Authors: Jane A. Adams
They were led into what looked as if it had been the front office, uncarpeted and with a scuffed desk and wooden chair filling most of the space, then back into the rear of the property, a large area with a small kitchen off to one side. Two others sat at a table, drinking tea. The walls were clad in pitted woodchip, which in turn was overlaid by maps and photographs and all the trappings of a crime-scene briefing room. Along one wall two desks had been placed, on which computers had been set, and a third desk was stacked high with box files and folders. It looked as though the trio had just moved in and not yet fully unpacked.
âSo.' The tall man turned now and surveyed Alec and Travers. âNick Travers I know already; you I know by reputation.'
Worrying, Alec thought.
âDI Eddison,' the man said, extending his hand.
Alec shook, murmured something about being pleased to meet him. In truth, he was annoyed. What was going on here?
Eddison pointed at the dark-haired man still seated at the table. âDS Munroe,' he said and, indicating the blond, âDI Parks. Sit down and I'll get the kettle on.'
âWhy are we meeting here?' Travers asked.
âBecause it's private,' Munroe said. âBecause it's about midway between where Neil Robinson was in prison and where that journalist died, and because there are bigger concerns that don't need to be the subject of canteen gossip.'
Alec raised an eyebrow and glanced at his boss. Travers' face was expressionless, or at least would seem so to the casual observer. The slight tic at the corner of his mouth told Alec that Travers was as unamused as Alec.
Parks laughed softly, and Alec reviewed the man more carefully. Pale eyes set in a round face that, with the slightly waving blond hair, should almost have been cherubic but was in fact anything but. He was the sort of man, Alec found himself observing, who would have looked right with a crew cut and an earring. He corrected himself almost at once. That wasn't right either; there was something more behind the eyes than mere thug. Something feral.
Alec sat at the table and, reluctantly, Travers drew out a chair and plonked himself down close by. âI'm told you want me to review the Robinson case. From my angle, I mean?' Alec let the question hang.
Munroe nodded; Parks sipped his tea. âWe've read your report, scanned the files. There were some loose ends when you signed off on it?'
âTrue, there were. It was decided that I'd taken things as far as I could, that we needed to bring in an expert eye. My then boss decided that as we'd got enough for a conviction for the con Robinson was running â that and a GBH â we should cut our losses and let someone else tie up anything left hanging.'
âA decision you didn't like,' Parks commented.
Alec smiled. âI don't like unfinished business,' he said. âIt feels odd not to wrap everything up properly. Though,' he added, âon this occasion I couldn't argue with the logic.' He glanced at Travers. His boss was watching Eddison as he moved about the small kitchen. Watching as though the presence of the man upset him, made him uneasy. Alec, puzzled, wondered just what had happened when they'd last met at whatever conference it had been and if more had been delivered than a conference paper. Somehow, it was difficult to equate this big, rather slow-moving man, who looked like a long-retired rugby player or punch drunk heavyweight boxer, with an erudite presentation on some obscure element of cyber crime.
âI'm told Jamie Dale was murdered,' Alec said.
He felt, rather than saw, Travers flinch, and wondered if Travers was even meant to know that, never mind impart the information. And if not, why not?
âShe was,' Munroe agreed. âNasty way to die. She tried to make a phone call, got through to emergency services but she was unable to tell them where she was.' He sniffed. âNot that it would have helped. Operator stayed on the line till he lost the signal. He's still having counselling, apparently. They reckon he can't go to sleep, not without hearing her screaming over the phone as she died.' He met Alec's gaze squarely, and Alec felt he was being tested, his reaction assessed. âThankfully, the smoke got to her and she passed out before the flames took a real hold.' Munroe's voice was oddly soft. That softness somehow added emphasis to the horror of his words.
a terrible way to die,' Alec said. âI've always thought it must be one of the worst.'
Parks emitted a soft grunt. Alec realized it was a stifled laugh. He let it go, not sure what to make of all this. Was it some test of machismo? Alec had little time for such displays and little patience with their practitioners.
