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When pretty and popular teenagers Piper Hadley and Tash McBain disappear one Sunday morning, the investigation captivates a nation but the girls are never found.
Three years later, during the worst blizzard in a century, a husband and wife are brutally killed in the farmhouse where Tash McBain once lived. A suspect...
When pretty and popular teenagers Piper Hadley and Tash McBain disappear one Sunday morning, the investigation captivates a nation but the girls are never found.
Three years later, during the worst blizzard in a century, a husband and wife are brutally killed in the farmhouse where Tash McBain once lived. A suspect is in custody, a troubled young man who can hear voices and claims that he saw a girl that night being chased by a snowman.
Convinced that Piper or Tash might still be alive, clinical psychologist Joe O'Loughlin and ex-cop Vincent Ruiz, persuade the police to re-open the investigation. But they are racing against time to save the girls from someone with an evil, calculating and twisted mind...
"Remarkable....crime fiction of the highest order."
My name is Piper Hadley and
I went missing on the last Saturday of the summer holidays three years ago. I didn’t disappear completely and I didn’t run away, which is what a lot of people thought (those who didn’t believe I was dead). And despite what you may have heard or read, I didn’t get into a stranger’s car or run off with some sleazy pedo I met online. I wasn’t sold to Egyptian slave traders or forced to become a prostitute by a gang of Albanians or trafficked to Asia on a luxury yacht.
I’ve been here all along—not in Heaven or in Hell or that place in between whose name I can never remember because I didn’t pay attention at Sunday scripture classes. (I only went for the cake and the cordial.)
I’m not exactly sure of how many days or weeks or months I’ve been here. I tried to keep count, but I’m not very good with numbers. Completely crap, to be honest. You can ask Mr. Monroe, my old math teacher, who said he lost his hair teaching me algebra. That’s bollocks by the way. He was balder than a turtle on chemo before he ever taught me.
Anyone who follows the news will know that I didn’t disappear alone. My best friend Tash was with me. I wish she were here now. I wish she’d never squeezed through the window. I wish I had gone in her place.
When you read those stories about kids who go missing, they are always greatly loved and their parents want them back, whether it’s true or not. I’m not saying that we weren’t loved or missed, but that’s not the whole story.
Kids who blitz their exams don’t run away. Winners of beauty pageants don’t run away. Girls who date hot guys don’t run away. They’ve got a reason to stay. But what about the kids who are bullied or borderline anorexic or self-conscious about their bodies or sick of their parents fighting? There are lots of factors that might push a kid to run away and none of them are about being loved or wanted.
I don’t want to think about Tash because I know it’s going to make me upset. My handwriting is messy at the best of times, which is weird when you consider I won a handwriting competition when I was nine and they gave me a fountain pen in a fancy box that bit my finger every time I closed it.
We disappeared together, Tash and me. That was a summer of hot winds and fierce storms that came and went like, well, storms do. It was on a clear night at the end of August after the Bingham Summer Festival, when the funfair rides had fallen silent and the colored lights had been turned off.
They didn’t realize we were gone until the next morning. At first it was just our families who searched, then neighbors and friends, calling our names across playgrounds, down streets, over hedges and across the fields. As the hours mounted they phoned the police and a proper search was organized. Hundreds of people gathered on the cricket field, dividing up into teams to search the farms, forests and along the river.
By the second day there were five hundred people, police helicopters, sniffer dogs and soldiers from RAF Brize Norton. Then came the journalists with their satellite dishes and broadcast vans, parking on Bingham Green and paying locals to use their toilets. They did their reports from in front of the town clock, telling people there was nothing to report, but saying it anyway. This went on for days on every channel, every hour, because the public wanted to be kept up-to-date on the nothingness.
They called us “the Bingham Girls” and people made shrines of flowers and tied yellow ribbons to lampposts. There were balloons and soft toys and candles just like when Princess Diana died. Complete strangers were praying for us, weeping as though we belonged to them, as though we summed up the tragedies in their own lives.
We were like fairy-tale twins, like Hansel and Gretel or the babes in the wood, or the Soham girls in their matching Man United shirts. I remember the Soham girls because our school sent cards to their families saying our prayers were with them.
I don’t like those old fairy tales—the ones about children getting eaten by wolves or kidnapped by witches. At our primary school they took Hansel and Gretel off the shelves because some of the parents complained it was too scary for children. My dad called them PC Nazis and said next time they’d be saying Humpty Dumpty promoted violence against unborn chickens.
My dad isn’t famous for his sense of humor, but he does have his moments. He once made me laugh so hard I snorted tea out my nose.
As the days passed, the media storm blew through Bingham. Cameras came into our houses, up the stairs, into our bedrooms. My bra was hanging off the doorknob and there was an empty tampon box on my bedside table. They called it a typical teenager’s room because of the posters and my collection of crystals and my photo-booth portraits of my friends.
My mum would normally have gone mental about the house being so messy, but she mustn’t have felt much like cleaning up. She didn’t feel much like breathing by the look of her. Dad did most of the talking, but still came across as a man of few words, the strong silent type.
Our parents picked apart our last days, putting them together from fragments of information like those scrapbooks people make about their newborn babies. Every detail seemed important. What book I was reading: Curious Incident—for the sixth time. What DVD I last borrowed: Shaun of the Dead. If I had a boyfriend: Yeah, right!
Everyone had a story about us—even the people who never liked us. We were cheeky, fun-loving, popular, hard-working; we were straight-A students. I laughed my ass off at that one.
People put a shine on us that wasn’t there for real, making us into the angels they wanted us to be. Our mothers were decent. Our fathers were blameless. Perfect parents who didn’t deserve to be tormented like this.
Tash was the bright one and the pretty one. She knew it too. Always wearing short skirts and tight tops. Even in her school uniform she was striking, with breasts like hood ornaments that announced her arrival. They belonged to a grown woman, a lucky woman, a woman who could model bras or be draped over the bonnet of a sports car at a motor show. She lapped up the attention, rolling the waistband of her skirt to make it shorter, undoing the top button of her blouse.
At fifteen a girl’s looks are pretty fickle. Some blossom and others play the clarinet. I was skinny with freckles, a big old head of tangly black hair, a pointy chin and the eyelashes of a llama. My assets hadn’t arrived, or they’d been delivered to someone who must have prayed harder, or prayed at all.
I was built for speed rather than low-cut dresses and short skirts. Rake-thin, a runner, I was second in the nationals for my age group. My father said I was part-whippet, until I pointed out that likening me to a dog did nothing for my self-esteem. Homely, was my grandmother’s description. Bookish, said my mother. They could have said plain as a pikestaff, but I don’t know what a pikestaff looks like. Maybe I make a pikestaff look good.
Tash was an ugly duckling that blossomed into a swan, while I was the duckling who grew into a duck—a less happy ending, I know, but more realistic. Put another way, if I was an actress in a horror movie, you’d take one look at me and say, “She’s toast.” Whereas Tash would be the girl who gets her kit off in the shower and is rescued in the nick of time and lives happily ever after with the hero and his perfect teeth.
Maybe she deserved that happy ending, because real life hadn’t been such a picnic. Tash grew up in an old farmhouse half a mile from Bingham, along a narrow lane that is just wide enough for single cars or tractors. Mr. McBain rented the farm, hoping to buy it, but he could never raise the money.
I remember my mother saying the McBains were white trash, something I never really understood. A lot of people rent houses and send their kids to public schools, but that doesn’t make them any more fucked up than the rich people living in Priory Corner.
That’s where I used to live, in a house called The Old Vicarage. It used to house the vicar until the church decided it needed even more money and sold off the house and land. The streets of Priory Corner aren’t paved with gold, but our neighbors act as though they should be.
Like everyone else in town, they put up posters in their windows and stickers on their cars after we disappeared. There were candlelight vigils and special masses at St. Mark’s and prayers at school. So many prayers, I wonder how God missed hearing any of them.
You’re probably wondering how I know this stuff about the police search and the vigil. During those first few weeks George let us watch TV and read the newspapers. We were chained up in an attic room with sloping ceilings and a skylight that was stained with birdshit. The room was airless and hot beneath the tiles, but still much nicer than this place. There was a proper bed and an old TV with a coat hanger aerial and a blizzard of static on most channels.
