A Promise to the Dead
A gripping crime thriller with a brilliant twist
Books by Victoria Jenkins
Detectives King and Lane series
The Girls in the Water
The First One to Die
A Promise to the Dead
Two months later
Hear more from Victoria
Books by Victoria Jenkins
A Letter from Victoria
The Girls in the Water
The First One to Die
Afterwards, they sat in silence at the edge of the bed, side by side, their hands resting on the mattress, their fingers not quite touching. His clothes lay on the carpet near the bedroom door, abandoned in haste and a flood of desire; neglected in the insistency of their mutual intent. The heat that had rushed like fire through his body not long before was already cooled; in its place, he felt an emptiness that chilled his skin. He glanced at his bare hand resting on the sheet; pale and smooth, untouched by time.
It was the worst silence he had ever known, though in the hours and years that followed, he would become accustomed to far worse.
Trying to distract himself from the photograph that sat on the bedside table, he turned his head to look around the room, taking in details that until now had gone unnoticed: the pictures that lined the far wall, the clothes that ha; d been slung over the back of a chair in the corner; the stubbed-out cigarette butt in a glass ashtray on the dressing table. He wondered what had gone on in this room, in this bed, and the thought made him nauseous with a violence he had never experienced before.
Earlier, not long ago, this had seemed like a good idea, something he had needed to do. He thought it would prove something, if only to himself. Yet now, trapped in the silence of the place and bound by a thousand thoughts he didn’t want his memory to linger on, he felt strangled by an air he couldn’t breathe.
A hand met his, fingers interlocking with his own. He looked down, sickened by the shiver the touch sent racing through him. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He had thought he would feel elated, euphoric – triumphant, perhaps, in some perverse kind of way – but instead he felt enclosed, trapped by an emotion for which he wasn’t ready and for which he didn’t have a name.
‘I love you.’
He stood hurriedly, suddenly and awkwardly aware of his own nakedness, of how inferior and out of place he felt. He picked his jeans up from the floor and searched the pockets for his keys, trying to escape the gaze he felt resting upon him.
‘Don’t say that.’
A hand on his bare shoulder kept him back. He turned, allowing the trousers to fall to the floor. When soft lips met his own, he reciprocated, hating himself for it but wanting it at the same time, feeling the kiss breathe air back into him. His hands moved up, his fingers tracing bare arms, shoulders, throat. They moved towards one another, tightening as they closed their grip.
And when the face before him altered – the expression contorted, eyes wide with a fear he recognised – they kept tightening and didn’t stop.
Matthew Lewis pushed his foot flatter to the accelerator, watching as the speedometer raced past fifty.
‘Slow down, will you?’
His girlfriend, Stacey, was sitting in the passenger seat beside him, her bare feet pressed up against the dashboard; her toenails painted a lurid pink that managed to glow in the darkness. He glanced with contempt at the high-heeled shoes that lay kicked off in the footwell beneath her. Everything she was wearing that day had been chosen with the intention of pissing him off, and she had got exactly what she’d been after.
‘You’re not going up the A470, are you?’
He didn’t respond. He was too angry to speak to her. After what he’d seen of her that day – after what half the city had seen of her that day – he didn’t know whether he ever wanted to speak to her again. He knew she was doing it to try to make him jealous. Well, congratulations to her, he thought: it was working.
‘There’s police everywhere tonight,’ she said, picking idly at a fingernail, the noise grating on the last of his nerves. ‘They’ll be looking for drink-drivers.’
Matthew’s hands closed around the steering wheel. It was her fault they’d had to leave town in the first place; her fault that they now needed to avoid attracting any possible attention from passing police. If she hadn’t been acting the way she had, they would have still been out enjoying themselves; or trying to, at least. He hadn’t even drunk that much. He hadn’t been able to relax, not while she was flaunting herself in front of him, although the few pints he’d had now felt like so many more.
He loosened the scarf that was wrapped around his neck. He had bought it from a pop-up stall on St Mary’s Street when they were on their way to the stadium. Countless of these stalls erupted throughout the city’s main streets on every match day, selling cheaply made merchandise for overinflated prices to parents relenting to nagging children, and adults who had enjoyed too many pints to know any better. There was something about match-day atmosphere that swept people along in its glorious optimism, even when the odds of a win were stacked against the home team. On this occasion, Wales had lost to Italy 13–12. It had been a poor game, non-eventful from the start, but it wasn’t the loss that had dampened his spirits.
Who turned up to watch a rugby match wearing a short dress and heels?
He glanced at Stacey’s legs, her pale flesh pinched pink by the cold, her bare knees pimpled in a smattering of goose bumps. With her face concealed beneath a mask of heavy make-up, and the push-up bra she had denied she was wearing doing its best to assist her breasts in a breakout bid, he barely recognised her as the person he had met nearly eighteen months earlier.
‘Go over the mountain.’
‘The mountain,’ she repeated, slowing her voice as though speaking to a child. ‘You’re less likely to be stopped by anyone up there.’ When he didn’t reply, ignoring her as though silence was in some way a form of victory, she rolled her eyes and turned to the darkened window. ‘Do what you want,’ she drawled, leaning against the headrest. ‘Get pulled over for all I care … it’s not my problem.’
Following her instructions but not prepared to admit she might have a point, he took the next right turn. It led them off the main road that headed north from Cardiff, through a small village lined with imposing detached houses that were a million miles away from the estate on which he lived. He took a good look at each in turn as they passed; in one, the curtains were pulled back behind a floor-to-ceiling window, exposing the comfort and luxury of the room and its inhabitants for the outside world to see. He felt a pang of envy for a wealth his family had never known. Maybe one day, he thought, when he did well for himself, he would be able to buy his parents a house like that.
At his side, behind the handbrake where he had propped it, his mobile phone began to ring. Grabbing it before his girlfriend could get her hands on it, he looked down at the lit screen.
Matthew had texted his cousin before they’d left town, making an excuse about not feeling well. He didn’t want to have to explain the real reason why they wouldn’t be staying at his house that evening as had been the plan. No one wanted to admit that their girlfriend was an embarrassment.
He shoved the phone into the pocket of the driver’s door, leaving it to ring through to answerphone.
‘I don’t see why we couldn’t have stayed over.’
‘I can trust you with him then, can I?’
‘With Antony? Are you taking the piss?’
Matthew’s head snapped to the side, anger flashing from his eyes in the darkness of the car. He could feel his rage like a separate part of himself, a part that he hadn’t known belonged to him. He didn’t recognise it. No one had ever made him feel like this before.
‘I think you’re the one doing that, don’t you? Turning up half naked, flirting with anyone who’ll look at you.’
A smirk stretched across her face, lopsided and sarcastic. It managed to make her ugly. ‘Awww … are you jealous? Now you know how it feels.’
He gripped the steering wheel more tightly as he took a curve in the mountain road. They had left the lights of the village and been thrown into darkness by the high, overgrown hedges that ran either side of the lane. The sky lay blue-black and heavy over them, oppressive in its closeness and its expanse.
She was never going to let him forget it. One kiss, that was all it was. He had told her about it not long after it had happened – even though she would probably never have found out if he’d kept his mouth shut – and ever since his admission she had been making him pay for it, throwing out snide comments at every opportunity and treating him as though she couldn’t let him out of her sight. He had always been taught that honesty was the best policy, but he realised now that he would have been better off saying nothing.
‘This is pathetic.’
‘No. You’re pathetic.’ She turned to the window, making it clear the conversation was over. He glared at the back of her blonde head, resentment festering inside him. He couldn’t live like this any more, with everything on her terms. Tomorrow, once the nag of alcohol that was gripping his brain had released him, he was going to tell her it was over.
The car was shuddering, making a chugging noise, as though its exhaust was being dragged along the road. The hedges had become trees now, their thick necks reaching skywards and their long arms stretching across the night to shroud everything that passed beneath them, swallowing the car within the tunnel they formed.
He looked at the dash. ‘Fuck.’
He had planned on filling up the tank the following day after leaving Antony’s house. They hadn’t had time earlier that day; they had been running late and the traffic was notoriously bad on match days. He had forgotten the car was almost empty.
He pulled to the side of the narrow lane and slammed the palm of his hand against the window as the car ground to a stuttering halt.
‘Yeah, I’m joking,’ he snapped, unclipping his seat belt. ‘Hilarious, isn’t it?’
‘Have you got any spare fuel in the boot?’
He looked at her, incredulous. ‘Oh yeah, I always carry a can of petrol around with me, just in case.’
Her painted mouth, smeared pink at the corners, twisted into a sneer at his response before it snapped back to a frown. ‘Can you phone someone?’
He took his mobile from the door and tapped in the passcode to unlock it. Its screen shot out a weak beam of light. ‘No signal. Perfect. You?’
Scrabbling through her handbag, Stacey seemed to take an age to retrieve her mobile. The longer she took to find it, the greater Matthew’s impatience grew.
‘It’s not my fault I’ve got no signal.’
‘No,’ he said, opening the car door, ‘but it is your fault we’re stuck up here.’
She folded her arms across her chest, trying to stave off the bite of cold night air that had swept through the car when he’d opened the door. She glared at him through narrowed eyes. ‘If you hadn’t been stupid enough to let the car run out of petrol, we wouldn’t be here.’
‘And if you hadn’t acted like such a little slapper today, we wouldn’t have had to leave town, would we?’
He got out and slammed the door behind him, its thud echoing between the trees that surrounded them. Beneath his rugby shirt, his heart hammered with adrenalin and frustration. He knew he shouldn’t have invited her, but it was too late for that now. He already regretted what he’d just said, but it was too late to change that as well.
Glancing along the darkened strip of road that bent to the right ahead of him, he tried to estimate how long it might take him to find help. He had driven these lanes before, but he didn’t really know them that well. He thought there might be a house within a mile or so, somewhere set back from the road. It wouldn’t take him too long to reach it, not with the cold and the alcohol powering him.
‘Where are you going?’
Behind him, Stacey had got out of the car. Her feet were bare and she had her arms wrapped around her skinny frame, unsuccessfully trying to keep the cold out. When she spoke, her voice was thrown to the breeze, barely reaching him though he was only metres away.
‘Get back inside,’ he called. ‘It’s freezing. I won’t be long.’
