First published 2005 by Macmillan
an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd
Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London Nl 9RR
Basingstoke and Oxford
Associated companies throughout the world
ISBN 14050 5163 9 HB ISBN 1 4050 4841 7 TPB
Copyright � Really Scary Books / Peter James 2004
So far, apart from just a couple of hitches, Plan A was working out fine. Which was fortunate, since they didn't really have a Plan B.
At 8.30 on a late May evening, they'd banked on having some daylight. There had been plenty of the stuff this time yesterday, when four of them had made the same journey, taking with them an empty coffin and four shovels. But now, as the green Transit van sped along the Sussex country road, misty rain was falling from a sky the colour of a fogged negative.
Are we nearly there yet?' said Josh in the back, mimicking a child.
'The great Um Ga says, "Wherever I go there I am," responded Robbo, who was driving, and was slightly less drunk than the rest of them. With three pubs notched up already in the past hour and a half, and four more on the itinerary, he was sticking to shandy. At least, that had been his intention; but he'd managed to slip down a couple of pints of pure Harvey's bitter - to clear his head for the task of driving, he'd said.
'So we are there!' said Josh.
Always have been.'
A deer warning sign flitted from the darkness then was gone, as the headlights skimmed glossy black-top macadam stretching ahead into the forested distance. Then they passed a small white cottage.
Michael, lolling on a tartan rug on the floor in the back of the van, head wedged between the arms of a wheel-wrench for a pillow, was feeling very pleasantly woozy. 'I sh'ink I need another a drink,' he slurred.
If he'd had his wits about him, he might have sensed, from the expressions of his friends, that something was not quite right. Never usually much of a heavy drinker, tonight he'd parked his brains in the dregs of more empty pint glasses and vodka chasers than he could remember downing, in more pubs than had been sensible to visit.
Of the six of them who had been muckers together since way
back into their early teens, Michael Harrison had always been the natural leader. If, as they say, the secret of life is to choose your parents wisely, Michael had ticked plenty of the right boxes. He had inherited his mother's fair good looks and his father's charm and entrepreneurial spirit, but without any of the self-destruct genes that had eventually ruined the man.
From the age of twelve, when Tom Harrison had gassed himself in the garage of the family home, leaving behind a trail of debtors, Michael had grown up fast, helping his mother make ends meet by doing a paper round, then when he was older by taking labouring jobs in his holidays. He grew up with an appreciation of how hard it was to make money - and how easy to fritter it.
Now, at twenty-eight, he was smart, a decent human being, and a natural leader of the pack. If he had flaws, it was that he was too trusting and on occasions, too much of a prankster. And tonight that latter chicken was coming home to roost. Big time.
But at this moment he had no idea of that.
He drifted back again into a blissful stupor, thinking only happy thoughts, mostly about his fiancee, Ashley. Life was good. His mother was dating a nice guy, his kid brother had just got into university, his kid sister Early was backpacking in Australia on a gap year, and his business was going incredibly well. But best of all, in three days time he was going to be marrying the woman he loved. And adored. His soul mate.
He hadn't noticed the shovel that rattled on every bump in the road, as the wheels drummed below on the sodden tarmac, and the rain pattered down above him on the roof. And he didn't clock a thing in the expressions of his two friends riding along with him in the back, who were swaying and singing tunelessly to an oldie, Rod Stewart's 'Sailing', on the crackly radio up front. A leaky fuel can filled the van with the stench of petrol.
'I love her,' Michael slurred. 'I sh'love Ashley'
'She's a great lady,' Robbo said, turning his head from the wheel, sucking up to him as he always did. That was in his nature. Awkward with women, a bit clumsy, a florid face, lank hair, beer belly straining the weave of his T-shirt, Robbo hung to the coat tails of this bunch by always trying to make himself needed. And tonight, for a change, he actually was needed.
'Coming up,' warned Luke.
Robbo braked as they approached the turn-off and winked in the darkness of the cab at Luke seated next to him. The wipers clumped Steadily, smearing the rain across the windscreen.
'I mean, like I really love her. Sh'now what I mean?'
'We know what you mean,' Pete said.
Josh, leaning back against the driver's seat, one arm around Pete, twigged some beer, then passed the bottle down to Michael. Froth rose from the neck as the van braked sharply. He belched. "Scuse me.'
'What the hell does Ashley see in you?' Josh said.
'So it's not your money? Or your looks? Or your charm?'
'That too, Josh, but mostly my dick.'
The van lurched as it made the sharp right turn, rattling over a cattle grid, almost immediately followed by a second one, and onto the dirt track. Robbo, peering through the misted glass, picking out the deep ruts, swung the wheel. A rabbit sprinted ahead of them, then shot into some undergrowth. The headlights veered right then left, fleetingly colouring the dense conifers that lined the track, before they vanished into darkness in the rear-view mirror. As Robbo changed down a gear, Michael's voice changed, his bravado suddenly tinged, very faintly, with anxiety.
'Where we going?'
'To another pub.'
'OK. Great.' Then a moment later, 'Promished Ashley I shwouldn't - wouldn't - drink too much.'
'See,' Pete said, 'you're not even married and she's laying down rules. You're still a free man. For just three more days.'
'Three and a half,' Robbo added, helpfully.
'You haven't arranged any girls?' Michael said.
'Feeling horny?' Robbo asked.
'I'm staying faithful.'
'We're making sure of that.'
The van lurched to a halt, reversed a short distance, then made another right turn. Then it stopped again, and Robbo killed the engine - and Rod Stewart with it. 'Arrival' he said. 'Next watering hole! The Undertaker's Arms!'
'I'd prefer the Naked Thai Girl's Legs,' Michael said.
'She's here too.'
Someone opened the rear door of the van, Michael wasn't sure who. Invisible hands took hold of his ankles. Robbo took one of his arms, and Luke the other.
'You're a heavy bastard!' Luke said.
Moments later Michael thumped down, in his favourite sports jacket and best jeans (not the wisest choice for your stag night, a dim voice in his head was telling him) onto sodden earth, in pitch darkness which was pricked only by the red tail lights of the van and the white beam of a flashlight. Hardening rain stung his eyes and matted his hair to his forehead.
Moments later, his arms yanked almost clear of their sockets, he was hoisted in the air, then dumped down into something dry and lined with white satin that pressed in on either side of him.
'Hey!' he said again.
Four drunken, grinning shadowy faces leered down at him. A magazine was pushed into his hands. In the beam of the flashlight he caught a blurry glimpse of a naked redhead with gargantuan breasts. A bottle of whisky, a small flashlight, switched on, and a walkie-talkie were placed on his stomach.
A piece of foul-tasting rubber tubing was pushing into his mouth. As Michael spat it out, he heard a scraping sound, then suddenly something blotted the faces out. And blotted all the sound out. His nostrils filled with smells of wood, new cloth and glue. For an instant he felt warm and snug. Then a flash of panic.
'Hey, guys - what--'
Robbo picked up a screwdriver, as Pete shone the flashlight down on the oak coffin.
'You're not screwing it down?' Luke said.
'Absolutely!' Pete said. I 'Do you think we should?'
'He'll be fine,' Robbo said. 'He's got the breathing tube!'
'I really don't think we should screw it down!'
''Course we do - otherwise he'll be able to get out!' ; 'Hey--' Michael said.
But no one could hear him now. And he could hear nothing except a faint scratching sound above him.
Robbo worked on each of the four screws in turn. It was a top-oftherange hand-tooled teak coffin with embossed brass handles, borrowed from his uncle's funeral parlour, where, after a couple of career U-turns, he was now employed as an apprentice embalmer. Good, solid brass screws. They went in easily.
Michael looked upwards, his nose almost touching the lid. In the beam of the flashlight, ivory-white satin encased him. He kicked out with his legs, but they had nowhere to travel. He tried to push his arms out. But they had nowhere to go, either. Sobering for a few moments, he suddenly realized what he was lying in.
'Hey, hey, listen, you know - hey - I'm claustrophobic - this is not funny! Hey!' His voice came back at him, strangely muffled.
Pete opened the door, leaned into the cab, and switched on the headlights. A couple of metres in front of them was the grave they had dug yesterday, the earth piled to one side, tapes already in place. A large sheet of corrugated iron and two of the spades they had used lay close by.
The four friends walked to the edge and peered down. All of them were suddenly aware that nothing in life is ever quite as it seems when you are planning it. This hole right now looked deeper, darker, more like - well - a grave, actually.
The beam of the flashlight shimmered at the bottom.
'There's water,' Josh said.
'Just a bit of rainwater/ Robbo said.
Josh frowned. 'There's too much, that's not rainwater. We must have hit the water table.'
'Shit,' Pete said. A BMW salesman, he always looked the part, on
duty or off. Spiky haircut, sharp suit, always confident. But not quite so confident now.
'It's nothing,' Robbo said. 'Just a couple of inches.'
'Did we really dig it this deep?' said Luke, a freshly qualified solicitor, recently married, not quite ready to shrug off his youth, but starting to accept life's responsibilities.
'It's a grave, isn't it?' said Robbo. 'We decided on a grave.'
Josh squinted up at the worsening rain. 'What if the water rises?
'Shit, man,' Robbo said. 'We dug it yesterday, it's taken twentyfour hours for just a couple of inches. Nothing to worry about.'
Josh nodded, thoughtfully. 'But what if we can't get him back out?'
'Course we can get him out/ Robbo said. 'We just unscrew the lid.'
'Let's just get on with it,' Luke said. 'OK?'
'He bloody deserves it,' Pete reassured his mates. 'Remember what he did on your stag night, Luke?'
Luke would never forget. Waking from an alcoholic stupor to find himself on a bunk on the overnight sleeper to Edinburgh. Arriving forty minutes late at the altar the next afternoon as a result.
Pete would never forget, either. The weekend before his wedding, he'd found himself in frilly lace underwear, a dildo strapped to his waist, manacled to the Clifton Gorge suspension bridge, before being rescued by the fire brigade. Both pranks had been Michael's idea.
'Typical of Mark,' Pete said. 'Jammy bastard. He's the one who organized this and now he isn't bloody here ...'
'He's coming. He'll be at the next pub, he knows the itinerary'
'He rang, he's on his way.'
'Fogbound in Leeds. Great!' Robbo said.
'He'll be at the Royal Oak by the time we get there.'
'Jammy bastard/ Luke said. 'He's missing out on all the hard work.'
'And thefunl' Pete reminded him.
'This is fun?' Luke said. 'Standing in the middle of a sodding forest in the pissing rain? Fun? God, you're sad! He'd fucking better turn up to help us get Michael back out.'
They hefted the coffin up in the air, staggered forward with it to the edge of the grave and dumped it down, hard, over the tapes. Then giggled at the muffled 'Ouch!' from within it.
There was a loud thump.
Michael banged his fist against the lid. 'Hey! Enough!'
Pete, who had the walkie-talkie in his coat pocket, pulled it out and switched it on. 'Testing!' he said. 'Testing!'
Inside the coffin, Pete's voice boomed out. 'Testing! Testing!'
'Relax, Michael!' Pete said. 'Enjoy!'
'You bastards! Let me out! I need a piss!'
Pete switched the walkie-talkie off and jammed it into the pocket | Of his Barbour jacket. 'So how does this work, exactly?'
'We lift the tapes,' Robbo said. 'One each end.'
Pete dug the walkie-talkie out and switched it on. 'We're getting this taped, Michael!' Then he switched it off again.
The four of them laughed. Then each picked up an end of tape and took up the slack.
'One ... two ... three!' Robbo counted.
'Fuck, this is heavy!' Luke said, taking the strain and lifting.
Slowly, jerkily, listing like a stricken ship, the coffin sank down into the deep hole.
When it reached the bottom they could barely see it in the darkness. Pete held the flashlight. In the beam they could make out the breathing tube sticking limply out of the drinking-straw-sized hole that had been cut in the lid.
Robbo grabbed the walkie-talkie. 'Hey, Michael, your dick's sticking out. Are you enjoying the magazine?'
'OK, joke over. Now let me out!'
'We're off to a pole-dancing club. Too bad you can't join us!' Robbo switched off the radio before Michael could reply. Then, pocketing it, he picked up a spade and began shovelling earth over the edge of the grave and roared with laughter as it rattled down on the roof of the coffin.
With a loud whoop Pete grabbed another shovel and joined in. For some moments both of them worked hard until only a few bald
patches of coffin showed through the earth. Then these were covered. Both of them continued, the drink fuelling their work into a frenzy, until there was a good couple of feet of earth piled on top of the coffin. The breathing tube barely showed above it.
'Hey!' Luke said. 'Hey, stop that! The more you shovel on the more we're going to have to dig back out again in two hours' time.'
'It's a grave!' Robbo said. 'That's what you do with a grave, you cover the coffin!'
Luke grabbed the spade from him. 'Enough!' he said, firmly. 'I want to spend the evening drinking, not bloody digging, OK?'
Robbo nodded, never wanting to upset anyone in the group. Pete, sweating heavily, threw his spade down. 'Don't think I'll take this up as a career,' he said.
They pulled the corrugated iron sheet over the top, then stood back in silence for some moments. Rain pinged on the metal.
'OK,' Pete said. 'We're outta here.'
Luke dug his hands into his coat pocket, dubiously. 'Are we really sure about this?'
'We agreed we were going to teach him a lesson,' Robbo said.
'What if he chokes on his vomit, or something?'
'He'll be fine, he's not that drunk,' Josh said. 'Let's go.'
Josh climbed into the rear of the van, and Luke shut the doors. Then Pete, Luke and Robbo squeezed into the front, and Robbo started the engine. They drove back down the track for half a mile, then made a right turn onto the main road.
Then he switched on the walkie-talkie. 'How you doing, Michael?'
'Guys, listen, I'm really not enjoying this joke.'
'Really?' Robbo said. 'We are!'
Luke took the radio. 'This is what's known as pure vanilla revenge, Michael!'
All four of them in the van roared with laughter. Now it was Josh's turn. 'Hey, Michael, we're going to this fantastic club, they have the most beautiful women, butt naked, sliding their bodies up and down poles. You're going to be really pissed you're missing out on this!'
Michael's voice slurred back, just a tad plaintive. 'Can we stop this now, please? I'm really not enjoying this.'
Through the windscreen Robbo could see roadworks ahead, with green light. He accelerated.
Luke shouted over Josh's shoulder, 'Hey, Michael, just relax, we'll be back in a couple of hours!'
'What do you mean, a couple ofhoursV
The light turned red. Not enough time to stop. Robbo accelerated Stwen harder and shot through. 'Gimme the thing,' he said, grabbing tile radio and steering one-handed around a long curve. He peered pdown in the ambient glow of the dash and hit the talk button.
'ROBBO!' Luke's voice, screaming.
Headlights above them, coming straight at them.
Then the blare of a horn, deep, heavy duty, ferocious.
ROBBBBBBBBOOOOOOO!' screamed Luke.
Robbo stamped in panic on the brake pedal and dropped the walkie-talkie. The wheel yawed in his hands as he looked, desperately, for somewhere to go. Trees to his right, a JCB to his left, headlights burning through the windscreen, searing his eyes, coming at him out of the teeming rain, like a train.
Michael, his head swimming, heard shouting, then a sharp thud, as if someone had dropped the walkietalkie.
He pressed the talk button. 'Hello?'
Just empty static came back at him.
'Hello? Hey guys!'
Still nothing. He focused his eyes on the two-way radio. It was a stubby-looking thing, a hard, black plastic casing, with one short aerial and one longer one, the name 'Motorola' embossed over the speaker grille. There was also an on-off switch, a volume control, a channel selector, and a tiny pinhead of a green light that was glowing brightly. Then he stared at the white satin that was inches from his eyes, fighting panic, starting to breathe faster and faster. He needed to pee, badly, going on desperately.
Where the hell was he? Where were Josh, Luke, Pete, Robbo? Standing around, giggling? Had the bastards really gone off to a club?
Then his panic subsided as the alcohol kicked back in again. His thoughts became leaden, muddled. His eyes closed and he was almost suckered into sleep.
Opening his eyes, the satin blurred into soft focus, as a roller wave of nausea suddenly swelled up inside him, threw him up in the air then dropped him down. Up again. Down again. He swallowed, closed his eye again, giddily, feeling the coffin drifting, swaying from side to side, floating. The need to pee was receding. Suddenly the nausea wasn't so bad any more. It was snug in here. Floating. Like being in a big bed!
His eyes closed and he sank like a stone into sleep.
Roy Grace sat in the dark, in his ageing Alfa Romeo in the line of stationary traffic, rain drumming the roof, his fingers drumming the wlmel, barely listening to the Dido CD that was playing. He felt tense. Impatient. Gloomy. He felt like shit. Tomorrow he was due to appear in court, and he knew he was in (rouble. He took a swig of bottled Evian water, replaced the cap and jammed the bottle back in the door pocket. 'Come on, come on!' he said, fingers tapping again, harder now. He was already forty minutes late for his date. He hated being late, always felt it was a sign of rudeness, as if you were making the statement, my time's more important than yours, so I can keep you waiting... If he had left the office just one minute sooner he wouldn't have been late: someone else would have taken the call and the ram-raid on a jewellery shop in Brighton, by two punks who were high on (iod-knows-what, would have been a colleague's problem, not his. That was one of the occupational hazards of police work - villains didn't have the courtesy to keep to office hours. He should not be going out tonight, he knew. Should have stayed home, preparing himself for tomorrow. Tugging out the bottle, he drank some more water. His mouth was dry, parched. Leaden butterflies flip-flopped in his belly. Friends had pushed him into a handful of blind dates over the past few years, and each time he'd been a bag of nerves before he'd shown up. The nerves were even worse tonight, and, not having had a chance to shower and change, he felt uncomfortable about his appearance. All his detailed planning about what he was going to wear had gone out of the window, thanks to the two punks. One of them had fired a sawn-off shotgun at an off-duty cop who had come too close to the jewellery shop - but luckily not quite close enough. Roy had seen, more times than he had needed, the effects of a 12-bore fired from a few feet at a human being. It could shear off a limb or punch a hole the size of a football through their chest. This cop, a detective called Bill Green who Grace knew - they had played rugger on the same team a few times - had been peppered from about thirty yards. At this distance the pellets could just about have brought down a pheasant or a rabbit, but not a fifteen-stone scrum prop in a leather jacket. Bill Green was relatively lucky - his jacket had shielded his body but he had several pellets embedded in his face, including one in his left eye.
By the time Grace had got to the scene, the punks were already in custody, after crashing and rolling their getaway Jeep. He was determined to stick them with an attempted murder charge on top of armed robbery. He hated the way more and more criminals were using guns in the UK - and forcing more and more police to have firearms to hand. In his father's day armed cops would have been unheard of. Now in some cities forces kept guns in the boots of their cars as routine. Grace wasn't naturally a vengeful person, but so far as he was concerned, anyone who fired a gun at a police officer - or at any innocent person - should be hanged.
The traffic still wasn't moving. He looked at the dash clock, at the rain falling, at the clock again, at the burning red tail lights of the car in front - the prat had his fogs on, almost dazzling him. Then he checked his watch, hoping the car clock might be wrong. But it wasn't. Ten whole minutes had passed and they hadn't moved an inch. Nor had any traffic come past from the opposite direction.
Shards of blue light flitted across his interior mirror and wing mirror. Then he heard a siren. A patrol car screamed past. Then an ambulance. Another patrol car, flat out, followed by two fire engines.
Shit. There had been road works when he'd come this way a couple of days ago, and he'd figured that was the reason for the delay. But now he realized it must be an accident, and fire engines meant it was a bad one.
Another fire engine went past. Then another ambulance, twosandblues full on. Followed by a rescue truck.
He looked at the clock again: 9.15 p.m. He should have picked her up three-quarters of an hour ago, in Tunbridge Wells, which was still a good twenty minutes away without this holdup.
Terry Miller, a newly divorced Detective Inspector in Grace's division, had been regaling him with boasts about his conquests from a couple of internet dating sites and urging Grace to sign up. Boy had resisted, then, when he started finding suggestive emails in his inbox from different women, found out to his fury that Terry Miller had signed him up to a site called U-Date without telling him.
He still had no idea what had prompted him to actually respond (o one of the emails. Loneliness? Curiosity? Lust? He wasn't sure. For the past eight years he had got through life just by going steadily from day to day. Some days he tried to forget, other days he felt guilty for not remembering.
Now he was suddenly feeling guilty for going on this date.
She looked gorgeous - from her photo, at any rate. He liked her name, too. Claudine. French-sounding, it had something exotic. Her picture was hot! Amber hair, seriously pretty face, tight blouse showing a weapons-grade bust, sitting on the edge of a bed with a miniskirt pulled high enough to show she was wearing lace-topped hold-ups and might not be wearing knickers.
They'd had just one phone conversation, in which she had practically seduced him down the line. A bunch of flowers he'd bought at a petrol station lay on the passenger seat beside him. Red roses corny, he knew, but that was the old-fashioned romantic in him. People were right, he did need to move on, somehow. He could count the dates he'd had in the past eight and three-quarter years on just one hand. He simply could not accept there might be another Miss Right out there. That there could ever be anyone who matched up to Sandy.
Maybe tonight that feeling would change?
Claudine Lamont. Nice name, nice voice.
Turn those sodding fog lamps off!
He smelled the sweet scent of the flowers. Hoped he smelled OK, too.
In the ambient glow from the Alfa's dash and the tail lights of the
car in front, he stared up at the mirror, unsure what he expected to see. Sadness stared back at him.
You have to move on.
He swallowed more water. Yup.
In just over two months he would be thirty-nine. In just over two months also another anniversary loomed. On 26 July Sandy would have been gone for nine years. Vanished into thin air, on his thirtieth birthday. No note. All her belongings still in the house except for her handbag.
After seven years you could have someone declared legally dead. His mother, in her hospice bed, days before she passed away from cancer, his sister, his closest friends, his shrink, all of them told him he should do that.
John Lennon had said, 'life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.' That sure as hell was true.
By thirty-six he had always assumed Sandy and he would have had a family. Three kids had always been his dream, ideally two boys and a girl, and his weekends would be spent doing stuff with them. Family holidays. Going to the beach. Out on day trips to fun places. Playing ball games. Fixing things. Helping them at nights with homework. Bathing them. All the comfortable stuff he'd done with his own parents.
Instead he was consumed with an inner turbulence that rarely left him, even when it allowed him to sleep. Was she alive or dead? He'd spent eight years and ten months trying to find out and was still no nearer to the truth than when he had started.
Outside of work, life was a void. He'd been unable - or unwilling - to attempt another relationship. Every date he'd been on was a disaster. It seemed at times that his only constant companion in his life was his goldfish, Marlon. He'd won the fish by target shooting at a fairground, nine years ago, and it had eaten all his subsequent attempts to provide it with a companion. Marlon was a surly, antisocial creature. Probably why they liked each other, Roy reflected. They were two of a kind.
Sometimes he wished he wasn't a policeman, that he did some less demanding job where he could switch off at five o'clock, go to
the pub and then home, put his feet up in front of the telly. Normal iUfe. But he couldn't help it. There was some stubbornness or deter lation gene - or bunch of genes - inside him - and his father before him - that had driven him relentlessly throughout his life to |jHirsue facts, to pursue the truth. It was those genes that had brought
him up through the ranks, to his relatively early promotion to Detecjftlve Superintendent. But they hadn't brought him any peace of mind.
His face stared back at him again from the mirror. Grace grimced at his reflection, at his hair cropped short, to little more than a light fuzz, at his nose, squashed and kinked after being broken In a scrap when he'd been a beat copper, which gave him the appearance of a retired prize fighter.
On their first date, Sandy had told him he had eyes like Paul Newman. He'd liked that a lot. It was one of a million things he had liked about her. The fact that she had loved everything about him, unconditionally.
Roy Grace knew that he was physically fairly unimpressive. At five foot, ten inches, he had been just two inches over the minimum height restriction when he'd joined the police, nineteen years back. But despite his love of booze, and an on-off battle with cigarettes, through hard work at the police gym he had developed a powerful physique, and had kept in shape, running twenty miles a week, and still playing the occasional game of rugger - usually on the wing.
He seriously did not want a late night. Did not need one. Could not afford one. He was in court tomorrow, and needed to bank a full night's sleep. The whole thought of the cross-examination that awaited him pressed all kinds of bad buttons inside him.
A pool of light suddenly flooded down from above him, and he heard the clattering din of a helicopter. After a moment the light moved forward, and he saw the helicopter descending.
He dialled a number on his mobile. It was answered almost immediately.
'Hi, it's Detective Superintendent Grace speaking. I'm sitting in a traffic jam on the A26 south of Crowborough, there seems to be an accident somewhere ahead - can you give me any information?'
He was put through to the headquarters operations room. A male voice said, 'Hello, Detective Superintendent, there's a major accident. We have reports of fatalities and people trapped. The road's going to be blocked for a while - you'd be best turning around and using another route.'
Roy Grace thanked him and disconnected. Then he pulled his Blackberry from his shirt pocket, looked up Claudine's number and texted her.
She texted back almost instantly, telling him not to worry, just to get there when he could.
This made him warm to her even more.
And it helped him forget about tomorrow.
Drives like this didn't happen very often, but when they did, boy, did Davey enjoy them! He sat strapped in the passenger seat next to his dad, as the police car escort raced on in front of them, blue lights flashing, siren whup, whup, whupping, on the wrong side of the road, overtaking mile after mile of stationary traffic. Boy, this was as good as any fairground ride his dad had taken him on, even the ones at Alton Towers, and they were about as good as it gets!
'Yeeeha!' he cried out, exuberantly. Davey was addicted to American cop shows on television, which was why he liked to talk with an American accent. Sometimes he was from New York. Sometimes from Missouri. Sometimes Miami. But mostly from LA.
Phil Wheeler, a hulk of a man, with a massive beer belly, dressed in his work uniform of brown dungarees, scuffed boots and black beanie hat, smiled at his son, riding along beside him. Years back his wife had cracked and left from the strain of caring for Davey. For the past seventeen years he had brought him up on his own.
The cop car was slowing now, passing a line of heavy, earth moving plant. The tow-truck had 'wheeler's auto recovery' emblazoned on both sides and amber strobes on the cab roof. Ahead through the windscreen, the battery of headlights and spotlights picked up first the mangled front end of the Transit van, still partially embedded beneath the front bumper of the cement truck, then the rest of the van, crushed like a Coke can, lying on its side in a demolished section of hedgerow.
Slivers of blue flashing light skidded across the wet tarmac and shiny grass verge. Fire tenders, police cars and one ambulance were still on the scene, and a whole bunch of people, firemen and cops, mostly in reflective jackets, stood around. One cop was sweeping glass from the road with a broom,
A police photographer's camera flashed. Two crash investigators were laying out a measuring tape. Metal and glass litter glinted
everywhere. Phil Wheeler saw a wheel-wrench, a trainer, a rug, a jacket.
'Sure looks a goddamn bad mess, Dad!' Missouri tonight.
Phil Wheeler had become hardened over the years, and nothing much shocked him any more. He'd seen just about every tragedy one could possibly have in a motor car. A headless businessman, still in a suit jacket, shirt and tie, strapped into the driver's seat in the remains of his Ferrari, was among the images he remembered most vividly.
Davey, just turned twenty-six, was dressed in his uniform New York Yankees baseball cap the wrong way around, fleece jacket over lumberjack shirt, jeans, heavy-duty boots. Davey liked to dress the way he saw Americans dress, on television. The boy had a mental age of about six, and that would never change. But he had a superhuman physical strength that often came in handy on call-outs. Davey could bend sheet metal with his bare hands. Once, he had lifted the front end of a car off a trapped motorcycle by himself.
'Very bad,' he agreed. 'Reckon there are dead people here, Dad?'
'Hope not, Davey.'
'Reckon there might be?'
A traffic cop, with a peaked cap and yellow fluorescent waistcoat, came up to the driver's window. Phil wound it down and recognized the officer.
'Evening, Brian. This looks a mess.'
'There's a vehicle with lifting gear on its way for the lorry. Can you handle the van?'
'No worries. What happened?'
'Head-on, Transit and the lorry. We need the van in the AI compound.' 'Consider it sorted.'
Davey took his flashlight and climbed down from the cab. While his dad talked to the cop, he shone the beam around, down at slicks of oil and foam across the road. Then he peered inquisitively at the tall, square ambulance, its interior light shining behind drawn curtains across the rear window, wondering what might be happening in there.
It was almost two hours before they had all the pieces of the Transit loaded and chained onto the flatbed. His dad and the traffic cop, Brian, walked off a short distance. Phil lit a cigarette with his Itorm-proof lighter. Davey followed them, making a one-handed roll-up and lighting it with his Zippo. The ambulance and most of the Other emergency vehicles had gone, and a massive crane truck was Winching the front end of the cement lorry up, until its front wheels - the driver's-side one flat and buckled - were clear of the ground.
The rain had eased off and a badger moon shone through a break In the clouds. His dad and Brian were now talking about fishing - the best bait for carp at this time of year. Bored now and in need of a pee, Davey wandered off down the road, sucking on his roll-up, looking up in the sky for bats. He liked bats, mice, rats, voles, all those kinds of creatures. In fact he liked all animals. Animals never laughed at him the way humans used to, when he was at school. Maybe he'd go out to the badger sett when they got home. He liked to sit out there In the moonlight and watch them play.
Jigging the flashlight beam, he walked a short distance into the bushes, unzipped his fly and emptied his bladder onto a clump of nettles. Just as he finished, a voice called out, right in front of him, startling the hell out of him.
A crackly, disembodied voice.
Then he heard the voice again.
'Shite!' He shone the beam ahead into the undergrowth but couldn't see anyone. 'Hello?' he called back. Moments later he heard the voice again.
'Hello? Hey, hello? Josh? Luke? Pete? Robbo?'
Davey swung the beam left, right, then further ahead. There was a rustling sound and a rabbit tail bobbed, for an instant, in the beam then was gone. 'Hello, who's that?'
A hiss of static. A crackle. Then, only a few feet to his right, he heard the voice again. 'Hello? Hello? Hello?'
Something glinted in a bush. He knelt down. It was a radio, with
an aerial. Inspecting it closer, with some excitement he realized it was a walkietalkie.
He held the beam on it, studying it for a little while, almost nervous of touching it. Then he picked it up. It was heavier than it looked, cold, wet. Beneath a large green button he could see the word talk.
He pressed it and said, 'Hello!'
A voice jumped straight back at him. 'Who's that?'
Then another voice called out, from some distance away. 'Davey!'
'OK, coming!' he yelled back.
Walking on to the road he pressed the green button again. 'This is Davey!' he said. 'Who are you?'
His dad again.
In his panic, Davey dropped the radio. It hit the road hard, the casing cracked and the batteries spilled out.
'COMING!' he shouted. He knelt, picked up the walkie-talkie and crammed it furtively into his jacket pocket. Then he scooped up the batteries and put them in another pocket.
'COMING, DAD!' he shouted again. 'JUST HAD TO TAKE ME A PISS!'
Keeping his hand in his pocket so the bulge wouldn't show, he hurried back towards the truck.
Michael pressed the talk button. 'Davey?'
He pressed the button again. 'Davey? Hello? Davey?'
White-satin silence. Complete and utter silence, coming down from above, rising up beneath him, pressing in from each side. He tried to move his arms, but as hard as he pushed them out, walls pressed back against them. He also tried to spread out his legs, but they met the same, unyielding walls. Resting the walkie-talkie on his chest, he pushed up against the satin roof inches from his eyes. It was like pushing against concrete.
Then, raising himself up as much as he could, he took hold of the red rubber tube, squinted down it, but could see nothing. Curling his hand over it, he brought it to his lips and tried to whistle down it; but the sound was pathetic.
He sank back down. His head pounded and he badly needed to urinate. He pressed the button again. 'Davey! Davey, I need to pee. Davey!'
From years of sailing, he'd had plenty of experience with two-way radios. Try a different channel, he thought. He found the channel selector, but it wouldn't move. He pushed harder, but it still wouldn't move. Then he saw the reason why - it had been superglued, so that he couldn't change channels - couldn't get to Channel 16, the international emergency channel.
'Hey! Enough you bastards, come on, I'm desperate!'
With only the most local of movements possible, he held the walkie-talkie close to his ear and listened.
He laid the radio down on his chest, then slowly, with great difficulty, worked his right hand down and into his leather jacket pocket and pulled out the rugged waterproof mobile Ashley had given him for sailing. He liked it because it was different to the common mobiles everyone else had. He pressed a button on it and the display lit up. His hopes rose - then fell again. No signal.
He scrolled through the directory until he came to his business partner Mark's name.
Despite the lack of a signal he pressed the dial button.
He tried Robbo, Pete, Luke, Josh in turn, his desperation increasing. Then he pressed the walkie-talkie button again. 'Guys! Can you hear me? I know you can fucking hear me!'
On the Ericsson display the time showed 11.13.
He raised his left hand until he could see his watch: 11.14.
He tried to remember the last time he'd looked at it. A good two hours had passed. He closed his eyes. Thought for some moments, trying to figure out exactly what was going on. In the bright, almost dazzling light from the torch he could see the bottle wedged close to his neck and the shiny magazine. He pulled the magazine up over his chest, then manoeuvred it until it was over his face and he was almost smothered by the huge glossy breasts, so close to his eyes they were blurred.
He picked up the walkie-talkie and pressed the talk button once more. 'Very funny. Now let me out, please!'
Who the hell was Davey?
His throat was parched. Needed a drink of water. His head was swimming. He wanted to be home, in bed with Ashley. They'd be along in a few minutes. Just had to wait. Tomorrow, he would get them.
The nausea he had been feeling earlier was returning. He closed his eyes. Swimming. Drifting. He lapsed back into sleep.
