Since Harmony Ansholm knew, and mourned, that in all her fifteen years nothing had ever happened in Evensand, the first big storm of the winter was like a trailer for a blockbuster that would never make it to a screen near you. But it still stirred her that morning as she looked up from her trudge through graphs, to see the weightless peach and lemon shells of takeaway cartons chase each other up the pavement below the library and past the evergreens planted in a line outside, their needles beginning to ripple, showing silvery undersides. By eleven o’clock, the tiny agitation of the Edwardian window frames had amplified into an assault on concentration, and the street light outside, with which her eyeline was oddly level, the Quiet Room being on the library’s first floor, started a stately, weighted nod on its pole. Seen so close, the wedge-shaped head of the light was an improbably massive thing. You didn’t think of that, from the ground. If it fell, it would do as much damage as a falling tree. Harmony, imagining metal smashing through the glass, slid her files up the table and repositioned herself in the next chair along, closer to the door. Nothing would happen, but you may as well be on the safe side, or what was the point of an imagination?
The Quiet Room took up half the library’s upper floor, and today Harmony was one of three occupants, apart from the invigilating librarian reading the Daily Mail at the desk by the door. He sat straight, head cocked critically to the print, running his thumb down the edge of each page before he turned it, as though he was conducting research, not reading. He was, though: Harmony had seen him at the sudoku. As usual, her own brain had fogged shortly after she took out the maths sheet. It was impossible. Declan said not, but it was. She tried to focus on the questions, for his sake, but the sight of how many lay ahead, becoming denser and more difficult the closer you got to the bottom of the page, like a forest you were bound to get lost in, made even the basic numbers of the first problem fall away from meaning like leaves shaken from a branch.
The windows shuddered acoustically. Did Declan like music, she wondered? Probably. Not that she’d even have heard of the kinds of bands he would be into. Reaching under the table, Harmony inched out the two- finger KitKat she’d stowed in her bag for lunch. She was starving. A hundred and six calories. She could still have the apple she’d brought at actual lunchtime for a mere fifty two calories. The trick was writing it all down. Besides, if she was hungry her concentration would be even worse.
The weather’s percussion usefully disguised her cautious tearing of the wrapper. Mum had never bought KitKats, because Nestlé and baby formula for African women; also sugar. Now Harmony had a multipack stashed in her bedroom. A guilty pleasure, which was a phrase Mum had hated about as much as she hated Nestlé. Feigning attention to her maths, Harmony broke off furtive morsels under the table and passed them to her mouth. Tiny shavings of chocolate and wafer sprinkled the white paper of the worksheet, smudging into brown blots as she brushed them away. The numbers were impossible.
The skitter of ball bearings hitting glass made everyone look up, as a gust of wind flung a slack handful of hail across the window. The storm was starting in earnest. Harmony felt a lift of excitement. It was a Declan day, after all.
‘No food in the library.’ The librarian was staring straight at her.
Framed against the pane, Harmony absorbed the judgement of the other, older library dwellers. In a rich blush of humiliation, and willing herself not to chew, she released the last of the second finger – the best bit, with the thick little rim of chocolate at the end – back into her bag. The librarian returned to his Daily Mail. Wanker.
‘I’m diabetic,’ she announced in a demitone, unsure if she wanted anyone to listen. ‘Blood sugar?’
By the time she left the Quiet Room, after forcing herself to sit for five minutes so that her exit would look unforced and incidental, the rain was pelting in fat, squalling drops. As soon as you stepped outside you could hear the sea, although the library was at the back of the 1960s precinct, streets away from Evensand’s so-called promenade. Harmony battled the freezing wind channelling through the torso of her parka to zip herself up, spitting away the fronds of hair that whipped into her face. The roar of the sea felt like a roar in your blood.
She could be diabetic, for all anyone knew. She’d never had an actual test for diabetes. Maybe that was why she got so bloody hungry. Once out of view of the library, where she would never be able to work again, she scrabbled in her bag and shoved the linty end of the KitKat in her mouth. When she reached end of Court Street, the boiling sea was blackboard grey, dashing dirty foam across the small stretch of shops that ended in the Co-op. The first proper storm of the year, no doubt about it. Shoppers were running urgently to their cars, and, as Harmony watched, the transparent cover a mother was trying to x to her toddler’s pushchair flapped free and took off like a kite above the trolley park. The little boy raised his arms and spread his stubby fingers into stars, in unflustered exultation at its flight. It felt as though anything might happen, even though Harmony knew it wouldn’t.
At home, the radio in the kitchen declaimed a severe weather warning. If the weather was very severe by four, Declan might cancel. Harmony didn’t know what she would do if that happened; if he didn’t happen. Their lesson was the peg on which she hung the meaning of her week. The rain and wind were bad, but the radio was saying it wouldn’t get properly worse, properly severe, until the night. And if Declan didn’t come, she reassured herself, he wouldn’t get his twenty pounds, and surely he needed the money.
Harmony suspected some sort of arrangement with Mel about Declan’s fee. It was quite likely on the down low, since Stu had a general policy of refusing help from his sister. He called it charity – like Perks in The Railway Children, as Mum had once pointed out, forcing him to accept a bag of Mel and Ian’s unwanted clothes that would have otherwise gone to Oxfam. Harmony, along with Mum, wasn’t so proud. Unlike her cousins, she never got any extras. Not until Declan.
Whatever the arrangement, and Stu’s possible ignorance of it, twenty quid was twenty quid. More than once Mum had resorted to raiding the treasure-chest money box Harmony had been given when she was a little kid to make up Declan’s cash to the full twenty. But today, as for many months, Stu had left it all on the kitchen table: two fives and a lot of shrapnel. Harmony sorted this into more respectful piles of related coins. Although there weren’t any coppers, which would be an insult, there were still a few marginally embarrassing five pences. She scavenged tens from the depleted treasure chest and exchanged them. During this, Harmony ate the apple she’d intended for her lunch, which was woolly and disappointing, followed by a slice of peanut butter on toast. Protein was good. At her age, you needed it for growth, if in fact she was still growing. She spooned more peanut butter from the jar, then, after she’d put the spoon in the sink to stop herself eating more, continued to scoop gouts of it out with her finger. From the nutritional information on the label she calculated that she’d eaten about five hundred calories’ worth, not including the toast. There was no point after that, so she put two more slices of bread in the toaster. During her final instalment of toast, Harmony tried to watch a YouTuber she liked, another guilty pleasure unsanctioned in Mum’s day. But the internet was down, probably because of the storm.
It had been Mel’s idea, to get her a tutor. Declan was coaching Mel’s youngest, Eddy, through the entrance exam for St Benedict’s, the private school his brother Aidan attended and which his eldest brother Joe had left the previous summer. When Mum agreed that Harmony could think of going ‘somewhere’ for sixth form – the ‘somewhere’ meaning nowhere they had to pay – Mel had pointed out, deflatingly, that she wouldn’t get in anywhere at all without GCSEs. Then, more helpfully, she had suggested Declan to tutor Harmony through her maths. Nebbing, as usual, according to Stu. Stu didn’t have much time for school. The one time Mum had dragged him to parents’ evening at Severn Oak he became clammy and silent, like someone trapped in a lift. But since he wasn’t her actual parent, he didn’t have any real say over her education, and Mum had been surprisingly keen on the tutor idea, despite her own customary dislike of Mel’s interference. Harmony had been keen herself, even before she met Declan in the flesh. The flesh.
