It was half past three before she dropped off, six when she woke again. She got quickly out of bed and went straight to Debbie’s room. It was empty and exactly as they had left it the previous night. The rest of the flat was empty too. Sandy sat at the kitchen table looking at the rectangle of pearly-grey sky above the next door roof. She felt wretched, tired and with aching muscles from sleeping so tensely. But there was something else, which she did not at first recognise, almost like a pain in her chest. Then she realised that it was fear. She was afraid for Debbie. Whatever casual assurances WPC Louise Tiller had made about her having stayed overnight with friends, Sandy knew that she had not done so, never would have done it in a thousand years. But what had she done? Where had she gone? Why had she not come home?


She went into the sitting room and checked that the phone was working, and then found her mobile and checked that. Then she rang Bevham General A & E. No casualties answering to her description of Debbie. Her next call was to work, to say she wouldn’t be in. After that, she showered, dressed, burned her mouth drinking a mug of tea which was too hot, and went to Lafferton Police Station.


DC Nathan Coates picked up on the routine report about a missing girl. When Freya came, a copy was on her desk.


‘What do you think, Sarge?’ he said.


She scanned the details. ‘Hospitals?’


‘Nothing.’


‘Hm.’ Freya went to get herself the first coffee of the day. The phrase ‘psychiatric history’ had jumped out, making it likely this was a depressed girl who had taken herself off because of a particularly low mood and who would turn up, hopefully alive but possibly dead if she had been suicidal. She stood on the landing, sipping from the plastic cup. That was the most likely scenario, and yet … there was something about this one, something not right; Freya had never trusted colleagues who talked about having hunches about cases, but once in a while she had to admit that she herself got just such a gut feeling. She had one now. This was one missing-person report which she did not intend to see filed away to gather dust.


Nathan came through the swing doors behind her. ‘Sarge, the flatmate is downstairs. Come in just now to report still no sign.’


If it had not been the sort of business about which there was nothing remotely amusing, Freya would have smiled at the look of eagerness on his face. He had latched on to the case of Angela Randall and here was something new and possibly relevant to it. Nathan sensed action and after too much time trawling through records at the computer, action was what he needed. Freya threw her empty cup in the bin and headed for the stairs. On the whole, she was with him.


By the time she had finished talking to Sandy she was more than satisfied that the links were positive. The missing girl’s flatmate had been white-faced and almost incoherent with anxiety and it had taken all Freya’s skill to soothe her and extract the detail. The first thing she asked about was Debbie Parker’s mental state and the girl had leaped to her defence angrily.


‘Look, she was depressed for a bit. She lost her job and she … she had really low self-esteem … she’s a bit overweight and … Look, I don’t want to be disloyal, I’m not criticising her, you do understand that, she’s my best friend and I feel responsible for her.’


‘That’s exactly why you need to tell me everything, Sandy. And of course you’re not being disloyal. You want her found fast and we will put everything into it, but you mustn’t hold anything back out of misplaced feelings of loyalty.’


‘Yes, I see. OK, well, she’s more than a bit, she’s quite a lot overweight. That got worse after she lost her job and got depressed and she’s had bad acne. But she was just coming out of all that, you see, she went to see a therapist up at Starly and he gave her a really good diet – not a slimming diet, not dangerous, just really sensible eating.’


‘Have you the name and address of the therapist?’


‘Well … just a name. He calls himself Dava.’


‘Dava?’


‘Debbie’s never mentioned a surname. I said she was to be careful but I think it was harmless … well, apart from the stuff he gave her to take.’


Freya looked up sharply. ‘Stuff?’


Sandy told her about Debbie’s allergic reaction.


‘Is it in the flat still?’


‘No, Dr Deerbon took it away. She said she wanted to find out from someone at the hospital what was in it.’


Freya made a note. ‘Do you think Debbie could have gone to see this man last night?’


‘I doubt it. We don’t have secrets even though we lead different sorts of lives. Besides, she’d never go anywhere far without taking her bag.’


The bag. Freya had flagged that mentally as soon as she had read the first report. No female went out for an evening, or even for an hour, without taking her bag, and according to Sandy, it was the only one Debbie Parker owned and everything had been in it.


