When four-year-old Charlotte goes missing from a playground near her home, her mother, Antonia, turns to her cousin Trish Maguire, a barrister with plenty of heartbreaking professional experience of what can happen to children at the hands of abusive adults. But as the police pull out all the stops to find the child, no one is exempt from suspicion. Charlotte's mother faces tabloid vilification for leaving the child in the hands of an unsupervised nanny; her estranged father faces the full rigour of a police investigation; and even Trish finds herself at the top of the list of suspects. Trish is prepared to do anything, to use any of her friends - including Willow King and Emma Gnatche - to find out what has happened to Charlotte, but time is running out and even Antonia is beginning to question Trish's innocence.
About the Author
An ex-publisher, past Chair of the Crime Writers' Association, and lifelong Londoner, Natasha Cooper writes for a variety of newspapers and journals, including Crime Time and The Times Literary Supplement. She contributes to many radio programmes such as Woman's Hour and Saturday Review, and regularly speaks at crime-writing conferences on both sides of the Atlantic.
She is the author of, among many others, FAULT LINES, PREY TO ALL and OUT OF THE DARK. In 2002 she was shortlisted for the Dagger in the Library, an award that 'goes to the author whose work has given most pleasure to readers'.
Read an Excerpt
The coffee was too hot. As soon as it hit her mouth, Trish knew what she was in for: little tassels of skin and a tongue like sacking, which wouldn't be able to taste anything more subtle than the local takeaway's prawn curry for at least two days.
She had been so keen to clear the night's thoughts out of her head that she had poured boiling water over the granules and taken a great slurp, without even bothering to stir the bitty liquid. But she had burned herself for nothing: memories of the cases she had been working on were still there, as vivid and unbearable as ever.
As she bent to drink some cold water from the tap, she half-saw a familiar face on the small television in the corner of the kitchen worktop. Straightening up, with the cool water held in her mouth to soothe the burn, she wiped stray drops from her chin with the back of her hand and looked more carefully at the screen.
Her cousin Antonia Weblock did occasionally figure on the news, but it was odd to see her on a Sunday morning when there couldn't possibly have been an announcement from the City or the Bank of England that might have needed one of her magisterial comments. And she seemed to be wearing a tracksuit under her long overcoat, which was even odder.
Trish moved towards the television to turn up the sound. Her bare feet spread a little as the soles touched the tacky coolness of the industrial-strength emeraldcoloured studded rubber that covered her kitchen floor. It was a sensation she had come to dislike as soon asshe had had time to notice it, just as she had begun to feel aggressed by the hard-edged, brightly coloured, echoing flat that sucked such enormous amounts of money out of her bank account every month.
'Antonia, this way over here,' Trish heard in several different voices as she adjusted the volume.
The sight of aeroplanes landing and taking off in the distance behind Antonia solved one small mystery. She must have been at Heathrow, after a trip to New York or Tokyo, perhaps dealing with a crisis generated by unexpected movements of the Dow Jones or the Nikkei. Trish smiled as dozens of cameras flashed on the screen because she knew how much Antonia enjoyed her growing fame, but then her lips stiffened. Instead of turning her head this way and that to give all the photographers a fair chance of getting a good shot as she usually did, Antonia kept wincing as though the flashes that hit her eyes were hard enough to hurt. Or perhaps she just had a headache. Her face was tight enough for that. Trish licked her lips and felt the burn on her tongue again.
'When did you first hear about your daughter?' asked a male voice as a microphone like a long, dirty grey mop was shoved over the heads of the avid journalists towards Antonia.
'Charlotte?' said Trish.
'I got the message at seven yesterday evening.' Antonia's voice came breathily out of the television. 'New York time. They couldn't reach me any earlier.'
'And is there really no news?' asked a woman with an absurdly old-fashioned notebook in her hands instead of the much smaller cassette recorders everyone else was waving.
'None,' said Antonia, looking up at last and staring directly into the particular camera that fed Trish's television, almost as though she knew her cousin would be there, watching. Antonia's strong-featured face was grey and there was a heavy, defensive expression in her eyes, but she was still in control. Just.
'Charlotte was last seen in the playground of our local park yesterday afternoon with her nanny,' she said bleakly. 'She disappeared at about three-thirty. The families of her friends have all been contacted and none of them have seen her. The police are still searching.'
