She had thought maybe the hot tea would take away the coldness down her back and in her stomach and the bitter taste in her mouth, but it made no difference, so in the end, she put the mug in the sink and picked up her phone again.
It was scary how fast it happened. One minute she was pressing the buttons on the phone and what seemed a minute after that, they were there, running up the stairs, and the room was full of them, two in uniform and then another two, a man and a woman, coming in, plain clothes, flashing their warrant cards, crowding the space. Mia was crying with her face in Hayley’s shoulder. Liam and Frankie sat on the rug, hands on the small beaten-up plastic cars, but faces turned up to the police, staring, staring.
Usually, Serrailler ran up the stairs to his top-floor flat two at a time. Tonight, he walked, and slowly, not only because he had been working since seven that morning, but because although he had left the station, he could not leave the case there, it was with him, every step of it going through his mind like a printout as he climbed.
It was just before nine. The building was silent, apart from the sound of his own footsteps, all the rooms on the way up locked and dark. That was one of the many blessings of living in the only flat at the top of a building full of offices. When his work was as demanding and intensive as it had been for the past week or two, the emptiness and the silence were essential for him to recharge his energies. He had spent the whole long day talking and listening to people, even during the couple of breaks he had taken for coffee and a sandwich, and now he needed a whisky and his solitude.
The long sitting room was calm and tranquil as he switched on the lamps which picked out one or two pictures and sent fans of soft light onto the pale walls. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. To his relief, the light was not flashing on his answerphone, though if he was needed by anyone at work, they would use his mobile.
He wondered whether to take a shower, then pour his drink and relax in his dressing gown, but as he was deciding that he would, the downstairs entrance buzzer sounded.
‘Simon? Oh, I’m so glad you’re in. I couldn’t get a signal from my phone and –’
‘I’m so sorry to disturb you …’
His stepmother sounded distressed.
‘You’re not … Come on up.’
She looked unlike her usual composed, cheerful self as she walked into the flat.
‘I wouldn’t have bothered you, I know how busy you are just now, but Richard’s in London tonight and I …’ She sat down and took a deep breath. ‘I was on my way back. I’ve been playing bridge and then I gave a lift to a friend. As I was coming into town, just at the top by the Lanes, my tyre blew out. The car went all over the place and I hit a bollard. It’s all right, that’s all it was, but the wheel has buckled, and then my phone wouldn’t work so I couldn’t call the AA. There were no taxis in the rank and I know it’s safe in town but it was very quiet with all the shops closed. I think I panicked.’
‘You did absolutely the right thing. Let me sort it out with the AA – have you got the keys?’
‘Oh. Simon, how stupid. I left them in the ignition.’
‘Don’t worry, it doesn’t sound as if anyone’s going to take it far. Let me get you a drink – I think you could do with it.’
Ten minutes later, the car sorted, he was sitting on the sofa opposite her, whisky in hand.
‘This is the most beautiful room.’
For a second he was puzzled and then felt a flush of guilt, that this woman who was his father’s wife, his own stepmother, had never actually set foot inside his flat. He guarded his privacy and he had resented her arrival in his family, but he was still ashamed of himself.
‘I love it – it’s wonderful living up at treetop height and looking down the close.’
‘Georgian rooms are so handsome – they have such a feeling of right proportion. Is that what I mean? I’m not being very articulate.’
‘I know you were worried being out on your own, but you shouldn’t be. You’re probably as safe in the centre at night just now as you’ll ever be.’
‘It isn’t rational, I know. But reason doesn’t come into it.’ She closed her eyes and leaned back. ‘I am rapidly calming down though.’
‘What’s Dad doing in London?’
‘He’s gone for a meeting about the future of the journal. I’m dreading what will happen. They may feel it’s time he gave up the editorship but it would be a bitter blow to him. He gets such a lot of satisfaction from it and it means he’s still in the medical swim. Besides, he feels he has a lot more to give. There was talk of them abandoning the print version and being exclusively online – not that that would trouble him, he’s very up to speed.’ She took a sip of her Scotch and looked around appreciatively at the pictures. On the wall behind his head was the last drawing he had done of his mother. Judith took it in, glanced at him, and then away across the room.