He waited for her to get back into the car, knowing she would do so with little argument. If nothing else, running out of petrol was giving him the opportunity to take some time away from her, and anyway, she would only slow him down. Among other things, she was lazy. If something involved walking further than the end of the street, she would find an excuse to get out of doing it. The more he thought about it, the more he wondered what he was doing with her.
Fuelled by frustration and by the chill that bit through his jacket, he quickened his pace along the mountain lane, the path ahead lit by a full moon. He’d been walking a while before he realised he’d left his mobile phone in the door of the car, though he was unlikely to have got any signal anyway. With his hands shoved into his jacket pockets, he pushed on, surer now that there must be a house somewhere further along this road. He heard a screech overhead, a bird of some kind flitting between the trees above him, and the weight of drink that had tugged at his temples not long earlier lifted, sobriety bringing with it a disconcerting sense of unease.
He stopped at a hedgerow to tie his shoelace. Crouched to the ground, he felt himself enveloped by the darkness that surrounded him. An earlier sense of bravado had been replaced by an unsettling feeling of anxiety, and when he stood, he glanced around nervously, aware now of every shift in the leaves above him and every movement in the hedgerow at his side.
There was a gap in the hedge ahead. As he neared it, he saw a metal gate pushed open; the kind of metal gate that usually led to farmland, to keep cattle or horses shut into the field beyond. He squinted, trying to focus on what lay on the other side of the gate.
As he stood there, something in the distance caught his eye. He stepped towards the gate, his shoes sinking into the soft ground below his feet. His eyes narrowed, and for a moment he thought he had imagined it. Waiting there, he eventually saw it again: a distant flash of brightness that momentarily illuminated a corner of the field. He felt a wave of relief pass through him. A light meant signs of life, and signs of life meant help. He didn’t need a lift far – the nearest twenty-four-hour petrol station was within a few miles – and if he couldn’t get a lift back then he would just have to use a phone there to call a taxi. He didn’t care any more how much it cost him; he just wanted to get home.
He stopped at the edge of the wide field that lay before him and scanned the blackness, his eyes still struggling to become accustomed to the dark. Then he saw it again – the glow of a torch or the flash of headlights – and this time he was sure that his eyes hadn’t deceived him. Being closer to someone was enough to fill him with a comforting reassurance, and he began to move towards the light.
His eyes narrowed as he crossed the field, focusing on the near distance and the shapes that stood ahead of him: a van with its back doors flung open, and a man to the side of it, stooped low as though reaching to the ground for something. He hurried his pace. He was cold and he wanted to get back to Stacey. Though he was angry at her, he didn’t want her to start thinking he had abandoned her up here.
He stopped as a sudden and unsettling uncertainty swept through him. There was something not right about this, not at this time of night.
If he turned back now, would he be able to find help elsewhere?
He stepped tentatively closer. He was going to speak, but as he neared the van, he saw something that kept the words held down, choking every syllable in the back of his throat. The blur of shapes began to sharpen, forming a clear picture that stood out against the darkened background. For a moment he couldn’t move, stuck fast to the ground, his fear rendering him immobile. He needed to get away from this place. He needed help.
He turned to run.
Through the feeling of terror that swelled in his chest like the onset of a heart attack, his legs pushed hard, his feet pounding the ground as he raced back to the lane. A rush of blood filled his head, so that all he could hear was his own pulse throbbing in his ears. Reaching the gate, he turned back on to the lane, fighting to hear the sound of footsteps following him once he hit tarmac. There was nothing.
He sprinted as fast as he could, trying to work out how far away the car was. Then he remembered. There was no petrol. Panic gripped him, pushing frightened tears behind his eyes. Sprinting so hard for so long was making him feel sick, but he knew he couldn’t stop. He started to recognise shapes in the darkness, the silhouettes of hedgerows he had passed on his way up. Not far now, he told himself. Don’t slow down.
Straining his eyes against the flood of night that swallowed the lane ahead, he waited for the sight of his car to emerge. And then he heard it: a low rumble of engine noise in the distance that was soon behind him, stalking him. He was thrown into the glare of the van’s headlights as they lit the road ahead of him. He spotted his car, so near now yet still too far away. The rev of an engine. The screech of brakes.
Then his body was thrown into the air as though he was weightless.
Detective Inspector Alex King and Detective Constable Chloe Lane stood at the side of the car and watched the white-suited scene-of-crime officer who was dusting the passenger-side door for fingerprints. The glare of the spotlights projected on to the man and his surroundings illuminated them like a studio set, as though the scene was set up with props and the people who moved within it were merely actors. The mountain road had been cordoned off for half a mile in each direction, though it was not much in use at that hour anyway. It was past 2.30 in the morning and the area was disconcertingly quiet despite the flurry of activity that had ensued upon the arrival of the emergency services. A team of officers was performing zone searches in the woodland surrounding them, their torch beams igniting life in the darkness.
‘So much for a night off,’ Alex said, giving Chloe a sympathetic smile. The younger woman had spent that afternoon planning her evening: an Indian takeaway for one and a film on the sofa. Having exhausted the subject of the limited vegetarian options available at Chloe’s local Indian restaurant, conversation at the station had drifted to debate about whether a box set on Netflix was preferable to a film; the disagreement interrupting the monotony of a relatively quiet day. Both detectives realised they should have basked in the rare air of calm while it lasted.
‘Remind me not to take meal recommendations from Dan again.’
Chloe pulled a face and shoved her hands into her pockets. The air was bitingly cold and they stood with their coats zipped to their chins and arms folded across their chests. When the call had come in, Alex had been asleep, and she had pulled on yesterday’s clothes, left abandoned on the chest of drawers in the corner. Somehow, even at this hour of the morning, Chloe managed to look pristine, her newly darkened hair swept back into a neat bun at the back of her head. The 999 call had come in at around 1.30, after a passing motorist had noticed the damage to the windscreen of the car, which was seemingly abandoned at the roadside. Unprepared to face the cold, the darkness or whatever else might have been lurking beyond the safety of his own vehicle, the driver had stayed in his car at the junction with the main road a further mile down the lane, where he had been able to get a signal to make the call. He’d had the right idea, Alex thought; instead, it had been left to the first attending officer to confront the scene that awaited them.
Alex looked through the window at the girl inside the car, who lay slumped face down between the front seats, her blonde hair matted with her own dark blood. She was wearing a dress that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the kind of reality television programme Alex could never understand the popularity of, and which seemed inappropriate for an early-March night – short, strappy and a size too small. Despite her heavy make-up, her skin managed to look almost translucent in death. A single bullet wound to the back of the head had ended her life. It had been fired through the front windscreen.
The first attending officer had given Alex the handbag that had been retrieved from the floor of the car: a small silver clutch with a long metal chain handle. Inside, there was a candyfloss-pink lipstick, a tube of mascara, a mobile phone, a set of house keys, two ten-pound notes and a small collection of coins. Zipped into an inside pocket at the back of the bag was a bank card and a driver’s licence. The photograph was unmistakably that of the girl slumped between the seats of the car. Stacey Cooper. Twenty years old.
A barrage of questions presented themselves, jostling for priority. What had the girl been doing on the mountain road at this time of night? Where had she been going? Had she been alone? And if not, why was no one with her now?
Chloe leaned towards the car and took a closer look through the driver’s-side window. She had her own set of questions. ‘If she was trying to escape from someone, why didn’t she just drive away? Unless she was trying to escape from someone she was with.’
Alex didn’t reply, for the moment lost in her own thoughts. Despite nearly two decades spent in the police force, she knew she would never get used to sights such as this. She didn’t want to become desensitised to it, as she’d seen happen to other detectives. Recent thoughts of her imminent departure from the force returned to the forefront of her mind. More so than ever, she knew she was doing the right thing. She had hoped to leave at a quiet time, though she realised those times were few and far between. Now, she thought, as she looked at the poor girl whose life had been brought to an end so violently, she wouldn’t be going anywhere.
She pulled a pair of disposable latex gloves from her pocket and slipped them on before opening the driver’s door. The key to the 2004 silver Citroën C4 was still in the ignition. She turned it, expecting to hear the sound of the engine kicking into life. Instead, a low, dull spluttering sound emerged. She glanced at the dashboard. Empty.
‘She’d run out of petrol.’
Scanning the inside of the car, she spotted a pair of high-heeled shoes lying in the passenger footwell. The angle of the girl’s body – her right knee twisted awkwardly against the handbrake and her left leg stretched out towards the pedals – suggested she had tried to get into the back seat from the passenger side of the vehicle rather than the driver’s side.
‘Actually,’ she amended, ‘someone else had run out of petrol. I don’t think anyone would attempt to drive in those shoes, do you?’ She reached into the pocket of the driver-side door and retrieved a mobile phone. When she pressed a button at the side of the handset, the screen came to life with a photograph of a young man smiling for the camera, gripping what looked like a sports trophy. He was handsome in a way Alex imagined young women might find attractive, with a fashionable haircut and eyes that seemed to look beyond what they saw.
‘Boyfriend?’ suggested Chloe, taking the phone from her.
‘Looks like. The car’s probably his then.’ Alex studied the windscreen from the inside. They would need ballistics to analyse the hole that had been made in the glass, but the size of it and the damage that had been incurred as a result suggested that the weapon used had been fired close to the vehicle. An expert would be able to tell them more; hopefully they’d also be able to identify the make and model of weapon used.
Placing a gloved hand on the back of the driver’s seat and leaning over the girl’s body, Alex stretched to study the sole of the victim’s left foot.
‘What are you thinking?’ Chloe asked, watching her.
‘I’m thinking she’d been outside the car at some point. Look.’ Alex got out and Chloe took her place on the driver’s seat. She leaned over and dipped her head to look at the girl’s bare feet. The pale soles were speckled with gravel and dirt, a few tiny stones still embedded in her skin.
‘Why would she get out of the car?’
‘To help with something, possibly.’ Alex stepped aside as the SOCO who had been scrutinising the other side of the car moved towards them. His brush worked the length of the window frame, his wrist deft in his task. ‘But what?’ she added, thinking aloud.
‘They run out of petrol,’ Chloe said slowly, backing out of the vehicle, ‘and he gets out of the car.’
Chloe nodded. ‘She then gets out too, following him perhaps, and they argue. Maybe she was annoyed with him for forgetting to fill up. Things get out of hand, he turns on her, she tries to escape and then …’
‘Why does he get out of the car?’ Alex challenged. ‘If he can see from the dash that they’ve run out of petrol, he doesn’t need to get out and look at anything. I don’t know,’ she said, her top lip curling. ‘Shooting someone over an argument about an empty petrol tank seems a bit extreme to me.’
