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What happened
to Little Ben?

Greil used to be
in a band. Now he's
just in dire straits

Sleb


Chapter One

“Bloody hell, it’s lucky neither of us is diabetic,” said the well-known soap star Aaron Bleasdale to his girlfriend.

Actually, he sort of nuzzled the words into her neck as they took their turn before a huge bank of news photographers, many of them standing on short, aluminium step-ladders in order to get a better vantage point.

“Aaron! Aaron!” they shouted, even though only roughly half of their rank knew his name, and they were the half who knew he was just shutter practice before the proper stars arrived. Still, the girlfriend was wearing a very revealing dress.

“What?” she nuzzled back to him as they posed before the snappers who acted excitable but were actually bored. At the celebrity couple’s back were more people, members of the public who were kept from spilling onto the red carpet of the entrance-way by rounded metal barriers with peculiarly comforting feet, really stable-looking. These barriers had been erected towards the middle of the afternoon and people roaming Leicester Square at that time had idly wondered, “what’s all that in aid of?” as they passed. Phil Yorke, whose friends called him Yorkie, had said to his girlfriend, “Bet there’s a premiere on tonight. Wonder what it is...” But his girlfriend had been miles away, not really listening. You know how couples are sometimes.

Thing is, Yorkie was right. There was a premiere and lots of well-known faces were expected to attend. In order to capture their attendance, breakfast television crews had set up not long after the metal barriers arrived. Their purpose was to record the stars arriving ready for broadcast the next day, when the viewing public of a morning could monitor what the stars were wearing and how they reacted to the crowds bellowing for their attention.

Essentially puff pieces, a bit of glamour to slot between the troubles in the Middle East, the same viewing public could nevertheless catch up on all the really juicy gossip by diving into the tabloids to find out who got drunk at the after-show party, who snogged whom, and who mysteriously disappeared into a toilet cubicle with whom. The red-top tabloids would dutifully pass on all the dirt while the others – the Mail and the Express, in particular – would consider themselves above such tittle-tattle, leaving it to their columnists to comment on gossip that readers would only be aware of if they’d been reading another paper.

So really the whole palaver did not exist within its own time-frame, and there on the red carpet was merely where it started. Instead it was something held chiefly to benefit the following morning, and then to a lesser extent for the columnists later in the week, so that they could extract pithy put-downisms from Caprice’s dress. And after that, for the Sunday papers, with their supplements, picture spreads and witty captions of which the subs desk were rightfully proud. Given the right circumstances its ripples might be felt for years even. Who, for example, has not heard of ‘that’ dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral?

On this particular occasion though, it would all be different.

There would be no gossip. No tittle-tattle. No ‘that’ dresses or witty captions. There would be only one story.

And it would centre on why Felix Carter was not there.

“What?” she said again. And her name is not recorded. She was simply Aaron Bleasdale’s glamorous partner, a ‘Mystery Blonde’. Good-looking, though.

They made sure their body language was right as they stood for the benefit of the hissing Nikons. They stood leaning into one another, and even as she repeated her, “what?” she was sure to make it look as though they were sharing a private moment. Such a dear couple, so close and together even in public – even caught in the incessant magnesium pop of the camera flash.

So he said – again – “Bloody hell, it’s lucky neither of us is diabetic.” And all the time he kept up that private-joke-sharing smile. They were only there for a second or so.

But bless him.

“What do you mean, diabetic?” The Mystery Blonde’s voice was quizzical, but her face stayed faithful to the whirring cameras.

“You know, what with all the flashing. Like a whatsit, like a strobe light.”

“Oh ah-ha.” And she started to laugh, even tippy-toed to give him a kiss (click-click) using it to smother her guffaws and saying as she did it, “You mean, epileptic.”

“Oh God.” He slapped his hand dramatically against his forehead because he liked doing things in a slightly dramatic fashion. He was, after all, an actor. But inside he was seething. When he’d said to his new girlfriend – who was, admittedly, very sexily dressed for the night – when he’d said to her, “bloody hell, it’s lucky etc, etc” He had been doing it purely to draw her attention to the… well, to the attention. He’d been meaning it as a kind of coda for, “hey babe, check out the glamour on me. Don’t get paparazzi bawling at you when you step out with your ‘civilian’ friends, do you?” So really he was just bigging himself up, the stupid great insecure lunk.

Abigail was the PR girl who ticked off their names on a specially decorated clipboard as they passed into the door of the cinema. (Odeon West End, by the way. Good cinema, bit pricey). Abigail had looked at herself in the mirror before she left home that evening, as the mini-cab beeped impatiently in the street, and she thought she looked great. She was wearing a black dress she’d bought at Oasis in town, and the thing was, she’d been to a lot more upmarket shops than Oasis in search of her perfect premiere attire. She’d been all over, in fact. But in the end it was good old medium-priced, dependable Oasis that had come up with the goods and she would tell that to the girls next time she saw them all.

