‘I won’t tonight, Pauline, I’ve a few bits to do.’
‘Well, if you change your mind.’
‘I know. You’re a good friend.’
For a long time after Pauline had gone, she sat turning the idea of going to a medium over in her mind, wondering if it was wrong, whether it would be expensive, or a trick to make unhappy people better? Most of all, she found the idea frightening. But why would that be? It was either a lot of baloney, or some of them had a gift, and if she found one, they could put her in touch with Harry, and what was there to be afraid of in that? But how was it done? What exactly would happen? Would she really be able to speak to him and have him answer her so that she could actually hear his voice? And could a psychic person prove it all by telling you things only you knew, private things? Grandma Bixby had read tea leaves, her aunt had told cards. But, as Pauline said, women did then, it made a bit of entertainment, a laugh, a break in the dreary days when you had to do your washing all by hand. Sometimes it might give you a shiver, but that was not what she wanted now. She wanted nothing except to know that Harry was really there and to talk to him.
The hot little front room seemed empty tonight, as if he had withdrawn. Maybe he wasn’t happy about what she had been thinking.
In the end, to stop her brain from going round, she went next door to watch Pauline’s television after all.
But no quiz programme, no comedy, no thriller, no television or any other diversion, could keep her from missing Harry and now from thinking about having the chance to be in touch with him, if only she could summon up the courage. She worried about it all evening, and woke twice in the night, to worry again.
In Lafferton, the shops were in a frenzy of Christmas. On the third Saturday in December, Iris Chater wandered hopelessly in and out of them, confused by the glut of things, things, things and anxious that she ought to be buying food and presents. But there was scarcely any need. She was invited to Pauline’s for Christmas Day and intended to go for lunch, but Pauline’s two sons and their families would be there, all crammed into the little rooms. She didn’t want to outstay her welcome. She wanted Christmas over this year, the quicker the better.
On the Sunday morning, after a bad night, she did what she had not done for years and went to a service at the cathedral, but she felt out of place among the young couples with babies and small children, singing hymns she did not recognise to unfamiliar modern tunes. The family service was not the right setting in which she could pray about Harry and whether she would be wrong to visit a medium. She sat and stood and knelt and listened to the chatter and babble around her and felt as if she had landed by accident on some quite friendly but alien planet.
As she walked home her knees gave her such pain that she was almost in tears. The rest of Sunday ran away ahead of her like a ribbon of unending road.
Pauline was at her window watching out, and when she saw her, held up a cup.
The hot sweet coffee and chocolate biscuit were comforting.
‘I’ve got a name for you,’ Pauline said.
The walls seemed to bend in and out like rubber.
‘I said I’d ask around and then I remembered a girl I used to work with at Pedders telling me her mother-in-law had gone to see a medium.’
She reached behind the clock on the shelf for a folded piece of paper.
If I take it, Iris Chater thought, if I touch it at all, something will happen. She looked down at it. Once taken, she felt there could be no going back. You’re a stupid woman, she thought. But the feeling was overpowering.
‘I’d always come with you, you know, if you were nervous … just wait for you, I mean, of course, not come in the room. Well, there you are anyway.’
Pauline put the paper down on the table between them.
‘Have another cup.’
She did so, and sipped it slowly, talked about the shops, Christmas, the cost of everything, the funny new hymns, spinning the time out. Because when she left Pauline’s house for her own, she would have to take the piece of paper, and when she had closed her own front door, she would be alone with it and the name and address and number.
To make it easier, she glanced down quickly now at Pauline’s round writing. Sheila Innis. 20 Priam Crescent. 389113.
The plainness of the woman’s name and the address, on a road she knew, were reassuring somehow, so that she took the paper and folded it away into her handbag quite cheerfully, scoffing at herself for having been worried.
DS Freya Graffham stood in the entrance hall of the Four Ways Nursing Home, waiting to be directed to Carol Ashton’s office and wanting to flee. It was the smell – polish and chrysanthemums to the fore, but with heavy notes of antiseptic and stewing meat. It took her back to the corridors of her convent school, and, more recently and distressingly, to the care home in south London where her grandmother had spent her last two miserable years. And there had not even been the disguising smells of the polish or the flowers to mask the stench. Coming into a nursing home again, however different this one might be, struck chill to her heart.
