He had known handsome women, pretty women, attractive women, women with rare individual features – a wide, appealing mouth, or hair like Jane Fitzroy’s wild red curls. But of none could he have said, quite simply, that they were beautiful. How many women were?
Someone poured white wine into one of the glasses in front of him before he was aware of it. He pushed the glass slightly away.
The banqueting hall was settling down, conversations opening.
‘I’ve never met a detective chief superintendent,’ she said.
He tried to read her place card but it was obscured by the array of glasses.
‘Rachel Wyatt.’ She smiled. ‘And if you prefer not to talk shop, please say. But you must know how it is – people love the chance to get the undivided attention of doctors and policemen.’
‘You have my undivided attention.’
She hesitated, as if she would reply, then glanced too quickly away.
Plates of shellfish and smoked fish were set down in front of them. Langoustines. Crayfish. Prawns. Smoked salmon, trout and eel. The Lord Lieutenant was never mean. Half-lemons in gauze bags, black pepper, fine slivers of bread and butter, arranged on platters.
‘Are you based in Lafferton?’
He cut gravadlax into small pieces. Handed her the plate of half-lemons.
‘I read about the girl whose remains were found,’ she said, ‘and just now I saw her father’s name on the table plan. Brave of him to come.’
‘He’ll think it’s a sort of duty. And perhaps easier than brooding alone. But you’re right – he is a brave man.’ He realised that she had illuminated something for him.
‘Have you anything to do with the case?’
He told her. She lifted her hand to reach for a pepper mill. She wore a wedding ring. But that might mean nothing. He had a strong feeling that it meant nothing.
How old was she? He thought younger than he was. Where was her husband? Partners were not seated together. He might be anywhere in the room.
‘Tell me more,’ she said.
‘About the Lowther case?’
‘About anything. Tell me anything.’
Then he did look at her. Surprise. Bewilderment. Alarm. Amazement.
All of those things. And something else. The one true thing.
She lifted her glass. Simon saw that her hand was shaking.
He turned to the person on his left, a local councillor he knew slightly, and plucked a question from the air, about the cost of clearing up after the storm and whether there was an adequate emergency budget. It was dull and it was safe; the councillor predictably picked up the baton and ran on and on with it, giving Simon time to recover his equilibrium.
Roast fillet of beef with excellent vegetables. Rich gravy. Tiny, crisp Yorkshire puddings.
A Cheddar, and a goat’s cheese made by a small farmer in the county.
She had turned to her right, apparently engrossed in what her neighbour was saying, and did not turn back until the cheese was on the table, port was served, and the speeches were about to begin.
But as the Lord Lieutenant rose, she looked at Simon, and smiled, a deep, warm and conspiratorial smile, as if she were sharing an unspoken joke with him.
Two of the speeches were long and uninteresting, one short, intelligent, witty. Rachel Wyatt leaned slightly towards him. ‘He should give lessons.’
‘Yes, to the other two.’
She laughed. Her eyelashes were very dark, her hair fairer, swept back with a comb on either side of her head. He wanted to ask her if she had a job, if she had children, where she lived. Instead, she asked him.
‘In the Cathedral Close. I have a flat at the top of one of the old buildings.’
‘Do you play a musical instrument?’
He laughed now. ‘No. Do I look as if I do?’
‘You might be a pianist. Your hands are right. But I don’t know of any piano-playing cops.’
He looked at his own hands. ‘I draw,’ he said.
‘As in pencil? Charcoal?’
‘No. I did, but not for a long time now.’
‘How good are you?’
How good? Who knew?
‘You’d have to ask someone else that.’
‘Who would I ask?’
‘My gallery probably.’ He hated himself for saying it. For sounding pompous. Or vain.
She blushed slightly.
‘I’m sorry,’ Simon said. ‘That was rude.’
‘Not at all. I should have known.’
‘You couldn’t have known. I use a slightly different name.’
