He walked away, taking a different route back to the parked van. You could never be too careful, never drop your guard.
He went into the public house bar, which was empty, bought red wine and a hot pasty, and borrowed the evening paper from the counter. It was a large, anonymous room, a public house for passing travellers. He was served without interest and would not be remembered. Two groups of men came in and did not spare him a glance.
The Lafferton Echo had another article about Medusa and Circe. The pasty was delicious. The evening sun fell in ruby red through the glass lozenges of the window behind him, on to the newspaper. He felt content.
Sharon Medcalf had not been at choir practice that week, having sent a message that she had a bad cold, which had thrown Freya’s plan. Now, Sharon’s phone number was in front of her but she was still hesitating. She needed to talk to someone about Simon Serrailler, to get answers to some of the questions that preoccupied her whenever her mind was not focused on work, and on both occasions when they had talked privately, Sharon had revealed herself as an enthusiastic gossip.
So why am I dithering? Freya asked herself now.
She walked away from the phone, poured a glass of wine and sat down to think. She wanted to talk about him, to hear his name and speak it herself, find out more about his life. Who else was there to ask? The people she had got to know best since coming to Lafferton were work colleagues. Apart from acquaintances, mainly other choir members, the only person she could call a friend was Meriel Serrailler, who was naturally ruled out. Which left the dauntingly well-dressed Sharon Medcalf, who was divorced and owned two designer boutiques in Bevham. But Sharon was a member of the choir and when the conductor had asked her to sing a few bars of a solo aria in the Messiah to illustrate a point he wanted to make, Freya had looked at her with new respect. Her soprano voice was glorious, rich and clear with impressive top notes. The rest of the choir had listened with absolute attention. There was more to Sharon Medcalf than expensive clothes. Freya had ceased to curse when her mind turned to Simon. Deep inside her a small, furious, independent voice muttered scornfully from time to time. It also murmured warnings. She ignored them.
She switched on the television, hopped from a garden makeover programme to one about house-buying to a European football match and switched off again. She had caught up with the day’s papers and had no new book to read. She drank the last of her wine and pulled the phone nearer.
‘Is that Sharon?’
‘It’s Freya Graffham … I just rang to find out how you are. The message to choir was that you’d lost your voice.’
‘Bless you, yes, it’s been a stinker but I’m feeling much better today. How was choir?’
‘Good. It’s really shaping now, but the sopranos are definitely thinner without you. The other reason I rang was that I have a day off on Wednesday and I wondered if you’d like to have lunch? If you’re well enough.’
‘It’ll be malingering by then. I’d love to. Where?’
If they were going to talk about Simon, they had better not be anywhere in Lafferton.
‘Somewhere out of town … what about the Fox and Goose at Flimby? The food’s excellent but it only gets really crowded in the evenings.’
‘I haven’t been out there for yonks. If it’s a day like today it’ll set me up nicely. Thanks, Freya.’
‘Shall we meet there at half twelve?’
Freya wanted to sing. Sharon had talked about the Serraillers when she had given her the lift home. She might not know Simon well but she would surely be able to answer the one question that had been gnawing at her since Freya had been to his flat. She could neither ignore it nor dismiss it. She needed to know.
She went to run a bath and while she was soaking in it worried not about Simon but about work. The only piece of halfway positive information about either of the missing women had come from Jim Williams who was, so far as they knew, the last person to see Angela Randall, running through the fog. But fog was what shrouded her after that and there were no leads at all on Debbie Parker. The search of the Hill had yielded nothing. A couple of people in Starly recognised her photograph and one had known her name but no one had seen her up lately. House-to-house inquiries, posters everywhere, another radio appeal, more in the papers – and nothing.
She wondered vaguely about Jim Williams’s dog Skippy. That had been last seen on the Hill and it, too, had vanished apparently into thin air – or thick fog. But dogs did run away, chasing after a smell, or burrowing too far down a rabbit hole, and a missing dog was not a missing person. People stole dogs. Jim Williams had seen no one but he had reported hearing a vehicle. Did dog snatchers drag their victims into cars and roar off down the road? She remembered Cruella de Vil.
