A teenage girl Sienna, a troubled friend of his daughter comes to Joe O'Loughlin's door one night. She is terrorized, incoherent, and covered in blood.
The police find Sienna's father, a celebrated former cop, murdered in the home he shared with Sienna. Tests confirm that it's his blood on Sienna. She says she remembers nothing.
Joe O'Loughlin is a psychologist with troubles of his own. His marriage is coming to an end and his daughter will barely speak to him. He tries to help Sienna, hoping that if he succeeds it will win back his daughter's affection. But Sienna is unreachable, unable to mourn her father's death or to explain it.
Investigators take aim at Sienna. O'Loughlin senses something different is happening, something subterranean and terrifying to Sienna. It may be something in her mind. Or it may be something real. Someone real. Someone capable of the most grim and gruesome murder, and willing to kill again if anyone gets too close.
His newest thriller is further evidence that Michael Robotham is, as David Baldacci has said, "the real deal we only hope he will write faster."
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Bleed for Me
By Robotham, Michael
Mulholland BooksCopyright © 2012 Robotham, Michael
All right reserved.
If I could tell you one thing about Liam Baker’s life it would be this: when he was eighteen years old he beat a girl half to death and left her paralyzed from the waist down because she tipped a bucket of popcorn over his head.
As defining events go, nothing else comes close for Liam, not the death of his mother or his faith in God or the three years he has spent in a secure psychiatric hospital—all of which can be attributed, in one way or another, to that moment of madness in a cinema queue.
“That moment of madness” is the term his psychiatrist just used. Her name is Dr. Victoria Naparstek and she’s giving evidence before a Mental Health Review Tribunal, listing Liam’s achievements as though he’s about to graduate from university.
Dr. Naparstek is a good-looking woman, younger than I expected; midthirties with honey-blond hair, brushed back and gathered in a tortoiseshell clasp. Strands have pulled loose and now frame her features, which otherwise would look quite elfin and sharp. Despite her surname, her accent is Glaswegian but not harsh or guttural, more a Scottish lilt, which makes her sound gay and carefree, even when a man’s freedom is being argued. I wonder if she’s aware that her eyes devour rather than register a person. Perhaps I’m being unfair.
Liam is sitting on a chair beside her. It has been four years since I saw him last, but the change is remarkable. No longer awkward and uncoordinated, Liam has put on weight and his glasses are gone, replaced by contact lenses that make his normally pale blue eyes appear darker.
Dressed in a long-sleeved cotton shirt and jeans, he wears shoes with pointed toes, which are fashionable and he has gelled his hair so that it pokes towards the ceiling. I can picture him getting ready for this hearing, taking extra care with his appearance because he knows how important it is to look his best.
Out the window I can see a walled courtyard, dotted with potted plants and small trees. A dozen patients are exercising, each inhabiting a different space, without acknowledging the others’ existence. Some take a few strides in one direction and then stop, as though lost, and start in a different direction. Others are swinging their arms and marching around the perimeter as though it is a parade ground. One young man seems to be addressing an audience while another has crawled beneath a bench as if sheltering from an imaginary storm.
Dr. Naparstek is still talking.
“In my months working with Liam, I have discovered a troubled young man, who has worked very hard to better himself. His anger issues are under control and his social skills are greatly improved. For the past four months he has been part of our shared-house program, living cooperatively with other patients, cooking, cleaning and washing, making their own rules. Liam has been a calming influence—a team leader. Recently, we had a critical incident when a male resident took a hostage at knifepoint and barricaded a door. It took five minutes for security to gain access to the shared house, by which time Liam had defused the situation. It was amazing to watch.”
I glance at the three members of the review tribunal—a judge, a medical specialist and a lay person with mental health experience. Do they look “amazed,” I wonder. Perhaps they’re just not showing it.
The tribunal must decide if Liam should be released. That’s how the system works. If an offender is thought to be cured, or approaching being cured, they are considered for rehabilitation and release. From a high-security hospital they’re transferred to a regional secure unit for further treatment. If that goes well, they are given increasing amounts of leave, first in the grounds of the unit and later in the local streets with an escort, and then alone.
I am not here in any official capacity. This should be one of my half-days at Bath University, where I’ve taught psychology for the past three years. That’s how long it’s been since I quit my clinical practice. Do I miss it? No. It lives with me still. I remember every patient—the cutters, the groomers, the addicts, the narcissists, the sociopaths and the sexual predators; those who were too frightened to step out into the world and the few who wanted to burn it down.
Liam was one of them. I guess you could say I put him here because I recommended he be sectioned and given treatment rather than sent to a regular prison.
Dr. Naparstek has finished. She smiles and leans down to whisper something in Liam’s ear, squeezing his shoulder. Liam’s eyes swim but aren’t focused on her face. He is looking down the front of her blouse. Resuming her seat, she crosses her legs beneath her charcoal-gray skirt.
The judge looks up. “Is there anyone else who would like to address the tribunal?”
It takes me a moment to get to my feet. Sometimes my legs don’t do as they’re told. My brain sends the messages but they fail to arrive or like London buses they come all at once causing my limbs to either lock up or take me backwards, sideways and occasionally forwards, so that I look like I’m being operated via remote control by a demented toddler.
The condition is known as Parkinson’s—a progressive, degenerative, chronic but not contagious disease that means I’m losing my brain without losing my mind. I will not say incurable. They will find a cure one day.
I have found my feet now. “My name is Professor Joseph O’Loughlin. I was hoping I could ask Liam a few questions.”
The judge tilts his chin to his chest. “What’s your interest in this case, Professor?”
“I’m a clinical psychologist. Liam and I are acquainted. I provided his pre-sentencing assessment.”
“Have you treated Liam since then?”
“No. I’m just hoping to understand the context.”
Dr. Naparstek has turned to stare at me. She doesn’t seem very impressed. I make my way to the front of the room. The linoleum floor is shining as daylight slants through barred windows, leaving geometric patterns.
“Hello, Liam, do you remember me?”
“Come and sit up here.”
I place two chairs facing each other. Liam looks at Dr. Naparstek, who nods. He moves forward, taller than I remember, less confident than a few minutes ago. We sit opposite, our knees almost touching.
“It’s good to see you again. How have you been?”
“Do you know why we’re here today?”
“Dr. Naparstek and the people here think you’re better and it’s time you moved on. Is that what you want?”
Again he nods.
“If you are released, where would you go?”
“I’d find somewhere to live. G-g-get a job.”
Liam’s stutter is less pronounced than I remember. It gets worse when he’s anxious or angry.
“You have no family?”
“Most of your friends are in here.”
“I’ll m-m-make new friends.”
“It’s been a while since I saw you last, Liam. Remind me again why you’re here.”
“I did a bad thing, but I’m better now.”
There it is: an admission and an excuse in the same breath.
“So why are you here?”
“You sent me here.”
“I must have had a reason.”
“I had a per-per-personality disorder.”
“What do you think that means?”
“I hurt someone, but it weren’t my fault. I couldn’t help it.” He leans forward, elbows on his knees, eyes on the floor.
“You beat a girl up. You punched and kicked her. You crushed her spine. You broke her jaw. You fractured her skull. Her name was Zoe Hegarty. She was sixteen.”
Each fact resonates as though I’m clashing cymbals next to his ear, but nothing changes in his eyes.
“What are you sorry for?”
“For what I d-d-did.”
“And now you’ve changed?”
“What have you done to change?”
He looks perplexed.
“Hostility like that has to come from somewhere, Liam. What have you done to change?”
He begins talking about the therapy sessions and workshops that he’s done, the anger-management courses and social skills training. Occasionally, he looks over his shoulder towards Dr. Naparstek, but I ask him to concentrate on me.
“Tell me about Zoe.”
“What about her?”
“What was she like?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t remember.”
“Did you fancy her?”
Liam flinches. “It w-w-weren’t like that.”
“You followed her home from the cinema. You dragged her off the street. You kicked her unconscious.”
“I didn’t rape her.”
“I didn’t say anything about raping her. Is that what you intended to do?”
Liam shakes his head, tugging at the sleeves of his shirt. His eyes are focused on the far wall, as if watching some invisible drama being played out on a screen that nobody else can see.
