His scarlet, orange and yellow flowers were a slash across the pastel room.
‘Your brother’s lovely to you. I wish I’d got a handsome man bringing me bouquets. I’ll pop them in a vase, Mr Serrailler, all right?’
‘Thanks, Shirley. Has anyone else been to see her?’
‘Oh, we’ve had a proper little party in here this afternoon. We had been going to have her down in the lounge only she had a bit of a runny nose this morning and you know how she is if she gets a cold … and there’s some nasty ones about. So she stayed up here and we had the party, tea and a cake and candles and some ice cream and we sang. Look, Rosa brought her that sparkly balloon … she loves it. You should’ve seen her face when she saw it, she waved her hands and her eyes were that bright … and she loved the ice cream and we opened her cards.’
His sister’s room was festive with the balloons and flowers and some red ribbons they had tied to her bed and dressing table. They do love her, he thought, they care for her and look after her, which they’re paid to do, but they love her too.
Martha was dressed in a yellow knitted shawl over her nightdress and her hair had been freshly washed and tied back in an orange ribbon. Colour registered with her, so did music. Simon had brought her a new CD of brass-band music. He had often watched her face when music started up and seen the flicker of life and recognition which surely must be pleasure.
‘She seems well, Shirley.’
The nurse had come back with the flowers in a huge fan-shaped vase which had a pearlised sheen to its surface.
‘Yes, maybe it wasn’t anything, only we just always have to be careful with our little Martha, you know?’
‘She’s twenty-six today.’
‘She’s little to me … well, all of us. You know how it is.’
Simon took Martha’s hand between his own. She moved her head slightly.
‘Happy birthday, sweetheart.’
‘Dr Chris came in this morning, brought her this … look.’ Shirley picked up a bright pink stuffed octopus with huge eyes that rolled about. ‘We put it on her lap all afternoon. She kept reaching out for it.’
Soft toys. Balloons. Bright objects. Colours. Baby things.
He remembered when she had been born and he had peered into the cot. She had seemed like a lump of putty to him, dough-coloured and inert. Only her hair was beautiful. ‘Many Happy Returns’ one of the cards said in glitter, a vast heart in pink and purple. Is that what they ought to wish her? More of this? Year after year of next to nothing. He stroked the soft, silken skin of her hand as it lay floppy and motionless in his.
‘I hope you find that little boy, Mr Serrailler, I can’t sleep for thinking about him, you know? I wondered if you’d get in today with all of that.’
‘I shall have to go in a minute. I wasn’t going to miss her birthday but I don’t have long.’
‘I suppose you can’t say …’
‘I keep telling people, Shirley, if I had anything to say I would. It’s a cold trail at the moment.’
‘I saw you were going to do one of them reconstruction plays … maybe someone will remember seeing him.’
‘Maybe. It works occasionally.’
‘Poor little kid. The Lord Jesus bless and keep him. Praise be to the Lord.’ Shirley had closed her eyes and put her hands together and her voice was fervent. ‘And may those that have taken him know that the Lord will avenge His little ones and the flames of hell await the wicked and the ungodly. Amen.’
Simon went quickly out of the room, startled by the passion in the otherwise gentle nurse’s voice. He glanced back at his sister, lying among the brightness and the balloons and the sight cheered him through the rest of the day.
As he walked into the station ten minutes later his heart stopped for a split second. On the bench in the front office sat a boy, aged about nine and wearing the uniform of St Francis school. He had David Angus’s hair, pale slightly freckled face, protruding ears, serious expression. At his feet was a school bag identical to the one they knew he had been carrying when he left his mother.
The boy was not David Angus.
‘Hugo Pears, guv … couldn’t believe our luck. Kid’s an identikit.’
‘Is he OK with it all?’
‘Great – wants to be an actor. Wants to star in films about the Roman Army.’
‘Dear God – I suppose he thinks this will be good training?’
‘Mother’s a bit wary. Only she says your brother-in-law’s been so good to her she couldn’t refuse your family anything.’
‘Oh right, one of Chris’s patients? Yes, they’ll do anything for him. Even this.’
