Aidan Sharpe had not arrived. Freya found a corner table for two, with some difficulty, and ordered a non-alcoholic cocktail called a Sunshine Moonshine, which came in a big bowl-shaped glass, with ice, straws, parasols and strawberries on sticks, and was both intensely fruity and slightly bitter.
She sat back in the curved chair and was suddenly overcome with an intense desire for Simon, to be sitting here with him, laughing, talking, enjoying, taking time before going on somewhere for dinner. It was too long since their last meeting outside the station. He had been wrapped up in masterminding the drugs op and when he had not been in meetings, was out. Several times Freya had walked past his door and hesitated, wanting to go in for no other reason than to see him, speak to him; several times she had almost picked up the phone to dial his flat number, but had always replaced the receiver. She wanted to ask him out and knew that this was one thing she must not do, that he was the kind of man who would take it amiss; she desperately wanted to get it right with him. She had waited, held back, stayed silent and so was now about to spend an hour with a prim alternative therapist in his fifties who wore a bow tie.
Whichever direction he had come from she had not seen him, so that he startled her by materialising at her side and, in a gesture that she found unnerving, kissing her hand.
‘I’m so sorry … my last patient felt faint and I had to take her home. Do you like it here? It’s rather interesting.’
Freya could have applied several adjectives to the Embassy Room bar but ‘interesting’ would not have been one of them. She took a silent bet that he would order gin and tonic and won.
‘I suppose you’re pretty booked up … acupuncture seems so fashionable.’
‘Oh dear, I hope not. Fashionable today, out of fashion tomorrow.’
‘Like this place.’
‘No, my dear, I rather think the Embassy Room is here to stay and so is my profession.’
His drink arrived. The waitress, who wore bootleg jeans and boots with a white shirt, smiled coolly, before whipping off to an adjacent table. Aidan Sharpe bent down to reach for his glass. As he did so, the cuff of his jacket shot up. Freya’s stomach clenched. The watch on his wrist was gold, with Roman numerals and a separate midnight-blue dial in one corner showing the phases of the moon.
She realised that she had noticed it subliminally before, on the evening of the Serraillers’ dinner party but had not registered its significance.
She looked up and straight into Aidan Sharpe’s odd, expressionless, intensely staring eyes.
A couple getting up to leave the adjacent table knocked over a chair which fell against Freya’s, and in the apologies and general fuss, the moment was fractured, but she was in no doubt that he had seen her looking at the watch, and noticed her split second of awareness.
‘This place could be in London,’ Freya said. ‘Lafferton is definitely coming on line.’ She relaxed back and looked around, apparently at ease, thinking hard. The jeweller had said that phases-of-the-moon watches were hard to find these days – hard but not impossible, and certainly the one Angela Randall had bought was not unique. Freya had learned through years of experience that coincidence played a larger part in life than almost any other factor and probably that was what she had now – a coincidence. But she had to allow for the alternative explanation and she had also learned to listen to her instincts, though not always to follow them, and that lesson had stood her in good stead as well. Since the Serraillers’ party, her instincts about Aidan Sharpe had been uneasy ones.
She turned back to him. He was sitting very upright, very still, holding his drink and looking at her, with the expression of a smile on his mouth but not on his face and certainly not in his eyes. His hands were pale, the fingers long and thin, nails neatly trimmed and oddly bloodless.
‘Why did you come to Lafferton?’ His voice had changed. He sounded amused.
‘Personal reasons … and I’d had enough of London. The Met’s tough and it can be shitty.’
‘You may not find Lafferton a country retreat.’
‘I don’t want one. And you’re right, it has the usual problems … the young, seething with frustration, petty criminals, drugs. But the whole atmosphere is a relief after London.’
‘You seem to have found things to do.’
‘Socially, you mean?’
Again the sliver of a smile.
‘I’ve made some friends. Joined things.’
‘I imagine house prices were a pleasant surprise.’
‘Lord, yes. I bought my house for a good bit less than I got for my Ealing one. Nice to have money in the bank for once.’
‘Ealing? Good gracious. I lived in Ealing when I was training. Do you know Woodfield Road?’
‘I imagine you’ve bought somewhere outside Lafferton … there are so many nice villages within easy reach.’
‘No, the Old Town. I wanted to be in the middle of things.’
‘You couldn’t have done better … that grid of streets around the cathedral is perfect. The Apostles?’
