‘The missing girl is described as about five feet four, plump and with mid-length straight brown hair. She may have been wearing trainers and a fleece jacket and police are particularly interested to hear from anyone who may have seen a young woman answering to her description on or in the area of the Hill. If you have any information at all, please telephone Lafferton CID on 01990 776776.
‘A Bevham man has received four thousand pounds in compensation from the firm for which he worked for seventeen years, Wakes Electronics, after …’
Sandy Marsh turned off the radio and the kitchen went silent. None of it could be happening. Any minute, Debbie would walk in the front door and the nightmare would be over. Any minute, she would ring and ask what all the fuss was about. Any minute.
Sandy felt guilty, as if by going to the police she had turned Debbie’s absence into something sinister and frightening. One minute, she just hadn’t come home, the next, the police were on the radio talking about her and it had all got out of control. I should have kept quiet, she thought, then she would have just come back. I should have waited here and … Of course she shouldn’t. She put the kettle on for yet another mug of tea, because she had to do something, anything to stop it all going round in her head.
Half an hour ago she had rung Debbie’s father and stepmother in Stafford but had told them not to come straight down, that Debbie would be in touch, would as likely as not walk in, either to the flat here or maybe even to their house as a surprise. As if, Sandy had thought.
She hadn’t told them about the police appeal.
The Detective Sergeant had rung two or three times to check things, and then to read out what was going to be said. She was very nice, very understanding.
‘Oh God, Debbie, where are you? Come home, please, just walk in. Please God, let her just walk in.’
She dropped a tea bag into her mug and filled it. Debbie was her friend and her flatmate and she cared about her but what must it be like if it was your child who had gone missing, or your husband? She couldn’t go to work, because she knew she would be good for nothing there. She’d told them exactly what was going on, not given them some lie about feeling ill. They’d been really good, told her not to think of coming in until Debbie was back, and asked if she wanted anyone to come over to the flat to keep her company. Last week, it had occurred to her that as Debbie was so much better, she might see if there was a job for her at Macaulay Prentice, maybe part time. Her old job at the building society would be good experience for working with credit control.
Where is she? Sandy drummed her fist suddenly on the kitchen table. Where is she?
The phone rang, making her leap up. It wasn’t Debbie but her father, wanting to know if there was any news. Sandy tried to sound reassuring, not to alarm him, not to dramatise things. Not yet. But if Debbie hadn’t returned or rung by the time the Echo ran its piece, DS Graffham had said the family ought to be asked if they wanted to come down to Lafferton.
Sandy had found a snapshot of Debbie taken at an ice rink they’d gone to last winter, for a Saturday-afternoon laugh; they’d blow that up and have it on the front page of the paper. It was real. It was happening and she wouldn’t wake up out of any dream. Debbie had been missing for – how long was it? As she tried to work it out Sandy realised for the first time that when she had got up and left for work the previous morning, she hadn’t actually seen her friend. In the old days, she had made a point of going in, drawing her curtains, taking her tea and trying to get her to start the day, but since she had been so much more cheerful, and Sandy was not worried about her spending the whole day miserably in bed trying to blot out life, she hadn’t done that. Mostly now, Debbie was up at the same time as her, but occasionally she had a lie-in, and Sandy left her to it. She knew it was only for an extra half-hour. She didn’t worry now.
Had Debbie been in bed asleep when she had left for work yesterday? She had assumed so but now it dawned on her that she did not actually know, could not have sworn to it. She had definitely been in the previous night, though; they had watched Coronation Street together and then the video of Ocean’s Eleven.
She probably had been in bed asleep the next morning but once or twice, since she had first seen the Dava man, she had gone out for one of her new long walks early in the morning.
Sandy went into the sitting room and from there into her bedroom and then came back to the kitchen again, unable to calm down, not knowing what to do, whether to ring the police station, whether she had done wrong not to think of all this earlier. It wasn’t that she had been holding anything back, it had just never occurred to her. And after all, she didn’t know and she couldn’t be sure either way. Debbie might have been in. Debbie might not have been in. Debbie probably had been in. Debbie –
The phone rang again.