Clearly, Abigail knew her place in the whole premiere/breakfast TV/tabloid/columnist toboggan run, which was why her dress was carefully planned so as not to upstage any of the visiting guests, yet still to provide exactly the required amount of glamour and style. She looked good. She even momentarily caught the eye of Aaron Bleasdale as he flicked on his “you know who I am?” smile, and she responded with a smile and theatrical tilt-and-tick on her clipboard. And with that the celebrity couple passed into the foyer of the cinema which was already half-full and buzzing with the anticipation of a group of people knowing their betters are surely soon to arrive.

As a PR girl, Abigail was used to exalting that which was otherwise average, and her current position she would have likened to that of a kind of celebrity airlock. Just a couple of feet in front of her, beyond the doors, the barriers separated the herd from the guests who approached her along the red carpet, pausing and posing, depending on their importance, for the cameras who relied on B&Q ladders for their stature. Look, she thought, there comes someone who nobody recognises. He could be the film’s producer and nobody would notice. No cameras. The photographers do all but study their nails as he wanders nonchalantly past, sporting a deliberately bemused look, like he wants everyone to believe that he’s somehow above this celebrity circus.

Whereas, behind her were gathered the great and the good, relieved to have escaped the gauntlet of clicking cameras and breathless, panting fans. Pleased at last to be among their own where they could establish their own air-purified hierarchy. Yes, she thought: a celebrity airlock. It was a good analogy. Worth mentioning to the girls next time she saw them.

Truth be told, she wasn’t that pleased to welcome Aaron Bleasdale and his Mystery Blonde. Aaron was, after all, strictly B to C-list. The kind of familiar face you might expect to see on a quiz show hosted by Paul Ross. The people she really wanted to see were the A-listers, and she only wanted to see them in order to have the experience of seeing them, which would only gain a momentum in the re-telling. Like the event itself, Abigail only really stood to benefit from its ripples. Her participation in it would only accrue resonance when she held court in the faux-sincere surroundings of All Bar One as she and her friends loudly interrupted one another with snowballing tales of celebrity encounters.

So, no, she wasn’t that delighted to allow Aaron Bleasdale into her celebrity airlock. What she really wanted to do was meet and greet the big guns: “Enjoy the film.” Flirt when flirted with: “We’ve had a very good reaction from the journalists who have already seen it.” Gush: “This is my third time! And to be honest – really – I get something different out of it every time I see it.”

And of all the big guns, Felix Carter was the biggest – the .44 Magnum of big guns. After all, he was the country’s biggest pop star. Emerging from the rave scene and his days with the band 24/7, graduating to massive solo success and since launching an acting career. He was impossibly handsome and charismatic. He was the one the girls would be really impressed by.

But he wasn’t there; his name remaining frustratingly un-ticked on her clipboard. And as the Odeon’s day staff busied around her and closed the doors, and two of the staff went outside to tell the crowd, “Show’s over folks,” she had to accept it: he wasn’t coming. With a final, hopeful look into Leicester Square, she turned and consulted her specially decorated clipboard to check which screen she’d put herself in. As she did so she suddenly felt dowdy and slightly embarrassed by the Oasis dress, which now felt like skimping instead of a canny buy.

Where was he?

Exactly half-an-hour earlier, the model Saffron Martyn was standing in the lounge of her Fulham flat, watching the road through her bay window, waiting for her car to arrive.

She always had butterflies whenever she was waiting for a car or a cab. There was something about the waiting that made her nervous, the lack of control probably. But on this occasion her stomach was doing more flips, lurches and curtsies than usual. So much so she wondered if she might be sick. She hoped not. Being sick was something she particularly didn’t want to do since she was terrified of marking or creasing her dress. Plus, there was nobody around to hold her hair out of her face.

The dress had been made, especially for her, and especially for this occasion, by her designer friend Tom DeBute, which was correctly pronounced der-boot-ay. She was his favourite model, his ‘pet model’ he liked to call her. And he was her favourite designer, mainly because she always looked fabulous in his clothes. DeBute was not a particularly well-known designer outside fashion circles, and neither had Saffron broken out of the catwalk circuit and into the celebrity and gossip column one. But both unspokenly knew that – providing the dress was right – all that could change after tonight. They were, after all, guaranteed the camera’s kiss. She was being taken to the premiere by him, by Felix Carter.

So she stood and nervily waited for the car which was due to pick her up first and then him. Not such a gentlemanly arrangement, but then, that’s the way things are. And she smoothed the dress, noting with renewed horror exactly how little of it there was to smooth. That, of course – still unspoken – was the plan. Maybe it should have made her sad that she was gift-wrapping herself for the morning’s tabloids, but it didn’t. She was just playing the game.