“You once told me that Zoe wore a mask. You said a lot of people wore masks and weren’t genuine. Do I wear a mask?”
“What about Dr. Naparstek?”
The mention of her name makes his skin flush.
“How old are you now, Liam?”
“Tell me about your dreams.”
He blinks at me.
“What do you dream about?”
“Getting out of here. Starting a n-n-new life.”
“Do you masturbate?”
“I don’t believe that’s true, Liam.”
He shakes his head.
“You shouldn’t talk about stuff like that.”
“It’s very natural for a young man. When you masturbate who do you think about?”
“There aren’t many girls around here. Most of the staff are men.”
“G-g-girls in magazines.”
“Dr. Naparstek is a woman. How often do you get to see Dr. Naparstek? Twice a week? Three times? Do you look forward to your sessions?”
“She’s been good to me.”
“How has she been good to you?”
“She doesn’t judge me.”
“Oh, come on, Liam, of course she judges you. That’s why she’s here. Do you ever have sexual fantasies about her?”
He bristles. Edgy. Uncomfortable.
“You shouldn’t say things like that.”
“She’s a very attractive woman, Liam. I’m just admiring her.”
I look over his shoulder. Dr. Naparstek doesn’t seem to appreciate the compliment. Her lips are pinched tightly and she’s toying with a pendant around her neck.
“What do you prefer, Liam, winter or summer?”
“Day or night?”
“Apples or oranges?”
“Coffee or tea?”
“Women or men?”
“In skirts or trousers?”
“Long or short?”
“Stockings or tights?”
“What color lipstick?”
“What color eyes does she have?”
“What is she wearing today?”
“What color is her bra?”
“I didn’t mention a name, Liam. Who are you talking about?”
He stiffens, embarrassed, his face a beacon. I notice his left knee bouncing up and down in a reflex action.
“Do you think Dr. Naparstek is married?” I ask.
“I d-d-don’t know.”
“Does she wear a wedding ring?”
“Maybe she has a boyfriend at home. Do you think about what she does when she leaves this place? Where she goes? What her house looks like? What she wears to bed? Maybe she sleeps naked.”
Flecks of white spit are gathered in the corners of Liam’s mouth.
Dr. Naparstek wants to stop the questioning, but the judge tells her to sit down.
Liam tries to turn but I lean forward and put my hands on his shoulders, my mouth close to his ear. I can see the sweat wetting the roots of his hair and a fleck of shaving foam beneath his ear.
In a whisper, “You think about her all the time, don’t you, Liam? The smell of her skin, her shampoo, the delicate shell of her ear, the shadow in the hollow between her breasts… every time you see her, you collect more details so that you can fantasize about what you want to do to her.”
Liam’s skin has flushed and his breathing has gone ragged.
“You fantasize about following her home—just like you followed Zoe Hegarty. Dragging her off the street. Making her beg you to stop.”
The judge suddenly interrupts. “We can’t hear your questions, Professor. Please speak up.”
The spell is broken. Liam remembers to breathe.
“My apologies,” I say, glancing at the review panel. “I was just telling Liam that I might ask Dr. Naparstek out to dinner.”
“B-b-but y-y-you’re married.”
He noticed my wedding ring.
“I’m separated. Maybe she’s available.”
Again, I lean forward, putting my cheek next to his.
“I’ll take her to dinner and then I’ll take her home. I bet she’s a dynamite fuck, what do you think? The prim and proper ones, all cool and distant, they go off like chainsaws. Maybe you want to fantasize about that.”
Liam has forgotten to breathe again. His brain is sizzling in an angry-frantic way, screaming like a guitar solo.
“Does that upset you, Liam? Why? Let’s face it, she’s not really your type. She’s pretty. She’s educated. She’s successful. What would she want with a sad, sadistic fuck like you?”
Liam’s eyes jitter back and forth like a shot of adrenaline has punched straight into his brain. He launches himself out of his seat, taking me with him across the room. The world is flying backwards for a moment and his thumbs are in my eye sockets and his hands squeezing my skull. I can barely hear a thing above my own heartbeat until the sound of heavy boots on the linoleum.
Liam is dragged off me, panting, ranting. Hospital guards have secured his arms, lifting him bodily, but he’s still lashing out at me and screaming, telling me what he’s going to do.
The tribunal members have been evacuated or sought refuge in another room. I can still hear Liam being wrestled down a distant corridor, kicking at the walls and doors. Victoria Naparstek has gone with him, trying to calm him down.
My eyes are streaming and through closed lids I can see a kaleidoscope of colored stars merging and exploding. Dragging myself to a chair, I pull out a handkerchief to wipe my cheeks. After a few minutes I can see clearly again.
Dusting off my jacket, I pick up my battered briefcase and make my way through the security stations and locked doors until I reach the parking area where my old Volvo estate looks embarrassingly drab. I’m about to unlock the door when Victoria Naparstek appears, moving unsteadily in high heels over the uneven tarmac.
“What the hell was that? It was totally unprofessional. How dare you talk about what I wear to bed! How dare you talk about my underwear!”
“I’m sorry if I offended you.”
“You’re sorry! I could have you charged with misconduct. I should report you to the British Psychological Society.”
Her brown irises are on fire and her nostrils pinched.
“I’m sorry if you feel that way. I simply wanted to see how Liam would react.”
“No, you wanted to prove me wrong. Do you have something against Liam or against me?”
“I don’t even know you.”
“So it’s Liam you don’t like?”
The accusation clatters around my head and my left leg spasms. I feel as though it’s going to betray me and I’ll do something embarrassing like kick her in the shins.
“I don’t like or dislike Liam. I just wanted to make sure he’d changed.”
“So you tricked him. You belittled him. You bullied him.” She narrows her eyes. “I’ve heard people talk about you, Professor O’Loughlin. They always use hushed tones. I had even hoped I might learn something from you today. Instead you bullied my patient, insulted me and revealed yourself to be an arrogant, condescending, misogynistic prick.”
Not even her Scottish lilt can make this sound gay or carefree. Up close she is indeed a beautiful woman. I can see why a man might fixate upon her and ponder what she wears in bed and what sounds she makes in the throes of passion.
“He’s devastated. Distraught. You’ve set back his rehabilitation by months.”
“I make no apologies for that. Liam Baker has learned to mimic helpfulness and cooperation, to pretend to be better. He’s not ready to be released.”
“With all due respect, Professor…”
Whenever anyone begins a sentence like this I brace myself for what’s coming.
“… I’ve spent the past eighteen months working with Liam. You saw him half a dozen times before he was sentenced. I think I’m in a far better position to judge his progress than you are. I don’t know what you whispered to Liam, but it was completely unfair.”
“Unfair to whom?”
“To Liam and to me.”
“I’m trying to be fair to Zoe Hegarty. You might not agree with me, Doctor, but I think I just did you an enormous favor.”
She scoffs. “I’ve been doing this job for ten years, Professor. I know when someone poses a danger to society.”
I interrupt her. “It’s not society I’m worried about. It’s far more personal than that.”
Dr. Naparstek hesitates for a moment. I can almost picture her mind at work—her prefrontal cortex making the connections between Liam’s words, his stolen glances and his knowledge of her underwear and where she lives. Her eyes widen as the realization reaches her amygdala, the fear center.
The Volvo starts first time, which makes it more reliable than my own body. As the boom gate rises, I catch a glimpse of the doctor still standing in the car park staring after me.
The grounds of Shepparton Park School are bathed in the spring twilight with shadows folding between the trees. Most of the buildings are dark except for Mitford Hall, where the windows are brightly lit and young voices are raised.
I’m early to pick up Charlie. The rehearsals haven’t finished. Slipping through a side door, I hide in the darkness of the auditorium, gazing across rows of empty seats to the brightly lit stage.
School musicals and dance recitals are a rite of passage for every parent. Charlie’s first performance was eight years ago, a Christmas pageant in which she played a very loud cow. Now she’s fourteen with bobbed hair and dressed in a twenties flapper dress, having been transformed into Miss Dorothy Brown, the best friend of Thoroughly Modern Millie.
