She could never get used to it, never take those words for granted nor fail to feel as if the whole world was ablaze with glory as she came out of the hospital buildings into the daylight and fresh air. But one thing she would also never do was gloat to her doctor, because she had disagreed with her and rejected her orthodox treatment in favour of natural therapies. They had had a short sharp fight, Karin had stood her ground, the oncologist had done some very straight talking and then agreed to continue seeing her and monitoring her progress. In return, Karin had agreed that if the cancer returned, she would look again seriously at the medical options. But so far it had not returned.
Following her own regime of alternative treatment had not been an easy option. It was time-consuming, expensive and lonely and Karin had been dealt a terrifying blow when the acupuncturist who had treated her had been revealed as a psychopathic serial murderer. But now, as she stared at a sparrow hopping about in the dust, delighting in the sheen on its wings and the brightness in its eyes, the horrors of the previous year were in another life. She was well. She had no need to return to the hospital for another half-year. She was well!
‘Dennis Potter,’ she said aloud. She had loved The Singing Detective. Dennis Potter had not been lucky. Cancer had killed him, but not before he had spoken of the beauty of what he had known was his final spring. ‘Never was blossom blossomier.’
Karin dialled Cat Deerbon’s number on her mobile but it was on answer. She left a quick and jubilant message, and set off for home, the CD of Eva Cassidy touching her to tears as she drove – Eva Cassidy who had fallen into the darkness of death from the cancer Karin had vanquished.
‘Somewhere, over the rainbow …’
Karin slowed down at a junction to let a lorry driver turn out in front of her.
Mike’s car was in the drive. But Mike was supposed to be in Ireland on business and not due home for another couple of days.
Karin sailed into the house humming. ‘Mike? Where are you?’
His voice came from upstairs. ‘Here.’
She ran up. She loved her house. She loved the white-painted curving banister and the turquoise-blue bowl on the ledge of the landing window. She loved the slice of light that fell through the open door of the bedroom on to the kelim runner. She loved the faint smell of citrus coming from the half-open bathroom door.
‘Hi. I’ve got good news … the best.’ She went on in and her humming turned into a song as she walked up to Mike to hug him. He was standing beside the wardrobe and two suitcases were open, one on the bed, the second on the floor.
‘Hey … what’s this? You look as if you’re packing. Not turfing out the dirty washing.’
‘You’re not going away again? Not straight off?’
He had his back to her and was running his hand through a tie hanger, detaching one, riffling through, taking another.
‘Where to this time?’
He did not reply.
‘Mike? And didn’t you hear me say – it was good news …’
There was a silence. He still did not turn round. Something in the stillness of the room and the nature of the silence made Karin’s stomach clench.
In the end, he looked round slowly, though not at her immediately, but at the suitcase, into which he laid a shirt. Then he straightened up. A big man. Greying thatch of hair. A big nose. Handsome, she thought, still handsome.
‘I thought you might not be coming back till later. I thought you’d probably go over to Cat’s.’
‘And? I mean yes, I might have but her phone was on answer – she was probably resting. Her baby’s due in a minute.’
‘Why did it matter what time I got home?’
He was jingling some coins in his pocket, still not looking at her.
Then he said, ‘Will you make some tea?’
‘I have to talk to you.’
Then the silence again. The awful, deafening silence.
She ran out of the bedroom.
It was after seven when she rang Cat again, after Mike had gone. Karin felt as beaten and bruised and shocked as if she had been told her cancer had returned and was advanced and inoperable, as hurt as she had ever been in her life. Not a great deal had been said considering it had taken three hours and Mike had walked out on their marriage to cross the Atlantic to a woman ten years older than she was herself. They had sat looking at one another and then not looking, drunk tea and then whisky; she had said a little, cried, stopped crying and fallen silent. Then he had gone. How could that have taken so long?
‘Karin … what news?’
