Chapter 1-3 (Excerpt)
The girl took the one chance she had to survive. She opened the passenger door and jumped out as he slowed at the stop sign, raced into the darkness across the lonely moor, not daring to look behind to see if he had followed. She ran on until her foot caught in a rabbit burrow and she fell headlong into the dry grass. Stifling a cry, she bit her lip and sat up, wrapped her hands tight around her injured ankle to stop the pain. She held her breath, ears straining. Was that him, that low, steady whistle in the distance?
It was so dark with no moon. She couldn’t see a thing, and she was shivering from the cold and shock. A bird called from somewhere above her–another hunter. Choking back a sob, she stood and stumbled on, but as she heard the waves crashing nearby, she let her tears fall unchecked. She fell to her knees and edged forward until the hand she held out in front of her found nothing but air. She whimpered as the whistling drew closer.
Suddenly she was exposed by a halo of bright light.
‘Why did you go and do a stupid thing like that?’ he said. ‘You know you’ll have to be punished now.’
She turned and screamed, but only the man and the rabbits and the bird of prey that hunted them heard her.
5.30 a.m., March 27
West Looe, Cornwall
Detective Sergeant Amy Wendell pulled the hood of her windbreaker closer against the spitting drizzle, hunched her shoulders against the icy wind gusting up from the estuary as she threaded a course through the onlookers toward the police constable. ‘Morning,’ she mumbled in response to his greeting, raising a hand to stifle a yawn as she signed his notebook. She’d had trouble sleeping, and it hadn’t helped that Caleb had been particularly uncooperative that morning. He’d thrown a tantrum when she’d woken him to drop him off at his grandparents.
Amy handed the constable his pen and notebook, ducked under the crime scene tape, and took a moment to assess the scene. It had been raining solidly for three days. Muddy rivulets of water cascaded down the bush-clad hill, puddling across the surface of the road that snaked above the estuary mouth. A section of cliff top had eroded, and the landslip had brought down two terrace houses from the row above the road.
The focus of forensic attention was a blue four-door sedan perched with its front wheels inches from the near-vertical drop to the sea below. Two large halogen lamps illuminated the scene. Curious, Amy headed toward her boss, who was crouched by the front passenger side of the car. ‘Hi,’ she called out as she approached. ‘Sorry I’m late again.’
Detective Inspector Connor Elliott glanced up with a frown that quickly switched to a grin. ‘Hiya.’ He rose to his feet. ‘Caleb cause you some trouble this morning?’
‘Yeah, he didn’t want to wake up. How–’ Amy glanced down at the front of her windbreaker and cursed, dug a tissue out of her pocket and dabbed at two large translucent-orange spots of apricot jam. ‘Let’s just say we had a battle over the toast. We won’t go into the how or why.’
Connor smiled. ‘Treasure it. They grow up fast.’
His expression hardened, and she knew he was thinking of his daughter, whom he rarely saw now that she had moved in with her mother. ‘So, what have we got?’ she asked, drawing his attention back to the scene before them.
Connor stepped aside. ‘See for yourself.’
Amy crouched and peered into the rain-slicked window. ‘Oh, wow.’ She shifted her weight onto her back heel and glanced up at him, suddenly wide awake. ‘Is that what I think it is?’
‘If what you’re thinking of is a mummified corpse, yes.’
Amy turned back to the figure in the car. She couldn’t make out much detail through the rain-blurred window. The body had fallen forward during the car’s descent and the woman’s forehead now rested on the dashboard. Her skin was dark and leather-like, her long, dark hair thick and fanned out over a yellowed lace top.
‘Poor woman,’ Amy murmured as she stood, glanced over at the technicians clad in white boiler suits. ‘This must be a nightmare for forensics.’
Connor nodded, and she turned to look up at the row of houses, cursed as a flash of white light blinded her. ‘What the hell?’
Raising her hand to shield her eyes, Amy glared at the forensic photographer, who was gingerly picking her way through the mud toward them.
‘Sorry about that. I was angling for the roof of the car and stood in a puddle,’ Liz called.
Amy frowned. ‘It’s your own fault for wearing heels to a scene like this in the first place.’
Her friend glanced down at her very inappropriate footwear and grinned. ‘Late night but shush, I won’t tell if you won’t. Connor here is being a proper gentleman about it.’
Amy smiled as Connor raised an eyebrow, but didn’t respond.
‘I meant about the heels!’ Liz called out. She laughed and blew a kiss over her shoulder before disappearing behind the car to continue her work.
