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‘We used to swing on that witch’s hat thing.’


‘Yeah, bloody dangerous those were, a kid got killed.’


‘Old wooden seats on the swings.’


‘Those iron chains that made your hands go rust-coloured when it was wet.’


‘Jeez, look at her face.’


Mia’s ice cream was smeared like shaving foam over her chin and cheeks.


‘She’s all right, she’s enjoying it.’


Frankie and Liam were sliding down the small slide, running round and climbing the steps and sliding again.


‘You’re glad I dragged you out,’ Abi said.


‘OK. Be nice though.’


‘What would?’


Hayley looked at a group of mothers with pushchairs on the other side of the playground.


‘What?’


She shrugged.


‘You going out tonight?’


‘Yes,’ Abi said. ‘I’m not bothered. I see that Jonty Lewis, I’d kick him where it hurts. Poor Marie. She didn’t deserve that.’


‘Who does? Who deserves any of it? Liam, you be careful, you’ll fall on your face doing that.’


Abi watched them. They’d gobbled up their ice creams, Mia had finished hers and was laughing at the boys.


‘I reckon we should do it,’ Abi said.


‘What?’


‘That flat.’


‘What, go for it? You and them? All of us?’


‘Yeah. They need the space, look at them. I’ll go mad much longer in that bloody room. Can you find out about it?’


Hayley was grinning, her arms in the air.


‘Only thing,’ Abi said quietly. ‘You know what.’


‘No, I’ve stopped, I swear, I’m not wasting any more money on it, I’m clean. I’m staying clean.’


‘You better mean it. I gotta trust you, Hayles, if you –’


‘I said, didn’t I?’


‘OK, OK.’


She meant it, Abi thought, looking at Hayley, she meant it for now, for this minute, for when she was saying it, like they all meant it, always did. Another year, maybe a bit longer now, depending on how much the rent was. Then out.


‘Then out,’ she said aloud.


Hayley gave her a sideways look.


‘We could get a Chinese on the way back.’


‘You never know what’s in that stuff, and anyway, it costs a fortune.’


‘Fish and chips?’


‘No,’ Abi said, getting up. ‘There’s beans and eggs at our place. Saves money.’


She went out earlier than usual, well before nine. The punters were different, not like the midnight ones who’d been in the pub, or were coming off a late shift at the Bevham canning factory and smelled of boiled meat. And a lot of the girls didn’t come out till at least ten o’clock, so she could earn more.


The kids had been asleep, apart from Frankie who was playing up, and she’d been worried about leaving them to it. But he was sometimes better with Hayley than he was with her, though Hayley never bothered doing anything with them, never did a colouring book with them or talked, they messed about and then went to sleep while she watched whatever she watched. So long as that was all she did, Abi didn’t care. Had she kicked it? Was she going to believe her? She had to believe her. Not believing her wasn’t an option when they were going to share. Everything was riding on that.


It was a mild night. She walked down to her usual pitch on the corner near the printworks, but before she got there, she saw the patrol cars parked up, and she doubled back towards the canal. If they were here every night, there were going to be no punters at all. But they couldn’t have a police car on every corner, and the punters would soon find out where it was clear, where the girls were. Anyway, what was the point of them? They should be out looking for Jonty Lewis. He’d have done both, Marie and that girl Chantelle.


Loopy Les probably wouldn’t be out for a bit though. He wouldn’t risk it. He’d been warned once. She felt sorry, in an odd way. He was weird but not so weird that you wanted to run.


She found what seemed like a good place, out of sight of the patrol cars. There was another girl she knew further down on the opposite side. Marie came into her mind again, Marie and the inside of the caravan after he’d wrecked it. That had been her home, whatever it was like, whatever went on there, and he’d beaten it up and then killed her. Scum.


A Toyota slowed down.


After that, it went dead. She walked up, back, up again. Then crossed over to where the other girl was leaning against the wooden paling, lighting a cigarette.


‘They’re all running scared,’ she said. ‘You had any business?’


‘One.’


‘I can’t live on this. Bloody cops.’


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‘Suppose they’ve got to put on a show of doing something.’


The girl made a face and walked off.


Half an hour. Nothing. Not even the Reachout van.


Then something. Jaguar. Newish. You didn’t get many like that but when you did it was worth it. Abi went over quickly.