I could never do it myself—tread the boards. My only theatrical appearance was aged five in a primary school production of The Sound of Music when I was cast as the youngest von Trapp child (normally a girl, I know, but size rather than talent won me the part). I was small enough to be carried upstairs by the girl who played Liesl (Nicola Bray in year six) when the von Trapp children sang “So Long, Farewell.” I was in love with Nicola and wanted her to carry me to bed every night. That was forty-four years ago. Some crushes don’t get crushed.
I recognize some of the cast, including Sienna Hegarty, who is in the chorus. She desperately wanted to play the lead role of Millie Dillmount, but Erin Lewis won the part to everyone’s surprise and Sienna had to settle for being her understudy.
As I watch her move about the stage, my mind goes back to the tribunal hearing and Liam Baker. There are little pictures and big pictures at play. The little everyday picture is that Sienna is my daughter’s best friend. The big picture is that her older sister is Zoe Hegarty, the girl in the wheelchair, who could once stand and dance and run, until Liam Baker’s “moment of madness,” which had been coming all his life.
The music stops and Mr. Ellis, the drama teacher, vaults onto the stage, repositioning some of the dancers. Dressed in trainers and faded jeans, he’s handsome in a geekish sort of way. A fringe of dark brown hair falls across his eyes and he casually brushes it away.
The scene starts again—an argument between the play’s hero and heroine. Millie plans to marry her boss even though it’s obvious Jimmy loves her. The quarrel escalates and Jimmy grabs her, planting a clumsy kiss.
Erin pushes him away angrily, wiping her mouth. “I said no tongue.”
There are whistles and catcalls from backstage and the boy bows theatrically, milking the laughter.
Mr. Ellis leaps onto the stage again, annoyed at yet another interruption. He snaps at Sienna. “What are you grinning at?”
“How many times have I told you to come in on the third bar? You’re half a step behind everyone else. If you can’t get this right, I’ll put you at the back. Permanently.”
Sienna bows her head glumly.
The drama teacher claps his hands. “OK, let’s do that scene again. I’ll play your part, Lockwood. It’s a kiss, OK? I’m not asking you to take out her tonsils.”
Mr. Ellis takes his place opposite Erin, who is tall for her age and wearing flat shoes. The scene begins with an argument and ends when he puts a single finger beneath her chin and tilts her face towards his, whispering in a voice that penetrates even at the lowest volume. Erin’s hands are by her sides. Trembling slightly, her lips part and she topples fractionally forward as if surrendering. For a moment I think he’s going to kiss her, but he pulls away abruptly, breaking contact. Erin looks like a disappointed child.
“OK, that’s it for today,” says Mr. Ellis. “We’ll have another rehearsal on Friday afternoon and a full dress rehearsal next Wednesday. Nobody be late.”
He looks pointedly at Sienna. “And I expect everything to be perfect.”
The cast wander offstage and the band begins packing away instruments. Easing open a fire door, I circle a side path to the main doors of the hall where a dozen parents are waiting, some with younger children clinging to their hands or playing tag on the grass.
A woman’s voice behind me: “Professor O’Loughlin?”
I turn. She smiles. It takes me a moment to remember her name. Annie Robinson, the school counselor.
“Call me Joe.”
“We haven’t seen you for a while.”
“No. I guess my wife does most of this.” I motion to the school buildings, or maybe I’m pointing to my life in general.
Miss Robinson looks different. Her clothes are tighter and her skirt shorter. Normally she seems so shy and distracted, but now she’s more focused, standing close as if she wants to share a secret with me. She’s wearing high heels and her liquid brown eyes are level with my lips.
“It must be difficult—the breakup.”
I clear my throat and mumble yes.
Her extra-white teeth are framed by bright painted lips.
Dropping her voice to a whisper, “If you ever need somebody to talk to… I know what it’s like.” She smiles and her fingers find my hand. Intense embarrassment prickles beneath my scalp.
“That’s very kind. Thank you.”
I muster a nervous smile. At least I hope I’m smiling. That’s one of the problems with my “condition.” I can never be sure what face I’m showing the world—the genial O’Loughlin smile or the blank Parkinson’s mask.
“Well, it’s good to see you again,” says Miss Robinson.
“You too, you’re looking…”
She laughs with her eyes. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Then she leans forward and pecks me on the lips, withdrawing her hand from mine. She has pressed a small piece of paper into my palm, her phone number. At that moment I spy Charlie in the shadows of the stage door, carrying a schoolbag over her right shoulder. Her dark hair is still pinned up and there are traces of stage makeup around her eyes.
“Were you kissing a teacher?”
“I saw you.”
“She kissed me…”
“Not from where I was standing.”
“It was a peck.”
“On the lips.”
“She was being friendly.”
Charlie isn’t happy with the answer. She’s not happy with a lot of things I do and say these days. If I ask a question, I’m interrogating her. If I make an observation, I’m being judgmental. My comments are criticisms and our conversations are “arguments.”
This is supposed to be my territory—human behavior—but I seem to have a blind spot when it comes to understanding my eldest daughter, who doesn’t necessarily say what she means. For instance, when Charlie says I shouldn’t bother coming to something, really she wants me to be there. And when she says, “Are you coming?” it means “Be there, or else!”
I take her bag. “The musical is great. You were brilliant.”
“Did you sneak inside?”
“Just for the second half.”
“Now you won’t come to the opening night. You’ll know the ending.”
“It’s a musical—everyone knows the ending.”
Charlie pouts and looks over her shoulder, her ponytail swinging dismissively.
“Can we give Sienna a lift home?” she asks.
“Sure. Where is she?”
“Mr. Ellis wanted to see her.”
“Is she in trouble?”
Charlie rolls her eyes. “She’s always in trouble.”
Across the grounds, down the gentle slope, I can see headlights nudging from the parking area.
Sienna emerges from the hall. Slender and pale, almost whiter than white, she’s wearing her school uniform with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She hasn’t bothered removing her stage makeup and her eyes look impossibly large.
“How are you, Sienna?”
“I’m fine, Mr. O. Did you bring your dog?”
“How is he?”
“I thought Labradors were supposed to be intelligent.”
“Not my one.”
“Maybe he’s intelligent but not obedient.”
Sienna surveys the car park, as though looking for someone. She seems preoccupied or perhaps she’s upset about the rehearsal. Then she remembers and turns to me.
“Did that hearing happen today?”
“Are they going to let him out?”
Satisfied, she turns and walks ahead of me, bumping shoulders with Charlie, speaking in a strange language that I’m not supposed to understand.
Although slightly taller, Charlie seems younger or less worldly than Sienna, who loves to make big entrances and create big reactions, shocking people and then reacting with coyness as if to say, “Who, me?”
Charlie is a different creature around her—more talkative, animated, happy—but there are times when I wish she’d chosen a different best friend. Twelve months ago they were picked up for shoplifting at an off-license in Bath. They stole cans of cider and a six-pack of Breezers. Charlie was supposed to be sleeping over at Sienna’s house that night but they were going to sneak out to a party. They were thirteen. I wanted to ground Charlie until she was twenty-one, but her remorse seemed genuine.
The girls have reached my third-hand Volvo estate, which reeks of wet dog and has a rear window that won’t close completely. The floor is littered with coloring books, plastic bracelets, doll’s clothes and empty crisp packets.
Sienna claims the front passenger seat.
“Sit with me in the back,” begs Charlie.
“Next time, loser.”
Charlie looks at me as though I’m to blame.
“Maybe both of you should sit in the back,” I say.
Sienna wrinkles her nose at me and shrugs dismissively but does as I ask. I can hear a mobile ringing. It’s coming from her schoolbag. She answers, frowns, whispers. The metallic-sounding voice leaks into the stillness.
“You said ten minutes. No… OK… fifteen…”
She ends the call.
“I don’t need a lift anymore. My boyfriend is picking me up.”
“You can drop me at Fullerton Road shops.”
“I think you should ask your mother first.”
Sienna rolls her eyes and punches in a new number on her phone. I can only hear one side of the conversation.
“Hi, Mum, I’m going to see Danny… OK… He’ll drop me back. I won’t be late. I will… yes… no… OK… see you in the morning.”