Upstairs for a wee, she got caught by the bathroom mirror. Her fringe had become far too long, apparently overnight. Holding the puff of hair back out of the way, Harmony gave herself over to such prolonged scrutiny that her reflection gradually became as bizarre as an over-repeated word: face, face, face, face, face, face, face, face . . . Why had she never realised that her forehead was so grotesque, both abnormally high and oddly bulging? Plus, spots. As she was combing the fringe back down a violent bang came from downstairs, at the back of the house. Her first thought was that someone was trying to break in, because it was far too early to be Stu forgetting his keys, and then with a bigger gut lurch she thought she might have got the time wrong, or Declan was early, but when she inched through the dining area, where they never dined, to get a view of the back garden, all Harmony could see was an upended plastic garden chair on the empty flower bed that stretched beneath the window, white against the black earth. The chair wasn’t theirs: if they ever wanted to sit in the garden they just took normal chairs outside. The noise must have come from the wind seizing the chair from next door’s garden and hurling it at the window.
Harmony marvelled at the weather’s malevolence. It wouldn’t take much, she saw, for the panels of their sagging, ancient fence to give way. It had happened before, as evinced by the contrast of the new panel in the middle, orange and unweathered. Of course, it had had some help.
Best not to think about that. The point was, the sea couldn’t reach them, even in a storm this bad, even if the fence broke. Although the house stood in the last row before the beach, with the road intervening it was too far for the sea to reach, however furious. Only the wind could do them damage. And she hadn’t missed Declan, thank God.
Despite the storm, he was exactly on time. He always was. Harmony wondered if he waited outside, checking his phone until the two zeros of 4:00 appeared. Numbers were his thing, after all. She was already on the other side of the door, watching the numbers on her own phone. She answered the bell so promptly that he jumped, his finger lifted to the button. In turn, she got the usual slight shock from seeing him really as opposed to the Declan she made up for herself in the rest of the week. In her mind he was a bit ginger, but now, chivvied by the wind into their narrow hall, he wasn’t. His hair was matt brown; not even chestnut highlights. Still gorgeous. He brought his smell, too, gels and sprays sharpened by the astringent, salty cold.
‘Weather!’ Declan said, dealing with his coat. It was a grey North Face, nothing special.
‘There was a warning, on the radio.’
His smell made Harmony think of him in the shower, which made her blush. Also usual. For the whole hour of their lesson, she was aware of the skin on her face flaming. Mum had always made him a cup of tea, but Harmony found the idea of offering and making Declan a drink herself both too weird, in that it underlined Aurora’s absence, and too embarrassing, in that it drew attention to herself, so she’d been telling him for months the kettle was broken. As he got the workbooks out of his backpack and slapped them on the table, Harmony switched on the lamp. The wind was wuthering against the window like a crap trick-or-treater.
‘So, how did you get on? Any problems?’
They sat. Declan, his pencil poised by the first question, glanced over at her worksheet. He swivelled the page to get a better look, although even with it upside down, he must have been able to see the multiple rubbings out. By some miracle, she’d got it right.
‘Excellent stuff.’ His pencil jumped to the next question. He swiped his mouth and chin, concentrating on her graph. She wondered how often he had to shave.
‘So, talk me through this – why have you plotted x as five here?’
Harmony tried to focus on the pencilled blob she had speculated on earlier. As ever, the monolithic need to concentrate blocked her concentration. Declan sighed. The storm made its noises. She grabbed at the smudged number on the line below the graph, just above his adorably bitten fingernails.
‘Because of the cube of fifteen? Sorry.’
‘Nothing to apologise for. It’s right.’
He smiled at her. White teeth, one at the bottom set a tiny bit crooked, the two incisors slightly proud of the rest. She could have identified him from his dental records. Oh God, she loved him so much.
‘Cube root,’ he said.
But the right answer was a fluke. As always he was very patient with her, though she could see the effort it cost him from the way he jammed his hand up into his hair and tugged harder at it each time she failed to understand his explanation.
‘Slow down,’ he said. ‘Don’t panic. It’s all there in the numbers – you’re panicking.’
It wasn’t just panic, though, was it? It was him, the real smell of him, the freckles on his cheekbones, the peaty brown of his eyes. How old was he, anyway? When he started, Mum had said 24, tops.
Harmony tried again, dutifully transcribing numbers as Declan spoke. Suddenly the edge of understanding appeared and she grabbed at it, paddling frantically, before the current of him could pull it away. It was just numbers, beautiful and simple. Two lines. Equals.
‘X fourteen, y twelve.’
Declan sat back, smoothing his tormented hair back into place. His forehead, unlike her own, was normally sized and unblemished. Harmony twiddled her fringe down past her eyebrows as he checked the time on his phone. She knew he had Eddy as his next lesson, and that it would be more than his life was worth to be late for Mel. Beyond the hoop of lamplight that encircled them, the dark had thickened. During the blank week, when she gorged on the possibility of their lessons, this was the moment when she declared her love.
But instead he made her do a timed worksheet on what they’d just covered.
‘You know the drill.’
Ten minutes. Declan set the timer on his phone and leaned back, his gaze set above her head at the black, uncurtained view to the back fence and the sea beyond, twiddling his pencil as an analogue to the digital milliseconds she could see flickering past out of the corner of her eye. The storm screamed to be let in.
‘So noisy …’
He wasn’t even looking at her. Probably, with the lamp on, he could only see himself bounced back from the streaming window. There would be five minutes of him left after the worksheet. As Harmony sneaked another look, she saw Declan’s expression change. Before she could turn to share his view there was human tapping at the glass, a thinner, animal skittering of paws.
It was Mel, cowled by the hood of her anorak, Toothpaste leaping up so that his muzzle slobbered a streak on the pane before she tugged him down by his lead. They must have come from the beach. She didn’t wait for Harmony to open the back door but crunched round to the front and was trying the handle there before Harmony reached it herself.
‘Just a sec—’
The wind wrenched the door away the moment she released the latch, smashing it against the radiator. Mel would have charged past with similar force, but Toothpaste’s delight at seeing Harmony brought her up short. She shrieked at the dog to sit.
In her whole life Harmony had never seen Mel in such a state. She was in her dance-teaching kit, Lycra over greyhound legs and the usual puffa’ed and zipped accoutrements, but it was as though a stranger had taken possession of her face, its angles flayed red by the storm and snaked with wet hair. Her eyes were huge and sightless with shock. She didn’t even seem to see Declan there, at the entrance to the living room, as she shook her iPhone at Harmony.
‘Bloody thing! I can’t get reception! Toothpaste!’
Mel yanked the lead. Aidan, or Eddy? Fighting the suck of panic, Harmony turned to the landline balanced on the radiator, but the dock was empty. She or Stu had left it somewhere, and wherever it was it would probably be out of charge. Harmony pushed Toothpaste’s wet, freezing muzzle away from her crotch but Declan was too engrossed by Mel to notice. Before she could go to look for the phone, Declan had stepped forward, offering his mobile.
