/ Language: English / Genre:det_police / Series: Inspector Rase

Late of the Payroll

John Eider


John Eider

Late of the Payroll

Chapter 1 — The Inspector’s Evening

Monday

Inspector Graham Rase sat back on the green leather sofa that ran along the wainscotted wall. He was in the Reading Room of the Club, itself a part of the Royal Hotel and the closest thing that Southney, the town he lived in, had to a gentleman’s club of the old definition. Not that they had yet been reached by anything of the newer definition, of which he was rather glad he considered, as he watched the air move across the large quiet space of the room before him.

‘Will there be anything else, sir?’ asked Parris, the ancient steward of the sanctum.

‘No, thank you, I must be off soon.’

‘Very well,’ answered the man leaving as quietly as he had arrived.

Grey, as he preferred to be known, had been invited to join upon becoming Acting Inspector, and had retained the membership after being confirmed in that role — a side-benefit, for the bestowing of which, he was almost as grateful to his employers as for giving him the job itself. It was his Superintendent Rose, a Clubman himself, who both promoted and proposed him.

He had arrived there late this day, coming not from work but an inter-divisional conference on the new thinking in tackling narcotic crime, especially among the young. A depressing day, with much evidence presented of lives ruined, as well as from those who had turned themselves around. At least these meetings with officers from other forces though reassured the Inspector that his own team were not alone in the struggle. But getting back into town for near nine o’clock, too late to want to cook for himself, he had remembered the Dining Room, and how it catered for members at that hour.

Having moved to the Reading Room, he recalled how what had been a lingering sense of the snobbery of the Club before becoming a member had changed, upon his acceptance, to a growing appreciation of having such a place at his disposal. This was no secret society, but only a space for business people to relax. And like the library that as a child he would flee to as an oasis in a chaotic day, so be began to find just being in these hallowed rooms made him smile.

Across the room sat a gentlemen farmer, who Grey knew to live alone and so ate here most evenings. By the windows with a brass lamp to compensate for the dying light of autumn, two younger men in blazers — who might have been anything from salesmen to civil servants — pored over a broadsheet newspaper. Was anyone out there waiting? If so, then the men were not rushed to get back to them.

Having eaten now though, and knowing he couldn’t sit here all evening musing on familiar themes, he roused himself to leave. Nodding his respects to the steward, he pressed first through the Club’s leather doors before spinning out through the rotating glass of the hotel entrance, to emerge into the warm air remaining of a still warmer day. He made his way the short distance to the Young Prince Hal Tavern.

Though nearly October, they had been blessed this past fortnight with the weather held back from a poor August; and Grey for one was glad to have at last a few weeks in the year when he could quite safely leave the house each morning without a coat.

The Prince had been his regular haunt long before the Club had lured him away at least a part of the time, it being close to both his home and work. Of the pubs in town it had the warmest atmosphere, and the heaters on in winter, not that they were needed yet with the upstairs windows of the flats he passed flung wide open to the summer-like evening. He pushed open the doors to the Prince. He knew the landlord.

‘Pint, Grey?’ Bill Blunt asked without moving from his position resting against the fridge at the back of the bar, his head beside the optics.

‘Just a half, thanks.’

‘Early night?’

‘Never pays to overdo it.’

‘I forgot, you coppers are all tee-totallers aren’t you,’ added the landlord caustically. ‘Good job your not or I’d be a poor man.’

‘Don’t be soft — you make a killing at this place,’ Grey entering into their familiar banter. ‘We should know; we have to break up enough crowd scenes. How much are you pouring down these lads’ throats on a Friday night?’

‘Only what they pay for.’

‘Not much being paid for tonight though.’ Grey cast his eye across the bar almost as empty as the club he had just left.

‘No, a night like this makes a brewer weep. I bet they’re all where you’ve just come from, aren’t they?’

‘Bill, wherever they are, they are not there. When I left I took half their custom with me.’ It had actually been a quarter, but he exaggerated for effect.

‘Well, what a shame — all that uneaten lobster.’ It was Bill’s oft-asserted contention that not only would he himself not have joined the Club had he been invited on bended knee by the proprietor, but that he would also shun in the street and bar from his own establishment anyone he personally knew to be a member; however in Grey’s case this was a threat forever held off.

‘Yeah, they were scooping unsold caviar in the bin.’

‘Not good, Grey. Not good for a community — an elite like that cutting themselves off. How does that fit with the Post-War Dream, eh Grey? The Labour government wanted us all going to the same schools, lined up in the same hospital beds. How are we going to improve things when the nobs are buying better services, leaving us in the mire?

‘Your pub’s not that bad.’

‘And I could use another word.’

‘Yes, I’m quite sure of that.’

‘I know you’ve heard this speech before. I just wish I didn’t have to keep making it.’

‘Probably good someone still is.’

‘Aye, aye.’

The Lounge was empty enough to let them talk without the interruption of anyone wishing to be served, but Grey let his friend’s point linger a while while nursing his half. Bill called goodnight to a couple who had been sipping gin and limes by the door — business dressed, he older, she younger. A boss and secretary, supposed Grey, though no deeper thoughts flowed from this starting point as they might had he noted such salaciousness while brighter-minded.

‘I might be off myself in a little while.’

‘Aye, I’d close up early if it weren’t for those lads still here.’ Bill gestured with a tilt of the head to the Bar, this being a traditionally laid-out public house.

Tilting his own head, Grey looked through the broad archway, that formed the link from the plush Lounge with its cushioned chairs through to the Bar with its maroon leather stools. There he saw four men who, though some way along the L-shaped bar, had been talking loudly enough for their voices if not quite their words to have caught his fleeting attention.

‘I’m going to have to ask them to sup up in a minute,’ said Bill as he leaned across and rung the polished brass bell above the bar by its crimson cord. That was another thing Grey liked about this place — Bill had never applied for a later licence. Except for on only three or four big evenings a year he still called time as eleven, thus preserving in these two rooms for just a little while longer a trace of the land he and Grey had been brought up in.

‘Anything been happening?’ Grey asked quietly, a combination, as Bill knew full well, of professional data-gathering and personal plain nosiness; his friend lived to be intrigued.

A gesture of the head drew Grey in closer, ‘Well, as it happens…’ The man leant in further to whisper, ‘You know there’s been talk, up at the plant.’

‘There’s always talk,’ Grey groaned, he hoping this might be something new.

‘Well, some of the workers are getting antsy — the management have put back announcing the new contract, the one with the hotel chain: the little fridges and drinks machines, the one that’s meant to keep them busy over the winter? Some of the lads,’ he glanced conspiratorially around the almost empty pub, lingering on the lads in the Bar, ‘are thinking there isn’t going to be a new contract. No new work. And now there’s talk…’

Grey didn’t need to hear any more. For either the story was true, plain and simple, or it was rumour, which were he to ask around for proof would only bring forth more empty conjecture. The plant referred to, as known by anyone around here, was Aubrey Electricals, one of the town’s larger employers.

‘Might be worth keeping an eye on though,’ said Grey thoughtfully, as a nod to the barman.

‘Well, isn’t Alexander a fellow of yours?’ This was a reference to Alex Aubrey, current chairman of the firm, as well as one of Grey’s fellow Clubmen.

‘Indeed he is, and mates with Rose too,’ Grey thinking back to anything his boss may have said to him of late. ‘I wonder if Aubrey’s said anything to him?’

‘Well, he might not have, mightn’t he, if his grip is slipping.’

‘Possibly, possibly,’ was all Grey replied with, as Bill watched his friend go into that common state of his, of drifting off into whatever thoughts had been sparked off by the conversation he has up until a moment before been engaged in.

To be specific, Grey was recalling the last time he had had a face-to-face with Alex Aubrey; which had been at the Club as it happened — merely a handshake greeting, a common courtesy. He saw him at the football just as often, for Aubrey Electricals sponsored the town’s team, comprised, it being only an amateur outfit, largely of its younger factorymen.

Had Alex on that occasion, now Grey had a cause to look for them, shown any hidden signals of alarm, signs of secret stress? It had seemed a jovial enough chat that last time, but then that was the way of the man; a natural salesman, always on the up. And so it seemed again, when replaying it in his mind — this hadn’t seemed a man in trouble. One thing was for sure though: next time the two men met, the full force of Grey’s subtle armoury, of investigative nous, of imperceptible inquisitiveness, would be deployed for the slightest sign of anything amiss.

Grey wondered if Bill had any more to say, but before the had had a chance to resume, he was interrupted by a call from the booze-hounds in the Bar, to be served that last order of drinks the bell permitted.

‘I’ll go and tell them the barrel’s off,’ he groaned as he left to ask them if they didn’t think it much more sensible to instead get themselves off home in time for the snooker highlights. That this tactic failed was no more of a surprise to Bill than to the policeman he had until a moment ago been speaking; who supped up his own drink and followed the landlord over to where he was now been barracked and abused.

‘Come on lads, let’s not spoil a good evening.’ Grey had the lines down pat. ‘Why don’t you get off to your beds, there’s no more beer being served here tonight.’

‘Who the hell are you to tell us we can’t have another drink?’ called a young man, tall, light haired. Grey guessed he must be sporty too to combine such a healthy frame with the kind of alcohol consumption betrayed by his slurring tones and waxen, clammy skin. ‘I want another pint!’ he demanded, turning to Bill and banging his glass on the bar with force enough to smash it in his hand if he wasn’t careful.

‘You’re always putting your bloody beak in, you people aren’t you?’ This was another man: older, rounder and with the kind of navvies haircut you would never pay a profession to provide. ‘What harm are we doing you sat over there, Inspector? Why don’t you go back over there and finish your drink, and let us finish ours.’

That these words had been spoken seriously, and not as ill-placed irony or black humour or Lord-knew-whatever else, was evident in the stout man’s steely gaze. Grey had become used to being addressed in all manner of ways these twenty years or so he’d been serving the force, but bare faced contempt, simple dismissal in this case, still held the power to stop him in his tracks a moment. Did the man really expect him to say sorry and shuffle back over to his spot at the bar?

‘Inspector?’ the younger man babbled after hearing his friend address the man who had approached them. ‘ The Inspector calls! ’ he announced theatrically, as if remembering some school production, hollering the words with a joviality just this side of boorishness.

‘Had a good night have you, son? Well perhaps it’s time your mates here got you home.’ The lad was only in his first few years of working, for he wore the same green overalls as his older colleagues; yet Grey could see the work hadn’t broken him yet, and when he spoke it was with the impetuosity of youth,

‘Have you had a good night then, Inspector? Aren’t you meant to be out catching criminals or something?’ Giggling as he spoke, the young fellow moved toward Grey and nearly went over, requiring another of the men to steady him, who, even as he did so, looked at his unstable colleague with what Grey thought could have been disappointment in his young charge.

‘Well, we don’t live in the station,’ answered Grey tersely.

‘My father would have clipped me for speaking to a police officer like that.’ Bill was at the point of coming around the bar and throwing this kid out manually.

‘He’s upset, Inspector,’ offered the older man by way of explanation. ‘We all are. So would you be if you’d just heard the news we have.’

‘And what news is that?’ This was becoming an open confrontation now, and much as he tried to quell it and continue speaking calmly, Grey felt authority surge through him — he would not be moving an inch, and just let this fellow try and make him.

But the man was having none of it, and he dismissed the Inspector, turning away as he spoke, ‘Oh, your lot wouldn’t care. You’re all in it together. Another excuse to get your truncheons out.’

Grey had no idea what he was on about; meanwhile the younger man continued to stare blearily at him, before attempting to focus his gaze behind the officer and onto the empty half-pint glass left on the bar where Grey had been standing,

‘Is that your glass?’ he began haltingly, ‘A half? I’ve never known a policeman drink so little. Don’t tell me that’s your first? I bet you’ve been knocking them back all night,’ he said, before asking with a rich tang of sarcasm, ‘I do hope you’re not driving home, Inspector?’

This was becoming insufferable.

‘And nor you I hope, Mr..?’ Grey turned slightly to face this younger man, unable to stop himself assuming the full upright posture fitting for such a semi-official interview; while repeating to himself the policemans’ lamentation that an officer was to some degree always on his watch.

The man, stuck by this sudden switch from off- to on-duty, sobered up quickly, and in a moment looked almost sheepish before the town’s official, his facial expression suddenly one of not wishing to have caused anyone any trouble.

‘You know,’ resumed the drunken man after a pause, in a tone now of part-disappointment and part-civic co-operation, ‘if it’s villains you’re after, you only have to look along the road there.’ He pointed wildly out in the direction of the pub door, the man supporting him moving back to avoid having his hand in his face.

‘Oh yes?’ Grey found it harder to readjust his tone, he having gathered himself for confrontation.

‘Well,’ the young man said, now looking positively apologetic, Grey remembering he lived in a town that still had a lot of respect for the police, ‘we might need a few of your lot down there any day now, especially if we get our hands on that Alex Aubrey.’

(When looking back on this scene, Grey wouldn’t be certain he hadn’t caught the older man firing a wicked look at his young companion as he said this.)

‘The plant?’ Grey was catching up now. ‘You mean Aubrey’s?’

The young man nodded his head with a judder, ‘I won’t hold myself responsible for what I do to him.’ He said this quite calm and matter-of-factly.

‘Hold up. Now no one’s going to be doing anything to anyone. What’s the trouble?’ Grey was on his night off, but this was what he lived for. But it was too late, for the older man was already leading the youngster away, and gesturing for the others to follow; pausing only to say as he left,

‘They’re robbing us blind, you know, Inspector. They don’t care about the workers, they’d throw us all out on the scrapheap tomorrow. We might not have jobs this time next week, while that pair swan in and out of there in that bloody massive car of theirs…’ his thoughts though were left unfinished as the group found their way out, Grey left with the impression though that the man had said slightly more than he’d meant to.

‘They don’t even care about us. They just don’t care!’ concurred the young drunk from the street as the doors closed, leaving the other two men — silent throughout — to help carry him home.

‘What’s it coming to?’ muttered Bill as, stoical to the last, he returned to his place behind the bar and began wiping glasses with a cloth in automatic ritual.

‘“In drink,”’ uttered Grey.

‘Sorry?’ asked Bill?

‘Do people still use that term, “In drink”?’

‘I don’t know, but it would serve to tell of that lad if they did.’

Grey was bamboozled, reeling from the encounter, affronted by the men’s different tones; the younger lad clearly ‘in drink’ whether people still used the term or not, but as for the other fellow, he had been wound up like a clockwork toy, sprung like a jack-in-the-box. Grey hadn’t enjoyed dealing with him at all.

‘Never seen him like that though,’ Bill mentioned as an aside, clarifying at Grey’s insistence: ‘The young one — he’s in here sometimes, but I’ve never seen him that bad. I should have stopped serving them earlier I suppose.’

Grey shook his head at it all, ‘I’ll give them a couple of minutes and be off myself.’

‘Maybe there is something in it?’

‘I hadn’t heard anything.’

‘But then there’s always rumours around the plant,’ conceded Bill, echoing Grey’s earlier thought.

‘So,’ continued Bill, ‘perhaps they should eat, drink and be merry, while they can still afford to?’

Grey, nodding his regards, and wholly unconvinced by it all, pushed his drained glass across the bar and was off.

It was, he pondered as the cooling air of evening hit him, the night now as dark as it would get, a sign of age to recognise how often the antics of youth are seen by the rump of society not as rebellious or fearful but merely course and insulting; you might even say pitiful. A young man barely able to stand while issuing insults — where is the rebellion in that?

Even as he thought these words Grey recognised how crustily old they made him sound. He didn’t really believe such sentiments, he just seemed to get the kids of today less and less; which was perhaps the whole point, and exactly the effect they wished to achieve with each new fad and fancy took up to horrify their parents. It was a phase we all went through he realised, just hoping the current young didn’t wreck themselves permanently as a result, as the horror stories from the conference echoed in his mind.

But what had the encounter told him?

Aubrey Electricals had been one of the town’s biggest employers for years, operating from a factory on the outskirts of the town centre. They had taken up where the old factories that had build bombers in the war had left off, and the plant was built on land formerly occupied by the airfield and aerodrome. They specialised in precision cutting, assembled parts, and latterly, small electronic devices for larger appliances. The chances were a part of your fridge or microwave had passed thought the Aubrey production line.

In his minds eye, the four men in their green overalls represented several hundred fellows, many more counting casuals. Yet while as prone to union dispute as any large organisation, they were in practice as benign a group of men as any of that size could be expected to be. He summed it up thus: that although in the course of his duties over the years he had most surely dealt with men — for they were almost all men — who worked there, it was never because they worked there. This seemed an important distinction.

However, as he walked along lit streets and past darkened houses, across the rooftops Grey caught the strain of voices. He guessed they were those of men from the pub, for he had seen few other souls along his walk home; yet where before they had been seething and surly, what he heard now was… singing, yes singing, as if the men, far from cursing lost jobs were instead returning from a victorious sporting occasion.

Were these the sounds of celebration, or at least of lamentation, of one last toast being raised before going their own ways home? And Grey thought he understood now, that what he had seen in the Prince Hal Bar might not only have been a protest or venting of anger, but also a wake: a sending off of the jobs and lives the men had known, a last hurrah on the eve of God-knew-what… and he had called time on it.

Sad to have that understood (as he caught one last hollered refrain) yet proud of the town he lived in, where he hoped a man facing disaster could still look it in the eye, he thought about what the men had been saying and took their late-night notions at face value — for what would it matter, if these rumours of job cuts turned out to be just rumours? Grey strode though the almost-empty streets as if a soldier through a battlefield on the eve of war. All around him, in lit flats and curtained houses, were men, women, families, getting ready for their beds if not already in them; and he wondered how many would have joined these men in song had they only known what may be coming in the following weeks?

But these thoughts and images were just surface froth, the flotsam of an active mind running over as he found his way home, final daydreams minutes before authentic sleep, and would surely be forgotten by the morning.

Chapter 2 — Missing Persons

Wednesday

Grey woke to sunlight and no birdsong, he having left the alarm off in error, but noting to himself quickly before panic had a grasp, that he had nowhere but the office to be that morning, and that the catching up of paperwork he had planned for the day could be as easily completed from ten till six as from nine till five. His reporting back of the finding from the conference had gone well yesterday; but it would have been optimistic to expect for such a disheartening theme to have roused more then the professional interest it did. And anyway, it wasn’t as if an overriding concern for the lost souls of their town was something his team did not already have as instinct.

As for today though it was back to the paperwork; and he hoped also, if he had the chance, to be able to some make further light enquiries around the edges of the issue raised the evening before last, or even to identify if there was anything to enquire after. Indeed, nothing involving Aubrey’s had caught his eye yesterday when looking at the records of minor activities occurring in the region, or at what had turned up that day on the uniform staff’s duty roster. Not that he expected to see much there, however helpfully the staff Constables had enquired as to whether there was anything they could do to assist, and how if he’d only point them in the right direction then they may be able to help him find whatever it was that occupied him?

The evening had faired little better, it seeing his efforts to find out Bill at the Prince Hal Tavern founder on the rocks of his having been out of town that night visiting a sick sister — nothing serious Grey was relieved to hear from the barmaid, though he felt in no mood to stay for a beer.

But, despite his lack of anything to back his feeling of Monday night up, as Grey sat there pondering later that Wednesday morning, his sense of something imminent in those drunken men’s words of two nights before seemed destined to brood within him, at least for the time being. He couldn’t shake the impression of there being some looming object beneath them, and set any day to break the surface of the town’s placid waters. And this he thought on as his more than able Sergeant’s head appeared around the door, to interrupt the paperwork he was at that point, now approaching lunchtime, still working through.

‘Boss?’ asked Cornelia Smith.

‘Yes?’ he answered, glad to be interrupted by her.

‘I thought you might be interested — uniform have got a lady downstairs, here to report a recently missing person.’

‘How recently?’

‘Only since yesterday, I think they said. But it seems a strange one.’

‘Any contributing factors?’

‘Well, no, not as such…’

Grey’s look, though rooted in beguilement, may have appeared to his ever-enthusiastic colleague instead as slight consternation: a consternation demanding of his Sergeant an explanation of why such a routine matter, one easily within the ken of their able uniformed division to handle, at least at this early stage, should have been felt important enough, and by as capable an officer as herself, to be brought to his busy door?

‘Sarah came to speak to me,’ Sarah Cobb that was, the team’s administrative support officer. Cornelia continued, slightly downcast, as if having to explain away some indiscretion, ‘she said you were interested yesterday in anything we had had in relating to Aubrey’s.’

Before she said anymore Grey’s heart seemed to leap up in confirmation,

‘And this has? Has to do with Aubrey’s, I mean?’ He knew deep in his old officers’ bones that this could be the point of revelation that any case started with.

‘Yes, he works there. It’s his mother who’s come in.’

‘Have they started interviewing her yet?’

‘Soon. They’re just making her a cup of tea right now,’ she said as she turned to walk with him downstairs, he having left his papers pretty much where they were. ‘So do you want to take over?’

‘Perhaps not,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘I don’t know if there’s anything in this yet.’

‘What’s on your mind?’

He was quite used to his subordinate asking after and indeed questioning his own thought processes, he appreciating her insights as much as his own, and having noted before how her own opinions and his had often worked together to form a complete picture.

‘It might be nothing… I met some men from Aubrey’s the other night.’

‘Okay,’ she said, for Cori (for everyone always called her Cori) knew there must be more to it than that, and that this would be imminently forthcoming.

‘Well, they were upset and angry. They spoke as if the place was in chaos, that their jobs were gone.’

‘I didn’t know anyone had lost their jobs there.’

‘No, nor did I, and nor does anyone else it seems — not that you can call the place up and ask if they’re having troubles; but nothing’s been announced. That’s what is odd. But they were so honest in it. They were mourning their jobs, plain and simple, or so it seemed to me after. It was peculiar, very intense. Dignified even.’ Even as he said this Grey shocked himself to realise how strongly those few angry words in the pub, and carried notes of singing heard as he walked home had impressed themselves on his mind that evening.

‘But nothing we know this missing person is associated with?’ Cori speculated, in a voice which urged caution, knowing how her boss could get carried away.

‘No, nothing at all. But I just get a feeling about it, nothing explainable yet. It was like a commiseration: they seemed to know the game was up.’

‘Well, you don’t need to justify your hunches to me.’ They pushed through a series of doors, through to the staff area of the ground floor, and leading on to the various spaces public and private in which they worked; and eventually on to where a young female Constable, having supplied the requisite tea and biscuits, now led a lady of a visibly nervous disposition into a room usually reserved for interrogating suspected muggers and thieves.

‘Just you go in,’ Grey instructed Cornelia, ‘it won’t make her any less nervous to have a mob of detectives in the room.’

‘No problem, boss,’ she answered, as Grey, there being no way he could return to his paperwork now with all this going on, planted himself down at an empty desk in the office, to wait until his Sergeant had something to tell him, those working there attempting to continue their tasks without reference to his brooding presence; before he instead opted for the smaller room next door, where a monitor would let him watch the interview take place.

Cori noted that the lady, even in her time of worry, had still made the effort to turn herself out smartly, perhaps she being of that dying breed that saw a civic institution like a police station as a place to dress up for and to approach in a spirit of good conduct.

‘So, Mrs Long,’ began Cori, once they were all sat down, she having been quickly briefed in the corridor, ‘I’m Sergeant Smith. We’ll be recording our conversation just so we can write it up for our records, if you are okay with that?’ The lady’s nervous nodded assent was all Cori needed to continue. ‘So, you told the Constable that your son has not been home for… twenty-four hours now?’

‘Yes, well, since yesterday morning. He goes out to work you see.’

‘How old is Thomas?’

‘Twenty-four.’

‘He lives at home still?’

‘Yes. Flats are so expensive for young people these days.’

‘And where does he work?’

‘Aubrey Electricals.’

‘And how long has he been working there?’

‘About six years. He started straight from the sixth form.’

‘And how does he get on there? Does he enjoy it?’

‘I think so. Yes.’

‘So, you last saw him yesterday morning?’

‘When I saw him off to work.’

‘First thing in the morning?’

The lady nodded.

‘I need you to keep answering “yes” or “no”, Mrs Long, for the tape.’

‘Sorry. Yes, about seven o’clock.’

‘And this was the time he usually leaves?’ Cori’s early questions were for the most part an exercise in confirming the obvious.

‘Yes.’

‘And so you were expecting him home in the evening?’

‘Yes, always.’

‘And you wouldn’t expect him ever to spend a Tuesday night out?’

‘No, not Tom, he never does, not any evening. He always comes home.’

‘I wonder, had he mentioned anything he might have been doing that evening? Perhaps somewhere he was going or someone he was seeing?’

She answered in the negative to each suggestion.

‘Mrs Lane, does Thomas have a girlfriend?’ Cori’s instinct was the answer would be no, and so it proved.

‘No, Sergeant, Tom has… never shown much interest in that area of things, in fact I wish he would. I do worry about him sometimes. I mean, he can’t stay at home forever. Not that I’d ever throw him out!’

‘Oh no, Mrs Lane, I’m sure there’s no suggestion of that. I have to ask quite a difficult questions, sorry.’

‘No dear, I understand.’

Cornelia admired the way Mrs Lane faced up to the questions at what must have been such a tough time for her.

‘And I know it is hard to think about areas of your son’s life you may not know as much about, but can you think of anything that Thomas may have been involved in, that could have worried him? Any trouble…’

‘My dear, believe me, if you had grown up with a brother like mine, notorious at every pub and shady haunt in his time, bringing the police to our door like clockwork… If my Tom was in trouble I would be the first to know it, and the first to still love him whatever it was he had done.’

Cornelia couldn’t help but feel that the lady sat across the table from her, so worried for her son lost somewhere in the world, and speaking of such sad and serious things, nonetheless was glad to have a chance to talk of her boy. Her pride in him was obvious, as were her concerns,

‘It isn’t so much that he isn’t out with women very much that worries me,’ she said, ‘but that he isn’t out very much at all. I try and encourage him, suggest he goes for a drink after work — I know the other lads there do. Philip tells me.’

‘That’s your husband?’

‘Yes, he works as Aubrey’s too. Didn’t I tell you?’

‘I think you may have mentioned it outside,’ said the young Constable beside Cori, smiling sympathetically.

‘He got Thomas the job. He used to know old Mr Aubrey.’

‘And do they work in the same area?’

‘Oh no, Philip’s on the floor.’

‘Sorry?’

‘He’s on the factory floor, where they make the parts for the heaters. Always been a practical man, has Philip. I think that’s why he never really understood Tom; they’re so different.’

‘And so what job does Tom do there?’

‘Oh, he could never work on the production line. He’s not delicate, you understand. He works just as hard; in fact he comes home even more shattered that Philip. They are just different men. The office suits Tom. I think that’s why he doesn’t socialise much with the others; I think their humour’s just too rough and ready for him.’

‘And what do you do, Mrs Lane?’

‘Oh I don’t work, I have my hands full looking after that pair.’ She said this with a glowing pride, and also a return of her upset, it perhaps coming home to her that the chances were her boy would not be there for her to look after again this evening, as he wasn’t the last.

Knowing there was basic information yet to be asked after, Cori ground on with the interview,

‘Mrs Lane,’ she resumed, ‘when on Tuesday did you first realise there was a problem?’

‘When he didn’t come home.’

‘And this would have been when?’

‘He likes to walk home if it’s bright weather, otherwise he gets the bus and gets in a bit earlier. So I didn’t start to miss him until about… six thirty maybe?’

‘And does he have a phone with him, and would he call you if there was a problem?’

‘Yes, he has a phone, but he never needs to call me much.’

‘If you could give us the number, and we can check it out.’

The lady took a small address book or diary, from her bag and dutifully recited the number for the Constable.

‘And does he have a computer? Does he use the Internet?’ These days this was as important a question as any, but in this case yielded few clues,

‘He did have a computer when he was young, for playing games you know? But he prefers to use the one at work now. He said it was faster. He sometimes orders books, they come in the post.’

‘Right. So he is never on a computer at home?’

‘No, not any more.’

Well, Cori thought, that didn’t entirely rule out email contacts and social networking sites,

‘So,’ she reiterated, ‘he does have a phone, but he doesn’t need to call you very often because he rarely stays out after work?’

‘Yes. Apart from on Monday.’

‘What, this Monday?’

‘Yes, but not just this week. The Monday before the last Friday of every month. He has an important task that day, something to do with their finances. He tells me about it, but I’m so busy when he comes in. Sometimes it keeps him there late, and he gets so stressed before and after.’

‘So, he was late home on the Monday of this week, and that was last night you saw him?’

‘Yes. But he is always late that day, so I wasn’t worried about that. I leave his tea in the oven, cook him something that can stay warm and won’t go funny.’

‘And so what time was he home?’

‘Oh, getting on for nine it must have been. He didn’t want his tea in the end, he said he had grabbed something in town, which didn’t sound like him.’ The woman looked as if she was about to start crying again.

‘And how did he seem to you?’

‘Well, tired; and if I am honest, a bit snappy — he hardly gave his father the time of day when he came in. He went up to his room like I haven’t seen him do since he was a teenager.

‘So he seemed stressed. Would you say uncommonly so?’

‘Well, maybe a bit. But he has that in him, that snappiness, when he is asked to do more than usual at the office, when he feels pressurised.’

‘So that was Monday, and then he didn’t come home on Tuesday. Was your husband working that day? Was he due to come home with Tom?’

‘The factory work different shifts. They don’t do nine to five, so he wouldn’t be getting ready to go home till eight.’

‘You must have been very worried. Were you at home alone?’

‘Oh yes, there’s just the three of us there.’

‘You don’t have any other children?’

‘No, but not by design. I’d have loved a couple more, but, well, sometimes it just doesn’t happen.’

‘So you waited for your husband?’

‘Yes. I thought that if anything had happened at the plant, if Tom had had to stay behind again, or whatever had happened, then Philip might know about it.’

‘And did he know anything?’

‘No. He didn’t even know Tom hadn’t already come home as usual.’

‘Is that common, that they don’t speak much at work?’

‘The factory and the office don’t always have much to do with each other. I often know more about what each are up to than the other.’

‘And then what?’

‘Well it was near on nine o’clock by that time; I hardly knew who to call or what to do. I called the office, even though Philip said it was daft and that there would be no one there. Which there wasn’t.’

‘What about friends, relatives, people he might have gone to?’

‘Well we don’t have many relatives in the area; all mine are in Leicester, and we don’t see them very much. Philip’s family are a mixed bag, and scattered to the four corners. I couldn’t imagine Thomas would have gone to any of them, even in the direst straights.’

‘But friends?’

‘Yes, I was just getting to those. There are a couple of lads he knows, or knew, I should say; old school pals he would go for a drink with sometimes. I had to hunt their numbers down, and then I wished I hadn’t: one of their mothers told me her son didn’t even work in the area anymore; and the other one I tracked down hadn’t seen Thomas for months. I tell you what, Sergeant…’ she floundered for the name.

‘Smith,’ added Cori.

‘…Sergeant Smith, I felt so low at that point, pestering these people getting ready for bed who hadn’t a clue about Thomas’ whereabouts these last six months or more, let alone that night.’

‘Oh, dear Mrs Long, please take a tissue,’ the Constable jumped in upon seeing the lady’s distress. Cornelia sat back a moment, as Mrs Long wiped her eyes and blew her nose, wondering what she herself made of all this; and what Grey would think when she reported it back to him; and whether it was something like what he was expecting, if only to justify whatever sixth sense he had of trouble at the plant?

‘So, all avenues exhausted after your enquiries last night, you left it at that?’

‘Well I didn’t want to trouble the police unnecessarily; and I didn’t know how long he had to be missing before you’d, you know…’

‘Before we’d class him as a missing person? I understand. And I suppose,’ offered Cori as a stab at leavening the saddened tone, ‘there was always the remotest chance he could still roll in at some late hour?’

However not even the boy’s poor mother seemed to think this very likely, although at least it made her smile in reminiscence,

‘You know, you wouldn’t think it to see him now, but my Philip was a devil to his old Mum when he was young; he used to come in at all hours, half the time after stopping out with me! I tell you, had this been him gone missing back then, his mother wouldn’t even have been worried about him yet.’ But no sooner had her flashback taken Mrs Long to something like what Cornelia imagined might have been her old self, then the floodgates opened afresh, requiring from the Constable another tissue. But nearly done now, Cori thought, and then the lady could cry her heart out.

‘Well, for the record,’ began Cori, to break the silence, ‘you can call us any time, day or night, and at the very least we can advise you or refer you to someone who can help. But you did call in this morning? What time was that?’

‘Well,’ she resumed, her attempts at composure at best intermittent now, ‘I called his office first, as soon as I though anyone would be in.’

‘And still he hadn’t come home. It must have been a long night?’

‘I swear, I did not sleep a wink. Anyway, I tried Aubrey’s a couple of times; and then at eight o’clock one of the secretaries answered the phone — poor girl, they must have been working her ragged to have her in that early. Anyway, she was very sympathetic, but thought that she remembered Tom leaving as normal yesterday. She was very worried when I told her he hadn’t come home at all. She said though that the person I needed to speak to was their boss, who was never in that early on the best of days, but who she would pass my details onto as soon as he came in, which should only be within the next couple of hours at the latest.’

‘And who is their boss?’

‘Oh, Alex Aubrey. He manages the office staff himself.’

‘Of course. Pray, go on.’ Cori considered, with this latest nugget of information, that the case might interest Grey after all.

‘Anyway, I hadn’t heard anything after a bit, so I called again, and got the same girl, worried herself that Mr Aubrey hadn’t come in yet, and beginning to feel bad that she hadn’t found anyone able to help me. She said she would call him at home, and for me to call her back in twenty minutes, and only then if someone hadn’t called me before then. Well, I felt bad chasing her when she was only chasing someone else herself. But you can guess — I didn’t hear any more after twenty minutes, and then half an hour, and then three quarters. So I called again and got an engaged tone. So I left it another five minutes, and then by the time I did get through the girl was really beginning to fret. She said she was very sorry, but that Mr Aubrey wouldn’t be coming in today after all; that she had just spoken to Mrs Aubrey, who told her that her husband had had a fall and hurt himself, and as they were going on to a business trip to London later that day anyway, they were going to leave straight from the hospital!

‘Well, I think everything happening at once had overcome her. The poor girl was almost in hysterics, in fact I quite forgot why I was calling her! I tried to calm her, and I wish I’d been there, for it is so hard to offer a shoulder over the phone don’t you find? I got the impression that Mrs Aubrey had been in something a state herself, and that it was all happening just as we were talking.’

Cornelia felt the pace of things quickening, and the need to wrap this interview up quickly,

‘So, what happened then?’

‘Well,’ continued Mrs Long, ‘the girl had quietened down a little, but there didn’t seem to be anyone there with her. So I stayed on the line a little longer, what with her being so upset. I guessed no one there could help me, and so once she was settled I wished her well, and got ready to come and speak to you.’

‘And what time was it by now?’

‘Well, by the time I got off the phone it was after half-nine! I got dressed, and got a few things in I needed for Philip, and made him his breakfast (he was still sleeping in you see, he does on twelve till eights) and I went to catch the bus.’

‘You went shopping before you caught the bus? Sorry, I don’t mean to…’

‘No, I meant to say, well, the bus is only every hour, and after nine o’clock it’s not the speediest vehicle once you’re on it, hence my getting here when I did.’

Cori thought she could trust the Constable from here on in, with the collating of the minutiae of Thomas Long’s life: schools, doctors, trouble as a teenager. There wasn’t likely, she intuited, to be very much of interest falling under these headings, or indeed in any other category of Thomas Long’s life, at least not up until these last two days.

‘Well, thank you Mrs Long.’ Cori rose. ‘I’m going to leave you with the Constable to go through some more details, and then perhaps we can arrange another cup of tea. And I see you’ve brought a picture, which is very good.’ She looked at the wanly smiling your man at the centre of the family portrait; his beaming mother holding tightly the sleeve of what must have been his best suit, his hair more managed than styled, his face friendly in a way you couldn’t really argue with, stood between his parents in the kind of family pose she had seen often, yet which her family had never in her youth gone in for.

‘You won’t need to cut the photo up will you?’ asked Mrs Long, fresh tears poised at the corners of her eyes, as the Constable gently prised the frame from her grasp.

‘No, not at all. We can scan it into the computer. You can have it back today. It will be fine.’

Meanwhile Cornelia bade Mrs Long good afternoon as she turned to leave the room.

‘Do you have children?’

Cori was caught out by the question,

‘Yes, yes I do: two, a boy and a girl.’

‘He is the light of my life, my Thomas. Please find him for me.’

‘We will,’ Cori assured her, and thinking they had a fair bit to go on headed toward the door.

‘So what happens now, Sergeant?’ the lady asked after her as she was half-way out of the room. Cori turned and answered,

‘What happens now? I go and speak to the Inspector, and then we start to look for your son.’

And speak to the Inspector was exactly what Cornelia intended to, however on exiting the interview room she was presented by the officers at the front desk with the same information Grey had just this minute been given, and which had prompted him to leave so suddenly: namely that the Aubreys had been seen this morning at the town’s Infirmary.

Chapter 3 — Initial Enquiries

It was a call from a fellow officer, received at the station during the interview with Ms Long, that led the Inspector to the Southney amp; District Infirmary this lunchtime: a call to the effect that Alex and Sheila Aubrey had been seen at the hospital just now, he in a bad way it seemed; and, remembered the Constable, hadn’t the Inspector been asking after the Aubreys just the day before?

He had indeed been asking after them, and so no sooner had the message reached him than, realising time may be of the essence, he had headed over there without delay — Cori would have to fill him in later with the finishing details of the interview with the missing man’s mother.

Grey had set off on foot, the hospital being only five minute’s walk away, and so as quick to travel this way than to exit one carpark and pull up in another. He paused only to leave word of his destination at the desk for Cori once she had finished.

He arrived there breathless, having walked quite quickly, finding the waiting squad car and climbing into the passenger seat. It was parked, as was their right, in the crosshatched area at the front of the building reserved for ambulances and paramedics, and beneath the huge white signs, Casualty pointing one way, Outpatients the other.

‘Hello Sir, that was quick,’ spoke the Constable who had relayed the message.

‘So what’s been happening?’ asked Grey. Through the windscreen his eyes scanned the figures moving across the carpark and through the hospital’s large automatic doors.

‘I think we’ve just missed them, Sir. The Aubreys.’

‘Damn. Where were you then?’ Grey didn’t wish to sound too critical, but…

‘Well, we were here with old Baxter. He’d had a fall.’ Old Baxter, though dismissed by the uncharitable of the district as the town tramp, was to the town’s officers a constant cause of effort and consternation, expended in an ongoing operation to protect him from himself.

‘What happened to him?’ Grey was genuinely concerned, even in his frustration.

‘He’d been causing some trouble in the High Street, outside the shops. We were called, but by the time we’d got there he’d already managed to get hit by the van delivering papers to the newsagents.’

‘Christ. How is he?’

‘Fine, fine, so the nurses say. He fell into the van more than anything, and it had already almost pulled up to unload. They are keeping him in for a day or two.’ The young man nodded toward the building. ‘He’s very sedated. They’re taking the chance to give him a wash.’ Each man privately shuddering at the prospect. No one knew how old he was, or even if Baxter was his real name. The man himself, wrapped up in his own world of insights and outbusts, would have had no more idea of the disproportionate amounts of time and effort dispensed in his care.

‘A life without walls,’ Grey mused.

‘Sorry Sir?’

‘Nothing, ignore me. So, the Aubreys?’ There was no need to rush now, the quarry having fled.

‘They were here when we got here. He’d already been seen. In fact they were pretty much ready to leave; just waiting to be issued some tablets at the dispensary.’

‘How did he look?’

‘Well he had a plaster over his eye and bandage around his left arm. His shirt still had blood all over it.’

‘And in himself?’

‘A bit panicked, to be honest sir, his wife worse than him. He just seemed keen to get back to work, “too many meetings!” he was saying. Anyway, I called in to the station as soon as I had a chance. It wasn’t easy though — Baxter had his second wind by then, and he was taking a bit of holding down for the nurses to look at him.’

‘That’s okay. So you didn’t get a chance to speak to Alex Aubrey?’

‘No Sir, but I spoke after to one of the nurses who had seen him…’

‘Cartwright, what have I told you about tapping up nurses?’

‘…who told me he had needed a couple of stitches above his eye, and his hand was pretty cut up too. He’d told them he’d had a fall, but the nurse told me if those injuries were from a fall then he must have fallen into a greenhouse! They would have preferred to keep him in for observation — head injury, you know — but the pair were desperate to get away.’

‘Thank you,’ said Grey as he went to get out of the car, ‘but hang around won’t you — I’ll need you again.’

‘No problem, Sir,’ Grey heard as he went thought the double doors, and asked at the reception to speak to the doctor on watch.

‘Dr Okanu will be with you soon,’ the receptionist said with a smile after a whispered call on her headset, the Inspector glad to hear the name; and sure enough a minute later a besmocked medical profession appeared, greeting Grey on first name terms, and ushering him through into her office.

‘Coffee?’ she asked.

‘No, thank you. I can’t stop. Next time, I promise. But for now I was hoping you could spare a couple of minutes?’

‘Of course. How can I help?’

‘Well, I was hoping to ask you about Alex Aubrey?’

‘Well, you know I can’t tell you very much, what with patient confidentiality.’

‘He was here just though wasn’t he, cuts to his face and hand, claimed to have had a fall?’

‘Well, you seem to know almost as much as I do, Inspector!’

‘The Constable saw his injuries,’ continued Grey, ‘so you won’t be giving anything away.’

‘But you think there might be more to it that a fall? He and Mrs Aubrey did seem worried,’ the Doctor reflected. ‘They aren’t in trouble, are they?’

‘I don’t know. But it would help if I had a clearer idea of what had happened to him?’

The Doctor pondered on the question, stretching back in her chair before she answered, ‘They feel the need to make an excuse, those who come here with suspicious injuries. They know and we know that they didn’t walk into something, or trip up and fall over. But it eases the situation, to have this white lie believed.

‘He told the nurses he had fallen while carrying a drinks tumbler. Now, he had cuts to both hand and face. As they cleaned him up a grain of glass was found in the facial wound, it close enough to the eye to require my supervision in removing it. All this from one drinking glass? Now, there are some very random injuries to be had out there, Inspector; but a tale like that only comes from someone who hasn’t had time or opportunity to think up one better.’

‘So what might be more likely, do you think?’

‘Flying glass is my best guess, a broken window maybe? A larger piece could have broke off in the wound, leaving the tip.’

‘That’s nasty.’

‘And pure speculation, mind. Now let me put it another way: I have served enough Saturday nights in Casualty to recognise when someone’s been hit with a drinking glass and hit hard. These were straight cuts, not curved.

‘What’s he involved in, Inspector?’ asked the Doctor, suddenly realising what she was describing.

‘I don’t know yet.’

‘Well,’ she jumped up to her feet, confirming the circle of confidence was broken enough for today, ‘I trust at least I’ll never hear another word of this conversation spoken of anywhere.’

But she knew him better than that, as shaking hands, he thanked her, and wished her well until the next time they met. As he left Grey wondered if it hadn’t been a terrific stroke of luck, old Baxter’s injuries notwithstanding, to have had an officer here just in time to catch the Aubreys’ visit.

Unlike the Longs with their hour-long bus route (for he had caught that part of Mrs L’s interview) he and the waiting Constable were now heading at pace along broad roads and out into open country. He knew the address that Mrs Long had given the Desk Sergeant to be in an area not without its charms but very rural, with its metal barns, chicken farms, and roots in agriculture. This was not at all like the acres from which the Aubreys hailed, and which they were themselves now entering. For the Aubreys, though also living outside of the town, were in a quite different part of the countryside; an area of moderate to large houses, golf greens, and ornamental lakes — Southney’s answer to the stockbroker belt.

Grey noted the two areas were reached by quite different roads, which, when triangulated in his mind, struck him as taking at least as long to get to from each other as from town. He wasn’t sure yet if this would be important. He also speculated as they drove as to whether Thomas Long’s disappearance and whatever had just occurred at the Aubrey house were linked? But it was too early for that kind of thinking.

‘Just pull up here,’ Grey instructed the Constable, he deciding it better to approach in something like a civilian manner rather than in a squad car. For if the Aubreys hadn’t wanted to report a crime at the hospital, he thought, then they might not appreciate the police’s involvement now. But that was fine, for he could be subtle when required. The key was going to be convincing the couple that he was only here to ask about Thomas Long.

However, Grey’s consideration proved unnecessary; for as he walked along the broad curving drive that met the glassy front porch of the large and unusually designed house, it was obvious that no one was at home — no lights on, no windows opened; only uncollected letters poking from their slot, which if their postie came about the same time as his, supposed the Inspector, then the couple had been gone since before ten or eleven that morning.

He rang the bell anyway, but hardly waited for an answer before moving on. It was only as he turned from the porch that he noticed one of the panels of the lounge window beside it was not glass but rather white plastic, filled in expertly, and much more subtly than the tradition chipboard panel, and leaving a reflective impression not unlike the glass remaining around it. They had filled that in quickly, he thought.

Around the side of the house, between the double garage and the wall ran a path connecting the front and back gardens. And it was on this path that Grey saw dark spots dotted along the slabs, and brown splashes by them on the house’s whitewashed wall. They could as easily have been the slops of a tin of creosote as the trail of a bleeding man struggling to his car.

Treading carefully, Grey continued on to the golf fairway of a rear garden, the lawn of which seemed to move and undulate as he walked along its edge, the whole space enclosed by centuries-old trees. The kitchen window had a pane missing also, the damage more recent though, a last shard still clinging to the frame; and as he moved to peer through the hole he saw further shattered pieces strewn across the kitchen table amid the remnants of breakfast; bacon gone crinkly, shrivelled up eggs, plates that might need a few spins in the dishwasher. And here the parts of the drama of that morning came together in his mind, Grey envisioning Alex Aubrey sat there eating, suddenly hit by whatever had just come through the window, as well as by the windowpane itself, his wife thrown into panic and bundling him into the car. The thrower could have hid behind any number of shrubs or garden features. What a bloody coward.

As he stood there the Inspector heard an engine stop outside; and walking back to the driveway met a fellow emerging from a glaziers’ van with a piece of his white plastic and a tool bag,

‘I’ve come to board another window up for you, mate!’ he called gratingly. ‘Round the back, this one, wasn’t it?’

Grey was caught off guard.

‘That was what you asked for, wasn’t it mate? When you called?’

The Inspector drew his badge, the easier to explain who he was and what right he had to be there.

‘Oh aye? Not surprised you lot are out here. What’s going on then? Someone got it on for them, do you reckon? Who is it lives here anyway?’

Grey ignored the man’s questions, asking himself, ‘When was the first one?’

‘Oh, yesterday, we were called first thing, happened in the night sometime.’

‘Did it really? And then this morning another, around the back this time?’

‘Funny business alright. So, you’re okay for me to..?’

There having been no crime reported, therefore no evidence to disturb, Grey said, ‘Yes, go ahead. But it’s a bit of a mess around there, so be careful. Don’t touch anything you don’t have to.’

‘No worries, mate. Be patched up for you in a jiffy!’

As the glazier headed down the path, Grey lingered on the drive awhile, pondering. He walked back along the road, and guessing where Cornelia would have headed, asked the Constable to drive him to the plant.

Chapter 4 — The Office Ladies

Directly from the interview with Mrs Long, and knowing Grey had already headed off to the Infirmary to cover the Alex Aubrey angle, Cornelia drove the short distance to the small mingling of plant and factory spaces to the north of the town. It has never been the prettiest of districts, she remembered from past visits, but reflected as she neared her destination that it certainly wasn’t getting any prettier. Sites were falling empty, others in mothballs. The length of the grasses growing through the cracks in the concrete forecourts and up the sides of bunkered buildings, seemed to her the surest sign of how long it had been since anyone had bothered to employ even basic upkeep on some of these once-proud industrial locations.

She recalled being told how this whole area had once been an aerodrome, quite famous in the War, and that some of the oldest buildings dated from that time. As she watched from her car’s tinted windows, she passed a concrete shed beside a row of Nissen hut-like structures, the legend Porter’s Precision Bearings borne upon a sign hanging at an unhealthy angle. Even the pouring sun brought no joy to the scene, the dust-blown drive and peeling off-white paint giving her the impression of some outback supply depot, as her shiny modern car slunk past. There were though signs of life amongst the relics: men with grimy faces stood by cavernous doors, others in clean overalls chatting and smoking, vans by bright newer buildings bringing goods; and from the more industrious locations, the sounds of grinding and firing as sparks flew from archways.

She hadn’t driven to the Aubrey’s site before and so was trusting the Desk Sergeant’s directions, which though they turned out to be good were not exact. The road she found herself on seemed to be taking her on around a giant curve, before for some hundred metres it ran alongside an articulated lorry-loading station that shocked her at the scale of it. She was almost delivered back onto the main road she had earlier turned off, before she found the end of the loading depot. There beside it, older but of greater stature, stood the short but ornate row of windowed offices, huge red logo atop them, that fronted the factory and workshops of Aubrey Electricals.

The receptionist was politeness herself, and at the sight of Cornelia’s badge showed her up the stairs and past a couple of what Cori considered to be suspiciously empty-looking rooms, before leading her right into the main open-plan office itself, where even here only two were toiling in the shade of long blinds.

‘It’s always like this at lunchtime,’ smiled the receptionist, pretty in her summer dress, Cori wishing her job didn’t have her in a suit even in this unseasonably bright weather. Poor woman though, Cori thought, putting a brave face on the fact these two women were the only ones in an office that should have held a dozen or more.

‘Hello, I’m Sergeant Smith,’ she began, addressing the women, the receptionist absenting herself before Cori noticed she had gone. She selected a nearby empty chair to sit down. ‘I wonder if either of you knew that your colleague Thomas Long has been reported missing by his mother?’

‘I know,’ began a small girl with long straight hair hanging in a centre-parting that threatened at any moment to join at the front and cover her face entirely. ‘I spoke to his mum this morning, she was worried about him.’

‘Yes, it’s a terrible business,’ agreed a middle-aged lady whose figure suggested to Cori that her time not spent behind her desk was spent in a no less sedentary position away from work. ‘We’ve been talking about it today, haven’t we Cynth?’

‘Cynthia, is it?’ asked Cori turning back to the girl, she nodding in confirmation. ‘You spoke to Mrs Long this morning, and I believe you told her that you were here yesterday when Thomas left work?’ She girl was so small and frail-looking that Cori imagined herself addressing her as she would a child, the older colleague in this scenario filling the role of responsible adult.

‘Yes,’ began Cynthia, ‘we said goodbye and he left as normal.’

‘And what time was this?’

‘About five I think. Yes, it must have been, because I had to call my agency just after.’

‘And did he say if he was up to anything that evening?’

‘No. I don’t think he did.’

‘He’s not always the most communicative, is our Tom,’ the older woman cut in. ‘He’s a lovely lad, don’t get me wrong. But you’re not always sure what he’s thinking.’

‘And how did he seem to you before he left?’ Cori wanted Cynthia’s impressions before moving to her partner.

‘He just seemed normal.’

‘And in general, workwise?’

‘Well, he was a bit… you know, but no more than normal on a payroll week.’ Her words, spoken down at the floor and through that parted veil of hair, were barely audible.

‘Payroll?’

‘Oh, the payroll.’ This was the older woman again, seemingly no more comfortable than her colleague, but eager to talk. ‘Tom always runs the payroll on the last week in the month.’

‘What that was he doing just before he left?’

‘Since Monday, yes. It runs him ragged, doesn’t it Cynth? He takes it on his shoulders. He’s a very hard worker.’

Cori’s pencil flickered across the pages of her notebook.

‘And what was your name, Mrs..?’

‘Gail, Gail Marsh. Senior Administrator.’

‘So he is usually very reliable?’

‘Oh, he is that. Lovely lad, lovely to work with. You never have to worry about him, you know? Not like some of these young ones, off for cigarette breaks, chatting up the girls, half of my time spent trying to keep track of them. So shy though. He wouldn’t say boo to a goose; and the factorymen are devils with him. I think that’s why he likes it up here. We look after him though, don’t we Cynthia? We send them away with a flea in their ear if they give him any gyp.’

‘So he was working on the payroll this week; and was that what kept him here late on Monday, Mrs Marsh?’

‘Yes, he may have stayed on an hour or two after me. Perhaps till six or seven?’ Gail looked to Cynthia for confirmation, but the girl could offer none.

‘Would anyone else have been working that late, Mr Aubrey perhaps?’

‘Oh no, he wasn’t there at that time — he’s been in and out of the office a lot lately; meetings, you know.’

‘So would anyone have been here who might have seen him leave; just so we can follow his movements?’