‘Sandy, Freya Graffham. I thought you’d like to know we’ve already had a lot of calls in response to the Radio BEV appeal, several of them are quite helpful, and we’re following them up.’
‘Has someone seen her then? Do they know where she is?’
‘Nothing specific yet. There are some obvious hoaxers but that’s quite usual and we can weed them out at once. How are you?’
Sandy swallowed. ‘OK. Listen …’
‘Have you remembered something?’
‘Yes,’ Sandy said, ‘No … it’s …’
‘Hold on … don’t try and tell me over the phone, Sandy, you sound upset. I’ll come round.’
An hour later, having heard what Sandy Marsh had to say, Freya drove up to the Hill to find a full search underway. Police were spread out in a line moving slowly up the steep paths combing the ground, others were beating the scrub and undergrowth. The whole area had been sealed off. As she got out of her car, she saw Simon Serrailler talking to the uniformed inspector in charge of the search, and went across. The hunt for Debbie Parker was at the forefront of her mind now and all her energies and attention were focused on it, but a part of her reacted to the sight of him with a spurt of pleasure; she suppressed it, putting her feelings into a locked area of herself, to be ignored as far as possible while the investigation was going on.
‘Freya?’ He turned to her at once. ‘Anything?’
‘Not sure.’ She nodded to the inspector who detached himself and went back to the police van which was the meeting point of the search team.
‘I’ve just been to see Sandy Marsh, Debbie’s flatmate. She’s very distressed. It suddenly occurred to her that she didn’t actually see Debbie yesterday morning. She was certainly there the previous night. They spent the evening in the flat watching television and Sandy went into her room later to borrow some tissues at about half eleven. Debbie was in bed and already fast asleep. So Sandy slipped in and out without waking her. But Sandy wonders if she might have got up before she did the next morning and gone for one of her long walks.’
Serrailler frowned. ‘Any response from the radio appeal?’
‘Lots of calls, the usual time-wasters, nothing concrete. Sir, I think we ought to put out another appeal and mention Angela Randall’s disappearance as well. Time has gone by on that one but I’m sure the two are linked. Someone’s memory might be jogged by this into remembering the other woman.’
‘It might, but I’d rather we held off until Debbie’s parents are here and we’ve had a chance to fill them in. I don’t want them hearing a radio mention of another missing woman before they know the full picture from us and I don’t want the press having any excuse to start howling “SERIAL KILLER” in foot-high headlines.’
‘What are you doing now?’
‘I’m going back to the station to pick up Nathan Coates and then to Starly to track down this therapist.’
‘Dava.’ The DCI made a face. ‘I’d like to hear my mother on the subject.’ They smiled at each other, recognising a mutual understanding of Meriel Serrailler.
‘Your mother has asked me to help her with a spring fair, by the way.’
‘Well, watch out. She has jaws of steel.’
‘I’m not even sure what it’s for … a day centre?’
‘Yes. She’s patron. It’s a day centre for the elderly with dementia and related problems. Once she’s landed you for that it’ll be St Michael’s Hospice.’
‘Of which she is patron?’
It was pleasant, standing in the winter sunshine, talking to him, both of them relaxed, jokey, for a moment setting aside the reason for being here. He had a way of meeting her eyes and smiling, not flirtatiously but simply as if he liked her and wanted to talk to her about other things in their lives than work. Stay the moment, Freya thought, stay the moment.
‘I owe a lot to your mother. She’s made me welcome and introduced me to people, friends. It isn’t easy starting again in a new place.’
‘I can imagine. You’ll find Lafferton a bit of a gossip shop though. We’re really a hick market town with a cathedral. Still, it must be easier to make new friends here than in London.’
‘Do you know, I don’t think I ever want to see London again.’
‘You will, you will.’
‘There’s no one I miss.’
He met her glance again. He was direct, she thought, he did not evade.
‘Starly, DS Graffham,’ he said now.
She carried his smile with her for the rest of the day.
He had never before heard Annie shout and this wasn’t a shout you ignored. The place could have been on fire.
