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Authors: Deborah Crombie

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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

One of the few sentiments which unites all generations of the Bangladeshi community is the feeling that white families fail to protect the interests of needy members…. Even though their successful children may now want to live separately from their parents when they marry, and even leave home when single in a few cases, most still believe in the moral solidarity of the family and the importance of putting family interests before those of the individual. Indeed, in most situations individual interests are seen as best served by the family.

—Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron, Michael Young,
The New East End

It was Toby who noticed it first. “Mummy, what happened to your head?”

She was putting away the groceries she had picked up at the supermarket on her way home, having taken advantage of the fact that she had the car, but now she felt a little queasy at the thought of eating.

Kit looked up from the fantasy novel he was reading at the kitchen table. “Ow. You do have a lump.”

“I went to get some things for Charlotte, and I bumped my head in the loft.”

“What did you get for her?” asked Toby, who was picking through her shopping bags like a puppy looking for treats.

“Some art pencils.”

“We went to visit Charlotte today,” Toby informed her. “Wes took us.” He abandoned the bags as unrewarding. “Can I draw with the pencils?”

“No, they’re Charlotte’s. You’ll have to ask her first.”

“When? When are you going to give them to her?”

“I don’t know,” Gemma snapped, her patience fraying. Her head was splitting, and there were times she thought her son was a terrier disguised as a little boy.

She had meant to stop at Betty’s on the way home, but at the last minute she had put it off. She didn’t think she could face seeing Charlotte, not with the image of the girl’s uncles still so freshly imprinted in her mind.

“Kit, will you light the grill? I’ve got some chicken for dinner, and a salad.” Gemma had discovered that the oil-fired cooker she had so fancied was a monster to cook on in the summer heat, so most evenings they resorted to cold salads or pasta, or used the charcoal grill on the patio.

Fortunately, Kit was a nascent pyromaniac, and having applied himself to the project with scientific intensity, had become an expert at lighting and tending charcoal.

“Roger that,” he said, and got up, but instead of heading for the patio, he came over to her and looked at her head more closely. “You should have that looked at.”

“I’m fine, really.” She summoned a smile. “Go on. Everyone’s starving, and I’m sure your dad will be home soon.”

She was thinking that the “bumping her head in the loft” ex
planation would have to do for Duncan as well until the children went to bed, when her mobile rang.

“I’m going to be late,” Kincaid said without preamble when she answered. “It turns out that Kevin’s boss owns a white transit van. I’m trying to get Narcotics to let me pull it over on a traffic stop, or at least to tell me if they think this guy, Roby, is involved in the drugs thing. If they’ve been watching him, too, they may know where the van was last Saturday.”

Gemma spilled a bagged salad into a bowl and fetched dressing from the fridge. “I don’t fancy your chances.”

“No. But nothing else is panning out. Lucas Ritchie has as much of an alibi for Saturday as we’re likely to get, by the way. He
was
at his niece’s birthday party in St. John’s Wood. His mum showed Cullen photos. And he didn’t drive there, so it’s not likely he ducked out of the party long enough to have met Naz and dumped him in the park. Cullen got the names of some other guests to follow up, but…”

“Not likely,” Gemma agreed. “What about the missing girl from the club? What was her name? Kylie?”

“Nothing definite, but her parents think she’s living in a squat in Plumstead. Or was it Wanstead? Undoubtedly the dodgy end. Cullen’s checking on it.” He sounded tired.

“Drugs involved?” Gemma thought about Rashid’s speculation that Terry Gilles was a user, and the implications of that for the Narcotics investigation.

And for Charlotte.

But she couldn’t pass those suspicions on to Janice Silverman without an explanation of how she had come by them. And she couldn’t talk to Kincaid about it now, not with Toby and Kit coming in and out of the kitchen.

“Maybe,” Kincaid said, then he added, “You okay? You sound a bit wobbly.”

“Oh, fine. I’m fine. It’s just been—a long day. I’ll fill you in when I see you.”

 

But when Kincaid got home a few hours later, having finally had a very unrewarding conversation with his opposite number in Narcotics, he found Gemma in bed, fast asleep.

And when he woke the next morning, a bit late, he came downstairs to find Kit and Toby finishing breakfast, and Gemma already gone.