Gail Marsh suddenly looked worried. ‘Well, you can see,’ she made a sweeping gesture with her arm, ‘we’re rather thin on the ground at the moment. What with the holidays, and the sunny weather.’

‘Yes, I did notice the empty rooms.’

‘Oh, they’re being emptied to be redecorated. Don’t pay any attention to them.’

Cori didn’t need her experience in the job to tell her when she was being lied to, and by one so poor at it. But it was a good lie, a kind lie, a joshing, covering lie. The woman had pride in Aubrey’s, and in her colleagues, and didn’t want the cracks to show behind their wallpaper.

Into the second’s silence Cori’s cogitating caused, young Cynthia, sad throughout, had produced a hankie and looked ready to resume the tears of earlier that day.

‘Poor love. You’ve had a horrible morning, haven’t you pet,’ Gail burst in. ‘I could curse myself, picking this morning to take poor Reggie to the vets,’ lamented the older woman.

Knowing this was an area the Inspector would be sure to have wanted her to have asked about, Cori took her chance,

‘So, Cynthia, Mrs Long told me you had spoken to Mrs Aubrey this morning?’

‘Yes, she was upset too.’

Speaking slowly and directly to Cynthia, Cori asked her to try and remember just what Mrs Aubrey had said, without thinking about the things that made her upset; no feelings, just the words.

‘Well,’ the girl began hesitantly, ‘she was trying to be calm at first, talking as if Mr Aubrey might just be a bit late in. But then she was sobbing and saying, “he’s hurt, he’s hurt.” And then… she got a bit more upset, and I didn’t know what to do.’

‘You’re doing brilliantly, keep going,’ Gail encouraged, before saying herself,

‘But the upshot of it all is he’s gone straight of to London today, when if I’m honest, we could have done with him being right here,’ a glance around the room bare of people making clear her feelings.

‘So, what’s he like to work for?’ continued Cori.

The women looked at each other in uneasy silence.

‘Please don’t think you’re betraying anyone by answering,’ the Sergeant plugged on. ‘Have there any difficulties with the staff lately, any arguments, disputes with the boss?’

But still there was no answer.

‘There must be something,’ Cori urged. ‘Grumbles, whispers, gossip on tea breaks?’

‘Well, I’m sure it is the same at companies the world over,’ answered Gail Marsh at last, slightly defensively though, as if Cori herself with her questions wished to drive a wedge into the heart of their company unity. ‘There will always be someone saying something about the management. Mr Aubrey is a good boss, firm but fair. He’s always done right by us.’

Cori decided to risk it, the one last big question, ‘So, there’s no truth then in the rumours of job cuts?’

‘And who’s been rumouring that, I wonder?’ Gail Marsh was on the warpath now. ‘I learnt long ago not to trust half of what people say they know about such things as they weren’t in the boardroom themselves to hear.’

No closer to knowing if the men in the pub really lost their jobs, and sure that this line of questioning was getting her nowhere, Cori returned to safer ground,

‘What would really help us is if you could tell me some more about Thomas.’

‘Of course,’ assented Gail, her tone instantly lightening.

‘So, how long have you worked with him?’

‘Oh, I’ve been here forever it feels like. Cynthia’s been here about two months, isn’t it love?’

The girl nodded in agreement.

‘You’re helping us out, aren’t you,’ said Gail to Cynthia, before turning back to Cori. ‘All the other girls left, claimed they were being worked to hard, but Cynthia here’s been a little Godsend; does the work of two others, doesn’t mind staying over.’

‘And so Thomas has worked here a while now?’

‘Five or six years. Started as a boy. I think it’s the only job he’s ever had.’

‘And has Tom always had his same job here?’

‘Yes, he runs the office with me, but he’s the best on the computers. Between you and me, Alex Aubrey wouldn’t know one end of a laptop from the other.’

‘And in that time has Tom had any troubles or issues?’

‘Tom? No, never. Straight as a die. The only trouble he ever has is when any of the lads downstairs get restless… and as I say, that’s just in fun.’

‘And does he see it as fun?’

‘Well, perhaps not as much as the lads do, but it’s very rare and if I’m here I send them off.’

‘Has anything like this happened in say the last couple of weeks?’

‘You know… well it wasn’t anything really.’

‘Go on,’ urged Cori, intrigued.

‘Well as I say, Tom always gets a bit stressed when its payroll week, the last in each month.’

‘Tell me a bit about that.’

‘Well, he’s the best with the computers. Alex hasn’t got a clue, and I’m not much help I’m afraid. But he’ll be head down over the keyboard, making sure he gets it exactly right, because if he gets it wrong…’

‘The staff aren’t paid enough?’

‘Or too much, which is just as bad.’

‘And this has happened before?’ Cori guessed so from Gail’s tone.

‘Yes, about a year ago. Tom doesn’t make many mistakes, but when he did, wow. He somehow paid a whole team — about thirty men — two months’ salary instead of one. It went through on their payslips, and the bank transfers had happened before we discovered it. He was so embarrassed. We told them right away, but a few of the men made a play of not wanting to give the extra back. Alex had to step in and tell them to stop playing silly beggers; and it was only that Tom would have taken a rollicking so badly that held Alex back from giving him one.’

‘It must have really upset Thomas?’

‘Oh, it did Tom a lot of harm, he was quiet for days after, and the next month he was a bag of nerves, triple checking everything, here till seven one evening.’

‘And have there been any problems since?’

‘No, and there had never ever been before, it was complete one-off.’

‘And Tom was running these same processes this week?’

‘Yes, he would have been.’

‘And how did he seem?’

‘Well, he’s always occupied by it, it takes over his day. And later on Monday I think one of the lads was up here, asking him for their payslip.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘Well, we start the inputting and checking on Monday, then during the week payslips are printed and handed out, and then the money arrives in all our accounts for Friday. But sometimes some of the lads come by early to see if the payslips are ready yet.’

‘Even on Monday?’

‘Yes, if they are working late enough. If all goes well we can start printing them as early as that afternoon.’

‘And someone was here asking for theirs late on Monday?’

‘Well, it was just Chris from the shopfloor. I passed him as I was leaving. I can’t think of any other reason why he’d be coming up here at that time.’

‘And you didn’t hear the conversation?’

‘No, as I say, I was on my way out, I already had my bag and coat.’

As this point, the underlying tension that Cori had detected at times in Gail’s manner and voice broke the surface stillness, as she finally admitted what was worrying her,

‘I’m afraid, Sergeant, that it all might have something to do with this, you see.’

‘What has, Mrs Marsh?’

‘Well, I’m sorry to say they still aren’t ready. The payslips!’

Cori made notes as the story unfolded.

‘Tom was having trouble with them, you could see that. He’d stayed late on Monday, and was so stressed first thing Tuesday. I was getting worried for him. But then Mr Aubrey came in, late as it happened, he and his wife all flustered — they’ve been in a funny mood all week, to be honest — and whatever conversation they had, Tom looked happier afterward, as if Mr Aubrey had said he would look into it for him. He’s good like that: no matter what work he has on, you can ask his help or opinion.

‘I wasn’t so worried at the time, Sergeant, I mean it was only Tuesday and we had all week to fix the payroll. But that was yesterday morning, and whatever issues there were still hadn’t been resolved by hometime. And now today neither of them are in.’

‘So what does this mean, as it stands? Are people going to get paid?’ Cori spoke with authority though in a field where she possessed none.

‘I don’t know,’ Gail fretted, ‘I can’t work the program — his computer is linked to the bank. Oh, Tom! He’s so reliable. I can’t believe he hasn’t come in today.’

‘Well, that might not be through his choice.’ That these were the wrong words, the Sergeant realised the instant Cynthia brought her hands and her hankie to her face and burst out crying again. Cori feared the older lady might dissolve into tears also, but Gail just about kept going,

‘“One of them will be here this morning to sort it out,” I said to myself as I was walking into town today. And then I got here from the vets, and there was poor Cynthia in tears, telling me Tom hadn’t come home last night and the Aubrey’s had gone straight to London, not to be seen at all today. But we didn’t panic, did we,’ she held the crying girl’s hand. ‘We kept calm and made a decision.’

‘And that was?’

‘We hired someone, from that computer company, the one just off the High Street?’ Cori knew the one. ‘They’re sending an expert, the fellow on the phone said. He’ll be here this afternoon. You don’t think we overreached ourselves? But what could we do? There was no one here to ask.’

‘Not at all. That sounds very sensible. And it will help us: if we find out what was going wrong, then we might knew better what was on Tom’s mind.’

‘You don’t think… I mean, he wasn’t under that much pressure, was he?’ Gail by now seemed to have lost all her desire to look on the bright side, and was instead facing the very worst possibilities.

‘There’s no evidence of any harm done, Mrs Marsh.’

‘What do you think’s happened to him, Miss?’ This was Cynthia, the first words she had uttered for several minutes. So desperately did the young woman want something to cling to, that Cori felt drawn to abandon the reserve an officer should retain at such times, at least briefly enough for a spot of hopeful speculation,

‘My honest opinion?’ And it was her honest opinion. ‘From what I have heard of Thomas this morning, from his mother and yourselves, he sounds like a nice lad. I think he likes his life, he likes working here with you. I think that if the payroll went wrong again, then perhaps he felt under pressure. Perhaps he ran away.’ Cynthia smiled at this, as the three sat pondering Tom’s state of mind awhile, before the professional in Cornelia gathered the reigns afresh,

‘Right, if this IT expert is due soon I think we might wait for him. Now I have to make a call, but before I go, I’d be grateful for the full name of the man who spoke with Thomas on Monday evening.’

Gail quickly spoke for Cori to record in her notebook: Chris Barnes it had been that evening, and his mate Larry Dunn had also been asking on Tuesday morning, if it made any difference. The women were keen to follow the instructions of the obviously competent officer, who they had over the course of their interview come to trust as one who might actually figure out some of the confusion swirling around them.

‘And you’ll let us know if you hear anything, won’t you?’ asked Gail.

‘Of course, it goes without saying.’ Cori turned to leave and find a quiet corner to make her call, which in this haunted shell of a building wouldn’t be hard, and was almost gone when a quiet voice said,

‘I hope he’s alright.’

Cori turned quickly.

‘Tom. I hope he’s alright.’

‘You like him a lot, don’t you?’ Cori read from the poor girl’s demeanour. So small was the young typist, that in this tearful state she seemed crushed, compacted by events.

Cynthia only nodded at first, before confirming in a near-whisper, ‘Yes, I do. We all do…’ and at this she burst into a flurry of tears, and was almost instantly gathered up into Gail’s arms.

‘Look after her,’ Cornelia suggested needlessly.

‘I will do,’ said Gail, through the mess of Cynthia’s hair held tightly to her; and the two women smiled sadly at each other, as Cori turned and left the room.

Cornelia knew that from that point on that she would be doing all she could to look for Thomas Long; and not only because it was her duty, or because it was what the police did, or even for the lad’s own good. She would be doing it for these different women so saddened by his vanishing; for Gail and Cynthia, and especially Mrs Long, whose own interview had moved her so mere hours before. How lucky he was, she thought, to be so cared for and so missed, his mere absence making of these women’s eyes wet wells, drawing water from the lake of deepest pity. She would find Tom, she knew it, and she would find him for these women.

Chapter 5 — Experts…

Cornelia called to find Grey was already on his way back into town in the squad car. She stood in the carpark to meet him, the IT consultant arriving as she waited. There was also a fellow from the force’s own HR staff, Cori having called the station asking for the most technically-minded one there to get here, just in case they could be of any help.

‘Is Aubrey here?’ asked Grey, as he jumped out and thanked his driver, releasing him to his usual duties.

‘No. He was due in, before he had to go to hospital.’

‘We just missed him there, and there’s no one at home.’

‘The office staff say he’s in London on a business trip.’

‘Then it doesn’t look as though we’re going to see him today. He was attacked, you know, although he didn’t report it at the Infirmary. Looks like someone’s been throwing stones at the house, and caught him a cropper this morning. Pretty yellow, if you ask me. What have you got?’

Cori filled him in on the life and times of Thomas Long. ‘But his colleagues,’ she concluded, ‘say he seemed less stressed yesterday, and confirm he left normally around five.’

‘That makes the envelope about twenty hours.’

‘Oh yes, and you’ll like this, sir: Alex Aubrey is his line manager, they work together in the office. And this is the most interesting thing,’ she added before they went in. ‘Thomas Long was running the payroll process on Monday.’

‘And?’

‘And it didn’t go right. They’ve booked an IT consultant to come in and fix it.’

He congratulated her on her work, as they turned toward the building.

They entered, for the receptionist to rise at their arrival, ‘So this is the Inspector,’ she said, eyeing him greedily. ‘We are very glad for your help here.’

‘Hello again,’ smiled Cori, ‘Can you let us back up to the office please?’

The woman turned to lead them through the security doors and up toward the emptiness of office space above.

‘The IT people got here just before you,’ called Cori back along the stairs to Grey. ‘They should be setting up now.’

‘Thank you, you are very kind,’ offered Grey as the amenable lady left them at the second set of pass-locked doors.

‘It’s Shauna,’ she said, her eyes mauve-shadowed to match her dress.

‘Well, thank you Shauna,’ he said as he darted into the room, Cori trying not to smile too hard as she dashed in after him.

In the room that had seemed so empty there were now a knot of people, formed around one computer screen. The group comprised both the ladies Cori had met earlier, and two men, one much younger than the other.

‘It’s Gareth, from HR,’ said the lad, both detectives murmuring in semi-recognition. He stuck out his hand to each of them in turn. ‘They use the same system as the police,’ he offered cheerily. ‘It should be a doddle to get running.’

There was beside him a very serious-looking man concentrating on the screen. Grey considered, with his elbow-patched jacket and long hair balding above the temples, he looked like a lecturer from the Open University programs he had once stayed up so late to study.

‘Kenneth Pitt, IT Consultants, just off the High Street.’ His greeting didn’t include a handshake, his fingers occupied as they were at the keyboard.

‘And what is it exactly your company does?’ asked Grey.

‘We offer IT and administrative support for small and medium-sized businesses. Our services are used by four of the biggest private organisations in the town, as well as the bus company and borough libraries network. Our office can furnish you with references from each of them, stretching back up to fourteen years. As for myself, I have a PHD in Business Information Systems, as well as several more specific qualifications in this area,’ he added, gesturing to the computer.

Fine at a laptop, but not the most technologically savvy, Grey appreciated his role here was one of observer. ‘So, what’s happening now?’ he asked, hoping for an answer in the simplest terms possible.

‘Well,’ began Gareth from HR, ‘Gail has logged us onto the computer. And now Keith and I have been checking through the data Thomas left us. There is a file of all employees, and what they should be earning.’

‘And how does it look?’

‘It looks already checked and cross-checked,’ answered Keith Pitt without looking away from the screen. ‘He did a very good job in that respect. All that seems to be left is to run the actual process.’

That sounded simple enough, Grey thought, before the serious man continued: ‘He seems to have already attempted this twice. The attempts are recorded, but neither completed successfully.’

Grey was lost, but before he could ask for clarification Gareth from HR gave a commentary to help them out,

‘The system contacts the bank electronically, sending it the file of payments to be made and the accounts to send them to. If the file is incorrect then people get sent to much or too little.’

‘And why did it fail for Tom?’ This was Gail Marsh asking, following every word.

‘I must confess, at this point I do not know.’ Keith Pitt continued to stare at the screen.

‘Doesn’t it tell you?’ asked Grey.

‘Yes it does, Inspector, but it rather technical terms. That something threw a stick between the spokes is obvious, but it is hard to tell at precisely what point it failed.’

‘And how long will this thing take?’

‘A few minutes at most.’

‘And if it fails again?’

‘A little longer — it will keep retrying before it gives up. Right then, Inspector, I’m confirming this action will now send the file to the bank.’

‘Oh yes, fine by me,’ Grey agreed, realising they were waiting for his say so.

‘Very good,’ said the expert, as with the last few mouse and key clicks, various messages and egg-timer icons appeared on screen.

Cori pulled gently at Grey’s arm, and the pair moved a little way from the group.

‘I have just spoken to the receptionist downstairs,’ she began. Grey hadn’t even noted her absence. ‘Remember I told you two of the men who had been asking about their payslips? She confirms both men are here, and should be on shift for a couple more hours.’

‘Good. Then we can speak to them once this is sorted. And his father should be around here somewhere too.’

‘Philip Long is in a different part of the building,’ she confirmed.

‘Good. We ought to have a word with him while we’re here.’

‘Inspector,’ young Gareth interrupted, sooner than Grey would have credited. ‘Sorry for interrupting. We’re done now, if you want to come and see.’

The fellowship regathered before Keith Pitt’s, or more accurately Thomas Long’s, monitor, the contracted expert’s fingers hovering over the keyboard, as a system message bearing a red triangle appeared, beside some text too small for any but those sat at the screen to read.

‘It’s saying that there was a problem when attempting to release the money from the firm’s account to those of the recipients,’ Keith read, ‘and to contact the bank for more information.’

‘They’ve got no money?’ asked Gail, who had been watching things from her own desk, she with her own tasks to get on with.

‘Oh no,’ answered Gareth brightly, ‘the system doesn’t know that, it is not that intuitive — this message appears if there is any hitch. I’ve seen it myself, if there’s a number out of place or an option not selected.’

‘Yes,’ agreed Keith Pitt, in measured tones, ‘but we have checked and double-checked. The numbers are right.’

Grey and Cori stood helpless, control of the situation ceded to experts who weren’t sure what their screens were telling them. As the Sergeant waited she looked around the room: at Gail, turned back to her typewriter, so commonplace an object not so long ago but now anachronistic, its owner perhaps at a point in her career, Cori speculated, where the time spent in learning electronic methods of word processing would never get her back up to the word-rates she currently enjoyed on her manual machine. While along the serried desks was Cynthia, whom Cori felt some strong affinity, despite only meeting her today. Her concern for Thomas was endearing in the extreme. At this moment though, Cynthia seemed to be doing no more than keeping herself busy also, although in ways not generating the steady mechanical noise of Gail’s well-oiled writer.

A phone rang, and Cori watched as both secretaries’ heads rose momentarily; before Gail got up to walk towards the far end of the office, and an area separated from the main space by a head-height partition. Cynthia’s own head sunk back to its prior position, taking no interest in the dramas taking place around her. I’ll go and speak to her soon, thought Cori, if I have the chance.

Just then Gail emerged from behind the glass partitioned, ‘Inspector,’ she called, the receiver clutched to her chest, ‘I think you ought to take this call, or perhaps Mr Pitt?’ The two men looked at each other, then rose and walked together toward the sectioned-off space. ‘Hold on, please,’ they heard her saying, ‘I’m just fetching someone to speak to you,’ before she handed it to Grey without a word.

‘This is Inspector Rase, who am I speaking to?’ he asked, Keith Pitt only a respectful distance away.

‘Inspector?’ answered the caller. ‘What is happening? Where’s Alex Aubrey?’

‘I’m afraid Mr Aubrey is away on a business trip’

‘Then… what’s happening there, Inspector?’

‘Please don’t be alarmed, Mr?’

‘Foy, Frank Foy.’

Grey repeated the name aloud.

‘He’s the bank manager,’ Keith Pitt interjected. ‘Could you put him on speakerphone?’ Which Grey promptly did.

‘We are here making investigations into various matters,’ continued Grey down the line. ‘As I say, Mr Aubrey isn’t here to take your call.’

‘Then what about Thomas? He’s usually very helpful.’

Grey felt a sudden lump in his throat, ‘I’m afraid he isn’t here either.’ Grey sensed the man at the other end of the line was as lost for the right words as he was. ‘Could I ask why you are calling today, Mr Foy?’

‘We… we’ve just had an alert flash up on the system — a request for an electronic transfer that cannot be met. It appeared to come through from Aubrey’s. Is there anyone there who would know about this?’

‘It was me, Mr Foy. Keith Pitt, from IT Consultants. I’ve been called in to run the payroll in Alex’s absence.’

‘Hello Mr Pitt.’ They seemed to know each other, perhaps from previous similar dealings supposed Grey. ‘Then perhaps you don’t know. I thought it had been agreed when I spoke to Thomas on Monday, that the payroll process wouldn’t be attempted again until the transfer of funds Alex Aubrey had promised us last month had been completed. As I told Alex then, and Thomas on Monday, it was impossible to release the money with the balance in its current state. This is a not inconsiderable shortfall we are talking about here, Inspector… Hello, are you there?’

Now it was Grey’s turn to go quiet, his mind closing in on itself for the split-seconds it took to figure out exactly what had happened here on Monday evening.

‘What time did you speak to Thomas, Mr Foy?’ asked Grey, ignoring the financial aspect a moment.

‘About six o’clock. He had tried to run it twice by then. The second time I had to call him.’

‘And how did he seem when you spoke to him?’

‘Frustrated at first, a bit nervous perhaps? Look, this isn’t really my field, Inspector. But he did say he was just about to call the bank himself and find out what the problem was. He was worried though, when I told him about the bank balance.’

‘So Alex hadn’t told him the money wasn’t there?’

‘It didn’t appear as though he had.’

‘And how did you leave it?’

‘That he would speak to Alex in the morning, and wouldn’t try the process again before then. I had been planning to call them today actually, to see how they were getting on in their efforts to raise the funds. The workers are meant to be getting paid on Friday.’

There was a pause before Mr Foy of the First National Savings amp; Loan continued,

‘So can I ask, if the police are involved, then does that mean there has been any… impropriety? If so, it really would be beneficial for me and the bank’s directors to know.’

‘No one’s suggesting anything like that, Mr Foy,’ answered Grey absent-mindedly.

‘Can I speak with you a moment?’ Keith Pitt asked Grey quietly, aware of the sound-snatching aspect of a telephone set to speaker.

‘Mr Foy. Stay by the phone please. We will get back to you soon.’ Grey hung up to hear what the financier had to say.

‘It’s the oldest story in the book, Inspector. You will have been there yourself, we all have at some point — it can be as simple a thing as a card gone out of date or a cheque not signed. The message is always very polite, “Please check with your bank as there may be a problem”. Of course, what it can mean, and does turns out to mean a lot of the time, is that the money simply isn’t there. But try telling that to an irate, embarrassed customer, swearing blind the cheque cleared their account that morning.

‘This is the same, only on a larger scale, and I expect that however it was broached when they spoke last month, our branch manager was as embarrassed to be having to tell Alex Aubrey that the coffers were bare as Aubrey was to be told.’

And then on Monday, Grey mused, his still exterior belying a mind in overdrive, there must have been a part of mild-mannered Mr Tay that was furious at Alex Aubrey, for making him have to call and explain all this again. And then again today, well…

‘I wonder, Mr Pitt, can we co-opt you this afternoon, to meet with Foy and go through the bank accounts.’

‘This afternoon?’ the man looked up at the clock.

‘Well, it might stretch into evening.’

Keith Pitt considered, not appearing to hurry his actions, ‘I’ll need to speak to Foy anyway, in my capacity as hired by Mrs Marsh. I’ll get off over there now.’

‘Once you’re there, have Foy call Superintendent Rose. He’ll give him any reassurance he needs. Go through this income account, find out why it’s empty,’ Grey instructed the financial expert as though he needed to be told. With the briefest word of reassurance to Gail Marsh that this would soon all be sorted out, Keith Pitt paused only to take his tweed jacket from the back of the chair as he left the office.

‘Are you okay to go with him?’ called Grey to Gareth, he loving every minute of being involved in something with a taste of what his investigative colleagues at the station were more accustomed to.

‘You are trusting that Keith Pitt with a lot here.’ This was Cornelia, reminding Grey that it was part of a Sergeant’s role to check their Inspector.

‘He seems a clever fellow, and we need all the help we can get.’ Grey turned to the twinkling red warning light on the screen, and clicked the button to Cancel it into submission.

‘Are we authorised at all to look at the firm accounts?’ she queried.

‘I can’t see the Aubreys being in any position to say no, can you? Darting off to London pretty sharpish just as things are getting serious. In rushing off he left Mrs Marsh in effective control, and we have her accent. Besides, I am not convinced Alex Aubrey is either thinking straight or acting in anything like good faith.

‘This is bigger than just Thomas Long now. If this place goes down, as I can’t help fearing it will be any day now, then we will be the front-line. There are five hundred men and women down there,’ he looked to the floor as if through it to the busy people and machines below, ‘who have mortgages on homes, payments on cars, and standing orders for flat-screen televisions which are not going to be met this month.’

He could be quite poetic at times Cori considered, admiring his little speech. She didn’t really need to test his actions, for she would follow his whims and ways till Judgement Day.

They turned to leave, to find Gail Marsh stood at the door, she and poor sad Cynthia Field alone again in their empty room with not a clue of what was occurring, only certain that it wasn’t anything good. Grey thought Gail looked dismayed yet stoical, if such a combination were possible. She spoke,

‘It is going to be hard, Inspector, keeping any of this from the workers downstairs. The payslips should be out by now — we can’t bluff them forever. The only reason they’re not up here asking for them now is because they know you… that the police are here. Sooner or later there will be someone from the union up those stairs like a shot, and what do I say to them? Where do I send them? Who’s in charge?’

At this point the steadfast woman broke down, Cori fulfilling some unwritten feminine role in being the one to rush to her and bear the sobs against her shoulder. ‘My husband works downstairs, you know,’ she wavered, wiping her eyes a little. ‘I can only tell him not to worry and that everything will be fine so many times, before he realises something’s up. Or else I find I just can’t lie to him any more.’

‘Chin up,’ encouraged Grey, ‘we’ll get this sorted out in no time.’ He gave Cynthia standing near a cheery smile, and Gail a hearty pat on the shoulder, which were rather the limits of his people skills in emotional situations. Cori released Gail from her hug, and bid the woman a reassuring farewell that was readily accepted.

With a last instruction for the ladies to call Alex Aubrey and get him back here today, that no matter what he was doing in London that this is more important, Grey and Cori turned for the stairs back down to reception; Cori wondering as they walked whether Grey’s promise to have this all sorted out soon would be one he could keep, while acknowledging he had had to offer the troubled women something.

Chapter 6 — …and Artisans

‘Time is getting on,’ muttered Grey, as he and Sergeant Smith went back down the stairs, a glance at his watch revealing it was already past four — nothing in police hours, but these days it would soon begin getting so much harder to find civilians at their allotted posts. ‘If you can call for a squad car, and we’ll go and have a word with these two lads — if they are the same pair from Monday night then they might be a handful.’

‘No problem, sir,’ she answered routinely.

‘And it doesn’t look as though we’ll be getting off at five tonight.’ He added this in a conciliatory tone, for what he was really saying to Cornelia was that she might not be home when her family expected her to be this evening. She said nothing though, so he dropped the hint again more bluntly, ‘You might want to call Brough too…’

‘Yes, I know,’ she answered firmly, confirming the message had gotten through. ‘He’ll love that.’

‘Well he loves you, doesn’t he?’

‘Not if he’s left with the kids all night.’

These words saddened him, hinting as they did at marital discord, however minor. Was he really responsible for causing this sadness? It must be said, he did attempt to be ever sensitive to the family needs of his colleagues; perhaps overly so, his own single status leaving him with no personal benchmark as to how far the work/life balance could, or should, be pushed.

It sometimes shocked Grey — himself unmarried, childless, and promoted to the level he currently enjoyed by a combination (or so it sometimes seemed to him) of pure luck and others’ misfortune — to remember just how much his bright assistant had packed into her young life. Indeed, were it not for her two bouts of maternity leave hot after being posted at Southney station, she would most likely be his level now. And were it not also for her being kept in this town through marriage (her husband managing a regional office for a London firm), then he had no problem at all with the notion that she might already have attained that higher level at a more prestigious station. Sometimes he felt thirty years her senior, not the fifteen or so he guessed it must be. She would make Inspector ten years quicker than he had, and he was still barely in his mid-forties.

She hung back to make her calls, as he bounded down the stairs and into reception,

‘Inspector!’ announced the woman there, rising at his entrance.

‘Now, Miss..?’ said Grey, turning to face her.

‘Mrs, but separated!’

‘Mrs..?’

‘Reece, Shauna Reece.’

‘Well, Mrs Reece, I wonder if you could help me.’

‘Anything, Inspector.’

‘Well, you could do me a great favour. Now my Sergeant told me you could point out some lads to us?’ With only a momentarily gesture to Cori, to ensure she follow him when she was free to do so, he headed out the room behind the eager receptionist. From there they took a different turning, before coming to a rather battered set of doors, hidden from the casual visitor’s view.

‘Don’t go any further without headph…’ began Shauna Reece, but it was too late as Grey pushed on through the doors, the opening of which broke their soundproofed seal, and delivered the trio — for Cori had hurried after them — at the end of a long and very noisy space, filled with men in green overalls arranged along long lines of machinery.

The Inspector marched into the din, Cori followed as soon as she had taken the headphones Shauna offered. Bunching them up over her hair, worn down today, she expected she now looked quite ridiculous. Shauna too had donned a pair, attempting to follow the man she was meant to be leading.

But Grey had already taken the measure of the place: that if the men were here they would be along this single bank of machines, and so to move along them like some giant industrial identity parade would inevitably lead him to them. And so it was more with inevitability than relief when he clocked the younger — and the drunker — of the two men he had met on Monday evening.

‘Hello. Is it Chris or Larry?’

‘Chris,’ he answered nervily,

‘Inspector Rase, you might remember that we met at the Prince Hal pub on Monday night.’

The man said nothing, the detectives’ arrival calling him away from a piece of machinery that Grey considered would make a good museum exhibit were it carefully cordoned off, its many jutting parts and sharp edges posing so obvious a threat to public safety.

‘Not quite as conversational today, are we?’

Still he made no response.

‘Chris, they just want to ask you a few questions,’ added Shauna, almost apologetically, young Chris turning her a sharp gaze.

‘Forget about the other night.’ Grey asked, ‘Can we talk a moment?’ his badge now branded in the way officers did when expecting resistance. Chris nodded.

‘And can you tell me where Larry works?’ continued Grey, shouting beyond the constant rumble of thunder the production line generated, voices no more audible to those with headphones than without. ‘Was he the man you were with in the pub?’ Grey remembered the look of cold fury in the older man’s eyes.

Chris Barnes looked to the space on the other side of the apparatus he had until a short while ago been manhandling. Grey then clocked that the machines before and after this one in the row were manned by two.

‘He works with you here? Where is he now?’

Chris mumbled something sulkily.

‘What?’ Grey bellowed at him just a few feet away.

‘He went out for a smoke!’

‘How long ago?’

‘Twenty minutes maybe?’

‘Did he know we were here?’

To this Chris gave no reply, as casting one glance back at their now unattended machine, he moved with the officers back across the floor to where Shauna held open the double doors.

‘Can we borrow one of the rooms awhile?’ asked Cori, taking off the big ear-guards. They paused just to instruct the two Constables now arrived — Grey cursing his shabby handling of the situation — to search the grounds for anyone on a cigarette break and fitting Larry Dunn’s description; before Shauna led them up the stairs and left them to a large white room, perhaps used in more productive times for presentations or meeting clients. Blinded windows let in filtered sunlight, it casting a glow over everything like the candle at the back of a puppet theatre.

‘Thank you for agreeing to speak to us,’ began Grey. ‘We’re not arresting or accusing you, just looking for a few answers. We shouldn’t keep you long. Now, as you know I’m Inspector Rase, and this is Sergeant Smith.’

‘You look much better without the headphones,’ said the young man to Cori upon being introduced, his sulk on the factory floor low shaken off.

‘Thank you,’ she let slip before regaining her professional equilibrium, but fairly confident she had staved off a momentary blush — he was younger than her, perhaps only twenty-one or twenty-two, and had a freshness about his face and manner that she couldn’t help finding attractive.

‘Now then Chris, why did Larry run?’ asked Grey oblivious to any of this.

‘You don’t know that he has. He might be outside.’

‘He’s been gone twenty minutes. He knew we were upstairs.’

‘I don’t know. He gets… hot-headed sometimes. He got a bit cagey, said he was off for a ciggie, but he…’

‘Go on?’

‘Well, I thought he had a look about him, you know? Like something was up.’

‘But you didn’t know what?’

‘Is he in trouble?’

‘We don’t know yet. Okay. Going back to the pub on Monday — what were you fellows out for that night?’

‘It was just a few beers with the lads,’ answered Chris, a laugh running through him like a jolt of electricity.

‘But it wasn’t just that, was it. Here was something else going on that night.’

He laughed again, and smirked, ‘Is that what this is all about? You tracked us down just because we had a bit of fun with you in the pub one night? You’ve got to lighten up, mate. I promise you, if you hadn’t been a copper you could have had it much worse than you got it!’ He rolled with laughter again, Cori not able to help a smile breaking out on her lips too.

But Grey remained, silent, still, even smiling slightly himself, before saying,

‘No, Mr Barnes. I’m afraid this interview has a rather more important objective than to discuss my sense of humour, or lack thereof. I wonder if you know that your colleague Thomas Long has been reported missing since yesterday?’

‘Missing?’

‘He didn’t come home last night.’

‘Bloody hell!’ His genuine shock at the news instantly liberated him in both officers’ minds of having any involvement, it becoming no more than a fact-finding interview.

‘Has this place got something to do with it?’

‘We don’t know yet,’ answered Grey.

The man was silent, before saying in a low voice, ‘We’re not getting paid, are we? Tom was right. The money isn’t there.’

‘We’re looking into that. We’ll know very soon.’

‘I spoke to him on Monday night. Is that why you wanted to speak to me? It’s pretty common on the week we get paid. Sometimes on Monday or Tuesday he has the payslips ready early. I was on the later shift, so when I came back from my break I popped up to see if he was here still. It was only about half-five, Gail was just leaving, and he was on the phone when I got there. So I waited a minute.’

‘And what happened when you asked?’

‘Well, he said he didn’t have them. He looked a bit… you know. So I was going to leave him to it’

‘How did he look?’

‘A bit stressed, worse than he normally is.’

‘And how’s that?’

‘Well shy, quiet, doing that thing where he’s looking down when he speaks to you.’

‘And then what?’

‘Well, as I said, I was about to go. And then Tom… he just collapsed, and started crying. I was embarrassed at first; but then I got worried. I put my arm around him, trying to get him to pull himself together. And then it all came out: about how he couldn’t find the money to put in our accounts; and how that had been the bank manager on the phone just, confirming it, and now he didn’t know what to do. That sealed it for me, the bank manager being involved. I mean, if it was just Tom getting upset…’

‘Oh?’

‘Well as I say, sometimes he gets stressed. Not that I’ve ever had a reason to doubt him. I know he messed the payroll up that one time, but that was a one-off. And now you say he’s..?’

‘Did you go to school with him?’

‘I was a couple of years below him.’

‘How well do you know him?’

‘We’ve never been the of best mates.’

‘But you still say hello in the corridor?’

‘Yes.’

‘You don’t know if he has any other friends, anyone he might be stopping with?’

The lad looked almost apologetic as he shook his head.

‘You weren’t one of the people Mrs Long called on Tuesday evening?’ asked Cori.

‘No. I’ve never known the family that well.’

‘But you know his dad.’

‘Yes, I know Phil, but he’s been on another team the last few weeks.’

Grey paused a moment before delivering his next vital question, which needed to be pitched just right, ‘Well son, you may not have been his best friend; but at that moment, here alone and scared out of his wits, you appeared at his door and he trusted you enough to pour his heart out to. I wonder if you didn’t seem to him the closest thing he’s ever had to a friend in all his life? Was there anything else, anything at all, he may have said at that moment when the floodgates opened?’

‘I honestly can’t think.’

‘Well take a moment. Do you want a drink?’

Chris Barnes shook his head.

‘So, you went to drown your sorrows after work.’

‘Yes.’

‘And you shared all you’d heard with Larry Dunn?’

Chris nodded disconsolately.

‘And he took the news as badly as you did.’

‘Well, you heard him.’

‘I did indeed,’ concurred the Inspector. Interrupting my quiet drink, he could have added, but restrained himself. ‘And so did the barman, and so did half the town too I shouldn’t wonder: that was you fellows I heard singing later on?’

He laughed, ‘Yes, that was Larry. He started up with “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag…”’

‘…and smile, smile smile?’ deadpanned Grey. ‘That wasn’t his attitude a minute before.’

‘Well, he’s a funny bugger, is Larry. One minute he’s furious he might be losing his job, the next he’s full of ideas of where he’s going next; y’know, places he’s heard about where there’s work. He’s always moving around, you see. Only been here a couple of years.’

‘But that doesn’t mean he hates Alex Aubrey any the less?’

The man caught the look in Grey’s eyes, his tone quickly sharpening, ‘You can’t pin those stones being thrown on Larry.’

‘Who mentioned any stones being thrown?’

‘It’s all over the factory floor.’

‘The last one only happened a few hours ago.’

‘News travels fast.’

‘Do you know his address?’

Cori jotted it down as he said it, ‘But he has friends all over,’ added the man. ‘He could be anywhere.’

‘Anyone specific?’

‘I don’t know them myself. I don’t know who he knows outside of work. But he won’t be gone for long. He travels around a bit, but he’s always back on Monday morning — he needs the money.’

‘Oh, where does he go to then?’

‘Racing meets, 4x4 rallies, that kind of thing. He’s got one himself, a Land Rover.’

‘Do you know the registration?’

‘Not off the top of my head. He sleeps in it sometimes, if he’s away.’

‘Okay. We’ll check it out,’ said Cori jotting the details in her notebook.

‘And if you do see your friend,’ Grey burst in, ‘then tell him that he can’t make this cigarette break last forever. And if he didn’t attack Aubrey then he’s better coming forward sooner rather than later.’

‘If I see him I’ll tell him.’

Cori sensed the Inspector was keen to get on, but also that there was something in the lad’s demeanour, ‘Is there anything else, Chris? Anything that might help us?’

‘Well,’ began the young man sheepishly, ‘it’s just that I think Larry saw Tom, on Tuesday.’

‘On the morning,’ remembered Cori, ‘asking for his payslip?’

‘No, after work.’

Something in Grey stirred at those words, Cori seeming even more studious at her notepad.

‘Larry had gone up to see Tom that morning, after what Tom had told me the day before — I tried to stop him, but…’

‘Headstrong, eh?’ the Inspector urged him on.

‘You could say that. Anyway, Gail Marsh saw him off, told him the payslips weren’t ready yet, and that Mr Aubrey would let us know if there was a problem. So he left it at that. Anyway, about five he went out to get his sandwich — we’ve been on lates this week. There’s a van that parks up at the end of the High Street, it does those big baguettes?’

‘Yes, I know the one,’ encouraged Grey.

‘And when he came back he told me he’d seen Tom, up by the shops. Anyway, Larry had called out to him, and Tom had turned to see, but then a bus came and stopped between them; and by the time Larry had got over to Tom’s side of the road he had gone.’

‘He was waiting for a bus?’

‘Larry wasn’t sure, he said he could have been just walking by there. It’s not Tom’s stop anyway, his is up by the betting shop. I see him waiting there sometimes.’

‘But he could have caught the bus?’

‘Larry looked though the windows, but couldn’t see him. And the streets were packed — it would have been busy in the High Street at that time.’

‘Bloody hell,’ said Grey completely unprofessionally. ‘So he had a good look for him. Then what?’

‘Well he couldn’t see him, so he got his food and came back.’

‘Gave up a bit easily, didn’t he?’

‘He only went out for a sandwich!’

‘Mr Barnes. This could be our most recent sighting of Thomas Long. Are you convinced your friend was telling the truth?’

‘He only wanted to speak to him.’

‘I saw the anger in his eyes for myself.’

‘He was angry at Aubrey, not Tom!’

‘But he upset with what Tom had told you, at least he was the night before. He could have called after him, chased him, demanded to hear it for himself; threatened, scared the wits out of him. There are garages around there aren’t there, alleyways between the shops, quiet places…’

‘No! No, Larry wouldn’t do anything like that.’

Grey was standing before he’d even asked his final question, ‘I do understand, son, why you didn’t want to tell us. But if your mate even spoke to Thomas that evening we need to know it. One of the Constables will take your witness statement, and I’ll be checking it, so don’t leave anything out. Now, is there anything you know about the disappearance of Thomas Long that we haven’t already covered?’

‘No. But I’ll let you know if…’

Grey sensed he meant it. ‘I know you will. Then thank you.’

And with that Chris Barnes was released from a meeting both men were relieved to be done with, released to find his way back to his machine, with or without his friend there to help him operate it.

Grey did think of asking the man to keep what he thought he knew of the state of the company’s finances to himself, at least for the time being; but then considered how useful that instruction might be, when he had evidently spent the last couple of days spreading that particular secret around?

Once out of the room, Grey shot off instructions like a machine gun, to his Sergeant and the two returned Constables: to take Chris Barnes’ statement; to get someone to Larry Dunn’s house, and to trace his 4x4’s registration; to find what busses stopped at that point by the sandwich bar, and what exact bus came by at that time; and to check precisely when Dunn had left on break, and just as importantly, when he had returned.

The Inspector however had a different duty to perform, and following Chris Barnes down, but only as far as reception, turned to ask the more than willing woman there for one more favour that day.

‘Philip Long? Oh yes, Phil’s here, poor lamb. He was telling me earlier how coming to work took his mind off worrying. He doesn’t want them all knowing though,’ she added in a whisper. ‘Let me take you.’

With a beaming smile cast back at the Inspector at every opportunity, she led him swiftly through a complex set of corridors and yards, to a small but just as industrious room at the back of the site.

There was only the one machine here, the man beside it powering it down upon seeing an official-looking figure by the door with Shauna. The room fell eerily silent, the only sounds those of a couple of apprentices muttering nearby; and a clacking and fluttering overhead, which turned out to be a pigeon flapping about amid the beams.

‘Don’t mind the birds,’ the man said, seeing Grey’s upcast gaze as he moved to shake his hand. ‘It’s a devil to shift them once they get up there. I reckon they get in by the skylights. The whole lot needs replacing. I suppose they do offer a bit of interest though, so long as they don’t get any mess and feathers in the machine.’ The man chuckled, but Grey was alert to the emotions he must be feeling underneath.

As it was, introductions proved unnecessary, ‘You’re with the lot who’ve been upstairs all afternoon?’

‘Yes I am.’ It seemed that even a back room like this was still in the loop when it came to the old bush telegraph. ‘Inspector Rase. Your wife spoke with my colleagues earlier. I wanted to come and tell you that we are doing all we can to learn your son’s movements in these last couple of days.’

‘But still no idea where he might be, Inspector?’

‘The last days before a disappearance are a launchpad, Mr Long: understand what a person was doing in those hours, and you can have an idea of where they might be now.’

‘I know you are doing all you can.’

He was a small man, considered Grey, and quiet in his demeanour, not as physical as the others in the main hall — an engineer and not a labourer. His overalls were kept neat, with buttoned shirt beneath.

‘Has Alex Aubrey got anything to do with it?’ It was blunt question, deference to his employer stripped away. ‘I heard he took a clobbering and all, young Aubrey. Well I’m sure he had it coming to him, if the rumour’s true.’

‘You seem well connected out here.’

‘The lads are coming and going with parts,’ he gestured to the youths across the room, ‘and I’m in the main hall sometimes — they call me over to fix the machines. We pick enough up between us. There’s not much that doesn’t reach us one way or another.’

‘They didn’t know about Thomas over there though when I asked them.’

‘I keep my own cards close to my chest, Inspector.

‘Very wise.’

‘Who did you speak to?’

‘Chris Barnes.’

Philip Long gave a snort of derision, ‘A yobbo that one, drunk half the time he’s not working, half the time he is most likely. I’d sooner clip him around the ear than tell him my family dealings.’

‘Do you know Larry Dunn also?’

‘His mate? Hot headed.’

‘He’s just done a bunk.’

Another snort, ‘You check your files, I’m sure he’s found his way into your bad books.

Hates Aubrey too, and I mean hates him. Listen, has he got anything to do with our Tom?’

‘We’ve nothing to support that.’

‘And if it’s to do with fighting, then our Tom couldn’t have been involved. He hasn’t got an ounce of fight in him, that lad. More’s the pity, I might have said, and Lily would’ve corrected me: He’s not rough like you other men, leave him alone, that boy has done us proud, she’d say. And he has done, Inspector. He earns a good wage, and without ever having to roll his sleeves up. He’ll see us right, you’ll see.

‘Is it anything to do with this place?’ he asked. ‘He was in a state on Monday night. Is it the payroll? Has he cocked it up again? This isn’t just because he was scared to tell me he’s messed up my pay? I had words with him last time, Inspector, what with all the trouble that it caused some of the lads. I told him we were better off with the old weekly wage packets, and that they couldn’t afford to make mistakes in those days, no sir.’

Grey feared this upright fellow going aquiver as Gail Marsh had; but Philip Long held his upper lip stiff,

‘Anyway, work to get on with. Inspector.’

‘Mr Long.’

Grey wished him good day, as with the flick of a switch the machine resumed its humming, and the Philip Long returned his expert hands to the quick-moving lathe, the fact of having his fingers inches from whirring metal and shearing blades as natural to him as holding files at his desk was to the Inspector.

Chapter 7 — Mr Foy of the First National Savings and Loan

The meeting with the Superintendent on his return did not go well, inasmuch as for all Grey had to impart it did not make his superior happy. The glumness radiating from the other side of the desk was as much due to the broader implications of what the Inspector had had to tell his boss, as to the lack of resolution in either of the two incidents he had been changed with investigating: Thomas Long had not been found, and Alex Aubrey’s attacker was at large; but there were also shadows on the horizon, shadows in the shape of looming factories and of large groups of unhappy men. Preparations must be made.

‘So you think this could be more than a simple missing person’s case?’ asked the Super. Grey had been making the case for the disappearance of Thomas Long to be made a priority, and authorising overtime where needed.

‘Sir, I think if the factory fails then this will be big for the whole town. What it all has to do with Thomas, I don’t know. But there is more to learn, I’m sure.’

‘Then I suppose I’ll just have to patient,’ lamented the Super. ‘And what do we know about the factoryman Dunn?’

‘Nothing on our files, we’re checking the national computer,’ Grey reported back the results of his team’s enquiries. ‘His house was empty and there was no car outside.’

‘And do you fancy he’s involved?’

‘Well, according to the timesheet and his supervisor, he was back with his baguette within a quarter of an hour, finishing his shift without incident; so I don’t know what he could have managed to do in that short time, even if he did catch up with Thomas.’

‘Well, unless he’s skipped town one of the patrols will turn him up.’

‘Yes, there are a few people I wouldn’t mind a word with in this case.’ Grey thought he’d chance his arm here, ‘I don’t imagine, sir, you being friends with the Aubreys and all…’

‘I’m afraid I don’t know when they’ll be back in town any more than yourself. Though I am sure that if Alex told his staff he will be back tomorrow, and there is such important work to be done there, then he will be good to his word. I did ring them, when I heard about his injuries. I left a message on their answerphone. Just out of sympathy you know, nothing professional.’

Grey revelled in these details of the boss’ personal life, a side of him so rarely glimpsed. He also knew the message could have been waiting on their phone when he was there scouting around the garden, no more likely to have been picked up by anyone in that empty house now as then.

‘He hasn’t reported the windows or the injury, you know.’

‘Well he is very busy. I’m sure if he wants it followed up he’ll be in touch.’

Was it just Grey, or did he detect in the Super’s voice a slight sadness at his friend’s having left so suddenly and at such a moment, when his officers could have so used his assistance? Perhaps a darker feeling lurked there too, of the Aubreys not having played above board, of them being mixed up in something unsavoury, disappointing, unedifying. Yes, Grey decided, the Super must be worried, and not just for his friend’s wellbeing but also reputation.

‘How did it go?’ asked Cori as he returned to the office.’

‘He’s worried about the factory. Thank you for finding all that out on Dunn though.’

‘No problem, sir.’

The catching up of paperwork — finally clearing the backlog after the conference — and writing up his initial findings of today, took Grey long past the time a man occupied in more routine tasks might have been released back to the bosom of his family. He didn’t sense his day was over though. Where next? The bank, he considered.

It wasn’t far to walk, just a stretch of the legs across the Town Square and along the High Street. It didn’t seem right so warm a day drawing in so early though, he not the first to wonder how long this Indian summer could last? For it was already dark at getting on for seven o’clock, dusk encroaching enough that as he neared the bank he could see the lights on inside. Upon arriving he found himself at a loss as to how to get in, the doors of a bank once locked never normally needing to be opened until the next morn; indeed quite the opposite. Nor was there a bell, or any justification for customers to disturb those who may be inside once the stated hours of opening were passed. The building exuded security, the imperviousness of stone, its chiselled edifice stating in slow, steady tones, do not fear, your money is safe within these chambers.

The door though soon swung open, it’s heavy form in the hands of the tireless Mr Foy, in this instance fulfilling the manager’s role of keeper of the keys. He ushered the Inspector through behind the teller’s protected desks and up the stairs, toward the office that overlooked the street and shops below.

‘Ah, hello Inspector,’ Keith Pitt greeted, he seeming even in the manager’s office to have taken charge of things somewhat, young Gareth eager beside him, while Mr Foy upon returning hung at the back of his own room (bless him, Grey thought) looking scared half to death.

He quickly voiced his disquiet, ‘I must say, Inspector, going into others’ accounts in this manner is most irregular, even with your Superintendent’s assurances. I have insisted on certain limits though, even in such… pressing circumstances: I must insist any request for access to the Aubrey’s personal accounts will require their personal permission.’

‘Thank you for all your help, Mr Foy,’ Grey attempted to mollify him. ‘The Superintendent and I are most grateful for your and the bank’s assistance.’ Before reassuring, ‘I don’t however see any need to delve into their personal dealings as of yet.’

‘Well I am glad of that,’ muttered the man. Grey wondered if he always seemed so small, or only when frightened?

‘All our actions here will, I am sure, prove to have been justified as a part of our enquiries. I only want to know what Thomas Long found out about the finances on Monday and Tuesday, not the finances per se.’

‘That’s my job,’ added Keith Pitt chirpily.

Foy put to bed for now, Grey turned to the two men at the desk, ‘So what can you tell me?’

‘Well,’ began Keith Pitt, ‘Mr Foy has graciously allowed us access to the statements of the main income account of Aubrey Electricals.’

‘This is the account their bills and costs come out of,’ added Gareth equally cheerfully. Keith Pitt and his apprentice, the Inspector noted with some humour, hardly sharing the bank manager’s concerns for data protection, and loving every detail of Alex Aubrey’s business life uncovered.

‘Yes,’ continued Keith Pitt,’ and to be honest, Mr Foy, I am not sure we would need to see very much more than you have already graciously permitted us to, even if we requested it. It is a very simple tale, Inspector: of the company’s costs remaining much the same, while the income available to cover them went slowly down. It really is a tragic tale. Come here and look.’

Grey noticed the manager wince at this, the consultant playing fast and loose with the information he had been gracious enough to release, bringing a physical reaction with the thought of another set of uncleared eyes gobbling up information from their closely guarded, password-protected computer screens.

‘You can see, Inspector,’ Keith Pitt instructed while the officer craned to look over his shoulder, ‘certain bills recurring from month to month, the amounts virtually the same, and funds released for their payment at the same dates and times. These will I expect turn out to be for materials, electricity and utilities, fixed overheads.

‘And set against that, although it takes a little more looking, you can trace the balance month on month after each of these big bills leaves the account. And I see, Inspector, that though the costs remain the same, the money left at the end of each month — or rather, what is left of the overdraft — is ever less. Not a dramatic fall, but a consistently one. There is a pattern.’

‘So,’ Grey dared surmise, ‘this is a situation building up over many months?’

‘Oh yes, at least as far back as Mr Foy has kindly permitted us to look. I wonder, Inspector, were you expecting something rather more dramatic?’

Grey wasn’t sure what he expected, but caught the drift. ‘Foul play you mean? I had no reason to suspect. Did you?’

‘Well, you’d be surprised. I’ve seen some dodgy dealing in my time.’

Mr Foy grimaced again, as if an attack on people who may have been his customers was an attack on him.

‘But in this case,’ continued Keith Pitt less dramatically, ‘there has been no cataclysmic failing of the firm’s finances, nor anything illicit as far as I can see — simply a company losing a bit more money each month; and at a remarkably consistent rate too, although that is perhaps not surprising when their earnings come from long-term contracts.

‘But,’ he concluded with a flourish, ‘you could have plotted this decline on a flipchart many months ago.’

Grey’s thoughts, though not yet his gaze, turned directly to the man almost cowering at the back of the room, unsure as to what degree Keith Pitt was alluding that it was Mr Foy who should have spotted this pattern. After all, weren’t Aubrey’s one of the biggest accounts on his books? Didn’t he have a responsibility here?

‘So,’ Grey wanted the picture clear in his head with all its implications,’ if the finances were heading south as such a regular rate, then Aubrey, if not also Thomas Long, would have known this was coming this month?’