Carol Ashton’s office was bright and pleasant with pictures, plants and a comfortable chair.
‘Have you found Angela? Do please sit down …’
‘I’m sorry, I’m afraid we haven’t.’
‘It seems so long. I’m absolutely certain something must have happened to her …’
‘Mrs Ashton, I’m trying to build up a picture of Angela Randall. I wonder if you’d mind going back over a couple of things again?’
‘I’ll do anything, of course I will.’
‘You told me that just going away without saying anything to you, or as far as you know to anyone else, just wasn’t in character.’
‘I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I’m sure. I know people sometimes behave unexpectedly but I truly do not believe Angela would ever have gone away like that. She wouldn’t have left her job and her home without warning, she simply wouldn’t.’
‘Do you know if she had any close relationships?’
‘You mean a man? A love relationship?’ The suggestion seemed to take Carol Ashton aback. ‘I think I told you she isn’t the sort of person who talks about her private life. Do you know, I couldn’t even tell you if she owned a cat? But she’s never mentioned anyone.’
‘No one she might have bought expensive presents for?’
‘I doubt it. What kind of presents do you mean?’
‘We found a pair of gold cufflinks in the house, gift-wrapped and with a note indicating some sort of affectionate relationship.’
‘You can’t think of anyone?’
‘I can’t and I have to say, I’m very surprised. There just isn’t anything like that about Angela.’ She was thoughtful for a moment. Freya waited.
‘If I had to choose a single word to describe her, I’m afraid it would be “chilly”. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t like her because I do, and I respect her too. I respect anyone who works as conscientiously and loyally.’
‘I understand what you mean, don’t worry.’ Freya got up. ‘There really is every possibility that she will simply return home … the more private she is, perhaps the less likely she would be to confide in anyone if there was some problem in her life.’
Carol Ashton looked sceptical. Freya didn’t blame her, even she didn’t believe in the bland reassurances she heard herself babbling.
‘Will you go on trying to remember anything she may have mentioned, probably in passing, about someone she knew, someone she was close to?’
‘Yes, I’ll try. But I won’t come up with anything.’
As they went out into the corridor a wail came from somewhere above. It was all Freya could do not to run for the front door.
‘Sergeant, there was something I wanted to ask you. The other day I turned on Radio BEV and there was an appeal for any information about a missing dog … someone’s prize pedigree … I wondered if there would be any point in asking them to put out something about Angela?’
‘We do use local radio from time to time to appeal for information and we’re always flooded with calls, not all of them relevant. But there’s often something helpful. Let me check.’
‘Surely it’s worth a try? Someone might have seen her … seen something.’
They walked across the polished hall. Above, everything had gone quiet. Freya wondered fleetingly how the wailing voice had been silenced.
She returned to the car through drizzle. Lights were on in almost every house though it was barely three o’clock. Christmas was in a few days – a poignant time of year to go missing.
For the rest of the afternoon she was at Bevham attending a seminar on Internet crime, with special reference to paedophiles. Regional HQ were setting up a special unit and keen to attract recruits. Freya Graffham was not in the least tempted to put her name forward for what she saw as a grubby, upsetting and unpleasant area of police work which involved spending too much time at a computer. But it would be useful to get the broad picture of something relatively new and it always paid to show keenness by signing up for a seminar. She had thought when she had left the Met and come to live and work in Lafferton, that ambition was something she would be glad to leave behind, together with the stress of a London that was becoming increasingly dangerous and depressing and a short, seriously unhappy marriage. Now she could feel the change beginning to heal and refresh her already. She had fallen in love with Lafferton when she had come for the interview, enjoyed the beauty of the cathedral town and its surrounding countryside. It had far more to offer than she had anticipated and she was still happy sorting out her new house.
Above all, she felt relaxed and was enjoying her job again. Enthusiasm and idealism filled her, as well as a confidence which she thought she had lost for good during her last miserable year in London.