In a crappy end to a crappy flight, the whole plane shook with a resounding crash as the wheels thumped the tarmac, exactly five and a half hours later than its scheduled time. As it decelerated ferociously, Mark Warren, worn out and fed up, in his cramped seat, safety belt digging into his belly, which was already aching from too many airline pretzels and some vile moussaka that he was regretting eating, took a final look at the pictures of the Ferrari 365 featured in the road test of his Autocar magazine.
I want you, baby, he was thinking. Want you SO bad! Oh yes I do!
Runway lights, blurred by driving rain, flashed past his window as the plane slowed down to taxiing speed. The pilot's voice came over the intercom, all charm, and apologies once more, laying the blame on the fog.
Goddamn fog. Goddamn English weather. Mark dreamed of a red Ferrari, a house in Marbella, a life in the sunshine and someone to share it with. One very special lady. If the property deal he had been negotiating up in Leeds came off, he'd be a step nearer both the house and the Ferrari. The lady was another problem.
Wearily, he undipped his belt, dug his briefcase out from under his legs and shoved his magazine inside it. Then he stood up, mixing with the scrum in the cabin, leaving his tie at half mast, and pulled his raincoat down from the overhead locker, too tired to care how he looked.
In contrast to his business partner, who always dressed sloppily, Mark usually was fastidious over his appearance. But like his neat, fair hair, his clothes were too conservatively cut for his twenty-eight years, and usually so pristine they looked brand new, straight off the rail. He liked to imagine the world saw him as a gentrified entrepreneur, but in reality, in any group of people, he invariably stood out as the man who looked as if he was there to sell them something.
His watch read 11.48 p.m. He switched on his mobile, and it powered up. But before he could make a call, the battery warning beeped and the display died. He put it back in his pocket. Too damned late now, far too late. All that he wanted now was to go home to bed.
An hour later he was reversing his silver BMWX5 into his underground parking slot in the Van Allen building. He took the lift up to the fourth floor, and let himself into his apartment.
It had been a financial stretch to buy this place, but it took him a step up in the world. An imposing, modern Deco-style building on Brighton seafront, with a bunch of celebrities among the residents. The place had class. If you lived in the Van Allen you were a somebody. If you were a somebody, that meant you were rich. All his life, Mark had had just that one goal - to be rich.
The voicemail light was winking away on the phone as he walked through to the large, open-plan living area. He decided to ignore it for a moment as he dumped his briefcase, plugged his mobile into the charger, then went straight to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a couple of fingers of Balvenie whisky. Then he walked over to the window, stared down at the promenade below, still buzzing with people despite the weather and the hour. Beyond that he could see the bright lights of the Palace Pier and the inky darkness of the sea.
All of a sudden his mobile beeped sharply at him. A message. He stepped over and looked at the display. Shit. Fourteen new messages!
Keeping it connected to the charger, he dialled his voicemail box. The first message was from Pete, at 7 p.m., asking where he was. The second was from Robbo at 7.45, helpfully telling him they were moving on to another pub, the Lamb at Ripe. The third was at 8.30 from a very drunken-sounding Luke and Josh, with Robbo in the background. They were moving on from the Lamb to a pub called the Dragon, on the Uckfield Road.
The next two messages were from the estate agent concerning the deal in Leeds, and from their corporate lawyer.
The sixth was at 11.05 from a very distressed-sounding Ashley. Her tone startled him. Ashley was normally calm, unflappable.
'Mark, please, please, please call me as soon as you get this,' she urged in her soft, distinctive North American accent.
He hesitated, then listened to the next message. It was from Ashley again. Panicky now. And the next, and the next one after that, each at ten-minute intervals. The tenth message was from Michael's mother. She also sounded distraught.
'Mark, I left a message on your home phone, too. Please call me as soon as you get this, doesn't matter what time.'
Mark paused the machine. What the hell had happened?
The next call had been Ashley again. She sounded close to hysterics. 'Mark, there's been a terrible accident. Pete, Robbo and Luke are dead. Josh is on life support in Intensive Care. No one knows where Michael is. Oh God, Mark, please call me just as soon as you get this.'
Mark replayed the message, scarcely able to believe what he had heard. As he listened to it again he sat down, heavily, on the arm of the sofa. 'Jesus.'
Then he played the rest of the messages. More of the same from Ashley and from Michael's mother. Call. Call. Please call.
He drained his whisky, then poured out another slug, three full fingers, and walked over to the window. Through the ghost of his reflection he stared down again at the promenade, watching the passing traffic, then out at the sea. Way out towards the horizon he could see two tiny specks of light, from a freighter or tanker making its way up the Channel.
He was thinking.
I would have been in that accident, too, if the flight had been on time.
But he was thinking beyond that.
He sipped the whisky, then sat down on the sofa. After a few moments, the phone rang again. He walked over and stared at the caller display. Ashley's number. Four rings, then it stopped. Moments later, his mobile rang. Ashley again. He hesitated, then hit the end call button sending it straight to voicemail. Then he switched the phone off, and sat down, leaned back, pulling up the footrest, and cradled the glass in his hands.
Ice cubes rattled in his glass; his hands were shaking, he realized; his whole insides were shaking. He went over to the Bang and
Olufsen and put on a Mozart compilation CD. Mozart always helped him to think. Suddenly, he had a lot of thinking to do.
He sat back down, stared into the whisky, focusing intently on the ice cubes as if they were runes that had been cast. It was over an hour before he picked up the phone and dialled.
The spasms were getting more frequent now. By clenching his thighs together, holding his breath and squeezing his eyes shut, Michael was still just able to ward off urinating in his trousers. He couldn't do this, could not bear the thought of their laughter when the bastards came back and found he had wet himself.
But the claustrophobia was really getting to him now. The white satin seemed to be shrinking in around him, pressing down closer and closer to his face.
In the beam of the torch, Michael's watch read 2.47.
What the hell were they playing at? Two forty-seven. Where the hell were they? Pissed out of their brains in some nightclub?
He stared at the white satin, his head pounding, his mouth parched, his legs knocking together, trying to suppress the pains shooting up through him from his bladder. He didn't know how much longer he could hold off.
In frustration, he hammered with his knuckles on the lid, and hollered, 'Hey! You bastards!'
He looked at his mobile again. No signal. Ignoring that, he scrolled down to Luke's number then hit the dial button. A sharp beep from the machine, and the display on the screen read out no service.
Then he fumbled for the walkie-talkie, switched that on and called out the names of his friends again. And then that other voice he dimly remembered.
'Davey? Hello, Davey?'
Only the crackle of static came back to him.
He was desperate for water, his mouth arid and furry. Had they left him any water? He lifted his neck up just the few inches that were available before his head struck the lid, saw the glint of the bottle, reached down. Famous Grouse whisky.
Disappointed, he broke the seal, unscrewed the cap and took a swig. For a moment just the sensation of liquid felt like balm in his mouth; then it turned to fire, burning his mouth, then his gullet. But almost instantly after that he felt a little better. He took another swig. Felt a little better still, and took a third, long swig before he replaced the cap.
He closed his eyes. His headache felt a tiny bit better now. The desire to pee was receding.
'Bastards ...' he murmured.
Ashley looked like a ghost. Her long brown hair framed a face that was as colourless as the patients' in the forest of drip lines, ventilators and monitors in the beds in the ward behind her. She was leaning against the reception counter of the nursing station in the Intensive Care Unit of the Sussex County Hospital. Her vulnerability made her seem even more beautiful than ever, to Mark.
Muzzy from a sleepless night, in a sharp suit and immaculate black Gucci loafers, he walked up to her, put his arms around her, and held her tight. He stared at a vending machine, a drinking water fountain, and a payphone in a perspex dome. Hospitals always gave him the heebie-jeebies. Ever since he'd come to visit his dad after his near fatal heart attack and saw this man who had once been so strong now looking so frail, so damned pathetic and useless - and scared. He squeezed Ashley as much for himself as for her. Close to her head, a cursor blinked on a green computer screen.
She clung to him as if he were a lone spar in a storm-tossed ocean. 'Oh, Christ, Mark, thank God you're here.'
One nurse was busy on the phone; it sounded like she was talking to a relative of someone in the unit, the other one behind the counter, close to them, was tapping out something on a keyboard.
'This is terrible,' Mark said. 'Unbelievable.'
Ashley nodded, swallowing hard. 'If it wasn't for your meeting, you would have been--'
'I know. I can't stop thinking about it. How's Josh?'
Ashley's hair smelled freshly washed, and there was a trace of garlic on her breath, which he barely noticed. The girls had had a hen party last night, arranged in some Italian restaurant.
'Not good. Zoe's with him.' She pointed and Mark followed the line of her finger, across several beds, across the hiss-clunk of ventilators, and the blinking of digital displays, to the far end of the ward, where he could see Josh's wife sitting on a chair. She was dressed in
a white T-shirt, tracksuit top and baggy trousers, body stooped, her straggly blonde ringlets covering her face.
'Michael still hasn't turned up. Where is he, Mark? Surely to God you must know?'
As the nurse finished her call, the phone beeped and she started talking again.
'I've no idea/ he said. 'I have absolutely no idea.'
She looked at him hard. 'But you guys have been planning this for weeks - Lucy said you were going to get even with Michael for all the practical jokes he played on the others before they got married.' As she took a step back from him, tossing hair from her forehead, Mark could see her mascara had run. She dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve.
'Maybe the guys had a last-minute change of mind,' he said. 'Sure, they'd come up with all kinds of ideas, like lacing his drink and putting him on a plane to some place, but I managed to talk them out of it - at least I thought I had.'
She gave a wan smile of appreciation.
He shrugged. 'I knew how worried you were, you know, that we'd do something dumb.'
'I was, desperately worried.' She glanced at the nurse, then sniffed. 'So where is he?'
'He definitely wasn't in the car?'
'Absolutely not. I've rung the police - they say that - they say they--' She began sobbing.
'What did they say?'
In a burst of anger she blurted, 'They won't do anything.'
She sobbed some more, struggling to contain herself. 'They say they've checked all around at the scene of the accident and there's no sign of him, and that he's probably just sleeping off a mighty hangover somewhere.'
Mark waited for her to calm down, but she carried on crying. 'Maybe that's true.'
She shook her head. 'He promised me he wasn't going to get drunk.' Mark gave her a look. After a moment, she nodded. 'It was his stag night, right? That's what you guys do on stag nights, isn't it? You get smashed.'
Mark stared down at grey carpet tiles. 'Let's go and see Zoe,' he said.
Ashley followed him across the ward, trailing a few yards behind him. Zoe was a slender beauty, and today she seemed even more slender to Mark, as he laid his hand on her shoulder, feeling the hard bone beneath the soft fabric of her designer tracksuit top.
'Jeez, Zoe, I'm sorry'
She acknowledged him with a faint shrug.
'How is he?' Mark hoped the anxiety in his voice sounded genuine.
Zoe turned her head and looked up at him, her eyes raw, her cheeks, almost translucent without make-up, tracked with tears. 'They can't do anything,' she said. 'They operated on him, now we just have to wait.'
Mark stood still, staring down at Josh, whose eyes were closed, his face a mess of bruises and lacerations, the bed surrounded by racks of machinery. There was a drip line cannulated into his hand, and another opaque line was forked into his nostrils. A thick breathing tube, fed by black bellows, distended his mouth. Wires ran out from the sheets and from his head, feeding digital displays and spiky graphs. What flesh Mark could see was the colour of alabaster. His friend looked like a laboratory experiment.
But Mark was barely looking at Josh. He was looking at the displays, trying to read them, to calculate what they were saying. He was trying to remember, from when he had stood in this same room beside his dying father, which were the ECG, the blood oxygen, the blood pressure readings, and what they all meant.
And he was thinking. Josh had always had it made. Smooth good looks, rich parents. The insurance loss adjuster, always calculating, mapping out his life, forever talking about five-year plans, ten-year plans, life goals. He was the first of the gang to get married, as he wanted to have kids early, so he would still be young enough to enjoy his life after they'd grown up. Marrying the perfect wife, darling little rich girl Zoe, totally fertile, allowed him to fulfil his plan. She'd delivered him two equally perfect babies in rapid succession.
Mark shot a glance around the ward, taking in the nurses, the doctors, marking their positions, then his eyes dropped to the drip lines into the back of Josh's hand, just behind the plastic tag bearing his name. Then they moved across to the ventilator. Then up to the ECG. Warning buzzers would sound if the heart rate dropped too low. Or the blood oxygen level.
Josh surviving would be a problem - he'd lain awake most of the night thinking about that, and had come to the reluctant conclusion it wasn't an option he could entertain.
Courtroom One at Lewes Crown Court always felt to Roy Grace as if it had been deliberately designed to intimidate and impress. It didn't carry any higher status than the rest of the courtrooms in this buildIng, but it felt as if it did. Georgian, it had a high, vaulted ceiling, a public gallery up in the gods, oak-panelled walls, dark oak benches and dock, and a balustraded witness stand. At this moment it was presided over by a bewigged Judge Driscoll, way past his sell-by date, who sat, looking half asleep, in a vivid red-backed chair beneath the coat of arms bearing the legend. 'Dieu et mon droit'. The place looked like a theatre set and smelled like an old school classroom.
Now as Grace stood in the witness stand, dressed neatly as he always was for court, in a blue suit, white shirt, sombre tie and polished black lace-ups, looking good outwardly, he felt ragged inside. Part lack of sleep from his date last night - which had been a disaster - and part nerves. Holding the bible with one hand, he rattled his way through the oath, glancing around, taking in the scene as he swore for maybe the thousandth time in his career, by Almighty God, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The jury looked the way all juries did, like a bunch of tourists stranded in a coach station. An untidy, ragbag of a group, gaudy pullovers, open-throat shirts and creased blouses beneath a sea of blank faces, all white, ranked in two rows, behind water jugs, tumblers and a mess of loose-leaf jottings. Haphazardly stacked beside the judge were a video player, a slide projector and a huge tape recorder. Below him, the female stenographer peered primly from behind a battery of electronic equipment. An electric fan on a chair swivelled right then left, not having much impact on the muggy late-afternoon air. The public galleries were heaving with press and spectators. Nothing like a murder trial to pull the punters in. And this was the local trial of the year.
Roy Grace's big triumph.
Suresh Hossain sat in the dock, a fleshy man with a pockmarked face, slicked-back hair, dressed in a brown, chalk-striped suit and purple satin tie. He observed the proceedings with a laconic gaze, as if he owned the place and this whole trial had been laid on for his personal entertainment. Slimeball, scumbag, slum landlord. He'd been untouchable for the past decade, but now Roy Grace had finally banged him to rights. Conspiracy to murder. His victim an equally unsavoury business rival, Raymond Cohen. If this trial went the way it should, Hossain was going down for more years than he would survive, and several hundred decent citizens of Brighton and Have would be able to enjoy uieir lives in their homes freed from the ugly shadow of his henchmen making every hour a living hell for them.
His mind drifted back to last night. Claudine. Claudine bloody Lamont. OK, it hadn't helped that he'd arrived for his date an hour and three-quarters late. But it hadn't helped either that her photograph on the U-Date website was, charitably, a good ten years out of date; nor that she'd omitted to put on her details that she was a non drinking, cop-hating vegan, whose sole interest in life appeared to be her nine rescue cats.
Grace liked dogs. He had nothing in particular against cats, but he'd never yet met one that he'd connected with, in the way he almost instantly bonded with any dog. After two and a half hours in a dump of a vegetarian restaurant in Guildford, being lectured and grilled alternately about the free spirits of cats, the oppressive nature of the British police and men who viewed women solely as sex objects, he had been relieved to escape.
Now, after a night of troubled, intermittent sleep and a day of hanging around waiting to be called, he was about to be grilled again. It was still raining this afternoon, but the air was much warmer and clammy. Grace could feel perspiration walking down the small of his back.
The defence silk, who had surprised the court by summoning him as a witness, had the floor now, standing up, arrogant stature, short grey wig, flowing black gown, lips pursed into a grin of rictus warmth. His name was Richard Charwell QC. Grace had encountered him before and it had not been a happy experience, then. He detested lawyers. To lawyers, trials were a game. They never had to go out and risk their lives catching villains. And it didn't matter one jot to them what crimes had been committed.
'Are you Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, stationed at CID headquarters, Sussex House, Hollingbury, Brighton?' the silk asked.
'Yes,' Grace answered. Instead of his usual confident voice, his reply came out of the wrong part of his throat, more like a croak.
'And have you had some dealings with this case?'
'Yes.' Another choked, dry-mouthed sound.
'I now tender this witness.'
There was a brief pause. No one spoke. Richard Charwell QC had the ear of the entire court. A consummate actor with distinguished good looks, he paused deliberately for effect before speaking again, in a sudden change of tone that suggested he had now become Roy Grace's new best friend.
'Detective Superintendent, I wonder if you might help us with a certain matter. Do you have any knowledge about a shoe connected with this case? A brown crocodile-skin slip-on loafer with a gold chain?'
Grace eyeballed him back for some moments before answering. 'Yes, I do.' Now, suddenly, he felt a stab of panic. Even before the barrister spoke his next words, he had a horrible feeling about where this might be going.
Are you going to tell us about the person to whom you took this shoe, Detective Superintendent, or do you want me to squeeze it out of you?'
'Well, sir, I'm not exactly sure what you are getting at.'
'Detective Superintendent, I think you know very well what I'm getting at.'
Judge Driscoll, with the bad temper of a man disturbed from a nap, intervened: 'Mr Charwell, kindly get to the point, we haven't got all day.'
Unctuously, the silk responded, 'Very well, your honour.' Then he turned back to Grace. 'Detective Superintendent, is it not a fact that you have interfered with a vital piece of evidence in this case? Namely this shoe?'
The silk picked it up from the exhibits table and held it aloft for the entire court to see, the way he might have been holding up a sporting trophy he had just won.
'I wouldn't say I had interfered with it all,' Grace responded, angered by the man's arrogance - but, equally, aware this was the silk's game plan, to wind him up, wanting to rile him.
Charwell lowered the shoe, pensively. 'Oh, I see, you don't consider that you have interfered with it?' Without waiting for Grace to answer, he went on. 'I put it to you that you have abused your position by removing a piece of evidence and taking it to a dabbler in the dark arts.'
Turning to Judge Driscoll, he continued. 'Your honour, I intend to show this court that the DNA evidence that has been obtained from this shoe is unsafe, because Detective Superintendent Grace has affected the continuity and caused possible contamination of this vital exhibit.'
He turned back to Grace. 'I am correct, am I not, Detective Superintendent, that on Thursday, March 9th of this year, you took this shoe to a so-called medium in Hastings named Mrs Stempe? And presumably we are going to hear from you that this shoe has now been to another world? A rather ethereal one?'
'Mrs Stempe is a lady of whom I have a very high opinion,' Grace said. 'She--'
'We are not concerned with your opinions, Detective Superintendent, just the facts.'
But the judge's curiosity seemed piqued. 'I think his opinions are perfectly relevant in this issue.' After a few moments of silent stand-off between the defence silk and the judge, Charwell nodded reluctant assent.
Grace continued. 'She has helped me on a number of enquiries in the past. Three years ago Mary Stempe gave me sufficient information to enable me to put a name to a murder suspect. It led directly to his arrest and subsequent conviction.'
He hesitated, aware of the intense gazes of everyone in the room, then went on, addressing the silk. 'If I may respond to your concerns over continuity of the exhibit, sir. If you had checked through the records, which you are entitled to do, and looked at the packaging, you would have seen the label was signed and dated when I removed
I when I returned it. The defence have been aware of this exhibit , the start, which was found outside Mr Cohen's house on the : he disappeared, and have never asked to examine it/ i you regularly turn to the dark arts in your work as a senior I officer, do you, Detective Superintendent Grace?' �An audible snigger rippled round the courtroom. 1 lf wouldn't call it the dark arts,' Grace said. 'I would call it an itive resource. The police have a duty to use everything at their josal in trying to solve crimes.'
'So would it be fair to say you are a man of the occult? A believer t the supernatural?' the silk asked.
Grace looked at Judge Driscoll, who was staring at him as if it was I himself who was now on trial in this court. Desperately trying to lk of an appropriate response, he shot a glance at the jury, then public gallery, before he faced the silk again. And suddenly it le to him.
Grace's voice notched up a gear, more strident, more confident, uddenly. 'What is the first thing this court required me to do when it entered the witness stand?' he asked.
Before the silk could respond, Grace answered for him. 'To swear on the Holy Bible.' He paused for it to sink in. 'God is a supernatural being - the supreme supernatural being. In a court that accepts witnesses taking an oath to a supernatural being, it would be Strange if I and everyone else in this room did not believe in the supernatural.'
'I have no more questions,' the silk said, sitting back down. The prosecution counsel, also in a wig and silk gown, stood up and addressed Judge Driscoll. 'Your honour, this is a matter I want to raise in chambers.'
'It's rather unusual,' Judge Driscoll responded, 'but I'm satisfied that it has been dealt with properly. However,' and now his eyes turned to Grace, 'I would hope cases that come before my court are based on evidence rather than the utterings of Mystic Megs.' Almost the whole court erupted into laughter. The trial moved on, and another defence witness was called, a bagman for Suresh Hossain called Rubiro Valiente. Roy Grace stayed to listen while this piece of Italian low-life told a pack of lies, which
were exposed in rapid succession by the prosecution counsel. By the afternoon recess, the court was so agog with the audacity of the lies that Roy Grace began to hope the business of the shoe might have been overshadowed.
His hopes were dashed when he went outside into Lewes High Street to get some fresh air and a sandwich. Across the street, the news banner headline of the local paper, the Argus, shouted to the world:
POLICE OFFICER ADMITS TO OCCULT PRACTICES
Suddenly, he felt badly in need of a drink and a fag.
The hunger wouldn't go away no matter how hard Michael tried to block it from his mind. His stomach reminded him with a steady dull ache as if something were chafing away inside it. His head felt light and his hands shaky. He kept thinking of food, of meaty burgers with thick-cut fries and ketchup. When he pushed those from his mind, the smell of broiling lobsters replaced it; then barbecued corn; grilled garlicky mushrooms; eggs frying; sausages; sizzling bacon.
The lid was pressing down against his face and he began to panic again, snatching at the air, gulping it greedily. He closed his eyes, tried to imagine he was fine, he was somewhere warm, on his yacht - in the Med. Lapping water all around, gulls overhead, balmy Mediterranean air. But the sides of the coffin were pushing in. Compressing him. He fumbled for the torch resting on his chest and switched it on, the battery feeble and rapidly failing now. Carefully unscrewing the cap of the whisky bottle with trembling fingers, he brought the neck to his lips. Then he took one miserly sip, swilling the liquid around his parched, sticky mouth, stretching every drop out as far as it would go, savouring every second. The panic subsided and his breathing slowed.
Only some minutes after he had swallowed, after the warm burning sensation that spread down his gullet and through his stomach had faded away, did he turn his concentration back to the task of screwing the lid back on. Half a bottle left. One sip per hour, on the hour.
He switched the torch off to conserve the last dregs of juice. Every movement was an effort. His limbs were stiff and he shivered with cold one moment, then broke out in a clammy, feverish sweat the next. His head pounded and pounded - he was desperate for some paracetamol. Desperate for noise above him, for voices. To get out.
By some small miracle, the batteries in the walkie-talkie were the same as those in the torch. At least he still had those in reserve. At least there was one bit of good news. The only good news. And the other bit was that in an hour he could have another sip of whisky.
Routine kept the panic attacks at bay.
You kept sane if you had a routine. Five years back he had crewed on a thirty-eight-footer sloop across the Atlantic, from Chichester to Barbados. Twenty-seven days at sea. For fifteen of them they'd had a gale on the nose that not once dropped below a force seven, and at times gusted up to ten and eleven. Fifteen days of hell. Watches four hours on and four hours off. Every wave shook every bone in his body, as they crashed down again and again, every chain rattling, every shackle smacking against the decking or the rigging, every knife, fork and plate clattering in its locker. They had got through that by routine. By measuring each day into groups of hours. And then by spacing those hours with small treats. Bars of chocolate. Sips of drink. Pages of a novel. Glances at the compass. Taking turns pumping the bilges.
Routine gave you structure. Structure gave you perspective. And perspective gave you a horizon.
And when you looked at the horizon, you felt calmer.
Now he measured each hour with a small sip of whisky. Half a bottle left, and his horizon was the hour hand of his watch. The watch Ashley had bought him, a silver-rimmed Longines with luminous Roman numerals. It was the classiest watch he had ever owned. Ashley had great taste. She had class. Everything about her was classy, the kink in her long, brown hair, the way she walked, the confidence with which she talked, her classically beautiful features. He loved walking into a room with her. Anywhere. Eyes turned, stared. Jesus, he loved that! There was something special about her. Totally unique.
His mother said that too, and usually she never approved of his girlfriends. But Ashley was different. Ashley had worked on his mum and charmed her. That was another thing he loved about her, she could charm anyone. Even the most miserable damned client. He fell in love with her the day she walked into the office he shared
With Mark, for a job interview. Now, just six months later, they were getting married.
His crotch and thighs itched like hell. Nappy rash. Long back he'd given up on his bladder. Twenty-six hours had passed now.
Something must have happened, but he had no idea what. Twenty-six fucking hours of shouting into the walkie-talkie, dialling his mobile and getting the same damned message. No service.
Tuesday. Ashley wanted the stag night to be well before the wedding. You'll get drunk and feel like shit. I don't want you feeling like that on our wedding day. Have it early in the week to give yourself time to recover.
He pushed up with his hands for the hundredth time. Maybe the two hundredth time. Maybe even the thousandth time. It made no difference. He had already tried grinding a hole in the lid with the only hard implement he had, the casing of his walkie-talkie. The mobile and the torch were both plastic. But the casing still wasn't tough enough.
He switched on the walkie-talkie again. 'Hello? Is anyone there? Hello?'
Static was there.
A dark thought occurred to him. Was Ashley in on this? Was this why she'd been so insistent that he should have the stag party early in the week, on Tuesday? So he could be locked in here - wherever here was - for a whole twenty-four hours, longer, without it causing any problem?
Never. She knew he was claustrophobic, and she didn't have a cruel bone in her body. She always put everyone else first, was always thinking about other people's needs.
The number of presents she had bought for his mother and himself had staggered him. And everything exquisitely appropriate. Her favourite perfume. A CD of her favourite singer, Robbie Williams, a cashmere jumper she had been hankering after. A Bose radio he had coverted. How did Ashley find out all these things? It was a knack, a gift, just one of the endless list of attributes that made her such a special person.
And made him the luckiest man in the world.
The torch beam dimmed, noticeably. He switched it off again to
conserve the battery and lay still in the darkness again. He could hear his breathing getting faster. What if?
If they never came back?
It was nearly 11.30. He waited, listening for a gaggle of voices that would tell him his friends were back.
Jesus, when he got out of there they weren't half going to regret this. He looked at his watch again. Twenty-five to midnight. They would be along soon, any minute now.
They had to be.
ldy stood over him, grinning, blocking the sunlight, deliberately tickling him. Her blonde hair swung down either side of her face, brushing his cheeks.
'Hey! I have to read - this report -1--'
'You're so boring, Grace, you always have to read!' She kissed his ' forehead. 'Read, read, read, work, work, work!' She kissed his forehead again. 'Don't you still fancy me?'
She was wearing a skimpy sun dress, her breasts almost falling Out the top; he caught a glimpse of her long, tanned legs, her hem riding up her thighs, and suddenly he felt very horny.
He reached up his arms to cup her face, pulling her down to him, Staring into those trusting blue eyes, feeling so incredibly - intensely - deeply - in love with her.
'I adore you,' he said.
'Do you, Grace?' Flirting. 'Do you really adore me more than your work?' She pulled her head back, pouted her lips quizzically.
'I love you more than anything in--'
Darkness suddenly. As if someone had pulled out a plug.
Grace heard the echo of his voice in cold, empty air.
'Sandy!' he shouted, but the sound stayed trapped in his throat.
The sunlight faded into a weak orange glow; street lighting leaking in around the bedroom curtains.
The display on the digital clock said 3.02 a.m.
He was sweating, eyes wide open, his heart tossing around in his chest like a buoy in a storm. He heard the clatter of a dustbin - a scavenging cat or a fox. Moments later it was followed by the rattle of a diesel - probably his neighbour three doors down, who drove a taxi and kept late hours.
For some moments he lay still. Closed his eyes, calmed his breathing, tried to return to the dream, clinging as hard as he could to the memory. like all the recurring dreams he had about Sandy it felt so real. As if they were still together but in a different dimension. If he could just find some way of locating the portal, crossing the divide, they really would be together again, they'd be fine, they'd be happy.
So damned happy.
A huge swell of sadness rolled through him. Then it turned to dread as he started to remember. The newspaper. That damned headline in the Argus last night. It was all coming back. Christ, oh Christ. What the hell were the morning papers going to say? Criticism he could cope with. Ridicule was harder. He already got stick from a number of officers for dabbling in the supernatural. He'd been warned by the previous Chief Constable, who was genuinely intrigued by the paranormal himself, that to let his interests be known openly could harm his promotion prospects.
'Everyone knows you're a special case, Roy - having lost Sandy. No one's going to criticize you for turning over every stone on the damned planet. We'd all do the same in your shoes. But you have to keep that in your box, you can't bring it to work.'
There were times when he thought he was getting over her, when he was getting strong again. Then there were moments like now when he realized he had barely progressed at all. He just wished so desperately he could have put an arm around her, cuddled up against her, talked through the problem. She was a glass-half-full person, always positive, and so savvy. She'd helped steer him through a disciplinary tribunal in his early days in the Force which could have ended his career, when he'd been accused by the Police Complaints Authority of using excessive force against a mugger he'd arrested. He'd been exonerated then, largely through following Sandy's advice. She would have known exactly what he should do now.
He wondered sometimes if these dreams were attempts by Sandy to communicate with him. From wherever she was.
Jodie, his sister, told him it was time to move on, that he needed to accept that Sandy was dead, to replace her voice on the answering machine, to remove her clothes from the bedroom and her things from the bathroom, in short - and Jodie could be very short - to stop living in some kind of a shrine to Sandy, and start all over again.
But how could he move on? What if Sandy was alive, being held
captive by some maniac? He had to keep searching, to keep the file open, to keep updating the photographs showing how she might look now, to keep scanning every face he passed in the street or saw i a crowd. He would go on until--
On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Sandy had woken him iWith a tray on which was a tiny cake with a single candle, a glass of �Champagne and a very rude birthday card. He'd opened the presents the had given him, then they had made love. He'd left the house later than usual, at 9.15, and reached his office in Brighton shortly after half past, late for a briefing on a murder case. He'd promised to be home early, to go out for a celebratory meal with another couple his best friend at the time, Dick Pope, also a detective, and his wife, Leslie, who Sandy got on well with - but it had been a hectic day and he'd arrived home almost two hours later than he had intended. There was no sign of Sandy.
At first he'd thought she was angry with him for being so late and was making a protest. The house was tidy, her car and handbag were gone, there was no sign of a struggle.
Then, twenty-four hours later, her car was found in a bay of the short-term car park at Gatwick Airport. There were two transactions on her credit card on the morning of her disappearance, one for 7 pounds 50 penceat Boots, and 16 pounds 42 pencefor petrol from the local branch of Tesco. She had taken no clothes and no other belongings of any kind.
His neighbours in this quiet, residential street just off the seafront had not seen a thing. On one side of him was an exuberantly friendly Greek family who owned a couple of cafes in the town, but they had been away on holiday, and on the other side was an elderly widow with a hearing problem, who slept with the television on, volume at maximum. Right now, at 3.45 a.m., he could hear an American cop drama through the party wall between their semi-detached houses. Guns banged, tyres squealed, sirens whupwhupped. She'd seen nothing.
Noreen Grinstead, who lived opposite, was the one person he might have expected to have noticed something. A hawk-eyed, jumpy woman in her sixties, she knew everyone's business in the
street. When she wasn't tending to her husband, Lance, who was steadily going downhill with Alzheimer's, she was forever out front in yellow rubber gloves, washing her silver Nissan car, or hosing and scrubbing the driveway, or the windows of the house, or anything else that did or did not need washing. She even brought stuff out of the house to clean it in the driveway.
Very little escaped her eye. But, somehow, Sandy's disappearance had.
He switched the light on and got out of bed, pausing to stare at the photograph of himself and Sandy on the dressing table. It had been taken in a hotel in Oxford during a conference on DNA fingerprinting, a few months before she disappeared. He was lounging back in a suit and tie, on a chaise longue. Sandy, in an evening dress, was lying back against him, hair up in blonde ringlets, beaming her constant irrepressible grin at a waiter they had sequestered to take the picture.
He went over, picked up the frame, kissed the photo then set it down again, and went into the bathroom to urinate. Getting up in the middle of the night to pee was a recent affliction, a result of the health fad he was on, drinking the recommended minimum eight glasses of water a day. Then he padded, clad only in the T-shirt he slept in, downstairs.
Sandy had such great taste. Their house itself was modest, like all the ones in the street, a three-bedroom mock-Tudor semi, built in the 1930s, but she had made it beautiful. She loved browsing the Sunday supplements, women's magazines and design magazines, ripping out pages and showing him ideas. They'd spent hours together, stripping wallpaper, sanding floors, varnishing, painting.
Sandy got into Feng Shui, and built a little water garden. She filled the house with candles. Bought organic food whenever she could. She thought about everything, questioned everything, was interested in everything, and he loved that. Those had been the good times, when they were building their future, cementing their life together, making all their plans.