Amy shook her head and turned back to Connor, who had already forgotten about Liz and her antics. ‘The pathologist wants to handle this one personally.’ He rubbed a hand over his hair, scattering water droplets onto the shoulders of his suit. It amused her that he didn’t appear to notice. ‘It’s the stand-in. Robert Henry is at a conference, apparently.’
Amy nodded at the mention of her stepfather. ‘Yes, he’s back tomorrow.’
‘Right, well, Shaw will be over to supervise the winching and transport of the car to the lab but it may take most of the day.’
‘So no idea who our victim is, then?’
‘None so far. The constable was speaking with the neighbors when I arrived. As far as they know both houses were holiday lets and neither has been occupied since last summer.’
Amy pointed over her shoulder at the car. ‘Surely it would take longer than a few months to do that to someone.’
Connor nodded. ‘You’d think so.’ He stared up at the row of terrace houses and the gaping maw where their neighbors had once stood. Shook his head, and sighed. ‘This is going to be a mare of a case for all of us.’
He turned back to face her. ‘Right, well, let’s get on with it. I’ll have a talk with the lucky workman who came face to face with our mummy here. You go chat with the neighbors. See if you can dig up any background on owners or regular tenants. Organize a detailed house to house of all those within the cordon.’
He glanced at his watch. ‘I have to brief O’Reilly at eight, so I’ll meet you back at the office. Ring me if you find anything of note.’
Amy nodded, watched as Connor made his way over to a man in a fluorescent orange vest who was seated in the back of the constable’s patrol car. Then she turned her attention back to the sedan. She studied the floodlit vehicle, the unstable cliff face, and the mass of muddy debris scattered across the road.
A mare of a case was an understatement. From initial appearances they didn’t have an easily identifiable victim or any witnesses to a crime–if indeed there had been one. Any evidence that may have been preserved was unlikely to have survived the long and no doubt jarring slide downhill.
So, basically, they had next to nothing to go on in a case that seemed tailor-made for the headlines. And she’d thought her morning with Caleb had been bad. She felt a sudden stab of pain in her temple. Her day had to get better from here. Surely it couldn’t get any worse?
10.00 a.m., March 27
Marrenmore Military Corrective Training Facility, Devon
‘Myers, you have a visitor.’
Noah lowered the weight onto the rack and sat up, leaned over to grab his towel from beside the bench and wiped at his forehead. He still had another set to go, and he debated finishing it before acknowledging the summons, but the sergeant put paid to that idea with a snarky, ‘Did you hear me, Myers?’
Noah gritted his teeth and muttered a ‘Yes, sir.’ He was so friggin’ done with the petty power plays, but he daren’t antagonize the gobshite or it would take even longer for him to get back home. So, instead, he stood, grabbed his water bottle, and walked over to the uniformed sergeant without a word. He hid a grin of satisfaction as the man took a step backward.
‘This way,’ the sergeant snapped, turning and stalking off toward the admin block.
Noah slung the towel around his neck and followed at a slower pace, taking a drink from the water bottle. ‘Hey wait up. I need to shower and change,’ he called out as the sergeant hurried past the changing room door.
‘No, you don’t. My orders are to get you there ASAP, so step it up.’ Noah frowned, but followed along in silence. It wasn’t visiting hours, and he hadn’t had notification of an exceptional visit. He was suddenly alert, wondering if Amy had decided to break her fifteen-month silence.
It took a moment to hide his disappointment when he entered the room and saw not his wife, but the colonel clad in full royal military police uniform. He stood near the window, his posture straight and his hands held stiffly behind his back as he nodded his thanks to the sergeant. When the man had left, the colonel gestured for Noah to take a seat at the table. ‘How have you been, Noah?’
Noah raised an eyebrow. He felt no need to stand on ceremony now that they were alone. ‘I’m fine, Granddad. Still a disappointment, but such is life.’
The colonel did not respond. His pale eyes were assessing as he held Noah’s gaze. Finally, choosing to ignore Noah’s sarcasm, he turned to look out the window, purportedly watching the unit training on the parade ground outside. ‘Have you given any further thought as to what you will do for a living once you have completed your sentence?’
The lack of antagonism frustrated Noah. He sat back in his chair, absently drumming his fingers on the table as he considered his response. ‘I think it’s clear that I’m not meant for a long-term career in the forces. And if you think I’m going to kowtow to that pretentious git of a CO simply to get my job back, you’re wrong. I’d rather take another swing at the bastard.’
