They had traced the route Abi had taken, dragging herself along or crawling. It had ended just below the bridge steps, not quite fully underneath them but there were also marks in the scrub area behind the towpath. The courage and sheer bloody-minded willpower of the girl was humbling. Had her attacker left her for dead, or had he been surprised and run away? But no sign of a person leaving the area in any haste had been found, and if he had raced up and across the footbridge, rain and the general traffic – the footbridge was well used by day as a short cut – would have obliterated his tracks.
The more he thought about the three girls, the more Serrailler believed that they had not been attacked by the same person, but that was only a hunch, he had no real evidence other than the fact that Jonty Lewis’s DNA had only been found on Marie, not on the others. Forensics had already taken away and tested the clothes Abi Righton had been wearing. They bore traces of DNA but it did not match that of Lewis.
Simon gave the tea bags to the constable, with follow-up instructions. He then walked into the darkness. Once out of the way of the police activity it was very quiet.
If Lewis had not been in the picture, it would have been easy. The same killer, with a hatred of or a grudge against prostitutes, had murdered two, and left the third for dead. It was Lewis who put the whole thing out of kilter. Find Jonty Lewis …
He turned round. Find Lewis and pray that Abi Righton would be able to talk.
It was only as he reached his car that he remembered the fourth woman. Ruth Webber, who, until an hour ago at least, was still missing.
Ruth Webber. Wife of the Dean, twenty years older than the other girls and not a prostitute.
What the hell had Ruth Webber got to do with it? Anything at all? Or was she, and coincidentally, as Ben Vanek had said, ‘just another missper’?
He was about to head to the station and then home, but he knew he would be caught up in the spider’s web of the cases and he needed a break, so he made for the country road and Cat’s farmhouse. He didn’t ring ahead on his mobile, but it was not a choir night. She would be home. Apart from the lunch after he got back from Taransay he had been too occupied to see any of them. He had missed them – until he pulled into the drive and saw the lights on, he had not fully realised how much.
Cat came running down the stairs calling his name.
‘You can never know how glad I am to see you.’
For a second he thought she was going to burst into tears.
‘I’ve been trying to put a light bulb in the holder on the top landing but it’s really high, I’ve never been able to reach it, and I need to get into the old filing boxes up there. Chris always had to do the out-of-reach lights and …’
He put out his arms and gave her a hug. ‘It’s OK. I’m here and I’m tall. Come on.’
She half laughed, leading the way upstairs, but the laugh was one of relief.
‘It’s things like this, you know – not big stuff, just stupid things like not being able to reach a light fitting … that sounds pathetic.’
‘Not to me.’
‘And Dad was here earlier, I could have asked him, but I didn’t think.’
There was enough light from the floor below for him to replace the bulb.
‘I needed to find some old stuff about palliative care – I’ve got my interview for the course at King’s soon. Maybe I don’t need to read up on all this but I want to be properly prepared.’
She opened a file drawer, glanced into it, opened a second, slammed it shut.
‘God knows where they are. I don’t think I can face going through this lot tonight, and anyway, I’d rather talk to you. Are you drinking? Eating?’
‘I haven’t eaten – sandwich will do.’
In the kitchen, he put on the kettle and found the cafetière.
‘I can’t drink, I might be called in.’
‘I can and I won’t be.’ Cat got a bottle of wine from the fridge.
‘Mushroom omelette? There’s some leftover apple crumble as well.’
Simon sprawled out on the old sofa and closed his eyes for a second, savouring the warmth and the familiar kitchen smells.
‘I’m sorry I haven’t been up before.’
‘For heaven’s sake, I hardly expect to see you at all when you’ve got this sort of job on. Any breakthroughs?’
‘Not really. Waiting for the girl he didn’t manage to kill to be able to talk to us. She’s bloody lucky to be alive. Abi Righton. She’s a courageous one.’
Cat thought of the thin, fiercely protective young mother who’d sought comfort in her surgery, Yes, Abi was indeed courageous. Cat felt a terrible sadness. She would never fully understand the lives the prostitutes led. And nor would any of the Magdalene Group.
