Jenna had always been Joe McGrath’s best friend and secret crush . . . until he introduced her to the enigmatic but charming Jamie Chetwood. After Jenna and Jamie married, Joe moved on and began a prominent legal career. But always in the back of his mind were the Chetwoods, who seemingly disappeared four years ago, and now Jenna’s parents want Joe to find their daughter. With the help of his rather complicated new girlfriend, Sarah, he starts to uncover things he wishes he’d left buried in the past.
A Death Divided tells the story of a missing woman who may have gone into hiding because some truths are too jarring to be brought to light.
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A Death Divided
By Clare Francis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Clare Francis
All rights reserved.
Joe met the malign gaze of Mr. Al Ritch from six thousand miles away, and wished the technology undone. The conference link had been installed at a time when the firm was in thrall to the power of eye contact and body language, but it seemed to Joe that, more often than not, one side came to see through a glass darkly, and for the last hour the only language his client's jutting head and lowering frown had conveyed was gathering mistrust.
Joe was stuck in a conference room with two members of his team, a fiery Scot called Anna, and Ed, a quiet junior with big ambition, both of them grim-faced after more than two hours at the coalface and no hope of an early reprieve. It was a Friday evening in the runup to Christmas. The rest of the Merrow office had emptied for the weekend and the only sound was the muted hiss of traffic from a rain-soaked Gracechurch Street five floors below.
In front of them, the TV monitor relayed golden strips of sunlight, a pale wood table with water glasses and, seated centre-stage between four of his team, the bulbous figure of Mr. Al Ritch, wearing short-sleeved shirt, gold Rolex and a thatch of compressed sandy hair which Anna swore he took off and put on a stand at night.
His heavy features were showing puzzlement. 'