Excerpt for The Outcall by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


The Outcall


I thought of London spread out in the sun

Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat


Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings


1 Monday 3 July

“May I ask you a personal question?”

They often say that at this stage. There’s a catch in his throat as he says it. His mouth is in my hair and he’s curled up around my back. From where we’re lying on the bed, all I can see is the hotel room wall and desk, with my clutch bag, the roll of cash and his iphone on it. All I can feel is sheets against my bare skin, his chest against my back, a hint of sweat.

“Of course you can, babe.” I do the husky voice that punters usually like, but despite the way he’s curled round me, despite his face burrowed into my hair, I sense that it’s not more sex he’s interested in.

He’s interested in me.

Difficult.

“We can chat in a second, I just need the bathroom.” I drag myself out of his arms, out of the bed. There’s something a bit odd about him, I say to myself. But I could say that about every punter: they’re all strange in some way or other, I think, as I go into the hotel bathroom. It’s the usual layout, bathroom next to the door onto the corridor. I’ve been in almost every hotel in Euston-Bloomsbury: here’s where they all stay, the businessmen, the tourists, they pour off the trains at Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross, they sit in an empty hotel room, they think the girlfriend, the wife, the family is far away, somewhere up north or overseas. They can watch the porn channel... but London is all around them. Sex. Real sex.

Just as I’m closing the bathroom door, there’s a knock on the hotel room door. That’s odd too. I’m sitting on the loo, listening in that silence between a knock and its answering. I try to think what it is about this guy that rings alarm bells. He booked me through the escort website that I use, and we never spoke on the phone. I prefer to hear a guy’s voice before we meet, but a hotel outcall is pretty safe, and I accept nearly half my new bookings without seeing, or hearing, the stranger that I’m going to meet. Earlier today, I got a notification text from my website: I checked the site, and he’d added the name of this hotel and the room number to the booking details. Then, moments before the booking time, 10pm, he texted me to say he was running late, could we make it 10.30pm? I texted back to say, fine, I could still do a one-hour outcall, starting at 10.30. Just before half-ten, I came into the hotel and up to this room. He was in here waiting for me, sitting on the bed – and I thought ‘nice’ – late middle-age, but tall, fit and lean: most of my punters, especially the hotel ones, are paunchy and balding. And they’re often shorter than me. He was 6’2” at least, twinkly blue eyes, nice smile. Very clean, not just male perfume splashed over stale sweat, which is one of my pet hates... Late evening, but he was still wearing a suit and tie. A ‘business gentleman’ we’d call him in the trade. There was only one little surprise: how tidy the room was. Almost always, the hotel rooms I visit are scattered with the guy’s clothes and possessions. And the toilet seat is always up.

Then, before we started, he wanted to photo me on his iphone. A simple girly face pic, in my bra. Pretty tame and nothing unusual, just a typical punter’s trophy. He was British: a trace of a warm, regional accent, but educated. The sex didn’t seem to satisfy him – he seemed distracted. Why do I get the sense that it was a sideshow for him, that he touched me in that half-hearted way because he was wanting, really, to talk?

“Hallo?” He’s answering the knock at the door.

“Sir, I think you dropped something in the lobby, here it is.” A man’s voice.

I hear him half-open the door to reach out. And then a crash as the door is flung open, pushed against him, knocking him back against the bathroom door so it shakes.

There’s a silence, three seconds maybe. All I hear is my heart start pounding. What the hell is this?

I hear the room door slam. So, my punter and the intruder are both in the room. I have only one thought: a drug dealer, wants his money. And then I notice the bathroom door has a lock. Thank fuck for that. I’m shaking as I twist the knob to lock it.

There’s my £200 on the bedside table. I’m praying the stupid punter to give it to him so he’ll go. Then I hear a hard crash, and another. It’s like a brick being bashed on another brick. God, what’s happening?

And then I think: I could run. Bathroom door next to corridor door. I could sneak out and go and get help. But I’m naked, I think madly. No, I don’t dare open that door. There’s a man being bashed up in there but I’m a coward, just a wet weepy girly little coward. I’m sat on the loo, looking at beads of sweat on my thighs. All my skin feels like ice.

There’s another, massive crash. Why the fuck does no one else in this hotel hear this? And then it’s quiet, really quiet. The frozen feeling on my skin seems to be coming inwards, around the middle of my chest. I’m more scared by this silence than by anything yet. Something please, please happen.

The corridor door clicks shut. Quietly. The intruder’s gone? Yes. Why else would he shut it quietly?

I have to open the bathroom door. I have to see what I will see.

I’m still shaking, my fingers can’t twist the knob at first, but then I get the door open. What do I see? Blood. Lots of blood: spatters on carpet, bedclothes, everywhere. I’m taking it in, like I’m watching it on a screen, because a logical autopilot bit of my mind has taken over, and I’m assessing the situation from some calm emotionless zone in my head. I see the punter, who told me he was called Jonathan, sprawled like a starfish on the floor in a white hotel-standard dressing-gown. First, I look at his face. His eyes are open, staring at the ceiling. There’s a raw gash across his forehead, where, I realise, his head’s been banged down onto the hotel room desk. It’s like my eyes are following my thought process, retracing what’s happened: I’m now looking at the blood that’s all over the corner of the desk. Then my eyes track back to the guy: his forehead is such a mess that it’s a moment before I see that there’s a slash across his throat, and a line of blood that looks too bright to be real. Like the red in a neon sign. My eyes trace the flow of blood down from that slice: yes, it’s all over his neck and the collar of the gown. Then I notice a lot more blood, all across his chest and stomach. It all looks like it’s come from his neck. His arms and legs, splayed out aimlessly, are also spotted with blood. His mouth, like his eyes, is open and not moving. That’s bad, this logic bit of my brain says. The autopilot goes and gets my little clutch bag, that I use for standard outcalls, and takes out my dinky makeup mirror, like I’ve seen it done on the telly, hold it to his mouth. No mist. Then I remember my junior St John’s Ambulance training (I was a good little girl, long ago) and feel his pulse. ABC. Airway, Breathing, Circulation. Well, there’s none of them. Zero, zero, zero. I’m a naked prostitute, kneeling in blood next to a corpse in a hotel room.

