A DARK WHITE FOG hung over the canal and spread out through the bare branches of the trees that lined its banks to blanket the tall terraces of houses beyond and creep away down the side streets.
Detective Inspector Kathy Kolla and Detective Sergeant Mickey Schaeffer paused for a moment on the bridge, taking in the scene below: the dark boats moored along the towpath like a line of ghostly coffins fading into the gloom; the pulse of lights from an ambulance on the street beyond the trees; the huddle of figures beside one of the boats, their voices muffled by the fog. Kathy and Schaeffer made their way to the stone steps and went carefully down to the quay, where they were met by a Paddington Criminal Investigation Department detective, Detective Constable Judd. He was apologetic. "False alarm it seems. Accidental death. No need to bother you lot."
Kathy glanced at a middle-aged man in a tracksuit sitting hunched on a bench further along the towpath with a uniformed police officer and an ambulance man bending over him.
"Guy from the next boat, Howard Stapleton, made a triple-nine call at six twenty this morning to report finding the body of Vicky Hawke in her boat here on the Ha'penny Bridge reach of the canal. Ms. Hawke lived alone apparently. No suspicious circumstances."
Judd led the way to the stern of the second boat of the line, on whose dark green flank the name Grace was painted in ornate gold and scarlet letters.
"There's been a small crime wave along the canal recently," Judd explained as they stepped aboard. "Burglaries, muggings, a stabbing, a couple of arson attacks, and we've been under pressure to do something about it, so when the report came in of a suspicious death someone pressed the panic button and called Homicide. Watch your head."
They ducked through the doorway and descended a short flight of steps into a low-ceilinged living space sparsely furnished with a built-in couch and a threadbare armchair.
"Narrow, isn't it?"
Judd nodded. "That's why they're called narrowboats. Just two meters wide, maybe twenty long."
The claustrophobic effect was exaggerated by the fact that the upper part of the side walls, punctured by a few small windows, tilted inward.
Kathy sniffed the air and coughed, tasting acrid fumes.
"Yeah, that's what did it. Pathologist's with her now."
They moved on down the boat, through a confined galley, past a tightly planned bathroom and closet, and came to the bedroom at the bow, where the forensic pathologist was packing up his bag at the end of a bed on which a young woman in a nightdress was curled up as if fast asleep. The three detectives squeezed into the confined space and stared down at her, taking in the bright pink complexion, the impression of deep untroubled rest. Kathy introduced herself and Mickey: "Homicide and Serious Crime."
The pathologist gave her his card. "Not likely to be of interest to you, I think. She passed away peacefully in her sleep some time in the early hours. I believe tests will confirm carbon-monoxide poisoning."
"She looks so healthy," Kathy said.
"That's what carbon monoxide does, turns the hemoglobin cherry red."
She would be in her mid-twenties, Kathy guessed, a plain face with a slight frown of concentration that made her look studious. Her body appeared unblemished apart from a sticking plaster on her right hand. On a small shelf beside the bed lay a pair of glasses and a book, David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.
"Not as common as it used to be," the doctor went on. "Modern cars with their catalytic converters don't produce much carbon monoxide any more, so the old way with a hosepipe from the exhaust isn't so effective. Unlike that old beast." He nodded over his shoulder at a squat little stove in the corner of the room with a metal flue up to the ceiling.
"Diesel," Judd said, pointing out the black smears made by gases leaking from joints in the flue. "She closed all the windows and blocked off the ventilators to keep the cold out, left the heater on and took some sleeping pills." He indicated an empty foil and glass of water.
"Nothing to suggest it," the doctor said. "Careless or incompetent, I'd say."
The face on the pillow didn't strike Kathy as either, but how could she know?
Judd shrugged. "No note." His phone rang and he listened for a moment. "Yeah, yeah, okay, boss." He rammed it back in his pocket and muttered, "Fuck."
"Yeah, I'm wanted."
"That's all right," Kathy said. "We'll follow up here."
"Thanks, I'd appreciate it. I've called for a photographer and more uniforms to go door to door. I didn't ask for SOCOs, given the FP's assessment."