Sienna flips the mobile shut and begins rooting in her bag, pulling out her flapper dress, which is short, beaded and sparkling.
“Eyes on the road, Mr. O, I’m getting changed.”
I tilt the rearview mirror so I can’t see behind me as I pull out of the parking area. Clothes are discarded, hips lifted and tights rolled down. By the time I reach the shops, Sienna is dressed and retouching her makeup.
“How do I look?” she asks Charlie.
“Where is he taking you?” I ask.
“We’re going to hang.”
“What does that mean?”
“Hang, you know. Chill.”
Sienna leans between the seats and adjusts the mirror, checking her mascara. As she pushes the mirror back in place her eyes meet mine. Did I have a girlfriend at fourteen? I can’t remember. I probably wanted one.
We’ve reached Fullerton Road. I pull up behind a battered Peugeot with two different paint-jobs and an engine that rumbles through a broken muffler. Three young men are inside. One of them emerges. Sienna is out the door, skipping into his arms. Kisses his lips. Her low-waisted dress is fringed with tassels that sway back and forth with the swing of her hips.
It looks wrong. It feels wrong.
As the car pulls away and does a U-turn, Sienna waves. I don’t respond. I’m looking in the rearview mirror unsuccessfully trying to read the number plate.
Julianne answers the door dressed in jeans and a checked shirt. Her dark hair is cut short in a new style, which makes her look younger. Sweet. Sexy. Her loose shirt shows hollows above her collarbones and the outline of her bra beneath.
She kisses Charlie’s cheek. It’s practiced. Intimate. They are almost the same height. Another two inches and they’ll see eye to eye.
“What took you so long?”
“We stopped for pizza,” answers Charlie.
“But I’ve kept your dinner!”
Julianne looks at me accusingly. It’s my fault.
“I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“You always forget.”
Charlie steps between us. “Please don’t fight.”
Julianne stops herself. Softens her voice. “Upstairs. Have a shower. Don’t wake Emma. I just got her to bed.”
Emma is our youngest and has started school in the village, looking tiny in her blue tunic and gray socks. Every time I see her walking out the school gate with her friends, I think of Gulliver and the Lilliputians.
Charlie dumps her schoolbag into her mother’s arms and makes the stairs seem steep as she goes up to her room. Julianne unzips the schoolbag looking for school notes or reminders. She’s wearing the silver earrings I bought her in Marrakesh.
“I like your hair,” I say.
“Charlie says I look like a lesbian.”
“That’s not true.”
She smiles and arranges the coats on the coatrack in the passage.
This is what our conversations are like since we separated. Brief. Polite. No deeper than a puddle. We were married for twenty years. We’ve been separated for two. Not divorced. Julianne hasn’t asked me. That’s a good thing.
We no longer shop together, go to movies, pay bills, buy cars, book holidays or attend dinner parties as a couple, but we still talk and do parent-teacher nights and family birthday parties. We talked today. I made her laugh, which is always my fallback when I’ve got nothing else. Humor and antidepressants are my antidotes to Mr. Parkinson, who was the third person in our marriage, the other man, who stayed with me after the separation and now is like an unwelcome relative hanging around for the reading of the will.
“How’s the trial going?” I ask.
“They haven’t needed me yet. They’re still choosing a jury.”
Nine months ago, Julianne quit her high-flying corporate job in London, to be closer to the girls. Now she’s working as an interpreter for the police and the courts, occasionally getting late-night calls because victims, suspects or witnesses have to be interviewed.
They’ve asked her to interpret at a murder trial in Bristol. Three men are accused of firebombing a boarding house, killing a family of asylum seekers. The newspapers have labeled it a “race-hate trial” and politicians are calling for calm.
Julianne has finished tidying the hallway. I linger, rocking on my heels, hoping she might invite me to stay for a cup of tea and a chat. Occasionally, she does and we spend an hour talking about the girls, planning their weekends and itineraries. It’s not going to happen tonight.
“I guess I’d better go.”
“Are you going to sit outside again?” She doesn’t make it sound like an accusation. “I saw you last night.”
“I went for a walk.”
“You were sitting out there for two hours, on the wall, beneath the tree.”
“It was a nice evening.”
She gazes at me curiously. “You don’t have to guard us, Joe.”
“I know. It was an odd day yesterday.”
“I missed the girls.”
“You’re seeing them most days.”
“I know, but I still missed them.”
She gives me a melancholy smile and holds the door. I lean close and she lets me kiss her. I hold my cheek against hers.
Stepping outside, I walk down the path and turn. Julianne is standing motionless in the doorway, the light framing her body and creating a halo around her head that disappears as the door closes.
Home now is a small two-story terrace in Station Road, less than half a mile from my old life. Trains stopped running through Wellow in 1956 but there’s still an old station building at the end of the street, which someone has converted into a long narrow house with a covered verandah where the platform used to be.
The tracks were ripped up long ago but it’s possible to trace the route of the railway line to a redbrick viaduct with a grand arch, which is the signature photograph of the village.
My terrace is darker than a cave because the windows are so small and the rooms are full of faded oriental rugs, wobbly side tables and old-lady furniture. Charlie and Emma have to share a bedroom when they sleep over, but Emma often crawls into my bed with me, forcing me downstairs onto the sofa because her core body temperature is akin to nuclear fusion. I don’t mind the sofa. I can watch late-night movies or obscure sports that don’t seem to have any rules.
There are three messages on my answering machine. Message one is from Bruno Kaufman, my boss at the university.
Joseph, old boy, just reminding you about the staff meeting Thursday. Peter Tooley wants to cut the post-grad program. We have to fight this. Call me.
Message two. Charlie:
Are you picking me up? Remember we have rehearsal. Hey, I got a joke. There’s this tray of muffins being baked in the oven and one muffin says to another, “Man, it’s getting hot in here.” And the other muffin says, “Holy shit! A talking muffin.”
She laughs like a drain.
Message three is from my mother, reminding me about my father’s birthday next week.
Please don’t send him any more Scotch. I’m trying to get him to cut down. Oh, I almost forgot, you’ll never guess who I saw in Cardiff last week. Cassie Pritchard. You remember Cassie. We took that holiday with the Pritchards to the Lake District when you were fourteen? You and Cassie got on so well together…
(If memory serves, Cassie Pritchard pushed me out of a rowing boat and I almost died of pneumonia.)
… the poor thing has broken up with her husband in a messy divorce. Now she’s on her own. I have her phone number. You should give her a call. Cheer her up. Hope the girls are well. Send them my love.
I hold down the erase button. Wait for the beep. The counter resets to zero.
I look at my watch. It’s not quite ten. There’s still time for an evening stroll to the Fox and Badger, the village pub. Collecting my coat, I step out the door and turn along the High Street.
A few minutes later I pull open the heavy door. Smell the beer fumes. The pub is noisy and energetic, full of lumpy bodies and flushed faces. Locals. Regulars. Most of them I recognize, even if I don’t know their names.
There is a fireplace that must be ten foot wide and four feet high with a box-shaped wood stove and newly chopped faggots stacked alongside. Side by side above the hearth, a fox and a badger (just their heads) peer forlornly at proceedings.
A smaller fireplace in the lounge bar has a brace of pheasants above the hearth and a sticker that reads: “If it’s called the tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?”
Half a dozen youngsters have taken over a corner of the lounge beneath a string of fairy lights and the pheasants. Some of the girls look underage in tight jeans and short tops. Bratz dolls grown up.
The publican, Hector, raises his eyes and pours me a Scotch. One drink won’t hurt. I’ll start my new regime tomorrow. Show Mr. Parkinson who’s the better man.
Hector is the unofficial convener of the local divorced men’s club, which meets once a month at the pub. I’m not a natural joiner and, since I’m technically not divorced, I’ve avoided most of the meetings but I do play in the pub’s over-35s’ football team. There are fifteen of us—a number that allows for frequent substitutions and prevents avoidable heart attacks. I play defense. Right back. Leaving the faster men to play up front. I like to imagine myself more in the classic European-style sweeper role, threading precision long balls that split the defense.
