‘Course. Kid goes missing. I take it you ent found him?’


‘Why did you expect us to come here?’


‘Don’t mess me about, son, I been messed about enough. Kid goes missing, I’ve a record for kids. Stands to reason.’


‘Where were you on Tuesday morning, Mr Parker, around eight o’clock?’


‘In bed.’


‘Alone?’


‘Who’d have me?’


‘Anyone else in the house?’


‘Only Tyson.’


‘Your dog.’


‘Nope.’


‘Don’t mess me about, Mr Parker. I don’t go for it.’


‘I know who you are. Dinky Coates’s lad … snotty little kid, you were.’


‘Was anyone else here who can vouch for you being in bed at that time on Tuesday morning?’


‘Ask Tyson.’


Nathan followed the man’s sausage finger. On the other side of the room, above a shiny sideboard, stood another tank, letting off a strong glow from inside.


The smell.


Geoff Prince went over and peered in.


‘You got a licence for this python?’


‘Don’t need no licence.’


‘Think you’re doing it a favour, do you, keeping it crammed into there?’


‘Want me to let him out and run around?’


‘Do you have a car?’


‘On and off.’


‘I don’t suppose you drive a Jaguar XKV?’


Parker snorted with laughter and the snort sent spittle shooting out of his mouth towards Nathan. ‘Yeah, right.’


‘Have you ever seen this boy?’


‘Don’t bother, I seen the posters, I know what he looks like.’


‘Have you seen him?’


‘Might have. Might not. Could have passed him in the street any day. So could you.’


‘Listen –’


‘No, you fuckin’ listen, Coates. You listen. I know what I done and I been inside for it and I done the programme for it and I’m out, finished, paid for, only you lot can’t bleedin’ forget it … I know where I am, I’m on your fuckin’ register, that’s where, and there I’ll be till I’m frying in the Parkside Crem incinerator, but I ent seen that kid, I ent taken the kid, I ent been down that road, I don’t intend goin’ down that road, I don’t intend gettin’ near any fuckin’ kid ever again. If you want to know, I’ve joined a marriage agency, get myself a woman, homekeeper, to look after me and Tyson, shut you up. Go on, get out. Fuck off, before I lift the lid off of his tank.’


Parker stood in the hallway with his back to the open kitchen door. Through a gap, Nathan caught sight of another illuminated tank on top of the fridge, glowing red. Parker smelled too, rank in their nostrils as they passed unavoidably close to him on their way out. For a second, he grabbed Nathan’s sleeve.


‘You ent checked your records careful enough, have you, you stuck-up young sod?’


Nathan pulled his arm away. ‘If you’ve anything to tell us, Parker, you better spit it out.’


Geoff Prince was halfway to the car.


‘You wouldn’t have wasted your time.’


‘I said –’


‘I heard you. See, it’s all done with now, I’m treated, en I, cured, went through a load of them psychiatrists and they sorted it, only you’d know if you’d looked weren’t no point in coming here talking to me. It was girls. Always. I never took a look at no boys. It was girls. Always. You take a look. I could have you for harassment.’


Geoff was silent as he drove back to the station.


‘I feel like I need a shower and to have me clothes sent to the cleaner’s,’ Nathan said after a while. ‘Are people allowed to keep pythons just like that?’


‘Dunno. Want a check?’


‘Naw, got enough on. Just hope he doesn’t forget to put the top back on the tank one day.’


‘It’s not him. No way.’


Nathan agreed, but said nothing. The smell and aura of nastiness had hung about Brent Parker and his hot, stinking rooms, but not because he had had anything to do with the disappearance of David Angus. The DCI had wanted him brought in if there had been the slightest suspicion, but there hadn’t been, not about the boy at least. ‘They’ll have checked on the stolen Jag time we get back.’


‘You reckon anything to that?’


‘Might be.’


‘Bit obvious … crawling down the road and back in broad daylight sussing out the scene.’


‘Right.’


‘I reckon it was just someone looking for a house. Those bloody great detached places behind their hedges and driveways and posh gates never have anything so obvious as a number, even a name, where you can find it. I know, I did a house-to-house all round there. Never a bloody sign.’


