Authors: Neil Cross
She looked at him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I thought you might know something.’
‘Like who sent them.’
‘Of course I don’t fucking know who sent them.’
He trembled with the effort of staying calm. He said: ‘It didn’t seem an unfair thing to ask. In the circumstances.’
She lifted the kettle. It was half full of recently boiled water.
Holloway held a warding hand before him and retreated a step or two.
Behind him, Adrian wrenched open the kitchen door.
He said: ‘Please leave. Right now.’
Holloway glanced over his shoulder.
‘You heard me,’ said Adrian. ‘Right now.’
Holloway turned. Adrian glowered monolithically down on him. He interpreted Holloway’s grinning entreaty as malice and raised his fist.
It was like being hit by a car.
Outside, Holloway sat on the kerb and hawked blood into the gutter until the rain grew too cold and he decided to walk home.
In the early dawn, he let himself in, hanging the sodden mac over the bathroom door. He rinsed his mouth with saltwater until it ran bloodless.
He left a tub of Ben & Jerry’s to defrost while he took a shower. These preparations had all the cadence of ritual.
He remembered Joanne Grayling in the same early morning light: bending, nude, to peer in the fridge. Her breasts and belly lit green. Her toes bunched on the cold linoleum. The wig she wore for him perched atop the iMac.
He remembered sitting, detumescent and self-conscious, at the Ikea kitchen table, making a note of how in future he would be able to transfer money directly into her bank account. He joked about establishing a direct debit and she glanced briefly, luminously, over her shoulder and laughed. His own abstract of Joanne Grayling. That single moment of intimacy.
He padded barefoot now to that same desk.
The video clip attached to the latest message from [email protected] was perhaps two minutes long. Its high quality and flat colours suggested it had been taken with a digital camera secreted somewhere in his own sitting room, probably close to the iMac or the low bookshelf alongside it. It would not be difficult for someone who knew what they were doing to enter and leave his flat. The necessary surveillance equipment could be purchased easily and inexpensively.
In the clip, Holloway leads Joanne Grayling into the sitting room. She wears an evening gown and a sleek, dark wig. She stands before him. Holloway reaches out. He takes her shoulders in his hands. He kisses her neck, her throat. His palm traces the curve of her hip and thigh. She doesn’t look at the concealed camera lens.
Holloway repeats a single word.
, he says.
He watched the clip several times, then mechanically spooned ice cream into his mouth until his teeth ached. When the tub was finished, he went to bed. He stared at the ceiling while the watery sunrise bled colour into the room.
He didn’t sleep that he remembered, and rose before the alarm. He showered again and dressed in a shirt and suit which still hung in dry-cleaners’ polythene. The rain had passed.
To gain entry to the station, he had to walk a gauntlet of news crews, journalists and curious civilians. He passed before ranks of recording lenses.
He’d been at his desk for perhaps half an hour when the Joanne Grayling case blew wide open. There was a flurry of activity throughout the station. It was several hours before Holloway could establish what had happened. The reports conflicted slightly, but he ascertained that an audio tape had arrived, addressed to James Ireland. It was postmarked Cardiff. On the tape a girl claiming to be Joanne (later identified as such by her grandparents) read from what was assumed to be a statement prepared by her kidnapper.
‘The friends of George Bailey want you to know that I am alive and well. I have food and water and am warm. They will not hurt me unless they have to.’
Then she read out the headline from the previous day’s
Bristol Evening Post
Holloway absented himself from the station, marching as if with purpose past the assembled lenses, the compound eye of the ravenous media. He walked to the nearest McDonald’s and ate a Big Mac and an apple pie whose contents bore a close functional similarity to napalm.
He was at a loss what to do. He feared returning to the station and he feared going home to see what waited in his inbox.
Alternately, he hoped that Joanne was working with Bliss and that she was not.
He stuffed Big Mac detritus into the bin provided, and went to see Grace.
Hetty opened the door to him.
‘You look like death,’ she said. ‘Whatever can be the matter?’
‘Sinus,’ he said, and waved his hand close to his temple. Hetty pursed her lips and shooed him inside. He allowed himself to be shooed. He was comforted by the weight of her palm in the small of his back.
