Somewhere not far away in the darkness something made a slight sound, then again, but this sound was different, not a rustle or a whisper, but a faint, thin scratching.
The drizzle began again, chill on her face and hands. Then, below on the path, she saw the lights of a vehicle and then heard the engine. If she went now, quickly, if she could manage to keep her footing on the grass and get safely to the path, she might get to the car, which would have a driver, another human being, and possibly passengers too, then everything would be normal again and whatever was here scratching about in the darkness would be behind her.
Taking a deep breath and leaving hold of the tree, Debbie began to stumble down the grassy track but it was raining heavily now and the paths were slippery, so that as she came on to the lower slopes, half running, she slithered wildly and fell, crashing down with her arm out to try and save herself. She lay, crying with fear and frustration but not, she realised after a few moments, with pain. She was bumped and her palm was sore where she had skidded forwards, but when she sat up, she knew she had neither broken nor sprained anything, and could struggle to her feet. As she did so, a light glared into her face. She was nearer to the road than she had realised and the light was from the headlights of a van which had drawn up in front of her.
Her chest was hurting with the effort of breathing hard and the strain and tension of running in a panic through the dark, and when she heard a man’s voice, for a moment she could not reply. But the fact that another human being was near to her and that she was safely down from the Hill made her limp with relief.
‘Hello? Are you hurt?’
At first the voice came from inside the van, but then she heard the door being opened.
‘Can you turn the light off, I can’t see, it’s …’
A second later, the light had dipped so that it shone on to the path, but Debbie’s eyes were still blinded. She heard a footstep, and then the man was beside her. He was holding a torch. She could make out a tweed jacket, but she still couldn’t see his features.
‘I was … I was walking up there and … it was darker than I thought. And I heard something.’
‘What sort of thing?’
‘I don’t know, but it was scary, something scratching or rustling …’
‘Probably rabbits or a badger. Or a stray dog.’
‘Yes.’ She held her side as the stitch returned briefly. ‘Only I couldn’t see. I just ran, but the paths are ever so slippery, I skidded.’
‘Have you hurt yourself?’
‘I don’t think so. I’ve scratched my hand where I put it out to save myself but it’s nothing. I banged my knee, I think.’
‘You were lucky.’
‘Yes. It didn’t feel it up there.’
‘Perhaps not the best idea then, to go on the Hill by yourself after dark.’
‘Don’t you think it’s safe?’
‘It’s probably perfectly safe but you’re a young woman on her own and you can’t be too careful. So maybe take a friend next time. Or better still, go in daylight. Early morning would be better than late at night.’
‘Thanks. Thanks very much.’
‘Have you far to go?’
‘About a mile but it’s through the streets, I’ll be OK.’
‘No, let me give you a lift. You’re soaked and you’ve had a shock. It won’t take two minutes.’
Debbie hesitated. He seemed nice, there wasn’t anything funny about him. She should go, it made sense to get home quickly. But he picked up on her hesitation.
‘No, of course not. That was a stupid thing to suggest. You don’t know me. You shouldn’t accept lifts from people you don’t know, especially at night. But I do want to make sure you get home safely. I tell you what … you walk, I’ll follow you to the main road with my lights on, so you’ll be quite safe, and then you’ll be among people and cars and I won’t worry. And I’d better make sure you really haven’t hurt yourself and are OK to walk. Is there anyone at home when you do get there?’
‘Sandy Marsh, she’s my flatmate.’
‘Good. Off you go then … I’ll make sure you get to the main road before I leave you.’
Debbie waited until he got back into the van, and turned it round, then headed through the gateway. There was no one about. She was glad of the man driving slowly behind her, the dipped headlights of the van picking her out clearly, so that she walked safely in a patch of light until she turned into the busier street at the end, close to a row of shops and the petrol station. She turned. The headlights of the van flashed, and as it drew away from her and off down the road, the man waved. Debbie Parker waved back, gratefully. Someone had looked after her when she wouldn’t have expected it. She remembered something else Dava had said. ‘You will always be looked after. You are watched and protected. Remember.’
It was true. She had heard stories of people finding help in deserted places and at dangerous moments, only to discover later that the helper had been an angel in human form.
Her heart leaped with the sudden awareness that it might just have happened to her. Why not? She had been in danger, or thought she had been, and out of the darkness had come a rescuer who had vanished, after making sure that she was safe. It all fitted, it bore so much resemblance to the stories of angelic appearances that she had read.
