‘All the doctor will give me is a load of pills that’ll space me out.’


Sandy dipped her teaspoon into her mug of tea and tipped the liquid back, dipped and tipped again.


‘OK. Well, maybe there’s someone else you could see.’


‘Like who?’


‘Those sort of people who advertise in the health shop.’


‘What? Like that creepy acupuncturist? Healers and herbal people? Bit cranky.’


‘Well, a lot of people swear by all that. Just take down some names.’


*


Doing something made her feel better. There was a flicker of cheerfulness as she went into the newsagent and bought a notebook and biro, walked down the Perrott to the health shop, looked up at the Hill beyond the rooftops, its crown touched by lemon-coloured sunlight.


The health shop was in Alms Street, near to the cathedral. I might be OK, Debbie thought. I could get fit, lose two stone, find something to clear my skin. A new life.


The cards were pinned on top of one another, crammed together anyhow on the cork board; she had to lift and unpin several to start getting at the names and numbers. Alexander technique, reflexology, Brandon healing, acupuncture, chiropractic. It took ages to work her way through. In the end she took down the details of four – aromatherapist, reflexologist, acupuncturist and herbalist – and, after dithering a moment, one other … the address and phone number of someone called Dava. She felt drawn to the card, a deep, intense blue dusted with a swirl of tiny stars. DAVA. SPIRITUAL HEALING. CRYSTALS. INNER HARMONY. LIGHT. WHOLE-PERSON THERAPY.


She stared at it, felt herself being pulled into the depths of the blue card. It did something to her, there was no doubt. When she came out of the health shop, she felt – different. Better. The blue card stayed in her mind and now and then, when she thought of it during the day, she seemed to be able to draw something from it. At any rate, the blackness shrank back like a cowering creature right to the far edges of her mind, and stayed there.


Five


‘I would like to see someone in higher authority, please. A CID officer.’


Running a care home for fifteen elderly people in all stages of dementia had trained Carol Ashton to be patient and firm, in the way of a teacher of small children – the two jobs, she often thought, had much in common. She was also skilled in getting even the most recalcitrant to do as she asked eventually. All of which the desk sergeant recognised.


‘You mustn’t think we take reports of missing persons lightly.’


‘I’m sure. But I also know that a name goes down, together with a very brief description, on a list which is circulated to various agencies after which – unless the missing person is a child or in some other way especially vulnerable – that is that.’


She was not wrong.


‘The real problem is, Mrs Ashton, that a surprisingly large number of people go missing.’


‘I know. I also know that a good many of them turn up safe and well. I am also more than familiar with the word “resources”. All the same, I would still like to see someone who will take the matter further. And as I said, I am not trying to belittle the uniformed police when I say that I would like to talk to a detective.’


She turned away from the desk and went to sit down on the bench seat against the wall. There were small tears and splits in the upholstery here and there, through which grey stuffing was escaping.


Knowing that she might have to wait for some time, Carol Ashton had brought a book, but in fact she had barely time to read one paragraph. The desk sergeant had recognised a woman who would get out of his hair when and only when she had what she came for.


‘Mrs Ashton? I’m DS Graffham. Will you come through?’


Daft, Carol thought, to be surprised that it was a woman, but somehow in her mind, though there were plenty of WPCs, detectives were always men. Just as nurses were women.


The room she was ushered into was no surprise of course – a dingy little featureless box with a metal table and two chairs, beige paint. You’d confess to anything just to be let out of it.


‘I understand you are very concerned about an employee who has not been into work for a few days?’


She was pretty – elfin haircut, sharp features, big eyes.


‘Angela – Angela Randall. Only that sounds wrong – employee.’


DS Graffham glanced down at the sheet of paper in front of her. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve only just seen the information …’


‘Oh yes, she is an employee. She works for me, it just sounded a bit bleak. I have a good relationship with all my staff.’


‘I understand – official forms. OK, let’s start again. Tell me everything about Angela Randall … but before you do, can I get you a hot drink? I’m afraid it will have to come out of the dreaded machine.’


