‘Which often means eight people were officially in the know and about eight hundred actually did know.’
‘Yeah, right, but I think it was tighter than that. Maybe twenty? None of whom talked, beyond these walls, as it were. So it’s still confidential, still pretty secret.’
‘What’s it to do with?’
‘Specifically, the killer’s MO and common to all three murders. So if it doesn’t relate to yours, I’ve wasted a call, except it’s always good to speak to you.’
‘We need to talk on the secure line though. I know it’s ten years ago for us but it’s current for you.’
‘I’ll call you back.’
Three minutes later, both on the safe line, Nathan said, ‘Our murderer strangled his victims with electrical flex. That’s public. What isn’t is that he set them in a chair, either before or after he killed them – that’s never been completely settled – in front of a mirror – twice it was a dressing-table mirror, once a mirror hanging on the inside of a wardrobe door. So they were confronting their own dead bodies, if you get me. Maybe they had to watch themselves being strangled. And that never came out, not ever, not at the trial or in the press.’
‘Does any of it ring a bell, guv?’
‘It rings several. You said “the trial” – so what happened?’
‘Right. Big scandal. He was acquitted – on a technical, and a witness being confused and going back on her statement when the defence ran rings round her. I’ve been reading it all up.’
‘Who was he?’
‘Local to the town. Man of thirty-two, self-employed builder called Alan Keyes. And he walked.’
‘Where did he walk to? I’m amazed he lived to tell the tale.’
‘They didn’t even let him out onto the steps of the court. He was spirited away, for his own protection. No one knows where, but he must have left the town. Could have gone anywhere. No idea about that, I’m afraid.’
‘Can you get me forensics, fingerprints and so on?’
‘Yup. First thing Monday morning.’
‘You want me to pull a favour? I’m not in forensics’ good books right now, for reasons we won’t go into, involving a total fuck-up. But I’ll give it a go.’
‘Good man. This is the first bit of light at the end of a black tunnel. One thing – do you know if there have been similar cases in any other part of the country, between your murders and now?’
‘No. And I’ve got no one I can set on to it, we’re flat out at the moment with terrorist stuff. I hate terrorist stuff.’
‘Come back to Lafferton. We don’t get any of that here. How’s the family?’
‘Great. Josh is in year two, Luke’s in nursery, Adam’s waving his legs in the air. Em’s looking to go back to work part-time next year. If we don’t have number four.’
‘Em wants a girl.’
‘Yes, and you know what would happen.’
‘Too right I do. All right, guv, I’ll go and grovel to the forensics’ duty officer.’
‘I owe you.’
‘Nah, you’re all right. But I’ll have a pint off you next time we meet.’
Simon looked at his desk for a moment, then switched off his computer and the lights and left, feeling more cheerful than he had for days, partly because any time he spoke to Nathan Coates he was cheered, but mainly because of the info Nathan had brought to him.
He had planned to go home, have a bath, a whisky, a casserole Cat had given him, and early bed with a Patrick O’Brian novel – he had never been able to get into them, but Judith had persuaded him to try again.
He started the car. The windscreen was already iced over, and while he waited for it to clear, he thought he might call in to Hallam House on the way. Cat was sure things were awry between Judith and his father, and though he wasn’t interested in cross-questioning, he was concerned. Having had a rocky start with his own feelings about his father’s remarriage, he now recognised that she had been the best thing to happen in Richard’s life for years. He dialled to ask if he could drop in for a drink, but the number was engaged. He would just go. If it wasn’t convenient, he’d leave again, no problem.
The streets were almost empty. A few people were going into cafés and bars, huddled together, hoods up, scarves wrapped round their faces against the bitter wind.
The traffic lights at the corner of the town square went red as he approached them. He stopped, cursing mildly, and glanced left.
He was not immediately sure of what he saw but then he was quite certain and his heart lurched.
She was standing alone in a doorway. She had a small backpack at her feet, a navy-blue parka with a hood pulled up. No scarf. No gloves. Jeans. Wellington boots. The street light caught the side of her face, which was anxious, pinched and unhappy.
