Extract: The Hanging Club

The Hanging Club

…The Hanging Club is the third book in Tony Parsons’s bestselling DC Max Wolfe series.

A band of vigilante executioners roam London’s hot summer nights, abducting evil men and hanging them by the neck until dead. The gang member who’s abused vulnerable girls. The wealthy drunk driver who’s mowed down a child. The hate preacher calling for the murder of British soldiers.

As the bodies pile up and riots explode across the sweltering city, DC Max Wolfe hunts a gang of killers who many believe to be heroes. And discovers that the lust for revenge starts very close to home…

PROLOGUE

After Prayers

After Friday prayers Mahmud Irani walked back to where he had parked his taxi and within a few minutes he had picked up the man who was going to kill him.
The man was standing opposite the entrance to London Zoo, dressed in a suit and tie, the jacket buttoned up despite the steaming midday heat. His eyes were hidden behind dark glasses and he had one arm already raised in the air to hail a cab, as if he was fully expecting Mahmud to be driving round Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle immediately after prayers, as if he knew he was coming.
As if he had been waiting.
Mahmud pulled up beside him, smelling the animal stink of the zoo in summer.
‘Cash only, boss,’ Mahmud said.
The man nodded, glancing at his phone before showing it to Mahmud. On the iPhone’s screen  there was a map of the City with a red marker pinpointing their destination.
Newgate Street, EC1.
Less than four miles away but it meant crossing the middle of the city in the stagnant traffic of lunch hour. Mahmud grunted his reluctant assent and watched the man slide into the back seat.
In silence they drove east through the sweltering city.
Mahmud was turning his taxi onto Newgate Street when he glanced in his rear-view mirror and saw the man removing a small leather credit-card holder. Mahmud sighed. How many times did you have to tell these stupid people?
It’s cash only,’ he repeated, harder this time, tugging at his polo shirt, the sweat sticking.
But the man was not getting out a credit card.
He leaned forward between the gap in the front seats and placed an old-fashioned razor blade firmly against Mahmud Irani’s left eyelid.
Mahmud drew in his breath and did not let it go.
He felt the thin cold steel of the blade ’s cutting  edge settle into the folds of soft flesh beneath his eyebrow. The fine layer of skin covering his eye fluttered wildly against the razor blade. Pure naked terror rose up inside him.
‘Please,’ Mahmud said. ‘Please. Just take the money. It’s under my seat.’
The man laughed.
‘I don’t  want your money. Keep driving. Nice and easy now.’
Mahmud drove as if in a dream, driving with one eye squeezed closed, trying to concentrate on the road ahead with a razor blade pressed against his eyelid.
Following the man’s directions, he drove to the end of the street and then turned left onto a huge building site. It was deserted, one of those little pockets of total silence and emptiness that suddenly surprise you in the city. Another tower of glass and steel was being erected here, but there was nobody working this afternoon. They were all alone. Ahead of them was a yawning hole in the uneven ground.
‘Down there,’ the man said.
‘I have a wife and children.’
‘Too late for all that now, pal.’
The razor blade pressed more firmly into Mahmud ’s flesh and he felt his eyeball move, a sick rolling feeling as the eye recoiled from the cutting edge. Mahmud drove into the hole and down, bumping over a speed bump and then over some random rubble before entering a vast basement twilight.
What was this place?
Mahmud could not tell if it had once been an underground car park or if that’s what it would be in the future. Right now it was simply a massive expanse of empty space with a very low ceiling; a subterranean basement with no lights apart from the shafts of summer sun coming in from somewhere.
‘Where are we going?’ Mahmud said, unable to stop himself talking, and this time the man slid the razor blade very gently across his eyelid, just one inch, but enough to cut into flesh and make Mahmud cry out from the shock of sudden pain.
A warm trickle of blood oozed slowly around the curve of Mahmud’s left eyelid.
And he did not speak after that.
They got out of the car and that was a moment when Mahmud thought he could run away if he was not so stricken with terror, so paralysed with disbelief that this was happening, so appalled by the warm blood that ran now on either side of his left eye, so scared witless that he did not fully register the chance to escape until the moment had passed.
Then the man stood behind Mahmud, the razor blade returned to the soft fold of flesh above the left eye and the man’s other hand gently taking the taxi driver’s wrist.
They walked across the wide-open space to a door. They went down some steps.
The air got colder.