She was a good gardener, too. She understood about flowers, plants, shrubs, bushes, trees. When to plant, how to prune. Grace liked to mow the lawn but that was about where his skills ended. The garden was neglected now and he felt guilty about that, sometimes I Wondering what she would say if she returned.
Her car was still in the garage. Forensics had been through it with |i toothcomb after it had been recovered, then he'd brought it back f home and garaged it. For years he kept the battery on trickle charge, Bt in case .. . The same way he kept her slippers out on the bed)m floor, her dressing gown hanging on its peg, her toothbrush in its mug.
Waiting for her return.
Wide awake, he poured himself two fingers of Glenfiddich, then at down in his white armchair in the all-white lounge with its Wooden floor and pressed the remote. He flicked through three movies in succession, then a bunch of other Sky channels, but nothing grabbed his attention for more than a few minutes. He played lome music, switching restlessly from the Beatles to Miles Davis to Sophie Ellis-Bextor, then back to silence.
He picked one of his favourite books, Colin Wilson's The Occult, from the rows of books on the paranormal that filled every inch of his bookshelves, then sat back and turned the pages listlessly, sipping his whisky, unable to concentrate on more than a couple of paragraphs.
That damned defence barrister strutting around in court today had got under his skin, and was now strutting around inside his mind. Richard bloody Charwell. Pompous sodding bastard. Worse, Grace knew he had been outsmarted by the man. Outmanoeuvred and outsmarted. And that really stung.
He picked up the remote again and punched up the news on Teletext. Nothing beyond the same stories that had been around for a couple of days now and were getting stale. No breaking political scandal, no terrorist outrage, no earthquake, no air disaster. He didn't wish ill on anyone, but he had been hoping for something to fill up the morning's headlines and airwaves. Something other than the murder trial of Suresh Hossain.
His luck was out.
Two national tabloids and one broadsheet led with front-page splashes on the murder trial of Suresh Hossain, and all the rest of the British morning papers had coverage inside.
It wasn't the trial itself that was the focus of their interest, but the remarks in the witness box made by Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, who at 8.30 in the morning found himself on the carpet in front of his boss, Alison Vosper, feeling as if the clock had been wound back three decades, and he was back at school, trembling in front of his headmistress.
One of Grace's colleagues had nicknamed her 'No. 27', and it had stuck. No. 27 was a sweet and sour dish on the local Chinese takeaway menu. Conversely, when ordering the dish, it was always referred to as an Alison Vosper. That's exactly what she was, sweet and sour.
In her early forties, with wispy blonde hair cut conservatively short, and framing a hard but attractive face, Assistant Chief Constable Alison Vosper was very definitely sour this morning. Even the powerful floral scent she was wearing had an acrid tinge.
Power-dressed in a black two-piece with a crisp white blouse, she sat behind an expanse of polished rosewood desk, in her immaculate ground-floor office in the Queen Anne police headquarters building in Lewes, with its view out across a trimmed lawn. The desk was bare except for a slim crystal vase containing three purple tulips, framed photographs of her husband (a police officer several years older but three ranks her junior) and her two children, an ammonite pen holder and a stack of the morning's newspapers fanned out like a triumphant poker hand.
Grace always wondered how his superiors kept their offices - and their desks - so tidy. All his working life, his own work spaces had been tips. Repositories of sprawling files, unanswered correspondence, lost pens, travel receipts and out-trays that had long given up on the struggle to keep pace with the in-trays. To get to the very top, i decided, required some kind of paperwork management skill for which he was lacking the gene.
Rumour was that Alison Vosper had had a breast cancer operajn three years ago. But Grace knew that's all it would ever be, just rumour, because the Assistant Chief Constable kept a wall around herself. Nonetheless, behind her hard-cop carapace, there was a cer|ttln vulnerability that he connected to. In truth, at times he fancied Br, and there were occasions when those waspish brown eyes of hers twinkled with humour, and when he sensed she might almost be flirting with him. This morning was not one of them.
No handshake. No greeting. Just a curt nod for him to sit in one of the twin high-backed chairs in front of her desk. Then she launched straight in, with a look that was part reproach, part pure anger.
'What the hell is this, Roy?'
He nodded. 'I - look, this whole thing got taken out of context--'
She interrupted him before he could continue. 'You realize this could bring the whole case crashing down on us?'
'I think we can contain it.'
'I've had a dozen calls from the national press already this morning. You've become a laughing stock. You've made us look like a bunch of idiots. Why have you done this?'
Grace was silent for some moments. 'She's an extraordinary woman, this medium; she's helped us in the past. It never occurred to me anyone would find out.'
Vosper leaned back in her chair, staring at Grace, shaking her head from side to side. 'I had great hopes for you. Your promotion was because of me. I put myself on the line for you, Roy. You know that, don't you?'
Not strictly true, but this wasn't the moment to start splitting hairs. 'I know,' he said, 'and I appreciate it.'
She pointed at the newspapers. And this is how you show it? This is what you deliver?'
'Come on, Alison, I've delivered Hossain.'
'And now you've given his defence counsel a crack big enough to drive a coach and horses through.'
'No,' he said, rising to this. 'That shoe had already been through forensics, signed out and signed back in. They can't lay an exhibits contamination charge on me. They might be trying to take a pop at my methods, but this won't have any material effect on the case.'
She raised her manicured fingers and started examining them. Roy could see the tips were black from newsprint ink. Her scent seemed to be getting stronger, as if she were an animal excreting venom. 'You're the senior officer, it's your case. If you let them discredit you it could have a very big effect on the outcome. Why the hell did you do it?'
'We have a murder trial and we don't have a body. We know Hossain had Raymond Cohen murdered, right?'
She nodded. The evidence Grace had amassed was impressive and persuasive.
'But with no body there's always a weak link.' He shrugged. 'We've had results in the past from mediums. Every police force in the nation's used them at one time or another. Leslie Whittle, right?'
Leslie Whittle was a celebrated case. Back in 1975 the seventeenyearold heiress had been kidnapped and vanished into thin air. Unable to find any clues to her whereabouts, the police finally acted on information from a clairvoyant using dowsing techniques, who led them to a drainage shaft, where they discovered the unfortunate girl tethered and dead.
'Leslie Whittle wasn't exactly a triumph of police work, Roy.'
'There have been others, since/ he countered.
She stared at him in silence. Then dimples appeared in her cheeks as if she might be softening; but her voice remained cold and stern. 'You could write the number of successes we've had with clairvoyants on a postage stamp.'
'That isn't true, and you know it.'
'Roy, what I know is that you are an intelligent man. I know that you've studied the paranormal and that you believe. I've seen the books in your office, and I respect any police officer who can think out of the box. But we have a duty to the community. Whatever goes
I On behind our closed doors is one thing. The image we present to the iblic is another.'
'The public believe, Alison. There was a survey taken in 1925 of It number of scientists who believed in God. It was forty-three 1 cent. They did that same survey again in 1998, and guess what? \ was still forty-three per cent. The only shift was that there were less jlogists who believed, but more mathematicians and physicists. lere was another survey, only last year, of people who had had jme kind of paranormal experience. It was ninety per cent!' He I leaned forwards. 'Ninety per cent!'
'Roy, the Great Unwashed want to believe the police spend f ratepayers' money on solving crimes and catching villains through established police procedures. They want to believe we are out couring the country for fingerprints and DNA, that we have labs full Of scientists to examine them, and that we are trawling fields, woods, dredging lakes, knocking on doors and interviewing witnesses. They don't want to think we are talking to Madame Arcata on the end of Brighton Pier, are staring into crystal balls or are shifting upturned tumblers around rows of letters on a bloody Ouija board! They don't want to think we are spending our time trying to summon up the dead. They don't want to believe their police officers are standing on the ramparts of castles like Hamlet talking to his father's ghost. Understand what I'm saying?'
'I understand, yes. But I don't agree with you. Our job is to solve crimes. We have to use whatever means are at our disposal.'
She shook her head. 'We're never going to solve every crime, and we have to accept that. What we have to do is inspire public confidence. Make people feel safe in their homes, and on the streets.' 'That's such bullshit,' Grace said, 'and you know that! You know fine well you can massage the crime statistics any way you want.' No sooner had he said it than he regretted his words.
She gave him a thin, wintry smile. 'Get the Government to give us another hundred million pounds a year and we will eradicate crime in Sussex. In the absence of that all we can do is spread our resources as thinly and as far as they will go.' 'Mediums are cheap,' Grace said. 'Not when they damage our credibility.' She looked down at the papers. 'When they jeopardize a court case they become more than we can afford. Do you hear me?'
'Loudly, if not clearly.' He couldn't help it, the insolence just came out. She was irritating him. Something chauvinistic inside him that he couldn't help, made it harder for him to accept a dressing-down from a woman than from a man.
'Let me spell it out. You're lucky to still have a job this morning. The Chief is not a happy bunny. He's so angry he's threatening to take you out of the public arena for ever, and have you chained to a desk for the rest of your career. Is that what you want?'
'Then go back to being a police officer, not a flake.'
For the first time since he had joined the Force, Roy Grace had recently begun wondering whether he should ever have become a policeman. From earliest childhood it was all he had wanted to be, and in his teens he had scarcely even considered any other career.
His father, Jack, had risen to the rank of Detective Inspector, and some of the older officers around still talked about him, with great affection. Grace had been in thrall to him as a child, loved to hear his stories, to go out with him - sometimes in a police car, or down to the station. When he was a child, his father's life had seemed so much more adventurous and glamorous than the dull lives most of his friends' dads lived.
Grace had been addicted to cop shows on television, to books about detectives and cops of every kind - from Sherlock Holmes to Ed McBain. He had a memory that bordered on photographic, he loved puzzles, and he was physically strong. And from all he saw and heard from his father, there seemed to be a teamwork and camaraderie in police life that really appealed.
But now, on a day like this, he realized that being a police officer was less about doing things to the best of your abilities and more about conforming to some preordained level of mediocrity. In this modern politically correct world you could be a law enforcement officer at the peak of your career one moment and a political pawn the next.
His latest promotion, making him the second-youngest Detective Superintendent ever in the Sussex Police Force, and which just three months ago had so thrilled him, was fast turning out to be a poisoned chalice.
It had meant moving from the buzz of Brighton police station in the heart of the town, where most of his friends were, out to the relative quiet of the former factory on an industrial estate on the edge of the city, which had recently been refurbished to house the headquarters of Sussex CID.
You could retire from the force on a full pension after thirty years. No matter how tough it got, if he just stuck it out he would be financially set up for life. That was not how he wanted to view his job, his career. At least, not normally.
But today was different. Today was a real downer. A reality-check day. Circumstances changed, he was thinking, as he sat hunched over his desk, ignoring the pinging of incoming emails on his computer screen, munching an egg and cress brown sandwich, and staring at court transcripts of the Suresh Hossain trial in front of him. Life never stands still. Sometimes the changes were good, sometimes less than good. In little over a year's time he would be forty. His hair was going grey.
And his new office was too small.
The three dozen vintage cigarette lighters that were his prize collection hunched together on the ledge between the front of his desk and the window which, unlike the fine view from Alison Vosper's office, looked down onto the parking lot and the cell block beyond. Dominating the wall behind him was the large, round wooden clock that had been a prop in the fictitious police station in The Bill. Sandy had bought him it for his twenty-sixth birthday.
Beneath it was a stuffed seven-pound, six-ounce brown trout he had caught on a visit to Ireland some years ago. He kept it beneath the clock to give him a joke he could crack to detectives working under him, about patience and big fish.
Lined up on either side and slightly cramping it were several framed certificates, and a group photograph captioned 'Police Staff College Bramshill. Management of Serious and Series Crimes. 1997', and two cartoons of him in the police ops room, drawn by a colleague who had missed his true vocation. The opposite wall was taken up by bookshelves bulging with part of his collection of books on the occult, and filing cabinets.
His L-shaped desk was cluttered by his computer, overflowing in and out-trays, Blackberry, separate piles of correspondence, some orderly, most less so, and the latest edition of the magazine with a bad pun of a title, Fingerprint Whorld. Rising from the mess was a
framed quotation: 'We don't rise to the level of our abilities, we fall to the level of our excuses.'
The rest of the floor space was occupied by a television and video player, a circular table, four chairs and piles of files and loose paperwork, and his leather go-bag, containing his crime-scene kit. His briefcase sat open on the table, his mobile, dictating machine and a bunch of transcripts he had taken home with him last night all lay beside it.
He dropped half his sandwich in the bin. No appetite. He sipped his mug of coffee, checked the latest emails, then logged back on to the Sussex Police site and stared at the list of files he had inherited as part of his promotion.
Each file contained the details of an unsolved murder. It represented a pile of about twenty boxes of files, maybe even more, stacked on an office floor, or bulging out of cupboards, or locked up, gatherIng mould in a damp police garage in a station in the area where the murder happened. The files contained scene-of-crime photographs, forensic reports, bagged evidence, witness statements, court transcripts, separated into orderly bundles and secured with coloured ribbon. This was part of his new brief, to dig back into the county's unsolved murders, liaise with the CID division where the crime happened, looking for anything that might have changed in the intervening years that could justify reopening the case.
He knew most of their contents by heart - the benefit of his near photographic memory which had propelled him through exams both at school and in the Force. To him each stack represented more than just a human life that had been taken - and a killer who was still free - it symbolized something very close to his own heart. It meant that a family had been unable to lay its past to rest, because a mystery had never been solved, justice had never been done. And he knew that with some of these files being more than thirty years old, he was the last hope the victims and their relatives probably had.
Richard Ventnor, a gay vet battered to death in his surgery twelve years ago. Susan Downey, a beautiful girl raped and strangled and left in a churchyard fifteen years back. Pamela Chisholm, a rich widow found dead in her wrecked car - but with the wrong kind of injuries for a car accident. The skeletal remains of Pratap Gokhale, a nine-year-old Indian boy found under floorboards at the flat of a suspected paedophile - long vanished. These were just a few of the many cases Grace remembered.
Although they were interred, or their ashes had been scattered a long time ago, circumstances changed for them too. Technology had brought in DNA testing, which threw up new evidence and new suspects. The internet had brought new means of communication. Loyalties had changed. New witnesses had emerged from the woodwork. People had divorced. Fallen out with their friends. Someone who wouldn't testify against a mate twenty years ago now hated him. Murder files never closed. Slow time, they called it.
The phone rang. It was the management support assistant he shared with his immediate boss, the Assistant Chief Constable, asking if he wanted to take a call from a detective. The whole political correctness thing irritated him more and more, and it was particularly strong in the Police Force. It hadn't been so long ago when they called them secretaries, not bloody management support assistants.
He told her to put him through, and moments later heard a familiar voice. Glenn Branson, a bright Detective Sergeant he'd worked with several times in the past, fiercely ambitious and razor sharp as well as being a walking encyclopedia on movies. He liked Glenn Branson a lot. He was probably the closest friend he had.
'Roy? How you doing? Seen you in the papers today.'
'Yup, well you can fuck off. What do you want?'
'Are you OK?'
'No, I'm not OK.'
'Are you busy right now?'
'How do you define busy.'
'Ever given an answer in your life that isn't a question?'
Grace smiled. 'Have you?'
'Listen, I'm being pestered by a woman - about her fiance". Seems like some stag-night prank has gone seriously wrong, and he's been missing since Tuesday night.'
Grace had to do a mental check on the date. It was Thursday afternoon now. 'Tell me?'
'Thought you'd be in court today. Tried your mobile, but it's off.'
'I'm having lunch. Got a break from court - Judge Driscoll's having a day in chambers dealing with submissions from the defence.'
One of the major drawbacks of bringing a prosecution to trial was the time it consumed. Grace, as the senior officer, had to be either in court or in close touch during the whole trial. This one was likely to last a good three months - and much of that time was just hanging around.
'I don't feel this is a normal missing persons enquiry - I'd like to pick your brains. You free this afternoon by any chance?' Glenn Branson asked.
To anyone else, Grace would have said no, but he knew Glenn Branson wasn't a time waster - and hell, right now he was pleased to have an excuse to get out of the office, even into this shitty weather. 'Sure, I can make some time.'
'Cool.' There was a moment's pause, then Glenn Branson said, 'Look, could we meet at this guy's flat - I think it would be helpful if you saw it for yourself - I can get the key and meet you there.' Branson gave him the address.
Grace glanced at his watch, then at the diary on his Blackberry. 'How about meeting there at half five? We could go on for a drink.'
'It won't take you three hours to get - oh -1 guess a man of your age has to start taking it slowly. See you later.'
Grace winced. He didn't like reminders of his looming big four-0 birthday. He didn't like the idea of being forty - it was an age when people took stock of their lives. He'd read somewhere that when you reached forty you'd reached the shape your life was going to be for good. Somehow, being thirty-eight was OK. But thirty-nine meant you were very definitely nudging forty. And it wasn't so long ago that he'd considered people who were forty to be old. Shit.
He looked again at the list of files on the screen. Sometimes he felt closer to these people than to anyone else. Twenty murder victims who were dependent on him to bring their killers to justice. Twenty ghosts who haunted most of his waking thoughts - and sometimes his dreams, as well.
He had the use of a pool car, but he chose to drive his own Alfa Romeo 147 saloon. Grace liked the car; he liked the hard seats, the firm ride, the almost spartan functionality of the interior, the fruity noise the exhaust made, the feeling of precision, the bright, sporty dials on the dash. There was a sense of exactness about the vehicle that suited his nature.
The big, meaty wipers swung across the screen, clopping the rain from the glass, the tyres hissing on the wet tarmac, a wild Elvis Costello song playing on the stereo. The bypass swept up over a ridge and down into the valley. Through the mist of rain he could see the buildings of the coastal resort of Brighton and Have sprawling ahead, and beyond the single remaining landmark chimney from the old Shoreham power station, the shimmering strip of grey, barely distinguishable from the sky, that was the English Channel.
He'd grown up here among its streets and its villains. His dad used to reel off their names to him, the families that ran the drugs, the massage parlours, the posh crooked antique dealers who fenced stolen jewels, furniture, the fences who handled televisions and CD players.
It had been a smugglers' village, once. Then George IV had built a palace just a few hundred yards from his mistress's house. Brighton had somehow never managed to shake off its criminal antecedents nor its reputation as a place for dirty weekends. But these gave the city of Brighton and Have its edge over any other provincial resort in England, he thought, flicking his indicator and turning off the bypass.
Grassmere Court was a red-brick block of flats about thirty years old, in an upmarket area of Have, the city's genteel district. It fronted onto a main road and overlooked a tennis club at the rear. The residents were a mixture of ages, mostly twenty- and thirty-something career singles and comfortably off elderly people. On an estate agent's brochure it would probably have rated highly des res.
Glenn Branson was waiting in the porch, wrapped in a bulky rka, tall, black, and bald as a meteorite, talking into his mobile.
looked more like a drug dealer than a copper at this moment, race smiled - his colleague's massive, muscular frame from years of serious body-building reminded him of the broadcaster Clive James's description of Arnie Schwarzenegger: that he looked like a Condom filled with walnuts.
'Yo, old wise man!' Branson greeted him.
'Cut it out, I'm only seven years older than you. One day you'll get to this age too and you won't find it funny' He grinned.
They slapped high fives, then Branson, frowning, said, 'You look like shit. Really, I mean it.'
'Not all publicity agrees with me.'
'Yup, well I couldn't help noticing you grabbed yourself a few column inches in the rags this morning...'
'You and just about everyone else on the planet.'
'Man, you know, for an old-timer you're pretty dumb.'
'You don't wise up, Grace. Keep sticking your head above the parapet and one day someone's going to shoot it clean off. There are some days when I think you are just about the biggest dickhead I know.'
He unlocked the front door of the block and pushed it open.
Following him in, Grace said, 'Thanks, you really know how to cheer someone up.' Then he wrinkled his nose. Blindfolded you would always know if you were in an ageing apartment building. The universal smell of worn carpets, tired paint, vegetables boiling behind one of the closed doors. 'How's the missus?' he asked as they waited for the lift.
'And your kids?'
'Sammy's brilliant. Remi's turning into a terror.' He pressed the button for the lift.
After a few moments, Grace said, 'It wasn't how the press made it seem, Glenn.'
'Man, I know that because I know you. The press don't know you, and even if they did, they don't give Jack Shit. They want stories and you were stupid enough to give them one.'
They emerged from the lift on the sixth floor. The flat was at the end of the corridor. Branson unlocked the door and they went in.
The place was small, with a lounge/diner, a narrow kitchen with a granite worktop and a circular steel sink, and two bedrooms, one of which was used as a study, with an iMac computer and work-desk. The rest of this room/office was filled with bookshelves crammed mostly with paperbacks.
In contrast with the dull exterior and drab common parts of the building, the flat felt fresh and modern. The walls were painted in white, very lightly tinged with grey, and the furnishings were modernistic, with a distinct Japanese influence. There were low sofas, simple prints on the walls, a flat-screen television, with a DVD player beneath, and a sophisticated hi-fi system with tall, slender speakers. In the master bedroom there was an unmade futon bed, with handsome louvred doors on the wardrobe, another flat-screen television, and low bedside tables with starkly modern lamps. A pair of Nike trainers sat on the floor.
Grace and Branson exchanged a glance. 'Nice pad,' Grace said.
'Uh huh,' Branson said. 'Life is Beautiful'
Grace looked at him.
'I missed it in the cinema. Caught it on Sky. Incredible film - have you ever seen it?'
Grace shook his head.
'All set in a concentration camp. About a dad who convinces his kid that they're playing a game. If they win the game, they get a real tank. I tell you, it moved me more than Schindler's List and The Pianist.'
'I've never heard of it.'
'I wonder what planet you're on sometimes.'
Grace stared at a framed photograph by the bed. It showed a good-looking man, in his late twenties, with fair hair, black Tshirt and jeans, arm around a seriously attractive woman also in her late twenties, with long, dark hair.
'And her. Michael Harrison and Ashley Harper. Nice-looking couple, right?'
Continuing to stare at them, Grace nodded.
'Getting married on Saturday. At least, that's the plan.'
'Meaning, if he shows up. Doesn't look too good right now.'
'You said he hasn't been seen since Tuesday night?' Grace looked out of the window. The view down was across a wide, rain-lashed Street backed up with traffic. A bus have into view. 'What do you know about him?'
'Local boy made good. Property developer. Serious player. Double-M Properties. Has a partner called Mark Warren. Recently built a fuck-off development - an old warehouse on Shoreham Harbour. Thirty-two flats, all sold before they were finished. They've been in business for seven years, done a bunch of stuff in the area, some conversions, some new builds. The chick's Michael's secretary, smart bird, seriously gorgeous.'
'You think he's done a runner?'
Branson shook his head. 'Nope.'
Grace picked up the photograph and stared more closely at it. 'Bloody hell, I'd marry her.'
'That's my point.'
Grace frowned. 'Sorry, I'm slow, had a long day.'
'You'd marry her! If I was a single man, I'd marry her. Anyone in their right mind would marry her, right?'
'She's seriously gorgeous.'
'She is, seriously gorgeous.'
Grace stared at him blankly.
In mock exasperation, Branson said, 'Jesus, old timer, you losing your touch or something?'
'Maybe I am,' Grace said, blankly. 'What is your point?'
Branson shook his head. 'My point is exactly that. If you were going to marry this babe on Saturday, would you do a runner?'
'Not unless I was nuts.'
'So if he hasn't done a runner, where is he?'
Grace thought for a moment. 'You said on the phone something about a stag-night prank that might have gone wrong?'
'That's what his fiancee said to me. That was my first thought. Stag nights can be brutal. Even when he didn't show up all of yesterday, that's what I still thought then. But to stay out two nights?'
'Cold feet? Another bird?'
'All possible. But I'd like to show you something.'
Grace followed him into the living area. Branson sat down in front of the computer and tapped the keyboard. He was a wizard on computers. Grace had a good technical mind and was pretty well up to speed with most modern technology, but Branson was light years ahead of him.
A password command came up on the screen. Branson tapped furiously, and within a few seconds, the screen filled with data.
'How did you do that?' Grace asked. 'How did you know the password?' Branson gave him a sideways look. 'There was no password. Most people see a password request and try to put one in. Why would he need one if he wasn't sharing his computer with anyone else?'
'I'm impressed. You really are a closet geek.'
Ignoring the remark, Branson said, 'I want you to take a close look at this.'
Grace did what he was told, and sat down in front of the screen.
Just a couple of miles away, Mark Warren was also hunched in front of his computer. The clock on the flat screen showed 6.10 p.m. His shirt sleeves were rolled up, a neglected Starbucks cappuccino beside him, the froth sunken into a wrinkled skin. His normally tidy desk, in the office he'd shared with Michael for the past seven years, was swamped with piles of documents.
Double-M Properties occupied the third floor of a narrow five storey Regency terraced townhouse, a short distance from Brighton station, which had been their first property development together. Apart from the office he was in, there was a boardroom for clients, a small reception area and a kitchenette. The furnishings were modern and functional. On the walls were photographs of the three racing yachts they owned together, and through which their success could be charted - from their first boat, a Nicholson-27, to a more substantial Contessa-33, to the distinctly upmarket Oyster-42 which was their current toy.
There were also pictures of their developments. The waterfront warehouse at Shoreham Harbour which they had converted into thirty-two apartments. An old Regency hotel in Kemp Town, overlooking the seafront, which they had converted into ten apartments, and two mews houses at the rear. And their latest, and most ambitious development, an artist's impression drawing of a site in five acres of forest land where they had permission to build twenty houses.
His eyes were raw from two sleepless nights, and, taking a moment's respite from the screen, Mark stared out of the window. Directly opposite was a casino and a discount carpet store. On sunny days it was a perfect spot to ogle the pretty girls walking down the street - but right now it was pelting with rain, people were hurrying, huddled under umbrellas or wrapped in coats, collars turned up, hands in pockets. And Mark was in no mood for thinking about anything except the task in front of him.
Every few minutes, as he had done all day long, he dialled Michael's mobile number. But each time it went straight to voicemail. Unless the phone was either switched off, or the battery was dead, this indicated Michael was still down there. No one had heard anything. Judging from the time of the accident, they would have buried him about 9 p.m. the night before last. About forty-five hours so far.
The main phone line was ringing. Mark could hear the muted warble and saw the light flashing on his extension. He answered it, trying to mask the nervous quaver that was in his voice each time he spoke.
A man's voice. 'Oh, hello, I'm calling about the Ashdown Fields development. Do you have a brochure or prices?'
'I'm afraid not, sir, not yet,' Mark said. 'Be a couple of weeks yet. There is some information up on our website - ah - OK, you checked that already. If you want to leave me your name, I'll have someone get back to you.'
Ordinarily he'd have been pleased to have had such an early enquiry about a development, but sales were the last thing on his mind at the moment.
It was important not to panic, he knew. He'd read enough crime novels, and seen enough cop shows, to know that it was the guys who panicked that got caught. You just had to keep calm.
Keep deleting the emails.
Inbox. Sent Items. Deleted Folder. All other folders.
It wasn't possible to erase emails totally, they would still be out there, stored on a server somewhere in cyberspace, but surely no one was going to look that far, or were they?
He typed keyword after keyword, doing an Advanced Find on each of them. Michael. Stag. Night. Josh. Pete. Robbo. Luke. Ashley. Plans! Operation revenge! Checking every email, deleting any that needed deleting. Covering all the bases.
Josh was on life support, his condition critical, and he almost certainly had severe brain damage. Likely to be a vegetable if he survived. Mark swallowed, his mouth dry. He'd known Josh since they were thirteen, at Varndean School. Luke and Michael, too, of course. Pete and Robbo came later: they'd met in a pub in Brighton one
boozy night in their late teens. Like Mark, Josh was methodical and ambitious. And he was good-looking. Women always flocked around Josh the same way they went for Michael. Some people had natural gifts in life, others like himself had to struggle every inch of the way. But even at the young age of twenty-eight, Mark had seen enough of life to know that nothing stays the same for very long. If you were patient, if you bided your time, sooner or later you'd get a lucky break. The best predators were the most patient ones.
Mark had never forgotten a wildlife documentary he'd seen on television, filmed in a bat cave in South America. Some tiny microorganism fed on the bat guano on the floor of the cave; a maggot ate the micro-organism; a beetle ate the maggot; a spider ate the beetle; then a bat ate the spider. It was a perfect food chain. The bat was smart, all it had to do was shit and wait.
His mobile rang. It was Michael's mother, her third call to him this afternoon and her umpteenth today. He remained as unfailingly polite and friendly as ever. There was still no news of Michael, he told her. It was terrible, he really had no idea what had happened to him, the plan had been simply to go on a pub crawl, he could not imagine where Michael might be now.
'Do you think he could be with another woman?' Gill Harrison asked in her timid, gravelly voice. He'd always got on quite well with her, in as much as it was possible. Her husband had gassed himself before he and Michael had met, and Michael said she had retreated into a shell and stayed there ever since. From the photos of her around the house she had been quite beautiful when younger, a blonde bombshell. But ever since Mark had known her, her hair was prematurely grey, her face dry and creased from chain smoking, her spirit withered.
'I guess anything is possible, Mrs Harrison,' Mark replied. He thought for a moment, choosing his words carefully. 'But he adored Ashley.'
'She's a lovely girl.'
'She is, could do with her back here - the best damned secretary we ever had.' He toyed with his mouse for a moment, moving the cursor idly around the screen. 'But you know drink sometimes makes men do irrational things--'
As the words came out he instantly regretted them. Hadn't Michael once told him that his father had been drunk when he killed himself?
There was a long silence, then she said, very placidly, 'I think he'd have had long enough to sober up by now. Michael's a good and a loyal person. Whatever he might have done drunk, he would never hurt Ashley. Something must have happened to him, otherwise he would have called. I know my son.' She hesitated. Ashley is in a terrible state. Will you keep an eye on her?'
There was another silence then, 'How is Josh?'
'Unchanged. Zoe's staying in the hospital. I'll go back there and sit with her - as soon as I've finished in the office.'
'You'll call me the moment you hear anything?'
He hung up, stared down at his desk, picked up a document, and something caught his eye beneath it. His Palm.
And as he stared at it, cold fear swept through him. Oh shit, he thought. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.
After leaving Detective Superintendent Grace, Glenn Branson headed back across town in the pool car he had taken, a blue Vauxhall that reeked of disinfectant - the result of someone either throwing up or bleeding in it last time it had been used. He parked it back in its space in the lot behind the bland edifice of Brighton police station, and walked into the rear entrance and up the stone staircase, to the office he shared with ten other detectives.
It was 6.20; his shift technically finished every day this week at 6, but he was swamped with paperwork after a major drugs bust on Monday, and had permission to do overtime - and he needed the extra cash. But he was going to do only one hour today, until 7. Ari was going out, on another of her self-improvement courses. Mondays she did evening classes in English literature, Thursdays she did architecture. Ever since their daughter Remi had been born she'd gone into panic mode about her perceived lack of education, and was scared she wasn't going to be able to answer their kids' questions when they grew older.
Although most of the computer screens were off, none of the desks were tidy. Every empty open-plan cubicle looked, as usual, as if its occupant had abandoned it in haste and would be returning shortly.
There were just two colleagues still at work in here, DC Nick Nicholl, late twenties, tall as a beanpole, a zealous detective and a fast football forward, and DS Bella Moy, thirty-five, cheery-faced beneath a tangle of brown hair.
Neither acknowledged him. He walked past Nick Nicholl, who was deep in concentration filling out a form, his lips pursed like a kid in an exam as he wrote in block capitals with a ballpoint. Bella was fixated by something on her screen, her left hand, like an automaton, plucking Maltesers from a box on her desk and delivering them to her mouth. She was a slim woman, yet she ate more than any human being Glenn Branson had ever seen.
As he sat down at his desk, the message light was blinking away, as usual. Ari, his wife, Sammy, his eight-year-old son and Remi, his three-year-old daughter, smiled out at him from a framed photo on his desk.
He glanced at his watch, needing to keep an eye on the time. Ari got mad if he was late and caused her to miss the beginning of her class. And besides, it was no hardship - there were few things he treasured more than spending time with his kids. Then his phone beeped.
It was the front desk. A woman had waited an hour to see him and wasn't leaving. Would he mind having a word with her? Everyone else was busy.
'Right, like I'm not busy?' Glenn said to the receptionist, letting irritation show in his voice. 'What does she want?'
'It's to do with the accident on Tuesday - the missing groom.'
Instantly he mellowed. 'Right. OK, I'll come down.'
Despite her bleached-out complexion, Ashley Harper looked every bit as beautiful in the flesh as she did in the photograph he had just seen of her in Michael Harrison's apartment. She was dressed in designer denims, with a bling belt, and carried a classy handbag. He led her into an interview room, got them each a coffee, closed the door and sat down opposite her. Like all the interview rooms it was small and windowless, painted a drab pea green, with a brown carpet and grey metal chairs and table, and reeked of stale cigarette smoke.
She placed her handbag on the floor. Beautiful grey eyes framed by smudged mascara stared out from a wan face, leaden with grief. Fronds of her brown hair fell across her forehead, the rest swooped in a single wave either side of her face and onto her shoulders. Her nails were perfect, as if she had come straight from a manicure. She looked immaculate, and that surprised him a little. People in her state were usually careless about their appearance, but she seemed dressed to kill.
Equally he knew how hard it was to figure women out. Once, when their relationship was going through a rocky time, Ari had given him the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. It had helped him go some way towards understanding the mental gulf between men and women (but not all the way).
'You're a hard man to get hold of,' she said, and tossed her head, flicking her long brown hair away from her eyes. 'I left four messages.' 'Yeah, I'm sorry.' He raised his hands. 'I've two of my team off sick and two away on holiday. I understand how you must feel.'
