Liam followed the sound of the footsteps ahead that were cracking and crunching a path through the woods. There was more clamour from behind too, the man so close Liam could smell his aftershave carrying on the breeze.
As he stared into the darkness of the blindfold, he tried to figure out if the sensation surging along his leg was the normal type of pins and needles he often experienced after waking up, or if he was actually in pain. He remembered one morning when he was a kid, hearing a banging on the cupboard next to his bed, only to realise it was his foot tapping against the wood. He had been resting on it the whole night and couldn’t feel a thing. Now the sensation was similar, the stinging he knew he should be feeling replaced by a numbness that made his legs heavy.
Liam felt a hand at the bottom of his back, pushing him along, his feet catching the twigs on the floor, sending him stumbling. The man behind reached forward, grabbing the scruff of his collar roughly, stopping him from falling and then shoving him again.
‘Keep walking straight,’ he ordered, as if Liam had any thoughts of running away. He knew he was getting what he deserved.
Liam’s shoes scuffed across a loose stone, making him trip. He steadied himself, fumbling in the dark until his hand found a tree trunk that he used to haul his body up quickly before the man could shove him again.
Behind, he heard a grunt of amusement.
There was a wet patch on his knees from the fall, the first definite sensation he had felt in his legs since being dragged into the woods. The rest of his body seemed unlike his own, his arms floppy and unresponsive despite the bark chips on his hands, his eyelids heavy and tired. He knew there must have been something in the water he had been given that made him like this but it was all part of his punishment.
Liam focused on the dampness through his trousers, trying to savour more or less the only thing he could feel. Underfoot, the land began to slope gently downwards. The footsteps in front of him were moving quickly away but the man was still close behind as a gust of wind howled ominously, swirling and curving through the trees. It chilled Liam’s ears, making him shiver, unbalanced. With his vision blocked and his limbs sluggish, Liam’s sense of hearing was his only steadying influence and he lurched to the side, skidding on a patch of leaves and getting his foot caught in something that felt like a rope.
This time there was nothing to use to stop his fall. Liam hit the ground face-first, his head cannoning off a loose rock. He tried to breathe in but inhaled a mouthful of grass, spluttering painfully as the taste of coppery blood filled his mouth. Jolts rocketed through his hip and it felt as if he had been punched in the chest, the pins and needles firmly replaced by agony. The worst sting was from where he had bitten his tongue. Blood flowed down his windpipe, making him cough again. He tried to breathe through his nose, only to find more blood there.
Abruptly Liam felt himself being hauled up. The collar was tight around his neck, throttling into his throat. Flecks of blood splattered from his mouth, his chest tight and sore. He wanted to bend over to compose himself but the man now had both hands on him, one gripping his windpipe, the other wrenching his arm. He yelped in pain, wishing he could feel the pins and needles again, but there was more to come as his assailant punched him hard across the face, still grasping his throat. Liam was struggling to breathe as a second blow came, smashing across his ear and sending him sprawling to the ground again.
He heard the hard thud of the man’s boot on his back and legs before he felt it, each crunch punctuated by a tirade of abuse shouting about what a disgrace he was. Liam lay on the floor hugging himself. He knew that each word the man spat was the truth, each kick a necessary part of his penance.
Finally, he heard the second voice, telling the man to stop and that Liam had had enough. Liam felt one final boot to the back of his neck before he was hauled to his feet. The blindfold had slipped slightly but he could see only stars anyway. Blood poured from his mouth and nose, dribbling across his chin and dripping to the ground. The man grabbed his arm, hauling him down the rest of the slope until Liam felt water sloshing around his ankles.
‘Keep walking,’ he was told as his arms were released.
Liam daren’t refuse, staggering forward as the water gradually reached his knees, the icy chill making him gasp in surprise. He was back to not knowing if he was hurting, the water freezing and boiling at the same time, suppressing the pain of the blows, new and old.
He continued walking until the water was above his waist and then he heard the voice of his saviour. ‘Come to me, Liam.’