On the third day, I saw Mum and Dad on the screen, looking like rabbits caught in a high beam. Mum wore her black pencil dress by Alexander McQueen and a dark pair of half-pumps. Tash knew the brand. I’m not very good with designer clothes. Mum was clutching a photograph. She’d found her voice and they couldn’t stop her talking.
She listed all the clothes I might have been wearing, as though I might have dropped them like breadcrumbs, leaving a trail for people to follow. Then she paused and stared at the TV cameras. A tear hovered halfway down her cheek and everyone waited for it to fall, not listening to what she said.
Mr. and Mrs. McBain were also at the news conference. Mrs. McBain hadn’t bothered about make-up… or sleeping. She had bags under her eyes and was wearing a T-shirt and an old pair of jeans.
“Like something the cat dragged in,” said Tash.
“She’s worried about you.”
“She always looks like that.”
My dad took a shaky breath, but the words came out clearly.
“Somebody out there must have seen Piper and Tash. Maybe you’re not sure or you’re protecting someone. Please think again and call the police. You can’t imagine what Piper means to us. We’re a strong family and we don’t survive well apart.”
He looked directly into the cameras. “If you took our babies, please just bring them home. Drop them off at the end of the road or leave them somewhere. They can catch a bus or a train. Let them walk away.”
Then he spoke to Tash and me.
“Piper, if you and Tash are watching. We’re coming to find you. Just hold on. We’re coming.”
Mum had panda eyes from her mascara running but still looked like a film star. Nobody poses for a photograph like she does.
“Whoever you are—we forgive you. Just send Piper and Tash home.”
My sister Phoebe was put in front of the cameras wearing her prettiest dress, standing pigeon-toed, sucking on her fingers. Mum had to prompt her.
“Come home, Piper,” she said. “We all miss you.”
Tash’s father had his arms crossed through the whole circus. He didn’t say a word until at the very end when a reporter asked, “Haven’t you got anything to say, Mr. McBain?”
He gave the reporter a death stare and unfolded his arms. Then he said, “If you still have them, let them go. If they’re dead, tell somebody where you left them.”
He folded his arms again. That was it. Two sentences.
Something tore inside Tash’s mum and she made this small, frightened animal sound, like a kitten squeaking in a box.
There were rumors about Mr. McBain after that. People asked, “Where was his emotion? Why did he suggest they were dead?”
Apparently, you’re supposed to quiver and blubber at news conferences. It’s like some unwritten law, otherwise people will think you’ve raped and murdered your daughter and her best friend.
At the end of the questions, my mother held up a photograph of Tash and me. It’s the picture that became famous, the one everyone remembers, taken by Mr. Quirk, our school photographer (he of the wandering hands and minty breath, notorious for straightening collars, brushing skirts and feeling boobs).
In the photograph Tash and I are sitting together in the front row of our class. Tash’s skirt is so short she has to keep her knees together and her hands on her lap to avoid flashing the camera. Flashing the flash, so to speak. I’m next to her with a mop of hair and a fake smile that would make Victoria Beckham proud.
That’s the photograph everybody remembers: two girls in school uniform, Piper and Tash, the Bingham Girls.
No matter what channel you switched on, you could see us, or hear our parents pleading for information. Millions of words were written in the newspapers, page after page about new developments, which weren’t really new and added up to nothing.
At the candlelight vigil Reverend Trevor led the prayers while his wife Felicity led the gossiping. She’s like a human megaphone with a huge arse and reminds me of those dippy birds that rock back and forth, putting their beaks into a glass.
She and the reverend have a son called Damian who should have a cross carved in his forehead because he belongs to the dark side. The little shit likes to creep up behind girls and flick their bra straps. He never did it to me because I’m quicker than he is and I once shoved his asthma inhaler up his nose.
There was standing room only at St. Mark’s for the vigil. They had to put loud speakers outside so people could hear the prayers and the hymns. The only thing missing were the children. Parents were so terrified of more kidnappings that they kept their little ones at home behind locked doors, safely tucked away.
That was the weekend that the grief tourists began arriving. People drove from Oxford and beyond, circling the streets. They went to the church and stared at our school and at The Old Vicarage.
They watched the reporters talking breathlessly to cameras, making nothing into something, picking the scabs off past tragedies, tossing out names like Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman and Sarah Payne, filling a few more hours with rumor and speculation.
Afterwards the tourists drove away looking slightly disappointed. They wanted Bingham to be more sinister, a place where teenagers disappeared and didn’t come home.
It’s freezing outside—minus twenty-six degrees in places—extraordinary for this time of year. I felt like Scott of Antarctica when I walked to work this morning across Hyde Park—O’Loughlin of the Serpentine, battling the extremes—although I looked more like a bloated contestant on Dancing on Ice.
The snow began falling four days ago, big wet flakes that melted, refroze and were covered again, stupefying traffic and silencing roads. There aren’t enough snowplows to clear motorways or council trucks to grit the streets. More grit has been needed, literally and figuratively.
Airports have been shut. Flights grounded. Vehicles abandoned. Tens of thousands of people are stranded at terminals and motorway service stations, which look like refugee camps full of the displaced and dispossessed, huddling beneath thermal blankets in a sea of silver foil.
According to the TV weather reports, a dense block of cold air is sitting over Greenland and Iceland, blocking the jet stream from the Atlantic. At the same time winds from the Arctic and Siberia have “turbo-charged” the cold because of something called an Arctic Oscillation.
Normally, I don’t mind the snow. It can hide a lot of sins. London looks beautiful under laundered sheets, like a city from a fairy tale or a sound studio. But today I need the trains to be running on time. Charlie is coming up to London and we’re going to spend four days together in Oxford. This is a father–daughter bonding weekend although she would probably call it something else.
A boy is involved. His name is Jacob.
“Couldn’t you find an Edward?” I asked Charlie. She gave me a look—the one she learned from her mother.
I don’t know much about Jacob other than his brand of underwear, which he advertises below his arse crack. He could be very nice. He may have a vocabulary. I do know that he’s five years older than Charlie, and that they were caught together in her bedroom with the door closed. Kissing, they said, although Charlie’s blouse was unbuttoned.
“You have to talk to her,” Julianne told me, “but do it gently. We don’t want to give her a complex.”
“What sort of complex could we give her?” I asked.
“We could turn her off sex.”
“That sounds like a bonus.”
Julianne didn’t find this funny. She has visions of Charlie succumbing to low self-esteem, which apparently is the first step on the slippery slope to eating disorders, rotten teeth, a bad complexion, tumbling grades, drug addiction and prostitution. I’m exaggerating of course, but at least Julianne turns to me for advice.
We’re estranged, not divorced. The subject is raised occasionally (never by me) but we haven’t got round to signing the papers. In the meantime, we share the raising of two daughters, one of them a bright, enchanting seven-year-old, the other a teenager with a smart mouth and a dozen different moods.
I moved back to London eight months ago. Sadly, I don’t see as much of the girls, which is a shame. I have almost come full circle—establishing a new clinical practice and living in north London. This is how it used to be five years ago when Julianne and I had a house on the border of Camden Town and Primrose Hill. In the summer, when the windows were open, we could hear the sound of lions and hyenas at London Zoo. It was like being on safari without the minivans.
Now I live in a one-bedroom flat that reminds me of something I had when I was at college—cheap, transitory, full of mismatched furniture and a fridge stocked with Indian pickles and chutneys.
I try not to dwell on the past. I touch it only gingerly with the barest tips of my thoughts, as though it were a worrying lump in my testis, probably benign, but lethal until proven otherwise.
I am practicing again. There is a bronze plaque on the door saying JOSEPH O’LOUGHLIN, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST, with various letters after my name. Most of my referrals are from the Crown Prosecution Service, although I work two days a week for the NHS.
So far today I have seen a cross-dressing car salesman, an obsessive-compulsive florist and a nightclub bouncer with anger management issues. None of them are particularly dangerous, simply struggling to cope.
My secretary, Bronwyn, knocks on the door. She’s an agency temp who chews gum faster than she types.
“Your two-o’clock is here,” she says. “I was wondering if I could leave early today?”