'Do you? Do you have any idea how I feel? I'm meant to be getting married on Saturday and my fiance's been missing since Tuesday night. We have the church booked, I've got my dressmaker turning up for a fitting, two hundred guests invited, wedding presents pouring in. Do you have any idea how I feel?' Tears rolled down her cheeks. She sniffed, fumbled in her handbag and pulled out a tissue.
'Look, I'm sorry. I have been working on your - Michael - your fiancee's disappearance since we spoke this morning.'
'And?' She dabbed her eyes.
He cradled his beaker of coffee, which was too hot to drink. Had to let it cool. 'I'm afraid I don't have anything to report, yet.' Not strictly true, but he wanted to hear what she had to say.
'What exactly are you guys doing?'
'Like I said this morning on the phone, ordinarily when someone goes missing--'
She cut him short. 'This isn't ordinarily, for God's sake. Michael's been missing since Tuesday night. When we're apart he rings me five, ten times a day. It's now two days. Two fucking days, for Christ's sake!'
Branson studied her face carefully, searching for giveaways. But he found nothing. Just a young woman desperate for news of her loved one. Or- ever the cynic - a fine actress. 'Hear me out, OK? Two days is not in ordinary circumstances enough for alarm. But I agree, in this situation, it is strange.'
'Something's happened to him, OK? This isn't some normal missing persons situation. His friends did something to him, put him somewhere, sent him somewhere, I don't know what the hell they did to him -1--' She lowered her head as if to hide her tears, fumbled for her bag, found it, pulled out a tissue and dabbed her eyes, still shaking her head.
Glenn was moved. She had no idea, and this wasn't the moment to tell her.
'We're doing everything we can to find Michael,' he said gently.
'Like what? What are you doing?'
Her grief lifted momentarily, as if she was wearing it like a veil. Then another flood of tears and deep, gulping sobs.
'We've done a search around the immediate vicinity of the accident, and we still have people there - sometimes people get disoriented after an accident, so we're searching all the surrounding area - and we've now put out an all-points alert. All police forces have been informed. Airports and seaports--'
Again she cut him short. 'You think he's done a runner? Jesus! Why would he do that?'
Using a subtle technique he had learned from Roy Grace to tell if someone was lying, he asked her, 'What did you have for lunch today?'
She looked at him in surprise. 'What did I have for lunch today?'
'Yes.' He watched her eyes closely. They moved to the right. Memory mode.
Human brains are divided into left and right hemispheres. One contains long-term memory storage, and in the other the creative processes take place. When asked a question, people's eyes almost invariably move to the hemisphere they are using. In some people the memory storage is in the right hemisphere and in some the left; the creative hemisphere the opposite one.
When people are telling the truth, their eyes swing towards the memory hemisphere; when they lie, towards the creative one. Branson had learned to tell which by tracking their eyes in response to a simple control question such as the one he had just asked, where there would be no need for a lie.
'I didn't have lunch today.'
Now he judged it was time to tell her. 'How much do you know about your fiance's business dealings, Miss Harper?'
'I was his secretary for six months, OK? I don't think there's much I don't know.'
'So you know about his Cayman Islands company?'
Genuine surprise in her face. Her eyes shot to the left. Construct mode. She was lying. 'Cayman Islands?' she said.
'He and his partner' - he paused, pulled out his notebook and flipped through several pages - 'Mark Warren. You're aware of this company they have there? HW Properties International?' She stared at him in silence. 'HW Properties International?' she echoed.
'No, I know nothing about this.'
He nodded. 'OK.'
The tone of her voice had shifted subtly. Thanks to Roy Grace's teaching he knew what it meant. 'Tell me more?'
'I don't know much more, I was hoping you could tell me.'
Her eyes shot to the left again. Construct mode again. 'No,' she said, 'I'm sorry.'
'It's probably not significant anyway,' he said. 'After all, who doesn't want to avoid the tax man?'
'Michael is shrewd. He's a clever businessman. But he would never do anything illegal.'
'I'm not suggesting that, Miss Harper. I'm trying to establish that perhaps you don't know the full picture about the man you are marrying, that's all.'
Again he raised his hands in the air. It was five to seven. He needed to go. 'It doesn't necessarily mean anything at all. But it's something we have to be aware of.' He gave her a smile.
It was not returned.
On the unstable television screen in the chaotically untidy Portakabin annexed to his dad's house on the edge of Lewes, with its view out on to the yard filled with car wrecks, Davey was watching the American cop show, Law, and Order. His favourite character, a sharp cop called Detective Reynaldo Curtis, was eyeballing a lowlife, holding him by the dewlaps with a clenched fist. 'I'm in your face, know what I'm saying?' Reynaldo Curtis snarled.
Davey, in his baggy jeans, and baseball cap tugged tight over his head, lay back on his beat-up sofa munching a Twinkie bar from a supply that was delivered to him weekly from the States by mail order and shouted out, 'Yeah, scumbag! I'm in your face, know what I'm saying?'
The detritus of Davey's quarterpounder and fries dinner lay on the curled carpet tiles at his feet amid the piles of junk - much of it salvaged during his work with his dad - that covered just about every inch of the floor, shelf and table space of his domain.
Beside him sat the pieces of the walkie-talkie he had found a couple of nights back. He'd been meaning to try to fix it, but hadn't got around to it yet. Idly, he picked the main body of it up and peered at it.
The casing was badly cracked. There was a loose bit of plastic with flanges and two AAA batteries that he had retrieved from the road when he had dropped it. He'd really meant to put it back together but somehow it had slipped his mind. Lots of stuff slipped his mind. Just as fast as most things came into his head, they went out again.
There was stuff all the time that made no sense.
Life was like a jigsaw puzzle where bits were always missing. The important bits. Now there were four bits to the walkie-talkie jigsaw. The cracked box, two batteries and the thing that looked like a lid.
He finished his Twinkie, licked the wrapper, then tossed it onto the floor.
'Know what I'm saying?' he announced to no one. Then he leaned forward, picked up the burger's polystyrene box and rummaged around through the mess of ketchup with his finger. 'Yeah! I'm in your face, know what I'm saying?'
He chuckled. There was a commercial break. Some smarmy media fuckwit talking about building society rates. Growing impatient, Davey said 'Come on, baby, let's get back to the show.'
Instead, another commercial came on. On the screen a baby crawled across the carpet talking in a deep male adult voice. Davey watched for some moments, transfixed, wondering how a baby could learn to speak that way. Then his attention drifted back to the walkie-talkie. There was a telescopic aerial, which he pulled out as far as it would go, then pushed back in again. 'Kerloink!' he said. Then out again. 'Kerloink!'
He pointed it at the television screen, staring down its length, taking aim as if it were a rifle. Then the show came back on.
He looked at his brand new watch, which his dad had given him for his birthday yesterday. It was for timing motor races, and had all kinds of buttons, dials and digital displays that he hadn't quite figured out yet from the instruction book. His dad promised to help him read it, get through the tough words. He needed to have it all working OK for this Sunday, the Monaco Grand Prix, it was important he had it ready for that.
There was a knock on his door, then it opened a few inches. His dad stood there, dressed up in a hunting cap with ear flaps, battered old windcheater and Wellington boots. 'Five minutes, Davey.'
'Awww. It's Law and Order. Could we make it fifteen?'
Cigarette smoke drifted into the room. Davey saw the red glow as his dad took a drag. If you want to come shooting rabbits, we have to leave in five minutes. You must have seen every show of Law and Order they ever made.'
The ads ended, the show was coming back on. Davey raised a finger to his lips. Grinning in mock despair, Phil Wheeler backed out of the room. 'Five minutes,' he said, closing the door.
'Ten!' Davey shouted after him, American accent now. 'Compromise! Know what I'm saying?'
Davey turned his focus back on the walkie-talkie, thinking it might be cool to take it out rabbit shooting with him. He peered closely into the battery compartment, figured out which way they were supposed to go in, and inserted the batteries. Then he pushed one of two buttons on the side. Nothing happened. He tried the second button and instantly there was a crackle of static.
He held the speaker part to his ear, listening. Just static. And then, suddenly, a male voice so loud he could have been in the room with him.
Startled, Davey dropped the walkie-talkie on the floor.
Davey stared down at it, beaming with delight. Then there was another knock on his door and his father called out, 'I've got your gun, let's go!'
Then suddenly afraid his father might get mad if he saw the walkie-talkie - he wasn't supposed to take anything they found around wrecks - Davey crouched down on the floor, pressed the other button, which he assumed to be the talk one, and hissed furtively, in his American accent, 'Sorry, can't talk, he's in my face know what I mean?'
Then he shoved the walkie-talkie under the bed and hurried from the room, leaving the television, and Detective Reynaldo Curtis, having to cope without him.
'Hey! Hello! Hello! Hello!'
Silence came back at him from the ivory satin.
'Hey, please, help me!'
Michael, sobbing, stabbed the talk button repeatedly. 'Please, help me, please help me!
Just static crackle.
'Sorry, can't talk, he's in my face - know what I mean?'
A strange voice, like some ham actor playing an American gangster. Was this all part of the joke? Michael guided the salty tears down to his dry, cracked lips, and for one fleeting, taunting instant savoured the moisture, before his tongue absorbed them like blotting paper.
He looked at his watch. More hours had gone past: 8.50. For how many more hours was this nightmare going to go on? How could they be getting away with it? Surely to God Ashley, his mother, everyone, for Christ's sake, must be on to the boys by now. He'd been down here for - for--
A sudden panic hit him. Was it 8.50 in the morning or evening?
It had been afternoon just a while ago, hadn't it? He'd watched each hour on the hour go past. Surely he could not have been so careless to lose track of a whole twelve-hour chunk? It had to be evening now, night, tonight, not tomorrow morning.
Almost forty-eight hours.
What the hell are you all doing?
He pressed his hands down, pushing himself up for a moment, trying to get some circulation going into his numb backside. His shoulders hurt from being hunched, every joint in his body ached from lack of movement - and from dehydration - he knew about the dangers of that from sailing. His head throbbed incessantly. He could stop it for a few seconds by levering his hands up to his head and digging his thumbs into his temples, but then it came back just as bad as before.
'Christ, I'm getting married on Saturday, you fuckwits! Get me out of here!' he shouted as loudly as he could, then pounded the roof and walls with his feet and hands.
The imbeciles. Friday tomorrow. The day before the wedding. He had to get his suit. Haircut. They were going away on honeymoon on Saturday night to Thailand - he had a ton of stuff to do in the office before then, before going away for two weeks. Had to write his wedding speech.
Oh, come on, guys, there's so much I have to do! You've paid me back now, OK? For all the shit I ever did to you lot? You'd paid me back with interest. Big time!
Dropping his hand to his crutch, he located the torch and switched on for a few precious seconds, rationing the battery. The white satin seemed to be ever closer to him; last time he looked it seemed a good six inches above his face, now no more than three, as if this box, coffin, or whatever it was, was slowly, steadily caving in on him.
He took hold of the tube, dangling limp in front of his face, again squinted, trying to peer up into it, but could see nothing. Then he checked he was pushing the right button on the walkie-talkie. He pressed each one in turn. Listened first to static, then pressed talk and shouted as loudly as he could, then pressed the listen button again. Nothing.
'Nada' he said out aloud. 'Not a fucking sausage.'
Then an image of a frying pan on his mother's stove came into his mind. A frying pan filled with sausages, eggs, bacon, tomatoes, crackling, fizzing, popping, hissing. He could smell them, dammit, smell the bread too, frying in another pan, the tin of baked beans heating up.
Oh Jesus, I'm so hungry.
He turned his mind away from food, from the pain in his stomach that was so bad it felt its own stomach acids were eating their way through his stomach lining. Somewhere inside his pounding skull his brain was reminding him of something he had read;
it was about a breed of frogs - or toads - he couldn't remember which right now, which gestated its babies in its stomach rather than womb. For some reason the stomach acids didn't harm the babies.
What's to stop us humans digesting our own stomachs? he thought, suddenly. His brain was racing now, remembering bits of all kinds of stuff.
He remembered reading some years back a theory about Orcadian rhythms. All other living organisms on this planet lived a twenty-four-hour cycle, but not humans - our average was twenty five and a quarter. Tests had been done putting human beings down into dark places for weeks on end, with no clocks. Invariably they thought they had been down there for a shorter period of time than was the case.
Great, I could be one of their fucking lab rats now.
His mouth was so dry his lips stuck together and it hurt to part them. It felt as if their skin was ripping.
Then he shone the torch straight up, looked at the ever deepening groove he had made in the wood above his face, picked up his leather belt and again began to rub the corner of the metal buckle backwards and forwards against the hard teak - he knew enough about wood to know this was teak - and that teak was just about the hardest wood - closing his eyes tight, in pain, as specks of sawdust struck them, and gradually the buckle became hotter and hotter until he had to stop to let it cool down.
'Sorry, can't talk, he's in my face - know what I mean?'
Michael frowned. Who the hell was this putting on the fake American voice?
How could any of them think this was funny? What the hell had they told Ashley? His mother?
After a few minutes, he stopped scraping, exhausted. Had to keep going, he knew. Dehydration made you tired. Had to fight the tiredness. Had to get the hell out of this damned box. Had to get out and at those bastards, and there was going to be hell to pay.
He struggled on for a few more minutes, scraping, sometimes catching his knuckles, trying to keep his eyes screwed tight against
the sawdust that fell and tickled his face, until he was too tired to go on. His hand dropped down and his clenched neck muscles relaxed their grip. Gently his head dropped back. He slept.
The evening was prematurely dark. Mark parked his car just beyond a bus stop a short way up the road, then waited for some moments. The wide street, lacquered black by the torrential rain, was quiet, a trickle of cars passing. No one seemed to be out walking; no one to notice him.
He pulled on a baseball cap low over his face, then, turning up his anorak collar, ran to the sheltered porch of Michael's apartment block, glancing at each of the parked cars in turn, looking for someone seated in there in the dark. Michael was always telling people that Mark was the detail man in their partnership. Then he would qualify that with a remark that Mark hated. Mark is incredibly anal.
But Mark knew that he was right, that was exactly why DoubleM Properties was so successful, because he was the one who did all the real work. It was his role to scrutinize every line of the builder's estimates, to be there on site, to approve every single material that was purchased, to watch the schedules and to cost everything down to the last penny. While Michael spent half his time swanning around, womanizing, rarely taking anything too seriously. The success of the business was his, he believed, and his alone. Yet Michael had the majority shareholding, just because he'd had more cash to put in when they had started up.
There were forty-two bells to choose from on the entryphone panel. He pressed one at random, deliberately on a different floor to Michael's. There was no answer. He tried another, with the name 'Maranello'.
After a few moments a crackly male voice in a thick Italian accent said, 'Hello? Yes? Hello?'
'Delivery,' Mark shouted.
'FedEx. From America, for Maranello.'
'You what? Delivery? I -1 not -1 -1 no--'
There was a moment's silence. Then the sharp buzz of the electric latch.
Mark pushed the door and walked in. He went straight to the lift and took it to the sixth floor, then walked down the corridor to Michael's flat. Michael kept a spare key under the doormat in case he locked himself out - which he had done once, drunk and naked. To Mark's relief it was still there. A single Yale key, covered in fluff.
As a precaution he rang the doorbell and waited, watching the corridor, anxious in case anyone should appear and see him. Then he opened the door, slipped in and quickly closed it behind him, and pulled a small torch from his pocket. Michael's apartment looked out onto the street. There was another apartment block opposite. It was probably safe to turn the lights on, but Mark didn't want to take chances. There might be someone out there watching
Pulling off his sodden cap and coat, he hung them on pegs on the wall, then waited some moments, listening, nervous as hell. Through the party wall he could hear what sounded like marching music, from a television turned up too loud. Then with the aid of the flashlight, he began his search.
He went first into the main room, the lounge/dining area, shining the beam onto every surface. He looked at the pile of unwashed dishes on the sideboard, a half-drunk bottle of Chianti with the cork pushed back in, then the coffee table, with the television remote lying next to a glass bowl containing a large candle, partially burnt. A pile of magazines - GQ, FHM, Yachts and Yachting. Beside them a red light winked busily on the answering machine.
He listened to the messages. There was one, left just an hour ago, from Michael's mother, her voice nervy.
'Hello, Michael, I'm just checking in case you are back.'
Another was from Ashley, sounding as if she was on her mobile in a bad reception area. 'Michael darling, just calling to see if by chance you're back. Please, please call me the moment you get this. I love you so much.'
The next was from a salesman asking Michael if he would like to take advantage of a new loan facility Barclays Bank was offering to its card holders.
Mark continued playing the messages right through, but there was nothing of interest. He checked the two sofas, the chairs, the side tables, then went into the study.
On the desk in front of the iMac was just the keypad, cordless mouse, a fluorescent mouse pad, a heart-shaped glass paperweight, a calculator, a mobile charger and a black jar crammed with pens and pencils. What he was looking for was not there. Nor was it on the bookshelves or anywhere in Michael's untidy bedroom.
Shit, shit, shit.
He left the apartment, walked down the fire-escape steps and went through the rear exit into the dark of the car park. Bad news, he thought to himself as he furtively made his way back to the street. This was really bad news.
Fifteen minutes later he drove his BMW X5 up the steep hill alongside the huge sprawling complex of the Sussex County Hospital, and pulled into the car park for the Accident and Emergency department. He hurried past a couple of waiting ambulances and into the brightly lit reception and waiting area, familiar to him from his visit the previous day.
He walked past the dozens of people waiting forlornly on the plastic seats, beneath a sign which read 'waiting time - three hours', and along a series of corridors to the lift, and took that to the fourth floor.
Then he followed the signs to the ICU, the smells of disinfectant and hospital food in his nostrils. He rounded a corner, walked past a vending machine, and a payphone in a perspex dome, then saw ahead of him the reception desk of the Intensive Care Unit. Two nurses stood behind the counter, one on the phone, the other talking to a distressed-looking elderly woman.
He made his way across the ward, past four occupied beds, to the corner where Josh had been last night, expecting to see Zoe at his bedside. Instead, he saw a wizened old man, with wild white hair, sunken, liver-spotted cheeks, cannulated and intubated, with a ventilator beside him.
Mark scanned the rest of the beds, but there was no sign of Josh.
Panicking that his health had improved and that he had now been moved to another ward, he hurried back to the reception desk and positioned himself in front of the nurse who was on the phone, a plump, cheery-looking woman of about thirty, with a pudding-basin haircut, and a badge that said 'ITU Staff Nurse, MARIGOLD WATTS'. From her demeanour she seemed to be chatting to her boyfriend.
He waited impatiently, resting his arms on the wooden counter, staring at the bank of black and white monitors showing every bed, and the colour digital displays beneath each of them. He shifted his position a couple of times in rapid succession, trying to catch her eye, but she seemed to be mainly concerned about her dinner.
'Chinese, I think I fancy Chinese. Peking Duck. Somewhere that does Peking Duck, with the pancakes and--'
Then finally she seemed to notice him for the first time. 'Listen, I have to go. Call you back. Love you too.' She turned to Mark, all smiles. 'Yes, can I help you?'
'Josh Walker.' He pointed across the ward. 'He was over there ah - yesterday. I'm just wondering which ward he's been moved to?'
Her face froze as if she'd suffered a massive infusion of Botox. Her voice changed, also, suddenly becoming tartly defensive. 'Are you a relative?'
'No, I'm his business partner.' Instantly Mark kicked himself for not saying he was his brother. She would never have known.
'I'm sorry,' she said, as if regretting she had terminated her call for him. 'We can only give information to relatives.'
'You can't just tell me where he has been transferred to?'
A buzzer sounded. She looked up at the screens and a red light was flashing beside one of them. 'I have to go,' she said. 'I'm sorry.'
She rushed from her station across the ward.
Mark took out his mobile. Then he saw a large sign: 'THE USE OF MOBILE PHONES IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN IN THIS HOSPITAL'.
He backed away, hurriedly retracing his steps to the lift, then took it to the ground floor. Totally gripped with fear he raced through a labyrinth of corridors until he reached the main entrance.
Just as he walked up to the reception desk he heard a loud, near hysterical voice, and saw Zoe, eyes raw, tears streaming down her cheeks, blonde ringlets totally unkempt.
'You and your friend Michael and all your stupid bloody jokes,' she shouted. 'You stupid, bloody immature jerks.'
He stared at her in silence for some moments. Then she collapsed in his arms, sobbing uncontrollably. 'He's dead, Mark, he just died. He's dead. Josh is dead. Oh God, he's dead. Please help me, what am I going to do?'
Mark put his arms around her. 'I -1 thought he was OK, that he was going to pull through,' he said, lamely.
'They said there was nothing they could do for him. They said if he had lived he would have been a vegetable. Oh God. Oh God, please help me, Mark. What am I going to say? How do I tell the children their daddy's never coming home? What do I say to them?'
'Do you - do you want a - a cup of tea or something?'
Through deep gulping sobs she said, 'No I don't want a fucking cup of tea. I want my Josh back. Oh God, they've taken him down to the mortuary. Oh Christ. Oh God, what am I going to do?'
Mark stood in silence, holding her tightly, stroking her back, hoping to hell his relief did not show.
Michael woke with a start from a confused dream, tried to sit up, and his head instantly crashed against the coffin lid. Crying out in pain he tried to move his arms, and his shoulders met the unyielding satin first on the left and then the right. He tossed and thrashed in a sudden claustrophobic panic.
'Get me out of here!' he screamed, turning, thrashing, gulping air, sweating and shivering at the same time.
'Oh, please, get me out of here!'
His voice was deadened. Flat. It wasn't going anywhere, it was trapped in here just the same as he was.
His hands fumbled for the torch, unable to locate it for several seconds in his panic. Then he found it, switched it on, stared up and then sideways at the walls of his prison. He looked at his watch: 11.15.
Night, it must still be night, Thursday night.
Rivulets of sweat were running down his body. Making a puddle underneath him. He craned his neck to look over his shoulder, shone his torch down and a reflection shone back. Water.
A whole fucking inch.
He looked down in shock. There was no way. No, absolutely no way that he had sweated this much.
Two fucking inches.
He put his hand down again. Shone the torch. Held his pinkie upright, like a dipstick. The water came up to just below the second joint. There was no way he had sweated that much. Cupping his hands he scooped some up and drank it greedily, oblivious to its salty, muddy taste. He drank more and more; for several minutes it seemed to him that the more he drank, the thirstier he was.
Then when he had finally finished, a new aspect of the rising water came into the equation. He grabbed the belt buckle and began frantically grinding away at the lid until again, but within minutes, the buckle became so hot it was burning his fingers.
He picked up the whisky bottle. Still a third of its contents left. He struck the top of the bottle hard against the wood above him. Nothing happened. He tried again, heard the dull thud. A tiny sliver of glass sheared off. Tragic to waste it. He put the neck into his mouth, tilted it, swallowed a mouthful of the burning liquid. God, it tasted good, so good. He lay back, up-ended the bottle into his mouth and let it pour in, swallowing, swallowing, swallowing until he choked.
He held the bottle up, squinting at it in the beam, having difficulty focusing now, his head swimming. Only a small amount of whisky remained. Just about--
There was a thump right above his head. He felt the coffin move!
Then another thump.
Like a footstep.
Like someone standing on the lid of the coffin right above him!
Hope sprang every nerve in his body. Oh Jesus Christ, theyaregetting me out of here at last!
'OK, you bastards!' he yelled, his voice more feeble than he had intended. He took a breath, heard another scrape above him. At fucking last!
'What the fuck kept you?'
He banged his fist against the lid, slurring his words. 'Hey! What fucking kept you? Josh? Luke? Pete? Robbo? Have you any idea how long I've been down here? This is just so not funny, this really is just so not funny. You hear me?'
Had he imagined it?
'Hello! Hey, hello!'
No way had he imagined it. There had been footsteps. A wild animal? No, they had been heavier than that. Human heavy.
He knocked frantically with the bottle and then with his fists.
Then very suddenly, very silently, as if he were watching a magic show on television, the breathing tube slid upwards and disappeared, A few grains of soil fell down through the hole it vacated.
Mark could barely see. The red mist of panic that seized him was blurring his vision, fogging his brain. Michael's voice, he had heard Michael's goddamn muffled voice. Oh Jesus!
He closed the door of his BMW in the darkness of the forest, in the lashing rain, jabbed at the ignition, and tried to get the key in. His boots were heavy and tacky with cloying mud, water was streaming down from his baseball cap onto his face.
With his gloved hands he twisted the key and the headlamps came on in a brilliant white glare as the engine turned over and fired. In their beam he saw the grave and the trees beyond. An animal scurried off into the undergrowth, leaves and plants swayed in the wind and rain, for a moment almost surreally like plants in a current on the ocean floor.
He kept staring at the grave, at the corrugated sheet he had carefully pulled back over, and the shrubbery he had uprooted and laid over it to camouflage it. Then he saw the second spade still sticking in the ground and cursed. He climbed down from the car, ran across and grabbed it, and shoved it inside the tailgate. Then he climbed back in, slammed the door, scanning the scene, checking it as well as his blurred vision could.
He was thinking. No construction was due to start here for at least another month, there were still planning issues to be sorted and finalized. No reason for anyone to come here. The planning committee had made their inspection, everything now was on hold for the formal rubber stamp.
Shaking uncontrollably, he put the car in gear and headed back down the track, over the two cattle grids again that had been put there, presumably by the Forestry Commission, to stop deer getting out onto the road.
As he pulled out onto the road he switched on the radio, hitting button after button in search of some music. There was news.
Talking. A commercial. He hit the CD button, surfed each of the CDs in turn, but none of them worked for him. He switched the machine off.
Minutes later, as he drove around a curve, the beam of the headlights picked up a row of wreaths on the verge. The sight churned his stomach. Headlights came the other way, passed. Then more headlights. He gripped the wheel tightly, his head swimming, trying to concentrate, trying to think clearly. Then he came to another curve, even sharper, and he was going much too fast. Panicking, he braked sharply, too sharply, felt the judder as the ABS anti-skid kicked in and heard a thump as the breathing tube shot forward off the passenger seat beside him and into the footwell.
Somehow he got around the bend, then saw a lay-by ahead and pulled in. He pressed the SatNav command button, then dialled in Arlington Reservoir. After a few moment the system's disembodied female voice announced, 'The route is being calculated.'
Twenty-five minutes later he pulled up at the start of the wooden jetty on the deserted hard of the yacht club of the five-mile-long reservoir and switched off the engine. Grabbing his flashlight, he climbed down and stood in the darkness, listening. The only sound was the clacking of rigging flailing in the wind. No lights on anywhere. The clubhouse was silent. He glanced at his watch. Ten after midnight.
He took the breathing tube from the footwell, then the two shovels from inside the tailgate and walked down to the end of the jetty. He and Michael had begun their sailing here, as kids, before they had become more adventurous and started ocean sailing. From his memory the water here was about twenty feet deep. Not perfect, but it should be adequate. He dropped the breathing tube and then the shovels into the inky, rippled surface and watched them disappear. Then he pulled off his boots and dropped them in too. They sank instantly.
Then he padded back to the car, pulled on the moccasin loafers he had brought and headed home, feeling suddenly very weary. He drove slowly, carefully, not wanting to get clocked by any speed cameras, nor attract the attention of any cop car.
His first task in the morning was going to be to drive straight to a car wash he knew, near Have station. A place that was always busy, that local cab drivers used, where filthy cars were the norm, where there was always a queue, where no one would take the slightest notice of a BMW X5 caked in mud.
Grace took the smouldering stub of his cigar out of his mouth, yawned, then replaced the stub, gripping it with his teeth in a sudden burst of concentration as he scooped up his five cards off the rumpled green baize cloth. A small pile of fifty-pence chips lay in the centre of the table, the antes from each player. In front of him were tumblers of whisky, glasses of wine, piles of cash and chips, and a couple of overflowing ashtrays, surrounded by fragments of crisps and sandwich crumbs. There was a fug of smoke in the room, and outside rain and wind lashed the tall windows, which overlooked the English Channel and the lights of the Palace Pier.
They always played Dealer's Choice, and each time it was his turn, Bob Thornton, a long-retired Detective Inspector, always chose Draw - the poker game Grace liked least of all. He glanced at his watch: 12.38 a.m. Following the tradition of their weekly Thursday night poker games, the last full round had started at half past midnight, and there would be just two more hands after this one.
It had not been a good night for him; despite wearing his lucky turquoise socks and his lucky blue-striped shirt, he'd had unremittingly lousy cards, made a couple of bad calls, and had been seen on an expensive bluff. The whole game had gone the same way as just about everything else this week: south. One hundred and fifty quid down so far, and the last round was often the most vicious.
He glanced fleetingly at his cards, while concentrating on the reactions of his five colleagues to their own, and suddenly perked up a little. Three tens. The first decent hand he'd picked up in at least two hours. But a dangerous hand too - good enough that he'd be daft not to play it, but it was no slam-dunk.
Bob Thornton was a hard guy to read. In his mid-seventies, he was a big, energetic man who still played regular squash, with a hawkish face and liver-spotted hands that looked almost reptilian. He wore a green cardigan over a tartan open-neck shirt, corduroy trousers and tennis plimsolls. By a wide margin he was the oldest of a hard core of ten regular players, from whom enough to cobble JtOgether a game turned up to play every Thursday, week in, week out, lyear in, year out, each player taking it in turn to host the evening.
The game had been going on long before Grace had joined the Force. Bob had told them, more than once, that when he had joined the group decades ago he had been the youngest player. Thinking about his looming thirty-ninth birthday, Grace wondered if, like Bob, he would one day end up himself as the old fart of the group.
But age clearly brought some advantages. Bob was sharp as a tack, hard to read and a wily and very aggressive player. Grace could not remember many occasions over the years when Bob had not gone home with a profit - and true to form there was mountain of chips and cash in front of the man right now. Grace watched him hunch his shoulders as he inspected and sorted his cards, keeping them close to his chest, peering at them through his glasses with alert, greedy eyes. Then he opened and shut his mouth, flicking his tongue along his lips in a serpent-like manner, and Grace knew Immediately he didn't have to worry about Bob's hand - unless he got lucky in the pickup.
It was Grace's turn to open the betting. He eyed the rest of his companions.
Tom Allen, thirty-four years old, a detective in Brighton CID, with a serious, boyish face and a mop of curly hair. Dressed in a sweatshirt over a T-shirt, he peered at his cards impassively. Grace always found him hard to read.
Next to Tom sat Chris Croke, a motorcycle cop in Traffic - or Road Policing, as the department was now called. With lean and wiry good looks, short blond hair, blue eyes and a quick-fire charm, Croke was a consummate ladies' man, who seemed to live the lifestyle more of a playboy than of a cop. He was hosting tonight's game in his flash, fifth-floor apartment in the coolest apartment block in Brighton, the Van Allen. Ordinarily a cop living such a ritzy lifestyle would have aroused suspicions in Grace, but it was well known that Croke's exmissus was a socialite heiress to a vast football pools fortune.
Croke had met her when he'd stopped her for speeding and it was his boast that, despite giving her a ticket, she had still married him.
Whatever the truth, that was now history, but there was no question he had done well out of the marriage, because when she had finally got tired of the erratic hours that were the lot of any cop's spouse, she had settled a pile of loot on him.
Croke was reckless and unpredictable. In seven years of playing with him, Grace found his body language hard to decipher. He never seemed to care whether he won or lost; it was much easier to read people who had something at stake.
Grace turned his focus on Trevor Carter, a quiet, balding man who worked in IT at Brighton police station. Dressed conservatively in a grey shirt, sleeves rolled up, unfashionably large glasses and drab brown trousers, Carter was a frugal, family man, who played the game as if the welfare of his four children depended on it. He rarely bluffed, rarely raised and as a result rarely finished any evening up. Carter's giveaway was a nervous twitch of his right eye - the surefire signal that he had a strong hand. It was twitching now.
Lastly he looked at Geoff Panone, a Drugs Squad detective of thirty, dressed in a black T-shirt, white jeans and sandals, with nearshoulderlength black hair and a gold earring, who was puffing away on a massive cigar. Grace had learned from watching him over the past couple of years that when he had a good hand at Draw poker, he systematically rearranged the cards in his hand, and when he had a lousy hand, he didn't. Worryingly, he was now rearranging his cards.
'Your bet, Roy,' Bob Thornton told him.
The limit was always the pot on the table. No one could bet higher, which kept the stakes to an affordable level. With six of them putting in a total ante of three pounds, that was the opening ceiling. Not wanting to give anything away, and at the same time wanting to keep everyone in, Grace opened with one pound. All of them came in until Trevor Carter, who raised by three pounds, the twitching of his eye even more pronounced now.
Geoff tossed in a further two pounds. Bob Thornton hesitated just for a fraction, just enough for Grace to know that he definitely did not have a good hand so far and was taking a chance because it was the last round. He decided to press his opportunity and raised by a further three pounds.
Everyone looked at him. They knew he'd had a bad night and this
i a giveaway. But it was already too late to do anything about that.
Tom threw his cards down and shook his head. Chris hesitated jr some moments, then tossed in five pounds. Trevor and Geoff ?ped their bets to match also. Bob Thornton followed.
'How many cards?' Bob asked Grace.
Changing two would have revealed he had three of a kind. But longing two would have given him better odds. Grace decided his jlltrategy and changed just one, dumping his three of clubs, retaining seven of spades. He picked up a seven of hearts.
His heart leapt. A full honse.'Not a top one, but a seriously strong hand. Tens on sevens. Now he was in business!
Certain from watching the change of cards of the others that he had the strongest hand, Grace decided to seize his opportunity and bet the ranch. To his dismay, each of the next three players in turn dropped out and he realized he'd pushed it too hard. But then to his relief Trevor Carter came in and raised him.