The logic brain says: get out. I’m doing things in a rational order: stand up, go to the bathroom, wipe the blood off my knees with toilet paper and flush it away. I check each item of my clothing for blood – they’re all perfectly clean – and get dressed. I pick up my clutch bag. I look over at the £200 and the iphone, lying on the desk. Like they’d say on the TV, This Is A Crime Scene. ‘Don’t touch anything’. But I’m a working girl. Then I see that the phone, too, is spattered with blood. It’s the final straw: I’m one breath away from fainting. The room swirls around me, a merry-go-round of blurry colours: white walls and dressing-gown, red blood. My hand reaches out: somehow, it knows where I am, where to feel for: I grasp the handle of the hotel room door. Gradually, the blurs steady back into focus. Yes, I have to get out of here. Autopilot does a room-check: there’s no evidence left that I was here. Except Forensics, who will no doubt find my fingerprints and DNA everywhere. But I’m a canny girl, never been in trouble with the police: not even a speeding ticket. So all the cops will know is that the white thing lying on the floor had sex with an unidentified woman just before he died.

I open the door onto the corridor, and as I do, the autopilot lapses for a moment, I feel a total terror. Is the killer waiting in the corridor for me, or am I going to faint and drop right here? I sway, stagger, but somehow I keep hold of that logic brain. Keep moving. Along the corridor, away from that room.

I’m at the lift door, and my fingers are not under control now, they shake and shake. It takes me eight tries of the buttons before I can operate the lift. I step in, and after a moment it slides down, floor by floor, away from that horror. I’m inside this humming cube of shiny metal... it’s as if what happened, never happened. Then the lift doors open, and everything is real again. So far I’ve seen no-one, but now I have to cross the hotel lobby. Half the time, the snooty girls and guys at the desks at these places must guess what I am – and now, with bird’s nest hair, messy makeup, and clothes thrown on, I look well fucked. Someone will see me and remember me. But my luck is in: the lift was empty, but the lobby is crowded. There must be a coach party arriving, Chinese or something, all with their suitcases, all talking, no one notices me. One youngish guy sitting at the reception desk seems for a moment to stare at me, but then I risk a glance at him and no, he’s looking down at his desk again. Five, four seconds and I’m out through a revolving door into the darkness. Away from the floodlit hotel front, I take one side alley, then another. Past some bins, step over bags of rubbish in the dark, and I’m back out on a road. I see the familiar sign, red circle, blue line: Russell Square Underground station. That logic bit of my brain is still in control, because rather than using my Oyster, I buy a ticket for cash. No record that I was here. I wasn’t here.

The lift in Russell Square station freaks me out suddenly, it’s like I’m back in the hotel lift but rather than going down, it’s taking me back up... to that. I feel like time is rewinding and I’m going to be walking back into that hotel room. I’m going to be opening that door again, seeing that blood, those dead eyes, that sliced neck. Everything is happening backwards. It’s a mad feeling, I start hyperventilating and saliva dribbles out of my mouth. There are two people in the lift with me, a young man and a middle-aged woman. But it’s London; neither says anything. First rule of society here: never speak to strangers, even when they’re acting strange.

Thankfully, so thankfully, the tube train is quiet. When I’ve done an outcall that I’d rather forget, the Tube is my therapy. Each station... King’s Cross, Caledonian Road, Arsenal... recalling being touched, the pushing of some stranger’s cock inside me, his sweaty fingers on my skin, the smell and heat of his breath... it gets less. The memory is being erased. It’s like at one station it gets put in the Recycle Bin, then at the next I Empty the Recycle Bin. Then at Finsbury Park I’m switching off the computer and it never happened. 100% gone. Except for the cash in my bag.

“Are you alright?” A guy sitting opposite me, nice-looking, young, Asian, is speaking. And I realise I’m shaking and there are tears running down my face.

“I’m fine. Just finished with the boyfriend. For the fiftieth time this month.”

“You go carefully now.” He’s concerned. He gets off at the next station, waving to me through the window. Some guys see a girl crying on the tube and all they think is: I’ll try chatting, offer to walk her home, might be an easy fuck. But probably that’s a minority. It’s just that I see that minority every day.

Hold it together. Home in a minute.

Finsbury Park, getting out of the tube station, the walk home, it’s like I’m not there at all. The autopilot is moving my body along the street while I’m floating, like an angel, watching myself from about second-floor height, above and behind me. I see myself watch out for traffic as I cross the road, step round a large puddle – there was a thunderstorm mid-afternoon today. But even though it’s now near midnight, the air has heated up again. A warm night. There’s no-one else on the streets: just a few people inside the brightly-lit takeaway shops, Chinese, Indian, kebabs, fried chicken. Past the pub where I sometimes go with Jazz, closed for the night now: past a fox that silently, boldly crosses the street. Turn the corner into my road, where there are fewer street lights, and I’m glad of the darkness: at last, no passers-by can see my face, the death in my eyes. My angel seems to be able to think for me too, and is re-checking whether I left any trace in the hotel room. And reassures me: yes, in order to match what they find, the police have to have something, something about me, to match it against. Which they have not got. But there are scary voices in my head too, and they are saying only one thing: if the police can find you, they’ll nail this on you, Holly Harlow.