‘Right.’


‘They do a nice hot pork bap out of Toni’s van.’


‘Go on then.’


Brent Parker’s house was in Nathan’s mind. He was walking round the rooms, looking at everything, trying to remember what it was that had started to niggle. Something. He had seen something, not enough to pay attention, maybe not seen it properly, but something.


He took the hot roll in its cone of greaseproof paper from Geoff’s hand and the smell made him realise how hungry he was. He hadn’t eaten more than a couple of chocolate biscuits for hours. He bit deep into the savoury, crumbly mass of meat and bread and hot sage stuffing, closing his eyes. But even while he was eating with such ravenous pleasure, it was there, niggling away. Something. Something.


David


I don’t like this place.


I’m not frightened.


I don’t like it, that’s all.


Why have we got to be here? It’s cold and it smells.


I’m very thirsty actually. If you gave me something to drink it might be best. We’re always allowed to have a drink at school when we want, water anyway, and not anything to eat but we can have a drink when we like. It’s important for people to drink, they get ill if they don’t drink.


Aren’t you thirsty?


If I could have a drink then I’d tell them when they come that you gave it to me, and that would be a good thing for you.


They will come.


Yes they will.


They’re clever and they have tracking devices and they’ll soon use those to find me and then they’ll come. QED.


Don’t you know what QED is?


When will we go back?


I don’t like it here.


I’d like to see my mummy. It’s dark, isn’t it, so that means Daddy will be home and then they’ll come for me together. They might bring my sister. They probably would bring my sister.


My sister is eleven and she’ll soon be twelve so they would bring her. Yes, they definitely would bring her.


I don’t like it here very much.


Why don’t you say anything? If you said your name I’d like it better being with you. I don’t really like it but I’d like it just a bit.


If you said your name.


Di Ronco’s father was a famous pop star. He was in a world-famous rock band.


He’s ace.


Di Ronco’s dad.


He makes us laugh.


Once we wet ourselves with laughing.


I don’t really like it here.


But they will be coming. I think I can hear them actually. I can hear a car coming.


Did you hear that car?


Eighteen


‘I think,’ Marilyn Angus said, taking off her glasses, ‘I am going mad. I think if this goes on for another five minutes, I shall be mad.’


They had tried doing normal things. They should be as normal as possible, if only for Lucy’s sake, though there was nothing normal about Lucy, as she sat as close as she could to one or other of her parents while trying to pretend she was not doing so, and bit the fingernails she had taken such care in growing down to the quick.


They had tried cooking supper and eating it and most of it lay congealing in the bin. They had tried answering emails, and watching television and playing Scrabble and Racing Demon.


‘What are we doing this for? We never do this. We only do this at Christmas.’ Lucy had got up and walked away, leaving the words frozen in mid-game on the board.


They had switched on the television and heard the terrible canned laughter like demonic cackling in their ears and turned it off.


They had poured gin and wine and tea, and the glasses stood about still full. Only the teacups were emptied, over and over again.


‘I’m going to have a bath,’ Marilyn Angus said. ‘Call me if …’


Lucy slid off her chair as her mother left the room and sidled behind her up the stairs. Marilyn Angus went into the bathroom and out of the usual habit closed and locked the door. Lucy sat on the floor outside it, touching the panel with her arm.


The steam billowed up smelling of freesias. Marilyn wished she had not put essence into the water. It seemed wrong. Her bathwater ought to be plain, to smell of nothing, to be penitential. She ran cold into it so that it would not be so hot, seem so luxurious and enjoyable. She must not enjoy anything until …


What could be happening to David, where David might be, who was with him, what they were saying and doing to him, was there, starting out of the traps and racing round the track of the inside of her head over and over again. His face was in front of her and occasionally she saw a bit of his body, his thin, frail-looking wrist, his toes, his ear with the small cauliflower frill at the top. The thought of any part of his body not just being hurt or defiled but even being touched, even being looked at, by someone who meant him harm made her retch with a sickness that sent her to the basin but from which nothing came, though she stared down expecting black bile to be there, swirling round under the running taps, the bile her whole stomach was filled with.


