Authors: Isabelle Grey
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus
This edition first published in 2014 by
Quercus Editions Ltd
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright © 2014 by Isabelle Grey
The moral right of Isabelle Grey to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
eBook ISBN 978 1 78206 767 2
Print ISBN 978 1 78206 766 5
This book is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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For Jackie Malton
She could hear him moving around on the other side of the closed door. She must have blacked out because she didn’t remember him leaving her here alone. She put out a hand to steady herself against the wall as she shifted to relieve the pressure on her bruised hip bone, but the shooting pain in her ribs took her breath away, and she only just stopped herself from crying out. She forced herself to keep breathing as the clammy terror returned. She didn’t dare try to call out, even if she’d felt capable of drawing enough breath to yell and scream for help.
Beyond the closed door, she heard a clink, a tap run and then the unmistakable chunk of a kettle being placed back on its plate and the sound of the switch being flicked on. Maybe if she lay here silently while he made himself a tea or coffee, if she waited for him to drink it, then maybe he’d calm down and, when he came back through the door, he’d let her go. Or at least not hurt her any more. Or not so badly.
Gingerly she wiped her face with the back of her hand, and felt the stickiness of blood mixed in with mucus and
tears. She tried again to ease herself into a better position on the hard floor, ready to make an attempt at standing up, but every movement was agony and she was afraid of making a sound that would bring him back out of the kitchen, so she gave up and lay where he’d left her. Enough light from the darkened street outside came in through the glass panels in the front door for her to make out the outlines of the narrow hallway. She wondered what time it was, if anyone might have reason to miss her yet.
She’d watched earlier as he’d locked the front door and pocketed the keys. It was when she’d attempted to escape that he’d grabbed her by the hair, spun her round and slammed her so hard against the wall that her knees had given way and she’d slid downwards, no longer a person, just physical matter sliding down a wall. Then he’d seemed to tower over her, slapping and punching again, kicking and yanking her up by the hair so he could hit her some more, until she’d cowered as tight as she could into the meagre shelter of the wall. His fury had been determined, rhythmic, almost impersonal.
She heard the kettle switch off and for a heart-stopping second panicked that he might be intending to use the boiling water as a new weapon. Then she heard the rattle of a teaspoon against china, the scrape of a chair as presumably he sat down, and her heart pumped back into action with a sickening jolt. She didn’t want to think of him, to picture him, but right now her life depended on remaining hyper-aware of his every movement and intention.
She was mortally afraid. He’d done some real damage. Whatever primitive part of her brain was supposed to sense these things told her he’d broken several ribs. She shivered with shock and from the cold of the tiled floor. She mustn’t pass out. She must stay awake, vigilant. She must concentrate, focus on something, anything. She knew what to think about: that no one else was going to help her. No one. Only one person could possibly help her now. Her.
The white laminate front door opened straight off the narrow pavement into a small living room. It was a sunny Monday morning, and Detective Sergeant Grace Fisher was responding to a call from parents concerned about their twenty-year-old student daughter. It was only today, they’d said, that their daughter’s housemate had thought to let them know that Polly hadn’t been home for three nights and wasn’t answering her phone or responding to messages. Grace’s call to the university Student Services had confirmed that Polly Sinclair had no reason to panic over her second-year exams, and her tutors had flagged up no other concerns, but her parents, now on their way to Colchester from Lincolnshire, had anxiously insisted it was totally out of character for Polly to remain out of touch like this.
Grace was new to the Essex force, and she wanted her first day to kick off well. A tiny success would be nice, like finding Polly squirrelled away under a duvet somewhere with a new boyfriend. A bit of optimism, a chance to bond
with her colleagues, an opportunity to walk back into the unfamiliar office with a job well done, all these things would help her believe that this could be fresh start. But uniform, who routinely dealt with missing person cases, had already escalated the case to the Major Investigation Team. Although Grace could think of many reasons why a perhaps overwrought twenty-something might seek a bit of time out before having to pack up and switch lives for the summer vacation, attempts to ‘ping’ and locate Polly’s phone showed that the battery was dead or had been removed, and they could find no trace of any electronic footprint since last Friday night. It didn’t bode well.