‘Hi, Mrs Bale.’
Mel stopped short, squinting down at his handset.
‘Is it still 999 for mobiles?’
Please don’t let it be Eddy or Aidan. Let it be Uncle Ian.
‘I’m not sure,’ said Declan, but Mel was already dialling. The phone connected. Mel swiped the dewdrop from her nose, already more herself at the contact with authority. She was trembling, though, in strange, convulsive jerks, as though she was having some sort of t rather than suffering from cold.
‘Ambulance – hang on, yes, ambulance. Shit. Police, maybe? Listen—’
The unlatched front door crashed back against the wall, reasserting disaster. Reaching to secure it properly, Harmony saw a splintered wedge gouged out of the laminate by the edge of the radiator. Mel hadn’t reacted to the noise. She lowered her voice, as though what she had to say wasn’t fit for Harmony to hear. Her chattering teeth made her words come out in oddly clustered spasms, like ice cubes fused into clumps.
‘Yes, it’s. A body. A girl. A dead. Body on Evensand. Beach.’
It was the first time Declan had ever looked at Harmony properly, and her at him, as though they were two humans. Hours later, in bed, as the weather continued to assault the house, Harmony savoured the reciprocity of that moment of shock. His eyes, yellow-green-brown, those eyelashes, had looked properly into hers. That had to be the start of something, surely.
‘Dead, yes. By Brazen Point, the golf. Club end, she’s. Naked.’
For once, the storm had made good on its promise.
Mason was on lates. His shift had barely started when they got the call, just after five. He and Soccolo were parked up on the road to Brazen Point, waiting for their takeaway brews to reach a drinkable temperature as they argued about the transfer window, so they were at the scene in minutes. They were flagged down near the entrance to the golf club by the woman who’d rung 999. A Mrs Melanie Bale, local dog walker, though she’d ditched the dog by the time they got there, he had no idea where. They left the patrol car at the gate and floundered with her down to the beach, screaming to be heard over the waves and wind. The ambulance had been dispatched at the same time as them but had further to come, from Whitby. Mason’s hand shook with adrenalin as he tracked the slender, staggering figure ahead of him with his torch. The woman wheeled a few metres from the sea’s spewing edge, trying to get her bearings. From behind her, Dan’s wavering beam illuminated sectioned patches of empty beach and roiling sea, hazed by the icy rain that was driving itself into his eyes and mouth.
‘Maybe – washed – sea!’
He followed as the woman slithered up the bank of gravel, closer to the bottom of the cliff. Soccolo laboured behind them, cursing the world, while Mason aimed the torch low at the woman’s scrabbling legs, trying to help her find her way. He reared, bucking the light up at the cliff face, then braced the torch back to where it had shone. The edge of the projection had caught part of what they were looking for: a foot, he saw. No shoe, or sock. When he swept the torch further it revealed the whole of a body. A girl. She was fetal, bare and lifeless. What skin became.
Soccolo caught up with them. He was already removing his coat to throw it over the body. Mason thought about disturbing the scene at the same time as wishing he’d done it himself.
The ambulance drove as far as it could onto the beach, no messing. Its headlights created a pool of light for them to work from, bringing colour to the monochrome as the paramedics brought their bustling routine to urge the body back to life. Mason recognised the drill from the few RTAs he’d attended: a checklist of vital signs and chest-pressing and oxygen before they got the girl into the ambulance. At his first RTA – two idiot little twoccers who had run a stolen Audi into a tree – he had thought all this was hope of life, until Soccolo had disabused him: it was stats, not having too many deaths on their data sheet. The paramedics would never call it. Let the doctors do it, back in A & E. Their allotment of death was more generous than that allowed the ambulance crew.
It still looked like hope, though, the way everyone teamed up against the adversity of the weather. The square young woman doing chest compressions had to kneel on the edges of the silver insulation blanket they’d covered the girl with to stop it flying away in the gale. Every screamed word was swallowed by the storm. Soccolo, reunited with his coat, cannily escorted the woman who had made the 999 call back to the golf club and the warmth of their car. He would offer Mrs Bale a lift home, leaving Mason to be taken in the ambulance. Got to love Soccolo, he played all the angles.
Left alone to watch the paramedics work, Mason havered. The question of when a medical matter became a police matter, if there was crossover like this, was tricky. Once the girl was called as life extinct, the howling beach would be a crime scene. How was he meant to secure it on his own? The paramedics stretchered her into the ambulance, strapped up to the oxygen tank. Mason climbed in after them. He watched the gelid mask all the way from Evensand to Whitby, unclouded by any breath. The atmosphere in the back, though solemn and exhausted, was matter-of-fact. They’d given up. Over to him, then.
But in A & E – overstretched, due to the storm but when wasn’t A & E overstretched – the harassed triage nurse optimistically dispatched them up to the acute assessment ward. Mason saw once they reached it that it wasn’t just the empty beds that had triggered her decision. The other occupants of the ward were all elderly; variously demented, dehydrated and dying. One more body would inconvenience no one. Mason loitered in the corridor. A curtain had been pulled around the bed, preventing him seeing anything beyond backstage distortions of the flimsy material that implied some concerted, continuing degree of effort. The paramedics were long gone. This was the hospital team, with their own boxes to tick.
Just as Mason had decided to call the station, Soccolo arrived, coffee on his breath. He was unimpressed to hear how little progress had been made, but then the day Soccolo was impressed by anything, pigs would be seen flying in formation over Brazen Point.
‘Got spannered, decided to go for a chuffing paddle, end of story.’ Soccolo dropped heavily into a chair that faced the nurses’ station, not displeased that this was the indoor turn their shift had taken. Soccolo hated being out in the car nearly as much as he hated having to get out of it to do some policing.
It was bound to be different for him. He was an old hand, in tasting distance of his pension. Dan, not yet a year out of training, was trying to tamp down his excitement. A murder investigation. So far, none of his working life had corresponded to the hopes he’d had for it. Mason had known before he started his training that some people didn’t love the police, but since his IPLDP it came as a daily shock to him just how automatically hated he was, by such an uncriminal range of ages and conditions. It got him down. And the fact that he hadn’t realised this before applying got him down even more. ‘Classic Dan’ was the verdict of his mates, if he bothered to confide after a couple of drinks. They didn’t like cops either. No one liked them, apart from three old ladies in Easingwold who mistakenly thought they could catch the lads who’d been nicking their garden furniture.
‘Have they called life extinct?’
Dan detained the stacked little nurse who had gestured him to the row of chairs. She was heading back into the ward carrying a small, tubular piece of medical equipment.
She gave him a look over her shoulder before she disappeared behind the curtain. Mason smiled back. The only compensation for the cop hate was women. They didn’t like him either, but they all wanted to shag him. Dan’s easy-going nature and bland handsomeness had always seen him right, but with the uniform on there was no comparison. He should have been pleased, but after yet another lass who was vocally excited by his handcuffs then got his name wrong as they fucked, he felt ready for something real. What was wrong with a cuddle? Sitting in the corridor with Soccolo, he was almost tempted to confide. But Soccolo was old school. For him, over the side was what it was all about, the more the better. Even at his age, long married, he didn’t do badly for what he referred to at his least offensive as skirt. Listening to the older man’s extended recovery from the stairs – his partner’s phobia of lifts was the only thing that forced him into anything close to exercise – Mason teetered on the edge of a complicated reflection: since he’d become a copper, lasses had treated him the way they complained men treated them – as an object. It verged on . . . not racism, obviously, but it was surely more than sexist. There must be a word.