‘Everything is set up for seven forty-five tomorrow morning.’
‘Good work, Nathan. What about Brent Parker?’
‘He’s in a hostel at Bevham. We’ve nothing on him, guv. It wasn’t him. He doesn’t even have a car.’
‘Who said he had to have a car?’
‘You mean the boy just walked off holding the hand of someone he didn’t know?’
‘Don’t make assumptions. No one has reported seeing him getting into a car and we have no idea whether he went alone, with someone, with someone he knew, or did not know. Keep an open mind – wide open.’
‘Any reports from outside?’
‘Not a whisper.’
‘Well, no other reports has to be good news, don’t it?’
‘I don’t mean I want to hear a report about another child who’s disappeared on the way to school. But this silence is getting on my nerves.’
‘He’s clever then.’
‘No, just lucky.’ Simon banged the desk hard. ‘What about the number-crunchers in there?’
‘Get me a coffee from the Cypriot, will you? Double espresso and one of their toasted sandwiches … I haven’t eaten since seven. I’ve just been to see my sister.’
‘Dr Deerbon had her baby then, guv?’
‘Not that sister. Martha. It’s her birthday.’
Nathan looked embarrassed. He felt embarrassed. He never knew how to react on the few occasions the DCI mentioned his handicapped sister so he changed the subject instead. As they always do, Simon thought.
‘Couple of cars nicked last night … same story, top of the range, one Jag, one Range Rover … one from a garage, one outside a house in the drive. No one heard or saw anything … clean as a whistle.’
‘Cars don’t even make it on to my list right now. Let uniform deal. I want some more digging; any cases in the last three years of children reporting someone hanging about, strangers speaking to them in the street … anything. And we’ll have another check round the rest of the country. I’m looking for unsolved cases … child abduction, or maybe children missing for a short time and found safe but no convictions. Remember the Black case? He travelled the country by van, the children he murdered were taken long distances, he picked them up at random, wherever he happened to be. Is someone else doing the same?’
‘There’s a lot of that sort of checking already going on, guv.’
‘Then I want a whole lot more, right? What about that poster up on Parker’s wall, by the way?’
‘Do you believe this? He suddenly remembered he’d stuck it up there – it reminded him, he said. What can happen. Said he needed a bit of reminding.’
‘You believe him?’
Nathan paused. Then said, as if to challenge Serrailler, ‘Yes, guv. Funny that. But I do.’
‘OK. Then so do I. Now get out of here.’
Nathan went. The DCI almost never raised his voice. When he did it was more a sign of frustration with himself than rage at anyone else but it was still best to keep out of his way. Serrailler had always struck the DS as a man who, for the most part relaxed and easygoing, had a simmering cauldron deep inside him which might one day boil over spectacularly.
‘Sex,’ Emma had said when he had mentioned it one time.
‘I don’t think he’s got any.’
‘You going to tell me he needs the love of a good woman?’
‘Something like that.’
‘I painted her fingernails, did you see? That pink polish with all glittery bits in … they looked ever so pretty.’
Shirley handed Rosa the umbrella while she put her keys into the lock. The wind drove rain at their backs.
‘I don’t know why you bother, she doesn’t know. She doesn’t notice anything.’
‘She noticed your balloon.’
They got inside as the gale took the door and slammed it behind them.
‘Get your things off and bring them into the kitchen. I’m soaked just from across there, the water’s gone right over the sides of my shoes.’
In ten minutes the curtains were drawn, lights and heating on and they were huddled in the kitchen. Sometimes, at the end of the long day shift, Rosa came to have supper and sleep on Shirley’s sofa bed to save the trek on the bus across town. She could have slept in one of the staffrooms in the home but it wasn’t as cosy and, besides, at the end of work you wanted to get out of the building. It was odd, the bungalow was just across the grass – you could see the home from the windows – yet it felt a different world.
It was a world Rosa liked after the stuffiness and mess of her family house, full of her brother’s computer kit and music decks, her grandmother’s bazaar knitting, her mother’s black sacks of stuff from her market stall. Shirley had been to tea once or twice and said she liked being part of a family again, but there was nowhere to talk, nowhere without the noise of a television or sound system. Here was better.
