Authors: Peter Robinson
RANCES MUST BE
late, surely, Reed thought as he stood waiting on the bridge by the railway station. He was beginning to feel restless and uncomfortable; the handles of his bag bit into his palm, and he noticed that the rain promised in the forecast that morning was already starting to fall.
Wonderful! Here he was, over two hundred miles away from home, and Francis hadn't turned up. But Reed couldn't be sure about that. Perhaps
was early. They had made the same arrangement three or four times over the past five years, but for the life of him Reed couldn't remember the exact time they'd met.
Reed turned and noticed a plump woman in a threadbare blue overcoat come struggling against the wind over the bridge towards him. She pushed a large stroller, in which two infants fought and squealed.
“Excuse me,” he called out as she neared him, “could you tell me what time school gets out?”
The woman gave him a funny lookâeither puzzlement or irritation, he couldn't decide whichâand answered in the clipped, nasal accent peculiar to the Midlands, “Half past three.” Then she hurried by, giving Reed a wide berth.
He was wrong. For some reason he had got it into his mind that Francis finished teaching at three o'clock. It was only twenty-Âfive past now, so there would be at least another fifteen minutes to wait before the familiar red Escort came into sight.
The rain was getting heavier and the wind lashed it hard against Reed's face. A few yards up the road from the bridge was the bus station, which was attached to a large modern shopping center, all glass and escalators. Reed could stand in the entrance there just beyond the doors, where it was warm and dry, and still watch for Francis.
At about twenty-Âfive to four, the first schoolchildren came dashing over the bridge and into the bus station, satchels swinging, voices shrill and loud with freedom. The rain didn't seem to bother them, Reed noticed: hair lay plastered to skulls; beads of rain hung on the tips of noses. Most of the boys' ties were askew, their socks hung loose around their ankles and their shoelaces snaked along the ground. It was a wonder they didn't trip over themselves. Reed smiled, remembering his own schooldays.
And how alluring the girls looked as they ran smiling and laughing out of the rain into the shelter of the mall. Not the really young ones, the unformed ones, but the older, long-Âlimbed girls, newly aware of their breasts and the swelling of their hips. They wore their clothes carelessly: blouses hanging out, black woolly tights twisted or torn at the knees. To Reed, there was something wanton in their disarray.
These days, of course, they probably all knew what was what, but Reed couldn't help but feel that there was also a certain innocence about them: a naive, carefree grace in the way they moved and a casual freedom in their laughter and gestures. Life hadn't got to them yet; they hadn't felt its weight and seen the darkness at its core.
Mustn't get carried away, Reed told himself, with a smile. It was all very well to joke with Bill in the office about how sexy the schoolgirls who passed the window each day were, but it was positively unhealthy to mean it, or (God forbid!) attempt to do anything about it. He couldn't be turning into a dirty old man at thirty-Âfive, could he? Sometimes the power and violence of his fantasies worried him, but perhaps everyone else had them too. It wasn't something you could talk about at work. He didn't really think he was abnormal; after all, he hadn't acted them out, and you couldn't be arrested for your fantasies, could you?
Where the hell was Francis? Reed peered out through the glass. Windblown rain lashed across the huge plate windows and distorted the outside world. All detail was obliterated in favor of the overall mood: gray-Âglum and dream-Âlike.
Reed glanced at his watch again. After four o'clock. The only schoolchildren left now were the stragglers, the ones who lived nearby and didn't have to hurry for a bus. They sauntered over the bridge, shoving each other, playing tag, hopping and skipping over the cracks in the pavement, oblivious to the rain and the wind that drove it.
Francis ought to be here by now. Worried, Reed went over the arrangements again in his mind. He knew that he'd got the date right because he'd written it down in his appointment book. Reed had tried to call the previous evening to confirm, but no one had answered. If Francis had been trying to get in touch with him at work or at home, he would have been out of luck. Reed had been visiting another old friendâthis one in Exeterâand Elsie, the office receptionist, could hardly be trusted to get her own name right.
