She went into the sitting room, noticing that she was shuffling slightly. Was that because she was afraid to trip over the carpet and so shuffled deliberately, or because she could not now walk any other way?
It took twenty minutes of working her way through the wrong websites to find what she needed. She had to register, re-register and then be sent from one site, which was clearly just a front, to another, where she registered again and had to enter and confirm two passwords. But in the end, she was a member of the forum, joined by those who wanted to share information, as well as feelings and thoughts, about assisted suicide. There were people who had already been to Switzerland and who had said goodbye to friends on the forum, others who had taken relatives and were returning to share the experience. She read one or two posts but then went on searching. It was some time before she found a protected area, for which she had to register again.
But then, she was there. She had found it.
Q. I have terminal cancer and I am planning to end my life with dignity and at a time of my choice. I cannot ask anyone in my family to accompany me. Does anyone know of a doctor or nurse who might travel and assist me?
A. Hello, Sandra. There are several members of the medical and caring professions who are members here and would be able to help with your enquiry. Please send a private message (PM) to the forum administrator quoting the reference number beside this reply.
She was suddenly overcome with tiredness and a great wave of relief. She bookmarked the page, closed down, and went back to bed. There was no light in the sky yet.
She slept until after nine o’clock and woke with a feeling of having settled her future.
DOUGAL CRAWFORD AND John Fryer, two of the oldest DCs at Lafferton, were both accepting the early retirement package and leaving within a month. Fryer would not be greatly missed. He kept his head down, was rarely to be found away from his desk and never took the initiative. If anyone had routine paperwork they wanted to escape from, Fryer would always take it on. He had transferred from uniform as a keen young officer and the keenness had evaporated the moment he walked into the CID room. Dougal was an old hand, experienced, methodical, but with a nose for a crime and a suspect, and Serrailler had hoped to persuade him onto what might eventually be a team investigating the cold cases. Now there was little point. Dougal would be gone just as he dug into the inquiry.
This morning, after exchanging files, Simon found the CID room empty except for DS Ben Vanek and Fryer, face, as ever, at his computer screen.
‘John … any chance you could do a bit of digging for me? I’m trying to trace a man who drove a van sixteen years ago.’
Fryer shook his head without glancing round. ‘Sorry, guv, got this known dealers file to sort.’ Which meant checking old addresses and prison records and updating them, and Fryer would rather plod along doing that than be given a new, more complicated task.
‘I’m free,’ Ben Vanek said, pushing his chair back. ‘I slipped chasing a villain down the underpass in the rain and I’m on desk duty, only there doesn’t seem to be much going on. Everyone’s out crawling over the Dulcie estate, except Steph, and she’s waiting at BG for someone either to come round or to die.’
‘Thanks, Ben. Honestly, these blasted drug ops drain our resources and for what? How much difference do we make? How many kids do we stop from getting hold of them? OK, subject for another day. If you can trace this guy, find out if he’s still on our patch, at the same address and so on … If he is, you can come with me to talk to him. Could take you five minutes, could take all day.’
Simon opened up his computer and checked out a few things, then headed down the stairs, wanting coffee but not from the canteen; as he reached the main doors, though, he heard Ben Vanek call him. Simon shouted for him to follow over the road and round the corner to the Cypriot café.
‘Word the other day was that canteen takings are right down,’ Ben said, catching him up.
‘The day they make the Cypriot out of bounds is the day I hand in my warrant card. Canteen would buck up its profits if it didn’t serve muck out of that urn.’
There were usually two or three CID in the small, busy café but today it only held two mothers with pushchairs.
‘Double espresso, one cappuccino, coming up.’
They went to the table in the window. Ben Vanek had been with the force a couple of years now and he had shaped up well. Serrailler had thought him naive at first and had been irritated when the sergeant had followed him about like a puppy. But his romance with DC Steph Mead had blossomed and they had moved into a flat together. Some of her feistiness and ambition had rubbed off on him, though not, Simon was pleased to note, any of her attitude. And Vanek had stopped wearing weird ties and had abandoned his terrible black leather jacket.