Soccolo ostentatiously checked the time on the hospital clock against his watch, as though this would bring the end of the shift sooner. It was only twenty to ten.
‘Do you think we should call in?’ Mason suggested, bracing himself. ‘See if she matches any mispers?’
He still felt slightly self-conscious about using professional shorthand. During training, one of the other cadets had successfully wound him up that ‘sexoff’ was short for ‘sex offenders’. Soccolo didn’t inch, though, at ‘mispers’. His own speech was often incomprehensible to civilians.
Mason thought of the woman who’d made the 999 call. Mrs Bale. In the heat of the moment, he hadn’t asked her if she’d pulled the girl out of the water, or whether the body was already on the beach when she found her. The girl couldn’t have been in the water long without being washed out to sea, could she? Good point. The woman might even have picked up the girl’s clothes, moved them. People did all sorts of things you wouldn’t want or expect. She may have seen a car driving off, or someone else on the beach. Dan knew Soccolo would have checked on all this when he’d driven Mrs Bale home. He may be as idle as fuck, but some points of procedure were as routine as brushing your teeth.
The pale blue curtain continued to billow, feet shuffling beneath. How much longer? Driven away by some large, unendurable emotion, Mason paced down the corridor, escaping the view into the ward. He called in and got nice Claire in the office, who would have given him a cuddle if he’d asked. She was about fifty, with vast underwired tits that still made you look. Though come to think of it, wasn’t she one of Soccolo’s conquests?
He gave her the details, estimating the girl’s age within a generous range of 15 to 25. Caucasian. Medium build and height. Hard to tell hair colour because it was drenched, but she wasn’t noticeably very blond or very ginger. No distinguishing features, from what he’d been able to tell before the paramedics had rushed in and started working on her. No clothes. No jewellery, not even ear studs, no visible piercings. No obvious tattoos either, which made it unlikely she was from round here. Or absconded from care, which was the most frequent local provenance of missing teenage girls, if she was a teenager.
Claire had a 16-year-old on the system. She’d absconded from care near Selby two days before, but part of her description, surprise surprise, was a massive 1Direction tramp stamp at the base of her spine.
‘You haven’t got a name . . . ’ He could hear Claire tapping details into her keyboard.
‘They’re still working on her,’ said Dan. ‘It’s touch and go.’ More go than touch. He felt a bit sick. It was the adrenalin. ‘Anything else distinctive?’
There was something, but Mason couldn’t bring himself to mention it. He’d noticed, before the paramedics threw the space blanket over the girl on the beach, that she had pubes. Not many lasses did, not the ones who came his way, anyway. And of those who did, it was a waxed landing strip, nothing like the dark V visible on that stark, gritted body.
The call finished, Dan got out his pen and notebook. He stood by the lift, mindful that if it came to court he’d have to read out his notes. There was nothing weird in him noticing. It was decent policing, and possibly useful. Carefully, the notion of court forcing his neatest handwriting, he wrote ‘odd features’. Then, deciding this was too obscure to jog his memory, he added ‘pubic hair’. As far as he knew, no one actually looked at your notebook.
For a moment he couldn’t remember which of the identical corridors he’d come down. He’d got himself turned round. Then he saw the sign back to acute assessment and retraced his steps. From the entrance to the ward the bed at the far end was exposed, no screen around it, stripped and empty. Over, finally. Dan was aware of his adrenalised boner; the same as when he’d first spotted the body on the beach. Everything had happened in the bare couple of minutes he’d been on the phone.
Murder was surely asking too much, though. Soccolo was probably right: the girl had done it herself. Gone out in the weather and come a cropper. But suicide or accidental death would both still warrant an investigation, a statement to the coroner in Northallerton. Dan hadn’t been to an inquest yet. Even that would have its own excitement. And if it turned out the girl had run away from care after all, there would be a shitstorm of publicity.
Then he realised; he’d overshot. There were no doors to any of the wards, just openings into this corridor that traced a square around the nurses’ station at the centre. He’d been thrown by Soccolo’s disappearance from the line of chairs where he’d left him. Now, retreating by a ward and looking in the opposite direction, he saw the jaundiced bulk of his partner among the beds, talking to a doctor. Female, mid-thirties, Asian. Eyes like a Disney character. Up by the window, the curtain had been pulled back to expose the bed with the girl in it.
Mason huddled into this centre of activity. The youngest nurse there, the one who’d given him the smile, smiled at him again. The scowl of her Scouse brows imposed a fierceness at odds with what appeared to be her natural friendliness. Or it wasn’t friendliness, just his uniform.
‘We’ve got her back.’
Soccolo came up close beside him and nodded at the bed. The girl was still masked, but her mouth made shapes beneath the frosting plastic, the patch of mist shrinking each time her chest lifted for the next breath in, expanding again on the exhalation. She was either gulping down the air forced into her or struggling to speak.
Shit. Dan couldn’t help the disappointment. Not murder, then. Alive. What were they supposed to do about that?
Only two days had passed since Mel had found the body on the beach, and everything for Joe’s birthday dinner had been in the fridge since. Assessing her abandoned preparations, Mel skimmed the top off the trifle, where the hundreds and thousands had haemorrhaged technicolour dye into the cream, which had also begun to crack. No one would be the wiser, once she’d whipped another carton to cover the custard. When she sniffed the fish, though, she had doubts. It smelled fine, but it did smell of fish. Better not poison the new girlfriend. Before Mel left for classes on Saturday morning, she asked Ian to pick up more salmon. There was no point troubling him with a search for lime leaves, as the recipe requested; they could do without.
Sunday lunch would have suited Mel better for the rescheduled celebration, since Saturday was her busiest teaching day, but Joseph said it was either Saturday night or him and the girlfriend postponing to the following week, and she was damned if all the rest of that food was going to waste.
It was odd, she thought, that the police still hadn’t rung. They would, Ian reassured her. She had moved the body, for one thing. Schoolboy error, he teased.
‘Never move the body, Mel.’
She felt very far away from him when he said this, even as she enjoyed the warmth of her husband’s big hands at her waist; his moist, familiar kiss. The body had been on its back. Even thinking of the first contact with the freezing, rubbery flesh made Mel retch, the way she’d retched at the time. No blood – but wouldn’t the sea have washed it away? She was the only person in the world who knew what it had been like, out there beneath Brazen Point.
She’d been walking the dog. Despite the forecast, the snugness of their double glazing had misled her about the storm’s ferocity. It was howling out there, the rain brutally horizontal. Mel had braced herself and headed for the golf course.
She wasn’t planning to be out for long, just through the top of the course to the sea and back. She hadn’t had time to take Toothpaste out at lunchtime because she’d been busy with all the cooking for Joe’s birthday, and Aidan had been so drenched when he got in from school she didn’t have the heart to ask him to go straight out again. Once they were clear of the road, she let the dog off the lead. He looped ecstatically across the dark, deserted links, ears blasted back by the gale.