The soothing way his name was spoken made him feel as if he was the only person in the world and he took two more steps forward before he felt hands on his neck, untying the blindfold.
Liam blinked rapidly, the searing white of the moon reflecting from the surface of the water and making his eyelids flutter so quickly that the strobing flashes of light and dark reminded him of being in a nightclub in his younger days.
‘Are you ready?’
Liam nodded, still gasping for breath as his eyes adjusted to the scene. The gentle black of the rippling water was serenely beautiful, a calming, fitting way for him to be cleansed.
He was shivering uncontrollably but Liam did as he was told, the water lapping his chin.
‘Do you know why you’re here?’ he was asked.
‘What do you have to say for yourself?’
‘That I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t gone back to my old ways.’
Liam felt the waves brimming around him, splashing over the top of his lips as their presence closed.
‘That’s good of you,’ the voice cooed. ‘But now it’s time to wash those sins away.’
Liam felt one hand pressing on his forehead, another on his back as he was rocked backwards into the water. He hadn’t taken a breath quickly enough and water flooded into his nostrils and mouth. His instincts made him want to cough, to gasp for breath, but the hands held him under.
He flailed his legs, trying to squirm towards the surface, but the grip was firm, pushing him down deeper until Liam could feel nothing but the frosty water enveloping him in a final, decisive baptism.
Detective Sergeant Jessica Daniel stared at the muted television screen as the stream of adverts flittered past. With little else to do and no inclination to turn up the volume, she made up her own version of what the actors would be saying to each other. A man had taken a gulp of some luminous pink juice and was now running around like a lunatic, women falling at his feet.
‘Just like real life,’ Jessica said out loud to the empty room as her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the doorbell.
Quickly, she switched off the television with the remote control and moved around the room until she was sitting underneath the window. There was a knock on the door and then the bell rang a second time. Jessica held her breath, wondering if the uninvited visitor would be peering through the crack between the curtains above her, looking to see if there was anyone in.
Sometimes the postman came around but Jessica always ignored him, letting her neighbour take in the parcel and then picking it up later. As the door rattled again, Jessica knew it couldn’t be him. He would never ring the bell more than once, let alone knock twice as well.
The letterbox clanged and then Jessica heard Detective Chief Inspector Jack Cole’s voice echoing through the hallway, calling her name. She tried to work out the last time she had spoken to him. It was definitely months, with her ignoring his phone calls until they stopped completely.
‘Jess, I know you’re there . . .’
Her name reverberated a second time, not a ‘sergeant’, ‘detective’, or even ‘Jessica’; instead he was letting her know that he wasn’t there as her boss but as something else.
Jessica knew she had abandoned her mates over recent months, not the other way around.
‘Jess, please let me in . . .’
Another knock, another ring of the bell and then a tap on the glass above her.
‘I’ll wait here all day if I have to.’
Jessica’s reply had escaped before she had a chance to stop it, ending any pretence that she wasn’t in. The letterbox banged closed and Jessica stood, turning to see Jack’s face watching through the gap in the curtains. Perhaps it was because of the dim light or silvery skies but his skin seemed greyer than the last time she had seen him. His forehead was crinkled with worry but he was sporting a kindly half-smile. She couldn’t help but make eye contact as he mouthed ‘Hello’.
She wanted to close the curtains, to tell him to leave her be, but something drew her towards the hallway until she found herself turning the key and pulling the door open.
Jack was standing there, hands in pockets. Rain had welded his thinning hair to his scalp, drops cascading over him, dripping to the floor.
Jessica hadn’t noticed it was raining.
‘Can I come in?’ he asked, glancing towards the sky. ‘Why are you here?’
‘To see you.’
‘You’ve done that now.’
The DCI brushed a flurry of water away from his face. ‘Okay, to talk then.’
‘We’re talking now.’
He snorted a mix of laughter and rain. ‘I’m guessing this is what it feels like to be on the opposite side of an interview room to you.’
Jessica shrugged, not wanting to think about anything from the station.
