There was a pause, then Leslie said in a louder voice, ‘Because the girls are not there … because they were my friends and two of them are dead … out of respect for them … because the entire area is crawling with your people and if I so much as showed my face down there …’
But he went quiet again, shrinking back into himself as if afraid of his own outburst.
The interview went on for thirty more minutes. Afterwards, Steph Mead said it had been like interviewing a wall. They took a break outside the door, exhausted.
‘He’s not going to crack,’ Steph said.
‘Because there is nothing to crack about. We’ll get nowhere because there is nowhere to get. I’m done. He walks.’
They went back into the room. Leslie seemed not to have moved at all, barely even to have breathed. He sat forwards in the chair, arms on the table in front of him, face now paler, but quite expressionless.
‘All right, Mr Blade, I’m happy for you to go. We won’t be needing you further.’
Leslie Blade looked at the sergeant, as if not entirely sure what he had said or of its meaning. Then he sighed, and put his hands over his face. They waited.
‘Mr Blade? Can I get you a cup of tea? Some water?’
There was a jug of water on the table and plastic cups, but it was, as always, tepid and tasted of drains.
Leslie Blade shook his head.
‘OK. I’ll show you out. Thank you for your cooperation. And if there is anything at all you remember about the dead women – anything they might have said to you, especially about their punters, please call me.’
He held out his card. Leslie Blade took it without a word and put it in his pocket.
As he turned the corner of the road, he took it out again and dropped it into a waste bin.
Each time Serrailler gave them an update, there were more press in the room than ever. This afternoon, it was packed, with several standing at the back. There was the usual buzz, and then silence as he came in. They were not in a forgiving mood. He ran through the arrest and questioning of Jonty Lewis, ‘a twenty-seven-year-old Bevham man’.
‘This man was released without charge yesterday afternoon. We have again questioned a fifty-three-year-old Lafferton man, who was also released without charge.’
‘Superintendent, do you –’
‘Questions to follow, please. I have no more information to give you for now on the missing Lafferton woman forty-three-year-old Mrs Ruth Webber, but there has been a development regarding the other missing woman, twenty-nine-year-old Mrs Leah Wilson. This morning, police divers retrieved a bicycle from the canal in the area of the footbridge, and it has been confirmed as belonging to Mrs Wilson, and on which she was last seen cycling to her job at the printworks – she was caught on CCTV on the corner of Freeman Avenue and Corley Road at approximately 5.47 a.m. We have not found Mrs Wilson and at present we do not have any information as to her whereabouts. Right, anyone?’
‘Are your divers now looking for Mrs Wilson’s body in the canal?’
‘We have a team of police divers and various other search teams along the whole canal and towpath area – and we have drafted in police from elsewhere to ensure we have as many people on the ground there and –’
‘There were plenty of coppers on the ground when Mrs Wilson went cycling past. And now she’s vanished.’
‘Do you presume Mrs Wilson is dead, Superintendent?’
‘I never make presumptions of that kind.’
‘Come on, you’ve got the bike, the woman was on it, she hasn’t been found … this is another murder, isn’t it?’
‘I am not jumping to any conclusions, sorry. Don’t try and put words into my mouth.’
‘Superintendent Serrailler, you’ve now arrested and released two men without charge. Is anyone else in the frame for any of this?’
‘Not at present, no, but obviously we are following up every possible lead.’
‘What’s that mean, exactly?’
‘What it says. We are studying CCTV footage of traffic in the whole of the area used by the prostitutes, we are interviewing any of the prostitutes still working on the streets, though obviously we are doing our best to persuade them to stay away.’
‘Have you talked to Abi Righton again?’
‘No, but the doctors have said she’ll be well enough to give another interview tomorrow. I am hopeful that she’ll give us vital information in due course, but obviously she is in a serious condition and we can talk to her only when the doctors allow.’
‘Superintendent … let’s face it, you’ve got nowhere. Will you admit that? You haven’t a clue about the murders, the attempted murder or about the missing women. It’s a mess. Would you accept that?’
‘That we have not yet charged anyone with murder, true. That it’s a mess, no.’