She’d been right. The Jaguar sped off fast, leaving her with a roll of notes. Two hundred pounds. She wondered if he’d even known how much cash he had and how much he’d handed over to her. He’d been smart, smelled expensive, looked nervous. She thought of him pushing off home to one of the big houses behind gates on the other side of town, garage doors opening as he drove up, nice sitting room, drinks tray, wife.


Two hundred quid.


She’d be home before half eleven. She’d cut over the footbridge and up to the all-night shop, get them a couple of bottles of beer, crisps and chocolate. They could pig out watching a late film. You had to have a treat sometime.


Two hundred quid, no trouble. It made her think about the girls who went upmarket, escort agencies in London and stuff like that. Except that they were all beautiful with fantastic hair and skin, classy-looking – Russian and Oriental girls – and how did she think she could compete with them? Abi Righton, poor skin, scratty hair, wonky teeth.


Still. She touched the roll of notes in her skirt pocket. It wasn’t bad.


The other girl had gone. The trouble was, the police scared everyone off, far more than the thought that Jonty Lewis was hanging about somewhere. Scared the girls off, scared the punters off, even scared Loopy Les.


Down the track leading to the towpath, she almost slipped on a muddy patch, and in reaching out to save herself from falling, grabbed at a piece of broken fence and felt something go into the palm of her hand, a jagged piece of wood or a nail, she couldn’t tell. It hurt though, enough to make her stop. It was too dark to see anything much but when she put her hand to her mouth she tasted salty blood. OK, so the all-night shop would sell plasters. She sucked on the cut for a minute until the stinging eased.


Then she heard it, the faint low whistle. Or maybe the bushes just rustling. She stopped again and listened.


This time it was a soft breathing, a sighing sound instead of a whistle.


In spite of herself, in spite of her ice-cold nerves and her knowledge that it had been Jonty Lewis who had murdered Marie and probably Chantelle as well, in spite of not caring a toss for the likes of scum like him, down on the towpath or not, in spite of all that, she felt panic rise from the pit of her stomach and run through her until it reached the back of her throat.


‘SSSSSSS.’


How many times had she told herself not to come this way and then done it, and always moved quickly, knowing her way and usually sure-footed, easily ahead of anyone who might be hanging about.


Her hand was throbbing where she had cut it.


‘HHHHHHAAAAA.’


Right behind her.


Abi spun round so fast she almost overbalanced again. She had reached the steps up to the footbridge. Once on the footbridge, she could outrun him.


‘Here.’


After all that, it was only him, not Jonty Lewis, not some stranger lurking, waiting to terrify her. Only him.


‘Come here, come on.’


She wasn’t going. She’d had enough, she had well over two hundred pounds in her pocket, she didn’t need his money, and anyway, even though she knew him he still gave her the creeps.


She started up the steps two at a time, but he was quicker than she expected. She felt him reach out from behind, his hands on her sleeve and then, expertly, as if he had done it so many times before, his arm hooked tight round her throat and his strength, extraordinary strength, she thought with a terrible sense of surprise, dragging her backwards, her feet trailing on the wooden bridge and then down each step, back again, back and back and back into blackness.


Thirty-one


Stephen Webber sat looking down at the letter on the table in front of him. The work on the Deanery was nowhere near finished, so he was having to work on this table rather than at his own desk, and it was not well placed for the light, but then, nothing in this house was well placed and he was beginning to notice the small irritations of being unable to find things, having his papers and books in an unfamiliar and temporary order. In the great scheme of things he knew that none of it mattered, but his life since coming to Lafferton had been far more stressful than he had expected and it would have helped him stay afloat if they had been settled in their permanent home.


He was calmly certain that he was right to be making the changes he had set in train and startled that many of them had met with such ferocious opposition. On some days he felt as if he were holding back a rising tide of anger and resentment, rather than carrying the staff and congregation with him into what he thought of as an exciting new life, and he was not temperamentally suited to battles and argument.


The letter gave warning of more conflict. It was clear, concise, polite and angry, an expression of deep concern from the organist and master of the choristers, David Lester, voicing his regret that the Dean seemed intent on changing the cathedral services so radically that the choir was being sidelined and the high musical standard that had always been upheld imperilled. There might be room for the new and the ‘popular’, Lester wrote, but there was none for the third-rate, none for the lowest common denominator of music and liturgy, hymns and accompaniment. Unless he could be assured that a halt was called and a return made to former standards, he would be obliged to consider his position.


