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The bell above her head rang as Frances pushed open the café door. Behind her, traffic thundered up and down the dual carriageway between Brighton and London. In front of her a shroud of silence was cast over the darkness that she guessed was filled with customers, chairs and other hazards to be navigated. The café felt cramped, hot and steamy. She took a step toward the sound of frying bacon, ignoring the gurgling of her stomach as she breathed in the heady smell, pushed the door shut, then struggled to push it to complete closure.
The silence only lasted a half-second, but it could have been an hour, it felt so long. "Anybody in?" she called. Come on, you bastards, talk, so I can see you all! While there were no voices, she couldn't see.
"What'll it be, love?" the cook called, his head and upper body lighting up in black and white and the colours of his question: a dash of orange that she guessed was anxiety in case she fell over a chair and indigo of curiosity. With every word, every syllable that he--or anyone else--spoke, her world lit up as flashes of lightning illuminate a night sky. Only for a moment, but given enough voices and enough words she gained a facsimile of vision, just as the individual frames of a film give the illusion of motion if run through quickly enough.
But only when they spoke, and now they were silent.
From nowhere someone gripped her shoulder. She jumped at the hand despite all her efforts not to, then flashed the hand's owner a brief smile, forcing herself to be steady despite wanting to recoil at the smell of sweat, tobacco smoke and engine oil.
The man said, "Sorry, love, didn't mean tomake you jump. Didn't realize you was blind."
"Th--that's okay. You surprised me."
"I'm just going, love, so you can leave the door."
"Does that mean there's a seat spare?" She turned as if to survey the room, though her eyes stared at a wall.
"D'you want me to take you over?" He took her upper arm, radiating paternal concern.
"If it's nearby, just give me a steer," she said. "I don't want to inconvenience you."
"That way." He turned her slightly, so she faced the empty space.
She moved away slightly, to allow him access to the door, fixed the direction in her mind, and turned toward the sound of an industrial kettle hissing water into a teapot. The ringing bell announced the door's opening, and then it slammed shut.
Conversation resumed, at a lower level. From the doorway, she had 'seen' a couple of women in the area lit by the cook's shout. They were standing gossiping in the aisle between the two rows of dirty Formica-topped tables, smoke writhing up from their cigarettes into their colours. She pushed her way past them, even though with their sudden silence, the room suddenly darkened. Only the shadowy half-lighting cast by the murmurs of the other diners further away guided her. Feeling her way along the edges of the tables, she ignored the women's pointed silence, which she guessed spoke for scowls at her nose-rings and Mohican.
She heard a group of laughing men draw back to clear a space for her. "Blimey, girl," one of them said, pronouncing it 'ghewel.' "Did you lie down on the grass for that haircut?" He cackled and muttered to his companions as she poked out a studded tongue at him, "Wouldn't fancy snogging her--you'd get metal fatigue." Roars of laughter rose above the surrounding chatter, and in the edges of their colours, she saw the other diners look up from their plates.
She felt for the edge of the counter working back from the plastic trays of cutlery and plastic sauce bottles, tugged her hand away from the stickiness of old ketchup on a nozzle with a grunt and clumped a pair of two-pound coins on the counter. "Two teas, please, and a bacon butty."
"Oi, Rache," the man behind the counter bellowed without looking up from the sizzling, spitting bacon he was frying. "Come on--customer waiting."
Frances heard one of the smokers mutter, "Gotta go, Sue." Rache pushed past Frances to slouch, almost audibly scowling, to stand behind the counter. "Yeah?"
Frances looked at where Rache's body--at least the part that was visible above the counter--had lit up, head surrounded by a flickering psychedelic nimbus of white-hot anger and lemon disgust. Frances hadn't needed to see the colours; resentment in Rache's voice at the interruption was clear.
"Two teas," Frances repeated. She leaned against the counter, staring blankly at a corner until the large mugs were slammed down on the counter, their contents splashing her hand so that she gasped.
"Four fifty," Rache said.
"Your prices gone up? It were four pound yesterday."
Rache said nothing. Frances guessed that the older woman was glaring at her black clothes and purple hair with distaste. "Four fifty," Rache repeated, the white nimbus brighter still with her increasing anger. What's she angry at? Frances wondered. Me? Does she think blindness is contagious? More likely she's mad at having her chat interrupted. Frances threw a fifty pence piece on the counter, and searched with her fingers amongst the ketchup and mustard sachets for the plastic milk jug.
"Let me," Rache grunted, pouring a splash of milk into each, "or you'll knock everything over." From the light cast by her colours, Frances saw her fish a teabag out of each mug and toss them without looking into the waste-bin beside the counter. "Sugar?"
"Two in each," Frances said. "Normally me uncle would take care of this." Rache didn't reply. "Ta," Frances added.
