“Shouldn’t you still be away? I thought that jaunt to Wales was four days,” he asked, wondering why Ruth was working when she should be on leave.
“Ray, the chap who organises the birding group, has had an accident. The silly bugger fell off a ladder and broke his leg. So, of course, Joan had to drop out and that only left two of us so we shelved the trip until later in the year.”
“Sorry about that. You were dead keen too. What was it, kites?”
“Yes, Tom, red kites, but no matter.”
“Okay. Give me the address and I’ll meet you there. Phone the nick; don’t let the childminder go until I’ve spoken to her too.”
“You can’t leave. It’s your own mother’s funeral!” Zoe Calladine was angry.
“She’s right, sir,” Ruth piped up in his ear, overhearing what Zoe had said.
“It’s fine. It’s over now, bar the boozing, anyway.’
“Okay—but don’t come unless you’re sure. I can handle things for now.”
He knew she could. Ruth Bayliss was a first-class sergeant. But they were already one man down and another of their number, DC Simon Rockliffe, was still on light duties. He’d received a head injury while investigating their last case and had only recently returned to work.
“I’m sorry.” He took Zoe to one side. “We’ve a missing child—a very young child, too. I have no choice, surely you can understand that? This is what it’s like with me, Zoe. This is the reason your mother and I stood no chance…I’ll see you later. I’ll try and get to the wake, but I can’t promise. Look—the weather’s filthy, why don’t you do something about all those lovely flowers? They’ll just go to waste if they’re left lying out on the grave in this rain. Let Monika take some to the home. I’m sure your gran would approve.”
He smiled and kissed her cheek—then he was gone.
Both parents were older than Calladine would have expected—possibly in their early forties. They were understandably distressed;
and Mrs Rigby’s anguish was only too evident. Sitting in an armchair, she was red-faced with crying, clutching a hankie to her face and trembling with emotion. Mr Rigby was not as visibly upset as his wife. Trying to hold things together for her sake? Delayed shock? There was always the possibility it was down to something else.
Whatever was going on inside his head, Robert Rigby seemed too much at ease, given what had just happened. He made a pot of tea and spoke about his daughter in a matter of fact way, almost as if he expected her to come running into the room at any minute.
Once they sat down to talk, Mr Rigby handed Calladine a photo that had been sitting on the window sill. Cassandra Rigby was playing on a beach and smiling happily. She had curly blonde hair and a smattering of freckles across her cheeks.
“Does Miss Bajek look after Cassie often?” Ruth asked.
“Yes. She has her most days, except for the weekend.”
“Is she trustworthy? Did she provide you with references?”
“This is all my fault, isn’t it? I should have stayed at home until Cassie went to school next year. But I couldn’t do that, could I? I had to have that damn shop, and now look what’s happened.”
Mrs Rigby broke down again. Her husband tried to comfort her, but she pushed him away.
“Anna came highly recommended by a friend. I’m sure she’s absolutely fine, Inspector,” said Mr Rigby.
“Nevertheless, we’ll interview her and get a statement. How long has she been with you?”
“A few months. We have to have a childminder unfortunately. I work full time at the Council offices, and my wife has the florist shop in Leesdon. Anna occasionally has Cassie all day but mostly it’s just for three or four hours. Being her own boss, Jane is able to juggle her hours, you see.”
“What is it you do at the council, Mr Rigby?”
“I work in the Planning Department—all very boring and routine, I’m afraid.” He smiled.
The Planning Department—could there be anything in that?
Calladine wondered. People would go to extraordinary lengths to get what they wanted from town planners these days, particularly if it involved a housing development.
“I don’t want this next question to upset you, but I have to ask it,” Calladine told them. “Do you know of anyone who’d want to take Cassie? Has anyone threatened you or your family—anyone to do with your work for instance? Have you seen anyone hanging around—watching you all or taking a particular interest in your daughter?”
Both parents shook their heads.
“No one is interested in us personally, Inspector,” Robert Rigby told them.
“Well there is that man, Alton.” Jane Rigby spoke up. “You know
—the one I told you about. I might be over-reacting but he scares me. He owns the nursery where I get some of my stuff. He was really off with me the other day. In fact he mentioned you, and it wasn’t in a nice way either. He swore profusely and I did find his behaviour a little threatening.”
Robert Rigby shrugged and shook his head. “There’s nothing in that, Inspector. Just a run-of-the mill spat about acquiring some land, that’s all.” He turned to his wife. “You know how he is—how he feels about the buyout. Just an overreaction, no more than that.”
“Nonetheless, perhaps you should tell me about it?” Calladine said.
“It’s all very tedious really. Leesworth Council, in partnership with a housing association, want to build a number of small affordable homes. You know how expensive property is getting around here. The large tract of land at the back of the garden centre was identified as a possible site, but it won’t be enough on its own, so the owner of Leesworth Plant Nursery, the adjoining property, was approached. I don’t know if you’ve met him, but he’s a very difficult man. Wanted nothing to do with it—refused absolutely to even consider the offer we made him. A very generous offer too. Relocation, compensation—the works.”
“I take it he supplies plants to the garden centre, so he knows it well?”
Both parents nodded.
“I’d imagine so,” Mrs Rigby added. “His stuff is really good. He’s an excellent grower. I’m awaiting a delivery of potted hyacinths for Christmas as we speak.”
“I’d be surprised if Cassie’s disappearance has anything to do with him, Inspector. I can’t really influence much at the Department
—I’m not that important.”
“Could there be anyone else; anyone with a grudge?”
“No one notices us, not really. We’re just ordinary. We’ve no reason to draw attention to ourselves.” Mrs Rigby’s voice shook a little more with every word she spoke.
“Has Cassie ever wandered off before?” Ruth asked.
“No, never. She’s a good little girl and she wouldn’t go off anywhere on her own. She knows about not talking to strangers too.”
“Would Cassie recognise the man from the nursery?”
Jane Rigby nodded and buried her head in her hands. This was getting them nowhere. Anything she might be able to offer was overshadowed by her emotion.
These cases were always heart-wrenching. Calladine looked around the sitting room. It was nicely furnished with good quality stuff. A large Christmas tree had pride of place in the front window, with a number of presents lying underneath it. If they didn’t find the child soon, this was going to be hard.
“Okay. We’ll arrange for a WPC to stay with you. We’re already on with this, and she’ll relay everything that’s going on to you, particularly any progress we make. The minute we know anything, when we find Cassie, you’ll be the first to know.” Calladine handed Mr Rigby his card. “Ring me if anything happens, or should you be contacted.”
“What do you mean?” Mrs Rigby raised her head. “You’re talking blackmail, aren’t you?”
Calladine looked at the woman. Why would she think that? She’d just said how ordinary they were, so why would she imagine they’d attract the attention of someone wanting money?