Chapter 1

HE ENJOYED appearing on television. TV seemed to like him, too: directors zoomed in for big close-ups of his sensitive, manicured fingers and boyish good looks.

But on that Friday night in November, on his way home after a day of rehearsals followed by a demanding programme in the Barbican Hall, Matthew Colman was not expecting to appear on TV.

Not on Sky Arts, not on BBC4, and certainly not on the local London news as a murder suspect.

His train pulled into Twickenham station. The doors bleeped and slid open with a hiss. Even this late at night, the carriage was over half full. A group of four young adults, speaking loudly and all at the same time, probably students, headed for the doors. The two lads wore backpacks. The shorter and blonder of the two girls carried a Costa Coffee disposable cup, the lid off. She spilled a little coffee on the floor. One of the boys said something and she giggled.

The bleeping resumed.

Matt pushed his lanky black hair out of his eyes. He waited for the four to pass, then slid from his seat and out through the doors as they began to close.

Flute players travel light. They are the envy of violinists, cellists, trombonists and many other orchestral musicians. All Matt needed was his flute and his piccolo, which he carried in a cylindrical leather shoulder case not much bigger than a gift box of malt whiskey.

The quartet of students had disappeared from view ahead, although he could still hear their drink-fuelled laughter.

He climbed the stairs, passed between the open barriers and out of the station into the damp night air.

The youngsters had gathered around a man of advanced years. He sat on the pavement on a flattened cardboard carton, his back to the wall. A sign in his lap scrawled on another scrap of cardboard read, “HUNGRY AND HOMELESS. PLEASE HELP.” He held out an empty Costa takeaway mug.

Tommy, as the locals knew him, was a frequent fixture at this spot. He wore a thin raincoat fastened around his waist with string, come rain or shine, but exuded a quiet dignity.

The girl who had spilled her coffee on the train now squatted down next to Tommy. She thrust her hands out, grasping her own Costa cup in a parody of the homeless man, and pulled a silly face. The others laughed. One of the lads with a backpack held out his phone and a flash went off.

Matt approached. “They bothering you, Tommy?”

“Nah,” said the sitting man.

The girl got to her feet.

“Make sure you tip Tommy well,” Matt growled to the chap who had taken the picture. “He’s not a free tourist attraction.”

The fellow wore a denim jacket and a red-and-white striped beanie cap. He grinned and glanced at his companions for support. But something about Matt’s expression made him hesitate.

“Pay up,” Matt said. “Else I might shoot you with my sawn-off shotgun.” He indicated his cylindrical shoulder case.

Actually, he wasn’t so young, the ringleader. Mid to late twenties. Smooth faced, with the red, flushed cheeks of a habitual heavy drinker. A perpetual student, probably on a Media Studies course. He now spoke for the first time, in a whining East London accent: “Only jokin’, man. We didn’t mean no harm.”

The short blonde girl opened her little red handbag and deposited a pound coin in Tommy’s cup.

“You lot too.”

The others exchanged glances, and then each produced a coin and bent to add it to Tommy’s takings.

Beanie Man was the last to comply.

“God bless you all,” Tommy wheezed.

“Well done,” Matt said. “Enjoy your evening.” He stooped and dropped the coins from his own pocket into Tommy’s mug, winked at the old boy and strode away.

Seconds later, Matt became aware of swift footsteps behind him, and spun around. Beanie Man. Another flash lit up the night scene.

The fellow turned and fled to the safety of his friends. Their laughter floated back to him as they swaggered four abreast down the pavement towards the new Burger King restaurant.

Matt shook his head. He crossed the road at the lights and walked down a residential street of three-storey Edwardian semis. Cars lined both sides, many of them dark-coloured, tank-like 4x4s, crouching like muzzled attack dogs outside their owners’ houses.

The turn-of-the century redbricks gave way to 1930s maisonettes, four to a block. Matt opened the gate leading to the first set of front doors, walked up the path, keys in hand, and let himself in.

His rented home lay in darkness. He flipped on the light switch, illuminating a steep staircase, which rose from the entrance up to his modest digs. Each maisonette had its own front door. Two of the homes were on the upper storey, two on the ground floor.

He stooped to pick up the three items of mail on the doormat and scanned them briefly.

“MR MATT COLMAN, HAVE YOU WON £500,000?”

“No,” he murmured to himself.

The other letters consisted of a forwarded water bill addressed to “Mr and Mrs M. Colman” and an expensive laid vellum envelope addressed just to him, with an EC2 postmark and the return address of Hooper, Rose and Fox, his wife’s solicitors.

Upstairs, he turned on more lights. The curtains in the living room were drawn closed, as they had been all day.

Matt placed his instrument case reverently on the second-hand Ikea sideboard, flipped the unopened letters into the cardboard box which served as a recycling bin, took off his black quilted coat and dropped it to the floor, and slumped gratefully on to the sofa occupying almost half of the small room.

A pizza box lay on the coffee table in front of him. He picked up the telephone handset by his right hand and pressed the Call button.

