He said, ‘Thanks, Mr Blade. That’s fine. What time do you think you’ll get to the station?’


‘I’m working split shifts this week. Ten till two, then six till ten tonight. So it will be somewhere between two thirty and three o’clock.’


In the car, Steph Mead said, ‘Wasn’t that a bit of a risk?’


‘He’ll turn up. He’s that sort of bloke.’


‘Hope you’re right. So now what?’


‘Canal. They’ve got the divers going in this morning.’


‘Reckon they’ll find anything?’


‘Not Mrs Webber, that’s for sure.’


‘Not if she was doing midnight shopping. Odd though.’


‘The whole thing’s odd, all of it. It’s going nowhere, Steph, and unless and until we get to talk to Abi Righton it’ll stay this way. It’s bloody frustrating.’


Thirty seconds later, Vanek’s phone rang. He listened, said ‘On our way’ and turned to Stephanie Mead who was driving. ‘There is a God.’ He was smiling. ‘We can have five minutes with Abi Righton.’


Stephen Webber had identified the CCTV footage as almost certainly showing his wife, both at the checkout and then leaving the store, on foot, with two plastic carrier bags. The grey coat she wore was the same as one Ruth had and though the images were blurred, everything about them, her hair, her movements, left him in no doubt.


‘Thank God,’ he kept saying, ‘thank God. That is so good, that is such a relief, thank God.’


Serrailler had come in to look at the tapes again himself, and to look after the Dean, concerned about his fragile state after his long and anguished confession early that morning. Cat had spoken to him quickly as she left, warning him that Webber was close to breakdown. Now, Simon escorted him back to his own room, where tea had been provided by his secretary – tea in a pot with the cups and saucers, reserved for special visitors.


‘Thank you very much for doing that, Dean. I’m very grateful and you do realise, don’t you, what good news this is? I know you can’t take that in yet because we still haven’t found your wife, but the fact that she was caught on camera shopping in Lafferton, albeit in the early hours, means that she was alive then and that was several days after she disappeared. In all the other cases, where the young women have been murdered, or almost murdered, they were killed very shortly after they went missing. We knew your wife didn’t fit the profile of the others and this does confirm that she has very probably gone of her own accord. Given what you told me earlier that seems even more likely. So you do have reason to be optimistic.’


‘I have always had reason, Superintendent, I trust in God, God doesn’t fail us.’


Simon said nothing, only wondered that such confident faith had not been apparent before now. He looked at Webber as he sipped his tea. He seemed strained, anxious and tired, he was strung up, he was the picture of someone who entirely lacked trust and optimism and hope and faith in anything whatsoever. But living with a manic-depressive wife, trying to keep it a secret while holding down a demanding new job, would put years on anyone. He would talk to Cat later. She would tell him in more detail exactly what Ruth Webber’s mental condition meant in terms of her behaviour and her relationships. For now, he waited until the Dean had drunk a second cup of tea and looked slightly restored, then had him driven home.


Half an hour later, he was in his own car, heading for the canal, and as he pulled into the lay-by and looked round, he thought that it resembled nothing so much as a location film set. The entire area had been cordoned off and onlookers were being turned away, or at least held back behind the tapes, by a large number of uniform. But he could see people looking from the back windows of the printworks. Nobody could prevent them seeing whatever they could see.


He went down the grassy slope and onto the towpath, but as he was about to go over to where the divers were making their preparations near the footbridge, someone called his name. The Chief Constable was also on her way down the slope, with a constable hovering, as if unsure whether to treat her as a woman and take her arm, or as a police officer and leave her to her own devices.


Simon Serrailler wondered how the teams would feel, watched by both their commanding officers.


‘Simon.’


‘Morning, ma’am. I’m sorry, I didn’t get any message that you were coming down.’


‘I didn’t send one.’


She stood beside him on the towpath, looking across at the three men in their black rubber suits now putting on the diving masks. He did not glance at her. He could tell from the tone of her voice that she was not there to hand out praise.


There was a splash as the first diver dropped into the water, then another and another.


It had gone quiet as everyone watched and waited.


‘How deep is it?’ Paula Devenish asked.