‘More likely Aubrey than Long, depending on what his role entails, how much responsibility he is given. But yes,’ continued Keith Pitt, ‘with the rate of decline so shallow, and payroll being a variable cost at the best of times — what with temporary staff, overtime, family leave, other absences — then they may have hoped for a couple of more months yet before things became critical.’

‘Or,’ Grey speculated aloud, the look of approval in Pitt’s eyes suggesting he was on the right track, ‘Aubrey may have been counting his lucky stars that this hadn’t happened already?’

‘Quite right, Inspector. The analogy would be of an aircraft looping ever lower over a mountaintop, itself covered in an ever-changing thickness of snow. You couldn’t say which swoop would bring calamity, only that it became more certain each time.’

Grey could not put it off any longer. However badly he felt for the bank manger — who was suffering something terrible at the hands of strangers within his own office, their unspoken judgement of his handing of the firm’s affairs implied in every portentous word — there was information needed, and only he could give it,

‘Mr Foy,’ Grey turned to him. ‘I wonder, had you spotted this situation developing? And did you speak to anyone at Aubrey’s office about it? Did Thomas Long know how bad it was?’

‘I can assure you,’ the bank manager quivered with indignation, ‘that any conversations I had with Mr Aubrey or his staff were of the highest confidentiality.’

‘But, we don’t care about the accounts, only if Thomas Long…’

‘Sir, I must insist, I can tell you no more presently!’

These weren’t merely words to end a conversation, but a psychological point in a man’s life. Realising Mr Foy had slipped into denial, and that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with him this evening, Grey tried another tack, turning from the man whose office this was to the one who now held the authority,

‘How is this going to work, Mr Pitt?’

The financial consultant spoke quickly and with experience, ‘It could go several ways, Inspector. My favoured solution, for the company’s sake, is to go through these monthly bills and find a friendly creditor, who if we encourage them to appeal to the court to appoint an Administrator, might fend off less happier creditors who want to appoint a Receiver. And none of us want that.’

‘You don’t have the authority,’ snapped the bank manager.

‘Then find me Aubrey, or another director of the firm,’ Pitt calmly retorted. ‘Tell them to appoint the Administrator. Mr Foy, there are only secretaries left in that office!’

‘Does your instruction by Mrs Marsh’s stretch to this?’ asked Grey.

‘We’ll soon find out. I’ll speak to her tomorrow, we’ll look into it then.’

Upon hearing these words, he sensed that was that for today, ‘All right then, thank you Mr Foy. I’ll let you get home now. Come on fellows, we’ve kept our man long enough. I presume, Mr Foy, you will be available to contact here tomorrow morning?’

The man nodded meekly, as Grey and the others (for young Gareth had been listening with fascination) filed out quietly from the room. They were almost at the stairs, waiting for their unhappy host to follow them down, to unbolt the door and release them to the empty shopping street, when he called from behind them in a voice as self-defensive as it was explanatory,

‘I told Alex, over and over. I told him that something had to be done. He would laugh off my fears, telling me there was something in the pipeline, money coming from somewhere, new business partners. And then each month — nothing. There comes a point, gentlemen, with even the most valued and loyal customer, where a bank manager has to consider…’

‘Foreclosing?’ Keith Pitt completed the sentence, the word being too obscene for Mr Foy to contemplate leaving his lips, the very antithesis of everything a bank manager tries to achieve in his professional life. He continued,

‘For Aubrey Electricals to have… gone that way, and at my hand! And with it meaning so much to the town! How could I have walked along the street, looked people in the eye? It would have represented my professional failure as much as Alex’s.

‘“It will be fine, it will be fine,” Alex kept telling me. “I’m working on it as we speak.”’ He shook his head, ‘He and his father have been such good customers, for as long as I have been at the branch. And he was a friend too, and a Clubman, and I’m sure you appreciate what that means, gentlemen.

Gentlemen, in plural? Grey looked at Keith Pitt, who answered his querying look,

‘I’m on the list for consideration, hoping to make it in the autumn selection.’

‘A mere formality, Mr Pitt,’ confirmed Foy. ‘I am on the panel. I suppose I shouldn’t really be talking about it outside the Club,’ he continued, ‘but then, so many of our secrets have been thrown out on the line for all to hear tonight, so what’s the harm of one more?’

Chatting over Club business seemed to have cheered the bank manager up; and it struck Grey he uttered that last line with something approaching sarcastic irony. The cheek! But it also struck him that there really was nothing more to be said, that the man’s tragedy was only matched by his reserve, and how boring would Macbeth had been if told with understatement? Either way, young Gareth was enjoying the exchanges like a boy being allowed to stay up and listen in on adult conversation.

With that the three men left, leaving only the manager, a broken man, reputation soon to be stripped from him, behind to lock up, while pondering the calamity apparent before him.

Grey himself pondered as he walked: How long do you feed the goose before you decide it isn’t going to lay a golden egg? Foy had kept feeding and feeding, and no gold was glimmering amongst the hay on that barnyard floor. Whether or not he lost his job over such a bad investment — would his bosses even judge he had done anything wrong? — the man Grey had seen that evening would never manage another bank. He had early retirement written all over him. And how much tougher would it be for any enterprise dealing with what was bound to be a younger, harder replacement? Grey could only be thankful he weren’t himself a businessperson in these straightened times.

It was still not time for turning in though, thought Graham Rase, hot footing it, at getting on for eight thirty in the now, to the one building bar the twenty-four hour garage on the edge of town that had a light burning any time of day or night. The face he nodded to behind the desk in the foyer had changed with the starting of the night shift, as had most of those in the office, as he let himself through the security doors and along to the mess room, where the officers and support staff his Sergeant and he worked with were based.

He was greeted though by one face still there from earlier, that of their administrative support officer Sarah Cobb. She had headphones on and was typing furiously as she smiled across at him,

‘Just transcribing the interview with Mrs Long,’ she said, reminding Grey he really ought to get around to reading that tomorrow, not that there could be very much of interest that Cori hadn’t already summarised for him.

Sarah turned to her notes, and quickly ran through the few developments there had been since he was last here: how they had tried Thomas Long’s mobile number, but that it seemed to be ringing out unanswered; meanwhile there were still no signs of life at Larry Dunn’s house, nor any sightings of his Land Rover, despite all officers being on the lookout; and finally, that a televised press conference, and an interview with the Inspector for the local news network, had been arranged for first thing in the morning.

Grey pondered these not particularly inspiring facts at the same time as admiring Sarah’s dedication in staying behind to help, what with so much happening today on top of her usual duties,

‘Thank you for this, I hope you didn’t have anything exciting planned for this evening,’ he asked with genuine concern for her young social life.

‘Oh, nothing special, just a drink with a girlfriend. I can still get there for nine.’ He had noticed this before, the young not even getting ready to go out until his evening would be half over; especially on a Friday, they arriving in town at ten and even eleven o’clock. He blamed the licensing laws and the surfeit of energy you carry at that age — just wait till you hit thirty, he thought, when you’ll hardly want to get up of the sofa after coming home from work. But then he felt sad, for he remembered something else, for hadn’t she recently been..?

‘Oh, yes,’ she answered as he asked, ‘I was seeing someone, but we broke up.’ Again she startled him, this time by smiling at such sad news. How did women do that, he asked himself, talk of death and illness and break-ups with beaming faces? There was some instinct in them, he decided, wanting even at their unhappiest moments to reassure the world they were okay, and not leave anyone obliged to have to feel pity for them. Men wouldn’t do this, he reflected, they would want the pity, want the world mourning their bad luck. The poet was right, he thought, women are really much nicer than men.

‘He has an offer of a job in Cambridge,’ she continued momentarily. ‘And, well I don’t know, but I felt he took it a bit too much for granted that where he led I would follow.’

‘Oh, bloody hell,’ Grey found himself speaking before thinking. ‘Just go with him, don’t worry about this place.’

The young woman was taken aback; but her quick-returning smile let Grey know he hadn’t overstepped any mark, ‘Sir, you’re my boss. You’re not supposed to tell me things like that!’

‘I’m not your boss, Rose is all of our’s boss, and he’d be out of here himself tomorrow if they’d give him early retirement. But don’t tell anyone I told you that.’

Sarah smiled at the shared confidence,

‘Heard from Cori?’ asked Grey, the answer not greatly important perhaps, but good to keep tabs.

‘She was here herself until an hour ago, writing up her notes on the man you were interviewing at the factory.’

‘Yes, yes of course.

‘And then she said she’d pop over to see the Longs on her way home.’

‘Right, well that was good of her,’ he knowing it was well out of her way to do so. ‘Well, I’ll be off too then, if you don’t need me?’

‘That’s fine, Sir. I won’t be long here,’ answered Sarah readjusting her headset.

‘As long as you aren’t. That’s wonderful, and thank you too for doing this tonight.’

‘No problem, Sir. Goodnight.’

The letters issued briskly from her fingers as she darted through the dialogue of the interview, the sooner it was transcribed the sooner she could get on from here and on to her night of feminine conversation and alcoholic enjoyments, and if she were lucky, perhaps a fumble with someone not-intolerable-looking on the dancefloor of Bleachers, the town’s current hot spot.

‘The lucky young,’ he mumbled.

‘What was that, sir?’ she asked brightly, lifting her headphones slightly.

‘Oh, nothing,’ he said, embarrassed to have the words heard out loud. ‘Well, goodnight,’ and with that he was off.

He didn’t fancy a nightcap himself, for he found drink’s appeal relied on there having been a sufficient gap since the resulting grogginess of the last time. He liked to visualise a pint as fresh, cool, and clean going down; and not tainted by remembrances of dry throat, odd dreams, and on the really bad occasions that awful seasickness where his bed felt like a life-raft. Yet it was to the Prince Hal public house where he was headed,

‘Drink, Grey?’

‘Not tonight, Bill. Just showing my face. How’s your sister?’

The wellbeing of the landlord’s family assured, and the time of day passed, talk turned to the encounter of two nights before,

‘Whatever’s happening at that plant, it’s got to be bad to get ‘em in that kind of a state on a Monday night!’ Bill shook his head slowly. ‘They were in here yesterday too.’

‘Oh, I didn’t see them.’

‘No, Janice said you’d been in earlier. It was just the two of them though, Larry and Chris. That loudmouth Larry was chundering on again apparently, as aggrieved as if someone has just slapped his wife.’

‘What did he say?’ asked Grey, the job taking over.

‘Oh, we had it all again on Tuesday, Janice was telling me, how “If Aubrey takes this place down then I’m taking him down with it”. Nothing very original, I’m afraid.’

‘An unhappy man.’

‘You can say that again.’

‘They didn’t give her any trouble?’

Bill gave Grey a look of disbelief, as if any mere man could trouble his combative barmaid,

‘She told that chap Dunn that if he didn’t button his lip that instant, then she’d call Alex Aubrey to come over here and button it for him. I tell you, it may not bother her none, but I was getting a bit sick of hearing what she’d had to put up with.

‘His mate Chris will be back here in a bit actually; but he’ll be with his other mates, thank God.’

‘What other mates?’

‘His footie mates. He’s in the team. They’re playing this evening in the cup — it’s the match they postponed from last month.

‘Oh right,’ nodded Grey, he not always as up to date with team news as his friend who, due to his own bartending commitments, hardly got out to see a match himself.

The risk of bumping into Sarah Cobb, herself out later, had been Grey’s greater concern, the embarrassment it could cause her thinking she’d have to be on best behaviour in his presence — he wouldn’t want to cramp her style. But knowing Chris Barnes was imminent, he now found himself wary of running afoul of any of that knot of men encountered last time — although he felt quite sure he wouldn’t be seeing Larry Dunn! Getting into another scene with that crowd would have been simply unproductive.

‘There was a fellow from plant in here earlier, on a half-day. He said there was talk someone tried to hurt Alex Aubrey this morning.’

‘So I believe, nothing reported though.’

‘You sure you don’t want a drink?’

‘Bit too late to start perhaps.’

Bill reached up and took down from the top of the bar something like a milk carton, into which he artfully poured a pint from the tap, and screwed on a cap. ‘Here you go, if you fancy a tot at home.’

‘Thank you,’ Grey uttered, for the take-out, and for so much more.

These various evening appointments had knocked out his teatime plans, and so, not wishing to cook for himself, and not imagining the Club chef would greatly appreciate knocking up a plate for him at this hour, he only paused at the neon-lit Southney Sole, to pick up something he could rush home and re-warm in the microwave.

‘Don’t let them get cold,’ said the daughter of the shopkeeper who served him, he a regular and perhaps too frequent a customer. More to the point, he thought, is our case going cold?

One part of it, by far the lesser part, the part involving Larry Dunn throwing stones at Alex Aubrey, was settled in Grey’s mind. The man must have driven there the first time — and in the state he was in! — after getting his drunken mate home, the first stone hitting during the night he recalled the glazier saying. The second one was weirder though: did he walk there that time, or get there just as quickly, only this time creeping ‘round the back of the house, and then waiting however long, until the Aubrey’s were at breakfast? All that remained was to pick the fellow up, which surely wasn’t going to be too hard?

But what of the other part of the case, the far greater part, the part involving the disappearance for over thirty-six hours now of Thomas Long? It seemed as though after almost a full day of enquiries they were no further forward. This wasn’t true of course, for he hadn’t even heard of Thomas Long when he arrived at work this morning; yet now he had in his mind the detailed picture those who know him had all day been painting. This was a picture he knew he must study:

Kind-natured, but quiet; good to have around, but prone to nerves; hard-working, but could be tetchy under pressure. And what a time the lad had had, his busiest week to begin with, even before the failing of his most important task; this in turn raising the spectre of the worst embarrassment of his young career — the prospect of repeating that previous errored payroll. Only this time Thomas knew the men wouldn’t be receiving the wrong amounts, but nothing at all…

Add to that the confusion of what the call from Mr Foy had led him to learn of the state of the company’s finances; the men already calling at the office — and calling after him in the street! — for their payslips; and the not inconsequential fact, it occurred to Grey, that the lad’s own father was one of the men who wouldn’t be getting paid.

A perfect storm. No wonder he ran away, thought Grey, who wasn’t sure if he were him that he wouldn’t have done the same! Home and work were both becoming impossible, unbearable — how could anyone hold such a secret? So, Grey wondered, where does someone with no friends, or at least none that anyone knows of, go when things get tough? And where too had he been the evening before, neither Gail Marsh nor Chris Barnes seeing him at the office on Monday much after five; yet Thomas not getting home till nine?

Still though, Grey couldn’t imagine his quarry staying away for very long before coming home and sobbing it all out to his mother, or even to Gail Marsh, who seemed to fill a similar role among his workmates. Grey knew it was his job to figure this stuff out, yet so sidetracked had they been by developments at the plant, and so sparse any evidence of the lad’s whereabouts, that in terms of Thomas the day had brought hardly any real progress. But the groundwork had been laid, they knew his launch-pad, just not where he had launched himself to. Posters would be printed, regional campaigns mounted. Tomorrow would be dedicated to him.

His thoughts turned to his other missing person’s cases, those people lost, and sometimes found. He allowed this for just a short while though, before cutting off the memories, so rich were they with melancholia and deep, deep sorrow, that an officer could lose themselves if they were not careful.

His own road of slightly-past-their-best Seventies maisonettes approached. His final thought though, leading on from those emotional musings was one of hope, and also praise for his own team and their fellow detectives up and down the land: for it was nice, he felt, that somewhere somebody cared, and might do so for us if we vanished from our own lives; the disappeared like Thomas Long not allowed to just fall through the cracks.

Savouring the smell of food he was carrying, he found he was also savouring the prospect of the parcelled pint to go with it. Good old Bill — it would be a good end to the evening after all. While tomorrow, he decided as he locked the door behind him, would just have to remain another day.

Chapter 8 — Television

Thursday

No sooner had the Inspector arrived at the station that morning, than he was ushered away to the television crew who were awaiting him. Any later and the station would have had to inquire after his whereabouts, which would have been embarrassing all around.

‘I hadn’t forgotten,’ the Inspector had assured them to general disbelief, while the Superintendent conceded that any discussion they needed to have over recent developments would wait until after the broadcast. Much like that conversation in prospect, Grey wasn’t sure that the televised interview, which he had been doing his best not to think about since hearing of it the previous evening, was going to go entirely as he would have liked.

Southney was too small for a broadcasting station of its own, bar a local radio network forever threatened with cuts, it having not yet yielded completely to twenty-four hour a day banality and chart hits — whatever had happened to cultural pluralism, lamented Grey. And so for a story involving the town to get onto the local television news, involved a journalist and crew in a satellite truck setting up in the town centre. This would immediately gain the attention of the entire district, who would come to watch and hopefully appear on screen in the crowd behind the action; and so be able to tell their friends and workmates for days on end how they had ‘been on television the other night’.

The truck and its crew hailed from one of the cities that circled Southney, they all being just far enough away to require a special journey to be made there, or visa versa; and that was just the way the locals liked it. Acting as something like an unofficial regional capital, this largest of the area’s population centres tended to dominate the local headlines, if only through having the largest concentration of businesses, hospitals, universities, and other institutions prone to the calamitous effects of, on the one hand the increasingly competitive global marketplace, and on the other chronic recession-led Government underfunding. As Alfie had pointed out, if they haven’t got you one way they’ve got you the other; and so Grey would think himself when watching these sometimes doom-laden lead stories.

It was these necessarily serious headlines, negotiated with stern faces before the hosts could get on with telling the more inspiring tales of children overcoming illnesses and locals running their own Post Offices, that led Grey to not watch the show as often as he ought — it was after all vital for the regional knowledge that formed the backdrop of so much of their work. And this Grey pondered, as the producer’s assistant ushered him out to the green square of parkland at the centre of what you might call the town’s civic hub. The green was flanked on one side by a Sixties brutalist (though none the less loved for that) library building, and on its adjacent side by the rather more respectably Victorian Council House/Chamber of Commerce. The police station — polite, conservative, post-War — was on the third side, the fourth occupied with offices.

His interview was primed to make the morning news and be repeated on each subsequent bulletin throughout the day, and was rolling before he knew it,

‘Thank you, Carol,’ began the brightly-toothed and bushy-haired man Grey was being moved off-camera toward. ‘I’m here at Southney Police Station; and yes, as you say police here are becoming increasingly worried about the disappearance of local man Thomas Long. Here to talk with us about this very worrying case in some more detail is Inspector Rase. Inspector, hello, thank you for joining us…’

The camera, live and broadcasting and ready to gobble him up, swung smoothly in Grey’s direction. He had been here before of course, and always thought the same panicked thought at this point: Is this it, so suddenly, just like that? No intermediate state between life and live? But of course this was a one-shot deal, the camera either rolling or not rolling — what preparation could there be? And that he could not adjust to this as readily as the toothsome man only served to confirm that, however his police career panned out, there was no move into true crime broadcasting to follow it.

Grey mumbled some greeting as the interviewed confidently continued, ‘Now, Inspector, what can you tell us, about the missing man?’

‘Well,’ Grey launched into his short speech, a brief description of Thomas Long, edited down to only the essential details, all the better for those few details to lodge in the minds of viewers. His own mind was racing, as he told himself: this will all be over in twenty seconds, just keep thinking straight, talk slower than you think you need to, form sentences.

‘I think we have a picture of him appearing on the screen now,’ the reporter interjected, as viewers across several counties saw Mrs Long’s digitally cropped family portrait, ‘So what can you tell us about the circumstances of the disappearance?’

‘Well, Thomas Long left work around five pm as usual on Tuesday of this week.’

‘His place of work being Aubrey Electricals?’

‘Yes. An unconfirmed sighting places him at the bus stops on the High Street a short while after this. Now this is a busy street, especially at that time of day, so we are hoping there might be a number of people who recall seeing him then, or indeed at any time since.’

‘And this was on Tuesday?’

‘Yes, and as of yet we have no trace of him movements since then, hence our appeal to the public for their assistance.’

‘And you can see the number to call appearing on screen now, and also the email address for local police enquiries; and you can also email us at the program’s usual address and we will forward on your information to the police. Now Inspector, speaking to your team, I believe it is the nature of the disappearance that is causing you most concern?’

‘Yes. From talking with his family and those that work with him, we know that Thomas Long is a man of habit and familiar routine. He is thoughtful and hard working, but not at all impulsive, and someone whom just upping and leaving would seem completely out of character. He is also I believe a conscientious man, and so to stay away for two days without informing his family of his whereabouts leaves us very concerned for his wellbeing.’

‘Indeed. So Inspector, in conclusion is their anything you would like say to our viewers out there watching right now?’

‘Just to reiterate: that Thomas hasn’t been home for two nights now, and his family and friends are very worried for him. So if you think you have seen Thomas recently, or have any other information you could give us, even if it seems hardly relevant, please do so. We are just really keen for anyone who has seen Thomas to contact us.’

‘Thank you, Inspector.’

‘Thank you.’

‘ We’re off to the plant now as it happens.’ The reporter didn’t miss a beat, speaking the second the red light had gone out, and as another man unplugged various cables from a box attached to his belt. ‘Aubrey’s are issuing a press statement today. Word is, it’s to announce job cuts. Your lads’ll be out in force no doubt, once the workers get restless. I don’t suppose there’s anything there you could help us out with?’

‘Once you get their statement you’ll know much more than me.’

Grey left the temporary encampment on the town green as soon as cleared by the production crew to do so, his involvement with the world of broadcasting over for he hoped as long as he could swing it until he had to place himself in such a situation again.

Grey found an office already abuzz with activity: Superintendent Rose was meeting the Assistant District Commissioner to discuss emergency measures, he relaying his concerns of industrial unrest; while the Sergeants and Constables were relieving themselves of what duties they could, in preparation for both the potentially exhaustive enquiries (door-to-door questioning, the distributing of fliers and posters) involved in a missing persons case — they had handled these cases before, they knew what was expected — and too whatever crowd control they might be asked to perform at Aubrey’s.

The Inspector himself intended heading straight to his office to write something legible by means of a record of yesterday’s events, but first he had to speak to Sarah Cobb, she herself, along with the rest of Administrative Support, standing readied for the hoped-for deluge of leads, false or otherwise, they hoped the residents of such a relatively small and close knit community as Southney’s would provide in response to the televised appeal. The calls had already begun to come through, he discovered; and he considered it a credit to their readiness that the swiftness of developments hadn’t left them out on something of a limb.

She had however already been over to speak with the bank this morning, his mother having given them permission to look at Thomas Long’s bank account.

‘Did they give you any trouble?’ asked Grey as he came over.

‘No, the cashier spoke to the manager right away. He didn’t sound very happy, but they went along with it when I mentioned your name.’

‘I never knew I held such influence. He doesn’t like me very much, you know.’

‘Well you must hold some sway there.’

‘Evidently, so…’

‘His pay goes in monthly,’ she advised. His housekeeping he takes out at the cashpoint. There are a few Internet purchases, books mostly, never very large amounts.’

‘Did his pay look reasonable to you?’

‘The amount? Yeah, about right, a bit more than you might think actually.’

‘Well, he did… does a lot for them.’

Sarah caught his slip, a risk in any missing persons case, ‘You’re asking,’ she continued unfazed, ‘because he would be paying himself in effect?’

‘Yes, there’s always the possibility of fraud. Although it doesn’t seem very likely, does it?’

‘He doesn’t sound the type, sir.’

‘No, quite. Any cards?’

‘Not a credit card, just the debit card he uses for his purchases.’

‘And nothing more exciting than that?’

‘Well, his balance was higher than you’d think, but then he hardly spends anything apart from on his books and his housekeeping.’

Grey thanked her for checking, before she added,

‘You know sir, I bumped into that lad you were questioning last night, Chris. He was in the pub with the football team.’

‘Oh?’ Grey sat up to take notice. ‘Chris Barnes, from the factory?’

‘He asked if you were in out,’ she laughed. ‘I think he was glad you weren’t. He didn’t seem him usual self, though.’

‘No, he wouldn’t. Do you know him well then?’

‘Only from the pub. He’s the star of the team, you know. The older fellows love him. He’s a good lad, boss — tough but honest. He wasn’t there very late though.’

‘The youngest leaving first?’

‘Yes. I think he’s worried for his job — he was in at eight today, doing early overtime.’

‘Then for that alone I pity him.’

‘Sorry, sir?’

‘They were hours wasted.’

‘Oh, you mean he won’t get paid for the overtime?’

‘He won’t get paid for any time, he won’t get paid at all.’

Sarah looked suddenly worried for the lad.

Sergeant Smith was among the others readying in their preparations. She too had been busy that morning, and soon filled the Inspector in on her visit to the Long house the previous evening. A chat with the parents had yielded much background, but no new leads in their search. While a look around Thomas’s bedroom had only revealed a shelf of novels, some of whose titles she recognised, and which upon reading the jackets startled her in their subjects, but beyond that she imagined bore no import on the case. She had left realising Thomas had a bookish, perhaps even emotional, side to him, but no more extra information than that. If he kept a diary she couldn’t find it, nor any other writings — for weren’t readers also often also writers? But if so he didn’t keep them there. Perhaps he hadn’t found his voice yet?

The Inspector absorbed this new information, and turned to go upstairs to the relative quiet of his and Cori’s office sanctuary. But no sooner had he sat down to begin on his notes, than there was a knock, Sarah poking her head around the door,

‘Sorry to interrupt you sir, but I thought you’d want to know. One of the staff took a message for you, they didn’t know you were back yet. A call from a Mr Parris. He said you knew him from the Club?’

‘Parris, ah yes,’ he remembered.

‘Another of your business connections?’ joked Cori, who had come in and was rifling through papers at her desk.

‘No, he’s the steward. He wouldn’t normally call here about Club business.’

‘No sir,’ confirmed Sarah, ‘he said he hoped to speak to you after seeing your broadcast earlier.’

‘Oh?’

‘Something to do with Alex Aubrey?’ Cori speculated. ‘He is a Clubman after all.’

‘Well, I was going to go into town later anyway… I’ll go and see him now.’

‘You think it might be something?’ asked Cori.

‘It could be, ‘he countered. ‘The report might have to wait.’

‘Shall I call him and let him know?’ offered Sarah eagerly.

‘Well, you could do,’ Grey considered, ‘but I shouldn’t think he’d be going anywhere about now. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him outside of the Club at any time of day or night.’

He was not a fan of crowds, such as he found along both sides of the High Street this bright morning, but for the chance they gave him to see a few faces in places, and to judge the local mood. It could sometimes feel, as he had pondered before, an unofficial and unspecified aspect of his role, that of recorder and arbiter of opinion, collator of his townsfolk’s thoughts and feelings. For how could he do his job without the understanding this brought him?

As he moved through the bunches of people he encountered — talking outside shops, queuing at cashpoints, log-jammed by badly placed phone-boxes and bins — Grey remembered these were not normal times: the mood was already heightened by the weather (short sleeves again today), even before anything official was announced at Aubrey’s. Those men on early finishes would be in the bars by lunchtime, and the rumours would be there for any to hear and pass on. Passions may soon rise. Though if these fears and feelings were present in the men and women Grey passed on his walk this morning, they were not yet pressing at the surface.

He passed the mock half-timbered building at which his friend was landlord, and which of course offered its own opportunities for people-watching, were it after midday and so open to the public; even then it seemed, as evidenced earlier that week, that hardly anything of real interest ever occurred in Britain’s public houses before darkness fell; it taking the extended consumption of alcohol, the drawing in of evening, and the threat of time being called to force the really dark and twisted stuff up out of the depths of the nation’s psyche.

Bounding right past the Young Prince Hal, Grey carried on the short distance it took to arrive at the Royal Hotel. He entered the reception it shared with the Club that occupied part of its ground floor, not even needing to show his membership card now the experienced receptionist knew him from repeated visits. ‘Good afternoon, Inspector,’ she called as he opened the heavy brown doors, he smiling in return as he vanished from the outside world and into that secret realm of still and muffled silence.

Despite the main room being lined by high windows, through which at this time of day light poured as if in solid shafts, he couldn’t shake the idea of it being a somehow hidden, subterranean place. The dark-stained wood of the other three walls, which absorbed what light did not remain hanging in the space of the high-ceilinged room, supported this notion; while the quiet and purposeful way the members spoke to one another seemed to embody the manner of secrets being shared — these rooms retained something noble and lost to the outside world.

Grey was hardly at the threshold of the main room though, before the ever-attentive steward Parris was there to whisk him one of the smaller spaces to its side. This in itself was not unusual, when arriving for an intimate dinner say, or a private business conference (for the club was here to cater for all such occasions) but what was unusual was the steward remaining once Grey had been seated in his green leather armchair, he himself on this occasion being the subject of the meeting.

‘Thank you for coming, Inspector,’ he began, a man of sixty if you were being charitable, and to whom manners and decorum were as vital to life as air and water. ‘I took the liberty of bringing tea — I remembered you tend not to drink when here earlier in the day; but I can fetch you something else if you’d prefer? On the house, of course.’

‘Oh no, that’s very kind.’ Grey would leave the silver pot awhile before pouring for fear of scalding his lips. ‘You spoke to my colleagues just now?’

‘You have very polite staff, Inspector,’ began Parris as if praising a rival establishment’s dining room complement. ‘I don’t know where you find them.’ The man, himself sitting now, seemed eager to unburden himself. Grey saw him as a messenger, he hoped, bearing words of great import. Yet there was also a reserve about him, perhaps a counter desire to retain his secrets, fearing that to reveal them would break a confidence, perhaps one held only by and for himself.

‘Inspector,’ he resumed, ‘I watched your broadcast just now, on the little screen I keep on in the kitchen,’ (the idea of the club retaining so modern a device as a television quite startled Grey.) ‘and I was moved to hear about the young man who you reported as not having returned home, and of his family waiting for news of him.

‘And as it saddened me, Inspector, to think of the poor boy’s family at such a time, so it also reminded me of something, something that I hope you will, as a good Clubman and a respecter of our traditions, treat with the proper regard.’

Grey was a lover of tradition and of respect amongst peers, but all this sworn secrecy toward the sayings and doings of fellow Clubmen could become wearisome. He had assumed in his induction that the pledge to this effect was little more than a formality, and so it had proved in practice, with there being little discussed between the men and women in these rooms that couldn’t have been talked of just as freely had he bumped into them instead in any bar or restaurant. But Grey persisted with it for Parris’ sake.

‘Perhaps,’ continued the man, ‘it would be simpler if I just left this book with you,’ he leaning to reach from beside his chair a leather bound volume, obviously secreted in preparation for their meeting, ‘and allowed you, Inspector, to draw your own conclusions from its pages.’

His words were loaded with an understanding of shared confidence; yet as for the book itself, Grey recognised it as nothing more deserving of his ‘regard’ than the club’s register for signing in guests, a volume he had scrawled over many times himself as Rose’s drinking partner in his pre-membership days. Still, Parris spoke of it as one might upon presenting the Magna Carta in the British Library’s reading room.

‘Even a member wouldn’t get to study this book so closely or in private, as I am allowing you to do now. I know you probably have the right to seize it anyway, should you wish, but I do hope that is not deemed necessary, and that this volume can be kept safely within these walls where it belongs.

‘You take as long as you need, Inspector, and please leave the book here when you are finished. I’ve marked it at a certain page. I hope you appreciate the trust I, and by proxy every Clubman, am placing in you here in letting you study these records.

‘Right, I will be going back to my duties. Do call if you need anything; but please Inspector, don’t place me in a delicate situation by asking me anything more about what you may read in the book — I am already violating every Clubman’s privacy by letting you see it.’ And those were his final words as, with a smile and a fraternal pat on the arm, Parris was off, exiting to the sucking sound of a heavy door levering back into its cushioned frame, and leaving Grey alone in the wainscoted room.

The subterfuge infuriated Grey, who wished Parris had simply told him what he thought he knew. Had he allowed his respect toward the steward to allow him to demur from demanding a straight answer? Maybe, but he was locked now in this child’s game of turning over cards without knowing what second card he was looking for.

Grey had rarely been in these smaller rooms, he having little business of the sort that required them, nor the secretive nature or proclivities that may benefit from them. He had certainly never been in here alone, and it was suddenly eerie. He poured and sipped his drink, the cup hard to control with its minute handle, and clanking noisily as he put it down on the saucer. He moved the heavy volume toward him across the leather-topped table, opening it with a tremendous crack of its spine. ‘What is it, Parris?’ he whispered to the walls, ‘What’s so important here?’ Before, like a reader on Jackanory, taking up the book and seeing what story was to be told.

A list of dates and names was all he saw though, no text to narrate: only recent dates, and mostly the names of members he knew. The markered page was the current one, nearly at its foot now, and covering perhaps the past week and a half. The two names beside each date and time, written in their owner’s hand, were those of the Clubman in question and the guest they were signing in — the solitary Clubman or they who only spoke with other members would never need the book. So Parris meant an outsider’s name to be noticed? Starting at the top Grey worked his way down.

Just a ledger then, Grey pondered, and not even a very interesting one at that: no note of what took place in the rooms or even the purpose of the booking, but merely the names taken on the door. There were hints of carrying on though even in this Spartan archive, should you wish to look for it, he thought, a scanning of the names listed soon bringing up a local tradesman alongside that of a woman who, even before he had read her name, he presumed to be the young assistant he had not recently seen the man without. And the building being a hotel after all… perhaps there were stories here?

He had been given a sensitive record in the strictest confidence, and all he could think to do was look for the dirt. He was sure this said something about human nature though, and decided not to beat himself up about it too much. Out of interest, he flipped to the front page — and was disappointed to see it only showed dates no older than nineteen ninety-six — what a fraud, he thought, hoping perhaps for something reaching back to the days of the War and the Aerodrome when this had been an Officers’ Club.

‘It’s hardly the Domesday book,’ he heard himself mutter absurdly to the wooden walls, as turning again to the most recent entries, he minded to knuckle down to his search.

Reading through the markered records, Grey saw that on the previous Tuesday Mr Foy the bank manager had signed in another local figure of his acquaintance, a hardware retailer with a string of wood yards, meeting perhaps to sign off the quarterly accounts? Foy’s name jumped out again; as did those of other personages, appearing with more or less likely meeting partners. Here were the Aubreys, Mr A. A. signing in Mrs S. last Friday night. And here he was again on Saturday, meeting with a man who shared his name with a brand of popular electronics — another failed salvage plan? Grey wondered how true a picture of his finances Alex Aubrey had painted for this presumed investor?

The club, it was becoming clear to Grey, was clearly the base from where Alex Aubrey chose to run his empire. Getting ever closer now to the current moment, he found his again, listed as meeting a Yamamoto San. This latest meeting had been the one that had kept him from the office on Monday afternoon, when Thomas was having such a torrid time with the payroll and pouring his heart out to Chris Barnes. And there, later on that same evening, was that ubiquitous name again — Aubrey — meeting a Mr T. Long.

Grey run his finger leftward along the line, zeroing in on the meeting’s date and time, his other hand fishing for notepad and pen. ‘Tuesday, seven thirteen,’ he spoke as he wrote, also jotting down the other encounters that had caught his eye. So Thomas was here between leaving the office and going home that last evening. What that meant Grey couldn’t yet fathom; but there were yet more lines to go through, and so he hoped he might get ever luckier.

And there it was, almost the next line down, Aubrey’s name yet again, on Tuesday of this week, at eleven thirty in the morning. The guest’s name, Mr K. Philpot, meant nothing to Grey, though he noted it anyway, more interested in the fact that this seemed to confirm that Aubrey would have had a chance to talk to Thomas at the office earlier that morning, as Gail Marsh had conformed he had to Cori.

And that was that, with nothing notable listed for Wednesday, and there yet to be a guest here today. The Inspector leaned back in the armchair, and tried to get the sequence of events right in his head; but realised he needed Cori and her knowledge, gleaned from Gail Marsh, of all that had been happening in the Aubrey office those two days.

Knowing that copying or taking the heavy book from the room would be out of the question, the Inspector placed it back on the table, and rose to go and find Parris. Grey came upon him in the kitchen, sleeves rolled, food being taken out of Tupperware boxes. The room was out of bounds for all but staff, but Grey felt the intrusion hardly mattered along the access he had already been granted.

‘Inspector. Are you finished with the book?’ asked Parris upon seeing him, already wiping his hands. ‘I should put it back out. There might be lunchtime guests who need it.’

But Grey held him at the door, ‘Mr Parris, you brought me here to see a certain name, didn’t you? And the person who signed then in?’

‘Yes,’ he answered bleakly.

‘Then thank you. I know how much it pains you to break a member’s confidentiality.’

‘Will you need to come back? In a professional capacity, I mean?’

‘I don’t know yet. I hope not.’ And with that Grey was off, and back out into the busy High Street.

As he walked, a thought snagged at his subconscious: would an international businessman — if that was who Yamamoto San was? — or the leader of a national electronics retail firm, really deign to leave behind the capitals of Europe and Asia, to travel to a meeting in their town? Such a prospect seemed ridiculous now; yet even in Grey’s own lifetime Aubrey’s had been one of Britain’s biggest electrical producers, kettles and toasters across the land bearing that name. It wasn’t impossible, was it, for this town and its activities to still hold some sway?

Urgent though it was to get back, armed now with all this new information, there was still the call he had initially planned to come into town to make; and so half way back along the short road of only modest shops, at least on city terms, that nonetheless served the town as High Street, bathed this lunchtime in golden sunlight, Grey spotted the sign he remembered being around here somewhere, an arrow pointing down a side road; and turning along that narrow lane saw, above the first door you came to, another notice identical: IT CONSULTANTS — Printers, PCs, Laptops, Software, Data Processing, Digital Image Transfer.

That last service listed reminded Grey of a stash of old cine film he kept meaning to ask someone to put on disk for him. Cori had shown him the same service advertised on the Internet, after he shared his wish with her. Perhaps when all this was over he might be able to get it done at last.

And stood there just off the busy street, no longer rushed along by the flow of humanity, the memory cheered him, he realising afresh just how he valued his professional relationship with Sergeant Smith: she someone he could talk to, who knew about the cases, already in his confidence and trustable with secrets. And that was half the problem, he reasoned, why he had never taken his chances with women and remained unmarried: for when you were on a case it was all you wanted to talk about, the key to all your strongest feelings. And how selfish it was to expect someone not personally involved to understand that, to accept only what was left of your attention.

Sometimes, I swear, I think you enjoying talking to criminals more than you do talking to me… So the last one had said; as if anyone dealing with some of the lowlife he encountered didn’t wish they never had to again.

And then the thought struck him, that his subconscious was playing a trick on him, and that the woman reciting these lines in his mind was not the one who had originally spoken them, but rather a new face, that of someone he had seen somewhere recently. And how wooden the words sounded in her mouth, how unconvincing the feelings surrounding them. If only he could remember…

But at that point, the door beneath the sign opened, and a jovial voice boomed out along the lane, ‘Inspector, I thought it was you! Are you all right? I saw you standing out here. Were you looking for me?’

Grey, embarrassed to have been caught in his reverie, and fearing he resembled one rather lost and confused, was nonetheless glad to see Keith Pitt.

‘I’m just going to the Post Office, if you’re heading this way.’ Grey fell in beside him for the short walk. ‘Forms to send by courier,’ Pitt raised the bundle of post in his hand. ‘And I’m afraid there’ll be rather a lot more paperwork coming my way over the next few days.’

‘So, you’ve arranged for the administrators..?’

‘It was my duty, as a financial consultant.’ The man said this almost in his own defence, Grey sensing he took no pleasure from it.

‘So you found someone to… what was it again?’

‘We needed a creditor of Aubrey’s to ask the court to appoint an administrator, before the firm got wound up and the machines started being taken away for scrap. The energy company seemed a good bet. They have a two-year contract they want honouring after all, and it wouldn’t benefit them if the gates were locked tomorrow — they want someone there paying for their product for as long as possible.’

‘And they went for it?’

‘They didn’t take much encouragement, in fact they got the ball rolling first thing this morning.’

‘So Aubrey’s will be okay?’

‘They’re not out of the woods yet, I’m afraid. Wuthertons are the appointed firm — have you heard of them? Pretty strict in my experience. They’ll get you back on your feet, but do whatever it takes to get you there. Don’t be surprised if there are job cuts, changing work patterns. Scaling back in all kinds of ways.’

‘The workers won’t like it,’ lamented Grey.

‘No, I fear there’ll be trouble: you can’t expect someone who’s been doing their job, day in day out, to be happy to bear the consequences of their bosses not having been doing theirs. There will always be an edge of irreasonability in such scenes.

‘You know, it is the worst part of our job, Inspector,’ continued Keith Pitt, ‘when the best advice you can offer your client is for them to pass on control of their affairs to others; that efforts at turning things around have become a chase after shadows… Well, in such a circumstance you are not a professional, if you do not tell the person paying you for your expertise and experience that that experience is calling for the chase to be called off. I’m sorry, that’s a terribly inappropriate metaphor isn’t it, given the circumstances.’

It took Grey a moment to get Pitt’s reference, ‘Oh, no. Not at all.’

‘So, there have been developments in the Long case?’

‘Developments yes, progress no.’

‘I’ve seen how upset the women are at the office.

‘Of course.’

Pitt paused a moment before saying, ‘I believe it can often be a cry for help, running away, that they hope someone will care enough to come and look for them? Sorry, ignore my amateur theorising.’

‘Don’t worry. Half the time I don’t think they want to be found.’

‘Well, people are a funny sort, Inspector. I suppose we don’t always know who needs finding until we try.’

‘No, quite.’

‘Anyway,’ they reaching the door of the Post Office, ‘I must get these sent and then get back up to the plant. You were lucky to catch me in town, I’ve hardly been back since yesterday. And then I hope they don’t keep me too late tonight, I’ve got to get back for the wife.’

‘Going anywhere nice?’

‘The theatre, to see a play — Deceptive Alibis it’s called. She does love these crime dramas. Might be right up your street too, Inspector. Or perhaps you’d only judge it against the real thing?’

And with that the men parted, Grey pointing himself back in the direction of the station.

‘On Monday afternoon, Thomas Long attempts to run the Payroll,’ the Inspector expounded, the words rebounding from the walls of his office, ‘the effort ending in failure, a phone call from Mr Foy, and his telling all to Chris Barnes. So, wouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world, for Thomas to want to track down his absent boss, and tell him of the chaos his company was in?’

‘If he didn’t know already?’ added his Sergeant, the only one in the building at that moment free to listen.

‘Well, thank God then that Keith Pitt has already discounted fraud; for otherwise who knows what the pair might have gone to the Club to talk about! But if the money was simply seeping — and not being wrongly extracted — from the account, then they could only have been meeting to discuss the failing payroll process, surely.’

‘No arguments here, boss’ agreed Cori, for though Grey was speaking the obvious, she thought she knew the direction he was moving in.

‘So, it strikes me,’ continued the Inspector, ‘that rather less important than why Thomas Long met Alex Aubrey on Monday evening, was why they then met again on Tuesday morning, and why it took this second meeting for Thomas to feel better about things at the office. That was what Gail Marsh told you?’

‘Yes,’ confirmed the Sergeant, ‘she thought Alex Aubrey must have agreed to take the payroll problems off Thomas’ hands awhile, and that the lad seemed all the better for it.’

‘So why not come up with that solution the night before?’

‘Perhaps Aubrey needed to come to work to see what the problem was before deciding?’

‘But we know what the problem was! And Aubrey was in no better position to ease his cashflow on Tuesday than on Monday. Whatever assurance he offered Thomas was false assurance, and probably only offered to stop the lad from panicking and telling all and sundry…’

‘Which he didn’t know he had already done,’ Cori mused.

‘Quite. But even so, why not flannel Thomas the evening before, and save him a sleepless night?’

‘Let’s look at those meeting times again, sir.’

‘Aubrey met Yamamoto before he met with Thomas on Monday,’ Grey repeated from his notebook, ‘and with Philpot after seeing Thomas for the second time on Tuesday. Nothing had changed inbetween.’

‘And you’re certain of the times?’

‘Absolutely, I’m certain. And it fits with Thomas’ coming home late on Monday.’

Cori had to concede that point, ‘But what we really need to know are Alex Aubrey’s movements these two days.’

‘Yes. We know Thomas couldn’t have got up to much between home and work, so something must have changed with Aubrey. I’ll tell you what did change,’ Grey realised. ‘The first stone was thrown that night.’

‘A stone in itself wouldn’t tell him much,’ Cori counselled.

‘Maybe there was a shout to go with it? “We’ve heard what you’re up to, Aubrey! You’re not taking our jobs!” or some such? That would have his senses working on overtime alright.’

‘Well, even if Aubrey linked the stone through the window with something Thomas may have told the thrower…’

‘Go on,’ he encouraged, she noting a gleam in his eye,

‘Then are we suggesting Aubrey might have wanted to silence Thomas Long?’

‘At last a motive!’ the Inspector declaimed. ‘Admittedly a little far-fetched.’

‘Just a little, sir.’

‘Yes, for wasn’t the secret already spilt?’

‘Indeed.’

‘And why stop there?’ Grey attacking his own theory with sarcasm. ‘Why not also silence the bank manager? He knew too.’ Before offering more measuredly, ‘People like him don’t do things like that though, do they?’

For all her level-headedness, Cori could show an occasional gothic streak, ‘Well, we have seen in the past, sir, how such matters can get out of hand. Aubrey may only have wanted to confront Thomas, find what he had told and to whom, telling him not to tell anyone else, at least while these important meetings were going on, and reputation was so important. Aubrey is under a lot of pressure.’

‘The law-abiding classes heading into unchartered waters, you mean, and getting into difficulties? A discussion, turning into an argument, turning into… And that would be a third meeting in two days,’ he despaired, ‘presumably sometime Tuesday evening? No,’ he shook his head, ‘Tom’s still out there somewhere, run away because he couldn’t face his dad.’

‘For two nights though?’

They sat awhile, neither sure quite what either believed.

The Inspector spoke first, ‘He’s meant to be back today, isn’t he? Aubrey?’

‘Yes.’

Make some calls, would you — try and run him down. I don’t like asking Rose about him, it’s a sore point. And Cori, we’ll keep our wilder theories to ourselves for now.’

‘Yessir.’

Grey settles in his chair to think. Thomas Long may yet be blameless in all this; even Alex Aubrey as innocent as a lamb — and yet the thought could not be avoided that they were players in an as-yet unknown game.

Chapter 9 — The Corridors of Banality

The Inspector’s thoughts were interrupted after only a few minutes by another knock at the door, which had at last been long enough for the Sergeant Smith to confirm that the Aubreys were neither back at the plant or answering the phone at home.

‘Sorry to disturb you,’ began Sarah Cobb, ‘but we’ve already had a few responses to the news appeal; and there’s a couple I think you’ll want to see.’

Back in the mess room telephones were indeed ringing and voices chattering, as Sarah led them to the computer screen where the calls were being collated,

‘Most of them are goodwill,’ she summarised, ‘people who knew him telling us what a good lad he was; some even offering character statements if needed. Others are strangers offering help and support. But those aside, we have two sightings of him on the High Street on or shortly after five on Tuesday. One is a possible, another a definite — a woman who works in the Council building, who sees him at her stop every night, although she didn’t know his name before. However, she says she saw him standing at a different stop that night, and that he caught a different bus.’

‘She’s certain he caught a bus?’

‘Yes, she saw him queuing and getting on from across the road, while she was walking down to their usual stop.’

‘Which one? Where would it go?’

‘The Fourteen,’ answered Sarah, a timetable already procured and being unfolded on the adjoining desk. ‘It twists and turns a bit at first, before heading out along the A-road.’

‘We need to speak to her.’

‘A Constable’s already on their way to the Council House to take a statement.’

‘And the bus driver — we need to know if he recognises him, and where he got off.’

‘It’s always tricky with drivers,’ Cori observed, ‘they see a hundred faces a day.’

‘We might not need to, though,’ said Sarah eagerly. ‘We’ve had another call, that sort of leads on from these.’

‘Oh?’

‘A receptionist at the Havahostel thinks she might have seen him at the motorway services, at around seven o’clock that evening.’

The Inspector and his Sergeant were soon on their way over. The hotel belonged to an area to the east of the town itself, known rather inelegantly as the Corridor; it being the kind of nowhere development that gathered around motorway interchanges and service stations as ancient settlements once had around Roman forts.

The town of Southney, not warranting a freeway of its own, instead made do with an A-road linking to the one that passed nearest. This left them well connected, but without the traffic and pollution of a thunderous six-laner on their doorstep. It also, if they were honest, left them well served among the Corridor’s subsequent developments for carpet warehouses, electronics superstores, multiscreen cinema, and the various other establishments that spring up in such unrestricted hinterlands, well away from planning-conscious town centres.

Upon arriving, Grey pondered on this nameless place (nameless for the Corridor was a name of convenience and not of love). Farms and fields until fifty years ago, no history here at all, he wondered what it must be like to work here, to spend your time in this place without roots or cultural narrative, too far away even to reach the town centre on your lunch hour.

Last chance to fill up before Nottingham! — the sign had one read. The Sixties motorway cafe had long gone, replaced by clean modern restaurant, though the covered footbridge linking the carparks on both sides remained. The last building before the sliproad was an utterly anonymous block called a Havahostel; existing solely, it seemed to Grey, to serve the owners of the Audis and BMWs that flocked around it, and which came to rest in the complex’s unrepresentatively large parking lots.

Just at the factory yesterday, Grey remembered he had been to this hotel before — though only in a professional capacity, it being, with their nearness to the motorway and helpful distance from the town, an excellent place for jaded businessfolk to meet prostitutes or ‘adult’ contacts ferried in from other places.

The building itself, even from the foyer gave Grey the creeps, the area around the front desk smaller than you’d imagine, and leading off along narrow corridors with dark carpets and off-white walls. He moved to the desk quickly and without wishing to absorb too much of the ambience; which to him was the echo of plasterboard walls, the smell of paint not fully dried, and the spirit of a building no one owned or lived in or cared for.

‘Hello,’ announced Cori to the woman at the hotel reception, ‘is it Maria?’

‘Yes, hello,’ she answered brightly.

‘I’m Sergeant Smith and this is Inspector Rase. You called earlier, to report seeing…’

‘Inspector, can I offer my deepest apologies to you.’ Another woman had appeared behind Grey and was addressing him before he had had a chance to turn around.

‘Cathleen Hackett,’ she introduced herself, ‘the manager of the hotel.’ She was in her forties he thought, and well turned out. ‘Imagine how I felt when I saw your broadcast this morning, and to be told of this poor young man, lost to his family, your officers doing all they could to find him — and then to learn that two whole days ago he had been seen right outside our very establishment; and that we had had the knowledge you had been seeking the whole time!’

‘Well, we’re not sure yet…’

‘Oh, my receptionist confirmed it, when she saw his picture on the news — the flatscreens in the guests’ lounge carry the international channels, you understand; but we keep a smaller set in the staffroom. She was adamant it was him!’

The receptionist was barely given chance to nod along in agreement to all this, as her boss carried the narrative. Cori showed Maria a photo of Thomas, who confirmed it was him.

‘So what now, Inspector?’ asked the manager. ‘How can I help?’

‘Ms…’

‘Mrs.’

‘Mrs Hackett.’ Grey was at a loss of how to instruct her. He appreciated her assistance, but didn’t like the way the woman was taking over things, information rushing in too quickly and not in the order he would have liked. ‘Maria,’ he turned to the woman behind the desk, ‘you saw Thomas Long in the carpark somewhere? Was it near these cars, parked just outside?’ She followed his gaze through the doors and nodded in eager agreement. ‘Then perhaps, Mrs Hackett, you could take one of the photos the Sergeant has there, and ask your staff if any of them saw him there, then or at any other time?’

‘Yes, I can see how important that would be.’

‘It really could be vital. And then we’ll come and speak to you properly, once we have confirmed some details with Maria here.’

‘You clearly have your methods, Inspector,’ she said, as taking a photo from Cori, she headed off toward the staff room.

Cori had the feeling Kathleen Hackett could be a real headache to her staff of cleaners and cooks, they likely to be foreign, and hardly well paid. ‘So,’ resumed the Sergeant, no longer hindered by the manager’s presence, ‘Maria, tell us about your sighting of Thomas.’

In the pauses between handing or taking keys from guests, the receptionist told them in her sweet Italian accent what little she knew, she looking at the photo the whole time, ‘I was due to start at seven. The shifts are always changing here,’ she whispered as if fearing her manager Mrs Hackett hearing from the other room, ‘so I was only just on time. And as I came across the carpark, I saw a man standing there, this man,’ she pointed at the picture.

‘Where was he?’

‘Just outside, by the parked cars. He made me jump at first, as there was only us two there. But I could see the hotel doors, so kept on walking. And it was nothing, he stayed there.’

‘He stayed there? How long for?’

‘Well, as soon as I got in I hung my coat up in the staff room, and then came back out here to start my shift; and he was still there.’

‘And did you look for him again?’

