Authors: Michael Robotham
Tags: #Fiction, #Psychological, #Psychological Fiction, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Suicide, #Psychology Teachers, #O'Loughlin; Joe (Fictitious Character), #Bath (England)
She laughs. ‘No.’
‘What’s so funny?’
‘The thought of Dirk being married.’
I can hear her tights scrape as she crosses her legs. Her eyes are no longer focused on the menu. She’s somewhere else. It strikes me how different she’s grown since she started working, how disengaged. In the midst of a conversation she can suddenly seem to be a thousand miles away.
‘I’d like to meet your workmates,’ I say.
Her eyes come back to me. ‘Real y?’
‘You sound surprised.’
surprised. You’ve never shown any interest.’
‘Wel , there’s an office party next Saturday— our tenth anniversary. I didn’t think you wanted to go.’
‘I told you about it weeks ago.’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘I do want to go. It’l be fun.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. We can get a hotel room. Make a weekend of it.’
My foot find hers beneath the table, less gently than I’d hoped. She flinches as though I’ve tried to kick her. I apologise and feel my heart vibrating. Only it’s not my heart. It’s my phone.
I hold my hand against the pocket, wishing I’d turned it off. Julianne takes a sip of wine and ponders my dilemma. ‘Aren’t you going to answer it?’
Her shrug is not ambivalent or open to interpretation. I know what she’s thinking. I flip open the handset. DI Cray’s number is on the screen.
‘Where are you?’
‘At a restaurant.’
‘What’s the address? I’m sending a car.’
‘Maureen Bracken has been missing since six o’clock this evening. Her ex-husband found the front door wide open. Her car is gone. Her mobile is engaged.’
My heart swel s and wedges in my throat.
‘Where’s her son?’
‘Home. He was late getting back from footbal training. Someone stole his mobile phone. When he went back to look, he got locked in the changing rooms.’
My surging stare goes straight through Julianne. DI Cray is stil talking.
‘Oliver Rabb is trying to get a fix on the mobile. It’s stil transmitting.’
‘I told him to stay at the house in case his ex-wife cal s. There’s an officer with him. Ten minutes, Professor. Be waiting outside.’
The cal ends. I look at Julianne. Her face doesn’t begin to hint at what’s on her mind.
I tel her that I have to leave. I tel her why. Without a word she stands and gathers her coat. We haven’t ordered. We haven’t eaten. She signals for the bil and pays for the wine.
I fol ow her across the restaurant, her hips swinging fluidly beneath her dress, articulating more in a few paces than most people manage in an hour of conversation. I walk her to the car.
She gets in. There’s no kiss goodbye. Her face is an unknowable combination of disappointment and disconnection. I want to go after her, to win back the moment, but it’s too late.
Fears and imaginings. They begin as a tiny ceaseless tremor inside me, a buzzing blade that gnaws at the soft wet tissue opening up great cavities that are stil not large enough for my lungs to expand.
I have talked to Bruno. He is a different man. Diminished. It is after midnight. Maureen is stil missing. Her mobile phone has stopped transmitting. Oliver Rabb has traced the dying signal to a phone tower on the southern edge of Victoria Park in Bath. Police are searching the surrounding streets.
Coincidences and smal occurrences keep adding themselves to this story, complicating the picture instead of making it clearer. The emails. The reunion. Gideon Tyler. I have no clear evidence he is behind this. Ruiz has gone to his last known address. There’s nobody home.
Veronica Cray has made two official requests to the MOD for information. So far silence. We have no idea if Tyler is stil serving in the army or if he’s resigned his commission. When did he leave Germany? How long has he been home? What’s he been doing?
Maureen’s car is found just after 5.00 a.m., parked in Queen Street near the gates to Victoria Park. Two standing lions watch over the vehicle from stone plinths. The headlights are on.
The driver’s door is open. Maureen’s mobile is resting on the seat. The battery is dead.
Victoria Park covers fifty-seven acres and has seven entrances. I look through the railing fences into the gloom. The sky is purple black, an hour before dawn and the air is freezing. We could have a thousand officers turning over every leaf and stil not find Maureen.
Instead we have two dozen officers wearing reflective vests and carrying torches. The dog squad wil be here by seven. A helicopter sweeps above us, tethered by a beam of light to the ground.
