He jumped up.
‘I called you three times. You not answering to Sarge then?’
He prayed that he wouldn’t colour up even as he knew he was doing so.
‘DC Mead, sorry, I was miles away. Can I get you anything?’
‘They found Marie O’Dowd’s body.’
He swigged down three mouthfuls of coffee and took the toast with him.
‘And I think I’ve found Loopy Les,’ she said as they went up the stairs. ‘College of FE. Senior Assistant in the Humanities Library. Leslie Blade. I tried the public libraries – nobody in any of them here or in Bevham called Leslie. Unless he’s in a school I haven’t tried yet, looks like this must be him. And,’ she said, as they headed towards the car park, ‘uniform have his car number. They pulled him over … Kerb-crawling.’
As they crossed the yard, Ben Vanek stuffed the remains of the now cold toast into his mouth and swallowed it in a lump which he knew would sit in the middle of his chest for the next couple of hours.
‘Bags I stay on the Chantelle case,’ Steph said. ‘If the boyfriend gets charged, Marie O’Dowd’ll be open-and-shut. Bor-ing. Shall I drive?’
It was the quietness that woke him. He sat up, puzzled for a moment, then got to his feet and went to look out.
The gale had died down. The cottage had been battered by it for days but now everything was still. The heavy clouds had been blown away, leaving a sky pricked all over with bright stars and a huge moon that rode the surface of the water. The sense of quiet was extraordinary.
Simon half thought of dressing and going out, but he had not slept well for the last few nights, because of the wind hurling itself at the windowpanes until they rattled like loose teeth. So now, glad of the calm, he went back to bed.
When he woke again, sunlight flooded in, and the patch of sky he could see as he lay there was clear silver blue.
He was alone. Kirsty had come down with a heavy cold and though he had much enjoyed her intermittent company during his time on Taransay he was glad, as ever, to be by himself. The subject of his leaving had scarcely been mentioned but she knew that he would have to go before long and had seemed quite sanguine about it. The whole thing had been stress-free, he thought as he dressed – the first time in his history of relationships – and for that he held Kirsty McLeod in great affection.
Twenty minutes later he had put fruit cake, cheese, some of his favourite dark chocolate and a bottle of water into the rucksack with his drawing things, and was heading west across the island. After an hour’s walking, he came upon a run-down stone crofter’s house. Leaning into its walls was a single small tree, bent half over by the wind. He settled down in the sun.
There was never complete silence here, always some birdcall, or the wash of the sea, but without any wind it was as quiet as he had known it. He worked steadily, doing several small rough sketches of the croft and tree before moving to make a more careful drawing of them from another angle. He ate and drank and got up a couple of times to stretch his legs, and when the sun was full on his face, took a fifteen-minute nap. And for the whole time he was conscious of a deep sense of contentment, a freedom from any petty irritations or discomforts, which made him wonder again whether this was what he should do, where he should be, whether he should resign from the force and spend at least half his year on Taransay, the rest travelling and perhaps with Cat, if he gave up his flat. But it was when he imagined doing that, packing up and handing his home over to someone else, or, more likely, to be turned into yet another suite of offices, that he felt sure he could never do it. It was not the flat as such that he cared about – though he did – but what the flat represented, the privacy and quiet space, his own rootedness.
He was concentrating so hard that at first he did not hear the sound of the vehicle, until it drew up on the track a few yards away and the door slammed.
Douglas Boyd, Kirsty’s farmer friend, was coming towards him, his long Scottish oval of a face reddened by the sun.
Serrailler was six foot four but when he stood up Boyd was of a height with him plus perhaps an inch.
‘Call for you – they rang twice then asked if someone could locate you.’
Simon followed Douglas to the jeep, stuffing things into his rucksack as he went.
‘Who? My family?’
Douglas started the engine up as he swung into his seat. ‘Your Chief Constable, I’m told. They want you to call straight back.’
He did not speak again for the five-mile journey over the hill and down towards the village.
This is the last day, Serrailler thought, looking out to where the dark seal heads were bobbing up and diving down, bobbing and diving in the silver water.