There were so many questions they needed to find answers to before they could draw any conclusions about the chain of events that had led to the young woman’s death. Where had the couple been? Where were they heading? Did the man own a firearm, and if so, why had he been carrying it?
‘He doesn’t look the type to carry a gun.’
Chloe gave voice to the same thought Alex had been harbouring. Although she knew that killers came in every shape and size, and that assumptions based on appearance could prove dangerously misleading, the young man who had smiled at her from the lit screen of the mobile phone looked an unlikely suspect for a gun owner.
Turning, Alex saw a uniformed officer approaching.
‘There are tyre marks just up the lane. Can’t tell if they’re old ones or not.’
‘I’ll be there in a second.’ She turned back to the car, studying the hole the bullet had made in the windscreen. If the gun hadn’t belonged to Stacey’s boyfriend, then that meant someone else had been there with them, either someone known to the couple or someone who was a stranger. For the moment, they had to assume that this girl and her boyfriend were the only people who knew what had happened up there.
In which case, one question seemed more pressing than any other.
Where was the boyfriend now?
Kieran Robinson had been missing for sixty-three hours. His sister knew this because the last CCTV sighting of him had been recorded at 23.36 three nights earlier, and as no one had seen him since that time, to her mind that was the moment he had officially become a missing person. As the minute hand on the clock above her parents’ sink clicked forward, its sound echoing around the otherwise silent kitchen, she added to the time accordingly.
Hannah Robinson was familiar with the expression of being able to hear a pin drop, but in this instance it didn’t seem at all suitable. The silence in the room was noisy and ugly and there was a tinny sound reverberating in her ears that she knew would grow as the day went on, as it had during those previous few days. Later, in bed, the noise would build to a crescendo and a pounding headache would keep her awake until the small hours. She would sleep a little, and then the pattern would repeat itself upon waking. They would do the same thing tomorrow: sit there, wait, achieve nothing.
Hannah knew how all this worked. She’d watched enough television shows and heard enough similar stories to know that time meant everything and that their lives would now be structured around it, dictated by the passing minutes. Every hour that passed in which Kieran wasn’t found would inevitably chip away another piece of the hope that he would turn up alive.
‘Would either of you like a cup of tea?’
Hannah glared at the family liaison officer, who seemed to have done nothing but boil the kettle since she’d arrived. She kept giving them empty reassurances that she would let them know as soon as there were any updates, yet all she had been able to offer them so far were regular top-ups of sugar and caffeine, which Hannah now felt sure were contributing to the migraines that were plaguing her.
The truth of it was, her own guilt was as much to blame as the FLO’s ineptitude. She should be out there, she thought, doing something constructive; contributing something that might help put right what had gone wrong. She just didn’t know where she should start.
She watched her mother, who was standing at the sink with her back to the room. She had recently had her blonde hair cut: a short, feathered chop that made her already prominent features look even sharper. It hadn’t been appreciated when Hannah had pointed out as much. Her mother had reacted with a comment about Hannah’s own purple hair – some smart-ass remark about the girl from that kids’ book who got blown up like a blueberry. An argument had followed, as could have been predicted by anyone in the house. It was typical of her mother to go that one step further, to make it even more personal.
The sink at which Linda Robinson was standing was filled with dirty dishes and soapy water that had been left to go flat and cold; she wasn’t there with the intention of doing anything, only with the aim of staring out at the garden so that she didn’t have to look anyone in the eye. For countless hours during the past few days, Hannah had had to sit in the living room and listen to the sound of her mother wailing in the bedroom, unable to force herself up the stairs to offer any sort of comfort. They didn’t have that sort of relationship; they never had. She was there, wasn’t she? Under the circumstances, that was the best anyone could expect of her.
It was her father’s job to be there supporting her mother, but yet again he had chosen to make himself scarce. He had a habit of hiding from his problems, though Hannah would never have anticipated that even he would hide away at a time like this. She wondered what her mother had done or said to keep him away. Regardless of his own failings, Linda had to be responsible for his absence at some level.
‘When is anyone going to do anything useful?’ Scraping the stool back across the tiled floor, Hannah stood and retrieved her mobile phone from the top of the microwave, her burgundy Doc Marten boots clomping across the kitchen tiles. She opened Facebook and scanned the posts relating to Kieran, but there was nothing new other than the wave of false pity that was currently swamping her newsfeed.
OMG, I only saw him last week.
Hope you’re okay hun xx
Thoughts are with the family – let me know if there’s anything I can do xx
All so meaningless, Hannah thought. She especially loathed the offers of help, as if anything these people could do would in any way improve the situation. She resented the gesture, knowing it was never meant anyway. People only ever said it when they knew full well there was sod all they could do and the offer would go unaccepted.
The FLO moved to Hannah’s side, apparently immune to her hostility. She wasn’t much older than Hannah, though the buttoned-up cardigan and the 1990s bob hairstyle made her look as though she could easily be two decades older.
‘I promise you everything we can do is being done.’
‘Waiting for his body to resurface, you mean?’ Hannah stared the woman out, waiting for her to deny the accusation. She wasn’t able to: it had already been said too many times. Kieran’s mobile phone signal had been traced to the water around Cardiff Bay, where he had been on a night out that Thursday. Drunk was the assumption everyone had made. He’d had too much to drink, fallen into the water and drowned. Simple.
Only Hannah didn’t believe it. They could keep saying it, but she would never accept it as a possibility. Something just didn’t ring true. His body would have been found, for one.
And there was something else that didn’t sit right with her. She could count on one hand, with a couple of fingers to spare, the number of times she had seen her brother drunk. The first had been on his fifteenth birthday, when he’d had three pints of snakebite and vomited all over the carpet in their mother’s hallway. The second, not long after that, had been at a barbecue at a neighbour’s house, where Hannah was certain Kieran had got drunk just to wind up their parents, who had spent the day arguing over something so insignificant she wasn’t now able to recall it. The third and last time, over five years ago, had involved a litre of vodka and a game of spin the bottle, which Kieran had apparently repeatedly lost. In a drunken stupor and smelling of kebab meat and garlic sauce, he had turned up at Hannah’s student flat in tears, confessing that he had kissed one of his male friends. The following morning he had made her promise that she would never tell anyone, and that they would never speak of it again. They never had.
Although she had seen him drunk, on none of those occasions would Hannah have said her brother was out of control; not so out of control that he might have injured himself or not been able to get help had it been needed. His experiences were no different to any of those of most other teenagers, and the years of sobriety and healthy living that followed suggested he had learned from his mistakes; something others took decades to do and some never achieved at all. He wasn’t drunk on Thursday, Hannah was convinced of that if nothing else. He might have consumed alcohol, but to her mind there was simply no possibility that he had been drunk enough to fall into the water at Cardiff Bay and drown.
The silence in the kitchen was punctuated by a knock at the front door.
‘I’ll go.’ The FLO left the room, leaving Hannah and Linda in an uncomfortable silence.
‘Do you want to go for a drive?’ Hannah asked, knowing her mother wouldn’t leave the house while there was even the slightest chance Kieran might happen to just walk back in. Linda had closed in on herself since his disappearance, immersing herself in old photograph albums and home videos, poring over his images as though she might be able to recreate him somehow and place him back in the house with them. Though Hannah imagined her mother would vehemently deny the accusation, it was obvious to anyone that Linda had always favoured Kieran. He didn’t annoy her in the way Hannah so often did, and Hannah supposed that had been enough to push him to the number one spot.
Linda shook her head. Hannah was relieved; she had offered to take her out in the hope that her mother would reject the suggestion, but at least no one could accuse her of not making the effort. When she turned to her daughter, Linda couldn’t hide the impatience on her face. Without speaking, she managed to make Hannah feel that she was somehow responsible for her brother’s disappearance. ‘Are you staying for dinner?’
Slamming her mobile phone down on the breakfast bar, Hannah fought to hold back a wave of fury. What was the matter with everyone? Tea … food … as if everything could be cured through sustenance. She pulled her purple hair from her face and tied it back in a ponytail before heading for the back door, feeling her lungs tighten in their desperation for some fresh air, but her departure from the room was stalled by the FLO’s return. She was followed by a young man wearing a grey shirt beneath an open navy-blue duffel coat. He was holding a police ID badge in his hand.
‘This is Detective Constable Jake Sullivan,’ the FLO introduced him.
‘Has something happened?’
‘We’ve still no leads on your son’s whereabouts, I’m afraid,’ DC Sullivan said, cutting short Linda’s already severed optimism. ‘Mrs Robinson, is your husband at home?’
‘Darren’s working away. He’s not due back for a couple of days. I told the other detective that on Friday.’
The family had until today been seen mostly by a female detective: a woman not much younger than Linda who had burn marks to the side of her face that she did nothing to try to conceal. Hannah wondered what had happened to her. She had tried not to stare at the burns for too long, but the more she tried to avert her focus, the more she found herself unable to drag her attention away. It occurred to her that had she been afflicted with the same scars, she might have made an attempt to cover them with make-up. Maybe the other woman hadn’t felt the need to hide. Perhaps that was something Hannah needed to try out for size.
‘DI King,’ DC Sullivan reminded her. ‘You told her that your husband has been in Devon since last weekend?’
Linda nodded. ‘Why, what’s the matter?’ Her attention shifted from the detective to her daughter, returning to DC Sullivan when he produced his phone from his pocket and searched it for something before passing it to her.
‘Do you recognise this number plate?’
Hannah watched as Linda looked at the image on the phone. When she moved behind her mother to take a look, she could see the photograph was taken from CCTV footage. ‘It’s Darren’s,’ her mother said. ‘You obviously know that already or you wouldn’t be here asking me about it. Could you just please get to the point?’
‘This recording was made on Thursday evening, near the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.’
A silence followed. Hannah stepped back and moved away, but her mother continued to study the photograph as though staring at it for long enough might somehow alter what was shown there, removing any implication that put her husband under suspicion. Hannah knew more than her parent possibly realised. She knew that when he had been spoken to, her father had lied to the police about where he’d been on Thursday evening, telling them that he had been in Devon. If her mother’s response to the image was anything to go by, Hannah suspected she had also been lied to by him.