Confidently pulling out his wallet, Grace raised him further. Trevor then raised him several more times in succession, until Grace finally lost his nerve, peeled some more banknotes from his wallet and saw him.
Then he puffed nervously on his cigar as Carter flipped over his cards, one by one.
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.
A running flush - 7,8,9,10, Jack on the bounce.
'Bloody brilliant!' Croke said.
"Well played!' Bob Thornton exclaimed. 'My God, that was well hidden!'
'I picked them up,' a near-ecstatic Trevor Carter said. 'I picked them up!'
Grace sat back in dismay. It was a hand in a million - maybe even longer odds than that. Impossible to have predicted. And yet he should have realized, from the uncharacteristic strength of Trevor's betting, that Trevor knew he had him beat - and seen him much sooner.
'I reckon your supernatural powers need a bit of topping up, Roy,' chirped Croke.
'Fuck off!' retorted Grace more good-naturedly than he felt. Assistant Chief Constable Alison Vosper was right. People were laughing at him. Here it was light-hearted, among friends. But there were others in the Force for whom there was no joke. If he wasn't careful his career could be stalled and he could find himself sidelined. And right now he was down the best part of three hundred quid.
And by the time the remaining three games had been played, Grace had managed to increase his losses for the evening to four hundred and twenty-two pounds and fifty pence.
He was not a happy bunny as he took the lift down to the underground car park of the block. As he walked towards his Alfa Romeo parked in the visitors' section, he was still so cross with himself and his friends that he barely noticed the mud-streaked BMW X5 that was driving in.
Bha!' Davey, soaking wet, unlocked the door of his Portakabin, , kicked it wide open and strutted in. 'Yeeha!' he announced to
television screen, which was always on, to all his buddies who
ig around on the screen. He paused, water trickling down his leball cap and off his oilskins and muddy Wellingtons onto the i carpet, to check them out. James Spader was in an office, talk Ig to some chick he did not recognize.
'Wasted 'bout two hundred of them darned vermin. Know what I'm saying?' Davey said to James Spader in his best Southern drawl.
But Spader simply ignored him, kept on talking to the chick.
^ Davey picked the remote off his bed and pointed it at the television.
'Yeah, well, I don't need you either, know what I'm saying?' He
Changed channels. Now he saw two guys he did not know, face to
face, arguing with each other. Click.
James Gandolfino was walking through the cars in a Mercedes Benz dealership, towards a handsome woman with long black hair.
Davey zapped him and he was gone.
He surfed through a whole bunch of channels, but there didn't seem to be anyone interested in talking to him. So he walked over to the fridge. 'Just gonna git me a beer from the minibar,' he announced, pulled out a Coke, flipped it open with one hand, drained half the can, then sat on the bed and belched. His watch said 2.21.
He was wide awake. Wanted to talk to someone, to tell them about all the rabbits he and his dad had shot tonight.
'Here's the thing,' Davey said, then he belched again. He checked the pockets of his oilskins, pulled out a couple of live shotgun cartridges, then hung the oilskins on their hook on the door. He sat on the edge of his bed, wearily, the way he'd seen Clint sit when he was easing off his boots, and dropped his Wellingtons one after the other onto the floor.
Then he fondled the two unspent cartridges. 'They've got your name on them/ he informed Sean Penn, who was walking towards him. But Sean Penn wasn't in the mood for conversation either.
Then Davey remembered. There was someone who would talk to him. He knelt down on the floor, reached under the bed for the walkie-talkie, then pulled out the aerial as far as it would go. Kerloink!
He pressed the listen button and heard the crackle of static. Then he tried the talk button.
Michael, wide awake, was crying. He did not know what to do, he felt 0 utterly helpless. It was after two in the morning, Friday morning, he was meant to be getting married tomorrow. There were a million things that needed to be done.
Who or what the hell had taken the breathing tube? Could it have been a badger taking something to its lair? What would a badger want with a length of rubber tubing? Besides, the footsteps had been too heavy. It had been a human, for sure.
Where was Ashley, his beloved, darling, gorgeous, caring Ashley? What was she thinking right now, what was going through her mind?
He kept hoping, every moment, that this was some terrible nightmare and in a minute he would wake and be in his bed with Ashley beside him. It just did not make any sense.
There was a sudden sharp hiss, stark and clear. The walkietalkie!
Then a voice, in a thick Southern drawl said: 'You have any idea how much damage they do? Huh? You got yourself any idea?'
Frantically, Michael scrabbled in the darkness for his torch.
The voice continued, 'Y'know, most folk ain't got no idea. You git them durn conservationalists talking 'bout protecting the wildlife, but them guys, they don't know shit, know what I'm saying?'
Michael found the torch, switched it on, located the walkietalkie and pressed the talk button. 'Hello?' he said. 'Hello? Davey?'
'Uh huh, I'm talking to ya! Bet you don't have no idea, right?'
'Hello, who are you?'
'Hey dude, you don't need to worry 'bout who I am. Thing is five danged rabbits eat near enough the same amount of grass as one sheep. Go figure.'
Michael gripped the black box, totally confused, wondering if he
was hallucinating. What the hell was going on? 'Can I speak to Mark? Or Josh? Or Luke? Or Pete? Robbo?'
There was silence for some moments.
'Hello?' Michael said. 'Are you still there?'
'Ma friend, I ain't going nowhere.'
'Who are you?'
'Maybe I'm the Man With No Name.'
'Listen, Davey, this joke's gone on too long, OK? Too fucking long. Please get me out of here.'
'You gotta be impressed with two hundred rabbits, right?'
Michael stared at the walkie-talkie. Had everyone gone totally insane? Was this the lunatic who had just taken out the breathing tube? Michael tried desperately to think clearly.
'Listen,' he said. 'I've been put here as a joke by some friends. Can you get me out of here, please?'
'You in some kind of bad shit?' the American voice said.
Still unsure whether this was some kind of game, Michael said, 'Bad shit, you got it.'
'What do you think about two hundred rabbits?'
'What do you want me to think about two hundred rabbits?'
'Well dude, what I want you to think is that any dude wastes two hundred rabbits, he's gotta be an OK kind of a dude, know what I'm saying?'
'Totally,' Michael said. 'I totally agree with you.'
'OK, we're on the same page, that's cool.'
'Sure is. Cool'
'Don't get much cooler, right, dude?'
'You got it,' Michael said, trying to humour him. 'So maybe you could lift the lid off for me and we could have a discussion about this face to face?'
'I'm kinda tired now. Think I'm going to hunker down, get me some shut-eye, know what I'm saying?'
Panicking, Michael said, 'Hey, no, don't do that, let's keep talking. Tell me more about the rabbits, Davey.'
'Told ya, I'm the Man With No Name.'
'OK, Man With No Name, you don't happen to have a couple of Panadols, because I've one mother of a headache?'
There was silence. Just the crackle of static.
'Hello?' Michael said. 'You still there?'
There was a chuckle. 'Panadol?'
'Come on, please get me out of here.'
After another long silence the voice said, 'Guess that depends where here is.'
'I'm in the goddamn coffin.'
'You're shittin' me.'
Another chuckle. 'No shit, Sherlock, right?'
'Right! No shit, Sherlock.'
'I have to go now, it's late. Shuteye!'
'Hey, please wait - please--'
The walkie-talkie went silent.
In the fading beam of the flashlight Michael saw that the water had risen considerably just in the past hour. He tested the depth again with his hand. An hour ago it had reached the knuckle of his index finger.
Now it covered his hand completely.
Roy Grace, in a white short-sleeve shirt and sombre tie, his collar loose, stared at the text message on his phone, and frowned:
Can't stop thinking about you! Claudine xx
Sitting in his office shortly after 9 a.m., in front of his computer screen, which was pinging with new emails every few moments, feeling dog tired and with a blinding headache, he was cold. It was tipping down with rain outside and there was an icy draught in the room. For some moments he watched it running down his window, staring at the bleak view of the alley wall beyond, then he unscrewed the cap of a bottle of mineral water he'd bought at a petrol station on his way in, rummaged in a drawer of his desk and took out a packet of Panadol. He popped two capsules from the foil, swallowed them, then checked the time the message had been sent: 2.14 a.m.
Oh God. Now it registered.
His cop-hating, vegan blind date from U-Date of Tuesday night. She'd been horrible, the evening had been a disaster, and now she was texting him. Terrific.
He held his mobile phone in his hand, toying with whether to reply or just delete it, when his door opened and Branson walked in, dressed in a crisp brown suit, a violent tie and two-tone brown and cream correspondent's shoes, holding a capped Starbucks coffee in one hand and two paper bags in the other.
'Yo, man!' Branson greeted him, breezily, as usual, plonking himself in the chair opposite Grace and setting the coffee and paper bag down on his desk. 'Still own a shirt, I see.'
'Very funny,' Grace said.
'You win last night?'
'No, I did not sodding well win.' Grace was still smarting at his
loss. Four hundred and twenty quid. Money wasn't a problem for him, and he had no debts, but he hated losing, especially losing heavily.
'You look like shit.'
'No, I mean, really. You look like absolute shit.'
'Nice of you to come all this way to tell me.'
'You ever see The Cincinatti Kid?'
'I don't remember.'
'Steve McQueen. Got wiped out in a card game. Had a great ending - you'd remember, the kid in the alley challenging him to a bet, and he tosses his last coin at him.' Branson peeled the lid off, spilling coffee onto the desk, then removed an almond croissant, dropping a trail of icing sugar next to the coffee spill. He proffered it to Grace. 'Want a bite?'
Grace shook his head. 'You should eat something more healthy for breakfast/
'Oh really? So I get to look like you? What did you have? Organic wheat grass?'
Grace held up the Panadol packet. 'All the nourishment I need. What are you doing here in the sticks?'
'Got a meeting in ten minutes with the Chief. I've been drafted onto the Drugs Performance committee.'
'It's all about profile, isn't that what you told me? Stay visible to your chiefs?'
'Good boy, you remembered. I'm impressed.'
'But actually that's not why I'm here to see you, old-timer.' Branson pulled a birthday card out of the second bag and laid it in front of Grace. 'Getting everyone to sign - for Mandy'
Mandy Walker was in the Child Protection Unit in Brighton. At one time Grace and Branson had both worked with her.
'She's leaving?' Grace said.
Branson nodded, then mimed a pregnant belly. 'Actually, thought you'd be in court today.'
'Adjourned to Monday.' Grace signed alongside a dozen other names on the card; the coffee and pastry suddenly smelled good. As
Branson took a bite of croissant he reached out a hand, took the other croissant from its bag and tore a mouthful off, savouring the instant hit of sweetness. He chewed slowly, peering at Branson's tie, which had such a sharp geometric pattern it almost made him dizzy, then handed back the card.
'Roy, that flat we went to on Wednesday, right?'
'Down The Drive?
'There's something I don't get. I need the wisdom of your years. You got a couple of minutes?'
'Do I have any choice?'
Ignoring him, Branson said, 'Here's the thing.' He took another bite of his croissant, icing sugar and crumbs falling onto his suit and tie. 'Five guys on a stag night, right? Now--'
There was a rap on the door, then it opened, and Eleanor Hodgson, Grace's management support assistant, brought in a sheaf of papers and files. A rather prim, efficient middle-aged woman, with neat black hair and a plain, slightly old-fashioned face, she always seemed nervous of just about everything. At the moment she looked nervous of Glenn Branson's tie.
'Good morning, Roy,' she said. 'Good morning, DS Branson.'
'How you doing?' Glenn replied.
She put the documents down on Roy's desk. 'I've got a couple of forensics reports back from Huntingdon. One's the one you've been waiting for.'
'Yes. I've also got the agenda and briefing notes for your budget meeting at eleven.'
'Thanks.' As she was leaving the room he quickly sifted through the pile and pulled the Huntington report to the top. Huntingdon, in Cambridge, was one of the forensic centres that Sussex Police used. Tommy Lytle was Grace's oldest 'cold case'. At the age of eleven, twenty-seven years ago, Tommy had set out from school on a February afternoon, to walk home. He'd never been seen again. The only lead at the time had been a Morris Minor van, seen by a witness who had had the presence of mind to write down the number. But no link to the owner, a weirdo loner with a history of sex offences on minors, had ever been established. And then, two months ago, by complete coincidence, the van had showed up on Grace's radar, when a classic car enthusiast who now owned it got stopped for drunken driving.
The advances in forensics from twenty-seven years back were beyond quantum. With modern DNA testing, police forensic scientists boasted, not without substance, that if a human being had ever been in a room, no matter how long ago, given time, they could find evidence. Just one skin cell that had escaped the vacuum cleaners, or a hair, or a clothing fibre. Maybe something one hundred times smaller than a pinhead. There would be a trace.
And now they had the van. And the original suspect was still alive. And forensics had been through that van with microscopes!
Despite his fondness for Branson, suddenly Grace could not wait for him to leave, so he could read the report. If he solved this, it would be the oldest cold case ever solved in the country.
Popping the remains of the croissant in his mouth and talking while he chewed, Branson said, 'Five guys go on a stag night, right? The groom is a real joker - he's pulled a stunt on each of the guys in the past - handcuffed one poor sod to a seat on the night train to Edinburgh when he was meant to be getting married in Brighton the next morning.'
'Nice guy,' Grace said.
'Yes, just the kind of fun bloke you want for your best friend. So. Let's look at what we have: Five of them start out. Somewhere along the line they lose the groom, Michael Harrison. Then they are in an RTA, three of them dead at the scene, the fourth in a coma and he died last night. Michael has vanished, no one has heard a word. It is now Friday morning and he's due to be married in a little over twenty-four hours.'
Branson sipped some coffee, stood up for a moment and walked around the office. He stopped and stared for a moment at the SASCO flip chart, on which a draft rota for something had been written in blue ink. He flipped it over, then picked up a pen and drew on the board.
'We got Michael Harrison.' He wrote his name and drew a circle around it. 'We got the four dead mates.' He drew a second circle. 'Then we have the fiancee, Ashley Harper.' He drew a third circle around her. 'Then the business partner, Mark Warren.' He drew a fourth circle. 'And ...'
Grace looked at him quizzically.
'We have what we dug out of his computer yesterday, yeah?'
'A bank account in the Cayman Islands.'
Still holding the pen, Branson sat down in front of Grace again.
Grace continued. 'The business partner wasn't at the stag do, you said.'
Branson never failed to be impressed by Grace's memory for detail. He always seemed to retain everything. 'Correct.'
'Because he was stuck out of town on a delayed flight.'
'That's the story so far.'
'So what does he say? Where does he think Michael Harrison went? Did he fuck off to the Cayman Islands?'
'Roy, you have seen his bird. And we agreed no bloke in his right mind would ditch her and run away- she is drop-dead gorgeous, and smart with it. And ...' Branson pursed his lips.
'She lies. I did your NLP stuff on her, the eye trick. I asked her if she knew about the Cayman Islands account and she said she didn't. She was lying.'
'She was probably just being protective. Covering her boss - and fiance's arse.' Grace was distracted for an instant by the ping of another incoming email. Then he thought hard. 'What is your take so far?'
'The following possible scenarios: Could be his mates have been paying him back and they've tied him up somewhere. Or he might have had an accident. Or he's got cold feet and done a runner. Or the Cayman Islands features in this somewhere.'
Grace clicked open one of the emails that was flagged as urgent and was from his boss, Alison Vosper. She asked if he was free for a brief meeting at 12.30. He typed back that he was, while he talked to Branson. 'The guy's business partner, Mark Warren, he'd know if they had been planning a prank, like tying him to a tree, or something.' 'Ms Harper says he knows they were planning something, but doesn't know what they decided on.'
'Have you checked out the pubs they visited?'
'Doing that today.'
'Starting on that, too.'
'Have you checked out the van?'
From the look of sudden panic on Branson's face, Grace saw he hadn't. 'Why the hell not? Isn't that the first place to look?'
'Yeah, you're right. I haven't got fully into gear on this yet.'
'Have you done an all-ports?'
'Yeah, his picture's being circulated this morning. We've put out a missing persons alert.'
Grace felt as if a dark cloud had slipped overhead. Missing persons. Every time he heard the phrase it affected him, brought it all right to the front of his mind again. He thought of this woman, Ashley, Branson had described. The day before her wedding and her man gone missing. How must she feel?
'Glenn, you said this guy is a joker - any chance this a prank he's pulling and he's about to turn up, with a big grin on his face?'
'With four of his best mates dead? He'd have to be pretty sick.' Branson looked at his watch. 'What you doing for lunch?'
'Unless I get a call from Julia Roberts, I may be free - oh - subject to No. 27 not detaining me for more than half a hour.'
'How is the delightful Alison Vosper?'
Grace gave him a bleak stare and raised his eyebrows. 'More sour than sweet.'
'Ever thought of shagging her?'
'Yes, for about one nano-second - or perhaps even a femtosecond - isn't that the smallest unit of time that exists?'
'Could be a good career move.'
'I can think of a better one.'
'Like not trying to shag the Assistant Chief Constable.'
'Did you ever see Susan Sarandon in Moonlight MileV
'I don't remember it.'
'She reminds me of Susan Sarandon in that movie. I liked that movie, it was good. Yeah. Want to take a ride out to the car pound
with me, lunchtime - talk some more on the way? I'll buy you a pint and slap-up sandwich.'
'Lunch at the car pound? Wow, proves what I thought the moment I saw that tie. You really do have style.'
The water was still rising, Michael calculated, at one inch every three hours. It was now just below his ears. He was shivering from cold, getting feverish.
He had worked frantically through the night, sawing with the glass, and he was now on the last fragment of the whisky bottle and his arms ached with exhaustion. He had made a deep groove in the lid, but had still not yet broken through to the outside of it.
He was pacing himself now, two hours on, half an hour off, imagining he was sailing. But he was losing. The water was rising faster than the hole was widening. His head would be underwater before the hole was wide enough to get through.
Every fifteen minutes he pressed the talk button on the walkietalkie. Each time all he got was static back.
It was now 11.03 a.m. Friday.
He ground away, powdered glass and wet soil pouring steadily down, the last fragment of glass shrinking with every minute he worked, thinking, all the time thinking. When the glass was finished he still had the belt buckle. And when that was finished what other instruments did he have to grind away at the wood with? The lens of the torch? The batteries?
A sharp hiss as the walkie-talkie came to life, then a phoney American accent again. 'Hi, buddy, how ya doin'?' This time he recognized it.
Michael pressed the talk button. 'Davey?' he said. 'Is that you?'
'Just watching the news on TV,' Davey informed him. 'They're showing an auto wreck I went to with my dad on Tuesday! Boy that was some accident! All of 'em dead - and there's one guy missing!'
Michael suddenly gripped the walkie-talkie with deep intensity. 'What was it, Davey? What was the car?'
'Ford Transit. Boy was it trashed!'
'Tell me more, Davey.'
'There was one guy sticking right out through the windshield, half his head missing. Jeez, could see his brains coming out. Knew right away he was a goner. Only one survivor, but he died too.'
Michael began shaking uncontrollably. 'This guy who is missing. Do you know who he is?'
'Tell me who he is?'
'I have to go in a minute, help my dad.'
'Davey, listen to me. I may be that guy.'
'You shittin' me?'
'What's his name, Davey?'
'Uh - dunno. They're just saying he's meant to be getting married tomorrow.' Michael closed his eyes. Oh no, oh Christ, oh no. 'Davey, was this accident - ah - this auto wreck - about nine o'clock on Tuesday night?'
'That's about the size of it.'
With new urgency, Michael held the walkie-talkie up close to his mouth. 'Davey, I'm that guy! I'm that guy who is getting married tomorrow!'
'You shittin' me?'
'No, Davey. Listen to me carefully.'
'I have to go - can talk to you later.'
Michael shouted at him, 'DAVEY, DON'T GO, PLEASE DON'T GO. YOU ARE THE ONLY PERSON WHO CAN SAVE ME.'
Silence came back at him. Just the crackle of static to tell him Davey was still on the other end.
'I have to go, know what I'm saying?'
'Davey, I need your help. You are the only person in the world who can help me. Do you want to help me?'
Another long silence. Then, 'What did you say your name was?'
'They just said your name on television!'
'Do you have a car, Davey? Can you drive?'
'My dad has a truck.'
'Can I speak to your dad?'
'Uh -I dunno. He's pretty busy, you know, we have to go out and tow in a wreck.'
Michael thought, desperately hard, how to get through to this character. 'Davey, would you like to be a hero? Would you like to be on television?'
The voice became giggly. The on television? You mean like, me be a movie star?'
'Yes, you could be a movie star! Just get your dad to speak to me and I'll tell him how you could be a movie star. Why don't you get him, put him on the walkie-talkie? How about that?'
'Davey, please get your dad.'
'Like here's the problem. My dad don't know I have this walkietalkie, you see he'd be pretty mad at me if he knew I had this.'
Humouring him, Michael said, 'I think he'd be proud of you, if he knew you were a hero.'
'I have to go now. See ya! Over and out!'
The walkie-talkie fell silent again.
Pleading with all his heart, Michael was calling: 'Davey, please, Davey, don't leave me, please get your dad, please, Davey!'
But Davey had gone.
Ashley, sitting bleakly in an old, deep armchair in the tiny sitting room of Michael's mother's bungalow, stared blankly ahead through a blur of tears. She looked with no appetite at the untouched plate of assorted biscuits on the coffee table, then across at the colour photograph, on the mantelpiece above the fake-coal electric fire, of Michael, aged twelve, on a bicycle, then out through the net curtains at the view across the rain-lashed street to playing fields just below Brighton racecourse.
'I have the dressmaker coming at two,' she said. 'What do you think I should do?' She sipped her coffee then dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Bobo, Gill Harrison's tiny white shih-tzu dog with a bow on its head, looked up at Ashley and gave a begging whine for a biscuit. She responded by stroking the soft hair of its belly.
Gill Harrison sat on the edge of the sofa opposite her. She was dressed in a shapeless white T-shirt, shell-suit trousers and cheap white trainers. A thin ribbon of smoke trailed from a cigarette gripped between her fingers. Light glinted off a diamond engagement ring that was far too large to be real, next to a thin gold wedding band. A bracelet hung loose on her wrist.
She spoke in a gravelly voice, tinged with a coarse Sussex accent, and her strain showed through it. 'He's a good boy. He never let anyone down in his life - that's what I told the policeman what came round. This is not him, not Michael.' She shook her head and took a heavy drag on her cigarette. 'He likes a joke--' She gave a wry laugh. 'When he was a kid he was a terror at Christmas with a flippin' whoopee cushion. Always giving people a fright. But this is not him, Ashley'
'Something's happened to him. Them boys done something to him. Or he's had an accident as well. He hasn't run out on you. He was round here Sunday evening, we had tea together. He was telling
me how much he loved you, how happy he was, bless him. You've made him so happy. He was telling me about this house you've found Out in the country that you want to buy, all his plans for it.' She took another drag on her cigarette, then coughed. 'He's a resourceful boy. Ever since his dad--' She pursed her lips, and Ashley could see this Was really difficult for her. 'Ever since his dad - he told you?'
'He stepped into his dad's shoes. I couldn't have coped without Michael. He was so strong. A rock, to myself and Early - you'll like Early. He sent her the money for her ticket back from Australia so she could be here for the wedding, bless him. She should be arriving here any minute. She phoned me from the airport a couple of hours ago.' She shook her head, in despair.
Ashley, in baggy brown jeans and a ragged white shirt, smiled at her.
'I met Early just before she went to Australia - she came into the office.'
'She's a good girl.'
'If she's your daughter she must be!'
Gill Harrison leaned forward and stubbed out her cigarette. 'You know, Ashley, all his life Michael has worked so hard. Doing a newspaper round when he was a child to help me and Early, and then his business with Mark. Nobody ever appreciates him. Mark's a nice boy but--'
Gill shook her head.
'I've known Mark since he was a child. Michael and he were inseparable. But Mark's always hung on to his coat tails. I sometimes think Mark's a bit jealous of him.'
'I thought they made a good team,' Ashley said.
Gill pulled a pack of Dunhills from her handbag, shook another cigarette out and stuck it in her mouth. 'I've always told him to watch out for Mark. Michael's innocent, he trusts people too easily.'
'What are you saying?'
She pulled a cheap plastic lighter from her bag and lit the cigarette. 'You have a good influence on Michael. You'll make sure he's all right, won't you?'
Bobo started whining again for a biscuit. Ignoring it, Ashley responded, 'Michael's strong. He's all right, he's fine.'
'Yeah, course he is.' She shot a glance across at the telephone on a table in the corner. 'He's all right. He'll call any time now. Those poor boys. They were so much a part of Michael's life. I can't believe--'
'I can't either.'
'You have your appointment with your dressmaker, dear. You should keep it. The show must go on. Michael will turn up, you do believe that, don't you?'
After a brief hesitation, Ashley said, 'Of course I do.'
'Let's speak later.'
Ashley stood up, walked over to her future mother-in-law, and hugged her hard. 'It's all going to be OK.'
'You're the best thing that ever happened to him. You are a wonderful person, Ashley. I was so happy when Michael told me that -that--' She was struggling now, emotion choking her words. 'That you-the two of you--'
Ashley kissed her on the forehead.
Grace sat, tight-lipped, in the blue Ford, holding the edges of his seat, watching the unfolding country road ahead nervously through the wipers and the heavy rain. Oblivious to his passenger's fear, Glenn Branson swept tidily through a series of bends, proudly demonstrating the skill he had recently acquired from a high-speed police driving course. The radio, tuned to a rap station, was far too loud for Grace.
'Doing it right, aren't I?'
'Uh - yep,' Grace said, deciding the less conversation, the less distraction to Branson, which in turn meant longer life expectancy for both of them. He reached forward and turned the volume down.
'Jay-Z,' Branson said. 'Magic, isn't he?'
They entered a long right-hander. 'They tell you to keep hard to the left, to open up the view; that's a good tip, isn't it.'
A left-hander was coming up and in Grace's view they were going too fast to get round it. 'Great tip,' he said, from somewhere deep in his gullet.
They got round it, then down into a dip.
'Am I scaring you?'
'You're a wuss. Guess it's your age. Do you remember BullittV
'Steve McQueen? You like him, don't you?'
'Brilliant! Best car chase ever in a movie.'
'It ended in a bad car smash.'
'Brilliant, that film,' Branson said, missing his point - or more likely, Grace thought, deliberately ignoring it.
Sandy used to drive fast too. That was part of her natural recklessness. He used to be so scared that Sandy would have a bad accident one day, because she never seemed to be able to get her head around the natural laws of physics that determined when a car
would make it around a corner and when it would not. Yet in all the seven years they were together she never once crashed, or even scratched, her car.
Ahead of them, to his relief, he saw the sign - 'bolney car pound' - fixed to tall sheet-metal fencing, topped with barbed wire. Branson braked hard and turned in, past a guard dogs warning sign, into the forecourt of a large modern warehouse building.
Grabbing an umbrella from the boot, and huddling beneath it, they rang the bell on the entryphone beside a grey door. Moments later it was opened by a plump, greasy-haired man of about thirty, wearing a blue boiler suit over a filthy T-shirt, and holding a half eaten sandwich in a tattooed hand.
'Detective Sergeant Branson and Detective Superintendent Grace,' Branson said. 'I rang earlier.'
Chewing a mouthful, the guy looked blank for a moment. Behind him, several badly wrecked cars and vans sat in the warehouse. His eyes rolled pensively. 'The Transit, yeah?'
'Yup', Branson said.
'White? Came in Tuesday from Wheeler's?'
'That's the one.'
They signed in, then followed him across the warehouse floor and out through a side door, into an enclosure that was a good acre in size, Grace estimated, filled with wrecked vehicles as far as the eye could see. A few were under tarpaulins, but most were exposed to the elements.
Holding the umbrella high, just clearing the top of Branson's head, he looked at a Rentokil van that was burnt out after a bad frontal collision - it was hard to imagine anyone had survived in it. Then he noticed a Porsche sports car, compacted to little more than ten feet in length. And a Toyota saloon with its roof cut off.
The place always gave him the heebie-jeebies. Grace had never worked in the Traffic Division, but in his days as a beat copper he'd attended his share of traffic accidents and it was impossible not to be affected by them. It could always happen to anyone. You could set out on a journey, happy, full of plans, and moments later, in the blink of an eye, maybe through no fault of your own, your car was turned into a monster that smashed you to pieces, cut your limbs off and maybe even broiled you alive.
He shuddered. The vehicles that ended up in this place, under ecure lock and key, were the ones in the region that had been Involved in serious or fatal accidents. They were kept here until the Crash Investigation Unit and sometimes Crime Scene Investigators had obtained all the information they required, before going to a breaker's yard.
The fat man in the boiler suit pointed at a twisted mass of white, with part of its roof cut away, the cab, with the windscreen gone, sheared jaggedly away from the rest of the van, and much of the interior was covered in white plastic sheeting. 'That's the one.'
Both Grace and Branson stared at it in silence. Grace couldn't help his mind dwelling for several uncomfortable moments on the sheer horror of the image. The two of them walked around the van. Grace noticed mud caked on the wheel hubs, and more, heavy mud on the sills and splashes of it up the paintwork, slowly dissolving in the rain.
Handing the umbrella to his colleague, he wrenched open the buckled driver's door, and immediately was hit by the cloying, heavy stench of putrefying blood. It didn't matter how many times he experienced it, each new occasion was just as bad. It was the smell of death itself.
Holding his breath to try to block it out he pulled back the sheeting. The steering wheel had been hacked off and the driver's part of the front bench seat was bent right back. There were blood stains all over the front seat, the floor and the dash.
Covering them with the sheeting, he climbed in. It felt dark and unnaturally silent. It gave him the creeps. Part of the engine had come through the flooring and the pedals were raised in an unnatural position. Reaching across, he opened the glove compartment, then pulled out an owner's manual, a pack of parking vouchers, some fuel receipts and a couple of unlabelled tape cassettes. He handed the cassettes to Glenn.
'Better have a listen to these.'
Branson pocketed them.
Ducking under the jagged cut in the roof, Grace climbed into the
back of the van, his shoes echoing on the buckled floor. Branson pulled open the rear doors, letting more light in. Roy stared down at a plastic fuel can, a spare tyre, a wheel-wrench and a parking ticket in a plastic bag. He took the ticket out, and saw it was dated several days before the accident. He handed it to Branson for bagging. There was a solitary, left-foot Adidas trainer which he also passed to Branson, and a nylon bomber jacket. He felt in the pockets, pulling out a pack of cigarettes, a plastic lighter and a dry-cleaning ticket stub with an address in Brighton. Branson bagged each item.
Grace scanned the interior carefully, checking he had missed nothing, thinking hard. Then climbing back out and sheltering under the umbrella, he asked Branson, 'So who owns this vehicle?'
'Houlihan's - the undertakers in Brighton. One of the boys who died worked there - it was his uncle's firm.'
'Four funerals. Should get a nice quantity discount,' Grace said grimly.
'You're a real sick bastard sometimes, you know that?'
Ignoring him, Grace was pensive for a moment. 'Have you spoken to anyone at Houlihan's?'
'Interviewed Mr Sean Houlihan, the owner, himself yesterday afternoon. He's pretty upset as you can imagine. Told me his nephew was a hard-working lad, eager to please.'
'Aren't they all? And he gave him permission to take the van?'
Branson shook his head. 'No. But says it was out of character.'
Roy Grace thought for a moment. 'What's the van ordinarily used for?'
'Collecting cadavers. Hospitals, hospices, old folk's homes, places like that where they'd be spooked to see a hearse. You hungry?'
'I was before I came here.'
Ten minutes later they sat at a wobbly corner table in an almost deserted country pub, Grace cradling a pint of Guinness and Branson a Diet Coke, while they waited for their food to come. There was a cavernous inglenook fireplace beside them piled with unlit logs, and a collection of ancient agricultural artefacts hung from the walls. It was the kind of pub Grace liked, a genuine old country pub. He loathed the theme pubs with their phoney names that were insidiously becoming part of every town's increasingly characterless landscape.
'You've checked his mobile?'
'Should have the records back this afternoon,' Branson said.
Grace looked up to see a barmaid holding a tray with their food. Steak and kidney pudding for him, swordfish steak and salad for Glenn Branson.
Grace pierced the soft suet with his knife and instantly steam and gravy erupted from it.
'Instant heart attack on a plate that is,' Branson chided. 'You know what suet is? Beef fat. Yuk.'
Spooning some mustard onto his plate, Grace said, 'It's not what you eat, it's worrying about what you eat. Worry is the killer.'
Branson forked some fish into his mouth. As he started chewing, Grace continued. 'I read that the levels of mercury in sea fish, from pollution, are at danger level. You shouldn't eat fish more than once a week.'
Branson's chewing slowed down and he looked uncomfortable. 'Where did you read that?'
'It was a report from Nature, I think. It's about the most respected scientific journal in the world.' Grace smiled, enjoying the expression on his friend's face.
'Shit, we eat fish like - almost every night. Mercury1?'
'You'll end up as a thermometer.'
'That's not funny - I mean--' Two sharp beeps in succession silenced him.
Grace tugged his mobile from his pocket and stared at the screen.
Why no reply to my text, Big Boy? ClaudineXX
'God, this is all I need,' he said. 'A frigging bunny boiler.'
Branson raised his eyebrows. 'Healthy meat, rabbit. Free range.'
'This one isn't healthy and she doesn't eat meat. I mean bunny boiler as in that old movie with Glenn Close.'
'Fatal Attraction? Michael Douglas and Anne Archer, 1987. Great movie - it was on Sky on Sunday'
Grace showed him the text.
Branson grinned. 'Big Boy, eh?'
'It never got that far and it's never going to.'
