“German efficiency,” Boniface spat under his breath, yanking the outer door and launching it like a trebuchet, the hinged piece of wood arcing into the side wall as he started to jog toward his office. His teeth stayed together as his lips continued moving: “Next time I’m getting a client who understands that people are asleep until the sun has risen and should have time to shower, shave, and read the morning paper.”
Through the second door on the left—his corner office—the phone was ringing. Behind, with another dent added to the wall, the door stay squealed as it progressively rel eased its load before dropping the weight through the last few inches to slam shut.
As Boniface picked up speed, with each step the smell he had noticed when he opened the door but had tried to ignore was tugging at his nostrils with newfound vigor. A bitter, acrid smell—ammonia fused with filth, fused with never-washed human. It wasn’t rotting food or decaying household waste or forgetfulness to apply deodorant or a broken-down heater meaning a missed shower. It wasn’t that Montbretia had left something in her trash or that the cleaner hadn’t been through last night or the night before, and it definitely wasn’t the smell of the new carpet. It was more like a municipal waste dump in the heat of summer to a factor of ten.
Boniface turned into his room flicking the door behind him as he ran to grab the phone. Two steps across the room and he snatched the handset as the door clicked shut. “Guten morgen, Chlodwig. Wie gehts?” He straightened and walked slowly around his desk, careful not to catch the phone cord as he moved to the window. “No, that’s pretty much the limit of my German, I’m afraid. So if we can stick with English, I’d be grateful. Anyway, how are you this morning, and how is business in Hamburg today?”
He leaned to rest his head against the cool glass of the window and looked down on Wimbledon Hill Road, his breath misting the pane. From his vantage point two floors up, the perspective of the street was squashed. Everything looked its regular size but somehow flatter, and through the tinted glass, under the dull light with the sun still under the horizon, everything took on a monochrome hue.
The smell wasn’t improving.
A bad smell can be acceptable—as much as any smell can ever be acceptable—if you can get away from it and breathe clean air, but for Boniface, the smell wasn’t shifting. If anything, it was holding tighter and working its way farther up his nostrils and scraping down into his lungs. He stepped back from the window and looked around as if he would be able to see the source of the smell or at least see the smell floating across the room, then reached for the trashcan under his desk. Seeing a fresh liner in it, he shrugged, replaced the bin, and sat on his desk, pulling out his bottom drawer to rest his feet.
“Greta wanted me to bring you up to speed on an issue we’ve got and to walk you through our strategy to handle it.” He nodded, made some vague noises of affirmation, and continued. “Greta wants me to brief you. Fully. She wants you to hear the problem and the solution together. She wanted to tell you herself and she would have done, but she’s in Malta today to sign the deal for the bulk carriers.”
Boniface listened. Nodded. Made more noises of affirmation as if to imply he was paying attention to Chlodwig rather than wondering about the smell and being frustrated about the early hour.
“The problem is with the Montenegro Shipping Line.” He paused, listening, and then sighed with a knowing acknowledgement, his tone resigned. “Yes, it’s always a problem with the Montenegro Shipping Line.”
As the German responded, Boniface stood, gently kicked his drawer closed, breathed in slowly as if that might reduce the pungency of the smell, and pulled back his shoulders, still not paying much attention. He had already heard the arguments, and given what he was about to disclose, he wished that Chlodwig’s voice had been heard more forcefully before the purchase of the Montenegro Shipping Line was completed.
Feeling the I-told-her-so homily dissipating as it worked its way down the line, Boniface continued. “It’s a bit more serious than we might have expected, and the issue is likely to become public any day now. We don’t know how or where it will become public, or even when, but we’re fairly sure it will.”
Boniface stared out of his window again. In the distance he could hear a siren. The monochromatic light of the street below, now with a steady flow of traffic, was illuminated by a gentle flickering light at the lower end of the hill. One, then a second police car came into sight from the bottom end of the hill, their flashing lights bouncing off the storefronts. As they reached Boniface’s building, the two cars turned into the road bounding the second side of his office. He watched as they turned, their sirens attenuating as they disappeared from view, and stayed gazing at where he had last seen the vehicles.
“There’s a problem. It’s a big problem. We reckon there are photos. There’s definitely a trail back to the Montenegro Shipping Line. There are dead bodies, but we haven’t got a definitive number.” Boniface paused, shaking his head as he waited for the question he knew Chlodwig was about to ask. “We don’t know. Tens, at least. Probably over fifty. Maybe over one hundred.”
He caught sight of his reflection in the window—his face, gray like the street outside, with all signs of joy drained—and registered the tremble in his voice as he tried to say out loud that his client might have been responsible for the deaths of more than one hundred people. One hundred innocent people. Men. Women. Children. He hadn’t mentioned the other people who might be hurt: not only those who were visibly injured, but those who would be ill for years to come. Those who might contract cancer. The birth defects. The people whose lives would be blighted through polluted drinking water and living next to a toxic-waste dump.
“Somalia.” He tilted his head away from the phone. “Yes, Somalia, and no, we don’t know…”
His door opened. Two police officers—uniformed and wearing stab-proof vests—entered the room: a man in his mid-thirties with a younger officer, almost certainly fresh from the Peel Center, the Met’s training college, standing nervously behind. They both stood at the far end of the room, apparently unwilling to step forward.
“Hold on a moment, Chlodwig.” Boniface put his hand over the mouthpiece. “Could you give me a couple of minutes, say ten minutes, to finish this call? I’m sure Montbretia can fix you a cup of tea or something while you wait.”
“Would you end the phone call, please, sir?” It sounded like a request, but Boniface understood that the officer was giving an order.
“Chlodwig, something’s going on. I’ll call you straight back in a couple of minutes.”
Boniface placed the handset back in its cradle without making a noise. “You’re looking pale, sir.”
“Death is never easy.” Boniface exhaled.
“So you admit…”
The younger officer looked admiringly at the older officer as Boniface’s voice took on a new urgency. “Admit what? I was… Never mind, different conversation. Why are you here?”
“We’ve had a report of a murder.”
“Yes, sir. A murder.”
“Who has been murdered?”
“I was rather hoping you could tell me, as you are apparently the murderer.”
Boniface let his body fall into his chair back and waited for the room to stop spinning. “Here? Murder? Me the murderer?”
“Yes, sir. You. Alexander Boniface.” The older officer took a step farther into the room; the younger man jumped, apparently to keep his human shield in place. “We had a phone call,” he glanced at his watch “thirteen minutes ago, informing us that you had committed a murder in your office.”