Esther was confused. She had woken up in strange surroundings, covered in bruises. Her head hurt and she remembered nothing but her name. People came and went, sometimes prodding her and other times asking questions. On the eighth day, they brought her clothes and told her to get dressed. They put her in a vehicle and drove her a long way away. Driving through narrow, tree-lined roads, they eventually reached a half-hidden sign, ‘Concealed entrance’. She didn’t know where she was, but the driver said, “We’re here.” He turned into a gap between the hedgerows onto a long gravel drive which led to a large, red-brick house with two tall chimneys symmetrically placed, one on the left and one on the right.
“Where is this?” Esther asked, but the driver did not reply. She stared at the white, double glazed front door with its decorative glass panel. It seemed as much a stranger here among the sash windows, wooden barge boards and terracotta chimneys as she was. She shielded her eyes from the sun and looked up at the front of the house. A Juliet balcony on the first floor faced a distant ridge of hills, the undulating form broken by a mobile telephone mast.
The man framed in the open doorway was about Esther’s height, with dark hair cut short at the top and shaved at the sides. His smile was more of a grimace and it revealed a gap between his front teeth.
“Welcome,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
She hung back, but the driver took her arm and walked her to the house. “Don’t leave me here,” she said as the man in the doorway grabbed her arm and pulled her inside.
“This is where you live now,” he said. “I’m Ray.”
He kept hold of her arm and pushed her into a large room, locking the front door behind him. Chairs of different styles were ranged around the walls like a reception area. The only sound was the steady ticking of a round schoolroom clock that hung above the brick fireplace. She sat down and waited.
“I expect you’ll be wanting a hot drink after the journey,” Ray said. She had not heard him leave, but he was now standing in the doorway with a steaming mug. He took a coaster from a set on the mantelpiece and placed the cup down carefully on the glass topped coffee table. Esther took a sip. It was hot and sweet. “What is this?” she asked.
“It’s coffee – the way you like it,” he said. Coffee. She repeated the word, rolling it around her tongue. Did she drink coffee? She didn’t know.
Ray left her alone. When she had finished the drink, she went into the hallway and stood, listening. A door opened and shut, and suddenly Ray was beside her, pointing upstairs. He followed her up the stairs. In the upper hallway, a door was open. “In there,” Ray said, pushing her forwards.
Esther hung back. She did not like the look of the grey walls, the lime green duvet cover and curtains and black furniture. “Dinner in ten minutes.”
Esther opened the wardrobe. Empty. It was the same with the chest of drawers. If this was her room, where were her clothes, her make-up, her brush and comb?
She opened the plastic bag they had given her before she left. Inside were a pack of five pairs of knickers, two bras and a blouse with a price tag of £6.99. Underneath was an envelope containing five crumpled £10 notes.
She went downstairs and sat on the bottom step, listening to the clatter of pans somewhere at the back of the house. After a while, Ray appeared with a pile of plates. “In here,” he said, entering a room further along the hall that looked out onto a large garden. There were signs that it had once been loved, but brambles and nettles had been allowed a free rein, strangling the roses, geraniums and dahlias. In contrast, the lawn had been recently cut and sported neat stripes.
Four girls sat at an old refectory table that took up most of the space: a short brunette reading a magazine, a dark girl with her hands in her lap and her eyes downcast, a tall, skinny blonde listening to music on headphones and a plain girl with a square jaw who was staring at a blackbird pulling a worm out of the ground. They looked up as Esther entered the room but did not speak.
Ray put the plates on the table and said, “Fiona, Yasmeen, Leanne and Rachel.” He pointed his thumb at Esther. “Esther.”
The sun came through the small panes of stained glass at the top of the windows at an angle, making a pattern on the end of the table. Esther sat down on the bench and traced her fingers around the patches of sunlight, wondering if she should offer to help Ray carry the food from the kitchen.
She ate mechanically, chewing pieces of lamb and carrot, listening to snatches of conversation for clues that would tell her where she was and why she was here, but the only talk was about bus timetables and work.