Then Branson's mobile rang. He pulled it from his jacket pocket and answered. 'Glenn Branson. Yeah? OK, great, I'll be there in an hour.' He ended the call and left his phone on the table. Looking at Grace, he said, 'The Vodafone log from Michael Harrison's phone just came in. Want to come to the office and help me with it?'
Grace thought for a moment, then checked his diary on his Blackberry. He'd kept the afternoon clear, intending to clear up some paperwork relating to the Suresh Hossain trial that Alison Vosper had requested at their 12.30 meeting, then read the report on the Tommy Lytle case. But that had waited twenty-seven years, and another day would not make much difference either way. Whereas Michael Harrison's disappearance was urgent. Although he did not know the characters, he felt for them. Particularly for the fiancee; he knew just how wrenching it was when a loved one went missing. At this moment, if there was any way he could be of help, he should doit.
'OK,' he said. 'Sure.'
Branson ate his salad, and left the rest of his fish untouched, while Grace tucked into his steak and kidney pudding with relish. 'I read a while ago,' he told Branson, 'that the French drink more red wine than the English but live longer. The Japanese eat more fish than the English, but drink less wine and live longer. The Germans eat more red meat than the English, and drink more beer, and they live longer, too. You know the moral of this story?'
'It's not what you eat or drink - it's speaking English that kills you.'
Branson grinned. 'I don't know why I like you. You always manage to make me feel guilty about something.'
'So let's go find Michael Harrison. Then you can enjoy your weekend.'
Branson pushed his fish to the side of his plate and drained his Diet Coke.
Tilled with Aspartame, that stuff,' Grace said, looking disapprovingly at his glass. I read a theory on the web that it can give you Lupus.'
'It's far worse than mercury'
'Thanks, Big Boy'
'Now you're just jealous.'
As they entered the tired-looking, six-storey building that housed Brighton police station from the parking lot at the rear, Grace felt a pang of nostalgia. This building had a reputation as being the busiest police station in Britain. The place hummed and buzzed and he had loved his time - almost fifteen years - working here. It was the buzz that he missed most about his recent posting to the relatively quiet backwater of the CID headquarters building on the outskirts.
As they climbed up the cement stairs, blue walls on either side of them, the familiar noticeboards with events and procedures pinned to them, he could smell that he was still in a busy police station. It wasn't the smell of hospitals, or schools, or a civil service building, it was the smell of energy.
They went on up past the third floor, where his old office had been, and then along a corridor on the fourth floor, past a large sign dominating an entire noticeboard, with the wording 'OVERALL CRIME DETECTION RATE. APRIL 2004. 27.8%'. Then he followed Branson into the long, narrow office his colleague was setting up as
the incident room for Michael Harrison. Six desks, each with a computer terminal. Two of them were occupied, both by detectives he knew and liked - DC Nick Nicholl and DS Bella Moy. There was a SASCO flip chart on an easel and a blank whiteboard on the wall, next to a large-scale map of Sussex, on which was a pattern of coloured pins.
'Coffee?' Branson offered.
'I'm fine for the moment.'
They stopped at Bella's desk, which was covered in neat wodges of paper, among which stood an open box of Maltesers. Pointing at the papers, she said, 'I have Michael Harrison's Vodafone log from Tuesday morning up until nine o'clock this morning. I also thought it would be a good idea to get the ones of the other four with him.'
'Good thinking,' Branson said, impressed with her initiative.
She pointed at her computer screen, on which there was a map: 'I've plotted here all the masts of the mobile networks the five of them used, Orange, Vodaphone and T-Mobile. Orange and TMobile operate on a higher frequency than Vodafone - which Michael Harrison is on. The last signal from his mobile came from the base station at the Pippingford Park mast on the A22. But I've found out we cannot rely on the fact that this is the nearest, because if the network is busy it will hand off signals to the next available mast.'
She was going to go far, this young lady, Grace thought. Studying the map for a moment, he asked, 'What's the distance between the masts?'
'In cities it is about five hundred metres. But out in the country, it is several miles.'
From previous experience, Grace knew that the mobile phone companies used a network of radio masts that acted as beacons. Mobiles, whether on standby or talkmode, sent constant signals out to the nearest beacon. It was a simple task to plot the movements of any phone user from this information. But this was obviously a lot easier in cities than in the countryside.
Bella stood up and walked across to the map of Sussex on the wall. She pointed at a blue pin in the centre of Brighton, surrounded by green, purple, yellow and white pins. 'I've marked Michael
Harrison's phone with blue pins. The other four with him have different colours.'
Grace followed her finger as she talked. 'We can see all five pins remained together from seven in the evening until nine.' She pointed to three different locations. 'There is a pub in each of these places,' she said. 'But this is where it gets interesting.' She pointed to a location some miles north of Brighton. 'All five pins close together here. Then we only have four. Here.'
Branson said, 'Green, purple, yellow and white. No blue.'
'Exactly,' she said.
'What movement on the blue pin after that?'
'None,' she said, emphatically.
'So they parted company,' Grace said, 'at - about - eight forty five?'
'Unless he dropped his phone somewhere.'
'So we're talking about a radius of five miles, about fifteen miles north of Brighton?' Glenn Branson said.
'Is his phone still giving off signals?' Grace said, distracted by Bella's combination of smart mind and good looks. He'd met her before but had never really noticed her before. She had a really pretty face, and unless she was wearing rocks inside her bra, she had seriously large breasts - something that had always turned him on. He switched his mind off her and back to business. Then he shot a glance at her hand to see if she was wearing any rings. One sapphire band, but not on the marriage finger. He filed it away.
'The last signal was at eight forty-five Tuesday night. Nothing since.'
'So what's your view, Bella?' Grace asked.
Bella thought for a moment, fixing him with alert blue eyes. But her expression bore nothing more than businesslike deference to a superior. 'I spoke to a technician at the phone company. He says his mobile is either switched off, and has been since Tuesday night, or it is in an area of no signal.'
Grace nodded. 'This Michael Harrison is an ambitious and busy businessman. He's due to get married tomorrow morning to a very beautiful woman, by all accounts. Twenty minutes before a fatal car
smash that killed four of his best friends, his phone went dead. During the past year he has been stealthily transferring money from his company to a Cayman Islands bank account - at least one million pounds that we know about. And his business partner, who should have been on that fatal stag night, for some reason was not there. Are my facts right so far?'
'Yes,' Glenn Branson said.
'So he could be dead. Or he could have pulled a smart vanishing act.'
'We need to check out the area Bella has ring-fenced. Go to all the pubs he might have visited. Talk to everyone who knows him.'
'Facts,' Glenn. 'Let's get all the facts first. If they don't lead us to him, then we can start to speculate.'
The phone on Bella's desk rang. She answered it, and almost instantly her expression conveyed that it was significant.
'You're certain?' she said. 'Since Tuesday? You can't be sure it was Tuesday? No one else could have taken it?' After a few moments, she said, 'No, I agree. Thank you, that could be very significant. May I take your number?'
Grace watched while she wrote down on a pad 'Sean Houlihan', followed by a number. 'Thank you, Mr Houlihan, thank you very much, we'll get back to you.'
She hung up and looked at Grace then Branson. 'That was Mr Houlihan, the owner of the undertakers where Robert Houlihan, his nephew, worked. They've just discovered that they are missing a coffin.'
'Missing a coffin?' Glenn Branson said.
'Not something people ordinarily steal, is it?' Bella Moy said.
Grace was silent for a moment, distracted by a bluebottle that buzzed noisily around the room for a moment, then batted against a window. Forensics was on the floor below. Bloodstained clothes and artefacts were a magnet for bluebottles. Grace hated them. Bluebottles - or blowflies - were the vultures of the insect world. 'This character, Robert Houlihan, borrowed the undertaker's van without permission. Seems possible he might have borrowed a coffin without permission too.' He looked quizzically at Branson then Bella, then at Nick Nicholl. 'Do we have one very sick prank on our hands?'
'Are you suggesting his mates might have put him in a coffin?' Glenn Branson said.
'Do you have a better theory?'
Branson smiled, edgily. 'Work on the facts. Right?'
Looking at Bella, subconsciously thinking how attractive she was, Grace said, 'How sure is this Houlihan fellow that his coffin has been taken and they haven't just misplaced it?'
'People misplace their front door keys -1 don't think people misplace coffins,' Branson said, a tad facetiously.
Bella interrupted, 'He's very sure. It was the most expensive coffin in his range, Indian teak, says it would last for hundreds of years - but this one had a flaw - the wood had warped or something - wasn't sealing tight at the bottom - he was having a ding-dong with the manufacturers in India about it.'
'I can't believe we have to import coffins from Indial Don't we have carpenters in England?' Branson said.
Grace was staring at the map. He traced a circle with his finger. 'This is a pretty big area.'
'How long could someone survive in a coffin?' Bella asked.
'If the lid was on properly it would depend on if they had air, water, food. Without air, not long. A few hours, maybe a day,' Grace replied.
'It's now three days,' Branson said.
Grace remembered reading about a victim who had been pulled out alive from the ruins of his home twelve days after an earthquake in Turkey. 'With air, at least a week, maybe longer,' he said. 'We'd have to assume if they have done some damned stupid prank on him they would have left him with air. If they didn't, then we're looking for a body'
He looked at the team. 'Presumably you've talked to Mark Warren, the business partner?'
'He's also his best man,' Nicholl said. 'Says he has no idea what happened. They were going on a stag-night pub crawl and he was stuck out of town and missed it.'
Grace frowned, then glanced at his watch, acutely aware of time slipping away. 'There's one thing going on a stag-night pub crawl, there's another thing taking a coffin with you. You don't decide to take a coffin with you on the spur of the moment - do you?' He stared pointedly at each of them in turn.
All three shook their heads.
'Someone's talked to all the girlfriends, wives?'
'I did,' Bella said. 'It's hard because they're in shock, but one of them was very angry - Zoe . . .' She picked up her notepad and flipped over some pages. 'Zoe Walker - widow of Josh Walker. She said that Michael was always playing stupid pranks, and she was certain they had been planning revenge.'
'And the best man didn't know anything about it? I don't buy that,' Grace said.
'I'm pretty convinced he didn't know anything. Why would he have any reason to lie?' Nicholl said.
Grace was worried by the young detective's naivety. But he always believed in giving juniors opportunities to show their abilities. He let it ride for the moment, but logged it firmly in his mind to come back to later today.
'This is one hell of an area to search,' Branson said. 'It's heavily wooded; it could take a hundred people days to comb this.'
'We have to try to narrow it down,' Grace responded. He picked up a marker pen from Bella's desk, and drew a blue circle on the map, then turned to DC Nicholl. 'Nick, we need a list of every pub in this circle. This is where we need to start.' He turned to Branson. 'Do you have photographs of the lads in the van?'
'Good boy. Two sets?'
'I have a dozen sets.'
'We'll divide in two, DS Branson and I will take one half of the pubs, you two take the other. I'll see if we can get the helicopter to cover the area - although it's very wooded, they've a better chance of seeing something from the air.'
An hour later, Glenn Branson pulled his car up on the deserted forecourt of a pub called the King's Head, on the Ringmer Road, on the perimeter of the circle. They climbed out of the car and went up to the door. Above it was a sign saying, 'John and Margaret Hobbs, landlords'.
Inside, the saloon bar was deserted and so was the drab restaurant area off to the left. The place smelled of furniture polish and stale beer. A fruit machine flashed and winked away in a far corner, near a dartboard.
'Hello?' Branson called out. 'Hello?'
Grace leaned over the bar and saw an open trap door. He lifted a flap in the counter, went behind it, kneeled and shouted down into the cellar, which was illuminated by a weak bulb. 'Hello? Anyone there?'
A gruff voice came back. 'Be up in a moment.'
He heard a rumbling sound, then a grey beer barrel, with 'HARVEY'S' stamped on the side, gripped by a pair of massive, grimy hands, appeared, followed by the head of a burly, red-faced man, in a white shirt and jeans, sweating profusely. He had the bulk and the broken nose of an ex-boxer. 'Yes, gents?'
Branson showed him his warrant card. 'Detective Sergeant Branson and Detective Superintendent Grace of the Sussex Police. We're looking for the landlord. Mr Hobbs?'
'You've found him,' he wheezed, climbing out, then hauling
himself up on to his feet and staring at them warily. He stank of body odour.
'Wonder if you'd mind taking a look at these photographs and see if you recognize any of the faces. They might have come in here last Tuesday night.' Branson laid the photographs on the counter.
John Hobbs studied each of the photographs in turn. Then he shook his head. 'No, never saw them before.'
'Were you working here on Tuesday night?' Grace asked him.
'I'm here every sodding night,' he said. 'Seven days a week. Thanks to your bloody lot.'
'Our lot?' Grace said.
'Your Traffic Division. Not easy to make a living running a rural pub, when your chums in Traffic sneak around outside, breathalysing all my customers.'
Ignoring the comment, Grace said, 'Are you absolutely sure you don't recognize them?'
'I get ten people in here on a mid-week night, it's Fat City. If they'd been here, I'd have seen them. I don't recognize them. Any reason why I should?'
It was moments like this that made Roy Grace very angry at the Traffic Division. For most people, being stopped for speeding, or to take a breathalyser check, was the only contact they ever had with the police. As a result, instead of viewing the police as their friends and guardians of the peace, they regarded them as an enemy.
'Do you watch television? Read the local papers?' Grace asked.
'No,' he said. 'I'm too busy for that. Is that a crime?'
'Four of these boys are dead,' Glenn Branson said, riled by the man's attitude. 'They were killed in a traffic accident on Tuesday night.'
'And you walk in here with your big swinging dicks, looking for some poor sodding landlord to blame for plying them with drink?'
T didn't say that,' Grace replied. 'No, I'm not. I'm looking for this lad who was with them.' He pointed at Michael's photograph.
The landlord shook his head. 'Not in here,' he said.
Looking up at the walls, Branson asked, 'Do you have CCTVT
'That meant to be a joke? Like I have money to buy fancy
security gizmos? You know the CCTVI use?' He pointed at his own eyes. 'These. They come free when you're born. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a barrel to change.'
Neither of them bothered to reply.
Michael shivered. Something was crawling through his hair. It was progressing steadily, determinedly, towards his forehead. It felt like a spider.
In panic, dropping the belt buckle, he jerked his hands up, sweeping furiously at his hair, fingers raw and bloody from scraping away at the lid.
Then it was on his face, crossing his cheek, mouth, chin.
'Jesus, get off, you fuckwit!' He smacked at his face with both hands, then felt something small and sticky. It was dead, whatever it had been. He wiped what remains he could feel off the thick, itchy growth of his stubble.
He had always been fine with most creatures, but not spiders. When he was a kid, he'd read a story in the local newspaper about a greengrocer who got bitten by a tarantula that was concealed in a bunch of bananas and had nearly died.
The beam of the torch was very faint now, giving a dark amber glow to the interior of the coffin. He was having to hold his head up to stop the rising water washing over his cheeks and into his eyes and mouth. Something else had bitten him on the ankle a while back, some insect, and it was stinging.
He shook the torch. For a moment the bulb died altogether. Then a tiny strip of filament glowed for a few seconds.
He was freezing cold. Working away at the lid was the only thing stopping him from getting even colder. He still hadn't broken through. He had to, had to, before the water - he tried to shut the unthinkable from his mind, but he couldn't. The water kept rising, it covered his legs and part of his chest. With one hand he was having to cradle the walkie-talkie in the gap between his chest and the lid to prevent it from getting immersed.
Despair, like the water, was steadily enveloping him. Davey's words went round and round inside his mind.
There was one guy sticking right out through the windshield, half his head missing. Jeez, could see his brains coming out. Knew right away he was a goner. Only one survivor, but he died too.
A Transit van in a smash at a time and place that fitted. Pete, Luke, Josh, Robbo - could they really all be dead? And that was the reason no one had come to find him? But Mark must have known what they were planning, he was his best man, for Christ's sake! Surely Mark was out there, leading a team looking for him? Unless, he thought bleakly, something had happened to him, too. Maybe he'd joined them at the next pub and been in the van with them?
It was ten past four, Friday afternoon. He tried to imagine what was happening right now. What was Ashley doing? His mother? Was everything still going forward for tomorrow as planned?
He raised his head, so his mouth was up a few precious inches closer to the lid, and shouted, as he did regularly, 'Help! Help me! Help!'
Nothing but numbing silence.
I have to get out.
There was a fizz, then a crackle that for a moment Michael thought was splintering wood, until he heard the familiar hiss of static. Then a disembodied Southern drawl: 'You mean that, what you said, 'bout me being on television?'
'Hey pal, we just got back - that was a real wreck, boy! You didn't want to be in that automobile, I tell you. Took 'em two hours to cut the driver out, he was in pretty bad shape. Better shape than the woman in the other car, though, you know what I'm saying?'
'Yes I do,' Michael said, trying the tack of humouring him.
'Not sure about that. I'm saying she's dead. Y'all understand?'
'Dead? Yes, I understand that.'
'You can tell y'know, just by looking, who the dead ones are and who the ones gonna survive are. Not all the time. But wow, I'm tellin' you something!'
'Davey, that wreck you went to on Tuesday night, can you remember how many young men were in it?'
After some moments of silence, Davey said, 'Just counting the
ambulances. Bad accidents you get one ambulance for each person. There was one leaving when we arrived, one still there.'
'Davey, you don't by any chance know the names of the victims?'
Almost instantly, surprising Michael, Davey rattled them off to him. 'Josh Walker, Luke Gearing, Peter Waring, Robert Houlihan.'
'You have a good memory, Davey,' Michael said, trying to encourage him. 'Was there anyone else? Was someone called Mark Warren in that wreck, also?'
Davey laughed. 'Never forget a name. If Mark Warren had been in that wreck, I'd have known about it. Remember every name I ever heard, remember where I heard it, and the time. Ain't ever been a shitload of use.'
'Must have been good for history at school.'
'Mebbe,' he said noncommittally.
Michael fought the temptation to shout at him from sheer frustration. Instead, keeping his patience, he said, 'Do you remember where the accident happened?'
'A26. Two point four miles south of Crowborough.'
Michael felt a ray of hope brightening inside him. 'I don't think I'm very far from there. Can you drive, Davey?'
'You mean like an automobile?'
'Yup, that's exactly what I mean.'
'Guess that would depend on how you define drive.'
Michael closed his eyes for some moments. There had to be some way to connect properly with this character. How? 'Davey, I need help, really badly. Do you like games?'
'You mean like computer games? Yeah! Do you have a Play Station-2?'
'No not here, not actually with me.'
'We could connect online maybe?'
Water slopped into Michael's mouth. He spat it out, panicking. Christ it was rising quickly now. 'Davey, if I give you a phone number, could you dial it for me? I need you to tell someone where I am. Could you get someone on the line while you are talking to me?'
'Houston, we have a problem.'
'Tell me the problem?'
'The phone's in my dad's house, you see. He doesn't know I have this walkie-talkie -1 shouldn't have it. It's our secret.'
'It's OK, I can keep a secret.'
'My dad would be pretty mad at me.'
'Don't you think he'd get even madder if he knew you could have saved my life and you let me die? I think you might be the only person in the world who knows where I am.'
'It's OK, I won't tell anyone.'
More water lapped into Michael's mouth; filthy, muddy, brackish water. He spat it out, his arms, shoulders, neck muscles all aching from trying to keep his head clear of the rising level. 'Davey, I'm going to die if you don't help me. You could be a hero. Do you want to be a hero?'
'I'm going to have to go,' Davey said. 'I can see my dad outside he needs me.'
Michael lost it, and screamed at him. 'No! Davey, you are not fucking going anywhere. You have to help. YOU HAVE TO FUCKING HELP ME.'
There was another silence, a very long one this time, and Michael worried he'd pushed too far. 'Davey?' he said, more gently. 'Are you still there, Davey?'
'I'm still here.' Davey's voice had changed. His voice suddenly was meek, chastised. He sounded like a small, apologetic boy.
'Davey, I'm going to give you a phone number. Will you write this down and make the call for me? Will you tell them that they need to speak to me on your walkie-talkie - and that it is very, very urgent. Will you do that for me?'
'OK. Tell them it's very, very urgent.'
Michael gave him the number. Davey told him he would go and make the call then radio him back.
Five agonizingly long minutes later, Davey's voice came back on the walkie-talkie. T just got voicemail,' he said.
Michael clenched his hands in frustration. 'Did you leave a message?' 'No. You didn't tell me to do that.'
The landlady of the Friars, in Uckfield, was a tall, blowsy lady in her late forties, with spiky blonde hair, who looked like she'd been around the block a few times. She greeted Grace and Branson with a friendly smile and studied the photographs Grace laid on the counter carefully.
'Uh huh,' she said. 'They were in here, all five of them. Let me think... About eight o'clock on Tuesday.'
'You're sure?' Glenn Branson said.
She pointed at the photograph of Michael. 'He was looking a bit wrecked, but was very sweet.' She pointed at Josh's photograph. 'He was the one buying the drinks. He ordered a round of beers, I think, and some chasers. This chap' - again she pointed at Michael - 'told me he was getting married on Saturday. He said I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and if he'd met me sooner, he'd have been marrying me.'
She grinned at Branson, then gave Grace a distinctly flirtatious smile. She clearly knew how to play the police, he thought. No doubt she had the local law in her pocket. No problems over staying open beyond closing time here.
'Did you by any chance hear them talking about their plans?' Grace asked.
'No, love. They were all in a sunny mood. We weren't busy, they were all sitting in that corner.' She pointed across the empty lounge to an alcove table and chairs, above which hung several horse brasses. 'I didn't pay much attention, had one of my regulars talking about his marital problems. You know how it is.'
'Yep,' said Grace.
'So you don't know where they were going next?' Branson asked.
She shook her head. 'Seemed like they were on a bender. Downed their drinks and were off.'
'Do you have closed-circuit television here?'
She gave Grace another deeply flirtatious smile. 'No, love. Sorry.'
As they left the pub, and hurried across the forecourt to their car, ducking against the teeming late-afternoon rain, Grace heard the distant sound of a helicopter. He looked up but could see nothing, as Branson unlocked the car. He sat inside and slammed the door shut against the elements, then called up Bella and Nick.
'How are you guys doing?'
'Goose eggs/ Nicholl said. 'No joy. We've two pubs to go. You?'
'Three more,' Grace said.
Branson started the car. 'Bit of a tasty old slapper/ he said to Grace. 'Think you could be in there.'
'Thanks,' Grace said. 'After you.'
'I'm a happily married man. You ought to go with the flow a bit.'
Roy Grace looked down at his mobile. At the text messages from Claudine, the cop-hating vegan from Guildford. 'You're lucky,' he said. 'Seems to me that half the women who aren't married are insane.'
He fell silent for some moments, then he said, 'The accident happened just after nine. This might have been the last pub they went to before they put him in the coffin.'
'They could have fitted in one more.'
They went to the next three pubs, but no one remembered the boys. Nick and Bella had found one more publican who recognized them. They left at around 8.30. All apparently very drunk. That pub was about five miles away. Grace was despondent at the news. From the information they had received, they were no nearer to pinpointing where Michael Harrison might be than when they had started.
'We should go and talk to his business partner,' Grace said. 'If he's the best man he has to know something. Don't you think?'
'I think we should organize a search of the area.'
'Yes, but we need to narrow it down.'
Branson started the car. 'You said to me some while back that you know a geezer who does some kind of thing with a pendulum?'
Grace looked at him in surprise. 'Yes?'
'Don't remember his name. You said he can find things that are lost, just by swinging a pendulum over a map.'
'I thought you didn't believe in that? You're the one who always
tells me I'm an idiot for dabbling in that terrain. Now you are suggesting I go and see someone?'
'I'm getting desperate, Roy. I don't know what else to do.'
'We press on, that's what we do.'
'Maybe he's worth a try.'
Grace smiled. 'I thought you were the big sceptic'
'I am. But we have a guy meant to be walking down the aisle in church tomorrow at two - and we have - ' he checked his watch ' - just twenty-two hours to get him there. And about fifty square miles of forest to search, with about four hours of daylight left. What say you?'
Privately, Grace believed that Harry Frame was worth a try. But after the fiasco in court on Wednesday, he wasn't sure it was worth risking his career over it, if Alison Vosper were to find out. 'Let's exhaust all our other avenues, first, then we'll see, OK?'
'Worried what the boss might say?' Branson taunted.
'You get to my age, you start thinking about your pension.'
'I'll bear that in mind, in about thirty years' time.'
Ashley Harper's address was a tiny Victorian terraced house close to a railway line in an area that had once been a working-class area of Have, but now was an increasingly trendy - and expensive - enclave for singles and first-time buyers. The quality of the cars parked in the street and the smart front doors were the giveaway.
Grace and Branson climbed out of the car, walked past a Golf GTI and a convertible Renault, and rang the doorbell of number 119, which had a silver Audi TT parked outside.
After a few moments the door was opened by a very beautiful woman in her mid-twenties. She gave Branson a sad smile of recognition. 'Hello, Ashley,' Branson said. 'This is my colleague, Detective Superintendent Grace. Can we have a chat?'
'Of course, come in. Do you have any news?' She looked at Grace.
Grace was struck by the contrast of the interior of the house with the outside. They had entered an oasis of cool minimalism. White carpet, white furniture, grey metal Venetian blinds, a large framed Jack Vettriano print of four dudes in sharp suits on the wall, which Grace recognized, pin-pricks of coloured lights jigging on a wall mounted sound system. The hands of a faceless clock on a wall read 6.20 p.m.
She offered them drinks. Branson was given a mineral water in a smart glass tumbler and Grace, seated beside him on a long sofa, a black coffee in an elegant white mug.
'There were three confirmed sightings of your fiance on Tuesday night at pubs in the Ashdown Forest area,' Glenn Branson told her. 'Each of them also confirmed he was with four companions - the ones you know. But we have no information on what they were up to, other than getting drunk.'
'Michael isn't a drinker,' she said bleakly, holding a large glass of red wine in both hands.
'Tell me about Michael,' Grace asked, watching her intently.
'What sort of things?'
'Anything. How did you meet him?'
She smiled, and for an instant visibly relaxed. 'I came for a job interview to his firm. Michael and his partner.'
'Mark Warren?' quizzed Grace.
A fleeting hesitation, so small it was barely noticeable. But Grace had seen it. 'Yes.'
'Where did you work before? he asked.
'I was working for a real estate firm in Toronto, Canada. I only came back to England just before I got this job.'
'I'm from England originally - my roots are here.' She smiled.
'What firm in Toronto?'
'You know Toronto?' she asked, a little surprised.
'I did a week there with the RCMP about ten years ago - at their murder lab.'
'Right. It was a small firm - part of the Bay group.'
Grace nodded. 'So Michael Harrison and Mark Warren hired you?'
'Uh huh, that was last November.'
'It was a great job - good pay -1 wanted to learn about the property business, and they seemed like really nice guys. I - um -1' - she blushed - 'I thought Michael was very attractive, but I was sure he was married or had a girlfriend.'
'Excuse me for being personal,' Grace said, 'but when did you and Michael become an item?'
After a brief pause she said, 'Very quickly - within a couple of months. But we had to keep it secret, because Michael was concerned about Mark finding out. He thought it would be difficult for Mark if he was - you know - having a thing with me.'
Grace nodded. 'So when did Mark find out?'
She reddened. 'He came back to the office one day when we weren't expecting him.'
Grace smiled. He felt for her, she had a vulnerability about her that he knew would make almost all men feel protective towards her.
He felt the same way himself, already, and he'd only known her for a few minutes. 'And then?'
'It was a little bit awkward for a while. I told Michael I thought I Should quit, but he was very persuasive.'
Grace noticed the minutest flinch. A barely visible tightening of her facial muscles. 'He was OK about it.'
'So it didn't affect your business relationship?'
Watching her eyes closely, Grace asked, 'Did you know they have a business offshore, in the Cayman Islands?'
Her eyes shot to Branson then back to Grace. 'No - I - I don't know about it.'
'Did Michael ever talk to you about tax shelters for himself and Mr Warren?'
Anger flashed in her face, so harshly and so suddenly that Grace was startled. 'What is this? Are you policemen or are you from the Inland Revenue?'
'If you want to help us find your fiance, you have to help us get to know him. Tell us everything, even the stuff you think is totally irrelevant.'
'I just want you to find him. Alive. Please God.'
'Your fiance didn't talk about his stag night with you?' Grace questioned, thinking back to his own stag night, when he'd given Sandy a detailed itinerary and she'd rescued him, in the early hours of the following morning, when he'd been abandoned in a back street of Brighton, stark naked apart from a pair of socks, on top of a pillar box.
She shook her head. 'They were just going out for a few drinks, that's all he told me.'
'What are you going to do if he hasn't turned up by the time of your wedding tomorrow?' Branson asked.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. She went out of the room and returned holding an embroidered handkerchief, which she used to dab her eyes. Then she started sobbing. 'I don't know. I really don't know. Please find him. I love him so much, I can't bear this,'
After waiting for her to calm down, and watching her eyes again
intently, Grace asked, 'You were secretary to both of them. Didn't Mark Warren tell you what they had planned?'
'Just a boys' night out. I was having a girls' night out, you know, a hen party. That was all.'
'You know that Michael has a reputation as a practical joker?' Grace asked.
'Michael has a great sense of humour - that's one of the things I love about him.'
'You don't know anything about a coffin?'
She sat bolt upright, almost spilling her wine. 'A coffin? What do you mean?'
Gently, Branson explained. 'One of the boys, Robert Houlihan you knew him?'
'I met him a few times, yes. A bit of a loser.'
'That's what M - Michael said. He sort of hung on to their crowd but wasn't really part of it.'
'But part of it enough to be included in the stag night?' Branson persisted.
'Michael hates to hurt anyone. I think he felt Robbo had to be included. I suppose because he'd made the other guys ushers, but not Robbo.'
Grace drank some coffee. 'You didn't have any falling-out with Michael? Nothing to make you think he might have got cold feet about the wedding?'
'Christ,' she said. 'No. Absolutely not. I - he--'
'Where are you going on your honeymoon?' Grace asked.
'The Maldives. Michael's booked a fantastic place - he loves water - boats, scuba diving. It looks like paradise.'
'We have a helicopter out looking for him. We have drafted in one hundred special constables, and if he hasn't turned up by tonight we are going to start a full search of the area where he was last seen. But I don't want to tie up hundreds of valuable police man-hours only to find he's sunning himself in the Cayman Islands, courtesy of the British taxpayer. Do you understand?'
Ashley nodded. 'Loud and clear,' she said bitterly. 'This is about money, not about finding Michael at all.'
'No,' Grace said, softening his tone. 'This is not about money. I'm prepared to authorize whatever it costs to find Michael.'
'Then please start now.' Hunching her thin shoulders, she stared pitifully down at her glass of wine. 'I recognize you, from the Argus piece on you. And the Daily Mail yesterday. They were trying to ridicule you for going to a medium, right?'
'I believe in all that. Don't you know somebody? You know - with your contacts? Aren't there mediums, psychics - who can locate missing people?'
Grace shot a glance at Branson, then looked at Ashley. 'There are, yes.'
'Couldn't you go to someone - or put me in touch with someone you can recommend?'
Grace thought carefully for a moment. 'Do you have anything belonging to Michael?' He was aware of Glenn Branson's eyes boring into him.
'Anything at all. Some object. An item of clothing? Jewellery? Something he would have been in contact with?'
'I can find something. Just give me a couple of minutes.'
'Are you out of your tree?' Branson said as they drove away from Ashley's house.
Holding the copper bracelet Ashley had given him in his hand, Grace replied, 'You suggested it.' There was a deep bass boom, boom, boom from the radio. Grace turned the volume down.
'Yeah, but I didn't mean for you to ask her.'
'You wanted us to nick something from his pad?'
'Borrow. Man, you live dangerously. 'What if she talks to the press?'
'You asked me to help you.'
Branson gave him a sideways look. 'So what do you make of her?'
'She knows more than she's telling us.'
'So she's trying to protect his arse?'
Grace turned the bracelet over in his hands. Three thin bands of copper welded together, each ending in two small roundels. 'What do you think?'
'There you go again - your usual, answering a question with a question.'
Grace said nothing for a while, thinking. In his mind he was recalling the scene inside Ashley Harper's house. Her anxiety, her answers to the questions. Nineteen years in the Police Force had taught him many lessons. Probably the most important one was that the truth is not necessarily what was immediately apparent. Ashley Harper knew more than she was saying, of that he was certain. The reading of her eyes told him that. Probably, he assessed, in her grief-stricken state she was concerned about whatever tax scam Michael Harrison might be involved with in the Cayman Islands getting out in the open. And yet he felt this was not the whole story.
Twenty minutes later they parked on a yellow line on the Kemp Town promenade, elevated above the beach and the English Channel, and climbed out of the car.
Rain was still pelting down, and, apart from the grey smudge of a tanker or freighter on the horizon, the sea was empty. A steady stream of cars and lorries sluiced past them. Over to the right, Grace could see the Palace Pier with its white domes, tacky lights and the helter-skelter rising like a pillar at the end.
Marine Parade, the wide boulevard that ran along a mile of handsome Regency facades with sea views, teemed with traffic sluicing past in both directions. The Van Allen was one of its few modern apartment buildings, a twenty-first-century take on Art Deco. A beady voice answered the bell of apartment 407 on the high-security entry panel within moments. 'Hello?'
'Mark Warren?' Glenn Branson said.
'Yes, who is this?'
'The police - may we have a word with you about Michael Harrison?'
'Sure. Come up - the fourth floor.' There was a sharp buzz and Grace pushed the front door open.
