Либрусек (книги fb2)
Bye Bye Baby
Allan Guthrie Bye Bye Baby
I was on my way downstairs to grab a can of something fizzy from the drinks machine when I passed Detective Sergeant Dutton's office. I made the mistake of looking up. He saw me and waved me over.
His room was tiny. The desk took up most of the space and it wasn't a big desk. I wondered how Dutton managed to pull the chair out far enough to squeeze himself in. He was a beefy guy with a porn-star moustache, which he was stroking as he listened to the caller on the other end of the phone.
I stood in the doorway catching the faint smell of tobacco smoke from Dutton's clothes.
He scribbled a few notes, grunted something, then said goodbye and hung up.
"You can have this one, Collins," he said to me. "Missing kid."
Dutton didn't like me. Few people did, mainly because of my uncle. But with Dutton it was personal.
I'd told his wife she should leave him and she'd told him what I said.
Yeah, I know, I should mind my own business. But I'd heard the way he spoke to her and it was ugly. I'd happily do the same again.
"Why wouldn't I be serious?" He pulled a face. An attempt to look hurt. "Well, if you don't think you can handle it…"
"How old's the kid?"
"Where's the mother right now?"
"You have the address?"
"Right here." He tapped a scrap of paper on his desk with his pen. "You sure about this now?"
"You think I'm not up to the job?" I held out my hand.
But he just chewed the inside of his cheek and peered at me. "Maybe it needs someone more senior at the helm," he said. "I think I should take it."
He knew I'd been after a high-profile case for ages. I'd decided a couple of months ago that if I didn't get promoted in the next year, I was going to get out of the police force. Too much paperwork and overtime and arseholes like Dutton for me to stay a constable forever. I had bills to pay, or I'd have left already.
I said, "You decided yet?" If Dutton was waiting for me to beg, he'd have a long wait.
We stared at each other for a while. Then he said, "Don't make me regret this," and handed over the address. "The mother's spoken to Uniform. I'll get her statement. Fill you in over the radio."
"I can speak to them when I get there."
"I've already sent them door to door. Need all the bodies we can get out looking for the kid." He pointed his pen at me. "One other thing. Won't be a Family Liaison officer free for about an hour. You better take a female passenger with you."
"You left the mother on her own?"
"She picked a bad day to lose her son," he said. "But she knows we're on the way. She'll be fine." He pushed his chair back, gave himself just enough leg-room to get to his feet. "Now bugger off and show me what you can do."
The Scottish police do almost everything in pairs. You'd think we'd have partners like on the TV cop shows, but no, you find whoever's available and invite them along. In our office, we called them passengers.
The office where us lowly constables worked was open plan, blonde wood desks with foot-high partitions on legs that we all kept moving when nobody was looking. Everybody wanted that extra inch or two of desk space.
I glanced around, hoping to spot one of the female officers.
Hell, I didn't need to drag a woman along. I'd be fine with a bloke. Mother's lost her kid, we could deal with that. The mother would be upset, of course, and it'd be hard to begin with, but we'd manage.
Two of my male colleagues, detectives Moore and Temple, were in the kitchen area in the corner, making coffee.
I caught Moore's gaze and nodded towards him. He ignored me, turned to Temple.
I wasn't surprised.
God knows what I'd been thinking when I joined up. I used to be a bus driver, enjoyed that more than any other job I'd ever done. Then Holly got pregnant and we got by for a few years. Then she got pregnant again and we knew we were going to struggle so I applied for the police. No big deal. I don't deny that my uncle was a big help.
After I'd been in uniform for seven years, I applied for CID. They turned me down, despite my uncle. And the next time they turned me down too. Third time, I was accepted. Thanks to my uncle, so I heard.
Becoming a detective was a major step up in the career of Frank Collins. Didn't take long to see that I wasn't going to get any further though.
My uncle told me I had to keep my mouth shut and learn to kiss some arse.
Two skills I didn't possess.
I scanned the office again, still looking for a passenger. A detective I hardly knew was sitting at his desk, making a call. The only other officer around was DC Erica Mason.
I hadn't worked on a case with her in a while. I'd been avoiding her. Or she'd been avoiding me. Maybe a bit of both.
I walked over to her desk and cleared my throat.
She looked up from her computer screen, her olive-green eyes unblinking. She reached behind her head, tightened her pony tail. Her hair was dyed, russet. Her fingernails matched her hair.
"Why do I feel as if I'm not going to want to hear this, Collins?" she asked.
"Might have a missing kid."
She nodded. "And you want me as a passenger?"
"For the mother's sake," I said. "She'll feel a lot more comfortable with a female officer there."
"That's total pants."
"Just grab your jacket," I told her.
"I didn't say I was coming."
"Erica, the boy's only seven."
She took a deep breath and said, "What's his name?"
The boy, Bruce Wilson, lived in a three-bedroomed detached house on a quiet street in the Blackhall area of Edinburgh. I noted the well-tended garden. The burglar alarm. The brand new Range Rover parked in the driveway.
There was no sign of the uniformed officers Dutton had sent to canvass the neighbours. I wondered where they'd parked. At least one patrol car should be touring the area too, using a megaphone to ask if anyone had seen the boy. We hadn't passed it on the way but it would be out there, driving around. Standard procedure. Dutton would have seen to it. No matter how much I despised him, I couldn't deny that he knew his job.
The boy's mother answered the door before we reached the end of the path.
"Are you the police?" Mrs Wilson was 31 years old, according to the information Dutton passed along. But you'd have guessed at 40. She wore a light sweater, jeans, sandals. Her face looked as if the skin was being stretched in different directions. Her eyes were wet and red. She winked at me, which was odd. I wasn't sure whether to wink back or ignore it. Then she winked again and I realised it was a twitch.
I introduced myself. Erica did the same.
Mrs Wilson looked into Erica's eyes and said, "I'm so glad to see you."
She led us inside.
The sitting room had red walls. And a red ceiling. Ought to have been too much but it was a big room and the colour scheme worked. Lot of light, too, from the bay windows. Picked up the shine from the varnished floorboards, which was maybe why the room smelled faintly of floor polish. An enormous expensive-looking rug lay in front of a green-and-silver marble fireplace. The sofa and armchairs were white. And spotless. I was impressed she managed to keep them so spic and span with a kid around. Probably had a cleaner in a couple of times a week to give her a hand. No question she could afford it.
Mrs Wilson invited us to sit down on the settee. We did, to make her comfortable. She sat down too, crossed her ankles and uncrossed them again.
Erica perched on the edge of the settee, opened her notebook and said, "In your own time, Mrs Wilson. Would you mind running through what happened once again?"
Mrs Wilson looked at her feet. "I went to pick up Bruce from school." She raised her head. Her gaze moved from Erica to me, back to Erica. Then back to the floor. "He wasn't there."
"You usually pick him up where, exactly?" I asked.
"No," Mrs Wilson said, shaking her head.
She kept shaking her head. "Not 'usually'," she said, her voice louder. " Always. I always pick him up outside the school gates. I'm always there when the bell rings."
"And he wasn't there today?"
"He wasn't in his classroom?"
Mrs Wilson breathed in slowly. Didn't answer the question.
"Maybe one of the other parents…?"
Mrs Wilson was shaking her head furiously again, so Erica stopped talking, scribbled in her notebook.
I wondered if I should say something. After all, it was my case.
I was about to speak when Erica asked Mrs Wilson, "How can you be so sure?"
"I stay out of their business. They stay out of mine."
"What do you mean by that?" I asked.
Erica pursed her lips, probably annoyed with me for cutting her off.
"Nobody wants to hear about tragedy," Mrs Wilson said. "People want to get on with their lives and tragedy holds you up. Even someone else's tragedy can hold you up. It can infect you like some kind of wasting disease." She laughed without any trace of humour. "Surprised no one's asked me to wear a bell round my neck so they can hear me coming."
I gave Erica a quick look.
"What tragedy?" she asked Mrs Wilson.
Mrs Wilson breathed deeply.
"If you don't mind telling us," I said.
"Talking about it doesn't hurt quite so much now." She looked up from her hands. "John's dead," she said. "Bruce's dad. He's dead."
The officers who took her statement must have told Dutton about this and he should have let us know. I wouldn't be surprised if he had deliberately withheld the information.
Mrs Wilson was talking again. "Car crash." She put her fingertips to her temples. "Got ploughed into head-on by a drunk driver." She lowered her hands, gripped her thighs. "He took a corner on the wrong side of the road. Killed John."
"I'm very sorry to hear that," I said. "How old was your son at the time?"
"It happened seven years ago in March. Bruce was just a baby. Eight months old."
I looked at Erica again but she was no help. I asked, "Do you have a photo of Bruce, Mrs Wilson?"
"Bruce is camera shy."
"It doesn't have to be a good photo. Anything will do. Just so we have a likeness."
She said it again, slower this time. "Bruce is camera shy."
"You don't have any photos?" I asked again. She must have given one to the uniformed officers. "Just one — "
"He doesn't like having his photo taken," she said. Then maybe she realised she'd been a little loud and said it again, softly, looking at her feet.