I’m through the front door of the flats, I go upstairs and unlock the door of my own flat into my living-room. Up to now I’ve been holding myself together, looking to reach this haven. But now I’m here the walls seem to close in on me. My dim lighting, which is meant to be seductive for when punters visit, brings out all the shadows, and my own belongings all look strange, darkness looms out at me from every corner. As if a hand from somewhere else has reached in here, touched everything. I feel the killer has got ahead of me, got here already, his fingers have been over my furniture, he’s opened my drawers, sniffed my clothes. He’s here now, in the dark behind the bedroom door.

I wake in the night and all the lights are still on. I’m lying in bed, still clothed, my arms around the huge furry model tiger I bought at the Zoo. I remember reading the label when I bought him: Amur Tiger, status endangered. I haven’t given him a name. I’m so used to hearing guys say their names – John, Harry, Jack. “Hi, I’m Jack...” So many names, so many all the same. Names are like masks that the punters hide behind. My tiger has no name. But as I fall asleep again I think “Tiger, you’re like me, like Holly Harlow. Status: endangered.”




2 Thursday 6 July

Customer care is very important in my business. The next morning I’m awake at ten: in between bouts in the bathroom, retching on an empty stomach, I’m checking all my bookings on the website that I use, phoning today’s and tomorrow’s punters. “Hi, it’s Holly the GirlNextDoor here, from the GirlsDirect website, you’ve made a booking with me? Sorry, darling, touch of summer flu. Don’t want to give you a bug, do I? Tell you what babe, I’ll give you fifty quid off when we do meet. And here’s the number of a friend of mine, she’s new to escorting, a student on her summer break, she’s lovely, really likes guys like you, she lives not too far away, and I know she’s free today...”

My little story works a treat with every punter. Every john, even the weekly regulars, likes to try a new girl from time to time, and it’s nice to put a bit of work over to Abby, who truly is quite new to all this – no student of course, but she’s a webcam girl who needs a bit more cash and is moving into the skin-to-skin game full-time. She’s put up a profile on GirlsDirect, some nice photos, but so far she’s only had a couple of Client Comments, on which your rating depends – it takes time to build up a good rating, and I guess it’s like Google: only when you’ve built up a high rating do you appear on the first page of a punter’s search. You have to please a lot of guys, please them enough to make them leave good Comments, before you can hope for regular business, a steady income. But once you get that good rating, the money starts rolling in.

I finish the last call, and it’s like my business brain switches off, its work done, and the reality of what happened fills me: I see blood, the dead eyes look into mine, my whole body right down to my fingers and toes fills with fear and I start shaking. I go into the kitchen, sit down, look around the room, concentrate on what I can see around me: mugs, teatowels, the washing-up, the hot morning sunshine through the window, glinting on a bottle of Fairy Liquid. The shaking gradually dies down, and the relief is like heaven. I go into a trance-like state, I stand up, I drift aimlessly back towards my bed, lie there, stare at the ceiling, but then my eyes close and I seem to be neither awake nor asleep; nothing seems real: I drift in and out of dreams, evil dreams – dark corridors, running, scared, nausea. There’s darkness, then a sudden roomful of blaring light. And everything around me, stark in the glare, is covered in droplets of blood, like berries on a tree. Something in me forces me to stretch my arm out and touch the berries. I can’t resist, I hold one between my thumb and forefinger and I see my hand redden. I pick the fruit, put it to my lips, between my teeth and I bite, I feel my lips and tongue turning to liquid blood and melting down my face. It gets to the following day, and then the day after, and I stop seeing the blood everywhere. I feel a bit better. I’ve just showered: I’m sitting in the kitchen in my pyjamas, eating some Weetabix, first thing for 3 days. At least I’ll have something to be sick with when I next throw up.

The front doorbell rings. Can’t be a punter: sure I cancelled them all. And then I remember. For eight years I’ve shared this flat with Jazz, my best friend; she too is an escort, London_Courtesan. She’s away for the week. When she can’t make a booking, I log into her account on the GirlsDirect website, tell them that I’m Jasmine, deal with the punter, cover the booking. And she does the same for me. Not an unusual arrangement, other girls I know do it too: all you need is a vague likeness and the same colour hair, plus of course, both your phone numbers listed on your GirlsDirect profile. Me and Jazz, figure-wise, we both look pretty much alike: tall, size 8, wavy blonde hair, pale English-Rose skin, C-cup. If you look at our faces in real life, they’re totally different, but in my photos on GirlsDirect, my head is coyly turned away or in profile, and no-one making a booking through the website has ever realised. And would they care if they knew? In my experience, an escort – perhaps any woman – is a tick list to a guy: right price √, blonde √, slim √, young-looking √, big boobs √, etc etc. What might go in each box varies, and there are lots of minority tastes: right price, for some guys, might be £300 an hour – they think they’re buying class. That’s what Jazz charges for London_Courtesan outcalls, and she’s not short of business. Some might be turned on by a schoolgirly flat chest, or a redhead, or a fatty, or an oldie, or by a black, Asian, Chinese or Latin girl. But whatever’s in the tick boxes, it’s still just a simple list. Score over five out of seven and you’ve got a booking.

