‘To be honest, I’m sick of hanging around, guv. I’ve been told to go up to the hospital again, see when Abi Righton might be able to answer questions, but it’s pointless at the moment.’
‘You take that up with DI Franks, Ben, as you well know.’
‘I do know … I just feel a bit frustrated. It’s going nowhere.’
Serrailler looked at the young sergeant. Of course he knew what he should do – give Ben Vanek a bollocking for having the nerve to come complaining to the Detective Chief Superintendent. Most bosses would have done so but he was not most bosses and he recognised Ben’s frustration and his eagerness too, and eagerness to get on with the job was a quality that ought not to be sat on because of a senior officer’s misplaced desire to maintain hierarchical self-importance. Simon required order and discipline in his team but he gave protocol low priority.
‘We all feel like this, Ben. It is frustrating. It grinds you down, it wears you out, your patience is thin, but police work goes like that, you should know. You get the buzz, the excitement – Abi Righton being found alive for instance – and then you get the routine again, questioning, waiting, sifting through the CCTV tapes and, if you’re uniform, handing out leaflets and knocking on doors. I can’t make the lights come on again.’
Vanek shrugged. ‘I just wondered if there was anything you had for me that I could get my teeth into, but I suppose I shouldn’t ask.’
‘No, you shouldn’t, but I tell you what. I’m not staying in here any more today – I’ve been at this bloody desk all afternoon. I’ll go up to BG, see if I can get any more out of the medics about Abi, so you come with me in case there’s the slightest chance of having a word from her. There won’t be but we’ve got to keep at it. Then I want to go down to the canal area, have a nose round. I like to spend time at a crime scene, and it’s good for the uniform who are standing around and manning the vans down there to see my face. Come on.’
‘That’s great, thanks, guv.’
In the forecourt, DI Franks was getting out of his car.
‘I’m out and about,’ Serrailler said, keeping moving, ‘taking DS Vanek, if that’s all right with you.’
He nodded to Ben to get quickly into the passenger seat and swung out of the car park before the DI could protest.
Simon knew that Vanek was keen – some would have said overkeen, but in his book there was no such thing. The corners would get rubbed off soon enough but he wanted to make sure that cynicism didn’t set in at the same time. He had seen too many young CID officers lose enthusiasm and ambition, settle for the easy routine. He thought of Nathan Coates, and a picture of him flashed into his mind – hair like a yard broom, face that looked as if it had been hit by the flat of a shovel, bright, hard-working, an ordinary young man who was rising in the Yorkshire force to which he had gone from Lafferton and who would make DCI in a couple of years. Nathan had never lost his edge and his almost schoolboy relish for the job, even the humdrum routine of dull patches. It was not within the official remit of a detective chief superintendent to take interest in a new young sergeant and try to ensure he did not lose his shine, but that didn’t trouble Serrailler.
‘Right, Ben, what’s your take on all of this?’
‘Which particular bits, sir?’
‘Two prostitutes dead, both murdered, one prostitute left for dead. Same MO. Same killer?’
‘Oh, no question.’
‘Why? You should question everything, everything, until there’s no shadow of doubt.’
‘You mean you think there’s more than one killer, sir? You can’t really think that.’
‘Can’t I? Why can’t I? You’ve heard of copycat murders, I presume.’
‘Well, yes, but … All right, to copy the first murder a second murderer would have to know a hell of a lot more detail about exactly what was done than has been given out.’
‘There isn’t a full medical report on this Abi Righton yet so we don’t know exactly how she was attacked.’
‘We know she had severe throat injuries.’
‘Points to the same man then.’
‘On the other hand, strangulation is a common means of killing, especially killing of women by men.’
‘Right. I’d still put a lot of money on this being the same bloke.’
‘This isn’t a game, Sergeant.’
Serrailler put his foot down and the Audi surged forward to overtake a lorry. Ben Vanek gave a low whisle of appreciation.
Simon grinned, ‘You’re right. Love this car,’ he said. ‘What about Marie O’Dowd’s missing boyfriend?’
