The Risk of Darkness Page 1

Author: Susan Hill

Series: Simon Serrailler #3

Genres: Mystery , Thriller

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One

There was no fly and there should have been a fly. It was that sort of room. Grey linoleum. Putty walls. Chairs and tables with tubular metal legs. But in these places there was always a fly too, zizzing slowly up and down a window pane. Up and down. Up and down. Up.

The wall at the far end was covered in whiteboards and pinboards. Names. Dates. Places. Then came:

Witnesses (which was blank).

Suspects. (Blank.)

Forensics. (Blank.)

In each case.

There were five people in the conference room of the North Riding Police HQ, and they had been staring at the boards for over an hour. DCI Simon Serrailler felt as if he had spent half his life staring at one of the photographs. The bright fresh face. The protruding ears. The school tie. The newly cut hair. The expression. Interested. Alert.

David Angus. It was eight months since he had vanished from outside the gate of his own house at ten past eight one morning.

David Angus.

Simon wished there was a fly to mesmerise him, instead of the small boy’s face.

The call from DS Jim Chapman had come a couple of days earlier, in the middle of a glorious Sunday afternoon.

Simon had been sitting on the bench, padded up and waiting to bat for Lafferton Police against Bevham Hospital 2nd Eleven. The score was 228 for 5, the medics’ bowling was flaccid, and Simon thought his team might declare before he himself got in. He wasn’t sure whether he would mind or not. He enjoyed playing though he was only an average cricketer. But on such an afternoon, on such a fine ground, he was happy whether he went in to bat or not.

The swifts soared and screamed high above the pavilion and swallows skimmed the boundary. He had been low-spirited and restless during the past few months, for no particular reason and then again, for a host of them but his mood lightened now with the pleasure of the game and the prospect of a good pavilion tea. He was having supper with his sister and her family later. He remembered what his nephew Sam had said suddenly the previous week, when he and Simon had been swimming together; he had stopped mid-length, leaping up out of the water with: “Today is a GOOD day!”

Simon smiled to himself. It didn’t take much.

“Howzzzzzaaaattt?”

But the cry faded away. The batsman was safe and going for his hundred.

“Uncle Simon, hey!”

“Hi, Sam.”

His nephew came running up to the bench. He was holding the mobile, which Simon had given him to look after if he went in to bat.

“Call for you. It’s DCS Chapman from the North Riding CID.” Sam’s face was shadowed with anxiety. “Only, I thought I should ask who it was …”

“No, that’s quite right. Good work, Sam.”

Simon got up and walked round the corner of the pavilion.

“Serrailler.”

“Jim Chapman. New recruit, was it?”

“Nephew. I’m padded up, next in to bat.”

“Good man. Sorry to break into your Sunday afternoon. Any chance of you coming up here in the next couple of days?”

“The missing child?”

“Been three weeks and not a thing.”

“I could drive up tomorrow early evening and give you Tuesday and Wednesday, if you need me that long—once I’ve cleared it.”

“I just did that. Your Chief thinks a lot of you.”

There was a mighty cheer from the spectators and applause broke.

“We’re a man out, Jim. Got to go.”

Sam was waiting, keen as mustard, holding out his hand for the mobile.

“What do I do if it rings when you’re batting?”

“Take the name and number and say I’ll call back.”

“Right, guv.”

Simon bent over and tightened the buckle on his pad to hide a smile.

But as he walked out to bat, a thin fog of misery clouded around his head, blocking out the brightness of the day, souring his pleasure. The child abduction case was always there, a stain on the recesses of the mind. It was not only the fact that it was still a blank, unsolved and unresolved, but that the boy’s abductor was free to strike again. No one liked an open case, let alone one so distressing. The phone call from Jim Chapman had pulled Simon back to the Angus case, to the force, to work … and from there, to how he had started to feel about his job in the past few months. And why.

Facing the tricky spin-bowling of a cardiac registrar gave him something else to concentrate on for the moment. Simon hooked the first ball and ran.

The pony neighing from the paddock woke Cat Deerbon from a sleep of less than two hours. She lay, cramped and uncomfortable, wondering where she was. She had been called out to an elderly patient who had fallen downstairs and fractured his femur and on her return home had let the door bang and had woken her youngest child. Felix had been hungry, thirsty and cross, and in the end Cat had fallen asleep next to his cot.