“You left early yesterday.”
She departs without further discussion.
Mandy enters, aged twenty-nine, blonde and overweight, with terrible skin and eyes that should belong to an older woman. She has been sent to see me because her two children were found alone in a locked flat in Hackney. Mandy had gone clubbing with her boyfriend and slept over at his place. She told police that she felt her daughter, aged six, was old enough to look after her younger brother, four. Both children are fine, by the way. A neighbor found them fluttering like chickens over the biscuit crumbs and feces that dotted the carpet.
Mandy looks at me accusingly now, as though I’m personally responsible for her children being taken into care. For the next fifty minutes we discuss her history and I listen to her excuses. We agree to meet next week and I write up my notes.
It’s just after three. Charlie’s train arrives in half an hour and I’m going to meet her at the station. I don’t know what we’ll do in Oxford on the weekend. I’m due to talk at a mental health symposium, although I can’t imagine anyone showing up, given the weather, but the tickets have been sent (first class) and they’ve booked me into a nice hotel.
Packing my briefcase, I take my overnight bag from the cupboard and lock up the office. Bronwyn has already gone, leaving a hint of her perfume and a lump of chewing gum stuck to her mug.
At Paddington Station I look for Charlie among crowds of passengers spilling from the carriages of the First Great Western service. She’s among the last off the train. She’s talking to a boy who is pushing a mountain bike with all the nonchalance of a Ferrari driver. He’s wearing a duffel coat and is cultivating sideburns.
The boy rides away. Charlie restores a set of white earbuds to her ears. She’s wearing jeans, a baggy sweater and an overcoat left over from the German Luftwaffe.
She offers me each cheek to kiss and then leans into a hug.
“Who was that?”
“Just a guy.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“On the train.”
“What was his name?”
She stops me. “Is this going to be twenty questions, Dad, because I didn’t take notes. Was I supposed to take notes? You should have warned me. I could have written you a full report.”
The sarcasm she inherited from her mother, or maybe they teach it at that private school that costs me so much money.
“I was just making conversation.”
Charlie shrugs. “His name is Christian, he’s eighteen, he comes from Bristol and he’s going to be a doctor—a pediatrician to be exact—and he thinks he might work in the Third World for a while, but he’s not my type.”
“You have a type?”
“May I ask what your type is?”
She sighs, weary of explaining things. “No girl my age should ever date a boy her parents would approve of.”
“Is that a rule?”
I take her bag and check the departures board. Our train to Oxford leaves in forty minutes.
“So is there any news I should know about? Any latest developments?”
I’m interrogating her again. Charlie isn’t a talker. Her baseline demeanor is too-cool-to-care.
We buy sandwiches in plastic triangles and soft drinks in plastic bottles. Charlie puts her headphones back in her ears so I can hear the fuzzy thunga-thunga-twang as we board the train and sit opposite each other.
She has dyed her hair since I saw her last and has an annoying fringe that falls over her eyes. I worry about her. She frowns too often. For some reason she seems compelled to figure out life too early, long before she has the equipment.
The train leaves on time and we pass out of London, the wheels playing a jazz percussion beneath my feet. Houses give way to fields—a landscape frozen into still life, where the only signs of life are smudges of smoke rising from chimneys or the headlights of cars waiting at crossings.
A couple are kissing in the seats across the aisle, locked together. Her leg is pressed between his thighs.
“That’s disgusting,” says Charlie.
“They’re just kissing.”
“I can hear suction.”
“It’s a public place.”
“They should get a room.”
I glance at the couple again and feel a Pavlovian twinge of arousal or nostalgia. The girl is young and pretty. She reminds me of Julianne at the same age. Being in love. Belonging to someone.
Just outside of Oxford, the train slows and stops. The wheels creak forward periodically and then shudder to a standstill. Charlie presses her hand against the carriage window and watches a long line of men move across a snowy field, bent at the waist, as though pulling invisible plows.
“Have they lost something?”
“I don’t know.”
The train nudges forward again. Through the sleet-streaked window I see a police car bogged axle deep in snow on a farm track. A muddy Land Rover is parked on the nearby embankment. A circle of men, figures in white, are erecting a canvas tent at the edge of a lake. Spreading a domed arch over the spars, they fight against the wind, which makes the canvas flap and snap until pegs are driven into the frozen earth and ropes are pulled tight.
As the train edges past, I see what they’re trying to shield. At first it looks like cast-off clothing or a dead animal, but then I recognize the human shape: a body, trapped beneath the ice like an insect locked in clear amber.
Charlie sees it too.
“Was there some sort of accident?”
“Looks like it.”
“Did they fall from a train?”
“I don’t know.”
Charlie presses her forehead to the glass.
“Maybe you shouldn’t look,” I say. “You might have nightmares.”
“I’m not six.”
The train shudders and picks up speed again. Snow swirls like confetti from the roof. For a brief moment, the world has tilted out of true and I feel a sense of growing disquiet. There is a void in the world… somebody not coming home.
I want to shout it.
Three days. Something has gone wrong. Tash should be back by now. Maybe George caught her. Maybe he hit her over the head with a shovel and buried her in the forest, which he always said he’d do if we escaped.
Maybe she’s lost. Tash doesn’t have a great sense of direction. Once she managed to get lost at Westgate Shopping Center in Oxford when we were supposed to meet at Apricot to spend my Christmas money on a beaded belt and a pair of dark wash jeans.
That’s the day Tash got into a fight with Bianca Dwyer and threatened to stab her with a pen because she was flirting with Aiden Foster. She would have done it too. Tash once stabbed me with a pen, right through my school tights. I have the world’s tiniest tattoo as evidence. She was angry because I lost the friendship ring that she gave me for my twelfth birthday.
Anyway, Tash has a terrible sense of direction—almost as bad as her taste in boyfriends.
I’m so cold it’s unbelievable. I’m wearing every piece of clothing—and some of Tash’s stuff too. I know she won’t mind.
I pull the blanket over my head. Smell my stale breath. Sweat. Every little while I poke my head out and take a few gulps of clean air and then duck under again.
Maybe I will die of the cold before they find me.
It was different those first few weeks. It was summer and the attic room was hot under the tiles. We had a proper bed, decent food and could watch the TV. George told us we’d be going home soon. He didn’t seem like a monster. He brought us magazines to read and oversized chocolate bars.
I don’t know if George is his real name. Tash came up with it. She said it suited him because he looked like a younger, fatter version of George Clooney, but I think we should have called him Freddy like the guy in Nightmare on Elm Street or that other sicko who wears a hockey mask and carries a chainsaw.
In the beginning George talked a lot about a ransom.
“Your parents are rich,” he told me, “but they don’t want to pay.”
“That’s not true.”
“They don’t want you back.”
“Yes, they do.”
It was another lie. There was never going to be a ransom demand. How can you pay for something if nobody knows the price?
Chained together on the bed, we watched the TV, waiting for news. Meanwhile, the country watched their TVs and waited for news. Everybody had an opinion. Every rumor was dissected. We were kidnapped by an Internet pedophile, according to one story. He’d met us online in a chatroom and made us take off our clothes. As if!
A clairvoyant from Bristol said we were dead and our bodies had been dumped in water. The police dragged the river at Abingdon and searched dozens of wells and drainage ditches.
Mrs. Jarvis, our next-door neighbor, told police she saw a man peering through her bedroom window when she was undressing. Tash laughed at that one. “Jarvis leaves her bedroom curtains open every night, hoping someone might look.”
A London cabbie claimed he’d seen us outside a cinema in Finchley. And a motorist in High Barnet reported seeing two girls in the back of a white van pressing their hands against the windows.
Why is it always a white van? Nobody ever sees kids being snatched by people in purple vans or yellow vans.
Tash’s brother Hayden told reporters that he’d seen a man acting suspiciously in a field not far from Bingham. He took them back to the scene, pointing out the exact place. When he talked about Tash he almost cried, wiping his eyes and threatening to kill anyone who hurt her.
It’s amazing how the truth can be stretched so thin that if people turned it sideways it would probably disappear. It’s like they invented a fantasy version of our lives and pretended it was real.
