‘What’d she mean, “cruising”?’
‘Her word. Going slowly down the road, as if the driver was looking for a house … back up the other side, never stopping. Then doing it again. Same car next time, same thing.’
‘She get a number?’
‘Jeez. Sort of witness you want and never get.’
‘Right. The car belongs to someone called Cornhill. Leon Cornhill. Lives in Bindley. I want you over there.’
‘What do you reckon, guv?’
‘Nothing until you’ve been up there.’
‘Hundreds of calls since the appeal … they’re sifting through but no sightings. The boy’s just evaporated.’
‘Someone’s got him.’
‘We’ve covered every house in the grid of avenues within the area … people are anxious to help. Not a sniff though. The school are beside themselves … frightened parents, kids hearing half a tale and making up the rest.’
‘What are the Angus parents doing?’
‘They’re at home … they’ve another child to look after … the FLO is with them.’
‘Making tea. Drinking tea. Watching the news. Not eating. Not sleeping. Going over and over everything that morning. Heads aching with it. Poor sods.’
‘We’re getting plenty of help, info coming in from all over the country …’ Serrailler fell silent, thinking. Nathan waited.
‘I don’t think he’s hundreds of miles away. Don’t know why. I think he’s … around here.’
‘They generally are.’
The phone rang on his desk. Simon lifted the receiver. ‘Serrailler? Yes?’ He held up his hand to Nathan who was at the door. ‘Did he? When? OK, no one’s fault. Get someone there. Get a statement …’
‘The man Cornhill reported his Jaguar XKV missing ten days ago. He’d been away on business, had a company driver to the airport so his own car was left in the garage. He got back. It was gone. Neat job apparently, careful break-in, no mess, just crowbarred the side of the garage door. No one heard or saw anything.’
‘So it wasn’t Cornhill doing the cruising?’
One of the desk officers trawling through data came up with a man living on the Dulcie estate who had been placed on the paedophile register during the past six months. Serrailler was looking at the printout as Nathan walked in.
‘Brent Parker, forty-seven, convictions for molesting young girls, imprisoned twice, no other offences on record … last released from Baldney eighteen months ago … 15 Maud Morrison Walk, Dulcie … divorced, one adult daughter living away. Unemployed apart from casual jobs mainly for the council … underwent treatment programme at Baldney in the special unit for twelve months and again as an outpatient at BG psychiatric …’ He handed the sheet to Nathan.
How could you say he had an evil face? How could you say, that man looks like a paedophile? If he hadn’t known Brent Parker’s history Nathan wondered what he would have put him down as – paedophile? GBH? Fraud? Dustman? High Court judge? He sat staring at the face, trying to empty his mind and clear his prejudices.
Brent looked older than forty-seven – ten years older at least. He had a soft, flabby face, folds of flesh under the eyes and at the jowls. Small concealed eyes, hiding their expression. Thick brows. Small chin. A self-satisfied expression, Nathan judged it – yes, Brent Parker looked pleased with himself. It was the face of a man who indulged himself, possibly in drink as well as sex.
A nasty face.
How can you say that? How can you tell? If this was the face of the man about to become the new Pope, what would you say then? What would you read into the fleshy folds and the smug mouth?
‘I don’t like the look of him.’
‘Watch what you’re saying … no criminologist takes the study of physiognomy seriously nowadays. I’d like to see a sample of his handwriting though.’
‘I used to sneer at graphology so they sent me on a course. OK, get up there. If he’s in, grill him, and if you’re not one hundred per cent happy with every word he utters I want him brought in. If he isn’t at home, find him. Take whoever’s free with you.’
‘I dunno … He ain’t been in bother lately, isn’t it a bit thin?’
‘Of course it’s thin but it’s something and until we get something stronger we jump on it … one thing we can’t do is ignore the least thing. We’re under the arc lights here and they’re not going to be switched off until David Angus is found. So move.’