"I'll take 'em over," Rache said.
"No, it's okay," Frances protested, but Rache had already pushed past her and was gone.
"Where the bloody hell are you, John?" the young woman muttered under her breath. "How long does it take to fill the tank and park the car?" She felt her way back along the other side of the aisle, from table to table, looking at an indeterminate point over the other diners' heads, although her sightless eyes flicked toward the source of any noise.
"Watch it, love," a male voice said, tone not unfriendly, coloured indigo with curiosity. "Let me move Buster a sec, before you tread on him and the bugger bites you."
"Thanks," she said, voice high and small and breathless.
"'S alright," he said. "Table after next is free. Do you want a hand?"
"Nah," she said. "Me uncle'll be in, in a minute, if he ever manages to park the car. Think he's gone to Russia for the petrol."
He laughed, and she moved on. As she passed the next table, the voice of a young man said, "Blimey. Fran? Is that Frannie Dedman?"
She didn't quite manage to hide her grimace.
"What you up to, Fran?" one of the girls asked from the other side of the table.
Frances stared at the other girl and saw the indigo of curiosity surging round her head. "Bit of tarot reading down at the pier," she replied.
"'Spose it stops you sponging' off us taxpayers," one of the other men said, malice audible in his voice, orange fear in his colours, shot through with yellow disgust. "Or does it?"
Fran took a step and almost fell over an outstretched leg. "Very funny."
"What's the matter, Fran?" the first male voice asked, trying not to laugh, but his colours were the same as his friend's.
"You've almost lost your posh accent, Roop," Frances said. "All that money your mummy and daddy paid for a private school, and you can't wait to get some street cred by dropping your vowels and rushing out here to the sticks."
"Fuck off, bitch," Roop said, the fake-mateyness gone from his tone. "And watch your step, eh?" The others joined in his laughter as she stumbled over another outstretched leg.
"Very droll, Roop," Frances said. "Sit up all night thinking that line up, did you?"
She thought she heard the bell ring again, hopefully to announce the door opening. Please God, let it be John.
"Can't you watch where you're going?" the second male voice asked, trying to suppress a fit of the giggles.
"No, you twat," Fran said, reaching her table and fumbling for her mug. She picked it up quickly and then the other, slurping from one, spilling some down her chin. She felt heat rise to her face as someone cackled.
"Oi, bitch," Roop said. She heard the scraping of his chair. He said, "Watch yer lip," as he got to his feet.
"I would, if I was a contortionist," Fran said and drew back her right arm. "But I'm blind, as you can see."
"Fran?" her uncle called. "Everything alright?"
But she was already tossing the mugs of tea with what must have seemed to the others uncanny accuracy at her tormentor's face and heard with satisfaction his outraged yell.
"I'll bank the cheque later," Frances said as John shut his car door, referring to the reason they had been out on this side of Brighton--they had just collected a fee from a particularly slippery customer who had spent weeks dodging them.
"What were you playing at?" John snarled, buckling up, white flashes of anger lightning flickering around his head. The Skoda's ancient engine laboured and finally caught.
Frances sat with jaw clenched, breathing hard, staring into space. Finally she said, "I wasn't playing at anything." She took a deep breath that was almost a gulp and said, "I will not be a victim, John."
His colours--green and indigo and orange and white--showed his shock. "No one's asking you to be."
"I would have been, if I hadn't fought back."
"Fran, love," he said, slowing the car.
"No, don't stop," she urged.
"You don't have to pick fights to not be a victim." He revved the engine.
"But that's just it! I wasn't picking a fight!" She felt a slight jerk as they pulled away. "We've had this conversation before."
"Yes, we have. And I haven't changed how I feel. Assertiveness is not the same as confrontation. I'm in a service industry, Fran; any one of those people is a potential future client who won't want anything to do with Marsh Investigation Service in future."
"Well, I'm sorry," she said, sounding anything but contrite, "if some overgrown schoolboys may bear a grudge for the next twenty, thirty or forty years. But does that mean you'd let someone run you over or beat you up in case they might be a future client?"
"Of course not!"
"Your confrontation is my self-defence," she said. The car speeded up as they emerged onto the road, and his hand brushed against her arm as he changed up through the gears. She moved her arm away and took a deep breath. "They were trying to bully me, and if I hadn't stood up for myself, they would have won by default."
"And if I hadn't come in?" He hit the horn as the car braked sharply. "Oi! Don't they fit indicators to Transits?" He muttered, "Prick." Then his voice softened. "Sorry, Fran. As we was saying, what would've happened if I hadn't come in?"
"I might have got a kicking," she said. "But more likely they would have been so shocked that I'd fought back, they would have backed off. All might-have-beens. We could spend all day talking about what might have happened. Bottom line is there's no point talking about what might have been, only what was."
