­ed on a place for them, but laid them self-con­scious­ly in the back of the po­lice van, aware of cam­era lens­es fol­low­ing their every move.

The cor­re­spon­dents sent by twen­ty-four-hour news chan­nels kept up a steady stream of com­ment and spec­u­la­tion around the few sen­sa­tion­al facts they knew.

‘… from her pent­house apart­ment at around two o’clock this morn­ing. Po­lice were alert­ed by the build­ing’s se­cu­ri­ty guard…⁠’

‘… no sign yet that they are mov­ing the body, which has led some to spec­u­late…⁠’

‘… no word on whether she was alone when she fell…⁠’

‘… teams have en­tered the build­ing and will be con­duct­ing a thor­ough search.’

A chilly light filled the in­te­ri­or of the tent. Two men were crouch­ing be­side the body, ready to move it, at last, into a body bag. Her head had bled a lit­tle into the snow. The face was crushed and swollen, one eye re­duced to a puck­er, the other show­ing as a sliv­er of dull white be­tween dis­tend­ed lids. When the se­quinned top she wore glit­tered in slight changes of light, it gave a dis­qui­et­ing im­pres­sion of move­ment, as though she breathed again, or was tens­ing mus­cles, ready to rise. The snow fell with soft fin­ger­tip plunks on the can­vas over­head.

‘Where’s the bloody am­bu­lance?’

De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Roy Carv­er’s tem­per was mount­ing. A paunchy man with a face the colour of corned beef, whose shirts were usu­al­ly ringed with sweat around the armpits, his short sup­ply of pa­tience had been ex­haust­ed hours ago. He had been here near­ly as long as the corpse; his feet were so cold that he could no longer feel them, and he was light-head­ed with hunger.

‘Am­bu­lance is two min­utes away,’ said De­tec­tive Sergeant Eric War­dle, un­in­ten­tion­al­ly an­swer­ing his su­pe­ri­or’s ques­tion as he en­tered the tent with his mo­bile pressed to his ear. ‘Just been or­gan­is­ing a space for it.’

Carv­er grunt­ed. His bad tem­per was ex­ac­er­bat­ed by the con­vic­tion that War­dle was ex­cit­ed by the pres­ence of the pho­tog­ra­phers. Boy­ish­ly good-look­ing, with thick, wavy brown hair now frost­ed with snow, War­dle had, in Carv­er’s opin­ion, daw­dled on their few for­ays out­side the tent.

‘At least that lot’ll shift once the body’s gone,’ said War­dle, still look­ing out at the pho­tog­ra­phers.

‘They won’t go while we’re still treat­ing the place like a fuck­ing mur­der scene,’ snapped Carv­er.

War­dle did not an­swer the un­spo­ken chal­lenge. Carv­er ex­plod­ed any­way.

‘The poor cow jumped. There was no one else there. Your so-called wit­ness was coked out of her—’

‘It’s com­ing,’ said War­dle, and to Carv­er’s dis­gust, he slipped back out of the tent, to wait for the am­bu­lance in full sight of the cam­eras.

The story forced news of pol­i­tics, wars and dis­as­ters aside, and every ver­sion of it sparkled with pic­tures of the dead woman’s flaw­less face, her lithe and sculpt­ed body. With­in hours, the few known facts had spread like a virus to mil­lions: the pub­lic row with the fa­mous boyfriend, the jour­ney home alone, the over­heard scream­ing and the final, fatal fall…

The boyfriend fled into a rehab fa­cil­i­ty, but the po­lice re­mained in­scrutable; those who had been with her on the evening be­fore her death were hound­ed; thou­sands of columns of newsprint were filled, and hours of tele­vi­sion news, and the woman who swore she had over­heard a sec­ond ar­gu­ment mo­ments be­fore the body fell be­came briefly fa­mous too, and was award­ed small­er-sized pho­tographs be­side the im­ages of the beau­ti­ful dead girl.

But then, to an al­most au­di­ble groan of dis­ap­point­ment, the wit­ness was proven to have lied, and she re­treat­ed into rehab, and the fa­mous prime sus­pect emerged, as the man and the lady in a weath­er-house who can never be out­side at the same time.

So it was sui­cide after all, and after a mo­ment’s stunned hia­tus, the story gained a weak sec­ond wind. They wrote that she was un­bal­anced, un­sta­ble, un­suit­ed to the su­per­star­dom her wild­ness and her beau­ty had snared; that she had moved among an im­moral mon­eyed class that had cor­rupt­ed her; that the deca­dence of her new life had un­hinged an al­ready frag­ile per­son­al­i­ty. She be­came a moral­i­ty tale stiff with Schaden­freude, and so many colum­nists made al­lu­sion to Icarus that Pri­vate Eye ran a spe­cial col­umn.

