But she had never left him before. What if he had not rung her? If he had perhaps pulled the phone accidentally off the headboard or his coughing had become choking, his lungs had filled up and he could not clear them? She would have stayed with Simon. She knew that. Perhaps all night, certainly for several hours. She could have come back to find Kenneth dead, alone.
She tightened her back against the shiver that ran down it.
Kenneth’s eyes were on her face. His breathing was normal.
‘I can take it off now. You’re fine.’
She did so, and gave him a sip or two of water. As she held the glass, he lifted his hand slowly, and put it shakily on top of hers. Rachel bent her head to touch it. The hand did not stop shaking. No part of him ever stopped shaking, even while he was sleeping.
‘D-don’t,’ he said. ‘No …’
Later, when he slept, exhausted, she gazed down at him, a ruin of a once fine-looking, tall, strong man. She had married him when she was not thirty, he sixty-seven. She had loved him then, depended on him. And even as the illness tightened its grip, she had come to like, respect, honour, care for him. These had been good grounds for a marriage, she had discovered, far better than she deserved. Any diminution of passionate love on her side had not seemed relevant. Until now.
She thought of Simon. The quiet, calm flat. The lamps in the close. The cathedral bells. Simon’s drawings on the white walls. On the long elm table.
Simon’s hands. His mouth. His tall frame.
She would have been there still, she knew that, and if he called she would be there again. She knew that too.
She felt deeply ashamed, and powerless to change anything.
SIMON WAITED FOR an hour. Rang. Rachel’s phone went straight to voicemail. Rang the landline. The same. He sent a text but there was no reply.
After midnight was mid-afternoon in California.
Celia Ryman answered almost at once.
‘This is Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler.’
‘Hi, I was thinking you’d probably call.’
‘Thank you for ringing us earlier, Mrs Ryman, It was extremely helpful. I wonder if I could ask you a few more questions?’
‘Sure, please. You know, I haven’t been able to get her out of my mind. We had a bit of an upset but she was a lovely girl, really, underneath, the kids were so fond of her, she was great with them … I’m just so shocked by this.’
He went over the ground. It was all there. No discrepancies, nothing new. She was anxious to be as helpful as she could.
‘You said Agneta worked for someone else in the same village?’
‘That’s right, and we’ve been struggling to remember the names …’
‘This was another family?’
‘Not exactly – it was a couple – well, it was a couple of women, you know what I’m saying? They were – well, together, you know?’
‘Can you remember anything at all that would help us trace them?’
‘I remember the cottage … funny, ancient old place, roof sort of wavy in the middle. Tadpole Cottage. That name really suited it. The two of them used to be in the garden a lot, very keen. But we didn’t really know them, the cottage was tucked away, they weren’t often around the village. But I just don’t remember either of their names. I wonder if they still live in Bransby. They might do. They seemed staying-put kind of people, you know?’
It was ten to one. He had to see Rachel. He had to know how her husband was.
He was unlikely to sleep but he knew he should try. He set his alarm for six. Woke at four with a headache, so unusual for him that he had not even basic aspirin in the flat.
He showered, drank coffee. At twenty five past five he was walking along the corridor to his office. No aspirin. He went to the CID room. Empty. Down to the canteen. A couple of weary uniform were talking to the pretty Hungarian behind the counter. He bought tea, toast. Aspirin.
Is everything OK? Call me, txt me. Please. Love S.
He hesitated, then sent it. She would be angry with him. Angry with herself. Would not reply.
He needed to see her.
The tea was good, fresh and hot. The toast was cold and soggy. He left it.
The village of Bransby was quiet. Once, there would have been a couple of working farms, cow manure down the main street from the early-morning journey to milking, a cockerel crowing, the smell of pig. People about.
No one was about. He found Tadpole Cottage, up a narrow snicket between low hedges, and then he smelled not pig, but honeysuckle.
Perhaps this one cottage had not changed a great deal. The thatch was moth-eaten, there was a rusty old water pump to one side, a shed with broken windowpanes. A cat stared at him from the step up to it, then half closed its eyes lazily, face to the sun.