We move off in pairs. Monk is with me. His long legs are made for crossing open ground in the dark; and his voice is like a foghorn. I hold a torch in one hand and my walking stick in the other, watching the beam of light reflect off wet grass and the trees, turning them silver.
Staying on the gravel path until we pass the tennis courts and the pitch & putt, we then veer right climbing the slope. On the high side of the park, the Pal adian style terraces of the Royal Crescent are etched against the sky. Lights are coming on. People have heard the helicopter.
Two dozen torches are moving between the trees like bloated fireflies, unable to lift off. At the same time the park lights are like bal s of yel ow blurred by the pre-dawn mist.
Monk is carrying a radio. He stops suddenly and raises it to his ear. The message is punctuated by static. I catch only a few words. Maureen’s name is mentioned and something about a gun.
‘Come on, Professor,’ says Monk, grabbing my arm.
‘What is it?’
Half-running and half-hobbling, I struggle to keep up with him. We head west along Royal Avenue towards the fishpond and the adventure playground. I know this area of Victoria Park. I have been here with Charlie and Emma, watching hot air bal oons lift off on twilight flights.
The old Victorian bandstand appears from the darkness like an enormous cake mould cut in half and plonked near the pond. Low hanging branches reach across the gaps in the trees.
I see her then. Maureen. Naked. Kneeling at the base of the bandstand with her arms spread wide in a classic stress position. Her arms must be in agony— growing heavier by the moment.
Clasped tightly in her left fist is a pistol, adding to the weight. She’s wearing a black eye mask— the sort they give out on long-distance airline flights.
A torch beam hits my face. I raise my hand to shield my eyes. Safari Roy lowers the beam.
‘I’ve cal ed ARG.’
I look at Monk for an explanation.
‘The Armed Response Group,’ he says.
‘I don’t think she’s going to shoot anyone.’
‘It’s protocol. She has a firearm.’
‘Has she made any threat?’
Roy looks at me incredulously. ‘Wel , that gun looks fairly fucking threatening. Every time we get close she waves it around.’
I peer across the open ground. Maureen is kneeling with her head tilted forward. Apart from the mask over her eyes, there is something else around her head. She’s wearing headphones.
‘She can’t hear you,’ I say.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look at the headphones. They’re probably attached to a mobile. She’s talking to someone.’
Roy sucks air through his teeth.
It’s happening again. He’s isolating her.
DI Cray arrives, breathing hard. The cuffs of her trousers are wet and she’s wearing a wool en ski hat which makes her face look completely round. ‘Where in fuck’s name did she get a gun?’
Nobody answers. A fat duck, startled by the noise, takes off from the weeds that fringe the pond. For a moment it seems to walk on the water before gaining height and lifting its undercarriage.
Maureen must be freezing. How long has she been out here? Her car engine was cold and the headlights had almost drained the battery. She was last seen twelve hours ago. He’s had al this time to break her… to fil her mind with terrible thoughts, to drip poison in her ear.
Where is he? Watching. Police should seal off the park and set up roadblocks. No. Once he sees officers begin to fan out to search for him, he’l probably make Maureen do something with the gun. We have to move quietly— from the outside in.
First we have to terminate the cal . There must be some way to isolate the nearest phone tower and close it down. Terrorists use mobile phones to detonate bombs. Surely there’s a black out switch to freeze communications if a bomb threat is made.
Maureen hasn’t moved. The mask makes her eyes look like black hol ows. Her arms are shaking uncontrol ably. The pistol is too heavy to hold aloft. A puddle of darkness stains the concrete at her feet.
Somehow I have to break the spel he’s cast over her. A thought loop is running in Maureen’s head. It’s similar to those experienced by obsessive compulsives who must wash their hands a certain number of times or check the locks or turn off the lights in a certain order. He has put these thoughts in her mind— now she can’t let them go. I have to disrupt this loop, but how? She can’t hear me or see me.
The darkness is receding. The wind has died. I can hear sirens in the distance. The Armed Response Group. They’re coming with guns.
Maureen’s arms are dropping. They’re too heavy. Maybe if the police rushed her, they could disarm her before she fired.