‘What are you saying?’ she eventually asked.
‘We need to speak with your husband, Mrs Robinson.’
‘You’ve spoken to him already.’
‘He needs to come back to South Wales,’ DC Sullivan clarified. ‘We’d like to talk to him face to face. I suggest you speak to him, and advise him that it’s necessary for him to come home.’
In the silence that followed, Hannah tried to push back the doubt that was creeping closer to the front of her mind.. She knew that Kieran’s disappearance alone should have been enough to bring their father back to the country. The fact that it hadn’t made him appear increasingly suspicious, as well as inexplicably insensitive.
‘You think he was involved in Kieran’s disappearance?’ her mother eventually said, her tone still clipped and defensive. ‘This is ridiculous.’ She thrust the mobile phone back at DC Sullivan. ‘First you’re saying there was an accident, and now what? Now you think Darren’s hiding something?’
‘He’s lied to everyone about where he was on Thursday. Unless you already knew he wasn’t in Devon as he said he was?’ DC Sullivan raised an eyebrow that questioned her mother’s honesty. Hannah anticipated that the look was only likely to be met with resentment.
She watched her mother’s mouth fall open, apparently unable to articulate her outrage at the suggestion that she might have helped cover for her husband in some way. Instead, she looked to the FLO, exasperated. If she was searching for help, though, it was quickly evident she was looking in the wrong place. The woman really was as useless as Hannah had suspected.
DC Sullivan turned to Hannah and offered her a faint smile. She didn’t return it, but he seemed undeterred by this. ‘I know you’ve been asked this already, but how had your brother been in the days and weeks leading up to Thursday? Any unusual behaviour, or signs that there was something wrong?’
‘Why are you asking Hannah?’ her mother intervened, obviously still smarting from the detective’s previous comment. ‘I know my son better than anyone – I’d have known if there’d been something wrong. He was fine. If you’re suggesting he’s killed himself, then this is getting even more ridiculous.’
‘I’m not suggesting anything, Mrs Robinson,’ DC Sullivan said quickly. ‘I’m just saying that sometimes we don’t know people as well as we think we do.’
The FLO shifted uncomfortably in the corner of the kitchen, eyeing the kettle as though another cup of tea might help to resolve the tension that had gripped the room. Hannah noticed her mother suck in her top lip as her jaw tautened.
‘You don’t seem to have any updates on my brother,’ Hannah said coldly, seeking an end to what seemed a pointless visit, ‘so unless there’s something else, I suggest you get on with the job of finding him. If you want to talk to my father, perhaps you should go and find him yourself.’
DC Sullivan hesitated. His pale face had speckled with red blotches, embarrassment settling upon his cheeks. ‘I do understand your concerns for your son, Mrs Robinson.’ He attempted to force eye contact with her, but his efforts were in vain. His comment had hit hard and there was no going back from it now. Linda’s eyes were fixed to the floor, the fingers of her right hand gripping the kitchen worktop so tightly that her knuckles had whitened.
Hannah’s eyes widened as though questioning why DC Sullivan was still there when they had made it obvious he was no longer welcome. ‘Ask DI King to come next time, will you?’ she said.
She followed him to the front door and slammed it shut with force once he was outside. Heading quickly into the front room, she pushed aside the closed curtain and watched the detective as he lingered on the pavement. Then she turned back to the room. The photographs of her and Kieran as children that had once lined the walls had all been taken down from where they had hung, replaced in recent years by a fresh coat of plaster and a lick of paint. Her mother could say what she wanted, but nothing was going to hide the truth: she didn’t want Hannah’s face looking down at her while she watched TV in the evenings. Removing only the photographs of her daughter would have made it too obvious, so she’d had no choice but to take them all down, Kieran included.
Hannah gritted her teeth and pushed her fists into the pockets of her skirt as she fought back angry tears. Where was Kieran? And where was her bloody father? She needed to speak to him, now more than ever.
Why had he been in Cardiff Bay on Thursday night?
And just what had he been arguing with Kieran about on Wednesday?
DC Chloe Lane knocked at the door of the student property, noting with disgust the small mountain of bin bags left inside the front wall of the narrow strip of concrete at the front of the house, their contents – weeks old, if the stomach-churning stench of rotting waste was anything to go by – spilling out across the ground. The central panel of glass in the front bay window of the house had been smashed; behind it, a makeshift attempt had been made to protect those inside from the elements, the effort stretching as far as a flattened cardboard box and an intricate web of masking tape.
Her own student days were not a time she looked back on with particular fondness – her estrangement from her family had led to a dark period of isolation and choices she would have preferred never to have had to make – but one thing Chloe prided herself on was that she had always been hard-working and determined, and she couldn’t remember ever having lived in a state anywhere near this, regardless of how tight money had been. She was no obsessive cleaner: having lived with Alex for six months the previous year, she imagined her superior would vouch for the fact. This, though, she thought as she held her breath at the front door, was beyond any reasonable excuses.
The door was answered by a young woman wearing a pair of long-sleeved cotton pyjamas and the previous day’s make-up. She had been crying, her reddened eyes only partially hidden behind a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. Chloe presumed this was Gemma, who she had spoken to over the phone earlier that day. The girl’s number had been stored on Matthew Lewis’s mobile, and texts between the two arranging where and when to meet the previous day had been found when his phone activity had been accessed.
The girl nodded and stepped aside, allowing Chloe into the house. Inside, the smell didn’t improve. Gemma, seemingly oblivious to the odour apparently embedded into the walls and carpet of the hallway, reached her hands behind her head and pulled her hair up into a messy bun, knotting it with an elastic band she had around her wrist.
‘I’m sorry about the mess,’ she said quietly, waving a hand aimlessly to her side. ‘I keep reminding them I’m not their mother.’
Chloe followed her into the living room and picked her way through the debris to the sofa. A games console had been left on the floor, and the dirty carpet was littered with empty cider cans and the remnants of last night’s takeaway: plastic containers housing leftover korma and tikka, a paper bag of prawn crackers, and a tub of curry sauce that had tipped over and been left to ooze on to the rug.
‘How many of you are living here?’ Chloe asked, wrinkling her nose.
‘Five. I’m the only girl. You can probably tell that by the state of the place.’
She wondered how Gemma put up with living in this chaos on a daily basis, but she guessed the mess in the house was the last thing on the girl’s mind at the moment. ‘Where are the others?’
‘In bed, probably,’ she said with a shrug. ‘Is there any news on Matthew yet?’
Chloe shook her head. She had given Gemma the few details they were in possession of when they had spoken earlier. She needed to know as much about the previous day as possible if they were to have any chance of forming a picture of what had happened to Matthew and Stacey while they were up on the mountain road. Finding Matthew was their first priority, but with no leads and nothing so much as hinting at his whereabouts, the team was already feeling the pressure of time against them.
‘His parents …’ Gemma bit her bottom lip. ‘Have you seen them?’
‘Not personally. They’re beside themselves, obviously.’
Alex had been to the Lewises’ house in the early hours of that morning, after leaving the scene of Stacey’s murder on Caerphilly Mountain. Chloe, meanwhile, had undertaken the unenviable task of informing Stacey’s parents of her death. Both couples had reacted as anyone might have expected, their initial shock morphing into grief and anxiety that quickly overwhelmed them.
‘Tell me about yesterday.’
‘We met up outside the train station and went for lunch on St Mary’s Street, a couple of hours before the match started.’
‘Where did you go?’
‘The Italian on the corner, the one opposite McDonald’s. I can’t remember what it’s called now. You know … that chain place.’
Chloe nodded, knowing the restaurant Gemma was referring to. ‘When you say “we” …’
‘There was me, Matthew, Stacey and two other friends from school.’
‘That’s how you know Matthew? From school?’
Gemma nodded and rubbed her left eye, leaving a smear of mascara across the bridge of her nose. ‘We were in primary and comp together. I’ve known him all my life, really.’ She looked away as though embarrassed for some reason. ‘I’ve always got on better with boys. The girls at school used to hate me for it. They used to call me a slag, that sort of thing. It was never like that. I just find boys less complicated.’
Chloe wondered where that kind of boy had been when she herself was younger: the ones who were less complicated. She was being unfair, she thought, quickly chiding herself for her momentary cynicism. In her experience, people were complicated in equal measure.
When Gemma looked back at her, her eyes were glassy with imminent tears. ‘Where the bloody hell is he?’
‘We don’t know. That’s why it’s so important you tell me everything you can. Even if it might seem insignificant to you, the more we know about Matthew and what happened yesterday, the greater our chances of finding him.’
‘That’s the thing, though … I don’t know anything really. I wish I did, I might be able to help then. We hardly see each other any more – we’re both so busy with final-year exams. Yesterday was the first time we’d seen each other in at least a month.’
‘Had you met Stacey before?’
‘Once. At a party a few months back. Matthew didn’t seem that keen on her at the time. Then they split up for a while – maybe a month or so. I was surprised to see her yesterday, to be honest.’
‘You weren’t expecting her to be there?’
‘He just hadn’t said anything about her coming.’
‘It was Matthew who booked the tickets for the game, then?’
Gemma nodded. ‘He always books the tickets. We try to go every year, for the Six Nations. It’s kind of a tradition now, even when we haven’t seen each other for a while. It gives us a chance to catch up.’
‘You said Matthew and Stacey split up for a while. Do you know why that was?’
The girl nodded, but looked away again, avoiding Chloe’s eye. She sighed before she spoke. ‘We kissed, Matthew and I. I don’t know why, it was bloody stupid. I’ve known him all my life and we’ve never done it before – I’ve never wanted to either. He’s more like a brother than anything else. It sounds really weird now I’ve said that, doesn’t it, but we were both drunk and it just happened. Anyway, he told Stacey about it. I knew he would. Matthew’s a good guy. He’s honest.’ She looked at Chloe now, her eyes almost pleading with her. ‘Whatever happened up on that mountain, Matthew didn’t hurt Stacey. I know it. He just wouldn’t. He’s never hurt anyone.’
‘If you two kissed and Stacey knew about it, why would Matthew bring her to the game with you yesterday?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t get to ask him. I wanted to, but she didn’t let him out of her sight all day.’ Gemma picked at a loose thread on the seam of her pyjama trousers. ‘If anything, I think maybe she came with him to prove a point. In front of me, you know, but also to him as well. She spent the day flirting with the other boys, all to get at Matthew, I think. It seemed to be working. He was on edge all day, and that’s not like him. It was like she was trying to make him see what he’d be missing if they split up, or trying to prove the point that she could get someone else if she wanted to. The atmosphere was awful – it was really uncomfortable.’