‘One of the nicest. Lafferton learned a lesson from the mistakes other places made. They slapped a conservation notice on the whole area before everyone started adding loft rooms and aluminium windows. You made a good investment. Will you stay?’
‘In the Old Town?’
Freya shrugged non-committally. Aidan’s eyes had not left her face throughout the light, easy conversation.
‘Let me order you another drink. What was that decorative object called?’
‘No thank you. I’m afraid I have to go.’
She could not read his tone. Disbelieving?
‘How many more patients I would treat, how many more crimes you would solve, if it were not for paperwork.’ He picked up the bill and they made their way through the crowd to the cash desk. Freya turned as she waited for him to pay, and over the top of a group of heads saw that of Simon Serrailler, taller than most, fairer than any. He had almost certainly not noticed her.
Aidan Sharpe put his hand on her elbow and guided her to the door. His grip was strong.
‘Thank you so much. Now I know what the Embassy Room is really like.’
But there was no trace of fun in his voice.
She flicked the switch to unlock the doors of her car and got in quickly. It was growing dark but the lights outside the bar were brilliant, attracting the crowds to them like moths.
Freya glanced in her mirror and saw Aidan Sharpe standing, motionless, beside his own dark blue BMW staring at her, a stare she could feel long after she could see it.
She reached her house, switched on all the lamps and drew the curtains. The living room was warm. She took her post and briefcase to the table and poured herself a glass of wine. There were three messages on her machine, one from Cat inviting her to Sunday lunch, one from Sharon Medcalf, asking her if she played tennis. She took the numbers down and clicked on to the last message.
‘Freya, it’s Simon Serrailler. Twenty past six. I thought we might have gone for a drink but you’re not there. We’ll catch up another time.’
Damn. Damn, damn, damn. He had been there. She had wasted an hour in the creepy company of Bow Tie when she could have been, as she had so wanted to be, in the Embassy with Simon.
Damn. She listened to the message again to hear his voice and when she had deleted the other two, saved it.
The house was very quiet. She took another drink of her wine, and flipped through the uninteresting-looking post. In a minute she would get a salad together.
Damn. This time she said it aloud into the silent room.
There were dark green and grey fronds twining about in front of Karin and she was trying to weave her way through them but they clung to her face and hands and pulled her back. They smelled sulphurous and foul and the water she was swimming in was murky.
Then suddenly she was clear and free. She sat up.
Her bedroom was lit by a low lamp on the dressing table and for a second she was confused by the soft glow after the slimy dimness of her dream. Karin leaned forward, knees hunched in front of her. There was a jug and glass on the bedside table and she poured out some water. It was still quite cold and she wondered how this could be so. She had no recollection of having put it there. Drinking it helped not only to ease her dry throat and mouth but somehow to clear her senses, until she remembered that she had not been here at all but on the couch in Aidan Sharpe’s consulting rooms feeling sick and disorientated. His hands had been on her arms and he had been staring at her intently. Everything else was a blank. He must have driven her back and helped or even carried her up here. She was fully clothed and lying under the coverlet. The curtains had been drawn and the lamp switched on. Presumably he had also fetched the water.
She remained for a few more moments, trying to clear her head. She felt slightly odd but no longer dizzy.
Her next feeling was one of anger. She had been to the acupuncturist as a patient in good faith and the treatment had possibly caused her to feel faint and giddy. But she might have been at risk and should not have been brought home, semi-conscious, dumped on her bed and left alone. His behaviour had been strange throughout the treatment, she remembered now; she had felt uneasy and threatened, had wanted to leave, panic Red. He had neither explained anything to her nor seemed concerned about her reaction.
She drank another glass of water, got up cautiously and went to the bathroom. She felt tired, but not unsteady and when she had washed her hands and face and tied her hair back, she came back to her room, picked up the telephone and dialled Cat who answered at once.
‘Have you got a minute? Something’s happened.’
‘Sure, but I’m cooking a lamb casserole for the freezer so I’ve got the receiver in the crook of my neck. What’s wrong?’
Karin took a breath and began to tell her carefully and as calmly as she could manage. Cat listened as she always did, without interruption, taking in every detail of what was being said to her.
‘So I’m here, I’m OK, but I’m angry. I don’t know if that’s unreasonable.’
‘No. What else?’
‘Still a bit fazed.’
