He memorised the number plate of the van, which was filthy with grime and mud, and after waiting for some while in the shadows, slipped back towards his own car. He started up the engine and drove slowly past the van. He parked a block away, and then went back on foot. Nothing. No one. He had not been heard, no one had been disturbed.
He sped away from the business park, not switching on his headlights until he reached the main road. He scarcely saw another vehicle. Back at his house, he mixed himself a whisky and water, and switched on the lamp beside his chair. He would write up his notes tomorrow. Now, he wanted to think about Detective Sergeant Freya Graffham.
The weather had jerked forwards into warm spring. In CID, the sun coming through the large windows made the room hot and stuffy. DC Coates sat at his desk, computer screen in front of him, his eyes glazed over. Freya watched him for a moment, then got up and went to stand in front of him. There was no response.
‘Earth to Nathan … are you receiving?’
His eyes refocused but he still did not respond to her.
‘What? Gawd, Sarge, you might have give me ’eart attack.’
‘Anything to have you with us. Where were you, by the way?’
Nathan swivelled his chair round to face the window, screwing his eyes up against the sun. ‘Wouldn’t you like to be sitting by one of them swimming pools they have at the posh houses in the Flixton Road? Nice book, long cool drink.’
‘It’s not that warm.’ She looked out at the roofs of the cars below glittering angrily in the sun. The magnolia tree in one of the opposite gardens had come into full, waxy bloom.
‘I was thinking just now, Sarge – what you said the other day.’
‘Me and Em.’
‘She’s away … went to Carlisle yesterday for a week to see her gran. I ’ate it, by myself in the flat. I don’t know how you stand living on your tod.’
‘I like it. For now.’
‘I was missing her half-hour after she’d gone. I don’t begrudge her, like, she loves her gran and the old lady ain’t been too well.’
‘But you miss her all the same.’
‘Yeah. So I been thinking. Maybe you had a good idea there.’
‘About getting married?’
‘Yeah. I quite fancy it now, you know.’
‘Then do it. Don’t mess about.’
‘I might an’ all. What sort of a ring do you think I ought to get her?’
‘No sort. I think you ask her, and if she says yes, you take her to choose it for herself.’
‘Yeah, right, whatever I get won’t be what she wants. Do you think she’d know?’
‘She could probably take you to it blindfold. Meanwhile, there’s work.’
Nathan groaned. ‘I ’ate it at the moment. Everything’s stuck. Drugs op is bedded in sand, no news on the missing women. Any minute now they’ll second me on to shoplifting.’
‘Yes, I heard uniform want some surveillance in the arcade.’
‘Hanging about waiting for teenagers to nick top-shelf mags. Rather get back to my database.’
Freya sat down at her own desk. Nathan was right. She knew nothing about the drugs op beyond the fact that they were waiting for the off on a raid once they had enough information, but the place was full of pent-up officers hanging round the canteen drinking too much tea. Meanwhile, her own sense of frustration had reached boiling point. The investigation into the missing women had not moved an inch further forward since the reconstruction of Debbie Parker’s early-morning walk, which had elicited virtually no public response. Nathan had drawn a blank on the jeweller’s list, on Starly and on the medium visited by Iris Chater. All Mrs Innes had told him was that Mrs Chater had left a seance at her house at around nine o’clock in the evening. The rest of them had remained inside. Mrs Chater had not returned home, nor apparently been seen by anyone since. Like Angela Randall and Debbie Parker, she had vanished into thin air. And any day now, Freya knew, the inquiry would be downgraded and she would be working on something else.
As if reading her thoughts, Nathan looked up from his computer screen. ‘White goods for us, Sarge, just you wait.’
Freya groaned. There had been a spate of thefts of new freezers, dishwashers and washing machines a day after they had been delivered and all to empty houses waiting for new occupiers to move in. It seemed likely that there was a ring operating, with tip-offs going from delivery men to a separate set of thieves, who split the proceeds once the goods had been sold on, but so far, the police were always one step behind them. There might be less interesting jobs, but Freya was hard put to think of one.
A fly was buzzing up the side of the window and down again, up, bzzzzz, and down again, bzzzzz. She thought she might join the frustrated drugs-op team down in the tea room.
The ringing of the phone at her elbow made her jump.
