Simon went quietly towards the bungalow. It was a calm, warm, sunlit afternoon. There were bees droning about the honeysuckle and roses, a butterfly on the trellis. The contrast between now and the stormy, lowering Yorkshire afternoon overhanging the sea was absolute, but he had the same sensation of being back in the thick of the action and in a heightened state of alert. He had trained as a negotiator and found the week’s intensive course fascinating; ever since, he had wished he would be called in to a major hostage situation to test his skills. This afternoon’s exercise seemed routine and domestic, by comparison.
The bungalow was silent in the sun, the curtains drawn. Nothing moved. Nothing could be seen. He had a sense of foreboding. No house with people in it should be so still. The team waited, looking towards him. Someone leaned out of the window of the big house next door. He could hear the distorted voices from a walkie-talkie.
He stood at the front door and knocked, suddenly and loudly so that whoever was inside would be startled.
He thought he heard a slight scraping sound, but then a blackbird started up from a bush beside him and flew across the garden, making its warning cry and blotting out any noise that might have come from the house. He lifted the letter box. There was a flap of fabric on the other side, so he could see nothing.
“Police. If you are inside there and able to hear me, would you please call out? I would like to talk to you.”
He waited. Silence.
“I would like to speak with you. Please tell me who you are.”
The silence was so dense, so absolute, that he almost turned and beckoned to the team to come down and bring the rammer to break down the door. If anyone was inside this bungalow he was surely no longer alive.
The blackbird sang from the lilac tree.
“What do you want?”
The voice was low and came from inches away on the other side of the letter flap.
“I’m DCI Simon Serrailler. I would like to know who is in there, please. Would you open the door so that I can check things are all right?”
“In that case, perhaps you’d just tell me your name. If there is anything wrong, I’d like to try and help.”
“Will you tell me your name?”
There was a pause. Then, “Do you have to shout?”
“If you can hear me, no, I don’t.”
“Come to the window.”
“At the front. She’s asleep.”
“Who is asleep? Can you tell me who you are and who else is in the house with you? The usual occupant is the Reverend Jane Fitzroy. Can you tell me if she’s in there with you?”
Now, there were footsteps, quietly receding. Serrailler waited. Then, signalling to the team that he had made contact, he walked to the front window. The curtains were drawn and, for a moment, there was no sound, no movement. Then one of the windows was pushed slightly ajar.
“Don’t try and break in.”
“Stay where you are.”
“I’m staying here, outside the window. I’m not going to try to enter the house. I’d just like to speak to you. It would be really helpful to know who I’m talking to.”
“What did you say your name was?”
“DCI Simon Serrailler.”
“Who got you here?”
“Someone called us to say they had heard screams.”
“She’s fine. I told you. She’s asleep.”
“Who is asleep? Can you just tell me that?’
“Not. Not OK.”
“Is that Lizzie you have with you?”
“Lizzie is dead.”
“I see. Can you tell me who is with you?”
“I need to know if they’re all right. Is it Miss Fitzroy? Is she all right?”
“She’s all right.”
“Why won’t you tell me your name? I’m Simon, you—”
“I’m not a bloody imbecile, you told me your name once, don’t bloody talk to me like that.”
“I’m trying to get you to tell me your name, that’s all.”
“OK, OK. Max. Max, Max, Max, Max, Max, Max, Max … Shit. MAX.”
He sounded weary for a second. Weary enough to give in? He might have had enough.
“All right, Max … is there any reason why you won’t let me inside there?”
“She is. I don’t want to disturb her.”
“Fine. We needn’t. So long as I can make sure she’s all right—you’re both all right—we can let her sleep.”
“She’s fine. Lizzie isn’t, Lizzie’s dead, but she’s fine.”
“Tell me about Lizzie, Max.”
He said the name as if it were strange to him. Experimentally.
“Lizzie,” he said again.
“Yes. Tell me about her. Will you?”
“She’s dead. What’s to tell? She died.”
“Max, I’m sorry.”
“Of course you’re not, you didn’t know her, how could you be?”
“Because you sound distressed.”
He laughed again, a short, dry, hard little laugh. “Fuck it, you don’t know.”
“So tell me.”
But then the man’s hand reached out briefly to close the window. The curtain had scarcely parted.
Serrailler waited. The bungalow was again wrapped in the same, dreadful pall of silence. He stood for ten minutes but there was not the slightest further sound or movement.
He went to the letter box, pushed it open and called out Max Jameson’s name, asked him to reply, to come back and talk. Silence.
He went back up the path through the shrubs and fruit trees.
He shook his head.
It was going to take a long time. He had assessed the situation incorrectly. He headed into the close. They had thrown a cordon round the area and, outside it, people were gathering to watch, drawn as always and as if by some magic force to a scene of potential calamity.
He spoke to the Super. Was the situation in hand? More or less. Was it likely to escalate? Hard to tell. He still had no idea why the man was holding whoever it was inside the house, or what he wanted or hoped to achieve. How dangerous was he? Hard to tell.
It was all nebulous, the most frustrating and yet, curiously, potentially the most interesting sort of situation and one which Simon was gripped by and determined to resolve. Who was this man? Who was with him? Who was Lizzie? Was Lizzie dead in there? Did “asleep” mean “dead”? He would tease the truth out, little by little, moving carefully and tactfully. He wanted to know. This was not some crude criminal act of violence, the stupid game of an idiot off his head on crack. It was not so obvious.
It was not obvious at all.