‘Thanks for that,’ he said to Douglas, as they climbed out of the jeep. ‘Good of you.’
‘It was nae bother.’
He faced Simon, blocking his path.
‘Just another thing,’ he said, and without a split second of warning, swung his fist into Serrailler’s jaw. ‘That’s for Kirsty.’
The line from Taransay to the mainland could be temperamental but he got through within a couple of minutes. He touched his jaw a couple of times. It was tender but a clean hit. Boyd hadn’t drawn blood.
He had a seat reserved on the chopper the next morning and was packed and the cottage tidied. When he was done he thought of walking across to the pub to have a last drink and say his farewells. But whether or not Kirsty knew about the crack Douglas had given him, he decided better not and instead went for a solitary walk along the shoreline and then to bed early, to sleep to the soft sound of the waves turning over and back on the shingle.
At ten thirty the next morning, he looked down and watched grey-green Taransay recede as they climbed away. He had not seen Kirsty McLeod again.
‘You know, we really could have done with an extra pair of hands last night, Leslie. Three people were down with this stomach bug and it was touch and go whether to call the rehearsal off altogether. If you knew how welcome you would have been – I mean doing anything, but you could have added your voice to the chorus, it was very sparse.’
Ten minutes. He couldn’t go to lunch early. He prayed for a student to come up to the desk with a difficult enquiry that only he could answer, but the library was quiet and those who were here showed no signs of needing anything at all.
‘Won’t you think about it?’
He wondered what his excuse for killing June Petrie would be. Extreme provocation? People killed for less, those whose neighbours had driven them insane with loud music or a ceaselessly yapping dog, and they often met with understanding from a sympathetic judge. June Petrie grinding on about his joining the Lafferton Savoyards to sing in The Mikado when he had made it clear to the point of rudeness that he would never do so must count as extreme provocation over a sustained period.
‘You wouldn’t have to do a full audition, nothing like that, he’d just hear you sing a few bars of something easy like a hymn.’
‘I don’t know any hymns.’
‘Or even a nursery rhyme.’
Fool. He ought to know better than to start an argument with her because she always had a pat answer to whatever objection he raised.
‘He’d train your voice himself, he’s awfully good at that. You’d be amazed the bricks he’s made out of straw in his time. He even had …’
Six minutes. He could go to the Gents. By the time he had done that and collected his lunch box, it would be one. He didn’t need to go to the Gents but if he did it might spare June Petrie’s life.
Afterwards, he realised he had not even seen them come into the library, they were just there at the counter in front of him, a young man, a young woman.
‘We’re looking for a Leslie Blade,’ the young man said.
‘This is Mr Blade, the Assistant Humanities Librarian.’ June Petrie, in a flash. ‘Who wants him exactly?’
The young man ignored her. Showed a card.
‘I’m Detective Sergeant Ben Vanek, this is DC Mead. Is there somewhere we can have a word in private please, sir?’
‘What’s wrong, has something awful happened? Leslie, will you be –’
‘There’s the office,’ Leslie Blade said. ‘But I was actually just going for my lunch –’
‘If you’d show us the way please?’ the young woman said.
‘Is it my mother? Has something happened to her? Her carer should be there now, Hilary, if something has happened.’
‘As far as I’m aware, nothing has happened to your mother. Is anyone likely to interrupt us here?’
‘No, the Chief Librarian is on the late shift and everyone else will be going to lunch. I was going to lunch. If this is about the book thefts, then you would need to speak to Mr Dalton, the Chief Librarian actually, he –’
‘It has nothing to do with book thefts. Do you know a young woman called Chantelle Buckley?’
Somewhere, the name was somewhere, he was groping for it.
‘Is she a student? I don’t know all the new students by name, or even the older ones come to that, we have over –’
‘No, Chantelle Buckley was a young woman whose body was found in the canal last weekend. As far as I know she had no connection with the college. Did you know her?’
He had a flash picture of the girl’s photograph on the television during the local news.
‘The girl who … I didn’t know her. No.’