The colonel turned to face him, but his tone remained mild. ‘The thing is, Noah, something has come up. A situation for which you are rather uniquely qualified. I’ve been assured that if you cooperate, you’ll be guaranteed an early release and a transfer to a unit where your skills will be better utilized.’
Noah scowled. ‘I don’t need you pulling any strings for me.’ He hesitated. ‘Or did Amy put you up to this?’
The colonel smoothed his mustache with two fingers. A tactic Noah knew from experience meant he was stalling for time.
At last, he responded. ‘No, I haven’t spoken with Amy recently. However, the situation does involve her and Caleb, so do consider carefully before you make your decision. You have a responsibility toward them, Noah.’
Noah bit back a smart retort. The colonel hadn’t said as much, but it was clear he thought Noah had let his family down badly. And he was right, of course, which only stung more. He felt his inability to do right by them every single day he was trapped in this damn place, which was probably what the colonel was hoping for. The man was a wily old fox, and Noah knew very well he was being manipulated. Still, the words had hit home and he couldn’t help but retaliate. ‘And what exactly is your stake in this so-called situation?’ he demanded.
For a moment anger flashed across the colonel’s face, but he controlled it well. ‘I have no personal stake in this matter at all, Noah. The only reason I was approached was because they thought you would respond better to a request that came from me rather than some faceless bureaucrat.’
Noah sat back in his chair and stared at his grandfather. Closer inspection revealed that the old man was under some strain—dark shadows lurked under his eyes and his hair was whiter and thinner than it had been when he had last seen him.
The tension in the room also told him that there was far more to this sudden invitation than the colonel had implied. ‘Well, what is this situation I’m suddenly so well suited to?’ he asked at last.
He clenched his jaw at the flash of victory in the colonel’s eyes. But what was the point in arguing? If there was some mission he was suited to and it got him out of here six months sooner then he’d take it, no questions asked. There wasn’t much point pretending otherwise. For one thing, he had to find out whether he still had a marriage worth saving.
But the colonel’s next words shattered the fantasy that life may, for once, be working in his favor.
‘There is a slight difficulty, Noah. The project will require some subterfuge that may cause some ruckus in your personal life.’
Noah stopped drumming his fingers on the table. ‘What kind of ruckus?’
The colonel smoothed his mustache again. ‘You will be fully briefed once you agree to accept the mission. I cannot tell you more until such a time. However, I can assure you that this is the only way forward. The slight difficulty with Amy is something I am sure you will overcome with time.’
Noah couldn’t hide his animosity now. ‘What slight difficulty with Amy?’
The colonel pursed his lips as he stared down at Noah. His posture had slumped since the conversation had taken a turn for the worse, something that concerned Noah, but not enough to cause him to back down.
Finally, the colonel sighed and turned to look out the window again. He kept his back to Noah as he replied. ‘It has come to our attention that Amy is working a case that we may need to involve ourselves in. We have no wish to engage in a combined investigation, but we do need to know what is happening so we can forestall any adverse outcomes.’
Noah fought to control his rising anger. ‘Why don’t you cut the BS Granddad? What you’re saying is that you want me to spy on my wife so you can avoid some adverse publicity. I know how this works, and the answer is no.’
The colonel turned to face him again, his expression troubled. ‘I am sorry, Noah, but you need to realize that Amy is a subject of interest, regardless. If you do not agree to do this, then someone else will be given the job instead. Is that what you want?’
Noah clenched his jaw and glared at the colonel as he tried to think of a way out of what he could now clearly see was an even bigger mess than the one that had landed him in Marrenmore in the first place.
The colonel leaned forward and slammed his hands down on the desk, surprising him. ‘Listen to me, boy,’ he said in a low voice. ‘You did not hear me say this, but for God’s sake, do the right thing for once. Your wife and son are in danger. Am I making myself clear?’
The note of desperation in the colonel’s voice cut through Noah’s anger and increased his concern. He stared hard at the colonel, who held his gaze.
After a moment, Noah nodded. ‘All right, I’ll do it. Now can you please tell me what the hell is going on?’
The colonel nodded. Then he stood and smoothed his mustache again. ‘All in good time, my boy, all in good time.’