“I think it may take some time but there’s no threat beyond the bungalow, so far as I can tell. He’s isolated himself there, it’s easily surrounded and easily contained.”
“We’ll stay back out of the way then.”
“Yes. I’d like to know if there have been any sudden or violent deaths in the last few weeks with a victim called Lizzie, possibly Lizzie Jameson but I’m not certain, RTAs, suicides … And where is the Reverend Jane Fitzroy? Has she been to work? Anyone seen her?”
“Has he asked for anything?”
“No. We haven’t got that far … not sure if we will. I’m not sure of anything much but I’m going back down there now. He’s had a few minutes to think.”
How strange, Serrailler thought, this garden, half wild towards the bottom, everything flowering in the sun, birds, insects, sweet smells. How strange. In the middle of it all, there is this small silent stone bungalow and inside …
“Max?” he called quietly. Then he lifted the letter box and raised his voice. “Max? Will you answer me?”
The sun shone on his back as he crouched there, warming him.
She had slept again. How could she have slept? To sleep you have to feel safe and she thought she had never felt less safe in her life. Perhaps, in some strange way, she trusted Max not to harm her simply because he was beside himself with grief and confusion but no longer full of rage.
He had put a blanket over her. She stretched her legs and arms to ease her cramped muscles, then turned. The curtains were still drawn but the sun was behind them, filling the room with a blotted, honey light. And the sun caught something, making it shine. Jane sat up.
There were three knives laid out neatly on the coffee table, two large kitchen knives, and one small new paring knife which she had bought a couple of days before. The sun flashed against the metal.
Max was sitting in a chair beside the window, watching her. “Don’t touch them,” he said.
She felt a lurch of sickness. She had slept, innocently, trustingly, for how long? While he had laid out three knives beside her.
“What …?” Her throat was dry with fear. “What is happening? Why have you … what are the knives doing there?”
He got up and she shrank back into the blanket but he did not come near her, only turned to lift the corner of the curtain very slightly and peer out.
It was only when he turned back that she realised she would have had time to snatch one of the knives.
“Someone was there just now,” he said, his voice normal, pleasantly conversational, “but they seem to have gone.”
“Max, people will know I’m missing … they’ll be coming down here to look for me. I had a meeting at the hospital, I should have been to sort something out in the Dean’s office … people will …”
“It seems they already have. Don’t worry, they won’t come back.”
“Did you speak to someone?”
He shrugged again.
“I don’t understand what you want. Please, please just tell me what this is about.”
“Lizzie … yes, I do know that, but I don’t see why keeping me here will help you. It can’t bring Lizzie back, you have to accept that. Whatever you do to me can’t change what has happened. I have to say this. Even if you … stab me with one of those, it won’t change what has happened.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“Getting even with God.”
“Do you believe in God?”
“No. But you do.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“None of it makes sense. Death doesn’t. Lizzie being dead doesn’t.”
“So by holding me here you somehow think … what? I’m trying to get to wherever you are but it’s quite hard.”
“You never will. You can’t.”
“How do you feel?”
“You’re angry and distressed, I know, but how else? Does your mind feel … are you thinking clearly?”
“Because I don’t see that.”
She fell silent. He looked grey and dishevelled, his eyes were dull. There seemed to be a weariness rather than any craziness or rage about him.
God, give me the right words.
But no words came to her. Her mind was a white, shining, empty space.
“What kind of God is yours, Jane?”
Her throat tightened. She did not know.
“The gentle Jesus? The healer? The merciful one? When we went to the service in the chapel and they prayed over Lizzie, they talked about mercy and healing and comfort and grace and she said it helped her but I don’t understand that. How could it have helped her? She got worse and she died. She died a dreadful death, you know. We all have to die. I don’t understand that.”
Do I? Jane thought. Now the space was black and swirling and dangerous, not a peaceful, beautiful emptiness. “I don’t know. I don’t pretend to have all the answers to life and death.”
“You are too intelligent for this, you must know I can’t pretend to, all I can do is believe. Faith. It’s about faith. And trust.”
“How do you know her trust was misplaced? You don’t know. There are many sorts of healing.”
“Max, listen … I’m exhausted. I need a shower and something to eat and some fresh air and so do you. We need normality. I can’t think straight. I can’t have this sort of conversation under threat … how can I? I’ll talk to you, I’ll pray with you … anything … but not like this.”
“It was the police.”
“A policeman. He talked and then he went away.”
“If the police are here then you’ve got to stop this. You’ve done nothing wrong and I wouldn’t dream of pressing charges against you but you have to let me open the door and walk out.”
“They can break in.”
“No. Maybe they’ve retreated but they won’t have gone. Of course they won’t.”
“No one will break in. I won’t let that happen.”
“You can’t stop it happening. Come on … think.”
He smiled then and his smile chilled her because it did not lighten his face or reach his eyes. Perhaps, she thought suddenly, this is not only about Lizzie. Perhaps he is not simply mad because of her death. Perhaps he is mad. And dangerous. And desperate. Perhaps …
There was a sound at the window. Max leapt out of the chair and went swiftly across to it but did not lift the curtain. He stood listening intently, but when Jane made a movement he turned round so quickly that she froze. He looked at the knives, then at her.
“Max?” A man’s voice from outside. “Please come and speak to me. Are you all right?”
Everything went still and silent for a long time. The sun crept over the small desk, catching the frame of her father’s photograph. A butterfly was spread out in a corner of the white wall, a red admiral, rich and quivering in the warmth.