‘Yes, a few minutes later; but he had gone by then.’

‘So he would have left there between around seven and..?’

‘Ten minutes past.’

‘Thank you. And you didn’t see anyone else out here, talking to him, or a car picking him up?’

She shook her head.

‘I wonder, Maria,’ began Grey, who had been listening to all this, ‘if I could ask you to step outside a minute, and show us the exact spot?’

‘Mrs Hackett wouldn’t like me leaving my duties.’

‘It’s okay, she knows you’re helping us, it will just be for a moment,’ he encouraged, as ushering her out into the shock September sunshine, the trio walked the ten or so yards to where the services carpark met the paved walkway that fronted the hotel.

‘Now, if you go with the Sergeant to where you were walking when you saw him, and then tell me exactly where to stand.’

‘It’s not the same though,’ she said as Grey moved to the spot she indicated, ‘it’s not the same now. It was dark then.’

‘But you think this was where he stood?’ Grey found himself between two cars, the kind of place you would only normally stand if you were getting in or out of either vehicle.’

‘And he didn’t move, he wasn’t getting in or out?’

‘No, I told you, just standing. But I remember it now,’ she started excitedly, her memory obviously jogged by being here even in such differing conditions. ‘The car in front of you was not there.’

‘This parking bar was empty?’

‘Yes, like I say, there was no car. And the other car, the one behind you, it was odd. Big, and shiny.’

‘What, silver?’

‘No, just small parts of it were silver.’

‘Oh, chrome? You mean the doorhandles? And the lights?

‘Yes, and around the windows. It was an old car I think.’

‘Did you see what colour it was?’

‘No,’ she shook her head. ‘It was too dark.’

Seeing the brooding figure of her manager through the hotel doors, Grey thanked Maria and released her back to her ‘duties’. As she headed back Cori took a call on her mobile,

‘It’s the office. I’ll just be a minute,’ she called back to Grey, who remained standing in this same spot awhile, pondering under the burning sun.’

‘Oh God,’ Grey cursed, once he and Cori were on their way back to the station. ‘I forgot to check back with Mrs Hackett.’

‘It’s okay, I saw her when I went back in,’ she answered to his relief. ‘None of the other staff there today recognise Thomas from the photo.’

‘What was that all about?’ he asked her, having been too absorbed in thought at the time to pay much attention to her return to the building.

‘The Desk Sergeant rang: someone had mentioned to him that we were at the hotel, and he remembered he had had a routine request to do with the place, sitting on his desk since yesterday. He asked if I could take a look.’

‘Anything interesting?’

‘Not sure. Apparently the drugs squad in Nottingham wanted us to trace a call made from the hotel two days ago to a suspect they are tailing.’

‘Two days ago. Tuesday?’

‘Yes, but just after ten in the morning; when Thomas wasn’t seen here till seven at night.’

‘Anyone we know?’

‘Well, the call was made to a mobile phone in the name of Stephen Carman. Maria has just told me the room the call was made from was booked in the name of a Mr Smith.’

‘Not very original,’ uttered the Inspector.

‘I know,’ answered Sergeant Smith, ‘I’m not sure any hotel receptionist we have ever checked in with have thought my husband and I were actually married. The other receptionist was on the desk that day, Josie. But she visits her mother on Thursdays, so I’ve left a message for her to call me tomorrow when she’s back in the office.’

‘Stephen Carman though..?’

‘There’s nothing on him in our files boss. The Desk Sergeant had already checked.’

Nonetheless, Grey mulled over the name as they drove.

Chapter 10 — Revelation on the Road

‘No answer on her mobile number — why don’t people have proper phones anymore?’ Grey cursed, before gathering himself to intone a standard answerphone message to Josie, the off-duty receptionist.

‘I told you,’ Cori sighed, ‘I’ve left a note for her at the hotel.’

‘But she could tell us now who this Mr Smith was who booked in.’

‘Well if you do leave a message be nice — odds are working at that place she’s from overseas, and might not think of the police in the same way we do.’

His invitation for Josie to call back left, Grey made another call — to Sarah Cobb, asking for the file on Stephen Carman, she promising to call back asap.

‘There’ll be other clues, boss,’ offered Cori brightly, she noting his listlessness, all the while displaying that skill he so admired in her and others, of holding a conversation and thinking on other things while controlling an automobile past all obstacles and at some considerable speed. ‘Something will turn up.’

‘What we need though is for him to turn up, Thomas. Not for more half-clues like these — all dead ends and delays, each leading us precisely nowhere.’

They spoke only sporadically as she drove them back to town,

‘I saw the bank manager last night,’ he said as much to distract himself as anything. ‘I think he’s on his way to a breakdown.’

‘That bad?’ asked Cori.

‘I only hope his part in this mess is over before it gets to him too badly.’

‘Poor fellow.’

‘Oh, I’ve seen it before, with these respectable types who get into difficulties. Once they come unwound it’s hard to ever wind them back up as tightly.’ He took no pleasure in his grim foretelling.

‘Is he married?’ asked Cori.

‘No idea. You’d imagine so.’

‘I hope his family are all right.’ She found herself visualising the Foys: the kids who looked up to their father; the wife who cooked his meals and worried when he worried, who knew when he was bringing troubles home from the office. Even as a professional herself, and leaving her young family’s matters — both figuratively and actually — at home each day, Cori still felt great sympathy for her imagined Mrs Foy, the homemaker her own mother was and she herself chose not to be.

The Inspector’s phone rang to break their contemplation, it being Sarah with the results of the trace. Grey switched the phone to speaker:

‘Well, I checked for Stephen Carman on the Police National Computer,’ started Sarah, ‘and a Stephen Carman has a record: two minor drug offences in the last two years, the latest six months ago, tried at Nottingham Crown Court. He was sentenced to three months, suspended, for possession.’

‘Nottingham, where the phonecall trace was requested from,’ Grey mused, the confirmation of details soothing him. ‘So we’d assume the same man. What is there on file for him?’

‘Details are scant, sir. I’ll get onto their records for the full story. But it does say he’s twenty-three years old, Caucasian, five feet eight, with brown-blonde hair, no distinguishing features. The photo shows him pretty pale. Not a great looker, I have to say; a bit of a meanie to be honest.’

‘Those photos wash people out; you’re never looking your best when you’re being arrested. What was his first offence?’

‘Just a caution, for drugs also, almost served now.’

‘So there could be other earlier cautions already served… He doesn’t sound a major player.’

‘Okay. Thank you, Sarah. I wonder if he has any link to Southney, or to Thomas Long? Could you have a look for me? I’ll speak to you when we’re back.’

‘School, maybe?’ Cori piped in. ‘They wouldn’t be too far apart.’

‘Yes, that’s a start.’

‘Okay, sir,’ and with that Sarah rung off to take up her new line of enquiry.

‘Are we expecting to find a link?’ Cori cautioned. ‘Just because there was a call from the hotel, what, nine hours before Thomas was seen there?’

He gave out a deep breath, ‘You’re right of course, but what else have we got to go on? And I know that name.’ Even as he said the words though, Grey couldn’t imagine what could involve two such disparate figures: the quiet local lad who never stayed out at night, and the city troublemaker with previous convictions. In their job they lived for clues, longed for them; but this morning’s random pieces of information seemed to be arriving not to clarify those factors already known but rather to throw their investigations off along wilder tangents.

‘Stephen Carman, Stephen Carman — where do I know that name from?’

Cori began to hear Grey repeat it with monotony, chant-like, as if his mind had snagged on something…

‘What’s caught you, boss?’ asked Cori hopefully, knowing he probably wasn’t even able to tell her.

But Grey was still intoning, ‘Stephen Carman, S Carman, Stephen C, S Car… Oh, there’s something in that name, something telling. What the bloody hell is it?’

‘Stop thinking about it and it will come to you; it’s the best way when you’re trying to remember something,’ she advised, keeping as eye out for traffic as they neared the town centre.

‘No it doesn’t: you’re just forgetting all the times you try and forget, and then forget you were even trying to remember something, and then it doesn’t ever come back to you.’

He was getting snappy, and she was interrupting his cogitation. She remained facing forward and concentrated on the road.

He grumbled on a while, she catching references to ‘old wife’s tales’ and ‘bad advice.’ Before it resumed, the droning of the name… ‘S Carman, S Carman…’

Oh, hurry up and remember it, Cori wanted to snap at him, his murmuring making the journey tense.

‘Where do I know that name from?’ The spell was broken by his phone ringing, ‘Yes?’ he barked down the line, it still on speaker and so probably sounding even louder to whoever was on the other end.

‘Sir, it’s Sarah. Sorry for calling back so quickly.’

‘What is it?’

‘Just a bit more info — a Stephen Carman did go to the Southney School: he’s listed there in the early two-thousands, but no record of any exams taken.’

‘Thomas Long was also there then,’ added Cori, taking no pride in her hunch proving right.

‘Two among hundreds,’ muttered Grey; before asking Sarah, ‘Describe him to me again, what it says on the file, what he looks like.’

‘Well, just under six foot, white, pale complexion, brown-blond hair…’

‘Go on.’

‘Average height, average everything, no distinguishing features.’

‘No distinguishing features. That’s it.’

‘If you put it that way, sir,’ said Sarah quizzically.

He turned to Cori, ‘Stop the car will you, I need to think.’

The Sergeant was thrown off guard, but recalled enough of her advanced driver training to have them safely up against the storm guttering in seconds. As she felt the tug of the seatbelt across her, it brought the adrenalin rush of a brush with danger; a road not quite stepped into, a slipping foot finding new grip.

‘Sarah, can you print his photo off?’ asked Grey, his forgetful ennui replaced by a sharp focus, that left Cori beside him in the car startled and relieved — whatever had been forgotten had been remembered.

‘We’ll need to come in right away and get a copy.’

‘Well, I can email it to you? Send it to your phone?’

‘Yes, thank you, please do that right away.’ He rang off and sat, head forward and facing down. ‘Where are we in town?’ he asked.

‘Well, not far from the High Street…’ Cori began to answer, before realising he was asking himself, cogitating again.

‘Where can we go? Where is the nearest?’

Cori sat still, awaiting the instruction that was bound to follow as soon as he had worked out whatever it was that he had on his mind.

‘Her dad’ll be at the plant, but I don’t want to go back there if we can help it. He probably wouldn’t know anyway. Where was the mother?’

He was asking these questions of himself, Cori knew, but who were these people he was talking about now?

‘Her friends will all have finished school… It will have to be the plant, although I didn’t see him there yesterday. Odd that, now I think about it. In fact before all this he was probably the last person I went to see there. But would be know her friends..?’

‘Sir, what are you thinking? Can I help?’ Let me in, Cori wanted to shout! This abstract musing was excruciating, every nerve in her alive to the thrill of the chase after being wakened so abruptly by the sudden stop.

‘Yes!’ he at last shouted, slapping his palm across the dashboard with a force she feared might set off the passenger airbag, ‘The High Street. We’re nearly there.’

‘You want me to drive to the High Street?’ asked Cori, already putting the car back into gear.

‘Yes, yes. Post haste!’

A two minute drive at the slowest of times, they were already approaching the parade of shops along the town’s main road before she was able to ask, ‘So, what’s this all about, sir?’

‘If it works I’ll tell you,’ was his only response, a look of both boyish glee and wild panic barely contained in his flashing eyes. His phone was pinging just then as the message came, bringing the picture up on its screen. Cori only hoped nothing got in their way along their short journey to hinder and frustrate whatever it was he was so eager for.

‘Here we go, pull up here, just outside the record shop.’

She did so, and the Inspector was out of the car before they were even still at the kerbside. Pulling on the handbrake, Cori raced after him; just in time to see him holding up the phone’s backlit glass screen at the startled fellow behind the counter, the bell above the door still clanging as he asked him,

‘Is this him? Is this Scar?’

It took a second for the man to gather himself and get his breath back to answer. ‘How… how have you managed to find him, after all this time?’

‘Is this him?’ Grey implored of the wide-eyed shopkeeper.

‘Yes,’ he answered finally. ‘Yes, that was Isobel’s boyfriend.’

Chapter 11 — A Chat with Chad

Waiting only for the man behind the counter to make them all a cup of tea, and for Cori to park the car somewhere less obstructive to the public going about their business; the three of them sat down in a nook that, though small in itself, took up around a third of the floorspace of the shop, at least in Grey’s estimation.

Cori would have concurred with him, approaching Chad’s Classics more observantly the second time of entering; she being a buyer of music over the Internet, and so never herself a patron. She expected an estate agent might have classed it a boutique store, and with this status owing more to scale than exclusivity, it comprising little more than a window-shelf display and counter with a walkway between, a record-racked area at one end, and a small seated area at the other. And it was on these seats where the three now gathered.

She noticed how the man made no effort to shut the shop or put a sign out; also how well he and the Inspector seemed to know each, to the degree that Grey’s arrival was seen instantly as something important, and requiring of putting aside the concerns of his business for an hour.

‘This is Sergeant Cornelia Smith,’ he introduced. ‘And Cori, I don’t know if you know..?’

‘No I don’t, sorry.’

‘Chad Glazier, of Chad’s Classics.’

The two shook hands, Chad enquiring of her, ‘I don’t think I spoke to you before?’

‘No,’ answered Grey on her behalf, turning to her, ‘I think you would have been on maternity leave at the time?’

‘Oh, you have children? How old?’ asked Chad, surprising Cori, it usually being the women you met who wanted to know baby names and exchange photos.

‘Yes, Brooke and Connor. She’s three, Connor will be five soon.’ As she spoke she fished out of her bag the keyfob photo of them both she kept for only these occasions. Chad took it and looked with genuine warmth. ‘Do you have any of your own then?’ she asked.

‘Yes, a little boy, Charlie,’ he answered, opening his wallet to show his photo in return. ‘Well, maybe not so little now — he’ll be eight in a couple of weeks.’

‘They grow up so soon, don’t they?’

‘And it’s worse when you don’t live with them. Every time you see them they’re bigger.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ started Cori.

‘It’s okay. His mother and I split up.’ Chad spoke almost apologetically. ‘It was a bit stressful there for a while, but we get on much better now.’

‘Well, that is good.’ There seemed little else to say, she suddenly feeling a little sad. ‘So,’ resumed the Sergeant brightly, hoping to lighten the mood, ‘what did I miss?’

‘Just under three years ago,’ began Grey, ‘Chad here was a witness in the disappearance of Isobel Semple.’

‘She was here on the last night anyone saw her,’ added Chad of his own validation.

‘I don’t know if you ever saw the file, Cori..?’

She hadn’t, but like everyone in town, police or otherwise, she had known the case inside out; and though it had been a while since it had been a day to day occurrence to hear some snippet of news or new rumour about her vanishing, it did not take very long for the details to flood back.

‘You’ll recall,’ continued Grey, ‘that there was a lad she knew, a boyfriend, or at least a male acquaintance — they were reported as been often seen around together. He’d be in here at times too, wouldn’t he?’

Chad nodded.

‘Well, we never found him, he never came forward, and he wasn’t seen in town again from that day on; the day Isobel left that letter with her friend to give to her mother, telling her she was leaving.’

‘And he was a strange lad,’ Chad took up the narrative, ‘just a little kid, but wired, you know? Like only he knew that he was the centre of something really important. Came from an unhappy home, I always thought. I felt nothing for him — he was only here because she was, and I liked her. But when it came to the crunch, and the Inspector asked us, well… none of us knew anything about him.’

‘Over-and-over,’ explained Grey, ‘her friends, and the customers here, and anyone else who’d seen him around town, described him as being sallow, whey-faced, as indistinct a figure as you could hope to see. Well, we can see that for ourselves now. I mean,’ he held the image up on his mobile phone touchscreen for all to see, ‘how would you go about instructing someone to construct a photofit of that? I mean, even his own mother would have difficulty describing him to a stranger. And that was all part of the deal, because there was not one distinctive or identifying mark upon him, and yet…’

‘And yet,’ Chad took over, ‘the only name any of us ever had for him was Scar, like that blinking lion in the film! He’d be sitting here, with a few others of us maybe, not ever saying much I remember, just whispering in Isi’s ear or sharing some private joke with her — they used to burst into laughter at the same things, or where no one else in the room knew what the joke was! — and then his phone would go off, and he’d jump up and be on the pavement outside talking loudly to whoever it was, and he’d be all, “This is Scar, it’s the Scar Man, what’s up?” All that street talk, you know?’

‘In short he was an idiot,’ Grey clarified to no one’s benefit.

‘Now, I looked, and I never saw a scar on him anywhere, and nor did anyone else. And now you tell me his name was S Carman? So how did you find him?’ asked Chad after a pause.

‘He’s turned up in another enquiry. We can’t take too much credit,’ answered Grey modestly.

‘Drugs is it? Oh, I appreciate you can’t tell me. But I bet it is.’

‘We can’t say.’

‘I sometimes thought they were taking something together, she used to come in glassy-eyed at times, dazed. Of course they were young — they drank, they took things, I don’t know. She used to hang out here a lot at the shop, after school or when she didn’t want to go home. She never bought anything, she didn’t have any money! I don’t know if she even really liked music that much. Perhaps here was the only place she didn’t get kicked out of? She used to let me play whatever I liked, and she’d sit down here with a sausage roll or can of Coke or whatever she’d lifted from wherever; I don’t think she ever had a meal at home. God, she hated her mum…’

Cori, holding her tea and with her back to the shop window, looked up at the posters above the men’s heads, images of bands and records and concerts: one in particular caught her eye, of a baby swimming after a dollar bill dangled from a fishing line, which seemed to say something profound about society, but she wasn’t sure exactly what; another simply showed two sleek greyhounds tearing around the corner of a racetrack, sand thrown up from their feet, their faces contorted in what could have been glee, but which could equally have been the panic and fury of those competing in the rat race. Much more comforting was the only one that she, never an avid record buyer, recognised: that of the brass band in bright tunics, stood before flowerbeds and backed by their heroes cast in wax like a gallery at Madam Tussauds. But she wasn’t to be allowed even this one comforting image,

‘It’s a funeral, you know,’ said Chad, breaking from his narrative upon seeing the focus of her attention, ‘or so they say.’

‘No it’s not,’ answered Cori, ‘it’s a band playing in the park. My mum had that album. She used to play it me as a girl.’ She found herself becoming irrationally upset at his callous dispelling of her childhood memory.

‘Of course it is. It’s full of sadness — you’ve just got to see the signs. I mean, half the people standing behind them were dead even when they made the album; and look at this four, the band’s own waxworks, standing to one side, dressed in black; look at the sadness on that one face there.’ He pointed at a young mopheaded man, who upon inspection did look fit to flood with waxwork tears.

‘So who is he mourning for?’

‘Who knows? Perhaps his own past, the world they left behind? Your guess is as good as mine. There are theories of course.’

‘I suppose you don’t see these things when you’re a kid,’ she said resignedly, determined not to let him know how irked his clever-dick attitude had left her. But on with the investigation, and having the blanks filled in by two men more than happy to spend an hour wallowing again in the mystery of Isobel Semple,

‘Of course, it was never strictly a police matter, never a crime even.’ Grey was doing most of the talking now, Chad offering colour commentary, a detail or two when the spirit took him. Cori thought how desperately sad Chad looked as the Inspector told the tale. ‘She left a letter; she told friends she was going; there was no hint of wrongdoing… and had she been only a couple of weeks older we wouldn’t even have opened a file on her.’

‘But she was only seventeen…’

‘The parents were soon in touch, and we wanted to help them, if only to find their daughter and arrange a phone call home. She was still technically a child. And of course,’ continued Grey, ‘we thought it would be easier, that she’d turn up in days, that she’d check into a hostel or get picked up on the streets. We couldn’t know then that we would find nothing, that she could just… vanish. A cliche I know, but there you go — she just went.

‘And then the paper started up its campaigning… This was during that bloody awful winter we had. I think in people’s minds they thought she was out there in the snow somewhere, lost and cold. And then those little blue flowers came out, and the paper started calling her Southney’s Snowdrop. And how could we give up then, once the town was mobilised and parents were petitioning, and the school-kids were being told about her in assembly, and the local press were asking at the station every day?’

‘And her mum gave them that photo of her when she was fifteen,’ recalled Chad, ‘all smiling and angelic, and before she’d got the purple streaks in her hair and her lip pierced.’

‘And I think from that day on that image of her was fixed firmly in the public’s consciousness of that being her when she vanished, even if it gave her age as seventeen right beside the picture on the page.’

‘She was a student, wasn’t she?’ asked Cori.

‘Yes, at the sixth form college; although only nominally so judging by her recent reports. The teachers told us it happened a lot with kids from her background: she had grown up in Henthills, although her parents had since moved the family out a bit towards the suburbs.

‘Not the best start.’

‘No, not our town’s most salubrious district.’

‘And so did anything happen on the day she left?’

The Inspector’s beguiled expression suggested not, ‘On that day, the tenth of January, getting on for three years ago now, she was here with her friends, as was often the case, before… well, ask your man here.’

‘Yes,’ started Chad, ‘she was hanging about, not buying anything as usual. She was with her mate Connie. I was stacking at the other end of the shop. I think she’d been asking me to give her a job — she was always doing that. I said, as I always did, “So, it isn’t enough that I let you hang around here for free, you actually want paying for it?” And she said, “Well, it doesn’t matter, ‘cos I’m leaving anyway,” and then she went into a sulk. She knew I was joking, we never properly argued.’

‘Tell her about the letter.’

‘Oh, yes.’ The younger man, duly prompted, began, ‘Well, I must have been in and out of the storeroom as I missed the girls arguing at first. They were fine one minute, and then before I knew it they were screaming at one another — you know how teenagers can get, they’re so passionate about everything, always quarrelling. I thought, what’s started all this? But it was all over nothing, all over a letter Isobel had produced from somewhere.

‘She was telling Connie to take it, and Connie didn’t want it. I tell you, I was quite embarrassed, as you are when your present in someone’s private conversation. They were getting pretty upset. Well, I didn’t know where to look, and I couldn’t go anywhere to give them any space — it was my shop! I had to stay near the counter. God knows what a customer would have thought if they’d come in!’

Cori, on today’s evidence, considered this an unlikely occurrence.

‘Next I knew they’d gone. “Bye, Chad,” she called out to me behind her as she hopped out onto the pavement. It was the last thing Isi said to me. I can still hear her saying it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.’

‘Anyway,’ resumed Grey, eager to move the narrative on, ‘the letter turned out not to be for Connie herself, but for Connie to pass to Isobel’s mother. It read that Isobel was tired of the town, and wanted to get away for a bit; that she was leaving awhile, and not to worry about her.’

‘Which is exactly what her mother did?’ presumed Cori.

‘You know, I’ve never worked out…’ This was Chad again, now lost in reverie, ‘whether Isobel was completely oblivious of her mother’s feelings, leaving her a silly little letter like that, not even taking it herself; or whether she knew full well how hard this would hit her parents and she ducked out of being there to face it?’

‘Well, maybe this new lead will mean something.’ Grey patted Chad on the shoulder as he put his empty cup down and eyed Cori meaningfully, ‘though please don’t get your hopes…’

‘You know, Inspector,’ continued Chad, completely missing the officers’ intention to leave, ‘I don’t know if she ever thought she’d be away as long as she has been. Now I think about it, now we know she never did call or write or anything. I mean, when she said goodbye she said it so casually, as if off on holiday, or staying with friends; a few weeks away, a break from her family. “Bye, Chad”, “Bye, Chad”, that was all she said…’

‘And that was that,’ continued Grey as they walked to the car. ‘We had her photos on the news and in the paper — even the nationals, although she never quite made it onto the covers. Half the town were out looking for her, putting up posters; and yet she was never seen again, at least not confirmed as such.’

‘Well, there might be something now though,’ offered Cori hopefully, ‘now we knew where Stephen Carman went, presuming she went with him. We could go through the file for old sightings in and around Nottingham, albeit unconfirmed at the time. And she never did call her mum?’

‘No, but then they were an odd family. They hardly got on at all it seems, by the time she left. But as soon as it was clear Isobel wasn’t coming straight back the parents panicked, as if it had been their fault. The mother was guilt-stricken.’

‘We could go and speak to her perhaps?’

‘Oh, Christine’s left town herself since. They separated eventually, the parents. And anyway, it isn’t that unusual. You’d think it was, but sometimes runaways just don’t get in touch, and with no good reason for it; and the longer it goes on the harder it is for them it seems. There are cases where a friend or relative has spent half a life as good as grieving for a missing loved one; when that person has turned up living under another name a town away, and knowing full well that they were loved and would be missed, no matter the troubles that sent them away.’

‘And the worry for the family gets worse the longer it goes on, I suppose.’

He answered, ‘A missing person can become a hole in the lives of those they leave behind, an aching question never answered: where? but mostly why? ’

‘So,’ Cori summarised, they sitting now and talking in the car, ‘you started a file on Isobel mostly to appease the family?’

‘I prefer comfort the family.’

‘But it turned out that the case was worth worrying about?’

‘We thought it would be a “quick win”, as people say these days; but did we ever imagine she would never be found? That in itself became the mystery — we’d had no real reason to worry for her wellbeing before then.

‘And yet,’ he continued in his reflective tone, ‘perhaps here we have a clue to this mystery. For, look at Carman’s record: two counts of possession in as many years? That’s bad luck for a casual user; just about right for a dealer though, a canny one, who doesn’t keep much on him at any one time. Chad suspected they were dabbling even in their Southney days. And, as we see every day of our working lives, Cornelia, what better use has anonymity than the concealment of criminality?’

‘You mean his “trade” has forced her to be secretive?’

‘Well, it’s an idea.’

‘I’ll concede the point,’ she answered playfully. ‘It does spoil the image of Southney’s Snowdrop though.’

‘Yes, it rather scrunches it into the slush.’

‘And what a time for this lead to crop up, eh sir,’ Cori observed. ‘Right in the middle of the Long case.’

‘Incredible timing,’ he answered distractedly. ‘You could even say extraordinary.’

‘Could it be a coincidence? Isobel and Thomas?’

‘Only until we find the slightest link between them. But in the meantime we need concrete leads on Thomas.’

‘Let’s hope the phones have been ringing in our absence.’

As they pulled away from outside the record store, Cori reflected that there hadn’t been a single customer approach the shop the whole time they had been in there.

Chapter 12 — Back to the Station

The detectives returned to the station to learn that, though the phones had indeed been ringing, the calls received had almost all been offering character references and support in the search for Thomas Long, hardly any offering sightings or genuine leads.

‘The satellite truck is still out there,’ advised Sarah Cobb. ‘They probably want to interview you again for the evening news.’

‘Good.’ Grey had seen it on their way in. ‘Then I can mention the hotel sighting, see if it jogs any memories.’

‘Look at all these people worried for him,’ Cori scrolled through the call log. ‘Teachers, neighbours, scout master. I hope if I went missing I’d have so many.’

‘It looks though like the hotel sighting is still the latest we have,’ the Inspector mused. ‘Cori, can you get someone back up there will you, with a photo. Have them show it to anyone they can think of — carpark attendants, the staff at that services shop. I know we covered the hotel, but have them go a bit further afield.’

‘No problem, sir,’ she answered heading off to find someone.

‘Oh, and this has just come in,’ said Sarah, passing Grey the first edition of the local paper.

‘Take a read of this,’ he called, thumbing through the Southney Sports. ‘“AUBREY’S IN ADMINISTRATION”…well, no ambiguity there.’ He continued to read as the others kept on with their tasks. ‘“After recent rumours of orders drying up for the Southney manufacturers Aubrey Electricals, it was this morning confirmed in a press statement issued from their plant, that agents representing the troubled firm have instructed a firm of administrators in the company’s name.

‘“The statement goes on to say that, ‘while there may be some temporary disruption to our usual operations, we are confident that the plant has a future and that production will continue in some form for many years to come.’

‘“Since issuing this statement the company have yet to ascertain exactly what production ‘in some form’ may entail. However, our business correspondent, who has followed the fortunes of the firm for many years, suggests that it could well involve a scaling back of operations with seemingly inevitable job losses.

‘“Needless to say, such confirmation will be awaited eagerly in the homes of those who work at the plant, and whose livelihoods and those of their families have been cast into uncertainty by this news.

‘“Aubrey Electricals have for many years been one of the largest employers in the Southney region, and few households in the town will not be affected in some way by these events. Current managing director Alexander Aubrey, son of the firm’s founder Anthony Aubrey, took charge of the plant six years ago, and is believed to be in London currently, brokering deals to secure the firm’s future.’”

‘And there’s a bit about us here too.’

‘What does it say?’

‘“In related news, a police team led by Inspector Graham Rase have been investigating the disappearance of a member of staff at the Aubrey plant, Thomas Long, 24, of Southney, who has been missing since Tuesday. It is not known if his disappearance is linked to the troubles at the plant, but officers are keeping all options open at this stage.

‘“Inspector Rase, speaking to our reporters earlier today after making a televised appeal for information on Mr Long, explained that, ‘We have no belief that Thomas Long was involved in anything criminal, and certainly had no police record. Even if he found himself in trouble, we are only really concerned at this point with bringing his family news of his whereabouts’. HUNT FOR MISSING MAN — FULL STORY

PAGE FOUR”’

‘Well good,’ said Cori, ‘that should generate some more interest. Anyone reading this could have seen him on Tuesday, or since.’

Grey was unconvinced, though left his doubts unvoiced: for had Thomas been out and about in town these past two days, wouldn’t someone somewhere have called to tell them this by now? Instead he thought on practical matters,

‘Sarah. It looks like the phones are well covered. I want you off that duty, and instead looking at this motorway sighting. I think it’s genuine, and we have nothing else to go on. Can you get onto the hotel, and check if they have cameras covering the outside doors, and if so whether they see as far away as Tom was standing. Speak to Maria, she knows us. Otherwise, I know it’s a long shot, but there must be cameras over the services carpark.’

‘There might be too many,’ Sarah cautioned. ‘It’s a big area.’

‘Well we have a starting point. And even if that corner of the carpark isn’t covered, then move onto the areas either side, for an hour before and after seven pm. And then the areas next to that, for the two hours either side of seven pm… I know, I’m sorry, it’s horrible work…’

‘No, not at all, sir. I’m glad to do it if it helps to find him.’

‘That it might, Sarah. That it might.’ Her enthusiasm touched him.

But for Grey there was no let up, the ending of their discussion only delivering him back to the office of his superior, himself in no mood for smalltalk,

‘Heard anything of Dunn?’ the Superintendent thundered on the Inspector’s entrance.

‘Heard anything of Aubrey?’ the officer replied in the spirit of honest banter.

‘Well, I suppose if Alex Aubrey isn’t here to report him, then Larry Dunn doesn’t matter greatly does he, the case against him missing its victim and principle witness.’ Even Grey had rarely heard Rose’s tone to be so scathing.

‘Actually sir, Dunn may have seen Thomas Long on his last day.’

‘Well. In that case… You know what, Grey? I could throttle him.’

‘Who, Dunn?’ Grey felt much the same himself.

‘No, Alex! Dunn’s just a lad throwing his drunken weight around. At least I hope that’s all he is. Is he seriously implicated with Long?’

‘Grey had to think about it, ‘No sir. I’d like him to be, but Thomas definitely caught his bus from town — the witness only saw Dunn call to him from across the road as he boarded. And Thomas was later seen over by the services hotel, while Dunn was on an evening shift.’

‘And that is still the last sighting?’

‘Yes sir — after seven o’clock on Tuesday evening Thomas Long seems to have vanished from the face of the earth.’

‘Poor sod. Still, if only he were all we had to worry about. You’ve seen the paper? It looks like we were right to be concerned. I’ve squared it with the Assistant District Commissioner — there’ll be men from four forces here first thing tomorrow morning. Young Gareth from HR tells me the workers are not going to be getting a pay check?’

‘No, I shouldn’t think so,’ answered Grey.

‘Then that is that. There’s no reason then to suppose there won’t be some kind of protest?’

‘It would appear not.’

‘Well, I’m not sure what I should be feeling, to learn one of my oldest friends is ruined; that hundreds of men are going to be out of work; the landscape of the town forever changed. But all I feel is…’

‘Numbness?’

‘No, anger! And it is all aimed at him, Aubrey. I knew he was under pressure, but I didn’t know things were so bad.’

‘He couldn’t make his plans work sir, and now he hasn’t time.’

This moment of shared feelings also offering Grey a perfect chance to share his newest piece of new information,

‘And there’s something else sir, just a blip on the radar at present.’

‘Oh?’

‘Well, there might be a link with Isobel Semple.’

‘Oh, my bloody Christ.’

‘It could still be a separate lead, sir; a parallel investigation. But we are pretty sure her boyfriend was called from the Havahostel several hours before Thomas was seen outside of there.’

‘Boyfriend? That lad we never traced?’

‘Yes. No idea if she’s still with him, but they did leave together it seemed back then.’

‘But how..?’

‘His area called us, sir; asking us to look into who made the call. He might be mixed up in drugs.’

The Super’s downcast expression said it all, neither he nor the Inspector men who showed much surprise at the way life could consistently lower one’s expectations, ‘So not much to go on yet?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Still, fancy that name cropping up again…’ The two men were silenced.

‘I was thinking, sir,’ began Grey, ‘what with us already doing all we can to find Thomas, if I might not call the detective involved, even if only to find out if there is any link with the Long case?’

‘Well I wonder if he isn’t the fellow who’s already called for you? There’s a message at the front desk, from Nottingham CID: you put a trace on one of their suspects?’

‘Yes, that might be them.’

‘Well, get it arranged — we need all the help we can get. And even if not, well… Once this Long business is sorted out, we might have a new lead on Isobel.’

‘Indeed, sir. I’ll get right onto it.’

‘I thought Ravi Chohan, for the security detail at the plant,’ said the Super as Grey left. ‘I might get him down there this afternoon, if he can be spared.’

‘A good choice, sir,’ concurred Grey: the natural man for the job, both for the courses he had attended in crowd control and dealing with violent situations, and more pragmatically for the fact he was the officer among them who could, when asked, perform the best impersonation of a brick wall. Grey for one had never been in a situation with him and not felt completely safe.

Chapter 13 — The Semple File

Back at the office, Cornelia had sat down to the file she had asked Sarah Cobb to very quietly point out for her, keen as they were to keep the news of Isobel’s (possible) involvement as lidded as possible.

She started with the basic details, before moving through the various letters and reports, summarising for herself as she went along: Miss Isobel Semple, 5’ 3”, hair short, bobbed and blonde, though lately coloured different shades. Several small piercings, no tattoos as far as anyone knew, no other distinguishing marks. Seventeen at time of disappearance (so twenty now), only child of Douglas, a worker at Aubrey Electricals, and Christine Semple, homemaker and former office worker. Residents of the Hills estate, a fact Cori let speak for itself. No great shakes at Southney Comprehensive, but she had gotten onto a Caring Skills Development course in their sixth form; which, though hardly the most academically rigorous qualification on the College’s books Cori imagined, Isobel was still managing to flunk. This was confirmed by her term report cards, and in a letter from her teacher who believed she would have failed had the term played out.

No criminal record as such, but she had been spoken to at least once for loitering after dark, public nuisance, and suspected underage drinking (on that last occasion she and her friends had had no actual drink found on them when met by officers, despite appearing intoxicated, and so were simply taken home to their parents). There was a note attached to the file to say that on at least one of these occasions she had made her displeasure at being met by the police known with force and verbosity. Friends described her as being fun though flighty, falling in and out with other girls, and sometimes getting into fights with them. As for boys her friends knew little; bar the girl Connie — as mentioned by Chad Glazier at the record store, and who came across from the files as the closest she had to a best friend — who had, after a couple of days of secret-keeping for her absent pal, finally broke and spilt the beans about Isobel’s dalliance with someone called ‘Scar’, even Connie apparently not knowing his real name.

Cori wondered: could Isobel still be living with her teenage love? Her instinct was yes, that though the girl was in and out of friendships, she might show fidelity in relationships, albeit fidelity to a alleged drug dealer on an ego-trip. If only, Cori mused, after reading Connie’s statement, Isobel had been as judicious in her choice of men as she had been in her choice of best friend. That might have been the making of her, she lamented. Cori knew of kids who rebelled, played up, caused trouble, but deep down longed for nothing but the most conservative of lives: to love and be loved, to have the cosy home they perhaps had never known. Especially the girls, who often wanted only boyfriends and babies — it was the boys who had daft dreams beyond their scale.

But not Thomas Long: there was a boy who, if he had dreams at all didn’t seem to have ever shared them with anyone; and who seemed content in the narrowest of lives. At least, Cori shaking her head as she thought of it, until the night he dashes off without telling anyone to hang around in hotel carparks. Was he there waiting for someone? His story made as little sense with the Carman/Isobel connection as without it — just as confusing but in a different way. And still no sighting since… Cori wondered, were he, God forbid, to remain unfound, what might his missing persons file look like?

Mr Thomas Long, 6’ wouldn’t you say, hair short and very dark brown. No piercings or tattoos or any other marks. Twenty-four at time of disappearance, single child to Philip and Lilian Long, married for… Cori had no idea how long for, but it must have been a similar length of time. Residents of the Southney suburban/rural fringe. Cori found the school records they had requested and fished them out from the papers on the desk: no prized performer in classes, but good in logical subjects, in both the school and sixth form. Went on to a job his father found him in the Aubrey’s office. That was six years ago, a position he still occupied.

No criminal record at all, nor trace of high jinks: no public nuisance for Thomas, no loitering after dark. Friends… would colleagues count? They were as good as she could find. They worked beside him all the time he wasn’t with his family or travelling between the two. They described him as a good lad, didn’t they? Occasionally tetchy, but utterly reliable; the sort we’d all like to work alongside, to know he’d be in on time and that our lunches would be covered. But had they mentioned fun at all, had he any life in him? And as for girls? Well, Cori wondered, between the hours spent at home and the office, when would he have the time? Or rather, the time was there whenever he wanted it, but he never seemed to take it. How thrilled his family might have been at first on that Tuesday night, that their boy might have actually been out there doing something!

Since the breakfast news, its message repeated in subsequent bulletins, maybe tens of thousand of television viewers in the region had been informed that Thomas Long had been missing now for nearly two whole days. As these things went, it had not been as hopeless an appeal as some, in large part down to the regard Tom was still remembered with by those who had known him as a boy or teenager — many calling to offer sympathy as much as anything else. Filter sentiment away though — and the perhaps half a dozen possible sightings, being chased up by those at the desks around her — and there was not one lad call to say he knew him from the pub, no girl to say the pair of them had dated once. Cori found these last facts ineffably sad.

Her missing person’s report for Tom was all in past tense she noticed; but then why wouldn’t it be, when it described the life he had been living? Was this life over for him now though? Could he ever go back to being who he was, even if he turned up at the door tomorrow morning?

Even now, with all the likelihood of uncertainty, if not disaster, that hung over his situation, Cori couldn’t help hoping his disappearance might involve some aspect of transformation in his life, the widening of horizons — Thomas Long may yet return, may even look and sound the same, but surely this whole experience, however it played out, wouldn’t leave him unaffected, wouldn’t leave him not wanting to go somewhere else, do something else, break out of his stifling existence? It was impossible, she thought, that he could come back and want to be the same?

Chapter 14 — Chief Inspector Nash

The phone call with the Nottingham detective, who had left his details for Inspector Rase upon his return to the station, went well, or as well as Grey would consider afterwards as any conversation begun on such crossed purposes could be expected to.

With Sergeant Smith there with them, Grey called the number on Superintendent Rose’s phone and placed it on speaker. The room filled with the metallic clatter of the far phone being lifted from its cradle, before the sounds became a voice which issued words to greet them,

‘Inspector Rase, thank you for calling. I’m Chief Inspector Nash.’ After greetings all around, the Chief Inspector, though ever amiable, cut right to the chase, ‘Now, perhaps you’ll be good enough to tell me why you’re making enquiries after Stephen Carman? Is it related to our prior request for information relating to a phone call?’

‘Thank you, Chief Inspector,’ began Grey. ‘Yes it is. We asked at the Havahostel this morning: your call was placed from a room booked in the name of Smith. The receptionist who dealt with the tenant is uncontactable till the morning. We will of course pass on anything she can tell us.’

‘Then thank you, Inspector. But you also made your own enquiries into Stephen Carman? We have a flag against his name on the Police National Computer,’ explained Nash. ‘It reports when anyone views his file.’

‘Yes. Well, I don’t really know where to start. The thing is, there could be links with two of our open cases.’

‘Just the two?’ Nash chuckled.

‘Well, neither link might prove to mean very much,’ offered Grey apologetically.

‘I’d still be glad to know as much about them as you’re able to share. However, I must say this before we go on, if you’ll permit me to offer just a few words of caution.’ At this point Nash’s jovial manner fell away like a passing fancy,

‘It might be taken as read, but worth stating nonetheless, that for Stephen Carman to have been flagged in this way means he is an active suspect in our own investigations. Very active, if you catch my meaning. Of what he is suspected, I would rather say as little as possible — suffice it to say that if you have looked up his record, then you will know that Carman has some slight convictions for drug offences; so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for you to deduce what we might be tracking him in relation to.

‘Please let me reiterate just how very important he is to our enquiries. These may very well be undercover enquiries, and so you’ll appreciate how keen I was to get in touch with you and set our relationship off on the right foot; nip things in the bud, so to speak, before anything gets jeopardised.

‘Which isn’t to say that we won’t do everything we can to help you; indeed we would welcome an honest exchange of whatever information we each can share. I must insist though, that the extent of any actions resulting from our exchange be dictated by the needs of our investigation. Is that amenable?’

There was a pregnant pause over the line before, upon a nod from Rose, Grey voiced their tentative approval.

‘Then pray, continue…’ bid the Nottingham detective.

‘Well,’ resumed Grey warily, after listening to all that, ‘Firstly, we are looking for a man called Thomas Long — twenty-four, a Southney resident, no record — who was last seen on the outskirts of town on Tuesday evening; seen outside that particular Havahostel indeed, although this was some hours after the call was made.’

‘Yes, we caught this on the wire. I believe you’ve made a televised appeal? I’m afraid his name means nothing to us, Inspector.’

‘Well, not to worry. It was always a long shot.’

‘The thrill of the chase though, eh? There’s nothing like it.’ The man here began a kind of reverie, ‘I envy you, chasing white rabbits down holes, not sure what little door he might have ran through. It rather takes the thrill out of it when, like us, you’ve been sitting on your prey for eight months, only waiting for one of them to say or do something incriminating near enough for one of your microphones to capture it; It is a long wait for that magic moment, when you finally burst in through the front door, and see the look on their faces when you tell them that they’ve been watched all this time.

‘But, you’re saying Thomas Long is clean?’ Nash summed up in efficient fashion. ‘Are we absolutely sure about that?’

‘Certain.’ Superintendent Rose shook the others by answering so directly. ‘I’ve never come across a cleaner lad in my life, or a better family. He works for a living, goes home for his tea every night. I’m not having him suspected of anything. Now, what we need to know from you, Chief Inspector, is what your drug dealer has to do with Thomas Long — if anything. And for that matter,’ he glanced at Grey as he asked this, as if somehow blaming him for the absurd directions the investigation was taking, ‘what he has to do with Isobel Semple?’

Grey had known his superior had been frustrated, what with the whole Aubrey affair, but not that his upset had spilled over into this particular case.

‘Sorry Superintendent,’ asked Nash. ‘What was that name again?’

Less heated now, and realising he needed to offer the beguiled narcotics officer something by way of explanation, Rose answered, ‘Well, since this morning’s enquiries in the Thomas Long case, it has come to light that Carman may have been involved in another matter we’re investigating.’

Grey took over, ‘Just in the last couple of hours, we have had someone confirm Carman as being a witness in the disappearance of a local girl called Isobel Semple, nearly three years ago now.’

‘Witness? In what way?’ Nash seemed eager to assist, no matter how he had been spoken to.

‘He was a friend, or boyfriend,’ explained Grey. ‘He never came forward.’

‘Isi?’

‘Sorry?’

‘Blond hair, slim, pale, about twenty? That’s his girlfriend, he calls her Isi.’

The Superintendent, listening to this exchange, jumped as if from an electrical shock; while elsewhere the room was still with the breath of revelation.

The penny had dropped for Nash, ‘She came from your town, didn’t she. I remember it being in the papers of course; but she didn’t come on our radar till long after all the fuss over her disappearance had died down. I knew there had been a connection to Southney somewhere. We did check missing persons at the time; she had always been a likely contender for being Isi — though hard to check without asking her, and obviously we couldn’t do that if we’re tailing the pair of them.

‘And to be blunt,’ continued Nash, ‘she was never at the centre of our enquiries. Whatever Carman is up to, she may well know about it, but he doesn’t involved her — and I am afraid we have rather bigger fish to fry… Sorry, are you still there?’ He hadn’t noticed at first that no one else had spoken for a while.

‘Chief Inspector Nash,’ answered Rose slowly. ‘You do realise that you have just solved the most famous case our town has known in recent times?’

‘Well, sorry about that,’ he said mock-apologetically. ‘I’m sure I can’t take any of the credit. You know,’ he continued over the speaker, ‘it was probably she who answered the phone yesterday, she who this Mr Smith spoke to. The phone is in Carman’s name, but the couple share it. I don’t suppose you know either, who it was who called her on it the day before? Late Monday evening this would have been? They’ve called her a few times actually: an odd number, some kind of mobile device we think; it’s proving tricky to trace.’

But the Southney detectives were still agog. Nash continued,

‘Hmm, this does though create exactly the kind of situation I mentioned earlier. For you’re going to want to and come and speak to her now, aren’t you; and you’ll believe that her family ought to know she’s been found, and all manner of other considerations; and at a time when any interference in the couple’s day to day routine could be critical.’

‘How long are you expecting your operation to go on?’ asked Grey, still not quite aligned to the new reality.

There was a telling silence at the end of the line. ‘Well these things are always open ended, the timescale under constant revision.’

This would have sounded like classic obscuration, but for the note of tension Grey, who often read too much into these things, sensed behind the Chief Inspector’s words.

‘The critical moment though does seem to be drawing in,’ resumed Nash. ‘I suppose,’ he added, suddenly brightening, ‘that it is a good thing that you are only approaching us now. Lucky really, or she could have been caught up in this for months yet.’

‘We hadn’t known Carman’s real name until today though,’ (This was Cori, who had been listening intently.) ‘and so we hadn’t traced him before.’

‘No, he’s slippery like that.’

‘Oh? So what’s he like?’

Nash considered his answer, ‘Stephen Carman is a pureblooded criminal, Sergeant, make no mistake. He harms lives, and does bad things to people he doesn’t think could complain: addicts, other criminals, those outside the law. It is my avowed intention to bring him and those he works with down. However, this is not easy, for he is also a canny and careful individual: very wary, very good antennae, and a vivid — almost paranoid — sense of trouble on the horizon.

‘Not to put to fine a point on it, Sergeant, but when he was in your town he was probably already dealing drugs. But something will have made him nervous, and he left with his girl. You’ll probably find someone like him on your own files. An officer will have spotted him, started piecing together his movements, his routines, his patterns of behaviour: where he went, who he met there. Never his real name though, or, as you say, you would have been in touch long before now. Nor would a physical description have been much help, for he’s not the most distinctive of individuals. You might recognise him if you saw him again, but he would be hard to describe with any conviction. He uses his anonymity.’

‘Then it’s a good job we got the clue of the phone call,’ said Cori with relief.

‘Yes, and only then because he has that flashy phone of his listed in his own name, allowing us to trace it.’

‘Why does he do that then?’ asked Grey.

‘Because it won’t work without it.’

‘Then why is he using that phone?’

‘Because he’s an idiot,’ answered Nash with a chuckle, knowing full-well he was contradicting his earlier character-assessment of Carman.

‘I don’t get it.’ Grey was confused by all this.

‘I would suppose,’ began Cori in speculative clarification for her Inspector, ‘that the couple wanted the street cred of having one of the latest internet-enabled devices, even while knowing it wouldn’t work without setting up an account with the service operator.’

‘What a clever Sergeant you have there, Inspector.’ Nash concurred, ‘With this particular phone you’re buying a monthly mobile broadband subscription, paid for by Direct Debit — it just won’t work otherwise. And you can’t do that without giving your name and bank details. Stephen Carman: ultra-cautious, as I say, but for this one moment when he lets his ego get the better of him, not wishing to be seen with anything but the newest and best and most expensive smart phone. He has a lot of other luxury items too — you ought to see their flat. But that is all paid for with cash.’

‘So, you must get a lot of information from that phone?’ supposed Grey.

‘Well, it turns out Carman’s not quite such an idiot after all: for a lot of his work calls he uses throwaway mobiles, twenty quid jobs. He changes them too quickly for us to get much of a trace on them. He often leaves the smart phone with Isi when he’s out on business. So you see, for our part, we didn’t know that the Havahostel call held any great significance; more likely it was a personal call for her. But it always pays to check.

‘Anyhow, I can see we’ve all got a lot to chew over.’ Nash began the winding up. ‘And you’ll want to get up here and take a look at what your girl’s been doing for these last three years? As I say, I can’t let you approach her; but I’ll see what there is in the file I can show you. We work all hours, so the sooner the better really.’

‘I think this evening would suit the Inspector,’ Rose startled them to announce.

‘Well, we’re out in the field a fair bit just at the minute — incommunicado, you know — but I will be around till late today catching up on paperwork. If that suits?’

‘That’s fine,’ answered Rose. Grey looked at Cori, who nodded.

‘Great. You could be back home by ten. I’ll have someone meet you at the station.’

‘I’ll think it will be easier to drive up,’ Grey considered.

‘That’s fine. Just come into the main reception and ask for me.’ And with that the Nottingham officer rang off to resume his undercover operations.

The three sat awhile digesting the news, Grey speaking first,

‘Of all the things I thought might have happened to her — accident, running away, hidden secrets, even falling victim to someone or something, even murder — never did the possibility occur to me that she may have been purposefully hiding out… and quite happily so it seems.’

‘We don’t know that she was happy about it,’ Cori corrected him, her voice brimming with sympathy for the girl, ‘We can’t imagine what she was going through.’

‘But we know now that she must have been aware of the media coverage, saw her mother’s crying face in the papers. I can still see the headlines now: Mother pleads for “Snowdrop” to come home. And for what though? Deference to some scumbag boyfriend wanting to keep his dirty street deals secret, not wanting anyone to know where the two of them went?’

‘It is extraordinary,’ added the Superintendent, stunned out of his usual bulldog bluster by these developments, at least temporarily, ‘that she has been so close, so visible…’

‘But we don’t know what kind of life she’s been living.’ This was Cori again, feeling herself the found girl’s spokeswoman in answering the men’s speculations.

‘But at the very least she has been living, able to hear and see. What am I trying to say here?’ The Super was lost for the right form of words.

Grey had a go at helping him out, ‘Perhaps we have all had the impression, or misapprehension, that through being far away from here, or insensible or unaware through whatever ill influence I daren’t hardly care to speculate on, she might have been… unreachable somehow. That we now learn she seems to have been living an at least semi-normal life, and not very far away… well, it will take some time to adjust our impressions.’

What was it, Cornelia wondered, with these men that made them a sentimental mess at the very thought of this girl Isobel Semple? At first she wondered if it was simply that they had lived through this case from the start, had known the parents at the worst times, and now were having to contemplate the case’s completion. Yet it wasn’t as though this was the only sad tale either of them had ever come across in their police careers, and she couldn’t imagine they might fall into such maudlin reflection every time a person vanished or a family were parted.

Then she wondered if it might have been the air of mystery the affair had generated, the way it had gripped the town in speculation, and their deflation at now having to accept the facts were so much more prosaic?

But she settled instead on the notion that this physically small, and still quite young woman in danger evoked their paternalistic instincts; which, while they would work just as hard to find her as they would a person of any age or gender, left them at the same time in such a heightened emotionally state.

She pondered whether this sentimentally, albeit with noble intentions, could be felt in quite the same way by a woman, or by either sex for a missing man; and came to the calm conclusion that it wouldn’t, not in quite the same way. Fathers and daughters eh, she mused, as her thoughts returned to the tasks in hand.

‘Yes,’ concurred the Super upon hearing Grey’s assessment, ‘whatever our thoughts about Isobel, we know she is safe now, or as safe as we can make her, and under Nash’s surveillance. But are we any closer finding Thomas Long? Do we have the first idea of where he is, or what he might be up to?’

Grey knew any answer he could give would be speculative; so it was just as well the Superintendent was only asking rhetorically, he resuming,

‘That’s why I’m sending you there this evening. I want this one to be off-duty. You understand me? I’m as thrilled to hear of Isobel’s safety as the next man; but it is not our active investigation, and I’m not going to let people say we’ve put Thomas on the back-burner so we can go chasing off after that girl again. You go up to Nottingham this evening. Confirm it’s her, get it out of our systems, and then that is that until the Long case is concluded.