‘So can I come in?’
Pulling the door open, Jessica stood to the side, not saying anything. Cole offered a ‘thank you’, stepping inside and wiping his feet before she closed the door.
‘I didn’t know you’d moved,’ he said, taking off his coat. ‘HR still have you in a flat in Salford Quays. I had to put a few calls in to find out where you were living. It was like being a proper police officer again, before all the form-filling came in.’
Jessica took his coat and hung it over the banister of the stairs, leading the way through to the living room.
‘Nice place you’ve got here,’ Cole said. ‘One of the constables before your time used to live in Swinton too. He once told me that the name comes from Old English, where it meant pig farm.’
Jessica pulled the curtains open, letting the fading grey of the Manchester skies fill the room. She moved to the sofa as the DCI sat opposite her in an armchair.
‘Being called a pig is part of the job, so it’s probably fair enough,’ Jessica replied.
Cole smiled. ‘What was wrong with the flat?’
Jessica wasn’t in the mood for chit-chat but figured she didn’t want to go out of her way to be rude. ‘It wasn’t ours. We were only staying there because of the fire at Adam’s house.’
Cole nodded. ‘Ah yes, it was your friend’s as I recall.’ Jessica knew he was trying to draw her into a conversation, fishing for information, wondering if they owned this new house together, or if it was just her. She could feel him watching her but didn’t want to make eye contact. ‘It’s good to see you,’ he eventually said.
Jessica tucked her long, unwashed dark blonde hair behind her ears, suddenly feeling self-conscious about her appearance. She was wearing tracksuit bottoms and a vest-top with loose straps that kept slipping over her shoulder from where she had lost weight.
‘Why are you here?’
‘Because it’s time we had a chat. I know you’ve been through a lot.’
Jessica felt the lump in her throat that had been all too close recently. She glanced towards the window, not wanting her boss to see the wetness around her eyes.
‘You don’t know what I’ve been through.’
‘I didn’t mean it like that.’ He paused, hunting for the right words. ‘We all miss you. I know it’s a workplace and we get paid for being there but it’s like a little family too. I’ve watched you grow up.’
Jessica didn’t reply.
‘I was out with my daughter at the weekend, it was my turn for custody. She’s a right bundle of energy. We went to the park with one of her friends and she spent hours racing around, climbing, running, swinging, but most of all laughing. I probably only have a few months of that left before she doesn’t want to be seen with her dad any more. I was on a bench overlooking everything and she came over every half an hour, saying, “Did you see me, Dad?” Me and her mother have had such problems but I’ve never been happier than I was seeing that grin on her face.’
Jessica swallowed hard. ‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘Because on the way home, they were both in the back-seat of the car. Someone had been to their school talking about careers and they were full of it. My daughter said firmly, “I want to be a policeman just like Daddy”. I didn’t have time to tell her not to bother because of the hours, pay and everything else we deal with because her friend cut in. She said, “Only men can be police officers”. I don’t know where she got that from but my daughter asked if it was true. I told her that not only could girls be police officers but they were often the best ones.’
The lump in Jessica’s throat was so large that she could barely breathe and she struggled to reply. ‘What do you want me to say?’
‘Nothing, I just wanted you to know that we’re thinking of you. Isobel and Dave are lost.’
‘I’m not ready yet.’
‘And there’s no pressure for you to be . . .’
Cole tailed off, the only noise being the gentle clatter of rain on concrete outside and the faint sound of traffic from the main road. Jessica tried to think of the last time she had been out by herself, other than to collect a parcel from next door or to visit the shop at the end of the road to pick up some bread or milk. The house had become her prison as much as a home.
She could still feel his eyes on her but continued staring at the blank television screen.
‘How are things with—?’
Jessica interrupted before Cole could finish. ‘Why are you really here?’
He took a deep breath. ‘Something’s happened—’
‘I told you I’m not ready yet.’
‘It’s not what you think. We’ve been asked for assistance by a different district.’