1.00 p.m., March 27
West Looe, Cornwall
The rain had abated by midday, but the scene remained clogged with mud and soggy vegetation. Amy walked to the crest of the hill and turned to watch as a large crane winched the sedan onto the back of a waiting lorry. A row of ear-muffed workmen stood to one side of the crane, gesturing and calling out instructions as their colleagues worked to secure the eroded hillside. She had organized a house-to-house enquiry targeting the neighbors who could still occupy their properties, and sent Cherie, the detective constable, back to the station to chase up the car registration and make a start on searching the missing persons database. Shaw, the locum pathologist, had collected the body an hour earlier.
Amy watched as a uniformed officer intercepted a rogue photographer who had ducked under the crime scene tape and ushered him back to the crowd of journalists gathered around the constable manning the cordon. She sighed. As per usual, news had travelled fast. Hopefully, they could keep a lid on what they had found for a while longer. Not that that was likely.
Turning her back on the scene, Amy stepped toward the edge of the cliff and watched the tide flood into the estuary. Her stomach rumbled. Time for lunch. But first, she needed to check on Caleb. She dug in her pocket for her mobile, and called her mother, holding the phone to her ear as she watched the gulls gliding with wings outstretched over the water below.
‘Hi mum, how’s Caleb?’
‘Ah, Amy. Hello. Yes, he’s a bit sniffly still. I don’t think it’s a good idea for him to go back to daycare tomorrow.’
Amy shook her head. ‘And you’re working then, are you?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’
‘Okay, I’ll see how he’s doing tonight. We’ve got a bit of a big case on at the moment, so I’m not sure what time I’ll pick him up.’
‘Yes, I’ve seen the news. I’ve also heard from someone in your department. Cherie, is it? It’s one of our terraces that has come down.’
‘You mean one of your letting agency’s rentals?’
‘Yes, I’ve been meaning to contact you. She called about an hour ago and asked me to look up some information they couldn’t find in the office database. I said I’d check the backups. Have a talk with Caleb and I’ll look it up now.’
‘All right.’ Amy turned back to the crime scene as her mum called Caleb to the phone.
‘Hey, baby. What you doing?’
‘What you having?’
‘Um… pea soup. It’s green. Granny put lots of peas in.’
Amy smiled as she listened to Caleb explain how he had helped make the soup, but turned at the sound of running footsteps.
‘Hang on, Caleb.’ She lowered the phone and stepped forward, held up a hand to stop the man running toward her.
He stumbled in his haste to stop. ‘What the hell are you doing?’
‘Sir, I’m sorry but you can’t go down there right now.’
‘Yes, I can.’
‘No, I’m afraid you can’t.’ She held up her warrant card.
The man’s lips thinned. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Do you live around here?’
‘Yes, at the end of the lane back there.’
Amy nodded, placed her call on hold, and flicked through to the required app. ‘I’ll need your name and address, please.’
She glanced up and raised an eyebrow when there was no response.
The man frowned, but then shrugged. ‘Thomas Fisher. Four Lansdowne Road. Now what’s this about?’
‘Have you not seen the news this morning?’
‘No, I’ve been busy.’
Amy gestured behind her. ‘As you can no doubt see, sir, there’s been a landslip. The road is closed for now, so you’ll have to take another path.’
‘Surely the road workers can take care of it. What’s it got to do with you lot?’
‘I’m sorry. I’m not at liberty to say. The area is unsafe. I suggest you go jogging elsewhere.’
Thomas Fisher looked put out at her abrupt tone, but he didn’t argue. Instead, he shook his head, turned, and jogged up the hill. She watched as he disappeared up a narrow footpath that led into the wood beside the terrace houses.
‘You there, Amy?’
‘Yes, sorry, mum. What can you tell me?’
‘I’ve sent Caleb out to the sitting room. He said bye.’
‘Okay, thanks.’ Her mother’s bracelets jangled and there was the sound of rapid tapping of nails against a keyboard. ‘Okay, it looks like our local office manages that terrace. I’m not sure why they don’t have the records handy. It’s owned by a trust based in Dubai.’
‘Any information on recent tenants?’
‘Larry managed it. No issues I can see. Regular payments, lawn maintenance, and so on. We’ll have to talk to the tenant and—’
‘No, don’t worry about that yet. We’ll contact the owner. Can you send me the details? Email it?’
‘Okay, will do. The sitting tenant is a young woman. Emma Walsh.’
‘And the last time you spoke with her?’
‘I’ll have to check with Larry. He hasn’t updated the system. Honestly, that man—’
‘Right, thanks, mum. I have to go. Don’t say anything about this to the owner or Larry. We’ll send someone round.’
‘This is more than a simple landslide and burglary, isn’t it?’
‘I’m afraid so. But like I said, mum, keep it to yourself for now. All right?’