She spent the evening watching the television with Ray. The girls were upstairs somewhere. She could hear muted snatches of music and the hum of the refrigerator, but otherwise the house was silent. When she asked Ray a question about the television programme, he ignored her. After a while, she went to her room and got ready for bed.
Suddenly, she was awake in a sweat, her heart pounding. She had been in a dark, damp room with no windows and walls that were grimy with black dust. The only way out was up steep wooden steps. As she started to climb, the staircase grew longer until she was too weary and turned back. She moved around wildly, trying to find a way out, knocking against objects scattered on the floor. Something landed on her head, a spider on a sticky thread. When she tried to brush it away, it stuck to her fingers, swaying backwards and forwards, staring at her with eyes that were two evil pinpricks of light. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out.
She shoved the crumpled covers aside and swung her legs onto the floor, moving shakily to the window where she took in great gulps of air and waited for her heart to return to normal. She would not sleep now. Leaving the bedroom door open to illuminate the corridor, she went to the top of the stairs and listened. The house was in darkness and the only sound was a gentle snoring coming from one of the rooms.
Suddenly, Ray was padding up the hall in his bare feet. “If you’re going to wander about at night, I’ll have to lock you in your bedroom,” he said, pushing her back to her room.
In the morning, she awoke to the smell of bacon cooking, the terrors of the night forgotten. Downstairs, nobody was around, and there was only one place setting on the dining table. Esther sat down and waited. After a while, Ray appeared with a plate of bacon and eggs and a mug of coffee. “I let you sleep late,” he said, “seeing as it’s your first day.”
As she ate, Ray pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and pushed it across the table to her. “You’re to go here,” he said. “I’ve programmed the Satnav. Just follow the directions.”
“Where am I going?”
“They’ll explain when you arrive.” He handed her a key. “The blue Fiesta,” he said. “You’re only to use it when I say, otherwise you don’t go beyond the drive. Do you understand?”
She nodded. It was just one of many things she didn’t understand. Who was Ray, for example. Was he her husband or her brother? Who were the girls?
She didn’t even know if she could drive, but when she was sitting behind the wheel, her hands took over and she was soon speeding along the road, following the mechanical voice. Shortly after passing a sign for Pilbury, she drew up at a small, terraced property with decorative olive trees in white pots spiralling up the wall. As she reached up to the knocker, the door opened and a middle-aged woman stood framed in the doorway, severe and unsmiling.
“Come in, we’ve been expecting you,” she said. Esther stepped gingerly into the dark hall, reaching out to the wall to guide her. She made her way towards a room at the end of the corridor, followed so closely by the woman that she could feel her breath on the back of her neck.
“There’s nothing to be worried about,” the woman said. “Just go in and lay down on the couch.”
A sense of dread washed over her as she entered the room. A thick blind shut out all daylight and she could see nothing until the woman turned on a small table lamp. The room was small, no more than a cupboard really. Following instructions, Esther lay on the couch and allowed the woman to fix something to her head.
The woman left as a voice came through the headphones, a calm, confident, hypnotic voice. Esther closed her eyes and allowed the voice to take away her worries and lull her into a semiconscious state. It led her into a dark passage, the gloom broken only by a sliver of light which entered through a small, dusty window in the wall high above. It felt as if the curved ceiling was pushing down on her and she was being slowly compressed, like flowers in a flower press.
“Find the talisman,” the voice said.
Esther could just make out a table placed against the wall, covered in a black cloth, which would have been invisible except for the shaft of moonlight reflecting off the silky surface. She ran her hand over the top of the table, searching.
“There’s nothing here.”
“Look again. Find the talisman.”
She knelt down and moved her hands slowly over the cold flagstones beneath the table: nothing. She continued moving, crawling on the hard stone, sweeping her hands in front of her. Nothing. She stood up and ran her hands over the walls, looking for a crevice or a ledge. Nothing. As she reached the table again, a wisp of fog descended, swirling into a tiny tornado and settling on the table. As she reached out to touch it, it disappeared and there, in the centre of the table, was a rough orange and brown stone which glowed with an inner light.