And then, at last, the fren­zy wore it­self into stal­e­ness, and even the jour­nal­ists had noth­ing left to say, but that too much had been said al­ready.

 

Three Months Later

Part One

 Nam in omni ad­ver­si­tate for­tu­nae in­fe­li­cis­si­mum est genus in­for­tu­nii, fuisse fe­licem.

For in every ill-turn of for­tune

the most un­hap­py sort of un­for­tu­nate man

is the one who has been happy.

Boethius, De Con­so­la­tione Philosophi­ae

Though Robin El­la­cott’s twen­ty-five years of life had seen their mo­ments of drama and in­ci­dent, she had never be­fore woken up in the cer­tain knowl­edge that she would re­mem­ber the com­ing day for as long as she lived.

Short­ly after mid­night, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, had pro­posed to her under the stat­ue of Eros in the mid­dle of Pic­cadil­ly Cir­cus. In the giddy re­lief fol­low­ing her ac­cep­tance, he con­fessed that he had been plan­ning to pop the ques­tion in the Thai restau­rant where they just had eaten din­ner, but that he had reck­oned with­out the silent cou­ple be­side them, who had eaves­dropped on their en­tire con­ver­sa­tion. He had there­fore sug­gest­ed a walk through the dark­en­ing streets, in spite of Robin’s protests that they both need­ed to be up early, and fi­nal­ly in­spi­ra­tion had seized him, and he had led her, be­wil­dered, to the steps of the stat­ue. There, fling­ing dis­cre­tion to the chilly wind (in a most un-Matthew-like way), he had pro­posed, on one knee, in front of three down-and-outs hud­dled on the steps, shar­ing what looked like a bot­tle of meths.

It had been, in Robin’s view, the most per­fect pro­pos­al, ever, in the his­to­ry of mat­ri­mo­ny. He had even had a ring in his pock­et, which she was now wear­ing; a sap­phire with two di­a­monds, it fit­ted per­fect­ly, and all the way into town she kept star­ing at it on her hand as it rest­ed on her lap. She and Matthew had a story to tell now, a funny fam­i­ly story, the kind you told your chil­dren, in which his plan­ning (she loved that he had planned it) went awry, and turned into some­thing spon­ta­neous. She loved the tramps, and the moon, and Matthew, pan­icky and flus­tered, on one knee; she loved Eros, and dirty old Pic­cadil­ly, and the black

cab they had taken home to Clapham. She was, in fact, not far off lov­ing the whole of Lon­don, which she had not so far warmed to, dur­ing the month she had lived there. Even the pale and pug­na­cious com­muters squashed into the Tube car­riage around her were gild­ed by the ra­di­ance of the ring, and as she emerged into the chilly March day­light at Tot­ten­ham Court Road un­der­ground sta­tion, she stroked the un­der­side of the plat­inum band with her thumb, and ex­pe­ri­enced an ex­plo­sion of hap­pi­ness at the thought that she might buy some bridal mag­a­zines at lunchtime.

Male eyes lin­gered on her as she picked her way through the road­works at the top of Ox­ford Street, con­sult­ing a piece of paper in her right hand. Robin was, by any stan­dards, a pret­ty girl; tall and cur­va­ceous, with long straw­ber­ry-blonde hair that rip­pled as she strode briskly along, the chill air adding colour to her pale cheeks. This was the first day of a week-long sec­re­tar­i­al as­sign­ment. She had been temp­ing ever since com­ing to live with Matthew in Lon­don, though not for much longer; she had what she termed ‘prop­er’ in­ter­views lined up now.

The most chal­leng­ing part of these unin­spir­ing piece­meal jobs was often find­ing the of­fices. Lon­don, after the small town in York­shire she had left, felt vast, com­plex and im­pen­e­tra­ble. Matthew had told her not to walk around with her nose in an A–Z, which would make her look like a tourist and ren­der her vul­ner­a­ble; she there­fore re­lied, as often as not, on poor­ly hand-drawn maps that some­body at the temp­ing agen­cy had made for her. She was not con­vinced that this made her look more like a na­tive-born Lon­don­er.

