On a blistering summer weekend, as all of England rushes to the seashore, Det. Inspector Luke Thanet is looking forward to a few days off to putter around his garden and forget the stresses of his job. A famously soft-hearted detective, Thanet takes every crime personally, and he’s overdue for a break. But when a young girl goes missing, it’s all hands on deck. Thanet will move heaven and earth to bring Charity Pritchard home alive. But do her parents even want her found?
Charity’s family belongs to a strict fundamentalist religious order, and they insist that the investigation of her disappearance be left up to God. But when the holy approach fails tragically and Charity is found brutally murdered, Thanet and his partner, the impetuous young Mike Lineham, will tear the church apart to find her killer.
“A well-crafted [and] compelling mystery novel,” Close Her Eyes is part of the acclaimed Inspector Thanet series, which includes CWA Silver Dagger winner Last Seen Alive (The Armchair Detective).
Close Her Eyes is the 4th book in the Inspector Thanet Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Read an Excerpt
Close Her Eyes
An Inspector Thanet Mystery
By Dorothy Simpson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Dorothy Simpson
All rights reserved.
The news that a young girl is missing is likely to penetrate the armour of the most hard-bitten policeman, and Thanet was anything but that. The telephone receiver was suddenly slippery in his hand.
'And how long missing?'
'Since Friday morning.' Lineham's voice was heavy with pessimism.
'Friday morning! But that's nearly three days ago! What the hell were the parents thinking of, not to have reported it till now?'
'It's a bit complicated, sir. The father says ...'
'Save it. I'll be in as soon as I can.'
Thanet glanced down at his stained knees, grubby shorts and grimy hands. He would have to make time for a quick shower. Taking the stairs two at a time he wondered why he was bothering to hurry. If the parents hadn't reported the disappearance for three days ...
There could be a good reason, of course. They could have believed her to be spending the holiday weekend with a friend. She might even have gone off of her own free will. Fifteen was an especially vulnerable age, a peak time for traumatic rows at home ... Nevertheless he was showered and dressed in less than ten minutes, slowing his pace only to peep in at Bridget and Ben, sound asleep with the bedclothes thrown back against the stifling warmth of one of the hottest Spring Bank Holiday Mondays on record.
Over the weekend all England had sweated and sweltered in the unseasonable heat. Motorists had taken to the road in record numbers, the sea exerting on them a magnetic pull which they were powerless to resist. As temperature and humidity soared hundreds of thousands of families had fretted and fumed away their precious holiday hours in traffic jams, trapped in their little metal boxes.
Thanet had had more sense. He and his mother-in-law had decided to pack the children into the car and spend the half-term holiday at her cottage in the country, trying to restore the garden to some sort of order. It wasn't the way Thanet would have chosen to spend one of his rare long weekends off, but he had felt that it was the least he could do. For the last two years, while Joan had been away at college completing her training as a Probation Officer, Mrs Bolton had been looking after the children and running the house for Thanet. Very few women, he felt, would have been prepared to give up home and freedom as she had, and he still felt grateful to her for the sacrifice. In just under three weeks Joan would be home for good, thank God, and it was time to start thinking of ways to help his mother-inlaw to take up the reins of her own life again. The cottage was only ten miles away from Sturrenden, the busy country town in Kent where Thanet lived and worked, and after the weekend Mrs Bolton and the children could stay on for the remainder of the week's holiday while Thanet drove in daily to the office. But now it looked as though his time off was about to be curtailed.
He hurried out to the tiny, brick-paved terrace behind the house where the mingled scents of lilac and orange blossom, overlaid by the pungent odour of broom, hung heavy in the gathering dusk. Not a leaf stirred. The air was as suffocatingly hot and humid as if the entire garden were encased in a plastic dome.