“I have it,” she said. She expected it to be light, ethereal, weightless, but it was solid and firm in her palm. The inner light faded until she was left in darkness once again.
“Go through the door.”
She had not come across a door when she had searched for the talisman.
“There will be a door. Find the door.”
Esther put the stone carefully in the pocket of her jacket and made her way around the room again, feeling for a door. When she reached the far corner, her finger caught on a splinter. A heavy wooden door encrusted with raised iron ornaments had appeared where there had been none before. As she searched the rough surface for a handle, iron nails caught her skin and a sharp pain shot along her hand.
“Go through the door.”
“Go through the door.”
Esther moved forward cautiously, feeling for the edge of the door frame and moving into the space beyond. The door swung shut behind her with a clang, leaving her in complete darkness, for there was no window here.
She turned back, but the door had gone, cutting off her retreat. “I must go back,” she cried, her voice echoing in the empty space.
The voice was unmoving, unmoved. “You cannot go back.”
She scratched at the wall where the door had been, but it was now a solid wall. Her fingers traced several scratches low down as if someone – or something - had tried to break the door down with their fingernails. “Let me out. I must go home.”
“You are safe. No harm can come to you. Put your arms out, see if you can feel anything.”
“There’s nothing here, I want to come back.” There was no response. “Are you there?” she called.
“I am here.” The voice sounded far away.
Esther sank to the ground. “Where are you going? Don’t leave me here alone.”
The voice was gone. She heard footsteps, loud footsteps that resonated on a stone floor on the other side of the door. Shrinking back into the wall, she forced herself to be still and silent. The door opened and in the faint light which struggled to illuminate the darkness, she saw the silhouette of a short, stocky man framed in the doorway, blocking the only way out. He wore a long, blue tunic fastened at the waist with a wide leather belt. His black cloak was held in place by a gold fastener in a delicate filigree pattern, studded with dark red rubies like droplets of blood.
He took a torch from the wall and thrust it inside the room. Esther shrank back as the heat from the flames reached her. “There’s nobody here, it must have been rats,” the man said, speaking to someone in the room beyond.
“I sometimes lock my daughter in here for her own good,” came the response, “but she would not have got in by herself!” Both men laughed raucously and the door began to close.
Rolf had been working for Sebastian Dayton for two years, since he had come to England from Poland. Seb had put him up in one of the houses he owned, renting him a room at a discount price. The former lounge/diner had been divided into three and Rolf’s room, the middle one, had no window. He didn’t mind. There were six other people in the house and it was noisy and crowded if they were all there, but Rolf hardly ever saw them. He spent most of his time out working so that he could send his wages back home to Anna in Poland. Things were hard for her: there was much she needed to buy for herself and their daughter, Lidia.
Seb was good at getting the work in. With his dark, brooding good looks, the ladies seemed to melt when he appeared. He oozed charm and authority and they trusted him. At first, Seb priced the job up and gave Rolf anything he didn’t want to do, taking a commission, but now he hardly ever got his hands dirty, preferring to employ others to do the work. Rolf was careful and meticulous, and most of the time he was happy enough, but he didn’t like it when Seb gave him second-hand parts to install and charged the customer the new price.
Rolf got back from work one evening to find Seb waiting for him. “I’ve got a special job for you,” he said. “Let’s go inside and I’ll explain.”
Rolf went to the kitchen, about to offer a coffee, but changed his mind when he saw the dirty dishes piled up in the sink, the grubby tea towel hanging from the top of the fridge and the bowl of mouldy fruit on the worktop. He led the way to his bedroom, which contained a narrow bed which was too short for him and a small metal rail, on which hung Rolf’s best shirt and trousers. Rolf took off the blue, padded jacket that he’d got from the charity shop, and sat on the bed while Seb leaned against the wall.
“I want you to go and see this man,” Seb began, handing Rolf a piece of paper on which he had written a name and address. “He’s a private detective. My wife’s gone.”