"What about a school photograph?"
"What is it you don't get?" Mrs Wilson stood up, banging her shins against the coffee table so hard I winced. But she didn't seem to notice. "I won't put Bruce through any kind of an ordeal. I won't do that. He's suffered enough, losing his father. Can you imagine what that's like? I know he's too young to understand, but the older he gets, the more it shows and he acts up and… and I let him, I suppose. Maybe I spoil him a bit. But he hurts. I know. I feel it." She was crying. Big messy tears, runny nose. She wiped her face with her hand.
Erica plucked a tissue from a box on the coffee table and handed it to Mrs Wilson.
Mrs Wilson blew her nose. "My boyfriend says Bruce is damaging our relationship. Can you believe that? Blaming my baby?"
"What's your boyfriend's name?" Erica asked.
"Les. And he's my ex — boyfriend." Mrs Wilson dabbed at her nose. "I got fed up with his jealousy. I finished with him last week. Told him to leave us alone. And that's what he's done."
"Green. Les Green."
"Do you have his address?"
She gave it to us and Erica wrote it down.
"I'm sorry to have to ask this," I said. "But did your relationship with Mr Green end on good terms?"
She shrugged. "He called me a 'mad bitch'. But he didn't throw any punches. If that's what you mean."
"Might Mr Green have picked up Bruce from school?"
"Les wouldn't dream of it."
"I think we should talk to him anyway," I said.
"Whatever you think."
We sat for a bit, staring at each other. Then Erica said, "Could we see Bruce's room?"
"Why not." Mrs Wilson got to her feet, led us down the hallway and up the stairs. She swung a bedroom door open and stepped inside.
We followed her in. A little boy's room. Piles of books in the bookcase, games stacked in the corner, toys in their boxes. But there were things I would have expected to see that weren't here.
"No TV?" I asked.
"I don't like him watching too much television."
"He's not old enough to be interested."
"Really?" I asked. "My two were into computers from before they could speak."
"You have two boys?" Mrs Wilson looked me in the eye and there was no sign of the twitch.
"Yeah. Older one just had his thirteenth birthday. His brother's ten."
She looked as if she was about to ask something else, but Erica interrupted. "Have you tidied up in here?"
"No need. Bruce is a neat little boy."
"Very," Erica said. "Noticed anything missing? Clothes, maybe? Money?"
"Money?" Mrs Wilson leaned back slightly, her head tilted to the side.
"I just wondered," Erica said. "Kids sometimes have a bit of cash stashed away."
"Not Bruce. He doesn't need money. What would he need with money? I have money."
"Clothes?" Erica's voice was calm but firm. "Any clothes missing?"
Mrs Wilson shook her head.
"Can you take a look, please," I said. "Just to make sure?"
"For God's sake." Mrs Wilson pulled out the drawers, scanned through the wardrobe. A couple of minutes later, she crossed her arms and said, "Everything's here. Apart from what he's wearing."
"And what was that?" Erica asked.
Mrs Wilson told us he was wearing his school uniform, and described it, and mentioned the Hearts scarf he liked, but wasn't allowed to wear in class. It matched the information we'd got from Dutton. At least he'd got something right.
I asked Mrs Wilson, "There's not one single photo of him?" I wondered what Uniform were working with. Just a description?
She looked as if she was going to leap across the room and choke me. But instead she said, "John was the positive one."
I had no idea what she was talking about. She must have picked up on my confusion.
"Bruce's dad," she said. "My husband. Remember?"
I nodded. "Yes, yes, John, of course," and no doubt sounded like a total idiot. But I hadn't forgotten her husband's name. I just didn't see how her reply had answered my question about Bruce's photo.
But who knew how her mind was working right now.
"You know what it's like not being able to say sorry?" Mrs Wilson asked, clenching her fists. "We'd argued, me and John. Just before… It was a silly thing, didn't know it would become important. He hadn't shaved for a couple of days."
I ran my thumb over my chin.
"I asked him if he was growing a beard." She started pacing around the bedroom. "He was already stressed out. Rough day at work with a major client. I didn't realise how stressed he was until he told me to shut up. Told me to stop nagging him." She was walking up and down, pumping her fists. "That was the day before the accident. And I never apologised to him, and now I can't tell him I'm sorry. Can't tell him that he looked just fine." She smacked her fists against her thighs. "I don't give a crap about him not shaving. I was a total fool! I've lost John. I can't lose Bruce too."
"I think you should go back downstairs," Erica said. "Sit down. Calm yourself. And please don't jump to conclusions."
"Yes." Mrs Wilson cupped her hands over her nose. "Okay. I think I need a drink."
Outside, I called Dutton on my Airwave handset. I hated those bloody clunky things and would have much rather used a mobile phone.
"There's no sign of any activity round here," I said. Still no patrol car, no uniforms talking to neighbours in a doorway. "What's going on?"
"They're spreading out," Dutton said. "Kid's still missing."
"What do you want us to do?"
"School's closed and everybody's gone home for the day. Bruce's teacher, name of…" there was a pause "… Mrs Grace Lennox, lives about five minutes away. She hasn't been interviewed yet. Pay her a visit."
He gave me the address. I mentioned the boyfriend and Dutton said he'd get Uniform to go round to check out Mr Les Green and make sure Bruce wasn't there. "By the way," I said, "did anybody get a photo of the kid?"
"Why wouldn't they?"
I told him what Mrs Wilson had said.
"She must be upset," he said. "Uniform got a photo no problem. I'll see if I can get you a copy."
"And what about the car crash? Her husband's death?"
"What about it?"
"You didn't tell me," I said.
"I didn't? Must have slipped my mind."
And before I could reply he was gone.
In a couple of minutes, we were outside Bruce's teacher's flat. She lived in an end tenement block with its construction date chiselled into the sandstone above the door. 1881. It was a nice enough area without being as leafy as the one we'd just left.
"Kiddie fiddler lives a couple of doors down," Erica said. "Real sicko."
"Once they're out, they have to live somewhere," I said.
"He was never locked up. The dirty sod walked."
"Lack of evidence?" I asked.
"Yeah, and he was smart. Wouldn't talk. Right from the off, all he ever said was, 'No comment'."
"You think there's a chance he might have followed Bruce's teacher to school?"
"Now that you mention it." Erica nodded slowly. "Maybe we should pay him a visit."
"Right after we've spoken to Mrs Lennox." I pressed the buzzer and a man's voice answered. "Police," I said. I always enjoyed saying that.
Upstairs, Mr Lennox was waiting for us in his doorway. "How can I help?" he asked. He wore heavy-looking black-framed glasses and he couldn't stop smiling.
He didn't seem nervous, though. More likely he was just eager to please. Which happened more often than you'd think. Sometimes people made up all sorts of stuff with the best of intentions. I once had an old dear describe a burglar in great detail, all the way down to his ginger beard and nose ring and Hibs top. Turned out she never saw the guy. She'd just wanted to help and imagined that's what a burglar would look like.
"Could we speak to your wife, sir?" Erica said to Mr Lennox.
"She just popped out for some milk," he said. "But she has her phone with her. I can give her a call." His eyebrows raised in a question.
"Please do," Erica said. "Tell her we'll meet her outside."
We trotted down the stairs and back out into the street. The late afternoon sun still had some fight left in it. Shadows dappled the roof of the pool car.
We waited on the pavement.
A couple of minutes later, a heavy woman came jogging up the road. She wasn't dressed for running. And she was carrying a carton of milk.
"I think this is our girl," I said.
We started walking towards her.
"Mrs Lennox," I said.
"Officers." She put her hand on her ample chest and breathed hard through her open mouth. Her eyebrows were over-plucked and made her look slightly startled. "How can I help?"
"It's one of your pupils," Erica said.
"Oh. Who's been up to what?"
"It's about Bruce Wilson."
Mrs Lennox laughed like a smoker.
"Why is that funny?" I asked.
"You're having me on."
"I can assure you, Mrs Lennox, that this is extremely serious."
She coughed twice and stared at us. "Call me Grace, please," she said. "Otherwise it feels like I'm at school and we don't want that. I'd have to ask you both to put your hands up before you ask another question."
"Grace," I said. "We've just spoken to Bruce's mother. Is there anything you can tell us?"
"I didn't need to run after all."
"Can you explain what you mean by that?" Erica asked.
Mrs Lennox nodded. "You'd better come on up."
The sitting room was full of family photos. On the walls, on the mantelpiece, on the furniture.
I sat down and Erica sat beside me.
"Okay." Mrs Lennox took a rattling breath and hitched her hair out of her face. "It's like this."
And she told us about Bruce Wilson.
"You in on this too?" I asked Erica once we were outside.
"In on what?"
"Dutton knows," I said. "He set me up."
"If that's true, then that shithead set me up too." She clenched her teeth, then said, "Maybe the teacher's lying?"
But we both knew that wasn't the case.
I punched Dutton's number into my Airwave handset.
"The hell are you playing at?" I asked when he answered.
