‘Buy a house,’ she had said several times. ‘Have a holiday on it if you want to, enjoy it – but buy a house. You’ll never regret it.’


She had died before he had got the Lafferton job, but she would have approved of 27 St Mark’s Street, he knew that much. Victorian terraced cottages, preferably with original fireplaces intact, were right up her street. There were fireplaces in the front room, the back room and one of the bedrooms, though that was blocked and he would never use it. He’d have a fire in the front room, though. There was money left over, he could buy more than the bits of old furniture he had brought with him from the flat he had shared with two other plain clothes in Telford, he just hadn’t had a chance, didn’t know what would suit the house, what choice there was. He’d find his feet on the job first then ask around. Ikea? Auction rooms? There were curtains in the front room and the bedroom, which the previous owner had left, hideous curtains but they served, like the stair carpet and the lino in the kitchen. He could live with any of it because he had the house. His house.


He took his jacket off the nail behind the door. His stomach was doing what stomachs do the first morning of anything – first day at Big School, at uni, at Hendon – the combo of excitement, anticipation and dread, but this time, excitement was right up there because it was different. It was new and it was the pick, the job he’d wanted and never expected to get. The dream job.


The DC waiting in the station lobby wore pale pink cord jeans, a checked scarf fashionably tied and an anxious expression. Ben decided she missed being pretty but not by much.


‘DS Vanek?’ She made it sound like Varn-ek.


‘That’s right … but, er, do you mind, it’s pronounced Van-yek. Sorry.’


‘Oh God, another weird name. That’ll be fun, Vanek and Serrailler – nobody can ever say that either. I’m Steph Mead.’


‘Nice and normal then.’


He didn’t mind people getting his name wrong, it happened every day, and usually they didn’t mind him helping them get it right. He marked pink-cords down as prickly.


‘I’m your welcoming party.’ She punched in the security number to the door beside the duty desk. ‘There you go, one-five-six-four.’


‘It changes, presumably.’


‘You’ll get a text. It happens at random.’ They went up the regulation issue concrete stairs. ‘Where’d you come from?’


‘Shropshire.’


‘What, country parish?’


‘Telford.’


‘Right. Well, you’ll find Lafferton much like anywhere, I guess. Only things are a bit hot this morning, we’re just going into a case conf … Do you know DI Franks?’


‘He was on my interview panel.’


‘He’s taking it.’


She banged through two sets of swing doors and along to the end of a corridor. The conference room was filling up. He could hear the usual hubbub. It was like school playgrounds, Ben Vanek thought. The noise of children out at playtime was the same wherever you were.


‘Hi, morning, DS Vanek.’


He couldn’t get used to it. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to it. Detective Sergeant, no longer just DC. And heading upwards, only it didn’t do to make ambition too public, he’d learned that early on.


‘Morning, sir.’


‘Welcome on board. Interesting case today, listen and learn.’


‘Sir.’


He wondered where the Super was. It was Simon Serrailler he had come here to work with, Serrailler whose career path he wanted to emulate.


‘Is the DCS in?’


Steph Mead was finding them chairs. There were nine people in the room, and a couple more uniform coming in.


‘Serrailler? He’s on leave. He headed up the Falmer gang case for SIFT – earned himself a nice holiday.’


‘Oh.’


She gave him a look.


‘He’s a legend,’ Ben said, ‘that’s all.’


‘Apparently. I’ve only been here a month myself. I’ve never even met the guy. Head up, here we go.’


DI Franks hit the ground running, talking as he walked towards the white board at the end of the room.


‘Chantelle Buckley, seventeen, lived in Bevham, had worked there and in Lafferton as a prostitute.’ He took them through the photographs – Chantelle alive, wearing the vile green nylon jacket, Chantelle caught on CCTV at the bus station and again in Lafferton Market Square. Chantelle dead, body floating Ophelia-like in the water, caught up among the roots of the pollarded willows. Chantelle on the mortuary slab. Close-ups. Injuries. Franks went on. Last known movements, witnesses, family, acquaintances.


‘Motive?’ someone asked.