‘This shouldn’t have happened. I don’t understand Aidan, he’s always been totally reliable.’
‘You don’t believe me.’
‘Of course I do. I’m just puzzled. I’d come over but I’m here alone with the children and my car is in for service today … Chris isn’t back till later.’
‘No, it’s fine, I don’t need you to do that. I just needed to talk about it.’
‘Do you want to come here? You’re very welcome and you can stay.’
‘I don’t think I’m up to driving.’
‘No, probably not. Acupuncture can wipe you out a bit … that’s normal by the way, don’t worry about feeling tired and light-headed.’
Karin looked round the bedroom. She didn’t want to be alone here, not this evening, not for the night.
‘I could get a taxi. If you wouldn’t mind …’
‘I’d ask Chris to pick you up only I’ve no idea how long he’ll be, he’s at BG.’
‘If you don’t mind my coming, there’s a taxi in the village.’
‘Come when you like. I’ve got to go, the onions are catching.’
By nine, the taxi had dropped Karin at the Deerbons’ door. She had shovelled her night things into a holdall, locked the house and fled. Cat had put her on the sofa with her legs up and taken her blood pressure.
‘It’s fine … a bit low but that’s the treatment. I prescribe peppermint tea – you’d better stay off booze tonight.’
‘Peppermint tea is your cure-all.’
‘Am I being hysterical?’
‘No and I’m concerned. It isn’t like you … you faced our friend the psychic surgeon and came out of it OK.’
‘How well do you know him?’
‘Aidan? Not very. I refer patients to him sometimes. He’s done my arthritis and he’s been here to dinner and we have this informal group which he comes to … and talks a lot of sense. But it’s really a professional acquaintance.’
‘Do you find him sinister?’
Cat looked at her sharply. ‘Not especially. Buttoned up. I should think he’s got some repressions; he isn’t married – isn’t anything at all, so far as I know, and he doesn’t let much slip. What do you mean by sinister?’
Karin shrugged. ‘Forget it. Take no notice. I just got thoroughly wound up.’
‘I think you did. It was probably a slight panic attack and when you’re in the middle of one of those you can lose all sense of reality and proportion. That’s one of the nastiest aspects of them. Normal things seem terrifying, ordinary people seem sinister and threatening.’
‘You make it sound quite commonplace.’
‘It is. None the better for that though. I can prescribe you a low dose of oxazepam for a few days. Take it at night, don’t drive on it. It won’t wipe you out, just ease all this. It’s a phase. You’ve never been like it before. It’s related to everything else.’
Karin sipped her tea and listened to Cat in cool, reassuring GP mode and yes, she believed her, yes, she had been worked up, yes, everything had started to get out of proportion as she faced what was going wrong with her body, probably for the first time. She felt infinitely better for being here, more in control, quite calm.
But the anger at what had happened was still there. That and the sensation of unease when she remembered Aidan Sharpe.
‘What should I do?’
Cat shook her head. ‘Nothing. I’ll give Aidan a ring tomorrow. You’re my patient and this wasn’t on. I’m sure he checked that you were OK before leaving you, but the fact is, you don’t remember anything, which means you were at some risk. He should have rung me.’
‘Thanks. You don’t think I should …’
Cat stood up. ‘I think you should have a bath – in my bathroom, which is relatively civilised, the children aren’t allowed in there. You can have a slug of the lovely smelly Jo Malone stuff Mum gave me for my birthday. Then you’re going to the spare room with a soothing book, a hot-water bottle and a pill.’
The combination of them all, plus the very fact of being here in this house she always thought of as being the happiest she knew, sent Karin into a rose-pink and dreamless sleep which lasted until after eight the next morning. Whatever unease she had felt about her visit to Aidan Sharpe had been soothed away so that all she felt now was rather foolish. She had been faint which Cat said could be a normal reaction to the treatment. She had been slightly disorientated and she had panicked as a result. Sights, sounds, incidents which were ordinary had become distorted. That was all. Aidan Sharpe had driven her home and seen that she was safely in bed. She remembered none of it but that did not mean she had been unconscious, merely in some sort of fugue state or slight shock. She had cancer, she had had a stressful week because of it – was it surprising that she had reacted so violently? Probably he ought to have contacted Cat but by then it had been out of hours and clearly he had checked and not been too worried about leaving her alone. He was conscientious, he had a good reputation, Cat thought well of him.
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