Rivers of London (Peter Grant / Rivers of London #1)


by Ben Aaronovitch

Material Witness

It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the West Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden. Martin, who was none too sober himself, at first thought the body was that of one of the many celebrants who had chosen the Piazza as a convenient outdoor toilet and dormitory. Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the ‘London once-over’ – a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-Samaritanism in London is considered an extreme sport – like base-jumping or crocodile-wrestling. Martin, noting the good-quality coat and shoes, had just pegged the body as a drunk when he noticed that it was in fact missing its head.

As Martin noted to the detectives conducting his interview, it was a good thing he’d been inebriated because otherwise he would have wasted time screaming and running about – especially once he realised he was standing in a pool of blood. Instead, with the slow, methodical patience of the drunk and terrified, Martin Turner dialled 999 and asked for the police.

The police emergency centre alerted the nearest Incident Response Vehicle and the first officers arrived on the scene six minutes later. One officer stayed with a suddenly sober Martin while his partner confirmed that there was a body and that, everything else being equal, it probably wasn’t a case of accidental death. They found the head six metres away where it had rolled behind one of the neoclassical columns that fronted the church’s portico. The responding officers reported back to control, who alerted the area Murder Investigation Team whose duty officer, the most junior detective constable on the team, arrived half an hour later: he took one look at Mr Headless and woke his governor. With that, the whole pomp and majesty that is a Metropolitan Police murder investigation descended on the twenty-five metres of open cobbles between the church portico and the market building. The pathologist arrived to certify death, make a preliminary assessment of the cause and cart the body away for its post-mortem. (There was a short delay while they found a big enough evidence bag for the head.) The forensic teams turned up mob-handed and, to prove that they were the important ones, demanded that the secure perimeter be extended to include the whole west end of the Piazza. To do this they needed more uniforms at the scene, so the DCI who was Senior Investigating Officer called up Charing Cross nick and asked if they had any to spare. The shift commander, upon hearing the magic word ‘overtime’, marched into the section house and volunteered everyone out of their nice warm beds. Thus the secure perimeter was expanded, searches were made, junior detectives sent off on mysterious errands and finally, at just after five o’clock, it all ground to a halt. The body was gone, the detectives had left and the forensic people unanimously agreed there was nothing more that could be done until dawn – which was three hours away. Until then, they just needed a couple of mugs to guard the crime scene until shift change.

Which is how I came to be standing around Covent Garden in a freezing wind at six o’clock in the morning, and why it was me that met the ghost.

Sometimes I wonder whether, if I’d been the one that went for coffee and not Lesley May, my life would have been much less interesting and certainly much less dangerous. Could it have been anyone, or was it destiny? When I’m considering this I find it helpful to quote the wisdom of my father, who once told me, ‘Who knows why the fuck anything happens?’

Covent Garden is a large piazza in the centre of London, with the Royal Opera House at the east end, a covered market in the centre and St Paul’s Church at the west end. It was once London’s principal fruit and veg market but that got shifted south of the river ten years before I was born. It had a long and varied history, mostly involving crime, prostitution and the theatre, but now it’s a tourist market. St Paul’s church is known as the Actors’ Church, to differentiate it from the Cathedral, and was first built by Inigo Jones in 1638. I know all this because there’s nothing like standing around in a freezing wind to make you look for distractions, and there was a large and remarkably detailed information plaque attached to the side of the church. Did you know, for instance, that the first recorded victim of the 1665 plague outbreak, the one that ends with London burning down, is buried in its graveyard? I did, after ten minutes spent sheltering from the wind.

The Murder Investigation Team had closed off the west of the Piazza by stringing tape across the entrances to King Street and Henrietta Street, and along the frontage of the covered market. I was guarding the church end, where I could shelter in the portico and WPC Lesley May, my fellow probationer, guarded the Piazza side, where she could shelter in the market.

Lesley was short, blonde and impossibly perky, even when wearing a stab vest. We’d gone through basic training at Hendon together before being transferred to Westminster for our probation. We maintained a strictly professional relationship, despite my deep-seated yearning to climb into her uniform trousers.

Because we were both probationary constables, an experienced PC had been left to supervise us – a responsibility he diligently pursued from an all-night café on St Martin’s Court.

My phone rang. It took me a while to dig it out from among the stab vest, utility belt, baton, handcuffs, digital police radio and cumbersome but mercifully waterproof reflective jacket. When I finally managed to answer, it was Lesley.

‘I’m going for a coffee,’ she said. ‘Want one?’

I looked over at the covered market and saw her wave.

‘You’re a life-saver,’ I said, and watched as she darted off towards James Street.

She hadn’t been gone more than a minute when I saw a figure by the portico. A short man in a suit tucked into the shadows behind the nearest column.

I gave the prescribed Metropolitan police ‘first greeting’.

‘Oi!’ I said. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

The figure turned and I saw a flash of a pale, startled-looking face. The man was wearing a shabby, old-fashioned suit complete with waistcoat, fob watch and battered top hat. I thought he might be one of the street performers licensed to perform in the piazza, but it seemed a tad early in the morning for that.

‘Over here,’ he said, and beckoned.

I made sure I knew where my extendable baton was and headed over. Policemen are supposed to loom over members of the public, even helpful ones. That’s why we wear big boots and pointy helmets, but when I got closer I found the man was tiny, five foot nothing in his shoes. I fought an urge to squat down to get our faces level.