Authors: Judith Cutler
With thanks to Leslie Norman for
his generosity to Oxfam & Jersey Hospice Care.
My thanks to Peter Gambrill and David Whitethread for their watery expertise, freely and generously given.
The fifth-floor room was so neat it might never have been occupied. Only the hotel swipe card on the table and, parked unobtrusively beside the bed, the overnight case with a collapsible handle and little wheels showed that someone had entered. The kettle, however, was warm, and the cup and saucer missing from the hospitality tray; they were washed and draining in the otherwise immaculate bathroom. From the evidence in the bin, someone had drunk tea with no milk. The two biscuits, a chocolate digestive and a Genuine Scottish Shortbread, remained inside their wrappers.
The curtains were still pulled back in swags, though the nets heaved and billowed.
The glass door opening onto the balcony was ajar, despite the unseasonably cold wind and the torrential rain, which would soon soak into the carpet.
Blue flashing lights strobed over the street below. The slanting rain might have made them look more like lights on seaside rides. Instead, it rendered them even more cold and clinical.
The brightwear of the men and women scrabbling diligently in their intermittent illumination – someone had already sent for incident tape and floodlights – turned a harsh green. As for the blood from the shattered body they were attending, that too a far from natural colour, it was already trickling into the drains and sewers and would soon be borne, via the new and expensive sewage plant that Ofwat had forced upon Invitaqua, to the sea.
After thirty-five years in the police, Fran Harman knew all about fear. The dry mouth. The sweating hands. The racing heart. Even, on a couple of occasions, the failure of vital muscles. At least this Friday evening she hadn’t got as far as that. But, much as she despised herself, the first three symptoms were very much in evidence.
‘For God’s sake, relax, Fran!’ Mark told her, waving a full bottle and an empty glass enticingly under her nose.
‘I told you, I’m not touching a drop until everyone’s sitting down and eating. Maybe not even then. Hell, facing a killer with a gun’s got nothing on this.’ At least she was beginning to laugh at herself.
‘I’m sure the new deputy chief constable would be delighted with the comparison,’ he said dryly. ‘Come on, it’s not as if he’s a stranger, even if he’s not exactly a friend.’
‘He could have changed a lot in – what? Twenty-five years? He was always very self-contained. But on recent showing, he’s as tight as an oyster, isn’t he? Mind you, he’d need to be, to have run the Met’s Rubber Heel Squad.’ She sank down on
a kitchen stool, pushing back her hair. It took her a moment to realise that the hand doing it was still in one end of an oven glove.
‘Quite. But it’s not a job I’d fancy, knowing every time you walked into the canteen people would stop talking because your job might mean you were fingering their mate’s collar.’ Mark brushed her hair back towards her face, inspecting his handiwork with a little smile as he tweaked it into shape.
‘Or their own collar, of course. No, it takes a particular sort of person to get inured to that. Which is a good thing, isn’t it? It’s going to be hard for Simon, coming back to Kent as the chief’s sidekick.’
He poured her a drink, which she took absentmindedly. ‘Hard for you since you were his boss, once.’
She drank more deeply than she’d intended, and put down the glass with an accusing tap. ‘Goodness, if I got resentful when all my protégés got promoted over my head…’ It might be different for Mark, of course. The arrival of a deputy chief constable meant an effective demotion for him, at an age when other men might have been thinking about one last push for a top job. He had been phlegmatic about the new layer in the hierarchy coming in between him and the chief, but she knew better than to prod the bruise on his ego too often.
‘Actually, you always seem pleased,’ Mark observed. ‘Proud, even. “This is the chief constable of X and I remember her when she laddered her tights on her first day and burst into tears.”’
‘Yes, I suppose I was some sort of promotional midwife.’
‘You still are, aren’t you? You’re always pushing good officers onwards and upwards. Look at Jon Binns. Or young
Arkwright. It didn’t take him long to get his sergeant’s stripes, did it?’
She smiled fondly. ‘Tom would have done that without my help.’
‘You always say that.’
‘And I usually mean it. But I certainly can’t claim any responsibility for Simon Gates’ meteoric rise. Apart from making him rewrite his evilly tortuous reports till they were in decent clear English, I suppose. They were models of their kind by the time I’d finished with him.’
‘Which may explain why he’s so keen on reports now. He’ll be after you to go on some of his committees, you mark my words.’
‘Let him try. God, do I smell burning?’
‘No, you don’t. Fran, I promise everything’ll be fine. I know you’d be happier taking them out to a restaurant than cooking yourself. I know this is my kitchen and you’d rather be in your own. But truly, you’re a great cook and there’s something special about inviting people into your home, isn’t there?’
