Steph grinned. She was pleased.
‘So, she remembers a bit about the attack. It was someone she recognised. All we need to find out now is who.’
As they reached the hospital car park Ben’s mobile rang.
‘Vanek … Yes … Ah. Interesting. Whereabouts exactly? … Is someone down there? OK, we’ll find it. On our way.’
‘Do you know some allotments behind Grange Meadows – up where the canal joins the river?’
‘I certainly do – my grandad had one of those allotments till he died, I used to spend hours up there with him.’
‘You drive then.’
‘What’s up there?’
‘Old boy was going to do some clearing on his allotment first thing and saw a woman near one of the sheds on the other side – more or less answering to the description of Ruth Webber.’
‘Bet it isn’t her. What would the wife of the Dean of St Michael’s be doing living in an allotment shed?’
‘So where is she then?’
‘In the canal,’ Steph said.
The allotments were looking gone-over and ragged at the end of the season, with bean wigwams bare and some of the earth already dug over ready for the winter. The huts seemed deserted apart from a couple of people standing by their open doors looking across to where the constable was hovering in front of a shed at the far side. The patrol car was parked on the track nearby, but there was no other sign of police activity.
‘Right,’ Vanek said, ‘what have we got?’
‘Forensics are on their way so best be careful.’
Vanek gave him a dirty look, but pulled out a packet of latex gloves from his pocket, put one pair on and handed the others to Steph Mead. The PC stood aside as he opened the shed door.
It smelled of something slightly sweet, and of wood and soil, but it was clean and tidy.
‘Apparently this allotment’s been vacant this year so nobody’s used the hut. There was a bolt on the outside of the door but no padlock.’
Inside, at the back, was a rough bed made of sacking and an old red blanket, with a cushion. An old but whole wooden chair and small table stood under the window which looked as if it had been wiped clean recently. A carton of milk, a china mug, tea bags, a couple of plastic plates and a torch were on the table. There was also a Bible and a biro.
Vanek picked up the Bible and opened it but there was no identification. He smelled the milk, which was not sour.
‘Nothing to eat,’ he said. ‘But if this is where Ruth Webber has been, where’s the stuff she bought? We know she had a couple of carrier bags.’
‘Maybe she ate it.’
‘Doesn’t add up. There’s no leftovers, no carrier bags – and another thing, there’s no heat of any sort in here and it’s turned pretty cold at night now.’ Vanek stripped off the gloves and went outside. ‘Thanks,’ he said to the duty constable, ‘we don’t need anything else.’
As they left, the forensics van was drawing up behind Vanek’s car and he stopped the young woman as she went to get her gear out of the back.
‘Hi. DS Vanek. Can you get me any prints, asap? We’ve got a set of Mrs Webber’s from the house so we can try for a match straight away.’
‘Do you think there’ll be one?’ Steph Mead asked as she started the car.
‘Back to the station?’
‘Yes. I want to go over what we say to Leslie Blade before he comes in.’
‘Think he’ll show?’
‘You seen the governor today?’
‘No, I think he was off down to see what the divers were doing. Why? Do you fancy him?’
‘Serrailler? Never thought about it.’
‘Course you have, every woman in the station has.’
‘How do you know – you’ve only just come. Anyway, you’re the one who was all eager-beaver to work with him.’
‘Still am. He’s a great copper.’
‘Not doing so great right now, is he?’
‘Think you could do better?’
‘No. Sarge? Can you play darts?’
‘Used to. I wasn’t bad either, but I haven’t played for ages. Why?’
‘The station team’s got a friendly tomorrow night and we’re a man short.’
‘What, do you play?’
‘When I said “man” … I’m team captain actually.’
He laughed. ‘Are you asking me on a date, DC Mead?’
She flushed crimson, but he couldn’t tell if it was with embarrassment or anger.
‘No, I am not, I’m asking you to play on a darts team, Sergeant Vanek.’
‘Where? The station?’
‘No, we play at the Cross Keys in the Lanes. Seven sharp.’