‘You got something?’ Serrailler sipped his coffee and scalded his lip. The Cypriot brothers did not serve anything weak or lukewarm. ‘Or just fancied a halloumi cheese butty?’
‘You said maybe five minutes and it wasn’t much more. Neil Marshall, white van driver. Aged fifty-three now. 20 Cherry Road, Langlands.’
‘That’s handy. Still work for the wholesale greengrocer?’
‘Doesn’t say, but I doubt it, guv. He’s on the Sex Offenders’ Register.’
Serrailler whistled. ‘Is he now?’
‘Went down for kiddie-fiddling seven years ago. Cautioned once before that but not charged. On the register since 2004.’
‘Surprised he still lives at the same address then. They usually get as far away as possible – neighbours hate them, they never feel safe.’
He filled Ben in on the Lowther case as they had their second coffees. A couple of the civilian staff came in but no other officers.
‘Can I work on this with you, guv? I’m cheesed off with sitting at my desk all day filling in forms for other people.’
‘But not cheesed off with the drugs op?’
Ben made a face.
‘Good. I’ve got the nod from the Chief for a team – trouble is, I can’t get one together, there aren’t enough spare bods. You’re a start though. Get the file and read up the interviews with Marshall from ’95. Then we’ll nip over and see if he’s at home.’
‘There’s a nasty rumour going round, guv,’ Ben Vanek said as they drove out.
‘Let me guess … we’re losing half of uniform and two-thirds of CID.’
‘We might close altogether, merge with Bevham.’
Serrailler was silent.
‘Listen, I don’t know any more than you.’
‘But what do you reckon?’
‘It’d be a last resort. How could a place the size of Lafferton not have its own station, and be served from a city fifteen miles away?’
‘Public wouldn’t buy it?’
‘There’d be riots in the streets.’
Ben relaxed in his seat.
‘Set the rumours flying and they’ll find an open window.’
Simon, though, was less sure than he sounded. A merger with Bevham was unlikely, but after what he had heard about the savings that had to be found, he wasn’t fool enough to rule it out. But if it ever happened, he thought his own police days might be over.
‘Not so long ago, I’d have had half a dozen bods on these cases and now it’s all I can do to get you for a morning. Still, if things really hot up the Chief has promised she’ll find a way to give me what I need.’
‘Looks like they might be hotting up. This Marshall guy has to be in the frame again now, doesn’t he?’
‘One man on the SOR doesn’t make a summer. Right, it’s somewhere in this maze of bungaloid streets.’
They toured around for several minutes, swinging right and left, backing out of cul-de-sacs. No one was about apart from a window cleaner and a couple of dogs.
‘How’s Steph liking the drugs op?’
‘No accounting for taste. She loves it. Getting dealers off the streets and kids off the drugs is her mission. Reckon she’ll head up the squad before she’s thirty. She made herself unpopular with a couple of uniform though – they were apparently all for making drugs legal and she got into a bit of a strop.’
‘There is an argument for decriminalising them. Not sure I support it but there’s a case to be made.’
Ben shook his head. ‘Thing is, guv, there’s the soft drugs and – that was Cherry Road, you just passed it – back, then first left.’
‘Discreet,’ Serrailler said. ‘Out of sight of nosy neighbours.’
But Marshall had seen them draw up. The front door opened and he all but hustled them inside.
‘Thought you’d be here,’ he said. He led them into a cramped front room, made more cramped by a bulky leather sofa and arm chair, and a table on which stood a large half-completed balsa-wood model of St Paul’s Cathedral. More pieces were piled around on sheets of paper, with tiny pots of enamel paint, a jar of brushes, glue, card. The room smelled of it.
Serrailler had his warrant card out but Marshall waved at it. ‘You think I don’t know you lot a mile off? What is it? Way you walk maybe.’
He was a nondescript man, average height, mid-brown hair, rimless glasses. The only notable thing about him was his thinness. Ben Vanek was reminded of a character in a children’s book he had had, a boy so flat he could slide under doors and post himself in an envelope. If Marshall stood sideways, he almost disappeared.