We have nicknames. I am known as “Shrink” for obvious reasons. “Hands” is our goalkeeper—a retired pilot who had a brain tumor—and our star striker, Jimmy Monroe, is called “Marilyn” (but not to his face). They’re a reasonable bunch of lads. None of them asks about my condition, which is pretty obvious from some of my miskicks. After the game, we nurse our bruises at the Fox and Badger, sharing non-confessional personal stories. We don’t confide. We never disclose an intimacy. We are men.
I finish my drink and have another, nursing it slowly. At eleven o’clock Hector signals last orders. My mobile is vibrating. It’s Julianne. I wonder what she’s doing up so late.
I press the green button and try to say something clever. She cuts me off.
“Come quickly! It’s Sienna. Something’s wrong! She’s covered in blood!”
“I couldn’t make her stay. We have to find her.”
“Where did she go?”
“She just ran away.”
“Call 999. I’m coming.”
I grab my coat from a wooden hook and pull open the door, breaking into a trot as I thread my arms through the sleeves. The pavement slabs are cracked and uneven under my feet. Turning down Mill Hill, I pick up speed, letting gravity carry me towards the cottage in jarring strides.
Julianne is waiting outside, a torch swinging frenetically in her hand.
“Where did she go?”
She points towards the river, her voice cracking. “She rang the doorbell. I screamed when I saw her. I must have scared her.”
“Did she say anything?”
She shakes her head.
The door is open. I can see Charlie sitting on the stairs clutching her pillow. We gaze at each other and something passes between us. A promise. I’ll find her.
I turn to leave.
“I want to come,” says Julianne.
“Wait for the ambulance. Send Charlie back to bed.”
I take the torch from her cold fingers and turn at the gate. The river is hidden in the trees, eighty yards away. Swinging the torch from side to side, I peer over the hedges and into the neighboring field.
Reaching the small stone footbridge and a wider concrete causeway, I shout Sienna’s name. The road—unmade, single lane, with hedgerows on either side—leads out of the village.
Why would she run? Why head this way?
I keep thinking of when I dropped her off. The boyfriend. She skipped into his arms. Maybe there was a car crash. He could be injured too.
The beam of the torch reflects off the evening dew and creates long shadows through the trees. I stop on the bridge. Listen. Water over rocks; a dog barking; others follow.
The sound bounces off the arch of the footbridge and seems to echo along the banks of the narrow stream. They call it a river, but in places you can jump from one side to the other. Emma catches minnows here and Gunsmoke cools off after chasing rabbits.
I call Sienna’s name again, feeling an awful sense of déjà vu. Two years ago I searched this same road, looking for Charlie, calling her name, peering over farm gates and fences. She was knocked from her pushbike and kidnapped by a man who chained her to a sink and wrapped masking around her head, allowing her to breathe through a rubber hose. The man was caught and locked away, but how does a twelve-year-old recover from something like that? How does she set foot outside her house, or look a stranger in the eyes, or trust anyone again?
I have never forgotten the sense of panic that tore through my soft organs like a spinning blade when I knew Charlie was missing, when I searched and couldn’t find her.
A scurrying sound to my left. Footsteps on dead leaves. I swing the torch back and forth. Soft crying. I listen for the sound again. Nothing.
My left arm is trembling. Swapping hands, I move the beam of light slowly along the banks, trying to find the source of the sound, wishing it into being, solid and visible. It came from somewhere on the far bank, in the trees.
Scrambling down the side of the bridge, I slide into the water. Sinking. Mud and sediment suck at my shoes. I reach down and almost overbalance, catching the torch before it topples into the river.
Wading to the far bank, I discover brambles growing to the water’s edge. Thorns catch on my clothes and skin. Head first. Crawling forward. I can’t hear crying anymore.
Game birds flushed from the undergrowth explode into the clearing making my heart pound against the walls of my chest. Unhooking the last of the vines from my clothes, I stand and listen.
The weak moonlight is deceptive. The trees become people. Branches become limbs. An army marching through the darkness.
I can’t find her—not in the dark. I should be fitter. I should be sober. I should have better eyesight. I should take my time or I’ll walk straight past her.
The torch swings in another arc and picks up a flash of white before continuing.
There she is! Huddled between the roots of a tree like a discarded doll. Still in her black dress. Water lapping at her bare legs. She’s on the far bank. I chose the wrong side. I’m in the river now, falling rather than jumping, wading towards her, my scrotum retracting in the cold.
“It’s only me, Sienna,” I whisper. “It’s OK, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be fine.”
My fingers frozen and numb, I feel for a pulse on her neck. Her eyes are open. Flat. Cold.
I put her arm over my shoulder and slide one hand beneath her thighs and another behind her back.
“I’m just going to pick you up now.”
She doesn’t respond. Doesn’t resist. She weighs nothing, but I’m unsteady. Carrying her back along the bank, I walk blindly because I can’t point the torch properly. All the while, I’m talking to Sienna, whispering between heavy breaths, telling her not to worry.
My ankle snags on a root, sending me sideways. At the last moment I take the impact on my shoulder, protecting Sienna’s head.
A sudden surge of panic rips the calmness. She hasn’t said a word. Hasn’t moved. She might be dead. She might never be able to tell me who did this to her.
The bridge. The arch. I have to free my arm and use a sapling to pull both of us up the bank to the edge of the road. Sienna hangs limply from my other arm, a dead weight, being pulled across the ground.
“Stay with me, sweetheart. We’re almost there.”
One last effort, I drag her to the edge of the bridge and lever myself over the wall, holding her body to stop her tumbling back down the slope. There are torches dancing between the trees, coming towards us. Blue flashing lights decorate the sky above them.
I put Sienna down gently, cradling her head against my chest. Breathing hard.
“I told you we’d make it.”
She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t blink. Her skin is cold, but I can feel a pulse beneath my fingers.
“There they are!” someone yells.
A powerful light illuminates every detail of the scene. I hold up my hand to shield my eyes.
“She needs a doctor.”
I glance down at Sienna and notice the blood. I thought it was mud on her thighs and hands, but she’s bleeding. Her eyes are open, staring blindly past me.
A paramedic crouches beside me on the bridge, taking Sienna and laying her on the tarmac with a coat beneath her head. He yells instructions to his partner. Pulse. Blood pressure. Good signs.
Another set of hands helps me to stand, holding me up, making sure I don’t fall. One of them is asking me questions.
Did I find her in the water? Was she conscious? Did she fall? Is she allergic to any drugs?
I don’t know.
“She’s my daughter’s best friend,” I say through chattering teeth.
What a stupid statement! What difference does that make?
Julianne’s face appears in front of me. “He’s shivering. Get him a blanket.”
Her arms wrap around me and I feel her warmth. She will not fail. She will not let me go.
The ambulance reverses down the hill. The back doors open. A litter slides from within. Sienna is rolled onto a spinal board and lifted on the count of three.
“We have to take you to the hospital, sir,” says a paramedic.
“My name is Joe.”
“We have to take you to the hospital, Joe.”
“I’m all right—just out of breath.”
“It’s a precaution. Do you know this girl?”
“Her name is Sienna.”
“You can ride with Sienna. Try to keep her calm.”
Calm? She’s catatonic. She’s a statue.
Wrapped in a silver trauma blanket, I’m half pushed and half lifted into the ambulance. Julianne wants to come with me, but she has Charlie and Emma to think about.
The right door closes.
“Call me,” she says.
The left door locks shut. A hand hammers a signal and we’re moving.
“Did she take anything?” asks the paramedic.
“I don’t know.”
“Did she say anything?”
He shines a pencil-torch in her eyes and slips an oxygen mask over her face.
The siren wails, chasing us through the darkness. Sienna is lying completely still, her limbs muddy and pale, her stomach rising and falling with each breath.
I keep seeing her in the beam of the torch—a spectral figure with her brown hair hanging in a fringe across her face. She was looking at me as though she’d seen something terrible or done something worse.
It has just gone midnight and the sky is a black sponge. Police vans are parked outside the Royal United Hospital and four paramedics are kicking a coffee cup around the ambulance bay, scoring goals between the bins.