They seemed to be skimming fast over some fragile surface and had to go on skimming, to stay out of danger. But they each had another neighbour and natural politeness came to their rescue. Simon listened to more comments and complaints about the police, more advice about how to restore safety to the streets of Lafferton, did his best to respond, was rebuffed, listened again.
It was eleven thirty when the Lord Lieutenant rose and left the dining hall, followed gradually by the rest of the top table.
‘Where is your husband sitting?’
It seemed very important to see the man and then he could draw a line underneath the evening.
‘My husband is at home.’
She did not elaborate. They were moving slowly with the crowd towards the wide doors. Simon was afraid of losing her but when they reached the stairs she was still beside him. The Lord Lieutenant was outside bidding farewell. They each shook hands. Moved out of the floodlit circle. The car park was beyond the archway.
‘I have a card,’ she said, opening her bag.
For a second, he thought she meant a card to give him, but when she took out the oblong of paper, it marked her place in the rows of cars.
‘G41. That’s rather helpful – at least I hope it is. There are a lot of people.’
‘We’ll find it,’ Simon said. He wanted to take her arm but did not, merely went a step ahead of her. There were plenty of attendants and the car park was very well lit.
‘Row G.’ The man pointed to his left.
There was the sound of engines starting, wheels turning.
‘Careful,’ Simon said as a Bentley glided almost silently forward, and then he did catch her arm.
She had a silver Passat.
‘Thank you,’ she said, the keys ready in her hand.
‘Must you go?’ he asked then.
She hesitated, not looking at him.
‘Rachel?’ Say no, he thought urgently, say no. Say that your going now isn’t absolutely essential.
‘I’m afraid I must, yes.’
‘Wait.’ He felt in his pockets for a pen. But he had not brought a pen. Nor his CID cards, but in any case, he would not have given her one of those.
‘I know where to find you,’ she said, not looking at him.
He wanted to stop her and could not.
Other cars were backing out, her progress to the exit gate was slow, he could still have gone after her, even walking. Stopped her. But he did not. She had said that she knew where to find him. He supposed she meant at the station. But he did not know where to find her.
He walked slowly across to his own car. The area was half empty now.
Of course he could find her. He was in the one job which made that easy enough.
She could find him. He could find her.
He remembered nothing about the drive home.
RING ME WHEN you’ve got a moment, Simon. I’ve got something for you.
He had slept badly, got up early, gone for a run in the drizzle. It was still only five past eight. The message from the pathologist was from late the previous afternoon but it was a good excuse to get straight out of the office again.
He went across to the Cypriot deli, which opened at seven. A couple of paramedics at the end of night shift were having breakfast, otherwise it was empty.
‘Double espresso, scrambled eggs on toast.’
He sat in the window. There were morning papers on the ledge. He flipped through one, read nothing.
The previous evening filled his mind. What she had said. What he had said. How she had looked. Her hand on the glass. The coil of her hair around her ear.
I know where to find you.
The eggs were buttery and hot. He took fast gulps of his coffee and ordered another.
He had to focus on today. On whatever was waiting for him at the labs.
‘Guv.’ A couple of uniform nodded as they came in. Simon picked up The Times and kept his head down. As he called for a second round of toast, his phone rang.
‘Did you get my message?’
‘I’m on my way now.’
‘It’s looking even better this morning. I’ll be surprised if you don’t get some response from this.’
He cancelled the toast.
Half an hour later he was looking at the computer-generated image of a young woman.
‘We get a better idea if I transfer it to – here. See?’
The plasma screen was on the wall behind them.
She had the android look of all such images but you could still see what she had been like.
‘Early twenties – no more than twenty-five.’
‘And not English?’
‘Right. Difficult to say exactly what but possibly Eastern European – Hungarian, Czech.’
She had a broad forehead, eyes set wide apart, flattish cheekbones.
‘Why have you given her long hair? Impossible to tell, surely?’
Gordon Lyman turned back to the computer. Within a few seconds, the image of the girl had short hair.
‘Looks quite different,’ Serrailler said.