The Sun offered £200,000 for information leading to our recovery. Suddenly, there were “sightings” in Bristol, Manchester, Aberdeen, Lockerbie and Dover—surges of hope and then despair.
The Oxford Mail revealed there were 984 registered sex offenders in Oxfordshire. More than three hundred lived within a fifteen-mile radius of Bingham. Who knew there were so many perverts living so close?
One of them was old Mr. Purvis, who has a house opposite the green. He’s a creepy old guy who hangs around the train station telling girls they remind him of his daughter.
Police dug up Mr. Purvis’s garden but they didn’t find anything except the skeleton of his dog Buster. By that time, people had marched on the house, calling him a child killer and a pedo.
The police had to rescue Mr. Purvis, taking him away with a blanket over his head. You could just see his baggy trousers and his brown shoes with one sock hanging down. Somebody pulled the blanket away and he looked like a frightened old man.
Things just got worse after that. Tash’s Uncle Victor drew up a list of people who were new to Bingham—foreigners mainly. Outsiders. He had a mate who was a plumber and they put together a posse of “concerned locals.” Then they drove from house to house, saying someone had reported a gas leak and they had a legal right to enter.
The police arrested Victor, but not without a scuffle. He told the TV cameras the police weren’t doing enough. They should never have closed the local police station, he said. I didn’t know Bingham had ever had a police station.
The same people who were quick to weep were quick to hate… and to criticize. The police were accused of making mistakes. They reacted too slowly or rushed ahead or searched blind alleys or ignored the obvious or kept families in the dark.
When the chorus grew loud enough, the police pushed back. Rumors began circulating. We weren’t the angels we’d been portrayed as being. We were promiscuous. Feral. Delinquent. Tash was a wild child who had been expelled from school. Her father had spent time in prison. My dad had taken obscene bonuses while taxpayers were bailing out his bank.
Almost overnight Bingham went from being a quaint, sleepy village to being the heart of darkness—full of teenage sex, drugs and binge drinking. The same well-wishers and do-gooders who had searched for us and written sympathy cards and donated money were tut-tutting and shaking their heads. The whole town hummed with disapproval and the country followed.
Flowers rotted in their cellophane, balloons sagged to the ground, soft toys grew damp and the handwritten notes began leaking. The gloss began wearing off Bingham like cheap nail polish and underneath was something ugly and rank.
Oxford is blanketed by snow, surprised by its own silence. Mounds of dirty ice have been plowed to the sides of the roads or shoveled from driveways and footpaths. The dreaming spires look particularly pensive, shrouded by mist and guarded by gargoyles with beards of ice.
I’ve spent the morning preparing my conference speech, sitting on a sprawling armchair in the lounge of the Randolph Hotel. There is a Morse Bar—named after the fictional detective—with photographs around the walls of the lead characters.
Charlie has been shopping all morning in Cornmarket Street. She’s standing in front of the open fire, warming up.
“How about sushi?”
“I don’t like Japanese.”
“It’s very healthy.”
“Not for whales or for dolphins.”
“We’re not going to eat whale or dolphin.”
“What about the blue fin tuna?”
“So you’re boycotting all things Japanese?”
“Until they stop their so-called scientific whaling program.”
My left arm trembles. My medication is wearing off and an unseen force is tugging at my invisible strings like a fish nibbling on a baited hook.
I can give you chapter and verse about my condition, having read every paper, medical journal, celebrity autobiography and online blog about Parkinson’s. I know the theories, the symptoms, the prognosis and the possible treatments—all of which will delay the progress but cannot cure my condition. I haven’t given up the search. I have given up obsessing over it.
Glancing over Charlie’s shoulder, I see two men in the foyer, shrugging off their overcoats. Beads of moisture spray the marble tiles. They have mud on their shoes and a farmyard smell about them.
The older one is in his forties with a disconcertingly low hairline that seems to be creeping down his forehead to meet his eyebrows. His colleague is younger and taller with the body of an ex-fighter who has slightly gone to seed.
A police badge is flashed.
“We’re looking for Professor O’Loughlin.”
The young receptionist is ringing my room. Charlie nudges me. “They’re asking for you.”
“Aren’t you going to say something?”
“We’re going to lunch.”
The suspense is killing her. She announces loudly, “Are you looking for my father?”
The men turn.
“He’s right here,” she says.
“Professor O’Loughlin?” asks the older man.
I look at Charlie, showing my disappointment.
“Yes,” I answer.
“We’ve come to collect you, sir. I’m DS Casey. This is my colleague Trainee Detective Constable Brindle Hughes.”
“People call me Grievous,” says the younger man, smiling awkwardly.
“We were going out,” I say, pointing to the revolving door.
Casey answers, “Our guv wants to see you, sir. He says it’s important.”
“Who’s your guv?”
“Detective Chief Inspector Drury.”
“I don’t know him.”
“He knows you.”
There is a pause. My attitude to detectives is similar to my views on priests—they do important jobs but they make me nervous. It’s not the confessional nature of their work—I have nothing to feel guilty about—it is more a sense of having done my share. I want to put a sign up saying, “I’ve given.”
“Tell your boss that I’m very sorry, but I’m unavailable. I’m looking after my daughter.”
“I don’t mind,” says Charlie, getting interested.
Casey lowers his voice. “A husband and wife are dead.”
“I can give you the names of other profilers—”
“The guv doesn’t want anyone else.”
Charlie tugs at my sleeve. “Come on, Dad, you should help them.”
“I promised you lunch.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“What about the shopping.”
“I don’t have any money, which means I’d have to guilt you into buying me something. I’d prefer to save up my guilt points for something I really want.”
“You heard me.”
The detectives seem to find this conversation amusing. Charlie grins at them. She’s bored. She wants some excitement. But this isn’t the sort of adventure anyone wants. Two people are dead. It’s tragic. It’s pointless. It’s the sort of work I try to avoid.
Charlie won’t let it go. “I won’t tell Mum,” she says. “Please can we go?”
“You have to stay here.”
“No, that’s not fair. Let me come.”
Casey interrupts. “We’re only going to the station, sir.”
A police car is parked outside. Charlie slides into the back seat alongside me.
We drive in silence through the near-empty streets. Oxford looks like a ghost city trapped in a snow dome. Charlie leans forward, straining at the seat belt.
“Is this about the body in the ice?”
“How do you know about that?” asks Casey.
“We saw it from the train.”
“Different case, miss,” says Grievous. “Not one for us.”
“What do you mean?”
“A lot of motorists were stranded by the blizzard. Most likely she wandered away from her car and fell into the lake.”
Charlie shivers at the thought. “Do they know who she was?”
“Hasn’t anybody reported her missing?”
St. Aldates Police Station has an iron and glass canopy over the front entrance, which has collected a foot of snow. A council worker perched on a ladder is using a shovel to break up the frozen white wave, which explodes into fragments on the paving stones below.
Instead of parking at the station, the detectives carry on for another hundred yards and turn right before pulling up outside a Chinese restaurant where denuded ducks are hanging in the window.
“Why are we here?”
“Guv has invited you to lunch.”
Upstairs in a private dining room, a dozen detectives are seated around a large circular banqueting table. The food carousel is laden with steaming plates of pork, seafood, noodles and vegetables.
The man in charge has a napkin tucked into his shirt and is opening a crab claw with a silver pincer. He sucks out the flesh and picks up another claw. Even seated, he gives the impression of being large. Mid-forties. Fast-tracked through the ranks. He has a shock of dark hair and razor burns on his face. I notice his wedding ring and his unironed shirt. He hasn’t been home for a couple of days, but has managed to shower and shave.
Beyond the circular table, a series of whiteboards have been set up to display photographs and a timeline of events. The victims’ names are written across the top. The restaurant has become an incident room.
DCI Drury tugs his napkin from his collar and tosses it onto the table. It’s a signal. Waiters converge and carry away the leftovers. Pushing back from the table, Drury rises with all the grace and coordination of a deck chair.
“Professor O’Loughlin, thanks for joining us.”
“I wasn’t given a great deal of choice.”
He belches and pushes his arms through the sleeves of his jacket.
“Can I get you something to eat?”
I look at Charlie. She’s starving.
“Excellent,” says Drury. “Grievous, get her a menu.” He leans closer. “That’s not his real name, Miss. His initials are GBH. Do you know what they stand for?”
