Chapter 1

 

DOMINIC WOKE with a start. Bleary-eyed, he peered at the glowing digits of the alarm clock on his bedside table. It was half past midnight. As he rolled over to try to go back to sleep, he heard scuffling noises down the corridor of his elegant, ground-floor apartment. He sat up and listened intently. There was something going on outside the front door. The scuffling noises were mingled with the muffled murmur of men’s voices. Was someone trying to break in?

After taking a dose of Nyquil to help him fight off a very persistent cold, Dominic had not long fallen asleep. Half-drugged, he stumbled across the bedroom floor. The room was pitch-black, save for the glow of the alarm clock. He gingerly felt his way around the foot of the bed toward the hallway.

The scuffling noise had stopped, but the murmur of the voices continued. The apartment’s hallway was lit by the orange glow of the streetlamp outside. An annoying and protracted battle with the local council had failed to turn off this nightly intrusion to the confines of his apartment. As a result, he had needed to get blackout curtains fitted in the bedroom to have any chance of undisturbed sleep.

As Dominic approached the front door, he contemplated what weapon he had to hand if he needed to fend off an armed intruder. Nothing, save the umbrella in the black-and-chrome art deco stand in the corner and a pair of Chelsea boots sitting on the mat. Perhaps he could simply wedge the door shut with a chair and call the police, hoping they might arrive quickly.

Dominic’s apartment was one of six in a large converted Georgian house. As he peered through the spy hole in the center of his front door, he could see the oak-paneled communal reception hall and the sweeping staircase up to the apartments on the first floor of the house. He could also see two police officers standing over a motionless woman lying on the parquet floor. It was not what he was expecting to see on this wet, wintry night. He unhooked the door chain, opened his front door, and stepped into the hallway to find out what had happened.

Too late he realized that, in his Nyquil-induced state, he was wearing a pair of Dolce & Gabbana low-cut briefs and nothing else. Dominic decided poise and decorum would carry him through this potentially awkward moment. After all, he was in good shape for his thirty-seven years, thanks to three punishing nights a week at the gym. Before him were two young and very cute police officers, and Dominic was temporarily taken aback. They were far more appealing to look at than the woman lying on the floor. Recovering his poise, Dominic held back his shoulders and stood square in the doorway as he asked, “What’s going on, officers?”

The two policemen were in their midtwenties, tall, with close-cropped hair and solid, athletic frames. One was crouched over the woman, putting her into the recovery position, while the other was standing a short way from Dominic’s open front door about to talk on his radio. If they were surprised by Dominic’s sudden seminaked appearance, their faces did not betray it.

“Good evening, sir,” said the police officer nearest to him. “We’ve just had to deliver some bad news to this lady. She fainted and collapsed against your door—I presume the noise woke you? Do you know Mrs. Gregory? I believe she’s a neighbor of yours.”

“Oh my God!” said Dominic. “Yes, she lives in the apartment above me, number four. What was it you had to tell her?”

“I’m afraid it seems her son tried to kill himself tonight,” replied the young officer. A voice crackled on his radio. “Excuse me a moment, sir. I’m just raising an ambulance to come and attend to Mrs. Gregory. We’re concerned she may have hit her head when she fell.”

The police officer spoke into his radio, giving directions to the converted Georgian house in the small market town in the rural English county of Oxfordshire. From what Dominic could make out, the ambulance had been dispatched from the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford city and was on its way.

He only knew Samantha Gregory to say hello to in the communal hallway. The residents of Ash House kept themselves very much to themselves. He was dimly aware she had a son in his late teens. Dominic seemed to remember her saying he had recently gone away to university in Brighton on the English south coast. She was an attractive, tall woman, probably in her early forties, who was always impeccably dressed. Even as she lay on the polished parquet wood floor, her head turned to one side with the long ringlets of her hair swept back from her closed eyes, Dominic was struck by her good taste in clothes. It was a sobering reminder of his own current state of undress, and he was about to retreat to his apartment to seek out some more appropriate attire when Samantha stirred and groaned.

“Mrs. Gregory? Mrs. Gregory? Can you hear me?” asked the officer at her side. “No, don’t try to sit up. Stay there for a short while. You’ve had a fall and may have hit your head. Don’t try to move just yet.”

Dominic seized the opportunity to be more of a useful spectator and less of an undressed interloper on the scene. “Officer, I’ll go and fetch a glass of water and a pillow to make Mrs. Gregory more comfortable.”

With that he went back into his apartment, put on an old pair of tracksuit bottoms and a sweatshirt that had been hanging on the back of his bedroom chair, and fetched the glass of water from his bedside table. A few moments later, he reemerged into the communal hallway. He bent down beside the young police officer with Mrs. Gregory. Dominic’s eyes lingered for a few moments on the officer’s impressive biceps, which were restrained by his short-sleeved tunic top. Then he looked over to his neighbor. Her eyes were open and staring in confusion at the events around her.

“Mrs. Gregory, would you like a sip of this?” he asked. Samantha Gregory raised herself on one elbow and accepted the glass of water Dominic held to her lips. He noticed there was a large bruise growing darker on her forehead.

“Thank you, sir,” said the police officer at his side. “And you are…?”

“Dominic Delingpole. I live at number one,” replied Dominic, somewhat redundantly given he had now twice emerged from that doorway. “What’s happened to Mrs. Gregory’s son?”

“Mr. Gregory is in hospital down south in Brighton. He survived his attempt to kill himself, but he’s unconscious. It looks like he took an overdose, although it’s possible it might have been an accident. Fortunately he was found by a housemate, who called the ambulance.” A siren sounded in the distance. “Ah, that sounds like our ambulance. Would you mind going out to the street to meet them? It’s best that we stay with Mrs. Gregory for the moment.”

Dominic crossed the hallway to the main entrance of the house, opened the outer door, and propped it open with a heavy flatiron, left there for this purpose. As he walked out into the freezing night, he realized, again too late, that he was still not properly dressed. The gravel on the driveway cut into the soles of his bare feet as he walked the short distance to the front gate, which opened onto the High Street. A few seconds later, the ambulance rounded the corner at the end of the road. Dominic waved his arms frantically. Then self-consciousness overwhelmed him as he realized he was clearly the only person in the street at that time of night. He reduced his arm waving to a more discreet single-arm-in-the-air, hailing-a-taxi sort of maneuver. The ambulance drew up, and a green-uniformed paramedic emerged from the passenger door.

“She’s in here. Follow me,” said Dominic in what he hoped was a firm, assertive voice. The paramedic followed him into the hallway of Ash House. Behind him, his colleague carried an array of medical equipment.

Over the next fifteen minutes, the paramedics assessed Samantha Gregory’s condition and announced they would take her to the emergency room at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Dominic turned to his neighbor, who by now had been transferred to a stretcher, and asked, “Is there anything you would like me to do, Mrs. Gregory? Anyone you would like me to call?”

There was a long pause before she responded with a voice that was close to a whisper, “I’m sorry, Mr. Delingpole, this has been a frightful shock to me. I cannot believe Simon would do such a thing. He just doesn’t do drugs.” She looked away as she added, “It’s completely unlike him.” She turned back to Dominic. “You have been very kind. There is no one else to call at the moment. Simon’s father died ten years ago. It’s just the two of us, you see.” Her eyes brimmed with tears, and Dominic instinctively squeezed her hand.

“Let me give you my phone number, Mrs. Gregory. Do please call me if there is anything I can do. I would be happy to help.” He released her hand, went to his apartment, emerged a moment later with one of his business cards, and handed it to her. She glanced at it and said, “Oh yes, I recall you told me you were a lawyer. I have a feeling I might need your services.”