‘I’ll finish this and then perhaps you could ring a taxi for me?’
She was sitting close to the lamp, which gave a softness to her features, smoothing out the usual marks of age, and as Simon looked at her, he realised what it was about her that had attracted his father. Judith was not beautiful but she had a warmth and a sweetness of feature and expression, combined with a look of sharp intelligence and a competence, an air of being able to manage things because she’d had to do so. It made it all the more surprising that she had lost her nerve tonight. But in that she was certainly not alone.
He realised that it was the first time he had been able to see her without resentment, discarding everything he brought to his relationship with her of the past and the memory of his mother.
‘Have you eaten?’
She shook her head. ‘I was going to drive by the supermarket and pick up some things – but I’ll just have an omelette once I get home.’
‘Let me take you to supper – my favourite Italian is round the corner.’
Her face registered surprise and pleasure – and, he thought, a flash of wariness. But she said, ‘I’d like that – if you’re sure you wouldn’t rather be left in peace – please be honest.’
‘Absolutely. Apart from anything else, I’ve had two canteen sandwiches and an apple since seven o’clock this morning. Give me a couple of minutes to change.’
The restaurant was as usual pleasantly full but the proprietor gave Simon his favourite window table. It was some time since he had been, saddened by thoughts of bringing Freya Graffham here and sitting in the same place, enjoying a Campari and ordering from the long-familiar menu. Now, he looked across and saw Judith. He wondered wryly what Cat would say, Cat who had tried to bring him round to accepting their stepmother over the past year, badgered him and hassled him and argued with him and then simply fallen silent on the subject. And as she would have been the first to concede, saying nothing was far more likely to bring him round in his own time than any amount of argument.
‘This is such a treat,’ Judith said, smiling at him over the menu, ‘I can’t tell you. Richard hates eating in restaurants and oddly enough Don was just the same, so unless I go out with a girlfriend or Cat, I just never do it. I’d like Parma ham with figs and the saltimbocca, please.’
He ordered, choosing his favourite fegato alla Veneziana and a bottle of their drinkable house red.
It was as they were finishing their starters and Judith was lifting her glass that quite abruptly she put it down again and said, ‘Oh Simon, whatever is happening to these poor girls? Who is doing these awful things? I can’t bear it.’
It sent him back for a moment to a grim day co-ordinating what was now a major operation, to the faces of everyone at the various briefings – serious, disbelieving and determined – the photographs of the young women flashed up onto the screen, the bleak facts from the pathologist.
He shook his head.
‘And now another? Is there any chance this third girl has just gone off of her own accord somewhere? I’m sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t ask that.’
‘Why not? It’s what everyone else is asking. Every single person at this afternoon’s press conference, every police officer – probably everybody in the country. The official answer is that we have reason to be concerned at the disappearance of a third girl who was working as a prostitute and we are asking for any information at all as to her whereabouts.’
‘And the real answer is that you’re sure this one has been murdered too, probably by the same person who killed the other two.’
‘More or less. Though there is some doubt about the last part of that – it’s possible Marie O’Dowd was murdered by someone who did not kill the other two.’
‘Yet all three girls were prostitutes, two of them were found in or near the canal, they –’
‘I only said it’s possible.’
‘No, you’re thinking in the same way most people are likely to be thinking. But in the nature of things, we can’t make those sorts of assumptions. We’re looking for Marie’s boyfriend, who has a history of violence against her, who trashed her caravan shortly before she went missing, who is a drug addict and who has disappeared. We have no reason to suppose he had anything against the first girl who was murdered and we don’t yet know if Abi Righton, the third one, is dead. The phrase “serial killer” jumps to everyone’s lips – understandably. But we really don’t know enough yet.’
Judith looked at him as he spoke.
He smiled. ‘You don’t believe a word of it.’
‘What’s your gut feeling?’
