He’s sitting in the only half-decent café there is, drinking tea and picking at a mufﬁn, when he sees the car slow down and pull over to the kerb on the opposite side of the road, and watches a girl, just like the one he’s been thinking about, walk up to it, smiling, as the passenger window glides down.
Of course she’s smiling, she knows the driver.
Why wouldn’t she smile?
Now, she’s leaning down towards the open window. She tosses her hair and grins at something the driver says; pushes her shoulders back, her chest out. She nods, listening.
He ﬁnishes the mufﬁn, closes his eyes for a second or two, enjoying the sugar rush. The rush upon the rush. When he opens them again, the waitress is hovering, asking if she can take the empty plate away, if he needs another tea.
He tells her he’s ﬁne and says, ‘Thank you.’
She knows his name of course and he knows hers. It’s that kind of place. She starts to talk, high-pitched and fast, something about the river that has burst its banks again a dozen or so miles away, how terrible it must be for those poor people living nearby. All that ﬁlthy water running into their living rooms. The stink and the insurance, the price of new carpets.
He nods at the right moments and says something in return, one eye on the car and the girl, then looks at the waitress until she takes the hint and wanders away with his empty plate.
The girl stands up and steps back on to the pavement, casts a glance each way along the street as the driver leans across and opens the passenger door. Even though she knows him, trusts him, she knows equally well that she shouldn’t get into his car, not really. She’s not worried about anything bad happening, nothing like that would ever happen here. She probably just doesn’t want to be seen doing it, that’s all, doesn’t fancy the dressing-down she’ll more than likely get from the ’rents later on.
Cradling his mug, he inches his chair a little closer to the window and watches without blinking. He’s enjoying her few seconds of caution, and the fact that it is only a few seconds, that there’s not really any good reason to be cautious, makes him think about what it’s like to live here, just how long it’s been since he moved out of the city.
The reasons he came to this place.
A jolt to begin with, no question about that. A city boy all his life, then waking up to the whiff of cowshit. Birds he couldn’t name and bells singing from ﬁelds away and several weeks until he realised that the sound he wasn’t hearing was the blare of car horns from drivers every bit as stressed out and pissed off as he used to be.
The feel of the place though, that was the main thing. The community spirit, whatever you wanted to call it. It was what he supposed you’d describe as tight-knit . . . well, relative to what he’d been used to anyway. The people here weren’t living in each other’s pockets, not exactly, but they were aware of one another, at least. The size of the place has a lot to do with it, obviously. With that closeness and sense of concern. With the whispered tittle-tattle and the perceived absence of threat.
There was still trouble, still drunks around on a Friday night, of course. There was no shortage of idiots, same as anywhere else, and he knew that one or two of them could easily have a knife in his pocket or might fancy taking a swing because they took a dislike to someone’s face. But it hadn’t taken very long before he knew most of their names, who their friends or their parents were.
The girl pulls the passenger door closed.
Her head goes back and he can see that now she’s laughing at something as the driver ﬂicks the indicator on and checks his mirror. She reaches for the seatbelt like the good girl she is. Like the good girl all her friends, her teachers up the road at St Mary’s, her mum and dad and brother know her to be.
She knows the driver and he knows the driver and the driver knows the waitress and the waitress knows the girl.
That’s how it is here. It’s why he likes it.
He drains his mug and turns at the door to wave and say goodbye to the waitress, before stepping out into the cold and standing beneath the awning, buttoning his jacket as he watches the car disappear around the corner.
It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everybody else’s business.
But they don’t know his.
ALL LOVELY AND SCREAMING
‘So, a big Sunday roast?’ Thorne had asked. ‘That kind of
‘And a cream tea on the Saturday with a bit of luck.’
‘No mooching around in antiques shops.’
They stopped, holding their breath as they listened to Alﬁe coughing in the next room. Thankfully, he stayed asleep.
Thorne adjusted his pillow. Sniffed. ‘A decent pub with a toasty ﬁre.’
‘I bloody well hope so.’
‘And deﬁnitely no walking?’
‘Only as far as the pub.’
Thorne had grunted cautiously and pulled Helen closer to him, thinking about it. ‘Just the weekend though, right . . . ?’
Now, on their ﬁrst night away, a month after those tentative and delicate bedtime negotiations, walking back to their hotel after dinner in a more than decent pub, Tom Thorne decided that he’d got off reasonably lightly. It had taken a good deal of organisation, not to mention the calling in of several favours from sympathetic colleagues, to co-ordinate the holidays they were both due and he knew that Helen had been angling to spend at least a week of it holed up in the Cotswolds.
‘It was nice food, wasn’t it?’ Helen asked.
‘Yeah, it was all right.’
She shook her head. ‘You miserable old git.’
Thorne could see the sly smile, but had no way of knowing that Helen Weeks too thought she’d had a result. Thorne was not the most adventurous of souls. He was still uncomfortable spending time south of the Thames, so she knew that, given the choice, he would rather stick needles in his eyes than spend precious free time in the countryside. Just hearing the theme tune to The Archers was normally enough to give him the heebie-jeebies.
