‘As ever. But I had a cancellation, and there is something I really do want to mention to you. I’ve been worrying about it but this morning, I don’t know if you were aware, but the police were doing a reconstruction of the last known movements of that young girl who is missing.’
‘Debbie Parker, yes. I drove by. I didn’t see you.’
‘Oh, I was like you, passing. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what was going on at first. I thought someone must be making a film until I saw the police vans. But, you see, it is precisely this that I’ve been worrying about and I really feel terrible. I should have thought earlier, I should have done something but I simply didn’t.’
‘Cat, the young woman came to see me. I treated her.’
‘Good Lord. She didn’t tell me.’
‘Dear me, was she your patient?’
‘Oh yes. I’ve seen her several times recently as a matter of fact.’
There was a silence, and then a small sound, which might have been a sigh, or an intake of breath.
‘Aidan, what exactly is the matter? You say you treated her?’
‘I did, just once. I asked her to make more appointments but she never did. I’m not sure she liked needles, to be frank. But her acne was really quite serious and we do sometimes succeed with it, though I rather suspected she needed a course of oxytetracycline as well.’
‘I gave her one. She came to see me about it eventually … she ought to have come earlier, but Debbie was rather into – alternative therapies. She’d started going up to Starly to see a New Age healer.’
Aidan groaned. ‘Which one? Dear me, it is the poor little girls like Debbie one so worries about.’
‘A rather wafty character in a blue robe called Dava. He gave her some potentially dangerous skin cream and some herbal stuff to which she had a serious allergic reaction. I had to go out to her as an emergency.’
‘This is precisely the sort of thing you’ve been talking about, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. But Aidan, I don’t quite see why you’re worried just now about Debbie. What has it to do with you?’
‘Well, surely I ought to have reported it to the police? It is information.’
‘I shouldn’t think it is the least relevant to her disappearance. Would you?’
‘Well, no, but they wanted to hear about anything at all … I had simply forgotten and I’m appalled. I seem to be losing my grip.’
Cat laughed. ‘You’d better not. I’ve got a couple of intractable arthritic pains for you to see and you always manage to help.’
‘My dear, you are very kind. I can’t tell you what it means to have your confidence in this way.’
‘You do. And meanwhile, don’t worry about Debbie Parker.’
‘I’m afraid I do. I just do. I have a very uneasy feeling.’
‘So do I, between ourselves.’
‘I really think I might go to the police.’
‘If it will ease your mind, then yes, I think maybe you should, Aidan.’
Cat put the phone down. Aidan Sharpe was an old woman, but she liked him and respected him. It was typical of him to fret because he had temporarily forgotten that he had treated Debbie Parker. She wondered, as she pressed the buzzer for her next patient, what had led him to acupuncture. He was an unlikely practitioner. One day, she would ask him to tell her his story.
The door opened on a heavily pregnant young woman, clutching a toddler by the hand and carrying a one-year-old baby. So much for the hours I spent at the family planning clinic, Cat thought wearily.
‘Hello, Tracey. Come and sit down.’ She smiled at the tired-looking girl. ‘Not long to go now. How are you?’
Tracey sat down, perched the baby on her lap somehow, yanked the toddler towards her with her foot, and burst into tears. Morning surgery flowed on.
The desk officer was about to ring up, when Freya Graffham came through the door into the lobby and stopped.
‘Mr Sharpe? Hello. Is there anything I can help with?’
‘I wasn’t sure if this was official.’
‘My dear, nice as it is to see you, I’m afraid this is official. It’s about the missing girl, Debbie Parker.’
‘Right, we’ll go in here.’
He followed her into a small interview room.
‘Do sit down. Sorry about the furnishings. Can I get you a coffee?’
‘Cup of poison, you mean.’
‘In the case of station coffee I have to agree with you.’
‘Well, remind me to tell you one day just what frightful things coffee does to your entire system, mental and physical.’
