Chelsea Court Mews
Henrietta Fox parted the crowding pressmen with a twist of the throttle handle. Her motorbike revved wildly and she jumped it up the kerb, hoping she wasn’t too late.
Weaving across the wet pavement she dodged the reporters with a regal, one-finger salute. The exhaust rasped back from the walls of the mews. She killed the engine and slid off the black and chrome bike, chaining it against the railings. With a cable she locked up the matt-black skid-lid helmet.
Steam sizzled when raindrops splashed the hot exhaust. The rain stained her chocolate-brown leathers into darkening patches. In the iron-grey drizzle sweeping London, under chromium skies, she stood outside number eleven Chelsea Court Mews, the home of Marie Montague. It was a white-painted, terraced house on two floors with an integral garage. The modest windows had decorative iron grills. Square cement pots, planted with spiky miniature conifers, prevented parking.
Marie Montague´s pregnancy was headline news and the cul de sac was full of reporters and camera crews sheltering under macs and umbrellas. The paparazzo shouldered her way to the front, the leather strap of her big, digital Nikon swinging loose, pulling at her hair. She dragged it free with a sweep of her hand, flicking the tails of her wet curls into the face of a diminutive, wiry paparazzo. He stood engulfed in a shiny, grey cagoule scanning from the front door to the curtains in the way that a waif watches a cream cake in a shop window.
“What’s the score, Chaz? Who you on for?”
The cockney cameraman shook his head, scattering spray. “I’ve been ’ere overnight for the Express and the Telegraph. Milkman’s bin but she ain’t collected it. Gotta come out sometime.”
The rain slithered down his plastic hood, dripping into puddles at his feet.
“That cagoule of yours is a bit ripe, Chaz. Smells like a farmyard.”
He sniffed at his rubber sleeve. “Shouldn’t do. I keeps it in me wellies. You don’t think it’s a buy-up, do you? Has she sold out to somebody?”
Henrietta warned. “Look out, here comes someone.”
Chaz’s hand dropped to his camera, wrapped in a polythene bag against the drizzle. A smiling young man in a bomber jacket hurried from a cab. He carried two silvered aluminium cases of studio cameras. His three companions spilled out to follow. A middle-aged woman hefted a crocodile-skin box of cosmetics. A taller, thin man carried hair dryers and shampoos and the third toted two, matt-black tripods. The leader paused. “Hello, Henri. How you doing, babe?” He smiled his sweetest smile, exposing a row of gleaming teeth.
Henrietta spat out. “Michael Goldenballs Brown! Friend of the Stars. Why you, Michael? Why doesn’t she just come out and pose for us all? Only take her a minute.”
Michael Brown preened, cocking his head. “What? And do me out of a world exclusive and a fat fee? You must be joking, Foxy. She’s getting a million bucks for this session. Front cover of Hiya! magazine and fifteen pages inside. Not bad for ten minutes of rumpy pumpy, eh? Must go. The lady awaits.”
He lowered his voice. “I still want to have dinner with you, babe. How about it? Can I ring you?”
Henrietta slapped his arm. “Sure, Michael. Get your wife to make an appointment.”
The celebrity photographer pushed open the door and disappeared inside the house. The rain was now staining her carrot-red hair auburn. She turned to Chaz. “Is it worth a million? That’s what he says she’s getting.”
The pap snorted. “She’s hot, Henri. Saying Marcus Barclay’s the father. That’s what’s going to make her fortune.”
She said. “The door’s unlocked. Brown just went straight in.”
Chaz said. “She won’t come out now. To get her million she’s got to stay out of our sight and there ain’t no minders here–.”
An hysterical, high-pitched scream, strangled quickly into a sob, paralysed the onlookers at the star’s door. The crowd on the street were stunned, the press pack transfixed on the pavement, frozen still and gaping at the house. Henrietta reacted first. “What the hell was that? That was a woman! What’s going on in there, for pity’s sake?”
The front door crashed back on its hinges and the magazine crew scattered back out, stumbling onto the short pathway to the house, the woman sobbing. The crowd surged forward, a babble of questions, all talking at once. The celebrity photographer’s sepulchral face was drawn and gaunt. He stuttered out to anybody who would listen.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!”
He paced the pavement at the open door, his hands cradling his head. Henrietta stopped him, gripping his arm, holding him. “Michael! What’s wrong? What is it?”
He stared into her eyes, pleading with her to understand. “She’s dead, Henri! She’s dead! In there...” He pointed into the blackness of the open doorway, too shocked to move.
“Who’s dead? Who?”
“HER!” the photographer blurted out. “Marie Montague. She’s been stabbed…in there. Oh, God. She’s been stabbed through the eyes! Through the EYES!”
Henrietta shook Michael Brown, holding his jacket lapels in both fists, trying to engage his blank stare. “Calm down, Michael. Are you sure she’s dead? How do you know she is?”
He exhaled deeply, staring without seeing her. “I’m telling you, she’s dead. We must call the police.”
His woman assistant sat on the kerbside crying quietly and he moved away to comfort her. Henrietta Fox, the rain spattering her face, slipped inside and shut the door. Michael Brown spoke on his cell phone, stuttering out his story to the police. She crossed the narrow, dimly lit passageway and smelled furniture polish mixed with the mustier smell of damp plaster on the old walls.
Marie Montague was sprawled on her back in the centre of the stone-flagged kitchen floor, her arms outstretched like an angel, touching the plinths of the carved-oak units. She wore a green and white cotton dress that rode up, exposing one thigh. Her blonde hair, soaked with blood, was congealing into a dark brown matting under her head.
Her face was covered in rivulets of blood, grotesque in her death throes, both eye sockets filled with it. The beauty of their piercing blueness was gone forever. Henrietta closed her own eyes for a long moment. She felt like an intruder in a graveyard and tried to control her heartbeat. In a mirror she caught sight of her grey face lined in harsh relief by the fluorescent tube in the kitchen and remembered an engraving of Burke and Hare.
She looked for a weapon, but could see none then the wail of a police siren from the street spurred her on. She focused the big Nikon on Marie Montague´s body, pulling back to get it all in the frame, firing on single shot. The electronic flash pops sounded like grenades in the silence of the tiny house.
The starkly illuminated death mask of the star, zoomed boldly in her viewfinder, made her blink with every frame. She thought she could smell the blood but maybe it was just her imagination running wild. She tried to control an urge to retch. The way to deal with a nightmare is to keep working, she told herself. Keep working! Shoot, Henri. Don’t stop. Then she was moving quickly towards the front door again, trying to keep her panic under control. She was never more pleased in her life to see daylight as the door swung wide.
She smelled the damp, acrid streets once more, feeling the fine needle rain sharp on her face. As she cleared the doorway she was halted by a cry.
“FOX! Stop right there!”
Guy Royce headed a clutch of policemen striding towards her.