Stacey’s unusual choice of outfit for a rugby match was now starting to make sense. If there had been tension between the couple – visible enough for other people to have noticed them – then perhaps the theory that they had both got out of the car following an argument wasn’t far from the mark. They just hadn’t been arguing over the empty fuel tank, as previously presumed.
Gemma’s face dropped as she realised the possible implications of everything she had said about Stacey’s behaviour, as well as Matthew’s reaction to it. ‘He didn’t kill her,’ she said, shaking her head as though reading Chloe’s thoughts. ‘Matthew couldn’t hurt anyone.’
The girl didn’t need to persuade her, Chloe thought; it seemed as unlikely to her as it did to Alex, though with Matthew nowhere to be found, it was obvious that his guilt was the conclusion everyone was likely to jump to.
Just where was he now? If he hadn’t hurt his girlfriend, there seemed no reason for him to hide. And if he wasn’t hiding, it suggested he had been taken somewhere against his will.
But by who? Chloe wondered. And why?
Darren Robinson took a drag of his cigarette and surveyed the expanse of open ground that lay in front of him. The building site had been prepped for work to start there the following week, and the project would be one of the biggest in a long while. He could have done with taking a break after the recent housing development he had worked on back in Cardiff, but taking breaks never made anyone rich, and besides, he needed to make himself scarce from South Wales for the time being.
In his pocket, his mobile started to ring. He took it out and looked down at the lit screen. Linda’s name flashed up at him, the glare of its light as accusatory as her voice, berating him with its usual nagging tone. Returning the phone to his pocket, Darren waited for the call to end. She was bound to leave another voicemail; an addition to the four she had already left him that day, her tone increasingly frantic and less forgiving with each. Excuses usually came easily to him, but finding one for his absence over the past few days was proving a little trickier than usual. He needed to prepare his story before he headed home, but he hadn’t yet finalised it in his own head. The longer he left his return, the guiltier he would inevitably appear. He didn’t need to draw that kind of attention to himself, especially not now, with everything else that was now going on.
When his phone started to ring again, he gave a loud sigh and grabbed it from his pocket. He was just about to swipe left to cut the call dead when he saw that it was his daughter, Hannah. He wondered if she was with her mother, if Linda had persuaded her to try to get in touch after her own calls kept being ignored. Deciding he didn’t want to take the chance, he let the ringing continue until Hannah was directed to the answer machine. Moments later, a voicemail notification pinged through. Darren unlocked the phone and put it to his ear.
‘Dad … I need to speak to you. Where are you? Call me when you get this. It’s important.’
There was a long pause, during which Darren could hear the faint exhalations of his daughter’s laboured breathing. She was putting on too much weight, letting herself go, but it wasn’t really for him to tell her that. He could imagine the response he’d receive if he advised her to step away from the fridge for a while, or not-so-surreptitiously left a leaflet for a local fitness class lying around. Sometimes you needed to be cruel to be kind, and as Hannah had never been the type to respond too well to kindness, Darren didn’t think either idea was that unreasonable. Her mother should have been the one to give her a shove in the right direction where things like diet and health were concerned, but Linda had always been too wrapped up in Kieran to pay too much attention to their daughter.
Which was why it was a wonder she didn’t know where he was. People didn’t just disappear, no matter how much they might want to.
‘Please,’ Hannah finished. ‘Just call me, okay.’
He deleted the message and finished his cigarette before stubbing it out on the dry ground beneath his boot. Devon had seen considerably less rain than South Wales during these past few weeks, and the forecast for the month ahead was so far looking good. The project would be able to progress quickly, providing that everyone else was prepared to put in the hours and the graft needed to get things moving. Relying on other people was the problem. Other people invariably let you down. In Darren’s experience, the only person he had ever really been able to rely on was himself, and that truth had recently made itself even more evident to him.
He realised he had probably made a mistake listening to the message when he had. If Hannah had tried calling him straight back and found the phone engaged, she would know that he had his phone with him and had chosen to ignore her call. It would be yet another thing he would have to find an excuse for in preparation for his return home.
With a sigh, he scanned the empty ground again as he redirected his thoughts away from his family and back to his work. The area was substantial, with high fencing cordoning it off from the buildings that lay beyond: a small estate of 1990s homes, clustered together like Lego houses, with a primary school in the near distance, its metal railings painted a bottle green that stood out against the backdrop of brown and grey that characterised the estate. He couldn’t imagine that the people already living there would be too happy with the number of new buildings that were to be constructed, but that was life: you had to accept what it gave you, whether you liked it or not.
It occurred to Darren that both his children – both kids in their own ways, despite their years – still had quite a way to go before they learned this.
Averting the flow of his thoughts, he contemplated the labour involved in constructing the one hundred and twelve properties that would form the development. Financially he would do all right from it – nothing he would be able to retire off the back of, but not exactly a profit to be sniffed at either – but the labour was beginning to do its worst. His back was in constant pain and his knees were starting to fail him. Years of hard physical graft had taken their toll, and though he was only fifty-one, Darren often felt like a man twenty years older.
Glancing at the signage that stood near the site entrance, he experienced a familiar tug of envy and resentment. Newton Homes. They were the real winners. The developers sat in their fancy cars, talking business into their latest smartphones, while the contractors were left doing the donkey work for a fraction of the financial reward. It seemed to Darren that money attracted money, and to get rich you needed to have started off with something: something more than he had ever had. It was a realisation that was making him increasingly bitter, though oddly the feeling also comforted him. Where he was now wasn’t his fault.
He looked down at his phone and accessed the internet search engine. A tap of his finger on the bar threw up a list of his latest requests. At the top, typed in that morning while he had been in his hotel room, was the name of his son, Kieran Robinson. Though he had already read it once that day, Darren opened the article at the top of the search result list and absorbed its contents once again.
Police are growing increasingly concerned about the whereabouts of Kieran Robinson, who was last seen in Cardiff Bay on Thursday 8 March following a night out with workmates. The twenty-three-year-old, an apprentice bricklayer from St Melon’s, left Haha’s Comedy Club at 9.10 p.m. during the mid-set break. The last-known sighting of him was on CCTV footage taken near the St David’s Hotel, where he was picked up on a recording at 11.36 p.m. His mobile phone was traced to the area, but a search of the waters around the Bay, carried out by a team of specialist police divers, yielded no trace of the young man. Police are particularly keen to learn where Kieran went and who he was with between the hours of 9.10 and 11.36. Anyone with any information that might help in the search is asked to contact South Wales Police.
Darren looked up and breathed in a lungful of cold air. He contemplated another cigarette, but he had already smoked too many of them that day, following one with another, replacing oxygen with nicotine as though it was the only thing keeping him functioning. He closed the internet page and deleted the entry from his search history. Finding the number he wanted, his finger hovered over the keypad. His previous messages could be seen on the screen; there were a string of them, with no replies to any having been received.
He could try to ignore him all he wanted, Darren thought. Some things were more than worth waiting for and he wasn’t going anywhere.
He uploaded a photograph that was stored on his mobile and added a caption. You have two days, he wrote, and then I’m going to tell Michael everything.
He pressed send.
The small room on the ground floor of the police station was filled with people: reporters, film crew, police officers. Alex sat beside Matthew Lewis’s parents at tables that had been moved to the head of the room, placing the couple beneath the glare of the cameras, where they were unable to avoid the looks of sympathy and doubt being passed their way with equal frequency. It was evident that the room was divided into two distinct halves: those who believed the couple’s son had killed his girlfriend and those who questioned where he now was, believing his absence suggested there was a possibility he might be in some sort of danger. Either way, the mystery surrounding the events of Saturday night had garnered plenty of tabloid and social media interest.
Behind the tables at which they were sitting, a photograph of Matthew – the same picture that was pinned to the evidence board in the incident room – was projected on to a screen in the hope that someone who saw the appeal might recall having seen the young man at some point during the past sixteen hours. The photo had been taken the previous summer: a head shot of a smiling Matthew posing on a football field with a ball gripped beneath his arm. Alex had glimpsed the boy’s mother eyeing the picture when she had entered the room with her husband, immediately moved to tears by the image of her missing son. Watching her reaction might have been enough to move Alex to tears too, had it not been for the gathered audience, who expected her to maintain a neutral outlook. She couldn’t imagine the nightmare Matthew’s parents were experiencing; she could only resolve to find out what had happened as quickly as possible. Guilty or not, they needed him back home.
Her thoughts strayed to the adoption application she was waiting for a response to. Becoming a parent was the most intimidating role she had ever signed herself up for, but things worth having rarely came without hard work and a little heartbreak along the way. If someone had told her ten years earlier that she’d be doing this alone, she might have thought them crazy, but a lot had changed during that decade, and she had learned that the only person she could ever really rely on was herself. She could do this. She’d be fine.
She looked at Matthew Lewis’s mother, her pale face racked with worry, and the confidence she felt in her own abilities wavered. Before she could contemplate being a parent, she needed to finish her job as a detective.
News of what had happened on the mountain road the previous night had travelled with the typical velocity of grim tidings, with a number of different versions of events already doing the rounds of social media. As was so often the case, Alex was disheartened by the people’s insensitivity. Inane, thoughtless remarks and so-called jokes across Twitter and Facebook only added to the suffering of those awaiting news of a person they loved and feared for, yet these comments were made so carelessly – in some cases callously – that Alex couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to humanity. These people were so driven by a need for ‘likes’ that they were prepared to reduce themselves to cruelty to gain them. In the case of Matthew Lewis, there was little thought for the couple who now sat beside her, looking down at their hands in their laps, reluctant to face the onslaught of an equally insensitive press.
Matthew’s mother glanced to her side and met Alex’s eye. There was a dull emptiness within her gaze, something hollow and removed; so different from the eyes of the boy who had looked out from the screen of the mobile phone retrieved from the car the previous night. How easily the brightness could be dimmed, the light shut out. Alex attempted a reassuring smile, but she knew there was little she could offer in the way of comfort.