“She got a call,” Kit told him. “Another burglary in the middle of the night. Golborne Road, this time.” He sounded pleased with himself for passing on the information. “Here. I’ve made you toast.”

“Thanks, sport.” Kincaid glanced at the kitchen clock. “But I’d better eat it on the run if I’m going to get Toby to child care on time.”

He’d sent Toby to get his backpack, and had washed a mouthful of toast and jam down with coffee, when his mobile rang. When he saw that it was Cullen, he took another bite of toast as he answered. “I’m on my way,” he said. “Just as soon as—”

Cullen broke in, his voice a register higher than normal. “Guv, you’re not going to believe what made the bloody tabloids this morning.”

 

“Boss.” Melody ducked her head in the door of Gemma’s office. “The super’s here to see you.”

Gemma looked up from the report she was scrolling through on her computer. It hadn’t been burglary this time, but a robbery. The owner of a small grocery had been assaulted as he unlocked the shop at daybreak. “Mark?” she said, assuming Melody meant Superintendent Lamb, her guv’nor, and wondering why Melody felt the need to announce him.

“No.” Melody’s voice dropped to an emphatic whisper. “
Your
super. Duncan.”

She disappeared from view and Kincaid walked into Gemma’s office, his face set in a thunderous scowl. He closed the door behind him as he tossed a newspaper on Gemma’s desk. “Have you seen this?”

Gemma turned the paper round. It was that morning’s
Chronicle
, and the headline read:
Slave Trade Linked to Rumored Whitechapel Sex Club.

“What?” She pulled the paper closer and skimmed the lead. In the
Chronicle’s
usual lurid style, the article said it had learned that police were conducting an ongoing investigation into an exclusive private club in Whitechapel, which a well-known Bangladeshi businessman, soon to stand trial for modern-day slavery, was known to frequent. It gave Azad’s name, the details of the prosecution’s human-trafficking charges against him, and a summary of the various businesses in which he was allegedly involved.

It then, without actually giving an address, described in fulsome terms the club near historic Artillery Lane in Whitechapel, including the beautiful young hostesses whom it suggested were little better than high-class prostitutes. It ended by insinuating that the club harbored members whose ill-gotten wealth allowed them to scoff at British law and human rights.

“What the—” Gemma stared blankly at the page, then looked up at Kincaid. “That’s Ritchie’s club. They’re talking about Ritchie’s club. Where the hell did they get this?”

“I’ve no clue.” He sat down on the other side of her desk. “But I’ve already had the chief superintendent on the phone, who’s had the assistant commissioner on the phone, who’s had God knows who on the phone, all wanting to know
what
ongoing police investigation. I’ve said I merely made some routine inquiries in the course of a homicide investigation, and that there is no direct involvement on the part of the club. The question is, did anyone see
you?

“No. No, I don’t think so. I only spoke to Ritchie.” Gemma lowered her voice. “And my visit had nothing to do with Narcotics.”

“Neither of us wants to explain that you were there pursuing a personal line of inquiry. Interfering in a murder investigation would not go down well with your boss or mine. And we’ll not be getting any further cooperation from Lucas Ritchie, or from Azad, on this case.”

With a sinking feeling, Gemma realized it was not likely she would get any help from Lucas Ritchie in Charlotte’s custody case either, nor would she be able to talk to him again.

“It’s not surprising that some of Ritchie’s club members have friends in high places,” Kincaid went on. “But as long as you’re not pulled into it, the funny-handshake brigade can complain all they like.”

“But the club wasn’t named,” Gemma protested.

“Didn’t need to be, for those who move on that level. I don’t know who’s going to be the most pissed off, Ritchie and his board of directors, or Azad.” He tapped the paper. “And the club may be perfectly respectable, but I guarantee there will be members who won’t want any association with the least rumor of high-class prostitution. Not to mention the fact that Azad will be a bit of an embarrassment.”

“Will he be blackballed, do you think?”

“I doubt he’s broadcast his legal troubles, so the charges may come as a shock to the other members, if not to Ritchie. It might make Azad the odd boy out at school for a while. But he’s a wily sod; I expect he’ll recover. If he doesn’t go to prison.”