The undulating dial tone signalled new voicemail messages. First things first. He dialled the pizza joint. A heavily accented male Italian voice sounded in his ear. “Pippino here, how may I help-a you?”

“Matt Colman, Pippino. Hope I’m not too late for a delivery?”

“No, no, Signor Colman, is all good, I come myself if necessary. What you like tonight?”

“Same as last night, Pippino, American Hot with extra mushrooms. Better have a salad too I suppose. Keep the scurvy at bay.”

“Be with you in fifteen, ciao for now.”

Matt rang off and dialled 1571 for his messages.

“First new message. Today, two thirty-two pm. ‘Matthew, remember I’ll be dropping Emily off at nine sharp tomorrow. I’m sure she’d be pleased to find you up, shaved and dressed for once. I trust you’ve got proper food in for her. No junk, no pizza, OK? And absolutely no sugary drinks, and plan some sort of healthy outdoor activity. No gaming. She won’t be bringing her Xbox this week, in fact never again, after last—’”

Matt pressed “3.”

“Message deleted. Next new message, today, ten thirty-three pm. ‘Hey Matt, Roger. Listen, something’s come up. Don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger, OK? You’re going to have a new Second tomorrow. Phil has gone down with something and the office wants to try this girl. She seems to check out. I know, I know, you don’t want to play with new people you don’t audition first. But the word has come from on high. Give me a call if you’re back before eleven thirty, otherwise tomorrow.’”

“That was your last message.”

Matt glanced at his wristwatch. A quarter to midnight.

He put down the phone and pulled an instruction manual towards him with the title “HD Box Easy Setup Guide.” Easy for some, he thought. He studied the leaflet for a moment, then picked up the remote control and pointed it gingerly at the screen of the brand new LED television in the bay window.

He pressed the Power button. Nothing seemed to happen. After ten seconds or so, the message No Video appeared in a box on the screen. Suddenly the picture sprang up, accompanied by the sound, at what seemed to be full volume.

“Hell’s bells!”

The TV blared out, a programme about kayaking, with much shouting and whooping from the presenter as he negotiated a series of white-water rapids.

Matt peered at the remote, located the volume buttons and managed to reduce the sound to a low level.

“Sorry Margie dear. Hope I didn’t wake you up.” He glanced at the party wall. His neighbour was eighty-nine and a half, as she proudly told everyone, but she wasn’t deaf.

Matt got to his feet and crossed the tiny hallway to the kitchen. He examined the contents of his fridge: an opened carton of milk, an opened can of baked beans and four cans of Heineken lager. He slid out one of the cans, cracked it open and took a swig.

Back in the living room, he consulted a second, larger manual in six languages, which showed a picture of the satellite receiver on its cover.

He found the section headed “Watching recordings.”

Press the green button when on the TV Guide page to display your planner, containing programmes you have recorded or downloaded.

He navigated back to the TV guide and pressed the green button. One programme showed—Davis Cup Tennis.

“Yes! I did it!” Matt punched the air, took another swig of lager, unlaced his shoes and swung his legs up on the coffee table. He glanced at his watch. Ten minutes since he ordered the pizza.

He pressed Play and found himself watching the end of the local BBC London newscast.

His recording had started a couple of minutes early. This in itself was not a problem; indeed, he understood it was a feature of the satellite recorder to ensure that the viewer did not miss the start of the intended programme.

The problem was the news item.

The newsreader, Martin Winters, suited and bespectacled, spoke to camera in his plummy accent. “Finally, we have learned that a man has been arrested and charged with the murder of Dutch-born student Anna Cunningham. Mrs Cunningham, aged twenty-three, died in a house in Twickenham, Middlesex last Sunday. We understand the man under arrest is Matthew Colman, aged thirty-five. Mr Colman will appear before West London magistrates on Monday morning. Police have declined to release further details at this stage, stating that enquiries are ongoing.”

During this, the picture cut to a maisonette marked off with blue crime-scene tape, which fluttered from the fence and lampposts.

His maisonette.

One of the top floor windows was missing, the frame surrounded by charred brickwork and black soot.

The camera cut back to the BBC London presenter. Martin Winters smiled the kind of rueful half-smile that newsreaders put on after a bad news story. “That’s it from us, good night. Stay tuned for all the action from today’s Davis Cup first round.”

Matt stared at the screen as the credits rolled. He screwed his face up in puzzlement. He put down the can of lager, swung his feet to the floor and picked up the satellite remote.

Heart pounding, he found the Rewind button and watched as the picture played back jerkily in reverse. He kept his finger on the button until Recording Start showed on screen, and then released it.

“That’s it from us, good night. Stay tuned for all the action from today’s Davis Cup first round.”

He pressed Rewind again.

“That’s it from us, good night. Stay tuned …”

He tried repeatedly. The same thing happened. The news item apparently featuring him as a murder suspect had disappeared. Assuming, of course, it had ever existed.

What was going on?

The doorbell rang, making him start. He padded downstairs in his socks and looked through the peephole. A short, balding man, a big smile creasing his moonlike face, held out a pizza box with a white polystyrene carton on top.