‘He’d been violent to her before, he trashed her caravan in a fury, he’s a user … If it was just her, I’d say open-and-shut. But … He lost his temper with his girl. He had a history of losing his temper with her. What reason would he have to kill other prostitutes?’
‘What about the one who isn’t a prostitute?’
‘I feel as if I’m being grilled for the job all over again. Give us a break, guv.’
Serrailler laughed. ‘Speak your mind.’
‘Mrs Webber’s just a missper – only everybody’s twitchy because of the others. She doesn’t fit the pattern.’
‘Meaning she isn’t a prostitute?’
‘She wasn’t around the canal area, she –’
‘How do you know?’
Ben Vanek sighed.
‘All right, you’re off the hook,’ Serrailler said, swinging into the entrance to Bevham General. ‘I’m not being sadistic, just using you as a sounding board, helps me get things straight in my own mind.’
Abi Righton was in a side room on the ITU with a uniformed constable outside the door.
‘Hang on here,’ Serrailler said to Ben, ‘I’m going to track down the Sister on duty.’
A few years earlier, when he had come in to see his sister Martha, Simon had known a number of the medical staff, but the present ITU Sister was new, and unimpressed by his police status.
‘I’m sorry, she’s sedated and we can’t have you people barging in.’
‘Sister, I do understand, but I know you also understand that Abi may well have some vital information for us. The moment she’s up to it, we must talk to her.’ He gave her his most beguiling smile. ‘I know you have your patient’s best interests at heart, of course I do – she is your priority – but can you see it from where I’m standing?’
But his smile and the way he pushed back the flopping ash-blond hair that fell over his forehead and every ounce of charm he could muster had no effect whatsoever.
‘When she is fit – if she is fit – to talk to someone, you will be told. And now, if you don’t mind – one copper cluttering up this ward is more than enough and three is definitely a crowd.’
She turned and went away.
Serrailler made a face to Vanek. ‘Nothing doing.’
But as they left the ward, a doctor Simon knew slightly was on his way in.
‘Roger – can I possibly have a word?’
‘Let me guess …’
‘This is my colleague, Detective Sergeant Vanek. I know the official score but can you give me any idea when Abi Righton is going to be well enough to talk to us? It’s urgent.’
‘Talking is the problem. She was nearly strangled, you know – her vocal cords, her windpipe, her larynx are all pretty badly bruised and inflamed.’
Simon groaned. ‘Any brain damage?’
‘Not so far as we can tell – the MRI scan looked OK. But we’ll know more later. She isn’t out of the woods. She was dehydrated, hypothermic and in deep shock, quite apart from her physical injuries. I can’t let you see her.’
‘Maybe we could just ask her questions to which she could nod or shake her head … perhaps even write something down on a pad for us?’
‘Possibly. But not yet.’
‘When? Come on, Roger, help me out here. I’m probably dealing with a serial killer. We have to get to him before he kills again. I promise you we’ll be sensitive, there’ll be no pushing her, I’m happy for you to be there to monitor the whole thing.’
The doctor rubbed his chin. Then he said, ‘I take your point, but I’m still not going to commit myself. If there is a chance that you can talk to her I’ll ring you, but you’ve got to leave it to me.’
Abi Righton surfaced from a mist of images which neared her and receded, changed shape and broke into small pieces like shards of glass, and the white ceiling and the dimmed light through the slatted blind confused her. She did not know what she was looking at when she opened her eyes and there was a strange hum that went on around her and beside her and through her head, and a tick like a clock or a machine. The instruments recorded many things but not what was happening inside her head, not her tangled feelings and the images she could not grasp. But once or twice, she felt as if the cloudiness was evaporating and when she opened her eyes she almost knew who and where she was, though never why, and not why she couldn’t swallow or why her tongue felt huge inside her mouth and her neck and throat and jaw burned.
The moments of being awake grew longer and she reached out and grabbed at them, as if grasping them like a bar and holding them fast would somehow rescue her and make everything clear, and then she would know. Know.
The doctor looked at her charts, at the instrument recordings and then at Abi, pale as a moth against the pillow, her eyes sunken, body thin and oddly flat beneath the tubes and clips and wires.