‘And now Ruth Webber,’ she said. ‘She’s not led a life struggling to break free, to give up the streets, to do better for her kids.’
‘Might be unconnected. You know Ruth – do you have any take on why she’d go missing? Voluntarily?’
There was a long pause. Cat sliced mushrooms, cracked open three eggs, took bread from the bin and butter from the fridge.
‘I don’t know much about the cathedral set-up,’ Simon said carefully, ‘but I gather it isn’t a happy ship at present.’
‘Understatement. The place is riven by faction – new Dean and his gang on one side, old guard and most of the congregation on the other. It’s a mess.’
‘Where does Mrs Webber fit into the picture? Anywhere?’
‘Very much so. She’s the Mrs Proudie of St Michael’s.’
‘Trollope doesn’t explain her disappearance.’
Cat was silent again, swirling butter round the pan.
Simon knew his sister’s thoughtful silences. He made his coffee, poured it. The beaten eggs sizzled into the hot pan.
‘Can you tell me if she’s your patient?’ he asked.
‘The Dean and Mrs Webber are both registered with the practice. Can’t tell you any more.’
‘Could be a murder inquiry.’
‘Come on, Si, you know the rules. But I will tell you one thing – I’ve never actually seen them as patients. Either they’ve never been to the surgery or they’ve seen Russell. And that’s your lot. Now you tell me – do you think there’s any link between Ruth Webber’s disappearance and the others?’
‘Doesn’t look likely, does it?’
‘Open mind. I just hope she turns up somewhere alive and well and we can get on with the real job, because if you ask me, unofficially, I’d say she’s just a distraction. God knows we get enough misspers – had another this morning, teenage boy, probably run away from an angry dad, no conceivable link to the killings.’
‘But Ruth Webber is a woman.’
‘Yes, but how do I know the killer hasn’t started on teenage boys? Or respectable middle-aged women? Or the killer is a teenage boy? Answer, whatever my gut feeling is, I don’t know.’
He changed the subject to the children.
‘I suppose they think I’m gone from their lives, what with Scotland and now all this. I did manage to send Sam a cheery text the other day.’
‘He didn’t tell me. Get any reply?’
‘“Hi Si luv u Sam.” That sort of thing. Is he all right?’
Cat’s face had clouded. ‘Ask me how Hannah is, answer, great. Fine. Busy being Hannah. Ask about Felix – robust and well and busy being nearly three. But Sammy …’
‘Remember his age – and the new school.’
‘Yes, I see boys of eleven, twelve who are definitely adolescent. Sam isn’t there yet. To start with he’s still quite small for his age. School seems all right, in so far as I can get anything out of him. That’s the thing – I don’t. I don’t get a word out of him about most things … He isn’t rude, he’s just silent, and Sam was always a gasser, you know that.’
‘It’s his age, the new school and he misses Chris. Nothing worse.’
‘Those are quite a lot all at once.’
She looks older, Simon thought, though perhaps what he saw on her face were the indelible marks of grief, and the more temporary ones of tiredness.
‘He buries himself in a book or a computer game. He used to fight with Hannah, now he just ignores her completely. It makes me wonder whether I ought to give up the idea of doing this palliative care course.’
‘Of course you shouldn’t and you know it.’
Cat poured cream into a jug. ‘I think I’ll have some of this crumble. Comfort food.’
‘Tell me about the course.’
She outlined the King’s College diploma and what difference it could make to her work at the hospice. ‘Judith has said she’ll have the children when I go to London. I couldn’t do it without her – well, without them.’
Simon wondered if she knew that he and Judith had had dinner. If she did, she gave no sign of it. He guessed that Judith had tactfully thought it should come from him if he wanted Cat to know.
He leaned back. ‘I’m not going to stay too late, I need to sleep.’
‘Did you sleep well in Scotland?’
He had not told her about Kirsty McLeod.
‘Air’s like chloroform.’
‘You’re welcome to stay here.’
‘Thanks, but I need my own bed. Besides, if anything happens, I’ll get called and that’ll wake everybody.’
‘Do you think anything will?’
He got up and stretched. ‘It’s what we’re all afraid of.’