Twenty minutes later, she was sitting in a room of about thirty other police officers listening to a profile of the typically sick, warped and secretive abuser-by-proxy of children, and discovering the latest techniques being deployed in operations to flush him out. Once or twice the details of paedophile websites repelled her so much that she closed her mind to them and went back to thinking about Angela Randall, making a mental note to call up Radio BEV the following morning.
The seminar was followed by questions. Freya had nothing to ask and most of those who did went into Internet technicalities. But the final question caught her attention, not because of what was asked, but because of the questioner, DCI Simon Serrailler, who had interviewed her, but since her arrival at Lafferton had been on leave. She was reminded at once of how young he seemed for his rank and also how unusual he was in having almost Nordic blond hair but with dark eyes.
At the end of the seminar he made his way across.
‘I’m glad you could make it. Not very pretty, is it?’
‘Grim. There were a couple of times when I had to switch off, I’m afraid.’
‘So we won’t be losing you to the new unit?’
‘Er … no.’
‘Good. Perhaps you’ll come and see me tomorrow, let me know how you’re settling in?’
‘I will, sir, thank you. I’m enjoying it very much.’
DCI Serrailler smiled but then turned away, as someone tapped his arm.
The streets of Bevham were bright and crowded with late-night shoppers, the Salvation Army band was playing carols, and people stood with song sheets under the huge tree in City Square. ‘While Shepherds Watched’ came faintly through Freya’s car window.
Christmas. Families reunited; home and hearth … the previous Christmas had been the last she and Don had spent together, almost in silence, hostility and misery like a stormy sea between them. In the afternoon, she had walked the streets of Putney and been glad to find an Indian corner shop that was open and to take refuge among its crammed, spice-smelling shelves for a while. This year, having gently rejected pleas for joining the family Christmas at her sister’s Cumbrian farm, she was looking forward to shutting her new front door and being by herself with some simple food, a good bottle of wine, some new CDs and novels and the television. Her brief marriage seemed, in retrospect, to have been spent either in shouting or in acrimonious temporary truce.
At the three slow sets of traffic lights down the high street, looking at the Aladdin’s cave of coloured lights and gilding and silvering, she thought again of Angela Randall. Where was she now, at this minute, at this bright, busy, happy season? Freya thought of the immaculate, impersonal, chilly little house, and its queer silence, its mundane furnishings, its sterile air; 4 Barn Close had the smell of a house into which love and friendship and laughter had never come. And the costly present in its gilded wrapping? The gift tag, To You, with all possible love from your devoted, Me.
Whatever the DI might say, Freya Graffham knew she could not leave this one. She wanted to get her teeth into something of her own and make her mark, that much she recognised. But that was the least of it.
She drove out of the city through the dark lanes, towards Lafferton and home, her mind full of the missing woman and a deep unease.
When the blue-and-cream bus drew up at the stop in the market square Debbie Parker had a moment of absolute panic, which turned her stomach to water and made the sweat break out in a band round her neck.
There were three buses a day from Lafferton to Starly and Starly Tor. This, at nine forty-five, was the first and she would have over an hour to kill before her appointment. She had planned it all carefully. She would find out exactly where Dava’s Spiritual Sanctuary was, and then get coffee somewhere. If there was time after that, there were small shops to browse in. Starly was not much more than a village which had grown around the Tor itself, but a lot of therapists and healers had set up there, as she had discovered from the Tor Community Newsletter she had picked up in the health shop. For days she had been reading it, and following leads it had given her to other pamphlets and books, and Sandy had left her computer switched on, so she could access more on the Internet. Some of it sounded cranky but a few things fascinated her so that she sat up late into the night reading deeply into them, and afterwards lay awake questioning, trying to apply their principles to herself. She had so much to discover from Dava, so much guidance to receive, so many questions to ask, and whenever she glanced at the blue card, she felt reassurance and a profound certainty that this was the lead she must follow, this was what was meant to speak to her. Nevertheless, faced with the doors of the bus swinging open and the metal steps to climb, Debbie felt terrified enough to want to duck and run, back through the streets to the safety of home and her dark room, her own bed.