He gestured to them to sit down, then went to the table, picked up a knife and piece of balsa and bent over the model. He studied it in silence for a few seconds, then placed the wood delicately to one side of the great roof.
‘Glue dries,’ he said, ‘if I leave it.’
‘You’ve got a lot of patience.’
Serrailler studied the model. As far as he could see there was not a hair out of true. It was a painstaking piece of work, apparently done entirely from an enlarged photograph of the cathedral that was laid out on the table.
‘I know what you’ve come about,’ Marshall said, meeting his eye. ‘Well, I would.’
‘I’ve never forgotten her, you know. Might have been yesterday. Clear as yesterday. It just doesn’t happen, does it? You see a girl at a bus stop – next thing, she’s vanished off the face of the earth. Just doesn’t happen.’
‘Unfortunately, it does.’
‘Still, it’s something, I suppose, finding her body. Something for her family.’
‘Something. But not everything.’
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’
‘I knew you’d be round here, even without me being on the register. Got nothing to do with it though.’
Marshall looked up and met Ben Vanek’s eye this time.
‘Nope. Done my time, learned my lesson. Only it’s like tar rubbed into your skin. Never leaves you. Every time I go out.’
‘Is there a Mrs Marshall?’
‘Buggered off with my best mate, once it all came out.’
‘Do you work?’
‘Who employs people like me?’
‘Forget all that,’ Serrailler said. ‘You say you remember Harriet Lowther very clearly … that day you saw her at the bus stop.’
‘Vivid. Close my eyes, she’s there.’
Marshall cut across a triangular piece of balsa, then laid down the knife. But he did not move from the table.
‘I used to drive for Reynard’s Wholesale Greengrocer. Drove for them, what, twelve years? It was a Friday. I was in Parkside Drive … there was a traffic hold-up, not sure why … that’s one thing I’m not so clear about. Bit blurry. I mean, I drove all day, every day. But I was held up. And she was at the bus stop, by herself. I can see her now.’
‘You noticed young girls a lot then?’
Serrailler shot Ben a look.
Marshall bent over the model and with a pair of tweezers, laid the triangular piece of balsa onto the roof. ‘Haven’t you been through my record with a nit comb, then?’ He stood upright. ‘Because if not, maybe you should.’
‘What are you trying to say, Mr Marshall?’
‘Back to the bus stop.’ Serrailler interrupted quickly. ‘Can you describe her?’
‘Oh yes. Clear as clear. About fourteen, fifteen – young teenage. Fair hair, really fair, like Scandinavian, you know, and tied back. She was carrying a tennis racket in one of those covers. She might have had another bag, I’m not sure. It was her face I remember. She had this look.’
‘Listen, this’ll sound – well, after the event, you know? I mean, when I saw the photos of her in the papers. But I don’t think it is. She had – an expression. Happy. You don’t see people look happy, just plain happy, do you? They look worried, they look worn down, they’re frowning, or maybe laughing out loud … but this was – just happy. I remember it.’
‘Did she catch the bus?’
‘Not that I saw. Next thing, road was clear and I was on my way.’
‘Thought no more about it?’ Vanek said.
Marshall shook his head. ‘You’re wrong there. I thought about it. I had her happy face in my mind on and off all day. Just this blonde-haired girl with a happy face. Kept me going, you know? And not in the way you’re thinking. Not in that way at all.’
‘And you didn’t see anyone with her, approaching her, talking to her?’
‘No. She was on her own.’
‘Did you see the bus draw up?’
‘Is there anything else at all you remember?’
‘No. Just her. I wished I bloody well had. When I read about her. Wished I’d seen her get on the bus or not get on the bus – wished I’d seen anything. But I didn’t. What happened to her?’ he asked Serrailler. ‘What the hell happened to the poor kid?’
‘It’s my job to find out.’
‘Wish I’d seen something else.’
‘You didn’t stop and talk to her?’ Vanek asked.
Marshall turned. ‘No. I did not.’
‘Give her a lift, maybe? Pretty young girl who caught your eye, couldn’t get her out of your mind. Didn’t maybe go back and pick her up?’
‘No. I did not.’