‘And that you haven’t a clue?’
Serrailler made a dismissive gesture and turned to the next questioner.
‘Do you think the disappearance of these other two women and the murders of the prostitutes are connected? I know you’ve been asked this before but in the light of the sighting of Mrs Webber?’
‘I don’t like to speculate. At the moment all these cases are still being looked at separately.’
‘I wonder if you’ve got any idea what the public mood is out there, Superintendent? People are pretty wound up.’
‘I fully appreciate that people are concerned, that they’re worried for their own safety and very anxious for a result – or results – and an end to all this. I assure you that I am too. Don’t underestimate how well the police are aware of all this. I am determined to get results, my teams are working round the clock under great pressure. But we will find the person or persons who committed these terrible crimes against the young women.’
‘And what if you don’t? Your head’s on the block, isn’t it, Chief Superintendent?’
The Chief was on the phone two minutes after he had got back to his office and he had an uncomfortable ten minutes, though she stressed several times that she was giving him and the teams her full support and wanted him to know that she had every confidence … But her underlying message was the same as the one that had come across in the press conference – she wanted results, she wanted to know why there had been none, if everything possible was being done, every single officer properly deployed, every stone turned. ‘The public are on our backs, Simon.’
As if, he thought as he put the phone down, he was unaware of that fact.
He turned and looked out of the window, down into the station yard and at the media pack outside and as he did so felt an overwhelming weariness, as if all the energy and resilience, mental and physical, were draining out of him. He hadn’t eaten properly for several days, only grabbed sandwiches and coffee and the occasional apple, and he knew that he was being foolish and, what was more, ignoring his own advice. He lectured the others about eating and drinking properly, taking refs, not filling themselves up with too much caffeine. He was walking evidence of the soundness of the advice.
An hour later, he went into the CID room, asking every head of team to come in also.
‘We’re all tired, we’re all frustrated, and it doesn’t help to have the press on our backs. I understand entirely, believe me. We seem to be getting nowhere, we’ve put in the hours but not only have we not had the reward for painstaking work, we haven’t had any luck either. Luck does happen, though we can’t ever rely on it, but it’s deserted us for the time being. Right, I want everyone, as far as possible, to take a break. When your usual shift finishes and unless there’s been a development, go home. Go home, eat a proper, nourishing meal, have a drink but only one, and chill. Go to bed early, and tomorrow, you’ll feel a different person. It’s very important. I’m knocking off soon. Tomorrow, let’s hope we get a break, but I want to look at everything, everything, afresh. Try and put whatever you’ve been working on and the whole lot right out of your mind. Play with your kids, talk to your partner, go for a good walk, watch a bad film … do not watch the news. I have full confidence in every single one of you and absolute conviction that we will get there. We will find who has murdered these women, find what has happened to the ones who are missing. We will nail this. OK, thanks, guys. Now home as soon as you can.’
Normally, at the end of each day during a major inquiry, he left feeling tired, sometimes exhausted, but always keyed up, always ready for the next morning, always optimistic. But over the past few days he had become increasingly frustrated and downbeat as he left the station for home. Nothing was worse than things not coming together, and Simon had the feeling that he was pushing against a door while someone else, much stronger, was pushing back from the other side.
He did not feel like going straight to the flat, he wanted company – his sister’s sofa to stretch out on with Mephisto purring beside him, a drink in his hand and the smell of cooking. But when he rang Cat he got the answerphone. He tried a couple of times, surprised that she was not there, but gave up and did not bother to leave a message or try her mobile. One by one, the teams were leaving the station, doing as he had suggested, taking time out. The vans were still on the streets, uniform and vehicle patrols still thick on the ground, the area by the canal now with double police numbers, but for tonight, the CID teams needed this break. For tonight.
He sat for some minutes. Ben Vanek and Steph Mead went out together, got into the same car and drove away. DI Franks and his wife, a civilian who worked as a SOCO, left on foot with a couple of others, probably bound for the pub. He knew they wouldn’t object to his joining them, but he was sensitive to their need to let their hair down among themselves, talk about work or ignore it, talk about him if they felt like it. He wasn’t about to cramp their style.
