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“Jake. I got in too deep, and now…I’m floundering. I just don’t know what to do.”

This wasn’t an overstatement. Ruth had been awake most of the night, tossing the alternatives about in her head. She liked Jake, but was that enough? Was it ‘like,’ or was it something more, and if it was, how would she know?

“Believe me, Ruth, where romantic cock-ups are concerned I’m a walking nightmare. You only have to look at the mess I’m in with Monika…But I don’t understand what your problem is. He likes you, you like him. Why not just go for it?”

“Because so much would change, that’s why. I suppose I’m frightened. I’ve lived alone for so many years—with no one to please but myself, and, despite what he says, he’d never understand the job. Let’s face it, teaching is a cushy number compared to what we do. Most of the time I’d be here and he’d be at home. That’d only last so long. Look what happened to you and Rachel.”

“It takes a special sort of person to put up with the life a detective leads, and Rachel didn’t cope—not at all.”

“I don’t know if Jake would either, so I’m not sure I want the aggro of even trying.” She pulled a face. “Late nights, stuff going on in my head—I’d be a nightmare to live with. He’d only go along with it for so long then it’d all be over anyway.”

“Well, you have to make a decision because it’s interfering with your work. This isn’t me coming down hard—you’re a friend as well as a colleague—but there is only so far I can let this go. I need my sergeant firing on all cylinders—particularly just now. So make up your mind. Go for it; he’s a good man. And try and get that break—take Jake with you.”

“Birdwatching! He wouldn’t know a puffin from a parakeet.”

Ruth smiled at him. She was getting the Calladine pep talk. It’d been a while, and it was more usual these days for her to be the one giving him guidance on how to live his life. Given the mess he made of his love life there was an irony there somewhere.

“I’ll see. I’ll have to think about it a bit longer.” She took the diagram he held out to her. Back to work.

“Do you see what I mean about the car? If Stone had killed her, he’d have hidden her body; he wouldn’t have left her naked like that on the back seat.”

“Perhaps he panicked, didn’t know what to do, and simply wanted rid.”

“She’d been dead a while, so no, he didn’t panic. She’d been kept somewhere, bound or chained. The bastard took his time with her. He damaged her teeth—I can only suppose it was meant to hinder identification. And look what he did to her mouth. Goodness knows how long he kept her like that. There’s strong evidence of repeated sexual assault too. It’s a bad one, Ruth. On the reverse of the thing in her ear lobe is the number five. It could mean anything, but we should hope she isn’t part of some disturbing sequence and that there aren’t more like her out there.”

“I’ll check missing persons, sir.” She began making notes, taking down the preliminary description of the girl. “She’s young too. I wonder if she’s local, although I don’t know the name—if that’s what it is. We have a reasonable photo? Something we can show around? I suppose eventually there’ll be a press conference, and then we can release it.”

Calladine scowled at this. He didn’t like the press. He didn’t like the way they operated—how they transformed everything into something lurid and scandalous. “Only when we need to—not before. We could be wasting our time with the local newspaper anyway. She could be from anywhere. Whoever left her in the back of that car could have travelled. We just don’t know.”

Chapter 5

This was DC Simon ‘Rocco’ Rockliffe’s first proper investigation since the Handy Man case, and he was nervous. What had happened to him that night in the tower block hadn’t only left a dent in his skull, it had left a dent in his confidence too. Still, Imogen knew what she was doing. She was a natural, and Rocco knew he could trust her to mind his back.

He drove them both along the bypass and on towards the garden centre. He didn’t say much.

The place was busy, all done up for Christmas.

“I must get a tree,” Imogen declared, as they passed a row of Nordmann firs on the way in. “They make such a good show here, don’t you think? The trees and all the sparkly lights—I think they’ve even got a Santa’s Grotto this year too.”

“Where was the girl sitting?” Rocco’s expression was anxious. He didn’t want to make small talk; he was on edge. He needed to achieve something positive, get back in the saddle.

Imogen had a quick word with Sandra Dobson, the manageress, and ordered two coffees. She took Rocco’s arm.

“Relax. Don’t stress so much, we’ll do this, and then go back and report in.”

Rocco gave her a weak smile. She’d want him to be more like the Rocco of old, to relax and joke. Trouble was, he still felt nothing like his old self, and he was beginning to wonder if he ever would.

“They were sitting over here. The girl was left on this very seat while Anna Bajek went to the counter over there. As you can see—she would have been quite visible. Now, according to Anna’s statement, a group of school kids came in—half a dozen or more and they stood against that rail over there, in front of the counter.

So for a short while Anna couldn’t see Cassie at all.”

“A very short while, according to her statement—literally seconds.”

“Yes—so you know what that means?”

“It means they were being watched.”

“My thoughts exactly. Someone was waiting for an opportunity to pounce. Perhaps they were followed here after they finished shopping on the High Street. When we get back to the nick we should check the CCTV.”

Sandra Dobson brought the coffees over. “Have you got anything yet?”

“No—afraid not. But it’s only been a few hours. We’d like to speak to your staff—see if anyone recalls seeing the child being taken away,” Imogen replied.

“I’ve already asked, love. We were just too busy, so I’m afraid no one noticed anything out of the ordinary. But I’m sure that if a child had been taken out of here screaming and shouting, then someone would have come forward by now.”

“Do you see much of your neighbour at the nursery?” Rocco asked.

“Not really; not unless he’s bringing stock across or looking for Jonathan. James Alton isn’t a particularly sociable animal.”

“Jonathan?”

“My son. He works here and at the nursery. He fills in where he’s needed.” She pointed towards a young man serving at the counter.

If I remember rightly, he was actually serving at lunchtime today.

That’s right, isn’t it, Jonathan? You saw the woman and the kid?”

The young man nodded. “Can’t say I remember much though.

We were far too busy.”

“Was James Alton in here earlier, when the girl went missing?”

“I didn’t see him, but there’s been no delivery from him today, so no, probably not, but I’ll ask the rest of the staff.”

“That’s okay, we’ll go and see him shortly.”

Sandra Dobson left them to it.

“You okay, Rocco? You look a little tense,” Imogen asked Rocco.

“I just need to get back into it, that’s all, get stuff sorted in my head. I used to be so sure of myself, fearless almost, but now …”

he shrugged, sipping on the hot coffee. “I’m in danger of being scared of my own shadow.”

Imogen rubbed his arm. “You’re going to be fine. We do a job—mostly it’s okay but we’re all aware that it can get hairy at times.

You were unlucky. That woman lashed out and you got it. It could have been any one of you that night.”

She was right—wrong place, wrong time.

“Have you missed me? I’ve been bored stiff. I might have become a bit of a wimp, but I’m still glad to be back.”

“We’ve all missed you, Rocco. We’ve missed your cheeky face and banter about the office.” She smiled, and gave him a wink.

     

 

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