He flipped back. Quickly. Handel: 2 Concerti Grossi arr. for Piano.
‘Mrs Mangan, may I borrow this?’
‘One of the old music books? How can that be any use? Is it for fingerprints? Even after all this time? You’d only find Harriet’s, and maybe Eileen’s, she was a cleaner we had … she might have moved stuff when she was doing the piano.’
Simon wrote quickly on the back of one of his cards, stating what he had taken and signing it.
‘I’ll confirm it with a full receipt. Keep this for now.’
He went out fast, Mrs Mangan behind him, puzzled. Alert to everything. At the door he said, ‘Thank you for your help. You’ve been wonderful. And for that delicious cake.’
‘Should I let Sir John know you’ve been? If he rings me later. He usually does to let me know he’s arrived safely. He’s a very considerate man.’
‘Just tell him I’ll be in touch, would you?’
‘Shall I say when?’
Simon shook his head as he started the car.
He stopped again beside the village green. Took out his phone.
The music was beside him on the seat. He drew a deep breath. Knowing. Sure. So near. Surely, so near.
‘The number you are calling has not been recognised.’
He dialled again slowly. The same.
Bugger. Number changed then.
No. He had dialled the Lafferton code. But it would be on the Bevham exchange.
Again, with the different prefix.
It rang for a long time, but no machine cut in. He was about to give up when a woman answered.
He disconnected quickly. Dialled again. He had to be sure.
This time, it rang only twice. ‘Who is this? Please have the politeness to give your name.’
He disconnected without speaking, then rang the station. Gave the name and address. ‘Get me details of all vehicles registered to this owner going back to 1990? And it’s urgent.’
When he hit the bypass he took the Audi up to eighty-five in the outside lane.
THE MESSAGE CAME through as Simon pulled up in the lane. He wrote it down.
‘Just what I wanted to hear. Thanks very much.’
He punched the air.
The van was still there, in exactly the same spot. The hens still scratted in their patch of grass among the groundsel. The sun had come out again. It was warm. And very quiet, except for the soothing sounds of clucking and pecking.
How was she going to react? Calmly, one way or another, whatever she chose to tell him; he was sure she would not show anger or panic.
The kitchen door was open, and as he approached, she came out, carrying a couple of wet towels in a plastic bowl, and, calm or not, she jumped as she saw him. The bowl fell.
Lenny said nothing as he picked it up and set it on the table behind him. She watched.
‘This number isn’t in the phone book,’ she said.
‘I need to talk to you again, Miss Wilcox.’
‘I told you everything about her.’
‘I told you. She stole from me, from the other people, she was caught, and she did a bunk. Nothing else to say.’
‘We could sit out here and talk? In the sun.’
‘I don’t want to sit in the sun, I’ve got plenty to do and I’ve told you everything there is to tell you about her. Agneta. I don’t know why you’re here again.’
‘It isn’t Agneta I want to ask you about. Not just for the moment.’
A flicker across her face. Her eyes wary. But then gone.
Simon sat down on the metal bench and indicated the basket chair to her. In the end, she sat, but forward, as if wanting to be ready to get up again any second.
‘You teach music, Miss Wilcox?’
‘When did you give up? Retire?’
‘Years ago. I went on too long as it was.’
‘How many years ago?’
‘Six? Seven? What’s this to do with anything?’
‘Did you teach Harriet Lowther?’
He looked at her intently as he asked. Her expression did not alter.
‘I taught lots of girls. Hundreds of girls probably.’
‘Yes. Including Harriet Lowther.’
Silence. She stared in front of her, her body rigid in the chair.
‘I’m sure you know that Harriet was missing for sixteen years until her skeleton was found after the storm had shifted the earth in which she’d been buried. And that we found what we now know is the body of Agneta Dokic in the same area, in a shallow grave.’
‘You gave Harriet private music lessons, didn’t you?’
‘You taught her at school, of course.’
‘Was she very talented? Is that why you felt she should have extra piano lessons? Out of school hours?’
‘What makes you think I know anything about this girl?’
