On the other side of the road, semis and a single detached house quite low down at the bottom of steep drives. Outside the detached, a sign. Dedmeads Veterinary Surgery. Three or four cars.
Hours: Monday to Friday 9–11 a.m. and 3–5 p.m.; Saturday 9–11 a.m.
Everything was perfect. Chance. A beautiful chance. He had to take it. Things fell out the way they did for a reason, he knew that.
He got back into the dirty silver Ford Focus and drove unobtrusively away.
At six that evening the Focus was stowed away in the lock-up he rented in Canal Street and he was in the van on his way to the airfield. It was raining heavily. Traffic was light and he knew he wasn’t being followed because no one had any reason whatsoever to follow him. No one. He turned on the car radio to a local newsflash about the body of a teenage girl found in a ditch. She’d been missing for over a week. So why had it taken so long to find her? What had the police been farting about at? She’d been assaulted and strangled. Who did that sort of thing? Some animal. He shuddered, thinking of her, daft as teenage girls were, full of herself, cocky. Or some sad, lost kid, broken home, abused already and now again. Gone off with a stranger for a bit of fun and attention. Affection.
How did parents get through all that, girl not arriving home, mobile not answering, friends saying she’d left them hours before. Waiting. Dreading. Hoping. Desperate.
What kind of animal did that?
He knew nothing about that sort of behaviour.
His were completely different.
A clean kill.
The airfield was full of potholes and the potholes were full of water. Rain streamed across the headlights. He doused them as he drove up to the hangar and used the torch when he opened the doors. He drove the van inside and closed the doors again, took out the mechanic’s lamp from the boot and plugged it into the battery.
Which was when he heard the sound. He froze. Outside the hangar? Or inside? He waited. Nothing. He waited again, counting. Two minutes. Three minutes. Nothing.
He relaxed, picked up the torch again and trained it on the place where the rolled-up plastic was hidden. Waited again. Nothing.
He stepped on the cement blocks he had manoeuvred there weeks ago and reached for the space behind the strut. As he did so, there was a noise again, far back inside the dark recesses of the hangar.
He jumped quickly down and walked towards it, holding the torch out. His trainers made no sound.
The noise was odd. It might have been a human groan, or an animal snuffling. There were foxes out here, his headlights had picked them up.
He moved slowly forward, though now the noise had stopped he was unsure if he was heading towards it. The torchlight picked up scuffed papers and broken concrete rubble on the ground, and the sides of the hangar when he moved it higher. Nothing else.
It came again. Animal. Had to be.
The next minute, something moved, his torch picked up a series of shapes and shadows, and then a man was lurching blindly towards him, hand up to his face against the powerful beam.
He stopped. The man was a few yards away, still dazed by the light.
He trained it straight into his face.
But the bundle of old clothes and filth that was the man who had been disturbed from his drunken snoring in the corner of the hangar took another lurching step forward.
The man did so, swaying a bit. “Allrightallrightwhatyoudoingsfuckinnightnothurtinganyone
He slumped at the first blow to the back of his head.
Two minutes. Three. Four.
He hadn’t moved.
The torchlight showed blood down the filthy matted hair and on the old raincoat.
Leave him or drag him back into the corner?
It took a few minutes to select the piece of plastic and stick it to the side of the van, roll up the rest and replace it carefully. Then he unplugged the mechanic’s lamp from the battery, and stowed it behind the false panel in the back. Drove out. Closed the hangar doors. Took off his gloves and stowed those away.
It was still raining. He went slowly over the rutted ground—there was always the chance of getting a puncture here and he didn’t want to hang about changing a wheel by torchlight, risking being seen from the road. As he neared the gates, a fox slipped across in front of him, yellow eyes gleaming, caught in his headlights.
“I feel guilty,” Cat said.
The Croxley Oak was pleasantly busy, with half a dozen people at the bar, two-thirds of the tables full and the first log fire of the autumn. A waiter went past carrying a loaded tray. There was the chink of glasses.