‘Okay, but Amy—’
Amy hung up before Katherine could ask any more questions. No time to waste now they had a name. She pressed the button to call Connor and waited impatiently while his phone rang. ‘Emma Walsh,’ she said when he finally answered.
‘The sitting tenant of the house that came down. Her name’s Emma Walsh.’
‘Ah, that should narrow things down a bit. Right, well let’s round everyone up and have a quick overview of where we’re at. Say in a couple of hours?’
‘Okay, see you then.’
Back at the station, Amy grabbed a granola bar from her desk and made her way to the meeting room.
‘Here, got you a coffee,’ Cherie said when she joined her a moment later.
‘Thanks,’ Amy mouthed as Connor entered the room and launched into his rundown.
‘Right, folks. Let’s get started. We need to tidy this one up quickly.’ He held up a hand at the chorus of protests. ‘I know. Impossible task, but we have the media and the super watching our every move so be extra careful about dotting those i’s and so on.’
He turned to the whiteboard, where Cherie had jotted down some notes. ‘For those of you who haven’t been to the scene yet, the slip brought down two terrace houses above the bridge heading into West Looe. One was a holiday let that has been empty since at least last summer, and the other was occupied. Cherie, any update on that?’
Cherie nodded. ‘Yes, so the tenant is a young woman by the name of Emma Walsh. According to the property management agency, she’s been paying the rent regularly and has been there for at least three years.’
‘Although, oddly, none of the neighbors recall seeing her for at least the last year and a bit,’ Amy said. ‘The last sighting we can confirm is from the elderly couple to the right of her. She was waiting for a bus on the corner and they assumed she had moved out when they didn’t see her again.’
Connor nodded. ‘Right.’ He clicked the projector button, and an image appeared on the screen in the far corner.
‘Rob sourced a photo of what the terrace row looked like prior to the slip. The house we are interested in is the one on the right. At present, we are presuming the sedan the woman was found in was kept in the lock-up garage you see here. Have we traced the owner of this house yet?’
‘We’ve got a name and a contact number, but we haven’t spoken to him yet,’ Cherie said. ‘Jael El Sahid. We’re looking into his background. He’s a UK permanent resident, but he spends most of his time in Dubai. We’ll check if he has any other connection with Emma.’
‘Presuming our victim is indeed Emma Walsh,’ Rob said.
Connor nodded. ‘Anyone have any photos of her? Do we know where she worked? If that car was hers, then where was she going by bus?’
Amy nodded. ‘We’re looking into it.’
‘Okay. One more question—how is it possible for the rental agency not to have noticed she’s been missing given the time that has elapsed?’
‘I spoke with the listing agent, and he said the last time anyone checked on the property was six months ago. The tenant arranged to meet him by email, but she didn’t show. He did a cursory check from the outside, but left it at that. The rent was paid on time, the post collected, and the lawns mowed. So as far as he was concerned, everything was fine,’ Rob said.
Connor nodded. ‘Right, so our priority is to find out more about Emma. Amy will head over to the morgue tomorrow to see what pathology has to report, but we can’t expect any detailed findings for at least a week. Meanwhile, I need someone to cross-check all the house-to-house notes and see if we can find anything of interest. Cherie, can you take care of that?’
Cherie nodded, and Amy grinned as she sent her a sidelong grimace.
‘Rob, I’d like you to follow up on the financials relating to the property. Focus on the landlord, the last couple of tenants, and the letting agent, as I’m not sure he’s telling us everything he knows. The records for the property were missing from the database at the office, and we could only retrieve them by searching a backup database stored offsite.’
‘The rest of you keep working on building a profile of Emma. Social media, school and work history. Call around, do some digging.’ He glanced down at his watch. ‘Let’s get to it. Back here tomorrow at eight folks.’
There was a sudden flurry of activity as they all stood and prepared to leave. Connor raised his voice. ‘One more thing. I hope this is clear to all of you by now, but no media interviews please. We need to keep this quiet for as long as possible.’
Amy filed out the room and headed over to her desk. She had only sat down and moved the mouse to start up the computer when her mobile rang. ‘DS Wendell,’ she said automatically as she reached down to open a drawer.
‘Yes, how can I help you?’
‘Um, this is Olive. Olive Easton? We spoke earlier, and you asked about that young girl next door?’
Amy stilled. ‘Yes. Have you any additional information?’
‘Yes. We were watching the news, and I happened to glance down at your card on the coffee table, and it reminded me.’