"Right. Give me your number." She took it down and he left with the pathologist. Kathy put on latex gloves and went back through the boat, opening closets, the bathroom cabinet, kitchen drawers. The woman seemed to have few possessions, all of them neatly stowed away, surfaces clean. Kathy saw only one thing that wasn't strictly utilitarian, a framed print on the wall of a rather sinister-looking black bird. She felt as if she were intruding on a completely unfamiliar life. What sort of people lived like this, nomads afloat in the heart of the city? She had encountered the Regent's Canal on another case, a missing girl whose mother had drowned in the canal farther east from here, but this was the first time she'd been inside a canal boat. There was something of the submarine about it, the long tube low in the water, something surreptitious and stealthy.
When they reached the stern door again, Kathy turned to Mickey, who was thumbing through a copy of the previous day's paper, the Guardian. "She got the crossword out. Not dumb then."
"Where's her handbag?" Kathy asked. "Her phone, laptop? Take another look, Mickey, while I speak to the neighbor."
On the way out she checked the lock, seeing no sign of tampering, then maneuvered around the tiller and stepped down onto the towpath, again noticing the elaborate lettering on the boat. It seemed to evoke the spirit of old-fashioned fairgrounds and circuses, of antique gypsy caravans setting off along dusty highways. From here the Regent's Canal led eastward to the Thames and west to the Grand Union Canal, which continued north to the Midlands, and from there to a thousand branches into the most remote corners of the country, and Kathy felt a momentary pang of envy for the life of freedom which that curlicued name promised.
The uniformed PC was still with the witness, and they had been joined by a woman wearing a padded jacket against the damp chill. Kathy went over to them, showing them her police ID.
The woman constable said, "Police Constable Watts, ma'am. Mr. Stapleton here was the one who found Ms. Hawke."
He didn't look well, face pale, a large dressing on his forehead.
"You're hurt, Mr. Stapleton?"
"It's nothing. Bumped my head on the door frame coming out of Vicky's boat. Not looking. In shock, you see, after finding her."
He was trembling, and the other woman put an arm around his shoulder and said, "I'm Molly Stapleton, his wife."
"It's cold," Kathy said. "Go back to your boat and get warm. I'll come and see you in a moment. Maybe make your husband a cup of tea, Molly?"
As they turned to go Kathy drew the constable aside. "What did he tell you?"
"Not much. He's pretty shaken up. I tried to get him to go back to his boat, but he insisted on waiting to speak to you. I asked him for details of the dead woman's family, but he doesn't know."
The name on the Stapletons' boat was Roaming Free, and on its roof were a small herb garden, a stack of sawn logs, a pair of solar panels, and a TV aerial. Kathy knocked on the rear door and went down into a snug living room. Howard Stapleton was sitting in one of the plump armchairs, his wife visible over a counter in the galley at the far end of the room, and beyond that Kathy could make out a bay set up as a small office, with a computer and printer. The boat was filled with possessions--pictures hanging on the freshly varnished timber walls, floral curtains bunched around the portholes, china ornaments on shelves, magazines in racks, flowers in small vases--as if all the creature comforts of a family home had been crammed into the confined space. In its cheerful busyness it made Vicky Hawke's boat seem even more spartan and threadbare.
Stapleton made to rise to his feet, but when Kathy told him not to get up he sank back into the cushions with a sigh. His chair was facing a blazing wood-fired stove with a stainless-steel flue.
"You'll have a cup of tea, Inspector?" Molly Stapleton called from the galley. Her accent was Yorkshire, voice brisk.
"Howard's not very well. The ambulance man said he may be concussed."
"I'm all right," her husband grunted, though his face looked as gray as his hair. "Stupid mistake."
"Do you feel well enough to tell me what happened this morning?" Kathy asked.
"Yes, yes, of course. I got up as usual at six for my run with Vicky--we've been doing that for a few weeks now. She's usually limbering up on the towpath when I emerge, but not this morning. I tapped on her window but got no response. I couldn't see in, and I noticed that the windows were steamed up."
He paused and took a deep breath as his wife came out of the galley with a tray of mugs. His speech was fastidious, almost pedantic. A retired headmaster? Lawyer?