Simon looked at her across the table. They were both exhausted, both in need of exactly this. He didn’t bother to reply.
“Chris should be here.”
“Yes, he should.”
“Will he ever have this sort of quiet evening out again?”
Simon shook his head.
“He might. When he gets over the operation. The radiotherapy will reduce the rest of the tumour for a time, then he’ll get a remission, it might be quite a decent one and we can come here.”
“You should. Do everything you can.”
“You said we weren’t going to talk about it.”
Cat’s eyes filled with tears.
The menus were chalked on blackboards at either end of the long room, specials on another board behind the bar. It was one of Simon’s favourite eating places and he hadn’t been here for months.
“Let’s make the most of it. Oh, good, they’ve got mussels.”
Moules marinières and fresh sardines, French bread and a bowl of olives were on the table when Cat’s mobile rang.
“If it’s home answer it, otherwise ignore it.”
“I don’t recognise the number. All right, ignore.”
“When is Karin McCafferty’s funeral?”
“I’ve no idea. Do you know that apart from her bastard ex-husband I don’t think she had any family? She never mentioned them. I wonder who’ll make the arrangements? I’ve known very old people have funerals at which the only attenders were me and the district nurse but that just meant they’d outlived everyone. Karin was only in her forties. I’ll talk to Imogen House, see what they know.”
“You went to see her when she was alive. That’s what matters. Don’t have regrets.”
“I don’t. Jane is the one who has those.”
“Jane who?” He looked blank for a moment.
“Jane Fitzroy. God, it’s been so long since we’ve talked.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Are you on call now?”
“I’m always on call at the moment. What about Jane Fitzroy?”
“Oh, you do remember her then.”
Simon picked a mussel carefully out of its shell with the prong of his fork and put it into his mouth. He did not look up.
“By the time she got here she was an hour too late. Not her fault, but it upset her.”
“She rang you?”
“She stayed the night.”
He poured her another glass of wine.
“Don’t you want to know any more?”
“She asked after you.”
“Cat. Leave it.”
He shook his head, wiping bread round the plate to mop up the sauce.
“You liked her.”
“Well, yes. So did you.”
“Just leave it.”
Cat recognised his expression and his tone of voice. He meant it. The portcullis had come down. She would get no more out of him.
“You’re your own worst enemy, did you know that?”
But the waiter came to take their plates and Cat knew better than to pursue the subject further. For now, she thought. For now.
“Are you taking the kids to the Jug Fair?”
“I think so. Chris will be back home but Dad said he would stay with him. Felix is a bit young. He can stay too.”
“Will you join up with someone else?”
“I’m sure we’ll meet a load of people but Judith said she would come with me. And please do not put on that expression.”
“Get over it, Si. She’s lovely and she’s good for Dad. Don’t put yourself out in the cold.”
The waiter came towards them with braised lamb shank and pan-fried black bream.
“Simon,” she said, after the vegetables were on the table, “thanks for this. It’s what I needed. I didn’t realise.”
“Trust your brother.”
“Oh, I do. On some things.”
She picked up her knife and fork, but as she did so she remembered, remembered the full horror and awfulness of what was happening, remembered Chris lying in bed that afternoon, eating a spoonful of scrambled egg very slowly, his head bound with bandages, eyes tired and defeated. He had already seemed to be receding from her, living a twilight life in a place she could not go to, a place he had to inhabit entirely alone. She swallowed and stared at the food on her plate.
“It’s OK,” Simon said.
But it was not and the tears spilled onto the back of her hand as she tried to wipe them away.
She got up. “I’m going to the cloakroom. When I come back, just talk to me. I can’t. Just talk to me.”
Simon waited, separating the flakes of moist lamb off the bones and eating them slowly, thinking. The bar had filled but they were in a corner at the end, not overheard.