‘Meanwhile, I guess the girls are still out there.’
‘A few. They don’t seem to be bussing the foreign girls over from Bevham – the pimps don’t want any trouble.’
‘Aren’t they afraid of the killer going over there?’
‘He won’t. This is a local thing. He’s got his patch.’
Cat shuddered. ‘You know, when we had that first meeting – the Magdalene Group thing – people were talking about the risks involved in prostitution, about STDs, violence, drugs, general risk of being ill if you spend your nights out on the street – and “the moral risk”, as Ruth Webber kept saying. “The moral risk.” But nobody dreamed of this.’
‘Maybe you should have done. It’s happened before.’
‘The whole idea seemed a bit naive, and Ruth was so evangelical about it – but then, she is. And now she’s missing. Why would a woman like that just – go off? Have you talked to Stephen Webber?’
‘The sergeant who interviewed him felt he was being a bit cagey – something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He didn’t refuse to answer any questions, he wasn’t unhelpful – there was just something. But this sort of thing takes people in funny ways. They clam up, they panic, they babble on about nothing, they’re sick in front of you, they get hysterical. It’s unpredictable. Are you likely to see him?’
‘What, Stephen Webber? You mean professionally?’
‘No, around the place – cathedral?’
‘I try not to. He makes himself scarce on choir nights and if I go to the early service, it’s usually Miles Hurley taking it. You’re more likely to bump into the Dean than me, given that you live a hundred yards away.’
‘Right. Do you think the marriage is sound?’
‘I’d say it was an – unusual marriage. No children. I think her determination to run the cathedral after she has turned it upside down and put it back together her way is maybe a bit of displacement activity – but that’s cod psychology. For all I know they didn’t want any children. They don’t seem at odds with one another though – I doubt if she ran away after a row.’
Someone was flashing a light into his eyes and kicking him in the ribs, not very hard but persistently, shove, shove, shove, flash flash flash. He rolled away and buried his head in his arm, but the kicking went on in the small of his back. At least he couldn’t see the light any more.
His head was the usual painful fuzz and his body ached, his mouth tasted foul.
Shit. He rolled further away and came up against something hard.
‘You’re outta here, GERRUP.’
He managed to open his eyes. He had rolled up against the wall.
The next kick hurt low down.
‘Fuck you!’ Jonty Lewis sat up suddenly and lashed out with his left leg, but whoever it was jumped away.
‘Gerrup and f*ck off, Lewis.’
He had come here a few nights ago – two? Four? He hadn’t much sense of that. He’d walked and hitched and hitched again and been thrown out of a lorry onto the verge. He remembered that. Then he’d found his way to the edge of the town and the waste ground behind the car park where he knew they all fetched up. It had been dark and wet but they were there. He’d nicked a wad of money from the first lift. The driver had gone for a leak and he’d stayed in the cab, and there it had been, under a roll of greasy rag in the door pocket. He’d almost laughed out loud. The guy had come back, even bought him a can of Coke, and then dropped him at the roundabout.
He’d no idea how much money there was but enough. He’d found them and bought a fix, and another, and said he’d pay to sleep on the floor of the squat. That was the last he remembered apart from some blurred memory of a lot of noise and his head spinning.
Now the light was in his face again. Flash, flash, flash.
It wasn’t daylight – it was a fu**ing torch shining into his eyeballs.
‘What the f*ck …’
Next thing, he was banged up against the wall in one swift move, hands were round his throat and someone with snake’s breath was yelling in his face.
‘You’re gerring out, right, cos we don’t want fuckin’ stranglers here, right? Now shift it.’
‘What? What you talking about? Who’s a strangler?’
‘You are, ent you, you’re the fuckin’ strangler, you killed your girlfriend, you did them others in, you’re scum.’
Jonty managed to shove him back using his knee. The man yelped and swore.
‘OK, what the f*ck are you on about? Who’s been strangled? Whose girlfriend?’
‘Yours, shithead. What’s her name, Marie? That one. And the others.’
Jonty shook his head to clear it and a pain shot up the back of his neck and over the top like a lightning bolt.