‘I was drunk. It was the night Leonie told me she and Jake were moving in with Mitch. I was …’

‘You let your defences down.’ Greg does his daytime-television voice. ‘Your boss got you when you were vulnerable. Plied you with drink. And now you just feel used. Hang on …’ He disappears to serve a customer. The bar is busy for a Thursday night, all the tables taken, a steady stream of people at the bar, a low hum of cheerful conversation rising above the music. He had meant to go home after he finished at the office, but he rarely gets a chance to catch up with his brother, and it’s good to get a few drinks in now and then. Even if you do have to spend your time avoiding eye contact with 70 per cent of the customers.

Greg rings up some money and arrives back in front of Paul.

‘Look, I know how it sounds. But she’s a nice woman. And it’s just horrible having to fend her off all the time.’

‘Sucks to be you.’

‘Like you’d understand.’

‘Because nobody ever hits on you when you’re with someone. Not in a g*y bar. Oh, no.’ Greg puts another glass on the shelf. ‘Look, why don’t you just sit her down, tell her that she’s a really lovely person, yada yada yada, but you’re not interested in her that way?’

‘Because it’s awkward. Us working so closely together and all.’

‘And this isn’t? The whole “Oh, well, if you ever fancy a quickie when you’ve finished this case, Paul” thing.’ Greg’s attention shifts to the other end of the bar. ‘Uh-oh. I think we’ve got a live one.’

Paul has been dimly aware of the girl all evening. She had arrived looking perfectly composed and he had assumed she was waiting for someone. Now she is trying to climb back on to her bar stool. She makes two attempts, the second sending her stumbling clumsily backwards. She pushes her hair out of her eyes and peers at the bar as if it’s the summit of Everest. She propels herself upwards. When she lands on the stool she reaches out both hands to steady herself and blinks hard, as if it takes her a couple of seconds to believe she has actually made it. She lifts her face towards Greg. ‘Excuse me? Can I have another wine?’ She holds up an empty glass.

Greg’s gaze, amused and weary, travels to Paul and away. ‘We’re closing in ten minutes,’ he says, flicking his tea-towel over his shoulder. He’s good with drunks. Paul has never seen Greg lose his cool. They were, their mother would remark, chalk and cheese like that.

‘So that leaves me ten minutes to drink it?’ she says, her smile wavering slightly.

She doesn’t look like a lesbian. But, then, few of them do, these days. He doesn’t say this to his brother, who would laugh at him and tell him he had spent too much time in the police.

‘Sweetheart, I mean this in the nicest way, but if you have another drink I’ll worry about you. And I really, really hate ending my shift worrying about customers.’

‘A small one,’ she says. Her smile is heartbreaking. ‘I don’t even usually drink.’

‘Yeah. You’re the ones I worry about.’

‘This …’ Her eyes are strained. ‘This is a difficult day. A really difficult day. Please can I just have one more drink? And then you can call me a nice respectable taxi from a nice respectable firm and I’ll go home and pass out and you can go home without worrying about me.’

He looks back at Paul and sighs. See what I have to put up with? ‘A small one,’ he says. ‘A very small one.’

Her smile falls away, her eyes half close, and she reaches down to her feet, swaying, for her bag. Paul turns back to the bar, checking his phone for messages. It is his turn to have Jake tomorrow night, and although the thing with him and Leonie is now amicable, some part of him still worries that she will find a reason to cancel.

‘My bag!’

He glances up.

‘My bag’s gone!’ The woman has slid from the stool and is gazing around at the floor, one hand clutching the bar. When she looks up, her face is leached of colour.

‘Did you take it to the Ladies?’ Greg leans across the bar.

‘No,’ she says, her gaze darting around the bar. ‘It was tucked under my stool.’

‘You left your bag under the stool?’ Greg tuts. ‘Didn’t you read the signs?’

There are signs all over the bar. Do not leave your bag unattended: pickpockets operate in this area. Paul can count three of them just from where he sits.

She has not read them.

‘I’m really sorry. But it’s not good around here.’ The woman’s gaze flickers between them and, drunk as she is, he can see that she guesses what they’re thinking. Silly drunk girl.

Paul reaches for his phone. ‘I’ll call the cops.’

‘And tell them I was stupid enough to leave my bag under a stool?’ She puts her face into her hands. ‘Oh, God. I’d just withdrawn two hundred pounds for the council tax. I don’t believe it. Two. Hundred. Pounds.’

‘We’ve had two already this week,’ says Greg. ‘We’re waiting for CCTV to be installed. But it’s an epidemic. I’m really sorry.’

She looks up and wipes her face. She lets out a long, unsteady breath. She is plainly trying not to burst into tears. The glass of wine sits untouched on the bar. ‘I’m really sorry. But I don’t think I’m going to be able to pay for that.’

‘Don’t give it a thought,’ says Greg. ‘Here, Paul, you call the cops. I’ll go get her a coffee. Right. Time, ladies and gentlemen, please …’

The police around here do not come out for vanished handbags. They give the woman, whose name is Liv, a crime number and promise a letter about victim support, and tell her they’ll be in touch if they find anything. It’s clear to everyone that they do not expect to be in touch.

By the time she’s off the phone the bar is long empty. Greg unlocks the door to let them out, and Liv reaches for her jacket. ‘I’ve a guest staying. She’s got a spare key.’

‘You want to call her?’ Paul proffers his phone.

She looks blankly at him. ‘I don’t know her number. But I know where she works.’

Paul waits.

‘It’s a restaurant about ten minutes’ walk from here. Towards Blackfriars.’

It’s midnight. Paul gazes at the clock. He is tired and his son is being dropped off at seven thirty tomorrow morning. But he cannot leave a drunk woman, who has plainly spent the best part of an hour trying not to cry, to walk the backstreets of the South Bank at midnight.

***

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