She was a long time but when she returned her face was tearless, her hair brushed back.
“Right,” Cat said, putting the last of the vegetables onto her plate.
“Do you think I’ll ever find the right person to marry?”
She stared at the food piled onto her fork, trying to take the question in. He had never asked anything like it before, had always veered away from the subject when she had raised it. Cat thought she had given up trying to fathom her brother but now she realised that she had not.
“I know you want me to talk about Jane but I’m not sure I can. I’m not sure about anything.”
“I suppose,” she said carefully, “the first thing to know is, do you actually want to be married? Do you see yourself as a husband and perhaps a father, living in a house with a wife, having a totally different domestic set-up from the one you have now?”
“Why? Why would all that have to change?”
“Because now you are a bachelor, you have a pad for a bachelor, you live a solitary life, mostly at work, sometimes away with your sketchbook, occasionally with us. But that would change.”
“You expect a wife to fit in round the corners? You carry on as you are?”
“No. But you make it sound as if my life would change completely.”
“And you don’t want that?”
“No. Of course I don’t. I love my life.” He knew as he said it that it was profoundly true.
“Then you would have to have either a very remarkable wife or a very unusual marriage or probably both. It wouldn’t change all at once, but in the end it would have to. Marriage is a new life and it’s always a compromise … you just have to make sure that you both want the same compromise.”
“Yes. So perhaps I need to forget it.”
“I’m not saying that. You do have to be sure—perhaps more than most people. They marry for the person but maybe also because they are ready to change and develop and have a new sort of life. They want that actively. You don’t. But you’re not quite forty, Si, you’re not old enough to be so set in your ways.”
He finished the last of his lamb without replying.
Cat thought about the women he had known—the ones she had been aware of at least. Diana, the older, spasmodic mistress—that had worked as far as Simon was concerned because Diana had not changed his life, though Cat knew she had wanted to. Freya Graffham. Yes, he had thought he might be in love with her, even more so when she became unobtainable. Before Diana, there had been one rather fleeting affair with a young woman barrister whom Cat had not liked. Eleanor someone.
And then Jane Fitzroy.
But Jane had been vulnerable, confused in most areas of her life and suffering under the blows which had fallen on her one after another during her short time in Lafferton.
“What is it that you want, Si?”
He was about to say that he wanted what she had—her happy married life, her farmhouse, her family—but he stopped himself. Cat without Chris, Cat facing her husband’s death, Cat on her own bringing up the children, Cat who needed him far more than he needed her, the reverse of the way it had always been—he tried to imagine it and could not.
The waiter took their plates and brought the chalk board of desserts, propping it against the next-door table. They were both glad of it.
“Sticky toffee pudding,” Cat said, “and ice cream. And mint tea.”
“Twice,” Simon said.
Later, driving back to the farmhouse, he said, “Perhaps it’s safer.”
“Like this. Women who aren’t available. Is it that?”
“Cod psychology. It could be, if you don’t want to change.”
“So what do I do?”
“For God’s sake, Simon, I don’t know! You’re putting too much on me here.”
“We’re lucky. Work helps. Think if you were stuck in a widget factory watching a conveyor belt all day.”
He sighed. “Instead of failing to catch a particularly vicious gunman.”
“You’ll catch him.”
“Nothing says we will.”
“You won’t let this one go. I know you.”
“I tell you something, Cat. It’s getting to me and when it gets to me it’s personal. Like the child abductions got personal. Like the arsonist got personal. I begin to think he’s doing it to defy me. How paranoid is that? But it’s how I feel. I feel taunted. Come on, Serrailler, stop me, I challenge you.”
“Why? He’s killed women.”
“Oh, I don’t mean he wants me dead. But once they get lucky two or three times, once they start getting away with it, then it does become a thing between the two of us, however many others are involved—dozens in this case. Something connects between me and this unknown out there. I have to get to him, I have to stop him.” He banged his hand on the steering wheel.