When five o'clock came and there was still no sign of Francis, Reed picked up his bag again and walked back down to the station. It was still raining, but not so fast, and the wind had dropped. The only train back home that night left Birmingham at nine-Âforty and didn't get to Carlisle until well after midnight. By then the local buses would have stopped running and he would have to get a taxi. Was it worth it?
There wasn't much alternative, really. A hotel would be too expensive. Still, the idea had its appeal: a warm room with a soft bed, shower, color television and maybe even a bar downstairs, where he might meet a girl. He would just have to decide later. Anyway, if he did want to catch the train, he would have to take the eight-Âfifty from Redditch to get to Birmingham in time. That left three hours and fifty minutes to kill.
As he walked over the bridge and up towards the town center in the darkening evening, Reed noticed two schoolgirls walking in front of him. They must have been kept in detention, he thought, or perhaps they'd just finished sports practice. No doubt they had to do that, even in the rain. One looked dumpy from behind, but her friend was a dream: long wavy hair tumbling messily over her shoulders; short skirt flicking over her long, slim thighs; white socks fallen around her ankles, leaving her shapely calves bare. Reed watched the tendons at the back of her knees flex and loosen as she walked and thought of her struggling beneath him, his hands on her soft throat. They turned down a side street and Reed carried on ahead, shaking off his fantasy.
Could Francis have got lumbered with taking detention or sports? he wondered. Or perhaps he had passed by without even noticing Reed sheltering from the rain. He didn't know where Francis's school was, or even what it was called. Somehow, the subject had just never come up. Also, the village where Francis lived was about eight miles away from Redditch and the local bus serÂvice was terrible. Still, he could phone. If Francis were home, he'd come out again and pick Reed up.
After phoning and getting no answer, Reed walked around town for a long time looking in shop windows and wondering about how to get out of the mess he was in. His bag weighed heavy in his hand. Finally, he got hungry and ducked out of the light rain into the Tandoori Palace. It was still early, just after six, and the place was empty apart from a young Âcouple absorbed in one another in a dim corner. Reed had the waiter's undivided attention. He ordered pakoras, tandoori and dhal. The food was very good and Reed ate it too fast.
After the spiced tea, he took out his wallet to pay. He had some cash, but he had decided to have a pint or two, and he might have to take a taxi home from the station. Best hang on to the paper money. The waiter didn't seem to mind taking plastic, even for so small a sum, and Reed rewarded him with a generous tip.
Next he tried Francis again, but the phone just rang and rang. Why didn't the bugger invest in an answering machine? Reed cursed. Then he realized he didn't even have one himself, hated the things. Francis no doubt felt the same way. If you were out, tough tittie; you were out and that was that.
Outside, the street lights reflected in oily puddles on the roads and pavements. After walking off his heartburn for half an hour, thoroughly soaked and out of breath, Reed ducked into the first pub he saw. The locals eyed him suspiciously at first, then ignored him and went back to their drinks.
“Pint of bitter, please,” Reed said, rubbing his hands together. “In a sleeve glass, if you've got one.”
“Sorry, sir,” the landlord said, reaching for a mug. “The locals bring their own.”
“Oh, very well.”
“Yes,” said Reed. “Very.”
“From these parts?”
“No. Just passing through.”
“Ah.” The landlord passed over a brimming pint mug, took Reed's money and went back to the conversation he'd been having with a round-Âfaced man in a pinstripe suit. Reed took his drink over to a table and sat down.
Over the next hour and a half he phoned Francis four more times, but still got no reply. He also changed pubs after each pint, but got very little in the way of a friendly greeting. Finally, at about twenty to nine, knowing he couldn't bear to wake up in such a miserable town even if he could afford a hotel, he went back to the station and took the train home.
Because of his intended visit to Francis, Reed hadn't planned anything for the weekend at home. The weather was miserable, anyway, so he spent most of his time indoors reading and watching television, or down at the local. He tried Francis's number a few more times, but still got no reply. He also phoned Camille, hoping that her warm, lithe body and her fondness for experiment might brighten up his Saturday night and Sunday morning, but all he got was her answering machine.
