The interior of the caf'e was a fug of frying grease. Taking his seat opposite the two men, Grace reckoned that just breathing in here could raise anyone’s cholesterol up to heart-attack levels. But he went ahead and ordered egg, bacon, sausage and chips, fried bread and a Coke, glad that neither Glenn Branson nor Cleo was around to chide him about his diet.
Terry Biglow ordered egg and chips, while his vacant friend, Jimmy, just ordered a cup of tea and kept giving Grace imploring looks, as if the Detective Superintendent was the only man on the planet who could save him from something that he didn’t seem very clear about. Himself, most likely, Roy thought, watching him slip a half-bottle of Bells from his coat pocket and take a long swig, and clocking the prison tattoos on his knuckles. One dot for each year inside. He counted seven.
‘I’m on the straight and narrow now, Mr Grace,’ Terry Biglow suddenly said.
He had dots on his knuckles too, and the tail of a serpent on the back of his hand, its body disappearing up his sleeve.
‘So you told me. Good.’
‘Me brother’s very ill. Pancreas cancer. Do you remember me uncle, Eddie, Mr Grace? Sorry, Inspector Grace?’
Grace did indeed, more clearly than he cared to. He had never forgotten taking a statement from one of Eddie Biglow’s victims. His face had been ripped open in jagged lines by broken glass, down both sides from the hairline to the chin, because he had complained when Biglow barged in front of him at the bar of a pub.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I remember him.’
‘Actually,’ Biglow went on, ‘I’ve got a bit of cancer myself.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Grace said.
‘Me tummy, you know?’
‘Bad?’ Grace asked.
Biglow shrugged, as if it was only minor. But there was fear in his eyes.
Jimmy nodded sagely and took another swig. ‘I dunno who’ll look after me when he’s gone,’ he whined to Grace. ‘I need protecting.’
Grace gave him a cursory shrug with his eyebrows, then took his Coke from the waitress and immediately drank some. ‘You and Ronnie Wilson were mates, weren’t you, Terry?’
‘Yeah, we was once, yeah.’
‘Before you went to jail?’
‘Yeah, before then. I took the rap for him, you know.’ He stirred sugar into his tea wistfully. ‘I did an’ all.’
‘You knew his wife?’
‘Both his wives.’
‘Both?’ Grace said, surprised.
‘Yeah. Joanna and then Lorraine.’
‘When did he remarry?’
He scratched the back of his head. ‘Cor, that was a few years after Joanna left him. She was a looker, Joanna was, a stonker! But I didn’t like her much. Gold-digger, she was. Latched on to Ronnie cos he was flash – but she didn’t realize he didn’t have much money.’ He tapped the side of his nose. ‘Not a good businessman, Ronnie. Always talked big, always had big schemes. But he didn’t have – what’s it called – the nose, the Midas touch. So when Joanna sussed that out, she legged it.’
‘Los Angeles. Her mum died and she inherited a bit from the house. Ronnie woke up one morning and she was gone. Just left a note. Gone to try to make it in the movies as an actress.’
Their food arrived. Terry smothered his chips in vinegar, then shook out half the contents of the salt cellar on to them. Grace poured some brown sauce on to his plate, then picked up the tomato-shaped ketchup container. ‘Who did she keep in touch with after she went to LA?’
Biglow shrugged and speared a chip with his fork. ‘No one, I don’t think. Wasn’t no one down here liked her. None of us. My old lady couldn’t stick her. And she didn’t have no interest in making friends with us.’
‘Was she from down here?’
‘Nah, London. I think he met her at a lap-dancing place in London.’
Another chip met the same fate.
‘What about his second wife?’
‘Lorraine. She was all right. She was a good looker too. Took him a while to marry her – had to wait two years, I think, to get a divorce through from Joanna, cos of her desertion.’
Very difficult to get someone who is rotting in a storm drain to sign divorce papers, Grace thought.
‘Where can I find Lorraine?’
Biglow gave him a strange look.
‘I do need looking after, Mr Grace,’ whined Jimmy again.