But for the first time since she had been brought in, he had a hope, faint and thready as Abi’s pulse, that she might recover.
At twenty past eight, Serrailler was parking his car on the slip road by the main gates of the printworks. Further up, a police mobile unit, identical to the one he had just visited in the town centre, was stationed on the verge, with arc lights and a couple of television vans making the whole area look as artificial as a film set. In town, uniformed officers had been leafleting passersby; here the purpose was different. The unit was there to act both as a base for the beat officers and search teams and as a deterrent to the prostitutes and their punters – and also to the killer.
He had intended to bring Ben Vanek, but the sergeant had been called back by his DI after a reported sighting of Jonty Lewis, so Simon was alone.
‘Evening, everyone.’ He climbed the steps into the police van, in which a couple of officers were taking a tea break and another was manning the phone. The place was cramped but useful, with CCTV, a screen giving them updates on all the cases, and a side area for interviewing anyone who called in with information or concerns.
There was a general shuffling to order and murmurs of ‘Sir’.
‘Relax, I’m only dropping in to see how things are going.’
‘The toms are pretty fed up, guv. They’re out there but they don’t want to be anywhere near us for obvious reasons, so they’re much further down the main road and the punters are pretty wary.’
‘We’ve killed off their trade.’
‘You’re also making the world a safer place for them, guys, tell them that.’
‘Yeah, right, as if they listen, sir.’
‘No info from anyone?’
‘Not really. Couple of people came and had a look in, took a leaflet.’
‘Any news of the Righton girl, sir?’
They stood round, chatting, offered him tea. It was a good exercise in boosting morale, if nothing else, Serrailler thought. He liked to get among the rest as much as possible, and the Chief had always backed him. ‘I like coppers who don’t like their desks,’ was how she put it, though they both knew that an officer in overall charge of major cases often found it difficult to escape the station.
He stayed for a few minutes, asking questions and listening carefully to their answers and opinions. They were all familiar with the area and the girls on the street; their eye for detail and for anything unusual was far superior to his.
‘Right, I’m off to walk the towpath.’
‘Come with you, sir?’
‘No thanks, I’m fine. Meanwhile, try to get the girls to see that we’re only moving them away for their own good – not that they’ll believe us.’
They didn’t. They were prepared to risk even an encounter with a killer because they needed money, usually money for drugs, sometimes just money. They were not stupid, most of them tried to be careful, they knew the score and they looked out for one another, but they were still out there working the streets, hoping for punters, praying that the ones they went with were ‘normal’. If you were desperate enough, Serrailler thought, walking towards the towpath, you took any number of risks.
It was a damp, mild October night with a thin mist drifting away over the black water of the canal like a spirit departing a dead body. The air smelled green.
There were officers on both sides of the bank near the lighted area around the second police van and a couple further down, but after a few words Simon went on past them, walking slowly and stopping every few yards, looking around into the murky darkness, smelling the air. Why did some girls hang around on the towpath? Most of them kept to the roads, and got into their punters’ cars. Perhaps someone had wanted to come here … someone whose car might be recognised? A punter on foot? There were a couple of wooden seats, without backs, on the towpath. And under one of them was a wet dark shape. Simon shone his torch, his heart beating ridiculously fast. With his gloved hand he pulled it out. A sodden plastic carrier. It contained a large packet of tea bags.
He walked on, to the footbridge. Yellow-and-black crime-scene tape cordoned it off and a constable was standing at the bottom of the steps.
‘Evening. All quiet then?’
‘Very quiet. Gives me the creeps, to be honest.’
‘I’ll duck under and take a look.’
His torch lit up the small dank space beneath the steps where Marie O’Dowd’s body had been. Forensics had marked out the area and put up a cordon of tape here too. What had happened? Who had been lurking here waiting for her? The boyfriend? Or someone else?
The ground was damp earth with a few weeds at the edge, a bit of shale. He imagined a girl coming down here with a punter for sex. Likely or not? Anything was possible in that fetid world.