‘I can offer you wine, gin or a decent fruit-juice spritzer.’
She waited, sitting in a chair covered in taupe linen while he brought the drinks. He was a nondescript but not bad-looking man, hair prematurely greying and tonight he wore a normal collar.
‘Right. The Magdalene Group – the putative Magdalene Group. What is this all about, Cat? You see, I thought we were going to start exploring ways in which the cathedral might get the message across to the girls on the street that they are as welcome as anyone else, positively welcome – how we do it, what we say, whether we provide some sort of – I don’t know – welcoming space.’
‘And you think it won’t be welcoming?’
He sighed. ‘Can I be blunt?’
‘Yes – Ruth. Ruth is the problem. She always has been. Stephen will let her steamroller him into letting her head-up this committee on the grounds that he already has enough to do – which indeed he does. But with Ruth, in my bitter experience, nothing is up for discussion – a committee is there to rubber-stamp her proposals, and for a quiet life many of them do.’
‘I won’t be steamrollered, Miles. What is a drop-in centre? A bit like a shelter for the homeless, except that most of the prostitutes do have homes. I’m not sure that the cathedral’s the right place for it. Of course we shouldn’t dissociate ourselves from any moves to provide something, but there are other bodies who need to be involved. We ought to look at being part of a group, a team, with a voice and a role, yes.’
‘It’s a great relief to hear you say that, Cat.’
‘The question is, what do we do?’
‘About Ruth? We have to make – certain allowances. That’s all I can say really.’
He stared into his drink for a moment. Cat waited.
‘She has had – troubles. They have no children of course and that has been something of a hardship for her. If she had, perhaps it would all have turned out differently.’ He hesitated, but then seemed to draw a line under making any further confidences. ‘Otherwise, we stand up to her – that’s a lesson I learned some time ago. Let me top up your glass.’
The spritzer, made with some sort of fruit smoothie whisked up with soda and ice, was good. Most men would have provided weak orange squash as a soft drink. She wondered about him. He was a man who gave out no personal clues, though he was easy and open in conversation.
‘How long have you known them?’
‘I was at Cuddesdon with Stephen. He met Ruth when he was in his first curacy. He and I were in the same group ministry in south London, then he was archdeacon. One of those men you never quite expected to rise up the Church career ladder as far as he has, to be frank.’
‘I sense that you and Ruth have crossed swords in the past.’
His face became set and his mouth twitched at the sides, but he simply said, ‘Yes. Which makes it difficult for me. I wanted to hear what you thought, as someone from the outside, as it were. This is quite an important issue, though perhaps not so high up the agenda for everyone else as it seems to be for Ruth. But still, I think it’s something we should be looking at.’
‘Have you talked to any of the others?’
‘No. I decided you were likely to have the most informed opinion.’
‘I’m pretty sure Ilona will agree with us.’
‘Oh yes. Dear, good Ilona.’
There was something in his tone that she didn’t altogether like, a suggestion of – what – sarcasm?
‘Damian will agree – he has his Reachout van, why should he want the cathedral muscling in? Sally – I’m afraid I couldn’t make Sally out.’
He smiled at her, a quick smile that flashed on and off again, leaving his face exactly as before.
‘I bet we have a majority,’ he said.
‘I think we should start the next meeting by making it quite clear we should move with caution – that everything is up for discussion, and nothing is going to be decided in a hurry. It’s too important.’
‘And Ruth will say that is why the Church of England never gets anywhere – because it is always moving cautiously after much discussion.’
‘I’ve often thought that’s one of its strengths.’
‘You are a woman after my own heart. Now, the other thing I wanted to talk about – just because I don’t have any direct involvement in it – is the musical life of the place. Tell me about the St Michael’s Singers.’
They talked for another half-hour, ranging over some of the things that were causing tensions within the congregation. Miles Hurley listened, and did not come out with clear opinions on any of them, as he had on the Magdalene Group issue. Perhaps he saw himself as a go-between, trying to get rival factions talking to one another, or at least to prevent open warfare. It would not be easy, and she wondered if he was the right person, whether he was likely to keep his counsel. Some people, she knew, say what they imagine whoever they are currently speaking to wants to hear. Miles Hurley could be one of them.
