‘Oh dear,’ she said, matter-of-factly putting her hands on her narrow waist. ‘Did you go bump?’
The little girl decided it was far more serious than it was, screwed up her face and began to wail.
‘Hello, Erika. Welcome to the mad house,’ said the woman.
‘Hi, Marcie . . . You look wonderful,’ said Erika.
Marsh scooped up the crying girl in his arms and kissed her face, which was now puce and shiny with tears. Marcie picked up the other little girl, who was staring at Erika, and parked her on a curvy hip.
‘Really? You’re too kind. My only beauty regime is running after the twins.’ Marcie blew a wisp of hair away from her flawless creamy skin. ‘If you’re staying, could we close the door? All the heat is rushing out.’
‘Sorry. Yes,’ said Erika, coming into the hall and closing the door behind her.
‘This is Sophie,’ said Marsh, cradling the crying girl.
‘And this is Mia,’ said Marcie.
‘Hello,’ said Erika. Both little girls stared. ‘Gosh, how pretty you both are.’
Erika had never quite mastered how to talk to children. Rapists and murderers she could deal with, but children she found a little intimidating.
Sophie stopped crying and joined Mia in staring at Erika.
‘Sorry, this is obviously a bad time,’ said Erika.
‘No, it’s fine,’ said Marsh.
Marcie took Sophie and balanced her on her other hip. ‘Right, say night-night to Erika, girls.’
‘Night, night,’ they both squeaked.
‘Night!’ said Erika.
‘It was nice to see you, Erika,’ added Marcie and sashayed off. Erika and Marsh both regarded her pert behind for a moment.
‘Can I get you a glass of wine?’ he asked, turning back.
‘No. I’ve just come to take you up on your offer, the flat . . .’
‘Yes, come through. But shoes off.’
Marsh moved to a door at the end of the hall as Erika fumbled with her bootlaces. She then followed. The wooden floor was cold and she felt strangely vulnerable in just socks. Through the door at the end was a country-style kitchen with a long wooden table and chairs. In the corner, a red Aga pumped out heat. A large fridge next to the door was covered in splodgy paintings with splashes of random colour, all fastened with magnets. An equally splodgy painting dominated the wall above a wooden dresser.
‘It’s one of Marcie’s,’ said Marsh, following Erika’s gaze. ‘She’s very talented; just doesn’t get the time anymore.’
‘Did she do the ones on the fridge, too?’ asked Erika, and regretted it the moment it came out of her mouth.
‘No. The twins did those,’ Marsh said.
There was an awkward silence.
‘Well, here’s all the stuff,’ Marsh said, handing her a large envelope from the kitchen counter. ‘The flat isn’t too far – Foxberry Road in Brockley, close to the train station. There’s a contract, drawn up on a rolling monthly basis, so we can decide how long we want this to last. Just give me a cheque in the next few days.’
Erika opened the envelope and pulled out a bunch of keys, pleased that this wasn’t a favour on Marsh’s part.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘It’s getting late,’ said Marsh.
‘Of course. I should be off, and get settled in,’ said Erika.
‘Oh, one more thing. Sir Simon got in contact with Colleen, our police media liaison. He wants to make a press appeal, whilst the images of Andrea on the front pages are fresh in people’s minds.’
‘Of course, it’s a good idea.’
‘Yes. We’re going to put something together for tomorrow afternoon, so we can hit the evening news and the papers.’
‘Very good, sir. I’m hoping to have more information tomorrow that we can put to use.’
When the front door was closed behind her, Erika walked back to her car, away from the homely warmth of Marsh’s life. She bent her head and bit her lip, determined not to cry. That life, with the cosy husband and kids, had been within her grasp. She’d even delayed it a few times, much to Mark’s distress.
Now it was gone forever.
When Erika drove into Foxberry Road it was still and quiet. She passed Brockley Train Station, the platform dazzlingly lit-up and empty. A train streaked out from under a footbridge and clattered on towards central London. Erika drove on, past a long row of terraced houses, and found the flat down the far end, perched on a corner where the road led off sharply to the right. There was a vacant parking space outside, but her triumph was short-lived when she saw it was residents’ parking only. She would need a permit. Screw it, she thought, parking anyway.
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