Gemma was studying the paper again. “That’s not looking very likely, is it, with the prosecution’s star witness still missing?” She looked up at him, rubbing her aching head. “Bloody hell. I should never have gone to the club. What if Lucas Ritchie mentions me? It’s all going to come back on you. I—”

Kincaid didn’t give her a chance to finish. “I think Ritchie will be
keeping his head down. And there’s no reason why Ritchie, or anyone else, should connect your visit with this story. I doubt Ritchie or Azad will complain to the Met, although Azad may raise hell with the newspaper.” He studied her more closely, really focusing on her face for the first time. “Is that a bruise?” His brow creased. “What on earth happened to your head?”

Now Gemma wished she had waited up to explain the night before, but she hadn’t felt well and had had trouble staying awake. “I had a little run-in with Kevin and Terry Gilles yesterday,” she said reluctantly, then went on to explain what had happened, including Rashid Kaleem’s part in her rescue.

Kincaid had come in glowering. Now he looked volcanic. “Those bastards!” He stood up, pacing in her small office. “Fucking lowlife slime.” He didn’t swear often—not as much, Gemma hated to admit, as she did—and when he did, it was usually for effect in interviews. “I’ll have them in, whether Narcotics likes it or not, and I’ll have their balls in a vise. They’re not going to get away with making threats and laying hands on you, for God’s sake.” He clenched his fist. “Those little shits—”

“They didn’t actually hit me,” broke in Gemma, trying to calm him down. She had known he’d be upset, but she hadn’t expected him to be quite so angry. “They just pushed me into the car. And you absolutely cannot jeopardize the drugs investigation. You can’t let Kevin and Terry Gilles know that I’m a police officer, or even that I have any connection with the police. Or with you. It will make any information I got from Gail Gilles suspect, and put both our jobs at risk. And it might seriously endanger Charlotte.”

Kincaid stared at her. “Damn it to hell and back. I sent you in there.” He jammed his hands in his pockets, as if he didn’t trust himself not to hit something. “
I
put
you
at risk.”

“You couldn’t have known. And I wanted to go. You just have to be prepared to throw everything you’ve got at the lovely Kev and Ter, once the Narcotics investigation is over.”

“That could be months,” he protested. “Narcotics won’t give me a timeline.”

“I don’t think Narcotics would be so touchy if the operation wasn’t coming to a head,” Gemma said thoughtfully.

Kincaid continued his pacing. “Even if it’s only days, every shred of evidence I have linking them to Naz Malik’s murder is going to go cold. And there’s something else. Azad told me that it was Kevin and Terry Gilles heading the mob that fire-bombed his restaurant. He didn’t tell the police, maybe out of a desire not to make more trouble, or maybe from some sort of loyalty to Naz and Sandra. But if Naz knew…”

“Kevin and Terry might have thought that shutting Naz up would guarantee Azad’s silence,” Gemma suggested. “Or maybe Naz threatened to turn them in.”

“Or it might be more complicated than that.” Kincaid stopped at the desk and turned the paper back in his direction. “This piece suggests that Azad owns businesses that are less aboveboard than his restaurant. Low-rent housing for illegals, sweatshops. Maybe he didn’t give up the Gilles brothers because Naz, or Sandra, had something on him.”

“Tit for tat? You’re assuming that Sandra would have protected her brothers?”

“No. I’m thinking that
Azad
might have assumed that Sandra would protect them.”

Gemma shook her head. “I thought you’d pretty much ruled Azad out.”

“Maybe I didn’t look closely enough.” Kincaid leaned across the desk and brushed a strand of hair away from her face. “And in the meantime, I want you to promise me you won’t go near Brick Lane, or Bethnal Green, or anywhere in the East End.” Although his touch had been gentle, his voice was grim. “Not until this drugs investigation is over with, and I have a chance to deal with Kevin and Terry Gilles.”

 

No sooner had Kincaid walked out of Gemma’s office than Melody walked in, carefully closing the door behind her. Her face was white as chalk. “Boss—”

“Melody, are you okay?” said Gemma. “Whatever is the matter? Sit down, for heaven’s sa—”

“Boss.” Melody stood at attention. Her crisp navy suit might have been a uniform, and she didn’t meet Gemma’s eyes. “Boss, I want to tender my resignation.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

I am very proud of my cockney background and have many memories of my East End childhood. I wanted to record the stories about that way of life before they were forgotten…Many families have roots in East London or in similar close-knit communities, and I wanted to preserve their stories, too.