‘It’s one of the deeper canals in the country – about fifteen feet.’


A diver resurfaced but went under again at once.


Serrailler felt uneasy. Finding nothing would mean he had to make a decision about how much further downriver the divers were asked to look, how much time he could justify keeping them. If the missing woman, Leah Wilson, had been murdered as she was cycling along the towpath near the footbridge, then the attack would have happened right under the noses of the police surveillance. Surely the killer would not have taken such a risk?


‘Can I get someone to fetch you a coffee from the van, ma’am?’


‘No thanks. I was wondering if you’d thought of bringing in a profiler?’


‘I have thought, yes.’


‘I know you’re not keen on them, but at this point it might tie up some loose ends, focus everyone, give the investigations a new sense of direction. It needs someone from outside, don’t you think?’


‘Yes. We’ve had an excellent young woman with SIFT a couple of times – she gave us a pretty exact profile of the arsonist in the West Country. She works from Liverpool – she’ll know something of all this already of course.’


‘Nobody could fail to, could they? We’re getting some very bad press, Simon.’


‘Yes.’


They were. The media was becoming increasingly hostile, demanding results, arrests, answers, reinforcements, new leadership, increased public safety measures, more police on the streets, and whipping up the public into a frenzy of fear and suspicion and anti-police feeling. The press officer at the station was under extreme pressure and it would only get worse until an arrest was made. If another woman was found to have been murdered, the headlines would not make pretty reading. Television vans were camped outside permanently now, every movement in and out was recorded, and Serrailler was hassled morning and night. He believed in keeping them onside at all times but now he was losing them and he knew it. An ITV special on the killings and disappearances and lack of progress was being threatened and posters were appearing demanding ‘Women of Lafferton have the right to walk safely’.


At the beginning, though people were shocked and their sympathy genuine, the murders were of prostitutes and they did not identify closely with what had happened. Once Ruth Webber disappeared, they did. Serrailler had made sure the press were given copies of the CCTV footage showing her in the supermarket, but at the last press briefing he had been made uncomfortably aware that the reaction would not be wholly positive. A sighting did not make a finding.


Now, standing by the canal in the chilly autumn morning, under a bright blue sky, Simon was suddenly transported to Venice. It was the smell, of course, the faint green smell, and the sleekness of the dark water. He had not been to the room he rented from Ernesto for some time, and he promised himself now that when all this was over he would take himself off for a few days there, before the winter mists and chill descended on the city. He could taste the coffee, hear the extraordinary silence of that car-less city where you could make out the sound of footsteps on the stones and individual voices floating up through an open window. He was in a trance of recollection when at the same moment as the Chief murmured and went past him, he heard a splash and a shout from one of the divers who was surfacing. He was being helped by another to carry something.


Forty-eight


The machines bleeped and hummed but otherwise there was a great quiet in the small side room. Ben Vanek and Steph Mead sat on either side of the high hospital bed, a nurse at the end of it. The consultant had said that because Abi had regained consciousness three times, and had indicated some alertness, and because the readings were improving, albeit only slowly, he was prepared to let them come in, wait, and if the right moment came, talk to her.


‘But no aggressive questioning, absolutely no pressure, do you understand? Otherwise you’ll be out and I won’t let you back for some time. She won’t be able to speak, you do realise that? Her throat is badly damaged. But if the moment comes, it’s possible she could make some gesture in reply – sometimes it’s a good idea to suggest one blink for yes, two for no, that sort of thing. But keep your questions to an absolute minimum and don’t tell her anything that’s likely to distress her.’


They had been sitting there for fifteen minutes, drinking lukewarm coffee and waiting, listening to the machines, looking at Abi. She was the colour of the sheets. Her hair was brushed back from her face, she had tubes from her nose, and tubes and clips and drips from various veins. Her throat was bandaged from the chin. They could see nothing of her injuries. But it was very peaceful in the room, and now that it seemed likely Abi would survive, the mood was upbeat as well as tranquil.


Vanek had gone outside to take a couple of calls, but now he had returned, everything was the same, and their wait took on a feeling of unreality, as if they were suspended in time. Only the machines went on monitoring, recording, monitoring, recording.