They descended into total darkness and walked along a narrow passage until suddenly a thin shaft of natural light was coming from somewhere high above their heads. Mahmud could see ancient white brickwork that was stained green by time and weather. It was very cold now. The summer was on another planet. The air was fetid with what smelled like stagnant water. It was like stepping into another world.
And then there were the others. Three of them.
Their faces hidden by black masks that revealed only their eyes.
One of them had a red light shining in their hands.
It was some kind of camera, and it was pointing at Mahmud Irani.
There was a stool. A kitchen step stool. Mahmud could not understand what was happening as hands helped him onto the stool and something was placed around his neck. The blood was in his eyes as he watched the man from the car consulting with the one who held the camera. Mahmud wiped away the blood with the palm of his hands and he tried to balance himself, afraid he would fall from the stool.
His fingers nervously felt his neck. It was a rope.
They had put a rope around his neck.
He looked up and saw that it was attached to a rusted tangle of ancient pipes in the ceiling.
Hands were touching his arms. He heard a metallic click. He found that his arms were secured behind his back.
And now the words came in a torrent. Now he had no difficulty at all in speaking. Now even the razor blade pressed against his eyeball could not have shut his mouth.
‘I have a wife and children!’ he screamed, and his voice echoed back at him in this secret basement.
Wife and children!
Wife and children!
‘I’m just a taxi driver! Please! You have the wrong person!’
The man from the car was covering his face with a black mask. Like an executioner. He turned to Mahmud Irani.
Do you know why you have been brought to this place of execution?’ he asked.
Mahmud  stuttered, ‘What? This – what? I don’t understand. What? I’m a taxi driver—’
But then the words choked in his throat because, beyond the red light of the camera, one of them was sticking A4 sheets of paper to the worn white bricks of this underground place.
The A4 sheets of paper were portraits that had been downloaded from the Internet.
They were all the faces of girls. Young girls. Smiling girls.
And, yes, they were all smiling, every one of them – although some of them had smiles that were stiff and shy, and some had smiles that were natural and full of confidence.
They all smiled in their own way. The school photographers had insisted upon a smile, encouraged them to smile, tried to make them laugh.
They were formal portraits, the kind that a school takes every year to record and honour a student ’s growth, and they caught the girls at the fleeting moment in their lives when they were poised between the children they had so recently been and the women they would one day become.
The smiling faces watched Mahmud Irani. And he knew these faces. All of them.
He had known them in rooms full of laughing men. He had heard the girls scream for help when no help was coming. He had seen them blurry and on the edge of unconsciousness, foggy with cheap booze and strong drugs as their clothes were removed.
He had laughed at those girls with all the other men.
And now his words were edged with bitterness and contempt and anger.
‘Whores,’ he said. ‘Cheap whores who like drink and drugs. Sluts who show themselves. Girls who like men. Many men. Typical girls of this country. Oh, listen to me! These are not decent girls! Will you listen to me?’
Someone was kicking the stool he stood on.
‘Whores,’ spat Mahmud Irani, and then he said no more, not another word, because the stool was gone and all at once the rope around his neck cut deep, deep, deep into his throat and his feet were kicking wildly at nothing but the air.
He soiled himself immediately.
The red light watched him squirm and writhe and twist, wild with panic and pain, so much pain, his body thrashing desperately at the rope that cut into his flesh, deeper and deeper every second.
The rope first compressed his jugular vein and then the much deeper carotid arteries, stopping the flow of blood to his brain, abruptly turning it off, his brain instantly  swelling, making Mahmud’s  eyes roll back into his head and his tongue loll out of his flapping mouth and a choked gurgling sound come from somewhere deep inside his throttled neck.
The red light watched Mahmud as he was strangled by the rope around his neck.
And the pain!
Mahmud did not know that there was so much pain in the world. The minutes passed as slowly as centuries. But after what seemed to him a thousand years but was less than five minutes he finally stopped kicking and his arms went limp by his side.
Mahmud  Irani choked out his very last strangled breath in that secret white-brick  basement that hides deep below the city.
The red light went out.
And on the wall, the faces of the girls were still smiling.