‘Who’s it against?’
‘Area drug squad.’
‘OK, you’re on.’
Steph Mead banged the steering wheel and accelerated.
A date? Ben Vanek wondered. Or just a darts match? He realised that he’d be quite happy either way.
Leslie Blade assumed that Hilary knew nothing whatsoever about his late-night visits to the girls on the street. In fact she had long known, ever since she and Cliff had been driving back from the cinema once and seen him. She had assumed then that he had been going with one of them for sex and it had not particularly shocked or even surprised her. Leslie was a single man, he had a difficult life with a disabled mother, he’d never had the opportunity to find a wife or even a girlfriend so far as she was aware. It seemed quite likely that he would occasionally feel the need of a prostitute.
Hilary was a realistic woman, and quite non-judgemental. But she had semi-deliberately taken the same route back a few weeks later, on the way home from an evening out with a couple of girlfriends, and then she had seen Leslie again, under the street lamp by the printworks, in full view of any passers-by, and pouring something out of a flask for one of the girls who was holding out a cup. Hilary had gone on, round the roundabout, and doubled back, and there he had been still, handing out what looked like iced buns from a carrier bag, and this time there had been three girls, all standing round, smoking and talking.
After that, Hilary had put two and two together about all the food that appeared in the fridge and the cupboards – far more than Norah and Leslie could surely eat. So, he might not be using the girls after all, unless they paid him in services for the food and drink. He was looking out for them from the kindness of his heart and she knew him as a kind man.
When the first girl had been found murdered, Hilary had been as horrified as the rest of Lafferton, but with the second body she had begun to worry.
And then Leslie had rung her from the police station.
Hilary had thought about it, about nothing much else in fact, night and day, as she had looked after Norah, driven to and from her own home, sat over breakfast and tea, watched television, lain in bed … She had not been able to believe the killer could be Leslie, not for a split second, he was not capable of any sort of violence, but she could understand perfectly well why the police had had to question him. It would have been bad if they had not. He spent time with the girls, he chatted to them, he was in the area, he was a man on his own. Of course they had to interview him. But he hadn’t done anything. Hilary would have laid her life down on it. You might as well suspect her own gentle husband, Cliff.
Norah had said nothing, not a single word. Did she know? She watched the television news twice a day, so she certainly knew about the murders, but she had not mentioned them to Hilary. Once or twice they had watched together, but when the item had come up, again Norah had said nothing. Leslie had been different when he came back from what he had called his ‘work trip’. He was never loud or chirpy, but he had been even more subdued and quiet than usual, and there had been something about him, a nervousness maybe, that Hilary had noticed. He had only spoken to her about domestic things and she had not pressed him to chat.
Why he went to talk to the girls on the street, why he took them sandwiches and cakes and tea and coffee, she had no idea. But when the two detectives had arrived she had been surprised at how angry she felt on Leslie’s behalf. Had they not asked him enough the previous time? And if anyone had been looking out or going past the gate, they would have recognised them as coppers – they stood out a mile, even the plain-clothes lot.
When she had gone in and told Leslie quietly that two detectives were on the doorstep to see him but that she had not felt she should ask them in, he had just nodded, snapped his lunch box shut, and gone to talk to them, pulling the door behind him. Norah was having her tea and listening to the radio but she must have heard the door. Hilary had gone straight in to her, asking if she was ready for her second cup. Norah had said that she was not, but otherwise, nothing.
Leslie had gone off as usual, saying goodbye to his mother, asking Hilary if she wanted him to do anything, shutting the gate carefully. So far as their conversation had gone, there might never have been anyone come to the front door at all. He had not referred to them, nor had Hilary. But she had heard some of what had been said, enough to know that he had agreed to go in to the police station later that day. Enough to worry her.
She had made an egg salad for lunch with warm potato in mayonnaise, and took hers in to eat with Norah, as usual. They watched the one o’clock television news.
