‘I wanted to ask you more about the psychic surgeon,’ Freya said. ‘Partly out of curiosity after reading tonight’s article, though there is a police angle as well, I’d better say.’
‘The person you should talk to is Karin,’ Cat said, nodding to the beautiful woman sitting next to Meriel Serrailler on the window seat. ‘She’s actually been to him.’
‘What?’ Aidan looked horrified.
‘Ask her. But it sounds very much like an extremely clever magic trick … the sort that makes you blink, it’s so effective. I don’t think this man is actually doing anything other than conning people.’
‘That’s more than enough, isn’t it? Gullible people, vulnerable people … it’s snake oil again.’
‘I couldn’t agree more.’
Cat looked at Freya. ‘Has it anything to do with my missing patient?’
‘Which one?’ Freya asked levelly.
It was ten minutes to one before the party broke up.
‘Freya, here’s my home number,’ Cat had come out to her car, ‘do let’s meet up. I don’t have a lot of time, what with job and family but I get half a half day and there’s always Sunday … maybe you could come to lunch then?’
Freya took the card with delight. It was something else, someone else, that drew her closer to Simon, a part of his family, inviting her in.
She turned out of the drive into the dark lane. Meriel had kissed her on both cheeks and given her a warm hug. Richard Serrailler had shaken hands and said nothing, nothing at all.
There was a message on her machine from Nathan.
‘Evening, Sarge … message from the DCI. Case conference about the missing women. High priority. Nine sharp. Cheers.’
‘Good morning, everyone. I’ll get straight into it. As you know, we now have three women reported as missing in Lafferton.
‘May I draw your attention to the fact that until the disappearance of Angela Randall, precisely four women have gone missing from Lafferton in the last six years, and of those, one was subsequently found to have committed suicide, one was found dead of natural causes, one eventually contacted her relatives, after having gone away of her own volition, and the fourth, an elderly lady with dementia, was found wandering and admitted to hospital. So when three women disappear without trace in a few weeks, we must regard it as highly suspicious.
‘Right. I want to know what we’ve got so far in the way of any links. Are there any links? Did these women have anything in common?’
‘Well … the fact that they are women obviously,’ Freya said. ‘But they differ in age – one twenty, one fifty-three, one seventy-one.’
‘The Hill links two of them.’
‘Two of them live alone.’
Serrailler nodded. ‘Angela Randall is single and it appears has no close relatives. Mrs Iris Chater is widowed and lives alone. She has no children.’
‘Yeah, but Debbie Parker has a dad and stepmum. I know they don’t live here but it breaks the pattern,’ Nathan Coates said.
‘The longer I look at it, the more it seems to me that they have nothing in common beyond their sex,’ Freya said.
‘What about that dog?’
The DCI looked blank for a second.
‘Jim Williams, sir,’ Freya said.
‘Oh, right, the man who last saw Angela Randall. His dog ran off. I can’t see how that’s relevant. Dogs do run off.’
‘It disappeared without trace, on the Hill. So did Angela Randall, so, probably, did Debbie Parker.’
‘Possibly. OK, any other contributions? Anything at all.’
‘Angela Randall,’ Freya said thoughtfully. ‘I found an expensive pair of cufflinks, gift-wrapped and with a cryptic message on the card, in her wardrobe. When I checked with the jeweller in Bevham – Duckham’s – I found out that she had bought a number of expensive gifts – a watch, a tiepin, a silver letter opener, things for men – from the same jeweller in the course of eight months or so. Now we know from her employer at the nursing home that she apparently had no close relationships, and from her neighbours that she never had visitors. So who were the expensive presents for? The gift card said, “To You, with all possible love from your devoted, Me.”’
‘If there was a man in Angela Randall’s life he’s the only one in the case. Debbie Parker didn’t have a boyfriend, Mrs Chater lost her husband just before Christmas.