‘So sum up for me: is there the slightest link between the two enquiries?’

Grey struggled to come up with any but the most obvious connections, ‘Both their fathers worked at Aubrey’s; both attended the same school, but in different years, though Thomas and Carman’s years would be closer.’

‘And what about at the Havahostel?’

‘Only that the call was made that morning, and Thomas seen there that evening.’

‘Quite a gap though…’

‘Well, we don’t know when Smith was there till — they could easily have been in the room still at seven pm.’

‘So do we know when Smith checked in, checked out? Do we know anything about them?’

‘Well, the receptionist will be back first thing…’

‘You know, I’m not sure you’ve handled the hotel angle at all well.’

‘Sir, we leant quite a bit from…’

‘It sounds like you were only there ten minutes.’

‘Well the phones were ringing when we left here; we hoped there’d be other leads waiting to be chased…’

‘You didn’t speak to anyone else at the scene, anyone who might have seen him.’

‘There’s someone doing that right now.’

‘Either way, I want you back up there before you leave for Nottingham.’

‘We have learnt some new facts though, sir,’ Grey pleaded in mitigation. ‘We know it’s likely Smith was calling Isobel and not Carman.’

‘But that still has nothing to do with Thomas Long! We really have no other leads on him after the hotel sighting?’

‘No, sir. And Sarah would have interrupted us if anything had come in while we’ve been here speaking.’

‘So where did Thomas go? Use your experience, break it down for me.’

‘My best guess?’ Grey hated having to speculate so openly. ‘Well, the sightings we have point to someone waiting at a different busstop than usual after work, and from there heading directly to the services; where, and here we must be judicious, he appeared to be waiting for someone, to have an appointment to keep with whoever owned that distinctive, possibly an older, car he was seen standing by — there really seems no other reason for him to be stood where he was. Now, in any other case…’

‘You would think he had planned to meet someone and go away with them?’

‘But not Thomas. I don’t believe that is how his mind works. He is inward-looking, not outward. I think he would believe his problems, if they could be solved at all, would be solved by his family and close colleagues, here in town: his mother, Gail Marsh. He would turn to them, not run away.’

‘Even if his family and colleagues were the problem: this secret he was keeping from his father and the other workmen, knowing none of them would get paid? He’s hardly Cassandra, but even so, it must have been tormenting.’

‘Agreed, sir. Agreed. Yet I still don’t buy it. You asked my honest opinion, and there it is.’

‘You know, Grey,’ said Rose quietly after him as he and Cori had risen to leave the room, ‘About Isobel: if we do confirm she’s living up there, then we may have a problem down the line, about telling her parents that she’s found. If she is a part of Nash’s undercover operation…’

‘That had occurred to me too, sir.’

‘I just mean, if it’s playing on your mind like it is on mine… Look, I know things are a mess at the moment, what with everything that’s going on. But, you’re doing a good job here. I don’t know who else I’d trust to run things on the ground.’

Astonished with the praise, Grey could only stand a moment, before thanking Rose quickly and turning from the office.

Back in the mess room phones were still ringing, if not quite as frequently as before. When just at that moment, among the various call being answered and callers imparting information, one particular phone rang, the caller offering one particular fact…

Chapter 15 — Larry Dunn Returns

Constable Ravinder Chohan would make Sergeant from this he was certain, as he stood outside the front gates of Aubrey Electricals, Superintendent Rose only hours earlier taking him off regular duties and assigning him this detail. And the speed of events since lunchtime had only accelerated that belief, there being an urgency about his boss’ request which lent itself to the idea that a real situation was developing, and making the prospect of the kind of intense disturbance at which he could really demonstrate his skills all the more likely. Just imagine the overtime, he thought; which as ever in his mind was as important for the Brownie points it would earn him with the wife as for the bulge it would give to his pay packet.

Whether it was mercenary to think in such terms when faced with a situation as potentially disastrous to the town as this one, well, that consideration was not at the forefront of his mind. Someone had to do it, he thought, and it was not his fault that he had made himself the best available at it. No, on this point he was settled: the courses he had been on, and the experience he had gathered, both for this force and helping out at incidents elsewhere, had left him the natural choice for the job of managing any disturbance. And so having wasting no time in phoning the wife (for who would not want to start claiming the rewards of their good fortune from the outset?) he had dropped his regular duties and headed over to the plant with a spring in his step.

Friday would be the key day, the Super had told him: the day when the money would be missing from the workers’ bank accounts. As he was told this, Ravi realised he was being taken into the circle of confidence previously occupied only by those at the very heart of investigations: the Superintendent, the Inspector, Sergeant Smith and Sarah their trusted, tactful aide. And now he, a mere Constable (though not for much longer, he hoped) had been permitted, indeed invited, to come up from the servants’ quarters and dine at the top table.

That there had been secrets to reveal had been obvious, a metaphorical Do Not Disturb sign over the Super’s door for days now. And like most, he had heard the rumours from the plant. Indeed his wife’s brother was on the day shift there — and frankly, after a hard day of pounding the streets and keeping the townsfolk safe, to come home and find the brother-in-law sat there, eating at his table and pulling at his wife’s heartstrings, was becoming as much as he could bear.

Nor was it becoming an uncommon occurrence; he always there before Ravi got home, and talking as if the future was already up in the air, wondering aloud — and with no small dose of self-pity — how if Aubrey’s went to the dogs they would ever be able to manage? Ravi had never been able to avoid the impression that these hand-wringing sessions were timed to start just he came in, and trap him as a captive audience as he ate. They were less a veiled reminded of family loyalties than a shaking of the collection tin — as if they were rolling in clover raising three kids on a Constable’s wage! — and he would say this to the wife, once her brother had finally left to spend some time with his own family whose wellbeing he seemed so worried for.

He reflected with a chuckle, that there was a certain humour in the way his wife and he, on these evenings would go about their routines of getting his tea out of the oven and later watching the national news, while paying only occasional-lip service to their chattering relation and his detailed plight. And then this afternoon the Superintendent had called Ravi into his office, and confirmed all of his brother-in-law’s worst fears: The balloon is going up. All hands to the pump. And he had inferred very much from the handshake he was offered, and the look of mutual understanding the Super had bored into his very soul.

The first part of his special duty was to stand guard that afternoon, a time at which precisely nothing was expected to occur, but then you never knew with a situation like this one… Show your face, have them get used to you being there, he had been told; in other words, case the joint for tomorrow.

And if he was lucky get brought a cup of tea by the receptionist. As it turned out, she seemed to have spent half her afternoon stood at the door with him. It being a quiet time he didn’t mind her asking him about his job, and what he did, and what life was like in the police force; if he was married, if his wife found it difficult, ‘you know, when your out on duty all hours?’ Ravi’s assurance that his wife hardly missed him when he wasn’t there was answered by playful derision, ‘Oh, I’m sure she misses you very much! I know I would do if I had such a strong man about the place.’ More questions followed: on how many officers there were at their station, and the types of jobs they did? She told him of the detectives’ visit yesterday, they having come to ask about her missing colleague Thomas; and how another man had now vanished, after some silly upset on the factory floor. And the detectives, did he work with them at all, that pretty redheaded girl she had met yesterday, and the Inspector? Did they ever work together?

‘Sorry no,’ he had had to admit to her evident disappointment, the Inspector and he moving in quiet different circles he explained, their work far from always overlapping; but he painted in what details he could.

And then, going in to answer a ringing phone, catch up on chores and make another drink for them both, she came out moments later — to tell him that the man who hadn’t been back since the Inspector’s visit yesterday was there right now, was busy at his post. Up to speed in an instant after his lazy afternoon, Ravi’s radio soon crackled back and forth, the instruction: hold tight, and further details would soon be following.

The sun was sinking now over the industrial buildings, the wall Ravi leant on still warm, as the car arrived at pace to park roughly before him. It had been only ten minutes since calling the news through, during which time only a couple of workers had left the building for a furtive smoke. Don’t let anyone leave, he had been instructed. It had not been a hard detail.

‘Any trouble?’ asked Grey, bounding out of the car, as usual leaving Cori to lock it.

‘None at all, sir,’ answered Ravi, as a squad car pulled up also, two male officers emerging.

‘Head around the sides,’ Grey instructed them. ‘Cover the doors. You’re sure you haven’t seen our man leave?’ he asked, turning back to Ravi. ‘What’s he doing in there?’

‘Doing his job apparently, as if nothing had happened.’ (Grey listened, stunned.) ‘In fact he could have been there for hours, as far as anyone knows.’

‘And no one spotted him before now?’

‘Well,’ Cori reasoned aloud, ‘where’s the best place to hide a man in green overalls?’

‘Right then, come with me.’

‘Yes, sir. We’re going in now,’ Ravi breathed into the cracking receiver on his chest.

‘Hello, Inspector,’ called Shauna Reece gaily from her desk as they entered reception, a ringing phone having brought her in just as they arrived.

‘Madam,’ answered Grey curtly, but only by way of having matters pressing on his mind.

‘I’d only just noticed he was back. I’m sorry I hadn’t called you earlier.’

‘Thank you. It’s more than anyone else did.’

‘It’s loyalty I think… amongst the men.’

‘Could you swipe this door again, please?’ He asked as politely as he could while this wound up.

She did so quickly and silently, in tune with his mood, releasing the three officers into the thundering factory floor. Refusing again the ear mufflers offered in the receptionist’s outstretched hand, Grey strode in the direction he remembered Chris Barnes’ machine to be. Chris’ colleague Larry Dunn, seeing the officers almost the moment they saw him, bolted off in one direction, only to be faced by one of the auxiliary Constables entering by the side door; before turning the other way, where Ravi now ran fully at him. Dashing erratically in a third direction between two pounding presses, Dunn caught a colleague on the shoulder and sent them both to the floor beneath a hail of greasy tools, the metallic clatter still echoing as the lines of turning machines powered down to silence. This all took place in the space of maybe twenty seconds.

‘You could do yourself an industrial injury there,’ said Grey, stood above the sprawling figures, somehow neither injured from the falling ironmongery. Green-suited colleagues helping up the innocent party seemed not sure of who to look at in the most accusing manner, as the three uniformed Constables gathered up a rather less grateful figure. And all this occurring under the gaze of several hundred men baffled or angry by the officers’ now repeated visitations. Chris Barnes yesterday, Larry Dunn today — who were the police going to turn up to take away tomorrow? All work had stopped, the room was stunned to silence.

…or silence bar the muttering Larry Dunn, now being manhandled to the door, his random outbursts bubbling down to more sensical pronouncements as they reached the reception,

‘What are you bothering with me for?‘ he thundered. ‘Aubrey’s gone! He’s not coming back, they stopped work to tell us so. It’s in the paper, for God’s sake! Wuthertons run this place now — for as long as that lasts.’

‘I suppose Chris Barnes called to tell you all that?’ asked Grey, recalling catching the lad’s downcast features amid the excitement.

‘I called him, not that it matters.’

‘No, Mr Dunn. What matters is that you’re the last person to have seen Thomas Long in town on the day he vanished — anything else comes second at this moment in time. Now how hard are you going to make it for us to get a statement out of you?’

‘Vanished?’

‘He hasn’t been home for two days.’

‘But I didn’t see him! Well, I saw him at the busstop, but I didn’t speak to him.’

‘We’ll need you to tell us that at the station.’

‘I only wanted to ask him what he knew about the payroll. I did see him in the High Street; but by the time I’d got over to the busstops he’d gone, lost in the crowd.’

‘Lost in the crowd… that’s one way to put it.’

‘He was right though, wasn’t he? What he told Chris. He saw this crisis coming.’

The man was being held more upright now, he having been almost horizontal as he was wrestled from the factory floor.

‘Yes, he was right about it,’ Grey agreed. ‘But his family haven’t seen him since.’

‘I don’t know anything about that.’

‘Well, I hope for your sake that’s true,’ lamented Grey with true sadness. ‘Anyway, we’re not going to have this conversation here,’ he concluded, as with a nod of the head he instructed Ravi and the other officers to take Larry Dunn out to the waiting black maria.

‘No time for a cup of tea then?’ asked Shauna of the Inspector.

‘Alas not,’ was all he could say to her, as his people bustled out through the door like handlers of a giant eel. ‘Not ideal circumstances.’

‘Quite,’ she concurred; as nodding goodbye he left after his team.

Cori counted out some cards from her pack.

‘He’s very… at times, isn’t he,’ asked the receptionist.

‘Yes, he can be,’ smiled Cori. ‘Can you put these out for anyone who wants to call us?’

‘Another successful visit to the plant?’ offered Superintendent Rose upon their return. ‘Doing your bit for public relations? Tussling on the factory floor like Graeco-Roman wrestlers, by all accounts.’

‘We got our man, sir,’ offered Grey hopefully.

‘That you did, that you did. And we’ll soon have a statement from him; but you won’t be taking it. Remember your evening appointment?’

The Inspector did indeed remember. Rose continued, though quieter now,

‘He’s not our suspect though, is he? Dunn? We don’t think he actually..?’

‘No, I don’t think we do. He saw Thomas Long that evening, probably smashed Alex Aubrey’s windows. But beyond that…’

‘Working all Tuesday evening I believe?’

‘Yes,’ concurred the Inspector. ‘Then in the pub again, I’ve heard. Then off in the small hours to wait for the Aubrey’s to come down for breakfast, if we follow the likely chain of events.’

‘And we still haven’t had a sighting of Thomas after Tuesday evening,’ lamented Rose, as wishing Grey good luck on his travels, he turned to go to his office and brood.

Stepping outside to record another interview for the cameras, Grey updating them with news of the hotel sighting, the journalist, the same as earlier, said to him afterwards,

‘You know, Inspector. After we spoke this morning, I remembered that I had interviewed you before about a missing person. That blonde girl, Isobel Semple, the one who had been in all the papers. Do you remember?’

‘Yes, yes I think I do.’

‘Did we ever hear anything of her?’ asked the reporter with what seemed genuine concern. Fears that the man had got a jump on their latest lead instantly discounted, Grey only hoped his shaken head and brief goodnight had given nothing away.

Returning to the office to wait for her, Grey noticed on Cori’s desk the file she had that afternoon been reading, a corner of a photograph peeking out from under the cover,

‘That’s the picture of her they used in the papers,’ he said, not needing to see any more of it to recognise it, ‘the one of her young and smiling. You know,’ he offered, cryptically to any others in earshot, ‘I reckon they were lucky to take that photo when they did; because I don’t think she was ever happy in that house for one day before or after. Lord knows, I never figured that family out.’

Chapter 16 — Travelling Up

‘He’ll have to wait,’ Grey considered of Larry Dunn, muttering as they boarded Cori’s car, they having barely stopped off to drop the man back at the station before hitting the road again. Any questions Grey was keen to ask of him would have to wait — someone else would be taking his statement. The Inspector was keen to get going, if only so Cornelia might be back home before her young family were all asleep, making this the second such evening in a row.

Cori was just as keen, having assured the Inspector that they had everything they needed for the trip to Nottingham. As for him, she had long ago come to the conclusion that there seemed little the Inspector required in life that could not be found in the pockets of his suit jacket. She started up and pulled away from the station.

They had one call to make on their journey though before leaving town; and so at the very turning onto the motorway they would soon take to head northward, they instead pulled into the services carpark.

‘How’s it going?’ asked Cori of the Constable they found near the services shop, she being one of those dispatched to ask those working in the area if they remembered seeing anyone waiting near here at seven thirty on Tuesday evening.

‘It’s been difficult, Sarge,’ she began. ‘The shop and restaurant staff are on rotation, so half of them there that night aren’t here to ask. I’ve left messages for them to call, but…’ They all knew how low the return rates for such requests were: people had all kinds of reasons for not wanting to call the police. ‘It was dark by then too,’ she continued, ‘and though seven pm isn’t their busiest time, there are people coming and going at all hours — I think the workers here get into the habit of not noticing, of letting people drift past them.’

‘And we’re never going to track down all the drivers who happened to be parked here at that time either,’ lamented the Inspector. ‘They’re hardly going to have been paying much attention themselves.’ The Constable was right, he thought: this was a place people stopped at on their way to somewhere else, no one’s final destination, nowhere for anyone to get excited over or even recollect very clearly.

‘We might find some of the drivers, sir, if they stop here at the same time every evening. We could put signs up,’ she suggested helpfully, ‘like we do after an accident: Was anyone here at this time..? Did anyone see anything..? ’

‘Yes, that is worth a try. Look into that, will you? Speak to Traffic.’

‘Yes sir,’ she answered triumphantly.

‘There’s another of you, isn’t there?’ he asked.

‘Yes sir, they’re asking at the petrol stations either side.’

‘Good, good. Then thank you for your help,’ as with that he left them, strolling over to the spot by the hotel at which he had stood that morning; quite a distance actually, when you considered it.

‘There is nothing there to help us,’ he mused mournfully to no one in particular, as he trod the glum functional tarmac, rolled out it seemed like an endless grey carpet, white lines dividing it up into a thousand car-shaped spaces, ‘nor anything of any interest to man, woman or child; emotionally, intellectually, artistically, even criminally. Stood here we have nothing.’

Cori, jogging behind him, knew there was little point even trying to leaven his mood. It wouldn’t last though she was sure, not once they got moving again.

A glint of light on glass catching his eye, Grey looked up to see a camera moving atop a tall pole, ‘That could have caught something, even at night,’ he muttered.

‘Sarah’s onto it,’ Cori enthused. ‘She was scanning the footage as I left.’

‘Then maybe she’ll have something for us by tomorrow,’ he said hopefully, as they turned and walked back to where they had left the car.

A golden sunset at only five thirty though, Cori thought, pulling down her driver’s visor. It didn’t seem right, this Indian summer giving such a convincing impression during the daytime of it being July or August. They were soon moving through, past the vague hotel, and leaving behind them the retail estates of the Corridor.

Soon they were on the motorway slip-road, and joining the throbbing flow of traffic heading up from London, through the centres of the Midlands, and onward to the citadels of the North. Grey saw the cars they travelled among as blood cells pumped around the body geographic of Britain, each independent of the others but carried by common currents. As the afternoon turned to dusk they sped past vivid green cuttings, and isolated houses sat like sentry huts, guarding territory that though scenic he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to invade.

Cori was performing her familiar trick of driving while appearing utterly relaxed; not a skill Grey himself had ever mastered, the sheer constancy of the attention required leaving him mentally exhausted by the time he reached his destination. Driving had for him therefore become a when-required activity, left to others when possible, especially when those others took it so in their stride. Perhaps he had just seen too many accidents in his earlier career, or had had one too many near misses in his days spent chasing about in squad cars? Such incidents bothered him in a way they never had his colleagues.

He remembered one scene vividly, his panda car needing a whole new offside-front wheel and suspension after an evasive manoeuvre had left him hitting a kerb at speed. It hadn’t been the incident itself, for the car was in a week repaired and back on the road. What had lodged in his mind though were children laughing as they stood by his lame horse of an Escort, its orange stripe jinking over the buckled wing. Children, on the pavement his car had just slid halfway across. He couldn’t even remember if they had been there at the time of the collision, or merely came to look afterward. But to him that hardly mattered; and led him to put any further thoughts on the incident out of his mind this afternoon.

‘Sergeant, Inspector.’ Chief Inspector Nash turned out to be a tall and broad shouldered man, effortlessly imposing as he entered the Spartan police station reception. From his dress he looked, Grey thought, to be one of those officers whose work involved mingling with those on the street, unlike he and his Sergeant who had some duty to appear as offering a public face of the force. Everything he wore was broken in or faded, his clothes a patchwork of muted colours in quality fabrics, and bearing subtle designer labels. On his chin he wore a fuzz of stubble, just enough to give the impression he wasn’t having to shave for whatever role he filled in day-to-day life. Grey also knew that they worked hard on voices in that area of work, encouraging colloquial accents and casual speech; yet as they listening to Nash introducing himself as they walked up to his floor, Grey wondered if there hadn’t originally been something rather more dignified and upstanding in his voice, hidden now behind those broad Northern English tones. Either way, it struck Grey you didn’t hear such traditional accents in Britain so often any more, young people whatever their background tending towards rap-speak and exaggerated phrasing.

Nash bid them into his office, where behind the desk he launched himself into an expensive-looking steel and leather armchair — at least expensive originally, it being as lived-in as everything else he possessed. The room was as basic as the rest of the slightly underwhelming annex to which they had been bidden; redirected as they were from the main reception, along a ground floor corridor seemingly leading them away from the main body of the city police headquarters. But at least in Nash’s office there was an effort made at cosiness, with artefacts and keepsakes dotted around, between the Ordinance Survey maps and filing cabinets required of any such working room. These personal objects gave off the kind of effortless authenticity Grey was beginning to notice the man strived for in all things, he suspecting from them that he had travelled, even lived for a time, by the Mediterranean, perhaps in North Africa? It was as though, Grey thought, looking at the hangings and sculptures, that the Chief Inspector was only happy with things carved from twisting tree limbs or hewn from the raw earth. The overall impression threw that of Grey’s own stark cell into sharp relief.

‘Welcome to my hidey hole,’ smiled Nash, ‘Please, sit down,’ which they did, on simpler but no less stylish furnishings.

‘Thank you for seeing us so late,’ Cori rushed in politely as they adjusted themselves.

‘Not at all. We don’t keep office hours here; and I know you have your other case to concentrate on. ‘Have there been any developments?’

‘Only very local ones, I fear,’ Grey replied.

‘We’ve brought in a man who worked with Thomas Long at Aubrey Electricals,’ answered Cori for them. ‘He’s making a statement at the moment. But we think he’s more likely to be a witness of his movements, rather than a suspect. He was working at the time of the hotel sighting. Not that we know where Thomas went afterward…’

She noticed as she finished that Grey seemed away with his thoughts for a moment.

‘Well,’ said Nash, ‘I think it goes without saying that I wish you all the luck in the world with finding your missing boy. As much luck in fact — albeit dumb luck — as we seem to have had in finding your missing girl.’

He said this with a glow of pride that Cori for one thought thoroughly justified. Yet he seemed to end on an air of uncertainty, as though there might be more he held back from saying.

The Chief Inspector paused, then placed his hand on a large card folder on his cluttered desk,

‘Well, as promised here are the edited highlights of our file on Stephen Carman, and by proxy Isobel Semple; we not being interested in her for herself, you understand, so any data we have on her is merely the result of the couple’s association. It is rather thrown together I’m afraid, sifted from their joint surveillance. But, if anyone can make a meal of it… You might find something of interest. But,’ he paused for effect, ‘you remember we require that you gain our consent before taking any action against the pair of them. I had that agreement from you when we spoke with your Superintendent. But once we have Carman, well, then you can do what you will regarding her.

‘I have to go and speak to my people in the field, so I’ll leave it with you. You can work here as long as you need to; I could be out all night I shouldn’t wonder. Well, enjoy.’

And with that Nash was gone, leaving them to their bounty, Grey noting the urgency in Nash’s desire to reconnect with his team.

‘I hardly know where to start,’ said Cori as she moved her hands slowly to the folder, unremarkable to look at but, she hoped, brimming with secrets.

Grey was also left with an impression: that not only was the Chief Inspector his ranking superior, but that for all his bohemian adornments and blunted sartorial corners he was sharper all around. Also, that whatever may be in that bulging file, they were only been shown the tip of an iceberg.

Chapter 17 — The Nottingham File

‘I think I’ve made a mistake,’ said Inspector Rase glumly, deep in thought and after an hour of ploughing through the documents piled before them. ‘It was a mistake to come here in the middle of the Long enquiry. I’ve let the two cases get confused in my mind — I can’t remember what parts relate to the one or the other: I found myself thinking just, that what we should have done was gone hell for leather to find that receptionist, Josie, dragged her back from family time regardless, got a description of Mr Smith, had her go through CCTV until she could point him out checking in, asked her when he came and went, if she spoke to him, what was said… completely forgetting that we don’t know that this Smith has anything to do with Thomas Long at all.

‘I’m confused, Cori,’ he concluded, as downcast as she had known him. ‘I’m quite simply confused.’

‘Well, we’ll see Josie tomorrow,’ offered his Sergeant, ‘and we can ask her all that then. Anyway, it is getting late,’ she said, placing a bundle of papers back on the desk. ‘Perhaps after we’ve slept on it it will all come clear?’ But even as she tried to sooth him, she didn’t feel very hopefully herself.

‘Well, if there is a link between the cases,’ he continued, ‘then going through this rubbish isn’t going to help us find it,’ he gestured dismissively at the papers before him.

‘So what have you got, sir?’ she asked anyway, knowing his professionalism would win out over apathy if called upon.

‘The stuff of life: Xeroxed gas bills and circulars; receipts from local food stores. What does Nash think we’ll get from all this?’

‘He did say the file was thrown together, everything not sensitive to Carman.’

‘Well, they must have a Constable hiding in the letterbox.’ He tossed the bills he had been reading back on the pile. ‘Yourself?’

‘Not much more to be honest,’ answered Cori, while moving papers between her nimble fingers. ‘I know they have a nice flat and nice furniture.’

‘Who says crime doesn’t pay?’

‘I have copies of receipts from at least four stores I’d be glad to shop at myself!’

‘How big is this flat?’ asked Grey in mock-amazement as he saw how many purchases they had been making for themselves.

‘He must have a lot of customers for what he’s selling,’ Cori reflected. ‘Nottingham doesn’t seem the kind of place.’

‘Everywhere is the kind of place,’ answered Grey depressingly. ‘What else have you got?’

‘Only this,’ she said, sifting for it under other pieces. ‘The edited records of calls made to Isobel’s phone over the past few weeks.’

‘Edited isn’t the word,’ said Grey upon seeing the rows of redacted lines. ‘What would these deleted numbers be?’ he speculated. ‘Calls from Carmen’s drug buddies? Calls Nash has already traced and know have nothing to do with Isobel?’

‘There’s not a lot of it not blacked out,’ Cori admitted. ‘In fact, take away the call received from the hotel on Tuesday morning, and there’s only one other number listed here.’

‘Nash did mention another call, didn’t he?’ remembered Grey from the phone conference. ‘He asked if we had any idea who might have made it?’

‘It looks like they’ve called before,’ she said, leafing back through the photocopied data, ‘but not often and not for a while; the last time being late on Monday.’

‘What’s that?’ asked Grey, spotting a hand-written note on one of the pages. He read, ‘“Handheld device on a private network. No phone company info!”’

‘It must be from when they tried to trace the number.’

‘And I suppose they can’t just go calling these people up and asking who they are.’

‘No, Cori agreed, ‘Carman might already be worried they he was being watched; and so imagine someone as wary as him learning his associates were getting anonymous calls?’

‘Hmm,’ Grey considered. ‘If there is a clue somewhere in all this, then that is it.’

But at that point there was a knock on the door, as a woman put her head around it. ‘The Southney detectives?’ she asked. ‘Sorry,’ she said as she came forward to drop a further, thinner folder on the desk, ‘we’ve been very busy this afternoon, and I’d forgotten these were at the printers.’ Cori’s impression was of someone very efficient but rushed off their feet. ‘They’re copies of surveillance photographs. The Chief wanted me to tell you that they have been specially cleared for you to take away with you, but that he regrets the rest of the photo log is still with Technical Crimes.’

But before Grey could ask her how they might go about contacting Technical Crimes, she had gone, shutting the door behind her with a decisive click, that Grey took to be interpreted as very much the end of their exchange: they had been left this room and what was in it, and that was their lot.

Grey flipped open the flimsy cover; and was stunned to see a blown-up black and white photograph of Isobel Semple. Taken while out shopping he guessed, the scene bright and bustling; she unawares and caught in quarter-profile, flaxen hair tied back and shades resting on her nose. It was time-stamped just three months ago.

‘Definitely her?’ Cori asked the man who’d know.

‘Definitely her.’

‘She’s moved on a bit,’ noted Cori. ‘Very sophisticated.’

The Inspector remained silent.

‘Nice to see a different photograph of her, eh sir?’

‘Very nice, Cori. Very nice indeed.’

‘And this will be something to show Rose; and her family eventually.’

‘When we are allowed to.’

She considered, ‘Well, I got the feeling from Nash when he called us that that wouldn’t be very long now.’

‘We’ll make a detective of you yet, Sergeant,’ he joked. ‘I thought exactly the same.’ He was silent again, before announcing, ‘You know, Sergeant, I am going to make a supposition.’

‘Oh?’ she asked intrigued, amazed at how the photo had perked him up.

‘Always dangerous to assume anything, I know, but I trust you’ll pull me back if I fall into a suppositional ravine:

‘At the moment, we have two axes, each entwined around the other like coiled snakes, but never touching. On the one hand, we have Alex Aubrey and Thomas Long, meeting at the Club and at the office, Thomas ending up outside the hotel; on the other hand, we have Isobel Semple, this Mr Smith calling her from the hotel room, and her other mystery caller from this “mobile device”. My supposition is this: that Smith and the “mobile device” caller are one and the same; and that the call on Monday night was to tell her of whether he was planning to do at the hotel the day after. And what do men making secret calls to women generally have in mind when booking hotel rooms?’

‘Now, that is a supposition,’ she counselled.

‘But an interesting idea, you’ve got to admit.’

‘Granted.’

‘And if we suppose that far, then we could also suppose that Mr Smith is a Southney man — else why meet there? And a married man — given he’s reduced to calling from hotel rooms and untraceable “mobile devices”.

‘Possibly,’ she offered warily.

‘And I suppose it would be far too neat to suggest that this man is Alex Aubrey?’

‘Especially when Gail Marsh and Cynthia confirm he was at the office that morning…’ Cori batted that one back easily.

‘And helping Thomas with the payroll problems to boot,’ Grey reflected. Well, I’d say that’s enough wild speculation for one evening.’

Sat back in Nash’s ergonomic back-supporting chair, Grey took a moment to think. Meanwhile, in her more considered way, Cori picked at simple facts: the blatant, obvious, left behind for her seagull mind like scraps after a meal,

‘Well, here’s a question rather than a supposition, sir: whether one caller or two, how did either of them know the phone number of a woman still officially listed as missing?’

It was, the Inspector had to admit, one to ponder.

‘Good Lord, look at the time,’ said Grey after a while. ‘Look, let’s pack up here and get home to our beds. If we’re lucky we might be home in time for Newsnight. You might get to see your little ones at least.’

‘They’ll be fast asleep by now. Were you allowed up till nine thirty when you were four?’ She smiled at his naivete, his words so evidently those of one who hadn’t children. Our own childhood memories, she had discovered upon becoming a mother herself, were shrouded in the mists of forgetfulness, and needed kids of your own around you to be rekindled.

‘So how is he with your working late this week?’ continued Grey on a related theme. ‘Brough, I mean?’

‘He’s fine with it, or so he says. I don’t know; perhaps I sometimes detect a hint of something in his comments.’

‘Frustration?’

‘No, not frustration. More a… disappointment perhaps, that I actually went through with it, with what I promised myself I would do, and kept my job; and that having children didn’t make me want to change, to be home more. Does that make sense?’

‘I think I understand,’ hesitating on what was for him shaky ground.

‘Well, best to make a move then,’ she started after a pause, standing and straightened her back, before shuffling Nash’s file into some kind of order. ‘A lot to do tomorrow.’

‘Yes,’ he concurred, ‘and after reading that newspaper, we might to be lucky to get one day’s grace before the whole town erupts.’

They passed back through the now empty outer office, even the uber-efficient secretary having a home of some description to go to it seemed. At least they saw a bit of life in the main reception — in the form of the same smattering of blue uniforms, dead-eyed drunks, and angry youngsters (sitting with their social workers) that populated police stations up and down the nation of a weekday evening.

The roads were empty now, the sky above them clear and dark and star-shot; and as they drove through the outskirts of this friendly city, Grey thought: she’s out there somewhere, this girl we have been looking for for all these months. Out there somewhere in this city, under this sky, under one of these rooftops, sat by one of these windows, lit by one of these lights. And he too perhaps, the boy missing just this week, who case hadn’t yet built up such mystery, yet gathered her mystique. Was he here too, somewhere beneath this darkening sky, lost across this mass of suburbs, this backing-up of roofs?

And then the phone rang.

Chapter 18 — The Stakeout

Shaken from his rooftop reverie, Grey fumbled for the mobile and killed the quite horrible ringtone he hadn’t the technical nous nor time to learn to change.

‘Inspector.’ It was Nash, though with none of the joviality of earlier, indeed Grey thought he sounded worried. ‘I called my office first, I hoped you might have still been there. I wonder, are you yet very far out of town?’

Grey scanned for signs of direction. ‘It looks as though we’re coming upon the motorway interchange now.’

‘Good, so I’ve caught you just in time.’

‘Do you want us to turn back?’ asked Grey (Cori quickly indicating and turning the car around upon his nod.) ‘We’ll be back at the station in ten minutes.’

By now she had the car pulled up at the grass verge at the opposite side of the road.

‘No, don’t come into the station,’ instructed Nash. ‘Do you have a Sat Nav?’

‘Yes,’ answered Grey and put the phone onto speaker.

‘Then look for Paul Street, and enter it from the Lean Street end, go carefully once you get there, no blue lights or tyre screeching. Just drive slowly and someone will meet you.’

With that Grey signed off, Cori beside him tapping at her little screen.

‘Well, we won’t be getting back for Newsnight,’ he said resignedly.

‘Found it, here we go,’ she said, the car, like most modern ones, firing up with a barely perceptible rumble from somewhere beneath the plush upholstery.

‘Used to be like starting a biplane,’ he said absently, hardly expecting her to listen.

‘Sorry?’

‘I was babbling — about how when I was young, starting a car you’d be jamming the key, the little motor whinnying, it might have taken three or four goes. Half the time you’d need a jump start, or someone’d have to get out and push.’

‘Oh, right,’ she said half-listening, polite even with her attention on the Sat Nav, its whispered voice directing her along unfamiliar roads.

He couldn’t do that, Grey considered as he watched her, his thought drifting off topic a moment, give someone his attention while focusing on something else. He felt tired now — going back into town like this was a mistake; working so late was a mistake. And yet he knew it was only the soothing rumble of the road and the comfort of the ultra-soft seats lulling him into this state — he would be fine as soon as they got wherever Nash was bidding them.

Cori turned a corner, as the small directional machine showed a pattern of interconnecting roads upon its flashing screen. A ladies voice — so soft and gentle as to be able to offer the most frustrating traffic updates without incurring the driver’s wrath — advised them they had reached their destination. Satellite navigation, Grey mused, looking up at the sky for the twinkling star that would guide them along the next stage of their investigation.

‘I think we’re at the junction he mentioned,’ said Cori.

Grey perked up. ‘Nash said to go slow when we near.’

‘Well, one more corner to turn and we’re on Paul Street.’

So close to sleep a moment ago, Grey felt as though he had just woken. He now peered around the corner as the car moved slowly round it, and onto a narrow straight road of terraces. Dignified, Victorian, he thought of the buildings, even while scanning the pavements for some sign of where to stop and not go too far.

And then suddenly — was that a figure? Something like a shadow ran up beside them, emerging from they knew not where, to tap upon the driver’s-side window as gently as if wearing velvet gloves. The window slid down electronically, and a young woman’s face became clear beneath a hood. Before Grey could say, Not interested, thank you, and bid Cori re-raise the window, the woman asked,

‘Inspector Rase?’

He hardly nodded before she continued,

‘Sergeant Pullman, Drugs Squad. Pull up quietly, and come with me.’ They exited, closing the doors softly, and joined her on the barely lit pavement. It was so dark they could hardly make out their guide against the brick wall.

‘Could we find a better place to park?’ asked Cori, less car-proud than mindful of needing a vehicle to get home in that evening.

‘Don’t worry, there’s not many kids along this street at night. They know to stay away,’ said Sergeant Pullman mysteriously. ‘And those suits aren’t the best.’ She joked, ‘People will think you’re tax inspectors, or maybe Vernon’s pools?’

‘You don’t look old enough to remember the pools,’ answered Grey perhaps a bit too loudly.

‘My dad used to play them every Saturday. Come on, stay close, there’s no street lamp here.’

‘Why not?’ asked Cori to no response, as they followed her through a narrow arch-roofed alleyway built through the terrace block.

Come.’ They emerged into an unkempt back garden, hardly more than a paved square with some bins and a short washing line. Through a gate almost off its hinges, they came into a service road that ran along behind the houses. They turned to walk along it, a barren strip of tarmac between rows of similar little yards on either side. At one back gate a woman lifted the lid off her bin with a clang, to empty into it the charred remnants of her frying pan. As they passed she glared at the strangers — perhaps the glare, Grey surmised, of someone used to strange characters and odd goings on after dark, but which she tolerated and had learnt not to ask questions of.

‘Don’t worry about the locals,’ said Sergeant Pullman as they turned to enter another yard, on the same side but much further along than the one they had emerged through, ‘they don’t like coppers in the neighbourhood, but they like having a dealer even less. I think we make them feel safe, although they’d never admit it,’ she added with a grin.

‘So,’ Grey looked down at her hooded top and combat trousers, ‘they know that you’re a..?’

‘They can smell it on us. And if they know I’m an officer,’ she gestured with her hands to her clothes, and then to his suit, ‘then imagine how obvious are you?’

She bid they all be silent, and let them through the yard and into the kitchen of one of the small houses in the terraced row. The room was old-fashioned but tidy and furnished, and had a pan of warm milk heating on the stove. ‘That’s Nash’s favourite,’ she said with a smile. ‘Go on up, they’re in the back bedroom.’

The house bore all the signs, Grey thought, of having been a family home until quite recently. Not a rich household, but a clean one, one that looked after its belongings, treated things with respect. As they rose from the narrow steep staircase, running in it’s own cavity through the middle of the house, and then from the small landing into what had evidently been a boy’s bedroom, Grey thought: this isn’t too different to the room I had when I was his age, this boy, whoever he was. Beside a poster of a current superstar footballer however, was a dog-eared low-scale map of streets and houses covered in pins and markers. And sat below this on the bed was Nash with an expensive white laptop on his knee.

‘Quite a find this, eh? The family relocated six months ago, and we moved in before the Council had even cleared the house. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to work from such a premises — you ought to see some of the dumps we’ve had in the past! I promise you, Inspector, when you’ve been lying on your belly on a damp disused warehouse floor, trying to hold a telephoto lens steady for eight hours… well, the thought of a cosy back bedroom becomes ever more appealing. And I’m not getting any younger — it’ll have to be a desk job soon, and leave all this to a younger man.’

‘You’d be bored within a week.’ This was Sergeant Pullman, arriving with two steaming mugs of cocoa, which she shoved into their visitors’ hands. ‘Keeps the chill out,’ she said, before disappearing to fetch two more for herself and Nash.

‘She’s right of course. I have the office I always dreamed of, custom furniture, a souvenir from every holiday I’ve ever been on… and yet I don’t spend half as long there as I could. Why would you want to be in the map-room pushing markers around when you could be in the trenches though, eh Inspector?’

‘I prefer the street-level myself.’ The drink burnt the tip of Grey’s tongue.

‘Of course, that’s because of who we are, and why we joined the force. We have enquiring minds. We didn’t join to hog a desk, we aren’t a branch of the Civil Service. We are not that kind of person, we are inquisitive, which is why you are already wondering why I brought you here, when I previously wished for you to be as little involved in this end of things as possible. Lead the way will you, Gill.’

The returning Sergeant Pullman led them silently from the lit bedroom, Nash closing the door behind them, and across the landing, which Grey noticed had no bulb in the light socket. On entering the front bedroom they discovered the room had not a door but a velvet curtain. It struck Cori as they moved through it as being like the curtain of a stage or, more accurately, of a fortune-teller’s booth at a funfair.

Parting the veil led them into the room, where not only was there no source of light but every surface seemed to be made matt black, rending the space a mysterious pool of shadows and looming unidentifiable shapes.

One of these shapes moved, and spoke to them, ‘No change, boss.’

‘Sullivan, these are the detectives from Southney, the ones who know Isobel.’

‘Good to meet you.’ Sullivan stuck out a black-gloved hand which Grey could hardly find to shake.

‘Sullivan is leading our surveillance.’ Nash was talking very quietly. ‘Show them, Tom.’

‘She’s in view now.’

Invisible hands moved Grey by his shoulders into a position to see through a pair of binoculars, its lenses focused like a laser-beam, burning right into the living room of a flat he imagined must have been at least fifty yards away, and perhaps a floor or two above the room he was in. He judged the low block he was staring at to be perhaps a street or two further back than the houses opposite them on the terraced street.

‘You’ll have as good a view here, if you want to see as well.’

Cori gave a little yelp as the gloved hands reached for her and placed her beside Grey and behind a high-powered camera.

‘Forgive his brusqueness,’ said Nash, ‘too long spent in darkened rooms can de-sensitise a man.’

The fellow in the close-fitting modern equivalent of a cloak made a few small adjustments to the lens, and suddenly the view was as clear for Cori as for her colleague. The pair of them side by side, as if watching a small stage through opera glasses, saw through a large picture window the interior of a modern apartment. Rather starker than the still-furnished rooms of the former home they were at that moment squatting in, the walls of this other residence seemed bare white, but for a series of dramatic prints hung in series across the back wall. It was a huge single pane they looked through — wouldn’t be allowed today thought Grey, he guessing the squat block dating from the Sixties — which gave him the impression of their watching the room through a giant television screen, and meant the officers could see everything that occurred within it, almost as if through a transparent wall.

‘Is that Isobel?’ asked Cori, shocked, as a figure walked into the room holding a glass of juice. Female, small, in only a nightdress or what could have been a large tee-shirt. Her hair was blonde, thick and short, and bearing none of the purple traces Chad at the record shop had mentioned her sporting in her Southney days.

Grey was stunned — there she was at last, the object of all of his endeavours nearly three years ago. In two days he had gone from not knowing if she were alive or dead, to learning of her phone calls, to seeing candid camera shots of her; and now to finally seeing her with his own eyes, albeit assisted by technology. ‘Southney’s Snowdrop,’ he whispered so quietly that only Cori heard.

But something wasn’t right, and both were sensing it. As she moved toward the sofa — that like the other items in the room looked both new and expensive — Isobel seemed to fall as much as sit down upon its ample leather frame.

‘She isn’t well, is she,’ spoke Grey.

‘And is that blood on her face?’ called out Cori, as she watched this dot of a woman, weak as a lamb, bring the drink to her lips with a titanic effort. She replaced the glass on the table, beside the shiny pebble of a phone, which she then lifted as if it were a lead bar; this was the phone they had of course already heard so much about. ‘She’s making a call,’ announced Cori.

‘What’s she’s saying?’ asked Grey.

‘We can’t hear the calls themselves,’ answered the mysterious Sullivan from yet another viewing post. ‘But the phone company send us the numbers called and answered.’

‘She’s probably trying to call an ambulance.’ Cori was getting anxious now. ‘Did you see what happened to her? Was it Carman?’

‘No,’ answered Nash from somewhere at the back of the room.

‘It wasn’t Carman? Then who..?’

‘No, I mean she isn’t calling an ambulance. Of course it could have been Carman.’

‘Did you see him do it?’

‘Not this time; but they have had fights before.’

‘So,’ Cori asked dumbfounded, ‘ with all these cameras… have you got footage of him hitting her? I mean, if you have it recorded then we can…’

‘We could do, yes.’

‘Then why not..?’

‘Because we want to put him away for longer than he’d get for knocking his girlfriend about.’

She was stunned to silence.

Grey took a step back in the conversation, ‘But how do you know she isn’t calling an ambulance?’

‘Because she hasn’t made a call in two days; or received one for that matter.’

‘Is that how long it’s been since she was hurt? When they fought?’

‘If they fought. Yes, two nights ago.’

‘Two nights ago? She’s been like that..?’ Grey fumed at this, almost lost for words himself now. ‘And where’s he, for that matter?’

Nash shot back, ‘Surveillance isn’t watching someone twentyfour-seven, Inspector. You monitor people, learn their manner and ways. We don’t know where Stephen Carman is every minute of the day.’

‘Do you know where he is this minute?’

The Chief Inspector didn’t reply; the Inspector thrilled for the accuracy of his off-the-cuff remark. Grey imagining Nash glaring at him across the darkness.

Meanwhile, Cori adjusted to the realisation of new intel — Nash had lost his suspect. Was that was what this was all about?

‘Two nights ago,’ explained Nash. ‘Tuesday. The night Stephen Carman disappeared, and hasn’t been seen or heard of since. And there you have it, Sergeant, Inspector: the reason you are here, and the situation we hope you can begin to help us out of.’

There was an aggravation in Nash’s tone that Grey wasn’t sure was entirely warranted; as though the Southney officers were somehow responsible for the mess he was in? He tried though to process this sudden information — primarily the fact, as his mind began to grasp it, that Stephen Carman had been missing for as long as Thomas Long.

Beside him though, Cori was still transfixed by the image of suffering brought to her through the camera’s telephoto lens. ‘So how has Isobel been?’ she asked the room. ‘Have you kept watch of her?’

‘Rest assured,’ began Nash, ‘that if she had passed out or slumped over we would have been in there regardless of blowing our cover. But she’s holding it together; she’s strong. Trust me, Sergeant, when I say this is the very worst scenario we face, and we do not enjoy it one bit.’

‘She hasn’t been out of our sight,’ offered Sullivan. ‘She’s had the curtains open the whole time.’

Cori was reassured that Isobel had been under constant watch, but his statement niggled her,

‘But why would she close the curtains?’ she asked, it occurring to her that if Isobel kept them open all evening when most people had them closed, then she might not close them at all.

‘Because he doesn’t like too much daylight of a morning, does our Stephen,’ answered Nash. ‘Or that’s our best guess anyway. He’s not too keen on bright lights in general. Of course this may all be a part of his paranoid desire to stay unseen, unnoticed, which is at the core of his professional secrecy, and part of the reason why he’s so good at what he does. But,’ the Chief Inspector pondered, ‘I do wonder if he doesn’t have some form of epilepsy, a light-sensitivity? A lot of them do, you know, troublesome lads. Dyslexia too. They suffer frustration caused by learning difficulties, embarrassment over not being able to read, things like that. It’s half the reason why they can’t concentrate in the classroom or hold regular jobs…’

‘Fascinating though this is…’ Grey interjected, as eager to have answers as his Sergeant. But Nash continued,

‘She’s often on her own up there at night. She likes to sit at the window, just looking out over the city.’

Cori was becoming as exasperated as Grey, before Nash, as if reading her thoughts resumed,

‘I know what you’re thinking, Sergeant. And yes, it does seem contrary to our avowed duty to protect the public, and the countless police initiatives to crack down on domestic violence — it is a sad but all too common aspect of this couple’s relationship. But their… spats never last very long, which is I expect why she’s still with him… which was the next thing you were going to ask me, right? Why does she stay?’

Cori wasn’t sure it was, but he continued,

‘Well, life is never that simple; and believe me, Sergeant, she gives as good as she gets. See that huge TV on the glass stand? That’s his pride and joy, but not his first… a week ago she put his silver pistol right through the screen of its immediate predecessor.’

‘He’s got a gun up there?’ called Cori? This situation was going from bad to worse.

‘Not a real one, it’s a cigarette lighter, solid silver,’ explained Nash with a smile, Cori then remembering seeing the receipt earlier, from an up-market-sounding store in town. Nash continued, ‘He doesn’t ever use it though, doesn’t smoke even, just waves it about occasionally. He’s got a bit of an Al Capone fixation, or maybe Al Pacino? I don’t know who he thinks he is, but that screen’s big enough for us to make out most of the films he watches on it: and it’s a good job DVDs don’t wear out, or he’d be buying a new copy of Scarface every other week.’

‘But all this money they have to splash around,’ Grey was still struck by the evidence of their spending. ‘I thought he was just a kid selling amphetamines?’

‘He may have been when he worked in your town. He’s moved on now, moved up in the world, or so he thinks. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. He’s not selling sweets to school kids anymore. How do you think a major-league drug dealer operates?’

‘He smashes up expensive televisions,’ started Grey, lost in the fog of the conversation.

‘She smashes…’

‘Okay, but it doesn’t really matter. Forget about the televisions — they could put an ashtray through a dozen of them each for all I care. What about Isobel? Is that a head injury?’

‘Yes, there did seem to be a cut, but the redness has faded somewhat.’

‘How… how can you just say that?’ asked Cori. Despite the gloom, Grey just knew Cori was burning with indignation beside him.

‘You think I don’t care?’ Nash jumped to his own defence. ‘I’ve been watching her alone up there, nursing that wound, for two days now.’

‘No one ever died of delayed concussion, at least that I ever heard of,’ uttered the hidden Sullivan.

Cori sat there in the darkness feeling her concerns brushed aside; but before she could say anything, somewhere in the formless space of the dark room a radio crackled, prompting Sullivan to ask Nash, ‘Can you get them out of here, sir? I’ve got to speak to Central.’

Grey hardly noticed the insult, as, with an arm around his shoulder, Nash continued to talk to him as he led him back to the dimly lit landing. In the confusion Cori had been left at her nocturnal viewing post, her eyes focused on the languid frame of Isobel Semple sprawled across the leather sofa.

On the landing Nash continued, ‘Inspector, you think I’m being heartless. I get it, I really do. We’re sitting here watching a woman in acute distress, and doing nothing. I can see how that confuses you. Her suffering appeals to your innate humanity, and especially so with her being the woman you’ve been searching for so long. Now, I’ve shared a lot of our operation with you this evening, but I fear I also have to share a few home truths. You will not enjoy them.

‘One: Isobel is not an innocent in this. She knows exactly what her partner does. She doesn’t pack his lunch and think she’s waving him off to the office each morning.

‘Two: we are not their guardian angels. We are only here to stop them doing the bad things they are doing to other people; and if as a result of our operation we see bad being done to — or amongst — the criminals themselves, well, as I say, this viewing post isn’t here to jump to their aid the moment a perpetrator comes to harm. We play a long game, Inspector, and sometimes short term kindnesses must be forgone for the greater good of the exercise.

‘Now, I’ve seen Carman commit a hundred acts against a hundred people; and I have had to step back, let it happen, and know in my bones, that I will have enough after six months to put him and other much worse people behind bars for many, many years. Think of the thousands whose lives will be the better for that.

‘Now, is there one part of what I’ve said so far that you are not on board with?’

‘Okay, okay,’ said Grey. ‘Enough of the humanitarianism. I’m prepared to credit you with doing what you’re doing here with the best intentions. But please, tell me what happened on Tuesday.’

‘Very well,’ began Nash in reserved tones, as if resigned, Grey felt, to knowing things couldn’t move on until the story had been retold to the Inspector’s satisfaction. ‘Not long after receiving the phone call from the hotel on Tuesday morning, Isobel left the flat; we thought either just to go shopping or see friends or have a coffee in town as she often does…

‘And you lost her?’

‘As I said before, surveillance isn’t tailing someone all day and all night. We don’t have the manpower for a start, and it offers too many opportunities to give ourselves away and for the subject to get suspicious. Rather, it is about establishing patterns of behaviour, knowing where someone is likely to be going, and where they are likely to next appear, and what they are likely to be doing there. You would be surprised how effective this is, how routine even criminal lives become. Where the system falls down however, is when a canny person, perhaps knowing they are being trailed, makes a one-eighty degree turn, goes right off the expected route and vanishes from the radar screen.’

‘And this is what she did?’

‘Well, all I know is that we didn’t see her again until the same time on Wednesday. And that’s not all: later on Tuesday daytime, after she had left, Carman came home; and after five minutes stormed right out again.’

‘And that was the last you saw of him?’

‘No, he seemed agitated, and so we did tail him; at least as far as to the home of another his associates we are watching, where he borrowed a car.’

‘And did you follow the car?’

‘No need. Cars are easy — the numberplate is logged every time they’re picked up on a traffic camera. The last trace was on the motorway, southbound, probably the same road you travelled northbound on to come here this evening. Our bet guess was he turned off it soon after though, at least before the next camera placement; and carried on either along minor roads, or else stopped very close by, before he had travelled far enough to be picked up at a traffic lights or major junction.’

‘Somewhere like a motorway services?’

‘It was a possibility. However, we didn’t want to enlist your forces in a search, and risk revealing our interest, until, well…’ The man’s mood had darkened considerably, ‘To tell the truth, Inspector, we were hoping beyond hope that you would turn up some trace of Carman at the hotel; that you could tell us that he had met someone there, maybe whoever it was who called from there earlier. Perhaps Isobel may have been there too? Who knows.’

He had only known him one evening, but Grey thought this was about as despondent as the Nottingham man was ever likely to get.

‘So how did she get hurt?’

‘We don’t know,’ Nash sat down on a small chair by the bedroom door. ‘She came back with what looked like a cut, but nothing too serious. Of course we were worried, but she seemed fine in herself, and then spent most of that day in bed. It wasn’t until the evening, when Carman still hadn’t returned, and she was up and about and looking groggy, that we worried. And then today, I have to admit, has been a bit of a nightmare.’