He sat down. She was prettier than he remembered, sharp-looking, with such a shining cap of hair. He had been right, of course, to come down and not to telephone, and the timing had been right too, to arrive as she was leaving the building. He sat down, looking across at her with pleasure. She would listen too, what he had to say would not be dismissed, if only because they had met socially, and she had good manners. Adrian Sharpe smiled.
‘Now, Debbie Parker. We did a reconstruction of her last known movements early this morning.’
‘Really? Her last known movements? So it is known where she was last seen?’
Freya made a small face. ‘Not exactly. We are pretty sure she went for a walk, and we are also fairly sure it was in the area of the Hill. That’s where she had taken to walking quite a lot in recent weeks, and from what we can piece together, it was likely to have been very early in the morning. We hoped someone might just have seen her … memories can be jogged surprisingly long after the event if we get it right.’
‘Have you had a lot of response?’
Freya shrugged. ‘This and that. There are always a fair few cranks, of course … people who would have seen the moon turn pink if we put it about that we wanted them to contact us about it.’
She seemed so charming, so relaxed, so friendly, but she was clever, she was giving nothing away, she was throwing up the usual smokescreen. He was not deceived for a moment. The reconstruction had brought in no response from the general public that was of any use to them. But then, that was always going to be the case.
‘I’m DS in charge at the moment, so if you do think you have anything that might help us, I’m the person to tell.’
He leaned back in the uncomfortable chair and sighed. ‘I don’t know, I simply don’t know. All I know is that I’ve been worrying about it. It is going to sound very feeble and pathetic if I tell you that I haven’t been here before simply because I forgot. No excuse. I forgot.’
‘What did you forget?’
‘That Debbie Parker had been to see me.’
‘You mean as a patient?’
‘Yes. She came just once. She had rather bad acne, poor thing … frightful skin, and she was depressed, partly as a result of her appearance. She was rather overweight too. I don’t know if you know that?’
Freya merely nodded.
‘Acupuncture does have a proven effect on skin conditions. It’s one of the areas we really can see benefits from the treatment over time.’
‘What, you mean not everything responds?’
‘By no means. We have our strengths … just as Nick Haydn – you remember you met him at Meriel’s dinner as well?’
‘The osteopath, yes. I didn’t get much chance to talk to him.’
‘His discipline has enormous success in some areas and is quite unsuited to the treatment of others. You wouldn’t send anyone with acne to him.’
‘When did Debbie Parker come to see you?’
‘I looked it up in the database. It was October. She had an initial consultation, which is quite long, and one treatment. I suggested she come back for three more but she never did.’
‘Did she contact you to explain why?’
‘No. I wasn’t surprised, in fact.’
‘She seemed uneasy. Nervous.’ He thought about the expression on Debbie’s fat, unattractive face. ‘Some people simply cannot take the needles. They don’t hurt, but people are afraid of them. They can’t relax. Debbie was an unhappy girl.’
‘Unhappy enough, in your opinion, to take her own life?’
He paused. ‘That is always very difficult to answer.’
‘Just an opinion. But it could be important.’
‘Then – in my professional opinion, yes. I think she was just the sort of young woman to do so.’
He looked into Freya Graffham’s face, but it gave nothing back. Did she believe him? He could not have said, and the fact annoyed him.
‘Did she mention having suicidal feelings?’
‘Oh no. Nothing like that. So far as I remember, she said she sometimes felt “a bit down” – but then, so do many patients.’
‘You didn’t think there was immediate risk of her committing suicide?’
He sighed again and shook his head. ‘But you can see why I now blame myself, can’t you?’
‘We have no reason at all to suppose Debbie has taken her own life – that she is dead at all.’
‘Off the record, don’t you think it the most likely explanation?’ Tell me, he thought, urging her, tell me what you think, tell me what the official police verdict is going to be, tell me.
But Freya Graffham merely shook her head slightly. ‘I’m grateful to you for coming in. It’s never too late. It just slots another piece into the puzzle. So thank you. And don’t worry about not remembering earlier.’