She went away, slightly puzzled as to why he had asked to see her at all.
DI Franks’s head came round the door.
‘Sir. DNA reports.’
‘I don’t need to ask, do I?’
‘Afraid not. No leads at this stage.’
Simon got up and looked out of the window. The forecourt was even busier than usual. On the other side of the entrance, the press had set up shop. They wanted somebody arrested and charged. They always did – preferably in time to catch the lunchtime news bulletins. It was easy to be put under pressure by the frenzy they could whip up and he had learned over the years that keeping them on side, telling them the truth wherever possible and then asking for their full cooperation, was the only sensible way.
He had scheduled his statement for eleven thirty and was, as always, punctual to the minute. The conference room was packed.
‘Good morning. Thanks for coming. Right. We have this morning released a fifty-three-year-old Lafferton man without charge, following questioning in connection with the murders of seventeen-year-old Chantelle Buckley and twenty-three-year-old Marie O’Dowd.’
An immediate buzz. Voices called out with questions, arms were waving. Serrailler waited.
‘We are looking for a twenty-seven-year-old man, Jonathan James Lewis, generally known as Jonty, who was the boyfriend of Marie O’Dowd. We want to interview him in connection with Marie’s murder.’
He pointed to the picture that had come up on the large screen behind him.
‘This is Lewis, though I’m afraid the photo isn’t very recent. You can get copies from the press officer and I’d be grateful if you could publish it as widely as possible – we want the public to report any sightings or other information. No relatives locally and we’ve drawn a blank so far among known acquaintances. Meanwhile, separate inquiries into the murders of both women are continuing.’
The questions came from all sides of the room.
‘Are you saying the two murders are or are not connected?’
‘Can you say why the Lafferton man was brought in and then released?’
‘What are you doing to reassure the public?’
‘What measures are police taking to protect other prostitutes still working on our streets?’
The two DIs sat beside him stone-faced but Serrailler never minded being challenged by the press – that was their job, they asked questions the public would have asked, and needed to know. They also knew how constrained he was in what he could and could not say. He replied with care, knowing that he had given them little.
‘I may be able to give you more information later today but I’m afraid that’s it for now. However, I will keep you fully up to speed with any developments.’
They broke up, knowing the score. They also knew Serrailler played fair. When he had any more to give them, he would.
Leslie Blade walked without stopping or looking back for almost ten minutes. It was drizzling and he had no mac but he barely noticed. A car swerved to miss him, blaring its horn as he stepped out across the road, and when he reached the opposite pavement he wondered what had happened, why the noise, why the horrified stare of a woman watching. He had no sense of time, little of where he was, except that he was somewhere between the police station and home, and he had no idea if he was going home, or going to the college, or of what he was expected to do, who knew, who to ask.
There had been some sort of breakfast but he had eaten nothing and only taken a few sips of the tea and then, suddenly, it was over, they were listing his possessions, handing them back, sign here, sign there, you’re now free to go, that way, sir, not this way. Free to go.
There was a café in the row of shops he was passing. Dino’s.
The noise from the espresso machine startled him. There were people at a couple of tables and they stared. But perhaps not at him. Perhaps they did not even notice him. Did anyone know? How would they? Hilary knew. He had had to ring Hilary, ask her to stay with his mother, tell her something but he could not now remember what he had told her.
Free to go.
He got coffee and toast and sat with his back to the window. People went by. Anyone might recognise him, anyone might know.
Suddenly, he felt tears prick his eyes. His hand shook as he lifted the cup. The coffee spilled over.
Free to go.
He bit into the toast and it seemed to swell inside his mouth, and turn into some alien substance, soft and choking.
Inside his head a muzz of echoes and sensations but no clear thoughts, nothing he could grasp and hold to. At first, it had been troubling but he had felt that he might be of help. The murder of two girls appalled him, especially of Marie, the one he had known. He could not keep pictures of her out of his mind, could not stop imagining what had happened, how, when, what she had felt and tried to do. He had thought that by telling them everything he possibly could about the girls, the time he spent with them and why, what it was like for them out there, that he would be useful, might lead them to whoever … whenever. It had taken some time for the cold realisation to seep into his consciousness, that he was being questioned as a suspect, that they had his name, his details, his private activity, down on paper, that they were challenging him to prove to them that he had not killed either girl.