There were very few times when he felt at all troubled by lacking a wide circle of friends. Those he did have were far away from Lafferton, scattered not only round the country but round the world. For the rest, he was happy as he was, and with his family.
He picked up his phone again.
Judith opened the front door of Hallam House to him wearing a blue scarf tied behind her ears, jeans and what seemed to be an old shirt of his father’s. She had a couple of splashes of white paint on her face.
‘Oh good, now I can stop and get us something to eat. How lucky.’
‘What on earth are you doing?’
‘Painting the smallest bedroom. Felix usually sleeps in there now, though tonight he’s in with Hannah, and he deserves better than the old mushroom walls.’
‘Why are you doing it?’
‘Can you see your father?’
‘Of course not, but you could get someone in.’
‘What a waste of money. I always did the decorating when Don was alive. I even did ceilings and wallpaper, but I was a tad younger then. I enjoy it. I listen to interesting programmes on Radio 4 about philosophy and life in Croatia.’
They were in the kitchen. ‘I shall have to get someone to do the ceiling though. I know my age limitations.’
‘Will I do?’
‘Can you paint ceilings?’
‘I did my entire flat, ceilings and all. I even sanded and stained the floorboards. Let me do the ceiling for you – it’s only a tiny room, I can do the first coat tonight.’
‘In exchange for supper?’
‘You can’t wear your work suit.’
‘Dad’s more or less my size. I can wear this shirt if you find me a pair of his old trousers. Those cotton ones he wears in summer would do.’
Within ten minutes, he was on the ladder, white emulsion beside him, pushing the paint roller in broad sweeps to and fro. It made a soft silky sound and the autumnal night air coming through the open window mingling with the smell of the paint added to the pleasure the job gave him. Just after nine, Judith called him for supper. He finished the final few strokes in the far corner, and went downstairs.
‘That’s done. It’ll be dry tomorrow morning and tomorrow being Saturday, unless something kicks off at the station, I’ll come and finish it. I’ll wash the roller after I’ve eaten.’
‘You won’t, you leave that to your assistant. Thank you, Simon, that’s much appreciated. Now, I’m going to have some wine. For you?’
‘Do you have a beer? Pray I don’t get called in.’
‘I cooked a ham yesterday, so this is leftover, but the chips are not.’
She handed Simon his lager and the bottle opener.
‘It isn’t Cat’s choir night,’ he said. ‘Is she at the hospice?’
‘No, she’s gone with a friend to Bevham City Hall to hear Mozart. Richard’s at a Masonic, so it’s nice to have some company. I’m glad you feel you can invite yourself, Simon.’
Judith did not ask questions or press him to talk about work, or anything at all personal, accepting that if he wanted to he would. He felt easy in her company now, though his relationship with his father was still not easy and he supposed that it never would be.
They ate companionably, talked about politics and paintings. He mentioned Taransay. And then, he heard himself say, ‘There was a rather nice girl up there. Kirsty McLeod.’
Judith topped up her wine glass, but said nothing.
‘It was a very pleasant time. No strings, uncomplicated.’
If he had been telling this to Cat she would now be asking if he had any conscience at all, why he let women think they meant anything to him when they never did, what he thought he was doing taking yet another one for granted, whether he was ever going to let himself be serious about any woman … Judith simply let him talk. He finished his beer. There was some chocolate mousse and Judith peeled and sliced kiwi fruit and added some lychees. ‘I do like scratch meals,’ she said, ‘they often turn up wonderful new combinations quite by chance.’
‘They do. Not sure if chocolate mousse and lychees is one of them, though.’
She laughed and then looked at him for a moment, her face suddenly thoughtful.
‘Don’t ever let anyone try to persuade you that life is insupportable without marriage or a similar long-term relationship. I’ve never believed that, you know. When Don died I didn’t want or expect to marry again. Apart from missing him so terribly, I was actually quite content on my own. I wasn’t looking for anyone else but it happens. Or it doesn’t. I sound like one of those awful agony aunts. I apologise.’
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