Margaret Bolton was sitting limply in a deck chair, eyes closed, empty glass dangling from one hand. In repose she looked almost young again, the lines around eyes and mouth smoothed away, the fading light kind to the grey in the fair, curly hair so like her daughter's. For a fleeting moment it almost seemed to Thanet that he was looking at Joan herself twenty years hence, and briefly the sense of mortality ever-present in his working life spilled over into his private world, laying a cold hand upon his heart. He experienced a sudden and intense longing for Joan's warm, living presence. Then Mrs Bolton opened her eyes, blinked at the transformation in his appearance, and normality was re-established.
'I'm afraid so.'
She made to rise. 'I'll make you a sandwich.'
'No.' Gently, he pushed her back. 'I'll pick up something later. I'm not hungry anyway, it's too hot. Let me get you another drink before I go.'
'I don't want one, thank you. Honestly.' She smiled ruefully. 'I hope you're not too tired to feel fit for work.'
'Not at all. It's been a pleasant change, to do something physical.' And it was true, he didn't feel in the least bit tired, despite the nagging ache in that troublesome back of his. A quarter of an hour ago he'd felt as exhausted as his mother-in-law now looked, but the adrenalin coursing through his veins since Lineham's call had miraculously restored him. He was impatient to be gone.
In a few moments he was on his way, winding along through country lanes adrift with the white froth of Queen Anne's lace and heady with the sweet, green scent of early summer. Already he had relinquished the tranquillity of the cottage, the sleeping children, and was keyed up to meet the challenge ahead.
Detective Sergeant Lineham was waiting for him in the reception area and hurried forward to give him a précis of the facts.
Thanet listened intently. 'Where is he?' 'In interview room three. PC Dennison is with him.'
'What did you say his name was?'
As they entered the room Thanet experienced a fleeting reaction of surprise at the embarrassment on the young constable's face before understanding the reason for it: Mr Pritchard was kneeling on the floor, elbows on the seat of one of the chairs, forehead resting on clenched hands.
He was praying.
Thanet and Lineham exchanged a quick glance of uncomfortable astonishment. Never, in all his years in the force, could Thanet remember such a situation arising before. No wonder PC Dennison had been nonplussed. Dismissing the constable with a smile and a nod Thanet advanced into the room.
Clearly, Pritchard hadn't heard them arrive. The intensity of his concentration was such that it seemed to emanate from him in waves, etching upon Thanet's mind a black and white image of near-photographic clarity: dark suit, shiny across the seat, with black mourning band stitched around one sleeve; white shirt, black hair divided by the white line of a centre parting so straight that it might have been drawn by a ruler.
Thanet hesitated. It seemed almost blasphemous to trespass upon such pious concentration. Then, telling himself that even at this late stage further delay could be a threat to the girl's safety, he laid one hand gently on Pritchard's shoulder and softly spoke his name.
Pritchard's eyelids snapped open in shock and he twisted his head to look up at Thanet. His eyes were very dark, almost as black as his hair and full of an agonised resignation. Slowly, he stood up, unfolding his long, thin body with the jerky, uncoordinated movements of a marionette.
Thanet found himself apologising. 'Sorry to disturb you, Mr Pritchard, but we have to talk.' He introduced himself.
Pritchard hesitated. 'I've been wondering if I was too precipitate. Perhaps I shouldn't have come.'
Thanet frowned. 'What do you mean?'
'I've been thinking it over. I'm afraid I panicked. I should have had more faith.'
'We are all in God's hands, Inspector. And we have to trust in Him. I can't really believe that He would have let anything bad happen to Charity ... I'm sorry to have wasted your time.' He gave a curious little half-bow and began to move towards the door.
Thanet couldn't believe what he was hearing. 'Mr Pritchard. Please ... Wait a moment.'
Pritchard paused and, with one hand on the door-knob, half-turned, eyebrows raised in polite enquiry.
Thanet moved a little closer to him. 'Let me make sure I understand you. You mean, you don't want us to make any attempt to find your daughter?'
'Perhaps you've realised where she must be?'