 

PART ONE

The Black Stage

1

We sat in Court One at the Old Bailey and we waited for justice.
‘All rise,’ the bailiff said.
I stood up, never letting go of the hand of the woman next to me. It had been a long day. But finally it was coming to the end.
We were there for the man she had been married to for nearly twenty years, a man I had never known in life, although I had watched him die perhaps a hundred times.
I had watched him come out of their modest house in his pyjamas on a soft spring evening, a middle-aged man wearing carpet slippers, wanting to do only what was right, wanting to do nothing more than what was decent and good, wanting – above all – to protect his family, and I had watched the three young men who now stood in the dock knock him to the ground and kick him to death.
I had watched him die a hundred times because one of the young men in the dock had filmed it on his phone, the small screen shaking with mirth, rocking with laughter, the picture sharp in the clear light of a March evening. I had watched him die again and again and again, until my head was full of a silent scream that stayed with me in my dreams.
‘He was a good man,’ his widow, Alice, whispered, gripping my hand tight, shaking it for emphasis, and I nodded, feeling her fingers dig deep into my palm. On her far side were her two teenage children, a girl of around sixteen and a boy a year younger, and beyond them a young woman in her late twenties, the FLO – Family Liaison Officer.
I believed the Central Criminal Court – the proper name of the Old Bailey – was no place for children, especially children who had watched their father being murdered from the window of their home.
The FLO – a decent, caring, university-educated young woman who still believed that this world is essen- tially a benign place – said that they were here for closure. But closure was the wrong word for what they wanted in court number one.
They wanted justice.
And they needed it if their world would ever again make any kind of sense.
When I had first gone to their home with my colleagues DCI Pat Whitestone and DC Edie Wren on that March evening, the last chill of winter had still been clinging on. Now it was July and the city was wilting in the hottest summer since records began. Only a few months had gone by but the woman and her children were all visibly older, and it was more than just passing time. The three of them had been worn down by the brain- numbing shock of violent crime.
For our Murder Investigation Team at Homicide and Serious Crime Command, West End Central, 27 Savile Row, the case had been straightforward. You could not call it routine, because a man having his life brutally taken can never be considered routine. But there was incriminating evidence all over the smart- phones of these three blank-faced morons in the dock, and the blood of the dead man was all over their hands and their clothes. It was an easy day at the office for our CSIs.
We were not hunting criminal masterminds. When we arrested them, they still had fresh blood on their trainers. They were just three thick yobs who took it all much too far.
But the case felt personal for me.
Because I knew him. The dead man. That lost husband, that stolen father. Steve Goddard. Forty years old.
I had never met him in life but I knew what made him leave his house when the three yobs were urinating on his wife’s car. I understood him. I got it. He could have let it go – ignored the noise, the laughter, the obscene insult to his family and the street where he lived, the mocking of all that he loved.
And I could even understand that it made no rational sense at all to go out there in his carpet slippers to confront them. I could see why it was not worth it, why he should have turned up the television and drawn the curtains, and watched his children grow up and get married and have their own children, and why he should have stayed indoors so that he could grow old with his wife. I got all that.
But above all I understood why this decent man did not have it in him to do nothing.
‘Members of the jury, have you reached a verdict?’ said the judge.
The jury spokesman cleared his throat. I felt Alice ’s fingernails digging into my palm once more, deeper now. The faces of the three defendants – immobile with a kind of surly stupidity through most of the trial – now registered the first stirrings of fear.