‘Home-made chutney and bloody am-dram,’ he’d said once. ‘I couldn’t care less.’
All things considered, she had decided that a weekend – a long Valentine’s Day weekend – was a fair return for the time spent trying to persuade him that it would be good to get out of the city for a few days. A few days on their own, before they’d head off somewhere good and hot for a week; a nice resort with a toddlers’ club, where they could really kick back and do sweet FA until they were due back on the Job. The ‘no walking’ agreement had been a sacriﬁce she was prepared to make and the somewhat contentious ‘mooching’ issue had been worth giving ground on. That said, she had her walking boots stashed in the boot of the car and there was a nice-looking antiques shop on the main road. Helen took a gloved hand out of her pocket and put her arm through Thorne’s. She felt quietly conﬁdent that the four-poster bed that was waiting for them back at the hotel might lead to the reopening of discussions.
‘I’ll accept the miserable,’ Thorne said. ‘But less of the old.’
They turned on to the cobbled side street that led to their hotel. Halfway along, a middle-aged woman passed by with a spaniel that appeared to be feeling the cold every bit as much as Thorne and Helen were. Thorne smiled at the woman and she immediately looked away.
‘See that?’ Thorne shook his head. ‘I thought they were supposed to be friendlier in the countryside. I’ve met serial killers who were friendlier than that. Sour-faced old bag.’
‘You probably scared her,’ Helen said. ‘You’ve got a scary face.’
‘If someone doesn’t know you, that’s all I’m saying.’
‘Great,’ Thorne said. ‘So, that’s miserable, old and scary.’
Helen was grinning as Thorne stepped ahead of her and shouldered the front door of the hotel open. ‘Those are your good qualities.’
Inside, Thorne smiled at the teenage girl behind the reception desk, but did not get a great deal more in return than he’d got from the old woman with the dog. He shrugged and nodded towards the small lounge bar. ‘Quick one before bed?’
‘I think we should head up,’ Helen said. ‘Maybe have a quick one in bed.’
‘Oh . . . ’
‘Or a slow one.’
Thorne’s hand moved instinctively to his gut. He was suddenly regretting the decision to eat dessert. ‘You might need to give me twenty minutes.’
‘Fifteen, then. But you’ll have to do all the work.’
Helen walked towards the stairs and, as Thorne turned to follow her, he caught the eye of the girl behind the desk. He guessed that she had overheard, as she had suddenly managed to ﬁnd a smile from somewhere.
Thorne was in the bathroom when Helen called him. He was brushing his teeth, smiling at the orderly way in which Helen had laid out the contents of her washbag, replacing the range of complimentary toiletries that had already been secreted in her suitcase.
‘Tom . . .’
He walked back into the bedroom, still brushing. He spattered his Hank Williams T-shirt with toothpaste as he managed a mufﬂed ‘What?’
Helen was sitting on a padded trunk at the end of the bed. She nodded towards the TV. ‘They’ve made an arrest.’
They had been following the story for the past three weeks, since the ﬁrst girl had gone missing. It had all but slipped from the front pages, had no longer been the lead item on the TV news, until the previous day when a second girl had disappeared. This time the missing teenager had been seen getting into a car and suddenly the media were interested again.
Thorne walked quickly back into the bathroom, rinsed and spat. He rejoined Helen, sat next to her as she pointed the remote and turned the volume up.
‘It was always on the cards,’ Thorne said.
Helen would have been keenly monitoring such an investigation anyway, of course. As a police ofﬁcer who worked on a child abuse investigation team. As someone all too aware of the suffering that missing persons cases wrought among those left waiting and hoping.
As a parent.
This one was different though.
On the screen, a young reporter in a smart coat and thick scarf talked directly to camera. She spoke, suitably grim-faced, yet evidently excited at breaking the news about this latest ‘signiﬁcant development’. Behind her, almost certainly gathered together by the ﬁlm crew for effect, a small group of locals jostled for position in a
market square that Helen Weeks knew well.
This was the town in which she had grown up.
The reporter continued, talking over the same video package that had run the night before: a ragged line of ofﬁcers in high-vis jackets moving slowly across a dark ﬁeld; a distraught-looking couple being comforted by relatives; a different but equally distressed couple being bundled through a scrum of journalists brandishing cameras and microphones. The reporter said that, according to sources close to the investigation, a local man in his thirties had been identiﬁed as the suspect currently in custody. She gave the man’s name. She said it again, nice and slowly. ‘Police,’ she said, ‘have refused to conﬁrm or deny that Stephen Bates is the man they are holding.’
‘Ouch,’ Thorne said. ‘Right now there’s a senior investigating ofﬁcer ripping some gobshite a new arsehole.’
‘Leak could have come from anywhere,’ Helen said.
‘Not good though, is it?’