—Gilda O’Neill,
East End Tales

“Don’t be daft, Melody,” Gemma said. “Sit down.”

As Melody walked stiffly to the chair, she looked as if her limbs belonged to someone else. She sat and nodded towards the paper. “It’s my fault. That story.”

“What are you talking about?”

“My father. My father owns the
Chronicle
.”

“What?” Gemma wondered if her headache was making her hear things. “You’re having me on. This isn’t fun—”

“No. Oh, I’m serious, all right. I wish I weren’t,” said Melody. “My dad is Ivan Talbot.
That
Ivan Talbot. The newspaper baron.”

“But—But why did you never tell anyone?” asked Gemma, feeling thoroughly gobsmacked.

“Because I thought no one would ever trust me if they knew who I was. And they would have been right. None of this”—she prodded the paper with a scowl of distaste—“would have happened if it hadn’t been for me.”

“But surely you didn’t deliberately—”

“Of course not. But when I saw Ahmed Azad in the club, I couldn’t resist using the newspaper office to do the research. It was too easy, and it’s not the first time I’ve used the
Chronicle’s
morgue when I needed information that I thought would help solve a case. I thought I could have my cake and eat it, too, more fool me. Because this time, I blew it.

“I thought my dad had gone for the day. I used his office, and he came back when I still had the file on Azad open. He saw what I was working on. And then”—Melody shook her head, as if astounded by her own folly—“and then I was stupid enough to ask him if he knew anything about Ritchie’s club. That was all it took for him to put the pieces together.”

“And he didn’t tell you he was going to run the story?”

“You don’t know my dad. Nothing is more important than a story. Nothing. I could kill him.”

So that was how the paper had connected the police, the club, and Azad, thought Gemma.

“I should have known better,” Melody went on. “I should never have trusted him. And you should never have trusted me.”

“Melody, this wasn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy,” protested Gemma. “Maybe you shouldn’t have done the research at the paper—”

“But this is just the tip of the iceberg, don’t you see? You know what the papers are like, and my dad’s is one of the worst. Oh, he wants a shred of truth to a story, but given that, he can spin straw into gold. If he knew I was involved in a sensitive case, he’d watch me like a vulture. And if anyone in the force knew my connection with
him, they’d never let me near anything high profile. Didn’t you wonder why I’d never applied for promotion? I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk anyone taking an interest in me.”

“Melody,” Gemma broke in, “did it not occur to you that by leaking this story, your father might have been trying to sabotage your career? That he might have guessed you’d try to resign? I mean, really, this doesn’t amount to all that much, except that it caused some ruffled feathers, and it humiliated you.”

Melody stared at her. “No. But—Oh, God. I was even more stupid than I thought. He’s never wanted me to do this…He considers police work a waste of my very expensive education, and my intelligence, not to mention the fact that he thinks I should want to take over what he’s worked so hard to build. And he’s a persistent bastard, my dad, or he wouldn’t be where he is.” She frowned. “I just handed him the opportunity on a plate, didn’t I?”

“Are you tempted?” Gemma asked, wondering what it would be like to be offered the kind of life Melody’s father must lead. “To take over from him, eventually, I mean? I think most people would be. Power, position—and money. Your dad must be richer than—well, I don’t imagine he worries about the mortgage or the grocery bill, to put it mildly.”

“It’s all on a relative scale,” Melody answered with a bitter smile. “He has to worry about keeping up with his friends’ private jets. But it’s not really about the money for my dad. It’s about what he can do, how much influence he has, how far he’s come from snotty-nosed little Ivan Talbot who scrapped his way out of a Newcastle Council estate.”

Gemma stared at Melody, bemused. She felt as if she was trying to fit together two photographic negatives, one over the other, that didn’t quite match. “Talbot’s a common enough name. I’d never have thought…But why on earth is your dad called
Ivan?

“My nan was reading Russian history at school when she got pregnant. She was a bright girl who raised a bright child, in spite of
the obstacles. But”—Melody leaned forward—“I don’t
want
to be him. I don’t want his job or his newspaper. I would never be more than Ivan’s daughter, no matter what I accomplished. Can you understand that?”