‘That happens all the time. We tell them we’ve got no officers free and they move on.’
‘This is different. They’re looking for a certain type of person.’
‘And you think that’s me?’
‘I think most things could be you if you wanted them to be . . .’
Jessica didn’t respond at first, letting the rain fill the gap before eventually replying. ‘You’re not going to make me do anything just by being nice.’
Cole laughed. ‘Would you rather I was nasty?’ ‘Just tell me what it is.’
The DCI cleared his throat, any pretence gone. ‘We pulled a man’s body out of the canal a few weeks ago. He was only wearing his underwear, no wallet, no ID. His head had been shaved, so had his eyebrows, chest, armpits – everything. He had been badly beaten and was covered in bruises.’
‘What killed him?’
‘He had been drowned. You know what it’s like, no free officers, waiting on forensics. It’s the same every time. Isobel was a star as ever, working her way through the lists of missing people until we only had a dozen or so to check. We eventually got it down to one name.’
‘Anyone I’d know?’
Cole shook his head, raising his voice slightly as the sound of the rain increased. ‘It was someone named Liam Renton. He had a very minor criminal record with a couple of drunk and disorderlies, theft from a shop and a threatening behaviour charge that was dropped.’
Jessica didn’t want to appear interested but she could feel herself being drawn in. ‘How old was he?’
‘Twenty-four. He’s a native Manc.’
‘How does that connect to a different district?’
‘We visited his family. Unlike what you might expect, his parents are still together. He’s got two younger sisters and a younger brother. They come from a respectable area.’
‘That doesn’t mean much.’
‘Quite – but I visited myself. You know what it’s like when you have a feeling about people but there was none of that. None of them had spoken to him in a year or so. His mum said he had big problems with alcohol and drugs but it was his younger brother who knew the most.’
‘He’s eighteen but he’d heard things from around the estate about what his brother was up to. At first it was all drink and drugs and that was why he had been ostracised by the family but around six months ago, Liam cleaned himself up – at least according to his brother.’
Cole shuffled nervously in the seat, glancing away from Jessica towards the window and then back again. ‘Then he disappeared. The rest of his family hadn’t seen him in a year but his brother knew what he’d been up to from the mutual people they knew. Then it all stopped.’
‘But he only turned up dead recently?’
‘The brother said he’d heard Liam had been recruited.’
‘What for? The army?’
Cole shook his head, reaching into his back pocket for a notebook. The fact he was completely prepared wasn’t lost on Jessica. So much for only wanting a chat.
‘How well do you know the Bible?’ he asked, not looking at the pad.
‘A bit. I went to Sunday School as a kid. Basically we’re not allowed to be gay but we are allowed to keep slaves. We’re supposed to love one another but an eye for an eye is fair game too. It’s all very confusing.’
Cole looked down at his pad. ‘There’s a group up on the Lancashire–Yorkshire border that live in a massive stately home. They’ve been on the local watch list for a little while. Once a week or so, they visit the centres of the bigger cities, Manchester, Leeds, and so on, recruiting.’
The penny dropped for Jessica. ‘They’re a religious cult?’
Cole shrugged. ‘That’s the point, no one really knows what they are. To all intents and purposes, they are simply a group of friendly people trying to help. On the streets, they preach that drugs and alcohol are sins. They say they can help cure people of their addictions.’
‘And that’s where Liam ended up?’
‘So why hasn’t the local force gone in and sorted things?’
Cole glanced at his pad again before putting it back on the arm of the chair. ‘There’s a lot of money involved. I don’t know the exact details of the house and the people inside but they have expensive lawyers. Police have been to interview the people in charge, who even admitted that Liam lived there.’
‘But . . .’
‘They said he simply left and that they haven’t seen him in weeks. Officers spoke to everyone there but the story was identical: he had started drinking again, so they asked him to leave. That was the last they saw of him.’
Jessica stayed silent for a moment, knowing exactly where the conversation was headed. She even knew why Cole had come to her. A year ago, she would have jumped at the chance but things were different now.