'No,' whispered Trish into the echoing spaces of her flat. 'Oh, please, God! No.'
She knew too much that was the trouble and understood exactly what an announcement like that could mean. Pictures from her own cases and other people's ran through her mind like a private horror film.
There was the six-year-old boy who had been kidnapped almost directly outside his parents' house, then found sodomised and dead months later; there was a girl, too, a year or two older than Charlotte, who had been raped by her stepfather and then murdered and buried in a nearby wood a couple of days before he went on television with his wife to plead for her return; and another, only a baby, so badly beaten by both her parents, and burned with cigarettes, that even though the social workers had found her while she was still alive, she had not made it.
Trish's eyes focused on the real screen again. Anxiety for Charlotte and pity for Antonia started choking her until she remembered to breathe. It felt strange, working her lungs like bellows, forcing herself to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth as though it was a skill she had only just learned.
Charlotte was Antonia's only child a small, confiding, funny four-year-old with a terrible temper, utterly defenceless and far too young to be adrift in London.
'Is it true they've dragged the pond and found nothing?' shouted one of the journalists jostling Antonia on the screen.
She nodded without speaking, once more looking out of the television straight at Trish, who stared back, still breathing doggedly, as though Charlotte's safety might depend on that steady, rhythmic sucking in and exhaling of air that tasted as horrible as the burn in her mouth.
The thought of any child in such danger was unbearable, but that it should be Charlotte made Trish aware of layers of anguish that went far beyond anything she had experienced. She had only recently come to know Charlotte as a person, rather than simply Antonia's noisy, difficult daughter, and for a selfish instant she wished she had kept her distance.
It had happened about six weeks earlier, when Charlotte had appeared in the middle of one of the excruciatingly formal dinners to which Antonia still occasionally summoned Trish. Charlotte said she'd been woken by bad dreams and had a tummy ache and couldn't go back to sleep. Her jumbled dark curls and scarlet pyjamas had seemed wildly out of place in the over-furnished dining room. The sight of her had made her mother's face tighten in irritation, but to Trish it had brought a welcome hint of normality.
Bored with the grandeur of the food and plumb out of things to say to either of the pompous men sitting beside her, she had volunteered to take the child back to bed. Antonia had looked surprised by the offer but had accepted it at once. Robert, her current boyfriend, seemed to have hardly noticed either Charlotte's appearance or Trish's intervention. He was far too interested in explaining to the bored banker's wife on his right just how mega-successful his latest advertising campaign had been.
On the way upstairs, Charlotte had insinuated her warm little hand into Trish's and told her a long story about the huge wiggly pink worms that kept coming out from under her bed and waking her up so that it wasn't her fault she'd gone downstairs. Trish had enjoyed the inventiveness of the excuse and later indulged Charlotte to the extent of making a thorough search under the bed, the mattress and the bright yellow-and-blue cotton rug, as well as through all her bigger toys, to prove that there were no worms, wiggly or otherwise, waiting to threaten her.
Charlotte had eventually pronounced herself satisfied but she begged for a story before Trish abandoned her to the dark. Touched and amused as well as glad of an excuse to avoid the diners downstairs, Trish had obliged, sitting on the bed and reading from My Naughty Little Sister, a book that had given her much gleeful enjoyment in her own past.
The child's head had felt extraordinarily hard and her little body very soft as she pressed herself along Trish's thigh and wriggled in pleasure at the climax of her chosen story. Her highly original comments on the characters and their antics had made Trish laugh and kiss her silky black curls, wondering why Charlotte had such a reputation for obstinacy and tantrums. She seemed sweet and vulnerable behind the mask of sassy cleverness; and rather lonely, too.
'Could it be a kidnap? Have there been any ransom demands?' asked another of the journalists, a man who did not appear on the screen. His voice was nastier than the first and loaded with resentment. Trish remembered the announcement of Antonia's latest bonus a month or so earlier.
Antonia herself shrugged and at the same time shook her head, momentarily covering her eyes with her left hand. As she leaned closer to the man whose arm she was holding, the camera moved sideways, too. Trish, trying to think through all the implications of what had happened, was relieved to see that Robert was there.
A slight man with expressive dark eyes and flamboyantly ruffled black hair, he held up his free hand in a gesture of surprising authority. The buzz of questions quietened at once and soon died completely.