‘You didn’t know her but you did see her?’
They looked hostile and he couldn’t understand why.
‘Do you know Marie O’Dowd?’
Marie? If it was the same one.
‘I know – I have … yes. If it’s the same Marie. I sometimes …’
He looked round for a chair. They did not. They did not ask him to sit. They did not sit themselves.
‘I see her. If it’s the same Marie. I don’t know their – her other name.’
‘Their? Their other names? Who are they?’ The girl now. She had a look he didn’t care for, a pert, cocky look. Authority, it said. I have authority. But she didn’t, not here. He had.
‘Is it the case that you go to meet prostitutes on the streets, Mr Blade, that you often go out to where they’re working and talk to them?’
‘I take them food – I take them hot drinks and food. Someone should. They shouldn’t just be ignored. People ignore them because they don’t want them to be there. People treat them like scum.’
‘How do you treat them, Mr Blade?’
‘I take them food and drink. I try to befriend them.’
‘Why would you do that?’
‘Why? I would have thought it was obvious.’
‘Not to us,’ the girl said.
‘They shouldn’t be treated as if they were untouchable.’
‘I’m sure that’s right – but there are voluntary organisations that go out there to befriend them and take them food. You could join them, do your bit that way.’
He didn’t reply. He did not want to volunteer on the Reachout van because he was not a churchgoer, not religious at all, and they were religious, they had an agenda. He didn’t.
‘Do they pay you?’
‘Of course they don’t pay me.’
‘I wasn’t thinking of anything financial.’ The young man was staring at him hard, trying to embarrass him, but the odd thing was, he was the one who had coloured up at the implication.
‘No,’ Leslie said.
‘No? No, you receive no payment or, should we say, no favours from the girls?’
‘When did you last see Chantelle Buckley?’
‘I’ve never seen her. I don’t think so … well, yes, her photograph on televison, and it was in the paper. I’ve seen her there.’
‘But not on the streets to chat to, not to give sandwiches and coffee to?’
‘Her photograph – she isn’t one of the ones I know. One of the regular girls. I don’t think so.’
‘You were stopped by one of our patrol cars, Mr Blade.’ The girl. ‘What was all that about?’
‘If you know they stopped me, you’ll know what it was about, won’t you? They made a mistake.’
‘What sort of mistake?’
‘They thought I was … they followed my car. I was down that road, where the girls go.’
‘They mistook you for a punter. A kerb-crawler.’
‘Yes. I said. They made a mistake. I told them they had, and then one of the girls, Abi, she knows me, she told them. She put them right.’
‘Was Chantelle there that night?’
‘No. Nobody. Just Abi. I said, I have never to my knowledge seen the poor girl, this Chantelle.’
‘But you have seen Marie?’
‘I know Marie.’ He felt suddenly giddy.
‘Right, Mr Blade. Now I’m not entirely happy with what you’ve told me or that you’ve told me everything. I’d like you to come down to the station with us, please.’
‘What for? I’ve told you everything I could possibly tell you. I can’t just come down to the police station … I … have to get my lunch and be back at work. I can’t just leave.’
‘I’m asking you to come voluntarily, sir, but if you don’t, we can arrest you.’
‘What for? You can’t arrest me for nothing.’
‘It wouldn’t be for nothing.’
There was a sound at the door. June Petrie, eyes everywhere, trying to see right into the room, trying to see Leslie.
‘I just wondered if – if there’s anything I can do? I wondered –’
‘Thank you, Mrs … ?’
‘June Petrie. Is everything all right, Leslie?’
He should have killed her. Then there would have been a reason for them to take him to the station.
‘Thank you, there’s nothing for you to do.’ The policewoman closed the door in June Petrie’s face. Good on you, he thought. Shut the door in her face. Good.
‘Do you have a coat, Mr Blade?’
‘Yes. A jacket. I have a jacket. A grey jacket.’ He heard himself babbling.
‘Right, we’ll get that while DC Mead goes to start the car. Lead the way please.’
‘But … I have to give – I have to tell someone, explain … what do I say?’
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