He didn't speak for a few seconds. Then, "Is this to do with Adam?"
"No! Not everything revolves around men, you know!" She took a deep breath. "It was my decision to finish with him, not the other way around, Unc--honest. Next, you'll be saying it's me bloody hormones."
He grunted, and they drove on in silence.
After about ten minutes, she shifted and pulled the newspaper from under her bottom, where it had been since she had pulled herself away from his guiding arm and flung herself into the passenger seat. She shook it straight and folded it neatly. "What was the headline?" She referred to the small advertising hoarding by the café that précised the headline of The Argus, and that he looked at and commented on almost every day. It was his way of keeping her involved, she knew, and appreciated his kindness. But today, with the rumpus in the café, he hadn't mentioned it.
He slowed, and she heard the clicking of the indicator as they turned. Finally, recognizing her question as the offering of a truce, maybe even an apology, he said, "Police questioning families of Underground bombers." He exhaled. "Christ, when's it all going to stop? Bombs on buses, people getting blown up? I feel like I'm living in a nightmare--look out!" He pounded the horn and swore. "Dipstick running 'cross the road--if I'd a hit him, he'd be yelling for compensation."
Frances grunted, then said, "Nothing more about the missing schoolgirl?"
"Nope. It was been forced off the front pages by all this other stuff. Poor kid's parents must think she's been forgotten about." His chuckle held no humour. "Any other year a fifteen-year-old girl going missing in high summer would be all over the front pages, but this year there's been no silly season. It's the usual war, pestilence and famine, but closer to home."
"Her parents must be going out of their minds."
"Yeah." He slowed the car, then abruptly speeded up, and said, "Not that there's much we can do about it. It's not like we're involved."
Days later, as she was fighting for her life, Frances was to remember--fleetingly--those words.
"See you later!" Frances said, slamming the car door closed. As John drove off, she stepped onto the wooden planking and took a deep breath of warm salt air, feeling the tension ooze out of her body as it always did beside the sea. She felt her spirits lift in the summer sunshine that had gradually built throughout the morning and allowed herself a few glorious seconds of basking, of doing nothing but letting the summer sun warm her face. Further down the pier a calliope warbled manically. She inhaled the aroma of hot-dog onions, wondering--as she often had--why they never tasted as good as they smelled.
Around her people talked, which enabled her to see most potential obstacles, but there was always the nightmare possibility of the silent runner careening into her or a static obstacle like the Romany wagon that someone had put on the pier a couple of years ago. So she moved her cane from side to side like an insect's antennae as she walked past the clutter of people in the souvenir shop near the entrance, concentrating on not stumbling over the gaps in the teak decking. The food halls were doing a roaring trade, and those selling cheap jewellery seemed moderately busy, but the graphology stall was dead.
"Oi, Faith!" The Jamaican-Brixton tones of a familiar voice rocked and rolled and echoed off the walls, her use of Frances' stage name indicating customers were around. Rose's bulk strode into Frances' path, her silhouette lit by her voice as she hummed a tune, although hummed was paying Rose's voice a compliment it barely deserved.
Rose was about the same height as Frances--five foot eight--but Frances guessed that she weighed half as much again. Not that Rose would ever consider anything as mundane as her weight. For Rose, any food was good food, even if it meant frequent visits to the gym rather than moving up a jean size.
Frances switched the cane to her left hand, and with her now free right clasped Rose's bone-crusher, thumb around thumb, heel of her hand against heel. "How you doing, petal?" Rose almost cut the last word in two, the syllables were so distinct.
"I'm good. You?" Frances felt the corners of her mouth lifting in a grin as they always did when Rose was around.
"I'm splendid." Again, the last word was almost chopped into halves. Rose jerked her thumb back at her booth. "I got a customer for you!" The customer was clearly within earshot or Rose wouldn't have been so circumspect. They were 'pun-ters' if she was in a good mood, 'mugs' or 'berks' if she wasn't. "Just finishing off a reading with her."
"Okay," Faith said. "Want me to come along in five or ten?"
"Nah," Rose said. "I'll bring her in. That alright, Mrs. S?"
Frances didn't hear the reply, but walked to her own booth and began the long laborious task of unlocking--necessary not because she had anything worth stealing, but to avoid vandalism or squatters occupying the place. Brighton's accommodation prices had skyrocketed over the last few years as the number of incomers mushroomed.
Tall as she was, Frances still had to stretch to undo the bolt at the top of the door. She guessed that Rose had to stand on a chair to unlock hers. She still felt that moment of vulnerability as she stretched, then relaxed and let herself into her twelve foot by twenty kiosk and went on through to the back, put on her kettle and ambled back to the front to open the shutters.