Karin opened her mouth to speak, to tell Cat that she had neither cancer nor a husband, but no words would come from her mouth, only a strange wailing, angry noise which, as she heard it, Karin thought was being made by someone else, some woman who had nothing to do with her at all, a woman she did not know.
‘Just come here,’ Cat said, ‘whatever it is.’
‘I can’t …’
‘Yes you can, you get in the car and you drive. See you in half an hour.’
She did not know how, but she arrived at the farmhouse safely. Cat looked at her hard for a moment then went to the fridge and took out a bottle of wine.
‘I’m off it but you certainly need it.’
‘No, it’ll make me cry.’
‘Fine. Cry.’ She handed over a large glass. ‘The children are upstairs, Chris isn’t back yet but there’s a chicken pie and you’re welcome to stay. You never know, I might go into labour in the night and leave you in charge, and heaven help you. Let’s go into the sitting room, I lit a fire.’
Cat looked tired and uncomfortable but in every other way unchanged – capable, cheerful, firm, the perfect friend, it always seemed to Karin, as well as the perfect GP.
‘So … you saw the doc. Was it that?’
‘No. I’m clear. No sign.’
‘So Mike’s left.’
‘Left as in – left you?’
‘You’ve never said a word, I didn’t know there were any problems between you two.’
‘Jesus, Cat, do you think I did? I was on such a high … you’ve no idea what it feels like … when the scan’s clear, when the blood tests are OK, when they tell you so … it’s like … literally like having a reprieve in the condemned cell. The world is so good … then there he was packing his stuff.’
‘Did you tell him?’
‘The results? Oh sure.’
‘I don’t know if he took it in. He said –”Good”.’
‘But why is he going, for God’s sake?’
‘A lot of reasons, a lot of things I didn’t take in. The chief why lives in New York and her name is Lainey. She’s fifty-four.’
‘I don’t believe this.’
‘What a bloody thing to come home to.’
Karin moved her wine glass slowly round and round between her hands and now and then it caught the firelight and the wine glowed.
She felt warm. Warm. Comforted. Cared for. Numb.
‘There is one thing you need to think about … you’ve had two major shocks … the murders and now this. These things can take their toll.’
‘Bring the cancer back, you mean.’
‘Just be aware. Step up all your therapies and be vigilant. Sorry to preach the medical line, it isn’t the moment but it is important.’
‘I’m not sure I care now.’
‘Oh yes you do. You care all right. You don’t let the buggers get you down. He’ll be back.’
‘Or it will.’
‘The worst thing he said was about that, actually. He said he couldn’t face living with a cancer victim any longer … that he could accept an illness that took you over and then you got better but one that changed you for good was different. He said I’d thought about nothing but cancer for the last year, paid no attention to anything else … that I’d … I’d let it define me and now I needed it and he couldn’t take that.’
‘I hadn’t seen it, Cat. It’s my –’
‘Don’t you dare to say this is your fault.’
‘Well, isn’t it?’
‘And the woman in New York? I suppose that’s your fault too?’
‘She makes him feel alive. New York makes him feel alive. Apparently. I just had no idea there was anything wrong between us. I mean … there wasn’t anything wrong. It never crossed my mind.’
‘None of the usual? Phone calls … spending more money … being away a lot?’
‘Mike’s always been away a lot, he runs three international businesses, doesn’t he? He spends half his time on the phone to them when he isn’t travelling.’
A light flashed briefly across the drawn curtains as Chris Deerbon’s car came into the drive. ‘What am I going to do, Cat? What do people do?’
‘They fight,’ Cat said. ‘Your life was worth fighting for, wasn’t it?’
‘I’ve always hated those images … cancer and war, cancer and battles, fighting and struggling.’
‘Well, there’s the alternative.’
‘Giving in. Surrendering … put it how you like.’
Cat got up heavily from the chair. ‘You’re in the blue room. I’ve put things out for you … go and have a deep bath, light a scented candle. Supper isn’t for half an hour. I need to talk boring admin to Chris about the locum.’