She responded with a hug. For months Mark had hated their relationship being public knowledge, but something – perhaps their joint purchase of an eighteenth-century house called simply the Rectory – had flicked a switch, it seemed, and here he was preparing to host their third supper party in as many weeks.
They still occupied their two houses alternately, the Rectory being as yet uninhabitable. Fran’s was a cottage in the rural village of Lenham; Mark’s, in Loose, almost a suburb of Maidstone, was a house she still found forbidding, either because of the stern Edwardian aspect or because of its
associations with his late wife. She felt it resented her presence almost as much as Mark’s grown-up children did. In vain she told herself houses could not be inimical, or that Sammie and Dave were being illogical in their opposition to their widower father finding a new love. She still felt a chill about the place, and, as Mark had observed, always donned a bathrobe to flit about the house, while she was content to pad mother-naked around her own.
‘Listen to that rain,’ Mark said. ‘It sounds more like October than April. Still, we do need it. And it makes drawn curtains and candles all the more appropriate.’
‘Rather knocks out drinks on the terrace, though,’ she grumbled, looking at her watch for the umpteenth time.
The first guests to arrive were an environmental health officer, Maeve Burton, and Bill, a man they’d never met whom Maeve had enthusiastically described over the phone as ‘my new chap’. Maeve was a woman in her early forties, once the victim of a psychotic rapist. Fran had supported her from the moment the crime was reported, through the horrors of internal surgery to repair the damage done by the perpetrator’s broken wine bottle and the vicious cross-questioning by defence counsel to the moment the judge sent her assailant down for life. The women had always liked and respected each other, but the friendship had not really developed until Maeve had crawled out of her depression and was functioning fully again. Bill, who was probably the same age as Maeve, was a vague and wispy man, and it was hard at first glance to detect what Maeve might see in him.
Next to arrive were a couple of academics whom Fran had met and liked during the course of one of her investigations,
Hattie and Edward Wallace. Once lecturers at Manchester University, they immediately seized on Bill’s bookishness and entered into a spirited conversation that allowed Fran time for a final, prayerful baste.
‘A cop! Not me,’ Simon Gates was saying firmly, sipping a spritzer. ‘Not any more. I used to be.’ He stopped.
‘You were certainly a cop when you worked with me,’ Fran agreed, though she could of course have said,
worked for me
. How much longer would they want to dawdle over their drinks? How soon could she shoehorn them into the dining room so that the food wouldn’t dry out? ‘And a very good one.’ She smiled, her glance including all their guests.
In his later forties, Simon Gates was still a bachelor, but the adjective
– in either sense – did not seem to apply to him. Even in these days of smart casual and open-necked shirts for dinner parties, she guessed he had in his pocket an emergency tie he’d much rather have had knotted tightly round his neck. Everything about him spoke of discipline: brightly polished shoes, sternly groomed hair, even his eyes, the coldest grey she’d ever seen, now she came to think of it. The only time she’d ever known him less than confident was when she had asked him if he wished to bring a guest with him. For a few seconds only he had looked like a child offered a lolly. But then he had shaken his head sternly and said there was no one. She had filed the information away for future reference but made no comment. She and Mark had agonised about finding a
woman, the ironic italics very definitely Fran’s, for Simon to partner, but in the event had agreed that matchmaking wasn’t part of their brief.
‘How can a deputy chief constable not be a cop?’ Hattie Wallace demanded.
‘Just as all too easily an academic becomes an administrator and ceases to be a teacher or a researcher,’ Simon responded, with a gallant bow. ‘Far from chasing baddies with bags of swag, I’m responsible for—’ he numbered his functions on the fingers of his left hand ‘– professional standards, corporate communications, and organisation and development. In the latter are included change management, strategic planning, delivering best value and service improvement, service inspection and performance analysis.’ A charming smile suddenly lit his face, taking ten years off him and even half-warming his eyes. ‘Now, does that sound like being a cop?’
It sounded to Fran perilously like a man who, if he were in the private sector, would make swingeing cuts in staff in the interests of efficiency and to hell with security of tenure.
‘But you wear uniform?’ Maeve pressed, her slightly widened eyes suggesting he would look very good in it.
‘I’ve never seen Fran in uniform,’ Maeve added, with a swift smile at her hostess. ‘You were in CID when I knew you. But you must have worn it.’