"Here y'are then," Rose's foghorn voice reverberated through the silence. "Faith, Mrs. Schofield. Mrs. Schofield, Faith."
"I gather you'd like a reading," Frances said as she made room for Mrs. Schofield in the cramped booth and mouthed 'chips' at the doorway where Rose was hovering. "Are you interested in tarot, Mrs.--"
"Call me Vicki, why dontcha?" The woman chewed gum noisily, and Frances thought that there was something familiar about her nasal bray. Her perfume smelled expensive, but there was so much of it that Frances felt her nose tickle in protest. "You don't seem to be open much. Wandered past here a coupla times, but you always seem to be shut." Her hair was cut in a bob that framed heavy makeup, and her clothes looked expensive. I know you, Frances thought. But where from?
Frances ignored the implied criticism. "What's your star sign, Mrs.--Vicki?"
"Libra." Vicki added without being asked, "11th October, 1983." So she was only eighteen months older than Frances. She sounded older, somehow, as if life had used up her voice, which was still naggingly familiar. She sniffed. "Blind Faith, eh? Your sign could do wiv a lick o' fresh paint, ya know."
If I had the money, I would, Frances thought. But right now, the rent's more of a priority.
Frances pulled out her Waites, then decided against it and pulled out her Marseille pack. As time was so short, she counted off twenty-five cards, and said, "It's twenty-five pounds for thirty minutes, Mrs.--Vicki." She added, "Are you local? Your voice sounds familiar."
Vicki laughed. "Down from the marina, aren't I?"
"Shuffle these, would you, for me?" Frances passed her the reduced pack of cards.
Vicki said, "There you go." She plunked them on the table and said, "How you gonna read them, then, Blind Faith?" Her jaws made a chomping sound as the gum whirled round. "You can't read like, auras, then?"
Not auras, Frances thought, but said nothing. She didn't like the word, with its cheesy connotations of fake fortune tellers and hustlers who might pose as a medium or a spiritualist.
She thought, 'auras' doesn't cover the constant darkness lit up by people speaking, that the colours and patterns appearing around their heads have meaning. That when the speaker lies, the differing emotions alter the illumination to other colours--maybe because of the stress they're under--and form different patterns. The woman would understand none of that, but would just think that Frances was a nutter.
Instead, Frances ignored the question, concentrating on what she was doing. She dealt a card and another below, one above where she guessed the first card was. She built up a second row to its right, then another to its left. Putting the remainder down, she felt with her fingertips for the base card and worked up to the middle, running her fingers over the whorls and ridges. "Queen of Swords," Frances said. "It tells me that you should weed out your social life."
"Hah." Vicki's laugh was contemptuous. "That's good. What social life?"
"The King of Swords," Frances said, feeling the top card. She felt the card to its right, the ten of staves. "You need to meet a challenge or challenges head on, but you've seen this before. You won't make the same mistakes again."
"Uh-huh." Vicki's gum-chewing slowed.
"The Lovers." Frances ran her fingers over the card a second time and turned over an additional card.
"Mrs. Schofield, what was your maiden name?"
"Durrant," Mrs. Schofield said, with a faint edge of triumph.
The room seemed to grow suddenly chill, and Frances had to stop herself from shivering. She wouldn't give the woman any more pleasure than she had to. "I knew I recognized your voice," she said instead, painfully aware of how high and tight her own sounded. Two school reunions in one day, she thought. Let's hope they don't go in threes.
"Never expected to see you here," Vicki said, still chewing.
"I could say the same." Frances cleared her throat, deliberately pitching her voice lower, so as to appear calm. "I'd never have associated tarot and palm-reading with Rose as a Vicki Durrant thing."
"That right?" The chewing speeded up, then stopped, and Vicki said as she took the gum from her mouth and leaned sideways, "What you know about me now, anyway?" The dull khaki of depression around her head flashed red with anger.
Quick as a flash, for she wanted to jump back but dared show no weakness, Frances grabbed the rubbish bin and proffered it to Vicki, who said, "Bloody hell," in an awestruck voice.
"There's more than one way of seeing," Frances said, in a sepulchral voice, and had to stop herself from cackling aloud at her ham-acting. Instead she continued, "Let me study the other cards for you," burying her residual nerves in her work persona. "Let's see what they tell us." She felt another card, fingering the ridges on the surface. "The Lovers," Frances said, feeling the bottom right card. "Hello," she said and turned another card over.
"Wassup?" Vicki said.
"The Lovers is all about relationships," Frances said. "Are you married?"
"Yeah," Vicki said. "Why?"
Frances ignored her and turned another card over. The Fool. Two of Cups. The Tower. She turned another card over. She looked up at Vicki. "How much honesty can you cope with?"
"What sort of crap is this?" Vicki said. "It's all bollocks, anyway, so spit it out."