‘Funny old day.’
They had a routine. Always when they came off this shift they had a breakfast, at eight thirty at night. Shirley took eggs and bacon and tomatoes out of the fridge, Rosa put on the kettle and sliced the bread. The wind shook the badly fitting metal window frames now and again and the rain lashed.
‘I don’t know how you can stand it here on your own with those trees moaning. I’d be scared out of my wits.’
‘The Good Lord and His angels look over me. Praise be. I don’t know what’s to be scared of in a bit of wind.’
‘Do you really think she liked the balloon?’
‘Didn’t you see her face? She laughed at it.’
‘Poor little thing.’
‘I think she had a really nice day … all those things, those lovely bright flowers the Chief Inspector brought and just about all her family come to see her.’
‘Poor Mrs Fox. No one came to see her for four years and now she’s gone.’
‘It was best, Rosa, she’s with the Lord and she’d no life. There was nothing in there, just a shell. I mean, Martha’s got more.’
‘What do you think God made them like this for then? You always say there’s a reason for everything, only look at Martha Serrailler, look at Arthur … what reason’s God got for that?’ Rosa found Shirley’s robust religion by turns fascinating and repellent. She had once been to the Gospel Chapel with her and the singing and dancing and clapping had been great, really uplifting. People came from miles. Only then there was the funny stuff.
‘It’s not up to us to question. The Lord knows.’
‘You can’t say it’s a punishment, can you? Not for Martha, at any rate. She’s never done anything. She’s never been able to.’
‘Oh no. Martha’s one of God’s innocents. One of His chosen angels.’
‘I don’t get it.’
‘You will one day. I pray for you every night, Rosa.’
‘I don’t need any praying for, thanks.’
‘Of course you do. We all of us do. Praise the Lord.’
Shirley slipped eggs and bacon neatly on to their two plates as Rosa buttered the toast. The wind almost broke the pane in one roaring gust. The lights flickered.
‘That’s all we’d need, a power cut in this.’
‘I am the Light of the World,’ Shirley said, and began to pour out the tea.
Across the wet grass, past the wildly flailing trees, the lights shone from the back of Ivy Lodge. In the end there was no power cut.
Hester Beesley took the drinks trolley round and filled spouted plastic beakers with lukewarm Ovaltine. Those patients who had medication were seen to last by the nursing staff.
Absent-mindedly, Hester pushed open the door of Room 6 and for a moment was puzzled that it was in darkness and felt cold. She clicked the light on. The bed had been stripped. The radiator was turned off. The wardrobe door was hanging open. It didn’t take long, she thought, backing out again. Mrs Fox had only been dead half a day and her room had lost all trace of her. She might never have existed.
Mr Pilgrim existed, though, sitting motionless and silent apart from the trembling of his hands and the line of dribble that went from his chin down on to his bib. When she had seen to him, she went in to Martha, whose room was bright with flowers and cards, a new soft toy and the balloon still tied to the corner of her bed.
‘Don’t settle her down yet,’ Sister Aileen said, putting her head round the door. ‘Someone else is coming in to see her – there was a message on the pad from the doctor.’
‘I’ll freshen her up then. Oh look, someone’s painted your fingernails, lovey, I bet that was Shirley. Do you like it? You’re a pretty girl.’
Aileen Whetton made a face at the baby talk but it was Hester’s way and how was Martha to know the difference?
Animals left the runt of their litter out in the cold to die. People used to do the same. Now there was everything to bring them back every time they were ready to go through the door. No one would let them just slip away.
But at least Martha’s family did more than write cheques.
Aileen unlocked the drugs trolley and counted out Lady Fison’s sleeping tablets into the plastic cup. To get her to take them could be a fifteen-minute job. She opened the door. The old, bald woman sat up in bed, staring into space, while her radio played Irish dance music. Lady Fison’s radio played some music or other from morning till night. If it went off, she cried; if it stayed off, she screamed.
‘Here we are,’ Aileen said, rattling the capsules in the little transparent cup.