‘Yes, Your Honour,  we have,’ said the jury spokesman. Juries don’t give reasons. Juries don’t have to give reasons. Juries just give verdicts.
Guilty.
Guilty.
Guilty.
And juries have no say in sentencing. We all looked at the judge, a papery-faced old man who peered at us from under his wig and over his reading glasses as if he knew the secrets of our souls.
‘Involuntary manslaughter is a serious offence,’ intoned the judge, glowering at the court, his voice like thunder. ‘It carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.’
A cry of, ‘No!’ from the public gallery. It was a woman with a barbed-wire tattoo on her bare arms. She must be one of the boy’s mothers, I thought, because none of their fathers had been spotted for nearly twenty years.
The judge rapped his gavel and demanded order or he would clear the court.
‘Public concern and the need for deterrence must be reflected in the sentence passed by the court,’ he continued. ‘But the Criminal Justice Act requires a court addressing seriousness to consider the offender’s culpa-bility in committing the offence. And I accept the probability that the deceased was dead before he hit the ground due to a subarachnoid haemorrhage, making this a single punch manslaughter  case.’
‘But what does that mean?’ the youngest child, the boy – called Steve, like his dad – murmured to his mother, and she shushed him, clinging on to good manners even in this place, even now.
It meant they would be home by Christmas, I thought, my stomach falling away.
It meant the bastards would get away with it.
It meant that it didn’t matter that they had kicked Steve Goddard ’s head when he lay on the ground. It did not matter that they had urinated on his body and posted it on YouTube.
None of that mattered because the judge had swallowed the defence’s evidence that the man who attacked three unarmed boys was dead before he hit the ground due to a pre-existing medical condition.
Get the right brief and you can worm your way out of anything.
‘I am also obliged to accept the mitigating factor of self-defence, as the deceased was attempting to assault the defendants,’ said the judge. ‘I note you are all of good character. And I therefore sentence you to twelve months’ imprisonment.’
It was over.
I looked at Alice Goddard’s face. She didn’t understand any of it. She didn’t understand why her husband was dead thirty years before his time. She did not understand what the judge had said or why the defendants were laughing while her two children were quietly weeping. I wanted to say something to them but there was nothing to say. I had no words to offer and no comfort to give.
Alice Goddard let go of my hand. It was over for everybody apart from her and her two children. It would never be over for them.
Alice was smiling, and it tore at my heart. A tight, terrible smile.
‘It’s all right, Max,’ she said. ‘Really. Nothing was going to bring my Steve back, was it?’
She was anxious to make it clear that she did not blame me.
I looked at the defendants. They knew me. I knew them. I had seen one of them weeping for his mother in the interview room. I saw another one of them wet his pants at the prospect of imprisonment. And I saw the other one empty-eyed and indifferent through the entire process, beyond recall, beyond hope.
When they had been arrested, and when they were questioned, and when they were charged, the three young men had seemed very different.
A coward. A weakling. And a bully.
Now they were one again. Now they were a gang again. Yes, they were going down, but they would be home in six months. Taking a life would have no real impact on their own lives. It would no doubt give them a certain status in the cruel little world they lived in.
The anger unfurled inside me and suddenly I was out of my seat and walking towards them. But the court bailiff blocked my path, his hands slightly raised to show me his meaty palms, but saying nothing and offering no threat if I dropped it right here.
‘Leave it, sir,’ he said.
So I did the smart thing. I did nothing.
He was a typical Old Bailey bailiff with a demeanour somewhere between a diplomat and a bouncer, and he looked at me sympathetically with the faintest hint of a smile – sad, not mocking – and I let the moment pass, choking down the sickness that came with the rage.
And my face was hot with shame.
The three youths in the dock smirked at me before they were taken down.
I had seen that look before.
Too many times.
It was the look of someone who knows they just got away with murder.