"Found wee Bruce yet?" He chuckled. "Sorry. I couldn't find that photo after all."
"Dutton," I said. "You're an utter disgrace."
"Any decent detective would have found out about the kid long before now."
I hung up. "I'm going to kick his head in," I said to Erica.
"Not if I get to him first," she said.
"Where are we going?" Erica asked me a couple of minutes later in the car.
"To talk to Mrs Wilson," I said.
"What about Dutton?"
"I need to calm down." I gripped the steering wheel. "He can wait."
"Don't go stomping all over this," Erica said as we stood at Mrs Wilson's front door.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Be gentle with her."
I banged my fist on the door. Repeatedly. There was a bell, but screw that. I liked the pounding noise. "Mrs Wilson?" I shouted. "Mrs Wilson!"
"Collins!" Erica grabbed my arm.
I clamped my jaw shut, pulled my wrist from her grasp and pounded on the door some more. Eventually Mrs Wilson opened it.
I stared at her, wondering what the hell went on inside her head. I said, "Can we come in?" I could smell the drink off her.
She walked ahead of us. Slowly. As if she was afraid she might fall over. In the sitting room, she asked if we'd like a cup of tea.
Erica said no.
"Nothing to drink, Mrs Wilson," I said.
"We're fine," Erica told her. "Thanks."
Mrs Wilson picked up some bottles off the table. Whisky, vodka, something else. All looked empty. She held the bottles there for a moment and then put them back down again in the very same spot.
I glanced at Erica, hoping she'd say something. I didn't know where to begin. But Erica just raised her eyebrows at me.
Mrs Wilson crossed her arms over her chest in the shape of an X. Her voice was steady, no trace of slurring. "Is it bad news?"
"To tell the truth," I said, "it was a bit of an eye-opener." I couldn't read her expression. "We spoke to Mrs Lennox."
Erica said, "She told us about the accident, Clare."
Clare. Not Mrs Wilson. For crying out loud, Erica.
"An accident?" Mrs Wilson whispered. "Bruce has been in an accident?"
Erica shook her head. "Mrs Lennox told us how you and John and Bruce were in the car that night. Seven years ago."
"Yes." Mrs Wilson nodded. Kept nodding. "What does that have to do with Bruce being missing?"
"Mrs Lennox told us how… John… how John died on impact."
Mrs Wilson put her hand to her mouth. Held it there.
"She told us how you suffered terrible injuries and almost died."
"But here I am." Mrs Wilson uncovered her mouth. She was smiling, although her lips trembled. That twitch in her left eye was back too. "My skull shattered," she said, as if that was nothing out of the ordinary. "They said it was a fine old mess in there. But I'm as good as new, see?"
"Mrs Lennox also told us about Bruce."
"She told you what? She knows where he is?"
Erica looked away.
"If you know where he is, you have to tell me." Mrs Wilson stepped forward. "Take me to him. Please."
As hard as I found it to believe what Mrs Lennox had told us, the evidence was clear in Mrs Wilson's face. If you were looking for batshit crazy, Mrs Wilson was a bat with more shit than most. I wasn't angry with her any longer. I couldn't be. But I couldn't let her keep this up either.
I said, "We were considering charging you with wasting police time."
"Wasting your time? My son's gone missing. You're supposed to help me find him. Isn't that what you do?"
Damn it, maybe it was none of my business, but it had to be done. Somebody had to spell it out. "Mrs Wilson, your son was in the car the night you were hit by the drunk driver."
There was a moment while she looked confused. Then she said, "I know. I know. Me and John and Bruce. We were all in the car."
God help me. I took a breath. "Your son died that night."
"Sweet Jesus," she said. "Sweet Baby Jesus. Ask for help and this is what I get?"
"Bruce died that night." Erica moved towards her. "It's true."
No doubt about it. We even knew where the boy's grave was.
"What is this? You think saying it enough times will make it real? It won't." Mrs Wilson wiped her eyes. "I think you should go."
"Is there anyone we can call for you?" Erica asked.
"I really think you should go. Now."
"Mrs Lennox said you were seeing someone. A psychiatrist. Would you like to speak to-?"
"Get out. Get the hell out."
"We're just trying to help." Erica stretched out a hand, but Mrs Wilson batted it away.
"You pair aren't the first," Mrs Wilson said. "And you won't be the last. But you're wrong. My baby's alive and well. I make him a packed lunch every day. I take him to school. I pick him up from school. I take him to the park. I play with him. I have dinner with him. We talk about his daddy. I bathe him. I put him to bed. I read him stories." Her shoulders were shaking. "The bond we have," she said. "It's special. And nobody's going to break it."
Erica and I looked at one another and turned to go. There was nothing more we could do here. I was so depressed my knees ached.
"Clare," Erica said. "You need help."
I grabbed Erica's arm, tugged her towards the door.
"I'll find Bruce on my own," Mrs Wilson said. "I'll find him. I will."
I had no doubt she would.
I entered the code to the security door that led to the CID office and stepped inside. Erica was right behind me.
An enormous cheer and clapping and wolf whistling greeted us from the clutch of detectives who'd gathered to welcome us back.
So word had got out that we'd been played. I'd imagined that Dutton would have kept it to himself. I wasn't thinking, of course. The whole point of a joke was to share it.
And there he was, leading from the front, big grin under that stupid moustache.
I stepped towards him but Erica got there first.
I wondered what she was going to say.
"Want to see something really funny?" She clenched her fist and punched him.
He went down, and stayed there and after a moment's silence, the cheering and clapping grew louder.
My uncle, Detective Inspector James Fleck, was crouching in the corner of his office like a large duck. His hair was straight and as white as his shirt and slightly too long at the front.
"Come on in and shut the door," he said.
I was expecting a bollocking for not stopping Erica belting Dutton. She'd been sent home. It was hard to present striking a superior officer in a good light. No matter how much the superior officer was asking for it.
"Your back still no better?" I asked.
"Come over here." My uncle bared his teeth against the pain.
I walked past his desk in too much of a hurry, bumping it, making a photo of my Aunt Sarah wobble.
"Whoops." I caught it before it fell. I put it back alongside a photo of my uncle's boat. Lucky I hadn't knocked that photo off or there would have been big trouble. He'd had to sell the boat a few years back and Aunt Sarah had said the fuss he'd made, you'd think he'd been forced to sell one of his children.
"Never mind that," he said. "Take one of your shoes off."
He had strange notions sometimes. Although he hid it well. Still, almost everybody was scared of him. Even his superiors. And they thought I would be too. Which is why they moved me here."Come on, sunshine," he said. "I'm not asking you to flap your cock in my face. Just take a fucking shoe off."
I bent down, unlaced my shoe. Slipped it off. I stood there, feeling unbalanced.
"Good." My uncle waddled in a tight circle so he was facing the opposite way. "Now place the sole of your foot in the small of my back."
I raised a bent leg and let my foot rest on his shirt. "There?"
"Just a bit higher."
I moved my foot up a bit. Slipped for a moment. Then steadied myself.
"Super." My uncle stretched his arms out behind him. "Now grab my wrists."
I took hold of his wrists.
"Lean back and pull."
I said, "I don't know about that."
"Shitebags. Just fucking do it."
"Okay." I puffed my cheeks out. Then leaned back and tugged.
He yelled. He kept yelling.
I kept pulling as I leaned back. "Want me to stop?" I shouted over the noise he was making.
"No, keep doing it."
"You fucking deaf?"
I had a good mind to let go. Watch him spring forward and headbutt the wall. But I didn't.
"That's better," he said after a while.
I relaxed my grip slightly.
"No, no, no," he said. "Keep the tension up."
I dug my heel into his back.
"Ah," he said. "That's good. Yes. Keep it there. Fuck, yeah."
"This is becoming a little too sexual for my liking."
"Very funny," he said.
"You getting any proper treatment for this?" He'd had a bad back for as long as I could remember. Although it came and went.
"I'm seeing a specialist tomorrow. Another one. Costing me a fortune."
"Any closer to knowing what's wrong?"
"They won't tell me," he said. "That's the way they like it, of course. More cash for them while they 'find out'. Let's try this treatment. Oh, it's not that. Then let's try this instead. Oh, dear. Not that either. Well, let's see… Meanwhile, I'm so skint I can't afford to put a few quid on the horses any more."
"You'll find a way."
"Sound like your fucking aunt," he said.
"Just stating a fact. You won't let it stop you. Am I right?"
"The more that bag gets on at me, the more I'll bloody do it. Tells me to stop gambling. Gambling. I don't fucking gamble."
"You don't?" I asked.
"Course I fucking don't. I'm a betting man. Gambling's a lottery. Odds are against you. Whereas a betting man looks for value. Only plays when the odds are favourable. Your aunt should know that. Old bag's been married to me for God knows how long. She doesn't listen." He leaned forwards. "No bugger does, mind you. Keep the pressure on, eh?"
I adjusted my grip on his wrists.
