Extract From Nothing To Hide

I always thought I’d miss London more.

Time was the lights and bustle and sheer busyness of the place gave me a buzz as good as any drug. Growing up in the countryside, with parents still happily living in an earlier century, I leapt on any chance to come to the big city. Even Edinburgh, where I spent four glorious student years, felt small and provincial in comparison. Which is why I joined the Met rather than what was then Lothian and Borders police, I guess. London’s been my home for long enough that I might even kid myself I’m a local, but lately the shine’s gone off its attraction.

There’s the endless, unmoving traffic, for one thing. I never had a car before. Never needed one. Now I remember why that was, as I sit and watch the engine temperature gauge on my old Volvo creep slowly towards the red. Every so often a fan somewhere under the bonnet roars into life like a Jumbo Jet hauling itself into the air from Heathrow.

It’s dark by the time I pull into my street, my trusty car still holding on. Against all the odds, I manage to find a parking space too. Someone up there must be smiling on me. There’s a familiarity to the block, the concrete stairs leading up to my floor, the open walkway that leads to the other flats either side of mine. Light spills from some of the windows, but the curtains are closed on whatever lives are being lived behind them.

My front door’s a little grubbier than it was when I last closed it, although still cleaner than a year ago. I smile at the realisation it was Roger DeVilliers who had it repainted and a new lock fitted, but the amusement is short lived. He’s a reason I’ve been away, and the reason I glance over my shoulder as I slide the key into the lock. The press have had a field day with what will likely be the trial of the decade, and I’m right in the middle of it. If I’d wanted to be photographed wherever I went, I’d have been a model or something. Not an undercover police officer.

The flat is dark as I step over the threshold and a massive pile of mail, thenclose the door behind me. For a moment it’s just as I remember it, and then the smell hits. Something sour and rotten, as if the drains have backed up while I’ve been away. Has it been long enough for the toilet bowl to dry out? Do London sewers smell that bad? 

I work my way swiftly through the rooms, opening windows despite the chill and damp outside. There’s still a little water in the toilet, but I flush it anyway. Then run the taps to fill the u-bends in the basin and shower. It doesn’t help.

Whatever it is, it’s worst in the tiny kitchen. The bin’s empty, I did that before I left, remember it well enough. Then I spot the dark stain on the floor tile beneath the fridge door. Shit. Did I leave something in there?

It’s only as I open the door that I realise what a dumb idea that is. There’s a magnetic seal all around it keeping the worst of what’s in there inside. No light comes on, confirming my suspicion that the damn thing’s broken down. Even so, I knew I’d be away a while, didn’t think I’d left anything to go off. Something brown and unidentifiable lurks in the salad box at the bottom, though, emitting a smell so noxious I have to run to the front door and throw it wide, paparazzi be damned. Saliva fills my mouth and I can feel the bile rising, but I fight back the urge to vomit. That would be some headline in the Daily Mail.

The first trip back inside I can hold my breath just long enough to find a roll of bin liners under the kitchen sink before I have to rush out again. I steel myself for the second trip, cursing that I’ve no police-issue latex gloves to pull on as I take out the entire salad box and shove it into the bag. I leave it by the door and lean out over the parapet for fresh air, gulping down lungfuls of London’s finest until the worst of the nausea has passed.

I figure there’s no way anyone’s going to go in and nick stuff with the flat the way it smells, and besides I’ve nothing in there worth stealing. So I leave the front door propped open to let a breeze blow through while I take the stinking bag down to the communal wheelie-bins at the back of the building. The narrow space is poorly-lit, and I’m a bit dazed from the smell. It’s been a long day, too, with a lot of driving. As ever, most people have just piled their rubbish alongside the bins, too lazy to lift up the lid. I’m tempted to do the same just to get rid of the stench, but I was raised better than that. Which is why I’m standing close enough to hear the quiet whimper of pain. 

‘The hell?’ I’ve spoken the words before I realise. It could have been a wounded animal, but there was an all too human edge to the noise. Something shifts in the pile of abandoned rubbish beside the nearest bin, and I hear that moan again. I pull out my phone, swipe it into torch mode and play the pale light over the bags.

That’s when I see the foot, naked and grubby and still very much attached to a leg.