'Weird coincidence,' he said to Branson as they entered the lift. 'I was here last night on one of my poker nights.'
'Who do you know here?'
'Chris Croke - that git in Traffic?'
'He's all right.'
'How can he afford a pad in a place like this?
'By marrying money - or rather, by divorcing money. He had a rich missus - her dad was a lottery winner he told me once - and a good divorce lawyer.'
They stepped out on the fourth floor, walked down a plushly blue carpet and stopped outside 407. Branson pressed the bell.
After a few seconds the door was opened by a man in his late twenties, dressed in an open-neck white business shirt, pinstripe suit trousers and black loafers with a gold chain. 'Gentlemen,' he said, affably, 'please come in.'
Grace looked at him with faint recognition. He had seen this man before, somewhere, recently. Where? Where the hell had he seen him?
Branson dutifully showed him his warrant card, but Mark Warren barely glanced at it. They followed him through a small hallway into a huge open-plan living area, with two red sofas forming an Lshape and a long, narrow black lacquer table acting as a border for a kitchen and dining area.
The place was similar in its minimalistic style, Grace noted, to Ashley Harper's, but considerably more money had been lavished here. An African mask sat on top of a tall black plinth in one corner. Classy, if impenetrable, abstract paintings lined the walls, and there was a picture window looking directly out at the sea with a fine view of the Palace Pier. A news programme, muted, played on a flat screen Bang and Olufsen television.
'Can I get you a drink?' Mark Warren asked, wringing his hands.
Grace observed him carefully, watching his body language, listening to the way he spoke. The man exuded anxiety. Unease. Hardly surprising, considering what he must be going through. One of the biggest problems for survivors of any disaster, Grace knew from past experience, was coping with guilt.
'We're fine, thanks,' Branson said. 'We don't want to keep you long - just a few questions.'
'Do you have any news of Michael?'
Grace told him about their trawl of pubs, and about the missing coffin. But there was something about the way he responded that ran up a flag in Grace's mind. Just a small flag, barely more than a minuscule fluttering pennant.
'I can't believe they'd do anything like taking a coffin,' Mark Warren said.
'You should know,' Grace retorted. 'Isn't it the role of the best man to organize the stag night?'
'So I read in the stuff I downloaded from the net,' he replied.
Grace frowned. 'So you weren't involved in the plans? At all?'
Mark looked flustered. His voice was awkward as he started speaking, but rapidly calmed. 'I - no, that's not what I'm saying. Like I mean - you know - we - Luke - wanted to organize a stripper
gram, but that's kind of so yesterday - we wanted something more original.'
'To pay back Michael Harrison for all his practical jokes?'
Flustered again for a moment, Mark Warren said, 'Yes, we did discuss that.'
'But you didn't talk about a coffin?' Roy Grace asked, locked on to his eyeballs.
'Absolutely not.' There was indignation in his voice.
'A teak coffin,' Grace said.
'I -1 don't know anything about any coffin.'
'You're saying to me that you were his best man, but you didn't know anything about the plans for his stag night?'
A long hesitation. Mark Warren shot long glances at each of the police officers in turn. 'Yes,' he answered finally.
'I don't buy that, Mark,' Grace said. 'I'm sorry, but I don't buy it.' Instantly he detected the flash of anger.
'You're accusing me of lying to you? I'm sorry, gentlemen, this meeting is over. I need to talk to my lawyer.'
'That's more important to you than finding your business partner?' Grace quizzed. 'He's meant to be getting married tomorrow. You are aware of that?'
'I'm his best man.'
Watching Mark Warren's face closely, Grace suddenly remembered where he had seen him before. At least, where he thoughthe had seen him before. 'What car do you drive, Mark?' he asked.
'Which model? A 3-Series? 5-Series? 7Series?'
An X5,' Mark said.
'That's a four-wheel drive?'
'Yes, it is.'
Grace nodded and said nothing; his brain was churning.
Standing in the corridor, waiting for the lift, Branson watched Mark Warren's front door, making sure it was shut, then he said, 'What was that about - the business with the car?'
As they stepped inside the lift, Grace pressed the bottom button, marked 'B'. Still deep in thought, he didn't reply.
Branson watched him. 'Something's not right with that dude. You read that?'
Still Grace said nothing.
'You should have pressed "G" for the ground floor - that's the way we came in.'
Grace stepped out into the underground garage and Branson followed. The place was dry, dimly lit, with a faint smell of engine oil. They walked past a Ferrari, a Jaguar saloon, a Mazda sports car and a small Ford saloon, then a couple of empty bays until Grace stopped in front of a gleaming silver BMWX5 off-roader. He stared hard at the car. Droplets of rainwater still lay on the paintwork.
'Cool machines, these,' Branson said. 'But they don't have much room in the rear. Much more in a Range Rover or a Cayenne.'
Grace peered at the wheels, then knelt down and looked under a door sill. 'When I was here last night,' he said, 'and came down here for my car about quarter to one in the morning, this BMW drove in, covered in mud. I noticed it because it seemed a little unusual - you don't often see a dirty four-wheel drive in the centre of Brighton, they're mostly used by mothers doing the shopping run.'
'You sure it was this car.'
Grace tapped the side of his own head. 'The number plate.'
'Your photographic memory - still working at your advanced age...'
'So what's your take?'
'A missing coffin. A forest. A mud-caked car. A best man who is the only survivor, who wants to speak to his lawyer. A bank account in the Cayman Islands. Something smells.'
'It doesn't smell, it stinks.'
'So what happens next?'
Grace pulled the copper bracelet out of his pocket and held it up. 'This happens next.'
'Is that what you really think?'
'You have a better idea?'
'Take Mark Warren in for questioning.'
Grace shook his head. 'The guy's smart. We need to be smarter.'
'Going to a flaky pendulum dowser is smarter?'
You had to stay awake. That was how you survived. Hypothermia made you sleepy, and when you fell asleep you would sink into a coma and then you died.
Michael was shivering, near-delirious. Cold, so, so cold; he heard voices, heard Ashley whispering into his ear; reached up to touch her and his knuckles struck hard teak.
Water slopped into his mouth and he spat it out. His face was squashed tight against the lid of the coffin. The flashlight didn't work any more, he tried keeping the walkie-talkie above the water, but his arm was hurting so much it was not going to be possible for much longer.
He wedged his mobile phone, which was useless, into the back pocket of his jeans. It made it uncomfortable, but it gave him another inch and a half height. For whatever good that would do. He was going to die; he did not know how much longer he had but it wasn't long.
'Ashley,' he said weakly. 'Ashley, my darling.'
Then more water filled his mouth.
He rubbed away at the ever-widening and deepening groove in the lid with the casing of the flashlight. He thought of the wedding tomorrow. His mum showing him the dress she had bought, and the hat and the shoes and the new handbag, wanting his approval, wanting to know she looked good for his special day, wanting him to be proud of her, wanting Ashley to be proud of her. He remembered the phone call from his kid sister, from Australia, so excited by the ticket he had paid for. Early would be here now, staying with his mother, getting ready.
His neck hurt so badly, he didn't know how much longer he could stand the pain; every few minutes he had to relax, sink back, holding his breath, let the water wash over his face, then push himself up. Soon that would not be possible any more.
Crying with frustration and terror he lashed out at the lid, pummelled it. He pressed the talk button again. 'Davey! Davey! Hey, Davey?'
He spat more water out.
Every molecule in his body shivered.
Static came back at him.
His teeth clicked in his mouth. He swallowed a mouthful of the muddy water, then another mouthful. 'Please, oh please, somebody, please, please, oh please, help me.'
He tried to calm himself down, to think about his speech. Had to thank the bridesmaids. Propose a toast to them. Must remember to thank his mother first. Finish with the toast to the bridesmaids. Tell funny stories. There was a great joke Pete had given him. About a couple going on honeymoon and--
It was all booked. They were flying tomorrow night, at nine o'clock, to the Maldives. First class - Ashley didn't know about that bit, that was his secret treat.
Oh get me out of here, you idiots. I'm going to miss my wedding, my honeymoon. Come on! Now!
The clock on the dash of the Ford read 7.13 p.m. as Branson drove Grace along past the elegant Regency townhouse faces of Kemp Town, then onto open road, high above the cliffs, past the vast neoGothic buildings of Roedean girls' school and then past the Art Deco building of St Dunstan's Home for the Blind. The rain lashed down and the wind buffeted the car, crazily. It hadn't stopped for days now. Branson turned the radio up, drowning out the intermittent crackle of the police two-way radio, swaying to the beat of a Scissor Sisters track.
Grace tolerated it for some moments, then turned the volume down again.
'What's the matter, man - this group is so cool,' Branson said.
'Great,' Grace said.
'You want to pull a bird, yeah? You need to get with the culture.'
'You're my culture guru, right?'
Branson shot him a sideways glance. 'I ought to be your style guru, too. Got a great hairdresser you should go to - Ian Habbin at The Point. Get him to sharpen up your hair - I mean, like, you are looking so yesterday.'
'It's starting to feel like yesterday,' Grace responded. 'You asked me to have lunch with you. It's now past teatime and heading for supper. At this rate we'll be having breakfast together.'
'Since when did you have a life?' Almost as the words came out, Branson regretted saying them. He could see the pain in Grace's face without even turning to look at him. 'Sorry, man,' he said.
They drove through the smart, cliff-top village of Rottingdean, then along a sweeping rise, dip, followed by another rise, past the higgledy-piggledy suburban sprawl of post-war houses of Saltdean, then Peacehaven.
'Take the next left,' Grace said. Then he continued to direct Branson through a maze of hilly streets, crammed with bungalows and modest detached houses, until they pulled up outside a small, rather shabby-looking bungalow, with an even shabbier-looking camper van parked outside.
They hurried through the rain into a tiny porch, with wind chimes pinging outside, and rang the doorbell. After a few moments it was answered by a diminutive, wiry man well into his seventies, with a goatee beard, long grey hair tied back in a pony tail, wearing a kaftan and dungarees, and sporting an ankh medallion on a gold chain. He greeted them effusively in a high-pitched voice, a bundle of energy, taking Grace's hand and staring at him with the joy of a long-lost friend. 'Detective Superintendent Grace! So good to see you again.'
'And you, my friend. This is DS Branson. Glenn, this is Harry Frame.'
Harry Frame gripped Glenn Branson's hand with a strength that belied both his years and his size and stared up at him with piercing green eyes. 'What a pleasure to meet you. Come in, come in.'
They followed him into a narrow hallway lit by a low-watt bulb in a hanging lantern and decorated in a nautical theme, the centrepiece of which was a large brass porthole on the wall, and through into a sitting room, the shelves crammed with ships in bottles. There was a drab three-piece suite, its backs covered in antimacassars, a television, which was switched off, and a round oak table with four wooden chairs by the window, to which they were ushered. On the wall Branson clocked a naff print of Anne Hathaway's cottage and a framed motto which read, 'A mind once expanded can never return to its original dimensions.'
'Thank you,' Grace said.
Looking at Grace for his cue, Branson said, 'That would be very nice.'
Harry Frame hurried busily out of the room. Branson stared at a lit, solitary white candle in a glass holder on the table, then at Grace, giving him a What is this shit? expression.
Grace smiled back at him. Bear with it.
After a few minutes a cheery, dumpy, grey-haired lady, wearing a heavy-knit roll-neck, brown polyester trousers and brand new white
trainers, carried out a tray containing three mugs of tea and a plate of Bourbon biscuits, which she set down on the table.
'Hello, Roy,' she said familiarly to Grace, and then to Branson, with a twinkle in her eye she said, 'I'm Maxine. She Who Must Be Obeyed!'
'Nice to meet you. Detective Sergeant Branson.'
She was followed by her husband, who was carrying a map.
Grace took his mug, and noticed the tea was a watery-green colour. He saw Branson eyeing his dubiously.
'So, gentlemen,' Harry said, seating himself opposite them, 'you have a missing person?'
'Michael Harrison,' Grace said.
'The young man in the Argus? Terrible thing, that accident. All so young to be called over.'
'Called over?' Branson quizzed.
'Obviously the spirits wanted them.'
Branson shot Grace a glance which the Detective Superintendent resolutely ignored.
Moving the biscuits and the candle over to one side, Frame spread out an Ordnance Survey map of East Sussex on the table.
Branson ate a biscuit. Grace fished in his pocket and gave the medium the copper bracelet. 'You asked me to bring something belonging to the missing person.'
Frame took it, held it tight and closed his eyes. Both police officers stared at him. His eyes remained closed for a good minute, then, finally, he started to nod. 'Umm,' he said, his eyes still closed. 'Umm, yes, umm.' Then he opened his eyes with a start, looking at Grace and Branson as if surprised to find them still in the room. He moved closer to the map, then pulled a length of string, with a small lead weight attached, from his trouser pocket.
'Let's see what we can find,' he said. 'Yes, indeed, let's see. Is your tea all right?'
Grace sipped his. It was hot and faintly sour-tasting. 'Perfect,' he said.
Branson sipped his too, dutifully. 'Good,' he said.
Harry Frame beamed, genuinely pleased. 'Now, now...' Resting
his elbows on the table, he buried his face in the palm of his hands as if in prayer, and began to mutter. Grace avoided Branson's eye.
'Yarummm,' Frame said to himself. 'Yarummmm. Brnnnn. Yarummm.'
Then he sat bolt upright, held the string over the map between his forefinger and thumb, and let the lead weight swing backwards and forwards, like a pendulum. Then, pursing his lips in concentration, he swung it vigorously in a tight circle, steadily covering the map inch by inch.
'Uckfield?' he said. 'Crowborough? Ashdown Forest?' He looked quizzically at each man. Both nodded.
But Harry Frame shook his head. 'No, I'm not being shown anything in this area, sorry. I'll try another map, smaller scale.'
'We're pretty sure he is in this area, Harry,' Roy Grace said.
Frame shook his head determinedly. 'No, the pendulum is not telling me that. We need to look wider.'
Grace could feel Branson's scepticism burning like a furnace. Staring at the new map, which showed the whole of East and West Sussex, he saw the pendulum swinging in a narrow arc over Brighton.
'This is where he is,' Frame murmured.
'Brighton? I don't think so,' Grace responded.
Frame produced a large-scale street map of Brighton and set the pendulum swinging over it. Within moments it began to make a tight circle over Kemp Town. 'Yes,' he said. 'Yes, this is where he is.'
Grace stared at Branson now, as if sharing his thoughts. 'You are wrong, Harry,' he said.
'No, I don't think so, Roy. This is where your man is.'
Grace shook his head. 'We've just come from Kemp Town - we've been to talk to his business partner - are you sure you aren't picking up on that?'
Harry Frame picked up the copper bracelet. 'This is his bracelet? Michael Harrison?'
'Then this is where he is. Mypendulum is never wrong.'
'Can you give us an address?' Branson asked.
'No, not an address - the housing is too dense. But that's where you must look, that is where you will find him.'
'Fucking weirdo/ Branson said to Grace as they drove away from Harry Frame's house.
Grace, deep in thought, did not say anything for a long while. In the past hour the rain had finally stopped, and streaks of late evening sunlight pierced the net of grey cloud that sagged low over the sea. 'Let's assume he's right for a moment.'
'Let's get a drink and something to eat,' Branson said. 'I'm starving; I'm about to keel over.'
The clock read 8.31 p.m.
Glenn called his wife on his mobile. Grace listened to Branson's end of the conversation. It sounded pretty heated and finished with him hanging up in mid-call. 'She's well pissed off.'
Grace gave him a sympathetic smile. He knew better than to make an uninformed comment on someone else's domestic situation. A few minutes later, in the bar of a cliff-top pub called the Badger's Rest, Grace cradled a large Glenfiddich on the rocks, noticing that his companion was making short work of a pint of beer, despite the fact he was driving.
'I went into the Force,' Branson said, 'so I'd have a career that would make my kids proud of me. Shit. At least when I was a bouncer, I had a life. I'd get to bath my Sammy and put him to bed and had time to read him a story before I went off to work. Do you know what Ari just said to me?'
'What?' Grace stared at the specials on the blackboard.
'She said Sammy and Remi are crying 'cause I'd promised to be home and read them stories tonight.'
'So go home,' Grace said gently, meaning it.
Branson drained his pint and ordered another. 'I can't do that, you know I can't. This isn't a fucking nine-to-five job. I can't just walk out of the office like some dickhead civil servant, and do a Piss Off Early Tomorrow's Saturday stunt. I owe it to Ashley Harper and to Michael Harrison. Don't I?'
'You have to learn when to let go,' Grace said.
'Oh really? So when exactly do I let go?'
Grace drained his whisky. It felt good. The burning sensation first f In his gullet, then in his stomach. He held his glass out to the barman, Ordered another double, then put a twenty-pound note down and , I8ked for change for the cigarette machine. He hadn't had a cigarette for several days, but tonight his craving for one was too strong.
The pack of Silk Cut dropped into the tray of the machine. He tore off the cellophane and asked the barman for some matches. Then he lit a cigarette and drew the smoke deeply, gratefully, down into his lungs. It tasted beyond exquisite.
'I thought you'd quit,' Branson said.
He received his new drink and clinked glasses with Glenn. 'You don't have a life and I'm destroying mine. Welcome to a career in the police.'
Branson shook his head. 'Your friend Harry Frame is one weird dude. What a flake!'
'Remember Abigail Matthews?'
'That kid a couple of years ago? Eight years old, right?'
'Kidnapped outside her folks' home. You found her in a crate in a hangar at Gatwick Airport.'
'Nigerian. She'd been sold into a child sex ring in Holland.'
'That was great detective work. Wasn't that part of the reason you got promoted so fast?'
'It was. Except I never told anyone the truth about how I found her.' The whisky was talking now, rather than Roy Grace. 'I never told anyone, because--'
'It wasn't great detective work, Glenn, that's why. It was Harry Frame who found her, with his pendulum. OK?'
Branson was silent for some moments. 'So that's why you believe in him.'
'He's been right in other cases, too. But I don't shout about him. Alison Vosper and her brass cronies don't like anything that doesn't fit into their boxes. You want a career in the police, you have to be seen to play by the rules. You have to be seen, OK? You don't actually have to play them, just so long as they thinkyou are playing by them.' He drained the second whisky far faster than he had intended. 'Let's get some grub.'
Branson ordered scampi. Grace chose a distinctly unhealthy gammon steak with two fried eggs and French fries, lit another cigarette and ordered another round of drinks.
'So what do we do next, old wise man?'
Grace squinted at Branson. 'We could get smashed,' he said.
'That's not exactly going to help us find Michael Harrison, is it? Or have I missed something?'
'You haven't missed anything - not that I can see. But it is now about...' Grace checked his watch. 'Nine on a Friday night. Short of heading out into Ashdown Forest with a shovel and a flashlight, I'm not sure what else we can achieve.'
'There must be something that we're missing.'
'There's always something, Glenn. What very few people understand is the importance of serendipity in our job.'
'You mean luck?'
'You know the old joke about the golfer?'
'He says, "It's a strange thing... the more I practise, the luckier I get."'
Branson grinned. 'So maybe we haven't practised enough.'
'I think we've practised enough. Tomorrow's the big day. If Mr Michael Harrison is playing the joke of all jokes, then tomorrow will be the moment of truth.'
'And if he's not?'
'Then we go to Plan B.'
'Which is what?'
'I have no idea.' Grace squinted at him across the top of his glass. 'I'm just your lunch date. Remember?'
Ashley, in her white towelling dressing gown, was slouched on her bed watching a Sex in the City repeat playing on the plasma television screen, when the telephone rang. She sat up with a start, nearly spilling some of the Sauvignon Blanc in the glass she was holding. Her alarm clock said 11.18 p.m. It was late.
She answered it with a nervous, nearTbreathless, 'Yes hello?'
'Ashley? I hope I haven't woken you, love?'
Ashley put her wine glass down on her bedside table, grabbed the remote and muted the sound. It was Gill Harrison, Michael's mother. 'No,' she said. 'Not at all. I can't sleep anyhow. I haven't slept a wink since - Tuesday. I'm going to take a pill in a little while - the doctor gave me some - said they would knock me out.' In the background she heard Bobo, Gill's little white shih-tzu, barking.
'I want you to think again, Ashley. I really think you must cancel the reception tomorrow.'
Ashley took a deep breath. 'Gill - we discussed it all yesterday and today. We can't get anything refunded cancelling this late; we have people coming from all over the place - like my uncle from Canada who's giving me away.'
'He's a nice man,' Gill said. 'Poor fellow's come all this way.'
'We adore each other,' Ashley said. 'He took the whole week off just so he could be at the rehearsal on Monday.'
'Where's he staying?'
'In London - at the Lanesborough. He always stays at the best.' She was quiet for a moment. 'Of course, I've told him, but he said he would come down anyway to give me support. I've managed to stop my other girlfriends in Canada - four of them were coming over and I have other friends in London I've convinced not to come - the phone's been ringing off the hook for the past couple of days.'
'The problem is Michael has friends and colleagues invited from
all over England - and the Continent. I've tried to contact as many people as possible, and so has Mark - but - we need at least to look after those who do turn up. And I still think Michael might.'
'I don't think so, love, not now.'
'Gill, Michael played all kinds of pranks on his friends when they got married - two of them only made it to the church minutes before the wedding began, because of what he did to them. Michael could still be somewhere, locked up or tied up, not knowing anything about what has happened. He might still be planning - or trying - to make it.'
'You're a lovely girl, and you are a kind person - it's going to be devastating for you to be at the church and he doesn't arrive. You have got to accept that something has happened to him. Four people are dead, love. Michael must have heard about them - if he is OK.'
Ashley sniffed, then began to sob. For some moments she cried inconsolably, dabbing her eyes with a tissue she had plucked from a box on her bedside table. Then, sniffing hard, she said, 'I'm trying so damned hard, but I'm not coping. I just -1 - keep - praying he's going to turn up - every time the phone rings I think it's going to be him you know- that he'll be laughing, explaining it's all been some dumb joke.'
'Michael's a good boy,' Gill said. 'He's never been cruel - this is too cruel. He wouldn't do this; it's not in him.'
There was a long silence. Finally Ashley broke it. 'Are you OK?'
'Apart from being worried sick about Michael, yes, I'm OK, thanks. I've got Early here.'
'Yes, a couple of hours ago from Australia. I think she'll be a bit jet-lagged tomorrow.'
'I should come over to say hello.' She was silent for a moment. 'You see what I mean - all these people coming from all over the place - we just have to at least be at the church to meet them - and offer them some food. Can you imagine if we weren't there and Michael then turned up?'
'He would understand - that you cancelled out of respect for the boys who died.'
Sobbing even harder, Ashley said, 'Please, Gill, please let's go to
i church and see.'
'Take that pill and get some sleep, love.'
'I'll call you in the morning.'
'Yes. I'll be up early.'
'Thanks for calling.'
'Night!' Ashley said.
She replaced the receiver then, charged with a burst of energy, rolled over, her breasts spilling out of the open front of her dressing gown, and gazed down at Mark, who was lying naked under the bedclothes beside her. 'Stupid cow, doesn't have a clue!' Her lips burst Into a massive grin, her whole face alight with joy. 'Not a clue!'
She put her arms around his neck, held him tightly and kissed him passionately, on the mouth at first, before working her way slowly, steadily, with maximum possible torture, further and further down his body.
He was sweating under the duvet. Too hot, far too hot, somehow it had worked its way right over his head and he could barely breathe. Rivulets of water ran down his face, down his arms, legs, the small of his back. He pushed the duvet off, sat up, felt a numbing crack to his skull, sank back.
Water slopped all around him. And felt as if it were inside him too, as if the blood in his veins and the water in which he lay were interchangeable. Some word for it. Some word he grasped for, and it eluded him, slipped from his grasp each time he closed on it. Like soap in a bathtub, he thought.
Cold now. Unbearably hot an instant ago, now cold. So cold. Oh so teeth-chattering-cold-cold-cold. His head was splitting. 'Just going to check and see if there are any paracetamol in the bathroom cabinet,' he announced. To the silence that came back at him he said, 'Won't be long. Just popping out to the chemist.'
The hunger had gone away some hours ago, but now it was back with a vengeance. His stomach burned as if the acids had now turned on the lining for want of anything else to break down. His mouth was parched. He put a hand out and scooped water into his mouth, but despite his thirst it was an effort to drink it.
'OSMOSIS!' in a burst of elation he shouted the word out at the top of his voice, repeating it over and over. 'Osmosis! Gotcha! Osmosis!'
Then suddenly he was hot again. Perspiring. 'Someone turn the thermostat down!' he shouted out in the darkness. 'For Christ's sake, we're all boiling down here; what do you think we are, lobsters?'
He started giggling at his remark. Then, right above his face, the lid of the coffin began to open. Slowly, steadily, noiselessly, until he
could see the night sky, alive with comets racing across it. A beam of light shone out from him, dust motes drifted lazily through it, and he realized all the stars in the firmament were projected there from the light. The sky was his screen! Then he saw a face drift across, through the beam, through the dust motes. Ashley. As if he were looking up at her from the bottom of a swimming pool, and she was drifting face-down over him.
Then another face drifted over - his mother. Then Early, his kid sister. Then his father, in the sharp brown suit, cream shirt and red silk tie that Michael remembered him in best. Michael did not understand how his father could be in the pool but his clothes were dry.
'You're dying, son,' Tom Harrison said. 'You'll be with us soon now.'
'I don't think I'm ready yet, Dad.'
His father gave a wry smile. 'That's the thing, son, who is?'
'I found that word I was looking for,' Michael said. 'Osmosis.'
'That's a good word, son.'
'How are you, Dad?'
'There are good deals to be had up here, son. Terrific deals. Heck of a lot better. You don't have to fart around trying to hide your money in the Cayman Islands up here. What you make is what you keep - like the sound of that?'
Except it wasn't his father any more he was talking to, but the vicar, Reverend Somping, a short, supercilious man in his late fifties, with greying wavy hair and a beard that only partially masked the ruddy complexion of his cheeks - ruddy not from a healthy outdoors lifestyle, but from broken veins from years of heavy boozing.
'You're going to be very late, Michael, if you don't haul yourself out of there. You do realize that if you don't reach the church by sunset, I cannot marry you, by law?'
'I didn't, no -1--'
He reached up to touch the vicar, to seize his hand, but he struck hard, impenetrable teak.
The slosh of water as he moved.
Then he noticed something. Checking with his hands, the water was no longer up to his cheeks, it had subsided, to the top of his neck. 'I'm wearing it like a tie,' he said. 'Can you wear water like a tie?'
Then the shivers gripped him, clenched his arms so that his elbows banged against his ribs, his feet knocked, his breathing got faster, faster until he was hyperventilating.
I'm going to die, I'm going to die, here, alone, on my wedding day. They are coming for me, the spirits, they are coming down here into the box and--
He put his jerking hands together over his face. He could not remember the last time he had prayed - it was sometime long before his dad had died. Tom Harrison's death had been the final confirmation to him that there was no God. But now the words of the Lord's Prayer poured into his head and he whispered them into his hands, as if not wanting to be overheard.
A crackle of static broke his concentration. Then a burst of twangy country and western music. Followed by a voice. 'Well, good morning, sports fans, this is WNEB Buffalo bringing you the latest in sports, news and weather on this rainy ole Saturday morning! Now last night in the play-offs ...'
Frantically, Michael fumbled for the walkie-talkie. He knocked it off his chest and into the water. 'Oh shit, no, oh shit, shit shit!'
He fished it out, shook it as best he could, found the talk button and pressed it. 'Davey? Davey, is that you?'
Another hiss and crackle. 'Hey, dude! You the dude with the friends in the wreck on Tuesday, right?'
'Hey, good to talk to you again!'
'Davey, I really need you to do something for me. Then you could make a big announcement on your radio station.'
'Depends what other news there is on the day,' Davey said, dismissively. 'OK.' Michael fought the urge to snap at him. 'I need you either
I to get someone on the phone that I can speak with via your walkieJ Ulkie, or for you and your dad to come and rescue me.'
'I guess that would depend on whether y'all are in an area we fcover, know what I'm saying?'
'I do, Davey. I know exactly what you are saying.'
Later, lying naked in bed with a dozen scented candles burning around them in the room, and Norah Jones singing on the stereo, Ashley lit a cigarette, then held it up to Mark's lips. He took a deep drag.
'Gill's right,' Mark said. 'I don't think you should go to the church, and you definitely should not ahead with the reception.'
Ashley shook her head vigorously. 'We absolutely should. Don't you see? I'll turn up there at the church...' She paused to take a drag, then blew the smoke out slowly, deliriously, towards the ceiling. 'Everyone will see me, the poor abandoned bride, and they'll all feel so sorry for me.'
'I'm not sure I agree; it could backfire.'
'Well - they might think you're insensitive, insisting on going ahead - that you're not respecting Pete, Luke, Josh and Robbo. We both need to be seen to be acting as if we care about them.'
'You and I have been in touch with their families. We've both written them all letters, we're doing all the right things there. But we've been discussing the wedding for the past three days. We are going aheacU'We have to pay the bloody caterers whatever we do, so we might as well look after those people who make the effort to turn up. It probably won't be many - but surely that's the least we can do?'
Mark took the cigarette from her and drew hard, inhaling the smoke deep into his lungs. 'Ashley, people would understand. You've battered me with your logic for three days and you haven't listened to me. I think this is a huge mistake.'
'Trust me,' Ashley said. She gave him a fierce look. 'Don't start wimping out on me now.'
'Christ, I'm not wimping out -1 just--'
'Want to bottle out?'
'This is not about bottling out. Come on, partner, be strong!'
'I am being strong.'
She wormed her way down his body, nuzzling her face in his pubic hairs, his penis limp against her cheek. 'This is not what I call trong,' she said mischievously.
Grace started his weekend the way he liked, with an early-Saturday morning six-mile run along Brighton and Have seafront. Today it was again raining hard, but that did not matter; he wore a baseball cap with the peak pulled down low to shield his face, a lightweight tracksuit and brand new Nike running shoes. Powering along at a good, fast pace, he soon forgot the rain, forgot all his cares, just breathed deep, went from cushioned stride to cushioned stride, a Stevie Wonder song, 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered', playing over in his head, for some reason.
He mouthed the words as he ran past an old man in a trenchcoat walking a poodle on a leash, and then was passed by two Lycra-clad cyclists on mountain bikes. It was low tide. Out on the mudflats a couple of fishermen were digging lugworms for bait.
With the tang of salt on his lips, he ran alongside the promenade railings, on past the burnt-out skeleton of the West Pier, then down a ramp to the edge of the beach itself, where the local fishermen left their day boats dragged up far enough to be safe from the highest of tides. He clocked some of their names - Daisy Lee, Belle of Brighton, Sammy- smelled bursts of paint, tarred rope, putrefying fish as he ran on past the still-closed cafes, amusement arcades and art galleries of the Arches, past a windsurfing club, a boating pond behind a low concrete wall, a paddling pool, then underneath the girdered mass of the Palace Pier - where seventeen years back he and Sandy had had their first kiss, and on, starting to tire a little now, but determined to get to the cliffs of Black Rock before he turned round.
Then his mobile phone beeped with the message signal.
He stopped, pulled it from his zipped pocket and looked at the screen.
You can't tease a girl like this, Big Boy. Claudine XX
Jesus! Leave me alone. You spent the whole evening attacking me for being a cop, nowyou're driving me nuts. So far his only experience at internet dating wasn't working out too well. Were they all like Claudine? Aggressive, lonely women with a screw loose? Surely not, there had to be some normal women out there. Didn't there?
He pocketed the phone and ran on, knowing he owed her a reply, but wondering if it was better to just continue ignoring her. What could he say? Sod off and stop bothering me? It was nice meeting you but I've decided I'm gay?
Eventually he decided he would send her a text when he got back. He would take the coward's route: Sorry, I've decided I'm not ready for a relationship.
His relaxing mind turned to work, to the paper mountain that seemed to be forever building and building. The Nigerian trafficking of young women; the trial of Suresh Hossain; the cold case of little Thomas Lytle; and now the disappearance of Michael Harrison.
This really bugged him. And one thought in particular had woken him during the night and stayed with him. He reached the under-cliff walk, ran along below the white chalk bluffs, high above the Marina with its rows of pontoons and forest of masts, its hotels and shops and restaurants, and on for two more miles.
Then he turned, feeling the burn in his lungs, his legs high from the exertion, and ran back until he reached the point where he was near the Van Allen building. He ran up the ramp onto the promenade, waited for a gap in the busy traffic of Marine Parade and crossed over. He made his way down the narrow street along the side of the building, and stopped by the entrance to the underground car park.
His luck was in. Within moments, the gates swung open and a dark blue Porsche Boxter drove out, a predatory-looking blonde in dark glasses - despite the dull, wet day - at the wheel. He slipped in before the gates closed. It was good to be out of the rain.
He breathed in the dry, engine-oil-laced air as he ran down the hard concrete, past a red Ferrari he remembered from before, and several other cars he recalled, and then stopped in front of the gleaming, mint-clean BMWX5 offroader.
He stared at the number plate. W 796 LDY. Then he looked around, scanning the area. It was deserted. He walked up closer, knelt beside the front nearside wheel, then lay down on his back, wormed himself under the sill and peered up at the inside of the wheel arch. It was covered in mud.
He pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket, opened it out in the palm of his left hand, then with his right hand scraped at the dry mud until several pieces of it fell into his handkerchief.
Carefully he closed it, knotted it and replaced it in his pocket. Then he hauled himself back up, walked to the garage entrance and waved his hand across the infra-red beam. Moments later, with a loud clank and a busy whirr, the doors opened for him.
He walked out, checked the street in both directions, then resumed his homeward run.