‘Yes?’ Amy fought to keep her voice calm, excited now at the possibility of some new insight or a break in the case.
‘Yes, your surname. Wendell.’
Amy frowned. ‘What about it?’
‘Well, that was the name of that doctor who went missing last year, wasn’t it?’
Amy swallowed hard at the sudden and unexpected mention of her brother. ‘Yes, yes it was,’ she said after a moment. ‘But I’m not seeing the connection—’
‘He was there. At the house with that girl.’
Amy glanced around the office and lowered her voice. ‘What do you mean?’
‘He was there with her. I know because he came over to help my Phil when he fell by the letterbox. I remember thinking what a shame it was when he disappeared like that.’
Amy closed her eyes. For a moment she couldn’t speak.
She sat up. ‘Yes, thank you for letting me know, Mrs. Easton. I’ll look into it.’ She spent a moment reassuring the elderly woman that she had done the right thing, and that no, she wasn’t wasting police time. But her responses were purely habitual. As she looked around the office at her colleagues, Amy suddenly felt as if an invisible barrier separated her from the bustle. She hung up the phone and sat staring at the computer screen.
‘You all right? What was that about?’ Rob asked.
Amy swallowed. ‘A neighbor thought she had some more information regarding Emma. I doubt it will help, but I’ll check it out.’ She hesitated, then stood and made a show of checking her watch. ‘Right now, though, I need to pick up Caleb. See you tomorrow.’
She forced herself to walk calmly out of the office and over to her car. She was obligated to tell the team. There were no ifs or buts about it. But somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The woman hadn’t been seen for a year and a bit. And neither had Tim.
5.00 p.m., March 27
St. Breaca, Cornwall
Noah parked the SUV down the road from their flat and settled in to wait. He was rehearsing what he would say for what seemed the fifteenth time when Amy’s yellow mini pulled into the drive.
He sat up straighter as Caleb jumped out the car and raced across the lane to the park. Amy called out after him, and Noah grinned. His son. A bundle of energy and as excitable as he had been a fortnight ago, when Katherine had brought him to visit.
He turned his attention to Amy. God, she looked good. She’d changed her hair—it was darker, but it suited her. She pushed the car door closed and walked over to join Caleb at the swings. Noah frowned as he glimpsed her worried expression. Was it his imagination, or had she lost weight?
His sense that something was amiss grew as Amy stood biting at a thumbnail while Caleb climbed the monkey bars. Usually she didn’t miss much, but she hadn’t even noticed him or the car.
And now she was pacing restlessly at the edge of the playground.
Suddenly, she stopped and pulled her mobile from her pocket, stared down at the screen. Then she shook her head and looked up at the sky.
Well, now was his chance to find out what was going on.
He reached for the door handle… hesitated as Caleb jumped off the bars and raced over to Amy. She lifted him, hugged him tight, and laughed as Caleb kicked to free himself.
All of a sudden, Noah felt weighed down by reality, by the long separation, by Amy’s refusal to even visit.
He couldn’t bring himself to climb out of the car.
They looked happy, like any other mother and son. Like a proper family. A family without him.
Noah leaned over the steering wheel, chin resting on his forearms, as he watched them walk over to the slide. He sat, numb, as Caleb ran around the playground until the drizzle turned into a sudden downpour.
Amy grabbed Caleb’s hand, and they jogged over to the flat. The front door opened then shut, hiding them from view with as definitive a judgment as possible.
What had he thought? That he could simply return and things would go back to normal? He had been shut out of their lives for more than a year, and they didn’t appear to have missed him one bit. He stared at the door of the flat until the rain blurred the windscreen. Finally, he started the engine. The colonel was the one who had started this whole bloody mess, and he was the only one who could get them out of it.
The sky had turned slate gray and there was a roll of thunder in the distance as Noah parked at the bottom of the hill that led up to the colonel’s house. The sea far below matched the dark sky, and there was a heaviness in the air that left him on edge.
He grabbed his gym bag from the car and started up the steep slope toward the cottage, every footfall on a narrow, stone-hewn step a reminder of his childhood and a sharp signifier of all the opportunities he’d never be able to provide for Caleb.
Emerging from the bush, he walked over to the whitewashed cottage and dropped the bag at his feet. Still on edge, he pressed the doorbell, deliberately letting it ring for longer than was strictly necessary.
The colonel opened the door with an air of irritation, and Noah smiled. ‘Well, are you going to let me in?’
‘What are you doing here?’