Gemma thought about her own father, about his constant disapproval of her choices, and his bitter disappointment that she had failed to fit into his mold. What might he do to scupper her career, if he had the power?

“And besides,” Melody went on raggedly, “all I ever wanted for as long as I can remember was to be in the police. I grew up watching every cop show, reading books on how to be a detective…Dad thought if he sent me to the best schools, and university…that I would eventually grow out of it, that I’d learn to be ‘normal.’ But I didn’t.”

“And you’re telling me that you would even consider letting him get away with this? I don’t believe it.” A desire to tell Ivan Talbot what she thought of him was making Gemma’s head pound. “You are good at this, and I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want the force to lose you. I am not going to accept your resignation. And you—you’re going to be much more careful from now on. No more research at the paper. No hints to your father about any cases, no matter how innocently given. Is that settled?”

“But—but how can you possibly trust me after this—”

“Because I know you.” And in spite of Melody’s dissembling, Gemma felt sure that she did. “What your father does is really no one else’s business. And there is nothing that links you to this story”—Gemma tapped the paper—“other than your word and mine. And we’re not going to discuss it again. With anyone.”

There was a long moment in which Gemma and Melody looked at each other, and Gemma wondered if she had made the right judgment call.

Then Melody stood, giving Gemma a crisp nod. “Thank you,
ma’am. I won’t disappoint you.” Her round face was set with resolution. “And I can promise you something else. My father is going to pay for this, one way or another.”

 

The rest of Friday passed uneventfully, but Gemma was still thinking about her conversation with Melody as she drove to Betty Howard’s late on Saturday morning. She wondered how much her new knowledge would change her perception of Melody. Already she better understood both Melody’s doggedness in pursuing an investigation and her personal reticence. And although she sympathized with Melody’s desire to stand on her own merits, she thought it unlikely she would be able to keep her identity secret indefinitely. Gemma had kept her word, however, and had not told Duncan, but the omission niggled uncomfortably at her. She didn’t like his taking the fall for something that had been her fault. It had been she who had taken Melody to Lucas Ritchie’s club, starting the chain of events that had led to the story, but she couldn’t see any other alternative.

It was already hot, and she hadn’t felt like walking, although driving meant negotiating the jam on Portobello Road on market day. The boys had fussed about wanting to see Charlotte—Toby, in particular, was still coveting Charlotte’s pencils—but they’d had their own activities.

Duncan had taken Toby to his Saturday football match, whispering as he left that there was nothing he’d rather do than sit in the sun in the park and watch a bunch of uncoordinated six-year-olds chase a ball, and Kit was meeting some school friends at Starbucks to discuss an out-of-term project. Or so he said—she suspected there would be good bit more gossip and music swapping than discussion, but she was glad to see him getting out a bit more socially.

She had just found a parking spot near Betty’s flat when her mobile rang. Her heart skipped a bit when she saw it was her sister,
although she had just talked to her mum that morning and Vi had said she was feeling fine.

“Hi, Cyn,” she said, hoping as always that if she started the conversation on an upbeat note, it might stay that way.

“Mum said you’re not coming to Leyton.”

“I’m not coming today,” Gemma clarified. “I told her I’d bring the boys tomorrow. They’ve got things on today, and I promised to see Charlotte—”

“Charlotte? That’s this little girl Mum says you’ve taken in?”

“I haven’t taken her in.” Exasperation was beginning to make Gemma’s head pound. “I arranged for her to stay with Wesley’s mother, and I feel responsible—”

“You feel responsible for someone else’s child and not your own mother?” Cyn’s voice had risen over the sound of her kids, Brendan and Tiffani, squabbling in the background. “Will you two just shut it?” she shouted without covering the phone, nearly splitting Gemma’s eardrum, and the noise level dropped momentarily.

Wincing, Gemma said, “Cyn, whatever is the matter with you? That’s ridiculous. Of course I feel responsible for Mum—”

“Do you? You haven’t seen her since she came home from hospital. She’s so—so frail, and I don’t—She seems old, Gemma, and I don’t know what I would do—” To Gemma’s horror, her ruthlessly unflappable sister sounded near tears.

“They’ve said it’s the chemo, Cyn,” Gemma hastened to reassure her. “Try not to worry—”

“And she asked me this morning about the wedding.” Cyn’s indignation had come back in full force. “What am I supposed to tell her? Have you done anything at all about making the arrangements?”