She will go far, Carol Ashton thought, stirring the tea round with the plastic stick that bore no resemblance to a spoon. At least I hope she will. I hope someone doesn’t see her as too concerned and too relaxed … too – yes, too interested. DS Graffham leaned back in her chair, arms folded, looking straight at her, waiting. She did indeed seem genuinely interested.


‘I run a care home for the elderly demented.’


‘Alzheimer’s disease?’


‘That pretty much covers it.’


‘I hope you know how needed you are. My grandmother died with it last year. The care she received was disgraceful. Where is the home?’


‘Fountain Avenue. The Four Ways.’


‘And Mrs Randall works there with you?’


‘Miss Randall. Angela. Yes. She’s been with us for nearly six years and on permanent night duty for the last four. She’s the sort of person you only dream of, frankly – hard-working, caring, reliable, almost never been off sick or for any other reason, and being single without any dependants she’s been quite happy to do nights all the time. That’s rare.’


‘When did you last see her?’


‘Well, I don’t always of course … different shifts and days off for everyone, we could easily go a week without seeing each other. But of course I’d always know she’d been on duty. There’s the report book and another member of staff on with her. But actually, I did see her the last time she was at work. She’d rung me in the middle of the night and I came in. I only live four doors down. Some of the patients got a nasty sickness bug and I was needed. Angela was there then.’


‘How did she seem?’


‘Rushed off her feet of course, we all were that night … we didn’t have much time to chat. But she was much the same as ever … very calm and dependable.’


‘So you noticed nothing unusual about her?’


‘Oh no. And I would have noticed.’


‘And she didn’t come in the next night?’


‘No, she wasn’t due. She had a weekend and then four days off. It goes like that, so every member of staff gets a good long break occasionally. They need it. So Angela wasn’t due in for a week and then I was off for a couple of days. When I got back there was a report that she hadn’t been into work for four nights and hadn’t rung in sick either. That was just completely out of character. I’ve had staff who would just not turn up and not let me know and I’ve got rid of them. We simply can’t function like that. Our residents don’t deserve it. But Angela Randall would never behave like that.’


‘So what did you do?’


‘Rang her – several times. I kept on ringing. There was never a reply and she hasn’t an answering machine.’


‘Did you go round to her house?’


‘No. No, I didn’t.’


‘Why ever not?’ DS Graffham looked at her sharply.


Carol Ashton felt uneasy – guilty in fact, though she was sure she was not. But the young woman had such a clear, steady look, searching her out, getting to her. She wondered how long a criminal would hold out against it.


‘Mrs Ashton – I can’t help you – and I want to – if you don’t help me.’


Carol stirred and stirred the tea dregs. ‘I don’t want to … to make it sound wrong.’


The detective waited.


‘Angela is very private … a self-contained sort of person. She is unmarried but I have no idea if she is widowed or divorced – or just single. It may sound strange that I’ve never discovered that in six years but she simply isn’t the sort of person you could ask and she never talks about herself. She’s perfectly friendly but she doesn’t give anything away and you can easily overstep the mark with her. You might ask a question or make a remark anyone else would respond to without a thought, but she can just – close up, you know? You can see it in her eyes … a warning. Don’t go there. A sort of portcullis seems to come down. So I’ve never been to her house and as far as I know nor have any of the other staff. And – well, I just wouldn’t call on her. Telephoning was as far as I liked to go really. That sounds ridiculous.’


‘It doesn’t actually. There are people like that. In my experience they make life very lonely for themselves. They also give the impression that they’re hiding something – maybe some dark secret, but they very rarely are, it’s all a smokescreen. Do you know of any family she may have?’


‘No. She’s never mentioned any at all.’


‘Had she a history of illness … of depression?’


‘No. She’d certainly never been ill – maybe a bad cold a couple of times. I encourage staff to stay at home then. Our residents are very vulnerable.’


‘Nothing that would cause her to be taken ill suddenly – diabetes or a heart condition?’