The metal bar­ri­cades and the blue plas­tic Corimec walls sur­round­ing the road­works made it much hard­er to see where she ought to be going, be­cause they ob­scured half the land­marks drawn on the paper in her hand. She crossed the torn-up road in front of a tow­er­ing of­fice block, la­belled ‘Cen­tre Point’ on her map, which re­sem­bled a gi­gan­tic con­crete waf­fle with its dense grid of uni­form square win­dows, and made her way in the rough di­rec­tion of Den­mark Street.

She found it al­most ac­ci­den­tal­ly, fol­low­ing a nar­row al­ley­way called Den­mark Place out into a short street full of colour­ful shopfronts: win­dows full of gui­tars, key­boards and every kind of mu­si­cal ephemera. Red and white bar­ri­cades sur­round­ed an­oth­er open hole in the road, and work­men in flu­o­res­cent jack­ets greet­ed her with ear­ly-morn­ing wolf-whis­tles, which Robin pre­tend­ed not to hear.

She con­sult­ed her watch. Hav­ing al­lowed her usual mar­gin of time for get­ting lost, she was a quar­ter of an hour early. The non­de­script black-paint­ed door­way of the of­fice she sought stood to the left of the 12 Bar Café; the name of the oc­cu­pant of the of­fice was writ­ten on a scrap­py piece of lined paper Sel­l­otaped be­side the buzzer for the sec­ond floor. On an or­di­nary day, with­out the brand-new ring glit­ter­ing upon her fin­ger, she might have found this off-putting; today, how­ev­er, the dirty paper and the peel­ing paint on the door were, like the tramps from last night, mere pic­turesque de­tails on the back­drop of her grand ro­mance. She checked her watch again (the sap­phire glit­tered and her heart leapt; she would watch that stone glit­ter all the rest of her life), then de­cid­ed, in a burst of eu­pho­ria, to go up early and show her­self keen for a job that did not mat­ter in the slight­est.

She had just reached for the bell when the black door flew open from the in­side, and a woman burst out on to the street. For one strange­ly stat­ic sec­ond the two of them looked di­rect­ly into each other’s eyes, as each braced to with­stand a col­li­sion. Robin’s sens­es were un­usu­al­ly re­cep­tive on this en­chant­ed morn­ing; the split-sec­ond view of that white face made such an im­pres­sion on her that she thought, mo­ments later, when they had man­aged to dodge each other, miss­ing con­tact by a cen­time­tre, after the dark woman had hur­ried off down the street, around the cor­ner and out of sight, that she could have drawn her per­fect­ly from mem­o­ry. It was not mere­ly the ex­traor­di­nary beau­ty of the face that had im­pressed it­self on her mem­o­ry, but the other’s ex­pres­sion: livid, yet strange­ly ex­hil­a­rat­ed.

Robin caught the door be­fore it closed on the dingy stair­well. An old-fash­ioned metal stair­case spi­ralled up around an equal­ly an­ti­quat­ed bird­cage lift. Con­cen­trat­ing on keep­ing her high heels from catch­ing in the met­al­work stairs, she pro­ceed­ed to the first land­ing, pass­ing a door car­ry­ing a lam­i­nat­ed and framed poster say­ing Crowdy Graph­ics, and con­tin­ued climb­ing. It was only when she reached the glass door on the floor above that Robin re­alised, for the first time, what kind of busi­ness she had been sent to as­sist. No­body at the agen­cy had said. The name on the paper be­side the out­side buzzer was en­graved on the glass panel: C. B. Strike, and, un­der­neath it, the words Pri­vate De­tec­tive.

Robin stood quite still, with her mouth slight­ly open, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a mo­ment of won­der that no­body who knew her could have un­der­stood. She had never con­fid­ed in a soli­tary human being (even Matthew) her life­long, se­cret, child­ish am­bi­tion. For this to hap­pen today, of all days! It felt like a wink from God (and this too she some­how con­nect­ed with the magic of the day; with Matthew, and the ring; even though, prop­er­ly con­sid­ered, they had no con­nec­tion at all).

Savour­ing the mo­ment, she ap­proached the en­graved door very slow­ly. She stretched out her left hand (sap­phire dark, now, in this dim light) to­wards the han­dle; but be­fore she had touched it, the glass door too flew open.

This time, there was no near-miss. Six­teen un­see­ing stone of di­shev­elled male slammed into her; Robin was knocked off her feet and cat­a­pult­ed back­wards, hand­bag fly­ing, arms wind­milling, to­wards the void be­yond the lethal stair­case.