Veronica Cray is signal ing her officers to stay back. She doesn’t want casualties. I catch her attention. ‘Let me talk to her.’
‘She can’t hear you.’
‘Let me try.’
‘Wait for the ARG.’
‘She can’t hold that gun up much longer.’
‘No. He’l make her do something before then.’
She glances at Monk. ‘Get him a bul etproof vest.’
The vest is fetched from one of the cars. The buckles are loosened and then tightened around my chest. Monk embraces me like a tango dancer. The vest is lighter than I imagined, but stil bulky. I pause a moment. The sky has turned to turquoise and watery mauve. Picking up my walking stick and a trauma blanket, I move towards Maureen, watching the pistol in her right hand.
Stopping about fifteen yards away, I say her name. She doesn’t react. The headphones have separated her from her surroundings. I can just make out the wire running down her chest to a mobile phone resting between her knees.
I say her name again, louder this time. The gun swings towards me— too far to the left and then to the right. He’s tel ing her where to aim.
I move to the left. The gun fol ows me. If I were suddenly to throw myself at her, she might not have time to react. Perhaps I could wrestle the gun away.
This is stupid. Foolish. I can hear Julianne’s voice. Arguing. ‘Why are you the one who charges into danger?’ she says. ‘Why can’t you be the one who runs the other way, shouting for help?’
I’m at the steps now. Raising my walking stick, I smash it down hard on the handrail. The crack reverberates through the park, magnified by the fading darkness. Maureen flinches. She’s heard the sound.
I smash the handrail again once, twice, three times, diverting her attention from the voice in her ears. She shakes her head. Her left arm bends and her fingers lift the mask from her eyes. She blinks at me, trying to focus. Her eyes are streaked with tears. The barrel of the gun hasn’t moved. She doesn’t
to shoot me.
I motion for Maureen to take off the headphones. She shakes her head. I raise a finger and mouth the words, ‘One minute.’
Another refusal. She’s listening to him, not me.
I take a step towards her. The gun steadies. I wonder how effective these vests are. Wil they stop a bul et from this range?
Maureen nods to nobody and reaches for the headphones, lifting a cup away from her left ear. He told her to do it. He
her to hear me.
‘Do you remember me, Maureen?’
A quick nod of the head.
‘Do you know where you are?’
‘I understand what’s happening, Maureen. Somebody is talking to you. You can hear him now.’ Hair has fal en over her eyes. ‘He says that he has someone… someone close to you.
‘It’s not true, Maureen. He doesn’t have Jackson. He’s lying to you.’
She shakes her head.
‘Listen to me. Jackson is at home with Bruno. He’s safe. Remember what happened to Christine and Sylvia? The same thing. He told Christine that he had Darcy and Sylvia that he had Alice, but it wasn’t true. Darcy and Alice were fine. They were never in danger.’
She wants to believe me.
‘I know he’s very convincing, Maureen. He knows things about you, doesn’t he?’
‘And he knows things about Jackson. Where he goes to school. What he looks like.’
Maureen sobs, ‘He was late getting home… I waited… I cal ed Jackson’s phone.’
‘Someone stole it.’
‘I heard him screaming.’
‘It was a trick. Jackson was locked in the changing rooms at footbal practice. But he’s out now. He’s safe.’
I’m trying not to stare at the barrel of the gun. The pieces are together now. He must have stolen Jackson’s mobile and locked him in the changing rooms. His cries for help were recorded and played down the line to Maureen.
She heard her son screaming. It was enough to convince her. It would have convinced most people. It would have convinced me.
The barrel of the pistol is al over the place, painting the air. Maureen’s right forefinger is curled around the trigger. Her hands are freezing. Even if she wanted to uncurl her finger she probably couldn’t.
In the periphery of my vision I see dark shapes crouching between the trees and shrubs. The Armed Response Group. They have rifles.
‘Listen to me, Maureen. You can talk to Jackson. Put down the gun and we’l phone him right now.’ I take out my mobile. ‘I’l cal Bruno. He’l put Jackson on the line.’
I can feel the change in her. She’s listening. She wants to believe me… to hope. Then just as suddenly, in a half-breath, her eyes widen and she drops the cup of the headphone over her ear.