She couldn’t wait to tell Dava.
She turned the last corner from where she could see that the lights were on in the flat. She would have a drink and a hot bath, and later, slouch on the sofa in her dressing gown watching The Bill.
But as she opened the door and called out ‘Hi’, she thought she probably wouldn’t say anything to Sandy about her rescuer or that she was convinced it had not been an ordinary human being. Sandy’s cheerful common sense would be like a stick poked into a delicate spider’s web and Debbie wanted to cherish her angelic encounter, not have it spoiled by her flatmate’s scorn. She would probably not even mention the fact that she had been by herself up on the Hill in the dark. The noises must have been made by small animals scuttling about, but now that she was safely back, she knew she had been stupid. Nowhere was safe these days, not even stuffy old Lafferton, and besides, she owed it to her rescuer not to put herself at risk again. She would certainly walk on the Hill. It had ley lines running through it, and those would help her to feel in tune and harmony with the universe. Only from now on she would go when it was light, especially early in the morning. Dawn was a propitious time, Debbie knew. That was one reason people went to dance on Starly Tor at dawn on midsummer morning.
Sinking into the soft peachy foam of her bath, she made a mental note to ask Dava about that too.
The luminous hands on the bedside clock showed four fifteen. Freya lay on her side, staring at them, watching the second hand click round. She was cold.
Damn. Damn. Damn. Hell. Sod it. Bugger. Shit. Damn …
‘Oh, for God’s sake.’ This time she spoke aloud, as she pushed the duvet off her legs. It slid to the floor.
She needed a drink and a hot-water bottle and then to read several chapters of the book she had been immersed in before her mind had been taken over by what she thought of angrily as ‘this thing’.
While she waited for the kettle to boil, she pulled up the Roman blind and looked out. The kitchen looked over her garden – grass, a lilac tree, some roses. Even a shed. There were houses on the other side of her wall and in the upstairs window of just one a light was on. Freya wondered if there was another insomniac, with a mind too preoccupied and full of whirling thoughts to sleep, or perhaps just a parent seeing to a wakeful child. She opened the window slightly and the unique smell of night, of damp flower beds and green bushes, with faint traces of smoke and car fumes, came to her nostrils, reminiscent of all the nights in her early years as a uniformed policewoman on patrol at night. She had loved it, there had always been an edge to things, and the camaraderie of the relief on night duty was different too, jokier, more supportive; you found yourself telling your colleague on night patrol things you might not even tell your life partner or could not have told your parents, and hearing their confessions in return, in the intimacy of a patrol car, or walking down a silent, dark street. She did not regret the move to CID and the promotion that followed any more than she regretted her move to Lafferton, but the smell of the night air touched a chord all the same.
She turned back to fill her hot-water bottle, and then the tea mug. She had slept on and off for no more than an hour, and otherwise, tossed about in bed until her pillows and cover were a scramble, alternately cursing, longing, or merely trying to sort out her emotions and understand what had happened.
Simon Serrailler had not come to the choir party. Freya had spent a long time choosing her clothes and doing her hair and face, and on the way there her hands had been damp on the steering wheel and her mouth dry. Like some bloody teenager, she thought furiously, turning into the drive of Hallam House. There had been plenty of cars lined up already, and the lights were shining in welcome out of all the lower-floor windows. No curtains were drawn and Freya could see figures in the rooms, but not his. She heard a sudden burst of laughter and a spurt of shyness flared through her, so that she all but got back into her car and left. She had never found social gatherings easy, but her marriage to Don had eroded most of her poise and confidence – and in any case, they had rarely gone out except to places where they would meet work colleagues or others they already knew. Another car turned into the drive and slid alongside hers. Freya waited, wondering what car Simon Serrailler drove, desperate for this to be him, to go into the house with him. The headlights went off and a couple got out, one of whom was the woman to whom Freya had given a lift after the choir practice. She called her name. ‘Sharon!’ Going in with someone she knew even slightly made the evening begin smoothly after all.
Her puddings were praised and demolished, and she promised recipes to several people. She had enjoyed herself, picked up her new friendship with Meriel Serrailler at once and taken a dislike to her husband, a man with a sarcastic tongue and an expression which mixed superiority with disapproval.