Grey wasn’t purposefully tormenting Nash here, it was just the run of negative answers the man was being forced to give. However, just then Sullivan emerged from the shadows, and asked for a moment alone with his boss; Nash offering Grey his apologies as the pair of them entered the boys’ bedroom and shut the door.

A moment later, free at last to break cover, Cori followed Sullivan from the lightless room to speak to her colleague in the now empty landing,

‘Sir, I didn’t mean to overhear Sullivan’s conversation.’

‘No, no.’

‘But it was a call from another officer in the field.’

‘Come and tell me outside. I need some air.’

Chapter 19 — A Moment of Decision

Grey emerged into the evening, barely comprehending under Nottingham skies. Around him, the night silent but for traffic hum, were red-brick walls and alleyways and terraces. He stood in the backyard of the once lived-in house and breathed. It was getting on for ten o’clock.

‘The man who called Sullivan is watching another of Carman’s gang,’ resumed Cori as she joined him. ‘They are getting restless after two days with no word from Carman. The field officer is asking for a decision: on whether they try and salvage something from the operation, before what’s left of the network panic and run for the hills.’

Grey’s head had long been hurting at the combination of detail, but now he was baffled,

‘Tuesday,’ he began in summing up. ‘The day of Isi’s phone call, her leaving, and her return. Also the day we now learn that both Thomas Long and Stephen Carman were last seen, their presence last recorded each in the vicinity of the motorway services. I mean… what is this place, the Bermuda Triangle? How many people were swallowed up there that night? And have we found one person who could tell us what went on there?’

Cori, hearing all this was lost for words.

‘You know, I had wondered whether this whole hotel business wouldn’t prove to have been just a sideshow, the latest chapter in Isi’s private life, and nothing at all to do with Carman and his trade. At least, that was, until he vanished from the face of the Earth.’

Grey turned suddenly to find Nash standing at the kitchen door, embarrassed to have the Chief Inspector eavesdropping. He continued,

‘She’s not the first girlfriend of a crook to tire of the life. She’s alone in that flat most evenings, and it must drive her spare. No wonder there’s other men in the frame. But lovers are as furtive as criminals, Inspector, and we can’t leave what could conceivably be a coded call to another dealer’s hotel room uninvestigated.

‘No, of course,’ Grey did his best to answer calmly.

‘Now my team could drive themselves spare, working out who knew what and who called who; and it really would be good to get this Southney nonsense wrapped up before it throws everything out of kilter. But we are at a critical point in our investigation — I really wish I could tell you both about it — and so I may have to leave it for you to look into, after you have left here; and all I will ask is that the moment any trace of Stephen Carman’s whereabouts, or any concrete intel of what the pair were up to that night, crops up, you let me know right away. Is that a deal?’

It was a deal, with neither Cori nor Grey wanting to reveal they knew more of Nash’s operation than he imagined. Grey thought that might have wrapped things up, but Nash continued,

‘It is hard to know what went on that night though, when two people are missing, and another is up there in that room, inapproachable. And as for this Mr Smith — well, he could be Lord Lucan for all anyone knows. I’m sure Isobel was at the hotel though. And her being a local too; how would you say it: Southnite, Southnilian, Southpaw? ’

‘She’s notorious back home though,’ advised Grey, ‘virtually a public figure; and she’d be spotted the moment she returned. She’s as eager to keep herself hidden as you are, I expect; and Carman for that matter.’

‘Yes, we all have our differing reasons for anonymity,’ conceded Nash. (There was a wistful, regretful air about the man now, noted Grey, while wondering what such a weathervane must be like to work for?) ‘And it is of course pure speculation on my part. So, for the record then, Inspector,’ he seemed to be gathering himself up here, ‘you have no evidence to say Carman was at the services on Tuesday, or any time after?’

‘Not yet,’ answered Grey, ‘but our team are going through the carpark CCTV as we speak…’

‘…and the hotel receptionist will be back soon,‘ continued Cori. ‘We’ll know a lot more about who called Isobel tomorrow morning.’

‘I don’t have until tomorrow morning.’

‘But once we have a description for Smith from the receptionist,’ continued Cori hopefully, ‘then we can look for him in the hotel security footage: see when they checked in, if they met anyone in the foyer, in the bar maybe?’

‘Sergeant,’ the Chief Inspector interrupted her, with what promised to be another of his characteristic soliloquies; however before it was able to get underway, they were interrupted by a disturbance from inside the house.

They arrived upstairs to raised voices, Nash’s steps quickening as he neared the darkened room.

‘I can’t watch this… freak show any longer,’ called Gill Pullman, her voice disembodied in the velvet dark. ‘I became on officer to help people, not to sit and watch them in agony.’

‘Nash, get her out of here,’ called another shapeless form.

‘Leave off, Sullivan,’ Sergeant Pullman shouted back, ‘You don’t outrank me.’ (Grey liked Sergeant Pullman.) ‘But how can you bear it?’ she implored.

‘What is going on in here?’ Nash thundered, silence obviously not a requirement of this particular undercover operation.

‘It’s Isobel,’ answered Sullivan. ‘She’s slipped over and fell out of the chair.’

‘Well, well,’ began Nash ruefully, ‘this rather brings things to a head.’

‘But what are we going to do?’ Pullman demanded?

‘This does put us in a fix, sir,’ Sullivan chimed in. ‘If she calls an ambulance now…’

‘Is that all you care about? The success of “the operation”?’

Nash silenced the pair of them, ‘Please, please, let me think awhile.’ Then spoke thoughtfully, ‘You are both right. On this occasion the needs of the subject and of the operation intertwine: we cannot leave her like that; nor can we have paramedics and local bobbies all over the flat, finding Carman’s trade samples and replica firearms and God-knows what else.’

The Southney officers had been listening to all this like friends on a double-date with a warring couple. Now Nash addressed them directly, albeit obliquely,

‘What was that line in Shakespeare, about forcing the moment to its crisis?’

‘That was Eliot,’ Grey corrected, his English A Level serving him well. ‘It was over a woman.’

‘Well, isn’t this?’ Nash mused, as Cori dodged past him in the doorway and back to her viewing post. ‘I wonder if we aren’t approaching our own moment of crisis? Carman hasn’t come back; and Isobel is getting no better. Perhaps the situation is resolving itself, a way of action becoming clear?’

Nevertheless, they remained in paralysed silence; before Cori came back into the hallway, addressing Grey, ‘Sir, she’s in a bad way. She’s half on the floor, and doesn’t look as though she can get up.’

None answered; and as the silence on the landing continued, so Cori’s moral incomprehension was reaching new levels. She spoke again, quietly and calmly, her words directed solely to her Inspector. ‘Sir, do I have permission to go and take Isobel to hospital?’

The whole room waited on his answer.

‘I should have let you go half an hour ago.’

The moment the first sounds left his lips several things occurred concurrently: Cori striding purposefully for the stairs, with Grey instinctively moving after her to cover her path, as Nash’s instinct led him in that direction also. Sergeant’s Pullman and Sullivan also appeared on the landing then, drawn from the viewing room by the commotion. This left Grey an inch away from falling backwards down the steep stairwell, and facing the three Nottingham officers. They stood like this for only a few moments, but long enough for Cori to have exited the house, and be finding her way now through the yards and alleyways leading back onto the narrow street.

Nash backed away first, Grey not having anywhere to back away to, bar a reverse attempt at the darkened stairs. As the Chief turned, for the first time in Grey’s presence, he produced a soft pack of cigarettes and offered one.

‘I won’t, thank you,’ said Grey, refusing the offer while appreciating the gesture.

‘Very sensible,’ said Nash calmly as he lit up and enjoyed the first drags. ‘These fellows don’t either,’ he gestured to his team. ‘I think we bring kids up too healthily these days. Everyone needs one vice, don’t you think, Inspector? Best it be something not too noxious. I wonder what yours may be?’

Grey scanned this for irony or insult, but in the end decided it was merely an honest question. But by that time Nash was thinking aloud again,

‘Stuart,’ he began, addressing Sullivan, ‘I wonder if you couldn’t get back on to Central. Suggest six am tomorrow. I think they should be able to have everybody in place by then?’

‘I should think so, sir’ he said leaving for the darkened bedroom, casting one last indecipherable look in Grey’s direction.

‘He blames you for all this,’ explained Nash after Sullivan had gone, ‘because Carman vanished in your town. He fears he has got away. While at the same time, like all of us, the prospect of action after months of restraint does vivify the soul. I expect,’ he smiled ruefully, ‘that you are detective enough to guess from the instruction I just gave, that we plan to roll up the rest of the network, or what is left of it?’

‘A clean break, sir.’ This was Sergeant Pullman, still stood by them.

‘Yes, Gill. It will be good to have it over with.’ Grey noticed genuine weariness as Nash said this.

‘And best to get Isi out of the way before it all starts.’

‘Quite right,’ Nash agreed. ‘Better all around.’

‘A shame to miss out on Carman though,’ she added.

‘You really didn’t like him, did you,’ asked her boss rhetorically. ‘You’ve had to swallow a lot, coming straight from the beat, to having to sit on your hands and watch them two slug it out up there.’

‘I hope he turns up dead.’

Grey was startled by this, but Nash took it in his stride,

‘Still, I have a good feeling. If we can mobilise tomorrow morning, then we will have acted quickly. Carman always was a ducker and a diver — it will have taken a couple of days for his cronies to be getting worried by his absence. There was always more to this operation than watching this one flat, this one man. There are other players involved; and Scar was always punching above his weight, straining at the limits of influence, trying to convince them he could be a major player too.

‘To have left it any longer though,’ he cautioned, ‘even one more day, and some very serious figures might have gone ghost; leaving us watching a string of empty flats and vacated rooms.’

At which point Sullivan reappeared, he and Nash soon talking in the corner of the landing, lost in muttered discussions of people and places and targets.

‘I guess it’s on then,’ Gill Pullman observed as Grey turned to leave.

‘He called us back here to take Isobel off his hands,’ reasoned the Inspector, ‘to make the decision for him.’

‘Maybe,’ she agreed. ‘I’m just glad she’s going to be safe. Look after her.’

Wishing each other well he left, only for Nash to follow after him as he walked down the stairs, and saying as they reached the back yard,

‘If you ever catch up with him, Inspector remember this: the only person Stephen Carman hates more than the police is himself, for letting himself get caught those two times when he was younger. Even though he got off with possession each time, I think having his collar felt, his photo taken, fed his famous paranoia; which was already there way before he had any run-ins with us. It makes him harder to trace as he covers his tracks so well, and leaves him prone to flee at the first sign of trouble, imagined or otherwise.

‘But of course, you’ll be more worried about Isobel right at this moment. Well, she’s your baby now,’ concluded Nash. ‘She’s what you came for, so take her. Get her home to her mother, it’s the best thing for her.’

‘She never got on with her mother.’

‘Then just get her cleaned up, and out of town, tonight… Oh, and Inspector, keep watching the news won’t you — and when you see the pictures of our men taking down doors and bringing out Carman’s associates with their faces blurred — well, then you and the rest of the world will see what all of this was for.’

As with that Nash turned and walked into the house; Grey turning the other way and walking from the yard.

Chapter 20 — The Intervention

As soon as Cornelia had found her way onto the street, she realised two things: that she wasn’t entirely sure how to get to the building she had only seen through a telephoto lens, and that once there she would be faced with the task of attempting to help someone whose whole way of life involved holding the forces of law and order in contempt. The first of these issues resolved itself upon her running to the end of the narrow terraced street, and seeing, just a short way along the next thoroughfare, a familiar-looking three-storey block looming up in front of her. She even fancied she could pick out which window was Isobel’s, but would worry about that when she got there. A third thought then occurred to her, which was that she would have done better to have headed the other way to start with and have picked up the car; but it was too late by then, as she neared the front door.

The first obstacle was the intercom lock. She scanned the few names tattily listed — as if Carman would have advertised himself? Would the top floor flats have higher numbers, she wondered, as she moved to the bottom of the list? One of the highest numbers had a blank space by its bell, but pressing it got no response — hardly surprising she thought, if it was Isobel answering. She pressed another by it, and a woman’s voice sounded. Forget the undercover operation, Cori thought as she spoke,

‘Hello, this is Sergeant Smith, I’m a police officer. I was hoping you could let me in please. I need to access a flat on the top floor. We need to help someone inside.’ A plea to the lady’s better nature worked wonders — always much better than ordering the public around, Cori had found — and the door clanked open without delay. The woman who had opened it was stood by her open door on the third floor corridor by the time Cori had ran up there,

‘Officer, is that the flat you want?’ she directed eagerly, knowing instantly where the trouble would lie. ‘I’m glad you’ve come to sort them out at last. But you’ve missed him, he hasn’t been here for days.’

Cori would later realise that the lady hadn’t asked her for her warrant card, so grateful was she perhaps for any member of the authorities to be there. It was a sad aspect of undercover operations, as Cori would lament once time again permitted, that for the span of their duration it could appear as though the police were actively standing off of those individuals the public wished would have their full attention.

The Sergeant banged hard on the door, ‘Isobel, Isobel. Please open up. You’re not in trouble, but we need to get you to the doctors.’

‘Oh my, is she alright?’ asked the woman, ‘She’s such a little thing, and I’m sure he bashes her about.’

‘Stand back,’ and with that Cori kicked the door by the lock, then again. On the third attempt it swung open as far as the chain would catch, before pulling the chain’s roots from the plaster. The neighbour, stood behind Cori as she did this, gasped to see Isobel slumped on the floor and only half-way to getting herself back onto the sofa. Half-conscious and dishevelled, she bore a bruise to her cheek and a cut above her eyebrow. The orange juice she had grasped for had spilt onto the floor and was being absorbed by the fabric of her nightdress.

Eight hours later, Inspector Rase was stood silently at the door of a hospital ward, watching the sleeping figure of Isobel Semple, the first rays of sunlight peeping through the slats of the blinds to cast their bright gaze over the sheets of her bed. There was only one other patient in the four-berthed room; an older woman who was asleep for the entire time Grey was there.

For most of the evening he had been on a chair placed outside in the hall, the patient more than anything requiring her sleep. The detectives had first taken Isobel to Accident and Emergency; but she was soon moved to a general ward, upon the staff’s discovering she was suffering from no worse than dehydration and fatigue, and perhaps a slight concussion. She had slept throughout, hardly murmuring as they cleaned up her wounds; and now as Grey watched her in repose, shiny-skinned and freshly bandaged, he couldn’t help but think that even this soon after being taken from that awful situation, Isobel’s face seemed so much happier. Perhaps her body was just glad of the sleep, for it was surely too fanciful, even for Grey’s imagination, to think she somehow knew, without having opened her eyes all night, that she had been brought somewhere clean and safe and where she could rest till morning.

They themselves had been offered family beds to rest on, and though Cornelia had grabbed a couple of hours, Grey had found he couldn’t sleep. His mind had been racing, part in piecing together what they knew of the case, and part in exploring what a particular author he enjoyed reading in his spare hours might have termed the wonder of it all: the wonder of having his quarry of these last three years now so close and safe and under their care. This girl, the Southney Snowdrop — how had the Superintendent put it earlier? — ‘The most famous case our town has known in recent times’, and she surely the most intriguing figure in their town’s recent history. And now all that remained was to get her back home, one last short drive along the motorway. Truly, if Grey could have summed up his feelings at this point, he would have likened them to those of John Wayne in The Searchers.

As her staff had been tending to the patient, the Ward Sister had called Grey to her office. A practical woman, but one who Grey felt must feel something of the wonder too, she had some appreciation of just who was in her charge this night. For Isobel was, as a result of her recent media campaign, both a regional and to some extent nation figure; not only Southney’s Snowdrop but everyone’s. And he had beaten all the odds to find her after such a stretch of time.

‘I couldn’t help noticing the patient’s name,’ the Ward Sister had said, as leaving her team working, she led Grey to her office. ‘And here all these years, in such a busy city?’

‘It does happen,’ he lamented; before speaking briskly of Isobel’s current state, ‘I don’t know what you need to know, but I can offer at least this much: that we found Isobel earlier this evening in an unhappy situation of a criminal nature; discovered as part of a colleague’s undercover operation, of which she was only indirectly involved. I wish I could say more…’

‘So is she going to be charged?’ asked the Ward Sister warily.

‘Not by us; in fact quite the opposite,’ he continued, attempting to load his words with as much gravity as he could muster. ‘Barring whatever treatment you deem fit, for her own safety we would be glad to have Isobel out of the city as soon as possible come the morning.’

The Ward Sister took all this in before replying. However there were other considerations; for during their talk a nurse had knocked gently on the door, and popped in to share a whispered conference with her superior, before being dismissed.

‘The nurse informed me,’ announced the Ward Sister, ‘that quite apart from her head wound, Isobel’s body bears certain signs we are accustomed to seeing, and which it is our sad duty to have to look out for. Certain small scars around the eyes and mouth, faded bruising on the arms… Inspector, I wonder if you could confirm to me whether this recent life of Isobel’s has involved instances of abuse?’

‘That may well have been the case,’ he answered, which was after all the best he knew.

She took a deep intake of breath. ‘Then, come the morning you get her well away from here,’ was the last thing the Ward Sister said on the subject.

It turned out that, bar offering her a few hours sleep, there was little more they could do for Isobel here this night. She could be release to the officers’ care, their only instruction being that she be referred to Southney General Infirmary later that day for a check up and for her dressings to be changed.

It being the middle of the night, and they both being at something of a loose end, the Ward Sister made the Inspector coffee and they spoke awhile: Of her job, and how the nightshifts could sometimes be little more than being on call but at work — so different to the hectic days — but how this gave her the time to get so much done; and of how her ward inspections at this time were silent walks down empty corridors on rubber soles, doors found by torchlight and opening on oiled hinges, her feelings almost maternal as she cast a carer’s gaze over her nocturnal charges.

Then their talk turned to his job, and how his days could be anything from eight hours behind his desk to fifteen on foot and in car and in interview rooms, facing down the most soulless creatures it could be any person’s worst wish to want to spend time with; and how his nights were most often his own — in every sense, she would infer — to rest and unwind in, and even down a jar or two, if that was what it took to align the things he had seen that day with any kind of caring model of the world and our place in it. You wouldn’t do his job, he concluded, if it wasn’t in your bones. The look she gave him confirmed she and her fellow professionals felt just the same.

At two am she had a ward inspection scheduled, and then a stocktake of deliveries — which came in at night, she explained, the roads so much clearer then. And so the Ward Sister bade the Inspector goodnight, though leaving him with the warm impression that, should he ever find himself in town and with an hour to kill some evening, then he would be more than welcome to partake again of her hospitality.

He looked in on Cori in the family room, sound asleep and curled into the foetal position, and looking so content he wouldn’t have been surprised to see her raise her hand and begin sucking her thumb. Her suit was folded over the chair beside the bed, the nurses having found her nightwear, presumably some always kept available. And he thought, as he resumed his walk along the corridor, how the people who find themselves staying here won’t always have known to pack an overnight bag. And as he sat down to start his lonely vigil outside Isobel’s room, this thought struck him as both terrifying and terribly sad.

Chapter 21 — Isobel Waking

Friday

Cornelia arrived early to join Grey in his vigil, she having left her own curtains open to be woken by the sun. They looked in through the observation window to see that Isobel herself was stirring. The day promised to be another bright one. The Ward Sister’s only condition had been that Isobel be allowed to wake in her own time, the nurses not having needed to sedate her.

‘She’s an early riser, like me,’ said Grey; who even on his days off was always up and alert way too early, keen to get going with things, and never able to enjoy a lie-in. The flip-side of this was that, though he was often called to stay up late for work, and could do so if required, he was never very much use on social occasions after about nine in the evening.

‘Do you think she’ll want to come with us?’ asked Cori.

‘I had thought of that,’ Grey pondered. ‘I think if she wants to go back to the flat we have to tell her of the operation, everything we know, no matter what condition she is in. We have to convince her that Carman is as good as arrested the moment he shows his face, and that she is with us for her own protection.’

‘If she still loves him she might want to go back there regardless,’ Cori sighed. ‘I’ve seen that mentality before.’

‘Stand by your man?’

‘Exactly.’

There was a shuffling of the starched bedclothes as Isobel woke; first with a slow stretching movement, and then with a start, as she began to remember who she was — and wonder where she was.

‘We have to get in quickly, the Ward Sister told me last night,’ recalled Grey. ‘A strange bed in a strange room — if you don’t fill them in with what’s happened to them they can get flare up in all kinds if ways, especially after a trauma.’

As if in answer to her colleague’s repeated advice, the current Ward Sister, Grey’s confidant having ended her shift some hours ago, flew past them into the room, a nurse following soon after bearing a cup of tea. Instructions, Grey realised, had obviously been relayed.

‘Wait here,’ the nurse instructed the detectives as she exited, the drink having been left on the table by the bed. After a minute’s confab with the patient at her bedside, the new Ward Sister gestured with a beckoning motion for the officers to enter.

Grey felt a lurching sensation in his stomach as gingerly he entered the room; a similar feeling perhaps to that experienced by a fan upon being beckoned into the backstage area of a musician or celebrity? He couldn’t quite place it. He had in his professional life occasionally met politicians and other dignitaries, but this was not that same mix of nerves and the urgent reminding to yourself of to whom it was that you were speaking.

Being with her last night, holding her almost unconscious in the back of the ambulance as they sped here, was one thing; but now Isobel was fully alert, and fixing him in her eye as they walked to her bedside.

‘I’ll let the Inspector explain,’ concluded the Sister, as she withdrew to keep a watchful eye on them from the corridor.

‘You’re from back home,’ were her first words to him. ‘I remember you on the telly, back when I…’ Her voice was only slightly groggy, her eyes wide awake.

‘Yes, I was,’ he answered. ‘Inspector Rase, and this is Sergeant Smith.’

But Cori’s introduction proved unnecessary for Isobel, ‘Yes, I remember you from last night. Thank you for helping me.’

Cori smiled at this as she sat beside Grey at the bedside; but she would hold back, allowing them their conversation.

‘When I saw you on the news, back then,’ continued Isobel. ‘When you went on TV looking for me, standing on the green outside the library; it reminded me of home.’

‘You saw that?’ asked Grey before he could check himself.

‘Yes, of course,’ she replied, as if it would have been absurd to have thought otherwise, as if she wouldn’t have seen the broadcasts like everybody else. ‘I heard what you said. I knew we weren’t coming back though.’ She said this quietly, Cori noticed, pre-empting perhaps the Inspector’s disappointment.

Grey knew enough, from having worked with missing persons agencies on similar cases, not to judge a person once found for not having gotten in touch during the weeks or months or years of their disappearance — it was one of those things that in the end result brought no one any benefit. You could have called though. People were worried, he wanted to say. But he swallowed hard.

As if hearing his thoughts, she explained, ‘I wanted to get in touch, when I saw it on the news those first weeks, over and over. But… well, what was all the fuss about anyway? I left a note, didn’t I? I wasn’t a kid. I made a choice to go.’

He couldn’t argue with her logic, nor did he chose to argue the technicality of her being just weeks short of her eighteenth birthday at the time; but neither could another part of him let it go entirely, ‘But your parents…’ he spluttered despite himself.

‘My parents! If you knew one percent of what happened with me and them…’

The issue now broached, Grey went on, ‘Well, I did get to know them, and they cared very…’ Cori had placed a hand on his arm, silencing him, bringing him back from the edge of losing all trust with Isobel at all.

‘So, how did I end up here?’ asked the young woman. ‘How did you?’

‘Well, it’s complicated,’ Cori took over. She’s a nice kid, she found herself thinking. How did she get in such a mess? ‘In the first place you’re here because you were found unconscious in your flat.’

‘Yeah, I don’t remember much about that.’ Isobel smiled ironically as she spoke, ‘I don’t think I was feeling too hot. The nurse just now said something about delayed concussion?’

‘But in broader terms, Miss Semple,’ her title sounding ridiculously formal to Cori as Grey said it, Isobel laughing as she heard it, ‘I wonder how much you knew about Stephen Carman’s… activities?’

Isobel smiled the same knowing smile, ‘Ah, so that’s what caught us? Well, we had a good run I guess. I suppose I thought people might have just stopped looking for me eventually, and that even if he did ever get caught this wouldn’t all come back to me.’ She paused a moment, then said with intent, ‘Is this where I decide how much I admit to being involved in? Wait, you said knew?’

‘Sorry?’ asked Grey.

Cori smiled to herself, for she was right: the girl was sharp. Perhaps she had had to be in a life like her and Carman’s?

‘You asked how much I knew, not how much I know, as if it’s all over. Has something happened to him? Am I under arrest?’

Grey turned to Cori and cast her an imploring look, as if to ask how he could possibly proceed any further without telling the girl everything?

‘It’s okay,’ said Isobel, saving Grey his deliberations, ‘I can guess. You’ve got him, haven’t you? That’s why he hasn’t been back to the flat — don’t worry, I can remember that much. Did you arrest him?’

‘To the best of my knowledge, no,’ answered Grey without elaboration; for they were getting sidetracked, time was pressing, and his promise to Nash required they move soon.

He continued, ‘Miss Semple… Isobel. I hope there’s going to be a chance for us to talk some more very soon, but for now… and as it seems you knew pretty much what your boyfriend was up to…’ He struggled for the words, and eventually just came out with it,

‘For a long time now, Stephen Carman and his associates have been under observation by colleagues of ours in this city. As we speak,’ Grey looked at his watch, confident the action was already in full swing, ‘these colleagues are rounding up the gang, as a conclusion to an operation involving many men and lasting many months.’

‘You’ve been watching them all this time?’ she asked with wonder. ‘You’ve been watching us!’

‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’

‘Stephen always said they’d do something like this. He saw a policeman behind every tree.’

‘There was one.’

Grey wasn’t sure if he had meant this as a joke, but it made her laugh regardless. He sensed in her not worry, or even sadness for the life she must have known was now over; but instead there seemed only a lightness of heart, the relief of the recently liberated, for whom that rush of freedom was still fresh.

‘Now, I don’t imagine these are pleasant men that are being hunting down,’ continued Grey, ‘and although we expect our colleagues will quickly gather the ringleaders, well, there is always the risk someone could slip the net. And if they do they may come looking for Carman, or yourself. After all, you’ll both have recently vanished, just before the rest of them are arrested. It wouldn’t take a genius to add two and two and make five.’

‘They’d think we’d grassed,’ she soundly reasoned.

‘It is also not inconceivable that someone is going to get hurt in all this and end up here,’ he gestured to the ward around them.’ Again, if you remained here and someone saw you…’ He let the implications speak for themselves. ‘And that is why we are hoping to take you away from this city very soon, for a few days at least.’

‘So I’m not going to be caught up in this? And these colleagues of yours..?’

‘That they may want to talk to you once the dust settles.’

‘But they won’t want to arrest me?’

‘They’ve cut you loose, to focus on the bigger players.’

‘And Stephen? You’d swear to me you haven’t already got him?’

‘I wish we had, I won’t lie to you.’

There was a pause as Isobel seemed on the verge of saying something, but held back, thinking before she spoke. Grey heard a tapping on glass, and turned to see the new Ward Sister through the door window, having gained his attention, now pointing to her nurses’ watch with it’s upside-down face — the need for urgency had obviously been passed on.

‘I’ll level with you, Inspector,’ Isobel at last breaking the silence. ‘Stephen has been my boyfriend for four years; and there isn’t very much he has gotten up to that I didn’t know about. They are bad men he knows, Inspector. And I don’t want to be here when it goes down. I’ll tell you anything you want, the lot, but you’ve got to level with me too. You need to tell me all about this undercover business.’

‘I promise. How quickly can you..?’

‘As soon as I’m dressed.’ she went to move and gave a small animal yelp, Grey guessed at the discovery of some bruise or injury.

‘We don’t have to go just yet, it’s still quite early.’

‘No, best to get going I think.’

‘Here, let me help you.’ Cori jumped up to the bedside. ‘I packed some clothes, but I didn’t have long, I hope I got everything.’

Grey left the room relieved: it hadn’t gone too badly, and she seemed on their side. There was little he could do right now about getting everything he was learning to make sense, and only hoped Isobel might eventually offer some clue that could help with finding Thomas, for he must be the top priority as soon as they returned.

As he stood alone in the corridor other thoughts crushed into his head, of the complications awaiting them in town: Where will she go? Who must be told? What are the procedures? He would get her to the station and speak to Rose, he was the first to need to know; and focusing on this one simple course of action relaxed Grey, and let thoughts of all else that needed to happen go and stand in line and wait their turn.

Chapter 22 — The Journey Home

Thirty minutes later they were on the motorway, another thirty and they would be pulling into the yard of the police station. Ever the practical one, the clothes Cori had hurriedly grabbed for Isobel had turned out to be a sturdy pair of jeans and a rustic chunky-knit sweater, which, combined with her unstyled hair and scrubbed, make-up free face, gave her the wholesome air of a hill walker or young farmer’s wife, albeit one with a nasty cut on the head.

Cori, relaxed behind the wheel amid the rush hour traffic — that though it filled the lanes never quite clogged them — hardly looked like a woman running on a few hours’ sleep in a strange bed. As presentable as ever, Grey could not remember ever having seen her dishevelled.

For his own part, looking at his pallid, stubbled visage in the mirror of the pulled down sun-visor, he wondered which looked worse: the suit he had been wearing for twenty-four hours or the man inside it? He decided neither answer was any better than the other, and so retired from asking the question.

‘I don’t know how you feel about coming back to town,’ he asked their passenger sat in the middle of the backseat. ‘We can put you up in a hotel or something if you’d prefer. I’m sure we could clear the expense.’

‘I can hardly keep hidden now can I,’ she answered. ‘I have to come home sometime.’

‘Well, it would be better to interview you back at the station. And it’s not like the whole town will know you’re back right away.’

‘And how long to you think it will be until they do?’ she offered, more with humour than resignation.

Isobel seemed clear eyed and bright minded already, had done so while still in bed. Any fears of Carman addling her mind with the stuff he was selling seemed unfounded, and Grey began to wonder if the state she was in last night had been nothing more than dog tiredness? Perhaps though, given the circumstances of the last few days, he began to wonder if he might have felt more at ease has she seemed a little more shaken by things, a little less able to manage?

‘So,’ she continued, ‘you haven’t told me why it’s you doing this, and not Nottingham? I guess the local police called you, and asked you to take me back?’

‘Well, it’s a funny business,’ he almost laughed, but not quite. ‘I’m not at all sure how to explain it to you. The thing is, we are looking for an entirely different person, a man who’s gone missing this week; and by a fluke we turned you up. It’s what you might call a happy accident.’

‘So who is he,’ she asked, ‘the man who’s gone missing?’

‘His name is Thomas Long. He works at the Aubrey plant, like your father.’

‘Wow,’ she said with wide-eyed innocence. ‘And is he okay?’

‘We’ve no idea yet.’

‘That’s a shame.’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘So,’ she continued, ‘what was the fluke?’

Grey wasn’t sure that he had wanted to begin probing before they had got back to town; however he now saw no way out of it. He would tread as gently as he knew how,

‘Well, it is a funny thing, as I say. But the place where Thomas Long was last seen was outside a hotel. It’s quite near to town, you might remember it. Anyway, it is the most tenuous of links I grant you, but subsequent investigations reveal a phone call had been made earlier in the day, from one of the hotel rooms to your mobile.’

‘So you had our number?’ asked Isobel, suddenly on full alert.

‘Yes we did,’ answered Cori, choosing to offer no further information.

‘We will have to ask you about it later,’ continued Grey, ‘once we have a proper interview arranged.’

‘No, I’m quite happy to talk now.’

Grey, less so, advised, ‘Bear in mind, anything you say now you may have to repeat later for the tape.’

‘When was this call?’

‘It would have been around ten am,’ he offered reluctantly, he favouring the controlled environment of an interview room for such an exchange.

‘Well, if you know Stephen’s business, then you must know he was getting odd calls all day and all night.’

‘Well, that’s the thing,’ Grey couldn’t help but retort, years of interviews having trained him in spotting the psychological moment in a conversation, ‘according to our colleagues, Stephen did most of his business on pay-as-you-go’s, a new one each week.’

‘Who was it calling?’ asked Isobel, in a manner Cori, eyes on the road, genuinely couldn’t pinpoint.

‘We don’t know,’ answered Grey.

‘Then what an odd question to ask me, Inspector!’ declared the woman.

Knowing an outright query at this point could have brought an outright lie in response, Grey refrained from asking who had called and if had been she who answered. Further ruminations though were cut short, as the backseat passenger said,

‘I’m sorry Inspector, I really have no idea who called or how they had our number. Is that a sign for a services coming up? Could we? I’m bursting.’

A minute later the car was pulling up on the bustling carpark of the last services before those at the Southney turnoff, Cori picking a spot very near the shop and facilities, which, unlike those of the services nearer home, were about all that this smaller complex consisted of. The detectives let their charge bound up and out, before talking very quickly.

‘As good a spot as any,’ supposed Grey, scanning the surrounds. ‘No town or turnoffs, there's nowhere for her to run to from here. But still…’

‘A pretty girl like her wouldn’t find it hard to hitch a lift,’ added Cori pessimistically.

‘True,’ concurred Grey. ‘There’ll be a dozen lonely truck drivers here this minute just dreaming of a pick-up like her. They’d have her away in two seconds’

‘She hadn’t guessed the phone was being monitored,’ noted Cori.

‘No, not for all her canniness. Have you heard the way she’s bluffing, claiming not to know who was calling?’

‘I saw her eyes flicker for a moment, in the driver’s mirror, when you were asking her…’

‘And in those seconds she judged for certain how much we knew. You know, when I was her age,’ he mused, ‘or younger maybe, before I joined the force; well, you might laugh at this, but I would never have even thought of lying to a policeman. It would have just seemed wrong, like…’ he struggled for a simile, ‘like when you see footballers not singing the national anthem.’

‘You do make me laugh.’ Cori chuckled, ‘But I should I go in now. I don’t want to leave her too much longer.’

Grey, left alone for maybe only three or four minutes, nevertheless made some startling assumptions. His mind worked best on what he termed his ‘cardinal points’, facts and theories that though perhaps unprovable, could not to his mind be reasonably disputed. And there seemed several here: firstly, that Isobel felt no love for Stephen Carman, indeed was more concerned for her own skin than wishing to remain to find her missing boyfriend or offer him any support if arrested.

Whatever manner of relationship — and of three years standing no less — Isobel had had with Carman; whether she had ever, even at the start perhaps, imagined she had loved him; and taking into account whatever material benefits being with him bought her — the nice flat, the sense of power that comes of being with a man who strides about controlling other people’s lives… Whatever all that meant to her, and whatever she was prepared to put up with from him when his combustible mixture bubbled over; the moment that they hit a rock in the road, the second that her accurate and calculating mind decided the game was all up, she was now leaving him and all of it behind without a backward glance.

No, not for all the luxury of their lifestyle and the power such a couple presumably held in their world, did she seem to suffer any sentiment for the life she was leaving this morning with no more than a holdall full of clothes. And this seemed to bode a deeper truth: that the story of her life, revised in light of new evidence, seemed to be — that she had ran away from her parents and friends, and couldn’t give a damn; that (as they now knew) she had seen the town she had left crying out for news of her, and couldn’t give a damn; that the man she ran away with had endangered lives as his stock in trade, and she sat down to watch her flatscreen television with him and couldn’t give a damn; and now she seemed to have cut him loose also… and seemed again not to be giving a damn.

‘Who is this woman we’re driving home?’ he wondered aloud. What startled him also was how easily this cynicism sat alongside both the simple joy of having found her, and the idealised image of Southney’s Snowdrop the townsfolk held and to which he had to some degree shared.

And there was a further feeling; not a cardinal point as such for it was moving, changing, unprovable in his mind. But it was clearly understood by Grey that Isobel reeked of guilt, though of what he was unable at present to say.

Cori jogged briskly between the slow-moving cars toward the main door of the services complex, slowing to assume as casual air as possible as she entered. She had already seen Isobel come this way from the car. The door to the Ladies was not far from the shop, and so, past the shelves of confectionaries, she moved to the stand nearest the checkouts, from where she could glance at the covers of the lifestyle magazines while keeping one eye on the door beyond the foyer.

‘Keeping tabs on me?’ asked Isobel, appearing from nowhere.

‘Chocolate,’ answered Cori, holding up the bar she had yet to pay for. ‘Want anything?’

‘Cherry Coke. Thanks.’

Keeping up the little girl act, Cori considered, as she fetched the drink and paid for the items, thankfully able from the windows by the till to have a view of the carpark, and of that head of blonde hair bobbing back over to their vehicle.

The conversation once travel resumed was thin stuff, Grey zoning out and leaving Cori to offer Isobel an edited account of local developments, of how town had may have changed at all these three years, and the troubles expected at the plant.

‘I hope my dad’s job is safe,’ she replied, with an honesty Cori credited as genuine.

Chapter 23 — Southney

They found the Southney turnoff about eight thirty, the day still clear and warm but not quite as bright as it had been for over a week now. None of them said a word as they came onto the sliproad, and passed so closely the Havahostel at which so much of the business linking the three of them rested. The short drive along the Corridor was uneventful enough, yet Grey felt a growing sense of expectation. It was though as they passed from the rural landscape of the A road to the built up surrounds of the town, that he began to notice signs, stirrings.

It was something in the nature of the knots of men, all in their green overalls; who would probably have been meeting to walk into work at about this time anyway, but who looked more numerous today, more concentrated into groups, their faces as they caught his passing gaze bearing what he sensed to be a seriousness and a desire for something needing to be done. Grey was certain something was afoot as they neared the High Street, and he saw the queue of similarly clad fellows at the first cashpoint they would have come to walking in from this side of town, the men displaying stoical intent in their grim holding of the line outside the bank. Stood just to the side of the queue, a couple of others were talking with strong body language and jutting hand motions, perhaps already having had confirmed to them by the hole in the wall what it would confirm to the others in time; confirm what Grey and Keith Pitt and indeed Thomas Long had known all week: that the money owed for this month’s labours would not be present in their accounts this morning as it ought to be.

In the few seconds that they in the passing car were witness to the scene, the two men who had already had their financial fortunes told seemed to argue, in the way only long-standing friends could without falling out over it; one deciding to stay at the bank, the other joining the growing movement of men not wanting or needing to check their accounts, and so walking past them on toward the plant.

‘He must have Direct Debits due,’ said Cori of the one who had stayed behind. ‘My guess is he’s waiting for the bank to open, while his mate would rather argue it out at work.’

‘Poor sods,’ muttered Grey, as the timebomb set for payday began its slow detonation. He had known this would happen, that the knowledge thus far private must become public — and of all the possible outcomes, it was always something like the one unfolding around them now that had been the most likely.

‘What’s happening?’ asked Isobel from the back seat. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘It’s the trouble at Aubrey’s,’ answered Grey. ‘They’re not able to pay the workers today.’

‘Of course. It’s the last Friday in the month.’

‘Your dad works there, doesn’t he,’ asked Grey, he having half-missed the earlier conversation.

‘Yeah, we lived by his paydays. Mum worked there too, before she had me. That’s where they met.’

‘You know, she never mentioned that, in all the times I spoke to her,’ noted Grey.

‘After I’d left, you mean?’

‘Yes, after you left.’

‘I used to love his paydays. Dad always used to treat me,’ she reminisced; before bursting out, ‘Ha! Chad’s Classics!’ upon spotting her old haunt as they drove along the row of shops. ‘He fancied me rotten you know, Chad, and I wasn’t very kind to him.’

‘You’ll hit a lot of memories like that,’ said Cori smiling through the mirror.

As they reached the far end of the High Street, the men in green seemed to be yet more numerous, the junction at the dogleg in the road that led on to the plant seeming a rallying point for the disenfranchised. Grey wondered if some group instinct taught them to gather together before approaching their adversaries?

It was at this junction though that Cori had to wait to turn right across the flow of morning traffic, in order to arrive at the station a short distance along the minor road. As they waited by the crowd, one of the men assembled recognised Grey through the car window,

‘Inspector,’ he called in recognition, loud enough for Grey to hear through the glass, ‘They haven’t paid us! What are you going to do about it?’ Grey, knowing full well there was precisely nothing he could do in this situation and at this moment, stared grimly forward willing the car to move. Meanwhile, the man, who had now come up to the car and had planted his opened palm on the roof above the passenger door, had his attention caught by the person he now spied sitting in the back. It took a moment, as the recognition formed,

‘Wow, that’s…’ he mumbled, before stepping back and turning to a man stood near him at the kerb, ‘Look, that’s..!’ But as he grabbed the fellow’s arm and pointed the car was, mercifully for Grey, just pulling away.

‘There’ll be a lot of that, too,’ said Grey to Isobel, he hoped kindly, as they moved down the short stretch of road, just catching the corner of the town square before swerving into the police staff parking area; and as it turned out, another crowd scene, hardly less ordered that that they had just passed through.

They pulled in to park beside a black maria bearing a neighbouring station’s insignia, as all around them men and women in anything from standard issue uniform to full-blown riot protection were assembling equipment, organising into groups, or clambering on or out of vehicles that arrived quickly and kept their engines running before leaving again.

Hardly the clear run he had been hoping for, and knowing there was going to be no way to do this inconspicuously, Grey turned to Isobel, ‘These guys were handing out “Missing” posters of you for six months. There isn’t one of them who isn’t going to recognise you.’

‘That’s okay.’ she said quietly.

‘Come on then,’ he said, jumping out quickly to open her child-locked door for her. The feeling, he would think later, was perhaps that of a chauffeur opening a limousine door for an actress at a film premier; as in a ripple effect, starting with those officers stood nearest to them as they exited the vehicle, the busy yard silenced, people forgetting their tasks or where it was they were supposed to be rushing to.

‘Isobel,’ a female voice said in a reverent whisper.

‘Bloody hell, he’s found her,’ a man said roughly.

A Constable Grey knew came up to pat him on the shoulder. ‘Good on you, boss,’ he said, beaming. And there was a general hum of wonder and approval as the trio moved through the carpark.

By the time they had entered the shaded section, where the office above overhung on columns to form a carport, Superintendent Rose — who Grey knew found it instructive of his officers’ comings and going to prefer an office with a window overlooking the carpark to one with a more favourable view of the town square — was waiting to meet them at the back door. He broke out into a smile upon the sight of Grey and Cori’s passenger.

‘Welcome home, Miss Semple,’ he offered as he took her tiny hand in both of his and shook it warmly. ‘It really is wonderful to see you.’ He stood there a moment, Grey fearing it might become slightly embarrassing had he lingered longer. Thankfully though he continued, ‘You’ve picked a hell of a day for it though — there’s likely to be a bit of trouble at the Aubrey plant today, Miss. Hence our officers’ rushing around like this.’

‘Yes, we saw the men on the way on.’

‘Then hopefully you’ll forgive us if we cannot offer the kind of welcome we would have like to. Inspector, can we speak a moment?’ he said less loudly, turning to Grey. The Inspector was soon to learn that the Super’s joy at seeing Isobel was very much out of tune with his general mood.

‘There was some trouble at Aubrey’s last night,’ began Rose cautiously, ‘some pushing and shouting, bricks thrown and bottles smashed. Nothing our men couldn’t handle, we’ve had a couple there all night. Ravi Chauhan’s running the show.’

‘Right,’ the Inspector listened intently.

‘Now, I’ll tell you all about it when you come up; but in a nutshell the decision has been made: that when all the men arrive for work today, they’re not going to be let in. It might be for the best,’ continued the Super. ‘I suppose if there is any disruption, then Wuthertons would rather it wasn’t happening on the premises — the last thing anyone wants is a sit-in.’

‘So they’d rather have them rioting outside?’

‘I’m sure they’d rather have none of those things,’ answered Rose exasperatedly.

‘Well they could try paying them the men. They’re not doing it for fun.’

‘I’m sure Wuthertons are well aware if that.’

‘I was in a sit-in once, at university,’ announced Grey from nowhere, and loud enough to bring the others standing by back into their conversation. ‘It was in the student canteen, something about subsidised food.’

‘How did it end?’ asked Rose, eager for his experiences.

‘It lasted three days, I came out fifteen pounds heavier.’

Isobel laughed with spontaneous glee. She could still be quite girlish at times, noted Cori.

‘I never know if he’s making half of this stuff up,’ the Superintendent shook his head. ‘A fine way for a senior officer to behave.’ Rose soon regained his composure though, and turned back to Isobel, ‘All this trouble does mean though, love, it might be difficult to get hold of your dad.’

‘It’s probably a bit much to see her family just yet,’ answered Grey on her behalf, she seeming quite happy for him to do so.

‘Of course, of course. Well, it might be for the best anyway if you stayed here for a while. We don’t know what it will be like outside later. The Inspector has picked a corker of a day to bring you back! Have a rest in one of the offices, have something to eat. Maybe we can get a doctor in to look at that eye. Come up when you have a minute, Grey.’

‘I’ll be right there,’ answered the tired Inspector; as pausing only to give the found girl one last adoring look, Superintendent Rose headed back upstairs and to his worried rooms.

Chapter 24 — Business upon Grey’s Return

The Desk Sergeant required only the briefest of details: the name of their charge, the sparest of biographies, the barest circumstances of her coming into their care; then a series of boxes ticked yes or no: for drugs, drink, the various violences commonly done by or done unto those arriving at this place. Formalities complete, Isobel’s presence here this day officially recorded, the women carried on to the staff rooms, as Grey turned for the stairs,

‘I’m just going to speak to Rose,’ he announced, before seeing one of the Constables waiting for him at the end of the corridor. He walked over to meet the other officer.

‘Boss,’ began the younger man, ‘we heard you were back. Was that really..?’

‘It certainly was, though do yourself a favour son, don’t go believing everything you’ve ever read about her. Anything up?’

But the lad was awestruck, having been just metres from this mythic creature’s presence. Yet he tried to pull himself together and remember what he had wanted to speak to the Inspector about, spluttering,

‘It’s just… that the Custody Sergeant wanted me to remind you we’ve still got a Lawrence Dunn in the cells.’

‘Oh Lord,’ Grey could hardly stop from smiling. ‘Is that his full name? Of course it must be. Poor devil, I quite forgot about him.’

‘He was the one who scared Aubrey off, put him in hospital, or so the lads were saying?’

‘Possibly, possibly.’

‘So do you still need him then? We gave him his breakfast, he’s fine for now, but he’s been here all night, someone will need to see him soon really.’

‘Yes, and today of all days. He’ll want to be out street-fighting with his mates, I’d expect. Let me think a moment.’

The young Constable stood and waited as the older man clambered into his own head and walked through the different options, ramifications, combinations,

‘Get him a cup of tea, and tell him I’ll be down to ask a couple of questions in the next half hour.’

‘And are we going to charge him then? We’ve got until this afternoon if we wanted to…’

‘No, I expect we can let him go then.’

‘Sir?’

‘When is a crime not a crime, Constable? When the victim doesn’t want it to be one, or is too busy to want to make it one. Get him a cup of tea, we owe him that, and tell him I’ll be along promptly.’

With Isobel safely in Cori’s care, and Dunn soon to be given something to chew on other than his grievance with the police, Grey, suddenly energised and feeling at the eye of a mighty storm, turned on his heels and bounded up the stairs to where his boss was waiting.

Grey entered the room to see Rose had resumed his watching brief at the upstairs window, a General watching his troops leaving for the front line and readying themselves for battle. For in all their minds that was what such events were; and it brought the officer at large, the bobby on the beat, no pleasure to find themselves armed and ranged against the people they served to protect.

‘They give us these bloody jobs to do,’ said Rose to the pane of glass, that steamed up he was so close to it. It didn’t answer.

‘It’s all in the paper as usual.’

Grey looked to the desk to see that morning’s Southney Sports amp; Advertiser, telling him little more than had yesterday’s afternoon edition. The front page was lay out in front of him -

“AUBREY’S IN CHAOS — SPECIAL MEASURES IN PLACE AT LOCAL FIRM — JOB CUTS FEARED”.

‘So, that would appear to be that,’ lamented Grey, for what else could he say?

‘There’s no need to be so la-di-da about it,’ Rose spat, he not turning from his post at the window. Grey knew though he was bitter at the world, not at him.

‘You haven’t heard from Alex Aubrey?’ Grey risked asking, knowing Rose was feeling his friend’s flight as a personal slight, as strong a feeling as the sense of abandonment felt along with the rest of the town.

‘It’s all in the paper,’ he answered, which Grey took to mean that he knew no more than anybody else. The Inspector leaned over the front page and read:

‘“Reports of financial troubles at the Southney manufacturing firm Aubrey Electricals were confirmed yesterday, as firm of administrators Wuthertons — called in to manage their affairs during this difficult time — issued a statement to the effect that…” This is what they had yesterday,’ Grey observed, ‘just rejigged.’

‘What were you hoping for, deathless prose? Anyway, the latest chapter isn’t written yet, what we found out late last night: that until Wuthertons’ new payment arrangements to the firm’s suppliers are in place, then the power company won’t guarantee the electricity supply; and it turns out that without this assurance they’re not insured.’

‘So there’s no power at the plant?’

‘Of course there is. I was speaking to that fellow, the one you hired.’

‘Keith Pitt?’

‘Yes. He was telling me there’s no chance there won’t be power, nor any chance it won’t get paid for. Wuthertons just can’t get the paperwork up to date fast enough. But what all this means for us, on top of everything else, is that five-hundred-odd men aren’t going to be allowed through those gates this morning. They’re already worried for their jobs, worried they won’t make ends meet this month, and now this… They’ll think they’ve already been given the chop!’

Grey turned back to the paper, turning the cover to read the story inside:

‘“Reports are coming in even as we go to print, of violent clashes this evening at the firm’s premises in the business district just outside of Southney town centre…”’

‘No worse than we get on an average Friday night,’ spoke Rose, further misting the glass.

Grey left that part and scanned down the page reading chiefly to himself,

‘“…police officers have been drafted in, after complaints were received from concerned members of the public to the effect that that several men, believed to be Aubrey workers, had already gathered outside the firm’s headquarters. The latest reports are of violent confrontations in the surrounding area, rumoured (but unconfirmed) to be between these men and members of the Wuthertons’ security staff currently guarding the firm’s offices. This follows on from a rumoured assault earlier in the week upon the firm’s managing director Alex Aubrey himself.

‘“One Aubrey’s insider of many year’s standing, happy to talk but wishing not to be named, told our reporter on the ground: ‘It’s crazy, the police are effectively being charged with securing the firm’s premises against our own employees! I can’t believe I’m seeing this. How did things get this bad? Where will it end?’

‘“It is further rumoured, from apparently reliable sources close to the stricken firm, that Wuthertons — called in to manage financial matters after the company’s energy contractors led a petition in court to appoint an administrator — have since discovered, upon gaining access to the Aubrey accounts, several large unpaid bills. Our source goes on to say that things could be as desperate as the firm’s factory and offices being threatened with having their electricity and water supplies cut off. They believe that the financial crisis was first uncovered when fears emerged among finance staff of this month’s payroll commitments not being met…”’

‘Who’s the source?’ asked Grey.

‘They don’t need one,’ answered Rose matter-of-factly. ‘They ask around, learn what they can, and then ascribe it all to one shadowy figure. Calling it “rumour” gets them out of the dock if they get it wrong. I suppose the public do need to know this stuff,’ he conceded.

Grey continued to read aloud,

‘“A representative for the firm’s utilities provider — who have today been in further contact with the administrators, wishing to be prioritised among the list of creditors — at least had these words of support for Aubrey’s and their staff: ‘While it is true that this has come out of the blue, and only three months after signing a new contract with Aubrey Electricals, we accept that this a good company going through a bad time. We know the staff have the skills and determination to get through this crisis. We hope the effects of any reorganisation will be temporary, and are confident that a secure future for the plant and its employees can be brought about.”’

At last, at the final paragraph, Grey came to the part he was interested in,

‘“The firm’s Chief Executive Alex Aubrey, son of the company founder Anthony Aubrey, is believed to be communicating with Wuthertons from his business base in London, where he has been looking for new business partners to inject fresh capital and secure Aubrey Electricals’ future.”

‘Without apparent success,’ added Grey bitterly.

‘I can understand his staying away, in one way at least,’ Rose uttered resignedly, his demeanor so stark and without hope that Grey was momentarily worried for him. ‘He’s a marked man on our own streets, he’d be mobbed if he stepped foot outside.’

‘What is he up to though?’ asked Grey exasperatedly? ‘The town’s erupting because if him!’

‘He’s hoping to sort the whole mess out.’

‘Yeah, I know all about his attempts to sort things out.’

Rose could only give his Inspector one of his looks, as the latter stood in the doorway.

‘Did he tell you why he was going to London?’ Grey pressed.