"Ah, yes," he said. "Oh, that's nice. See, a gambler will take any odds. Gambling's the thing if you're a gambler. Fucking profound, I know. Now a betting man, he'll look for value. A while back there was a football match on. European game. And I got a tip that one of the bookies had screwed up. There was a defender and striker in the same team who have similar names. And the bookies had listed them the wrong way round. Bulgarians, you see. Funny names. So, anyway, the striker's odds of scoring the first goal was 20/1. And the defender, he was listed as 2/1. There's your fucking value bet. I stuck a shitpile of money on the striker. 20 to fucking 1 when the true odds are nearer 2/1? Fucking value like you rarely find, sunshine."
"How much did you win?" I asked.
"Not a penny. Some other fucker scored first. But it's the principle of the thing. It was a value bet. You get enough of them, then over time you'll come out on top. But you have to take some hits along the way. That's what your aunt doesn't understand. You get it?"
"Totally," I said. "Makes perfect sense." And in a way, it did. Can't say I was a convert, though. I'd rather keep my money.
"Good. You can let go and put your shoe back on now."
My leg felt stiff. I gave it a shake.
He turned, still in a crouch.
I slipped my shoe back on. "You need a hand?"
"I'm more than capable of standing up," he said.
I watched as he eased himself painfully to his feet.
"Is that all?" I asked.
"No," he said. "The Wilson case. Sergeant Dutton claims there was a mix-up and the right information didn't get through to you. That so?"
"No," I said. "It very much isn't."
"He was fucking with you, I know that," my uncle said. "And while you may be a fanny now and then, it doesn't mean Dutton should get to slip you a length."
He had a way with words, my uncle.
"Thanks," I said. This kind of support was most unexpected. He was usually harder on me than anyone else. Just in case there were any cries of favouritism.
"I've sent DS Dutton home as well." He cleared his throat. "But I don't want to lose him. I promised I wouldn't say anything, but there's something you should know."
"Tell me," I said.
"His wife left him."
I felt myself smile. I said, "I'm sorry to hear that," but I knew I didn't sound like I meant it.
"Don't be a shite, sunshine. Look, I don't want to lose Dutton. Any more than I want to lose Erica. They're good cops."
"One of them is."
"I'll be the judge of that. My job, not yours."
I nodded. "What's Erica saying?"
"She says Dutton could be right," he said. "There was a bit of a mix-up."
That was unexpected too.
"She wasn't so sure at first but I convinced her after a while, " he said. He stretched, pulled a face. "Do you think I can convince you?"
"I doubt it."
"Bad reception, maybe? And you missed hearing about the kid having died seven years ago?"
"I don't think so."
"It's a possibility, though?"
"Pity. Cause if that were the case," he said, "then we could resolve this situation fairly easily. You don't want Erica to lose her job, do you?"
"She struck a superior officer. Not much I can do about that."
"She's apologised. Dutton's accepted. We'll find a way back for her."
"And Dutton gets off the hook for wasting police time?"
"With a warning," my uncle said. "The threat of demotion. And if he fucks with you again, I'll punch him myself."
"Okay." I nodded. "That seems fair."
"Is that it?" I asked.
"Just one more thing. It's your Aunt Sarah's birthday next week. Any idea what I could get the old bag?" He stretched, winced. "Nothing too expensive."
That evening, I was at the kitchen table with Holly, topping up her glass of expensive French white. We were having a late dinner, which I'd cooked. When I say 'cooked', the truth is I'd stuck two packets of pre-prepared chicken tikka in the oven and boiled some extra rice. Tasted pretty good, anyway. The boys had eaten earlier with their friends and were out playing football.
Holly and I had the house to ourselves for a while.
I'd just finished telling her about Bruce Wilson and his crazy mum. About Dutton. About how he'd made me feel. I'd hoped Holly might be sympathetic.
But she just gave me a blank stare. Hazel eyes. Caramel skin, which the boys had inherited from her. My family all tanned. I burned.
She took a sip of her wine, licked her lips.
I was sticking with beer. Wine and curry didn't work for me.
Holly said, "Is Erica going to lose her job?"
The reason I hadn't worked a case with Erica for a while was because we had some history between us. Me, Erica and Holly, that is. The three of us had slept together. First time was when Holly suggested a threesome one drunken night, and Erica said okay, it'd be a giggle. No need to ask what I said. But I can't say I'd enjoyed it much. It wasn't much fun being ignored.
Those two were right into it, though.
Second time, they slept together without me. Didn't ask or let me know.
I don't think Holly would have said anything about it if she hadn't got drunk and angry one night. She gave me more details than I needed. I'd never said anything to Erica but I could tell that she knew I knew. Holly must have told her.
Sex had never been the same between me and Holly since. In fact, these days we hardly slept together. And when we did, half the time she fell asleep part-way through. The other half of the time, I did.
"You like to go to bed with her again?" I said.
"Oh, for crying out loud." She leaned her head back, her eyes squeezed shut.
"I'm only asking."
Her head snapped forward, eyes open, shining. "Why won't you shut up about it?"
"I don't know," I said. I didn't.
"Just let it rest," Holly said. "I've said sorry till I'm hoarse. What more do you want from me?"
I reached across the table and took hold of her hand.
"Would you like to sleep with her again?" I asked. "Answer me."
"Would you?" She pulled her hand away.
Bye Bye Baby
Mrs Wilson's shrink was called Dr Snow. She greeted me at the door to her office with a walking stick and a cute smile. Twenty years younger and I'd have said she was flirting with me. Maybe she was.
She limped over to one of the two chairs in front of her desk. "Please," she said, pointing with her walking stick.
I took the free seat.
"Thanks for coming." She swept her stringy grey hair out of her eyes. "It's kind of you." She smoothed her skirt.
"Wasn't my decision to make," I said. "But I admit I'm curious."
"Indeed, Mrs Wilson's is a curious case." She smiled again, the skin around her eyes creasing. "She called me this morning in a terrible state."
"Bruce not returned?" I grinned but Dr Snow didn't grin back.
"You know, officer, that Bruce has gone missing before?"
"Twice," I said. Oh, yeah. I'd been told all about it.
"And you know he turned up after a couple of days?"
I nodded. The information had been there at Dutton's fingertips. He knew Mrs Wilson was a nutjob. All he'd done was send around a couple of uniforms to pacify her and then when I'd walked past his desk, he'd decided to have some fun at my expense.
I doubt he thought it would get as far as it did, though. Never expected he'd get to make such a monumental fool out of me.
"This time it's different," Dr Snow said. "There's been a development."
I waited, wondering what was coming. My uncle had just told me to get over here pronto, that the shrink would provide the details. And that I was to report to him afterwards.
"Mrs Wilson has received a demand for money." Dr Snow paused. "Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds, to be precise."
"Oh, that's beautiful," I said. The crazy woman had written herself a ransom note. "She's let her imagination run riot."
"Well, I think it's a natural progression. And if you think about it, it's not a bad thing."
"How can that be?" I asked. "She's getting worse, surely."
"On the surface, that's how it might look. But I think it might be her way of finally letting go." The shrink leaned towards me as if she was going to tell me a secret. She even lowered her voice. "I believe she's tried before." Her breath smelled of strawberries. "The previous disappearances of her son were an attempt to let go of the illusion that he was still alive. But it was too easy for him to come back. Maybe it's necessary for her to add a kidnapping and ransom demand. Maybe if she doesn't pay it, something happens to Bruce and…" She spread her fingers.
"And this time he doesn't come back?" I asked.
She nodded, sat upright.
"I can appreciate all this," I said. "But why did you want to speak to me?"
"It's important that Mrs Wilson follows this through. She mentioned your colleague, DC Mason."
"Who kindly gave me the name of Detective Inspector Fleck. Said I should talk to him."
"And you did and he sent me along," I said. "I'm second best, then."
"We have to use what we're given." She smiled again. "He spoke very highly of you."
"That's because he's my uncle."
She started to laugh.
"Honestly," I said. "He is. And he has to say nice things about me or my mum gets angry."
"Quite," she said. "But joking aside, none of us want Mrs Wilson to pay the ransom."
"Can she afford to?"
"She's a wealthy woman. Her husband was a partner in a major law firm. And he had some nice investments. When he died, he left her quite a bit. The house was paid off. And there was insurance money. I've no doubt Mrs Wilson could pay the ransom several times over."
"I'm a cop, Dr Snow," I said. "And I'm not sure this is police work."
"Despite what your uncle says?"
I nodded. "I solve crimes. That's my job."
"Then at least check it out," Dr Snow said.
"But there's no crime."
"Mrs Wilson says she has a ransom note. Is it not a crime to demand money from someone?"
"We know she wrote it herself."
"Do we?" Dr Snow asked.
"If she didn't, then who did?"
Dr Snow smiled. "Like I said, you should at least check it out."
Fifteen minutes later I was in Mrs Wilson's sitting room.
"Can I see the ransom note?" I asked her.
Her response surprised me. She'd seemed pleased to see me when she answered the door. She looked older, the tension in her face more obvious. The twitch in her eye was regular now, every few seconds.
"It's evidence, Mrs Wilson." I dug in my pocket, took out my notebook. "I need to see it."