‘It’s only superficial. The point is, we can play about but we’ve given her mid-length, mid-brown hair because it’s the most neutral, the most common, and because it detracts least from the features. I can make her a blonde or a redhead – anything you like, scrape her hair back, pile it up … but that draws attention away from the face. And it’s the face we want people to look at.’
All this from a skull, he thought. An expressionless but possibly very recognisable young woman.
‘Are you happy with it?’
Gordon leaned back. ‘Declan Devey, the chap I told you about, thinks it’s as good as we’ll get. So over to you. We can get you posters made, send the image to the media boys. Just say when and where.’
‘Posters will have to wait.’
‘Yes, but if we get this onto the television news and in the papers it’s a great start. Someone might spot her straight away.’
‘In my experience, they often don’t. Put up a poster, someone walks by it a dozen times on their way to work, and it sticks at the back of the mind. The subconscious does its work – bingo.’
‘But if she was a visitor – girl on holiday, let’s say.’
‘In the long run. For now, I’ll focus locally.’
‘Well it’s where someone buried her.’
‘Though she could have been murdered anywhere and her body brought here, but why would anyone do that?’
‘Yours to find out,’ the pathologist said.
The drizzle had stopped and the sky was clearing. Instead of driving back to the station, Simon turned off the main road and wound his way up towards the Moor. The earthworks had been completed, the embankment shored up and propped with new buttresses and fencing. Saplings would be planted there in the autumn. But the area where the graves had been was still cordoned off, though there was nothing left to see and the ground had been levelled. He walked past it, clambering over the tussocky grass until he reached a stone outcrop facing towards the western hills. Sheep were dotted about on the lower slopes, their eerie cries coming to him now and then on the breeze.
He had to plan what to do next. There were a couple more people to interview about Harriet Lowther. He had to talk to her father again. The image of the other girl had to be sent out in a press release to the local media, then nationally. He needed to see the press officer and go over the wording, put her in touch with Gordon Lyman.
He thought about none of it.
I know where to find you.
Why would she bother?
Because she had felt as he had. He knew that perfectly well.
Yes, but she was married. She had a husband, and presumably a family too, so that was that. Or that ought to be that.
But she had not seemed like a woman with a husband and children and another life.
How did that sort of person seem then? Like Cat, he thought immediately. Even though she was now a widow, Cat came across as married with children the moment you met her, though quite why he was sure of that he could not have said. But at last night’s banquet, sitting next to a stranger, what would Cat have talked about? Her job. Her family – at some point, even if the conversation had subsequently ranged far and wide.
But what conversation had he had with Rachel Wyatt? They had both been too shaken by the feelings that had been there, between them, almost immediately, too overcome to chat, share information and opinions about this and that, as would have been normal, usual. But there had not been anything normal or usual about their meeting.
He shook his head. Did he believe in any of this? How could he not believe it? It had happened. If it had not happened why did he feel as he did? He was restless, he could not focus, he was uncertain what to do next because what he wanted to do was see Rachel. In order to see her, he had to find out where she was and he could do that easily enough.
So he should go back to his office.
He had to talk to the press officer. He had to make an appointment to see Harriet Lowther’s friend, Katie Morris née Cadsden. He must interview Sir John again.
It was routine. But he had to focus because the break always came either quite by chance – a lucky strike, a fluke – or by such close attention that one small detail led to the result. But you did not spot that detail unless you were absolutely focused.
He made his way back down to where the police tape, torn and twisted now, showed where the bodies of the two girls had been. He willed the place to give up its secrets, something he had done so often before. But there was nothing, only the cry of sheep in the distance and the rumble of traffic below the embankment. No voices. No cries for vengeance from the dead.
What had happened and why, who the second girl was, whether the two had had anything to do with one another – all of it was in the past and that past was a box still closed to him. If he had the key, he didn’t yet know it.
His phone had rung a couple of times while he was with the pathologist and halfway to the station it rang again. He realised that he had been so preoccupied with Rachel Wyatt that he had actually forgotten to pick up his messages and texts – a thing that was so routine he should do it on autopilot.