Pritchard shook his head. 'No. But I do believe that where-ever she is, she must be safe in God's care.'
It was incredible. The man really was prepared to let the matter rest there. Some might find such faith moving; Thanet, well-versed in man's inhumanity to man, thought it foolhardy to the point of insanity. Deliberately, he kept his voice low, his tone reasonable. 'Then don't you think it might be sensible to try to find her? Let's just sit down for a moment and discuss the matter.'
'There's nothing to discuss. I told you, God is sure to be watching over her.'
He was opening the door now and with a flash of combined inspiration and desperation Thanet said softly, 'Even God has to work sometimes through a human agency, Mr Pritchard. Are you perhaps in danger of overlooking the possibility that He might have sent you here, to us?'
Pritchard hesitated. The dark eyes clouded and then bored into Thanet's as if trying to test the validity of his suggestion.
Thanet waited. The little room was stifling and he was conscious of the prick of sweat down his back and under his armpits.
Pritchard closed his eyes and remained motionless. A minute passed, then two. Thanet and Lineham exchanged anxious glances. Outside in the corridor there was a brief buzz of conversation, then a door closed, cutting it off. As if this were a signal, Pritchard relaxed a little, sighed, opened his eyes.
'You could be right, I suppose.' But still he hesitated a moment longer before moving back to the table. 'Very well,' he said. And sat down.
Relieved, Thanet slipped off his jacket and hung it over the back of his chair before seating himself. He glanced at Lineham. The sergeant was ready. Careful now, Thanet told himself. This one will have to be handled with kid gloves.
'Sergeant Lineham here has given me the facts, very briefly, but I'd be grateful if you could go over them again for me in a little more detail.' Then, as Pritchard hesitated, 'As I understand it, your daughter was supposed to be spending the weekend in Dorset, with a friend.'
'Yes. They were going to one of the Jerusalem Holiday Homes. They were supposed to leave on Friday morning and get back tonight. They've been there before together, at Easter, and it all went off very smoothly, so there was no reason to think it wouldn't this time.'
'Let's take it a step at a time. What time did Charity leave the house on Friday morning?'
'About nine thirty, according to my wife. I was at work by then, of course.'
Little by little the tangled tale was unravelled. Charity and her friend Veronica Hodges had planned to go to Dorset by train, catching the ten twenty-three to Victoria. Charity was to call at Veronica's house to pick her up on the way to the station. She found, however, that Veronica was unfit to travel, having woken up that morning with a high temperature.
'Didn't Mrs Hodges try to contact you, to let you know Veronica wouldn't be able to go?'
'Neither of us is on the phone.'
'I see. Go on.'
According to Mrs Hodges, Charity had taken the disappointment calmly and after spending a few minutes with her friend, had left. Knowing that the Pritchards would never have allowed Charity to travel alone and that the Holiday Home in any case insisted that girls under eighteen should travel in pairs, Mrs Hodges had assumed that Charity had returned home.
'But she didn't?'
'Not as far as we know.' Pritchard took an immaculately folded clean white handkerchief from his pocket and mopped at the sheen of sweat on his forehead.
'Why don't you take your jacket off, Mr Pritchard? It's like an oven in here.'
Pritchard shook his head, a sharp, involuntary movement, as if the idea offended him.
As well it might, Thanet thought. The man was so stiff, unbending, that it was difficult to imagine him ever relaxing in shirt sleeves.
Pritchard put the handkerchief back into his pocket.
'Soon after I got to work that morning, at about half past nine, I suppose, I had a phone call from my wife's sister in Birmingham. My mother-in-law had had a severe heart attack during the night and her condition was critical. I spoke to my employer and he told me to take the rest of the day off.'