‘No. I’d know that because of her work. There’s nothing.’


‘How old is she?’


‘Fifty-three.’


‘You’ll already have gone over this in your mind, but is there anything you can think of that was different or strange about Miss Randall in the last few weeks … couple of months, say?’


Carol hesitated. There was something. Or was there? Something and nothing. The room was very quiet. DS Graffham did not fidget or write anything, she simply sat, looking steadily, unnervingly at Carol.


‘It’s really hard to explain …’


‘Go on.’


‘Nothing was ever said … you have to know that … This is just … just a hunch. An impression I got.’


‘Those are often very important.’


‘I don’t want to make too much of it … it’s so vague. But once or twice I’ve thought she just seemed a little bit … distant? Distracted? I don’t know … as if she was miles away. I’d never noticed it about her in the past. She’s always very on the ball. Look, please don’t make too much of this … it was just once or twice, I’m not implying she was behaving strangely, of course not.’


‘You think something was worrying her?’


‘No. It wasn’t that, or I don’t think it was … Oh, I don’t know. Forget I said it. It doesn’t make sense.’


‘I think it does.’


‘I should have gone to her house, shouldn’t I? What if she’s been taken ill?’


‘Well, presumably she has neighbours. You’re not to blame.’


‘What will happen now?’


‘We’ll get someone round there to check.’ She stood up. ‘But don’t worry … missing people have usually gone somewhere of their own free will for all sorts of personal reasons. They either turn up again as if nothing had happened, or they get in touch. There are very, very few who have come to any sort of harm. Especially not sensible middle-aged ladies.’


‘Thank you for that.’


‘It’s the truth.’ The young woman touched her arm. ‘And …’ she smiled suddenly, so that Carol Ashton saw that she was not merely pretty, she was striking – and beautiful. ‘You came here. You did exactly the right thing.’


‘You have sixty seconds to explain why we should take this one beyond the routine, Freya.’


DI Billy Cameron splayed himself back in his chair, hands held behind his head, and swivelled round and round, a hairy, overweight, sweating bear of a man. Impress me, his stance said, convince me.


Freya Graffham was not intimidated. She had been at Lafferton CID for only a few weeks, but recognised the DI for the sort of policeman the Met had had an abundance of when she had first joined – large and tough-talking with soft centres. By the time she left, most of them had retired and had not been replaced by their like. The new ones were a very different breed. She knew she would not find it easy to twist DI Cameron round her little finger but there would be ways of getting round him.


For his part Cameron saw a young woman who was tougher than she looked. But Freya Graffham had left the Met voluntarily after twelve years, for a cathedral town, and he wondered why she had lost her nerve.


For now, though, she was setting out to prove herself.


‘Angela Randall, aged fifty-three, a woman who lives as predictable, orderly and methodical a life as you could imagine, no family, no close friends … has never let her employer down once. She’s not ill and as far as we know has never been depressed. Uniform found the house neat as a pin, car in the garage, table laid for breakfast, eggs in the saucepan, bread in the toaster. She had made a pot of tea and drunk a cup and there was a banana skin in the otherwise empty pedal bin. The laundry basket had her uniform in it.’


‘But no Miss Randall, ill, well or otherwise.’


‘No.’


‘Neighbours?’


‘Don’t know much. Hardly saw her. Always passed the time of day but kept herself to herself. No visitors. There’s something odd though, guv. Uniform said the house felt … peculiar.’


Cameron raised an eyebrow. ‘Not like them to go spooky on us.’


‘I’d like to go round there.’


Cameron looked at her. She had it – the extra instinct, flair, the nose for something … whatever you called it, Freya Graffham had it and it set her apart, as it always did. She would go to the top if she managed to retain that, along with the attention to detail and a capacity for hard work which would keep her pinned to the ground. The combination was rare enough for him to know he had to hang on to it when it came his way.


‘You know as well as I do that if you don’t come up with anything straight away and there are no further developments, we have to drop it into the missing persons file.’

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***