The doorbell, I guess, is one of Jazz’s. She had to cancel her bookings for this week, because her Mum fell and broke her ankle and ended up in Watford General: Jazz has gone away for a few days to see her, and to sort her Dad out. He can’t cope on his own, he doesn’t even know where Tescos is. But just before Jazz left, she told me she’d had a new booking and not had a chance to deal with it. And then I forgot to check Jazz’s GirlsDirect account. Oh fuck. Can I face this booking, or shall I just let the doorbell ring? Well, there’s got to be a first one, I suppose. Like a first day back at work after a long sickie. I decide to open the door to him: pretend to be London_Courtesan, let him in and get the job done. Good job I’ve just showered. I seem to recall Jazz saying he’d texted her as well, to say he was a lingerie man. As the doorbell rings again I’m getting out of my jimjams, into lacy bra and pants and nothing else.

I press the button to open the front door of the flats, wait a few seconds as I hear footsteps coming up the stairs, and then open the door of my flat. I peer round it in my underwear, smile seductively. I’m looking at a thirtysomething busty brunette. But unlike the one in my wardrobe, her policewoman’s outfit isn’t in PVC.

The police interview room is just like the ones on the TV: small, a bit shabby, with the most uncomfortable chair I’ve ever sat on. I glimpse under the table. Yup, the cops have got comfier chairs than me.

I can’t remember coming here. It’s a blank: the last two hours are just shock. I remember hastily getting dressed, that’s all. I can’t seem to hold facts together. My brain is shot: how can I defend myself against what they are going to throw at me? Is this how it’s always been when the authorities catch up with you, whether you’re guilty or not? I remember a telly documentary about witches; in England they weren’t allowed to torture you, but in Scotland and in Europe they could do what they liked to you, break your legs, burn you with hot irons, anything. But just as many confessed to being fucked by the Devil and all the rest of that seventeenth-century shit in England as they did in the other countries. The confusion, the way being arrested and accused shakes you up, means you can’t defend yourself. And you’re a woman, and even though this is now the twenty-first century, you’re still a sinner. Lamb to the slaughter.

Not that I am arrested, yet. I’m just ‘helping them with their enquiries’, and the brunette, who told me she was Police Officer Jackie Simmonds, had said that that was best done down at the station. Then, I vaguely realised, I was inside a police car. And now here. I’m not sure which station it is.

Simmonds is still with me, sitting smugly opposite me, well pleased with herself like she’s a cat and I’m the mouse she’s brought in. I guess she’s been in the force a while, but still very junior, never progressed. A bit thick. Then two people come in and she goes out. One’s a skinny guy in his thirties, cheap gray suit: a plain-clothes cop, I guess. The other is a dumpy Asian woman, older than the guy, very smartly dressed: deep-brown business suit, expensive shoes. Low heels, even though she’s barely five feet tall. I can tell that she doesn’t feel the need to look taller. I asked Simmonds if I could have a brief: hopefully, this woman is her.

But they both sit down opposite me. The woman checks the recording machine to see that it’s working, and switches it on. She speaks.

“Witness interview at 11.30am on 6th July at Stoke Newington police station. Present are Detective Inspector Geeta Pawan, 92EO and Detective Sergeant Christopher Rainbow 35EO, and Miss Holly Harlow.” Then she smiles at me. “Thanks for coming here. We’re investigating a serious crime that took place a few days ago. When members of the public such as yourself are willing to give us information that might help us – well, we appreciate it.”

The guy buts in. “Been treating you OK here? Did they get you a cup of tea? How was your journey here?”

“My journey – it was in the back of a police car. I didn’t realise I had a choice.”

The woman looks reassuringly at me. “I’m really sorry if you got that impression. We wanted to speak to you – to determine if you might be a relevant witness for a serious matter we’re investigating. That’s the purpose of this interview. The decision to co-operate was yours – that should have been made clear to you. So, thank you for coming here, anyway.”

I wish they’d get on with it. Maybe they’re trying to put me at ease, but I feel like that mouse again. Being played with by a cat. Two cats.

“Well, I’m here now. So how can I help you?” I try not to sound sulky, but all the same it comes out like that.

The woman says “Police Officer Simmonds will have explained to you that you’re entitled to a solicitor, even at this stage, if you want one.”

“I’m fine, thanks.” Although I did ask Simmonds about a brief, I now realise that refusing to talk to them unless I’ve got a lawyer might raise their suspicions more. Try to keep calm, see how it goes. “I asked her about a solicitor, because I was surprised, this all came out of the blue. I’ve never been inside a police car in my life. She said she’d see about a lawyer for me. But I might not need that, because I have no idea at all why I’m here. So I can answer your questions now, if you like.”

The man shuffles in his chair. “I’ll come straight to the point, Miss Harlow. We have reason to believe that you met a Jonathan Wycherley, at a hotel in Bloomsbury on the night of Monday 3 July. Did you?”

“No.”

It’s all I can bring myself to say. Now that the question that I dreaded has finally been asked, I feel that hard, pushing pressure in my chest again. The feeling of fear. The woman’s eyes are like an X-ray, seeing straight through me. I try to breathe evenly, then I look at the man. Hard-working, ambitious, lean. Hollows in his cheeks and under his eyes. Hungry. Wants a kill. Me.