Pritchard, who worked as storeman in a wholesale stationery firm, had gone home to break the news of her mother's illness to his wife. By the time they had packed and given their next-door neighbour the Birmingham address where they could be contacted in case of emergency, it was too late for them to catch the same London train as the girls and they decided to leave a note on the kitchen table for Charity, in case she arrived back before they did. She had her own key and would be able to let herself in. They had expected that one or both of them would be back in time for her return this evening, but after lingering on over the weekend the old lady had died this morning and, wanting to stay on for the funeral, Mr Pritchard had rung the Holiday Home to inform Charity of her grandmother's death and to suggest that she stay at Veronica's house for a day or two, until her parents returned home.
It had been a shock to learn that neither Charity nor Veronica had turned up, Mrs Hodges having rung the Home from a phone-box on Friday morning to tell the Principal of Veronica's illness.
'Was your daughter mentioned?'
'Only in passing, apparently. It was taken for granted that she wouldn't be going. As I said, they're very strict about girls travelling in pairs. When you book, the parents have to sign a form, saying they won't allow their daughters to travel alone. Mrs Hodges rang them quite early in the morning, and at that point even my wife and I didn't know we were going to be called away.'
'Didn't you think to let Mrs Hodges know, when you decided to go to Birmingham to see your mother-in-law?'
Pritchard dropped his face into his hands, and groaned. 'If only I had. Looking back now, it was irresponsible — wickedly irresponsible, not to have been in touch with her before leaving. But it was all such a rush — so much to do, so many things to think of ... We did leave a note next door, of course, I told you ... And then we knew that Mrs Hodges was here in Sturrenden in case of emergency ... But you're right, of course you are. We should have thought ...'
'Or if Mrs Hodges had let you know that Veronica was ill ...'
Pritchard's shoulders stiffened. 'That's right.' He raised his head and stared at Thanet, eyes glittering. 'She should have, shouldn't she? If she had, Charity would simply have come with us, and we wouldn't be in this position now.'
Thanet was sorry he'd made the suggestion. Wanting to alleviate Pritchard's sense of guilt by showing him that the responsibility had not been his alone, he had merely succeeded in giving the man a grievance which could distract him from the task in hand.
'We mustn't digress,' he said firmly. 'Can we go back to this morning, and your phone call to the Home, from Birmingham? When the Principal told you that neither of the girls had been able to go because of Veronica's illness, what did you think had happened to Charity?'
'I assumed she'd gone home and found our note. We thought that, knowing how worried her mother would be about her grandmother, she'd hesitated to add to the burden by telling her that the holiday arrangements had fallen through.'
'So at that stage you weren't really too worried?'
'Well, we were very upset to think she'd been alone in the house all over the weekend, of course. She is only fifteen, after all ...'
'So what did you decide to do?'
'As there was no way of getting in touch with Charity, we thought I'd better come straight home and go up to Birmingham for the day on Friday, for the funeral.'
'You didn't think of contacting Charity through us?'
'Through you?' Pritchard looked at Thanet as though he had suggested communicating through a creature from an alien planet.
'Well, we do often help members of the public out, in that sort of situation.'
Pritchard shook his head. 'It would never have occurred to me.'
'So you came back to Sturrenden and went home, expecting to find Charity there.'
'Yes.' Pritchard wiped his forehead again, then transferred the handkerchief from his right hand to his left and began to pluck agitatedly at one corner with long, bony fingers. No doubt he was reliving the shock he had experienced upon finding the house empty.
'Was there any sign that she had been there at any time over the weekend?'
'No. The house was exactly as we'd left it, so far as I could see.'
'No indication that she'd eaten, drunk anything?'
Pritchard put his hand up to his head, began to massage one temple. 'No ... I don't know ... I didn't think to look in the larder.'
'Or in the fridge?'
'We haven't got a refrigerator.' Then, wearily, as if explaining something he had attempted to explain many times before, 'We of the Children live very simply, Inspector, in a way which you would no doubt find incomprehensible.'
Excerpted from Close Her Eyes by Dorothy Simpson. Copyright © 1980 Dorothy Simpson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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