She looked at the number she had jotted down. She would ring in the morning and make an appointment. He had emphasised that she need proceed no further if she wasn’t happy, so what had she to lose? If nothing else, she might put an end to her nightmares and daytime flashes of dreadful memory if she went through every detail with this doctor.
Penny would tell her to be sensible and cautious, to ask questions, to query why the man had rung her, what he hoped to gain from the appointment, to try at least to discover who he was and something about his background before seeing him. Which was one reason, though by no means the only one, why she intended to tell no one about the doctor, his phone call, or any appointment she might make, and to keep Penny, above all people, in the dark about it.
She felt happier when she went to bed, calmer and less afraid that her sleep would be jagged with nightmares about the clinic. The phone call had reassured her. She did not ask herself how he had found her name and number, how he knew about her aborted trip to Switzerland.
‘MRS FOSTER? SIMON Serrailler.’
‘Please don’t hang up. Just listen to me.’
‘I don’t –’
‘Is your husband going to be at home this morning?’
‘He usually is Saturday mornings, though not in the afternoons, not usually Saturday evenings either. He coaches junior football and then he’s at the pub.’
‘Fine. I’m going to call round this morning, I need to talk to him.’
‘I didn’t tell you where we live.’
Serrailler said nothing.
‘Yes, I see. Nothing’s private, is it? Nothing’s confidential from you lot.’
‘I’ll come between ten and eleven, but I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention this to him.’
He could have called on the off chance and risked finding Stephen Foster out of the house but he preferred it this way. Noeline might warn her husband about his impending visit. His behaviour then would say a lot. If he knew nothing, and certainly if he had done nothing, then he might well stay put. If he was at all anxious or felt guilty, he might decide not to be in after all, or, at the very least, work out a story and rehearse it carefully. And in Serrailler’s experience, only those who had something to hide went to the trouble of doing that. He had Foster in his sights. Whether that was because at the moment he had no one else there he would have found it hard to say.
It was a small detached house in a short avenue of similar houses but smarter than most of them, freshly painted, the windows shining after a recent clean, the paved front area set about with pointed miniature conifers in a careful pattern. A silver Ford Focus was parked at the gate.
Foster was in his fifties, well spoken, neat grey hair, even good-looking, Simon thought. A well-set-up figure of a man. But he wore old, paint-splashed cords and his feet were bare.
He looked at the warrant card, before meeting Serrailler’s eye for only a second.
‘What’s this about? I was just going out actually.’
‘I hope not to hold you up too long. May I ask where you were going, Mr Foster?’
‘Just out. You’d better come in here.’
A neat sitting room, with a hideous orange and brown carpet, and amateur paintings of orange and brown landscapes on the walls.
‘Do you paint?’ Simon asked, going closer to one to look at the signature.
‘My wife. Doesn’t do it so much now.’
‘Well, yes, but she does them from postcards.’
Simon turned round quickly, to catch the man’s expression. There was no panic. The most it could be described as was wary. But who wasn’t wary when visited by a detective wanting to ask them questions? Wary was normal.
‘I’d like a word with your wife after we’ve spoken.’
‘She’s gone out.’
Foster shrugged. ‘Shops, I suppose. Don’t think she said.’
‘Is she usually out on Saturday morning?’
‘Sometimes is, sometimes not.’
‘You’re usually here on Saturdays?’
‘In the morning I am, generally. Yes. Later on I do a bit of soccer coaching. Listen, what’s this about, Mr …?’
‘Detective Chief Superintendent Serrailler. Simon Serrailler. May I sit down?’
Foster hesitated, then sat on the edge of a straight chair himself. Simon took the tightly upholstered small sofa with blood-red covers.
‘Sixteen years ago, a young girl vanished from a bus stop at which she had been waiting on Parkside Drive in Lafferton. Harriet Lowther. You telephoned the special line at Lafferton Police Station to say you had information about her disappearance. That was the next day – Harriet went missing on a Friday afternoon and you telephoned the hotline on the Saturday.’
Foster’s colour had heightened and he was staring at his hands. But then he looked up and directly at Simon.
‘Why do you think it was me who did that? What makes you come here, what gives you the right to attach some random anonymous phone call to me, to my name, my address, all these years later?’ He was blustering.
‘I didn’t say the phone call had been anonymous.’
‘Well, it must have been, mustn’t it?’
‘Why is that?’
‘Well, it wasn’t me so it was either anonymous or someone giving my name … a false name. Using my name.’
‘Why would someone do that?’
‘Or just coincidence. Stephen Foster. It isn’t the most unusual name on the planet, is it? I wonder how many of us there are in the world. Hundreds probably.’
‘And in Lafferton?’
‘Got to be others. Almost bound to be. That’s what it would have been.’
‘We do have a recording of the call, you know. Everything is on tape.’
Alarm flashed across Foster’s features before he controlled it.
‘Where were you on the afternoon of 18 August 1995, Mr Foster?’
‘Was that the Friday?’
‘I’d have been at work then.’
‘Where is that?’
‘The printing firm?’
‘Yes. I worked there for eleven years. I was there then. In 1995.’
‘What exactly did you do?’
‘A sales representative?’
‘Not a job that kept you in the office full-time then.’
‘I was in the office a lot.’
‘And out on the road a lot, visiting clients and so forth.’
‘Out of Lafferton mainly.’
‘Right. So on that afternoon, were you out of Lafferton?’
‘I can easily check.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘What makes you sure of that?’
‘Well … It’s years ago. I left not long after. They wouldn’t keep a record of an ex-employee for all that time.’
‘You’d be surprised. Firms are obliged to keep all sorts of information.’
‘And in sales you make your own timetable, pretty much … I could have been anywhere. But I was in the office.’