Spring had retreated and winter was delivering a late blast as she drove out to Flimby two days later. The wind drove sleet and little pinheads of hail at the windscreen and as she parked at the Fox and Goose a biting northeasterly was driving straight across the fields towards her.
The pub was quiet and the log fire and amber-coloured lamps on the tables welcoming. On the far side of the hatch she could see that the snug had its small complement of the old countrymen who still lived in and around all the villages. The low burr of their voices was like the humming of bees.
Freya bought a vodka and tonic and bagged a small table near the fire. There were women who could lunch out in country pubs like this every day if they fancied, but surely they would not get such pleasure from it as she did on a precious day off? In London she had never enjoyed such leisurely days. Her free time had been a rush of catching up on domestic chores and trying to prove to herself, by preparing elaborate dinners, that she loved making Don happy.
Not any more, she thought, curling her toes up inside her boots, nor ever again.
As if a light had been switched on she saw Simon’s flat in her mind’s eye, the long, tranquil room with its pictures, books, and pieces of modern and antique furniture in harmony together. She wanted to be there now, for all that she was enjoying the very different room she was actually in, with the gingham curtains and horse brasses. She wanted to be absorbed into Simon’s room so that she belonged there, fitted as perfectly as a vase or a stool or one of his drawings on the wall.
‘God, what a day!’
Sharon Medcalf was beside the table taking off her long suede coat. Freya had spent an hour choosing her own clothes and making herself ready, determined not to let herself down in the face of Sharon’s designer presentation, and when she had looked at herself in the mirror before leaving home she had been rather pleased. She had some decent clothes and she had mixed them with what seemed to be a bit of panache; she spent her working life in clothes that were neither oversmart nor overcasual, and did not call too much attention to themselves; she had enjoyed the chance to make more of a splash. Confronted by Sharon now, she wondered why she had bothered. Sharon wore Armani with a startling scarf and dumped a Louis Vuitton bag on the floor beside her.
Freya could not resist reaching out to finger the pure silk of the vivid blue, white and fuchsia patterned silk.
‘That is amazing … I’ve never seen anything like it.’
‘You won’t … it’s vintage Ungaro.’
‘Oh, poof, it’s the job, I’d just as soon wear jeans from Top Shop.’
‘Hm. Anyway, how are you?’
‘Much better. Freya, thank you for asking me here. I value your wanting to be friendly.’ She said things like that and somehow they didn’t sound false.
Sharon Medcalf was probably late forties, very tall, very slim, with very long, well-cut blonde hair which must cost a fortune to be so discreetly coloured. Her make-up could have been done professionally that morning.
‘I haven’t been to this place for years and I am starving.’
‘The menu’s on a blackboard behind the bar.’
‘I know and I can’t see it.’ She hauled up the Louis Vuitton and took out her spectacle case.
Sharon put the YSL glasses on and made a face. ‘OK, food.’
They ordered and Freya replaced her empty vodka glass with mineral water and settled back. She had no idea how she might bring Simon Serrailler’s name into the conversation but, in fact, it was relatively easy. When their crab cakes had arrived, Sharon said, ‘You know the choir AGM is next month and Peter Longley and Kay aren’t standing again?’
‘No, I haven’t really found my way round that side of things yet.’
‘Meriel was mentioning your name. She wants you on board.’
‘Really? I’ve only just joined.’
‘Yes, she rang me. She’s an amazing woman, Meriel, knows everyone and she is just so clever at roping them into things.’
‘She’s roped me into making six chocolate truffle tortes for a hospice do and to help with the spring fair. She must have been pretty high-powered when she was a consultant.’
‘People still speak of her in hushed tones though I gather students quaked when they were on her ward round. She’s the kind of person who should never retire. Now she has to divert all that energy into her charities.’
Their main courses arrived, the monkfish in thick meaty chunks surrounded by its lightly curried sauce, with big bowls of fresh vegetables. Freya went to the bar to get more mineral water. She wondered if Angela Randall had ever come to a pub like this with the man for whom she had bought the expensive presents; she hoped so and that she had had some return for her extravagance. How had she met him? Where was he now? She was sure the gifts tied in with the woman’s disappearance but was still without a single lead. Debbie Parker, she thought, putting the deep blue bottles of water on the table between them, would almost certainly not have been to the Fox and Goose, with or without her new friends from Starly. Freya felt guilty that she did not find Debbie very interesting.
