Authors: Natasha Cooper
|Trish Maguire |
When Antonia Weblock's daughter, Charlotte, vanishes from a London
playground, even her enemies are sympathetic. Villified for putting her
City career above her child's welfare, she has plenty of those.
turns to barrister Trish Maguire for help. As a specialist in the
darkest cases involving children, Trish knows exactly what can happen to
them at the hands of abusive adults. While she does everything she can
to support Antonia, the police pull out all the stops to find
Charlotte, asking the questions that are in everyone's mind: did she
wander off or was she kidnapped? Could her apparently devoted nanny have
killed her and hidden the body? Why wasn't her stepfather looking after
her as he'd promised? And where was her real father when she
No one who knows Charlotte can be above suspicion and it is not long before Trish herself is at risk.
For Douglas Mc Williams
As Creeping Ivy clings to wood or stone
And hides the ruin that it feeds upon.
She was sitting in front of a plate of slimy green stuff. She knew she was never going to get it down her throat. And she knew she would have to.
Her arms were sore under the blue and white dress. It was a pretty dress and she looked pretty in it. People said so. Some of them said she was good, too. But that didn’t stop it.
Somehow she was going to have to get the slimy stuff down – and without spilling any on the dress – and she knew she wouldn’t be able to do it. She knew. Tears started making her eyes all wet, and she tried to stop them because crying always made it worse.
The door opened. With the tears showing, she didn’t dare look up. She just stared at her plate and waited.
‘Pick up your spoon,’ came the voice.
Her hands were shaking, but she did as she was told. She always did try to do what she was told, always. It was just sometimes she couldn’t, however much she tried.
‘Put in some spinach.’
She scooped some up and got it near her mouth. The smell made her feel sick and she knew her throat would get shut like it always did. Even if she tried she wouldn’t be able to swallow and it would be worse for her if she spat it out; it always was.
‘Put it in your mouth.’
The voice was the most frightening thing that had ever happened to her, much worse than the sore arms. She still didn’t look up. And she couldn’t make herself put the spoon in her mouth.
‘Put it in. You know what’ll happen if you don’t. Open your mouth. Open your mouth at once!’
At the sound of the voice getting louder and louder so it was nearly a shout, she got her mouth a little bit open and put the thin shiny spoon in. But her teeth bit shut on it. There’d be even more marks on the spoon after. She couldn’t help it. She couldn’t eat the slimy stuff. The voice was right: she did know what was going to happen, but she couldn’t eat it. She waited in dumb terror.
The coffee was too hot. As soon as it hit her mouth, Trish knew what she was in for: little tassels of skin and a tongue like sacking, which wouldn’t be able to taste anything more subtle than the local takeaway’s prawn curry for at least two days.
She had been so keen to clear the night’s thoughts out of her head that she had poured boiling water over the granules and taken a great slurp, without even bothering to stir the bitty liquid. But she had burned herself for nothing: memories of the cases she had been working on were still there, as vivid and unbearable as ever.
As she bent to drink some cold water from the tap, she half-saw a familiar face on the small television in the corner of the kitchen worktop. Straightening up, with the cool water held in her mouth to soothe the burn, she wiped stray drops from her chin with the back of her hand and looked more carefully at the screen.
Her cousin Antonia Weblock did occasionally figure on the news, but it was odd to see her on a Sunday morning when there couldn’t possibly have been an announcement from the City or the Bank of England that might have needed one of her magisterial comments. And she seemed to be wearing a tracksuit under her long overcoat, which was even odder.
Trish moved towards the television to turn up the sound. Her bare feet spread a little as the soles touched the tacky coolness of the industrial-strength emerald-coloured studded rubber that covered her kitchen floor. It was a sensation she had come to dislike as soon as she had had time to notice it, just as she had begun to feel aggressed by the hard-edged, brightly coloured, echoing flat that sucked such enormous amounts of money out of her bank account every month.
‘Antonia, this way – over here,’ Trish heard in several different voices as she adjusted the volume.
The sight of aeroplanes landing and taking off in the distance behind Antonia solved one small mystery. She must have been at Heathrow, after a trip to New York or Tokyo, perhaps dealing with a crisis generated by unexpected movements of the Dow Jones or the Nikkei. Trish smiled as dozens of cameras flashed on the screen because she knew how much Antonia enjoyed her growing fame, but then her lips stiffened. Instead of turning her head this way and that to give all the photographers a fair chance of getting a good shot as she usually did, Antonia kept wincing as though the flashes that hit her eyes were hard enough to hurt. Or perhaps she just had a headache. Her face was tight enough for that. Trish licked her lips and felt the burn on her tongue again.
‘When did you first hear about your daughter?’ asked a male voice as a microphone like a long, dirty grey mop was shoved over the heads of the avid journalists towards Antonia.