‘Good question. None, so far as we know. No enemies, no big debts, no current boyfriend. Bit of rivalry between the toms, always is, you know, “she took my punter”, “geroff my patch”, all the usual stuff, nothing important. Though there are a lot of new pimps, running very young girls. According to a local prostitute, Abi Righton, Chantelle had come to try her luck over here because there were too many foreign girls in Bevham.’


‘Family?’


‘Mother, two stepbrothers. Chantelle lived at home and her mother reported her missing. If they knew she was working as a tom they didn’t own to it. No family tensions, mother married the stepfather when Chantelle was eight, but he died last year. Gets on OK with the stepbrothers, both married and live elsewhere. Don’t think there’s anything there.’


‘Dead end then.’


‘Nothing’s a dead end. We’re only just started. One person we want to talk to – a man the girls call Loony or Loopy Les. We don’t know his real name. Les takes flasks of hot drinks and sandwiches to the girls on the street from time to time … I wonder why …’


‘Religious nutter.’


‘Girls don’t think so. We need to find him. Description – IC one, medium height, brown hair, in his fifties, no distinguishing features.’


‘Well, there you go then, soon pick him out of a crowd!’


‘Drives a –’


‘Ford Fiesta?’


‘You read my mind.’


There was a general groan and people started to move.


‘Hang on, I know you’re eager to get out there but there’s another thing. Another prostitute. Marie O’Dowd – local. She was reported missing yesterday by another tom, Abi Righton. Abi went to the caravan where Marie lives and found it trashed. There’s a boyfriend, and he’s got form …’ He pointed to the right of the board and a mugshot of Jonty Lewis. ‘Possession, bit of dealing, aggravated burglary, vicious assault.’


‘Nice.’


‘I want him brought in. Last known address 44 Payton Street but that turns out to be a squat and there’s no one in it now. That was wrecked as well.’


‘Doesn’t sound like there’s a connection, does it, sir? I mean, apart from the dead girl and the Missper being toms.’


‘I agree. I don’t want anyone wandering off after red herrings. I want the killer of Chantelle Buckley. Chances are Marie O’Dowd’ll just turn up – apparently she’s done this before, gone off for a few weeks. Looks like things turn nasty with the boyfriend so she does a runner. Right, that’s it, except I’d like you to welcome your new DS, Ben Vanek, pronounced like that, right?’


‘Right, sir.’


‘DS Vanek will be working with DC Mead today – try and find this Loopy Les …’


Franks went on assigning the jobs – some to liaise with vice squad at Bevham, others to talk to the local prostitutes.


‘But I can’t spare everybody to this – we’ve got reports this morning of another big country-house antiques raid, village of Milton Copley, four miles north of here. That’s the third in as many months. Uniform are there but I want …’


Ben Vanek looked at pink-cords. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Best get out and about, DC Mead.’


‘Steph.’


He nodded.


‘Do you know the place?’ she asked as they headed for the car. ‘Or do you want the guided tour?’


He would have preferred not to be teamed with Steph Mead. She was bouncy and confident and he suspected she would chat a lot.


‘You drive,’ he said.


‘Where are we heading?’


‘Out to where the body was found.’


‘Won’t forensics have finished?’


‘Yes.’


He thought she made a slight face, but she took the hint and drove the rest of the way in silence.


There was nothing left to see other than the usual tape and markings at the spot below the willows. It was a cold morning and the surface of the water shone.


Vanek looked upstream as far as he could see, wondering where she had gone in, if she had been killed here or put in somewhere else and floated down. He would check out the pathologist’s report.


Steph Mead was standing by the willow, looking into the water. ‘No place to end up.’


‘Abi Righton,’ he said. ‘Do you have the address?’


She drove well, he gave her that, competent, smooth.


‘Where were you before this?’


‘Bevham,’ she said. ‘Uniform. But I always knew I wanted to be CID. Just had to do my time. You?’


‘Same. Though I really liked my first couple of years on the beat. I was in Birmingham. Lot going on in Brum.’


‘Why Lafferton?’


‘I want to work with Serrailler. Thought I’d said.’


‘You said he was a legend. You seriously went for the job because of him?’