‘Only she took her house keys,’ the girl said now.


‘You might do that if you slipped out to the corner shop for a pint of milk.’


‘We don’t have a corner shop and she didn’t take her purse.’


‘Now, you’re quite sure … think hard, Sandy … quite sure, that she hadn’t had any bad news, or had a sudden really low patch? Depression’s a treacherous thing, it can strike again even when people feel they’ve turned a corner.’


‘I know she was better, I know it. She was feeling good about herself for the first time in ages, she was losing weight, looking pretty, she talked about looking for another job in a while. She was taking exercise. That’s why I didn’t worry when I first got in. She sometimes went out for long walks … she said she wasn’t up to jogging or running yet but when she got fitter she would.’


Oh God, Freya thought. ‘If she went out for a long walk she wouldn’t have taken her handbag, would she?’


‘No, it would just get in the way. It’s a big bag.’


‘But she would take her house keys.’


‘Yes. So that’s what I thought. At first. Just for an hour, but then it got dark and time went on and I knew she wouldn’t have been walking until after midnight.’


‘Did she walk anywhere in particular, take a regular route, do you know, or did she just go where the fancy took her? That’s what I think I’d do.’


‘In the daytime she might walk all the way into town, perhaps go to a shop or have a coffee there. But mostly she went on to the Hill.’


Freya’s heart sank at the same time as she felt a surge of excitement. That made three, three for definite. The mountain biker, Angela Randall and now Debbie Parker. Three people who had gone walking or running or riding alone on the Hill. Three people who had disappeared without trace, leaving no message, no hint or clue. Three people who, so far as anyone could tell, had no reason to go missing deliberately, and of whom there had been no report or sighting anywhere.


‘What will happen now? What will you do? You are going to look for her, aren’t you? Only the policewoman who came last night seemed so dismissive, and I really don’t think you should just be –’


‘Dismissive in what way exactly?’


‘She didn’t seem to take it very seriously. I got quite upset actually, because she seemed to think it was obvious that if Debbie had been depressed she must have … must have, you know …’


‘It is not obvious at all. I believe you, Sandy. You know your friend, you should be able to tell. I don’t think it at all likely that Debbie felt depressed enough to want to harm herself. But I had to ask you the question, you do understand that?’


‘Yes, and anyway, how you asked it was different.’


‘OK. I think you might go home now, in case Debbie comes back.’


‘I ought to ring her dad and stepmum, oughtn’t I?’


‘Hold on a bit – maybe till lunchtime. Then if she hasn’t come back, yes, but try not to panic them. I’d like to put out a message on Radio BEV, asking if anyone has seen Debbie. Could you go through her things and see if you can work out what she was wearing when she went out? I’ll come and see you later and we’ll go through with you what I want them to broadcast so you can make sure it’s right. Now, here’s a card with the station number, and my extension. If I’m out and you need to leave a message or just talk to someone, speak to DC Nathan Coates who’ll be working with me on this.’


She watched the girl walk slowly away across the station forecourt, her head bent, slight, pretty, desperately worried. As well she might be, Freya thought, heading up the stairs to the DI’s office.


He wasn’t there. Freya went back to the CID room to where Nathan was patiently entering data on to the computer. When he heard her brief report on the missing girl his face lit up.


‘We go for it, right?’


‘Yes, except that Cameron isn’t in his office.’


‘Cameron’s off,’ someone shouted from another desk. ‘Got a hospital appointment.’


Freya knew that the DI had been waiting to see a consultant about what he called his ‘dodgy stomach’ for several weeks. She tapped her pen on the side of her desk for a few seconds. So he was off, maybe for the day, certainly for the rest of the morning, which meant she had no alternative, didn’t it? This one couldn’t wait.


‘Is that drugs op still on?’ she asked Nathan. He shook his head. ‘They wrapped it up yesterday, for the time being.’


‘Successful?’


‘I heard they landed a few small fry. The big fish got wind. What’s next then, Sarge?’


‘That,’ Freya said, making for the swing doors, ‘is just what I’m off to find out.’