That was why they had taken swabs from inside his mouth. That was the way they proved things now.
He managed to swallow the soft swollen mass of wet toast congealed with butter but it hurt his throat, as if it were made of hard metal passing down his gullet.
The café door opened. He dared not look round. People went, people came, the coffee machine hissed, and every sound was magnified inside his head, like drumming and shouting and screaming.
He did not know what to do. Perhaps he would not be allowed back into the college. You are free to go. But mud sticks. He had been taken to the police station, after all. June Petrie had seen everything.
He was free to go but not free to go.
He went to the counter and bought another cup of coffee though when he got back to his table he saw that the first was only half drunk. The toast was cold and he pushed it to one side.
The smell of the police station was on him, on his sleeves and his collar, in his hair; an institutional, antiseptic yet grubby smell. He would throw away the clothes he was wearing and bathe until his skin was raw to get rid of the smell. When he got home.
How would that be? Hilary would be there. His mother would be there. He could see them both, looking, waiting, puzzled, as he walked in. What did they know? He had been allowed a telephone call but he had talked only to Hilary and he knew he had not been very coherent, just been anxious to ensure that she could stay with Norah, and Hilary had agreed and sounded worried but had asked no questions, done no prying. That was the way Hilary was.
He took small sips of his coffee, holding the cup with both hands because they were still unsteady. The café was steamy. He had been here before once or twice. Liked it well enough. They were always cheerful, always friendly. He heard the proprietor now, chatting to someone, making a teasing remark to another. The ordinary world, Leslie thought suddenly. This is the ordinary world and I am returned to it. None of them knows me. Nobody knows where I have been nor why, and they will surely never know. He had no idea if his name had been in the paper but had the vague thought that you were anonymous until charged. And he had not been charged. He had not been charged. He gripped the cup so hard he thought it might shatter in his hands.
They had warned him not to go near the girls again, not to take them food, not to drive into the area at night. They could not forbid him, they had said, they could only warn him not to do it for his own safety, to ensure he came to no harm, got into no more trouble.
There had been three of them interviewing him at different times. The young woman had been tough, supercilious, trying to trip him up, the younger man cocky. Only the older detective had been easy, relaxed with him, friendly almost, as if this were not a police station, as if he had not been brought in, as if they were having a confidential chat. But none of it had altered what he had told them. None of them could make him say what he could not say.
The one word that had been repeated like bangs of a hammer on a nail, over and over again, had been ‘why.’ Why did he go out to the girls on the streets at night? Why try to befriend them? Why take them parcels of food and flasks of drink? If he had no religious motive and he was not wanting to buy their services, why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
How could he answer?
He had no real sense of time but he seemed to sit there half frozen, his thoughts moving more and more slowly so that they seemed to be congealing, for much of the morning. Nobody spoke to him, nobody disturbed him. He did not look at anyone.
But in the end, he simply got up, left a pound coin on the table by the cups because it seemed to him that he should somehow pay for having stayed so long, and went out into the street. Nobody glanced at him. He waited, anticipated a stare, even tried to catch someone’s eye, but she walked on.
He felt tired now and it was a fifteen-minute walk home, so he went to the taxi rank in the square, hesitated as he approached the first cab, wondering if the man would know, would look at him, would refuse to take him.
But he just nodded, started the engine. Leslie leaned back in the seat and felt a great weakness overcome him and a tightness in his chest so that he had to concentrate to breathe. They stopped at a pedestrian crossing and a woman glanced into the cab. Perhaps she knew, perhaps he was recognised after all. He slid down in the seat. They drove on. He glanced out of the rear window but she had disappeared. There seemed to be a thousand stops, at traffic lights, at junctions, behind other cars, at more crossings, the journey went on miles into the future, carrying him a great distance. He fell into an odd, half-awake trance and the sound of the engine was like an animal purring.