"You can't." She looked through the bay windows at the empty street outside. "I destroyed it."
I couldn't control myself. I said, "For God's sake."
She turned her attention away from the peaceful scene outside. Placed her right hand on her left shoulder and squeezed as if the muscle was sore.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"He told me to."
"Who did?" I asked.
"The man who took Bruce."
"Mrs Wilson, are you sure there was a note?"
She put her hands on her head and pressed down. She rocked backwards and forwards a few times. "It was on a sheet of A4," she said. "Folded in three. The words were made out of letters cut out of magazines. Or newspapers."
Just like the movies. These days, most ransom notes were typed up and printed. But Mrs Wilson wasn't to know that.
"How did you destroy it?" I asked.
She lowered her hands. Crossed her arms. "Set fire to it."
"I burned it in the sink," she said. "Then I washed the ashes away."
"So there's no trace of it?"
I said, "Do you mind if I sit down?"
She shook her head, sat down in the armchair and crossed her ankles. I sat opposite. She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward.
I didn't know where to go with this. "Can you tell me anything about the ransom note?"
"The envelope was white," she said. "There was no name, no address, no postmark. He must have popped it in the letterbox."
"Maybe last night. I don't know."
"What time did you go to bed?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said again. "I was out late, looking for Bruce. It wasn't here then. I had a couple of drinks after that." She shrugged. "Only way I can get to sleep."
"Do you still have the envelope?"
She shook her head. "I thought I should burn it too."
"Pity," I said. "What did the note say? Do you remember?"
"Slowly, if you don't mind."
I noted down the words as she spoke them:
Sorry about this but I need the money.
250 grand in cash by Friday night.
Deliver the money and I will deliver your son.
I'll tell you where.
Burn this letter after you've read it.
"That's it?" I asked.
"Word for word?"
"Yes. I knew I was going to have to destroy it so I memorised it."
"He didn't use Bruce's name?"
She shook her head.
That was interesting. And authentic. Most kidnappers didn't refer to the victim by name.
"And there was no warning about you contacting the police?" I asked.
"Nothing," she said. "Otherwise I wouldn't have allowed Dr Snow to call you."
Unusual. Most ransom notes, even if they didn't mention the police specifically, said to tell no one. It would have seemed like an oversight for Mrs Wilson to leave that out, but there must be some point to it in her mind. She must have wanted Dr Snow to get in touch with us. Could be the shrink was right and Mrs Wilson was looking for help to accept her son's death.
"When I spoke to Dr Snow," I said, "she had the feeling you were going to pay up."
"Of course. I've contacted the bank. I'm picking up the money tomorrow."
"They were okay with that?"
"I spoke to the manager. Told him it was a family emergency."
"Still, I'm surprised."
"He wasn't keen," she said. "Told me it couldn't be done. But I'm a good customer. I let him know that he didn't want to upset me or I'd withdraw all my money and deposit it elsewhere. His attitude changed. Suddenly he couldn't be more helpful."
Yeah, losing an account like Mrs Wilson's in the current financial climate would be more than his job was worth. "I'd advise you against paying up," I said.
"You can't stop me."
"That's right," I said. "If you want to give your money away, that's up to you."
"It doesn't matter to me." She got to her feet. "I want my son back, whatever the cost."
"Okay," I said. "I know you do."
I could have used Erica's help right now. It was unfair of my uncle to send me here on my own. What made him think I was capable of dealing with crazy people, I don't know. I found sane people hard enough.
"I know what you're thinking," Mrs Wilson said.
I doubted it. "What's that?"
"What if I pay the ransom and Bruce still doesn't come back?"
"That's a strong possibility," I said. It really did sound as if she was trying to find a way to get rid of him.
"It's a chance I have to take."
What annoyed me was that she'd probably go and deliver the money to a random spot in the middle of nowhere and some passing tramp would pick it up. Screw that. If she was determined to give her money away, there were other people who could use it. Me, for instance.
Oh, it crossed my mind, I admit it. But only for a second or two.
But then it crossed my mind that it might have crossed someone else's mind too.
As Dr Snow had said, supposing a ransom note existed, we didn't know that Mrs Wilson had written it herself. Why go to the bother of writing a note and then burning it?
God, this was a mess.
If Mrs Wilson was determined to hand over her cash, there was only one way I could think of to keep her and her money from parting for good.
"Mrs Wilson," I said. "When you're told where to deliver the money, let me know. Could be dangerous. I'll deliver it for you."
"That's very kind," she said. "But I've already had an offer."
"What can I do for you, officer?" Les Green asked.
I liked to think I kept an open mind, but I'd already decided Mrs Wilson's boyfriend was an utter scumbag before I met him.
He looked harmless enough. An inch or two over six feet, friendly smile, relaxed. He had strange hands, though. I noticed when he held one out for me to shake. His fingers were crooked, as if they'd been broken and not re-set. As if someone had given his hands a few hard smacks with a hammer.
Not the sort of hands you'd expect a photographer to have.
Mrs Wilson had given me his address and enough background information to explain why she was sending me to an artist's studio in Stockbridge.
They'd made up last night, she'd said. Their relationship was back on.
Les Green's studio was the end one of five. It was a small space, and it looked even smaller because of the clutter. The walls were covered in framed photographs. Mainly portraits. There was one of Mrs Wilson, looking lost.
The studio floor was carpeted in an industrial grey. There were a couple of big lights on tripods and a black umbrella thing and a reflector disc. A wide strip of white material ran down from a ten-foot-high board and draped across the floor for another ten feet or so. Various cameras and lenses lay about the place. A dozen empty frames leaned against the wall and magazines littered the floor.
I tightened my grip on Les's hand. "What do you call that big white sheet?" I asked.
"An infinity backdrop." He tried to pull his hand away. "It blends the foreground and the background. Makes it seem as if the subject is standing in space."
"Interesting. And is this your job or your hobby?" I already knew the answer. Mrs Wilson had told me. But Les didn't know that.
I squeezed his fingers.
His expression didn't change. "I worked for the local rag for a few years," he said. "Got laid off a couple of months back. Decided to take some time out. Work on my own projects. Wanted to see what I could do if I had a bit of time."
I let go of his hand.
He held his hands out, fanned his fingers. Each one was twisted to the side, or backwards, at the tip or middle joint. Freaky as hell.
"You'd need to squeeze a lot harder," he said, "if you want to hurt me."
"Why would I want to hurt you?"
"I was wondering the same thing."
I stared at him for a bit, then said "Listen, I don't mean to be rude. But, your fingers. Is that some kind of bone condition?"
He laughed. "Playing cricket. I used to be a wicket keeper."
"You must have been pretty bad."
He clenched his fists. His right index finger looped over his thumb. He spoke, his voice soft: "Actually, I almost made the national team."
"Not a lot of competition, I suppose," I said. "Cricket's not the most common sport in Scotland. Surprised you even managed to get a team together."
He took a step back, put his hands by his sides. "Clare said you were coming." The softness had gone from his voice. "She didn't say you were a prick."
"Nice." I gave him a couple of slow nods. "Ballsy."
He looked at me.
"And stupid, of course," I said. "Sums you up, don't you think?"
He took a long breath through his nose. "What do you want?"
"So you're unemployed?"
"Self-employed," he said.
"Making any money?"
"You rent this place?"
"Meet the payments okay?"
He gave me a look. "What did Clare tell you?"
"Mrs Wilson advised me that she pays the rent for you."
"It was her idea," he said. "She insisted on it."
"And you just can't bring yourself to say no. Probably upset her too much and you wouldn't want to do that. Am I right?"
"She wants to help me out. I'm not too proud to accept."
"Right," I said. "Funny thing, you know. I got the feeling she didn't like photographs."
"Because of Bruce?" He shook his head. "It's odd, but the more you get to know her, the more you realise how real Bruce is to her. It's Bruce who doesn't like having his photo taken. She doesn't mind."
"All a bit confusing, isn't it?" I said. "Why didn't you get your fingers fixed, by the way?"
"Thought I'd lose my place in the team. Wanted to keep on playing."
"You played with broken fingers?"
"Only one at a time."
"Not just ballsy and stupid," I said. "But hard as well. My mistake."
"Happens to us all," he said. "Don't be too tough on yourself."
"And you think you're witty, too. A fine list of dangerous traits."
"Can we get back to the subject?"
"And impatient." I moved forward slightly. "Can I speak frankly?"
"Like I could stop you."
I put my hand on his shoulder. "Your personality stinks, Les. Makes me think the worst of you."
He shrugged my hand off.
"Okay, you're right," I said. "We should talk about Bruce. Good idea. My understanding is that you claimed he was ruining your relationship with Mrs Wilson. I can understand that. Nothing like a dead child to mess things up. Especially when they come back to life."
He said nothing.
"And so you and Mrs Wilson broke up," I said. "But now you're back together?"
"We patched things up," he said. "I said I was sorry."
"Once you heard about the kidnapping."
"I love her." His voice went soft again. "But you've seen how she is. It's impossible to have a relationship with her. But I do love her."
I didn't believe him. Not for a second.