By the pale swatch of a bunker on the fourth hole, Mel saw Toothpaste stop and squat. It took her a few minutes to reach the bunker herself, battling the wind, and to locate the trio of tobacco-coloured shits at the slope’s edge. With the tide at its highest, the sea flung its spray close enough to scour Mel’s cheek and tang her lips with salt as she crouched. As she bagged the turdlets, sugared with wet golf club sand, she caught a blaze of white against the black water. Fitfully illuminated by the bobbing beams of Toothpaste’s light-up collar, indispensable now that they were far from any street lighting, the white patch had looked to Mel like the gleam bounced back from a reflective strip. It wasn’t until she followed Toothpaste out of the golf course, nosing his way against the wind towards the sea below Brazen Point, that the whiteness moved in the water and became uncanny. Mel’s gut dropped as she saw what she was really looking at, this close: an arm, bent at the elbow. And then she was running, overtaking the dog, who was wary of the smashing waves.
The girl was flung at the sea’s edge, half in, half out. Like something from TV, but real. Bare skin, eyes shut, longish hair filthy with sand. White. Dead. Mel had given all her details to the burly policeman who’d accompanied her home that night. Two days now, and not so much as a text.
On Saturdays, Mel kicked off with Pre-primary Ballet at ten and carried on straight through to Grade 4 Modern just before teatime. No lunch break, though Gaynor, the mum of Jodie-who-helped, always brought her in a cappuccino. Thank God for Jodie and her 17-year-old knees. The way Mel’s knees were going she’d end up like her own dancing teacher, Mrs Beagles, who towards the end had taught mainly by bestriding a chair with arthritic elan and demonstrating footwork with her hands.
Back from class, Mel scrambled to shower and get ready and shout at Ian and the boys to restore the house to the order she’d requested that morning. Mud on the stairs, clothes on the bathroom oor, the kitchen surfaces ravaged. Eight o’clock came and went. As all the food was prepared but uncooked, there was no issue of dinner being spoiled, but holding back past the usual time for their first glass of wine was beginning to make both Mel and Ian ratty. There were a couple of bottles of Prosecco chilling in honour of Joe’s birthday, or the two of them would have cracked by twenty past. They had an obligation to the ceremony of the cork; marking the celebration, even if it was a couple of days late.
By twenty-five to nine, Ian had opened a beer and turned to his default pastime of surfing new cars on his laptop. The remorseless light from the corner lamp exposed at the crown the bald spot that lurked beneath the apparent luxuriance of his ungreyed hair. Aidan appeared, to plunder the bowls of crisps she’d put out and be batted away. Finally, at nearly nine, when Mel had given up and started on the crisps herself, Joseph let himself in and shouted a hello. He had keys, since he was notionally still living at home. He made no mention of the delay, but his new girlfriend apologised effusively for both of them, in a fluting voice with an unexpected Home Counties accent.
‘A southerner!’ said Ian, taking her coat, already charmed. The entire family crowded in the hall. It was the first time any of them had met her, though they all knew she was Lottie. She apologised again, offering up a dripping foldable umbrella with several broken spindles.
‘I don’t know why I even bothered.’ There was a mournful comedy in her tone. She turned and offered her hand to Mel. Toothpaste rapturously nosed the girl’s crotch before Ian intervened to remove him.
‘Lovely to meet you, Mrs Bale.’
‘At last!’ Mel ignored the stab of Joe’s warning look at this and waved Lottie into the living room. ‘Mel, please.’
A Nice Girl. Mel felt a rush of relief. She’d feared the worst about Lottie having a flat, assuming it meant council, and possible single motherhood, but had been too wary of Joe’s outrage to prod him about it. She was a pretty girl as well; tall and slim, with shiny hair and large, even teeth. She looked nothing like Lauren, Joseph’s previous and as far as Mel knew only girlfriend, who had been small and busty and had always reminded Mel of one of the hamsters Joseph had been so devoted to as a small boy. Apparently boneless, but capable of giving you a nip. Lottie already seemed to be displaying an eager friendliness (‘Oh, lovely house!’, an exclamation precisely no one had made before, although Mel often expected them to) that verged instead on the canine. In their household, any resemblance to a dog was the highest form of praise.
Joe had yet to speak, beyond his desultory hellos. Dropping beside Lottie on the couch, he took her hand, marking a gauche pride of ownership that shocked and touched his mother. The soft little bugger. She saw the reason for their late arrival: the blood ran high in both their faces. They’d been shagging. No wonder Joe had yet to meet her eye.
Despite the inhibiting presence of Aidan and Edward, who lolled mutely along the other sofa scrutinising Lottie and demolishing more crisps, Mel discovered more about the girl in five minutes than Joe had disclosed throughout their relationship, which had begun a surprising two months ago. Lottie, she informed them, was a psychiatric social worker.
Mel wasn’t entirely sure what this meant, in terms of qualifications and prospects. Possibly the medical aspect made it a cut above being just a social worker. As Mel nudged Eddy to offer Lottie the depleted crisp bowl, she realised that despite the girl’s soft look of extreme youth she must be at least three years older than their Joseph. This explained her having a flat. No wonder he was so keen to spend every waking hour there. An older woman. Never had Mel felt so much the mother of boys.
‘Mum found a dead body on the beach.’
Eddy delivered this up with the crisps. Lottie smiled in friendly concern. Mel thought she could see some training coming into play.
‘Yeah, I heard there’d been a . . . that someone had been found. I didn’t know it was you who found her, Mrs Bale.’
Mel quelled her irritation that Eddy hadn’t let her introduce her story.
‘It was a girl with no clothes on,’ Edward told Joe.
‘Well, he is!’
‘But she did, didn’t she? He’s not exaggerating. Your mum did find a body, unfortunately.’
Joseph was agog for the details, his interest finally torn away from Lottie. But there was so little to tell, even if Mel tried to embellish the account she had given Ian on the night it had happened. So much of it was feelings, the untellable panic and futility. An obscenity in that marred nakedness, the girl’s softness exposed to the world. She left them to their speculation, trusting Ian to filter out anything unsuitable for Edward, to go and rescue her filo parcels from the oven.
They had caught a little, the pastry browned at the edges like a pirate map. She broke off the worst shards and primped the rest as appealingly as possible. By the time Mel carried the serving dish to the table and called everyone in, the conversation had moved away from the body on the beach and back to Lottie. Joseph was still gazing at her with calf-eyed devotion as she spoke, with Ian, Aidan and Edward scarcely less enraptured. Mel quelled a pang and asked Ian to hand her the sweet chilli sauce. Lottie was talking about her dad, who she loved to bits but who apparently could be slightly controlling.
He gallantly offered the dish of sauce to Lottie first, who declined.
