Chapter 1

In these times of ours – and we don’t need to be precise about the exact date – but, anyway, very early in the year, a young man not much over thirty, tall – six feet plus an inch or two – with ink-dark hair and a serious-looking, fine-featured but pallid face, went to keep a business appointment and discovered a hanged man.

Lorimer Black stared aghast at Mr Dupree, his mind at once clamorous with shocked alarm and curiously inert – the warring symptoms of a form of mental panic, he supposed. Mr Dupree had hanged himself from a thinly lagged water pipe that crossed the ceiling in the little anteroom behind reception. A small set of aluminium folding steps lay on its side beneath his slightly splayed feet (his tan shoes needed a good clean, Lorimer noticed). Mr Dupree was simultaneously the first dead person he had encountered in his life, his first suicide and his first hanged man and Lorimer found this congruence of firsts deeply troubling.

His eyes travelled reluctantly upwards from Mr Dupree’s scuffed toecaps, pausing briefly at the groin area – where he could discern no sign of the fabled, impromptu erection of the hangee – and moved on up to his face. Mr Dupree’s head was hunched too far over and his expression was slumped and sleepy, like that worn by exhausted commuters who doze off in overheated railway carriages, propped upright by badly designed banquettes. If you had seen Mr Dupree snoozing opposite you on the 18.12 from Liverpool Street, his head canted over in that awkward position, you would have ached presciently for the stiff neck he was bound to experience on awakening.

Stiff neck. Cricked neck. Broken neck. Christ. Lorimer carefully placed his briefcase on the floor, stepped past Mr Dupree and moved quietly to the door at the end of the anteroom. He opened it and peered out over the devastated expanse of the factory. Through the blackened and carbonized joists and beams of the roof he could see the low, unrelieved pewter of the sky; the floor was still covered with the charred and melted naked bodies of a near-thousand plastic mannequins (976, according to the documentation, a consignment destined for a chain of stores in the USA). All that mangled and ruined ‘flesh’ provoked a shiver of ersatz disgust and horror (ersatz because they weren’t real; after all, he told himself, no pain had been suffered) but here and there was preserved a head of cartoon handsomeness, or a tanned girl smiling a smile of preposterous welcome. The unchanging good nature of their expressions lent a certain touching stoicism to the scene. And beyond, Lorimer knew from the report, lay the torched workshops, the design studios, the clay and plaster sculpture rooms, the moulding lines. The fire had been unusually fierce and typically thorough. Apparently, Mr Dupree had been insistent that nothing would be touched, not a melted model budged, until he received his money and, Lorimer could see, Mr Dupree’s word had been steadfast.

Lorimer exhaled and made little popping noises with his lips. ‘Hmmm’, he said out loud, then, ‘Jesus H. Christ’, then ‘Hmmm’ again. He realized his hands were shaking slightly, so he thrust them in his pockets. The phrase ‘a bad business’ began to repeat itself moronically, man-trically, in his head. He speculated vaguely and reluctantly about Hogg’s reaction to the Dupree suicide: Hogg had told him about ‘toppers’ before and Lorimer wondered what the procedure was…

He closed the door, worried for a second about fingerprints, and then thought: why would they dust for a suicide? It