Noah raised an eyebrow. ‘I want more information and you’re the person who can give it to me.’
‘Noah, you need to go home. I got you released on that basis.’
‘Interesting. So I’m being tracked then?’
The old man stared hard at him for a moment, a sense of challenge in his gaze, but movement in the hallway behind him drew Noah’s attention. ‘And what do we have here?’ he asked as a man a few years older than himself appeared in the doorway. RMP no doubt—the guy’s bearing practically screamed carrot-up-the-ass military.
The colonel scowled. ‘Thomas, this is my grandson, Noah,’ he said as the man joined them at the door. ‘Thomas is doing some work for me.’
Noah nodded a greeting, watched with interest as Thomas and the colonel exchanged a glance.
‘It’s probably best I get going,’ Thomas said. ‘All I can say is I couldn’t see much when I tried to get down and have a closer look. They wouldn’t let me past the cordon, but I’ll keep you informed.’ He glanced over at Noah. ‘Do I need to monitor the house again tonight?’
The colonel nodded. ‘That would be best while I deal with this… change of plans.’
Thomas nodded. ‘All right, I’ll get back to you.’
Noah stepped back to let the man pass and watched as he disappeared behind the row of bushes that screened the steps from the house. ‘What was that about?’ he asked, turning to his grandfather.
‘You may as well come in,’ the colonel said, taking a step back to let Noah pass before shutting the door behind him.
Noah dropped the gym bag on the floor in the hallway and followed the colonel into the living room. ‘You didn’t answer my question. What house is he monitoring?’
The colonel walked into the kitchen and flicked the switch to turn the kettle on. ‘Thomas is keeping an eye on Amy and Caleb, which was something I expected you to do.’
Noah stilled. ‘You told me they weren’t in imminent danger.’
‘They’re not. He’s a precaution.’
Noah clenched his jaw, torn between racing back to the flat and his family and finding out more about the mess he found himself in. ‘How long has he been monitoring them, exactly? Are they aware of this?’
The colonel busied himself collecting onions and potatoes from the pantry cupboard. ‘Not if he’s doing his job, they’re not. I haven’t heard anything from Amy, so I presume not.’
Frowning, Noah watched the colonel peel the vegetables and chop them into uniform blocks. ‘I want to know what’s going on, Granddad,’ he said when it became clear the colonel was hoping he’d drop the subject.
‘I told you, you’ll be briefed at the meeting tomorrow morning.’
‘I mean I want the real rundown, none of the official bullshit.’
The colonel stopped chopping and turned to face Noah. ‘Boy, have you ever heard the saying you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar?’
Noah snorted. ‘Just because you’ve dedicated your life to butt kissing doesn’t mean I’m going to.’
The colonel shook his head and turned back to the cutting board. ‘You can stay tonight, but after that you better go home.’
‘So I am being watched.’
‘Most likely,’ the colonel replied as he walked over to switch on the kitchen lights.
Frustrated with the lack of answers, Noah stalked over to the dining room window and stared out at the tree branches waving in the wind. The few birds still aloft were battling the gusts and slanting sheet of rain. He was surprised when the colonel spoke.
‘If you look across, you can see the hill where the landslip was. The crime scene.’
Noah glanced over at the distant hill, watched the blurred figures of the workmen moving about, clearing rubble, the headlights on the two diggers flashing orange in the dim gray light.
‘The body of a young woman was found in the garage of a terrace house that came down this morning,’ the colonel continued.
Noah kept his gaze on the hillside opposite. The longer he kept his attention elsewhere, the longer the colonel would talk.
‘Strictly classified for now, of course, but she was found in a mummified state.’
‘What’s that got to do with us?’
The colonel was silent, and Noah turned to face him. ‘Well?’
‘I… we… have reason to believe she may have been someone of interest in a case I’ve been working.’ He sighed and set the knife down with a clatter. Noah frowned, noting again the uncharacteristic sense of anxiety surrounding the old man. ‘If it is Emma, she was also, unfortunately, involved in a serious relationship with Timothy.’
‘Tim? Amy’s Tim?’
The colonel nodded.
Noah shook his head, turned to stare out the window again. ‘What case?’
The colonel was silent for a moment, and then he continued. ‘On occasion, we have worked with MI5 to rehabilitate certain foreign agents who find it necessary to change their identities.’
‘What’s that got to do with Tim?’
‘This is more than changing names and moving them to remote parts of the country. Most of these individuals require facial reconstruction of some sort to ensure they aren’t recognizable. I think Tim helped make that happen.’