There’s a silence, and my nerves make me fill it in. “Why do you ask me about this?”

He speaks. “Let me put it another way. We have reason to believe that you met someone – a man you may or may not know as Jonathan Wycherley – in a room at the Excel Hotel on Brunswick Street, on 3 July, at around 10pm. We believe you may have been with him for about one hour.”

All I can do is look at the desk and try to keep control of my breathing. I speak, with effort. “I wasn’t there. But what do you think – I was doing with this man – who I’ve never heard of – for that hour?”

The woman speaks again. “I’ll be direct. We believe that you and he met for sex.” She’s clear, calm, measured. She’s making judgements, assessing me – but what she really thinks of me, I can’t tell. But I glance up from the desk to the man, and I can tell by his gray eyes and his straight lips what his opinion of me is. Slag, slapper, body for sale cos I’ve got no brains.

Again, the effort to speak. “I’m sorry – I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The woman is, I can tell, trying to be gentle. But of course, she has to ask this next question. “You do – we believe – work as a prostitute. A sex worker. Is that correct?”

I get the words out. “It’s – yes, that’s correct.”

Rainbow takes over. He catches my scared look, holds me in his gaze. “We believe that a man named Jonathan Wycherley met a woman for sex at the Excel Hotel. We’re investigating this matter because we believe that – while he and the woman were together – he was murdered. Were you that woman?”

This time, I really struggle to speak at all. “Why do you think this – woman – who was maybe, you think – with this man, could be me?”

The woman takes over again. I can tell, she thinks he’s too – harsh? or just direct? Yes, I can see it in her eyes. Tired, creased eyelids, but her eyes are alert, aware of everything. She’d like to get to the same place as him, with a suspect on a murder charge under her belt. The only difference: she’s using a different satnav, she thinks that a more roundabout route might be more successful for getting me there. I can tell, she’s clever, or at least she thinks she’s clever. “We’re only asking for your help, Miss Harlow, that’s all. If you were not the woman who met Jonathan Wycherley for sex on 3rd July, then of course you can’t help and you’re free to go on your way. On the other hand, being deliberately unhelpful to a police enquiry is a serious offence. A court would take a dim view of someone obstructing a murder enquiry by giving incorrect information.”

Hold it together, Holly. I take a deep breath; amid a flurry of feelings, I try to hold on to what I actually know, and what I can tell from what they’ve said. I tell myself: they’re asking me if I was there – so, they need me to admit to being there.

Therefore, they’ve not got anything that proves I was there.

The woman goes on. “Let’s take it step by step, start at the beginning. Do you meet men, who...”

“Pay me for my time and companionship...”

“Prostitution.” Rainbow cuts in again. And I sense that she’s annoyed with him.

“I don’t know the legal technicalities. I do what I do. I know that what I do is not a crime.”

“How do you know that?” he asks. And I’m guessing, but I’m sure of it now. The slight twitch in the woman’s lip, her look as he muscles in on her questioning, is not just annoyance at his crude directness. It’s also an act. It’s part of her showing – to me – that she’s different from him. Each of them has a different game plan. He wants to intimidate me, get me to make a slip. She wants to pretend to be my friend.

“What I do for a living... I know it’s legal, because I take advice from a legitimate organisation, call Sexwork Helpline. They’re a registered charity. A close friend of mine, my flatmate in fact, is actually one of the trustees. Because she has seen over the years that people in my line of work maybe need people helping us and advising us, rather than judging us. Sexwork Helpline advise on health matters and legal matters.”

He looks on, unimpressed, scornful.

“And Sexwork Helpline knows that there’s a difference between girls like me who work independently and legally, and poor cows from Thailand or Eastern Europe who work for pimps and gangmasters. I’m a self-employed taxpayer: those girls are victims. And those pimps are the sort of people that you should be going after.”

I’ve shocked myself with my boldness. Shocked them too.

“Keep to the point, please.” I’ve put him off his stroke, I can tell. He’s angry – it’s the first time he’s said ‘please’. And she looks like the cat that got the cream. ‘I told you so’ her glance towards him says. And that tells me something more. Their good cop / bad cop routine is not pre-planned. He’s not acting.

“Sorry about the rant.” I don’t want to piss them off. But I’m glad to find that I can still speak clearly, put my point across. And maybe it does me no harm, in Pawan’s eyes at least, to stick up for myself. “I just feel – that what I do for a living is neither here nor there in relation to your investigation. Me being a hooker doesn’t mean that I was there, at this hotel place, when I wasn’t.”

He’s about to speak, but this time she’s the one to hold him back, she holds her hand up to him, as if she’s telling him ‘This isn’t some simpleton you can frame up easily. Let’s play it my way.’

What she does is show me a photo. “Have you ever met this man?”

I look at it. And rather than a half-hearted ‘I meet lots of men’ – which is the first phrase that floats into my mind – I answer clearly, confidently – “No”. Because this is a game, and winning the game is nothing to do with the truth. The truth is always blended shades, half-light blurring into half-shadows, and the truth won’t help me walk out of this cop shop, or a courtroom. “No” I lie. “Never seen him before, ever.”

Rainbow can’t resist. “How can you be so sure?”

I ignore the smirk that I think I see. “I meet a lot of men, obviously, in my work. But I’ve not seen that man in the photo before. I’m completely sure. I’ve a friend who’s a teacher: she remembers every kid she’s ever taught. It’s just a mental trick that goes with a job. So no, I have definitely never seen him before.” And I think: Pawan is swallowing this. And whether Rainbow believes me or not, he’s fuming too much to be a competent questioner right now.