When the car arrived and she stepped daintily in, she watched the driver’s rearview mirror like a hawk, checking for any looks he might cast thinking she wouldn’t notice. He didn’t; just drove, silent and professional. That was a bad start, she thought. But then, he was a professional, and professionals don’t bat an eyelid. Not eyelid-batting is a skill essential to those in the service of the stars, and that thought relaxed her, made her think she was in good hands now. Whisked, by experts, to the premiere, showered with attention and then whisked home again, like walking on air, above the ordinary folk.

The car pulled up on the street in Kensington outside his house and she arranged herself carefully on the back seat, crossing her legs first one way and then the other. Resting an arm on the elbow rest then thinking “too casual” and taking it off again. Pouting, smiling and finally settling on an expression somewhere in between.

With the engine still purring, the driver stepped out of the car and closed his door, softly and without slamming it. He folded his hands in front of him and stood straight, ready to open the back door for his new passenger.

Saffron watched him, thrilled afresh at his professionalism. Then she turned her attention to the front door of the house, musing that it would be funny to watch this huge star come hurrying out of his house. Would he be patting his pockets to check for his keys, the way normal people do? Would he stand and lock his front door, check it was locked just to be on the safe side? Or hesitate, then let himself back in with a small, apologetic wave – “Oops, sorry. Just forgot me fags…”

But she waited, and re-arranged, and the driver waited with his hands clasped in front of him, his face expressionless but probably thinking about the football or a little DIY job that needed doing at home. And the door didn’t open.

After a moment or so, the driver looked around to her and raised his eyebrows, quizzical. She returned his look, but said nothing. Then, with still no response, he walked across the road to the house opposite, climbing the steps to the front door and pressing the bell.

And waited. Nothing. He turned to look back at the car, as if to say, “Tried him. I’ll try again,” then pressed the bell for a second time, waiting patiently on the doorstep, hands clasped as before. Perhaps another two minutes went by with still no answer before the driver returned, opened the driver’s door and peered at her in the back seat.

“Perhaps a telephone number, ma’am?” he suggested.

“Er, yes,” and she dug in her tiny purse for her tiny mobile phone. She’d entered his number just three days ago and had experienced a rush of excitement every time she scrolled through her telephone book since. Now though, she tossed her hair elegantly away from her ear and called his house.

Which didn’t answer.

She lowered the phone and seemed to wither with disappointment. The driver looked at her expectantly, waiting for directions from her, some kind of command to relieve him of the burden of her expectation. In return she smiled queasily back at him, wanting him to decide for her, willing him to suggest…

“Shall I try the bell one more time, ma’am?” he said. “Just to be on the safe side?”

“Yes. Yes please. If you wouldn’t mind,” she replied. And the driver tipped his head a yes-certainly, wishing the stupid cow would accept defeat, and trotted back across the road and up the blasted steps for the third time.

She watched. On the doorstep, she saw for the first time, was a bottle of something she couldn’t quite make out in the light of the streetlamps – something golden-looking – but she was too tense to wonder what it was. And then – thank God! – the door finally, miraculously, opened. But it only opened an inch or so, and she squinted her eyes to see as the driver and the person behind the door – was it him? Looked like him but she couldn’t tell –  seemed to exchange words.

They appeared to speak for a moment before the driver reached into his jacket, pulling out something which he gave to the person behind the door. A beat, and the person passed whatever it was back to the driver, who indicated the bottle of golden liquid on doorstep, then turned and crossed the road back to the car. Again, her rampaging nerves prevented her questioning what she saw.

Then the driver was back, opening the driver’s door, leaning in to speak to her.

“Ma’am, I’m terribly sorry. The gentleman passes on his most humble apologies, but he’s awfully unwell and will be unable to make it tonight. It seems we had previously disturbed him at an inconvenient time if you get my meaning. He was otherwise engaged in the bathroom. He wonders, can he perhaps call you either tomorrow, or when he’s feeling a little better?”

She absorbed the news, her mouth twitching, a facial tic she had acquired at school when other girls jealous of her beauty had taunted her mercilessly. Feeling a little of that pre-pubescent anguish returning, she said simply, “Thank you. Perhaps you could take me home?”

He nodded in sad confirmation, stepping into the driver’s seat and feeling very pleased with himself all told. Just two days ago he had been a minicab driver, and look at him now. He was talking the chauffeur talk like an old pro. As a reward to himself on the return journey, he let his eyes wander to the rearview mirror, so that he could fully admire the model’s dress, or rather, the lack of it.

He knew one thing: squits or not, there was no way he would have passed up the chance for a night out with that.

Of course, the driver had no way of knowing that the last thing Felix Carter was planning to do was pass up the chance for a night out with Saffron Martyn.

In fact, Felix had been planning to take Saffron to the premiere, then to the after-show party and then back to his house, where he intended fucking her brains out. He would have done it too, if he hadn’t been dead.

But the driver would find out in the fullness of time, and then he’d wonder whether the killer had been on the other side of that door when he stood on the step. Had he been a mere door’s width away from the man the world came to know as Christopher Sewell?

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