‘Why not?’


She shrugged, taking a corner and accelerating.


‘Hello, again, Abi.’ Steph smiled. ‘This is Ben.’


‘Jeez, what’s happened? You haven’t found Marie, have you?’


She stepped back to let them into the bedsit.


It was clean, that was Ben’s first thought, untidy, with kids’ toys and clothes lying around, but it smelled clean, as if she’d been wiping the surfaces down with something. It was a decent-sized room, but it was just that. A room. A toddler was sitting in a high chair pushing bread around a puddle of liquid.


‘You haven’t found her?’


She pulled a towel off a chair.


‘I’m afraid not. I take it you haven’t had any word from her yourself?’


‘Well, I’d have said, wouldn’t I? I don’t like thinking about it.’


‘Tell me about this man you call Loopy Les?’


He wandered round the room, looking at CDs on a shelf, a couple of children’s books, a pretty china mug. No photographs, he thought. But then, he didn’t have any himself.


Steph Mead was sitting at the table, making faces at the toddler who stared back at her, huge-eyed, suspicious.


‘Or is it Loony Les?’


Abi shrugged. ‘We call him all sorts. He’s OK.’


‘Lives in Lafferton?’


‘Yes, he said so once, it was about the recycling bins thing. He said his street was getting them, said it drove him nuts putting one thing in this, the other in that, only you had to do it.’


‘His street?’


‘He never said which one, no. Sorry.’


‘And he just brings out sandwiches and hot drinks?’


‘Yeah. And if you want me to tell you why, I haven’t a clue about that either, but I reckon he just feels …’


‘Sorry for you?’


‘I don’t want anybody’s sympathy.’


‘Really? I would.’


She narrowed her eyes.


‘If I had to do what you do to put food on the table. Does he bother you?’


‘Why should he?’


‘Scare you?’


‘What, him?’ Abi snorted.


‘Did he know Chantelle?’


‘He met her. He turned up the night she was working, night I saw her. She thought it was weird. The Reachout van was out as well.’


‘Do you know the Reachout people, Abi?’ Steph Mead asked. She wanted him to know she was still there, Ben thought.


‘How do you mean? I don’t know them like friends. I know where they come from, what they’re called.’


‘Is it always the same ones?’


‘There are about four regulars. Damian, he’s always on. Nicola, Darren.’


‘Know anything else about them?’


‘They wouldn’t have anything to do with it.’


‘With what?’


‘Chantelle – with what happened to her.’


‘Because they’re from a church? Doesn’t follow, I’m afraid.’


‘Maybe not, but they wouldn’t.’


‘Les?’


She hesitated. The child looked round at her.


‘Abi?’


He frowned at Steph, meaning leave her, let her think, take her time.


‘No,’ Abi said in the end, ‘he’s all right. He’s been coming out with stuff ever since I … I been working and he’s never said anything … you know … never been funny with us. He likes to chat, he brings the stuff to eat, but that’s it. Les wouldn’t hurt any of us.’


‘What does he like to chat about?’


‘Anything. Weather. The bloody government. Usual stuff.’


‘Money?’


‘You know, why do some people have all the money, wanker bankers, all that.’


‘Quite serious chats then.’


‘Why shouldn’t we? I’m not thick, you know.’


‘No,’ Ben said, ‘I can see that.’ Meaning it. She was not thick. ‘Think, Abi. Has he ever said anything at all which would give us a clue to where he works?’


‘It’s in some library,’ Abi said.


Twenty


By the time Cat arrived, the others were already in the sitting room of the Precentor’s house. She’d had a call from the hospice, an accident had closed the bypass so that she had a four-mile detour to take Sam from school to Hallam House, and traffic coming back into Lafferton was still snarled up on her return. She had almost rung to cry off the meeting, but conscience pricked her – conscience and curiosity. She wanted to see Ruth Webber in action.


‘Unworthy,’ Chris said as she parked.


‘Shut up.’


But they were having tea and general chat. ‘We waited for you,’ Ruth said, flicking the pages of a notebook to and fro. She was not on her own ground, which would have made it easier to take charge.

***

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