My feet move unsteadily, as though unsure of the depth of the ground. Ushered through swinging doors, I follow a young triage nurse to a consulting room. She takes my wet clothes and hands me a hospital gown and a thin blue blanket.
Then I’m left alone in the small room with a bench and an examination table covered in a sheet of paper. There are no magazines to read. No televisions to watch. I find myself reading the labels on syringes and medical swabs, making words from the letters.
Forty minutes later a doctor appears. Obese and prematurely bald, he’s the sort of physician who finds the gulf between preaching and practicing healthy living one dessert too far. He examines me in a perfunctory way—blood pressure, temperature, “say aaaaah”…
Most of his questions are about Sienna. Did she take anything, did she say anything; does she have any allergies or sensitivities to medications?
“She’s not my daughter,” I keep repeating.
He makes a note on his clipboard.
“She was bleeding.”
“The blood wasn’t hers,” he says matter-of-factly. “The police want to talk to you. They’re waiting outside.”
The policeman is a sergeant whose name is Toltz and he writes left-handed with a cupped wrist so he doesn’t smudge his notebook.
“What was she doing at your house?”
“It’s not really my house. My wife and I are separated. Sienna turned up and then ran away.”
“There must have been an accident. Perhaps her boyfriend drove off the road. He could be hurt.”
“Why your house?”
“She’s my daughter’s friend. Her mother works nights. Sienna often stays with us.”
The sergeant doesn’t react to my sense of urgency. He wants to know where Sienna goes to school, how she knows Charlie, does she do drugs or drink alcohol?
I think about the shoplifting charge, but he’s already moved onto a new question.
“Did you follow her into the woods?”
“I went looking for her.”
“Did you chase her?”
Suddenly the door opens and another officer motions him into the corridor. They’re whispering and I pick up only occasional words like “body” and “detectives.” Something terrible has happened.
The sergeant reappears and apologizes. A detective will be along shortly to interview me.
“Can I go home?”
“Not yet, sir.”
“What about my clothes?”
“They’ve been taken for analysis.”
“This is a murder investigation.”
Who? Her boyfriend? Someone else? The sergeant ignores my questions and tells me to wait for the detectives. His heavy boots squeak on the polished floor as he disappears down the hallway, through a set of swinging doors that flap back and forth before settling to a stop.
I look at my watch. It’s after one a.m. I should call Julianne. Tell her not to worry. Reaching for my phone, I can’t find a pocket. I’m wearing a hospital gown. My phone, wallet and car keys were in my jacket. Wet. Ruined.
I passed a pay phone in the accident and emergency department. I can ask Julianne to bring me some clothes.
Pushing open the door, I try to remember which way I came in. A cleaner is mopping the corridor, pushing a bucket with his foot. I don’t want to step on his wet floor so I turn right, passing the X-ray department and radiology.
I must be going the wrong way. I should go back. Ahead I see a police officer sitting on a chair in the corridor. He’s young—no more than a probationary constable—with blond highlights in his hair.
“I’m looking for a pay phone.”
He points back the way I came.
Glancing through an open door, I spy the same doctor that examined me earlier. He’s standing beside a bed, illuminated by a low light. Sienna looks tiny in the midst of the technology around her, like a modern-day sleeping beauty under a spell. A tube taped to her right arm snakes across the sheets and rises to a bag of fluid hanging from a chrome stand.
“Can I talk to the doctor?”
“Who are you?” asks the constable.
“I brought her in.”
The obese doctor hears my voice and motions me to enter.
“How is she?”
The tiredness in his voice seems to drain energy from the air. A monitor beeps softly. He checks the display.
“She’s dehydrated and has some bruising on her legs and back but nothing explains the semi-catatonic state. There’s no sign of head injuries or internal bleeding. We’re doing a toxicological screen.”
Sienna’s nostrils barely move as she breathes and I notice the faint tracings of blood vessels on her eyelids, which seem to flicker as she dreams. It is the face of a child on the body of a woman.
Her lips are cracked and there are scratches on her cheek. Her hospital gown has fallen open along her thigh to her hip. I want to pull it down to protect her modesty.
Gazing at her arms, I notice a network of fine white scars that run along the inside of her forearms. She’s a cutter. Self-harm. Self-abuse. There is more to Sienna than meets the eye; layers that are hidden from the world. Perhaps that’s why she scratches at her surface, trying to find what lies beneath.
How much do I really know about her? She’s fourteen, pretty, with brown eyes and pale skin. She likes diet Coca-Cola, jelly cubes, scrambled eggs, Radiohead, Russell Brand, scary movies and has seen Twilight eighteen times. She’s allergic to peanuts and Simon Cowell and eats crumpets by licking the bottom where the honey leaks through.
She obsesses over boy bands, X Factor contestants and Robert Pattinson, who she wants to marry, but only after she’s traveled the world and become a famous actress.
A year ago she came to the terrace carrying a cardboard box. Her cat had caught a bird in the garden, which was still alive but could no longer fly. The tiny robin lay huddled in a corner of the box, its heart beating crazily.
“Can’t you do something?” she asked.
“It’s too late,” I told her.
Sienna rested the box on her lap and ran her finger through the soft feathers on the robin’s neck until it died. I had to unhook her fingers from the box and carry it away. By the time I came back into the house Sienna had gone. She never mentioned it again. Not a word.
I know these things because she spent so much time at our place. Sometimes it was like having a third daughter at the dinner table (and again at breakfast) because her mother worked nights and her father traveled on business and her older siblings had left home.
These are superficial details, which tell me nothing about the real person. Occasionally I have watched Sienna and thought I could recognize some secret sadness hidden from the world. It was as if she wore a mask to protect herself—the hardest kind of mask to notice because she had woven it from the most secret parts of herself.
When confronted with danger, people will normally fight or flee, but there is another less obvious reaction, which can be just as automatic. They freeze or close down, thinking and moving in slow motion. They shudder, they shake, they gasp, they gulp, but they cannot run or fight or scream. Something happened to Sienna—a violent event that has traumatized her.
The fat doctor turns from the drip stand. He has a name tag. Dr. Martinez.
“She’s not going to wake up for another six hours.”
“What about her parents?”
“Her mother is coming.”
“Shouldn’t you do a rape test?”
“I need her permission.”
“You could test her clothes.”
He glances at the constable in the corridor. “Maybe you shouldn’t be here.”
Sienna’s eyes flutter momentarily and open. She stares at me without any sign of recognition.
“Hello,” I say, trying to sound reassuring.
Her eyes close again.
A detective interviews me at four o’clock, wanting the facts, telling me nothing. He is not a familiar or reassuring face. He has a strange top lip that curls upwards when he speaks and gives the impression that he doesn’t believe a word I’m saying.
Finally, I’m given permission to go home. I call Julianne and ask her to bring me some clothes and a pair of shoes.
“What happened to yours?”
“The police took them.”
She doesn’t want to leave the girls alone. Charlie didn’t fall asleep until two and then only in Julianne’s bed, curled up in a ball.
“What if there’s someone running around the village stabbing people?” asks Julianne.
“It wasn’t Sienna’s blood.”
“What happened to her then?”
I can’t explain.
She hesitates, weighing up what to do.
“I’ll get Mrs. Nutall to mind the girls. Give me half an hour.”
Mrs. Nutall is our next-door neighbor. She’s not technically my neighbor anymore, of course, which means I don’t have to put up with her abusing me every time I leave the cottage. In her sixties and unmarried, she seems to blame me personally for every sin, snub or rebuff she has experienced at the hands of a man. The list must be very long.
I go to the bathroom. Wash my face. Feel a disturbing weight on my shoulders. Why hasn’t Sienna’s mother turned up? Surely the police have found her by now.
I hardly know Helen. We have spoken once or twice to arrange sleepovers for the girls and nodded to each other at the petrol station or in the aisle of the supermarket. Normally, she’s dressed in cargo pants and old sweaters and seems in a hurry. I’ve met her husband, Ray Hegarty, a few times in the Fox and Badger. He is an ex-copper, a detective who earned a medal for bravery, according to Hector. Now he runs a security company and travels a lot.