Grace was in the television and games room. A knitted white shawl was draped round her dainty shoulders. He kissed her on each cheek. Her sweet, powdery scent carried the elusive trace of his childhood.
He kneeled alongside the wheelchair. Perhaps by accident, Grace lay a hand along the tense line of his jaw. He took the hand and kissed it.
When he was a child, she had bathed him and towelled him dry and dressed him in soft cotton pyjamas.
Today she was bewildered by his presence. She would not meet his eye. She strained her neck to turn from him.
He looked over his shoulder at Hetty.
Hetty said: ‘It’s not so good a day.’
He patted Grace’s wrist. It felt like kindling. He let it go and stood beside her. He rested his hand lightly on her shoulder.
‘It’ll be that little terror from up the hill,’ said Grace.
He said: ‘Is that who it’ll be?’
‘He’s got a look about him,’ she said. ‘I’d watch that one.’
‘I’ll do that. I’ll watch that one.’
‘Have you seen my watch?’
‘No. Where is it?’
‘Is it? Is it a gold watch?’
‘From the Queen.’
‘She brought it here.’
‘Who? The Queen?’
‘In a helicopter.’
‘Goodness me,’ he said. ‘How special. A gold watch from the Queen.’
‘And our George was there. He wanted a watch. But he weren’t allowed.’
‘Did he? He wanted a watch, did he, our George? Our Uncle George.’
‘Who? Uncle George?’
‘Bugger and arsehole. Bugger and bloody arsehole.’
She set her mouth as if in resolve. Then, in a tremulous and croaking voice, she began to sing. He didn’t recognize the song. Its lyrics urged him to accentuate the positive. She accompanied herself with her hands, making small flowing movements, as if she were conducting.
Hetty smiled for his bewilderment. Will followed her to the narrow staff kitchen. She leaned against the sink unit while he made them a cup of tea. He made himself busy, cleaning teaspoons, boiling the kettle.
Hetty said, ‘Come now. No tears.’
‘I’ll be all right. Biscuits?’
‘Top right-hand cupboard. Rich Tea. Come now.’
He clattered through the cupboards, removed the tube of biscuits.
‘It’s just—’ he said.
‘I know, love.’
He took five biscuits from the pack and arranged them on a saucer like the face of a die.
‘Do you think she’s in there?’
Hetty took the tea. She stirred it, twenty times clockwise, twenty anticlockwise. Then she set it down on the work surface and dunked a biscuit.
‘Who can say?’
‘You can,’ he said. ‘Of all people. You’re a world-renowned expert.’
‘Hush now with your nonsense,’ she said, and batted his upper arm. She folded the soggy biscuit into her mouth. Then she said: ‘Who knows where we go?’
He held her gaze.
‘Sometimes I think she’s there,’ Hetty conceded. ‘But it’s like she’s visiting. You know. It’s like her spirit has come down just to visit. It’s like that with all of them. Suddenly they shine, just for a short while. Then they’re gone again and there’s no telling when they’ll be back. The rest,’ she said, gesturing around her. ‘All this. I don’t know. Maybe it’s like a dream her soul has, when it’s in heaven.’
He laughed and sniffed back snot. ‘Bollocks,’ he said.
She laughed, outraged, and slapped his elbow.
‘Well, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘How the hell am I supposed to know?’
When he returned to his desk late that afternoon, nobody commented on his absence. Nevertheless, he ostentatiously set a box of flu-strength Lemsip on his desk and sniffed miserably and repetitively.
At 7 p.m. his phone rang. He lifted the receiver and spoke his surname.
The man on the wire held his breath for a moment.
‘Are you the police officer with red hair?’
The voice was a murmur, catarrhal with intimacy.
Holloway took the handset from his ear and squinted quizzically down the receiver as if he might see something there.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Are you the police officer with the red hair?’
‘Bear with me for one moment,’ he said, and cupped his hand over the receiver. ‘What the fuck is this?’ he said, over his shoulder. ‘Does anyone know about this?’
Tony Roberts furnished him with a gappy grin from beneath his grey copper’s moustache. His drinker’s gnarl of nose wrinkled.