The clutter of shoes, magazines, coffee mugs and phone and laptop chargers in the cramped living room instantly took Grace back a decade to her own student days, before she’d joined the police, before this Monday morning in an unfamiliar town. Those faraway days at uni already felt like someone else’s life, but the reminder might be useful in making sense of why they were here.
Polly Sinclair’s housemate, Jessica, stood before them, barefoot, in a pink vest and cut-off denim shorts. Grace could see that she was trying hard not to betray her eagerness at playing her part in this potential drama. ‘It’s the end of exams,’ she explained. ‘We were all out getting caned, celebrating. I just thought …’ She pulled a penitent face. ‘You know, maybe Polly spent the weekend with some guy she liked? I never thought she might, you know …’
Grace nodded but kept quiet; she’d noticed right away how Jessica had eyes only for DS Lance Cooper. He was
thirtyish, maybe a year or so younger than Grace, and not bad-looking; if his angular features, dark hair and faithful brown eyes were all it took for Jessica to unburden herself, then fine by her! Stepping unobtrusively into his shadow, Grace took the opportunity to survey the room. A fine layer of dust and a couple of empty wine bottles showed there’d been no attempt to clear away any incriminating evidence. Whatever had happened to Polly, it didn’t look like it had started here.
‘You told her mother that you last saw Polly at a bar in town?’ asked Lance.
‘Yes, the Blue Bar.’
Lance responded with an engaging smile. ‘Yeah, I’ve been there. Who were you with?’
‘No one in particular. It’s where everyone goes. I left early, went back to my boyfriend’s. Polly was fine when I left.’
Grace detected a strain in Jessica’s voice, like the whine of a tired child. With their high-tech toys and party drinks, most students weren’t much more than kids, after all. She certainly hadn’t been anywhere near as grown-up as she’d optimistically imagined she’d been at that age.
‘You saw Polly?’ Lance pursued. ‘She was still at the Blue Bar when you left on Friday night?’
‘Yes, I said goodbye.’
‘Was she with anyone?’
‘Just friends. I spoke to a couple of them this morning. They said they left her in the centre of Colchester, calling for a cab. She wasn’t with anyone else.’
‘Any idea what time that was?’
Jessica shrugged. ‘After midnight?’
‘Anyone hassling her during the evening?’
‘No. She was having fun. We all were.’
‘Does Polly have a boyfriend?’
‘No, not really.’
‘She wasn’t into anyone special that night?’
‘But you weren’t too worried about her because you thought she might have gone home with someone?’
Lance reached out and lightly touched Jessica’s arm, a brotherly gesture that Grace liked.
‘None of our business what she gets up to,’ he told her, ‘except that we need to know what’s in character, and what’s not.’
Jessica, still unhappy, nodded. ‘It’s the end of exams. She’s worked like fury.’
‘So, letting off a bit of steam?’
‘We were all a bit hammered. That’s why I didn’t think to call her parents. If she hooked up with some guy after I left and liked him enough not to come home, then …’
‘But you’ve no idea what guy?’
Before Jessica could answer, the doorbell rang. Jessica’s face opened up joyfully, but Grace knew better than to hope it would be Polly with some simple story about a hangover and lost keys. ‘It’ll probably be your landlord,’ she said, anticipating Jessica’s disappointment as she went to open the door. ‘We asked him to be here while we search the house.’
‘Search it?’ Jessica was alarmed. ‘Why?’
Leaving Lance to soothe her, Grace shook the hand offered by Pawel Zawodny, a stocky, sandy-haired, blue-eyed man in his mid-thirties wearing faded jeans, clean white T-shirt and work boots.
‘Hi,’ he said, meeting her eyes cleanly before letting go of her hand. ‘I was asked to attend. Has there been a break-in?’ He looked past Grace at Jessica. ‘You girls OK?’ His English was accented, but confident and correct.