By all accounts, Matthew was a popular and grounded young man who was doing well at university and had no enemies. He had never been in any trouble with the police, and the suggestion that he might have owned or had access to a firearm was met with incredulity. The subject was so unexpected that the mention of it had been initially met by the boy’s father with an awkward laugh, as though he believed himself caught momentarily in some parallel universe from which he would be just as quickly returned to his own life in which his boy was still upstairs getting ready for a night out with his friends.
The general public could come to its own conclusions, Alex thought, as it always seemed to, regardless of fact or common sense. Her own mind would not be shaken from the notion that Matthew was somewhere he shouldn’t be, with God only knew who, and it was her responsibility to find him before he came to any harm.
The chatter that rippled throughout the room fell into a hush as the appeal began. DCI Thompson, dressed for the occasion in full uniform, addressed the waiting press with a general introduction before passing the focus over to Alex. She swallowed and cleared her throat, trying to forget that the cameras were trained upon her.
‘Last night, sometime between the hours of 10.30 p.m. and 1.30 a.m., there was an incident on the mountain road that links Caerphilly with Rhiwbina. Unfortunately, this incident resulted in the death of a young woman.’ She paused. Stacey’s name had already been shared all over social media that morning, despite the best attempts of the police to keep her identity from the public eye for the time being. Regardless, Alex had been told not to state it at the appeal. With the details of the incident unknown, they needed to tread carefully. Though she believed Matthew himself to be in danger, she had been told he was to be still considered a possible suspect at this point. If there was any chance he might see the appeal, she mustn’t do or say anything that might scare him away or deter him from coming forward.
‘We are keen to speak to Matthew Lewis,’ she continued, turning slightly to gesture to the photograph behind her. ‘If anyone has seen Matthew or knows where he is, we ask that you get in touch on the number shown below.’ She looked across to the boy’s parents. ‘I will now read a brief statement from the family. “We are devastated by what has happened and are fearful for the safety of our much-loved son. Matthew, if you are watching this, we ask that you come home or make contact with the police. We love you very much and just want you home safely.”’
She folded the statement and returned it to the desk in front of her. ‘We are keen to speak to anyone who used the mountain road between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. last night. Thank you. That’s all for now.’
Immediately the questions came thick and fast, just as she had known they would.
‘What about Stacey’s parents?’ one reporter called out. ‘Where are they?’
Alex’s lip curled and she shot the man a glare. There had obviously been a reason for her withholding Stacey’s name from her statement, yet he had chosen to ignore without a second thought the procedure the police were clearly trying to follow. In Alex’s experience, the press were experts in disregarding the wishes of others, even when those others were in positions of authority. It was typical of a journalist to believe he was above the law.
‘The victim’s family are receiving specialist support from the police,’ she said flatly. ‘They are naturally distraught and we ask that their privacy is respected at this difficult time.’
‘Do you think Matthew killed his girlfriend?’ another reporter asked.
At her side, Alex saw Mrs Lewis’s grip tighten around the glass of water that rested on the table in front of her, the surface of the drink trembling as it shook between her fingers. She clutched the glass as though it was the only thing keeping her from fleeing the room and the glare of attention focused upon them. Next to her, her husband sat motionless and distant, his eyes fixed sightlessly on the far wall, trying to blank out the audience that their misfortune had attracted.
‘Finding Matthew is a priority.’ She glanced across at DCI Thompson, briefly meeting his ever-critical eye. In the briefing before the appeal began, he had been explicit in his wishes that they remain vague about the details. It seemed to her now that being vague was helping to indirectly brand Matthew a potential criminal, and that doing so could jeopardise their chances of finding him alive, but she was under instructions and there was nothing she could do about it.
‘What about Kieran Robinson?’ someone else asked. ‘Any updates?’
‘Our inquiries are ongoing,’ Alex responded through pursed lips. ‘Needless to say, Kieran also remains a priority.’
She responded to a string of further questions, all with the same vague, non-committal answers. When the appeal ended, Matthew’s parents stood hurriedly, his father brushing past her without a word. The snub felt personal. Though she hadn’t directly accused Matthew, she hadn’t expressed a belief in his innocence either.
Matthew’s mother stopped in front of her and met her eye. Her jawline was set in a grimace and dark shadows of sleeplessness rested upon her sharp cheekbones. ‘They all think he’s guilty.’
‘I can assure you, Mrs Lewis, we are doing everything we can to find out what happened to Stacey and where your son is.’
‘Are you?’ she challenged. ‘What about those tyre marks that were found?’
Alex ushered the woman to one side, not wanting prying ears to overhear the details of the investigation.
‘We don’t have any reason to believe the marks are connected to what happened to Stacey.’
‘And that’s it? You’re not even going to look into it?’
‘We’re currently in the process of trying to identify the vehicle through the tyre tread, but as I said—’
‘But as you said,’ Mrs Lewis repeated, cutting Alex short, ‘you don’t think it’s relevant. I’m sure if it was your child missing you’d consider every possibility.’
She walked away, following her husband through the door into the corridor. The couple felt let down – by Alex, by the police – and at that moment she couldn’t blame them. She knew that the only way in which she would be able to restore their faith would be to find their son alive.
The young woman in the station reception area was leaning on her elbows at the front desk, her angry face pushed towards the Perspex screen that separated her from the officer on the other side. Her purple hair was pulled back from her face in a ponytail that trailed the length of her back, and she was wearing a pair of Doc Martens that made her feet look far bigger than they probably were.
‘Ginger,’ she spat, pushing one foot behind her and pressing on to her toes, arching her back as though it was causing her discomfort. ‘Skinny.’
The desk sergeant didn’t have to think too hard about who she was describing; it was a brief yet accurate description that could only refer to one person working at the station. ‘DC Sullivan?’
‘That’s him. Is he here then, or what?’
The desk sergeant glanced at his colleague in the office behind him. ‘Saw him earlier,’ the man said with a shrug, answering the look before returning to the paperwork he had been studying.
‘If you’d like to leave a message, I’ll make sure DC Sullivan gets it.’
The young woman gritted her teeth and threw her head back, casting her attention to the ceiling for a moment before returning it to the officer. ‘No, I don’t want to leave him a message. I want to speak to his superior … now.’
‘I’m sorry, but in that case you will need to tell me what it’s about.’
She fumbled in the pocket of her jeans for her mobile phone before jabbing at its screen with a stubby finger. ‘Kieran Robinson,’ she said, putting the phone down on the desk and pointing at the photograph of her brother. It was the same photograph that had been used across the internet since his disappearance four days earlier: a grinning Kieran at a Christmas party, a length of tinsel draped around his neck and his arm slung around the shoulder of a faceless person who had been cut from the image. ‘Recognise him?’
The desk sergeant’s unchanging expression only enraged her further. ‘Just another face to you, I suppose,’ she said, throwing her arms in the air. ‘What does it matter?’ She slid the phone back towards her and returned it to her pocket.
‘Everything okay?’ DC Chloe Lane had entered the building through the main doors. She was looking windswept, her brunette hair unusually untidy as she hurriedly pushed it behind her ears. She slipped her jacket from her shoulders and hooked it over an arm.
‘No,’ the young woman snapped, turning to her. ‘Everything is not okay.’ She pulled her phone out of her pocket before jabbing in her passcode. ‘Kieran Robinson. I’m his sister.’
‘It’s all right,’ Chloe said, raising a hand and signalling for the woman to follow her. ‘I know who you are. Come on through.’
Hannah Robinson shot the desk sergeant a look as she followed Chloe through a set of double doors and into the main corridor that ran the length of the station. Chloe ushered her into one of the family rooms and waited for her to take a seat.
‘Everyone just forgotten about him then? Didn’t take long, did it?’
‘I can promise you that’s not the case,’ Chloe tried to assure her. Kieran Robinson had now been missing for almost four days. The last sighting of him had been well publicised in the hope that someone might come forward with information, but so far they were drawing blanks on all lines of inquiry. Where he had gone and what had happened to him after the last known footage of him was filmed remained a mystery, although the most popular theory was that he had fallen into the water and drowned.
His family couldn’t accept that not finding Kieran’s body didn’t mean it hadn’t happened.
‘Why isn’t there any progress, then?’
Chloe sympathised with the woman. It was frustrating when an investigation seemed to draw to a halt before it had really begun, but a lack of leads meant this was the case more often than the police liked to admit. The sad fact was that 48 per cent of cases that involved people who went missing after going on a night out remained unexplained. But no one wanted someone they loved to be the main character in one of those mysteries.
‘It’s Hannah, isn’t it?’ Chloe said. She remembered Kieran’s sister from a news report broadcast over the weekend. ‘We’ve looked at everything we possibly can with the information we currently have – Kieran’s movements on Thursday evening, who he was with, where they went. You know his mobile phone hasn’t been accounted for, but his laptop has been reviewed and there is really nothing at the moment to suggest that his disappearance is in any way suspicious.’
‘Not suspicious? He’s gone bloody missing, how much more suspicious do you need?’
‘What I mean,’ Chloe said, ‘is that there’s no evidence at this point to suggest that he has come to any harm.’
‘Your most popular theory seems to be that he got pissed and drowned. That sounds like harm to me.’
‘I’m sorry, Hannah. I wish we had more to tell you, but at the moment you know as much as we do. We’re still making inquiries as to where he may have been during those missing hours between him leaving the comedy club and being out on the waterfront. I really am sorry. I know how difficult this must be for you.’
‘No, you don’t,’ Hannah said flatly. ‘You haven’t got a clue.’
Chloe bit her tongue. She knew only too well how losing a brother felt – how being haunted by a mystery could consume a life, throwing everything else into doubt – but saying so wasn’t going to ease Hannah’s frustrations or offer her any form of comfort. Grief couldn’t be compared or measured.
‘He’s just another statistic, isn’t he?’ Hannah challenged, leaning forward in her seat.
‘Not at all,’ Chloe said, feeling the heat of the woman’s hostility burn her like a flame. ‘I promise you we’re doing all we can. We’ll keep running the television and social media appeals and hopefully something will come in that can help move the investigation forward.’
‘And that’s it? That’s the best you can do, is it?’
Chloe knew nothing she could say would help make the family’s situation any easier. ‘You’ve been assigned a family liaison officer?’ she asked, wondering why Hannah had come to the station. Any queries or issues should have been directed to the FLO: that was what they were there for.