‘Oh no!’ Hilary said involuntarily. They had retrieved the bicycle of the missing mother-of-two, Leah Wilson, from the canal. There was an intensified search for her body. ‘I don’t understand it,’ she said, putting her fork back on her plate. ‘I don’t understand any of this. What is going on in our society?’
‘But,’ Norah said very quietly, ‘she wasn’t a prostitute.’
Hilary looked at her sharply but Norah had her head bent over her food, cutting a piece of potato into smaller pieces. She did not glance up.
When he worked split shifts, Leslie sometimes picked up the car and spent the free hours doing whatever shopping they needed. Hilary gave him a list, and he went to the largest of the three Lafferton supermarkets, having a snack there and then going on to do any jobs he might have in town. Knowing that he was due at the police station, Hilary had hesitated at first about giving him any shopping list at all, then realised that it would seem odd, and compiled a short one, of things they needed but not urgently. If he didn’t have time, it wouldn’t be important and she wouldn’t ask questions.
The day passed as usual. She cleaned, cooked, washed up, helped Norah have a bath, took her for a slow walk round the back garden, looking at the Michaelmas daisies and the roses that still hung on into the depths of autumn. Norah had her rest. They played a game of Scrabble, they did the crossword, they watched television.
Hilary stayed until six on the days when Leslie worked late. Even so, she wondered if Norah minded the hours when she was left alone. But she always had a couple of library books, her wordsearch puzzles and the television. Perhaps she enjoyed being alone. She had a panic button which would call a centre, which would alert both Leslie and Hilary that something was wrong. But Norah had never had to use it.
Hilary realised that she had been worrying most of the day, and she was not a worrier, she was even-tempered, cheerful, and things did not easily upset her. But now, she was not cheerful, she was anxious, and her mind kept returning to Leslie and the police, Leslie and the girls on the street.
Ben Vanek and Steph Mead had had a small bet that Leslie Blade would not show. At three twenty, the desk sergeant rang to say he was there.
‘Ha. You owe me tea and a Danish pastry,’ Ben said, as they went down. ‘Knew he’d make it. If he says he’ll keep an appointment, he’ll keep it.’
‘There are appointments and appointments, Sarge.’
Leslie Blade was calm. His face looked slightly pinched, his eyes were dull. He sat straight-backed, not glancing round the room, not looking at them, but somewhere in a vague middle distance across the table.
The line of questioning was, to begin with, the same as before – why did he go to talk to the girls and take them food, did he have sex with them, had he been by the canal on the nights when Chantelle, Marie and Abi had been attacked, had he talked to them for long on those nights if he had, how well did he know them all. His answers were the same, spoken firmly in a low voice. There was no discrepancy in his story, they’d checked with his mother, and they got no sense that he was trying to hide anything.
Then Ben Vanek said, ‘You’re not married, Mr Blade, is that correct?’
‘May I ask why?’
‘I have never wanted to marry. And I look after my mother.’
‘Well, your mother also has a carer. Would your mother object to your marrying?’
‘I wouldn’t imagine so, no. If she approved of the – the lady.’
‘What do you do for sex?’
He flushed and looked angry but did not reply.
‘Come on, you’re a man, you have normal needs, we all have normal needs. Have you ever been with a prostitute?’
‘No. I haven’t.’
‘Do you disapprove of what they do? They sell sex. Do you think that’s immoral and disgusting?’
‘I think – it’s a very unhappy life for the girls who do it.’
‘But it doesn’t disgust you?’
‘The people who prey on the girls …’
‘Make me angry.’
‘Do the girls make you angry?’
‘Do you think they should be punished for what they do?’
‘No. It’s not our – my – business to judge them.’
‘What about the other women? The two missing women?’
Leslie looked blank.
‘Did you ever talk to them?’
‘Not to my knowledge. I’m sure I didn’t.’
‘Do you know where they are?’
‘One of them rode a bicycle, and that bicycle was found in the canal this morning. Did you throw it there?’
‘Of course I didn’t. Why on earth … ? No, I didn’t. I wasn’t anywhere near the canal. I haven’t been near the canal … since … the girls disappeared.’
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