âIs there a point to all this?'
Eddison came through with mugs of tea clasped awkwardly in one ham fist and a handful of sugar packs in the other. Alec noted that they bore the name of a motorway service station.
âThe point is,' Eddison said, âthat you worked the Robinson case and you also knew the dead woman. That makes you potentially very useful.'
âKnew,' Alec emphasized. âI'd not spoken to Jamie in years, not properly. We exchanged Christmas and birthday cards, the odd email, but that was about the extent of it.'
âWhich in Miss Dale's world qualifies you and your wife as bosom buddies,' Parks said. âShe wasn't what you'd call one for making friends.'
âMy wife? What doesâ?' He frowned. And that didn't ring true about Jamie Dale either. The one thing she had always been was gregarious. He said so.
Munroe shrugged. âPeople change,' he said. âShe dumped her last boyfriend two years ago. He says he still doesn't know why. It was one of those “it's not you, it's me” conversations women seem to be good at and men don't understand.'
Parks grunted again; Alec assumed he was amused, in agreement or possibly both.
âHe tried to get in touch a time or two, but she changed her number, moved away, let all her old friends know she wasn't available. Finally, they stopped calling.'
âI didn't know,' Alec said. âThat doesn't sound anything like the Jamie we knew.'
âWhen did you last hear from her? Get the usual Christmas card, did you?'
Alec thought about it and nodded. âYes, she'd changed her address. We couldn't remember when we'd sent her card, so we sent another one just to be sure she got it.'
âSay much, did she?'
âI don't think so. Just the new address and some comment about getting together some time. I think that was about it.'
âAnd that was the usual sort of message?' Eddison asked.
Alec took a swallow of tea. It was too hot and went down hard, burning his throat. He tried to remember what that last card had said. And the ones before. Truth be told, he had taken very little notice. Naomi would know; he read the cards out to her, and she told him what to put by way of reply. Left to his own devices, Alec would probably not even have got around to buying Christmas cards, never mind writing them.
âI think she said that most years,' he ventured. âYou know, the sort of casual remark people make about getting together when they know it won't happen.'
âAnd would you have minded if it had?' This from Travers. The first contribution he had made to the conversation since they had arrived.
Alec turned to look at his boss, wondering at the question. Would he have minded? âNo,' he said, âwhy should I mind? Naomi probably knew Jamie better than I did. Before Jamie left for London they used to meet up a couple of times a month for a coffee or a drink. Not just them; they belonged to the same group of friends.'
âUnusual friendship,' Parks remarked. âA copper and a journo. The two tribes don't generally mix it, do they?'
âI don't think their choice of profession impacted on their friendship,' Alec said coldly.
Parks laughed. Not just a grunt this time, but a recognizable sound. Alec didn't like it any better.
âLeave off,' Munroe said, and Parks shut up.
Alec sipped his tea more cautiously this time and surveyed the trio. It seemed to him that Eddison might be the senior officer, but it was this Munroe who was in control.
âIt's late,' Munroe said, underlining Alec's assessment. âWhat say we give you directions to your digs and then continue this in the morning? Say nine?'
Travers was already on his feet.
âRight,' Alec said. âSee you all in the morning then.'
Following his boss out, he took a moment to scan the images pinned to the walls. Split into two frames, one for Jamie Dale and one for Neil Robinson, they showed both in death. Alec didn't look too hard; morning would be soon enough for that. A single image of each as they had been in life topped the collages. Neil Robinson in what Alec saw was a prison photo, and a picture of Jamie Dale, older than he remembered her. Still pretty, still smiling, though something behind the eyes was new. This Jamie was more worldly wise, less trusting, less exuberant â and, Alec would have sworn, scared. Or was that just projection on his part?
Travers did not speak until they were both in the car, and even then it was simply to direct him to program the satnav.
âWhat's going on?' Alec demanded as they drove away.