Hannah rolled her eyes to the ceiling. ‘That woman who comes over to make the tea, you mean? Not sure how she justifies her salary. Anyway, I came here for a reason. DC Sullivan. He here?’
‘As far as I’m aware. Do you need him for anything in particular?’
‘Need him? The only thing I need is for him to stay the hell away from my family.’
The heat of Hannah’s hostility intensified, and Chloe felt herself inwardly wince in anticipation of the revelation that might be about to follow. Whatever Jake had said or done, if it was enough to anger Kieran Robinson’s sister in this way, then it would be sure to annoy Alex, something Jake seemed to have excelled at during the past few months.
‘What are you referring to?’
‘He more or less told my mum that perhaps Kieran wanted to go missing.’
Chloe gave an involuntary exhalation of despair. She didn’t want to believe this might have been the case, but she knew Jake well enough to know it was more than likely. He was prone to opening his mouth before he engaged his brain; something that had landed him in deep water on several occasions. ‘What do you mean, more or less? What exactly did he say?’
Hannah sighed. ‘He said, “Sometimes we don’t know people as well as we think we do.”’ She sat back and folded her arms, her mouth twisting into a grimace as she waited for Chloe to respond.
Chloe tried to keep her reaction neutral, but it was almost as though Hannah Robinson was taking some sort of solace from her discomfort. She didn’t entirely blame her. If the family already believed the police weren’t treating Kieran’s disappearance seriously, then Jake’s remark had only served to aggravate their dissatisfaction.
‘In what context was it said?’ The comment was crass, but Chloe struggled to believe that even Jake could be so insensitive as to say something like that. She could only think – and for his sake, hope – that it had been poorly timed and misinterpreted in some way. Yet knowing him as she did, there was a part of Chloe that doubted it.
‘Context? There’s an appropriate context for that sort of comment, is there?’ Hannah shook her head, exasperated. ‘My mum’s in bits about Kieran. She’s climbing the walls not knowing what’s going on. That was the last thing she needed to hear.’
‘I’ll have to speak to DC Sullivan about this,’ Chloe told her, knowing that any attempt to defend him to this woman would be pointless. Where Hannah was concerned, it seemed, the damage was already done, but Jake needed the chance to relate his version of events. There was always another side to everything, though he was going to need to come up with something pretty inventive to keep Alex off his back on this one.
‘You do that,’ Hannah said, sitting back and letting it be known she was going nowhere. ‘In the meantime, I’d like to make this complaint formal.’
The last thing Alex wanted to be greeted with on her return to the station was the news of Hannah Robinson’s complaint against DC Jake Sullivan. Frustration powering her pace, she sought out the young constable, finding him midway through a telephone conversation at his desk in the incident room. Waiting for him to end the call, Alex tried to swallow her anger until they were away from the prying eyes and ears of the rest of the team. Gossip was never anything but detrimental, and until she had heard both sides of the story, she didn’t want news of the complaint to reach the rest of the team. She tried not to pass judgement before knowing all the facts, but where Jake was concerned, it had become too easy to assume the worst was correct.
‘My office,’ she mouthed.
He slouched into the room five minutes later, his shoulders hunched. This constant air of just-woken-up was one of the things Alex most disliked about Jake. She wanted to shake some life and energy into him. There were different approaches to the job they did, each with its own merits, but sometimes Alex felt Jake tried too hard to carve out his particular style of detective work, appearing so blasé that anyone might have been forgiven for thinking he didn’t care for the cases he worked on.
His manner now suggested he realised exactly what he was guilty of, but if he was aware of the inappropriateness of what he had said to Kieran Robinson’s mother, Alex couldn’t help but wonder what on earth had made him go ahead and say it in the first place.
‘We’ve had Hannah Robinson in. Kieran Robinson’s sister. She said you made an inappropriate comment about the nature of her brother’s disappearance.’
Jake’s failure to deliver any kind of response to the claim suggested he knew what Alex was referring to. A red flush was already starting to creep up his neck, spreading across his checks like a mottled rash. For someone who so often came across as arrogant, this characteristic seemed oddly out of place.
‘What exactly did you say?’ she asked, closing the door to her office. ‘Hannah claims you suggested Kieran might have wanted to go missing. Is that correct?’
‘That’s not what I meant. It came out wrong.’
Alex sighed. ‘You think?’
She sat at her desk and studied Jake’s face with an attention that was visibly uncomfortable for him. ‘Making inane comments within the four walls of this station is one thing. This is something else entirely. So come on then … if it came out wrong, how was it meant, exactly?’
Jake shifted from one foot to the other and shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. It made him look like a schoolboy summoned to the head teacher’s office, heightening Alex’s irritation still further. She wished he had a little more about him: some spark of wit that went beyond the standard bantering office humour that was his usual forte. She even suspected she’d have a greater respect for him if he was to argue with her on something rather than attempting to simply skirt around the subject.
‘I was trying to offer them some comfort.’
‘By implying that Kieran might have made a conscious decision to leave his family with this worry hanging over them? That he could have killed himself, even? How in any way might that act as a source of comfort?’
Jake’s thin lips remained tightly clamped together, his jaw tensed as though forcing back a reaction he knew wasn’t likely to be well received. ‘They think something bad has happened to him. I was just saying maybe it hasn’t, that’s all.’
‘Because suicide would be somehow easier to cope with?’ Alex didn’t bother to keep the exasperation from her tone.
‘I never said the word suicide.’
‘I don’t think you needed to. The insinuation was there.’
Jake shifted on the spot, avoiding Alex’s eye.
‘So what do you think might have happened then?’ she pressed him. ‘Because the rest of us are working with the evidence … it’s what we’re supposed to do. You did show up for your training, didn’t you?’
Jake looked past her, his tongue pushed into his cheek and his focus fixed to a point on the far wall. It was clearly taking everything he had to hold back what he really wanted to say. ‘I don’t know,’ he admitted eventually, his words clipped. ‘The comment was misjudged. I’m sorry.’ His tone suggested there was no remorse within him at all.
Alex sat back. She didn’t want bad feeling among the team, particularly during a case of this scale. As irritating as DC Sullivan could be on occasion, she didn’t believe he had intended any malice. Stupidity wasn’t a crime, though at times it could prove to have just as many consequences.
‘I don’t want you to have any further dealings with the family for now.’ She sighed. ‘DCI Thompson’s going to get hold of this, and it’ll be for me to defend you. Again.’
Jake nodded, still not meeting her eye. Alex was no longer sure his body language was a result of embarrassment. There was an arrogant detachment to Jake that she had always disliked, though since it apparently went unnoticed by everyone else, she had sometimes wondered if she was imagining it.
‘I don’t expect you to.’
‘You’re a part of this team. Start proving you deserve your place here, please.’
He left the office and returned to the incident room, where shortly afterwards Alex joined him and the rest of the team. She needed to update everyone with what they now knew about Matthew Lewis and Stacey Cooper.
‘Right,’ she said, bringing the chatter around her to a close. ‘Here’s what we know so far. Stacey was twenty and employed as a receptionist at a health spa in Blackwood. Matthew is twenty-one, studying football coaching at the University of South Wales.’
‘You can get a degree in football?’ DC Dan Mason said, raising an eyebrow. He had been a member of the team for as long as Alex could remember, and over the years had proved to be a solid and reliable detective. Events of recent months had shaken him, reaching too close to home, but hadn’t stopped him from being as steadfast as ever. They had, however, made him more cynical than he’d been before.
‘You can get a degree in just about anything nowadays,’ Chloe responded.
‘Both live at home with their parents,’ Alex continued. ‘We know that on Saturday they’d been to Cardiff to have lunch with friends before going to the stadium to watch the game against Italy. After the match ended, they went to the Prince of Wales on St Mary’s Street, still with the same group of friends. Both Matthew and Stacey were drinking, and we know that the plan had been for them to stay with Matthew’s cousin Antony, who lives in Roath. I’ve spoken to Antony. He received a text from Matthew at just gone half ten to say he and Stacey wouldn’t be going over. No explanation. He tried calling Matthew but there was no answer. Matthew’s phone records confirm this.’
‘Between Stacey and Matthew? After speaking to the friends they were with in town, it seems likely. Apparently there was a bit of tension between them. It seems Matthew wasn’t happy with the way Stacey was behaving.’
‘What does that mean?’ Dan asked.
‘Flirting with his friends, mostly. Matthew had kissed another girl a while back, one of his friends – he told Stacey about it, and by all accounts she seemed to be doing her best on Saturday to get her own back.’
‘Is that enough of a motive for him to have killed her?’
Alex shook her head, her scepticism obvious. ‘It doesn’t make sense. As far as anyone knows, Matthew didn’t have access to a gun, and even if he had, why would he have been carrying it in the car with him on Saturday? I don’t buy it at all. This is South Wales, not Compton. We should hopefully know more once we get the details of the weapon back. Someone else was involved at some level, whether it was someone who was in the car with them that night, or someone they met along the way.’
‘Hitchhiker?’ Jake suggested.
‘They were young, but I don’t think either of them was stupid. Who in their right mind would stop to pick up a stranger at that time of night?’
‘People do stupid things all the time,’ Jake said, defending his suggestion. ‘We’d all be out of a job if they didn’t.’
He didn’t meet her eye, but Alex caught the implication. What she had said to him in her office had hurt, and he was still smarting from it. She had to admit he had a point. Alex herself wasn’t exactly free from a history of poor decision-making. Her divorce had been followed by a string of liaisons with her ex-husband; too many to be plausibly referred to as misdemeanours. More recently, an encounter with Dan had brought her poor decision-making into the workplace. Regardless of what happened next, she still felt she had some making-up to do. The next chapter in her life was where she felt certain she could begin to right the wrongs she was guilty of.
‘He was driving under the influence of alcohol,’ Chloe said. ‘That’s pretty stupid for a start.’
‘Which leads us, perhaps,’ Alex said, shaking herself back to the present, ‘to what they were doing up on the mountain road. He lives in Blackwood, she lives in Nelson. The quickest way from Cardiff back to either of their homes would’ve been straight up the A470, particularly at that time of night, with the roads quiet. So why take the mountain route? Had he planned to meet someone there, the person who was responsible for killing Stacey?’
She knew she had to cover all possibilities, but even as she asked the questions Alex felt in her gut that nothing this premeditated had led to the couple being up on the mountain road that evening. The silent response that came from the rest of the team seemed to suggest the same.