The gate was at the side. Just beyond it, in a small turning space, an ancient grey van was parked. Serrailler walked up to it. The back doors did not close fully. The body was dirty but not rusted, the tyres in order. It was not locked. The fabric of the seats was worn away here and there. The floor was a silt of paper, wrappings, plastic bags, a funnel, a piece of rubber hose, some half-torn cardboard boxes. The driver’s seat had a canvas backrest on a metal frame. The passenger seat was set as far back as it would go. The keys were on the dashboard.
He made a note of the number, removed the keys and locked the van and walked back to the wooden gate.
The cat’s eyes gleamed briefly before the lids half closed again. Disdain, he thought. It was the look Mephisto had when he glanced up at anyone. Superiority and disdain.
The kitchen faced the front and the sound of Bach came from a radio on the open windowsill. He looked inside. No one. Walked round. Creeper with small white flowers hung down over small windows. He cupped his hands to peer in. No one. The garden was untidy but someone had once loved it, someone had planted it with care. Someone had known what they were doing.
He pushed aside an overgrown bush and edged his way up the side, coming out onto a terrace of uneven old paving stones. The back door was open. A woman was sitting in an ancient basket chair, reading a newspaper, a basin of eggs on a table beside her. Half a dozen hens were scratting round behind some netting.
The woman leapt up, sending the paper flying.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.’
‘Well, you did. Who are you? What are you doing in my garden?’
She peered at the warrant card he showed, coming closer to him and reading it intently. He saw that her hair was thinning, enough to show the scalp here and there.
‘I’d like to ask you a question or two, please. May I sit there?’
She hesitated, looking at him with an expression that was both angry and suspicious. And fearful.
‘All right.’ She picked up the paper and folded it roughly together.
He sat. Waited. Watched her.
‘What’s this about? I’m quite busy. I don’t like intruders.’
‘What can you tell me about a young woman called Agneta?’
‘I don’t know any young woman called that.’
‘But you did.’
She stared him out. He waited.
‘Oh, that girl. A long time ago. She helped a bit in the house. I don’t remember anything about her.’
‘Why did she leave?’
‘She worked for some other people in the village – that was her main job, she only helped us out a bit now and then. She just upped and went.’
‘I – she stole. They caught her thieving, so did I. She was confronted. She went. That was that. Never saw her again.’
‘You said “she helped us out”.’
‘Can you tell me who else lives here?’
‘No one. Not now.’
‘You read the papers.’ He glanced sideways at the one on the table. ‘The Guardian.’
‘Do you see the local paper?’
‘Do you watch television?’
‘Don’t have it. I listen to the radio.’
‘So you won’t have seen this?’ He took out a copy of the press release with the image of the missing girl and passed it to her. She hesitated. Glanced at it, then away. Picked it up again and looked at it closely.
‘Is that Agneta?’
She drew in a slow breath. ‘It looks like her. But I don’t remember her well and this isn’t a proper photograph, is it?’
‘No. It’s a facial reconstruction done by computer.’
‘Oh, well …’
‘From her skull.’
She did not move. The hens scratched about. The sun was warm.
‘The other family she worked for in the village have confirmed that it is a strong likeness.’
‘They moved away.’
‘Yes, but we have been in contact with them. They’re sure this is Agneta Dokic.’
‘They’re probably right. I don’t know. If they say so, why do you need my opinion?’
‘Confirmation. And you didn’t see her again after she left?’
‘No. I think the people rang and said they’d caught her stealing – and I agreed that she’d taken things from here. So that was that.’ She stood up. ‘I can’t tell you any more.’
‘Thank you.’ Simon took out his card. ‘If you do remember anything else …’
‘I won’t.’ She did not take it.
‘May I have just a couple of details from you? Your full name, the name of anyone else living here.’
‘I told you. There isn’t anyone else. Unless you count the cat.’
‘So you’re a widow? Your husband died?’