Frances didn't point out that if that were what the other girl really believed, she wouldn't be sitting there. When Vicki had spoken, her colours had burned orange with fear.
"Either your husband is having an affair or you are." Frances heard Vicki gasp and pressed on. "You are. Not just an affair, a whole string of them." She pointed at the fool.
"This is crap!" Vicki's colours burned as bright as the sun now, burned orange--the colour of fear.
"But this last one was more serious, wasn't it, Vicki? The Tower is the card denoting destruction, a sudden cessation. And this card." Frances pointed at the Two of Cups. "Was he your age?"
"Yes," Vicki whispered.
"It was a love match, I suspect. You thought of running off with him, but he just went away," Frances said, pointing at the tower.
"Schofield bought him off," Vicki said and wiped angrily at her face.
Frances turned over another card. "Then he threatened to beat you black and blue."
"He threatened to cut me," Vicki said, but it was less a correction of detail than an affirmation that the card was right in principle.
"But for all that you were terrified, you stood up to him, Vicki, and he backed off, showing that he could push you so far--but no further." Frances pointed at the King of Swords.
"The cards show you all this?" Vicki said.
"You're lonely, aren't you?" Frances pointed at the Hermit.
"Here! You're s'posed to be telling me fortune, not bloody cycle-analyzing me!" As she spoke, she moved toward Frances. "Who you calling lonely?" She made it sound as if Frances had implied she was carrying a sexually transmitted disease.
Frances shrugged. "I'm only the spokesperson for the cards. Thump me, if it'll make you feel better."
Vicki threw a note down on the table. "You don't get full fee, for that bloody twaddle. Tarot reading, you call that?" She stormed out.
Frances sighed and reached for the money, but a little smile played around her face.
Afterwards, she called on Rose to thank her. Rose said, "Adam's looking for you," and pushed a paper cone full of chips into Frances' hand. She added, "No need to look like that. He ain't a bad guy."
"Look like what?" Frances nose crinkled at the tartness of the vinegar drifting off the chips. "Mm, heaven." She crammed a chip in her mouth, and another, then remembering her manners, offered the cone to Rose, knowing full well the other woman would decline.
"Nah-ah. There's a special circle of hell reserved for people who make vegans get them chips from that meat-pit down at the end of the pier."
"There's a special circle of hell reserved for vegans, full stop," Frances shot back. "How much do I owe you?"
"Nothing. Just don't make me get you sausage and chips again like you did last time."
"You need walking back to your flat?" Rose was convinced that Frances wasn't safe in her dingy ground floor flat in the Kemp Town area of Brighton. She kept nagging Frances to let out her spare room, which was never going to happen, as it was full of weights and exercise equipment. "But you could do with a lodger, more than chucking them weights 'round. You might be muscular, girl," Rose had said several times, "but you look skinny. It's not how hard you is, it's how hard you looks."
"No, it's okay, thanks." I might be blind but I'm bloody strong, Frances almost said in answer to the question's sub-text but bit her tongue. "Do you think I'm too bolshie?" she asked instead.
"Nah," Rose said. "Why you ask such an odd question?"
Frances told her about the tea-throwing incident, and Rose roared with laughter, but then said, "You tends to keep quiet amongst strangers--not like how you used to be--but then, that may be no bad thing."
The 'not like how you used to be' was the nearest Rose had ever come to asking Frances about why she so suddenly lost her sight, but Rose didn't ask any more, and Frances had no desire to talk about it. Instead, she said, "Being quiet is okay. I've no desire to upset people unnecessarily. But I won't be a doormat. I just wonder if sometimes I go too far?"
"If you need to ask me," Rose said, patting her friend's shoulder. "I think you already know the answer to that."
With that enigmatic comment still occupying her thoughts, Frances walked to the end of the pier. "Oh, bollocks," she muttered. She'd already rung John, and she heard the chimes of the clock sounding two o'clock. He would be there any minute. And she still hadn't paid that money into the bank.
A man's voice smashed into her thoughts with the brutality of a mugger: "Can I ask you for a few minutes of your time, madam?" He slid an archness into the last word that robbed it of any respect and set her teeth on edge. For all that he'd looked normal when he spoke, average height, early twenties, a white man with an almost shaven head, there was something about him that was just plain wrong. A strange yellow tint had played around his head, of a shape and colour that she'd never seen before. Behind him, a group of young men and women, most of them somewhere between being school-leavers and their twenties, sang and clapped to a hymn whose words she didn't recognize, about Christ the Reveller, Christ the Leveller.
"Sorry, I'm waiting for someone," she said, turning away, but she suddenly felt his breath on her face and recoiled.