Chris Deerbon had got home around nine in the evening and fifteen minutes later had gone out again on a call. The temporary locum they had appointed to the practice had left a message with the doctors’ answering service to say that she was ill.
‘Doctors are never ill. We can’t be,’ Cat said, handing him a banana and a box of juice from the packed lunch shelf. The casserole would simmer in the bottom of the Aga for as long as it had to.
‘We, my love, are the last generation of GPs to have been trained to believe that.’
Chris kissed her and left. ‘Go to bed,’ he called back, ‘you look whacked.’
‘Don’t know why, I’ve done nothing all day.’
Sam and Hannah had been barely able to stand to have their faces washed and teeth cleaned before falling into bed. Cat took her book, switched out all the lights but the lamp over the stove, put Mephisto, wailing in protest, out of the window, and went upstairs.
The children had curled themselves into their usual sleeping positions, Hannah neatly disposed with her head on her arm, Sam in a tight little ball, knees up, duvet almost over him. Cat pulled it down a little and kissed his head with the mouse-soft brown hair. It was impossible not to think of David Angus. Hannah felt cool. She would scarcely turn in her sleep all night. They were a happy little unit. Cat wondered how they would take to the baby when it was a reality, not a long-standing promise in which they had almost lost interest.
Half an hour later Chris rang. ‘I’ve got an anaphylaxis … child with a peanut allergy. I’m trying to stabilise him, and now old Violet Chaundry’s daughter has rung in … she thinks her mother has had another stroke. I’m going to be a while. Are you in bed?’
‘And nearly asleep. The casserole’s in the bottom oven.’
‘I’ll probably be past it. Got to go. Love you.’
Cat read another chapter of her Anita Brookner novel before turning out the light. Outside the wind had got up and was rattling the overhanging rose branch against the window. She found the noise strangely soothing.
She was woken by a movement at her side.
‘Sam? You OK?’
‘I needed you.’
‘Oh honeybunch … come here.’ But Sam was already wrapped round her, his feet twined about her legs, arms behind her neck.
‘Don’t squash my tummy.’
‘I didn’t want to go back to sleep.’
‘Why? Bad dreams?’
He clung tighter. Cat shifted to try and make herself comfortable without pushing him away.
‘Nat said David Angus had been murdered and thrown down a pit.’
Cat managed to lean across her son’s hot little clinging body and switch on the bedside lamp. His face looked up at hers, flushed and anxious.
‘Sam, Nat does not know anything … anything about David Angus. Do you hear me? What he said was not true …’
‘He doesn’t know. Nobody knows.’
‘Because … he hasn’t come home yet. The police haven’t found him.’
‘Why haven’t they?’
‘Do you want a drink?’
‘If they haven’t found him, they don’t know he hasn’t been murdered and thrown down a pit, do they? Have they looked in all the pits in the world yet?’
‘I don’t want you to go.’
‘You’re OK here … it won’t take a minute.’
‘If you go downstairs I want to come with you.’
‘OK … come on.’
How many small children in Lafferton have crept into their parents’ beds? How many are having nightmares about David Angus? How many other little bullying sods like Nat are frightening the lives out of the rest with stupid stories …?
Sam sat on the sofa, his eyes bleary as she set the pan of milk on the heat. ‘Why did he go with the man?’
‘The man who murdered him. Everybody knows not to go with a man who might murder you, everybody knows that.’
Dear God, how do I answer this child? How do I begin to reassure him and convince him that he is safe when I am terrified for his safety myself and there is no reassurance and will not be unless David is somehow found alive?
She poured the milk on to the chocolate and whisked it round.
‘Can I have a biscuit?’
‘If you clean your teeth again afterwards.’
‘I’m too tired.’
‘Then no. Come on, big boy.’
The crash from outside was so sudden it made Sam hurl himself off the sofa and on to Cat and the mug of chocolate cascade on to the floor. The wind had lifted up something loose and hurled it down again.
‘Mummy, I don’t like it.’