She sat down, poured herself a glass of water and then said, ‘It’s a real medical establishment, the Serrailler family.’
‘Going back three generations. Do you know the others?’ Freya bent her head to her plate. ‘No. Though I work with Simon, of course.’
‘Yes, he’s the odd one out. His parents weren’t best pleased when he decided to become a policeman, of all things. God, I can’t believe I just said that.’
‘Don’t worry, we know we’re a pretty low form of pond life.’
‘But, to them, a Serrailler who is not a doctor is not a true Serrailler. You’d think two out of three triplets as doctors would do, wouldn’t you?’
‘Do you know him well?’
‘I meant Simon, but yes, Richard too.’
Sharon looked at her quickly, put her knife and fork together and leaned back.
‘Hardly,’ she said. ‘He and Meriel don’t come as a couple, if you see what I mean. She does her own thing.’
‘I didn’t take to him when we met.’
‘Nobody does. I think she’s had a tough time. He’s a very bitter man.’
‘What, about a son becoming a copper?’
‘That and Martha. Do you know about Martha?’
‘No. Do you want pudding?’
‘How do you think I get into my clothes. Coffee though.’
They ordered espressos.
‘Martha is the youngest Serrailler, about ten years younger than the triplets. She was born severely brain-damaged. She’s in a home on the other side of Bevham. From what I’ve heard, it killed Richard. Martha represents failure to him. He had to have the perfect family, moulded to his design. It didn’t work.’
‘Yes, she’s the one who suffers. That’s why she’s always in this whirl of activity, most of which takes her away from him.’
‘Presumably he’s retired too?’
‘Yes. He was a consultant neurologist. No one knows what he does with himself now. It certainly isn’t giving help and support to his wife.’
The coffees came, with a plate of four chocolate truffles. Sharon pushed them away. ‘How do you find Simon to work with?’ she asked.
Freya was caught off guard. Sharon was looking at her carefully.
‘He’s a very good DCI. Runs a good team.’
‘Don’t say you haven’t fallen in love with him. Every other female who has ever come up against Simon Serrailler has.’
Freya swallowed a mouthful of scalding coffee. Pain shot down her throat. Sharon leaned forward. Eager for confidences and confessions, Freya thought. Be careful, be careful. But she was desperate to talk about him and careless of everything except to know more.
‘OK,’ Sharon said, ‘I get it. Now listen –’
‘I need to know just one thing, Sharon. Is he gay? It sort of seems obvious that he would be – must be, of course he must.’
‘Good God, no,’
Freya felt sweat running down her back. Her head was swimming.
‘It’s a bit of a mystery what he is. Everyone’s tried to crack it, no one ever does. You’re a detective, you’ve got as good a chance as any. I don’t know Simon well, it’s Meriel I know, but I’ve met a lot of people who’ve been bruised by him. He’s a charming man, handsome, cultivated, warm, good company. He’s fast-tracked up the career ladder, which is also an attractive trait. But he has broken more hearts than I’ve had hot dinners, Freya. He charms women, he’s friendly, he makes them feel they’re the only one in the world, he gives them his full attention, listens … he’s a very good listener. Now whether it is that he simply doesn’t have a clue, I don’t know. He certainly isn’t a sadistic woman-hater, I’d put money on that. But he backs off when they start getting keen, and when he backs off he cuts off, big time. They don’t know what’s hit them. And there’s something else – no one knows where or what, but he definitely has another life away from Lafferton and the two lives never, ever meet – they probably don’t even meet in his own brain, if you see what I mean. I’m going to order another coffee – you?’
Freya nodded. She could not have spoken a word. Sharon got up and went over to the bar. The buzz of happy conversation and laughter boomed and buzzed round the room, the smell of coffee and whiffs of cigar smoke floated in the air. It was an atmosphere she could hide in, while she struggled to sort out her emotions. Sharon was sharp enough to have unmasked her at once. Be careful, she warned herself again, be careful.
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