‘But Tim was a GP, not a plastic surgeon.’
‘He dropped out of his surgical rotation in his final year of specialization. He may not have been registered, but I believe he still had the requisite skills. We’re not talking about radical surgery. A nose job, some fillers in the appropriate places would suffice.’
The sky had darkened and Noah focused on the reflection in the window as his grandfather swept the vegetables into a large pot set on the stove. ‘What do you mean you believe?’
The colonel glanced up, met his gaze, and there was something in his expression, an air of vulnerability, that made Noah turn to face him. ‘What exactly are you not telling me? You’re meant to retire in a few months, but somehow you can still pull strings and get me released. Why? What’s in it for them? This is about more than damage control.’
The colonel glanced away again. ‘There’s a village south of Truro. We’d identify the target individuals and send them there for their surgery. The agency would take over after that. Unfortunately, it seems the person who has been… handling… these arrangements has developed a predilection for trialing his procedures on young women. We believe he was… practicing… for more radical surgeries. It didn’t work out well in one case, and we believe he preserved the body by mummification.’
Noah stared, momentarily speechless. ‘And you’ve been covering it up, haven’t you?’
The colonel clenched his jaw.
Noah shook his head and stared up at the ceiling. ‘I don’t believe this. Have you no sense of decency? And Tim? You believe this is his work? You’re off your rocker.’
‘He’s missing. His girlfriend has been found… preserved. He was living and working in the area and he has a known drug habit. He’s a perfect target for agencies keen on putting an end to our efforts. Who knows what he’s capable of if offered the right compensation? Look what he did to you.’
‘Not. This.’ Overcome with anger, Noah could barely get the words out. He waited until he was sure he was in control before he spoke again. ‘I have no idea why Tim started a fight with me that night but he would never do anything like this and you know it.’ He frowned. ‘And again, you only believe Tim has the necessary skill. Are you telling me you don’t know who was performing the surgeries?’
The colonel sat down heavily on a stool and stared up at Noah, shook his head. A sudden chill ran down Noah’s spine as the colonel raised a trembling hand to rub his eyes. ‘Are you ill?’
The colonel straightened, ignored the question. ‘We had a handler. He was vetted. We trusted his judgment and felt that the fewer individuals who knew about the operation, the better. Need to know basis, you understand. Only problem is his body was found a few weeks ago and now we have no idea who we are after or where he is.’
‘Surely others were involved—nurses?’
The colonel nodded. ‘Yes, one. Emma.’
‘What a complete and utter balls up,’ Noah said, astounded that the colonel could be involved in such a colossal mess.
His grandfather stood, ignored the comment as he headed back to the stove. ‘We need to make sure the local police do not make a connection between our handler and Emma. They have him down as a John Doe and we need to keep it that way. We need this contained.’
Noah clenched his jaw as he watched the colonel go about preparing his dinner. So that was it. Colossal mess. Clean it up and sweep it under the rug. ‘That’s why they released me, isn’t it?’ he demanded. ‘I’m the fall guy. Your last ditch effort to keep it all contained.’
‘As I said earlier, you are uniquely suited to this mission. You have access to Amy and the training to ensure this individual is taken care of.’
‘This individual? You’re talking about Tim.’
The colonel held his gaze. ‘Yet if it came to it and he threatened Amy or Caleb, you would do what was necessary. Don’t pretend to be more than you are, Noah.’
The jibe struck hard, and Noah had to take another few deep breaths before responding. ‘Oh, I get it now. You want me to tidy up your mistakes, but you’re quite prepared to leave me to bear the brunt of the resulting shit storm if need be.’
He shook his head and walked over to the doorway to the hall. ‘I think I prefer spending the night in my car.’
‘Noah, don’t react like this. You know this is a matter of national security. I don’t have the luxury of considering decency. You of all people should know we don’t live in an ideal world.’
‘So I’m supposed to be grateful you’ll only hang me out to dry to protect the nation? That’s very comforting.’
He knew the sarcasm grated as the colonel winced. ‘Boy, don’t be like this. You know you’re like a son to me.’
Noah shook his head again, couldn’t help a glance at the fireplace where the photograph of his parents held pride of place. ‘Tell me, he never got ideas about being more than he was, did he?’ he asked, indicating the photo with a jerk of his head. ‘Pity I’m not the saint he was, isn’t it?’
It wasn’t really a question, and he didn’t wait for a reply. Instead, he picked up his bag and left, slamming the door behind him.