Clearing the starters, Mel paused as she saw that Lottie, still talking, had about a third of her food left. But the girl handed the plate over without hesitation. Mel was unused to leftovers. If anyone in their house didn’t finish something, which was rare, plenty pounced to polish it off. She paid attention to how the girl tackled the next course. While Lottie chatted about her schooldays – somewhere outside Guildford, though not private – Mel watched her settle a mouthful of salmon onto her fork, then, delayed by total engagement in the conversation, wave it animatedly near her mouth before returning fork to plate and, using her knife, shredding the fish sufficiently to disperse it about the plate’s surface to give the illusion that something had been eaten. A token sip of wine – the level in the glass had hardly sunk, and she had already held her hand over the rim when Ian had hoisted the bottle for a refill – and she resumed her pantomime of eating.
Their eyes met. Lottie gave Mel a ready, even-toothed smile, her hazel eyes crinkling at the corners with genuine warmth. Anyone, any parent, would describe her as a lovely girl. Perhaps Joe had been wrong about her eating fish? Mel had asked, she was sure. Or it was some stupid weight thing? They all waited politely for Lottie to finish her food, until in frustration even Joe interrupted her to ask directly.
‘Aren’t you going to eat that?’
Lottie puffed her cheeks. ‘It was delicious, Mrs Bale. Sorry, I’m really full.’
Joseph leaned across and skewered the unmolested chunk of salmon that remained on Lottie’s plate, encompassing it in a mouthful. All three boys were large, like their dad. It had been Mel’s life’s work to keep them fed. As Mel collected the plates, Ian halted her to dispatch the piece of fish she herself had been unable to stomach. Beneath her careful flavourings, the faint sea taste had awakened the sickness that had been curdling her appetite since Thursday. Her body seemed to reject some kinship with the freezing flesh she’d dragged from the water. A fish on the slab. A mermaid. A corpse.
Pudding, then. Joseph followed her with the plates.
‘Lottie seems lovely,’ said Mel.
He said it as though she wasn’t allowed an opinion, but she saw how pleased he was.
Oh God, he really loves her. She de-clinged the film from the trifle bowl and, before he could lift it, made him wait as she skewered candles into the cream, placing them round the edges of the bowl like numbers on a clock, with the odd one in the middle. Nineteen candles. If Joe was nineteen, she was going to be fifty, whether she liked it or not.
‘Is this really necessary?’
The parody of his Ian’s dryness Joe had started when he was about twelve had come to fit him, like a child growing into a school blazer bought far too big. Now, he sounded just like his dad. But at the corner of Mel’s eye, he made the same shape as Stu: lean and narrow, like all the Ansholms, where the Bales were stocky.
‘It might not be necessary, but it’s traditional.’
Mel knew how much Joe would have hated it, if she’d forgotten the candles. She wished her profiteroles didn’t look so clumsy. They had come out of the oven unaccountably bloated, despite the million times she’d made them. She collected the jug. Thank God for chocolate sauce.
‘How did you and Lottie meet, anyway?’
But the impetus to answer was lost as the desserts entered, to traditional delight and a round of ‘Happy Birthday’.
‘I’ve never seen a birthday trifle before.’
‘What do you have on your birthday?’ Edward asked.
She pulled a face of hangdog apology.
‘We always have trifle. Cake’s a bit boring.’
‘I know, right? This is amazing.’
Serving spoon at the ready, Mel asked her what she would like.
Ian, whose disappearance into the kitchen Mel had assumed was related to replenishing drinks, reappeared with a supermarket tarte au citron and put it on the table with the closest he came to a flourish. He’d bought it, he explained, when he was replacing the salmon.
‘What for?’ Mel asked him, removing the extinguished candles from the cream.
‘Thought it looked nice!’
This was a matter of opinion. The pale yellow circle certainly looked very neat in its foil case, next to her slightly dog-eared job on the top of the trifle and the mutant profiteroles.
‘Lemon tart is my absolute favourite!’ Lottie exclaimed. Ian waved a lofty arm, gracious.
Mel asked Lottie again what she could get her. The correct family answer was ‘a bit of everything’, but the girl rejected the offer of either trifle or profiteroles in favour of Ian’s sodding lemon tart.
‘You know it’s not home-made,’ Mel told her. Lottie said she didn’t mind.
Mel watched as, in contrast to her behaviour with the salmon, Lottie enthusiastically trowelled sections from the yellow triangle straight into her mouth. When she accepted the offer of seconds, Mel took pleasure in cutting her a comically obtuse slice, almost a third of the whole. This, too, swiftly disappeared.
‘That’s what I like to see,’ Ian said. And actually winked. At Mel, at least, not at Lottie. Joseph looked as though he would have liked to be the spoon going into Lottie’s mouth. From across the table, Aidan was staring frankly down her top.
‘So I don’t know if the police have arrested anyone yet,’ said Mel. She’d found a dead body on the beach, for Christ’s sake. That was what had happened to her lately.
‘You know, for murder.’
Lottie guarded her mouth as she spoke, to protect them from her crumbs.
‘Actually, Mrs Bale, she isn’t dead. Sorry, I was going to say when you went to serve up.’
‘The girl I found?’
Lottie put down her spoon. ‘It’s a bit weird, actually.’
‘Weird?’ Edward was enraptured. He had hitched his chair closer to hers and was gazing at her hair.
‘There’s been nothing on the news,’ said Mel. ‘Or from the police. You’d think they’d have been in touch, considering I was the one who ...’
Lottie grimaced. ‘I think they’ve been waiting to see if she’ll say anything. About an attack, or . . . ’
Mel saw her doubtful look at Edward. The girl rattled her fork onto the bare plate. ‘So yummy.’
But it was too late. Edward wanted to know what kind of attack – was she stabbed, he wondered eagerly?
‘Or raped?’ asked Aidan, trampling straight past Mel’s silent signals about his little brother.
Neither, Lottie said. But the girl hadn’t spoken yet and she had no ID, so no one knew who she was or what had happened to her.
‘And how do you know about this, Lottie?’
This, from Ian, was not couched at all in the way Mel had been about to put the very same question. Far from scepticism, his tone suggested that Lottie must be quite remarkable to have access to such privileged information. A smear of whipped cream adorned the fold of his right cheek, just where it was at the cusp of becoming a jowl.
Lottie dabbed at her own cheek with her napkin. ‘Oh, you know. Just . . . working at the hospital.’
Suddenly she seemed embarrassed by the attention. Mel intervened with the offer of the last sliver of lemon tart, which she declined. Aidan finished it instead, as Mel reached over and thumbed the cream from Ian’s face.
‘Lovely girl,’ he said as they shared the en suite basin for teeth, well after midnight.
‘I could see you thought so.’
They swapped a look. Mel bent to spit.
‘Well, she is, isn’t she?’ He prepared to swill a capful of mouthwash. ‘Very chatty. Bubbly.’
Of course you wanted your son to meet a lovely girl, of course you did.
‘Bloody hell, Ian.’
She’d warned him about ‘bubbly’ before. It was on the list with ‘feisty’. Probably ‘lovely’ should be on there too. For a moment, Mel realised how very much she missed Aurora.
The wail pierced the wall. Ian, spurting lurid green, pulled a face.
‘Here we go …’
Mel’s feet found her slippers. ‘I don’t mind going.’
Ian sluiced the basin with the tap, feelingly.
‘He should be well past this sort of thing by now.’
‘He’s got an active imagination.’