The Dean felt a surge of what he could only have described as hopelessness in the face of such a letter, whose general cold tone barely concealed both rage and, he understood, great hurt, together with a profound contempt for the new regime. Lester was a man who wore his prickliness on the outside, as liable to cause sharp pain as the spines of a hedgehog, and the thought of having any sort of discussion with him about music was not one the Dean wanted to face. He believed that it was the role of the cathedral to meet the changing needs of the people, not cater to the elitist taste of the existing director of music or the conservative standards of a diehard congregation. He had come from a large London parish in which the average age of those attending all the services had gone down dramatically during his time there, so that when he had left, most people were under forty, and many of them under twenty-five. Lafferton’s congregation had an average age of fifty-five, though the family service was well attended by parents with young children. But students, teenagers, twenty- and thirty-something singles and young marrieds were conspicuous by their absence, put off, Stephen was sure, by the formality, the distancing effect of the traditional choral services and the highbrow music, and by a liturgy which seemed to touch their own lives and tastes and concerns at no point whatsoever. He had no doubt that he could do at St Michael’s what he had done at All Saints, push through change and a new agenda and pack the building with an altogether younger and more vibrant crowd of people. It would take energy and enthusiasm and a great deal of collaboration with the rest of his team, and it meant, as he knew, hard work. But energy spent in battles with the existing regime was energy wasted and he did not intend to dissipate his own strengths in such a negative and unproductive way.


He did not want to confront David Lester. He thought he would sleep on the letter and reply to it pleasantly and firmly the following day, not giving way but trying to give the impression that he understood his concerns and that he would much prefer him to be onside. Privately, though, he knew Lester would realise before long that things were never going to return to the old way, and he might well want to look for a post elsewhere. Also privately, Stephen would not be particularly sorry to see him go. David was not an easy man and there were others who would see the point of all the changes and be eager to start implementing them.


As he set the letter aside the door was flung open. Ruth came in. Her hair, which was normally tied back in a band or piece of ribbon, was loose and looked as if she had shaken her head vigorously. She was wearing a skirt and a smile which immediately made him uneasy.


‘Come on,’ she said, going over and taking his arm to pull him up, ‘I’ve had the most fantastic idea, I want to show you now, it’s just perfect, I’ve been wondering about it for ages but suddenly it came to me. You’ll see, you’ll see.’


‘Ruth …’


‘Oh, stop stuttering. Come on, Stephen.’


‘Where is it you want me to go?’


He hung back, reluctant to let her persuade him, whatever her idea was, knowing what was happening.


‘The crypt. Come on, Stephen, you’ll see what I mean straight away. It’s the most brilliant idea.’


She was ahead of him, half running, half dancing across to the side door beside the chapter house and pushing it open, waving for him to hurry.


Apart from a few visitors looking up in awe at the great ribbed roof to where the carved and gilded angels were poised as if about to take flight, the place was almost empty at this time in the morning. A vacuum cleaner hummed over the floor of the chancel, out of sight.


The crypt was beyond it at the end of the west aisle, approached down four shallow stone steps and through an iron grille which was always open. Now, sunlight came slanting in through the high window slits onto the tiled floor. The space was little used. The yeomanry flags were kept here, furled on their poles, and there was a plain altar with a single rail and kneeler in front of it. The whole had an air of neglect, though it was cleaned as regularly as the rest of the building.


Ruth had bounced down the steps and now she stood in the centre of the crypt with her arms flung out, before turning round and round in a solemn little dance.


‘You see? Perfect. It’s exactly the place.’


‘For … ?’


‘The shelter – a place for them to come. The Magdalene Group can take this over and it will be a place where the girls on the street can come to get counselling and where they can be safe and … everything I told you. This is a dead space, nobody uses it, so now we can. I knew there’d be somewhere, I asked for guidance and I was led straight here. I’d thought of perhaps a room in the Song School or maybe part of the Chapter House but this is so much better because they won’t feel they’re being pushed out of the way – this is in the heart of God’s building, you see, I thought we –’

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