The evening was a good one, but she had spoiled it for herself because she had done nothing but glance towards the door hoping that he would come in and then dreading her own reaction, and when she realised that it was after ten and he would not be coming at all, felt a disappointment so acute that she could take no pleasure in anything and so she left.
Back in bed, warm and comfortable, she plumped up her pillows and lay against them in the circle of light from the lamp, and tried again to make sense of what had happened and how and what it meant. She had been felled, instantly and completely, by the look and sound and aura and personality of a man; she had been put under a spell, had had a love potion dropped in her eyes – she called up every literary allusion she knew to what was a common enough event but one which she herself had never experienced before. She was confused and bewildered by it, taken aback that she could be vulnerable to what felt like a powerful blow rather than an emotion, and all the time in her mind’s eye, whatever she was doing, whatever she thought, whether she was talking to someone else, or alone, driving her car or lying in bed trying to sleep or turning the pages of a book, all the time, she saw Simon Serrailler, as he had been sitting at the table in the kitchen of his mother’s house, a mug of tea in front of him and his hand poised over it, holding the shortbread. The image never left her, as though it was on a screen at the back of her eyes. It was with her now.
She picked up her book, the book she had found so engrossing until today, the story so gripping she had rushed through washing up or taking a shower in order to get back to it. Now, she reread the same three paragraphs she had read earlier, and they made as little sense, left as little impression. Her clock showed twenty to five. The only thing she knew that might keep her mind occupied, and stop it from turning back to Simon Serrailler, was work and the only case that presented both a puzzle and a challenge in her present load was the missing woman, Angela Randall. Otherwise, there was an ongoing and, to Freya’s mind, deadly dull embezzlement case, a spate of car thefts, and the ever-present drugs-related stuff. She took the pad she kept on her bedside table by the telephone, and started to make notes. She had built up a picture of Angela Randall from the search of her house, and from what her employer at the nursing home had told her. She also felt an odd bond of sympathy with her. After ten minutes, during which she had made a succinct summary of everything about the case so far, Freya felt suddenly exhausted. She was not going into the station early, because she had to do some checks at the new business park on the edge of the town relating to the embezzlement case which she could not wait to hand on to the fraud squad. After that, though, and without the DI’s knowledge, she would spend some more time, preferably with the help of the keen young DC Nathan Coates, on Angela Randall.
She turned out her lamp and fell heavily to sleep.
Nathan Coates had been going steadily through the computer database of convicted drug offenders since just after eight thirty. It was now eleven and he had pepped himself with his third plastic cup of coffee ready for another round when Freya stopped at his desk.
She liked Nathan, almost because rather than in spite of his face which was a caricature of a villain’s mugshot, looking as if it had been flattened by a door, the nose squashed, the cheekbones dented, the mouth large. He had ginger hair that stuck up like the bristles on a yard broom and enough odd livid lumps and bumps on his skin to remind her of Shakespeare’s Bardolph; his teeth were crooked and there was a gap between the front two. He also had a grin which lit up his eyes and, together with his cheerful willingness to shoulder the most dreary of jobs which others were trying to dodge, helped endear him not only to the rest of CID but to the entire station.
He looked up and grinned.
‘I’ve come to take you away from all that.’
‘Oh, it’s not so bad, Sarge, at least I get to be in the warm with caffeine on tap. Besides, I hate these druggies, honest to God, I hate them.’
Freya knew that Nathan came from a Bevham council estate which had been governed by drug dealers for much of his growing up. He had watched school friends succumb and become addicts, several had died, others were now caught up in a shitty life of petty crime, or worse. Nathan was the fourth child of a single woman who made a habit of bearing one for every live-in boyfriend before kicking them out in favour of the next man. On paper, such a boy, from such a background, a pupil at a comprehensive school politely known as ‘failing’, should have gone the way of all his mates, and by now be unemployed or possibly in prison and causing regular trouble to the police force. Nathan Coates had been brighter than the rest of his family put together, streetwise and forward-thinking. He had taken a hard look around him and seen that unless he took a different road his future was grim. From the age of six, when he had been messing about the estate with his gang, he had watched the police patrol cars that were regular visitors there, and after a while, and out of sight of the others, sidled up and got talking to the officers. When he was ten he had gone to the station and asked about recruitment and meanwhile had devoured every television programme about crime and policing, which had caused few raised eyebrows at home where the set was permanently switched on and someone was always sprawled glass-eyed in front of it.
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