Matt opened the door.

“Personal service, Signor Colman!”

“Oh, Pippino. Great. Thanks. Here.” Matt dug a ten-pound note from his dinner jacket trouser pocket. “Keep the change.”

“Mr Colman, you OK? You look like you seen a ghost.”

Matt hesitated. “You didn’t catch the local TV news earlier tonight by any chance?”

“No, Signor. Why you ask?”

“Heard anything about a murder in Twickenham? A girl—a student?”

Now it was Pippino’s turn to screw up his face in puzzlement. “Murder? Here? No murder here in Twickenham, that I would-a hear. This just ’appen?”

“Apparently it happened last Sunday. The police have arrested a suspect today.”

“I check with Signora Pippino. No one murder anyone in this town without she say so. Unless she do it ’erself with rolling pin. Buona sera!”

Matt closed the door and ascended the staircase. He began to question whether he had actually seen what he thought he had seen. He hadn’t been paying much attention. But he had heard his own name mentioned. Matthew Colman, aged thirty-five. And he had seen his own maisonette on the screen, the bedroom window burned out. At least it closely resembled his.

Perhaps another Matthew Colman lived in a similar maisonette in Twickenham. Maybe even in a neighbouring block.

But what were the chances of two people called Matthew Colman, of the same age, living in identical homes in the same suburb?

It would be a weird coincidence, but conceivable.

At the very least, this news broadcast would cause consternation. He’d better call his parents in the morning, and reassure them it wasn’t him in the bulletin, but a namesake.

Pulse returning to normal, he resumed his seat on the sofa, opened the pizza box and extracted a slice, which dripped brown oil into the bottom of the box. Helen was right; he needed to improve his diet, certainly on Saturdays when Emily came to visit.

With his mouth full of spicy, greasy dough, Matt experimented with the TV remote.

The set was a new acquisition. He had installed the thing himself, with much trial and error, on the previous Wednesday morning. He had also taken delivery of the latest Xbox console at the same time, anticipating the crackdown on gaming from his estranged wife. The device lay hidden at the bottom of his wardrobe, ready to present to his daughter on Saturday. She could spend twenty-four hours a day playing with it as far as he was concerned, as long as she was with him. He would take no more instructions from Helen.

Matt ate half the pizza and finished the can of lager, leaving the salad untouched in its box. He wiped his fingers on the wodge of cheap paper napkins supplied by Pippino.

He had mastered the TV now. However, try as he might, he could not retrieve the snatch of news that he had seen earlier.

Had he been hallucinating? Had his subconscious mind somehow summoned up the images and words? Or had he been half asleep, in the shadowy no-man’s-land between consciousness and oblivion?

He didn’t believe so. He was tired, but not so tired he had nodded off, even for a moment. He’d had no more to drink after this night’s performance than normal. Four glasses of Sauvignon. Extremely moderate for an orchestral musician. Practically teetotal, compared to the brass section.

He rose and crossed to the elderly PC which stood in the corner, on a bedside table borrowed from the bedroom. On his knees on the carpet, he pressed the Power button and the computer wheezed into action. Once Windows XP had loaded, he clicked on Google and typed “BBC London News.”

The web page opened with the day’s headlines.

Nothing about a murder. Nothing about any Matthew Colman.

He switched to Google News and keyed in his name, “Anna Cunningham,” and “murder.”

“Your search—Matthew Colman Anna Cunningham murder—did not match any documents.”

He deleted “Anna Cunningham” and “murder” and searched again on just his own name.

He raised his eyebrows. 1,050 results! This was the first time he had ever Googled himself, and he was surprised by the amount of coverage he had received recently.

Matthew Colman masterclass for aspiring flautists … Matthew Colman to solo with Tekla in Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto … The Man with the Magic Fingers …

Lots about music. Lots about flute playing. No mention of murder.

Matt’s puzzlement increased. Apparently, he had imagined the newscast, or had indeed nodded off for a moment and dreamed it.

Worrying.

On the other hand, he was relieved he didn’t appear to have a namesake running amok in the neighbourhood.

To make sure, he navigated to the BT Residential Numbers page and searched for Matthew Colman. He came up with his own name at the family home, now occupied solely by Helen and Emily.

No other M. Colman.

He drummed his fingers on the bedside table.

He wandered around the room, picked up the pizza boxes and made a desultory effort to tidy the place in advance of Emily’s arrival in nine hours’ time.

In the bedroom, the rising star of the virtuoso Greenwich Sinfonia took off his dinner jacket, brushed it and hung it up ready for use the following evening. He cleaned his teeth, undressed and slipped into his unmade bed.

“We understand that the man under arrest is Matthew Colman, aged thirty-five …”

He had entered a twilight zone of altered reality—a parallel universe, like one of Emily’s video games, where alarming things jumped out at you. The image of the newsreader with the plummy voice seemed to burn itself into his mind. The man’s words kept playing back, clearly and accusingly.

“…the man under arrest is Matthew Colman, aged thirty-five … charged with the murder … murder …”

After a while, fatigue took over from anxiety and he sank into oblivion.