2

Later that day we watched the man hang.
We saw the film of his death on the big HDTV screen that’s on the wall of Major Incident Room One in West End Central, at first not sure what we were seeing, not even convinced it was real, still stunned by the fact that you can watch a man being executed online.
It was early evening and we were standing at our workstations, ignoring the phones that were ringing all over MIR-1, as the man was helped onto the kitchen step stool and a noose was slipped round his neck.
And the terrible exchange between the two men.
Do you know why you have been brought to this place of execution?
What? This – what? I don’t understand. What? I’m a taxi driver—
The voice of the first man muffled by some sort of mask. The voice of  the second man choked with terror.
‘Who is he?’ DCI Pat Whitestone said.
‘IC4,’ said DC Edie Wren, running a hand through her red hair, her eyes not leaving the giant screen. IC4 meant the man – the one we could see, the one with the noose around his neck – was of South Asian descent. ‘Maybe forty years old. Unshaven. Jeans. Polo shirt. Lacoste.’
‘A Lacoste  knock-off,’  I said. ‘The little crocodile ’s looking in the wrong direction.’
‘Where is that place, Max?’ said Whitestone.
I took a few steps closer to the screen. The film was sharp but the room was dark. In the shadows I could glimpse white tiles or bricks, stained green and yellow by time and the weather.
I felt I had seen it before. It was some part of London that was just round the corner, and yet a hundred years away, and beyond the reach of memory. I took a step back.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘What are they doing to him?’ said Trainee Detective Constable Billy Greene.
Then the stool was kicked away and we did not speak as we watched the man hang, his body twisting  and squirming in the air, and there was no sound but the strangled gurgling coming from his throat. When the hanging man began to soil himself the cameraman turned away and I caught glimpses – nothing more – of two or three figures in dark clothes, their faces covered in black masks, only their eyes showing, their backs pressed against those yellowing walls.
‘There’s three or four of them,’ I said. ‘Maybe more. Wearing ski masks. No, not ski masks – they’re tactical Nomex face masks, or something similar.’ A pause. ‘They know what they’re doing.’
The man’s face began to change colour as the life was strangled out of him. Then he was still and it ended. A film lasting ten minutes and twenty-one seconds that was suddenly trending all over the world.
‘You seen this hashtag?’ Edie said, hunched over her laptop. ‘It ’s everywhere: #bringitback.’
‘Bring what back?’ said TDC Greene.
‘Play it again,’ said Whitestone. ‘Answer the phones, Billy. Find out where the hashtag comes from, Edie.’
Edie began tapping on her keyboard.
‘Does that look like a hate crime to you, Max?’ Whitestone said.
‘It looks like a lynching,’ I said. ‘So – yes, maybe.’
‘Here,’ Edie said, and then a panel appeared in a corner of the big screen.
There was a black-and-white  picture of a smiling rabbit-faced man from the middle of the last century. The account was called @AlbertPierrepointUK. No message. Just the hashtag – #bringitback – and a link to the film.
‘It ’s got just under twenty-five thousand followers,’ Edie said. ‘No – over seventy-eight thousand followers. Wait—’ She leaned back in her chair and sighed. ‘Wow, popular guy, this Albert Pierrepoint. Why is the name so familiar?’
‘Albert Pierrepoint was the most famous hangman this country ever had,’ I said. ‘He carried out more than four hundred executions, including a lot of the Nazis in Nuremberg.’
‘Metcall have had a 999,’ Billy said, putting down the phone. ‘From a woman who recognises the victim.’ He looked up at the screen and winced at the man once more locked in the final throes of agony. ‘The woman’s a Fatima Irani from Bethnal Green. The man is Mahmud Irani. Her husband.’
‘How do you spell his name?’ Whitestone said. ‘Got a DOB? Got a description of what he was wearing?’
Greene read from his notes. Then he looked up at the screen.
‘She said her husband was wearing jeans and one of those shirts with the little crocodile,’ he said, and stooped to retch into a wastepaper basket. It took him a moment to recover. ‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘Play it again,’ Whitestone  said. ‘Have a drink of water, Billy. Are you looking on the PNC, Edie?’
Edie Wren was running the name of Mahmud Irani through the Police National Computer.
‘He’s been away,’ she said, meaning the man had done time. ‘Did six years of a twelve-year sentence. He was part of the Hackney grooming gang. They targeted girls as young as eleven. A lot of the girls – but not all of them – were in care. Some of the gang got life. This Mahmud Irani was found guilty of trafficking – he ’s a taxi driver. He was a taxi driver. He got off relatively lightly.’
We watched him hang for the third time.
‘Maybe not that lightly,’ I said. ‘If this is connected.’ A young Chinese man appeared in the doorway of MIR-1. He was Colin Cho of PCeU – the Police Central e-crime Unit, jointly funded by the Home Office to provide a national response to the most serious crimes on the Internet.
‘We’re looking for Albert Pierrepoint,’ he  told Whitestone, nodding at the big screen. ‘He – they – seem to be using exactly the same tech as terrorists, pornographers and whistle blowers. The account is running through an anonymiser designed to hide all digital footprints. But it ’s not Tor or 12P. It’s something we have never seen before. The site’s under a lot of pressure – political, media, users, concerned parents – to take the film down in the name of decency, but we’ve persuaded them to leave it up there while we try to trace the sender’s IP address. Off the record, of course.’
‘Thanks, Colin,’ Whitestone  said, glancing  at her phone. ‘Metcall tell us we’ve got a body. In the middle of Hyde Park. No positive ID yet.’ She looked at the screen and then at me. ‘But the responding officer says the deceased is wearing one of those shirts with the little crocodile.’
‘Hyde Park?’ I said. ‘The body was found in the actual park?’ I looked up at the screen, at the subterranean space with the stained white tiles. ‘They didn’t do this in Hyde Park.’
I thought of the underground car parks of the big hotels on Park Lane, running down the east side of Hyde Park. But none of them looked anything like the room where they strung up Mahmud Irani. That place was from some other century.
In the panel of the TV screen we could see that @AlbertPierrepointUK had gone viral.