‘He asked for you.’
‘Fuck he asked for me.’
‘He did! He said, quote, is there an officer present with red hair?, unquote.’
Holloway grinned. ‘Fucking ha ha,’ he said. ‘What’s his name? Do we know him?’
Roberts shrugged and jutted his lower lip, tired of the game now. Holloway flipped him a middle finger and returned to the call.
‘How can I help?’
‘Is this the officer with red hair?’
‘This is Detective Sergeant William Holloway.’
‘Please. Do you have red hair?’
Holloway cradled the receiver between neck and shoulder, wheeled himself closer to the desk and scrabbled round for a pen. He extended an arm to its limit and snagged a red biro.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Auburn, possibly.’
Tony Roberts roared and Holloway grinned over at him.
Waiting, he drew clockwise spirals on blank note paper. He sighed. Cross-hatched the descending spirals. Drew wavy lines like steam rising from water. ‘Sir, I am about to replace the handset.’
Holloway drew a circular, smiley face.
‘Joanne is alive.’
His arm jerked. He dropped the biro and knocked an empty mug, which rotated on its base like a settling puck.
‘Who is this?’
‘Please listen. I know how this sounds.’
‘Sir,’ said Holloway, ‘do you have information pertaining to the whereabouts of Joanne Grayling?’
‘Oh, dearie me,’ said Tony Roberts.
Holloway ignored him.
‘She’s alive,’ said the caller. ‘She’s … in a shed or a hut. It’s dark and she’s afraid. But he hasn’t hurt her.’
‘I see,’ said Holloway. He thought he might pass out. He pinched the tender skin inside his wrist until his mind cleared.
‘Please,’ said the man. ‘I know how this must sound. But please listen to me. There is something to do with trains. There is something to do with trains and water.’
‘I see,’ said Holloway. ‘How did you come about this information?’
The man took a ragged intake of breath.
‘I dreamed it.’
Holloway surged with relief.
‘I see,’ he said.
He wanted to punch the air.
‘Please,’ said the man. ‘Don’t hang up.’
‘I’m not hanging up, sir. Please continue.’
‘Just give me one moment. I know how this sounds.’
‘I’m sure you do.’
‘Are you able to act on this information?’
‘We are doing everything in our power.’
‘That’s not an answer.’
‘But it is an assurance.’
There was a long pause during which Holloway sought to control his breathing.
‘Wait,’ said the man.
‘I am waiting, sir. Do you have any more information?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I’m listening,’ said Holloway. He recited from his notes. ‘She is in a shed or a hut. There is something to do with trains.’
‘Of course. There is something to do with trains and water.’
As Holloway knew he eventually would, the man replaced the receiver. He listened to the dial tone for a long time.
He would log and report the call. Along with all the others, it would be followed through to source, if possible.
Tony Roberts was just about pissing himself.
‘Care in the fucking community,’ he said, and shook his head wisely.
Holloway smiled and replied. But his hands were clamped to the desk, anchoring him to the world.
He was cursorily debriefed about the call. Nobody was much concerned by it. It would not be the only crank call taken that day. There would be more tomorrow, and the day after that.
He drove home. The dust in the flat seemed to have settled, as if he were returning from a fortnight’s holiday. He touched the walls in the hallway with strange nostalgia and closed the door softly behind him.
He hung his jacket on the bedroom door and ran his head under the cold tap in the bathroom. He looked at himself, pale and mottled, in the bathroom mirror. He put the kettle on and opened a packet of chocolate and hazelnut Boasters. Then he went and logged on.
There was a message from bedford.falls.
He recalled the temptation to throw oneself from a high place, simply because it is high.
Dear Detective Holloway
An unstable man with a history of mental illness is obsessed by his ex-wife. Consumed by morbid jealousy, he murders her lover.
Later, he enacts bizarre revenge on the wife by murdering a whore he has dressed to resemble her.
It doesn’t look good, does it?
The materials in our possession will be passed on to your colleagues in the Avon and Somerset Constabulary if you dont do exactly as instructed, when instructed.
With all kind regards,
The Friends of George Bailey