Not knowing. Was it true that not knowing was the worst of this? She needed to ask someone who had been through it. The names of those people, known from newspapers and the television and radio, rang in her head. She needed to talk to one of them, anyone, to ask if not knowing was the worst, or if, when things were known, those things were the greatest horror of all and the not knowing had been nothing, a soothing, tranquil, paradisal state by comparison.


She would ask Kate, the policewoman who had been assigned to them and was now, indeed, living with them, though Marilyn would have preferred her not to be there. She neither liked nor disliked her, she simply did not want or need, or see the need for, her permanent, intrusive presence. She would ask Kate. Kate could get addresses, numbers, couldn’t she, the station would have computers to talk to other computers and send the telephone numbers of those people she needed to speak to across the ether. It did not much matter which parent of what child, what had happened to that boy or girl, how long they had been missing, in what state they had been found. Anyone, anyone at all would do. Just so long as she could talk to them and ask them the questions she could ask no one else. And they might have answers. No one else had answers, but they might.


She saw David as a newborn baby writhing beside her, still attached to the cord, still covered in the white strands of mucus and caul, mouth roaring with fury at being na*ed under these blue-white lights.


She saw David racing down the wing with the ball at his feet and Ryan Giggs in his head and the shouting schoolboys and parents on the side cheering.


She let out the bellow of a cow that has had its calf taken away, the bellow of pain and rage and bewilderment and distress that sent Lucy backing away from the door on her hands and knees.


Alan, followed by Kate, came running up the stairs.


Lucy’s bedroom door banged shut.


Marilyn sat in the cooling bathwater that smelled too strongly, sickeningly of freesia and heard the appalling noise and was puzzled, unable to tell where it was coming from or why.


The phone was ringing as she returned to the kitchen, dressed again and calmer, Kate behind her, touching her arm.


‘Oh God.’


It could not be news; Kate would receive that first, on her radio, and prepare them for it, good or bad, but the sound of the telephone bell was terrifying now, any intrusion from outside could be something to do with David.


‘Alan Angus …’


Do not answer the telephone, they had said, leave that to us. Leave us to take the enquiries and the well-wishers and the lunatics and the press, let us deal with it all. Alan would have none of that. He was permanently on call, even now, even through all of this … patients came first.


Marilyn sat in the chair by the fire watching as he listened and jotted down a note.


‘What time did they bring her in? How long has she been unconscious? How much bleeding? OK, we need a theatre, I’m on my way.’


She could not bring herself to say anything. He had to go. He could not ignore it. Not even now.


‘Woman cyclist hit by a car.’ He glanced at the policewoman, coming in with yet another tray of tea.


‘I’m going to the hospital. I’ll be in theatre but you can page me.’


‘Can’t someone else do it? Can’t the registrar –’


‘Too difficult. I’m needed. Can’t leave it to Michael.’


He got to the front door, then came back. ‘Hadn’t you better check on Lucy?’


Marilyn looked at the teacups. She had thought she knew Alan but she did not. She had thought they were a close couple but they were not. What had happened had separated them as if a knife had sliced their marriage in half. Alan had retreated into work, insisting on being called in for every neurological trauma, doing a full list during the day, taking every clinic. Alan did not talk about David. Alan did not talk to her. ‘Hadn’t you better check on Lucy?’ Alan could not face Lucy himself.


‘Would you like me to go up and talk to her?’ Kate asked.


She was a nice woman, Kate. Pleasant face. Neat hair. Sympathetic. Easy. If you had to have someone living in your house, at your elbow, behind you, beside you, day and night, you could not do better than nice, understanding, shrewd Kate. Marilyn thought she might kill Kate. It was not the policewoman’s fault.


‘No. I should.’


‘Everyone has to cope in their own way as best they can. Your husband copes by being at the hospital.’


‘And what do I do? I cope by not coping. I cope by having hysterics in the bath and terrifying my daughter who is already beside herself with fear. I cope. I don’t cope. How can you expect us to?’


‘I know.’


‘No, you don’t know. You have no possible idea.’


‘Actually –’

***

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