TRENDS
#bringitback
#bringitback
#bringitback
#bringitback
#bringitback

‘I think somebody just brought back the death penalty,’ I said.
Edie pressed play and on the screen Mahmud Irani was about to hang again.
‘But who’d want to do that to him?’ said the new boy, TDC Greene, and I remembered that Hackney grooming gang and the thought came unbidden as I headed for the door.
Who the hell wouldn’t?

3

There was something strangely peaceful about standing in the middle of Hyde Park on a warm summer night, nothing moving out here but the Specialist Search Team doing their fingertip search off in the darkness, and the CSIs quietly getting kitted up as DCI Whitestone and I contemplated the corpse.
You could tell it was him.
There was enough moonlight to show the crocodile on his polo shirt was still facing in the wrong direction and what looked like severe burn marks around his neck.
So even before the divisional surgeon had arrived to officially pronounce death, and long before his next of kin had the chance to formally identify the body in the morgue, we knew the identity of the body lying under the trees of Hyde Park.
‘Mahmud Irani,’ Whitestone  said quietly.
‘So it’s not a hate crime,’ I said. ‘He wasn’t  killed because of his race or religion.’
‘All murder is a hate crime. Do you know what that gang did to those girls? They branded them, Max. Can you believe that grown men would do that to children?’ She shook her head. ‘Some people deserve to be hated.’
I looked away from the dead man and inhaled clean air. Hyde Park stretched on forever. Londoners always complain about how cramped and crowded their city is, but Henry VIII used to hunt wild boar right here. Even today, London was still a city with fields. The white lights of the West End burned bright from far away, an orange glow rising high above them, like the sun coming up on another planet.
Whitestone stared silently at the corpse.
She was a small, fair-haired woman in glasses, neither young nor old, and if you saw her on the train you would not think that she was one of the most experienced homicide detectives in London. I would not speak again until she spoke to me first, for these were the crucial minutes when the Senior Investigating Officer takes a look at the pristine scene, the body exactly where it had been found, letting it all sink in, learning what she can before we start filming, photographing and bagging evidence. Those last moments when the scene is untouched.
Even the blue lights of our response vehicles seemed very distant, as though they were waiting for a sign from the SIO; a large circle of blue lights in the darkness of the massive park, sealing us off from the outside world. I could see DC Edie Wren and TDC Billy Greene interviewing the Romanian men who had discovered the body while preparing for an illegal barbecue.
‘OK,’ Whitestone  said. ‘I’ve seen enough.’
I raised a hand to the Crime Scene Manager and on her word the CSIs moved. I saw that our POLICE DO NOT CROSS tape now ran down the length of Park Lane and was patrolled every twenty metres or so by uniformed officers.
‘You’ve locked down all of Hyde Park?’ I said.
‘Because I can always bring the perimeter in later,’ Whitestone said quietly, her eyes not leaving the body.
‘But I can’t extend it later. Better to make the crime scene too big than too small. Let’s take a closer look.’
We wore blue nitrile gloves and white face masks and under the plastic baggies over our shoes we stood on forensic stepping plates that were invisible to the naked eye.
Whitestone and I both carried a small stack of the stepping plates – transparent, lightweight – and we carefully placed them on the grass before us as we created an uncontaminated pathway to the body. We crouched down either side of Mahmud Irani.
‘First hanging?’ Whitestone said. I nodded.
She pointed with a gloved index finger at the livid, lopsided markings around his neck.
‘You only get that mark from hanging,’ she said. ‘Any other ligature strangulation will leave horizontal marks.’