She raised a hand to push him away and felt that he was far, far too close; well inside the two feet or so that made her twitchy. There was something about his proximity that made her flesh crawl, and she found herself fighting for breath at the same time as she fought her instincts to punch him.
And then the wall of a kiosk was at her back, and there was nowhere else to go.
He tugged at her sleeve, and she resisted the urge to snatch it away. "Surely you can spare a couple of minutes, then?" Without pausing for an answer, he ploughed on; "I'm collecting for the Church of Christ the Celebrant, in order to help with famine relief in Africa. Any donations will help the cause enormously and start saving lives--"
Of course, she thought, a chugger. Brighton, like many towns, had become infested with aggressive almost--muggers-for-charity. He carried on with his spiel, but Frances had already tuned him out and, to get rid of him, rummaged around in her purse and pulled out a few coins, a couple of pounds amongst the haul.
"Thank you very much," the chugger said. "If I can take an address or an e-mail or something..."
"No, it's okay, thanks," Frances said.
"...then we can update you on how your money is being spent," he said, carrying on as if she hadn't spoken.
"I don't have an e-mail."
"Mobile phone, then. Maybe--"
"Frances?" John's voice cut, unusually loud, across the chugger. "Everything okay?"
"Fine thanks," she said, barging past an arm toward his voice. "Just making a donation."
She happened to be facing the singing group when a tall man started talking to them, and they fell silent, as abruptly as if they'd been switched off. Frances couldn't hear what he said, but what caught her attention was the strange pattern of colours and swirls that danced around the tall man's skull. "Come on, you lot," she heard him say in a cockney accent, and for all that his voice was perfectly normal, even quite pleasant to the normal ear, there was something about it that scared and repelled her even more than the one who had approached her. She shivered and quickened her pace.
As they left the group behind, John said, "They looked like members of a cult, you know, all dressed in yellow and orange boiler suits."
"There was something a bit strange about them," Frances said. She giggled. "Apart from the boiler suits, that is."
"You should be careful," John said. "That's twice in one morning things might have got a bit iffy if I hadn't turned up." He must have seen that she was about to snap an answer at him, for he added quickly, "We ought to go. You'll never guess who'll be calling round at the office in less than an hour." He chuckled grimly. "I think we must have summoned him up, talking about her."
"Good afternoon," said the man waiting for Uncle John in the agency's box of an office, his rumble holding a hint of impatience, and implying that they were late. In the flickering light of the complex mix of his colours, Frances glimpsed a big man, over six-two, she guessed, and bulky. She caught a waft of expensive cologne and a hint of cigar smoke.
"Mr. Parrish," John said. "I'm John Marsh. This is my assistant, Frances Dedman."
"Dedman?" Parrish said. "Mike Dedman's daughter?"
"You know him?" Frances said.
"Our paths have crossed in the past," he said. "I own a car dealership, although the people who can afford Alfa Romeos aren't usually interested in the sort of fleet cars your father hawks around the county."
Before Frances could reply, John interrupted: "What can we do for you?" Never second-guess why someone's come to see you, he'd once warned Frances. And I don't mind looking stupid if it makes other people feel clever.
"My daughter, of course." His handshake when he finally took her proffered hand was firm. His voice was decidedly middle-aged, and he had moved stiffly. "You do read the papers?" he said.
"I do," John said, so brusquely he verged on rudeness, and Frances suddenly wondered why. "But I don't believe anything they say without corroboration. Papers are there for one thing, and that isn't to inform--it's to sell papers. Take a seat and tell me about it."
Parrish said, taking a seat, "I live out at Angmering with my family." His colours flickered black and white with impatience, but mostly orange and indigo, which Frances interpreted as nervousness for his daughter and curiosity about her whereabouts. "But I have a small flat here in town that doubles as my office."
"Is that why Mrs. Parrish isn't here?" John said.
There was a pregnant pause, and as so often before, Frances wished that her talent extended to reading the expressions of silence as she could voices.
"My wife's at home," Parrish said. "She doesn't like Brighton very much."
John changed tack. "Tell me about yourself, Mr. Parrish."
Clearly caught off guard by the unexpected line, Parrish harrumphed for a moment or two. Then he said, "Not much to tell really. I started a small secondhand car business almost as soon as I left school, moved into property management as soon as I could, which was back in the mid-eighties when money started to become available under dear old Maggie." He paused, and Frances could almost see him puff his chest out. "When I was able to move to Angmering, I thought I ought to do my bit for the community. So I serve on the parish council."
"Parrish Council?" John said innocently, but the pure black joy of his colours gave away his glee at the awful joke. Bad puns were a particular vice for John.
Parrish snapped, "This is no time for schoolboy humour, Marsh."
"Of course. Sorry," John said. "What other involvements do you have?"
"I'm a member of the church committee and the rugby club. I used to play a bit. And several golf clubs," Parrish said. "That's how your name came up."