Now, she sat up stiffly but his warm little body did not stir. The sun was coming through a slit in the curtains on to his face.

It was only ten past six.

The grey pony was standing by the fence grazing, but whinnied again, seeing Cat coming towards it, carrot in hand.

How could I leave all this? she thought, feeling its nuzzling mouth. How could either of us bear to leave this farmhouse, these fields, this village?

The air smelled sweet and a mist lay in the hollow. A woodpecker yaffled, swooping towards one of the oak trees on the far side of the fence.

Chris, her husband, was restless again, unhappy in general practice, furious at the burden of administration which took him from his patients, irritated by the mountain of new targets, checks and balances. He had spoken several times in the past month of going to Australia for five years—which might as well be for ever, Cat thought, knowing he had only put a time limit on it as a sop to her. She had been there once to see her triplet brother, Ivo, and hated it—the only person, Chris said, who ever had.

She wiped her hand, slimy from the pony’s mouth, on her dressing gown. The animal, satisfied, trotted quietly away across the paddock.

They were so close to Lafferton and the practice, close to her parents and Simon, to the cathedral which meant so much to her. They were also in the heart of the country, with a working farm across the lane where the children saw lambs and calves and helped feed chickens; they loved their schools, they had friends nearby.

No, she thought, feeling the sun growing warm on her back. No.

From the house Felix roared. But Sam would go to him, Sam, his brother and worshipper, rather than Hannah, who preferred her pony and had become jealous of the baby as he had grown through his first year.

Cat wandered round the edge of the paddock, knowing that she would feel tired later in the day but not resenting her broken night—seeing patients at their most vulnerable, especially when they were elderly and frightened, had always been one of the best parts of working in general practice for her, and she had no intention of handing over night work to some agency when the new contract came into force. Chris disagreed. They had locked horns about it too often and now simply avoided the subject.

One of the old apple trees had a swathe of the white rose Wedding Day running through its gnarled branches and the scent drifted to her as she passed.

No, she thought again.

There had been too many bad days during the past couple of years, too much fear and tension; but now, apart from her usual anxiety about her brother, nothing was wrong—nothing except Chris’s discontentment and irritability, nothing but his desire to change things, move them away, spoil … Her bare feet were wet with dew.

“Mummmeeeee. Tellyphoooooonnne …”

Hannah was leaning too far out of an upstairs window.

Cat ran.

It was a morning people remembered, for the silver-blue clear sky and the early-morning sunshine and the fact that everything was fresh. They relaxed and felt suddenly untroubled and strangers spoke to one another, passing in the street.

Natalie Coombs would remember it too.

“I can hear Ed’s car.”

“No you can’t, it’s Mr Hardisty’s, and get downstairs, we’ll be late.”

“I want to wave to Ed.”

“You can wave to Ed from here.”

“No, I—”

“Get DOWNSTAIRS.”

Kyra’s hair was all over her face, tangled after sleep. She was barefoot.

“Shit, Kyra, can’t you do anything for your bloody self? … Where’s your hairbrush, where’s your shoes?”

But Kyra had gone to the front room to peer out of the window, waiting.

Natalie poured Chocolate Frosties into a blue bowl. She had eleven minutes—get Kyra ready, finish off her own face, find her stuff, make sure the bloody guinea pig had food and water, go. What had she been thinking. I want to keep this baby?

“There’s Ed, there’s Ed …”

She knew better than to interrupt Kyra. It was a morning thing.

“Bye, Ed … Ed …” Kyra was banging on the window.

Ed had turned from locking the front door. Kyra waved. Ed waved.

“Bye, Kyra …”

“Can I come and see you tonight, Ed?”

But the car had started. Kyra was shouting to herself.

“Stop being a pest.”

“Ed doesn’t mind.”

“You heard. Eat your cereal.”

But Kyra was still waving, waving and waving as Ed’s car turned the corner and out of sight. What the hell was it about bloody Ed? Natalie wondered. Still, it might give her a half-hour to herself tonight, if Kyra could wangle her way next door, to help with the plant-watering or eat a Mars bar in front of Ed’s telly.

“Don’t slosh the milk out like that, Kyra, now look …”

Kyra sighed.

For a six-year-old, Natalie thought, she had a diva’s line in sighs.