‘What’s that to do with anything?’
He waited without replying.
‘Not a husband,’ she said. ‘If it’s any of the police’s business.’
‘I just need to tick all the boxes.’ It was the kind of ridiculous phrase he would never normally use.
‘My partner has dementia and is in a home … and do not dare tell me that you are sorry.’
He did not.
‘If that’s all, you can leave, I’m going there now, actually. Have you ever visited someone you love but who no longer knows you?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Not exactly.’
She looked at him with contempt.
The cat had moved, following the sun.
Simon stood in the lane and rang in the number of the van for a check, which came back within the minute as registered to Miss Leonora Dulcie Wilcox, clean licence, up-to-date insurance.
‘Sir John? Simon Serrailler.’
‘Good morning. Beautiful morning.’
Simon was startled. He had not noticed anything whatsoever about the day.
‘Been out in the garden since half six. I even took my morning tea out there – But you haven’t rung for this. What’s happened?’
‘I wonder if you can answer a question for me please.’
‘Anything. Has there been a development?’
‘Possibly. You said Harriet was very musical.’
‘Yes. Though what does that mean in a young girl? I’ve no idea if she had any sort of exceptional ability but she did love it … loved playing her instruments.’
‘The piano first, she started at seven, then the clarinet – she wanted to play the guitar too but we didn’t agree.’
‘Why was that?’
‘Three different instruments to practise – takes up a lot of time, you know. She had to concentrate on her schoolwork. So the piano and the clarinet were fine, nothing extra.’
‘Where did she go for lessons?’
‘School. It had good music teachers, that school. It’s closed now, of course – sad. Just not enough fee-payers to keep a girls’ day school like that going these days. Harriet had her music lessons there.’
‘Do you remember her teachers?’
‘I’m afraid not … oh, wait. Yes, of course. The clarinet was Mr Winder, which became the inevitable bad joke as you may imagine.’
‘And the piano?’
‘No. I don’t remember any name. Sorry.’
‘Presumably whoever it was wrote on Harriet’s reports at the end of term?’
‘Yes. And if you’d asked me a few years ago I’d have told you I would look them out, but after Eve died I cleared out all of that sort of thing. It suddenly seemed pointless to keep it. All the paperwork, all her toys and sports things and tapes and clothes – everything Eve had wanted to keep. I couldn’t bear it. It went out, the hospice shop, the bin. I’m sorry. Is this important?’
AN HOUR BEFORE she left home, Jocelyn Forbes made a pot of tea and a round of toasted fruit bread and took them on a tray into the conservatory. It was another of the clear blue, warm, daffodil-golden mornings that had started over a week earlier and she wanted to enjoy watching the birds before she got ready to go out. Five minutes later, she was bent over double, choking, unable to swallow a piece of the toast down or to cough it up and spit it out, paralysed both in her throat and with terror. No one else was in the house. No one would hear her because she was making no sound, though an odd, thin whistling noise came out of her mouth once or twice.
Her heart raced and she reached out to hold onto the back of her chair, but could not grip it, her hand was as useless as her throat.
She saw the bright room swirl round in front of her eyes, inside her head.
And then, abruptly, her throat pushed the lump of food up and out. She heard herself retching, heard her breath rasp. She stumbled backwards to find the chair and sat down heavily, her body shaking.
It was as much as she could do to get herself ready and she called a taxi, feeling unsafe to drive, wondering if that was that, if the previous day’s short foray to the supermarket was the last time she would ever take out her own car.
Everything was slipping out of her grasp.
* * *
For a moment, she was reminded in Switzerland. The consulting rooms were in one of Lafferton’s Edwardian houses in Sorrel Drive, many of which had become either flats or dental surgeries and solicitors’ offices in the last few years. But the entrance hall was light, the walls and doors freshly painted white, the magazines new. She tried to look at one but her hands would not turn the pages and she was still shaky after her earlier fright.
She looked out of the window onto the trees that lined the road, old trees with thick trunks and heavy canopies of leaves.
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