Simon pulled the car to the kerb and jumped out and as she saw him he could tell that she was about to get out of the doorway and run.
‘Hannah, what in God’s name are you doing here? Where’s Mum? Where’s . . . Oh, Hannah, darling girl, it’s OK. It’s all OK now. Get in the car. You’re frozen, you’re shaking. Hey . . .’
He sat holding her as tightly as he could, feeling her thin body shake and shake, and her sobs mix with the trembling, her tears damp on the front of his jacket as she clung to him. He released her gently, pulled the seat belt round her and held her hand.
‘Hanny, listen. I’m going to ring your mum, then we’re going home. I don’t want you to talk, you don’t have to tell me anything. I’ve turned the heater to full blast, you’ll get warm. All right?’
Hannah nodded, still crying, her face paper-white. She was beyond talking.
‘Hi. Me. Listen, it’s all right. I’ve got her.’
‘What are you talking about? Got who? Where are you?’
‘On the way to you now. Hannah. I’ve got Hannah.’
‘What do you mean, you’ve got Hannah? Hannah’s at Lucy Gold’s staying over.’
‘Hannah’s here in the car, with me. It’s all right. Ten minutes?’
‘Simon . . .’
But he had clicked off and accelerated fast out of the town.
‘I WANT TO leave here, and when I do, I never want to hear the name of the place again.’
‘Karen, listen, sweetheart . . . I understand where you’re coming from, I totally understand, but you’re not thinking straight. Course you’re not. And who’d blame you? I don’t. Bloody hell, of course I don’t.’
Harry sat on the sofa beside his wife. It was three thirty in the morning and she had been up for an hour, the sleeping pill she’d been prescribed having had no effect. He’d made her tea, got her to eat a couple of biscuits, sat and listened to everything over again. Now this.
‘When they let us – when we can . . .’ She had to stop, as she choked on her own tears. He held her hand and waited patiently. ‘When we can have the funeral, after that . . . I don’t care where we go, Harry, but we can, you can work anywhere.’
‘Well, up to a point, Kaz, but it’s hard enough to pick up work here, where people know me. I’d have to start all over again somewhere else and just at the moment it ain’t easy.’
‘You’ll do it. You’re good. We should go somewhere where there’s building going on. I don’t mind where it is, honestly, you can choose . . . Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall –’
‘Now that would be a daft place to go. More unemployment in Cornwall than just about anywhere.’
‘Couldn’t afford to live in London, sweetheart, no matter how much work I got. Home Counties might be better – Surrey, Sussex –’
‘Sussex, yes. Yes, we could live by the sea. Hastings or Brighton or somewhere. That would be good for the boys. Let’s try and do that, Harry.’
He picked up the teapot but she shook her head.
‘Thing is, Karen – if we did, if we went somewhere else, would it be any better for you? Because – I don’t mean to be cruel here – but what’s happened has happened and you can never forget it, never get away from it. Wherever you go it’ll be inside your head. Running away never solved very much, you’d just take it with you – all this stuff with your mum, everything that happened.’
‘I wouldn’t want to forget Mum, not for a second.’
‘Of course you wouldn’t and nor would I. I was very fond of Rosemary, it’s cut me up every which way.’
‘She loved you. She was so relieved when you came along, after some of the people I’d gone out with . . .’
‘Neither of us is going to forget anything, but I don’t see how moving away from here will help any of us.’
‘So you’re saying we can’t? Never, ever?’
Harry sighed. ‘No, I’m not saying that. If it’s what you want I’ll do it, I’ll do anything to try and make you feel better, Kaz. It was just a bit of a heads-up, that’s all. I’m looking out for you. Now listen, it’s four o’clock. I’ll get the boys up and off, I’ve a quiet morning before I start on these flat renovations, but we need our sleep. You need it most. Come on.’
He put out his hand to Karen and she took it and got up wearily. Harry put his arms round her.
‘It’s in my head all the time. These questions keep popping up and I can’t answer them . . . What was it like for her? What did she think? How terrified was she, did she try and fight him off, how much did it hurt her, did she take long to –’
‘Stop it, love. Just turn your mind away from all of that. Think of the boys, think of their futures, think what you have to be for them.’