‘Not a lot anyone can do, not there. Somebody knows somebody who saw him taken to the station, whatever.’ Her eyes had not left the screen. ‘It’s not an easy place to keep secrets.’
Thorne was about to say something else, but Helen shushed him. A photograph ﬁlled the screen and the reporter proudly announced that this picture of the man now being questioned had been acquired exclusively from a source close to the family.
‘Another “source”,’ Thorne said. ‘Right.’
Helen shushed him again. She stood up slowly and stepped towards the screen.
It was a wedding photograph, a relatively recent one by the look of it, the happy couple posing outside a register ofﬁce. The groom – a circle superimposed around his head – in a simple blue suit, grinning, a cigarette between his ﬁngers. The bride in a dress that seemed a little overthe-top by comparison.
Thorne said, ‘Looks like a charmer—’
‘I know her.’ Helen jabbed a ﬁnger towards the screen. ‘I was at school with her. With the suspect’s wife.’
Thorne stood up and moved next to her. ‘Bloody hell.’
‘Linda Jackson. Well, she was Jackson back then, anyway.’
‘Are you sure?’
Helen nodded, stared at the screen. ‘We were in the same class . . .’
They watched for a few minutes more, but there was nothing beyond the same news regurgitated and once they had run out of horriﬁed locals to interview and began running the same footage for a third time, Helen wandered into the bathroom.
Thorne turned the sound down on the TV and began to get undressed. He shouted, ‘She looks seriously pleased with herself, that reporter. Obviously reckons she’s got a promotion coming.’
Helen did not respond and, a few minutes later, as Thorne was climbing into bed, she came out of the bathroom. ‘I want to go up there,’ she said.
‘I want to go home.’
Thorne sat on the edge of the bed. ‘Why?’
‘Think about what she’s going through. She’s got kids.’ She waved a hand towards the television. ‘They said.’
‘Hang on, how long’s it been since you’ve seen her?’
‘Near enough twenty years, right?’
‘I know what that place is like, Tom.’
‘Well, I can’t stop you, I suppose, but I think it’s stupid.’
They said nothing for a few long seconds. Helen opened the wardrobe and took out her suitcase.
‘Hang on, you’re not thinking of going tonight?’
‘Dad’s expecting us to be away all weekend,’ Helen said. She opened a drawer, took out a handful of socks and underwear and carried them across to the case. ‘So there’s no problem looking after Alﬁe.’
‘I know, but still.’
‘We can be there in an hour and a half . . . less.’ She went back for more clothes. ‘There’s not going to be any trafﬁc now.’
Thorne got off the bed and grabbed one of the two towelling dressing gowns that had been hanging inside the wardrobe. It was too small, but he pulled it on anyway. He placed himself strategically between Helen and her suitcase. ‘You’ve got no family up there any more, right? Where do you think you’re going to stay?’
‘I’ll sort something out.’
‘The place is teeming with coppers and reporters. You wouldn’t ﬁnd anywhere tonight even if you went.’ He waited, relieved that she seemed to be thinking it over. ‘Why don’t we do this tomorrow?’
She nodded, reluctantly. ‘I’m going though.’
‘If that’s what you want.’
Helen took another look at the TV. There still appeared to be nothing new to report. She walked back towards the bathroom, stopped at the door.
‘You don’t have to come with me, you know.’
‘I know I don’t, but what am I going to do here on my own?’
‘You could go home,’ Helen said. ‘Hang out with Phil for a few days.’
‘Let’s talk about this in the morning,’ Thorne said.
‘You mean talk me out of it?’
‘Well, I do think it’s a stupid idea.’
‘I don’t care.’ Helen was about to say something else when her mobile rang. She stabbed at the handset and answered in a way that Thorne had become used to; the voice tightening a little. Helen’s sister, Jenny. Thorne was not her favourite person and the antipathy was entirely mutual. Much of the time, Helen could not bear her sister either, impatient at being patronised by a sibling two years younger than she was.
‘Yes,’ Helen said. ‘I saw it. I know . . . ’ She rolled her eyes at Thorne and walked into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
Thorne lay on the bed, nudged the volume on the TV back up. The reporter was talking to the studio again.
‘It’s hard to describe the atmosphere here tonight,’ she said. ‘There’s certainly a lot of anger.’
Thorne could hear Helen talking in the bathroom, but could not make out what she was saying.
The reporter was winding up, the crowd behind her larger now than it had been minutes before, the wind whipping at the ends of her scarf. Her voice was measured, nicely dramatic. ‘With two girls still missing and one of their own being questioned in connection with their abduction, the tension round here is palpable.’ She threw a look over her shoulder. ‘This is a community in shock.’
Thorne watched as the woman attempted to sign off, struggling to make herself heard above raised voices from nearby. Something about ‘our girls’ and ‘justice being done’. Something about stringing the bastard up.
He reached behind him, punched up the pillow.
It was not the holiday he’d had in mind.
(C) Mark Billingham 2016