Charlie shakes her head.
“Grievous Bodily Harm.” The DCI laughs. “Don’t worry, he’s too wet behind the ears to be dangerous.” He turns to me. “How do you like my incident room, Professor?”
“I encourage people to feel like part of a team. We drink together. We eat together. Everyone is free to give an opinion. Admit their mistakes. Express their doubts. My department has the best clean-up rate in the county.”
Your mothers must be very proud, I think, rapidly forming a negative opinion of the DCI because of his cockiness and sense of entitlement.
He picks up a toothpick and cleans his teeth. “You were recommended to me.”
“A mutual friend. I was told you might not come.”
“You were well informed.”
He smiles. “My apologies if we got off on the wrong foot. Let’s start again. I’m Stephen Drury.”
He shakes my hand, holding it a second longer than necessary.
“I have a double homicide, which looks like a home invasion. The husband had his skull caved in. His wife was tied to a bed, possibly raped, and set on fire.”
The words are whispered. I glance across the room to Charlie, who is spooning fried rice onto a plate.
“Three nights ago.”
I glance at the whiteboard, which has a photograph of a whitewashed farmhouse barely touched by fire. Snow was falling when the images were taken, giving them a sepia tone. A smudge of smoke rises from the roofline, etched hard against the white sky.
“What do you want from me?”
“I have a suspect in custody. He worked for the family. We found his prints in the house and he has burns to both his hands. He denies killing the couple and says he was trying to save them.”
“You don’t believe him?”
“This particular suspect has a history of mental illness. He’s on anti-psychotic medication. Right now he’s climbing the walls, talking to himself, scratching at his arms. Maybe he’s telling the truth. Maybe he’s lying. I can only hold him for twenty-two more hours. That’s how long I have to make a case.”
“I still don’t understand—”
“How should I treat him? How hard can I push? I don’t want some smart-arse defense lawyer claiming I put words in this lad’s mouth or browbeat him into confessing.”
“A psychological assessment will take days.”
“I’m not asking for his life story, just your impressions.”
“Where are his clinical files?”
“We can’t get access to them.”
“Who is his psychiatrist?”
“Dr. Victoria Naparstek.”
The penny drops. I met Dr. Naparstek eighteen months ago at a mental health tribunal hearing that involved one of her patients. She called me an arrogant, condescending, misogynistic prick because I bullied her patient into showing his true personality. I got him to admit that he fantasized about following Dr. Naparstek home and raping her.
Did I bully him? Yes. Did I overstep the boundaries? Absolutely, but the good doctor should have thanked me. Instead, she threatened to report me to the British Psychological Society and have me disciplined.
Why would she recommend me for this case? Something doesn’t make sense.
Drury is waiting for my decision. I glance at Charlie, wishing she were home.
“OK, I’ll talk to your suspect, but first I want to see the crime scene.”
The Land Rover skids and fishtails through the slush, following a farm track towards a copse of skeletal trees that are guarding the ridge. The plowed fields are bathed in a strange yellow glow, as though the snow has soaked up the weak sunshine like a fluorescent watch-face before reflecting it back again as an eerie twilight.
The eighteenth-century farmhouse seems to lean against the ridge, protected from the wind. Soot blackens the paintwork above the upstairs windows, like mascara on a teenage Goth.
Released from the claustrophobic heat of the car, I feel the wind tug at my trouser cuffs and collar. Drury leads me across the lawn. He signs a clipboard and hands me a pair of surgical gloves.
“The victims are Patricia Heyman, aged forty-two, and William Heyman, forty-five. Married. One child. Flora. She’s studying at one of the colleges in Oxford. Mrs. Heyman writes children’s books and the husband is a freelance editor. They bought the house three years ago. Both work from home.”
“Any sign of forced entry?”
“The front door was kicked in. Nothing was taken. We found four hundred pounds in a drawer beside the bed and William Heyman had his wallet in his pocket. That’s the problem with amateurs.”
“They panic and do stupid things. A professional thief wouldn’t leave a mess like this.”
The DCI unlocks a padlock and pulls aside a sheet of plywood. Snow tumbles from the eaves. The inner hallway looks largely undisturbed. Glancing through double doors, I notice a sitting room with an inglenook fireplace and exposed oak beams. The dining room has a vaulted ceiling and another fireplace. Cast-iron. Fat-bellied. There is a faint smell in the air, a mixture of smoke, butane and bleach.
Almost without thinking I’m collecting the details: signs of normal, everyday life; cups draining next to the sink; scourers, rubber gloves, scraps of vegetables in a compost bin; a tin of drinking chocolate on the kitchen counter. Open. The Aga stove is cold.
Drury is still talking. “This is where we found the husband. Face down. Two blows to the back of the head. Something heavy, blunt—a hammer maybe or an axe. He dragged himself across the floor, trying to get away.”
The blood trail has dried into a dark smear.
“What about his wife?”
“She was upstairs tied to the bed. She was still alive when the assailant doused her with an accelerant, possibly lighter fluid.”
“The fire didn’t spread?”
“Damaged the room, but didn’t get into the ceiling.”
The smell of bleach is stronger here. A side door near the dishwasher leads to the laundry. Wellington boots are lined up—three pairs for mother, father and daughter. A soiled dress is soaking in the tub.
In the living room there are two mugs on a side table. Hot chocolate. Half-finished. A third mug lies in pieces in the fireplace. A bottle of Scotch rests on the mantelpiece. Opened. Single malt. Twenty years. A drop for special occasions.
Propped against a drying rack, a thin pair of leather shoes. Ballet flats. Charlie wears them.
The DCI continues. “It happened on Thursday night, during the blizzard. Half the county was blacked out. Roads closed. Phone lines down. Someone made a 999 call from William Heyman’s mobile at the height of the storm, but the emergency switchboard was swamped and they were put on hold.”
“Four, maybe five minutes. By the time the operator answered, the caller had gone.”
Drury gives me a baleful stare. “It was a hell of a night: dozens of accidents, people stranded in their cars; the M40 was like a car park.”
He leads me upstairs. Crossing duckboards on the floor, I reach the main bedroom and recognize the sickly sweet odor of burning flesh, human fat turned to liquid.
Snow swirls through the shattered window before gathering in a corner of the bedroom. Almost every other surface is covered in a fine layer of black soot. The blaze began on the mattress. Layers of bedding are peeled back to reveal the cross-like outline of undamaged fabric. The outline of a body—two arms, two legs, a torso; Patricia Heyman’s body had protected the mattress from the flames.
“Her hands were tied above her head,” says Drury.
“Was she clothed?”
“Does it matter?”
“Pajamas and a dressing gown.”
There is an en suite bathroom. The frosted glass window is broken, but not from the heat. Someone tried to force it open, cracking the paint that covers the hinges. Cold water fills the bath, coated in soap scum. Matching towels are folded side by side on the heated rail. A third towel—not from the same set—is resting on a wicker laundry basket.
Further along the corridor is Flora Heyman’s bedroom. Her wardrobe door is open. Clothes lie discarded on the bed. Someone has searched through them. I check the sizes.
“Does the daughter live at home?”
“She has digs in Oxford,” says Drury. “Comes home most weekends.”
“Tell me about the suspect.”
“Augie Shaw. Twenty-five. Local lad. Been in trouble before. He does odd jobs around the place—mowing lawns, cutting firewood, fixing fences, that sort of thing. He’s worked for the Heymans since they moved into the place, but he was fired two weeks ago.”
“Flora says her old man found Shaw inside the house going through her personal things.”
“Who reported the fire?”
“A search and rescue volunteer was driving past the farmhouse and noticed the smoke. He called it in. We found Augie Shaw’s car in a snowdrift at the bottom of the hill.
“About an hour later his mother showed up at Abingdon Police Station and said Augie had something to tell us. He had burns on his hands.”
“What was he doing at the house?”
“He says he was collecting his wages. Termination pay.”
“In the middle of a blizzard?”
“Exactly. According to Shaw, the fire was already burning when he arrived. He went inside and tried to save Mrs. Heyman.”
“Why didn’t he raise the alarm?”