He looked at his empty plate for a long time. What was it indeed? If it had not been for Jonty Lewis, he would not have hesitated in taking the view that Chantelle and Marie had been killed by the same man and that it was only a matter of time before the body of Abi Righton was found, to make victim number three of what was most likely the very thing everyone dreaded – a serial killer. But Jonty Lewis was in the picture. He had motive and opportunity and previous form, and he had done a runner. If there had been no other victims, the assumption that he had murdered Marie would have been natural and almost certainly correct. Perhaps he had killed Chantelle. But if they were talking about gut feelings, Serrailler’s was that he had not.
Their main courses were set down. The restaurant was quieter – Lafferton did not eat late. Simon relaxed but always it was a relaxation with an edge, in case his phone rang.
‘I know some of them need the money to buy drugs but that can’t be all of them, can it? They’re so young, Simon – they shouldn’t be living like that. Doesn’t anyone try to get them off the streets?’
He sighed. ‘Do-gooding rarely works and I’m always suspicious of motive, you know. The Reachout van people, for example – yes, they take hot drinks and they have a place where the girls can sit, and there’s a needle exchange, but they have a very strong religious agenda. Maybe it’s better to do something than nothing, no matter what the motive, but there’s a catch and of course the girls know that. Policing isn’t the answer – we just move them on. Occasionally someone has five minutes spare to chat, to try to encourage them to get help – but where? You’re right, they’re not all addicts though many are. There’s plenty of trafficking, which we do try and crack down on, but it doesn’t get at the heart of that particular problem.’
‘I didn’t realise it was such a problem here.’
‘Not many people do. If you never go down certain streets …’
‘But one night, I happened to be driving home late and I saw a car stop and a girl go to the window, then get in, and I realised …’
‘What did you think?’
‘I suppose I was shocked. Not that I didn’t know there were prostitutes …’
‘Just not in your own town.’
‘Then I felt guilty – that they should have to be there at all. I was driving to a nice warm comfortable house and she was getting into a stranger’s car like that – and what was her home like at the end of it all? I caught a glimpse of her – I won’t forget it. She looked like a made-up child – you know how small girls put on their mother’s shoes and lipstick? That was what she seemed like … Oh, Simon, why do we always do nothing until it’s too late?’
He broke some bread and dipped it into the rich gravy on his plate.
‘There wasn’t anything you could have done then. You have to be realistic. But I agree there should be a big push to get them proper help. And you’re right – it always happens after there’s been a tragedy. People slow down for a while after they’ve seen a fatal accident. Same syndrome.’
Judith looked at him over her wine glass. ‘You like your job, don’t you?’
‘Love it. Not that I don’t loathe a lot of the things I have to deal with.’
‘You have a good balance – this job and then you always have an exhibition to prepare for. It seems just right.’
‘Really? Most people seem to think the art is hobbies department except for those in the art world who think being a policeman is just weird.’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t think it would be right for you to have just one – whichever it was. Set aside the question of earning a living – I think you are the kind of person who needs to have two halves to their life – they fit into a whole and complement one another – a bit like the two shells of a walnut.’
He smiled. ‘Thank you. I’ve often wondered – should I just do this, should I give up the day job … I never come down firmly on one side or the other.’
‘No, and you shouldn’t.’
‘That makes me feel better about myself.’
‘And do you need to?’
He had finished his liver and waited in silence as she ate her last few forkfuls. He had meant what he said. Something had fallen into place and he felt a rightness he had not felt for a long time, because of her few words.
The pudding menu arrived with the usual flourish but Judith shook her head. He ordered coffees.
‘Was I being completely irrational in panicking out there tonight, Simon?’
‘Of course not. You were alone in a car that had broken down, you couldn’t raise a taxi or the AA, and this is a city in which two women have been murdered – possibly three. This is one of our biggest problems – reassuring women that they are safe but at the same time making sure that is really true. I can’t tell anyone that the person or persons who killed two young women won’t kill again or will only kill prostitutes – it would be irresponsible of me to say any such thing. I think you were safe – I actually do – but there’s no proof of that. It’s about perception – you perceived yourself to be in danger, so you were frightened. That’s perfectly normal.’
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