"Oh, are you a member of the Dyke?" John said.
"No, the West Hove, which you're in," Parrish said. "But if you find my daughter, I'll be bloody grateful. I don't see your becoming a member of the Dyke as posing any kind of problem." He added expansively, "I know most of the membership committee..."
"Thank you," John said, and switched tack. "Do you like to gamble?"
"I like an occasional flutter on the horses," Parrish said. "I own a three-year-old. Why?"
"Just building up a picture: What about Natalie?"
Parrish said, "Natalie goes to school in Hove, St Hilda's."
Frances knew it. Her school had played them at lacrosse once or twice. It had the reputation of being a girls-only school for posh thugs.
"She was a day pupil," Parrish said. "I would have quite liked her to board, but all things considered, we decided it was better that she lived at home."
In other words, Frances thought, you'd have quite liked her from out under your feet, but the fees were too high, or ... "You didn't trust her to board?" she asked.
"Of course we did!"
"My mum didn't," she said. A lie. It had never been an option. "It's no reflection on child or parent--just that there are a lot of temptations for a teenager."
Parrish harrumphed. "Maybe for you." He paused. "Natalie went to school every day, and that morning, she went to school as normal. We told the police that. We've told the papers that!"
"I know, I know," John said. "And I'm sorry to ask you again. But sometimes the act of telling it again to strangers throws unexpected things up. She caught the bus to school, or you or your wife drove her?"
"Sometimes I drove her," Parrish said. "But mostly she caught the bus. I have to stay over sometimes, and my wife--"
"Doesn't like to travel," John said. He held up a hand. "Sorry. Carry on, sir."
Parrish said, voice level, "My daughter caught the bus into school as normal, only she had project work in town that she had to do. So the other girls said."
"Was that unusual?"
Parrish paused before answering, "No. Sometimes she and the other girls would go into town together, asking people questionnaires and such like." His snort left no doubt about his derision of modern education with its questionnaires and coursework. "Sometimes she went alone."
John paused and said, "Mr. Parrish, I appreciate that you've probably been asked this a dozen, even a hundred times, but was there anything unusual about Natalie in the days before she vanished--any depression, mood swings, unusually quiet behaviour?"
Parrish waited several moments before answering with equally conspicuous patience. "That was just it. There was no unusual behaviour. She was just like she always was, a typical happy teenager."
Frances thought about how she'd been anything but happy at fifteen and mentally raised an eyebrow, but kept silent.
John said, "So you'd like me to find Natalie?"
Parrish said after a slight pause, "Yes."
"Even though most of the Sussex constabulary are looking for her?"
"That's just it! They're pulling men off the bloody case all the time, sending them off to London, as if the whole world revolves around sodding London. Not," he added quickly, "that I don't have every sympathy for the victims of the bombings." He added more gently, "London's had a week now to sort itself out."
"They need to be able to relieve the people working there," John said. "Plus they're hunting for any more bombers." As he was talking, he was fingering his chin, a sure sign that he was thinking. Frances wondered what had intrigued him.
"Our rates are three hundred a day, plus expenses, two days in advance."
"Okay," Parrish said and began fumbling for cash, which he counted out.
"We'd like to interview your wife and look around your home," John said.
"What?" Parrish said. "No, no, I can't have you underfoot, upsetting my wife."
"Isn't she upset already, with her missing?" Frances said. "Doesn't she want Natalie found?"
"Of course she does!"
There was a hint of orange around his head, Frances realized. What's he's got to be nervous about?
"Does your daughter have a mobile phone, Mr. Parrish?" Frances said.
He seemed surprised by the question. "Of course she does." He rounded on John. "Can't you do the job? I need you as local experts on Brighton. The police have covered every square inch of Angmering--there's nothing to find there. But if you're not up to it..."
John didn't respond to the implied threat. "What are you worried about, Mr. Parrish?" he asked, his voice soothing. "We'll be careful with how we question your wife, but we really need to talk to her, just in case there's something that she hasn't realized is significant. Otherwise, we'll have to decline the case."
Frances just stopped herself from gulping. The agency wasn't broke, but several days work couldn't be turned down lightly. John's colours were white with anger, but there was the green of sadness shooting through it and the violet of acceptance that gave her no doubt about his sincerity.
Parrish said slowly, rising to his feet, "I'll need to talk to my wife, let her know that you're coming."
"I'll draw up the contract, and we can sign it there," John said, making sure he showed no hint of triumph.
When he left Frances said, "You were a bit hard on him, weren't you? Especially at the beginning?"
"Just letting him know I'm no doormat," John said. "He strikes me as a bit of a bully if you let him."
"Including his daughter?"
"No," John said. "She could walk on water, as far as he's concerned, as far as I can tell."