“He went for help but the roads were so icy he put his car into a ditch. He walked the rest of the way to Abingdon and went straight home. Went to bed. Forgot to tell us.”
“It gets better. He says his brother told him not to go to the police.”
“Where is the brother?”
“He doesn’t have one. Like I said, he’s not playing with the full deck. Either that or faking it.”
Retreating downstairs, I follow a side path to a rear terrace garden, where rose bushes, heavily pruned, push through the snow. My gaze sweeps from the gate to the barn and then the orchard, unsure of what I’m looking for.
Several times I walk to the fence and back again. How soon did a person become lost in the trees? How easy is it to watch a house like this and not be seen?
A psychologist views a crime scene differently from a detective. Police search for physical clues and witnesses. I look at the overall picture and the salience of certain landmarks and features. Some roads, for example, act as psychological barriers. People living on one side may almost never cross over to the other. The same applies to railway lines and rivers. Boundaries alter behavior.
Grievous joins me in the yard, knocking snow off his shoes.
“Some places are just unlucky,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“This is where Tash McBain lived.”
“You remember her,” he says. “She was one of the Bingham Girls.”
I feel myself reaching for a memory and coming back with half a story, a headline and a photograph of two teenage girls.
“Her family was renting this place,” explains Grievous. “But after she went missing, they split up. Divorced. Couldn’t handle not knowing.”
“The girls didn’t turn up.”
“Never. It’s one of those mysteries that locals still talk about. I remember when it happened. This place was crawling with reporters and TV crews.”
“You worked the case?”
“I was still in uniform—a probationary constable.”
“What do you think happened to them?”
He shrugs. “Five thousand people are reported missing every year in Thames Valley. More than half are kids, twelve to eighteen, runaways most of them. They turn up eventually… or they don’t.”
Drury emerges from the house and tells Grievous to bring the Land Rover.
“What about the dog?” I ask.
“The family had a dog.”
“How do you know?”
“There was a water bowl in the laundry and an empty dog-food tin in the rubbish bin. Something short-haired; black and white, maybe a Jack Russell.”
He shakes his head, but I see a question mark ghost across his eyes. He dismisses it and pulls on his gloves.
“It’s time you met Augie Shaw.”
Until we went missing
the worst thing that had ever happened in Bingham was when a German bomber overshot London by eighty miles and dropped its payload on a community hall where people were sheltering. The death toll was never made public—the government wanted to protect morale—but local historians said twenty-one people died.
The next worst thing was the night that Aiden Foster ran down Callum Loach and crushed both his legs, which had to be amputated above his knees. Now he has these stumps, but mostly he wears prosthetic legs made of skin-colored plastic.
Tash giggled at the term prosthetic. She thought it sounded like prophylactic, which is a fancy name for a condom. That reminded me of when our PE teacher (Miss Trunchbull) put a condom on a banana in sex-ed class. Tash raised her hand and said, “Why do we need protection from bananas, Miss?”
I laughed so hard I almost wet myself. Tash got sent to see Mrs. Jacobson, the headmistress (otherwise known as Lady Adolf). Tash had been to see her so often she should have had a frequent offender’s card.
Going missing made Tash and me popular. Sack loads of mail arrived at our houses: letters, cards, poems and pictures from mums, dads, children, churches and schools. The Prime Minister wrote. So did the Prince of Wales.
When school started there were TV cameras outside the gates of St. Catherine’s. Most of our friends were interviewed: everyone except for Emily, who was kept away from the cameras. She was the other member of our gang. Emily Martinez. She’s six months older, slightly overweight and she says “Wow!” a lot. I didn’t like her at first because she had this Little Miss Perfect thing going. Then I felt sorry for her because her parents were getting a divorce and fighting over her.
I never met her father—he was working in America—but her mum was pretty weird, always visiting doctors and therapists. Emily said she was highly strung, but Tash would tip up her hand, making a drinking motion.
On the first day back at school there were trauma counselors fluttering around the playground like seagulls fighting over chips. They were telling students it was all right to be upset and they should share their feelings. TV cameras were given permission to film the school assembly when Mrs. Jacobson said a special prayer for us, getting a little wobble in her voice as she talked fondly about Tash and me.
“Would you listen to her,” laughed Tash. “A month ago she couldn’t wait to get rid of me.”
“Now she wants you back.”
A month after we disappeared, George moved us from the attic room to this place. By then the police had stopped looking and everyone assumed that we’d run away. George no longer talked about ransom demands and money. He had rescued us, he said, like some noble knight in a fairy tale. He was going to protect us from all the temptations and evil in the world.
You probably think we were stupid to believe his lies. Naive. Gullible. Moronic. Next time you’re drugged and locked in a basement, hungry, thirsty, frightened, then you can judge us. When you have cried as many tears as we did; when you’re huddled beneath a blanket with your mind twisted; when you don’t have the strength to disobey or disbelieve.
He made us swallow some pills and we woke up in the basement. He cut the ladder so we couldn’t reach the trapdoor, not without his help, and we no longer had a TV or a skylight.
When we were good he would leave the lights on. If we misbehaved he would turn them off. You have never known darkness like it; so thick I could have suffocated upon it; so deep it felt like a monster breathing in my ears.
Our lives were managed and manipulated. George decided what we ate and what we wore. He controlled the light and air. There were times when he was kind and we could make fun of him. We could give him shopping lists and tease him into bringing us magazines and extra food.
“I don’t want you getting fat,” he said, as he rationed the chocolate.
The magazines were read cover to cover, over and over. There were new faces, new movies, new fashions, but also the familiar. Brad and Angelina. Posh and Becks. Elton and David. The world wasn’t changing so much. Prince William married Kate Middleton. Pippa’s bottom became famous.
We had no way of knowing if we were close to home. I still don’t. It could be miles away. It could be just past the trees. I know there’s a railway line nearby because I can hear the trains when the wind is blowing in the right direction.
I miss Tash. I miss being able to reach between our bunks and hold her hand. I miss hearing her voice. I miss watching her sleep.
George hasn’t come to see me since she ran away and I know he’s going to be angry. That’s why Tash has to come back soon with the police… before George does.
I’m running out of food and there’s hardly any gas left in the bottle.
My handwriting is getting messier, because it’s so cold. I can’t feel my fingers, which makes it hard to hold the pencil. When the point gets worn down, I scrape the lead gently across the bricks to sharpen it.
Writing keeps me sane, but Tash didn’t have anything like that.
She was getting sicker and sicker. Not eating. Chewing her nails until they bled.
That’s why she had to get out.
Augie Shaw is sitting at a table, propped forward on his elbows, staring at himself in the mirror. He can’t see me behind his reflection yet he seems to be gazing directly into my eyes.
Mirrors have an interesting effect in interview rooms. People struggle to lie when they can see themselves doing it. They become more self-conscious as they try to sound more convincing and truthful.
Augie is up now, pacing, talking to himself using gestures and grimaces as though conducting an internal dialogue. Taller than I imagined, he walks with an odd-legged shuffle, his hair falling over one eye.
Pausing at the mirror, he leans towards it, arching his eyebrows and lowering them. He has large eyes and a broad forehead, handsome features on most men. His hands are wrapped in white gauze and he’s wearing a blue paper boiler suit.
“Where are his clothes?” I ask.
“We’ve taken them for analysis,” says Drury.
Augie presses his hands together and closes his eyes as if praying.
“He’s religious,” says Drury. “Goes to a Pentecostal church in town—one of those happy clappy places.”
“I take it you’re not a believer.”
“I’m all in favor of redemption. It’s the lemming-like leaps of faith that worry me.”
Opening the door, I step inside. Augie’s eyes skitter from the walls to the floor, but never to me. There is a smell about him. Sweat. Talcum.
I take a seat and ask Augie to sit down. He looks at the chair suspiciously and then folds himself down into it, with his knees facing sideways towards the door.
“My name is Joe. I’m a clinical psychologist. Have you talked to someone like me before?”
“I see Dr. Victoria.”
“Why is that?”
He shrugs. “I didn’t do anything.”
“I’m not suggesting you did.”
“Why are you staring at me? You think I’ve done something wrong. You’re going to blame me. That’s why you brought me here.”
“Relax, Augie, I just want to talk.”