‘Let’s get another radio appeal out, another press conference. I’m going to get uniform to do a house-to-house for the whole of central Lafferton … We’ve done the streets in which all three women live and the area around the Hill but I want this extended. We’ll get the divers into the river, and we’ll get every area of waste ground, every playing field, the lot. Saturation. I don’t want anyone in Lafferton to be left in ignorance of the fact that these three women are missing.’
‘National press, sir?’
‘Yes. I’m going to talk to the Super. But national press, television and radio as of this evening. Unfortunately, all this coincides with the fact that the drugs op is moving up a gear as well. We’ve had some excellent information, as some of you will know, and we’re going to be acting on it during the next few days. We’re stretched. I’m heading up the drugs op, but I want to be kept informed about everything, absolutely everything, to do with these women. Freya, I want you in charge for the moment. Everyone else reports to you. We’ve got to find these women and so far we have barely a clue – no sightings, no traces, no bodies, alive or dead. That in itself has to be extremely unusual.’
‘Off the record, sir, where are you putting your money?’ Nathan asked.
Simon Serrailler frowned and thought for a moment. Then he said quietly, ‘I’m afraid – and this is off the record, Nathan, this is a private opinion, right? We have no evidence and I don’t want this getting out.’
‘Then I think we are looking at three women who have been abducted, very cleverly abducted, by someone or some people, who know how to cover their movements and leave no trace.’
The room went dreadfully still.
‘I’m ruling nothing out,’ Serrailler said quietly.
It was over six months before I could bring myself to tell you that I was no longer a medical student. I kept up the pretence very well. But then naturally came the question of money, as you were paying towards my fees. I wrote to you and I lied. I did not want to see you – I never wanted to see you by then – but I knew there had to be some explanation and so you remember that I said I had been advised not to continue with my studies on medical grounds. I had always had mild asthma but it had become so much worse that it could strike at any time and a serious attack might weaken my heart.
After that you had no idea where I was for almost two years. I simply slipped out of your life, like someone diving into the sea and resurfacing thousands of miles away. I did not know what you thought, whether you made attempts to find me, if you ever contacted the medical school. It was not you I worried about.
I spent some years trying to work out a future for myself and during that time, I simply took odd jobs so that I could live, clerical jobs, mainly, and always on a temporary basis. I registered with an agency and there was always plenty of work. I was meticulous, reliable, hard-working, methodical, neat, all qualities that recommended themselves to employers. I did not make trouble, I did not waste time, I did not gossip, I hardly socialised. But throughout that time, like an underground force, my mind was working on my future, trying out ideas, planning, scheming. I could not be a doctor but I had never given up the desire to work in some area of medical treatment, and because I so loved bodies, I often toyed with the idea of simply becoming a mortuary attendant, or an assistant in some hospital path lab, probably abroad.
But I could never have played second fiddle, never have stood unable to take part, never have bowed and scraped to some ‘qualified’ pathologist, never have done the drudgery like a servant week after week, unnoticed, unregarded, because I knew as much as they knew, I could do their job. I would have exploded with frustration.
I went through some months planning to take up my medical training again, forging references perhaps, lying about my age, going abroad, but deception was not something that came easily to me then. The only person I had ever deceived and lied to was you. I did not want to behave like some petty criminal and if I had been discovered the humiliation would have been traumatic, more than I could have borne. I had had enough of humiliation. My hatred of those who had condemned me, poured scorn on me and made me feel small was and has remained absolute, a pure, bitter hatred, not like a poison but like an acid.
Every other medical career I considered, even to the point of reading about it in detail in some reference library, I rejected because it was inferior, second best and with a low status. I would not become a nurse, or work in the ambulance service. Perhaps I might have taken up dentistry but I rejected it because it was too like medicine, I might have been victimised again.
I want you to know everything. There is no harm in it because you cannot react in a hurtful way, you cannot sneer, as you so often did, you are unable to humiliate me. You wanted to be proud of me and you would be, now. Now, you are no threat to me and would not wish to be. I had to work everything out for myself, be responsible for myself and answerable to myself. I had waited all my childhood and youth for that.