On Monday evening, just as he was about to go to bed after a long day catching up on boring paperwork, the phone rang. Grouchily, he picked up the receiver: “Yes?”
“This is Francis.”
“Where the hellâÂ”
“Did you come all the way down on Friday?”
“Of course I bloody well did. I thought we had anâÂ”
“Oh God. Look, I'm sorry, mate, really I am. I tried to call. That woman at workâwhat's her name?”
“That's the one. She said she'd give you a message. I must admit she didn't sound as if she quite had her wits about her, but I'd no choice.”
Reed softened a little. “What happened?”
“My mother. You know she's been ill for a long time?”
“Well, she died last Wednesday. I had to rush off back to Manchester. Look, I really am sorry, but you can see I couldn't do anything about it, can't you?”
“It's me who should be sorry,” Reed said. “To hear about your mother, I mean.”
“Yes, well, at least there'll be no more suffering for her. Maybe we could get together in a few weeks?”
“Sure. Just let me know when.”
“All right. I've still got stuff to do, you know, things to organize. How about if I call you back in a Âcouple of weeks?”
“Great, I'll look forward to it. Bye.”
“Bye. And I'm sorry, Terry, really.”
Reed put the phone down and went to bed. So that was itâthe mystery solved.
The following evening, just after he'd arrived home from work, Reed heard a loud knock at his door. When he opened it, he saw two strangers standing there. At first he thought they were Jehovah's Witnessesâwho else came to the door in pairs, wearing suits?âbut these two didn't quite look the part. True, one did look a bit like a bible salesmanâchubby, with a cheerful, earnest expression on a face fringed by a neatly trimmed dark beardâbut the other, painfully thin, with a long, pockmarked face, looked more like an undertaker, except for the way his sharp blue eyes glittered with intelligent suspicion.
“Mr. Reed? Mr. Terence J. Reed?” the cadaverous one said, in a deep, quiet voice, just like the way Reed imagined a real undertaker would speak. And wasn't there a hint of the Midlands nasal quality in the way he slurred the vowels?
“Yes, I'm Terry Reed. What is it? What do you want?” Reed could already see, over their shoulders, his neighbors spying from their windows: little corners of white net-Âcurtain twitched aside to give a clear view.
“We're police officers, sir. Mind if we come in for a moment?” They flashed their identity cards, but put them away before Reed had time to see what was written there. He backed into the hallway and they took their opportunity to enter. As soon as they had closed the door behind them, Reed noticed the one with the beard start glancing around him, taking everything in, while the other continued to hold Reed's gaze. Finally, Reed turned and led them into the living room. He felt some kind of signal pass between them behind his back.
“Nice place you've got,” the thin one said, while the other prowled the room, picking up vases and looking inside, opening drawers an inch or two, then closing them again.
“Look, what is this?” Reed said. “Is he supposed to be poking through my things? I mean, do you have a search warrant or something?”
“Oh, don't mind him,” the tall one said. “He's just like that. Insatiable curiosity. By the way, my name's Bentley, Detective Superintendent Bentley. My colleague over there goes by the name of Inspector Rodmoor. We're from the Midlands Regional Crime Squad.” He looked to see Reed's reactions as he said this, but Reed tried to show no emotion at all.
“I still don't see what you want with me,” he said.
“Just routine,” said Bentley. “Mind if I sit down?”
“Be my guest.”
Bentley sat in the rocker by the fireplace and Reed sat opposite on the sofa. A mug of half-Âfinished coffee stood between them on the glass-Âtopped table, beside a Âcouple of unpaid bills and the latest
“Would you like something to drink?” Reed offered.
Bentley shook his head.
“What about him?” Reed glanced over nervously towards Inspector Rodmoor, who was looking through his bookcase, pulling out volumes that caught his fancy and flipping through them.
Bentley folded his hands on his lap: “Just try to forget he's here.”