‘She was having private piano lessons.’
‘Well, there are plenty of others. I’m not the only local teacher. It could have been half a dozen.’
‘Of course it could.’
‘You taught her the piano at school.’
‘Doesn’t mean I taught her outside it.’
‘So you did teach her at school?’
She flicked her eyes to him and away. ‘For goodness’ sake, man, I taught dozens of girls. I was at that school for fourteen years.’
‘Which Harriet attended and where you taught her the piano.’
‘I’ve said. I could have done. It’s a long time ago. How am I supposed to remember?’
‘Not remember the girl who disappeared while waiting at a bus stop sixteen years ago? The girl there was a huge national appeal about, a massive local search for – face in every paper, on posters, on television?’
‘We don’t have a television.’
He waited. The hens clucked and scratched. She had her hands on the table now. They were not the hands of a woman who gardened and cleaned out hen houses and did domestic chores, they were not the hands of a woman of her age, they were hands with long, well-shaped, well-flexed fingers, carefully rounded short nails. Clean.
‘Tell me about her,’ Simon asked, putting his left leg over his right knee and clasping it. Eyes no longer on her face. ‘It must be quite rare for a piano teacher to have a gifted pupil. A teacher of anything, actually. Most of them must grind away, hating every minute of it, never practising. I know my sister did. Her teacher asked her to give it up, she was so hopeless. So I can guess it must be a joy to find a pupil like Harriet. You’d offer her extra lessons like a shot.’
‘Her parents were philistines,’ Lenny Wilcox said at last. ‘Yes, she was talented, though who knows how she would have done in the long run. You have to be more than just talented. But she wanted it. She loved it. She would have played and played all day, her lessons were always too short, she said. I never had another pupil who said that to me. Never. She asked if I would give her extra lessons and I was thrilled, absolutely excited about it, I knew just how much I could bring her on, how much she would love it. Value it. And then the damn parents. Hobbies department, they thought. She played the clarinet as well, she was good at that, though the piano was her instrument, she’d never have gone far as a wind player. Damn parents.’
‘So she asked if you’d give her the lessons without telling them.’
‘No, she didn’t, I suggested that. I said I would give her an extra lesson a week, a good long lesson, an hour and a half, here, on my piano, which is a Steinway, and I wouldn’t charge her a penny.’ She looked him straight in the eyes. ‘That doesn’t mean anything.’
‘In what sense does it not?’
‘So – I gave her some lessons. Here. Without her parents’ knowledge or consent. Doesn’t mean I know what happened to her. How would I know what happened? How did you find out that she had lessons with me?’
‘When did she last come here?’
‘How would I remember that?’
‘Did she meet Agneta here?’
Alarm on her face, a shadow across the sun.
‘What day did she have her lessons here? Saturday?’
‘No. Or – she may have done once or twice.’
‘How did she get here? Obviously her parents didn’t bring her.’
‘On the bus, I suppose. I didn’t ask. Or on her bicycle. Probably on her bicycle.’
‘Harriet didn’t have a bicycle.’ It was a shot in the dark. He did not know.
‘So it was on the bus.’
‘During the holidays she could have come any day. So it was Friday afternoon, wasn’t it? The last time she came. The day she disappeared. The Friday you arranged to meet her. The Friday you picked her up on Parkside Drive.’
‘Did you arrange to meet her at the bus stop? Or did she realise it wasn’t a good place for a car to pull up so she walked on a few yards down the road?’
‘You came along and she glanced round and saw you. You stopped by the kerb. Harriet got in. You drove away.’
‘No. This is all invention. I didn’t realise the police invented things but of course I should have done, we’re always hearing about it.’
‘You were seen.’
‘Your car was seen that afternoon. Harriet got into it. You drove away. We have a witness who saw you quite clearly. What car do you drive?’
‘The van. The one out there. You’ve seen it twice now.’
‘How long have you had the van?’
‘I don’t know. Years. That’s why it’s so unreliable. I can’t afford a new one.’
‘You drove a green car then.’