‘Why are you so sure of that, Mr Foster?’
‘When I read about the girl of course … I searched my memory.’
‘I should think every man in Lafferton did – every woman too for that matter. Had they been anywhere near, had they seen her maybe. Look, when that sort of thing is all over the television and on posters … a young girl missing … you automatically wonder, you think, Christ, where was I?’
‘I bet even you did.’
‘I was based in the Met at that time, so no. But just to go back. You could have been in the office for part of the afternoon and out of it as well.’
‘I could but I wasn’t.’
‘Where would your nearest client have been at that time?’
‘Nearest … Gatley and Scholes, they’re technical publishers in Bevham. Were. They relocated to Oxford. But they were nearest to the print works and a big client.’
‘So you went to see them how often?’
‘Maybe once a month?’
‘And how would you have got to them from the print works?’
‘Not down Parkside Drive?’
‘Wouldn’t be a sensible way to go, would it? Add about three, four miles. Why would I do that unless the bypass was shut or something?’
‘And was it?’
‘I don’t know. I mean, no, of course it wasn’t, how could it have been if I used it? Why would the bypass be shut anyway?’
‘You tell me.’
‘You didn’t use the bypass at all, did you?’
Foster was silent.
‘You were in Parkside Drive that afternoon – why I don’t know, but I’ll find out. No reason on earth why you shouldn’t have been there except, as you say, it would have been an odd way to get to the east side of Bevham, which is where Gatley and Scholes, were located. But you weren’t going to Gatley and Scholes, were you?’
‘You were in Parkside Drive, at about the time Harriet Lowther was waiting at the bus stop. That’s what you said when you called the information line the next morning.’
‘I didn’t call the information line.’
‘We’ve got your voice on tape, Mr Foster.’
‘No. No, you haven’t. You’ve got someone’s voice but it isn’t mine. It can’t have been.’
‘Why can’t it? If you were in Parkside Drive –’
‘I wasn’t –’
‘– that afternoon and saw Harriet Lowther, which you were and you did, why wouldn’t you call the line? Very public-spirited of you. You did the right thing. You said you saw her waiting at the bus stop, from the other side of the road. You saw the bus come. You saw it pull in and stop. But you were pretty sure that Harriet did not actually get on it. That after it pulled away again, she was walking on down the road. Only a few yards probably, but she wasn’t on the bus. That’s what you said when you rang.’
‘And it was very useful information. Very useful. Vital even. It could be the one bit of vital detail we need.’
‘Oh yes. Absolutely it could. Everyone naturally assumes that when a young girl is waiting at a bus stop and a bus comes, she gets on it. Of course. Why else would she be waiting? There’s only one number bus calls at that stop on Parkside Drive, the 73 into Lafferton, so she couldn’t have been waiting for another number bus, going somewhere else. She didn’t get the bus and you said as much in your call to the hotline. Your anonymous call. But what I can’t understand is why you wouldn’t give your name and address and a contact number? That’s why I’m here, asking all this. It isn’t that you did anything wrong in calling us – on the contrary, as I just said. This is vital information. Maybe you’ve thought about it since and remembered something else?’
‘But once you’d rung us – well, you know how it is, Mr Foster. Things are remembered later … one thing stirs up others … something else, some little detail … ‘
‘I can assure you it does, very often. No, I applaud your remembering what you saw, that Harriet didn’t get on that bus, and you did absolutely the right thing in ringing us. If there was any problem, it was the time lag. I could wish you’d rung earlier, not left it till the next day.’
‘I didn’t know until the next day that the girl had disappeared.’
Simon leaned back on the uncomfortable sofa and looked steadily at Foster. There was nothing else he needed to say.
Stephen Foster went to the window and stood for a few moments, hands in the pockets of his cords, head bent, then turned, looked at Simon, turned back. His face was flushed again.
Yes, Simon thought. Yes.
He waited for a long time in the silence.
Suddenly, Foster went out of the room, closing the door. Another door closed somewhere. After a moment, a lavatory flushed.
Simon doubted if the man was going to run out of the house. He hadn’t even put a pair of shoes on his feet. But it was not only that.
Foster looked slightly surprised.
‘A splash of milk, please, no sugar.’
There was a serving hatch in the wall. Simon could hear the man fill and switch on a kettle, the chink of china, the opening of a jar, the tap of a spoon.
Gut instinct told him that Foster had nothing to do with Harriet’s disappearance but he had certainly been in Parkside Drive and had seen her. Why else would he have phoned the hotline? He was not a time-waster or an attention-seeker, he seemed perfectly sane. Criminals sometimes did unexpected things, phoning with false information in order to steer the police away from the truth, or because they could not resist putting themselves in the spotlight of an investigation when prudence would recommend they stay as far from it as possible. But Stephen Foster did not fit that profile.
He came back with a small tin tray and two mugs of coffee.
Simon waited, watching him put it down, move it, put it down on a different small table. Foster did not meet his eye. But he had put on brown leather slippers. He stood with his back to the window, holding his mug.
‘Would you sit down please, Mr Foster?’
Something had happened. His voice sounded slightly different, the confrontational, even hostile, tone had gone, he spoke more quietly, seemed subdued. Now, he sat down in an armchair. There was no trace of bombast or defiance about him now.
Simon sipped the instant coffee. Waited. Foster put his mug down. Leaned forward, hands on his knees. Stared down at the carpet. The house was very quiet.
‘The thing is …’ He stopped. Picked up his coffee again. Set it down without drinking any. ‘Are you … charging me with anything? Are you thinking I had something to do with her disappearance?’
Simon shook his head. ‘No, to the first. As to the second … Did you have something to do with it?’