‘It would make everything far more bloody easy if everyone was tagged at birth with a GPS tracker. It would save a fortune . . .’

‘I’ll be sure to pass that along to the next journalist I meet,’ said Erika.

‘Keep me informed every step of the way,’ he had said irritably, waving her away with a hand.

The sky had grown heavy, and Moss had to put on the car headlights. The surrounding woodland was now thick, and the bare branches seemed impenetrable. The sign with the number 17 appeared up ahead, and they came to a stop at a patch of bare soil. The bench had been removed, leaving four deep impressions in the soil. Moss killed the engine and the lights, and they were left in silence. When Erika opened the door, a cold breeze floated past, bringing with it the smell of damp and rotting leaves. She buttoned up her coat as Peterson and Moss joined her.

‘So now what?’ asked Moss.

‘She said she’d meet us here; she was very specific,’ said Erika, pulling out the scrap of paper where she’d written the original directions. They looked at the road beside them. It was empty in both directions.

‘There looks like a track up ahead here,’ said Moss. They made towards a gap in the dead brambles and undergrowth. After squeezing through for several metres, it opened out onto a track for walkers. It was well-kept, under a huge canopy of trees stretching away to a corner, where the track disappeared. Erika imagined that in the summer this bleak and creepy woodland corner felt different.

They waited for almost forty minutes, the radio clicking and beeping as Crane, back in London, checked their status.

‘It’s a bloody wind-up,’ said Peterson. ‘No doubt it was the woman who said . . .’ His voice trailed off as they heard the crack of a stick breaking, and the whoosh of leaves being disturbed. Erika put her finger to her lips. There was a rustling, and through the undergrowth came a woman with short blonde hair. She wore a pink waterproof jacket and black leggings. She held a knife in her hand, and what looked like a canister of mace in the other. She stopped fifty yards from where they stood.

‘What the fuck?’ said Moss.

Erika shot her a look. ‘Barbora? Barbora Kardosova? I’m DCI Erika Foster; these are my colleagues, Detective Moss and Detective Peterson.’

‘Take out your IDs and throw them over here,’ said Barbora. Her voice shook with fear, and as she came closer they could see her hands did too.

‘Hang on,’ started Moss, but Erika put her hand in her pocket, pulled out her ID and slung it across. It landed a few feet from Barbora. Moss and Peterson reluctantly did the same. She picked them up, and keeping the canister of mace trained in their direction, looked through their ID.

‘Okay, you can see we are who we say we are. Now please put the knife and the mace away,’ said Erika. Barbora put them down on the ground, and came cautiously towards the three of them. Erika could just make out the face from the picture she’d seen on Facebook. It was still beautiful, but the nose was now smaller and straighter. The face was fuller, and the long dark hair was now short and dyed blonde.

A dark-haired man and a blonde-haired girl . . . thought Erika.

‘Why are we going through all this just to talk to you?’ started Moss. ‘You know we could nick you here and now for having that knife. It’s more than seven inches long, and don’t get me started on the mace . . .’

Barbora had tears in her eyes. ‘I’m so scared, but I have to talk to you. There are things I have to tell you or I’ll never forgive myself . . . I shouldn’t have contacted you using my real name,’ she said. ‘I’m in the witness protection programme.’

58

They froze for a moment, Moss, Peterson and Erika. The wind rushed through the treetops above.

‘I’m not going to tell you my new name,’ said Barbora, shakily.

‘No,’ said Erika, holding up her hand. ‘Don’t say anything more.’

‘Shit, this should have been bloody obvious,’ said Moss. There was a faint beep from the open car window, and they heard Crane ask for their status and position.

‘We’ve got to call this in, boss . . . If someone in witness protection reveals themselves or is revealed, then we have to call it in,’ said Moss.

‘You’ll need a new identity,’ said Peterson, trying to hide his annoyance.

‘Wait. Please. There are things I have to say,’ said Barbora. ‘I met you because I have to talk to you about George Mitchell . . .’ She swallowed and shook even more. ‘I should tell you his real name.’

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