"And because you love her," I said, "you offered to take 250 grand in cash from her?"
"She's going to throw it away."
"And you want it for yourself."
"No," he said. "I want to make sure she gets it back. The only way I can do that is if I'm the one who delivers it."
"Ah." I couldn't fault his logic. It was the same as mine. "Thoughtful. I like that trait, Les. I like it so much I'm going to help you work on it. How about I give you a hand to deliver the money, eh?"
"What do you mean?"
"I'll come with you. Tag along behind in my car. Make sure everything goes smoothly."
He looked at his hands, stretched those bent fingers. "And then what?" he asked.
"You'll go away and tell Mrs Wilson it's done."
"And leave you with the money?"
"You don't trust me, Les? I'm offended."
"What's to stop you keeping it?"
That was a very good question.
I'd hardly set foot back in the station when my uncle called for me.
I walked passed Dutton's office. The door was open but it was empty. At the end of the corridor, I stopped and knocked on the door marked Detective Inspector James Fleck.
He shouted for me to come in.
I wondered if I'd find him crouched on the floor and we'd have to go through that foot-in-the-back business again. I really wasn't in the mood.
But he was sitting at his desk, looking comfortable enough.
Opposite him was DS Dutton, stroking his moustache. I caught the familiar whiff of stale smoke.
"The hell's he doing here?" I asked my uncle.
"Shut up and pay attention," he said. "I want you to behave. I want both of you fuckwits to behave. Any more crap and I'll come down on the pair of you so fucking hard, you'll be shiting your own fucking heads."
His outburst caught Dutton by surprise. Poor dolt's mouth was open, the hand that had been playing with his moustache hovering in the air like it didn't know what to do with itself.
"I didn't do anything," he said, and lowered his hand.
"And I can knit cardigans with my cock." My uncle scratched his chin. "Look, you don't like each other, that's fine. Just shake hands and get the fuck along. I don't have the time or the fucking energy to dick about any more. Okay?"
Dutton looked at me and shrugged.
I held out my hand. His palm was sweaty and cold. We shook.
"Super." My uncle clapped his hands twice. "Now get out."
I turned to go.
"Hang on, sunshine," he said. "You stay. I want an update on the loony mother."
Once Dutton had gone, I said, "What about Erica? She coming back soon?"
"I invited her to rejoin us. But she said no. She's decided to leave."
I was at home when the call came through. I'd been thinking about heading off to bed, where Holly had gone a couple of hours earlier. The boys had disappeared to their rooms to play video games after dinner and left me alone.
I hadn't been able to sit around doing nothing, so I'd gone out for a drive. It helped me think. Although by the time I got back home, I wasn't sure what I'd been thinking about.
Right now it was just me and late-night TV and that ringing phone.
I didn't recognise the caller's number, so I let it ring out.
A minute later it started again.
This time I checked my phone for messages.
"Detective Collins." Les Green's voice. The last person I expected to hear from. "Something's happened. Can you call me back?"
I thought about it and called him back. "What is it?"
"Well," he said. "Well, it's a finger."
"I don't get it," Les said.
We were in Mrs Wilson's kitchen, me and Les standing by the worktops. Mrs Wilson was sitting at an enormous dinner table, necking a bottle of single malt.
"Why would someone send a finger?" Les asked. "Some kind of warning?"
"That's possible. It's standard in kidnappings," I said.
"Only if the family doesn't pay up, though. Clare was going to pay up."
Which was true. And there was no note to explain. No demands, nothing. Just a finger in a clear plastic bag. It had been dropped through the letter box within the last couple of hours.
I'd checked the neighbours who still had their lights on. Nobody had seen or heard anything.
"It's a sick joke," I said. "This whole thing is."
The finger was fake, of course. It looked realistic at first glance. Your eyes were drawn to the blood, and only then did you notice the colour and texture of the finger was wrong.
It was something you could pick up in a joke shop. Something Mrs Wilson could have picked up in a joke shop. Also something Les could have got hold of. But what I couldn't figure out was why either of them would do such a thing. There was nothing to gain. And, I couldn't deny it, Les really did look baffled.
"This finger," I said to Mrs Wilson.
She wiped her eyes. Took a sip of whisky. Nodded.
"You know it's not Bruce's," I said.
"Course I do. I'm not stupid. It's made of rubber and it's far too big."
"Yeah," I said. "That's why it's not Bruce's."
I looked at Les.
"Just don't, please," he said, and I saw that his eyes were full of tears. He walked round the table and sat next to Mrs Wilson. He put his arm around her.
I wanted to think it was for show, but I was beginning to believe Les Green wasn't such a scumbag after all.
I called Erica on the way home.
"You woke me up," she said.
"Yeah, but listen-"
"You sodding well woke me up."
"You should come back to work," I said.
"What's it to you?"
"You can't let Dutton win."
"That's not why you rang," she said. "What do you want?"
"I need your advice. I've nobody else to talk to."
"Jesus, Collins, I'm not a cop any more."
"Course you are. You can't just walk away."
"But you know the situation," I said. "You know the background. You've met Mrs Wilson. I just want to talk it through. It's not making any sense."
"Talk it through with your uncle."
"Come on," I said. "I can't wake him up at two in the morning."
She yelled down the phone and hung up.
I gave it five minutes and called again. But the phone rang out. I got the answering machine. "Hey," I said. "I miss you. Come back."
She didn't return the call.
I drove home with the fake finger inside an evidence bag on the passenger seat.
Bye Bye Baby
It was about nine-thirty when I drove to Mrs Wilson's. The sun was out and it felt like the wrong kind of weather.
I'd swung by the station at seven. Dropped off the fake finger, wrote up a brief report.
I hadn't slept much. I suspected Mrs Wilson wouldn't have slept much either. I was right. She answered the door wearing the same clothes she'd had on last night. Most likely she hadn't even gone to bed.
She looked rough, but then I'd never seen her look anything but.
"Have a few things to check out," I said. "Can't stay."
"Who is it?" Les's voice in the distance.
"Heard anything from the kidnapper?" I asked Mrs Wilson.
She winked at me, then shook her head.
"When you do, call me," I said. "Right away."
"It's important. That business with the finger," I said. "We can't be too careful."
Les appeared behind her. He was dressed too, twirling his keys on the end of his crooked index finger. He gave me a look and said, "Still don't trust me?"
I wasn't sure what he meant.
"Then tag along," he said.
I followed them to the bank. One of those private banks in the West End. Went inside with them and had a seat in a posh waiting room. Then got taken to a private room the size of our CID office where we were offered tea and coffee.
We all refused.
The manager arrived and shook hands with everyone. His face was scrubbed clean and he stank of aftershave. Reminded me of a pimp I'd once arrested.
"Is my money ready?" Mrs Wilson asked.
"On its way." He rubbed his hands together. "Now, are you sure I can't invite you to take a cheque instead?"
"Don't bother," I said and showed him my warrant card.
"Ah, okay." He took an envelope out of his inside jacket pocket, opened it, and gave Mrs Wilson a form to fill in.
We tried to make small-talk while we waited for the cash. But nobody felt like saying much and after a bit the conversation stopped and we sat in silence.
The money arrived in a charcoal-grey briefcase with the bank's logo stamped in gold on the front. A couple of security guards flanked the clerk who brought the money.
"Thanks." Mrs Wilson got to her feet. "Can we leave now?"
"Goodness, no," the manager said. "We have to count it to show you it's all there."
"That's not necessary." Mrs Wilson turned to the clerk and held out her hand.
"I'm afraid it is." He took the briefcase from the clerk. "With a sum this large, we have to insist on it. Mistakes can easily be made."
"I suppose that's going to take a little while," Les said.
"I'll get some help." The manager opened the case and started taking out bricks of fifty-pound notes. "But, yes, we're probably talking thirty minutes or so."
"See that coffee we were offered?" Les said, steering Mrs Wilson back to her seat. "We'll maybe have some after all."
As it happened, the coffee no sooner arrived than I had my uncle on the radio.
"Sounds like you had a wild night," he said.
I gave him a quick run-down of recent events.
"You on top of it, sunshine? Need any help?"
"Don't suppose Erica's changed her mind and come back?"
"She's gone. Forget about her."
"Then I'm fine," I said.
"Super. That's what I like to fucking hear."
"I'd planned on checking a few things out." I was flattered he trusted me to handle this on my own. "Don't want to leave the boyfriend alone with Mrs Wilson, though. Not when he could just walk off with the money."
"Think he will?"
"Actually, no. I don't think so."
"Then go check out the things you wanted to check out. If he fucks off with the money, we've got our man. I kind of hope he does. See how far he gets before we nail his hairy hole."
"But… " But my uncle was right. I could leave them for a few hours. The drop wasn't taking place till this evening. And if Les was behind all this, then I couldn't read people at all. "Any chance you could get some uniforms to ask around, see if any of the neighbours saw someone hanging about Mrs Wilson's last night?"
"Who would be hanging about?"
"The guy who put the finger through the letterbox."
"Surely he'd have dumped it and buggered off."