Interestingly, because it was work, and she was keyed up about it, Freya did not feel the trembling sense of anticipation at merely seeing and talking to Simon Serrailler that she had been unable to control the last time she had knocked on his door. Angela Randall and Debbie Parker were at the front of her mind and she wanted to get the wheels turning. She was pleased DI Cameron was off, mainly because she thought that being able to bypass him might mean that happened faster.


‘Come in.’


As she heard his voice her heart jumped.


‘Freya … I hope you’ve got good news. I could do with it.’


‘Not exactly, sir, sorry.’


He shoved the fair hair back from where it flopped over his forehead. He looked tired.


‘Heigh-ho. What have you got? Sit down, sit down.’


She outlined the facts about Debbie Parker, and then quickly related her case to that of Angela Randall, with the relevant links to the mountain biker neatly placed at the end. It was the sort of summary she knew she was good at, succinct but comprehensive, highlighting the most important points for him to pick up, ignoring incidental detail about which he could be briefed later if necessary. He gave her his full attention, listening without interruption. When she had finished he was silent for thirty seconds or so, then he gave a funny little jerk of his head which she was to recognise as a sign that he had digested information and made a decision.


‘You’re right. Your instinct was sound. The three together – and certainly the two missing women – look like more than coincidence. We’ve got to find this girl, Debbie Parker … What do you propose?’


‘Local radio appeal for information. Piece in the evening paper, tonight if possible, with her photograph, as prominent as they’ll do it. Posters, but on hold for say forty-eight hours. And a full search of the Hill. Interview the therapist at Starly Tor.’


‘Good. What about the father and stepmother?’


‘I told the flatmate to hold off a bit longer in case Debbie turned up.’


He looked at his watch. ‘No, they need to be told now. Get them down here. I want every blade of grass on the Hill looked under. I want the reports on Angela Randall and the biker on my desk and I’d like you to go up to Starly and take this hippie practitioner apart.’


She got up. ‘I’ll get on with it.’


‘Who do you want with you?’


‘Nathan Coates. He’s already doing some checking for me and he’s raring to go.’


Serrailler laughed. ‘Perfect. And good work, Freya.’


She made for the door. There was nothing like it – suspecting that an incident was important, having your suspicions taken seriously, making out a good case and being given the go-ahead. This was what she loved best about the job; cases like this were what had made life at the Met bearable through the dull patches, the frustrating jobs and the sordid ones, and certainly what had enabled her to close her mind to her disastrous marriage during working hours. It had been a case at which she had worked away quietly by herself for weeks because she hadn’t been happy when it was officially downgraded, and about which she had been proved triumphantly right, that had clinched promotion. She thought about DI Cameron and his hospital appointment. She would never wish serious illness upon anyone but, on the other hand, Nathan had hinted more than once that Cameron was only marking time until he could retire … which would mean a vacancy for DI.


She crossed the CID room almost at a run, signalling thumbs up to Nathan on her way.


‘We’re on. The DCI is going for it. Uniform will be combing the Hill, and there’s a local radio appeal going out. I need to have the flatmate in here again – can you get a car to pick her up, Nathan? – then ring Radio BEV newsdesk and alert them. I’m going to write the appeal for info and we’re passing that to the Echo for this evening as well. Oh, and can you ask Sandy Marsh to bring in a photo of Debbie if she can find one, the more recent the better?’


Nathan jumped for his phone. ‘What’s for me after that, Sarge?’


‘You and I are having a drive out to Starly. We can have a dandelion sandwich at the wholefood café.’


Twenty-Three


‘Radio BEV serving Bevham, Lafferton and the county. This is Robbie Muncaster with your local news and weather on Friday lunchtime. Police at Lafferton are appealing for any information about a missing girl. Twenty-two-year-old Debbie Parker of Pyment Drive, Lafferton, has been missing from her home for about twenty-four hours and police say they are growing increasingly concerned. Detective Sergeant Freya Graffham from Lafferton CID.’


‘This is a disappearance quite out of character. Debbie Parker has never gone away from home without warning before and we’re particularly concerned because she left her handbag with all her belongings in her flat, so she clearly can’t have meant to go far or stay out long. We’re very anxious for members of the public to report any sighting of Debbie or to give us any information they think might be relevant, however insignificant it may seem. If you think you have seen her, please get in touch with us urgently.’

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