The sun shone. People called out to one another, getting into their cars.

“Look, look,” Kyra said, dragging on Natalie’s arm. “Look in Ed’s window, the rainbow thing is going round, look, it’s all pretty colours moving.”

Natalie slammed the car door, opened it again, slammed it for the second time, which was what she always had to do, otherwise it didn’t stay closed.

“Can we have one of them rainbow-making things in our window? They’re like fairyland.”

“Shit.” Natalie screeched to a halt at the junction. “Watch where you’re going, dickhead.”

Kyra sighed and thought about Ed, who never shouted and never swore. She thought she would go round tonight and ask if they could make pancakes.

It was the sun, brilliant on the white wall, that woke Max Jameson, a sheet of light through the glass. He had bought the loft because of the light—even on a dull day the space was full of it. When he had first brought Lizzie here she had gazed around her in delight.

“The Old Ribbon Factory,” she had said. “Why?”

“Because they made ribbons. Lafferton ribbons were famous.”

Lizzie had walked a few steps before doing a little dance in the middle of the room.

That was the loft—one room plus an open-tread staircase to the bedroom and bathroom. One vast room.

“It’s like a ship,” she had said.

Max closed his eyes, seeing her there, head back, dark hair hanging down.

There was a wall of glass. No blind, no curtain. At night the lamps glowed in the narrow street below. There was nothing beyond the Old Ribbon Factory except the towpath and then the canal. The second time, he had brought Lizzie here at night. She had gone straight to the window.

“It’s Victorian England.”

“Phoney.”

“No. No, it really is. It feels right.”

On the wall at the far end of the room was her picture. He had taken the shot of Lizzie, alone beside the lake in her wedding dress, her head back in that same way, hair down but this time threaded with white flowers. She was looking up and she was laughing. The picture was blown up twelve feet high and ten feet wide on the white wall. When Lizzie had first seen it, she had been neither startled nor embarrassed, only thoughtful.

“It’s the best memory,” she had said at last.

Max opened his eyes again and the sunlight burned into them. He heard her.

“Lizzie?” He flung the clothes off the bed in panic at her absence. “Lizzie …?”

She was halfway down the staircase, vomiting.

He tried to help her, to lead her back to safety, but her unsteadiness made it difficult, and he was afraid they would both fall. Then she stared into his face, her eyes wide and terrified, and screamed at him.

“Lizzie, it’s OK, I’m here, it’s me. I won’t hurt you, I won’t hurt you. Lizzie …”

Somehow he struggled with her to the bed and got her to lie down. She curled away from him making small angry sounds inside her throat like a cat growling. Max ran to the bathroom and sluiced cold water over his head and neck, scrubbed his teeth, keeping the door open. He could see the bed through the medicine cabinet mirror. She had not stirred again. He pulled on jeans and a shirt, ran down into the brilliant room and switched on the kettle. He was breathing hard, tense with panic, his hands sweating. Like a bitter taste, the fear was in his mouth and throat all the time now.

The crash came. He swung round in time to see Lizzie sliding in terrible slow motion from the top of the stairs to the foot, lying with one leg under her body, arms outstretched, roaring in pain and fright like a furious child.

The kettle gushed out steam and the sunlight caught the glass door of the wall cupboard like fire.

Max felt tears running down his face. The kettle was too full and splashed as he poured it, the water scalding his hand.

At the foot of the stairs, Lizzie lay still and the sound that came from her was the bellow of some animal, not any noise that she would make, not Lizzie, not his wife.

Cat Deerbon heard it, holding the telephone.

“Max, you’ll have to speak more slowly … what’s happened?”

But all she could make out, apart from the noise in the background, were a few incoherent, drowned words.

“Max, hold on … I’m coming now. Hold on …”

Felix was crawling along the landing towards the stairgate, smelling of dirty nappy. Cat scooped him up and into the bathroom, where Chris was shaving.

“That was Max Jameson,” she said. “Lizzie … I’ve got to go. Make Hannah help you.”

She ran, zipping up her skirt as she went, avoiding his look.

Outside, the air smelled of hay and the grey pony was cantering round the paddock, tail swishing with pleasure. Cat was out of the drive and fast down the lane, planning what had to be done, how she could make Max Jameson understand, finally, that he could not keep Lizzie at home to die.

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