Rose turned back to his window watching, ‘This isn’t about him and me.’

Grey left it at that. He could have done with Rose in his normal belligerent mood, geeing him up and requesting progress reports. He could have used a good discussion, to get all that needed to be out in the air, and form a plan of action. As it was he was going to have to find some quiet space and do this for himself.

Chapter 25 — Videotape

Grey’s own office along the corridor looked out onto the administrative building beside the station. From his window he could see neither the ranging forces of law and order to the rear, nor the scattering of people forming on the green out front. Some of these gathered people were factorymen, others members of the public worried after having read their papers this morning. There was even a dog walker or two, wondering what the fuss was all about as police vehicles roared past with extra purpose this morning. They had begun arriving about the time work would be starting at the plant — perhaps here looking for answers, or hoping to feel safe as their town became unknown to them, or maybe just nosy? For it wasn’t every day around these parts that such transforming events were ‘going down’; and who on such a day as this had anything else to do, or anywhere other to want to be?

Grey opened his office door to find someone already there.

‘Hello Sir,’ said Sarah Cobb, rubbing her eyes on the small sofa, a laptop still on at his desk and displaying the station’s screensaver. ‘It got busy in the mess room last night, so I came up here for some quiet. You don’t mind do you?’

‘You’ve been here all night?’ He noticed then her zippered jumper and grey jogging bottoms.

‘Well, I went home after a few hours,’ she said, rising from her sleeping position and tending to the coffee maker, ‘but then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I went for a run about nine, and accidentally/on purpose found I was running past the station… You know how it is, when you’re on a case.’

‘I do,’ he said sadly. ‘But still…’ He found himself torn between guilt at letting his staff go so far beyond the call of duty for him, and eagerness to learn what she may have found. ‘You really didn’t have to…’ Grey found himself asking, before her eagerness took over,

‘But it was worth it, sir. Come and see.’ He joined her as she placed two piping cups from the machine by the laptop, and pulled another chair around in front of the computer screen,

‘So I was looking through the CCTV footage, from the cameras overlooking the services carpark. Once you’d given me a starting point, I found the camera nearest to the hotel and began scanning from around seven o’clock on the Tuesday night.’ She tapped at laptop keys and found for Grey a blurred black and white still of parked cars, and behind them what could just be made out to be the hotel frontage at night.

‘You’ve put all this film on your PC?’ he asked.

‘No, they have an electronic hard drive system. All the cameras feed through and store their data there. I can access it online. Anyway, over the very first few frames I found this…’

In the film, its frames progressing in stop-motion, was a man, little more than an outline, approaching and then pausing by — just at the edge of the frame — a car Grey noted to be a contender for the one described by Maria, the evening receptionist. And then there she was herself, casting a backward glance as Thomas as she made for the hotel front door to begin her shift. The car did indeed seem larger than the others, its glinting chrome showing clearly against the darkness around it.

‘You’ve found Thomas!’

‘Yes sir… and after that I thought I’d just keep working through all the CCTV film. That’s not all I found though,’ she added, a note of caution in her voice.

Grey watched ominously, as Sarah’s fingers moved to speed up the sequence of images,

‘This is about seven minutes later,’ she explained, slowing the playback to a crawl; as firstly the figure identified as Thomas seemed to look across sharply at something out of shot, before dashing off in the opposite direction so quickly that by the next still he had vanished from the frame completely.

‘What happened?’ asked Grey, his question answered though by the very next image, where a second figure — no more than a blur — shot across past the parked car, coming from the direction Thomas had been looking towards and then moving in the direction in which he had then fled.

‘Who was that?’ he asked.

‘They’re moving too quickly to see,’ Sarah replied, ‘but they are a bit clearer later on.’

Moving expertly to queue up another stream of images, scenes of night-time and movement, caught in low resolution, Sarah explained,

‘So, I asked Records, and they found me an Ordinance Survey map of the area,’ (Grey noticing it then folded up by the computer.) ‘I had a look around, at how it all fitted together — the hotel, the Corridor, the motorway and the services.

‘I started in our corner of the carpark, and then marked on it where there were cameras and what direction they looked out at; then I began scanning the footage for the remainder of the evening…’

‘So you had another load of cameras to go through? No wonder you’ve been here all night. Sarah, you didn’t have to…’

‘Sir, just let me show you this one thing.’ Now she looked really worried.

‘Go on.’

‘Now I couldn’t see anything on the film from the next two cameras along the carpark, and so with nothing specific to go on I was all set to pack up then, and let the general scanning of all hours of all the tapes resume tomorrow. But as I say, I had a second wind, and wouldn’t have slept with all this going on in my mind.’

‘Okay.’ He sensed she was building toward something.

‘So I came back and studied the map some more; and tried to see where someone could have run off to, in the general direction Thomas was going, without being caught on either of the next two cameras? And it’s here,’ her finger moved to the map she had opened out in front of the computer, ‘this path around the side of the hotel, which if it’s caught on a camera is going to be one of the hotel’s own. So I rang them up…’

‘At that time? They must have loved you.’

‘I think the guard I spoke to was glad of the company; he sounded lonely there all night.’

The Sarah Grey knew would have said this jokingly, he thought, with relish, with hints of innuendo; so why was she instead finding the pathos in the guard’s situation?

‘And luckily they have the same security system,’ she continued, ‘so he gave me the internet link and their pass code.’

And there, with more deft touches of the keyboard, was Thomas on screen again, dashing around the front corner of the building, Grey relieved Sarah had rejoined the trail of his journey, even as he began to dread how this chase could end.

‘There is nothing though on the camera covering the back of the hotel, so I looked to see where he might have gone next; and the only option I could see would be leaving the path here,’ she directed his view across the terrain with a quickly moving finger, ‘which looks like it might involve climbing a fence — we’d have to check — but I think he did because of this.

This next shot, though just as grainy as the others — its tones reduced to black and white, shapes dumbed down to blur and static — nevertheless showed what might, just might, have been a person running very quickly past a signpost fixed and unmoving. The image haunted Grey, offering the illusion of the signpost being visible through that wraithlike form, the dashing spectre half there and half not, a creature neither of this world or the next.

‘Running this way would bring you out quite near to the services,’ continued Sarah, she beginning to flag a little now as she ran through her narrative. ‘There are eight separate cameras around the restaurant and petrol station — and you know even a busy place like the services can seem deserted at certain times of the day, once rush hour has passed. I found a couple of people coming and goings, some lorry drivers talking… it might have taken hours for me to find Thomas’ trail again. But I had one last idea before I packed it in for the night, and that was that there was one particular way they could have gone which would have definitely have passed by a camera. So I thought, I’m here now, I’ll do a quick scan of the cameras either side of the footbridge over the motorway — you know, for people who are travelling south and so have parked on the other side.’

Although there was a road bridge, linked to sliproads and roundabouts and so forming something of a minor junctions, for some drivers heading south and not requiring meals or shop goods, or who didn’t mind the walk across, there was a carpark on that side too.

She queued up the next screen. The opening shot was of a dimly lit walkway leading to steps heading upward, and of a man, though you wouldn’t want to say who, starting up the metal staircase as if leaping over water in a steeplechase. A dramatic, startling image, but nothing compared to the next…

Threatening enough to be the cover of a video nasty, dripping as it was with implied violence, in this new image were two figures seen only as outlines, stark, in equal parts blurred and jagged, each an inverted silhouette of bunched and crumpled clothing, of strong light reflecting from pale clothes and skin. They seemed to be circling each other within the narrow tunnel of the covered bridge. Grey shuddered.

‘Sir, once you see them both a bit more clearly, I’m not sure that the other one couldn’t be…’

‘Stephen Carman.’

‘Yes. After seeing his photo yesterday, it really could be him. If only he were turned a bit more towards us.’

‘They told us in Nottingham his car had passed this way on Tuesday.’

‘So what does he have to do with Thomas Long?’

‘I hope to soon find out.’

Both remained looking at the screen. By the men’s body language one seemed to be tending forward at the moment of the snapshot, the other backing away against the tunnel’s side, the latter’s shoulders and head against the glass. Similar of height and stature, at least in this inideal rendering, had he not prior knowledge of their characters Grey would have found it difficult to tell the one from the other. And how like Stephen Carman he thought, always so fearful of being spotted, if he did turn out to be the one caught in rear-quarter profile as he made his lunge.

‘He’s anti-photogenic, that Carman — he dodges lenses even when he doesn’t know they are there.’ Grey didn’t want to think about any of this.

He looked again at the image: like a square of a comic strip, it was as though an artist versed in action drawing had captured these figures in such a way as seemed almost holographic, two people alive and in motion within the still frame.

‘There’s still a couple more, sir.’ Sarah said this with such implied doom that Grey was barely able to keep his eyes on the screen. ‘This one was taken by the same camera, some twenty seconds later.’

This new image, the penultimate it turned out, was near identical as the one it replaced onscreen — same frame, same angle — yet altered in that now only one figure stood midway along the tunnel, though still with their back to the camera. They were standing with intent, as if an animal over its kill, the thrill and struggle of battle over. Yet the space at their feet, where the other should, in this reading of the scene, be lay out, was clear, empty, with not a sign of the vanquished prey. Nor was this some trick of the lens or unfortunate cutting off of the frame: for had the original designer of this CCTV system been brought forward to that night and instructed by the police how they wished this future scene to be viewed, they could not have placed the camera to give the officers this morning a better view of the empty space at the attacker’s feet. His shoulders were raised, back hunched as if breathing in deeply, arms curved slightly outward as if about to grapple a barrel.

Grey’s mind lurched into the realms of phantasmagoria, fancying that if only that pixelated face were looking his way he would see fangs there, and blood around the mouth. Yet the scene was gruesome enough as it was, something from a psychological horror movie or an adult video game; and he suddenly thought of Sarah, left alone up here in his office and spending her night searching through reels of night-time film for the next in this grim sequence.

‘This is the last I have,’ said Sarah as she queued up one last picture, ‘taken from the far staircase.’ This final shot was something of a comedown after all that had preceded it: recognisably the same bridge, but taken at a new angle, the remaining figure moving gingerly as they emerged from the stairwell, heading towards that side’s carpark. Their head was tilted slightly sideways — perhaps one last glance back at the scene? Grey couldn’t be sure.

‘There’s only two cameras on that side, and I’m not sure the other is working.’

‘Southbound,’ uttered Grey. ‘London.’

‘If he found a lift he could be anywhere now,’ concurred Sarah.

‘He could have called anyone to collect him. He had his “work” mobile presumably.’

‘I’m afraid I rather flaked out after finding these shots, sir.’ said Sarah apologetically, she looking fit to flake out again now, Grey thought. ‘I hit the hay and haven’t found Thomas or… him again since.’

‘But somewhere, in all these hours and hours of footage…’

‘…we will find them as they move across different cameras. I’m sure we will, sir.’

‘I hope so.’

‘Bear in mind I was moving through the tapes quite quickly, sir; and the cameras on the carpark have quite long delays between frames.’

‘But Thomas… he just vanishes.’

‘He must have gone somewhere, sir.’

Grey knew at that point that something very bad had happened along that bridge, however confusing those final images. Yet despite he wanting so much to find the secrets within this mass of film, this desire was as nothing compared to his gratitude to Sarah, and his wanting her to get home and get some sleep,

‘But you’re not going to find any more this morning,’ he advised.

‘But I really think in a couple of hours…’

‘No buts. Tired eyes don’t see. You’ve moved us on three days here in one night. Now get home; and I’ll remember all you’ve done in my report.’

He was sending home one of the few people in the station — bar himself, Cori, Rose, the Desk Sergeant, Custody Sergeant, and a skeleton crew of officers for emergencies and orderlies for those duties which must be maintained — who weren’t heading for the factory frontline. With Sarah away her work would rest undone.

Her recent efforts were what Nash would expect from his team as a matter of course, it then occurred to Grey: unswerving dedication in time as well as application, with complete disregard for the work/life balance or their family lives. Not that Grey’s team were slouches of course, or any less conscientious, but come on, there was a line here… He was glad Sarah had done this extra work, but glad also that it had been exceptional, that she had almost had to apologise for spending her free time at the office.

Still, I’m glad I’m not one of those on Nash’s list this morning, Grey thought, suspecting that that city might be a much safer place by lunchtime.

‘This map,’ Grey studied it on the desk, ‘it has all the camera points and timings marked on it?’

‘Yes sir, it’s how I kept track.’

‘Then I’ll take it with me when I go, if you don’t mind. And then I don’t want to see you back here for a good few hours. If anything gets left, we can pick it up tomorrow.’ Tomorrow was a Saturday, not that either of them batted an eye at being here at weekends.

‘I might be needing to go on a treasure hunt,’ said Grey, as Sarah left with a smile and a hand on his arm. He wished though, that like in the stories of his childhood, it was a wooden chest of Spanish coins that he was looking for, and not… well, he wouldn’t think about that for the time being.

Chapter 26 — A Difficult Release

No sooner had Grey made his way back down to the holding cells, than the Custody Sergeant grabbed his ear,

‘Inspector! We’ve been hoping to see you along this way. Mr Dunn has been especially waiting, haven’t you Mr Dunn? ’ He said this quite loud enough for his words to travel along the antiseptic-scrubbed tile corridor, and on through the letterbox-slot opening in Larry Dunn’s cell door. The Custody Sergeant’s voice on such occasions was of that special tone, trained into policemen for dealing with recalcitrant charges and rowdy scenes, and similar to that of teachers facing troublesome classrooms — it was the voice of obvious and unquestioned authority, that at its sounding rendered all argument and rival claims to anyone’s attention in the vicinity null and void.

‘We can’t hold him for long,’ he continued in a quieter voice, to the Inspector alone.

‘Don’t worry. Do we have an interview room free?’

‘Everything all right?’

‘Just dandy. He’s been fed?’

The Sergeant nodded in confirmation; and two minutes later, with a copy of Dunn’s statement in his hand, and a duty Constable (held back, at least for now, from the picket line pressgangers’ clutches) stood at the door, Grey at last faced Larry Dunn across an interview room table, the automated tape machine silenced by the Inspector the moment it clicked into life. The man glowered at him from across the table.

‘You’ve had breakfast?’ asked Grey, simply for something to start with.

‘Shouldn’t you be recording this?’

‘Only if we were charging you. As it is I’m only here to tell you you are free to go.’

‘You’ve kept me here all night to tell me that?’

‘I’d say you’ve got off lightly, wouldn’t you?’

Perhaps sensing silence would be his best way of having the interview over soonest, Larry Dunn held his tongue; as Grey continued also in a different vein,

‘I did mean to speak to you sooner. Sorry you had to stay overnight. If I could have gotten here yesterday… well.

‘The fact is though, Mr Dunn, that no crime has been reported, no allegations made against you. The only witnesses to anything amiss occurring at the Aubrey house were the couple themselves and whoever may have hurled a piece of their rockery through the window at them while they ate their breakfast; and if none of them will come forward… well, what kind of case do we have?

‘Nor is it any more than speculation how any alleged attacker got all the way out to their house and back twice over; for it would be quite a hike from town. Even if I had the time to go through traffic camera footage, and two nights running found a vehicle matching yours heading out in that direction… and mere hours after personally witnessing its driver intoxicated…’

‘Okay, okay, I get it,’ Dunn squirmed.

‘Though you see what I’m saying here?’ concluded Grey. ‘Count yourself lucky. Don’t ever try me again.’

Grey could have said more: of how cowardly an act it had been, lying in wait for someone like that, catching them off guard while eating… and a manual man against an office worker to boot, when they had always physical advantage… but he knew to say all this would have been unproductive.

Larry Dunn was no fool, he knew that for Alex Aubrey to make a compliant would require him coming back to town… and that might not be happening anytime soon. Dunn had understood the words, and understood he was free, but something rooted him to his seat,

‘So what about Thomas then?’ he at last responded. ‘Have you found him?’

‘We’re working on it. You know, you’re still almost the last person to see him.’

‘At the busstops?’

‘Yes, although at least we know now where he was going, and that he got there; which at least confirms what you told us.’ Grey patted the statement Dunn had given his colleagues during his stay.

‘Oh, your theory that I hadn’t waylaid him?’ offered Dunn with a snort.

‘Something extraordinary happened to Thomas that night. You wouldn’t believe the questions we have to ask of people sometimes.’

At liberty to leave, Dunn instead took the opportunity to talk, Grey finding he was quite happy to listen. The man began,

‘You know, when I saw Thomas in town, he looked rattled, fit to burst — you know the way really straight-laced guys are when they get pushed? You or me, finding out what Thomas did, would shout the place down, get on the phone, put our fist through something. But those kind of guys… their lives are too ordered, they follow the rules, they want someone to protect them — the boss, the law, I don’t know. They don’t ever cut loose, it’s like they’re powerless.’

‘Impotent.’

‘Yeah,’ he chuckled, ‘if you like. Aubrey screwed him over though, left him there to sort that mess out. He knew the well was dry.’ At this Dunn leaned in to whisper, ‘That was half the reason I did it. Not just for myself, but the way he’d screwed all of us.’ He pushed his chair back to leave, ‘I hope the lad’s okay, Inspector.’

‘Yes, so do I,’ Grey found himself replying, as with an unexpected hand on the detective’s shoulder, Larry Dunn passed him as he left the room and walked the short way to freedom.

‘Now go and protest if you must,’ called Grey after Dunn, ‘but trust one who knows — the money is not there, no matter what pressure you put them under.’

‘Are you telling me we didn’t get paid, Inspector?’ he called back with irony.

‘But then you knew that already,’ whispered Grey to himself. ‘Thomas Long had told your mate, you were the first ones to know.’

‘So we’re not charging him with anything?’ asked the Constable upon Grey’s own eventual rising to exit the room. He happened to have been one of the three who had pinned Dunn to the factory floor during yesterday’s scuffling bid for freedom.

‘No son, he did for Aubrey all right, but he will never bring charges.’

‘Other things on his mind?’

‘I shouldn’t wonder, the trouble this is all going to cause people. They wanted you for the picket?’

‘Yes, sir. If you don’t need me any more?’

‘Is this your first crowd scene?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘You remember your training?

‘Every bit of it, sir.’

‘Just remember then — be spat at, be swore at, don’t ever raise your truncheon.’

Grey released the lad to his first proper large-scale operation, while recalling his own: Too young for the miner’s strike, a trainee during the Poll Tax disputes, he had first formed a line as a very young Constable, at, of all places, a music festival; one of the first paying, legal dance music events of the early Nineties, the Acid House raves of recent years having petered out in a low miasma of law changes, drug busts and general bad vibes.

It was being held quite legally, in a disused airfield some miles away, employing local labourers, a scaffold stage and — crucially — a rented concert public address system; which, as it neared the headline set of the evening, suffered a massive and irreparable power cut — in fact a man was burnt when the generator and the van it was in exploded. And so the organisers, who were probably the same who had been running the old illegal raves until quite recently, paused only to call in the police before disappearing into the surrounding countryside; and leaving it for the force to tend to thirty thousand colourfully dressed people, who were now being asked, and by the very officers they still viewed with suspicion from those earlier lawless days, to leave in an orderly fashion the field they had but a short while ago paid a not insignificant sum to enter. It had taken eighteen hours.

Chapter 27 — Canteen Confrontational

‘No rest for the wicked,’ murmured Grey to himself, as jogging back upstairs, he headed to the canteen to find Isobel eating greedily, Cori sat beside her with a notepad, taking notes of her words between mouthfuls. The room was empty but for a couple of officers talking at another table. Again he saw, like when he watched her sleeping in the hospital, how at moments like these Isobel had a girlish simplicity about her; she now displaying the pleasure a hungry child takes in their food. Yet the moment he sat down she looked up; and without missing a beat asked him between mouthfuls,

‘So what do you need me to do now? What’s the necessary procedures?’ Other questions followed as casually as you like, her knife and fork working at the food automatically.

She looked straight at the Inspector as he answered to say how there was no necessary procedures as such, she not having committed any crime, at least none they were investigating; but how he was glad of having her statement as a witness in the Long case, no matter how little light she could shed.

‘It really is very little, I’m afraid. I haven’t a clue who called us from the hotel,’ she offered, before changing the subject quickly, ‘So, what will happen with my things in the flat? And there’s also our… I mean, not all our money was…’

‘I’d think even your personal accounts would be seized,’ advised Grey, ‘at least until after the court case. You might also need to be interviewed by Nottingham police.’

These last reports seemed to sadden her, noted Grey, she perhaps having earmarked some part of their joint assets as an aid in launching into whatever she did next in life. Perhaps they were part-legitimate, he mused, earned by herself somehow? But he doubted it. He also noticed a certain fear about her, sparked by even the most oblique reference to Stephen Carman and the life they shared. This was betrayed by her big eyes, so expressive that not even her iron control could stop them hiding everything authentic she was feeling. God, he must have given her a rough time, he thought.

Isobel, eating less hurriedly now, no longer like an animal worried of where its next meal may come from, sat rocking her feet beneath the chair; while each officer passing through the almost deserted dining room, like their colleagues in the carpark before them, gazed on her with a mixture of amazement at seeing her in the flesh, joined with a look of near-parental love — she was their missing girl, and they were all her family.

Grey didn’t want to rush her — she was after all still a patient in their care, her horrid night not too far behind her. But time was pressing, and there were things that needed saying,

‘Isobel, for your own information, you really ought to know that when you gave your details to the Desk Sergeant earlier, he will be passing them on to the missing persons agencies who have you on their files. Now the first thing they are going to do is contact your parents to tell them you have been reported here. I know this has all been rather landed on you… and I don’t know how you left things with them.’

‘No, that’s fine. It’s a relief really. But I don’t have to see them right away?’

‘Oh no, that is entirely your discretion.’

‘Good. It might all be a bit too much, you know?’

The way she spoke was so reasonable, so calm, so understanding of her predicament, that in hindsight Grey would wonder if he hadn’t let his guard down a little?

‘Now, you can stay here for the day: there’s all the food you can eat, and my office is empty. You’ve got the TV up there, and the sofa’s big enough to sleep on… and I’m sure between us we can find you a bed for the night. But over the next couple of days…’

‘Well, actually I was thinking about this on the way down,’ Cori startled them by saying, before quietening her voice, ‘I don’t know if this is how you choose to think about yourself,’ she was speaking directly to Isobel, ‘but as someone who has experienced violence in the home, and now finds herself homeless… Well, you may qualify for a place.’

‘A refuge?’

‘It’s more of a hostel, for women and their children, when they’ve nowhere else to go.’

Isobel took the suggestion on board, as again Grey marvelled at her apparent acceptance of reduced circumstances.

‘Anyway, there’ll be a support officer along soon,’ concluded Cori, ‘and you can ask them. We don’t have a permanent one here, but the Desk Sergeant will have been in touch.’

Grey wanted to suggest she call her mum or dad, and ask if they could take her in. But he had no idea how they lived now they were parted, if either had a spare room; and besides that would involve opening up the whole can of worms of what was going on within the family at the time Isobel left, and which even after speaking with her parents he had never gotten to the bottom of. Could it be the worst thing in the world though for her to get in touch, build some bridges, and maybe spend a bit of time with one of them? He kept his thoughts to himself.

‘But it’s my choice, what I do?’ She asked them.

‘Yes, entirely,’ confirmed Grey.

‘Right, can I get anyone a drink?’ asked Cori. But at that moment the lady at the counter called to tell Isobel her pie was ready, they having prepared dessert for her especially early.

As Isobel got up to collect it, Cornelia asked Grey of any developments.

‘Sarah found Thomas on the carpark CCTV,’ he whispered across the table. ‘It looks like he was chased off by Carman.’ We need to get over there.’

‘Carman? But what will we do with..?’

At that moment Isobel returned, steaming bowl in hand, and apparently as engrossed in her meal as before; but after sitting down she left her food untouched, instead after a minute asking,

‘So what am I really here for?’

‘Sorry?’ answered Grey.

‘Could you make it any more obvious you were talking about me?’ She looked up now, Cori noting terror in her eyes.

The next scene happened so quickly Grey could barely credit it as real, it bearing the hallmarks of a dream, the place and people took from memory but thrown all out of context. The change in Isobel was rapid and startling.

‘I wonder why you’ve really got me here at all?’ she continued quickly, ‘All this talk about parents and hostels, pretending you care… and then the moments my back’s turned you’re whispering. You’re all whispering!’ She turned her glare on the officers sat at the other table, she talking loud enough now to have already caught their attention.

‘But no one’s talking about you, Isobel,’ Grey implored. ‘We were discussing something completely different.’

‘You think you’re clever? I dodged you for three whole years!’ She moving to stand now, Cori and Grey rising with her, the three still absurdly close to each other around the tiny hygienic table.

‘You want to trap me, but I’m not letting you. I’m getting out of here!’

As she darted for the door Grey went to block her, placing his hands on her arms for a moment, before realising he had no right to and withdrawing them. However for those few seconds her eyes bored right into his, all guards down, defences stripped, as if he could see into her very soul; and all he saw was blind terror.

‘You can’t go out there,’ counselled Cori. ‘Please don’t go out yet. You’ll be recognised the moment you step out of the door! At least let the paper report the news, prepare the town a bit.’

‘The town?’ she almost laughed. ‘I’ve spent my whole life trying to get away from this place, and I hope after today never to see it again.’

‘But… your mother,’ was all Grey could stammer, his earlier hopes for a family reconciliation finding incoherent expression.

‘Then you’ll have to tell her how you found me and lost me again.’

As parting shots went, it was a good one, holing him below the waterline and leaving her free to leave without reply. Yet as Isobel left she shot Grey one last fearful glance; which he would later wonder if it hadn’t been a last hope of hers for him to try and keep her there, a final desperate plea to be called back in.

But Grey’s inner turmoil was reaching the surface; and as he sat back down in his chair the feelings inside him were already mutating from pure shock into massive personal insult; and finally a shame that he was thinking this was all about him, his feelings, and that she — and even the town at large — we’re not the real losers in this maddening arrangement.

‘We can get after her sir,’ Cori pleaded, rooted to the spot and somehow needing Grey’s permission to move.

‘She’s a witness,’ was all he found he could say. ‘She gave her statement, she’s free to go.’

Not Larry Dunn, nor Chief Inspector Nash, nor Superintendent Rose when he had a mood on; not all the men on the factory floor as he had marched one of their number off past them on two separate occasions now; none of these, nor any of all the criminals and troublemakers and fellow officers he had ever crossed swords with, had, he thought, ever left him feeling as threatened as this woman had just managed with those last few words.

It was the chill he felt along his spine that did it, he decided (as delicious a feeling as it was terrifying, he would later be happy to inwardly admit) — as wasn’t this what it was to come across someone exceptional, who moved you in ways you hadn’t quite known before? But at that moment in time he had been frozen to ice. He paused from moving a muscle for fear that something would shatter.

‘She got me absolutely right,’ Grey mumbled. He had had a minute to think now, and coherent thoughts — or at least they seemed so to him — were forming, ‘She knew how long we’d been searching, how much her coming home would mean to people. And she followed this up with meanest little words she could find to spit at me.’

‘I don’t think she was thinking that deeply,’ Cori tried to counsel. ‘She just looked scared to me, panicking over something.’

But the Inspector continued, ‘ Am I your prize, Inspector? Isobel was saying to me, The trophy you were going to carry off? She understood my pride, and she nailed it to the wall…’

Cori knew Grey loved her like his own family, would do all he could to protect her from the dangers of the job, and held her opinion often higher than his own (indeed she would often pause before offering suggestions for fear that they could well end up being the course of action taken). And yet here, in this utterly inappropriate and thankfully near-deserted canteen, she, Cornelia Smith, Sergeant of the Southney Station, acknowledged to herself that she was powerless, with no influence at all over the Inspector. For she saw that something special had occurred here, a meeting — or clashing — of minds that had found each other on some higher level, Isobel’s disappearance and Grey’s searching for her connecting them beyond the realms of investigative propriety or police procedure. This was a discussion on the essence of life, and how theirs had become intertwined; or that was at least how the Inspector saw it, supposed Cori.

Thankfully just then, one of the two uniformed officers who had been sitting at the far table in embarrassed silence the whole time, got up and approached the table, saying sheepishly,

‘I think it might have been us, sir, who upset her.’

‘Sorry?’ answered Grey, shaken from his thoughts.

‘Isobel. I think she overheard us talking, when she came to collect her dessert. I looked up and there she was, staring at us.’

‘Well what were you saying?’ asked Cori.

‘That’s just it, it wasn’t anything much. I was telling Phil how I’d just bumped into Sarah upstairs, and that did he know she’d been here all night going through CCTV film? She’s a good girl, that Sarah. She work’s hard.’

‘We know. Go on…’

‘And he asked if it had been film from the cameras at the hotel, he having heard you’d been there yesterday. And I said no, of the carpark, and how Sarah had said you were holding off looking at the hotel footage till you’d had a chance to speak to the receptionist… and then I looked up, and there was Isobel.

‘Well, we’d better get back,’ concluded the officer. ‘But we’ll be upstairs for a bit if you need us.’

‘Thank you,’ said Cori as the man and his colleague left the room. ‘So…’ she reasoned, ‘Isobel was worried we’d find something on the film from the carpark?’

‘Or from the hotel.’

‘That we’d get a picture of this Mr Smith?’

‘Or a picture of her there with him.’

‘Do you think? What were they up to then? Is it anything to do with Thomas?’

‘Lord knows.’

‘Well should we get her back, interview her?’

‘What about? We need to prove that something happened there first.’

‘But what if we then can’t find her again?’

‘Let her go, she won’t get far.’

‘But… like she said.’

‘Yes, I’m well aware of what she said. And if she kept off our radar for three years last time, it was after planning her escape and having her boyfriend’s criminal resources to rely on.’

‘Whereas this time she’s on her own and only has the clothes she’s standing up in.’

‘Now you’re thinking. The most famous face in town? She won’t get far without being spotted.’

For all the urgency of his words, what Grey did then was remain there in the empty canteen, Cori feeling obliged to sit there with him, in silence, his motives a mystery. He was in fact giving Isobel a minute to get clear, before, with a start as if waking from a daydream, and a slow hand banged on the table, he declared,

‘Come on then, Cori. For all we know there’s a body lay out there somewhere, and if there is then no one else is going to find it for us.’

Chapter 28 — The Search for Thomas

Back in his office, Grey was firstly relieved to find Sarah Cobb not there, he still feeling guilty for the work she had done for him, despite having no idea she would stay to work a full night shift. He was sure though that, when he saw the request, Superintendent Rose would understand the importance of the overtime.

Secondly, he found where he had left it the ordinance survey map. It was old and dog-eared, no doubt having been knocking around the station for years. It was quite low scale, covering just the motorway junction and its sliproads and roundabouts; also the hotel, the services and their surrounds; and overlaying it in fluorescent pen were a series of arrows, dotted lines and timings, which as he studied them formed a narrative of the movements of Thomas Long and Stephen Carman on that Tuesday evening.

Cori, still shellshocked from the double-whammy of the argument she had just witnessed and the development, as announced by the Inspector, that there might now be a body to find, waited downstairs, Grey saying he had a couple of things to pick up before they left. Together they then drove from the now deserted police yard, and taking a roundabout route that avoided the town centre where the factory men had earlier congregated, they drove along small roads, past rural terraces and shut up farms, before rejoining the A-road and heading once again along the Corridor.

The journey was uneventful as the morning lost its early gleam, it remaining bright and warm but in that grey way that can keep up for days when cloud settles in a windless sky. The weather reflected the mood in the car, and little was said, bar Cori some way into the journey offering very quietly,

‘She got it right though, didn’t she, Isobel? What she said when she went?’

‘My moment of victory snatched away, you mean? Before I got to have my photo taken with our recovered runaway?’

‘It would have been nice though, eh? Just a bit of credit?’

‘Well, I may have to explain to a few people, where she went off to so soon after returning. But if a bit of embarrassment is all we have to deal with…’

Cori left it as that, although there was so much more she wanted to say. Grey too, though he was happier for now to think in silence. For Cori had been right: that Isobel had not set out to attack him personally, to bruise his ego or knock out his moral, but instead merely needed to get out of a situation she found suddenly terrifying. He had happened to be the obstacle needing to be removed.

He accepted this, so why then did he still feel so rotten? Perhaps it was another vain conceit now shown up for what it was: the idea that he, the Inspector, could keep the townsfolk feeling safe in their beds, could pull them back in when they fell off the edge of the world? Southney’s own Holden Caulfield? What a joke! Isobel’s staying unfound for three years had knocked that belief, and his not being able to keep a track of her now would knock it again — and this before he even dared to contemplate what had happened to Thomas, happening at a time when the town needed all the reassurance it could get.

But this was all fine, for he was used to these times, of operating day in, day out with no happier feeling at his core than a sense of bad faith in things, of life defaulting on its promises, but knowing that he must trudge on, that someone had to do his job.

‘It’s something for the agencies anyway,’ he offered, ‘confirmation she’s alive. Though there really will be no way to explain to her parents why she left again, or how it was I didn’t have the power to keep her.’

As they drove Grey watched the landscape as it passed them, the sky it met at the horizon hanging over them like white clay, as if to reach up to punch it would leave knuckle-marks.

‘Start at the hotel?’ asked Cori, he nodding as the quiet modern car glid again along the service road, turning off at the tarmacked lot.

‘Sarah stayed up all night you know, working this stuff out.’ Grey was pacing to and fro at the front of the hotel. ‘This is about where the big car was parked, and they went off in this direction.’

‘I wonder if the Indian summer is over?’ asked Cori as she followed the Inspector with his map.

‘So Sarah thought they must have gone down here,’ said Grey, starting for the alley that ran alongside of the building, ‘but neither are seen leaving.’

‘There’s a few planks missing in the fence along there,’ noted Cori, as reaching them, like Alice following the white rabbit through the little door, they squeezed their way in turn through battered fencing, and out into a different point along the edge of the services carpark.

After clearing the shrubs and bushes before them — one of the scenic interludes intended to break up the austerity of all this outspread tarmac — they were stood at the kerb that stopped the apron of grey from spilling out in this direction. With grim precision they found the next camera exactly where it was marked on the map, the pole rising above the parked cars and strips of box hedges.

Beside it was a smaller post, its sign now readable: Please place your litter in the bins provided. This was the post past which the ghostlike figure had been dashing. Grey moved to recreate the pose… and saw ahead of him the footbridge.

A breeze was getting up, and clouds were blowing over darker now, as Grey and Cori stood before the hideous structure. It was constructed of that old aluminium once used for school buildings. After many years bared to all weathers the metal had oxidised itself a silvery husk, and now gave the impression of being impervious to the elements.

After entering, the tunnel led quite steeply upwards, and was at no point along its length wider to pass through than double doors. Once finding themselves atop the stairs, the detectives were faced with the long straight walk across all six lanes of the motorway and their surrounding terrain. With its sides from waist-height up formed of yellowing Perspex, Grey fancied that the passageway resembled nothing more than a very long and elevated bus shelter.

As they spoke a family with young children walked toward and then past them, while from behind a smart couple no older than twenty excused themselves to move past and dash on ahead. Their dress suggested to Grey that this had been a necessary break on an urgent business journey. He and Cori took it slowly though, as the traffic thundered beneath them, Grey remembering how he had loved such feelings as a boy: standing back from non-stopping expresses at railway platforms; the roar of jets at an air show, he gripping his father’s hand.

‘This must have been one of the first parts of the site to be built,’ Grey mused, ‘if only here for locals to get across. It might not have changed since the Sixties.’

‘But how can somewhere with so many windows be so claustrophobic?’ asked Cori, who like a lot of younger people, if she considered the past at all, only did so with an incomprehension of how people ever got by without microwaves, mobiles and cars that started in the morning. She walked the old passageway with a mixture of awe that such an ancient-looking thing still stood and fear that it could fall down at any minute, the windows crackling in their frames with each passing juggernaut.

‘Anyway, somewhere along here is another camera.’

‘It’s getting cold in here,’ Cori mentioned as they walked.

‘Yes, and the noise is getting louder.’

‘There’s the camera anyway.’ Cori pointed up to a glass limpet tucked up in the seams of the corrugated roof, and dating from rather later than the structure itself. ‘And look, a window’s been put out.’

‘That’s it!’ Grey moved quickly to the spot, the camera now above him on one side, and on the other an empty square within the metal windowframe, through which the sky appeared its natural colour, and not tinted the same sickly gold as through the rest of the windows that ran continuously along both sides of the tunnel.

Grey raised a worried hand, bidding his Sergeant refrain from joining him where he now stood.

‘So what happened here, sir?’ she asked, he behaving as though the spot held some special power. From her holding position she watched the Inspector, as he spun on his heels, looking first one way and then the other, eyes darting, surveying the scene, muttering to himself,

‘So the camera is there, Carman was standing here, facing this way? No, the opposite way, looking out towards…’

The scene now right in his head, he moved toward the opening; but still he baulked from getting any closer, his nose remaining an inch from where it would have met the missing Perspex.

‘This is where they fought,’ Grey summarised for Cori as she ventured nearer. ‘But it was dark, all the windows looked the same, at least to the camera.

‘Don’t touch the frame,’ he warned, as gingerly the pair of them, she mirroring his every move, leaned their heads through the yard-wide gap and looked down.

They had reached the far side of the motorway by now, and were standing above the verge that ran between the road’s hard shoulder and this side’s carpark. Cori felt the first drops of rain falling on her hair, as in unison they peered over the thin metal window-ledge. And as they looked down they saw, amongst the tall grasses and wild flowers that were swaying now in ever stronger winds, a dark and almost hidden, barely distinguishable shape; a melancholy shape, a shape without hope or future associations. Not fifteen feet away, commuters and holidaying families raced by; while even closer, in the carpark slept a salesman, smiling and oblivious in his car’s reclined front seat.

‘Call it in,’ Grey instructed, ‘and get this tunnel sealed at both ends.’

‘Who to?’ asked Cori, knowing there was hardly an officer in the county not employed at the factory dispute this morning.

‘The switchboard are still there, and Rose. We only need a couple of uniforms for now, and scenes of crime — we need a tent up, before it rains over everything.’

As Cori found her phone and started dialling, Grey disappeared down the mine-like stairwell, the day turning black before noon and time becoming of the essence. At the foot of the stairs, back out in the open, he clambered over the waist-high wooden fence that guided travellers along the path and back to their cars; and feeling something go in the fabric of his trouser leg as he did so. He traipsed over uneven, potholed ground, through wildly-grown weeds, blackberry bushes, grasses in some places as high as the fence, in an effort to get to where he estimated the unhappy form to be resting. That no one had come this way for months was evident, though in his wading through the bushes he was obliterating any way of proving that.

But then he found him — at last he could definitively say him — for here was Thomas, visible, unmistakable. His face was hardly marked for having been out in the open for two and a half days; the tall grasses perhaps having shaded him from the worst ravages of the sun, while what wildlife there was along this neglected strip must not have been large enough to have done him much damage. His back and legs though were twisted in an awful way. Grey thought of him that night, falling looking upward, not seeing the grass-cushioned, brick-strewn ground coming toward him; and now here Thomas Long was laid, his sunken eyes staring up uncomprehendingly at a blank sky, as blank as the world, as blank as his future.

Grey had no feelings here beyond the fact that life, even when faced with the huge full-stop that lay before him, kept on going; that he in his ripped clothes, Cori up on the bridge, the traffic powering past, and all the world around them were somehow still existing, were carrying on. That time could not be stopped, even by such an horrific ending as he now lay witness to, was the sum of his philosophy — at that moment he had no brighter or more optimistic thought than this.

Humans could end themselves, even end each other, but could never end life. And so what option did that leave any of us who might think to try to do so, but to get back up, and feeling slightly silly for thinking we could ever face life down, go back to whatever we were doing before, resume our paths laid out, our habits encoded? Sometimes his bleakness shocked even himself.

Ignoring every letter of the police code, kneeling now beside the body, he got his suit jacket off and placed it over Thomas Long’s head and shoulders, just as the clouds broke and the real rain began.

‘I hope you were happy,’ he said, as the first fat drops fell to darken the jacket’s fabric.

Chapter 29 — Rose Attends

An hour later, in the shelter of a three-sided hut used for storing traffic cones and road warning signs, stood Superintendent Rose. He had on a waxed jacket, still dripping with rain from the short walk from his car to this vantage point. From here he watched the gallant effort of the few Constables he could spare — aided brilliantly by two pairs of motorway patrolmen, arriving in their Range Rovers after picking up the call — as they sealed off the tunnel, and in the drowning rain erected the familiar white forensics tent, beneath which he knew nothing good ever occurred. Nearby, sheltering by their own van, scenes of crime officers were dressing up in head-to-foot overalls, preparing to scour the tunnel and the ground around the body for clues. Across the carpark a takeaway van was parked, its warm hatch thrown open invitingly, as if its very purpose were in offering golden light and hot steam to the dismal afternoon, and was finding some takers.

Beside Rose in the shelter was Grey, a blanket around his shoulders, his shirt soaked to his skin. He had been like this when, mid-downpour, the first of the officers to hear the call had found kneeling beside the body, as if to guard against it being washed away in the flood.

‘I don’t want the family knowing until he’s fit to be identified,’ offered Rose needlessly, just for something to say. ‘We can spare them the wait at the mortuary at least.’ The reciting of procedure and tradecraft could be comforting at such moments, in this case both to the Superintendent and his listener. They had been talking in this vein for five or ten minutes now.

‘So, he’s been out here for over two days,’ asked the Superintendent rhetorically, getting the chain of events right in his head. ‘They fought, you say, and the window gave way?’

‘We’ll never know for certain,’ Grey intoned robotically, his body deprived of sleep and food and even the will to go on. ‘It seems so.’

‘They’ve found the plastic glass panel in the bushes,’ continued Rose, ‘almost in tact they tell me. Very old though, brittle, and those frames up there look thin. I don’t think it would have taken too much effort to pop one of those windows out.’

‘No, not very much effort at all.’

‘Certainly hard to prove intent though, any more than there being a bit of pushing and shoving.’

‘Well, we’ve only scanned the film as of yet.’

‘And you only see the fellow from behind, you say?’ Rose’s tone was sympathetic. ‘And we never see the actual moments of Tom being pushed, of the window giving way, of him falling? Do we even have a clear enough image to prove it was Carman?’

‘Sarah still has film to go through,’ Grey repeated, but at that point neither man thought it very likely this would find the proof they needed.

‘And we don’t know why they were fighting? Or even how they knew each other?’

‘But in the photos… I swear he looked in for the kill.’ Grey could not rid the CCTV image from his mind, the shot of Carman, shoulders haunched, arms readied at his sides… this would have been the moment Thomas had just vanished from in front of him, Grey realised. Nor would Carman have seen anything had he leaned out into the night to try and see where he had fallen. ‘I wonder what goes through your mind at such a moment?’

‘And all this happening above a motorway, with a thousand methods of escape,’ lamented Rose. ‘At least we can tell Nash now why his chief suspect chose to disappear himself. We can issue an APB.’

But Grey was less hopeful, ‘If Nash’s operation doesn’t unearth him in the next few days then we never will.’

‘You mean he’ll have used his criminal contacts?’

‘Import and export are his stock and trade — it might not be too hard for him to hitch a ride with the next boat out. But I think it’s more likely his drug buddies will get to him before us, at least those Nash hasn’t already rolled up. A major sting, and Carman disappears two days before the operation? It makes him look as guilty as hell.’

‘Ironic, when that’s the one thing he didn’t do!’

‘Irony or not, the best we can hope for is Carman turning up dead somewhere.’

Rose gasped at the emptiness of it all, summed up in his Inspector’s final sentence. Yet his role required he prod his finger into the Inspector’s pain a little deeper yet,

‘I know this isn’t the best time to bring it up, but we’ve already had a phone call from a missing person’s charity. Dare I ask?’

‘Isobel?’ The Inspector paused. ‘I’m afraid she panicked and ran.’

‘Not surprising though,’ Rose pondered. ‘I’ve seen it before with kids younger than her — you bust a gut in finding them, and then as soon as you’ve got them back to their parents they’re off again. It’s something in the blood.

‘Anyway,’ Rose pulled his coat around him, ready to brave the rain again, ‘I should get back to town, check up on them there. Get off home, Grey,’ he said. ‘Cornelia too. You’ve hardly slept for two days.’

‘Where is she?’

‘Over the other side, speaking to the services manager last I heard.’

‘How’s the protest looking?’ asked Grey, as he threw away his plastic cup and waited in vain for a break in the weather.

‘It’s turned into a stand off: the workers want to go in and the administrators won’t let them; and the longer it goes on the more convinced the men are that they’ve already lost their jobs.

‘How long will it go on?’

‘Until the new electricity contract is secured, and the men are insured to return — it really does come down to such things as this.’

Grey would be off soon himself, as he gave the rain another minute to abate before leaving the shelter to its cones and traffic signs. As he stood there another officer joined him for cover, though like Grey his clothes were already soaked through. Grey knew from the station that he was a talker, and they spent a minute or two passing the time of day. Grey sensed though that the man was not there by accident; and sure enough, after a while he came round to what it was he wanted to get off his chest,

‘Sir, I heard Isobel was at the station this morning?’

‘You weren’t there yourself?’

‘No, I’m meant to be on leave. I drove all the way to Wales yesterday morning, and all the back last night. The girlfriend’s livid. I’ve had to leave her there. I was recalled for special duties at Aubrey’s, but was called over here at the last minute. So, is it true, that she’s back in town?’

Grey nodded, even as he inwardly groaned at the prospect at having to explain the circumstances of her subsequent departure. But before he could begin, the Constable continued,

‘It’s just…’

Grey felt a confession coming, and readied himself to be forgiving.

‘Well, you know how even now we still get sightings: that this person’s seen Isobel on holiday, or that person saw her in a shop? We had one this week.’

The man looked sheepish, and no wonder, as the Inspector had not been made aware of this.

‘Well, I ask you,’ he continued, ‘after three years missing why would Isobel Semple pick this week to show up at Southney train station?’

Grey felt his stomach hitting the floor. ‘Where’s the report? Forget this, go back to the station and get it for me. I need to know the date and time.’

‘Oh, I can tell you that. It was early afternoon, around two o’clock the lady said, while she was out shopping. And she came to see us the next day, which was my last day, so the lady saw her on Tuesday.’

‘And was she coming or going?’

‘She saw Isobel at the entrance arch, before she vanished into the crowd of other shoppers. She said she was sure it was Isobel — she used to see her walking to school past her house, you see — but it wasn’t until she’d spoken to her friend the next morning that she felt bold enough to come and tell us.’

‘This lady keeps wise counsel.’

‘She was a lovely old girl, we gave her a cup of tea. She said she knew it sounded fanciful, but she hoped she was being helpful.’

‘She was being helpful.’ Grey’s mind was racing way past this odd encounter at the train station. ‘She was being incredibly helpful.’

‘Sir?’

‘I take it you took her name? Then send her a bunch of flowers out of petty cash.’

‘So it was Isobel then?’

‘It could have been.’

We thought about telling you, but it’s been so long now; and we’ve had so much else going on. Have I done wrong, sir? I know I should have mentioned it…’

‘Not to worry, son,’ he placed a fatherly hand on the lad’s shoulder. ‘You might have told me just in the nick of time.’

As he approached the wretched structure a services employee was putting up a sign, to the effect that for the time being the bridge would be unavailable to motorists. The man in the fast food van would be happy, Grey considered, for if nothing else his sales of his coffee and hot dogs would be up, people keen to share in the warmth of grill and boiler.

He lifted the blue tape and jogged up the stairs, before moving on toward where forensic officers were examining the tunnel down which a hundred people must have passed by since Tuesday evening.

‘Anything obvious?’ he asked without looking too closely, it seeing, despite the attention being aid by his colleagues, somehow inappropriate for himself to gawp and gasp over the crime scene.

‘Might be a bit of skin snagged on the window frame, sir,’ one of them said without turning from his task.

‘Excellent.’ Grey hadn’t expected there to be much here, not that he had checked very thoroughly himself before dashing down the stairs. ‘Make sure you check it against Stephen Carman’s DNA on record,’ he offered needlessly, while thinking it more likely to have been left by Long.

‘Will do, sir,’ answered the man politely, respecting the Inspector’s enough to not mind his telling him the rudiments of his job.

Grey found Cori talking to the couple serving at the services shop. Upon seeing him, the Sergeant broke off and met him in the foyer,

‘Hello boss, are you all right?’

He had no vanity in front of her, not when they trusted each other so implicitly, not when they had shared so much. Few couples are as close, he had thought on many occasions. And so he did again now, finding himself standing there, jacketless, shirt stuck to his back, hair a matted tangle plastered to his scalp, trousers caught and torn at the ankle. And yet her first thought, he noticed, was not to chide him for his appearance, nor look around to see who might be seeing her stood with such a embarrassing specimen, but instead simply to enquire after his well being. He took it back and revised his observation: this was better than any couple he had ever been a part of. Yet she of course was in a marriage, this was secondary for her.

She cut short his reverie, ‘Sir, I’ve finally got to speak to Josie, the receptionist.’

‘Of course, she was back on duty today.’

‘I’ve managed to wrangle permission from Mrs Hackett for her to leave her post awhile, and go through the CCTV records to try and find the footage of Mr Smith booking in; but in the meantime she gave me a description: he was white, late middle aged — in his sixties she guessed but could even have been older — white haired and heavily built. And that’s not all sir… he had a visitor, who arrived that day and then left with him when he checked out at about eight in the evening: a young woman, who was white, blonde, petite, in her early twenties Josie thought, but it was hard to tell as she was wearing glasses and a headscarf. She was “very smartly dressed” as Josie described her.

‘So,’ Cori ventured, closing her notebook, ‘it has to be her, doesn’t it?’

Grey took a deep intake of breath, ‘Isobel was at the train station at two pm that day — I’ve only just found out. The desk didn’t tell us, they thought it was a crank sighting.’

‘Oh my. So she came to town by train,’ Cori summarised, ‘found her way to the services somehow, and then met with Mr Smith?’

‘And this after receiving the call from Smith that morning telling her where to meet him. They checked out at eight, you say?’

Cori nodded.

‘So why,’ Grey considered, ‘was she not back in Nottingham until the following morning?’

‘And do you think they knew that Thomas was already… even before they had checked out of the room?’

‘Anything from the shop staff?’ he remembered to ask, as they crossed the same carpark he hoped soon never to have to set foot on again.

‘The girl there now is the one who served me yesterday; and she was there Tuesday evening. The counter does look out toward the bridge, but she doesn’t remember anything out of the ordinary, no men dashing past. She said the shifts can be long, and they read the magazines to stay awake.’

‘I don’t envy that job.’

‘Her boyfriend works there too, she said, but often doing different hours. She can’t bear the early hours shift herself though, so some weeks they hardly see each other.

‘Why can’t they synchronise?’

‘He gets more for working those hours. People do what they have to.’

‘Well I hope they pay him properly for it. Imagine being here at three or four in the morning, hardly a customers for hours, while she’s alone in bed — the poor devils.

‘Anyway,’ Grey changed tack, ‘Rose says we can knock off. We can’t know any more while they are gathering evidence over there.’

‘What about Mrs Long?’ asked Cori. ‘We need to tell her soon.’

‘Yes,’ the Inspector placed a hand on her arm, ‘but not till we have the body tidied up. What do you want to do now?’

‘I might go back to the hotel, see if Josie has found Smith’s picture yet. And I think you have an appointment…’ Cori nudged Grey, and nodded in the direction of her car and the figure stood beside it.

Chapter 30 — Meeting Women in Carparks

‘Here, take the keys if you need them. I’ll get a lift back.’ Cori turned toward the buildings, while Grey found the car, wet and gleaming in the white light of an opaque sky.

‘What do you want now, Isobel?’

‘I want to say sorry.’

‘Come on, let’s get out of the rain,’ he said, no sooner unlocking the doors with the key than her small and spritely form had jumped in beside him. Once both were sat inside he didn’t know how to address her, what to ask or what to say.

‘I can’t believe I’ve got you to myself,’ began Isobel. ‘You and your pretty Sergeant seem inseparable; like peas in a pod my dad would say.’

‘She’s still busy — there’s a lot going on.’

‘You’ve found something important then. Is it to do with the lad you’re looking for?’

She asked with sensitivity, but Grey didn’t know how to answer her, instead saying,

‘I didn’t think we were ever to see you again. You’ve come back a lifetime too early.’

She managed a smile at this, something like amity developing between them, ‘I was scared. I’m sure you can understand. As you say, there’s a lot going on. When I got out of the police station I didn’t know where to go. People started staring, recognising… so I jumped on a bus here, hoping I’d hitch a lift.’

‘Where to?’

‘I hadn’t thought that far… On the bus someone came right over to me, asking me If I was her? I shouted that I wasn’t and hid my face.’ Whether Isobel had cried at the time, she was crying now.