Pawan’s speaking again. “Have you ever taken a booking at the Excel hotel in Bloomsbury?”

“No. I’m totally sure about that. I take almost all my bookings at home.” Another lie – in fact it’s probably 50/50 – but this time it might just be working, even on Bad Cop.

“So if we had a witness who said he’d seen you at that hotel? ...”

So, they have a witness: a he. A man. “Well, he – could be mistaken? I’m not unique looking, in my line of work, you know… Isn’t it more likely that someone makes a mistake, identifies a woman at the hotel wrongly, than that I would completely misremember both a hotel I am supposed to have been in, and a guy that you claim that I’ve slept with?”

The woman, at least, looks like she’s taken that point on board. But my heart’s still in my mouth with fear. Because I know that me winning a verbal battle with them is not going to decide the outcome. And as for the facts of what truly happened… that’s irrelevant. It’s a game of poker here, and at best I’ve got a pair of twos. There’s a power balance, and however clever I am about it, it’s weighted 100% in their favour. Like a casino: the house always wins.

A game of poker. And Rainbow shows their hand, a bit more. “We checked your Oyster Card records. They show that you travelled on the London Underground from Finsbury Park to Russell Square at 9pm on the night of the murder. And Russell Square tube station is just round the corner from the Excel hotel. Can you explain that to us?”

“Can I ask – what time was this – murder?”

“It happened, we think, between 11.00 and 11.15pm. And the witness we have, he claims to have seen you leaving the hotel at 11.20pm. So, you do need to explain to us: why were you in the Russell Square area that evening?”

“I went there to meet a guy. For a coffee, nothing more. To see if he fancied me, if he wanted to book me.”

“Is that usual?”

“No, it’s not. The most usual, maybe two thirds of my new clients, it’s phone: the guy looks at the escort website, he likes my profile and my photos, sees my number on the profile, phones me and we take it from there. Next most usual is for the guy to make a booking online, through the website, so I never speak to him until I meet him. But every so often you get a guy who wants to meet first for a chat, and I’m happy to work that way if the guy wants to. I arrived at Russell Square, I went to Caffe Brucciani. I bought a coffee from the counter. The guy who served me was aged about twenty, very slim, Italian, dark eyes but with blond hair. Which is unusual, which is why I remember him. You can ask him if I went in there for a coffee and sat by myself for nearly an hour. The guy who had called me and asked to meet, he didn’t turn up. So I got a lift home to Finsbury Park with a friend, who was driving back from the centre to Walthamstow, at around 10.20pm. Then I got a tummy bug, don’t know why, nothing to do with Brucciani’s Latte Special. Just a summer bug. Last two days, I’ve been in bed. You can ask the young guy at Brucciani’s, you can ask my friend who gave me a lift home, and I can even give you the number of the guy who phoned me and asked me to share a coffee with him, but never turned up.”

But it’s funny, my mouth is talking, telling them all that, but I’m thinking about something else. About a strange little moment that happened half an hour before my life fell apart. When Wycherley took the photo of me in my bra, I asked him to show it to me. When he passed me the phone, I happened to swipe the screen and I saw another photo. Another girl. Maybe ten years younger than me – seventeen, eighteen. Long, dark hair, pale skin, innocence. Unlike my photo, fully dressed. Her eyes caught and held mine, like a connection, like she was sharing something with me. Then Wycherley asked what I was staring at, and I swiped back to my photo. It was over in ten seconds, but amid all that horror, what I saw on his phone comes back to me now, as the one thing from that evening that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Her face, as if she were looking into mine.

These things roll around in my mind while I’m telling the cops all about the time I spent at Caffe Brucciani. Then I say, so it’s totally clear, and recorded on their interview machine – “So, I was in that area of London, for a while, on the same evening. But not at that hotel, and not at the time of the murder.”

“So you say.” Rainbow looks at me like I’m a liar. Which I am, of course – but even so, his look hurts. Like he’s judging my worth as a human being. Then he seems to come to a decision. Something in his face has changed, and I recognise his new expression all too well: brighter eyes, mouth slightly open, taking a deeper breath. It’s the expression my punters get when they know it’s time for the foreplay to be over and for them to fuck me, or for me to suck their dick. Because, with 80% of punters, foreplay is just the wrapping-paper on a present: they enjoy it well enough, but then it comes to what they’re really after. I’d say 40% prefer oral, 40% fucking, but one or other of those is almost always the real deal, the thing they’re paying me for. And when the suck or the fuck is about to happen, they get that expression – the slight smile, the eyes open a shade wider. And that’s Rainbow’s face at this moment. He’s anticipating satisfaction, right here, right now. What’s coming?

“You’re telling us that you never went near the hotel, and you were away from the area before the murder happened. But – our witness who saw you at 11.20 – he knew you. He told us your name. He claims to know you – intimately.”

“You mean, he’s one of my clients.”

He’s silent for a moment: a silence that says ‘Yes’. And then he says “So you see, it’s not merely a passing, random identification. It’s enough to justify me asking you to give your fingerprints and a DNA swab. You don’t have to agree, at this stage. But I’d advise you to.”

I’m sunk. I’m fucking sunk.

“Aren’t I allowed to know who this person, my accuser, is?”

“Witness protection. We will check his story carefully. But right now, it’s enough of a positive identification for us to need to eliminate you from our enquiries. So the prints and so on – well, it would make sense for you to agree.”