‘Colin …’ She came in without knocking.
‘Have you heard the news on Radio BEV?’
‘Well, of course I haven’t, I’ve had clients all morning.’
‘It’s one of them has gone missing. Headline news.’
Colin Davison, aka Dava, had hung his robe up and was shrugging on his denim jacket. He had had clients wall-to-wall since nine o’clock, with only time for a mug of coffee – real Blend 37, not the dandelion muck – and he was hungry. But what his secretary had just said was alarming.
‘Who are we talking about, Annie? Calm down.’
‘She came earlier in the week and once before, I’ve looked her up. Debbie. Debbie Parker.’
‘You know I forget them ten seconds after they’ve left the room.’
‘Plump girl with spots.’
He remembered perfectly well. She had been one of the instantly trusting ones, drinking everything in and determined to turn her life around. The second time she had been, the change had already been noticeable. It took so little, he had thought, nothing they couldn’t have done for themselves, yet they came to him, and came back for more, needing permission, needing to be led by the hand, without any confidence in themselves. He felt sorry for them really.
‘So what’s happened to her?’ He checked his pockets. ‘Have you got a fiver?’
‘In my desk drawer, but listen … it was headlines, I said. The police are appealing for anyone who’s seen her. She hasn’t been home.’
‘Yeah, right, lots of people don’t go home, home stinks, they’ve had it up to here with home, you can’t blame them.’
He walked out of his room through to the cubbyhole Annie had as an office and got the tin out of the desk. Seventy-five pounds.
‘The last two paid cash,’ Annie said coming up behind him, ‘but don’t take it all, Colin, there’s an electricity bill to pay.’
He took thirty.
‘Do you think you ought to ring them? Say she was up here?’
‘What for? I shouldn’t think I was the last person to set eyes on her.’
‘They asked for any information.’
‘Nothing we can give them.’
He looked down at the appointment book. Just one and not until three o’clock and tomorrow, again, just one in the morning. Not good.
‘Time to do a spot more advertising,’ he said to Annie. ‘I’ll give it some thought over my sarnie.’
Colin Davison looked ordinary, walking down the hill towards the Green Man Wholefood Café, an insignificant man anywhere between forty and fifty with nothing of the charismatic Dava about him. Something happened when he dimmed the lights and put on his robe, something came over him to give him power and presence whenever a client walked in. He felt it and he knew it worked. Colin was no cynic. In his own way he believed in what he did, though by no means in everything he said. Look at this girl, Debbie … See how she’d benefited from it. He did what other people could not – doctors, psychiatrists, even beauticians.
If he tarted it up a bit, that was harmless enough and it all helped – the blue card, the appointment at the time ‘most propitious for you’, the music he played, the lines he gave them to learn. They needed him.
The café was quite full, and as he went in Stephen Garlick saw him and indicated a spare seat next to him in the window. Colin got a plate of cheese-and-tomato quiche and salad and a cinnamon muffin and took them over. He liked Stephen, who kept the shop that did next-to-no business selling candles and incense burners, wind chimes and dream catchers, eco-friendly washing powder and face creams not tested on animals, and books about everything from feng shui to vegan cookery. He was a bit of a dreamer, and a 100 per cent believer, recycler and animal rights activist, honest and incorruptible. Sometimes, when he was with Steve, Colin felt slightly ashamed.
‘Health and happiness,’ Steve said. ‘I was hoping to catch you.’
‘Yes, but not mine. Or, well, not only mine. Have you heard about the person who’s taken 12 Hen Lane?’
Colin shook his head, his mouth full of the warm and very good quiche. They could cook here, especially the pastry. You just had to avoid some of the weirder stuff.
‘His name is Anthony Orford.’
Colin looked blank.
‘No one is sure exactly where he’s come from, possibly the north of England though somebody else said Brighton. He moves around every few years, maybe when things get a bit hot for him.’
‘God, you’re not on the grapevine, you are the grapevine. Who is this guy?’
‘An alternative therapist.’
Colin put down his fork. ‘That’s worrying. There are enough of us up here already and too few clients to go round. What’s his line?’
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