This had been a family article of faith about Edward since he had first been able to speak. Mel went out to the landing. Edward stood sobbing at his bedroom door, afraid to go further in case Ian lost it with him. Funny old boy, he was. So solid-looking, but so sensitive. She had known it was a mistake to discuss the girl on the beach with him there.
‘Oh dear, was it a bad one?’
Mel followed him into his room, where he continued to drip unselfconscious tears onto his outgrown dinosaur rug. He had never even liked dinosaurs, but had inherited the rug from Aidan, who had once been passionate about them.
‘I dreamed Declan was killed, like the woman. He couldn’t swim.’
Declan? The tutor. God, she had paid him, hadn’t she, amid Thursday’s chaos? Surely he would let her know next week if she hadn’t. Mel sat on the bed, smoothing the sheet to entice Edward back in.
‘I bet Declan’s a really good swimmer, don’t you? Everyone can swim.’
True. Ian’s dad famously strode around within his depth, bogusly sculling his arms.
‘Everyone nowadays learns to swim.’
This was her best tone, her mother-of-boys tone.
‘Besides, she wasn’t killed, Lottie said.’ Mel fussed the duvet round him. ‘And don’t say woman, say lady.’
She promised to stay until he fell back to sleep. After she’d turned off the lamp Eddy held her hand, his boneless boy paw almost as big as hers. Why did 10-year-old boys always smell of biscuits?
‘What do you think happened to her?’
He was whispering, in honour of the dark.
‘I don’t know, love. Maybe it was an accident.’
‘What kind of accident?’
Mel hoisted both legs up onto the bed. It had been a long day, and the submission to comfort was a kind of bliss. She had almost forgotten the strange pleasure of watching her children fall asleep, the slow, trustful slackening into absence, like watching someone die. Long breaths, the heat of each exhalation briefly warming their joined hands, clasped between their facing heads. The non-bridge of Edward’s nose, like his brothers’ and Ian’s, a straight drop between his wide-set eyes, now closing.
‘She’s very pretty, isn’t she?’
He meant Lottie, of course. Mel agreed that she was. She also, when Edward suddenly spoke a couple of minutes later, in defiance of even deeper sleep, murmured agreement that Lottie had lovely hair.
‘Do you think . . . she puts something on it?’ he asked, from far away.
Rays stretched from the shininess of Lottie’s hair, word and image tangled together into a child’s crayon drawing, the smell of wax bringing Mel comfort. Warm, like the sunshine. You mustn’t eat the crayons; have some proper food, you’re fifty. Yellow. Yellow tasting like wax becoming pebbles on the dark shingle below Brazen Point, as Aurora laughed and laughed, spitting stones.
After that, there was only silence.
Five days in and Mystery Girl still hadn’t spoken a word. Dan was pleasantly surprised to get the message to call the hospital. He’d assumed he’d be the one having to do all the chasing. When he rang back it wasn’t the brisk, hot doctor herself, as he’d hoped, but some kind of secretary – you couldn’t have everything. They thought the girl might be suffering some kind of memory loss. They’d got a psychiatrist coming over from York in the next few days to examine the patient and they wanted a member of the force to be present, preferably a WPC. Dan agreed, while deciding to say nothing about the WPC angle back at the station. If anyone was going to be in that room, it was him. His sergeant wouldn’t turn a hair about him going, since Dan had been attending officer when the girl was found.
In the meantime, he thought he’d take a bit of initiative. Out in the car, it was a doddle to get Soccolo’s consent to be left alone for a few hours. His partner was up to his elbows in a long-running neighbour dispute in Ruswarp. It was the only bit of policing Soccolo truly loved, wading in among the leylandii, being the sheriff. Dan dropped him off, relieved not to be involved. In the rear-view mirror he saw Soccolo reasoning with a belligerent, shaven-headed middle-aged man while the complainant laid about a ten-foot hedge with a trimmer and the complainant’s wife filmed proceedings on her mobile from the censorious safety of their living room window.
Dan had decided to conduct a cheeky bit of house-to-house along the staggered row of neat bungalows that overlooked the far hook of Evensand beach. The bungalows had the best view of the crime scene, if in fact there had been a crime. As far as anyone could tell, according to the secretary who’d called from the hospital, it was hypothermia that had almost finished the girl off. Swabs had come back negative for semen, and there’d been nothing in her system when they’d taken the precaution of pumping her stomach just after she’d come round.
Mason weathered the further disappointment of the rape all-clear. If the girl hadn’t been boozed or pilled up, and there was no sign she was a junkie, they were still talking about a blow to the head that had left her in that state; aggravated assault at least, he consoled himself – if not abduction, or worse? So, witnesses. He was being proactive, a quality much praised in training but unfathomably absent from what Mason had seen so far in practice. It was much better to be doing this solo. Nobody liked a smart-arse, as Soccolo would be quick to tell him.
Parking up on the curve of Whitecliff Road, Dan began at the beginning, with number one. There was no car in the drive and no response to his knock. He moved on, to number three. Again, no answer, although this time the car was at home: a red SEAT, he noted automatically, H reg, although he stopped short of clocking the whole number.
‘Beechdale’, said an oval sign by the tiny sun porch at number five. As Mason stepped through the porch, which was crammed with stunted geraniums growing in ancient yogurt pots and margarine tubs, a large man opened the front door.
‘You’re late,’ said the man. He was plump, with a lot of butterscotch hair, squarely cut.
The man wrung his hands, blinking expectantly. Some kind of mental health or learning issue, Dan saw. Although he looked around forty, he was wearing the clothes of an elderly person, a button-through shirt and zipped cardigan, both beige. On a different sort of man they would have appeared ironic, even fashionable.
‘Did you call the police then?’ Dan asked, bluffly. He had had the radio on all the way to Ruswarp and back and hadn’t heard a call out to Evensand.
There was a delay, as if the man was translating to himself what Dan had said.
‘You were supposed to be here at eleven.’
‘Sorry about that.’
‘Me dad’s out.’
Dan asked if he could come in anyway. The man considered this for a second or two before saying he could. He stepped back from the door.
‘Said they were sending another lady,’ he managed. At least, that was what Dan thought he’d said. His host sieved the vowels from his speech by talking through clenched teeth, making him hard to understand. As they walked into the house, Dan asked who he was talking to.
‘Nice to meet you, Malcolm.’
Malcolm opened a door immediately off the hall and shambled into the room. Dan, following, inched. The large space was sluiced in unexpected light – almost the entire back wall was a picture window facing the sea. Dan stepped up to get a look, already con dent the panorama must include the spot on the beach where the girl had fetched up, but Malcolm, squinting and shaking his head at the glare, trotted to the window and twiddled at the rod of the floor-length louvre blinds, killing the view. A wave of dust exploded from the closing blades and made them both sneeze. Dan managed with a pinch of his fingers, but Malcolm brought a hanky from his trouser pocket and tended to his nose, carefully scanning the large square before he fastidiously refolded it over whatever it contained.
The house smelled stale, as though no doors or windows were ever opened, and despite the imposed gloom Dan could see that Malcolm’s old-fashioned clothes were haphazardly stained.
‘Do you mind?’
The man looked at him, wringing his hands again. ‘If I sit down?’ asked Dan.