‘Freya? Good afternoon, how nice to have got straight through to you.’ The rather prissy and cultivated voice identified itself.
‘Aidan … how are you?’
‘Isn’t this the most miraculous weather? Doesn’t it make your heart lift?’
‘It does. The whole of CID is plotting a daring breakout.’
‘I can’t offer an escape to the sun, I’m afraid, but I did wonder if you would have a drink with me this evening? I don’t know what time you finish but I have to see a late patient. I’ll be free by six thirty.’
She hesitated. This was a social invitation, and any reason she had to meet Aidan Sharpe was professional. She had no interest in forming a closer relationship. On the other hand, what else did she have on this evening? Besides, there was no reason why she shouldn’t combine work and relaxation in some small measure.
‘That would be very nice. Thank you. Where would you like to meet?’
‘There is a very pleasant new bar in the Ross Hotel.’
‘The Embassy Room? I’ve heard about it … not been though.’
‘Good. Shall we meet there at six forty-five?’
Nathan was looking at her with interest as she put down the phone. Freya shook her head.
‘Uh-huh. It’s sort of work.’
‘Right – it’s Mr Bow Tie, Nathan.’
‘Got you. Still, swish place.’
‘So I’m told.’
‘Sting him for one of them cocktails with little brollies.’
‘OK. Right now, I’m going for a cuppa.’
‘Thought you’d never ask.’
Nathan jumped up on to his desk and off the other side.
‘Tell you what, Sarge – I’ll take Em there and ask her.’
‘Wait till I’ve sussed it out.’
‘Yeah, if I’m going to go for it, it’s got to be pukka, know what I mean?’
Nathan’s monkey face was lit up with excitement. Freya felt a sudden pang of – what? Envy? Loneliness? A feeling of missing out?
‘Lucky Em,’ she said.
Nathan went ahead of her down the concrete stairs two at a time.
The waiting room was empty, the magazines tidied up in neat piles, edge to edge, and the cover was on the receptionist’s computer. Karin sat down. It was very quiet, very tidy, but for some reason, despite the pleasant if bland watercolours, the room felt lifeless rather than peaceful.
She was tense which made the pain in her back worse.
The clock was an electric one, and the windows were double-glazed, the carpet thick, so that the room was strangely silent.
Because she was Cat’s patient, and because he had met Karin socially, Aidan Sharpe had given her an immediate appointment at the end of his working day, and she was grateful. But now that she was here Karin felt uneasy. She had been sailing along in such a blithe way, ignoring the facts, forcing herself into a positive frame of mind, refusing to acknowledge the existence of any shadows, let alone peer into them. It was catching up with her.
The sun had gone from the room. Karin thought she might get up and leave. Oh, for God’s sake.
‘Mrs McCafferty, I’m so sorry to keep you.’
She stood up. ‘Karin,’ she said, though they had not managed to speak much at the Serraillers’ dinner party.
‘Do come through.’
Every consulting room she had been into during her weeks of exploration into complementary therapies had been warm, welcoming, informal – many of them had been what she thought of as ‘real’ rooms in ordinary houses, like the bright, peaceful, flower-filled living room in which her spiritual healer worked. She liked that. Hospitals and doctors’ surgeries were so cold, so bleak, so bare. The scanner room, the oncologist’s consulting room, the radiotherapy waiting room – she had wanted to run out of them all.
Aidan Sharpe’s surgery discomfited her. Though there was nothing particularly unusual about its pastel blandness, it did not feel relaxing, calming at all.
She stood uncertainly.
He wore a white coat, high at the neck.
‘Cat gave me your scan results. I gather you are having some back pain?’
‘Yes.’ No, Karin wanted to say. Her throat tightened.
‘Is it painful intermittently or most of the time?’
He had a folder in his hand and glanced down at a sheet he had slipped out of it. Her scan results, presumably.
‘I don’t get a lot of respite from it. It varies in intensity though, depending on what I’m doing.’
‘Is it worse standing, sitting or lying? Is it worse when you’re moving about or being still?’
‘I can distract myself by moving about.’
‘I see. Right. If you’d like to go behind that screen and take off your things down to your underwear and slip on the robe hanging up there?’