She put out her arms and hugged her, and for a moment Karin felt the weight of the unborn baby against her. The old longing for children, usually at the back of her mind now, stung sharply again.
The expression on Chris’s face as Cat went into the kitchen stopped her short.
‘You know Alan Angus?’
‘Neurology. Sure … what?’
‘His son’s at St Francis … Year older than Sam.’
‘Small for his age? A bit … well, an old-fashioned kind of child?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘They have a school lift with two other families … Marilyn Angus left David at their gate this morning, waiting for the lift as usual … it was due in a couple of minutes. It turns out that when the people arrived David wasn’t at the gate … one of the other children went and rang the bell, but there was no answer so they just left. Thought he must have gone in with his parents after all and they’d forgotten to ring and change the arrangements. But David didn’t go to school. They marked him absent and of course thought no more of it until four o’clock when his mother arrived to pick him up and he didn’t come out. No one has seen or heard anything of him since ten past eight this morning.’
‘Oh dear God.’
Cat’s legs gave way and she sat quickly down on the sofa. Her eyes had filled with tears. ‘How did you hear?’
‘Local radio just now.’ He sat down. ‘It’s not Sam,’ he said quietly. ‘It is terrible and all too imaginable but it is not Sam. By the way, I thought I saw Karin’s car outside.’
‘You did. She’s in the bath. Mike’s left her.’
‘He can’t stand living with a cancer victim so he’s found consolation with someone called Lainey in New York. I suspect there’s more but she hasn’t said yet. Oh and her scans are clear – she had her three-monthly check today.’
They sat in silence, Chris resting his hand on Cat’s stomach. Upstairs the bath water began to drain out. Cat’s baby shifted its limbs, pinching a nerve in her side as it did so but she did not move. She was suddenly felled by the tumble of events one on top of the other, drained after too many uncomfortably sleepless nights. She was tired, leaning against Chris in the warm kitchen, the ginger cat purring on her other side. Then she opened her eyes.
‘Chris? Go up and check on Sam … and Hannah.’
Chris Deerbon got up and left the kitchen without a word.
‘Remind you of anything?’ Nathan Coates stood at the window of the DCI’s room, looking down at the departing press – television vans and radio cars racing off to catch the next news bulletin.
Serrailler had wanted the press on side from the start and had done the briefing and taken the usual questions. Now, he was looking at the map of Lafferton and district pinned to the wall on the far side of his office and did not reply.
‘Missing persons. That’s how the other started. I hate it. Rather get me teeth stuck into the Dulcie estate lot.’
Serrailler turned round. ‘You’re not here to do what you fancy, you’re here to do the job.’
‘The Dulcie kids aren’t going anywhere. We are.’ He picked up his jacket.
Nathan followed, almost at a run to keep up going along the corridor, and two at a time down the stairs.
‘Where first, guv?’
‘Sorrel Drive. Talk to the parents. Forensics will have started on the house and you know what message that gives out.’
‘Yeah, you report your nine-year-old kid missing, next minute your rooms are full of men in white suits scraping bits off the carpet.’
‘Still, we know the father was doing his ward round at the hospital from before eight. Mother was the last to see the child when she left him at the gate and was at her office by eight thirty. They’ve nothing to worry about.’
They got into the car.
‘This isn’t like that missing persons case … OK, those women vanished apparently into thin air, and now a schoolboy does the same, but you can rule out a hell of a lot of possibilities here from the start.’
‘Grown women might go off of their own accord. Nine-year-old boys don’t.’
‘Well, it has happened, especially where there’s been bullying.’
‘My gran blames the internal combustion engine.’
‘Your gran has a point. Fast cars, fast roads, easy access to and away … People living in Leeds and doing a series of house raids in Devon, paedophiles driving commercial vans snatching a child in Kent and driving it to Dumfries … where do you start?’