Malcolm shook his head. Mason perched at the edge of the sofa, its green velvet paled by exposure to sunlight. It was a nana’s room, full of china knick-knacks, pastel and tidy, despite the dust. On the chill gas fire stood a pyramidal plastic air freshener of a type familiar to him from his own nana’s, its mummified gel core still producing a faint synthetic floral whiff.
The doorbell chimed, a reduced Big Ben preamble: ding-dong ding-donnng, then, after a stately pause, rebutted its own statement: dong-ding dong-dinnng.
‘Who’s that?’ Malcolm wanted to know. Dan couldn’t help him. Possibly it was the WPC he was expecting? Agitated, Malcolm went to see.
But it wasn’t Lisa or Jade who came back with Malcolm from the front door; rather, a tall girl with swinging hair, an open trench coat and an air of harassed officialdom, signalled by the bulky paper file she clutched to her nicely showcased cleavage.
‘Mum and Dad not here?’ she was asking, as she followed Malcolm in. Mason stood. She was definitely no copper, Dan would have laid money on it, even if he hadn’t known all the WPCs at their place. He introduced himself. In return, looking a bit fazed, she told him she was the Community Psychiatric Something or Other; he didn’t catch the end. Her name was Lottie, not from round here by the sound. She produced a knockout smile, quickly wiped away with a lick of her front teeth he read as automatic rather than nervous.
Malcolm was still standing in the centre of the room.
‘What’s happened to Sally?’ he asked effortfully.
Lottie sank onto the sofa, next to Dan, placing the well-stuffed file down between them with another more ingratiating smile aimed Malcolm’s way.
‘Didn’t they tell you on the phone?’ She sighed. ‘I’m so sorry. Sally’s had to go into hospital for a little operation. Nothing serious. I’m covering you until she’s back. They should have told you.’
There was a small delay. ‘They didn’t tell me,’ Malcolm said, fretful once more.
Deploying a tone of not entirely confident professional brightness, Lottie suggested he sit down. Malcolm checked her face and looked around for an anxious few seconds, keen to get it right, before choosing the matching armchair set at angles to the settee. So how was this supposed to work, thought Dan? He was here first. All right, the girl – woman – and Malcolm had some sort of appointment, but he really didn’t want to have to come back, probably dragging Soccolo. And he was running out of time before he was due back to pick up his partner. He turned on the charm.
‘I was just asking Malcolm a few questions, if that’s OK with you. It won’t take long, to be honest.’
Lottie smiled again and said it was fine. Though as Dan launched into his set piece about the girl on the beach and what Malcolm had probably heard about it, she interrupted him to address Malcolm herself.
‘Sorry – Sally left you a chart? Maybe I can be having a look while you two are chatting?’
Malcolm continued to stare, saying nothing.
‘Behaviours,’ prompted Lottie, and to Mason, ‘Sorry.’ She flipped open the cover of the file and Mason saw, on top of the pile of printouts and scribbled notes, a half-denuded sheet of brightly coloured smiley face stickers. How severe were Malcolm’s learning difficulties, if he needed fucking stickers?
It appeared that Malcolm wasn’t going to speak up about his chart. He wrung his hands, darting a beseeching look to Dan.
‘Never mind,’ Lottie said, and to Dan, ‘Carry on. Sorry.’
Although Mason resumed his speech, he now had a feeling he was on a hiding to nothing. But before he had cranked himself on to the ‘anything you saw, however small’ part, Malcolm’s face brightened and he spat something past his teeth.
‘Well, she’s not, actually,’ said Dan.
‘Yes she is.’
Beside Dan, Lottie had pulled a sheet out of the file and was pretending to examine it while listening in. He was beginning to find her quite irritating.
‘What makes you think she’s dead, Malcolm?’ Dan asked, allowing himself a tiny pop of hope that the poor bastard had seen something in that spectacular view, something useful that had led him to believe the girl was dead. Listen, don’t lead, that was the first guideline for questioning potential witnesses. He waited, looking as encouraging as possible, as Malcolm searched his face for the answer.
‘She had a stroke,’ insisted Malcolm, unhappily. He was pulling at his hands now, each hooked by the thumb of the other, an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. ‘I found her at the bottom of the stairs.’
Next to Dan there was a slithering fall of paper as Lottie, knocking the file by her side, dislodged a large portion of its contents onto the floor. Malcolm exclaimed but made no move to help as Mason and Lottie scooped the sheets up between them. Dan’s growing irritation wasn’t entirely mitigated by the full view of her cleavage he got as she leaned forward past her almost equally fine knees. Proffering a retrieved fan of papers, Dan looked up to Lottie’s face and saw that she was locked onto the contents of the page she’d just picked up.
‘Oh, Malcolm, I’m so sorry.’ She was no longer smiling.
Malcolm’s mum had died in 2007. Of a stroke. Between the two of them, they sorted out the confusion. Malcolm had been talking not about the girl on the beach, but about the death of his mother, in delayed response to Lottie’s query about his mum and dad both being out that day. Lottie was mortified, explaining on the way out of the tiny, stuffy porch a few minutes later, that she hadn’t been briefed by her team and had only had time to glance over Malcolm’s file in the car just before the visit. Asperger’s, complex learning difficulties, elderly parents.
‘It said parents on the top sheet!’ she protested. ‘Parents, plural. It hasn’t been brought up to date!’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ Mason advised.
She seemed to him to be overreacting. Malcolm hadn’t minded at all, from what Dan could see. If anything his mood had been unclouded by the three of them resolving the confusion. And anyway, didn’t the nature of his condition make him immune to social embarrassment?
‘I don’t know much about Asperger’s,’ Lottie confessed. ‘There was only one module, in my training. You had to do it as an option.’
The weak sun shone on her hair. They walked to their cars, parked one behind the other. Now they were outside, Mason’s irritation had evaporated. Maybe he could convert this pointless interview with a bit of self-interest. But before he could move in, Lottie too brightened.
‘That’s what my boyfriend’s mum thought, you know. That the girl was dead. She was the one who found the body on the beach. Melanie Bale?’
Melanie Bale. A pair of leanly muscled legs, lit by his torch, thrashing up the shingle. The woman who’d called in. ‘Oh yeah.’
She smiled again, those full lips. Of course Lottie had a boyfriend. The only attractive woman, admittedly annoying, that he’d met since he’d graduated who seemed entirely indifferent to his uniform, and she wasn’t single.
Dan’s good mood remained undented. The day was already considerably more interesting than the usual run of petty burglaries and miserable accidents that occupied a shift. He still had the hospital appointment to look forward to, what that might throw up. And this to mull over: Malcolm’s announcement, as he stood at the front door to let them out.
‘She went in the sea.’
Surely he couldn’t still mean his mother? Didn’t you have to be in the navy or something to have a sea burial? Mason would have asked, but before he could, Malcolm was talking to Lottie, giving her the sheet of stickers that had slid across the carpet when her file had fallen to the floor.
‘I don’t want one of them,’ he’d said forcefully. Annoyance opened his mouth properly, freeing the words. ‘I’m not a bloody baby!’
The memory of Lottie’s total, useless surprise entertained Dan all the way back to Ruswarp.