“What if I refuse?”

“Why should you? It’s routine, that’s all, and then you’re in the clear. Shouldn’t be a problem for you. In your line of work you’re hardly a stranger to sharing what’s personal to you.”

Cops United scored first, but I’ve just equalised. Own goal: scorer Rainbow.

“So you think that I should give you my prints and DNA – because of what I do? Because my privacy is worth less than other people’s?”

Pawan looks so pissed off with him. Because the net was about to drop on me, and now he’s snagged it.

I’m fighting for my life here: I push the one little advantage I’ve got. “I think, if I’m to help your investigation by giving you these samples, then I’m entitled to legal advice first. Because of what you’ve said, Mr Rainbow, I do want that solicitor after all. You shouldn’t, and you can’t, push me around as if I’m different from anyone else.”

“So you won’t give us your prints?”

“I’m not refusing. All I’m doing is saying, because of the way you’ve treated me, that I need to consider my position. My legal position, with a legal adviser. And – can I ask one more question? To help me decide about this so-called co-operation.”

“Fire away.”

“The witness. He claims to have met me. Was it an incall or an outcall? I explain my jargon, to be totally clear. “Did he see me at my home, or somewhere else?”

He looks through some papers. “He claims to have visited you at your home.”

“OK. Because, like I said, I don’t meet many guys outside my home. So if he told you that he met me at his home, or a hotel, that would make his story unlikely.”

Pawan cuts in. “Look, we’re not disbelieving you. We don’t need a witness statement at the moment, because you say you’re not a witness. But we need to be sure, we need you to decide about those prints. If your story is true, then you have nothing to fear. You might as well have the prints done right now.”

“I’m not refusing. I just need time to think about it, and talk it over with a brief.”

Rainbow’s response comes straight back at me. “This is a murder enquiry. We need to move fast, and to do that, we need to eliminate you from the investigation. So – those prints please. Tomorrow.”

“What about my legal advice?”

“Your solicitor can see you this afternoon. Police Officer Simmonds contacted a duty solicitor for you, as you requested. The solicitor has just now texted you, and copied me in.”

What? I thought a solicitor was supposed to be on my side?”

“Read the text.” He hands the phone to me. “Miss Harlow. I am duty police station solicitor at Thames Solicitors. I can attend you this afternoon at 4pm Stoke Newington police station, or more conveniently at our offices at 145 Seven Sisters Road. Please let me know location. Julian Caunce.”

Rainbow smiles a broad, evil grin. “So we’ll see you tomorrow. You’re free to go.” And he can’t help adding “For now.”

Harlow Town 1, Cops United 2.

So I can leave. Before I go, I get my phone out and read out some numbers to them. But, wherever there is a 5 in the numbers, I say 6. So they’ll dial the wrong numbers. Which gives me time, as I wait for a taxi outside the police station, to call Gary and Aftab, the two guys in my story, and ask them to say to the police what I need them to say – before the police get to them first. Gary’s a longstanding client who’ll happily say anything, and Aftab, an engineer who works shifts for London Underground, is an old friend who used to live in the ground-floor flat below me and Jazz until he got married. He’s a good mate, and since moving out he’s often gone a little out of his way home to Walthamstow to give me lifts back to my flat, when I’ve done a late-nighter at a central London hotel. Then, I phone the police station, say sorry, sorry, my fingers are a bit clumsy on my phone screen, I often type the wrong digits, so I’m calling them to check that I did give them exactly the right numbers.

And of course, the bit about the café is true. I went there that night, as I often do for Bloomsbury bookings, to put myself in the frame of mind for my booking. Just something I do, sitting there sipping a coffee, running through in my mind how I’ll react to the guy’s touch, how I will appear genuinely aroused when I don’t fancy the punter. Because most Bloomsbury hotel bookings are old, fat businessmen. So I’m quite a regular at Brucciani’s. The Italian guy was new there, but he’ll remember me. Because all he could do when I ordered that latte was stare at my cleavage. And because Wycherley was running late, I ended up sitting in that café for nearly an hour.

And only then, once I’ve shown how co-operative I am with the police, to get into my taxi and allow myself the relief of tears, of crying and crying into my hanky. Police interrogation. Even when you come out of it OK, and you’ve lied successfully, you feel you’ve been tortured into confession. The whole process leaves you feeling defiled – even when you’re a whore.

When I get home, I’m going to have the longest, bubbliest bath ever.

But first, the taxi takes me to the solicitor’s office. What a waste of time. He’s maybe the same age as me, not long out of some nice university, and completely out of his depth, I can tell, with most of the clients that he must represent. His Mum and Dad must be gutted that he’s advising lowlife above a shop in Seven Sisters rather than raking down hundreds of grand in the City. I tell him the same line I’ve told the police, of course. He notes it all down and says that he can be with me at the station if I have to go in again. He talks a bit about the cost of his work if I need his help and advice as a witness, and about legal aid, which seems to kick in only if I’m charged with the murder and he has to defend me in court, although if I’m lucky enough to end up as just a witness, I might get something for loss of earnings. But until I’m charged, he’s not going to be of much use to me.




3 Friday 7 July

I’m lying in bed. It’s mid-afternoon on a warm summer day, but I’ve got the quilt up over my head. I want nothing: to see nothing, know nothing, think nothing, feel nothing. I can hear cheerful sounds from outside, people sitting in their yards and gardens chatting, songs on the radio, distant hum of traffic. Even a bird cheeping. I listen, and stare into the darkness.