‘But this is diagonal,’ I said. ‘It runs from low on the neck on one side to just below the ear on the other.’
Whitestone nodded.
‘Because the rope – or belt, or bed sheet, or wire, or whatever it is – angles towards the knot. See how deep it is? He was strangled by his own body weight. The rope compresses the carotid arteries, turns off the supply of blood to the brain. In judicial hangings, they used to snap the second cervical vertebra – the hangman’s fracture, they call it. More humane. These guys didn’t bother with any of that. They just strung him up. But hangings always look like this – the angled strangulation mark. What’s unusual about this one is that it’s not a suicide.’ She stood up. ‘Every hanging I ever saw until tonight – and I’ve had my share – was either deliberate or accidental suicide.’
‘Accidental suicide?’
‘Autoerotic asphyxia. You know. Sex games that kill you.’
‘Oh.’
‘It tends to be a male pastime, like doing DIY or watching cricket. Women seem less keen on autoerotic asphyxia. But strangulation apparently heightens the intensity of orgasm. And what could possibly go wrong?’ She nodded at the body. ‘What’s unique about Mahmud Irani is that his hanging was not for the purposes of masturbation or ending his life. It was murder. Who uses hanging to murder someone?’
I thought about it.
‘Somebody who wants revenge?’
‘No – somebody who wants justice.’ Her eyes scanned the park. ‘This is not the killing ground, is it? He didn’t die here.’
I thought of the white-tiled room where no light seemed to shine. And I thought of the underground car parks that were in this area, not just by Hyde Park but also under the grand hotels and the fancy car dealerships of Park Lane. None of them, as far as I knew, looked even remotely like the room in the film, which looked like somewhere that should have been torn down a hundred years ago.
‘So they chose to move him from the kill site to the dumping ground,’ I said. ‘Why would they do that?’
‘Makes it harder for us,’ Whitestone  said. ‘Now we can’t run forensics on the kill site.’
‘Yes, but it makes it more dangerous for them. Why risk someone seeing them dump the body? Why not leave him where they’d strung him up?’
Whitestone thought about it.
‘Because they wanted us to find him,’ she said.
We watched the Specialist Search Team inching their way across Hyde Park on their hands and knees. In the distance, a German Shepherd from the Dog Support Unit began to bark.
‘What I could really use is the rope they did it with,’ Whitestone said, more to herself than me. ‘Ropes can speak volumes. The kind of rope. The kind of knot.’
Fierce white arc lights clicked on and lit up the scene like a film set. The body of Mahmud Irani looked horribly broken in the glare, the agony of his death imprinted on his lifeless face. The crocodile on his shirt stared off in the wrong direction, as if averting its gaze from the large stain on his jeans.
The Area Forensic Manager and his CSIs were already sweating inside their Tyvek suits, blue gloves and forensic face masks. A van with blacked-out windows came trundling across the parched grass. The mortuary van. And behind it I saw the great white marble arch that marks the junction of Oxford Street, Edgware Road and Park Lane. And something whispered through the trees, like the sigh of the uneasy dead.
‘This was Tyburn,’ I said. ‘Maybe that’s why they took the chance of dumping him here. The dump site could be part of a ritual killing. Maybe the most important part. Because this was Tyburn.’
‘Tyburn?’ Whitestone said. ‘The public gallows?’
I nodded. ‘The Tyburn tree – the three-legged gallows pole – was at Marble Arch. This spot was where London had its public execution site for almost a thousand years.’ The great triumphal arch glowed with the lights of the night. ‘Fifty thousand people were hanged right where we’re standing,’ I said. ‘And they weren’t just killing him, were they?’ I looked down at the body of Mahmud Irani and the lopsided wound on his neck. ‘They were punishing him.’

The Hanging Club is out now and in paperback from 23.02.17…