"Um, anyway, I went to her stern door and knocked, still nothing, so I opened it to make sure she was all right."
"The door was unlocked?"
"No, no. Vicky had given me a key."
Kathy saw Molly's hand hesitate for a moment as she raised her mug.
"For emergencies," Howard added. "We're a pretty supportive community, we narrowboaters, look out for each other."
The explanation was too insistent, and Kathy noticed a frown pass briefly across Molly's face. "Go on."
"Well, I opened the door to call to her, but immediately the smell hit me, the fumes. It was awful. I called out and panicked a bit when there was no reply. So I held a handkerchief to my face and ran down the length of the boat looking for her and found her in the bedroom. I threw the bow doors open and made to lift her outside, but as soon as I touched her and felt how cold she was, I knew…" He stared at his feet. "Dear God," he said, and Kathy saw a glimmer of a tear in his eye. There was the shock, of course, and the bump on the head, but still, she wondered if there was something more personal going on here.
His wife was keeping very still, head bowed, and Kathy said, "How long have you two known Vicky, Molly?"
She looked up. "We came here…" she thought a moment, "eight weeks ago, and Vicky arrived a few days later. Being moored right next to us we got to know each other very quickly. Pleasant girl, new to boating, wasn't she, Howard? Her boat's old, though, a bit of a tub."
"Yes, inexperienced. I think the dealer took advantage of her. Apparently she didn't have a lot of cash to throw around."
"And were you aware of problems with the heater?"
"Only that it was an old model and a bit smelly at times. I did help her give it a clean a few weeks back. Wouldn't have said it was dangerous, exactly."
"But she'd closed the ventilators and windows in the boat."
"Yes, I'd warned her about that. But she said she felt the cold keenly."
With each new personal insight from her husband into their neighbor, Molly Stapleton's frown deepened.
"What sort of a person was she?" Kathy asked, and they both spoke at once.
"Moody," said Molly.
"Bubbly," said Howard.
Their eyes met for a moment in surprise, then Molly turned to Kathy. "I thought she was a rather serious-minded and determined young woman."
"Well…" Howard objected, "but also full of … vitality, you know? Effervescent."
"Not with me, she wasn't," Molly said firmly.
"I'm interested in her frame of mind," Kathy said. "Did she seem depressed lately?"
"Suicide, do you mean?" Howard stared at her in surprise. "No, certainly not. On the contrary, she was excited by how things were going."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Molly countered. "I watched her the other day…" She pointed to the windows in the stern doors. "She was sitting in her bow, smoking a cigarette. She seemed quite agitated, gesturing, as if she was having an argument with herself about something. I went out and said hello and she immediately put on this cheery act. But it was an act, I could see that. She was worried about something."
"Well, I certainly wasn't aware of anything like that," Howard protested.
"You said she seemed excited," Kathy said. "Did she say what about? A relationship maybe?"
"No, she didn't explain, but I got the impression it was to do with her work. A new job maybe, something like that."
"Where did she work?"
"An office. Somewhere nearby, within walking distance, in Paddington."
Molly shook her head. "We could never find out. She didn't seem to want to talk about it."
"Marketing," Howard said. "I think that was it." Then he added hurriedly, "But look, I think you can discount suicide. We've been through that, haven't we, Molly?" He looked with an appeal to his wife, whose shoulders sagged.
"Yes," she whispered.
"Our son," Howard explained, "took his own life two years ago. Eighteen, he was. After that we found we couldn't live in the house any more. Then I was offered an early-retirement package and we decided to sell and live our dream. We had Roaming Free built to our specifications, and we set off."
Roaming free of the past, Kathy thought. Was that what inspired people to live like this? Was it Vicky Hawke's reason?
As if reading her mind, Howard said, "Of course, it's also an economic solution for some people. That boat probably cost Vicky no more than ten thousand, and yet here she was living in an upmarket area of West London just a stone's throw from her work."
"Can you tell me who else is living here?"
There were five narrowboats currently moored on this section of the towpath, he told her. The one closest to the bridge was Aquarius, belonging to Dr. Anne Downey.
"I didn't mention that I tried to get help from her when I found Vicky, but she wasn't there--must have left early for work."