Who am I?

If you grow up, I guess, with a family, there is so much that’s given to you – so much that you know belongs to yourself. Your parents, always there. The family home that you know as the place where you began, and where you can go back to when things get rough. A bricks-and-mortar womb. Familiar streets, shops, school. Brothers, sisters, friends.

I grew up in ten different children’s homes. Officially, I was brought up in just two, but moves of premises, reorganisations, restructurings of the Social Services maze meant that I was never living in the same place for more than eighteen months at a time. And different schools too. Maybe I was lucky: I was never physically abused. But there was never any one person that was always there, that I knew I could always turn to. Every few months another nice social-worker/carer lady would arrive, meet me, ‘gain my trust’. And then she’d be promoted or moved, or become pregnant with her own child, and leave. After a while it got easier. The constant change became business-as-usual. I realised that when I talked to some new, well-meaning, middle-class face about my feelings, my fears, my hopes, it was in the certain knowledge that in six months’ time she would go away to do something else, something more important. And my own face would be erased from her memory, like I’d never been. I realised that I was saying the things I did to these so-called carers not genuinely, but in order to play the part: to act out what was expected of me. I was invisible, as they say, and after a while, I realised that I wanted to be invisible. Not because I didn’t believe in myself, but because I was like a chick in an egg, alive but not yet alive. Waiting for my life to start.

They wanted what was best for me, they really did. But during all that time only one thing came along that gave me any sense of purpose: doing that St John’s Ambulance course. The instructors didn’t pity me, they didn’t look down on me, they gave me clear tasks which I did successfully, and I actually had the same instructor for three years. Kenneth Cropper. I’ll always remember him. I think back, how much I enjoyed that course, I actually felt like a part of something, a member of the group with the other kids. A weird, one-off feeling for the child that was me. Maybe I had a talent, maybe if I’d had a proper home background I’d have gone into nursing as a career. But nothing like that even crossed my mind. After some attempts at GCSEs – again, doing what I was told, what they expected of me – I tried to keep up with the catering college course they felt was right for me, which is where I met Amrit. He was a lot older than me, and at first it seemed like he had dreams, hopes of something better. We were both rubbish at the college course, cookery is what I’m worst at in the whole world, but he said that wasn’t important. If he finished the course, his uncle would give him a job in his restaurant. “Front of house, that’s what’s important. Losers cook. I want to be the guy who takes the money from the customer.”

I walked out of the children’s home aged seventeen without telling anyone where I was going. I walked round the corner and seven minutes later I knocked on Amrit’s door. I knew that they would never find me, that the efforts to trace me would not even lead them two blocks away from the home.

Amrit’s flat was a dump, but living with him was OK at first. His family were not against him seeing a white girl, nor did they try to disown him for what was obviously a fully sexual relationship. On which subject: the sex was pretty crap. Amrit was the original goldfish-attention-span male in bed. Once we were at it, he was desperate to stick it in me straight away. Then 2 minutes of unvaried, rhythmic heaving. If there was music on, he would shag to the beat. Then a brief cry, a groan, and he would roll over and sleep and I would reach for my vibrator.

The problems came when his family found out I had only just turned seventeen – Amrit was twenty-four. This they did criticise him for, and I recall his father coming round, shutting me in the kitchen in order to talk to his son ‘man to man’ in the sitting room of the flat. I sat in that room for ages, listening at the door, but at first hearing only the pattering of winter rain on the window. But then, raised voices. Angry shouting. And then, a slammed front door. When I opened the kitchen door I was surprised to see his father still there.

“Cup of tea?”

“Thank you, my daughter.” He was always a gentleman, Amrit’s father.

Amrit came back two hours later, after his dad had gone. He’d clearly been thinking and had decided which side his bread was buttered. He gathered all my stuff, loaded it into his car and drove me round to the street where the children’s home was. He left me on the pavement, with all my belongings in the world in three cardboard boxes. I remember looking up and down the street, the avenues of trees like black skeletons against the January sky.

I hear a noise, and the memory is gone. The sound is the most welcome I’ve heard for days: Jazz’s key in the door of our flat.

“How’s your Mum?” I ask, hoping she’ll tell me quickly and then I can tell her my story.

“Much better. Much better than Dad, that is. He’s the one not coping. God, it’s hot. The temperature goes up ten degrees when you come back into London.”

“It’s been a bloody sauna, the last few days. And you know how I hate being too hot. Jazz – ”

She looks at me. I see her classy, English face, still so clear-skinned even though she’s just turned thirty; her straight narrow nose, high cheeks: they all say to me – clever, privileged. Well, she is privileged, compared to me: Mum, Dad, home, college. And she used to have a proper job too, at Haringey Council, taking calls, dealing with housing enquiries. Responsible work – but promotion opportunities were zero, so she packed it in. The game was only meant to tide her over until she found a better job. Now it’s eight years later.

I tell her my story.

“Think of the positive, Hol. You didn’t do it: they’ve had you inside the police station, and they’ve not charged you. Someone violent, strong, almost certainly male did this. They won’t have a case that would stack up in court against you, they don’t want to see their prosecution case collapse... everything points to them not seeing you as a real suspect. They see you as a witness. They’re sometimes rough on witnesses – and especially, our sort of people. A girl who’s on the game – it’s Us and Them. They don’t trust us to tell them what they want. They want to shake us up. They think we’re like a tree: rattle the branches and everything will drop out.”


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