"Maybe, but it's worth checking, don't you think?" I said.
"Thought you already did, sunshine. Last night."
"Nah, just dropped by a couple of houses where the lights were still on."
"So you definitely think someone stuck this finger through Mrs Wilson's letterbox? You don't think she bought the finger herself and made all this shit up?"
"It's possible," I said. "We won't know that till we find out who picks up the money. If anybody."
"Tonight's going to be fun," my uncle said. "Want some company?"
I spent the morning checking out the local joke shops to see if anyone sold the type of fake finger Mrs Wilson had received. Turned out they all did. None had sold any recently, though. I'd need to widen the search.
I was on my way to grab a sandwich when my mobile rang. It was Les.
"Clare's gone," he said.
"The hell do you mean?"
"She told me she was hungry, wanted some beans on toast with cheese. About all I can cook. So I went to make it. When I came back, she wasn't here."
I waited a second. "And the money?"
"Gone too. She's taken it with her."
I was staring at the plate of toasted cheese and beans on Mrs Wilson's sitting room table, wondering if it was too cold to eat, when Control called to tell me Mrs Wilson's Range Rover had been found. Abandoned, less than five minutes drive away. No sign of Mrs Wilson yet but Uniform was checking door-to-door.
I gave Les the news.
He gazed into his hands. "What do you think that means?"
"The kidnapper probably told her to leave the car. Get on a bus. Grab a taxi, who knows. He must have known we'd try to locate the car and follow her."
"I never expected this." He started to walk over to the window. "When she said she was hungry, I believed her. She hadn't eaten properly since… I don't know when."
"Don't blame yourself," I said. "This guy's smart."
"Maybe we're just stupid."
"That's always possible."
"What can we do?"
It was a good question, but one I didn't have an answer for. "I'm going to get out there and help look for her."
He stared out of the window. "She could be anywhere by now."
"We have officers all over the place," I said. "Someone will find her."
He turned. "I'll grab my coat."
"No," I said. "You stay here."
"I want this guy." His eyes shone. "I want to see what kind of person would do this to Clare. I want to break my fingers on his chin."
"And I need you to wait here," I said. "In case she comes back."
I hadn't meant to fall asleep, but my eyes were struggling to stay open so I'd pulled into the side of the road just in case.
The news on the radio must have woken me. Control repeated it and what I heard was like a pint of iced water down the back of my neck.
They'd found her.
Mrs Wilson was standing in front of the primary school gates. Bruce's teacher, Mrs Lennox, was with her. And so was someone I didn't think I'd see again. Not at work, anyway.
I parked and got out of the car.
"I don't want to talk to anyone," Mrs Wilson was saying. "Leave me alone."
Erica looked at me and shrugged.
"Miss me?" I asked her.
"No, just decided you were right. I couldn't let Dutton win."
"Good to have you with us again." I said hello to Bruce's teacher, then turned to Mrs Wilson. "Where's the money?"
"Leave me alone," she said.
"Please, Clare. Tell me where the money is." It was almost certainly too late. Wherever it was, the kidnapper would have picked it up by now.
"Not till Bruce is safe. I've already told her." Mrs Wilson looked at Erica. "I'm not saying anything till my baby's back." She glanced at her watch. "Five minutes. Wait five minutes. He'll be here then."
"That's great," I said. "Maybe while we're waiting, you could tell me what happened. Les was worried."
"Les doesn't care."
"I think you're wrong. I've spent quite a bit of time with him and he's very upset."
"About me, maybe. But he doesn't care about Bruce. That hasn't changed."
I looked at Erica.
"Would you all leave me alone, please," Mrs Wilson said. "Just for a few minutes. I don't want you all standing here scaring Bruce."
Mrs Lennox said to no one in particular, "I'll be inside," and headed back to the school. Bet she was relieved to get away from the insanity.
"Want to wait in the car?" I asked Erica.
I told Erica about the talk I'd had with Dr Snow.
"You shouldn't have let Clare pay the ransom."
I shrugged. "Not my choice to make."
"Next time, Bruce won't come back."
"You sure he'll come back this time?"
"There's no doubt in that poor woman's mind." Erica tapped the side of her head with a couple of fingers. "So I'm certain Bruce will walk round that corner any minute."
She was right.
Bruce arrived a few minutes later.
I saw Mrs Wilson run down the nearly empty street.
I saw her stop abruptly, fling her arms around thin air and hoist her invisible child off the ground.
"Something else, isn't it?" I said.
"That's love," Erica said. "Blind, screwed-up, mad as a bag of squirrels. But it's love. Do you love your children like that?"
"I don't need to," I said. "My kids are alive."
"Ain't you the lucky one." She picked up her radio handset. "What's Dr Snow's number?"
"I got a message telling me there was a change of plan," Mrs Wilson said later.
What was left of the day's sunlight crept through the sitting room's bay window, drew a line across the floorboards and came to a stop just short of her feet.
Before we'd driven her home, she'd shown us where she'd dropped off the money. It was a dead-end close only five minutes round the corner from the school. The kidnapper had told her to stuff the bag behind a couple of red trade waste bins. That was about an hour before we got there, and by the time we arrived, the money was gone. Of course. We'd left some officers checking the area in case anyone had seen it being picked up.
"What kind of message was it?" I asked. "Another note? Phone call? Text message? Email?"
I'd spoken to my uncle about ten minutes ago, expected him to say it was finally time he spoke to Mrs Wilson himself. But he said he trusted me. Said that I knew the mother, she was happy to talk to me, so there was no point in him trying to establish a relationship with her when I'd done that already.
I was doing fine, he said. And Erica was there now to hold my hand.
He wasn't sure about the shrink, though.
Dr Snow had come right away. And my uncle was wrong. She'd already been of help by taking Bruce to his room to play, clumping up the stairs with her walking stick, Les a couple of steps behind her. Mrs Wilson was terrified of letting Bruce out of her sight, but it was the only way we could talk freely. Bruce's kidnapper hadn't hurt him, she said, which was something, at least.
Mrs Wilson finally answered my question. "It was a phone call."
"On your landline?"
"Has anybody called since?"
"I don't know."
I'd called Les, but I had his mobile number from when he'd rung me and I'd used that. It was a long shot, but worth a try. We could get Mrs Wilson's phone records, but it would take a while.
"Erica, would you mind checking?" I asked. "See when the last call came in and if there's a number?"
"The phone's by the window," Mrs Wilson said.
Erica moved off to see what she could find.
"Carry on," I said to Mrs Wilson.
"The man told me I had to sneak away. Deliver the money this afternoon. And if I told anyone, or anyone followed me…" She cleared her throat. "He said there would be a real finger arriving in the post."
"Was it your own idea to ditch your car?"
"No, he told me to. Said you'd be looking for it."
"Tell me about his voice," I said.
"From around here," she said. "Middle-aged." She shrugged. "Nothing that stood out."
Erica came back.
"Any luck?" I asked.
"Public phone," she said. "Might be CCTV coverage."
Somehow, I doubted it. This guy was too smart.
Mrs Wilson agreed. "You're not going to catch him, are you?" she said.
I couldn't believe I was doing this.
It was Mrs Wilson's idea. And of course it made sense to her.
She'd sent Erica upstairs to fetch Bruce. Erica came back with Dr Snow and Les.
The shrink came up to me, walking stick hardly touching the ground. She grabbed my elbow and dragged me over to the corner of the room.
"This is a terrible idea," she said. Erica must have told her what Mrs Wilson was planning. "You have to stop her."
"How?" I waited a second or two but she didn't say anything. "You're the expert. Show me."
Dr Snow clumped over to Mrs Wilson. I followed, stood close by so I could hear what they were saying.
"Bruce has been through an ordeal," Dr Snow was saying. "I don't think he wants to talk about it."
"You don't think it might help him?"
"No, I think it'll make it harder for him."
"Bruce says he's fine." Mrs Wilson's cupped hand drew an arc in the air next to her. Around shoulder height. "Somebody needs a haircut, I think." She was smiling as she looked up again. "He doesn't mind."
"But I don't think-"
"Bruce is doing it, Dr Snow. It doesn't matter what you think."
Dr Snow nodded, hunched her shoulders, then moved off to take a seat on the corner of the settee.
"What do you want to ask him?" Mrs Wilson said to me.
I wasn't sure where to look. I slowly became aware that I was scratching an eyebrow repeatedly. And it wasn't even itchy.
"Shouldn't you get your notebook out?"
I did as Mrs Wilson suggested. At least it gave me something to do with my hands.
"Could you ask Bruce if he can describe the kidnapper?" I asked.
Mrs Wilson turned her head and whispered something. Then she said to us, "Bruce was wearing a blindfold. He didn't see the man."
We were quiet for a while.
"What else?" Mrs Wilson said.
"What about at the school? Didn't Bruce see him then?"
She whispered again.
"He was tall," she said.
"What was he wearing?" Erica asked.
Again, Mrs Wilson leaned down. "A suit."
"What colour?" I asked.
"How old was he?"
"Bruce says he was older than Mummy."