‘Before and after your case. In fact, I was back in it until quite recently. Then I was seconded to CID for a particular investigation.’ She smiled at the Wallaces, whom she had met while she was on that case. She would much rather have smiled at Mark, who had been responsible for her move. ‘And I’ve been there, dressing as frivolously as I like, ever since,’ she joked. Even in mufti, she dressed as soberly as if she had to appear in court. But out of the corner of her eye
she could see that Gates’ face had briefly hardened, as if he was making a mental note she suspected was quite at odds with the conviviality of the evening. ‘Now, you must all be starving…’
Saturday promised to be a glorious day. The previous evening’s torrential rain, which, as Mark had predicted, had somehow added to the intimacy of the supper party, had washed everything clean, leaving a dazzling spring morning.
Ignoring the chaos of the kitchen and grabbing her coffee, Fran stepped out onto the terrace, which further forays into domesticity had seen her decorate with a couple of hanging baskets and some promising tubs. Mark would be back with the Saturday papers any moment now, and then they could plan their day. Part of it must be spent at her cottage – they were determined to eradicate the brambles from the flowerbeds – and then the rest could be devoted to a further visit to the Rectory, just to reassure themselves it was still there and still as beautiful. Even to think of it, to think of other mornings when they could breakfast outside looking at their little estate, brought a smile of simple joy to her face.
Even the irritable ringing of the phone did not wipe it away. But the voice at the other end did its best.
‘My father, please.’ Sammie used the tone that Fran reserved for particularly delinquent constables failing to produce what they had promised.
Nonetheless, Fran kept the smile in her voice. ‘He’s out at the shop at the moment. But he won’t be a tick. Can I—?’
Take a message? Ask him to ring you back?
She mouthed to the humming dial tone. She wrote and left on the front-door mat a careful note asking – possibly telling – Mark to phone
Sammie immediately, and retired to the shower, lest she make the mistake of telling him exactly what she thought of his ewe lamb. Later, when he’d done his duty, she wouldn’t even ask what Sammie wanted, though she would listen if Mark wanted to tell her. She herself rather thought that Tina, the young woman’s late mother, would probably have recommended a good firm talking to. Tina had been a woman who never thought being a good mother meant indulging her children’s bad manners.
At least she still could wash the plates that weren’t dishwasher-proof, empty the dishwasher itself and then tidy the kitchen, and so be reassuringly noisy while Mark returned Sammie’s call from the most distant phone extension, the one in his office. It hurt that he should make the call before even yelling to say that he was back, and before dropping the papers on the kitchen table for her. But that was how he always responded to Sammie: when she told him to jump, he simply asked how high.
Fortunately both of his children had been out of the country at the start of their relationship, otherwise it might never have blossomed as it had. Dave had returned briefly, established that his room remained unsullied despite her invasion of other areas, and left for the States again. But Sammie’s husband Lloyd had now taken a job in Tunbridge Wells, and it was reasonable for Mark to want to see more of Sammie and of the two new grandchildren he’d hardly met. Fran was prepared to adore them as grandchildren she would never have otherwise, and her credit card was willing to bend over backwards to indulge them. But so far it hadn’t been called on to demonstrate its flexibility, Mark having been requested to
meet the babies solo so that their infant sensibilities wouldn’t be overwhelmed. How a man used to wielding authority could be so supine she could not comprehend.
God, had she chipped that? How stupid to let her anger get the better of a rather nice Royal Worcester plate – one of a set, Mark had let slip, that he and Tina had been given as a wedding present and was well on the way to becoming an heirloom. Never having been married herself, she could only guess at the significance of such inanimate objects. But injuring one in a temper tantrum worthy of her putative daughter-in-law was beneath her. She polished, checked, stacked and at last returned everything to the china pantry the house was spacious enough to boast.
Surely the phone call must be over by now?
At least she would go in search of the papers.
They were sitting on the hall table. She flicked through her favourite sections and then checked her watch. Surely Sammie had said enough for this time in the morning? With a grim smile Fran set the coffee machine going – Mark was almost Pavlovian in his response to the smell of fresh coffee.
And here he was. His glance took in the pristine kitchen and the breakfast things, but he did not appear to register anything as he sat down heavily enough to make the stool protest. In silence, she poured coffee; in silence, he drank it.
‘Maybe,’ he said at last, ‘I didn’t smack her often enough when she was a child. Or maybe I smacked her too often. I don’t know. I’m sorry she was so rude to you.’
Despite herself she asked, ‘How did you know?’
‘Once upon a time I was a policeman,’ he grinned, reaching for the apricot jam, ‘and I learnt to make deductions from evidence. Today I had a succinct note and a daughter fuming
because I hadn’t been at the end of the phone the second she wanted me. So I gather she didn’t make polite conversation with you.’