‘It’s OK, darling, it’s fine, it’s just the wind catching a bin lid or something … don’t panic.’
‘The man might be there, the one who murdered David Angus, Nat said he was a man who likes to steal boys and murder them and then he throws them into pits, there are a lot of men who do it, probably even two hundred men and …’
‘Sam … come here, sit on the sofa.’ She pulled him close to her. ‘I want you to listen to me carefully. I am telling you that there is no man like that out there. That was the wind. There is no man wanting to take little boys. You are perfectly safe and nothing is going to happen to you. Now, I want you to tell me that you have heard me and you believe me.’
‘But you don’t know, how do you know?’
‘I know because I know a lot of things … a lot more things than Nat will ever know. Do you believe him more than me?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘If so you shouldn’t. He’s a silly little boy and I am your mummy.’
‘And a doctor.’
‘Oh Sammo … I love you. Do you want me to make some more hot choc? And I’d better wipe that up from the floor before someone slips on it.’
Sam slithered off the sofa. ‘There isn’t any left to slip on,’ he said, his face bright with glee. Cat looked down at Mephisto, licking up the last of the spilled hot chocolate in an efficient manner.
‘Will you swear?’
‘What will you say?’
‘It’ll be secret swear. I can hear Daddy’s car. If he finds us up, he’s going to swear … go on, scoot.’
What do we do? Cat said fiercely to God as she waited for Chris to come in. What on earth can we do or say now?
He took Geoff Prince because Geoff was taciturn, so much so that he seemed to lack much interest in the job at all. But he was dogged, and good at detail. He didn’t chat and never made stupid judgements.
The Dulcie estate by night was slightly more attractive than in daylight because even the sodium street lights managed to soften the concrete and blur the ugliness of the whole. In all other respects, though, it was not a place around which to walk after dark and so nobody did. The teenage thugs and junkies had it to themselves.
It was the smell as they got out of the car. Night after night Nathan had leaned out of his bedroom window smelling the smell – chips, oil, human detritus; nowhere else smelled like the Dulcie. He remembered the longing, like a sickness, to get out, to do anything to escape into a better place, a world that smelled fresher and cleaner and more prosperous – though it had never been money that had motivated him. Nathan Coates had known by the age of thirteen that if you wanted easy money you stuck around the Dulcie. It had never been that.
Maud Morrison Walk was on the other side of Long Avenue from where his family lived – the slightly more respectable side. The houses here had front gardens and gates, and not so many abandoned rusting cars and old greyhound cages in the front.
‘Here we go.’
Geoff said nothing.
The curtains were cherry red and tightly drawn. There was a rim of light thin as a wire showing round the side and flickering neon blue from a television screen.
‘What the hell’s all this?’
Geoff flashed his torch. The front garden was decorated not with plants, nor with ancient bicycles and prams, but with hubcaps … several dozen hubcaps, arranged carefully against the fence and along the wall as if they were exhibits.
‘Must grow ’em,’ Geoff said.
The front door bell played ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
‘Brent Parker? I’m DS Nathan Coates, this is DC Geoff Prince.’
‘You took your time.’
Brent Parker held open the door.
It was a smell again, though nothing like one he had ever smelled before and it choked him. Nathan stood in the doorway of the small, hot, frowsty sitting room and tried to locate it, to make it out. There was a three-bar electric heater full on, a television blaring, a huge neon tank of fish set against the wall.
And the smell.
‘Would you mind turning that off please, sir?’
Parker ambled towards the television set.
He was a huge man, huge-bellied, huge-headed, with a black ponytail, hands like plates, fingers like bunches of bananas. Nathan looked into his face. The eyes were small, hidden behind deep lids and in folds of flesh, and the flesh was soft and pendulous beneath them.
‘I almost came in. Get it over with.’
‘To the station?’
Parker sat down but did not suggest that they followed suit.
‘Well, you was always going to come here, wasn’t you?’