'There isn't anything more to say,' he announced in the light voice that had lost its malicious edge but still seemed quite inadequate to the scene.
The mass of journalists started muttering discontentedly to each other and occasionally shouting questions at Antonia, who flinched and whispered something to Robert. He raised his hand again, and his voice, to say with more authority than before: 'We're desperately anxious about Charlotte. As you can imagine, neither of us has had much sleep. We'd like to get home now.'
He urged Antonia forwards, directly into the crowd. After a moment's resistance it parted, allowing them to walk through unimpeded. Dozens of cameras flashed again. All it needed, thought Trish unhappily, was confetti. As the two of them left the terminal buildings, the television screen changed to show a line of police and civilians moving slowly but with dogged purpose across the manicured lawns, little copses and flat asphalt paths of a public park, obviously searching for clues.
'That was Antonia Weblock, mother of four-year-old Charlotte, who disappeared yesterday afternoon from the park near their Kensington home, where she had gone with her nanny,' said the newsreader dispassionately. 'The police say there are fears for the child's safety.'
Trish put both hands flat on top of the television and bent down until her forehead touched her knuckles. The hardness of her own bones began to help as she worked to dim the pictures her imagination was projecting in her mind. She reached for the telephone and tapped in Antonia's number.
Four rings later she heard the familiar message, dictated in Antonia's queenliest voice. It made not the slightest concession to anyone who might expect to be thanked for wanting to get in touch with her, and in the circumstances it seemed chillingly inappropriate.
'This machine can take messages for Antonia Weblock and Robert Hithe oh, and for Nicky Bagshot. Keep your message as short as possible. Speak clearly after the long tone.'
'This is Trish, Antonia, on Sunday morning at ... at eight-thirty. I've just seen the news and heard about Charlotte. I am so, so sorry. Look, I'm here all day so if there's any help you need anything I want you to ring. Just ring. Please.'
The newsreader had switched to the latest crisis in Africa, where there were millions of children at risk of death by starvation, disease, war, crime and genocide. Trish knew none of them and had no skills or knowledge that were relevant to their lives or deaths. However terrible their fate might be, she could not help them. But she might be able to help Antonia; and she would do anything in her power. Anything.
They had not known each other as children, even though their grandmothers had been sisters, because the family was neither geographically nor emotionally close. But when Trish's mother had run into Antonia's at a family funeral and heard that she, too, was going to the Inns of Court School of Law after university, she had arranged for them to meet.
Their characters and preoccupations were so different that they would probably not have made friends even then if they had not quickly discovered just how exclusive legal London was and how lonely outsiders could be. Most of their fellow students seemed to have had High Court judges for godparents and come to consciousness with their cots propped up on out-of-date editions of Archbold. Neither Trish nor Antonia had any legal connections, and they needed all the support they could give each other. The resulting alliance had eventually turned into a friendship that had flourished and survived even Trish's consistently better results.
Throughout all the adrenaline-driven years since then and the inevitable spats Trish had never forgotten the generosity of Antonia's reaction to her success. However regal Antonia had become as she earned more and more in the merchant bank to which she had retreated after she failed to get any offers of pupillage, Trish had always tried to be as generous in return. In fact, that had not been nearly as difficult as accepting some of the things Antonia had done to Ben, the quiet teacher she had so surprisingly married, or the way she had behaved since her divorce.
Trish reached behind her for her mug and drank, only to discover that the coffee was still disgusting. There seemed no point making any more. She tipped it down the sink, switched off the television and went up the black spiral stairs to the shower, pulling off the oversized T-shirt she wore in bed as she went. The shirt was one of several with slogans that had made her laugh when she first bought them but which by then she noticed only when someone else blinked in surprise.
Recently the only other person to see any of them had been her mother, an intelligently gentle woman who found the aggression of some of the slogans as worrying as Trish's inability to keep her fridge stocked with food within its sell-by dates or to put any kind of limit on the hours she worked or the emotion she expended on her clients.
Reaching her bedroom, Trish turned on the radio and thought about how differently her life had turned out from Antonia's.
As one of only two women tenants in her set of chambers, Trish had quickly found herself working in one capacity or other on most of the cases that involved children. They took up all her time and she had seen no way of getting any experience on the big fraud cases that were the reason she had chosen those particular chambers out of the three sets that had offered her pupillage. At first she had tried to protest to her clerk, saying that she did not want to be typecast as taking only 'girlie' briefs. He had stared at her, unregenerate misogynist and scourge of naive young barristers that he was, and started to tell her some of the facts of legal life.