I missed the hospital and the pathology lab desperately. I dreamed about it. I dreamed of carrying out one post-mortem after another and making astonishing discoveries, solving problems, finding out bodily secrets. When I was working at one or other temporary desk, in my mind I was walking the corridors of the hospital, putting on my green gown and cap, picking up the instruments. I lived in two worlds and yet I never neglected the work I had to do, I was able to satisfy my employers quite easily while I conducted my other life.
But after a time, I became frustrated. I had to do something, make some decision, find out the course of my life.
In the end, it happened by chance. I was asked to take on a temporary job in the head office of a company hiring out vending machines. It was some distance away from the room I had rented, in an area I did not know. I took a train and then walked for ten minutes, a dull walk but one which I could vary each day by taking a short cut, or a side route down one of several different residential avenues. They were much alike, but the houses were large and of varying styles and periods and I liked to speculate about their owners, wondering what occupations brought in a salary high enough to afford Aldine Lodge and Manor House and West End and The Poplars. One house had a brass dentist’s plate. Sometimes, people were driving out as I passed, in large, comfortable, expensive cars to match the status of their houses.
I was not envious, though I would have enjoyed living somewhere less cramped and run-down than the bed-sitting room to which I was confined.
But I always knew that this was only a temporary home, like the temporary jobs, and that my real life and destiny were waiting for me to discover them. I never despaired, and I was never depressed because of this. You would have been proud of me at this time, proud of the fact that I dressed smartly and looked after my clothes and my body and that I never lost confidence in myself.
I remember the morning very clearly. One does remember the days when destiny strikes. I have never forgotten the decoration around one of the photograph frames in the room in which the head of the medical school dismissed me. If I close my eyes, I can still see the thin twisted rope of mock gilt.
So it is not surprising that I remember everything about the day I walked down Spencer Avenue, one of the two long, treelined roads which took me by a slightly circuitous route to my office. The houses were mainly gabled and mock Tudor or real Edwardian, the hedges mainly forsythia which was in full, vivid yellow bloom on this rather damp, mild spring morning. You would have liked Spencer Avenue. It was the sort of road you aspired to though you had no hope at all of achieving life in such a place. But when I was a boy and still loved you, still talked to you and told you things, we used to go for walks rather like this one and I would point out to you the houses I might buy for us when I was a famous doctor, and you would choose the colour of the curtains and the shrubs you would grow in the front garden.
I was early. I always was. I have never been able to bear unpunctuality, in myself or in others. I did not have to hurry.
It was two-thirds of the way down, on the right-hand side, the side down which I was walking. The house was an imposing one, though not especially attractive. It had black-and-white half-timbering and leaded light windows, which made it gloomy. It was large, the drive was immaculately gravelled, and there was a lilac tree in full bloom to the right of the house. But it was the plate attached to the gatepost which drew my attention. Another dentist? Or a medical consultant, a gynaecologist with an extensive private practice? A psychiatrist? An ophthalmic surgeon?
I was startled when I read what was actually there, under the name, John F. L. Shinner.
I had never considered it, did not even know a great deal of what exactly it involved – there were few of us about in those days. But I stared at the plate with a sense of revelation. I did not need to make a note of the name and address, they were already engraved in my memory.
I began to walk quickly, not because I was late but because I was excited. I saw my life opening up in front of me. I would train, and I would practise. I would have my name on a house like this, in a treelined road. It would be very like practising medicine and I would be answerable to myself only. For the first time, I found it hard to concentrate on the work in hand, and the moment one o’clock struck I went out to the public telephone box in front of the General Post Office, obtained the number and phoned to make an appointment. I explained that I did not need treatment but that I wanted to discuss the possibility of training to join the profession. After a moment, the receptionist put me straight through.
‘I’d be happy to see you. I hope I might be of help. When exactly did you become interested?’
‘I did three and a half years of medical training but I failed one set of exams and almost immediately afterwards I became quite seriously ill. I’m well now, it was some time ago, but by then I was unhappy with the way I was being trained. I became very interested in some of the alternative ways of treating the sick.’ I found that I believed passionately in what I was saying, even as I heard the words that came out of my mouth.