‘It won’t last for long — once the news is out, it won’t be as much of a shock if they see you. But it must have been a shock for you, to be back on these streets; and after… how long has it been now?’

But something in his tone gave him away, ‘You’re playing with me, Inspector. Please don’t play with me.’

He let his silence show contrition, before saying as softly as he was able, ‘In the next few days I think, we will have security camera film from the train station and the Havahostel, showing you were at these places on Tuesday. Also, we think that you were here to meet a man, who we hope soon also to identify. Now, I know you’ve had a rotten time of it…’

‘No, no, no,’ she wiped away her tears. ‘You are quite right, I haven’t told you everything. I will level with you, but can you level with me first? What have you found out there, by the footbridge? Is it Thomas?’

‘Yes it is.’

‘And so, he’s..?’

‘Yes, he is. Now, if you know anything at all about this…’

‘I swear I don’t, Inspector. I really knew so very little about him.’

‘Could your friend tell us more, Mr Smith?’

She smiled, ‘I told him he should have chosen a different name, one less obvious; but he said they didn’t care at that hotel, that they let anyone in. Oh, it is all so hard to explain.’

‘Then tell me who he is, let me ask him myself.’

‘It seems so cold to just name him, like dobbing him in. Please Inspector, don’t make me have to. Anyway,’ she announced brightly as the idea came to her, ‘I can do better, I can take you to him. I promise it isn’t very far.’

She was pushing at an open door though, and he was already starting the car.

‘I can drive you if you like,’ she offered.

‘And where on Earth would you have learnt to do that?’

‘You don’t like it, do you? Look how nervous you are just pulling out of the carpark.’

‘How do you mean?’ he said, a mini-roundabout just then demanding his attention.

She was too canny though not to have noticed,

‘I haven’t seen you drive before, not all the way back from Nottingham; where most men would have jumped at the chance to have a blast along those motorways, and in a nice car like this.’

He couldn’t argue regarding the car — the police by necessity rode well.

‘You trust her,’ continued Isobel. ‘You and your Sergeant, you have something unspoken. That’s good, it’s nice. You let her drive you, where most men would see it as belittling. I like it though. I’d like to drive for you too.’

It was some determination that he fought down the urge to pull up and swap sides, ‘It’s not so much that I don’t like driving, as that I’m just not very good at it.’

‘And your Sergeant is so good. And she is pretty, and that’s another thing most men would jump at.’

‘Isobel…’

‘Don’t be coy, Inspector. You’re a man like any other. She has that lovely red hair. I wish my hair was that straight.’

And so Isobel burbled, as along the familiar streets and carriageways they drove, his confidence growing with every uneventful mile; while conceding that he was still a long way from controlling the car with the confidence Cornelia displayed — and which he suspected, licensed or otherwise, Isobel would have proved equally capable of — an ease and ability at the wheel that a lifetime as a rally driver might provide.

‘And I am sorry I said those things to you,’ she added. ‘You know, back at the station. I can get like that sometimes, when I feel cornered.’

‘You heard the policemen talking about the video?’

‘I knew you’d see me on the hotel film, see us leaving together.’

‘And was that such an awful thing for us to see?’

‘I don’t know, I was confused. You can blame my childhood if you like.’

Grey almost spluttered, ‘You had a great childhood! Your parents loved you.’

‘You don’t know the half of it, Inspector.’

‘Well your dad loves you, I know that much. And don’t tell me I don’t know it, the times I spoke to him after you went missing. Don’t say he didn’t care. Doug Semple is a good man.’

‘Oh, I don’t dispute that, Inspector. But you have so much still to learn.’

She had withdrawn slightly and sulkily, Grey realising he had snapped at her.

‘I drive you mad, don’t I? I don’t mean to. I can be horrible, I know I can. I used to drive Stephen wild.’

‘No, it’s me. I’m sorry. It’s been a long day.’

After a pause, in better spirits she said, ‘You know I was so happy to see you again. I was sat in the services cafe, not sure what to do, what sort of person to look for, or what I had to offer in return… when I saw you and your friend go past. You had a map, you looked like you were orienteering.’ She burst out laughing so hard she almost cried, but this was no return to her earlier sobbing, her big eyes soon rubbed dry by the sleeves of her sweater, the cuffs pulled down until they covered her hands. At last he saw her true face, and it brought him joy.

Upon nearing the centre of the town, on Isobel’s direction they left the A-road behind, speeding past the fringes of the suburbs, before slingshotting out into wilds of leafy lanes and glimpsed big houses. The Aubreys live somewhere out this way, Grey caught himself thinking, but they were in London, weren’t they? It couldn’t be Alex Aubrey she was taking him to see. And a moment’s furious logic reminded Grey that it couldn’t have been Alex Aubrey booking into the hotel as Mr Smith, not when he was still at the office with Thomas on Tuesday morning.

Grey had to confess that, beyond that one fact, he knew little about the area they were heading into; this not being a road he had recently traversed or which offered any immediate indication of where it would lead. When they were still going this way a full five minutes later, past increasingly isolated places hidden behind hedgerows, Grey’s natural instincts for spotting mischief making were beginning to sound their bells.

As if with foxes ears, she sensed his barely voiced doubts,

‘It isn’t far now I promise you, Inspector. It gets a little narrower along here, a few twists and turns. Don’t worry though, I used to manage it easy.’

‘You’ve driven down here?’ he asked. ‘When?’ The question came out as a rebuke, even before his mind had decided to be offended.

‘Oh, way back, before I left.’

He went to say more, but realised she could easily have been seventeen by then.

‘Don’t be such a policeman about it, Inspector. I wasn’t doing anything dangerous. He was always with me, and he trusted me with his car. It’s just up here, in fact this is the very last…’

Her words broke off, as around that final turn came a vehicle wide enough itself to fill the space between the banks of hedgerow lining the road. Somehow Grey had their own car safely in an overtaking bay, as the vast royal blue form swept by like something from a more aristocratic age.

‘It’s a Jaguar,’ advised Isobel, guessing Grey’s interest. ‘A Mark Ten, nineteen sixty-five — beautiful isn’t it? Hell, we’ll have to try and catch him up now, but he drives so quickly. It’s a powerful car. They don’t make them like that any more.’

‘You mean, that’s..?’

‘Yes, that’s him. Oh where would he be going?’

‘And that’s the car you and he..?’

‘Yes, that’s what I learnt in. Don’t worry, Inspector, he has a lot of land, I wasn’t unleashed on the Queen’s highway right away.’

‘Jaguar or not, when we catch him I’m doing him for dangerous driving.’

As they sat there stalled, Grey wondered, ‘You know, I’ve seen that car before…’

‘Indeed, you might well have.’

‘…or rather, someone else has seen it.’

Getting his breath back he re-stared the ignition, and using both the overtaking space they were beached on and the driveway from which the behemoth had emerged, they were soon turned around and heading back the way they had just came.

‘He can’t know of the crime scene yet,’ Grey thought aloud, ‘and so that only leaves one place that anyone in this town would be travelling to so urgently today.’

‘I guess so,’ conceded Isobel, a coyness in her tone.

‘But let me drive,’ she added. ‘I know these roads better than you. We’ll get there sooner. Trust me, it will be fine.’

‘I don’t know how you get away with it,’ he uttered, not even considering her wish.

‘Oh, Inspector, I’ve been getting away with things all my life.’

Chapter 31 — Racing Through the Lanes

Required by the situation to apply a certain urgency to their journey, Grey was surprised to find himself swooping through the impossibly tight confines of wooded lanes, and what at times seemed little more than asphalt tractor tracks, with something approaching elan. They were soon heading pell-mell back in the general direction of town.

And then it came to him — a local figure who might fit the hotel description; who had associations with the plant, the Club, with Thomas Long himself, indeed with both the missing people’s families; a man who had dropped out of civic life of late, and who Grey guessed could well afford to hide away in rich seclusion tending classic cars.

Again she sensed his thoughts,

‘Don’t ask me, Inspector, don’t make me say it out loud.’

But the Inspector was too busy thinking these new developments through at the same time as keeping them on the road to want to be distracted by anyone just now. Without a shared word on the path they each knew they must follow, he now pointed the sure-footed auto down suburban avenues and into town streets, the route at last diverting from that they had arrived by.

At one point she gasped, to the effect that a blue flash had been glimpsed turning up ahead.

‘How is he going so fast?’ asked Grey, her animal yelp jolting him from his concentration.

‘Are you joking? It goes like a bomb, just so long as you never need to break.’

‘Lord help us. I’m slowing down anyway, now we know where he’s going.’ For they were nearing the plant and so there seemed little doubt now.

As he lifted slightly off the pedal so a wave of tiredness hit him. He opened the window a little and was glad of the blast of cool air. The conviction came and stayed that this case would be over soon, he knew that now.

‘Sorry?’ she asked, for he had been murmuring.

‘Oh, nothing.’

‘Well anyway, I think we’re nearly there now.’

They left behind the rows of houses old and new, those streets of bus shelters and lamppost and dog walkers that could be anywhere in England, to pass instead what looked like playing fields ringed with eight-foot wire fencing. These open spaces though were interspersed with stripped concrete, the grass in-between dotted with odd-shaped buildings and constructions, and the whole wide expanse stretching back behind its fence as far as they could see.

Past the entrance of the airfield, for all its size still only a part of what it had been in the War, began the trickle of tired huts and patched-up hangars which made up the oldest, lowest earning corner of the industrial park. The roads themselves changed too at this point: from rain-glistened tarmac to beige concrete slabs that gave a railway-like ker-chunk, ker-chunk sensation as they drove across the seams.

The men outside Aubrey Electricals were visible some way away, and so numerous that any hope the forces controlling the site had had of containing the protest within the pavement had evidently proved untenable. A green-overalled swarm filled the whole road, and as long along it, at least in Grey’s direction, as to block the gates of several other facilities. As he slowed, Grey saw that between the other two arms of the T-junction Aubrey’s faced traffic still flowed; which while a danger in itself, served to push the crowd this way. Included in the blockage were the entrance and exit gates of their neighbouring haulage company; a representative of which approached the car.

The man began,

‘You won’t get through this way, mate. I reckon the traffic’s moving them toward us. I’ve never seen so many blokes out. Look at them all — it’s like Villa Park on a match day! I hope our lot don’t go out in sympathy. If you back up, and keep hanging left, you’ll come out nearer the gates. Though if I were you, I wouldn’t even try!’

‘Thank you,’ offered Grey, as the man, guessing they were police, continued, ‘And do us a favour will you, get them out from in front of our doorway? I’m sorry for them,’ he said, Grey noting the sympathy in his voice, ‘but if we don’t start getting some of these lorries out, we’ll be going under too.’

Grey promised to do all he could, as urged on by Isobel followed the man’s directions. They led down backstreets and service roads each as short and unremarkable as each other. They passed one small works with not a window all along its one side. ‘What a place to spend your days,’ he said. Around the corner sparks flew from a foundry’s open door. But for a lorry waiting for the haulage company gates to clear, they saw no other traffic.

Soon they were nosing out onto the main road, this new vantage point offering a clearer view of the crowd scene and the police operation in progress.

With intermittent traffic still passing through at least a part of the T-junction, the activity at the front of the building was contained in this direction. What that part of the protest not forced along the minor road lacked in breadth though, it made up for in concentration. Though not yet confrontation, for however volatile and voluble were the figures in green, there seemed to have been no engagement with those fewer figures present in black.

‘No cars parked out front of the building today,’ noted Grey.

‘Wuthertons aren’t daft,’ Isobel replied. ‘And look, they’ve closed the big doors.’

The Aubrey’s office building acted as a gatehouse, traffic passing through its archway to the courtyard and factory beyond. Grey had never seen the great wooden doors shut up in daytime though, and it felt very wrong to see them so.

Grey paused before tackling the straight, short run to the besieged entrance, gathering his wits before pushing at the green membrane through which they would have to squeeze to gain entry.

‘Has he already gone through then?’ asked Isobel as they waited, her question answered when across their path appeared the large blue car, it moving slowly on toward the jostling, singing mass if men.

‘He must have come a different route,’ she said.

‘This is going to be worth watching,’ muttered Grey, as he put all thoughts of heading that way himself on pause to see how this attempt panned out.

However foresightful it may have been of the administrators to untether and lock the great gates, and though it aided the police in keeping the men out of the plant, it did mean that those officers called in to keep order found themselves pushed back against an unforgiving wall of brick and timber, offering no easy escape route.

Constable Chohan, chief amongst those men and women had, in stationing himself before the closed arch doors, placed himself at the heart of the commotion. The logic of the disturbance defeated him: of course the men felt cheated, of course they wanted the money they were owed; but all they really wanted was to be allowed to come in and keep working for the firm they loved and which they knew to be in trouble. That they were only held back from doing so by some bureaucracy over an insurance certificate added to the absurdity; and left Ravi thinking those in charge at the plant were acting as their own worst enemy.

Such thoughts were quickly put aside though, as a vehicle turned off the main road and approach the crowd. Yet even as his hand moved for his radio to alert his officers, he saw the protesters part like the Red Sea before him; and so it felt only decent and proper to honour the truce, by lowering his guard and banging on the doors for them to be opened for this impressive vehicle to pass.

‘They still remember him,’ said Isobel in awe as she and Grey watched. No sooner was the big car let through, than the police had but a moment’s grace during which to get the heavy doors shut again; while the men, who had stood in near silence during the pause, resumed their vocal and collective request to gain admission to the building.

‘Dad loved working for him,’ she added. ‘He said he was the best boss he’d ever had. Even after everything… Anyway, come on!’

It would later cross the Inspector’s mind that he could have stopped the big car there and then, and avoided having to enter the plant all together, for it was only its driver that he wished to speak to; but so processional was its passing, so stately its entrance, that he had a strong intuition that any attempt to have interrupted simply wouldn’t have ended well.

Chapter 32 — Crossing the Threshold

Lost in the moment, Grey gunned the car in first to the fringe of the crowd and the spot where the Jaguar had first caught people’s attention; yet where the men had greeted Grey’s predecessor with respect, not only did they this time refuse to part, but as he nudged the car through them it became surrounded. It was as though the protestors treated this second invasion of their patch of ground as an affront — an offence for which Cornelia’s car was punished with a hastily constructed placard banged on the bonnet, and done so with a force that left the manufacturer’s badge cracked and a line scratched diagonally across the hood. There was even one wholly inappropriate shout of, ‘Scab!’

‘This isn’t a picket,’ Grey moaned, ‘we all want to get in!’

‘Well, why don’t you get out and explain that to them?’ was Isobel’s unhelpful reply. He did try to, just managing to get the door open enough to stand,

‘Get the doors open!’ he called to the officers acting sentry,

‘We can’t do that,’ Ravi shouted back over waving and bobbing heads. ‘If we open the gates again now they’ll rush us!’

The Constable looked on in dismay, as this man he so respected seemed to be getting things so spectacularly wrong. Ravi gave leave for one burly copper to push out in the direction of the Inspector’s car, while holding his mate back by his epaulets from leaving his position at the gates. It was probably the pressure getting to him, Ravi thought, he having heard over the radio of the kind of day the Inspector had been having. But what was he doing here now? Right now there seemed little they could do to assist him.

The crowd surged and moved, the undefended vehicle becoming the target of all the men’s frustrations, a raft jostled on a pea-green sea. There was a pop and shatter as a side-mirror went, its glass ground under steel-capped boots. Grey was pinned behind the car door, as almost in his face loud calls were made:

‘Rase, you knew about this on Wednesday!’

‘Why’d you arrest Larry Dunn?’ asked another.

A third followed with a bellowed and inaccurate, ‘Let him out!’ the recently freed man probably amongst the throng as he spoke.

An officer working his way toward them called through the din, ‘Please get back in the car, sir. Reverse back onto the road.’ Grey would have bridled at such instruction, were he not rather feeling he was fighting for his life. This isn’t going to work, he thought, while knowing that to get back into the car would be to lose the situation for good.

And then the passenger door opened, and not Sergeant Smith but a slighter, blonder woman emerged into common view, standing on the open door sill to rise just above the heads bobbing all around her. So the police radio chatter had been true, Ravi realised, and he smiled — more in gladness at his colleagues’ success, than for the return of this girl whom he had always had a sneaky feeling hadn’t been quite the angel she had been advertised. He chuckled to himself: it was turning out to be one hell of a day.

‘I told you I’d seen her!’ shouted the workman who had seen Isobel in the car that morning, at last vindicated after half a day of mockery from his colleagues.

Grey would later wonder whether Isobel, after the scene at the police carpark, knew the effect her popping her head up at that moment might have had? Or was this simply a headstrong woman frustrated with their lack of forward motion? He couldn’t believe though that she would have been completely unaware of her own power.

‘Let us in, please, it’s important,’ she asked the men; but her voice so dominant in one-on-one situations, was small and weak and hardly audible in such conditions.

No, any effect she wrought here today would be down to her appearance, the fact she was actually there at all. That her very presence would hold its shock-value for a few hours yet, at least until the Southney Sports had caught up and published news of her return, Grey knew. Nor could he deny the usefulness of her ability to command the attention of whole groups of people (nor that she herself wouldn’t felt a certain electricity at these moments).

The inverse of the effect though must have been horrible: when caught alone, anonymous, trying to be just another person — such as when she was cornered on the bus earlier, or recognised by the old lady in town on Tuesday. Which was an odd effect, he thought — good in crowds, bad in person — the complete opposite in fact of how most felt in their personal relations.

This would fade though, her story would be told, and soon lead to no more than smiles across the aisle as townsfolk met her buying beans in the supermarket.

‘It’s Isobel,’ muttered the crowd, ‘Isobel Semple.’ Grey watched her deploying herself as if a nuclear weapon, this scene-changing woman. He meanwhile began to feel so embarrassed, shameless, like a carnival shyster: You thought she was missing, but now she’s back, now present amongst us, come see! and that it was these melodramatics that might save them, his own efforts foundering, brought a sense of failure.

By now even the men furthest away had spotted who it was and had gained their mates attention; as the name once plastered on noticeboards, and across newspaper headlines, and called by searchers in the woods was called out once more, the news of her reappearance murmured through the crowd like the sighting of a saint.

Before another voice called her name, intensely and with purpose, ‘Isobel!’

‘Dad!’ she called back, as there amid the throng was Doug Semple, laying eyes on his daughter for the first time in nearly three years.

They said no more than that, names all they could manage, the fact of having seeing each other enough for each for now to bear. Around them the protestors, spotting something important was occurring, something emotional and within the family, were keen to make space and let them do what they needed to, each going shy as men can do when faced with others feelings.

At this point Grey did a thing for which he would later feel quite bad, but which was really unavoidable: he took advantage of this lull to gesture for Ravi to re-open the wooden doors. For he had no idea how long the stillness might last, even thinking that to speak to the men to thank them might risk breaking the spell. He found his way back into his seat, still clutching the top of the car door under his arms like a boy half-way over a fence, until both of his feet were back in the footwell.

As the car was fired up, so Isobel clambered back in also, though without breaking eye-contact with Doug Semple until the very last moment. Grey wondered if she was as glad as he to be back within the car’s protective shell, not knowing that her only thought at that moment was the hope that that shared look with her father had conveyed all she had intended it to.

Grey recalled then another face he may have just glimpsed in the turmoil: Philip Long, the dead man’s father. He would be speaking to him again soon, but not just now; as with a solemnity that would have shocked anyone here a minute or two ago, the ways parted and the car drove very slowly forwards.

Chapter 33 — Within the Citadel

Once through, there was barely room for Grey to park and leave space for the large doors to be swung shut behind them. The big Jaguar filled the aisle of the squashed courtyard, the modern Audis and Mercedes of the administrators going nowhere soon.

As the doors were being closed, Grey heard from behind them the resumption of the earlier disturbance from the men, but with nothing like the same urgency. The brick archway Isobel and he were stood in now resounded mainly to the clatter of the doors themselves being re-secured.

Yet however complex the issues being discussed outside, within the shaded archway Grey felt calm and secure, assured that though the world was in chaos there were still barriers behind which small pools of stillness could exist. For what was civilisation if not the making of a space for thought and contemplation? But he couldn’t help thinking of the protesters. ‘Poor devils,’ he heard himself saying, ‘what’s a working man without work? If he can’t provide for his family?’

‘Easy,’ Isobel chided, ‘you’re beginning to sound like an episode of Newsnight. You are still with us, Inspector? Haven’t we got things to do?’ She stood beside him, returning him to his surroundings — perhaps events were finally getting to him? If his senses required further gathering though he would have to contemplate on the hoof, for there was still much to sort out.

‘Inspector!’ called Shauna Reece, stood at the door within the arch that led to her reception, ‘And Isobel Semple, Southney’s Snowdrop.’ In an act of female solidarity as powerful as the brotherhood enacted outside, Shauna took the hands of the woman she had never met and had only known before through posters and appeals, and smiled with a warmth that couldn’t be faked. ‘So the Inspector found you?’ she asked rhetorically, her warm gaze turning to Grey.

‘He did indeed,’ Isobel replied happily, Grey considering that whatever Isobel thought about this concern others felt for her, she seemed to leave the people expressing it feeling good about themselves, and this was a kindness. Not that she cared how she spoke to him.

‘How come you are here?’ asked Grey of Shauna. ‘Didn’t you get caught up in all the trouble?’

‘I just turned up for work as usual. Mr Wutherton had asked me to do extra hours, so I was here before the men came. And we have power in the office, so there’s no problem there.

‘So much to do!’ continued Shauna as she led them through, ‘so many calls to answer since the news broke. And I didn’t mind working over when there’s only me at home to cook for.’

‘So you haven’t had any trouble? That is a relief,’ Grey answered.

‘I’m working in the main room today — it seemed lonely down here with the doors closed,’ she said as they passed through the unlit reception, further darkened by the board put up across the outside of the window. That this flimsy panel was part of the same line of defence as those stout and sturdy doors struck Grey not only as absurd, but also offered a commentary on the plant’s current state — that its foundations may be deep, but the walls were made of chipboard. He could forget his earlier observation, for there was no security in this citadel.

‘We saw you getting through the crowd from up here,’ said Shauna guiding them up toward the main office, ‘I can’t believe you made it! It was so exciting. And right after that other car came through. He must be somebody important — are you with him? He went straight through to the far office, he’s in there now.’

‘How long have you worked here, did you say?’ asked Grey quickly.

‘Six months, no seven now.’

‘Yes, of course, you did tell me. For some of the men rather longer, I expect?’

Isobel smiled as she guessed where the Inspector was going with this.

‘Oh, half a lifetime,’ answered Shauna. ‘ Man and boy, as they say, man and boy…’

At the top of the stairs by the empty rooms, Isobel, who seemed to know where she was going as well as their guide, spoke to Grey,

‘Am I coming in there with you?’

‘Would you pay any attention if I tried to stop you?’

That the room was filled with mostly non-locals who wouldn’t have known Isobel Semple from Eve, Wuthertons not being a Southney firm, rather detracted for Grey from the shock effect of arriving in places in the company of the town’s golden girl.

‘I don’t think we’re going to be able to play our trick any more,’ she said so quietly that only he would hear.

‘No, we might have to rely on our natural charm from here on in.’

‘What was all that fuss about downstairs? Who are you?’ asked a stout young man as he came forward. He stood out among the mainly young men in spivvy dark suits who made up the administration staff, in looking rather more like a scrubbed up farm labourer in rolled-up shirtsleeves. Grey wondered if it wasn’t this fellow’s unspoken role to act as bouncer? For he imagined that they often had trouble with the natives. Grey looked across the host of men, some of them blearily eyed if not actively wrecked from the night before — but this was par for the course with the junior staff of financial firms. He watched the way they leant manfully over desks strewn with papers.

‘I am Inspector Rase of Southney Station,’ he announced. ‘I am here in connection with a very serious crime, and…’ He felt for his badge, then remembered that his suit jacket was in an evidence bag. ‘I’m afraid I don’t have my warrant card with me, but I can easily…’

‘He is an Inspector,’ confirmed Isobel.

‘And who might you be, Miss?’ asked the stout fellow no more cordially.

‘That’s Isobel Semple!’ called a woman’s voice from the back of the room — Gail Marsh of the office staff, who Grey recalled had been so helpful earlier in the week. ‘Dear Isobel, I used to work with your mother you know, before she had you. I remember meeting you when were this high.’

‘Yes, by the shops. We hid under the awning when it rained.’

‘You remember that?’ said Gail, evidently charmed.

‘Hello, Mrs Marsh,’ added Grey, ‘So they have kept you on too?’

‘Oh yes, there is far too much paperwork not to,’ she answered, evidently nonplussed at the situation, and quite ignoring the glowering lump of gristle beside her. ‘Although poor Cynthia has gone — her agency wrote to say they could no longer offer her to your firm, when we do not know we would be paid for her services; so they found her another placement. It is a shame, she was a good worker, and I miss her company.’

‘Inspector!’ came another jovial voice from the same end of the room, this time Keith Pitt of Southney’s computing consultants, looking towards Grey and the figure beside him. ‘And look who you’re with. How good to see you both, and for such different reasons.’

With every positive reaction Isobel received to her return, Grey hoped this process of reintroduction to Southney society could develop into a new life for her here, things slowly returning to normal. But nor could he forget how she had spoken to him in the canteen: her frustrations, her anger, the lengths she would go do. Not that it bothered him as such, but it revealed her complex nature, a nature not satisfied by town life before, so why would it be now? As yet few had seen that other side of her.

‘And guess who else is here?’ announced Gail, ‘You’d better come with me.’ She led them down the long room, quite ignoring the stolid dolt attempting to look ominous.

‘You’d be useful in our uniform,’ said Grey to the farmhand as they passed him, ‘if you had a better temperament.’

But the Inspector already knew who Gail was leading them to; and guessing this, the lady held the Inspector back a moment as they approached the partitioned area at the end of the floor,

‘Is he who you and Isobel have come to see? So is it true then,’ whispered Gail in his ear, ‘about him and Christine Semple?’

‘Sorry?’ asked Grey, his head full of theories at the moment.

But she said no more, only asking ‘And Thomas?’

Neither able to say, nor knowing how to say it, he merely squeezed the lady’s hand; the look she gave in return suggesting she had got the message, and would brace herself.

By the small partitioned sub-office at the end of the floor, Gail Marsh left them; the room where two days earlier Grey had spoken to Mr Foy the bank manager on the phone, when he had called to tell them there was no money in the pot. He and Isobel came around the divide to see the boss’ chair, the chair that Alex Aubrey would surely never fill again. Another person was in it now, sat there as if he owned the place, which in a way he did,

‘Hello Inspector,’ said Anthony Aubrey, ‘I see you’ve found my girl.’

Chapter 34 — The Tarnished Throne

The next few minutes were a confusion, the scene not able to develop: Keith Pitt buzzing about collecting papers, Shauna Reece coming in with their drinks, she still not knowing that the man who had said yes to cream but no to sugar in his coffee was the founder of all they saw around them, the originator of the company still just about able to retain her services.

Eventually, the surrounding figures knowing there was a meeting needing to happen here, drinks were quickly deposited and activities moved elsewhere.

‘I don’t believe we’ve met, Inspector,’ began Anthony Aubrey. ‘Or not to speak to at least.’ He shook Grey’s hand and gestured for them to sit. He was a big man who left a big impression, and Grey felt his aura. Of course he knew the legend: self-made, industrious, Anthony Aubrey had built the firm up with his bare hands, and had learnt to love the high life along the way.

‘I don’t get to the Club as often as I used to,’ he continued. ‘I’d seen that you’d become a member, of course. Was it Rose who’d proposed you? My son seconded you then. Did you know that? He and Andrew always back each other’s choices.’

‘But you were at the club on Monday evening weren’t you, with Thomas Long?’

‘Yes,’ the man drawled, ‘Parris called to say he’d tipped you off. He felt guilty for it — the loyalty of the man, quite staggering these days. I told him not to worry; although I thought you might have been knocking on my door a little sooner.’

‘A mistake on my part I’m afraid.’

‘Inspector, I don’t believe it!’ chuckled Isobel.

‘You sign A. Aubrey, like your son.’

‘He signs A. A. Aubrey, or he did — Alexander is his middle name — although lately I see his initials do rather blur.’ Aubrey picked up a document from among those on the desk and studied the signatures.

‘But you could still have got in touch.’

‘Well I could have,’ the man paused, ‘but by yesterday evening you were reporting that Tom had been seen at the hotel, and that was already more than I knew. I couldn’t have helped.’

‘But you could have told us why he was there; I mean you must have known, you only spoke to him the day before.’

‘But I also had Isobel’s wishes to consider,’ answered Aubrey tersely, ‘and they have always been most important to me.’

‘You make it sound like it’s all my fault,’ she shot back.

‘I only mean your wish for secrecy. You know that never in a million years…’

‘But did you not consider,’ continued Grey, trying not to get angry, ‘that if it had gotten to the point of us making televised appeals for information, that we must have been worried for Thomas’ safety?’

‘Thomas’ safety, you say… He was the safest person on Earth! He never got into trouble.’

Isobel dashed around to Aubrey’s side of the desk, to kneel at his knee and hold his hand, looking up at him imploringly. As Grey explained,

‘Mr Aubrey, earlier today we found Thomas Long’s body at the motorway services.’

‘Oh my,’ was all he managed at first. ‘He was a good lad, the best I ever had work for me. Lord help us. How are his family?’

‘They don’t know yet; not until he’s ready to be identified.’

‘But you’re sure?’

‘A hundred percent.’

‘Who found him?’

‘I did.’

Aubrey asked, ‘So did it make a difference, my not calling you?’

‘No, we think he died that evening,’ answered Grey, still not knowing whether to be furious or sympathetic with the man.

‘So, how..?’

‘I’d rather not say too much in public. Once we’ve…’

‘Please, Inspector!’

‘He was chased from the carpark, and fell from the motorway bridge.’

‘Oh God no, he fell into traffic? He would have been torn to…’

‘No, he fell on the verge. He’s lain there undisturbed. He… was actually quite peaceful, if it helps to think of him like that.’

‘Yes, yes I think it does.’ Aubrey slumped back into the old leather chair, Isobel still attending.

‘Chased and fell, you say?’ she asked the Inspector.

‘I suspect that’s rather a police euphemism,’ Aubrey observed.

‘And you aren’t going to ask me who it was chased him?’

Aubrey’s look was unfathomable, Grey sensing traces of grief, guilt, stress, shame, and more besides — As Isobel rose to say,

‘I think that what the Inspector is trying to say, is that he thinks my ex-boyfriend killed Thomas — isn’t that right?’

‘God, Isobel, you know how to pick them, don’t you.’

‘Well, if we are going to start talking life choices…’

‘You little…’

‘Hey!’ Grey burst in to break up their spat. ‘This is too important.’ But neither could let the topic go, as if they each needed Grey to hear their case.

‘If you hadn’t gone and got involved with that bloody ruffian, none of this would ever have happened,’ Aubrey simmered.

‘Do you know why I went off with him? Because I was bored. Bored of everything, bored of this town, bored of my family… bored of you! ’

Stood apart from the men now, Isobel continued,

‘The truth was I loved Stephen, I loved his arrogance; because it meant that he never got jealous, or not like you do anyway. Of course he felt it like any man, but he knew I was his, that I wouldn’t want another while I was with him.’

Aubrey listened on in silence.

‘I spent a lot on looking good for Stephen, I was his trophy perhaps — isn’t that the expression? There were always other men buzzing around — his contacts and cronies, some of them quite rich by the end — but he knew I was his, that he could show me off and get the others drooling, and then snatch me away at the end of the night, as if to say, but she’s mine, fellows, she’ll always be mine, not one of you can match me, none of you are man enough for her. It was power, like a drama. A play, with me at the centre every time we went out — and I enjoyed it.’

‘Sweet Jesus.’

Grey considered that at the very least Anthony Aubrey had had his mind taken from his other troubles.

‘You were my life,’ continued the man.

‘You made me your life, you hid away from everyone else.’

‘You left me with nothing.’

‘I was allowed to spend some time away, surely?’

‘So you ran off with that thug.’

‘You were stifling me! What other option did I have? You wanted every bit of me. I had to escape you a while, I had to breath.’

‘Oh. You stupid girl. I’m not even going to argue with you any more. And he was a thug, Inspector.’

‘He knows.’ Isobel turned to Grey, ‘You see how we get? What he is like, what I am like, how we argue?’

‘Well,’ said Grey, motioning to rise, ‘we’ll have a chance to talk more calmly back at the station.’

‘You’re taking me in?’ This was Aubrey asking, Isobel seeming to have accepted the inevitable.

‘How on Earth can you think we wouldn’t? Mr Aubrey, a friend of yours has died violently and you are involved.’

‘How?’

‘You haven’t even told me what you were doing at the hotel yet. Besides, that is a very beautiful car you arrived in today; and Thomas was last seen waiting by it.’

Anthony Aubrey slumped across the big desk between them, Grey taking no pleasure in watching a person find the centre of their pain, as this lion of a man, father of the town, who had bought employment to its men, security to its families, had raised tens of thousands of pounds for good causes, had bestowed on his son the kind of legacy only a desperate attempt to live up to a father could destroy, burst into tears, with all the dignity a man can only manage when those tears have been held back all his life.

Isobel jumped up to hug him, their differences instantly forgotten; in a fashion Grey wondered might characterise their relationship, forever falling out to fall back in.

After a while the tears lessened, and he spoke, ‘I know, I know. I am a wretch who deserves to be spoken to no better. But I must ask a favour of you, Inspector. I must ask a reprieve.’

‘Well, I don’t know…’

‘All of this,’ he gestured to the chaotic desk, ‘is the reason I am here today. Some of these papers haven’t had an eye cast over them in forty years. Is seems fitting though, don’t you think, the deeds of our formation required at our dissolution?

‘You may have noticed that my son has left us in something of a state,’ he managed a wry smile. ‘I am here to do what I can, picking up work I haven’t seen for six years, remembering where this document is held, which safe that other record is locked up in. There are papers in the bank safe, the work safe, at my son’s home, even still at mine! My back seat in the car down there is piled with files, some going back to the Sixties, deeds from when I bought this very land and built these buildings.’

He concluded, ‘If those men protesting out there are to get any of what they are owed by my family, then the work we do these few days is vital. So I ask you, please, on their behalves…’

Grey considered the situation: Thomas was found, the urgency was gone,

‘Okay, you have this afternoon; but our men will be outside, we’ll see you at seven. And Mr Aubrey, do one thing for me now.’

‘Of course, if I can.’

‘I saw the way the men let your car pass. They still recognise you, and trust you. Go down there now and speak to them; tell them you are doing all you can, but that there is no work here today; that the protest is a proud one but that it can have no result. They look up to you, most of them are still your employees. Let them get back to their families, have them leave you to your work.’

The man nodded his thanks, saying as Grey left, ‘And please don’t leave thinking there is anything sordid here, Inspector. I love Isobel in a way you cannot ask me to explain and which you will never understand.’

But Grey had had enough of them for now, a wave of tiredness hitting; as he turned toward the main office to find Cornelia waiting.

‘How did you..?’ he asked. ‘The protestors..?’

She smiled, ‘There is a back door you know. Anyway, it’s breaking up a little now.’

‘I’m afraid your car got a bit…’

‘Yes, I saw,’ she said in mock-horror. ‘I trust you’ll be filling out the claim form?’

After giving instructions to the officers downstairs at the gate, she led him from the office building to the yards at the rear of the factory, filling him in as they walked,

‘I showed the hotel reception film around the station, and some of the older officers confirmed that Mr Smith is Anthony Aubrey. Meanwhile, I spoke to Josie again, who doesn’t live in town and so hadn’t even heard of Isobel Semple. But I emailed her a photo from the file, and she confirms that she was the woman who met Mr Smith in his room.’

‘That’s good,’ said Grey, glad of the corroboration. ‘I haven’t got a word on tape from either of them yet.’

‘So what next, boss?’ asked Cori as they found the squad car she had commandeered. Through the chicken-wire fence, Grey watched the lorries now free to come and go from the neighbouring yard,

‘You know these fellows can live in their cabs for days, sleep in them even. They have TVs, fridges, drinks machines.’

‘What are you thinking, boss?’

‘That there could have been people at the services all night who might have heard or saw something.’

‘But none have come forward, even after your appeal mentioned Thomas had last been seen there.’

‘But they would be in a different town now, and might not know that what they heard or saw could be something important.’

‘But how would we..?’ she let her question hang.

‘Well it’s something to think about; but not right now. Drop me home will you? I want to be fresh for this evening. And call me at seven if I’m not up.’

Cori wondered if the few hours sleep this would permit could get him back to full speed for an evening of interviewing? He certainly needed a brush up, and his clothes were wrecked.

‘Actually, hold on here a minute,’ he said then. ‘I’ve just remembered something else.’

With renewed energy, he jogged back over to the building and up the stairs,

‘Mrs Marsh,’ he called as he walked through the office, ‘may I speak with you a moment?’

‘Of course, what is it, Inspector?’

He ushered her into one of the empty rooms, ‘It was something you said earlier…’

‘Oh yes?’ she said, with put on innocence.

‘I wonder, what was the rumour about Christine Semple..?’

Chapter 35 — Aubrey in Interview

‘Thomas Long was just about the last person I hired before stepping down as head of the company. He was fresh out of the sixth-form, and his dad had had a word of course. I always gave factory families a chance.’

Grey thought Anthony Aubrey looked awful, sat across from him in the interview room a little after the appointed hour. An afternoon of salvaging what he could from his life’s work had obviously taken its toll; but there was no putting this conversation off. The man continued,

‘I got to know him well those last few months, not that he ever gave very much away. We worked closely during the changeover, and by the time Alex was properly in charge Tom was running half of the office.

‘He was a very quick learner, Inspector: you would show him a task on Monday, and by Friday he was the authority on it. Only he had this awful initial uncertainty, an embarrassment at his own clumsiness when he had yet to master something new; but after that he could be trusted with it implicitly. He was a boss’ dream, he made delegation so easy, he took on work like a sponge. I wonder now if he didn’t have such a deep insecurity that with every new task he took on he felt himself a little less dispensable? Perhaps I gave him too much work? Who knows.

‘And he was so shy with it you wouldn’t believe! After a while I gave up trying to encourage him in the social side of things. His father was a quiet one too, unshowy, loving his home life. But at least he had Lily, and a bit of a life outside the factory — you could always twist his arm to come for one pint on the Friday before a Bank Holiday weekend. I don’t think I ever saw Thomas touch a drop.’

‘And what about after you’d retired?’

‘Work kept us in touch for a while: they still needed the odd signature from me, and Thomas would bring me up to speed with what was going on at the old place. I even bought him lunch at the Club a couple of times, but it was wasted on him really, he was no gourmet, and he was never sure how to behave in restaurants. I think he would rather have had a plate of his mother’s cooking any day of the week. But I enjoyed our meetings, and as I say, it reassured me to know he was on top of things.’

‘But you hadn’t been there a while?’

‘No. As I became less involved our meetings tailed off. Friendships do, don’t you notice, Inspector? Not through anyone’s doing. It is just the nature if these things.

‘Until this week…’

‘Until this week… when Thomas called me out of the blue.’

‘This was on Monday evening?’

Aubrey shook his head, but only in disbelief, ‘I knew straight away that something was wrong. He asked to speak to me as soon as possible, than night even. He sounded scared, I didn’t like it, so I said to hold on, that I’d drive into town and meet him at the Club. Once I got there, no sooner were we sat down that he came out with it: that the payroll wasn’t going through this month, that he couldn’t make it work. And it got worse… he told me that the bank manager had already called him, had laid it out to him straight that the money wasn’t there.

‘Once he started there was no stopping him, and Tom told me everything, shaking and almost in tears: How Alex had been away all afternoon, had hardly been in the office at all recently, leaving him with no one there to turn to; how staff had been leaving and not being replaced, the office becoming like a ghost town full of empty rooms. And he told me how Alex had been out more and more lately chasing new contracts, talking down the staff’s concerns and putting his faith in his business contacts, saying how this meeting or that deal that would make it all alright, and to leave it to him and not to worry.

‘Tom even told me how a couple of the lads had already been asking him for their payslips early; and how they’d caught him off guard and he told them, told them everything! He said how he’d needed to tell someone — that he’d had nowhere to go with the pressure.’

‘What did you say?’

‘I said not to worry, that their gossip would be forgotten once everyone was paid.’

‘You knew better though?’

‘I think Thomas knew it too.’

‘That you were days from disaster?’

‘I reckon he had been scared of something like this happening for months. It was a Hellish situation for him, you understand: his job gave him a head-start when it came to knowing if the company was in trouble; and Alex hadn’t been around.’

‘So what did you do?’

‘I told Thomas, “Speak to Alex in the morning when you see him, and until then don’t worry.”’

‘But you knew it was bad?’

‘Never in forty years had the payroll not been met.’

The man went quiet, shaking his head again at the situation, before resuming seemingly from a different angle,

‘After letting the company go, I let my life in town go too. We had had the house in the country a long while, “lost down lanes and hidden by hedges,” as Alex’s mother used to say, God rest her. But I made it my base then, and gave up the house in town — I don’t know, I seemed to need the quiet I had never had before. I spent a year on the car, restoring it from scratch, taking it down to every nut and bolt. I hired a mechanic, the best you could find. He became the only person I would see for days.

‘I only want to explain to you how out of the loop I had become, Inspector. Of course I’d sensed for a while that Alex hadn’t been telling me everything. And I heard the rumours like everyone else. I read of him in the business pages, of his attempts to find partners and backers, investors and venture capitalists…’ he spat the phrase out like poisoned meat. ‘I ask you, what kind of job-title is that? What would such a person do for a living? Or want with a firm like ours for that matter, that builds things, that is as old as the hills?

‘But any attempt I made to ask Alex, he took as a sign I didn’t trust him running the plant. “Things are fine! Why shouldn’t they be?” he would snap at the most general enquiry. I know, I know, it is hard to fill a father’s shoes. Sometimes success is harder to pass on than failure — at least then you can only do better than your parents.

‘But still, I wasn’t that out of it not to know that for Mr Foy to be calling the office then we were in trouble. We have loans — I knew that much — and if we got into difficulties then the bank couldn’t hold out forever. No, Inspector, I am afraid as I sat there opposite Thomas eating my steak and new potatoes, that I suffered quite a strong premonition. I knew the firm was finished, and that if it wasn’t this month it would be next.’

‘But you didn’t say?’

‘No, I didn’t let on to Thomas; part through shock, part through wanting to keep a lid on things; but also because I didn’t know what on Earth I was able to do to help him. And even as I ate I realised one other thing: that there was only one person in the world I still could do anything for, and that if I was going to do it, it would have to be in these next few days.’

‘Isobel.’

‘I know what you see here, Inspector: a young girl and an old man? I know how you look at me, how you judge.’

‘I don’t judge you.’

‘Of course you do, you’re just trained not to show it.’

‘I don’t judge you because I know.’

‘What do you know? How can you?’

‘I know because Gail Marsh guessed; guessed that Isobel was your daughter.’

Grey watched thankfully as the man decided to concede the point, thus avoiding much embarrassment all round,

‘I worked with Gail for twenty years, hadn’t seen her for six, and she hasn’t changed a bit. And you tell me she knew all along?’

‘Well, suspected. And then when Isobel appeared in the office today…’

‘You can never tell a soul, it would destroy her parents.’

‘I hope not to have to.’

Anthony Aubrey leaned back in his chair, his brief silent beside him, whatever advice he had given evidently being followed,

‘Where can I begin? Christine Semple worked in the office — there were a lot more of us then, Inspector, fifteen or twenty at times: clerks, typists, tea ladies! She had been at the firm a while before anything happened between us, indeed had met Doug there and married him. Yes, we may have caught each other’s eye before then; but it wasn’t till her job changed and she moved along the office that we spend a lot of time working together.

‘What can I say? I’m not proud of it, although my wife had died long before then. I had an ear for office gossip, and so I knew Christine had had a reputation as a tiger on the tiles before she was married. Perhaps she hadn’t been able to settle down as she’d hoped? Either way, what happened happened very naturally, neither pressing the other.

‘There was wrong on both sides of course, but is it wrong when both people need it? And I so needed her wildness, I needed that look from across the office, promising me all I’d be getting that evening. We ran a system where I’d keep her for overtime after Doug’s shift had finished, and then quickly run her back where she’d tell Doug she’d been on the bus. We stole a couple of hours once or twice a week that way.’

The man’s voice, already thoughtful turned maudlin, as he concluded, ‘This will sound fanciful Inspector, but Christine was the love of my life. I’d had others of course, affairs, flings, tarts — no man is an island, and my dear wife was gone. But over the years I’ve wondered if those months with Christine weren’t the happiest I’d known since Alexander’s mother died?’

The man looked crumpled, but Grey needed him to keep going, prompting him, ‘So how did it end?’

But when Anthony Aubrey answered he seemed again to be going off track, ‘Christine had a religious upbringing. You might not have thought it, but it was always there, her faith, like an elastic which she pulled at and pulled at, testing its limits. And then this happened, and it snapped her right back.’

‘What happened?’

‘She fell pregnant, and she knew right away it was mine — don’t ask me how, I’m sure Doug was getting his share still. But she said a woman knew these things, and so that was that. Even before she told me though I knew something was up, and she never spoke to me warmly again.’

Aubrey was into full lamentation mode now, Grey feeling rather as if he were taking another kind of confession, and wondering if such personal stories were what police interview room recorders were there for, half wanting to pause the tape out of respect.

But Aubrey carried on, ‘A baby might have brought some couples together, and if Christine had chosen me I would have accepted Doug beating me to within an inch of my life, if only she had been the one bringing me round. But she chose him, and it ended everything between us. No one knew though. She left for her maternity, and never came back.’

‘It must have been tough.’

‘Harder than you can imagine.’

‘Did Doug know?’

Aubrey gave a hollow laugh, ‘Oh, she told him alright. She told him, babe in arms, the first time he came to visit her at the hospital! I hated her for that, more than for anything else, after he told me.’

‘You spoke to him?’

‘Doug turned up a week or two later, I found him sat in the office waiting to see me. God knows what it did to him to be told like that, at his proudest moment. I feared the worst; but all he said was that Christine wanted to be a full time mother now, and wouldn’t be coming back; and that to make up for her lost wages, he asked a hundred pounds a week more for himself, to cover the household bills.’

‘A fair bit in the Eighties. And you agreed?’

‘Of course! He could have named his price; and the way I was feeling right then I would have paid it without question. It wasn’t blackmail you see, but a way of putting things right, and I thanked him for offering the solution. The next week he came back to work, as regular as ever.’

‘And you got along?’

‘We were civil, would say Good Morning, nod, share the football scores. He made it easy for us to get along. And sometimes he would say in the canteen or as I was passing his machine how his daughter was doing, how she had painted a funny picture at school or had won a race at sports day; just little things, said in a way no one would twig, or that I could ever thank him for. He had won in a way you see: he had my daughter and the woman I loved. These things are never clear cut, Inspector.’

The room was silent, before he offered in explanation, ‘It was the physical reality of holding the baby, you see, why Christine told Doug like she did. Some instinct told her that she had to start being truthful now, that the wellbeing of the baby depended on her being surrounded by honesty, however harshly told… or so she tried to explain to me later, I never got it.’

‘You spoke to her too?’

‘I only saw her that one last time, my Christine, but she wasn’t the same woman. I went to the house when I knew Doug would be on shift — I shouldn’t have gone, it could have killed him if he’d seen me. She had this aura about her like the newly converted, only one who took no joy in being born again. I thought at the time that she seemed like a woman taking vows to join a nunnery, though that would be slanderous against the nuns! I think she hated who she’d been, and hated me too for loving that side of her. It was zealotry, Inspector. I didn’t like it, and I didn’t stay long. A shame, so much went unsaid…

‘And that was that, I saw neither she or her daughter again; until Isobel had grown up, and she came and found me out, and at last we became friends.’

Chapter 36 — Meanwhile, Next Door…

‘Why can’t I speak to the Inspector,’ asked Isobel, now playing the petulant child.

‘You know why,’ answered Sergeant Smith. ‘Now I really need you to tell me about your relationship with Anthony.’

‘And he’s already blurted out our secret?’

‘So I’ve been told.’

‘Okay,’ began Isobel, with what seemed to Cori deliberate haste, as if the quicker she spoke the quicker it would all be over. ‘I first found out who my father was when I came home from school one day, and told my parents I was going to be doing my work experience at the Aubrey’s office. I was fifteen and getting into trouble, and thought it was the first thing I’d have to tell them for a while that might make them proud…

‘I was so upset at their reaction, I didn’t know what I had done. It took a whole night of shouting at them to find out why they were so set against it — I could guess it was nothing to do with school. It didn’t help, when they did tell me, that they were both so embarrassed about it. It’s still a thing I don’t like to talk about.’

‘So what happened next?’

‘They blocked the work experience; which got me into more trouble with the teachers, but I didn’t care by then. But they did arrange a meeting, they knew I had to see him. Whether they expected us to be such good friends I don’t know, but that made things even more difficult.’

‘More? ’

‘I got into trouble earlier today with your Inspector; he told me off for saying my parents didn’t love me. Of course I knew they did, but they were just so… hard to fathom. Dad — I still call Doug dad — he was always proud of me, but I would catch him sometimes looking so sad, and when I’d ask him why he would just shake it off. And as for mum, she would have died for me, I know that. When we argued, about me — it was always about me — she was deadly serious, because what I did with my life was the most important thing in hers. But she couldn’t show me that she loved me, she always held back.’

‘So how were things with Anthony?’

‘He was lovely, right from the start. I don’t think we had any father-daughter relationship, we weren’t even very similar. But we got on really well. He told me how much he had wanted to know me all these years, and at last I got some answers about what had happened back then. I’m not saying it all made sense right away, but he could talk to me in a way my parent couldn’t. I think I really, really loved him. He was my best friend.’

‘But still you left?’

Isobel drew back at Cori’s question, perhaps facing further things she didn’t like to talk about,

‘I was always going to leave home as soon as possible, I knew that even before I learnt all this about Anthony. I hated school by then, and nothing in town made me want to stay.’

‘And there was Carman?’

‘I couldn’t believe when I met Stephen, that this boring little place could hold someone so exciting; or so I thought then. Of course I’d just found Anthony, but this was different. I was star struck, Sergeant, head over heels. And of course Stephen wanted to leave too, but he had plans and a route laid out; and I hoped that if I loved him enough then he would take me with him.’

‘And it didn’t bother you that he was into drugs?’

‘I’d done a little bit myself,’ she said sheepishly, ‘and when you’re young it’s a thrill to be doing what people tell you not to, to be jeering at the police. Sorry.’

‘That’s okay,’ Cori almost laughed.

‘He was lawless and I loved it. I was just so glad I’d caught him in time. Anthony hated him though, and couldn’t understand why I’d want to leave when he and I had only got to know each other. And there was also…’

Cori took Isobel’s hand, and urged her to continue.

‘Well, the thing is that Anthony was still a secret. I couldn’t tell anyone he was my dad, not even my best mate, Connie. There were times we went for meals, just Anthony and I, and I was worried what people would think of us, that they would jump to conclusions. In the end we met mostly at his house, which was bad as he spent too long there anyway and needed bringing out.’

‘It must have been confusing?’

‘But in the end you grow up, and you want your own space.’

‘So you left both sides of your family behind?’

‘I had to, I had no choice. Can you understand?’

‘Two years. Two years I had my daughter for; and then she went again.’ Anthony Aubrey shot Grey a look of such pity and longing, that the detective could only guess at how destroying Isobel’s abandonment of him, of him personally as he would have seen it, must have felt.

‘Two years, and then she left with that vermin. Isobel, Isobel,’ he began asking, as if she were with them in the room. ‘You knew how much I loved you and you cut me out. You were my secret, the only one I loved, and I couldn’t tell anyone. Have you any idea how hard that was? To love you so much and not have anybody know?’

Grey wondered if he were in the presence of someone losing their mind, the big man slumped now at the table as he had been earlier over his office desk.

‘But she must have gotten back in touch?’ asked the Inspector quickly, if only to break the mood. The question seemed to perk the man up a bit,

‘When I bought the Jaguar in the Eighties it had had a carphone fitted. An ugly thing, and I should have had it taken out in the restoration. But you see I learnt a while ago — and please don’t ask me how — that it has the advantage of being very hard for anyone to trace or tap. All that time she’d kept the number, and when she needed to she called.’

Grey noted the man’s satisfaction as he said that last line.

‘And this was?’

‘Oh, months ago now, I remember she wishing me Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!’ he laughed.

‘So what else was said?’

‘She admitted that she had made a mistake, that Carman was a bad man doing bad things, and that she didn’t know what to do.’

Grey wondered if this was exactly as Isobel would have put it, but persevered,

‘And so you stayed in touch?’