‘Thanks for coming so quickly, Mr Zawodny,’ said Grace, hoping she’d pronounced his name correctly. He didn’t flinch, so she assumed either she had or he had long ago stopped bothering when people got it wrong. ‘I’m DS Fisher, this is DS Cooper. It’s just routine. Polly’s parents are upset that she’s not been in touch, so we need to check the house.’
‘Will you have to go in my bedroom?’ asked Jessica, making for the narrow staircase.
‘Don’t worry, we’re only here to make sure that Polly’s safe,’ Lance said with a reassuring smile. ‘We’re not interested in anything else. So please wait down here until we’re finished.’ He turned to Pawel. ‘Shall we start outside?’
As Grace, too, turned towards the landlord, she thought she caught a flicker of alarm in his face but, if it had been there at all, it was quickly gone.
The enclosed courtyard behind the kitchen was a suntrap. The brick walls had been painted pale blue, and a little slatted table on metal legs and two folding chairs had been set up on the gravel. The kitchen had been
cleverly planned to maximise the space, and appeared well maintained, despite the mound of dirty crockery in the sink and the overflowing waste bin. The landlord kept out of the way while Lance opened cupboards, looked behind the shower curtain in the downstairs bathroom, and then went upstairs to check inside wardrobes and under beds in the two bedrooms. Grace followed, trying to paint a picture for herself of the two girls’ life here. Jessica’s room at the front was stuffy and untidy; Polly’s was smaller but relatively clean and neat. It contained the usual complement of possessions; if she’d meant to leave, she’d not taken deodorant, moisturiser or mascara. Nor, Grace noted, the half-finished blister pack of contraceptive pills from her bedside table.
When Lance asked Pawel to hoist him up for a look through the hatch into the insulated loft space, Grace went back downstairs to Jessica. The girl was fiddling with her phone, and Grace waited for her to finish.
‘If Polly did go home with someone on Friday,’ Grace asked, ‘do you have any idea who it might be?’
‘I already called everyone I can think of.’
‘We’re not here to judge. I got myself in scrapes at uni I wouldn’t want people at home to know about. Once we know she’s safe, we don’t have to say where she was.’
Jessica returned Grace’s smile. ‘I know. But Polly’s generally pretty well behaved. That’s why I’m worried about her.’
‘OK.’ Grace touched Jessica’s arm. ‘Be great if you could give us list of everyone you’ve spoken to, everyone you can
remember who was in the bar on Friday night. Could you email me any contact details you have?’ She handed Jessica her newly printed card:
DS Grace Fisher, Major Investigation Team, Essex Police
Jessica took the card from her just as, upstairs, Lance landed back on his feet with a thump, causing the girl to move swiftly to the bottom of the stairs. She looked back at Grace in distress. ‘Has something awful happened? Is there something you’re not telling me?’
‘I should have done something sooner!’
‘I’m sure there’s no cause for alarm. Polly will probably turn up and have some completely trivial reason why she’s been not been in touch. If we can just have that list of names?’
Pawel and Lance joined them in the small living room. ‘The washing machine, it’s working OK now?’ Pawel asked.
‘Oh, yes, thanks. That was so sweet of you to come over.’
‘No problem,’ he said, opening the front door. ‘You call if you need anything, OK? Let me know once Polly comes home safe.’
‘Thanks, Pawel. I will.’
Grace stored away the fact that Jessica pronounced the ‘w’ in his name as a hard ‘v’. Then Lance, too, gave Jessica his card, they said goodbye and followed the landlord out into the sunshine.
Pawel had walked a little way up the road, away from the window that fronted the pavement, and, as he stood waiting for them, looked Grace frankly up and down. In
response, she straightened her shoulders, not letting him own the view, glad now that she’d worn a new fitted summer dress to make a good impression on her first day. She’d chosen it to show off the tan on her bare arms, acquired over the five days she’d spent in Barcelona before moving her car-load of boxes to Essex. She was curious to see how Pawel Zawodny would react when his eyes rose to meet her level gaze. He raised his eyebrows, as if amused by the candour of her challenge, and she struggled not to smile.