It was as if he had read her mind. ‘They’re asking neighbouring forces for a certain type of person: someone tough and streetwise, female if possible. Someone not known in their local district. A person who can blend in, get on with people if need be but generally poke around and find out what’s going on. The key is that it has to be someone who can look after themselves. They’ll be on their own.’
‘You want to send me in?’
‘I don’t want to do anything. Nobody knows I’m here. I know what’s happened to you over the past nine months and I’m not trying to say I understand because I don’t. I’m simply saying I know. If you want to stay here doing whatever it is you’re doing then that’s fine. You’re on indefinite leave and we’ll wait for you – I’ll wait. But if you want to return, this is a way of coming back without actually having to.’
Jessica shook her head. ‘What if I don’t want to?’ ‘Then we’ll move on. They’ll find someone else. The crucial part is that if you’re going to do it, then you have to have a sense of self-preservation. It could be dangerous, they need someone who’s sharp and resilient. Someone who can get themselves out at a moment’s notice if necessary.’
‘You think that’s me?’
Cole’s reaction surprised her. Jessica had been expecting him to lay a guilt trip on her, offering her a way to return to work, even though she wasn’t ready. Instead he started to stand. ‘Actually, now I’ve seen you, no, I don’t.’
Jessica remained sitting, aware of him standing over her. She wasn’t sure why but his words felt like a rebuke, a questioning of everything she had ever done.
‘Is this about what happened with Scott and the gun going off?’
A poor piece of judgement by Jessica had led to her trying to make an arrest with her friend and colleague, Detective Constable David Rowlands. Their target pulled out a gun and fired. The fact they had so badly misjudged what could have happened led to an official inquiry.
‘We were all cleared of that,’ Cole replied. ‘It was no one’s fault but the person who brought weapons onto the premises and the one who pulled the trigger. Besides, we both know there’s far more to it than that.’
Jessica stood quickly, aggrieved. She glared into her boss’s eyes but he had none of the anger she was suddenly feeling. ‘Is this some reverse psychology thing? You say I’m not up to it, so I change my mind to try to prove you wrong?’
Cole shook his head. ‘Even if it was, you’d see through it instantly, in much the way you just have.’
‘So what is it then?’
He sighed, turning up the collar on his shirt and moving through the house to the hallway where he took his coat from the banister and put it on. Jessica followed him, furious he wasn’t replying.
‘Come on,’ she demanded, tears close. ‘What is it?’
As soon as he met her eyes, she knew. ‘I already told you – it’s about self-preservation. If the volunteer gets into trouble, they need to have the sense to get themselves out. They have to look after themselves first. You can only do that if you’re bothered what happens to you.’
‘You don’t think I care what happens to me?’
Jessica could hear the whimper in her voice. She wanted to deny it, to shout that she did care, but she knew it would be a lie.
Cole watched her carefully. ‘I’m broken,’ she whispered.
He stepped forward, putting a protective arm around her. Jessica embraced him, cradling her head into his shoulder and barely hanging onto the tears.
His reply was firm and fatherly. ‘If you want things to change, sometimes you have to help yourself.’
Jessica gasped as she walked into the pub, the chill of the air outside replaced by the warm orange glow and crackling of the fire next to the bar. Her footsteps creaked on the hard wooden floor and Jessica felt people turning to face her, wondering who the stranger was. She made her snap judgements, as she always did.
There was the farmer on his own at the bar, dried mud on his wellington boots and a heavy dark green waxed jacket, ready to head out again. In a booth to her right was a middle-aged man and a woman, refusing to acknowledge anyone else. They were no doubt having an affair and had sneaked off to this countryside hideaway, safe from the accusing eyes of their partners.
In the back corner was a couple staring at plates of half-eaten food, not talking, not doing anything other than wallowing in the broken remains of their unhappy marriage. Behind the bar, a bored young bar girl in a too-tight T-shirt was wiping a glass with a tea towel, wiggling her pert bottom for the customers as she turned and reached to put it onto a shelf. She would no doubt be out of this back end of nowhere and off to see the real world as soon as she had some money.