‘Charlotte?’ said Trish.
‘I got the message at seven yesterday evening.’ Antonia’s voice came breathily out of the television. ‘New York time. They couldn’t reach me any earlier.’
‘And is there really no news?’ asked a woman with an absurdly old-fashioned notebook in her hands instead of the much smaller cassette recorders everyone else was waving.
‘None,’ said Antonia, looking up at last and staring directly into the particular camera that fed Trish’s television, almost as though she knew her cousin would be there, watching. Antonia’s strong-featured face was grey and there was a heavy, defensive expression in her eyes, but she was still in control. Just.
‘Charlotte was last seen in the playground of our local park yesterday afternoon with her nanny,’ she said bleakly. ‘She disappeared at about three-thirty. The families of her friends have all been contacted and none of them have seen her. The police are still searching.’
‘No,’ whispered Trish into the echoing spaces of her flat. ‘Oh, please, God! No.’
She knew too much – that was the trouble – and understood exactly what an announcement like that could mean. Pictures from her own cases and other people’s ran through her mind like a private horror film.
There was the six-year-old boy who had been kidnapped almost directly outside his parents’ house, then found sodomised and dead months later; there was a girl, too, a year or two older than Charlotte, who had been raped by her stepfather and then murdered and buried in a nearby wood a couple of days before he went on television with his wife to plead for her return; and another, only a baby, so badly beaten by both her parents, and burned with cigarettes, that even though the social workers had found her while she was still alive, she had not made it.
Trish’s eyes focused on the real screen again. Anxiety for Charlotte and pity for Antonia started choking her until she remembered to breathe. It felt strange, working her lungs like bellows, forcing herself to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth as though it was a skill she had only just learned.
Charlotte was Antonia’s only child – a small, confiding, funny four-year-old with a terrible temper, utterly defenceless and far too young to be adrift in London.
‘Is it true they’ve dragged the pond and found nothing?’ shouted one of the journalists jostling Antonia on the screen.
She nodded without speaking, once more looking out of the television straight at Trish, who stared back, still breathing doggedly, as though Charlotte’s safety might depend on that steady, rhythmic sucking in and exhaling of air that tasted as horrible as the burn in her mouth.
The thought of any child in such danger was unbearable, but that it should be Charlotte made Trish aware of layers of anguish that went far beyond anything she had experienced. She had only recently come to know Charlotte as a person, rather than simply Antonia’s noisy, difficult daughter, and for a selfish instant she wished she had kept her distance.
It had happened about six weeks earlier, when Charlotte had appeared in the middle of one of the excruciatingly formal dinners to which Antonia still occasionally summoned Trish. Charlotte said she’d been woken by bad dreams and had a tummy ache and couldn’t go back to sleep. Her jumbled dark curls and scarlet pyjamas had seemed wildly out of place in the over-furnished dining room. The sight of her had made her mother’s face tighten in irritation, but to Trish it had brought a welcome hint of normality.
Bored with the grandeur of the food and plumb out of things to say to either of the pompous men sitting beside her, she had volunteered to take the child back to bed. Antonia had looked surprised by the offer but had accepted it at once. Robert, her current boyfriend, seemed to have hardly noticed either Charlotte’s appearance or Trish’s intervention. He was far too interested in explaining to the bored banker’s wife on his right just how megasuccessful his latest advertising campaign had been.
On the way upstairs, Charlotte had insinuated her warm little hand into Trish’s and told her a long story about the huge wiggly pink worms that kept coming out from under her bed and waking her up so that it wasn’t her fault she’d gone downstairs. Trish had enjoyed the inventiveness of the excuse and later indulged Charlotte to the extent of making a thorough search under the bed, the mattress and the bright yellow-and-blue cotton rug, as well as through all her bigger toys, to prove that there were no worms, wiggly or otherwise, waiting to threaten her.
Charlotte had eventually pronounced herself satisfied but she begged for a story before Trish abandoned her to the dark. Touched and amused as well as glad of an excuse to avoid the diners downstairs, Trish had obliged, sitting on the bed and reading from
My Naughty Little Sister,
a book that had given her much gleeful enjoyment in her own past.
The child’s head had felt extraordinarily hard and her little body very soft as she pressed herself along Trish’s thigh and wriggled in pleasure at the climax of her chosen story. Her highly original comments on the characters and their antics had made Trish laugh and kiss her silky black curls, wondering why Charlotte had such a reputation for obstinacy and tantrums. She seemed sweet and vulnerable behind the mask of sassy cleverness; and rather lonely, too.
‘Could it be a kidnap? Have there been any ransom demands?’ asked another of the journalists, a man who did not appear on the screen. His voice was nastier than the first and loaded with resentment. Trish remembered the announcement of Antonia’s latest bonus a month or so earlier.