‘When did you last see Polly?’ she asked, feeling Lance step in behind her, as she had done for him, encouraging Pawel to engage primarily with her.
‘Friday,’ he answered. ‘I came to fix the washing machine. The door catch had broken. Not a big job. But girls, they have to wash their clothes every day. Friday morning, I came. Early.’
He had watched without comment as they searched the house, and had still not asked for more information than they had offered, yet Grace now sensed some slight unease in him. ‘Did you speak to Polly?’ she asked.
He shook his head. ‘She was upstairs. With some boy. I used my key to come in.’
‘Did you see him? Would you recognise him?’
‘No. They were …’ He waggled his hand. ‘Having fun. I let myself out.’
‘Had you seen her with anyone before?’
‘So long as no boyfriend lives in my house rent-free, I pay no attention.’
‘Thank you. Here’s my card in case you think of anything else that might be helpful.’
Pawel took the card from her hand, touching her fingers, but did not immediately look up to meet her gaze. ‘When did she go missing?’ he asked.
‘We’re still making enquiries.’
He nodded, then shrugged, gave a wave and walked over to a bright red Toyota pick-up parked across the road.
‘Did Jessica mention Polly’s overnight guest while I was upstairs?’ asked Lance.
‘Well, we’d better ask her.’ He turned back to the house, but Grace put a warning hand on his arm.
‘If she knew, we need to think first about
she might not have told us,’ she said.
‘We still need a name.’
‘Yes, but what if she was worried about getting someone else into trouble? In which case it might be counterproductive to march straight back in and call her on it.’
‘Maybe.’ Lance glanced over to Pawel’s Toyota just as the engine fired up. ‘But I’d also like to check he’s telling the truth.’
‘OK, but –’ The noise of the pick-up passing them in the narrow roadway drowned her out. ‘Look,’ she continued, ‘I’ve never been to Wivenhoe. I wouldn’t mind getting my bearings. How about you give me a quick local tour first? Then we can come back to Jessica.’
‘Yeah, fine.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘There’s a cafe on the quay. We could grab an early lunch if you like.’
Grace hesitated. It was a friendly gesture, but she was reluctant to get involved in too much personal chat on her first day. Over the weekend, as she’d made a start on unpacking her boxes in the anonymous rented flat, she’d promised herself that she’d begin slowly: watch and learn what people were like, who was who, how and where she might best fit in.
‘Not sure I’m really hungry yet,’ she replied, and was both relieved and mildly disappointed when Lance didn’t seem to mind being turned down.
She let him lead the way, turning right into the High Street and walking down towards the river. Grace paused to peer along side turnings that became prettier as the water came into view. More redbrick terraces similar to Polly and Jessica’s rented house were interspersed with older and more charming pink, white or blue-painted facades with rounded bay windows and pointed dormers set into pitched roofs. One or two that had higgledy-piggledy half-timbering looked older still. Some boasted railings in front but most opened straight off the quiet streets.
Two girls – they looked Chinese – jogged past in expensive running gear. Grace found them incongruous in such a very English setting, but supposed that Wivenhoe, only two miles from the university campus, must be a pleasant place for students to find accommodation. On the way here, Lance had explained the transport links Polly might have used: there was a bus to the university and regular trains to Colchester – and on to London – from the station at the
end of Polly’s street. A few students would presumably own cars, and Grace had also noticed half a dozen men in helmets and Lycra shorts speeding along on bikes.
Several people sat with drinks outside the pub on the quay, and a variety of boats were moored along the riverbank. Wivenhoe lay at the neck of an estuary that opened out into the North Sea – she had consulted an OS map before they left the office – and was surrounded by miles of mudflats, creeks, woods and gravel pits. Rationalising any kind of search for Polly would be a strategic and logistical nightmare.