While he was talking, Frances pressed the Braille 'play' button on the ansaphone. Her heart sank, as Kay Rogers' precise, prissy little voice intoned, "This is Kay Rogers, counsellor, calling for Frances Dedman, aka Faith DuQuayne."
"She makes me sound like a friggin' criminal," Frances muttered.
"You are," he said. "Technically speaking," he added.
"I done my time, copp-ah," she said.
Kay Rogers' voice stated the time, then the message. "Miss Dedman, you have now missed two appointments, nor responded to the earlier messages that I left. Please call me as soon as possible to arrange an appointment." She left her phone number, which was unnecessary.
Frances groaned. "I'll call her later," she said.
Hamid never saw the blow that felled him.
He was returning from a community liaison meeting with the police at the mosque. That fool Kamal with his firebrand politics wanted the force to apologize for calling on community leaders to condemn the bombing. Fortunately common sense had prevailed, and Kamal had been shouted down by his own people even as the police liaison team looked on.
Hamid had left with a warm glow that had lasted almost all the way home. He was looking forward to telling Sura, so he hadn't noticed at first that he was being followed. It was only when he heard the clink of a bottle being kicked over and shattering that he noticed the heavy footfalls dopplering his own.
He turned left into Bridlington Street, one away from his own, and crossed quickly, his pace picking up. So did the footsteps behind him. He crossed onto the left-hand pavement, where a Transit van was parked facing him, driver side on the pavement. As he reached the van, he looked behind him.
He found himself lying on the pavement, only half-conscious from where the door had clobbered him prostrate. A boot thudded into his ribs to the accompaniment of wordless grunts. Another connected with his head, he saw stars, and then there was the warmth of blood in his mouth, the feel of the ruins of his teeth, and he was pulling his arms in around his head, but too late, too late. Impact after impact thudded like a rain of pain until death's darkness was almost a relief.
He died without ever hearing his assailant's voices, except for their grunts.
When it was clear that life had ebbed from his body, one of them said, "Enough."
As one, four of the group reached down and picked up the body, while another pulled two objects from the van, keeping one and throwing a bristle-haired brush with three-foot handle to a sixth colleague, all of them watched by the one who had spoken. Although the group moved with the ragged asynchronicity of those not yet fully trained, there was a collective purpose to their actions.
The one who had gone to the van poured liquid on the pavement where Hamid had died, while his colleague scrubbed it vigorously with the brush he had been thrown. Meanwhile the others carried Hamid's corpse to the van and tossed it in, climbing in after the body. The one who had spoken passed the cleanup detail and climbed into the driver's seat, coughing at the strong smell of bleach. He gunned the engine as the cleanup detail climbed in through the doors behind him. Stopping at the end of the street, he picked up the look-out from the shadows.
In the back of the van, several of the group worked at trimming off Hamid's beard, wrestling him out of his clothes and into a filthy shirt, jeans and coat that stank of meths, laughing as they joked at the humiliation they were heaping on the man. One of them said, "Bloody Paki stinks of curry. And he's shit himself."
"Involuntary reaction, Pete," the driver grunted. "He couldn't help himself. Proper Englishman would've kept his sphincter shut, even unto death." Roars of laughter greeted the remark. Several of the others had relaxed noticeably already.
The driver took the van carefully--but not too slowly, in case he attracted the police's attention as a potential drunk driver--out through the streets onto the North Circular Ring Road, and beyond, onto the M25. Even at this late hour the traffic was heavy, and it took all his concentration. He didn't immediately notice one of the group mucking around with Hamid's linen skullcap and doing a little shuffling sand-dance in the back, but when he did, he immediately bellowed, "Oi!"
The miscreant sat down with what the driver suspected was a smirk that he decided to remove. "DNA, dipstick! If they recover any of that and it's got your traces all over it, what we going to do?"
There was a long silence, and then driver said, voice dangerously level, "I'll tell you what we're going to do, Cher, love. We're going to fucking burn you with it! Got that?"
"Yeah," Cher said, her voice wobbling slightly.
They drove on, the M25 getting progressively quieter as they passed midnight, rounding the motorway's northernmost point. Eventually the road was quiet enough that when they exited, the Transit was the only vehicle on the slip road off the motorway.
They stopped, and the group pulled Hamid's corpse from the van. The driver affixed something to his coat, and they poured whisky and rum over his face and upper torso. "You enjoying that, Paki?" one of the boys in the group asked, and they laughed before tossing Hamid's corpse over the fence, where it rolled down into the field.
The group climbed into the van and drove off.
Minutes later, the fuse that the driver had attached to Hamid's shirt began to burn and quickly caught on the alcohol accelerant. Within minutes, the body was burned beyond any recognition.
No one driving past even noticed.