Strike ab­sorbed the im­pact, heard the high-pitched scream and re­act­ed in­stinc­tive­ly: throw­ing out a long arm, he seized a fist­ful of cloth and flesh; a sec­ond shriek of pain echoed around the stone walls and then, with a wrench and a tus­sle, he had suc­ceed­ed in drag­ging the girl back on to firm ground. Her shrieks were still echo­ing off the walls, and he re­alised that he him­self had bel­lowed, ‘Jesus Christ!’

The girl was dou­bled up in pain against the of­fice door, whim­per­ing. Judg­ing by the lop­sid­ed way she was hunched, with one hand buried deep under the lapel of her coat, Strike de­duced that he had saved her by grab­bing a sub­stan­tial part of her left breast. A thick, wavy cur­tain of bright blonde hair hid most of the girl’s blush­ing face, but Strike could see tears of pain leak­ing out of one un­cov­ered eye.

‘Fuck – sorry!’ His loud voice re­ver­ber­at­ed around the stair­well. ‘I didn’t see you – didn’t ex­pect any­one to be there…⁠’

From under their feet, the strange and soli­tary graph­ic de­sign­er who in­hab­it­ed the of­fice below yelled, ‘What’s hap­pen­ing up there?’ and a sec­ond later, a muf­fled com­plaint from above in­di­cat­ed that the man­ag­er of the bar down­stairs, who slept in an attic flat over Strike’s of­fice, had also been dis­turbed – per­haps woken – by the noise.

‘Come in here…⁠’

Strike pushed open the door with his fin­ger­tips, so as to have no ac­ci­den­tal con­tact with her while she stood hud­dled against it, and ush­ered her into the of­fice.

‘Is ev­ery­thing all right?’ called the graph­ic de­sign­er queru­lous­ly.

Strike slammed the of­fice door be­hind him.

‘I’m OK,’ lied Robin, in a qua­ver­ing voice, still hunched over with her hand on her chest, her back to him. After a sec­ond or two, she straight­ened up and turned around, her face scar­let and her eyes still wet.

Her ac­ci­den­tal as­sailant was mas­sive; his height, his gen­er­al hairi­ness, cou­pled with a gen­tly ex­pand­ing belly, sug­gest­ed a griz­zly bear. One of his eyes was puffy and bruised, the skin just below the eye­brow cut. Con­geal­ing blood sat in raised white-edged nail tracks on his left cheek and the right side of his thick neck, re­vealed by the crum­pled open col­lar of his shirt.

‘Are you M-Mr Strike?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I-I’m the temp.’

‘The what?’

‘The temp. From Tem­po­rary So­lu­tions?’

The name of the agen­cy did not wipe the in­cred­u­lous look from his bat­tered face. They stared at each other, un­nerved and an­tag­o­nis­tic.

Just like Robin, Cor­moran Strike knew that he would for­ev­er re­mem­ber the last twelve hours as an epoch-chang­ing night in his life. Now, it seemed, the Fates had sent an emis­sary in a neat beige trench coat, to taunt him with the fact that his life was bub­bling to­wards catas­tro­phe. There was not sup­posed to be a temp. He had in­tend­ed his dis­missal of Robin’s pre­de­ces­sor to end his con­tract.

‘How long have they sent you for?’

‘A-a week to begin with,’ said Robin, who had never been greet­ed with such a lack of en­thu­si­asm.

Strike made a rapid men­tal cal­cu­la­tion. A week at the agen­cy’s ex­or­bi­tant rate would drive his over­draft yet fur­ther into the re­gion of ir­repara­ble; it might even be the final straw his main cred­i­tor kept im­ply­ing he was wait­ing for.

‘’Scuse me a mo­ment.’

He left the room via the glass door, and turned im­me­di­ate­ly right, into a tiny dank toi­let. Here he bolt­ed the door, and stared into the cracked, spot­ted mir­ror over the sink.

The re­flec­tion star­ing back at him was not hand­some. Strike had the high, bulging fore­head, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to box­ing, an im­pres­sion only height­ened by the swelling and black­en­ing eye. His thick curly hair, springy as car­pet, had en­sured that his many youth­ful nick­names had in­clud­ed ‘Pube­head’. He looked older than his thir­ty-five years.

Ram­ming the plug into the hole, he filled the cracked and grub­by sink with cold water, took a deep breath and com­plete­ly sub­merged his throb­bing head. Dis­placed water slopped over his shoes, but he ig­nored it for the re­lief of ten sec­onds of icy, blind still­ness.