Abi woke quite suddenly, opening her eyes which for a split second were blank and then filled with fear. She moved her left hand slightly. The nurse went to her, checking the readings, touching her gently.


‘Hello, Abi, you’re fine, you’re in hospital.’


Ben Vanek put a restraining hand on Steph, who had made to get up.


Abi did not move her head but her eyes looked round carefully, taking in the nurse, the ceiling, the bed, the machinery and slowly, slowly, came round to the police. Ben smiled but did not move.


‘Hello, Abi,’ he said quietly. ‘I’m Ben. This is Steph.’


Nothing, for a moment, then a slight twitch of her lips, something in her eyes which was not fear.


Vanek glanced at the nurse who nodded.


‘Abi, you can’t say anything, but can you raise your hand? Or your finger?’


She did both.


‘Great. Abi, do you know where you are?’


Her hand moved.


‘Don’t be worried at all because you are absolutely safe. Do you remember that I just told you my name?’


The finger was raised at once.


‘I’m a police officer, so is Steph. We’re not here to cause you any anxiety, we’re here to ask if you can just possibly help us. If you don’t want to, we can come back. If you’d rather we didn’t ask you any more questions now, just lift your finger again.’


No movement.


‘Thanks. Abi, can you remember anything at all, the tiniest thing, about what happened to you?’


Her eyes clouded and she moved her head fretfully on the pillow.


‘Can you lift your finger for yes, please?’


After a long pause, during which she closed her eyes, then opened them and looked at the nurse, who smiled at her, Abi lifted her finger.


‘Good. That’s terrific. Abi, you were attacked. You were by the canal somewhere and someone attacked you. Do you remember anything about that?’


Again, the agitation, the closed eyes. The nurse looked at the monitors and said, ‘Three or four minutes, no more.’


‘OK,’ Vanek said. Stephanie Mead glanced at Ben with respect. He was getting this so right she thought she should stay out of it, not cause Abi Righton any more confusion or distress.


‘I’m not going to tire you out now, we’ll come back later. But just one more question. Raise your hand or your finger for yes, OK? Did you see the person who attacked you? Did you see them, or hear them, or recognise them in any way at all? This is really important.’


Abi lifted her hand and looked straight at him.


Vanek waited but Abi was still. Into the silence, he eventually said: ‘Thank you, Abi. That is a big help. Right, we’ll go now and come back when the doctors say you’re up to it. I’m sorry we have to ask you more questions but we need to catch this person, you understand?’


Suddenly, she started to shift her head about, to raise her hand and try to shake it, to look at him with an expression he could not fathom but which he did not think was fear. He glanced at the nurse.


‘Is something wrong, Abi?’ she asked, but it was Ben Abi was looking at, the hand still agitated on the bed, and now she tried to raise her head.


‘Do you want to tell us something?’


She nodded anxiously.


‘Is it something to do with the attack?’


She moved her hand and tried to shake her head.


‘Don’t get upset, Abi, it’s all right … I don’t know how to help her,’ Vanek said. But Steph, looking into the girl’s desperate face, had a flash of realisation.


‘Abi, are you trying to ask us if your kids are all right?’


Relief, distress, delight, a strange amalgam of emotions fled across Abi Righton’s face one after the other.


‘Yes?’


The hand tapped the bedclothes.


‘Well, they’re both absolutely fine, they’re really well and being looked after. You don’t need to worry about them at all.’


The girl’s eyes filled with tears.


‘Right, we’ll go and let you get some rest. You just concentrate on getting well, OK?’


Again, the flicker of a smile.


‘Tell you what,’ Steph said, and for a moment she put her hand on top of Abi’s, ‘I’ll find out about your children today and when we come back I can give you an update. The hot news. But I know they’re fine. No probs.’


‘I’m glad you told her that about her children,’ the nurse said, ‘but her memory still comes in fits and starts because she already knew … a doctor called in yesterday to say they were fine. She’d seen a friend of Abi’s apparently. But she hasn’t remembered. I’ll make a note. “Memory unreliable.”’


Outside in the corridor, Ben touched Steph’s arm. ‘Well done,’ he said. ‘Telepathic or what?’

***

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