“You’re going to kill me or electrocute me.”
“Why would I do that?”
“They do that in some countries.”
“We don’t have the death penalty in Britain, Augie.”
He nods, running his hands down his hair, flattening his fringe.
“How are you feeling?” I ask.
“My hands hurt.”
“Do you need painkillers?”
“The doctor gave me some pills.”
“How did you burn them?”
“There was a fire.”
I don’t ask him about how it started. Instead, I focus on getting a history. He lives with his mother in Bingham. He was born in the area, left school at sixteen and has since done odd jobs as a laborer or farmhand. The Heymans hired him to cut wood and mow their lawns. He repaired some of their fences.
“Why did you stop working for them?”
Augie fidgets, scratching at the gauze on his hands. Minutes pass. I try again.
“You were sacked. What happened?”
“Ask Mrs. H.”
“How can I do that, Augie? Mrs. Heyman is dead. The police think you killed her.”
“That’s why you’re here.”
He blinks at me. “She’s with God. I’m going to pray for her.”
“Do you pray a lot?”
“What do you ask God for?”
“Why do you need to be forgiven?”
“Not for me—for the sinners.”
“Why were you at the farmhouse?”
“Mrs. H told me to come.”
“Did she call you?”
“The phone lines were down, Augie. There was a terrible storm. How did she call you?”
“She told me to come.”
“When did she call you?”
“The day before.”
He makes it sound so obvious.
I take him over the details. He borrowed his mother’s car and drove to the farmhouse, almost missing the turn because it was snowing so heavily. He couldn’t drive all the way to the house because of the snow, so he stopped and walked the rest of the way.
“The house was dark. There was no power. I saw a light in the upstairs window but it was strange, you know, not like a lamp or a candle.” He covers his ears. “I heard her screaming.”
Augie nods. “I bashed down the door. Hurt my shoulder. I went up the stairs, but the flames pushed me back.”
He starts to hyperventilate as though breathing in smoke and holds his hands against his forehead, hitting his temple.
“How did you burn your hands?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you hit Mr. Heyman?”
He shakes his head.
“Did you start the fire?”
Without warning, he stands and walks to the far side of the room, whispering to himself, arguing.
“Are you talking to someone, Augie?”
He shakes his head.
“Who is it?”
He crouches and peers past me as though something is creeping up behind me like a pantomime wolf.
“Tell me about your brother.”
He hesitates. “Can you see him too?”
“No. Tell me about him.”
“Sometimes he steals my memories.”
“Is that all he does?”
“He warns me about people.”
“What does he say?”
“He says they’re trying to poison me.”
“It’s in the air.”
“Why did you really go to the farmhouse, Augie?”
“To get my wages.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Augie puts his bandaged hands together, as though pleading with me. A flush on the back of his neck spreads to his hairline.
“God will judge me if I’m lying.”
“God can’t help you now.”
“He can. He must.”
“Who else is going to stop the devil?”
Drury’s office is on the second floor. No posters. Minimal furniture. I expect to see commendations and photographs on the walls, but instead he has a whiteboard with timelines, names and photographs—a murder tree as opposed to a family tree.
Condensation beads the window and tiny splinters of ice seem to be trapped within the glass. The DCI leans back in his chair and crosses his legs, brushing lint from his trousers.
“So what do you make of him?”
“He’s delusional, possibly schizophrenic.”
“You diagnosed that in an hour?”
“I diagnosed that in five minutes.”
Drury drains a plastic bottle of water, tossing it towards the bin. “How do I interview him?”
“Right now he’s locked into damage control. He’s strong physically but not psychologically. Keep the sessions short with plenty of breaks. Don’t hammer certain points—let him reveal the story in his own way. If he gets upset, let him retreat. Treat him like a victim not a perpetrator.”
“Will he confess?”
“He’s saying he didn’t do it.”
“But that’s bullshit, right?”
“He’s hiding something but I don’t know what that is.”
Fierceness fills the detective’s eyes and he looks at me with a mixture of impatience and irritation. He gets up, walks round the desk, his body humming with tension.
“It was the worst blizzard in a century yet this kid drives a mile through the storm. I think he went there for revenge. He was obsessed with the daughter. He was angry about being sacked. We can put him at the scene. He had the motive and the opportunity.”
“Whoever did this didn’t panic. They tried to destroy any evidence with bleach and fire. This is organized thinking. Higher intellect. That doesn’t sound like Augie Shaw.”
“How did his hands get burned?”
“He tried to save her.”
“He fled the scene.”
The DCI has heard enough. “This is bullshit! Augie Shaw murdered the husband and then raped the wife. He wanted revenge. He killed those poor people and I’m going to prove it.” Drury opens the door. “Thanks for your help, Professor. I’ll have a car drop you back to your hotel.”
I pick up my jacket and look at my shoes. A line of mud has dried on the leather uppers above the sole.
“Didn’t something about the scene strike you as odd?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“The Heymans weren’t drinkers. The only alcohol they had in the house was that bottle of Scotch. It was sitting on the mantelpiece, freshly opened.”
“You don’t open a twenty-year-old single malt for a man you’ve just sacked.”
“It was cold. The power was out. Maybe the Heymans wanted a tipple.”
“There were three mugs. Only one of them smelled of Scotch.”
“What’s your point?”
“There was a blanket on the floor in front of the fire. Somebody was sitting near the hearth, getting warm. Drying her shoes. Ballet flats. Size six. Mother and daughter are both size eight.”
Drury is listening now. We’re walking down the corridor towards the lifts.
“A dress in the laundry tub was two sizes too small for Mrs. Heyman.”
“Maybe her daughter—”
“Is a size 12. I looked in her wardrobe.”
“I still don’t understand what you’re suggesting.”
“Somebody ran a bath upstairs. There was an extra towel. The bathroom window was broken.”
“You’re ignoring the obvious and fixating on an extra towel and a dress size.”
“What about the missing dog?”
“It ran away from the fire. Died in the blizzard.”
There is a long pause: an uncomfortable silence. Drury presses the lift button impatiently. A small vein on his forehead is beating out a tattoo.
“You don’t like me very much, do you?” I ask.
He smiles wryly. “That’s a benefit of reaching my rank. I don’t have to like people.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve said something to upset you.”
“Upset me, no. I think you like disagreeing with people, Professor, because it makes you feel superior or smarter than everybody else. But contrary to what you might think, I’m not some dim-witted plod who doesn’t read books and thinks Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.”
It’s a good line. It reminds me of something a friend of mine might have said: Vincent Ruiz, a former detective inspector with a flair for the telling phrase.
“Do you know how many murders I’ve investigated?” he asks.
“How many bodies I’ve seen?”
“Stabbed, shot, strangled, drowned, poisoned, electrocuted; tossed off cliffs, shoved in barrels, cut up in bathtubs, wrapped in carpets, burned in cars and fed to pigs. You think you understand people, Professor, but I’ve seen what they can do. I understand more about human behavior than you ever will.”
The lift has arrived. The doors open.
“What is your wife’s name?” I ask.
The DCI pauses. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I was just thinking that you should change that shirt before you go home. You’ve been wearing it since yesterday, which means you didn’t go home last night. You were with another woman, at her place. Lipstick—left side of the collar, below your ear. You didn’t have a spare shirt so you wore this one again and sprayed it with her deodorant.
“I also noticed the box of chocolates in your office—expensive, Belgian—for your wife. You must like this mistress a lot, but you don’t want the affair to wreck your marriage. Good luck with that…”
Drury hasn’t moved a muscle.
“Dead bodies don’t interest me, DCI. I deal with the living.”
There is a difference between
a runaway girl and a missing one. Runaways are like spare change lost down a crack in the sofa. You might find it eventually, but it’s not like winning the lottery.
We slipped through the cracks, disappeared from the headlines. Out of sight, out of mind. George said that nobody cared except him. He was our guardian now. He would look after us.
I wanted to believe him. There were times when I looked forward to hearing him moving boxes and uncovering the trapdoor. Tash always hated him. She knew him better than I did. She knew more about men… what they wanted, what they did.
We were an odd couple, but that didn’t stop Tash and me from being friends. I walked like a pigeon. She walked like a model. I wore shorts and trainers. She mini-skirts and platform shoes. I was into running. She thought sport was a waste of time.