Dis­parate im­ages of the pre­vi­ous night flick­ered through his mind: emp­ty­ing three draw­ers of pos­ses­sions into a kit­bag while Char­lotte screamed at him; the ash­tray catch­ing him on the brow-bone as he looked back at her from the door; the jour­ney on foot across the dark city to his of­fice, where he had slept for an hour or two in his desk chair. Then the final, filthy scene, after Char­lotte had tracked him down in the early hours, to plunge in those last fewban­der­il­las she had failed to im­plant be­fore he had left her flat; his res­o­lu­tion to let her go when, after claw­ing his face, she had run out of the door; and then that mo­ment of mad­ness when he had plunged after her – a pur­suit ended as quick­ly as it had begun, with the un­wit­ting in­ter­ven­tion of this heed­less, su­per­flu­ous girl, whom he had been forced to save, and then pla­cate.

He emerged from the cold water with a gasp and a grunt, his face and head pleas­ant­ly numb and tin­gling. With the card­board-tex­tured towel that hung on the back of the door he rubbed him­self dry and stared again at his grim re­flec­tion. The scratch­es, washed clean of blood, looked like noth­ing more than the im­pres­sions of a crum­pled pil­low. Char­lotte would have reached the un­der­ground by now. One of the in­sane thoughts that had pro­pelled him after her had been fear that she would throw her­self on the tracks. Once, after a par­tic­u­lar­ly vi­cious row in their mid-twen­ties, she had climbed on to a rooftop, where she had swayed drunk­en­ly, vow­ing to jump. Per­haps he ought to be glad that the Tem­po­rary So­lu­tion had forced him to aban­don the chase. There could be no going back from the scene in the early hours of this morn­ing. This time, it had to be over.

Tug­ging his sod­den col­lar away from his neck, Strike pulled back the rusty bolt and head­ed out of the toi­let and back through the glass door.

A pneu­mat­ic drill had start­ed up in the street out­side. Robin was stand­ing in front of the desk with her back to the door; she whipped her hand back out of the front of her coat as he re-en­tered the room, and he knew that she had been mas­sag­ing her breast again.

‘Is – are you all right?’ Strike asked, care­ful­ly not look­ing at the site of the in­jury.

‘I’m fine. Lis­ten, if you don’t need me, I’ll go,’ said Robin with dig­ni­ty.

‘No – no, not at all,’ said a voice is­su­ing from Strike’s mouth, though he lis­tened to it with dis­gust. ‘A week – yeah, that’ll be fine. Er – the post’s here…⁠’ He scooped it from the door­mat as he spoke and scat­tered it on the bare desk in front of her, a pro­pi­tia­to­ry of­fer­ing. ‘Yeah, if you could open that, an­swer the phone, gen­er­al­ly sort of tidy up – com­put­er pass­word’s Hather­il­l23, I’ll write it down…⁠’ This he did, under her wary, doubt­ful gaze. ‘There you go – I’ll be in here.’

He strode into the inner of­fice, closed the door care­ful­ly be­hind him and then stood quite

still, gaz­ing at the kit­bag under the bare desk. It con­tained ev­ery­thing he owned, for he doubt­ed that he would ever see again the nine tenths of his pos­ses­sions he had left at Char­lotte’s. They would prob­a­bly be gone by lunchtime; set on fire, dumped in the street, slashed and crushed, doused in bleach. The drill ham­mered re­lent­less­ly in the street below.

And now the im­pos­si­bil­i­ty of pay­ing off his moun­tain­ous debts, the ap­palling con­se­quences that would at­tend the im­mi­nent fail­ure of this busi­ness, the loom­ing, un­known but in­evitably hor­ri­ble se­quel to his leav­ing Char­lotte; in Strike’s ex­haus­tion, the mis­ery of it all seemed to rear up in front of him in a kind of kalei­do­scope of hor­ror.

Hard­ly aware that he had moved, he found him­self back in the chair in which he had spent the lat­ter part of the night. From the other side of the in­sub­stan­tial par­ti­tion wall came muf­fled sounds of move­ment. The Tem­po­rary So­lu­tion was no doubt start­ing up the com­put­er, and would short­ly dis­cov­er that he had not re­ceived a sin­gle work-re­lat­ed email in three weeks. Then, at his own re­quest, she would start open­ing all his final de­mands. Ex­haust­ed, sore and hun­gry, Strike slid face down on to the desk again, muf­fling his eyes and ears in his en­cir­cling arms, so that he did not have to lis­ten while his hu­mil­i­a­tion was laid bare next door by a stranger.

The Book releases at a Crossword store near you on 5th August.

Pre book it on www.crossword.in at Flat 25% off

Price: Rs 599

Signing off for now

 

Until next time Geeks.

  

Happy Reading!

 

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