My phone rang just before 3:00am. Work.
Valentine said, “Sorry to call O-D. We found a body.”
My tongue felt rough like a carpet sample. My legs ached like I’d been running in my sleep. “Where?”
“See you there in thirty.”
I hung up, then swung my socked-feet off the sofa. I counted down from ten and stood on two.
My parents christened me Ode, as in lyric poem, which fit better with flowers and meadows than the bridges and tunnels I surrounded myself with. I got peace from noise; the quiet made me restless. I’d earned the nickname ‘O-D’ when I worked on the drug squad. It stuck. I preferred it to Ma’am.
My mother and father were wannabe hippies who missed the sixties by fifteen years and never got over it. They insisted we addressed them on first name terms and took us out of school on six-month road trips; a grand tour of squats, tinned tuna, and ponytailed men with questionable morals. Education by experience they called it. I’d have settled for a chemistry set and stable friends.
They named my younger brother Vigo, after the Spanish meditation camp where he’d been conceived. They never made it a secret that Vigo and I were accidents. I guess Vigo was lucky the condom didn’t split in Runcorn. They left for Thailand the month Vigo turned sixteen; we hadn’t seen them since.
I dressed quietly to avoid waking Vigo’s son, Ziggy, who was sleeping in the next room. I rinsed with mouthwash and spat, then put on a thick jumper and pulled the cuffs down over my hands. Being an aunt suited me fine, but I’d never wanted to be a mother. Then Vigo had gone missing three weeks prior, and I’d had no choice.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Ziggy; how he eyed me warily when he at ice cream, like I might take it any second, his fondness for slapstick, a six year old Harpo Marx. Still, I preferred it when I could return him at the end of the day. Ziggy’s mother was out of the picture, sleeping with the angels after a bad trip.
Vigo and Ziggy had come to stay the previous month. Vigo had said he’d straightened out and kicked his habit, but the way his eyes had chased imaginary flies told me he was lying. I’d found Ziggy raiding the fridge in the middle of the night. The next morning Vigo was gone, leaving Ziggy behind.
I pulled on my boots with the heavy soles and went into my room, now Ziggy’s room. He looked small in the king size bed. I wrapped him in his Transformers duvet and put him over my shoulder, then left, locking my flat behind me. My skin looked sallow in the yellow light of the metal lift. I pinched my cheeks until the capillaries cracked. Ziggy stirred but stayed asleep. I cupped the back of his head against the cold as we left the building. Snow covered the car roofs like mold on fruit. I unlocked my car and lowered Ziggy into the passenger seat.
Pepsi was already awake, stood in a doorway opposite, looking for a fix. He got his name from the cardboard cup he carried; one of those buckets you get in cinema multiplexes. Forget traders, junkies were the earliest risers in the city. The good stuff sold out by midday.
“Starting early Peps,” I said.
“Early bird,” he said. “Early bird.”
Pepsi shook his head, then gestured like he’d searched his pockets and come up empty handed. I started the engine and pulled away slowly, my tyres compressing the cottonwool snow.
I took Bow Road. The streets were quiet. London caught forty winks between dramas. My car radio played wall-to-wall music. Billie Holliday covered Blue Moon. The sky was white, threatening more snow. Orange streetlights blinked across Ziggy’s face. I passed O’Leary Square and Rinkoffs, then turned left down Sidney Street towards Shadwell.
Ontario House was a u-shaped block of flats much like my own; eight stories of brutalism. A football court with metal goals was bracketed by the ‘u’, lit by silent blue lights. A woman in a fluffy pink robe flicked ash from a third floor walkway as she watched the scene. The DLR ran opposite on raised tracks. I pulled up behind two police cars, climbed out, and asked a young looking PC to watch over Ziggy. He looked unimpressed. I didn’t care.
Three arches stood under the elevated railway line. Two were occupied, one by a Bangladeshi grocer and the other by a shop selling hair extensions. The third arch was boarded up. It had a metal security door which was curled up like an angry lip.
Valentine stood next to the snarl, clutching a Tupperware box. We’d been partners four years. He was 6’2, a second generation Nigerian via Peckham. He was bent down and checking his receding hairline in the window of a nearby car.
“No coffee?” he said.
I gave him the finger.
“I’ll send Mackie to get some,” he said.
I considered the prospect of vending machine piss-water and passed. It was going to be a long day. I didn’t need bad caffeine grating at my insides like wire brush.
Valentine wore a brown leather jacket. I’d said I liked it once. He’d worn it every day since. His tight jaw suggested he regretted not picking something warmer.
I nodded at the Tupperware. “Brought a picnic?”
“Lunch, for later.”
My stomach rumbled. Sarcasm was hungry work. “Where’s the body?”
He pointed to the boarded arch. “In here.” Then, after a beat, “it isn’t Vigo, I checked.”
I shrugged, as though the thought hadn’t crossed my mind, and put on overshoes. Valentine did likewise. Graffiti adorned the hoardings. Carlton from E15 had been there and wanted everybody to know it. I lifted the police tape and Valentine ducked underneath. We crawled through the small crack in the door frame.
The SOCOs had lit the interior with halogen. White tape marked objects of interest, a length of copper pipe, a black trainer, upturned coke cans coloured sticky brown. Plastic vile caps popped underfoot like bubble wrap. The big space sat mostly empty, except for a cluster of old school chairs around a portable gas stove. A man’s willowy body lay at the centre of the circle, dressed in an orange anorak, tweed jacket and black joggers. Clothes bank chic.
“No ID,” Valentine said from behind me.
“His name’s Ezra,” I said. “He’s my father.”
Adam Leeder lives in Suffolk, UK. His short fiction is currently longlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Margery Allingham Short Story Prize 2021, and is forthcoming in Mystery Weekly. His debut novel Diaspora was shortlisted for the 2021 New Anglia Prize, sponsored by the UK’s National Centre for Writing.