"What sort of doctor is she?"
"General practice. She acts as a substitute for doctor's offices that are short of staff."
"Is she Vicky's GP?"
The Stapletons looked at each other and shrugged, unsure.
"I suppose that must be a problem when you're moving around, finding a doctor?" Kathy asked.
"You get to know the ropes," Molly replied. "But Anne did prescribe our medications last week, so she may have done the same for Vicky, if she needed something. We've got Anne's cell phone number if you want it."
Kathy wrote it down. "What about Vicky's number? Do you have that?"
They didn't, and couldn't remember ever seeing her with a phone. "But she must have had one," Molly said.
"And she and the doctor would have known each other?"
"Oh yes, we all know each other on this side of the canal."
The other two narrowboats belonged to a man in his thirties, Ned Tisdell on Venerable Bede, and a young single mother, Debbie Rowland on Jonquil, with a three-year-old boy.
"That must be tricky."
"Yes, but it's amazing how you adapt. Debbie is a website designer, and works from her boat."
"How about Ned?"
"He's a waiter in the restaurant on the other bank. We don't have so much to do with the people over on that side, the houseboats." They couldn't give Kathy any information on Vicky's family, except that, from her accent, they assumed she'd grown up in southern England.
As she left their boat Kathy looked across the canal and was struck by the difference between the two sides. Farther along the far bank, hazy through the fog, was the restaurant Molly Stapleton had mentioned, its white tablecloths visible through plate-glass windows suspended over the water. Next to it was a row of what she had described as "houseboats," a strange mixture of structures that looked as if they had grown permanently into the canal bank. They ranged in style from one that looked like a timber suburban house, complete with broad veranda and glass french doors, to its neighbor, a ramshackle arrangement of tarpaulins and tarred panels.
"The boat of horrors."
Kathy turned and saw that Howard Stapleton had followed her out.
He nodded across the canal at the tumbledown houseboat. "Mad old bloke lives there. They've been trying for years to get him to clean it up. Look, I've just thought of something, about where Vicky worked. I remember she had a stack of brochures in her cabin one day when I looked in. They were about security cameras and alarms. I think she may have been working for a company which sold that sort of thing."
Kathy went back to the dead girl's boat and joined Mickey Schaeffer, who was completing his search. Kathy took some photographs on her phone while he finished up. He had found Vicky's handbag in a storage compartment beneath the bed, and he showed her the contents: some make-up and perfume, a hairbrush, a pair of earrings, sunglasses, tissues, a wallet containing a credit card and a small amount of cash, and a receipt from British Waterways for mooring fees inside an envelope marked to an address in Crouch End, North London.
"Maybe her parents' address," Kathy said. "But no driving license, no phone."
"I couldn't find one anywhere, or a computer."
"Is there any twenty-something woman in London who doesn't have a phone?"
Mickey shook his head. "You're wondering if she was robbed?"
"What do you think?"
"I couldn't find any sign of a break-in, and nothing looks disturbed. There's so little of it, as if she arrived here with nothing--no photos, no documents, no history. I did find this…" He held up a plastic bag containing a thick roll of twenty-pound notes. "About two thousand pounds I reckon, hidden under the kitchen sink. It's like…" Mickey hesitated.
"I'm thinking maybe she was on the run from someone, a violent partner perhaps."
"Yes, I was thinking the same thing," Kathy said. "Let's take another look at that stove."
They peered at it without much enlightenment, then examined the flue and the signs of gas leakage that DC Judd had pointed out. Kathy looked up at the dark corner of the ceiling into which the flue disappeared, then pulled a stool over and stood on it to get a closer view. There were much larger dark stains up there, and what looked like a gap where the flue had separated. She stepped down, coming to a decision. "We need an engineer to look at this, and a scene of crime team to check the boat."
"You sure?" Mickey looked doubtful. "There's no evidence of a crime, and you know how tight they are just now."
"I know, but we should do this properly."
He shrugged. "Your call."
More uniforms were arriving in a white van as they emerged. Kathy left Mickey to organize a door-to-door search of the area and set off for Crouch End.
Copyright © 2013 by Barry Maitland