When lowly devilling on matters of custody and access eventually gave way to advocacy in cases of neglect, cruelty and abuse, Trish had ceased to see her work as any kind of soft option and became passionately devoted to the cause of the damaged children whose miseries provided her living.
Memories of their sufferings latched on to everything she feared for Charlotte. She tried not to imagine the worst that could have happened as she dropped her T-shirt on the bathroom floor and turned the shower to its most powerful setting. As she rounded her spine to the water, she felt the stinging jets hit her body and did her best to concentrate on the pleasure she usually felt as the water needled her skin, collected in the hollows of her spine and then cascaded down her sides, clinging to her breasts and dripping off her hardened nipples.
After a while she gave up trying to feel any of it and reached for the shampoo. She rubbed a generous puddle into her short dark hair. Foam seeped into her eyes, burning, and she turned her face up to the water. It streamed over her head and face. With her eyes stinging and her throat closing against the soapy water, she could not keep out the thoughts of all the children she had encountered who had been suffocated and starved, raped, beaten, or simply bullied and denied affection all their short lives. She wondered whether she would ever find a way of caring less.
Clean again, but unrefreshed, Trish emerged from the shower and wrapped herself in the biggest of the scarlet towels that hung over the hot rail. The whole bathroom was fogged with condensation, the mirrors already dripping so that she could not see her face in any detail. That did not matter; the blurred outlines were quite enough for her.
Her face, which had variously been described as beaky, predatory and magnificent at different stages of her last love affair, was all right, she had decided long ago, but it would never be beautiful. When she had rubbed the worst of the wet out of her hair, she ran her fingers through it to mould it roughly over her well-shaped head and left it at that.
Enough of the condensation had cleared by then to give her a glimpse of her dark eyes in the mirror, and she saw that they were full of all the fears she was doing her best to ignore.
Grabbing the tail of her self-control as it whisked past her, Trish wondered aloud whether there was any point trying to go on working. She would never be able to concentrate, so she might as well do something else. The trouble was that she couldn't think of anything except Charlotte.
Having, as her mother had always said, worked far too hard for eleven years, Trish had begun to realise that she had become too involved with her clients, but she had not known how to free herself. Their anguish was so real to her, and her inability to change much for them so obvious, that she had been in danger of getting completely bogged down.
A series of minor but recurrent illnesses had kept getting in the way of her work and she had eventually gone to the doctor. Recalling their encounter, Trish was amazed at how patient and good-humoured he had been. At the time, all she had felt was outrage when he told her she was suffering from stress and advised her to find a way of managing it better.
Later, little by little, she had begun to see her resistance to his advice for what it was and had tried to do as he had suggested. She had learned how to snap less at people who did not understand her instantly, or asked stupid questions about the instructions she had given them, to eat more sensibly and drink in moderation, to take life a scrap more lightly and even occasionally to sleep the night through without pills.
It had been difficult because there was always another case, another ten- or eleven-year-old who, never properly fed since birth, had taken to stealing money as well as food and become uncontrollable by anyone; or perhaps a child who had been sunny and eager to learn until the age of six or seven, when she had suddenly changed - and only later told her teacher about what her uncle, or her stepfather, or her elder brother was making her do. With clients like those needing her to win them the protection of the law or defend them against cruelty or vengeance, Trish had not been able to take life much more easily.
Dry at last, she let the towel fall off her body on to the floor by her bed and rummaged in the cupboard for clean underclothes to wear under the crumpled jeans she had pulled off the previous night, and a daytime sloganless T-shirt. She shoved her feet into a pair of suede moccasins that had long ago lost whatever shape they had once had, and had turned from bright red to a kind of mud colour. They were supremely comfortable and she did not mind the slapping noise they made on the hard rubber and wood floors of her flat. And luckily there was no one else to object any longer.
Her salvation had appeared in chambers in the form of an invitation from the managing director of a small, progressive publishing house, who wanted her to write about children and the law. At first the letter had seemed to be just one more problem she had to deal with; but after it had lain in her in-tray for a couple of weeks she had begun to see that it might offer an honourable way out. If she accepted the commission, she could at least retreat for a time.