Zoe was attacked six months before we arrived in the village and Liam Baker had already been convicted of GBH when I was asked to do a pre-sentence report. Some people in the village were angry that he didn’t go straight to prison, but most were just happy to be rid of him.
Thirty minutes later, Julianne arrives and waits for me to change.
“I tried to call Helen,” she says, adjusting my collar and doing up the buttons I’ve missed. “Nobody is answering.”
“She’s probably at work.”
My left arm and leg are twitching involuntarily.
“What about your medication?”
She holds my hand, making it go still. “Let’s get out of here.”
In the car, watching the sunrise. Hills lost in the morning mist. The drive from Bath to Wellow takes only fifteen minutes. We have lived in the village for three and a bit years, having moved out of London at Julianne’s suggestion. Cheaper houses. Good schools. More room. It made sense. It makes less sense now that we’re not together.
The locals are friendly enough. We chat over the tops of cars at the petrol station and queue for milk and bread at Eric Vaile’s shop. They’re decent, conservative, obliging people, but I’ll never be one of them. Being single doesn’t help. Marriage is a passport to respectability in a small village. My visa has been revoked.
The sun is fully up. The cottages and terraces of Wellow seem whitewashed and scrubbed clean. It reminds me of where I grew up—a pit village in the foothills of Snowdonia—although it wasn’t so much whitewashed as coated in coal dust and full of mining families with lung diseases.
“Can we drive past the Hegartys’ place?”
Julianne glances at me, hesitantly, her sharp fringe touching one eyebrow.
“It won’t take a minute.”
She turns the corner and heads down Bull’s Hill. Ahead of us there are police cars, five of them. Two of them unmarked but sprouting radio aerials. They are parked outside Sienna’s house, almost blocking the road. In the midst of them I notice a familiar rust-streaked Land Rover. It belongs to Detective Chief Inspector Veronica Cray, head of the Major Crime Investigation Unit. MCIU.
They must have called her at home. Woken her. There are some supermodels who won’t get out of bed for less than ten thousand pounds. DCI Cray doesn’t stir unless someone is dead, defiled or missing.
Julianne’s knuckles are white on the steering wheel.
“Can we stop?” I ask.
“I want to know what happened.”
She shakes her head.
At that moment Ronnie Cray emerges from the house and lights a cigarette. Through exhaled smoke her eyes meet mine. Diffident. Unsurprised.
We’re past the house now. Julianne drives on.
“You should have stopped.”
“Don’t get involved, Joe.”
“But this is Sienna’s family.”
“And the police will handle things.”
There is an edge to her voice. A warning. We’ve been down this road before. We’ve had this argument. I lost.
Three minutes later we pull up outside the terrace. The engine idles and she takes a deep breath.
“I’m going to let Charlie stay home from school today.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Softening, she tells me to get some sleep and to call her later.
Even before I pull out my keys I hear Gunsmoke whining and pawing at the back door. Walking along the passage to the kitchen, I unlock the side door and step into the garden, where the Labrador leaps and cavorts around my thighs, licking at my hands.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come home,” I say, rubbing his ears.
He frowns at me. I swear. Then he dashes to the rear gate. The rabbits are waiting. Don’t I want to chase them? Hurry up.
First I need to shower and take my pills—the white one and the blue one. When the twitches are gone, I can hold my hand steady on the razor and lace up my boots. Buttons will find buttonholes and zippers will close easily. The body tremors are under control, although occasionally my left arm will launch itself upwards in my own Mexican wave.
In the six years since I was diagnosed, I have come to an understanding with Mr. Parkinson. I no longer deny his existence or imagine that I’m the stronger man. Recognizing this truth was a humbling experience—like bowing to a higher power.
My condition is not advanced yet, but every day is a balancing act with my medication, requiring meticulous timing. Too much Levadopa and I’m rocking, dipping and diving, incapable of crossing a room without visiting every corner. Too little and I grind to a stuttering halt like an engine without oil.
Exercise is recommended, which is why I walk every morning. Shuffle rather than stride. Not in all weathers. I avoid the rain. Dragging a sweater over my head, I step outside and pull the door shut. A tractor rumbles up Mill Hill Lane pulling a box trailer. The driver is Alasdair Riordan, a local farmer. His forearms are vibrating on the wheel.
“Did you hear the news?”
“Ray Hegarty is dead. They say his wee girl stabbed him. Fancy that, eh?”
Breath glides out of him in a pale cloud. He shakes his head and releases his foot from the clutch, jerking into motion. This passes as the longest conversation I’ve ever had with Alasdair Riordan—a man of few words and fewer thoughts.
Gunsmoke has already disappeared down the hill, doing forward reconnaissance through the undergrowth, sniffing at trees and holes in the ground. When I reach the bridge I see the police tape laced around tree trunks and snaking along the banks of the river. I remember finding Sienna and carrying her this far. It seems like weeks ago. It was less than twelve hours.
In a field on the far side, Gunsmoke lopes after a skittering rabbit that is far too nimble, jinking left and right before disappearing down a hole. He did once catch a rabbit, which seemed to surprise him so much that he let it go again. Maybe he’s opposed to blood sports, which would make him a curiosity in these parts.
Occasionally, he comes back to me, loping down the hill, pink tongue flapping, awaiting instructions. He gazes up at me as though I am the wisest of the wise. If only my children were so in awe of my intelligence. Reassured, he takes off again, sniffing at every cowpat and clump of grass.
Gunsmoke has made the past couple of years easier. He doesn’t judge me like I judge myself. He gets me out of bed. Makes me exercise. Eats my leftovers. Babysits Emma and initiates conversations with people.
I walk for a mile across the fields, following the old railway line, before turning and retracing boot prints on the dew-covered grass. I keep thinking about Ray Hegarty, a man I barely knew.
I once saw him drawn into a fight at the Fox and Badger. Six bikers came into the bar one Friday evening just after the rugby club raffle had been drawn. Ray had won the meat tray and was sitting with his prize. The lead biker stood over his table and asked him to move.
“Plenty of spare seats,” Ray replied.
The biker sized him up and liked what he saw. He was mistaken.
Leaning over the table, he casually spat in Ray’s pint of cider. Before he had time to straighten, one of Ray’s hands had shot out and gripped him by the neck as the other smashed the pint glass and pressed the jagged base into his throat.
Calmly, Ray whispered in his ear, “There are six of you and one of me. Looking at those odds, I’m going to die, but here’s the thing… you’ll be dying first.”
A thin trickle of blood ran down the biker’s neck, over his Adam’s apple, which was rising and falling as he swallowed. Another liquid trickled over his boots and onto the worn floorboards.
The scene stayed that way for maybe twenty minutes until the police arrived from Radstock. It made Ray a legend. Hector bolted a special plaque at the corner of the bar, which said, “Reserved for Ray” and guaranteed him at least one free pint every time he dropped by.
The strange thing is, when I recalled the altercation afterwards, picturing Ray Hegarty’s calm hostility, I found myself feeling sorry for the bikers. It was as if the odds were always stacked against them.
Turning the corner into Station Road, I spy the battered Land Rover parked out front of the terrace. Ronnie Cray is sitting behind the wheel with her eyes closed, resting her head against the doorframe.
Her eyes half open. “You shouldn’t leave your door key under a rock. Second place I looked. Had to use the little girl’s room. Hope you don’t mind.”
“You could have stayed inside.”
“I don’t mind the cold.”
Climbing out, she shakes my hand. Holds it. Looks into my eyes. “You didn’t stop earlier.”
“I saw you were busy.”
Her hands go to the pockets of her overcoat. She’s short and round with a wardrobe of tailored trousers and men’s shoes. Dark shadows beneath her eyes betray her tiredness, but there’s something more.
“I’ve come to check on the cat,” she says.
Eighteen months ago the DCI dropped by unexpectedly and presented me with a box. Inside was a straw-colored kitten, part of a litter that had been born in her barn a few weeks earlier.
“I have a dog,” I said.
“You need a cat.”
“You own a dog but you need something to own you. That’s what cats do. She’ll boss you around. Run the place.”