‘I do.’ Karen went up the stairs one slow step after the other, as if her body were a lead weight she had to haul.
In bed, in the dark, she leaned against him. ‘Harry? Promise me you’ll think hard about it – moving. Promise we can at least look into it?’
Harry tucked her into his side and stroked her arm.
‘I do,’ he said. ‘I do promise you, Kaz. I promise you anything you want.’
A few moments later, he felt her body relax, as she slept.
‘GUV? GOT A massive file. I’ll bring it down myself. Set off at crack tomorrow morning, be with you by twelve.’
‘You can’t do that on a Sunday, that’s your day with the family.’
‘Em don’t mind, I asked her – not if it’s for you. And she’s meeting up with her best friend . . . she’s got twin boys same age as Josh – it’ll be bedlam. Shall I come to the station?’
‘Certainly not. I’ll buy you lunch and that pint. Let’s go to the Oak at Up Starly.’
‘Ah, happy days. That’ll bring back a few memories.’
‘I’ll be there from twelve thirty – if you’re earlier give me a bell. I’ll book us in for their famous Sunday roast.’
They arrived together in the pub car park. Nathan handed over a thick file and an envelope containing a CD before they went inside, to pints of the Oak’s local bitter, Starly Brewery’s Old Man of Wern, and roast beef cut from the joint.
Looking at his former sergeant across the table, Simon saw small changes in him, a greater air of authority to go with his DCI rank. But, in general, Nathan was still Nathan, cheerful, optimistic, open-faced and sparky.
They went through family and police talk until the cheeseboard and two more pints were on the table, when Simon pointed to the file beside him.
‘I appreciate this, Nathan – not just the file but you bringing it down. I need every thread of inquiry for the team to follow up, but there’s been precious little once we let our single suspect go. You know, I’d have put money on him being our man and going down for life.’
‘Interesting that. You’ve got one bloke who did three murders, sure as God made little apples, got arrested, got charged – and got acquitted. And you might’ve had another bloke who didn’t do two murders, got arrested, got charged, got convicted. Wrong both times. And that don’t happen too often.’
Simon shook his head. ‘We’d never have got the CPS to agree about Williams – plenty of evidence and all of it circumstantial. It’d never have stuck. So, tell me about this one.’
Nathan filled him in about Alan Keyes, with more detail than he had gone into on the phone the previous night.
‘He was guilty as hell, you’ve only got to read it. Told you about my old sergeant – he remembers it all now. Said there was an outcry like you’ve never known – whole county was in an uproar. Couldn’t believe it. He’ll have gone somewhere miles away, for sure. There was relatives and friends and neighbours of three dead women swearing vengeance – someone would have had him. They smuggled him off somewhere for his own safety. That’s the last anyone knew. Anyway, wherever he went, his MO was all his own. There was the same style of electric flex every time – yellow and green.’
‘For earth . . .’
‘Yup. And there was the planting them in front of the mirrors. Sick that is. I mean, yeah, it’s all sick. And something else . . .’
‘Right. And with ours too. But you first.’
‘He cut their toenails with clippers. All of them. Left the clippers behind, but always wiped clean as clean, not a trace of a print anywhere.’
‘But he took the nail clippings with him. No trace, not a fragment, on the carpets, in the bins . . . anywhere.’
Nathan had a large chunk of Wensleydale cheese raised to his mouth. Now, he lowered it back to his plate. ‘Gawd almighty.’
‘It’s got to be the same,’ Serrailler said.
‘Too right it has.’
Simon downed the rest of his beer. Then he remembered what the case had erased from his mind.
‘Give me a bit of advice, Nathan?’
‘You’re jokin’ – learned all I know from you.’
‘Until you went up north and forgot it again. Listen . . . goes no further, not even to Em, all right?’
Nathan nodded, his mouth full of cheese. This was a man Serrailler knew he could trust with his life, let alone with any confidential info he gave him.
‘The Chief’s retiring.’