I had blotches on account of my psoriasis. Tash had perfect skin, so free of blotches and spots it was like looking at one of those mannequins you see in shop windows—the normal-looking ones, not the ones that could be bald aliens. (She once tried to hide my blotches with foundation, but it made me look like an Oompa Loompa.)
We were born two weeks apart in the same hospital and went to the same primary school. We thought we were going to be separated after that, but Tash won a scholarship to St. Catherine’s, which helped pay the fees. Her dad works as a scaffolder. Mine works as a banker. Her mum has a job in a supermarket. Mine doesn’t work at all.
We seemed to have nothing in common, but still we were friends. I spent most afternoons at the training track, doing wind sprints and pulling a truck tire across the grass. Tash thought this was hilarious, but she didn’t make me feel stupid. And it’s not like she wanted an ugly girlfriend to make her look good. There were way uglier girls than me.
I think Tash liked my family more than she liked her own, particularly my mum who is the Bingham equivalent of a Stepford wife. She calls herself a “home-maker,” which means she does yoga on Monday, tennis on Wednesday and golf on Friday. Before she married she was a model. She said it was on runways, but most of her scrapbook photographs are from motor shows.
She’s very elegant and graceful and nothing ever creases or smears around her. She’s like a doll that you’re not allowed to play with, but instead have to keep it in the original box because one day it’s going to be worth a lot of money.
I’ve never been interested in fashions and make-up and girly things, which disappointed my mother. I sometimes wonder if they got the babies mixed up at the hospital and she was supposed to bring Tash home.
People always talked about me as “the runner” and “that tough little thing” or “the tomboy.” Mum despaired, but Daddy showed off my running trophies and said I was the next best thing to having a son. Being “next best” was like coming second, but I couldn’t be expected to win everything.
The last story I read about us going missing was when my dad doubled the reward. I knew he must love me then. Tash didn’t say anything for a long while. Her parents couldn’t afford that sort of money.
“Maybe you’ll be going home,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t leave without you.”
For weeks I had begged George to let us write letters. Eventually, he agreed. I wrote one to Mum and Dad and another to Emily. Tash wrote to her folks and to Aiden Foster, her old boyfriend, although I don’t know why she bothered.
George told us what we had to say, so we didn’t give away any clues. We had to tell them that we ran away and that we were living in London and that people should stop looking for us. I wanted to put in other stuff, but George wouldn’t let me.
On a good day he could be kind and generous. On a bad day he was cruel. He enjoyed telling us that our parents didn’t want us. My mum was pregnant and having a baby to replace me, he said, and Tash’s parents were getting a divorce.
I told Tash not to believe him, but he brought us the newspaper story and said it was proof that they didn’t want us back. They were glad we were gone. Good riddance to the bad seeds.
Standing alone at the dais, I clutch the lectern in both hands and blink into the brightness. Faces are visible in the light from the stage; pale, winterized, peering from tiered seats that rise into the deeper shadows.
The lecture theatre is half empty. The weather has kept them away, or perhaps I’m not a big enough draw: Professor Joseph O’Loughlin—the trembling psychologist—the man who can supposedly “walk through minds.”
This is not my usual audience. Normally, I’m lecturing university students with baggy clothes and oily skin. Today I’m facing my peers: psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists, who think I have some wisdom to impart, some remarkable insight into the human condition, which will give them a better understanding of their patients.
“Imagine, if you can, feeling absolutely no concern for another human being. No guilt. No remorse. No shame. Never once regretting a single selfish, lazy, cruel, unethical or immoral word or action in your entire life.
“Nobody matters except you. Nobody deserves respect. Equality. Fairness. They are useless, ignorant, gullible fools, who are taking up space and the air you breathe.
“Now I want you to add to this strange fantasy the ability to conceal from other people exactly what you are, to be able to hide your true nature. Nobody knows what you’re really like… how little you care for other people… what you’re capable of…
“Imagine what you could achieve. Where others hesitate, you will act. Where others set boundaries, you will cross them, unhampered by any moral restraints or pangs of disquiet, any rules or ethics, with ice water in your veins and a heart of pure stone.
“What will you do with this power? That will depend upon what your desires are. Not all psychopaths are the same. And despite what the tabloid newspapers say, they’re not all serial killers or mass murderers.
“Based on the law of averages, at least four people in this theatre match the description I’ve just given. Maybe you’re sitting next to one of them. Maybe you’re one yourself.”
There are nervous smiles among the audience, but nobody looks sideways. They are listening.
“We are all different. Some of us are fuelled by ambition or a lust for money or power. Some are lazy. Some are stupid. Some are violent. Some are cowards. Some, as I’ve explained, are psychopaths. Not monsters. Not madmen. They marry, raise families and create business empires, learning to fake sincerity and hide their secret.
“This concept of the successful psychopath is often forgotten or ignored by the medical profession. We study those on the fringes of society—the dropouts and low achievers, the ones who get caught who have neither the intellect nor the inclination to rule the world. Only in the last few years have we begun to investigate the psychopaths who hide successfully among us.”
Glancing at my audience, I recognize one or two faces. I worked on a research project with Eric Knox, who is sitting next to Andrew Nelson, a friend from university, who once dated my sister Rebecca and broke her heart. Two rows back, I notice a woman who looks familiar. It takes me a few minutes to put a name to her face: Victoria Naparstek, Augie Shaw’s psychiatrist.
“I’m going to end with a story,” I tell them. “It’s about an affable, charismatic man who grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of New York. Reclusive, stand-offish, slightly aloof, he married his childhood sweetheart and had two sons.
“He started a money management business, handling investments for friends and family. Success followed: a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, shares in two private jets; a yacht moored off the French Riviera. By his seventies he was managing billions of dollars for individuals and foundations, constantly signing up new clients including charities, public institutions and investment firms.
“He shunned one-on-one meetings with most of his investors, but that only increased his allure. He also avoided the Manhattan cocktail circuit, fostering his reputation as a financial mastermind blessed with the Midas touch—the sage of Wall Street. Does anybody know who I’m talking about?”
“Bernie Madoff,” says a voice from the darkness.
“A classic psychopath; a charlatan of epic proportions, a greedy manipulator so hungry to accumulate wealth that he destroyed the lives of thousands of people and didn’t lose a moment’s sleep.
“He had education, money, opportunity, a magnificent IQ and absolutely no vestige of conscience. Never blinking, never fearing exposure, he engineered the largest Ponzi scheme in history, convinced that he was above the law and that his victims were stupid, unworthy and contemptible.
“Madoff isn’t a one-off. There are many like him out there. They choose business, politics, law, science, banking and international relations; pursuing their chosen career with a ruthless, single-minded efficiency, unencumbered by moral uncertainty or guilt, without regard for anyone else.
“They stab colleagues in the back, undermine rivals, ruin enemies, fabricate evidence, shred the truth, lie, cheat, steal and ride roughshod over everyone who stands in their way. Sometimes they marry for money. Divorce for money. Embezzle funds. Bankrupt charities. Start wars. Invade countries. Crush the powerless. Corrupt the innocent. And always with the exquisite freedom of knowing they will sleep peacefully at night.
“These are not the psychopaths who you and I treat in our consulting rooms. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s not an issue of treating them. They’re not broken—they just are. It’s a personality trait, not a personality disorder.”
A hand is raised; a young man, perhaps a postgraduate student. “Aren’t we obliged to treat them?”
“They need our help.”
“What if all we’re doing is giving them the skills to fake sincerity and become better psychopaths?”
My inquisitor isn’t satisfied. “Surely you’re exaggerating the problem?”
I stop my left arm from trembling. “I read a newspaper story this morning that anorexia has reached epidemic proportions in this country. There are four times as many psychopaths in this country as people with eating disorders. Does that make it an epidemic or an exaggeration?”
I take a handful of further questions, most of them focused on the empirical data. I warn them not to get too caught up in the statistics. They’re important to scientists and students, but less so for clinicians. Human behavior can’t be broken down into bell curves and graphs.
Excerpted from Say You're Sorry by Michael Robotham Copyright © 2012 by Michael Robotham. Excerpted by permission.
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