“I—I just haven’t had a chance. I’ve been busy at work, and—”

“Right. It’s always something, Gemma.” Cynthia’s voice had gone cold. “You don’t care who you disappoint. I’m surprised Duncan puts up with you. And you know how much Mum is counting on
this. You’ll be the death of her if you keep on like this, you mark my words.” The connection went dead in Gemma’s ear.

“Cyn?” Gemma said. “Cyn?” Then, when it sank in that her sister had really hung up on her, she shouted, “Harpy,” at the hapless mobile and threw it onto the passenger seat. It didn’t make her feel any better.

With the things that had happened in the last few days, she had managed to put the wedding completely out of her mind. Now, all the weight of obligation came rushing back, and with it the nausea that had been nagging her since Sandra’s brothers had cracked her head against the Escort’s door. The interior of the car suddenly seemed unbearably hot and confining.

She got out carefully, fighting a wave of dizziness, and collected the holdall with Charlotte’s things from the backseat. This time she looked round before she leaned into the car, but that made her dizzier.

Then, feeling oddly disconnected from her feet, she walked the few yards to Betty’s building. As she went in and glanced up the stairwell, the climb seemed as daunting as Mount Everest. Slowly, gingerly, she made the ascent, stopping on each landing to ease the thumping in her head.

By the time she reached Betty’s flat and Charlotte ran into her arms for a hug, she felt she was the one most in need of comfort.

 

Charlotte had finally been persuaded to let go of Gemma and settle down with her pencils at the small table in Betty’s kitchen. She drew with grave concentration, while in the sitting room, Betty exclaimed over the clothes Gemma had brought.

“Her mama was that good to her,” Betty said softly as she refolded a little pink skirt. “Oh, I don’t just mean the clothes,” she added. “But you can tell, with the little ones, when they’ve been loved. And I don’t believe for a minute that this one’s mama left her
of her own accord.” She added a neatly folded T-shirt to the skirt. “Not unless there was drink or drugs involved.”

“Not on her mum’s part, anyway,” Gemma agreed, but when Betty gave her a questioning look, she merely added, “I’d have heard something by now, I think, if there was anything like that.”

“Will she be all right if she goes to her granny?” Betty asked. “I do worry, and I haven’t heard a thing more from the social worker.”

“I know,” said Gemma. “I’m worried, too.”

The admission brought back her sister’s hateful words in full force. Was she as selfish as Cyn had said? Should she be doing more for her mother and less for Charlotte? But how could she not do everything in her power for this child, who had no one else to protect her? And if Cyn was right, was she letting Duncan down, as well? Was he losing patience with her?

“Gemma, honey, you’re right away with the fairies. Are you all right?” Betty was looking at her in concern, and Gemma realized she hadn’t heard a word Betty had said.

“I’m sorry. It’s just—” She couldn’t begin to explain what was wrong, and especially not in front of Charlotte.

“Look, Gemma,” said Charlotte, holding up her paper. She had drawn stick figures, the larger two red and blue, the smaller one yellow. They were a bit squiggly, but still recognizable as people. “That’s a mummy and a daddy and a little girl,” Charlotte informed her.

Gemma studied the picture with the seriousness it deserved. There were clouds, and a sausagey-shaped thing with legs near the yellow stick figure’s feet. “That’s very good, lovey. The little girl is yellow. That’s a happy color. And is that her dog?”

“Georgy,” Charlotte said. She still couldn’t manage the
d
sound in Geordie. “I want to see Georgy.”

“Maybe you can come over for a bit, this afternoon or tomorrow, if it’s all right with your auntie Betty here.” To Betty, she added, “The boys are quite smitten. As are the dogs,” she added, summoning a smile. “Sid, I’m not so sure about.”

“You should stay and have some lunch,” said Betty. “I’ve made a cold salad.”

“I’d love to,” Gemma said, although the thought of food made the sweat break out on her forehead. “I’d better go, though. Toby has a football match, and I promised I’d take him to the art store for some pencils like Charlotte’s afterwards.” She stood and kissed Betty’s cheek. “But I’ll ring you, and we’ll see about arranging a visit.”

She gave Charlotte a hug, resisting the temptation to keep her in her arms, then waved as she let herself out of the flat.

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