Efficient. Cool. Professional. But not tough, he thought, certainly not tough.
She walked out of the station and down the steps with him.
‘I don’t suppose you would remember if either of the other two missing women had consulted you?’
It was a typical ploy, to leave one last question and then spring it, as an afterthought, unimportant, scarcely worth mentioning, but … He was not remotely taken by surprise, did not stumble, did not hesitate.
‘I read about one other woman. I’m afraid I can’t remember the name though.’
He stood, thinking for a moment, then shook his head. ‘I’ll check of course, but I don’t think so. But you mentioned that there were two others besides Debbie? Isn’t this becoming rather worrying to you? How many women normally go missing in a small place like Lafferton in the course of a year, let alone a few weeks?’
‘Not too many. There was an appeal about the three of them on local radio and television.’
‘Then I’m afraid I missed it.’
‘The third hasn’t been seen for a couple of days.’
‘Oh, in that case …’
She is watching me. She is looking at me and trying to discover something. ‘How long is it before you panic?’ he asked, smiling.
But she did not smile back. ‘We don’t. We take everything more or less seriously according to individual circumstances.’
‘And what were these?’
‘Different from the other two.’
Yes. Different. Unplanned. A mistake.
‘I doubt if I’ll uncover any more patients among your missing persons but give me a name.’
‘Chater. Mrs Iris Chater.’
‘I’ll go over my records carefully … for how far back, do you suggest?’
‘That’s up to you … try a couple of years initially. Do you keep full records for longer?’
He pressed the remote control and his car headlights flashed in response. He walked over to the driver’s door, opened it, and only then turned back to her with a smile.
‘I never destroy any records at all. I’ll check and telephone you. May I have a number?’
‘If I’m not here at the station, a message will always reach me.’
She stood on the bottom step and watched his car move off. As it turned out into the main road, Aidan Sharpe waved.
‘Can you look up a man called Aidan Sharpe?’
‘Hang on, Sarge … Let me grab a pen.’
‘S-h-a-r-p-e … he’s an acupuncturist. Been in Lafferton a few years and I don’t know where before that. Look up the national register, double-check his qualifications … it’s unlikely there’s anything else, I’m sure he won’t have form, but run it through.’
‘What am I looking for?’
‘I don’t know. Anything. Nothing probably.’
‘Thanks a bunch. How hot is this, Sarge? – only the DCI’s gone mad, twenty-four hours to find every dealer and user in a fifty-mile radius, search every garage and lock-up, pull in everyone with ten minutes over on their parking time, I don’t know who’s on his back.’
‘Bevham. It’s out of control, they know it and they’re trying to shift the focus. Spare me five minutes.’
‘What is it about this guy Sharpe?’
‘He wears a bow tie.’
‘Girl’s blouse then.’
Freya’s phone rang.
‘Sarge? Your bow tie.’
‘Nope. Fully qualified, got all his letters and that.’
‘Where did he train?’
‘London and China. He got a pigtail and all?’
I am frightened. You always knew what to do when I was frightened. You left the lamp on low, you talked to me in a quiet voice, you stayed close to me. But now I need you far more than I did then and you don’t hear, you don’t reply, you have withdrawn yourself and that is cruel of you.
The phone drilled into Cat Deerbon’s strange dream about a white pony. It was half past three. She answered automatically, before remembering that she was not on call.
‘Cat? It’s Karin … listen, I’m so sorry to wake you …’
Cat sat up. Chris stirred, mumbled, and slept on.
‘It’s OK, don’t worry, but just hold on a few seconds. I’ll put this phone down and pick up the other.’
She slipped out of bed and went quietly down to the kitchen. The cat was on the old sofa at the Aga end, and Cat settled next to it.
‘OK, I’m here. What’s wrong?’
There was a silence. Cat waited. Instinctively, she knew that Karin would respond better than if she were pumped with questions.
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