The room had seemed to be silent but when Karin lay down on the high couch, she heard the faintest humming sound, as if the floor beneath her were charged with some high-pitched electricity.
Aidan Sharpe sat on the high stool beside her and took her hand to feel her pulse. Karin looked up. His eyes were staring not at her but into her. They were extraordinary eyes, cold, small, like little hard stones, and the lids veiled them slightly.
A terrible sensation rose up from deep in her stomach, through her chest and into her throat. It was fear, it was nausea, it was a sense of entrapment. She remembered the conversation she had had in the car with Cat. She wanted to pull herself up, throw herself off the couch on to the floor and run, now, wrench open the doors and race out into the safety and open air of the street.
The nausea was like bile in her mouth.
His gaze was absolutely steady on her face. He scarcely blinked. ‘Your pulse is very unsteady.’
Her tongue was swollen like a cow’s, huge in her mouth. She moved her head slightly. In the ceiling above, the fluorescent light was white-blue and pulsating gently.
She heard the sound of metal on metal. Aidan Sharpe had let her wrist go and reached out his hand to the tray of meticulously arranged small needles. He selected one and, turning back, looked down at her again. The eyes were so odd, narrowed yet staring and strangely expressionless. He smelled faintly of antiseptic, faintly of masculine soap, and yet Karin smelled nothing but the smell of death. Her head swam.
The needle touched her temple and a hot pain shot through her back.
Another needle, beside her left nostril and the same back pain, lower down.
— Jesus, God, help me — Karin thought.
She realised that no one else was in the building. The receptionist had long gone home, she was the last patient of the day. She sensed the rest of Aidan Sharpe’s house, empty and silent stretching back beyond the walls of the surgery.
There were more needles, carefully positioned. After a few moments, she began to feel drowsy, and light-headed, as if she had been given a hypnotic. The pain in her back had gone but her legs felt heavy and numb.
Aidan Sharpe continued to stare at her as he worked but he did not speak.
The needles seemed to be pinning her to the couch so that she was afraid to attempt the slightest movement, afraid that her flesh would be torn and the hair ripped from her scalp. She was hot and very thirsty.
She looked up. His eyes were more needles, penetrating her skull. She had lost all sense of time. Hours might have passed or only a few moments.
She wondered if anyone knew where she was. The appointment had been made over the telephone, which she had answered when alone in the house. She did not think she had even jotted a note of it down. No one else had rung, Mike was away, she was not expected anywhere that evening. Why am I thinking like this? she thought, and made a tremendous effort not to sink down and down but to struggle up, towards the surface of consciousness and control. Aidan Sharpe was very still.
‘You may feel a little light-headed.’ His voice was soft.
Karin tried to speak.
‘Don’t move please.’
Something in his voice warned her to do as he asked, some cold, dry thing lacking all emotion, but infinitely powerful.
Now, her chest seemed to be cracking open as she tried to get her breath, and her lungs hurt as the air rasped quickly in and out of them, and her head was swimming and full of vapour, her limbs were losing sensation, except for her fingers which were tingling as if pricked all over by tiny pins. She became aware of Aidan Sharpe reaching down to her. She saw the pattern of small jazzy yellow commas on the navy surface of his bow tie. It confused her eyes.
‘Don’t try to sit up.’
His hands were on her arms and seemed to be pressing against her so that she could not move. She struggled slightly.
The navy-and-yellow pattern danced electrically in her brain. It was the last thing she was conscious of before she dropped down into swirling darkness.
Freya had dithered about racing home to change, uncertain whether her work suit would fit the dress code at the Embassy Room, but when she walked in just before six forty-five, she relaxed. The place was stylish and bang up to date, which meant that absolutely anything went, from jeans and jackets to diamanté-speckled little black frocks and plain linen office suits. There was the same hum about it that she so much enjoyed in the Metro Café, where she had bumped into Cat Deerbon. Both places gave her a taste of trendy London while being firmly in Lafferton.
The Embassy was not chrome and neon, as she had expected, but pale curved wood and bright pink tweed, attractive and comfortable. It reminded her of a couple of places in Barcelona she and Don had frequented on one of their weekends there. It was also packed, the young after-work crowd jostling with couples starting on an evening out, plus a few of the older, golf and bridge set. None of them looked out of place, everyone seemed relaxed.
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