Jessica scanned the rest of the bar, looking for the person she was supposed to be meeting. She only had a name but had arrogantly assumed it couldn’t be that difficult to find one person in such a small place.
‘Can I help you?’
The girl behind the bar had finished putting the glass on the shelf and was eyeing Jessica.
‘I’m fine,’ Jessica replied, although she had now attracted the attention of the lone farmer at the bar. She walked past him, looking from side to side and checking each booth until she had done a full lap of the pub. When she was by the door again, Jessica took out her phone, noting that she was on time, and then called the person she was due to meet.
Her phone beeped an instant rejection.
‘You won’t get a signal around here, love,’ the farmer at the bar said, scratching the greying stubble on his chin and grinning crookedly. He had yellow teeth, with a gap at the front where one was missing. ‘Are you looking for someone?’
‘Someone named Charlie. I’m supposed to be meeting him here . . .’
He grinned, gaze scanning across her body. ‘I can be Charlie if you want me to be.’
Jessica ignored him, starting another lap of the pub. The only men there were either in groups with other blokes, or with a female.
As she finished her second circuit, Jessica took out the note from Cole with the name, time and place written on it and checked the name of the pub over the top of the bar, just to make sure she was in the right place. The farmer was grinning at her, patting the empty seat next to him, but Jessica ignored him, starting a third lap.
In the back corner was a woman sitting by herself
reading a book. Jessica’s lack of interaction with people over the past few months made her nervous about approaching a stranger but she didn’t have many other options as everyone else seemed to be in groups or pairs.
‘Excuse me,’ Jessica said, approaching the table. ‘Do you live around here?’
The woman looked up from her book. She was a little older than Jessica, in her late thirties, with long brown hair tied into a ponytail. She had long eyelashes and a small button nose. Considering she was the prettiest woman in the pub, it was a surprise she was the only one by herself. ‘I do but I’ve not been here for too long,’ she replied. ‘If you’re looking for directions, I’m probably not the best person to ask.’
Jessica peered down at Cole’s note. ‘I’m looking for Charlie Bailey. Do you know him?’
The woman grinned as she closed her book, putting it on the table and stretching out a hand. ‘Charlotte Bailey, pleased to meet you. You must be Jessica.’
Jessica shook her hand awkwardly, unsure what to say and feeling even more self-conscious. ‘Sorry, my DCI left me a note saying “Charlie” and I assumed . . .’
Charley took the note, reading it with a smile and handing it back. Her voice was posh, each word perfectly pronounced. ‘It’s the way he’s spelled it. I go for an E-Y at the end. I’m guessing you tried calling but there’s no reception out here.’
Jessica slid into the booth opposite her. ‘I tried when I got off the train, then from the taxi, then when I arrived at the pub.’
Charley shook her head. ‘It’s pretty remote here. You get patches where everything works perfectly, then five steps away, you’ll lose reception entirely. The locals spent years campaigning against a phone mast being put in, so they can’t really complain.’
‘You’re not local then?’
It was an obvious question given the accent but Charley answered anyway. ‘No, I’m from Jersey.’
‘Unless you know another one.’
Charley continued smiling and Jessica could tell she had been asked these questions many times before. Jessica figured that if she was going to end up working with someone, then she may as well find out all she could about them.
‘How did you end up here?’
Charley raised a hand, catching the attention of a barman who was picking up glasses. She ordered a glass of wine for herself and a soft drink for Jessica.
‘I studied medieval history at Cambridge. When I finished, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but applied to the police on a whim. I did a bit of time in uniform down south and did the usual swap over to CID, working my way up. One day, I saw a job advertised on our internal system for a DCI position up here. One thing led to another and here I am.’
Charley’s eyes were bright blue, brimming with enthusiasm and a charm Jessica could only wish for.
‘So you come from the Channel Islands?’
‘And you went to Cambridge? The Cambridge, not some satellite polytechnic where you have a load of dropouts studying fashion and the media, or something like that?’