The questions went on for about ten minutes. Ten very long minutes.
"That's great," Erica said at last. "But I think we need to get back to the station now."
In the car, Erica said, "I don't know whether to laugh or cry."
When I sat down at my desk in the CID office, I noticed the drawer was open.
"Some arsehole's been fiddling with my stuff," I said to Erica.
I spotted something inside that I didn't recognise. A piece of purple cardboard. I tugged the drawer out.
I pulled out the cardboard. Inside was a Halloween-style severed finger. Or there would have been, if the plastic hadn't been torn open and the finger removed.
Erica reached into the desk and picked up a magazine. It was a magazine I'd never seen before. A sailing magazine. She flipped through it. Some pages fell out. Words missing from the headlines. Some scraps landed on the desk. Random words with one or two letters cut out.
"Shit," she said. "What else have you got in there?" She stuck her hand back in the drawer.
"It's Dutton," I said. "Up to his usual. Thinks this is funny."
"That's not usual." Erica held up a brick of cash. A tight little bundle of crisp new fifties. "How in the name of Christ did you get this, Collins?"
When I looked around the room, I saw that all my colleagues were watching me, looking for an answer.
I swallowed. My throat hurt.
They put me in a holding cell downstairs. Not because of what was in my desk, but because I kicked the shit out of Sergeant Dutton.
I'd sprinted to his office, flung open the door and laid into him. He couldn't run away. There wasn't enough room. I pinned him to the wall and flung punch after punch at his fucking moustache.
They'd taken me down here to calm down.
I'd had some time to think. I don't how long because they took my watch. Felt like a couple of hours since the door closed. I thought at least Erica would have come down to see me, but no, nobody came. It was just me and a shitty toilet and a bed.
I sat on the thin rectangle of foam in its blue, wipe-clean plastic cover and rubbed my bruised knuckles. I tried to figure out why Dutton had framed me. All this because he blamed me for his wife leaving him?
I looked up when I heard a key in the lock. After a second or two, the door opened.
"Erica," I said. "Get me out of here."
"How could you do this?" She stepped right up to me. "Holly's gutted. And your kids, how do you think it's going to be for them now?"
I didn't believe I was hearing this. "Erica, what the hell are you talking about?" I put my hand on her shoulder.
"Get the fuck off me!" She raised her fist.
"What's wrong?" I put my hands in the air as if she was holding a gun. "It's Dutton. He set me up."
"I always thought you were a piece of shit, you know that?"
"Listen to me," I said.
"Fuck you." She turned around, slammed the door shut behind her.
I walked over to the door and leaned my head against it. I stayed there for quite a while.
I was back on the bed, probably half an hour later, when I heard footsteps in the corridor outside. The key scraped in the lock again and my uncle stepped into the cell.
"Thank Christ," I said.
"You sure you don't want to see a Police Federation representative?" he asked.
"For beating up Dutton? Everybody knows he asked for it."
"Come with me," he said.
I didn't need to be asked twice.
Interview room 2. I knew it well. But I'd never sat on this side of the desk before. The room looked different when you were facing the door.
They'd left me there with a uniform standing guard, under orders not to speak to me. That was fine. I didn't feel much like talking.
My uncle walked in carrying a briefcase. A grey briefcase.
"Recognise this?" He dumped it on the desk.
I checked to make sure and, yes, the name of Mrs Wilson's bank was there in gold letters on the front. "Where did you find it?" I said. "Was the money — ?"
"I asked you if you recognise this!" he shouted.
What the hell had got into him? "Yes," I said. "I do."
The door opened and Erica came in. She was carrying a large evidence bag filled with cash. Bundles of it. As she got closer, I saw that the notes were fifties, and they were all banded into bricks.
"Jesus," I said. "You did find it! Is it all there?"
"There's 120 grand." He took the bag from Erica. Set it on top of the briefcase. "With the five we found in your desk, that's exactly half of Mrs Wilson's missing money. Where's the rest?"
"How would I know?" I asked.
"There's no point carrying on this game any longer, Collins," Erica said, and folded her arms.
"Look, for the tenth time." I folded my arms too. "Dutton's the man you want. He set me up."
"I'll grant you," my uncle said, "he might have been able to put that funny finger and those magazines in your desk. He might have put a stray five grand in your desk too. But do you think Dutton's the kind of guy who'd stick 120 grand in the boot of your wife's car?"
The words struck my kneecaps like hammers. I lowered my head, placed my hands on the desk.
"Holly found it and called me." Erica leaned over and I felt her breath on my ear. "You make me puke," she said.
I stared at the bag of cash. "I have no idea how the money ended up in Holly's car." My mouth was dry. I licked my lips but it didn't help. "Dutton must have put it there."
"Here's the thing," my uncle said. "DS Dutton was in court yesterday, giving evidence. He didn't leave until three o'clock. The money was gone by then. He couldn't have lifted it. Would have been fucking impossible."
"It wasn't me." I wanted to stand up but I didn't think I'd be able to. "If I'd stolen the money, I'd have put it somewhere safe."
"Where?" my uncle asked. "We're still missing half of it. Tell us where it is. If we don't recover all the money, you're well fucked, sunshine."
I waited a while.
"Better get me that Police Federation representative," I said.
Back in the holding cell, just me and the mustard-coloured walls.
I was a detective. I could work this out.
I'd been set up, I just needed to prove that I was innocent.
Easiest way to do that was with an alibi.
The finger. Where was I when the finger was posted through Mrs Wilson's letterbox? Holly had gone to bed and the kids were out…
I'd gone for a drive.
Okay, that was no help.
The ransom money. I couldn't have picked up the money because… shit, I was asleep in my car.
God's sake. I couldn't prove a thing. I had to admit, if I was investigating this case, I'd look pretty guilty.
I needed to find out who had set me up. Whoever it was had access to the CID office. Which meant that one of those bastards I worked with had framed me.
All I knew for certain was that it wasn't Dutton.
There wasn't much to go on, but I did have a number of suspects.
I put a list together in my head. Everyone I could think of. And I started going through them, one by one.
After all, I had nothing else to do for a while.
Detective Inspector James Fleck didn't often take his wife out for dinner. And even though it was the old bag's birthday, the look she gave him, when he told her she'd have to dress up tonight because they were going out somewhere posh, was one of complete surprise.
He had to admit, he liked that look.
He picked up the remains of his fourth or fifth pint and downed it. Gave the waiter a nod and held up the empty glass. Good. Another one on the way.
Sarah looked at him, eyes narrowed. Her 'you've-had-too-many' look.
"Last one," he said. "Then an early night?"
Once upon a time, he'd fancied the arse off her. Still did, after a few pints. And his back was fine today, the new treatment making a difference already. You got what you paid for.
Before he'd left for work that morning, he'd given her a card and a clothes voucher for ten quid. For a laugh.
She'd opened it and tried to look happy. She pecked Fleck on the check and said, "Wish you could do something for Frank. That'd be a great present."
And Fleck had said he was doing all he could, but told her it looked bad. Their poor nephew had been caught red-handed and should just admit it.
What he didn't tell her was that Frank seemed to be cracking up, which was a nice wee bonus. Jumped-up little toss-pot couldn't stop his own wife from shagging another bird, so he'd taken it out on Dutton. Made Dutton's wife leave him.
There was no call for that.
The lad had no moral core. Deserved what was coming to him. Every sweaty inch of it.
Anyway, that morning as Fleck's wife was starting to close the front door behind him, he'd turned back and said, "Oh, almost forgot." And told her they'd be eating out for dinner.
But that wasn't the end of the surprises. He had one more to give her now. Maybe it would help him get his leg over later.
He tucked his hand inside his jacket pocket. Pulled out an envelope.
Sarah dabbed her mouth with her napkin, watching him.
He handed the envelope to her. "Happy birthday."
"But you've already given — "
"Shut up and open it."
She didn't need any more encouragement. She tore open the envelope and took out the tickets. "Oh, my good God, James!" She put her hand over her mouth. "Oh, good God."
Something she'd always wanted. Fuck, it might even be fun. He'd always liked the sea. Missed having a boat. Saddest day of his life having to sell her. Worse than having to sell one of your own kids.
"But can we afford this?" she asked. "Where did the money come from?"
He turned his empty pint glass around, then said, "You won't like it if I tell you."
"You've been gambling!"
"How many times…?" He gazed across at her. "I don't gamble." He paused. "But maybe I did have a wee bet."
"One of those value bets?"
"Exactly. Saw odds I liked. Took the risk." He shrugged. "And it paid off."
"You always said it would. Over time."
"And you always thought I was wrong," he said.
"That's because you're always losing."
"Well, not this time."
"You smug bastard, James." She smiled. "How much did you win?"
"Enough to pay for this cruise." And then some. The cruise cost six thousand. Which left him with precisely one hundred and nineteen grand.
"How much?" she asked again.
"Just what you've got there," he lied. "Plus a couple of grand spending money."
"You've spent it all on me?"
"On us," he said.
She leaned forward and kissed him. "Sometimes," she said, "you can be a very nice man."