‘If that was the case,’ Dan said eventually, ‘then where’s Matthew now? Say he had organised for someone else to be there. Wouldn’t he have waited for us to arrive, made out they’d been attacked at random and then claimed he was a victim too?’
‘Exactly,’ Alex said with a shake of her head. ‘You’re right. It’s too implausible.’
Reaching for the laptop on the desk in front of her, she clicked on the opened file. A close-up of the gunshot wound inflicted on Stacey Cooper was projected on to the screen behind her. ‘We’ve got the post-mortem report back, but unfortunately it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. For now, we’re just going to have to work with what we’ve got. These images have been sent to ballistics. They’re also analysing the damage to the windscreen. Hopefully, once the wound and the bullet itself have been analysed, they’ll be able to identify the type of weapon used.’
She paused and turned away from the image. ‘Look … this is unfamiliar territory for the majority of us. Shootings are thankfully still rare in South Wales. Our priority for now is to find Matthew Lewis. He remains innocent until proven guilty, let’s remember that, please. Keep pressing his friends for information – perhaps they know more than they’re letting on. With regard to who else might have been up on that mountain …’ Alex sighed, surrendering to the limited details in their possession. ‘There’s no CCTV for miles in any direction, so we’ve no chance of tracking any other vehicles that way. The woodland has been searched around the area where the car was left, and so far we’ve found nothing. Both Stacey and Matthew appear to have been popular, so social media might prove useful on this one. Let’s keep the appeals for information regular, please.’
She stretched out an arm, diverting the team’s attention to another face that looked down from the evidence board. ‘Kieran Robinson. There’s been an update on the CCTV reviews that you should all be aware of by now. Darren Robinson’s van was picked up near the Millennium Centre on the night Kieran went missing. We know Kieran had been working recently with his father as an apprentice builder. On Thursday night, he’d been to a comedy club with a group of subcontractors who’d all been involved in the construction of a housing development in Whitchurch. The evening had been paid for by the development’s owners, Lawrence and Wyatt Properties – an end-of-project bonus, apparently. Darren Robinson didn’t attend – he told everyone, including his wife, that he was in Devon, working on another job. So what was his van doing in Cardiff Bay on the night Kieran went missing? We’ve yet to get hold of him since the CCTV footage has been picked up, but it’ll be interesting to see what he has to say for himself when we do.’
As Alex brought the meeting to an end and the rest of the team began to return to their desks, she noticed DCI Thompson lingering at the side of the room, waiting to speak to her. Despite the general belief that he would remain in place for a brief time until a permanent replacement was appointed, he was still based at the station in Pontypridd. He had been transferred following the retirement of Superintendent Blake, who had been Alex’s superior for much of her career. With the post having remained unfilled, DCI Thompson had been given little other option than to stay in Pontypridd, which hadn’t at first been met with much enthusiasm. His initial frustration at being removed from his position in Bridgend had been gradually shadowed by a reluctant acceptance that he might be with them for an indefinite period of time, and although the majority of the team continued to find him aloof and a little bit strange, Alex was growing increasingly used to his ways. To claim she either understood or liked the man would have been an exaggeration, but she was at the very least finding him more tolerable to work for than she had just a few months earlier.
‘DC Jake Sullivan,’ he said.
‘It’s been dealt with.’
Thompson’s eyes widened. ‘Meaning?’
‘Meaning I’ve spoken with him and I’m satisfied that the comment he made to Linda Robinson was simply poorly timed and misjudged. I’ll make sure he apologises to the family in person.’
‘How long are you expecting to wait before we hear from ballistics?’
‘Could be days.’
‘You still think Matthew Lewis could be in danger? If he killed Stacey, he could be lying low somewhere.’
Alex raised an eyebrow. ‘Where?’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t think he’s responsible for Stacey’s death, but he’s the only person who knows what happened up on that mountain. The sooner we find him, the better.’ She realised she hadn’t answered the question directly, exactly what she hated anyone else doing. ‘Yes,’ she added. ‘I do think he could be in danger.’
‘But nothing’s come in yet?’
‘Nothing useful, no.’
They were interrupted by one of the DCs, as though he had been waiting around the corner just to prove her wrong. ‘Boss. We’ve had a call in. Someone’s found a body.’
I have something I need to tell you. I am writing this so that when I next see you I won’t need to go through it again. When the time comes, I would prefer to focus on us, if that’s possible – if you can find it in your heart to forgive me. By the time I’ve finished writing, I hope you’ll understand why I’ve done the things I have. There is so much suffering in this world, but you of all people don’t need me to tell you this. I try to help alleviate the pain, though I know they won’t see it in this way – not in the way you will. Yours is the kindest heart I have ever known – your soul is the most forgiving. You see the good intentions where others only see intent, and your outlook on life is something I have tried to learn from, though I’d be lying if I claimed it has been easy.
I think about you every day. I want you to know that those others mean nothing to me, not in the way you do, but it is hard to undo something that has been done for so long. It is hard to fix something that has always been broken.
I took a life. There … I’ve said it. Those four short words look so simple when they’re written down like this, as though they weigh nothing, and I suppose it’s true that the load does become lighter over time. There are things I wish I could change, yet regardless of everything that has happened, I wouldn’t change the course of events that led my life to yours. I would do it all again in a heartbeat, all to get to you.
I’m beginning to ramble, and for this, too, I apologise. There is so much I need to say to you, but finding the right words seems an impossible task, one I need to get right, as much for myself as for you. I am not a bad man. If all that comes from writing to you is your acceptance of this, then I will consider it worth every uncomfortable second, because believe me when I tell you that this isn’t easy for me to do. Despite everything you may be tempted to believe, I need you to believe that I am not a bad man. You’ve had plenty of time to form your own opinion on this and I know there have been occasions when I’ve let you down. Trust me when I say I never meant to.
Life is complicated, sweetheart – you know this as well as I. Please don’t be too quick to judge me. Give me time and I’ll explain everything as best I possibly can. There were things I couldn’t guarantee you, promises I was forced to break, but this is something I can do for you now with a pledge that everything I say will be the truth, all of it, with nothing left hidden.
I miss you. I need to be with you again.
At the motorway service station where they had arranged to meet, Chloe found Darren Robinson sitting in McDonald’s drinking coffee from a cardboard cup. In his early fifties, he was dressed in his work gear: black cargo-style trousers, black boots grey with dust, and a short-sleeved T-shirt despite the cold bite of the March weather. Chloe flashed her ID as she took a seat opposite him.
‘Will this take long?’
She didn’t answer the question. The man’s behaviour was odd to say the least: his son had gone missing and his wife was distraught as a result, yet he hadn’t returned home to be with her since learning of Kieran’s disappearance, and he had lied to the police about where he had been that night. Though he had agreed without argument to meet up with Chloe, he was acting as though a conversation with the police was something his busy life simply couldn’t accommodate. Just why was this man being so cagey?
‘Your son’s still missing, Mr Robinson.’
He sat back and glanced around the room, folding his arms across his chest before returning them to his sides. He looked tired, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, and Chloe wondered whether the thought of Kieran’s possible whereabouts was keeping him awake at night or whether there was something else preying on his mind; something he was desperate to keep hidden from them.
‘I’m aware of that.’
‘I need you to explain why you lied to us about where you were on Thursday night. You said you were in Devon on a job, but your van was picked up on CCTV near the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.’ Chloe put her phone on the table between them, pointing at the photograph shown on the screen. ‘You can’t be in two places at once.’
Darren looked briefly at the photo before looking back up at her. His eyes darted to the left as though something had caught his eye, but it seemed to Chloe that the delay was nothing more than an attempt to give himself time in which to formulate his response. With a sigh, he placed his hands on the table, open-palmed, as though this conscious gesture of apparent honesty would be enough to make her change her mind about him. ‘I was going to go to the comedy club, meet the rest of them there, but I decided last minute not to go.’
‘So why not just tell us that on Friday?’
Darren reached for his coffee, changed his mind and returned his hands to his lap. Chloe noticed he didn’t wear a wedding ring, though this wasn’t unusual. It was possible that he didn’t want to lose it or damage it at work, or that he just never wore one. If it had been any other man than Darren, Chloe might have thought nothing of it, but everything about Darren Robinson was becoming a source of suspicion. ‘I’d been drinking,’ he said, scratching his left ear. ‘I’d been out that afternoon. Finished work early and went to the pub. I’d had too much to drink. I shouldn’t have been driving. I didn’t want to tell you I’d been back to Cardiff – if I’d told you that, I would have had to tell you about the drink-driving.’
He was lying. Chloe watched him shift in his chair and run his hand across his head before returning to his coffee.
‘Why did you change your mind?’
‘About going to the comedy club,’ Chloe reminded him. ‘You said you changed your mind.’
‘Headache. I realised I’d had enough to drink already.’
‘So where did you go instead?’
‘Stayed at a mate’s in Cardiff.’
‘You live in Cardiff,’ Chloe reminded him, unable to keep the sarcasm from the comment. ‘St Melon’s isn’t that far a drive from the Bay, is it? Why not just go home?’
She waited, but Darren didn’t answer. He’d already told so many lies; she wondered why just one more seemed such an issue for him.
‘Your friend would be able to confirm you stayed there, would he?’ Chloe persisted, noting the way Darren twitched and shifted every time he was asked a further question. It was like watching a trapped wasp struggle beneath an overturned glass: frantic at first, then increasingly weary as its energy failed and it accepted the fact that there was no escape.
‘She,’ he corrected her. He sat back in his chair and rolled his eyes to the ceiling before glancing over his shoulder as though he was making his confession to a mate down the pub and didn’t want anyone he knew to overhear. ‘Look,’ he said, having gauged the reaction on Chloe’s face, ‘that’s another reason I didn’t want to say where I’d been. The friend I stayed with, I’ve known her for years and it’s completely innocent, but Linda won’t see it that way, will she?’
Chloe picked up her phone from the table and opened her notes app. ‘I’ll need this friend’s name and contact details,’ she told him, sarcasm once again escaping from her, this time at the word ‘friend’. She waited as Darren retrieved his own phone and read out the woman’s phone number. ‘Why didn’t you go home the following day?’
‘I had to get back to Devon for the job.’
Chloe sat back, scepticism stamped across her raised eyebrow and the curl of her top lip. ‘So you drove all the way to Cardiff from Devon for