‘But you joined the police?’
‘And now you’re up living on the Lancs–Yorks border in the middle of nowhere?’
Jessica paused for a moment, wondering if there was a polite way to phrase her next question. When she realised there wasn’t, she simply went for it.
Charley laughed, a girly giggle that Jessica guessed could have snared many men over the years. She flicked her hair away from her face, grinning. ‘I suppose I figured, “Why not?”. It felt like something different to do.’
‘But you studied history at Cambridge. Surely that opens a few doors?’
Charley shrugged. ‘Yes but boring doors. I wanted to go and work with real people.’
‘Do you know anyone around here?’
‘Not before I came.’
‘So you moved halfway across the country by yourself, even though you didn’t know anyone?’
‘I suppose it sounds a bit strange when you put it like that. For me it was a new experience.’
Jessica’s own definition of a new experience within the policing world would be a transfer to a Caribbean island to work in the sun for a few years. Some village in the middle of nowhere would certainly provide a new experience – but it wasn’t one she would go out of her way to choose.
Before she could say anything, the barman returned with a tray and their drinks. Charley knew him by name, patting him on the arm and saying she hoped his mother was feeling better. He was only eighteen or nineteen and blushed at the attention of an attractive woman twice his age, stumbling over a reply before tripping over his own feet as he turned to walk away. Jessica could see that Charley had already made her presence felt in the area, although being a DCI meant she must have responsibility for more than simply this village.
As he walked out of earshot, Charley raised her eyebrows. ‘You’ve got to keep them on their toes,’ she winked.
Jessica wanted to dislike her but couldn’t resist being charmed. Despite this being somewhere that she struggled to find on a map, there was something almost romantic about the notion of dropping everything and anyone you had ever known and creating a new life for yourself. She could sense the appeal.
Charley took a sip of her wine. ‘So, you’re Jessica,’ she said. ‘I’ve heard a bit about you.’
Jessica fought not to squirm, wondering if someone had been talking out of turn about what had happened in the last nine months. ‘What have you heard?’
‘Well, mainly read. I looked your name up. You’ve been involved in some interesting cases in the past. You’re quite the star. I’m surprised you’re still a sergeant . . .’
Charley might have been fishing for answers but Jessica ignored the unasked question anyway. ‘It’s not just me.’
The other woman took another sip of her wine, smiling knowingly. ‘No “I” in team. I get it. Unfortunately, this is very much an “I”-type of job. Are you good at working on your own?’
Jessica always felt she was better by herself, figuring things out, getting on people’s nerves and generally making things happen. She nodded, unwilling to talk herself up.
Charley turned, pointing directly behind her towards a window. ‘About two miles that way is an enormous old stately home. It’s one of these places that has been handed down through generations of families for hundreds of years. It’s never been open to the public, so we can only guess at what it’s like on the inside, but outside it is beautiful. It’s made of this stunning honey-coloured stone, with huge windows and lush green lawns. To see it is like stepping back in time. You can imagine Victorians in their flowing gowns and top hats playing croquet in the front garden.’
‘And this is where things are based?’
‘“Things” indeed. I know your lot fished Liam Renton out of the canal but he’s not the only person connected to that place who has gone missing. The force around here have been watching them for eight or nine years, long before I arrived, but there’s never anything concrete. When you sent through the ID on Liam’s body, I went with a team of my own. They invited us in, shunted us into the closest room so we couldn’t see much and then we did interview after interview getting the same useless information. With Liam they admitted he’d been there but said he had been expelled weeks previously. Everyone repeated it, no inconsistencies, no one to say any differently. With their big, expensive lawyers there, there’s little else we can do.’
‘So you want me to get myself into their group?’
Charley took a larger swig of her drink but her eyes didn’t leave Jessica. ‘We want someone who would fit the right criteria. Young, vulnerable-looking, steely on the inside. We don’t know what they might be getting up to.’
‘Who are the people you know about?’