‘I can’t remember what colour car I had all those years ago for heaven’s sake. Cars get you from A to B. I’m not interested in them otherwise.’
‘Let me remind you. We have a witness.’
‘What sort of witness remembers a green car sixteen years ago? What sort of witness is that?’
‘He saw Harriet get into your car. I’ve traced your car ownership from 1990. You don’t change your cars often. A blue Ford. A green Lada. And the van that you have now. One green car, a Lada. The one Harriet Lowther got into at four ten on that Friday afternoon. Friday 18 August 1995. Did you come straight here to this cottage?’
Lenny Wilcox was so still he could not see her breathing. He hardly breathed himself. And suddenly, he felt in no hurry. Sooner or later, she would talk to him, tell him, give him an account of it in the sort of detail people always remembered for ever after such an event. It was going through her mind now, picture after picture, sound after tiny sound, words spoken, and cries. Silences.
He could wait.
A vein pulsed in her neck.
Simon’s phone rang. Lenny barely noticed. It stopped. Rang again.
She turned her eyes to his face and looked at him steadily but did not speak. She was in no hurry either.
THE SIDE DOOR led to a passage which led to the kitchen stores on the left, the main house to the right. No one was about. There was the distant sound of someone singing in a thin, high, voice.
‘Oh my love is like a melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
And fare thee well, my only love
And fare thee well, awhile.
And I will come again, my love
Though it were –’
And broke off.
Molly stood, taking slow, deep breaths, gathering herself, calming down. She needed to think it all through, but if the panic and tension were easing in her body, her thoughts were jagged and broken, like crazy paving, and seemed to jump here and there, from one thing to the other.
She knew what she had seen. Nothing explicit had been said but she was utterly clear about it. She did not know what Fison planned for her, whether he would send for her, threaten her, bribe her, to make sure she kept silent. This was her last day. If he meant to talk to her he would have to do it in the next few hours. Perhaps he did not.
She would go back into the living areas or the staffroom, the kitchen, to Sister Fison’s office, follow anyone, ask for a job among the patients or with one of the carers, move about so that she was not alone anywhere. She was afraid of him, afraid of what he would say, afraid of her own reactions. Afraid of what she had seen. Afraid.
She turned and went towards the sitting room, where one or two of them sat after meals, turning the pages of magazines without taking in anything on the pages, Mrs Overthorpe crocheting and unpicking what she had crocheted, over and over again, smiling.
The sun shone into the room, catching the jar of flowers on the sideboard, making the smooth china of an ornament gleam. The doors were open onto the garden. Someone was a few yards away, by the flower bed. No one was in the room itself.
Molly reached the doors and was about to step down onto the gravel when there was a shout and the person she could see swung round and held out her arms for a second, before flinging herself forward, head down, running, running in a blind, confused way, like a bull that had been goaded, and roaring in the same way too.
At the same moment, she heard a step behind her. A voice. ‘Ah, yes. There you are again, Molly.’
Something hit her in the chest, the throat, the face, arms flailing, a head hard down into her as she was propelled in the small of the back, lost her balance, fell forward across the step. She knew what was happening but not in any order, knew someone had cannoned into her and that someone else was pushing her so hard from behind that she had no strength to resist them, to turn, to keep her balance. She fell slowly, as she might fall in a dream, until the pain as she hit her face, her head, rushed up not as pain but as an enveloping blackness.
‘TELL ME ABOUT Miss Mills,’ Simon said.
Lenny was like a pillar of stone beside him. The sun had moved round and the hens were basking in it, digging out bowls in the dust and rubbing themselves down into it.
‘Nothing left to tell.’
‘But there was once.’
‘Oh yes. Olive.’
‘Talk to me about her.’
‘Why? Olive has nothing to do with it.’
‘When did you meet?’
Lenny stared ahead. ‘She was never beautiful but she had a – a spark. Life. Olive was full of life. She was like a Catherine wheel. Fizzed. It was very attractive. Volatile but very … I don’t have that. Now it’s all gone.’