At 9.30, showered and after a relaxed breakfast of scrambled eggs and grilled organic tomatoes - organic was a current fad he was going through at home, to counteract all the junk food he often had to eat when working, along with drinking quantities of mineral water - he enjoyed a leisurely read of the Daily Mail, followed by a drool over a road test of the latest Aston Martin in Autocar. Then Grace went into the study he had created in a small back room of the house overlooking his tiny, increasingly overgrown garden, and the almost embarrassingly neat gardens of his neighbours on either side, sat down at his desk in front of his computer screen and rang Glenn Branson's home phone number. His handkerchief, containing the soil he had scraped from Mark Warren's car, lay on the desk inside a small plastic bag.
Ari, Branson's wife, answered. Although he had clicked with Glenn from the day he had met him, Grace found Ari quite hard to get on with. She was often brittle with him, almost as if she suspected that, because he was single, he might be trying to lead her husband astray.
Over the years Grace had worked hard to charm her, always remembering their kids' birthdays with cards and generous presents, and taking her flowers on the few occasions he had been invited round for a meal. There were moments when he thought he was making progress with her, but this morning was not one of them. She sounded less than pleased to hear him. 'Hi, Roy', she said curtly, 'you want to speak to Glenn?'
No, actually, I want to speak to the Man in the Moon, he nearly said, but didn't. Instead, a tad lamely, he asked, 'Is he around?'
'We're in rather a hurry,' she said. In the background he heard the sound of a kid screaming. Then Ari shouting, 'Sammy! Give it to her, you've had your turn, now give it to your sister!' Then the screaming got louder. Finally Branson came on the line.
'Yo, ole wise man, you're up early.'
'Very funny. What was it you said you were doing today?'
'Ari's sister's thirtieth birthday party - in Solihull. Seems I have the choice - find Michael Harrison or save my marriage. What would you do?'
'Save your marriage. Be grateful for your sad-old-git friends who have no life and can spend their weekends doing your work for you.'
'I'm grateful. What are you doing?'
'I'm going to a wedding.'
'You're such a sentimentalist. 'Top hat? Tails? All cleaned and pressed?'
'Anyone ever tell you what a bitch you are?'
'The wife I nearly don't have any more.'
Grace felt a twinge of pain. He knew that Glenn did not mean any malice, but the words stung. Every night, even if it was late, and even if it meant hassle, Glenn at least went home to loving kids and to a beautiful warm woman in his bed. People who had that were incapable of understanding what it meant to live alone.
Solitude could be crap.
Grace was tiring of it - but did not know what to do about it. What if he found someone? Fell in love with a woman, big time? And then Sandy turned up? What then?
He knew in his mind she wasn't ever going to turn up, but there was a part of his heart that refused to go there, as if it was stuck like some old-fashioned record needle, in an eternal groove. Once or twice every year, when he was low, he would go to a medium, trying to make contact with her, or at least trying to eke out some clue about what might have happened to her. But Sandy remained elusive, a photographic negative that lay for ever black and featureless in the hypo fluid of the developing tray.
He wished Branson a good weekend, envying him his life, his demanding wife, his gorgeous kids, his damned normality. He washed up his breakfast things, staring out of his kitchen window at Noreen Grinstead across the street, in a brown polyester trouser suit, apron and yellow rubber gloves, a plastic hat over her head to shield her from the rain, busily soaping her silver Nissan on the driveway. i A black and white cat darted across the road. On the radio the prei tenter, on Home Truths, was interviewing a woman whose parents I had not spoken one word to each other throughout her childhood.
Nineteen years in the police had taught him never to underestimate the weirdness of the human species. Yet barely a day went by when it didn't seem to be getting even weirder.
He went back into the study, dialled Brighton police station and asked if any of the Crime Scene Investigators were in. Moments later he was put through to Joe Tindall, a man he rated highly.
Tindall was meticulous, hard-working and endlessly resourceful. A short, thin, bespectacled, man, with thinning wiry hair, he could have been a mad professor drawn straight from Central Casting. Before joining the police, Tindall had worked for several years for the British Museum as a forensic archaeologist. Joe was the man he was working with on the Tommy Lytle cold case.
'Hey, Joe!' Grace said. 'No weekend off?'
'Ha! I'm having to do the ballistics testing on the jewellery shop raid - everyone else has buggered off. And I've got the stabbing on Wednesday to deal with, thank you very much.'
Grace remembered there had been a man stabbed to death in Brighton late on Wednesday night. No one knew yet whether it was a mugging or a tiff between two gay lovers.
'Joe, I need some help. I have a sample of soil I've taken from a suspect vehicle. How can I find out, very quickly, what part of Sussex this soil is from? How specific could anyone get for me?'
'How specific do you need?'
'Within a few square feet.'
'Very funny, Roy'
'I'm not smiling.' 'Do you have a sample from the suspect area? I could get tests run and see if they match. We have chalk, clay, gravel and sand in Sussex.'
'The suspect area is Ashdown Forest.'
'The soil there is predominantly sand and clay. We can get matches from pollen, fossils, seeds, animal droppings, grasses, water, all kinds of stuff. How specific can you get?'
'Within a few square miles.'
'You'd have to do a lot better than that. There are areas all over England that would match Ashdown Forest.'
'How long would it take you to get a match without a sample from the specific area?'
'We're talking weeks - and I'd need a huge team - and one hell of a budget.' 'But you could do it?'
'Given unlimited resources and enough time, I could give you a match in a small area.'
'That would depend. A few hundred square feet, perhaps.'
'OK, thanks. I have something I want to bring over to you - are you in the office for a while?'
'All day, Roy'
An hour later, dressed in a blue suit, white shirt and a bright tie, Grace drove onto the sprawling, hilly Hollingbury industrial estate on the outskirts of Brighton, past an ASDA store, an ugly 1950s low rise, and then slowed as he reached the long, low Art Deco Sussex House, headquarters of Sussex CID.
Originally built as a factory, it had been bought by the police a few years back and transformed. If it wasn't for the dominant police insignia on the facade, a passer-by could have mistaken it for a swanky, hip hotel. Painted gleaming white, with a long, neat lawn running its full length, it wasn't until you passed the security guard and drove through the high, railed gates into the rear car park, filled with police vehicles, skips and with a formidable cell block beyond, that it became less glamorous.
Grace parked between a police off-roader and a police van, walked up to the rear entrance, held his ID card against the electronic panel to open the door and entered the building. He flashed his card at the security officer behind the front desk and made his way up the plushly carpeted stairs, past ancient truncheons in patterns mounted on blue boards and two more large blue boards halfway up the stairs on which were pinned photographs of some of the key police personnel working in this section of the building.
He knew all the faces. Ian Steel and Verity Smart, of the Specialist Investigations Branch, David Davison of the Crime Policy and Review Branch, Will Graham and Christopher Derricott in the Scientific Support Branch, James Simpson in the Operations and Intelligence Branch, Terrina Clifton-Moore of the Family Liaison Unit, and a couple of dozen more.
Then he walked through a wide open-plan area filled with desks, few of them attended today, and offices on either side labelled with their occupants' names and the Sussex Police badge.
He passed the large office of Detective Chief Superintendent
Gary Weston, who was the Head of Sussex CID. Reaching another door, he held his card up against the security panel and entered a long, cream-painted corridor lined with red noticeboards on either side, to which were pinned serious crime detection procedures. One was labelled 'Diagram - Common Possible Motives', another, 'Murder Investigation Model', another, 'Crime Scene Assessment'.
The place had a modern, cutting-edge feel, which he liked. He had spent much of his career in old, inefficient buildings that were like rabbit warrens; it was refreshing to feel that his beloved Police Force, to which he had dedicated his life, was truly embracing the twenty-first century. Although it was marred with one flaw that everyone here moaned about - there was no canteen.
He walked further along, past door after door flagged with abbreviations. The first was the Major Incident Suite, which housed the incident room for serious crimes. It was followed by the Disclosure Officers Room, the CCTV Viewing Room, the Intelligence Office Room, the Outside Enquiry Team Office, and then the stench hit him, slowly at first, but more powerful with every step.
The dense, cloying, stomach-churning reek of human putrefaction, which had become too familiar to him over the years. Much too familiar. There was no other stench like it; it enveloped you like an invisible fog, seeping into the pores of your skin, deep into your nostrils and your lungs and your stomach, and the fibres of your hair and clothes, so that you carried it away with you and continued on smelling it for hours.
As he pushed open the door of the small, pristine Scene of Crimes Office, he saw the cause: the Crime Scene Investigators' photographic studio was in action. A Hawaiian shirt, torn and heavily bloodstained, lay under the glare of bright lights, on a table, on a sheet of brown background paper. Nearby, in plastic bags, he could see trousers and a pair of camel loafers.
Peering further into the room, Grace saw a man, dressed in white overalls, who he did not recognize for a moment, staring intently into the lens of a Hasselblad mounted on a tripod. Then he realized Joe Tindall had had a makeover since he'd last seen him a few months back. The mad-professor hairstyle and large tortoiseshell glasses had gone. He now had a completely shaven head, a narrow strip of hair
running from the centre of his lower lip down to the centre of his chin and hip rectangular glasses with blue-tinged lenses. He looked more like a media trendy than a scientific boffin.
'New woman in your life?' Grace asked, by way of a greeting.
Tindall looked up at him in surprise. 'Roy, good to see you! Yes, as a matter of fact - who told you that?'
Grace grinned, looking at him more closely, almost expecting to spot an earring as well. 'Young, is she?'
'Actually - yes - how do you know?'
Grace grinned again, staring at his newly shaven pate, his trendy glasses. 'Keeping you young, isn't she?'
Then Tindall understood and grinned sheepishly. 'She's going to kill me, Roy. Three times a night every night.'
'You try three times a night or succeed?'
'Oh, fuck off!' He stared Grace up and down. 'You're looking sharp, for a Saturday. Hot date yourself?'
'A wedding, actually.'
'Congratulations - who's the lucky girl?'
'I have a feeling she's not that lucky,' Grace retorted, placing a small plastic bag containing the earth he had retrieved from Mark Warren's BMW down on the table, next to the shirt. 'I need you to pull out some stops.'
'You always need me to pull out some stops. Everyone does.'
'Not true, Joe. I gave you the Tommy Lytle material and told you there was all the time you need. This is different. I have a missing person - how fast you get this analysed might determine whether he lives or dies.'
Joe Tindall held the bag up and peered at it. He shook it gently, peering at it all the time. 'Quite sandy/ he said.
'What does that tell you?'
'You mentioned Ashdown Forest on the phone?'
'This might be the kind of soil you'd find there.'
'The UK is knee-deep in sandy soil, Roy. There's sandy soil in Ashdown Forest - but there's sandy soil in a million other places, too.'
'I need an area that's about seven foot long and three foot wide.'
'Sounds like a grave.'
'It is a grave.'
Joe Tindall nodded, peering closely at the earth again. 'You want me to locate a grave in the middle of Ashdown Forest from this little bag of earth?'
'You're catching on.'
The SOCO officer removed his glasses for some moments, as if that would give him clarity of vision, then put them on again. 'Here's the deal, Roy. You locate the grave and I'll get you an analysis on whether this soil matches or doesn't.'
'Actually, I need it to be the other way around.'
Tindall held up the plastic bag. 'I see. Who do you think I am? David Blaine? Derren Brown? I swing this in the air and somehow magic up a grave in the middle of a ten-thousand-hectare forest?'
'You have a problem with that?'
'Actually, yes, I do have a problem with that.'
A few hours later, Grace cruised slowly up a steep hill past All Saints' church in Patcham Village, where a certain wedding had been scheduled to happen at two o'clock this afternoon - in exactly three-quarters of an hour.
This was his own personal favourite church in the area. A classic Early English parish church, intimate, simple, with unadorned grey stonework, a small tower, a fine stained-glass window behind the altar and tombstones going back centuries in the overgrown graveyard out the front and along the sides.
The heavy rain had eased to a light drizzle as he sat in his Alfa, parked close to the entrance, on a grass bank opposite the church, giving him a commanding view of all the arrivals. No sign of anyone yet. Just a few pieces of sodden confetti on the wet tarmac, from an earlier wedding, probably this morning.
He watched an elderly woman in a hooded PVC raincoat wheel a shopping basket down the pavement and pause to exchange a few words with a huge man in an anorak with a tiny dog on a leash, who was walking up in the opposite direction. The dog cocked its leg on a lamppost.
A blue Ford Focus pulled up and a man with a couple of cameras slung around his neck climbed out. Grace observed him, wondering whether he was the official wedding photographer, or press. Moments later a small brown Vauxhall pulled up behind it, and a young man in an anorak emerged, carrying a distinctive reporter's notebook. The two men greeted each other and began chatting, both looking around, waiting.
After ten minutes he saw a silver BMW off-roader pull up. Because of its tinted glass windows and the rain, he could not make out who was inside, but he recognized immediately Mark Warren's number plate. Moments later, Warren, in a dark raincoat, jumped down and hurried up the path to the main entrance of the church.
He disappeared inside, then came out almost immediately and hurried back to his car.
A taxi pulled up, and a tall, distinguished-looking man with silver hair, dressed in a morning suit with a red carnation in the buttonhole, and holding a grey top hat, closed the rear door and walked towards the church. The taxi had evidently been paid to wait. Then a silver Audi TT sports car pulled up. Grace remembered seeing one like it parked in front of Ashley Harper's house.
The driver's door opened, and Ashley, holding a small umbrella, emerged, in a smart white, wedding dress, her hair up. An older woman appeared from the passenger door, in a white-trimmed blue dress and neatly coiffed silver-grey hair. Ashley waved acknowledgement to the BMW, then huddled under the umbrella. The pair hurried up the path and disappeared into the church. Mark Warren followed.
Then, at five to two, Grace saw the vicar cut across the graveyard and enter, and decided it was time to make his move. He left his car, tugging on his Tommy Hilfiger blue and yellow anorak. As he crossed the road the young man with the notebook approached him. He was in his mid-twenties, sharp-faced, wearing a cheap grey suit with his tie knotted massively but slackly, so the top button of his white shirt showed above it, and chewing gum.
'Detective Superintendent Grace, isn't it?'
Grace eyeballed him, used to being recognized by the press, but wary all the same. And you are?'
'Kevin Spinella, the Argus. Just wondering if you have any update on Michael Harrison for us?'
'Nothing yet, I'm afraid. We'll be waiting to see if he turns up to his wedding.'
The reporter glanced at his watch. 'Cutting it a bit fine, isn't he?'
'It wouldn't be the first time a groom has been late.' Grace smiled and eased past Spinella.
Hurrying after him, the reporter asked, 'Do you think Michael Harrison is alive or dead, Detective Superintendent?'
Stopping for one moment, Grace said, 'We're regarding this as a missing persons enquiry.'
'For the moment?'
'I don't have any further comment, thank you.' Grace pushed open the heavy door, stepped into the gloom of the porch and closed the door behind him.
Whenever he entered a church, Grace always felt a sense of conflict. Should he unhook a kneeler, get down on the floor and pray, the way most people did? The way he did as a kid alongside his mother and father, most Sunday mornings of his childhood. Or should he just sit down on a pew, letting the God he was no longer sure he believed in know his anger? For a long time after Sandy's disappearance he had gone to church and had prayed for her return. Sometimes he had attended services, but mostly he had gone into an empty church. Sandy had never been a believer, and during the past few years, with his prayers unanswered, he had increasingly become an agnostic. It no longer felt right, praying.
Give me Sandy back, then I'll pray my heart out to you. But not until then, Mr God, OK?
He walked past a row of dripping umbrellas, a crisscrossed noticeboard and a stack of service sheets with Michael John Harrison and Ashley Lauren Harper printed on the front, then into the church itself, instantly breathing in the familiar smells of dry, old wood, old cloth, dust and a hint of burning wax. The place was beautifully bedecked with flowers, but there was no hint of their perfume.
About a dozen people stood in the aisle and nave, all of them silent, expectant, as if they were extras on a film set waiting for the director's command to move.
Grace took in the group rapidly, nodding at Ashley, who was sheet-white and clutching the arm of the tall man in the black morning coat, presumably her father. Next to her stood the woman he had seen emerging from the car with Ashley, a handsome woman in her fifties but with the strained look of someone who has been through a sustained rough time. Mark Warren, in a navy suit, sporting a white carnation, stood beside a good-looking young couple in their early thirties.
He realized everyone was looking at him. In a faltering voice Ashley broke the ice by thanking him for coming and introduced him first to Michael's mother, who seemed distraught, and then to the handsome, distinguished-looking man he had thought was her
father, but turned out to be her uncle. He gave Grace a warm handshake, introducing himself as Bradley Cunningham, staring Grace straight back in the eye and saying, 'Good to meet you, Detective Superintendent.'
Picking up on his North American accent, Grace asked, 'Whereabouts in the States are you from?'
The man frowned as if insulted. 'Actually, I'm Canadian, from Ontario.'
'No problem, it's a common mistake you Limeys make.'
'I guess you might have problems differentiating regional accents across Britain,' Grace said.
'Actually, you are right.'
Grace smiled, eyeing his morning coat approvingly. 'It's good to see someone properly dressed for a wedding.'
'Actually the pants are killing me,' Cunningham confessed. 'Rented this lot from your wonderful Moss Bros, but I think I got given the wrong pants!' Then his face became grave. 'Still, this is a terrible thing, isn't it?'
'Yes,' Grace said, distracted suddenly. 'Terrible.'
Ashley interrupted them, introducing Grace to the vicar, the Reverend Somping, a short, bearded man in white robes and a dog collar, with rheumy, bloodshot eyes, who looked distinctly angry.
'I told Miss Harper we should have cancelled this completely,' the Reverend Somping said. 'It is ridiculous to put someone through this agony - and what about the guests? This is such a nonsense.'
'He will turn up,' Ashley blubbed. 'He will, I know he will.' She looked imploringly at Grace. 'Please tell him that Michael is on his way.'
Grace stared at the bride, so sad and vulnerable-looking, and almost had to restrain himself from reaching out his arms and hugging her. She looked so forlorn, so desperate. He felt like punching the arrogant vicar in the face.
'Michael Harrison might yet turn up,' he said.
'He's going to have to turn up pretty smartly,' the vicar said, coldly. 'I have another wedding here at four.'
'I thought this was a church/ Grace said, angry at his insensitivity to Ashley. 'Not a supermarket.'
The Reverend Somping attempted, without success, to glare Grace out. Then he said, defensively, 'I work for the Lord. He gives me his timetable.'
After a few moments Grace snapped back, Tn that case I suggest you ask your boss to produce the groom, pronto.'
At twenty past two, quite unnecessarily considering the small number of people present, the Reverend Somping climbed up the steps into the pulpit with all the labour of a man scaling Everest the hard way. He placed his palms on the wooden rails, leaned forward with an expression leaden with gravitas and announced:
'I have been asked by the bride, Miss Ashley Harper, and by the mother of the groom, Mrs Gillian Harrison, to inform you that this wedding is delayed, indefinitely, pending the presence of Michael Harrison. What should be a joyous occasion, the union of two young, loving people, in the eyes of our Lord, has been curtailed by the absence of Michael. None of us knows what has happened to him, but our thoughts and prayers are with him, his family and with his bride-to-be.'
He paused, staring challengingly at the group of people, before continuing. 'Miss Harper and Mrs Harrison have generously suggested that even though no wedding has taken place, you should at least enjoy the refreshments which have been laid on for the reception, in the Queen Mary Room of the Brighton Pavilion. They would appreciate it if you would join them there after we have said a prayer for Michael's well-being.'
He launched into a brief, hurried prayer. Then someone opened the church doors.
Grace watched the people filing out in silence. It had all the atmosphere of a funeral. Sometime in the next week several of the guests here would be attending four funerals. And he hoped that the no-show by Michael Harrison didn't mean it could be five. But it was not a good sign, it was a very bad sign indeed. Any prospect that Michael Harrison was playing a prank could now be discounted.
And there was something else bothering him.
An hour later at the reception, in the Queen Mary Room at the Royal Pavilion, with fine oil paintings in gilded frames hung on its pink walls, there was none of the cheery buzz of a party, but instead a number of stilted conversations punctuated the silence. Only a few of the twenty tables, beautifully laid for 200 guests, and decorated with orchids, were being used. Two chefs in white coats and toques manned the laden buffet tables with an army of waiters and waitresses, and the tiered wedding cake sat in a space of its own, an almost unwelcome reminder of the reason everyone was here. All the same, several people seemed to be tucking into platefuls of food and swigging down the champagne and wines.
Grace, who had been invited by Ashley, had been delayed talking on his phone to DC Nicholl and DS Moy about increasing the team. There was a rookie female detective constable Bella rated highly and who was free, called Emma-Jane Boutwood. Grace backed Bella's judgement by suggesting Emma-Jane be brought into the team immediately.
Now at the reception, he watched Ashley and Mark Warren keenly. Despite her eyes being tear-stained and streaked with mascara, she was putting on a brave face, seated at a table, with a young man on one side and a woman the other that Grace did not recognize from the church. It seemed several more people had turned up here, told by Ashley that the reception was still on for anyone who would like to come.
'He'll turn up,' Grace heard her saying. 'There's a reason behind this.' Then she continued, 'This is just so bizarre - isn't your wedding day meant to be the happiest day of your life?' before breaking down in a flood of tears.
On another table, Grace singled out Michael's mother and Ashley's uncle seated next to each other. He watched Bradley Cunningham for some moments, thoughtfully. Then he was interrupted by Mark Warren, sporting a white carnation in his buttonhole, holding an empty champagne flute, his voice slurred. He pushed his face close up against Grace's.
'Detective Sergeant Grace?' he quizzed.
'Detective Superintendent,' Grace corrected him.
'S-shorry - didn't realize you'd been promoted.'
'I haven't, Mr Warren.'
Mark stood back a moment, then squared up to him, eyeballing him as levelly as he could, except the alcohol was making him squint. His presence was clearly making Ashley uncomfortable - Grace saw her look up from her table.
'Can't sh'you leave thish young lady alone? Do you have any idea what she is going through?'
'That's why I'm here,' Grace said calmly.
'You should be out, trying to find Michael, not hanging around, freeloading here.'
'Mark!' Ashley cautioned.
'Fuck it,' Mark said, brushing her aside, and eyeballing Grace again. 'What the fuck are you doing about this situation?'
Angered by his attitude, but remaining calm, Grace said, 'My team are doing everything they can.'
'Doesn't much look like it to me. Should you be drinking on duty?'
'It's mineral water.'
Mark squinted at Grace's glass.
Standing up and joining them, Ashley said, 'Why don't you circulate, Mark?'
Grace clocked the edge in her voice. Something very definitely did not feel right but he couldn't place quite what.
Then Mark Warren jabbed him in the chest. 'You know your problem? You don't give a fuck, do you?'
'Why do you think that?'
Mark Warren gave him an asinine grin, raising his voice. 'Come on. You don't like rich people, do you? We can go fuck ourselves, can't we? You're too busy looking at speed cameras, trapping motorists. Why should you give a fuck about some poor rich sod who's the victim of some prank that's gone wrong, hey? When you could be out earning a fat bonus from trapping motorists?'
Grace deliberately lowered his voice, almost to a whisper, which he knew would force Mark Warren to lower his voice, also. 'Mr Warren, I don't have any connection with the Traffic Division. I'm here to try to help you.'
Mark leaned closer, straining to hear him. 'Sorry, I missed that. What did you say?'
Still speaking deliberately quietly, Grace said, 'When I was at Police Training College we had to do a parade and be inspected. I'd buffed my belt buckles to a shine like a mirror. The Chief made me take the belt off and held up the back for everyone to see. I hadn't polished that at all and I felt ashamed. It taught me a lesson - it's not just what you can see that matters.' He gave Mark a quizzical look.
'What exshacktly ish that meant to mean?'
'I'll leave you to think about that, Mr Warren - next time you have your BMW washed.'
Grace turned and walked away.
Back in his car, with the rain pattering down on the windscreen, Grace was deep in thought. So deep, it was several moments before he even noticed the parking ticket tucked under the wiper.
He climbed out of the car, grabbed the ticket and tore it from its cellophane wrapping. Thirty-quid fine for being five minutes over the time on his voucher - and no chance of putting it through expenses. The Chief had clamped down firmly on that.
Hope you appreciate this, Mr Branson, having your nice weekend break in Solihull. He grimaced, tossing the ticket into the passenger footwell in disgust. Then he turned his mind back to Mark Warren. Then back five years to the fortnight's course in forensic psychology he had done at the FBI training centre in Quantico in the USA. It had not been enough to make him an expert, but it had taught him the value of his instincts, and it had taught him how to read certain aspects of body language.
And Mark Warren's body language was all wrong.
Mark Warren had lost four close friends. His business partner was missing, maybe dead. Very likely dead. He ought to be in shock, numb, bewildered. Not angry. It was too soon for anger.
And he had noticed the reaction to his remark about the car wash. He had touched a nerve there very definitely.
I don't know what you are up to, Mr Mark Warren, but I'm making it my business to find out.
He picked up his phone, dialled a number, listened to it ringing. On a Saturday afternoon he was expecting to get the answering machine, but instead he got a human voice. Female. Soft and warm. Impossible for anyone to guess from her voice what she did for a living.
'Brighton and Have City Mortuary,' she said.
'Cleo, it's Roy Grace.'
'Wotcher, Roy, how you doing?' Cleo Morey's ordinarily quite posh voice was suddenly impish.
Involuntarily, Grace found himself flirting with her over the phone. 'Yes, OK. I'm impressed you're working on a Saturday afternoon.' 'The dead don't know what day of the week it is.' She hesitated. 'Don't 'spose the living care much, either. Most of them anyhow,' she added as an afterthought.
'Mosf of them?'
'Seems to me most living people don't really know what day of the week it is - they give the impression they do, but they don't really. Don't you think?'
'This is heavy philosophy for a wet Saturday afternoon,' Grace said.
'Well I'm doing my Open University degree in philosophy, so I've got to practise my arguments on someone - and I don't get much response from the lot in here.'
Grace grinned. 'So how are you?'
'You sound a bit - low.'
'Never felt better, Roy. I'm tired, that's all. Been here on my own all week - short-staffed - Doug's on holiday.'
'Those lads who were killed on Tuesday night - are they still in the mortuary?'
'They're here. And so is Josh Walker.'
The one who died afterwards, in hospital?'
'I need to come over, take a look at them. Would now be OK?'
'They're not going anywhere.'
Grace always enjoyed her dark humour. 'I'll be there in about ten minutes,' he said.
The Saturday-afternoon traffic was heavier than he had expected and it was nearly twenty minutes before he entered the busy gyratory system, then turned right, past a sign saying 'Brighton & have city mortuary' and through wrought iron gates attached to brick pillars. The gates were always open, twenty-four hours a day. Like a symbol, he reflected, that the dead didn't have much respect for business hours.
Grace knew this place far too well. It was a bland building with a horrible aura. A long, single-storey structure with grey pebbledash rendering on the walls and a covered drive-in on one side deep enough to take an ambulance or a large van. The mortuary was a transit stop on a one-way journey to a grave or a crematorium oven, for people who had died suddenly, violently or inexplicably - or from some fast-onset disease like viral meningitis, where a post-mortem might reveal medical insights that could one day help the living.
Yet a post-mortem was the ultimate degradation. A human being who had been walking, talking, reading, making love - or whatever just a day or two earlier being cut open and disembowelled like a pig on a butcher's slab.
He didn't want to think about it, but he couldn't help it; he'd seen too many post-mortems and knew what happened. The scalp would be peeled back, then the cap of the skull sawn off, the brain removed and sliced into segments. The chest wall would be cut open, all the internal organs taken out and sliced and weighed and some bits sent off for pathological analysis, the rest crammed into a white plastic bag and stitched back inside the cadaver like giblets.
He parked behind a small blue MG sports car, which he presumed was Cleo's, and hurried through the rain over to the front entrance and rang the bell. The blue front door with its frosted glass panel could have come straight from a suburban bungalow.
Moments later, Cleo Morey opened it, smiling warmly. No matter how many times he saw her, he could never quite get used to the incongruity of this immensely attractive young woman, in her late twenties, with long blonde hair, dressed in a green surgical gown, with a heavy-duty green apron over the top and white Wellington boots. With her looks she could have been a model, or an actress, and with her brains she could have probably had any career she set her mind to - and she chose this. Booking in cadavers, preparing them for post-mortems, cleaning up afterwards - and trying to offer crumbs of comfort to the families of the bereaved, invariably in
shock, who came to identify the bodies. And for much of the time she worked alone here.
The smell hit Roy immediately, the way it always did, that sickly sweet reek of disinfectant that permeated the whole place and made something squirm in his guts.
They took a left off the narrow entrance hall into the undertaker's office, which doubled as reception. It was a small room with a blower heater on the floor, pink Artexed walls, a pink carpet, an L-shaped row of visitor chairs, and a small metal desk on which sat three telephones, a stack of small brown envelopes printed with the words 'personal effects', and a large green and red ledger bearing the legend 'mortuary register' in gold block lettering.
There was a light box on one wall, as well as a row of framed 'public health and hygiene' certificates, and a larger one from the 'british institute of embalmers', with Cleo Morey's name inscribed beneath. On another wall was a closed-circuit television camera, which showed, in a continual jerky sequence, views of the front, back, then each side of the building, then a close-up on the entrance.
'Cup of tea, Roy?'
Her clear bright blue eyes engaged with his for just a fraction longer than was necessary for the question. Smiling eyes. Incredibly warm eyes.
'I'd love a cup of tea.'
'English breakfast, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, China, camomile, peppermint, green leaf?'
'I thought this was the mortuary, not Starbucks,' he said.
She grinned. 'We also have coffee. 'Espresso, latte, Colombian, mocha--'
He raised a hand. 'Builder's tea, perfect.'
'Full fat milk, semi-skimmed, with lemon--'
He raised both his hands. 'Whatever milk you have open. Joe not here yet?'
He had asked Joe Tindall, from SOCO, to attend.
'Not yet, do you want to wait until he gets here?'
'Yes, we should.'
She flicked a switch on the kettle and disappeared into the locker room opposite. As the kettle began burbling, she returned with a
green gown, blue overshoes, a face mask and white latex gloves, which she handed to him.
While he pulled them on, she made his tea for him and opened a tin containing digestive biscuits. He took one and munched it. 'So you've been here on your own all week? Doesn't it get you down? No conversation?'
'I'm always busy - we've had ten admissions this week. Eastbourne was going to send over someone from their mortuary, but they got too busy as well. Must be something about the last week in May'
Grace pulled the band of the mask over his head, then let the mask hang loose below his chin; the young men had not been dead long enough to smell too bad, in his experience. 'You've had the families of all the four young men up?'
She nodded. 'And has the guy who was missing, the groom, turned up yet?'
'I've just come from the wedding/ Grace said.
'I thought you were looking a bit smart for a Saturday, Roy' She grinned. 'So at least that's resolved itself?'
'No,' he replied. 'That's why I'm here.'
She raised her eyebrows but didn't comment. 'Anything in particular you want to see? I can get you copies of the pathologist's reports to the Coroner's office.'
'What I want to start with when Joe gets here,' he replied, 'are their fingernails.'
Followed by Joe Tindall, who was tugging on his gloves, Grace followed Cleo along the hard, speckled floor, watching her streaked blonde hair swinging against the neck of her green gown, past the glass window of the sealed infection chamber, into the main postmortem room.
It was dominated by two steel tables, one fixed, one wheeled, a blue hydraulic hoist and a row of fridges with floor-to-ceiling doors. The walls were tiled in grey and the whole room was surrounded by a drain gulley. Along one wall was a row of sinks and a coiled yellow hose. Along another was a wide work surface, a metal cutting board and a glass-fronted cabinet filled with instruments and some packs of Duracell batteries. Next to the cabinet was a chart itemizing the name of each deceased, with columns for the weights of their brain, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys and spleen. A man's name, Adrian Penny, with his grim recordings was written in blue chinagraph pen.
Seeing what Grace was looking at, she said cheerfully, 'A motorcyclist we did a PM on yesterday. Overtook a lorry and didn't notice a steel girder sticking out the side - sliced the poor sod's head clean off at the neck.
'How the hell do you remain sane?' he asked.
Grinning, she replied, 'Who said I'm sane?'
'I don't know how you do your job.'
'It's not the dead who harm people, Roy, it's the living.'
'Good point,' he said. He wondered what her views were about ghosts. But this was not the time to ask.
The room felt cold. There was a hum from the refrigeration system, and a sharp clicking sound from overhead, from one fluorescent light that hadn't come on properly. 'Any preference who you want to see first?'
'No, I'd like to see all of them.'
Cleo marched up to the door marked '4' and pulled it open. As
she did so there was a blast of icy air, but it wasn't the cold that instantly sent a chill through Grace. It was the sight of the human form beneath the white plastic sheets on each of the four tiers of metal trays on rollers.
The mortician wheeled the hoist up close, cranked it up, then pulled the top tray out onto it and closed the fridge door. Then she pulled back the sheet to reveal a fleshy white male, with lank hair, his body and waxy white face covered in bruises and lacerations, his eyes wide open, conveying shock even in their glassy stillness, his penis shrivelled and limp lying in a thick clump of pubic hairs like some hibernating rodent. Grace looked at the buff tag tied around his big toe. The name read 'Robert Houlihan'.
Grace's eyes went straight to the young man's hands. They were big, coarse hands, with very grimy nails. 'You have all their clothes here?'
'Good.' Grace asked Tindall to take scrapings from the nails. The SOCO officer selected a sharp tool from the instrument rack, asked Cleo for a specimen bag, then carefully scraped part of the dirt from each of the nails into the bag, labelled and sealed it.