Rolf wondered at the word “gone.” He knew the word was used when someone died as well as when someone left. What did Seb mean? As he was wondering whether to ask, Seb went on, “I’ve known for some time that she’s having an affair. She left a note – she’s gone to live with him. I wouldn’t care – we haven’t exactly been getting on lately, but she’s taken the child, my child. I don’t want another man looking after her.”
Rolf could understand that. He loved his daughter and missed her and would hate to think he would never see her again. “You go to police?” he asked.
“They’re not interested. She’s an adult, she hasn’t broken any laws. She’s left of her own accord, so there’s nothing they can do. I want you to go to this Jonathan Whicher. He’s a private detective. Ask him to find her. But my wife mustn’t know I’m looking for them.”
“OK, what do I tell Mr Whicher?”
“It’s got to be your story. Just tell him your girlfriend’s disappeared and you’re worried. Give Whicher this address so nobody can trace it back to me. Have you got that?”
Rolf nodded. “I understand.”
“There’s £500 in it for you,” Seb said.
£500 for half an hour with a private detective! Seb must want to find his wife badly. Rolf could not hide his delight. It brought him one step nearer to bringing Anna and Lidia over here to live.
“I tell my lady customer I will be there early tomorrow to finish her conservatory. You want I go there first?”
“No, go to Whicher first thing. I’ll take care of the customer.”
After two years, Rolf was pretty good at finding his way around London. He left his car at home and went by the Tube, coming out in a shabby, run down part of London. The address Seb had given him was a tall Victorian building that had recently had a facelift and now boasted new double glazed windows and shining new paint. A solid glass door led to various offices on the ground and first floors, but Seb had said to go round the side and enter through a slightly dilapidated wooden door. It opened onto a steep staircase which rose directly to the third floor, at the top of which was a door with a glass panel, etched with the words, Jonathan Whicher, Private Investigator.
The door stuck on the carpet. He squeezed through the gap and stood before a middle-aged woman with dyed blonde hair who was talking on the phone. A man of about the same age came out of the inner office, holding out his hand.
“Come in, come in. I must get that door fixed.” He had been saying that for the past ten years, since he first set himself up in this office. “Jonathan Whicher. How can I help you?”
The inner office was untidy. Files stood or lay on the shelves without any obvious order. The desk was littered with telephone books, maps, a magnifying glass and a cup half full of some indeterminate liquid. A half dead plant stood on the window ledge behind heavy velvet curtains whose weight had pulled the curtain rail down at one end.
Jonathan removed a pile of files from the chair and Rolf sat down. “I’m looking for my girlfriend,” he began. “She live with me but a few days ago, she not come home. She not answer her phone, and I worry about her.”
“What’s the girl’s name?”
“Angela. Angela Connors.”
Jonathan took down the details and explained his charges. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Most missing people turn up within a week, safe and sound. Keep your phone on you in case she contacts you.”
Jonathan had been a detective for thirty years and knew the drill. He would start with the hospital. He knew a nurse who owed him a favour.
Cynthia was tired. She had just finished her shift at the hospital and was on her way back to the Nurses’ Home, crossing the small hospital garden where patients sometimes sat. Stopping to look at the fish in the pond, she heard a familiar voice behind her. Smiling, she turned. Her old friend Jonathan. The first time they had met, she was just coming off shift at five in the morning on a cold, frosty winter’s day and had slipped on a patch of ice and gone down hard. Jonathan had come to her rescue, lending her his arm to lean on and helping her to an all-night café where he had bought her a latte. She’d often seen him after that as she was coming off shift. Five in the morning was apparently a good time for catching people who weren’t where they were supposed to be.
“Buy you a coffee?” he asked, as he always did whenever they met.
When they were settled in the café, Cynthia asked, “Have you come to see me about the present?” Every year since they had met, Jonathan asked her to help him pick out a birthday present for his wife. Over the years, she felt she knew Silvia quite well, although she had never met her.
“No, not this time. It’s something else. A man came to my office today looking for his girlfriend, Angela Connors.”
“And you want me to check whether she’s been admitted?” She picked up her cup and blew on it. “Anything for you,” she said.