âWhat is it with you and Eddison?'
Travers shrugged again. âI barely know the man.'
âYou know him well enough to hate his guts.'
âI barely know the man,' Travers repeated.
Alec gave up. He let the silence hang for a while and then asked, âWhat about the other two? You know about them?'
âParks I've heard about. Munroe is new to me.'
âDS Munroe,' Alec mused. âCome off it, Trav, he's no more a DS than you are. So what the hellâ?'
âAlec, drop it,' Travers flared. âWe're here to brief the team then get ourselves back home. That's it.'
âSo why all the secrecy? Why did they want you tagging along? Why bring two senior officers all the way over here when I could have handled the whole thing with a phone call? Look, we've known one another, what, close to twenty years? In all that time I've never seen you this rattled.'
âWho says I'm rattled? Alec, you're imagining things.' Travers laughed, but it was a hollow sound. âLooks like we're here,' he added as they reached a traffic island and saw the signs for services. The satnav announced that they had reached their destination.
âI'm not letting this go,' Alec warned him.
Travers did not respond. He parked the car, and they retrieved their luggage from the boot. In the distance Alec could hear the roar of traffic. A motorway, he assumed. He could see the lights of the services just across the car park from the motel, noting with little enthusiasm that it was one of the large chains providing overnight accommodation to the weary motorist, then â with slightly more enthusiasm â that at least there appeared to be a restaurant. His stomach reminded him that the sandwich Naomi had made for him was a distant memory. He must call her.
Their rooms had been booked and paid for, for three nights. Breakfast was included, but any extras would have to be settled up by them, the receptionist said. Travers nodded and took off in the direction of his room. Alec paused to ask about the restaurant, was told that it would be open for another hour. After that, food was available twenty-four-hours a day at the main complex across at the services.
Alec thanked her. âWho made the reservations?' he asked. âI need to know so the paperwork gets to the right place.'
She smiled and checked the records. âA Mr Munroe,' she said. âHe said it would be for three nights initially and he'd let us know after that.'
Munroe again. âThank you,' Alec said and made his way to his room.
he sound of a car pulling into the drive, wheels crunching on the gravel, brought Naomi to the window. It was as if, at moments of crisis, her sighted self took control, body memory from that time still dominant, so she behaved as though she could still see.
The knock at the front door startled her, and she unlocked the bedroom door slowly and stood uncertain at the top of the stairs, Napoleon pressed close to her side.
âNaomi.' A familiar voice calling through the letterbox. âNaomi, it's Megan Allison. You going to let me in or what?'
âAre you all right, love?' Megan demanded when Naomi opened the door. âConstable Watkins is trampling through your flower beds, by the way. He's a probationer. Nice lad, big feet yet though.'
Naomi laughed. Big feet was a Meganism for someone still learning about the diplomatic side of the job. Some people, according to Megan, had feet that just kept on growing no matter how long they were in the force.
âI'm all right, just a bit shaken. Did Don tell you what happened?'
âHe did. What's all that about then? Would have freaked me out, I can tell you. Any chance of a cuppa?'
âOf course. Come on through to the kitchen, we can let your constable in the back way.'
Having something to do with her hands always calmed her, and the simple actions of filling the kettle and getting mugs from the cupboard made it easier to talk. Naomi told Megan what had happened, giving as much detail as she could and grateful that the other woman knew her well enough not to fuss around with unnecessary offers of help. She needed to be doing.
Constable Watkins joined them, and Megan made Naomi tell the story again for his benefit and also, Naomi understood, for her own. Megan was astute enough to pick up on any small shifts in the second telling. Any little changes of emphasis. Naomi would have done the same; stories become fixed with retelling, mistakes and misconceptions more firmly embedded, and that first recollection needed to be recorded and then checked. She could hear them both taking notes and Constable Watkins' nervous cough before he dared to ask her the odd question.
No doubt he knew about Megan's theory regarding feet.