Charley didn’t seem to mind Jessica steering the subject away from herself. She pushed back into her chair. ‘The person who owns the house – at least according to the deeds – is Sophie Lewis. She’s married to Jan Lewis. Sophie’s father was a very wealthy landowner but she was his only heir and is now the only remaining member of that family.’
‘I’ve never heard of her.’
‘There’s no reason you should have done but neither of them use their real names anyway. Jan calls himself “Moses”, Sophie is “Zipporah”.’
Jessica scrunched her face in confusion but Charley continued. ‘In the Bible, Zipporah is Moses’s wife.’
‘Is it a religious sect?’
Charley shook her head. ‘We’re not sure. In the city centres when they are recruiting, they don’t really talk about God or the Bible. They talk about getting past the addiction of drugs, alcohol and other things. They speak about depression and how it can be cured. When they get people back to the house, we have no idea what happens. Moses never seems to leave, instead sending his followers out to do his work for him. In fairness, for the most part, people seem okay there but there’s obviously something going on because of Liam and the ones before him.’
Jessica finally took a sip of her own drink. ‘What do you need me to do?’
The other officer didn’t point out that Jessica hadn’t been accepted to do anything yet – she was simply here for a chat. ‘The first thing would be to get yourself in. From what we can tell, they go to four different city centres on alternate Sundays. They do Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Manchester. Assuming they don’t change the pattern, tomorrow will be Manchester.’
‘So I should visit them?’
‘We’re not really sure how tough the recruitment policy is – assuming there’s anything formal at all. It might be a case of talking to them and being invited, or there could be something far more disturbing. Whoever it is would be on their own. One of the things we do know from the recruiting sessions is that electronics are banned within the house. No phones, no way to communicate. Everything would have to be weighed from the need to find out what’s going on compared to the individual’s own personal safety. We need someone who has good judgement, someone who might have to cross a line or two but knows where to stop.’
Jessica nodded, her heart beating faster. If it wasn’t for the ‘good judgement’ instruction, Charley might as well have said they needed her.
‘If there are no communications, how would I report back?’
Charley again ignored the ‘I’. ‘Whoever it was would have to remember everything. Don’t write it down, don’t talk to anyone else there. When the time came and there was enough to report, they would have to sneak out as and when they could. There may be slight changes to the plan depending on what we can clear but that would basically be it. We need to know if they have weapons. Does Moses have everyone enraptured? For instance, would the other residents do something like kill themselves if he told them to? Would they attack others? Who is his right-hand man? What about Zipporah? She’s one of the recruiters but we know he changed his name first, so we’re assuming she’s in his thrall too. Then of course, we want to know where the people are going – and why someone like Liam Renton is dead.’
‘How high is this going?’
Charley finished her wine in one. ‘Let’s just say there are people above me who know. This way, I act as the face of whatever goes on. If it goes wrong, guess who gets it in the neck. If it goes well, guess who gets the credit. We both know what it’s like. In essence, this is my thing, at least for now.’
‘And you want me?’
Jessica knew it was a direct question that needed an answer. Without a drink to hide behind, Charley had to reply. ‘Perhaps. Your record is good. What are things like away from the station? Are you single?’
Jessica stumbled over the start of a reply but Charley was firm. ‘I’m not asking because I need your personal life story, I’m asking because we need a certain type of person. Are you single?’
‘It’s complicated . . . I’m not married.’
Charley narrowed her eyes. ‘If this goes badly it will be someone’s career down the pan at the absolute least. At worst . . .’ She tailed off, before adding: ‘We can’t have someone who’s worrying about their home life. It has to be someone who can become a part of whatever community it is they have inside the house. You might be there for a few days, perhaps months. We need someone who has nothing to lose.’
Jessica couldn’t meet Charley’s eyes, staring out of the window and feeling the lump in her throat again. ‘I’ve already lost.’
Excerpted from Behind Closed Doors by Kerry Wilkinson. Copyright © 2014 by Kerry Wilkinson.
First published 2014 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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