The detective put the box on the floor. It contained six cans of cat food, a bag of cat litter and two plastic dishes. Reaching inside, she pulled out the kitten, which hung over her palm like a sock.
“Isn’t she a beauty? She’ll keep you company.”
“I don’t need company.”
“Hell you don’t. You sleep alone. You work part-time. You’re home a lot. I got all the stuff you need. She’s vaccinated but you might want to get her neutered in about four months.”
She thrust the kitten at me and it clung to my sweater as if I were a tree. I couldn’t think of what to say except, “It’s very thoughtful of you, Ronnie.”
“If she’s anything like her mother, she’ll be a good ratter.”
“I don’t have any rats.”
“And you won’t.”
“What’s her name?”
“Call her what you like.”
Emma named her Strawberry—“because she’s colored like straw”—don’t ask me to explain the logic of a preschooler.
When Charlie was kidnapped, Ronnie Cray was in charge of the police investigation. I think she blamed herself for not protecting my family. Some tragedies forge friendships. Others are touchstones for too many bad memories. I don’t know what I have with Ronnie. Maybe it’s a friendship. Maybe we’re sharing the guilt.
Whatever the case, the detective has stayed in touch, calling me every so often to ask about the cat. Occasionally, she talks about cases that she’s working on, dropping in details she thinks might intrigue me. I don’t take the bait.
One night she phoned from the scene of a hostage crisis where a man had barricaded himself in a house with his ex-wife who he’d doused with petrol. Ronnie asked for my help. I said no.
Afterwards I sat up late watching Sky News, listening to the reports on failing banks, repossessions and market meltdowns, hoping the stories would stay the same. I also prayed, which is bizarre because I don’t believe in God. I’m not superstitious either, yet I crossed my fingers. I willed things not to occur, even though that’s impossible.
I sat up all night watching the news, certain that if I maintained my vigil nothing bad would happen. I didn’t go to bed until the sun had come up and the beautiful TV couples were smiling brightly from their morning sofas. I had saved another life.
Cray has stepped past me into the hallway without waiting for an invitation. She shrugs off her coat and tosses it over the back of a chair. I always forget how short she is until we’re standing side by side. I’m looking at the crown of her head. Her bristled hair is pepper gray.
“I saw you on TV the other week,” I say. “You’ve been promoted.”
“Yeah, I’m sleeping my way to the top.” Her laugh sounds like gravel rash. “How’s the shaking business?”
“Up and down.”
“Is that a Parkinson’s joke?”
She’s about to light another cigarette.
“I don’t let people smoke in the house.”
The lighter sparks in her cupped hands. “I appreciate you making an exception.” She inclines her head as she exhales. The smoke floats past her eyes. I can’t hold her gaze.
As if on cue, Strawberry appears, walking silently into the kitchen and sniffing at Cray’s shoes. Perhaps she can smell her mother. The DCI leans down and scoops up the cat with one hand, studying her eyes for answers.
“She’s getting fat.”
“She’s part sloth.”
“You’re feeding her too much.”
Cray drops Strawberry and watches her twist in the air, landing on her feet. The cat walks to her food bowl, looks unimpressed, and saunters off to find a suntrap.
The DCI takes a seat, ashes her cigarette in a saucer. “You don’t seem very happy to see me, Professor.”
“I know why you’re here.”
“I need your help.”
“No you don’t.”
The statement comes out too harshly, but Cray doesn’t react.
One part of me desperately wants to know what happened to Ray Hegarty, why Sienna was covered in blood, why she ran… At the same time I feel a swelling in my throat that makes my voice vibrate. I shouldn’t want to do this again. The last time it cost me almost everything.
“You know this girl.”
“She’s a friend of Charlie’s.”
“Did she say anything to you?”
“No. She was too traumatized.”
“See? You know all about this stuff.”
“I can’t help you.”
Cray glances out the window where a swath of sunshine has cut across the field turning the grass silver.
“The man who died last night was a retired detective by the name of Ray Hegarty. He worked for Bristol CID for twenty years. He was my boss. My friend.”
She makes a quick sucking noise and her eyes glaze over. “I thought Hegarty was a prick when I first met him. He didn’t want me on his team and he did nothing to stop the bullying and cruel pranks. He gave me every shit job he could find—the dirty bodies, death knocks, cleaning out the drunk tank—I thought he was trying to break me or force me out, but it was just his way of toughening me up for the bigger challenges.”
Ophidian eyes blink through the smoke and her thumb passes over her lips. “He taught me everything I know. His rules. I guess I grew to respect his achievements and then to respect the man.”
“I’m sure you’ll work out what happened.”
Anger in her eyes now, “If you’re having a midlife crisis, Professor, buy a Porsche and forget about it.”
“It’s not a midlife crisis.”
“Then what’s your problem?”
“You know the answer to that.”
Cray stands and hitches up her trousers. “In another lifetime I might sympathize with you, but not this one. You don’t have a monopoly on fucked-up families. I’ve got an overweight bad-tempered son who’s living with an ex-junkie and claims to be writing a book about how his parents’ divorce screwed up his life even though I was pregnant longer than I was married.
“And now a man I respected is lying dead in his daughter’s bedroom and the kid is so traumatized she’s not saying boo to a goose. So you see, Professor, you won’t get any pity from me, but I will give you some advice.”
Her cigarette hisses in the sink.
“Suck it in, Princess, and put on your big-girl pants. You’re playing with the grown-ups now.”
Squeezed behind the steering wheel, the DCI sits forward so her feet can reach the pedals. Eyes ahead. Jaw masticating gum. She drives as if she’s traveling at speed, even though the Land Rover can’t hold fifth.
A cigarette is propped upright in her fist. She blows smoke out of the far corner of her mouth. Speaks, giving me just the facts, the bare bones. Ray Hegarty retired from the force eight years ago and set up a security business—doing alarms, CCTV cameras, patrols and personal protection. He had offices in Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester.
He had a meeting in Glasgow on Monday afternoon and stayed overnight before driving to Manchester the next day. He was supposed to stop overnight and fly to Dublin on Wednesday morning for two days of meetings but the trip was canceled. Instead he drove back to Bristol and had a late lunch with a business partner.
“Bottom line—he wasn’t expected home until Friday—not according to his wife.”
“Where was Helen?”
“Working at St. Martin’s Hospital in Bath. Her shift started at six.”
We pull up outside a house on the eastern edge of the village. Six uniforms stand guard, blocking off the street. Blue-and-white crime-scene tape has been threaded between two cherry trees and the front gate, twirling in the breeze like old birthday decorations. A large white SOCO van is parked in the driveway. Doors yawning. Metal boxes stacked inside.
Nearby, a forensic technician is crouching on the front path taking photographs. Dressed in blue plastic overalls, a hood and matching boot covers, he looks like an extra in a science-fiction movie.
Positioning a plastic evidence tag, he raises the camera to his eye. Shoots. Stands. When he turns I recognize him. Dr. Louis Preston—a Home Office pathologist with a Brummie accent that makes him sound eternally miserable.
“I hear they woke you, Ronnie.”
“I’m a light sleeper,” she replies.
“Were you with anyone in particular?”
“My hot-water bottle.”
“Now there’s a waste.” The pathologist glances at me and nods. “Professor, long time no see.”
“I would have waited.”
“I get that a lot.”
Preston is famous for terrorizing his pathology students. According to one apocryphal story, he once told a group of trainees that two things were required to conduct an autopsy. The first was no sense of fear. At this point he stuck his finger into a dead man’s anus, pulled it out and sniffed it. Then he invited each student to follow his lead and they all complied.
“The second thing you need is an acute sense of observation,” he told them. “How many of you noticed that I stuck my middle finger into this man’s anus, but sniffed my index finger?”
Urban myth? Compelling hearsay? Both probably. Anybody who slices open dead people for a living has to maintain a sense of humor. Either that or you go mad.
Turning back to the van, he collects a tripod.
“I never thought I’d see Ray Hegarty like this. I thought he was bloody indestructible.”
“You were friends?”
Preston shrugs. “Wouldn’t go that far. Mutual respect.”
“How did he die?”
Excerpted from Bleed for Me by Robotham, Michael Copyright © 2012 by Robotham, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.