He leaned over and kissed her hand, bringing a smile to her face. He was a gentleman.
A few miles away, Detective Inspector Archie Bell was just waking up. He drew the curtains and looked out onto the houses opposite. The move to Camden six months ago had been a welcome promotion, but he missed the Yorkshire Dales where he had lived all his life. He had taken it for granted: the stone-built cottages, the heather moors, the dry-stone walls and the flower-filled meadows. It was, he thought, the most magnificent scenery anywhere, from the tip of its rocky crags to the depths of its caves.
Now, instead of a broad sweep of green from his office, all he could see was a low brick wall, a scrubby piece of untended land and an iron fire escape at the back of the antiques shop whose white painted frontage with Georgian style windows spoke of an elegance which was not matched by the back view. Instead of bird song, all he could hear was the squawking of parakeets that bred so prolifically in London. He was still struggling to adapt to the change but his wife, Mary, had immersed herself in all that London had to offer: museums, theatres and art galleries, as if she had been missing them all her life.
Archie preferred a stroll along the Thames or a walk up Primrose Hill, a welcome bit of green set among the miles and miles of houses which went right out to Surrey, Kent, Essex and what used to be Middlesex. There was a magnificent view from the top of the hill of central London’s tall, modern buildings: the Shard, the Gherkin and the Cheese Grater. The York stone edging and quote from William Blake had been a surprise: I have conversed with the spiritual sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill. At the weekend, he and Mary sometimes combined their interests with a visit to Camden Lock, with its busy market, before strolling along the river to the more peaceful Little Venice where they would have lunch somewhere overlooking the river and maybe take in a boat trip.
A week earlier, he had been called to an address in Camden where the narrow houses were all identical except for the colour of the outside walls. In an attempt to infuse the houses with their own identity, the owners had painted them in different pastel shades: yellow, green, lilac, pink.
Someone had rung 999 and a constable had gone round, knocked at the pale purple house, announced his presence and, receiving no reply, looked through the lounge window, before taking a battering ram to the door.
Archie had taken PC Jessica Watts with him. She was a bright, intelligent, girl, with a mind of her own, not afraid to disagree with her superiors, and he had recently recommended her for training as a Detective Constable. When they arrived at the pale purple house, a man lay on the floor of the front room, dead, blood oozing from a gash on his head. The front door had been firmly shut when the constable arrived and there were no open windows or broken locks. Apart from the kitchen, there was one other room on the ground floor, furnished as a dining room, with a large oak dining table and four elegant chairs with seats of red and grey stripes. Through the French windows, he saw a small garden with a shed, a recently mown square of lawn and a narrow strip of weedy earth in which a solitary buddleia grew. It had probably seeded itself. The gardens to either side were mostly covered in decking or paving. If someone had come in the back way, he would have climbed over several garden fences to get in.
The forensics team had dusted for fingerprints, searched for splashes of blood, taking swabs and photographs. When they had finished in the house, they went to investigate the shed. It was old and shabby, with a door that hung off its hinges, revealing a lawnmower, a rotary airer, two deck chairs, a number of rusty tools and various gardening chemicals: weed killer, slug killer, rose pellets, bone meal … Some of the boxes had disintegrated and were leaking onto the shelf and they were all covered in spiders’ webs. It seemed unlikely anything in here had been used for a very long time.
Archie had inspected the house. There were three bedrooms upstairs, two doubles and a small box room which contained just one item, a treadmill. In the front bedroom, an antique mahogany desk dominated the room, looking out of place among sleek grey cupboards. The computer had been bagged up and was waiting to be taken away. There was a whole team of analysts back at the station who would be able to get in and sift through it, looking for evidence.
The dead man had slept in the bedroom at the back. Archie slid open the wardrobe doors and noticed that there were no female clothes. There was only one toothbrush in the bathroom and only one hairbrush. The man clearly lived alone.
Among the documents in a folder, he found a driving licence, which gave him the man’s name and date of birth. Fergus Cormac, age forty-two.
Copyright Janet Maile 2017