Biglow turned to his friend and pointed at his own face. ‘See the lips moving? Means I’m still talking, so give it a rest, all right.’ He turned to Grace. ‘Lorraine. Yeah, well, if you want to find her you’ll have to get yerself a boat and a deep-sea diving suit. She topped herself. Went overboard the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry one night.’
Grace suddenly lost all interest in his food. ‘Tell me more.’
‘She was depressed, in a terrible state after Ronnie died. He left her in a right old mess, financially like. The mortgage company took the house and the finance people took just about everything else, except for a few stamps.’
‘Yeah, they was Ronnie’s thing. Traded them all the time. Told me once he preferred them to cash, more portable.’
Grace thought for a moment. ‘I thought I’d read that 9/11 victims’ families got quite big compensation payments. Didn’t she?’
‘She never said nothing about that. She sort of became a recluse, you know, just kept her distance. Like retreated into a shell. When they took everything, she moved into a little rented flat down Montpelier Road.’
‘When did she die?’
He thought for a moment. ‘Yeah. It was November – 9/11 happened in 2001, so this would have been November 2002. Christmas was coming up. Know what I mean? Difficult time, Christmas, for some people. Jumped overboard from the ferry.’
‘Was the body found?’
Grace made some notes, while Biglow ate. He picked at his own meal, his concentration now elsewhere. One wife sets off to America and ends up in a storm drain in Brighton. The second jumps off a cross-Channel ferry. A lot of questions were now filling his head. ‘Did they have children?’
‘Last time I saw Ronnie he said they was trying. But they was having fertility problems.’
Grace thought some more. ‘Other than you, who were Ronnie Wilson’s closest friends?’
‘We wasn’t that close. We was friends, but not close. There was old Donald Hatcook – Ronnie was with him, apparently, in his office on 9/11. Up in one them towers of the World Trade Center. Donald made it big, poor bastard.’ He thought for a moment. ‘And Chad Skeggs. But he emigrated, didn’t he, went to Australia.’
Grace remembered the name; the man had been in trouble years back, but he couldn’t recall why.
‘See, they’ve all gone. It would have been the Klingers here, I s’pose. Yeah, Steve and Sue Klinger, know them? Live in Tongdean.’
Grace nodded. The Klingers had an ostentatious house in Tongdean Avenue. Stephen had been, as the euphemism goes, a person of interest to the police for as long as Grace had been in the force. It was a widely held view that Klinger, who had started life as a car dealer, had not made his money legitimately and that his nightclubs, bars, coffee houses, student rental properties and moneylending businesses were all money-laundering fronts for his real business: drugs. But so far, at least, if he was a drugs overlord, he ran a tight ship and had ensured nothing could ever be traced back to him.
‘Ronnie and he started out working together,’ Biglow continued. ‘Then they got into trouble over a bunch of clocked cars. I don’t remember what happened exactly. The business disappeared overnight – the garage burned down with all the records. Sort of convenient. There weren’t no charges never brought.’
Grace added Steve and Sue Klingers’ names to the list of people to be interviewed by his team. Then he cut off a corner of fried bread and dunked it in an egg.
‘Terry,’ he said, ‘what was your take on Ronnie?’
‘How d’yer mean, Mr Grace?’
‘What kind of a bloke was he?’
‘Fucking psycho,’ Jimmy chipped in suddenly.
‘Shut it!’ Biglow turned on him. ‘Ronnie wasn’t no psycho. But he had a temper, I’ll grant you that.’
‘He was a fucking psycho,’ Jimmy insisted.
Biglow smiled at Grace. ‘He was a little sick in the head at times, you know, sort of his own worst enemy. He was angry at the world cos he wasn’t succeeding, not like some of his friends – know what I mean?’
Like you? Grace wondered privately. ‘I think so.’
‘Know what my dad said about him once?’
Grace, chewing on a piece of fatty sausage, shook his head.
‘He said he was the kind of bloke who could follow you in through a turnstile and come out in front of you without having paid!’ Biglow chuckled. ‘Yeah, that was our Ronnie all right. God bless his soul!’