One of her most tormenting cases had caught the attention of the tabloids. As Trish battled in court to make the state provide appropriate care for a seriously disturbed eight-year-old who had been discovered trying to kill her six-year-old sister, she found herself more famous than most other barristers in their early thirties. She assumed that was what had interested the publisher in the first place. As far as she could see, there was no other reason for his approach and she was sure they had never met.
Eventually, when there had been a tiny gap in her diary, she had rung him up, agreed to meet for lunch in the Oxo Tower, and discovered that he shared her passion for justice for children and detestation of the way some of them were demonised in the popular press. Before they had finished their first course, Trish had agreed to write his book and gulped at the size of the advance he offered, which made even legal-aid rates seem princely.
She could afford to accept the commission, having earned well for the previous four years and spent comparatively little. For ages her only regular expenses had been her big mortgage, the bills, and the annual subscription to the gym she had begun to use as part of her stress-management campaign. She ate out with friends, drank in El Vino's after court, and occasionally gave parties at the flat, but there was rarely time for anything else. She could not remember when she had last been to the theatre; films often seemed alluring until the moment came, when there was almost always more work to be done; and concerts were something she did not even contemplate.
Back in the kitchen, she had just switched on the kettle for a fresh mug of instant coffee, which she hoped might taste better than the first, when she saw that her answering machine was winking. She pressed its buttons, assuming that Antonia must have rung back while she was in the shower, but it was a quite different voice she heard, lighter, younger and infinitely kinder.
'Hi, Trish? It's Emma. I was just wondering if you felt like meeting up for some food, or a drink or something a walk, maybe. It's been days since we spoke, and it would be good to see you and hear how the work's going. I've got a great new case to tell you about quite funny, too, for a change. Ring if you feel like it. But don't bother if you're busy. Lots of love. Bye.'
Trish smiled as she thought of Emma Gnatche, a specialist in lie detection and the psychology of false confessions, who was one of her closest friends. If it had not been for what had happened to Charlotte, Trish would have rung her straight back and arranged to meet at once. As it was, she thought she would have to wait in case Antonia had phoned.
With the television on again so that she could catch any news there might be, Trish sat down and tried to read the papers. She did not have long to wait.
'Antonia?' she said urgently into the receiver as soon as she had picked it up.
'Trish, thank God you're there. And thank you for your message. I should have known you'd ring. It's ... it's ... I can't ... oh, you know.'
'I can imagine.' Trish turned down the sound on the television. 'Antonia, has there been any news?'
'No. Nothing. It's hell.'
'I can't tell you how sorry I am. Look, I don't want to get in your way or anything, but would it help if I came round?'
'Would you?' Antonia sounded so surprised that Trish wondered whether her increasing reluctance to accept invitations to her cousin's stultifying dinner parties had been misinterpreted as rejection. 'It's terrible here. The press are outside and they keep banging on the door all the time, wanting me to tell them how I feel. How the hell do they think I feel? I'm desperate and I could slaughter bloody Nicky. She's a fully trained nanny: how could she let something like this happen?'
'God knows. Look, I'll come straight round, but as soon as it feels as if I'm in the way, you must tell me. OK? Promise?'
'All right. The police may be here when you arrive. They've rung to say they want to talk to me, God knows why. Apparently they haven't got any clues yet. Oh Trish, what am I going to do?'
'Is Robert with you?'
'No. He's got some crisis on at the office. He couldn't stay.'
For a moment Trish was speechless. No one's work crisis could possibly be more important than this.
'Hang on, Antonia,' she said tersely. 'I'll be round as soon as I can.'
Bloody Robert, Trish thought as she put down the receiver; that's absolutely bloody typical. As soon as there's any trouble, he's off. How could he? He may not care about Charlotte, but even he must have some idea of how Antonia's feeling. And he owes her. My God, how he owes her.
She grabbed her car keys and some money out of the jar that stood between the tea-bags and the dried milk powder, and was halfway to the door before she remembered the state in which Antonia lived. Dithering uncharacteristically by the front door for a moment, Trish told herself that her present sloppy get-up was irrelevant in the circumstances; Antonia probably wouldn't even notice.
Even so, she ran back up the spiral stairs to the gallery where her bed and clothes were, wrenched off her T-shirt and changed into an almost-pressed shirt, socks and boots, and a linen jacket.
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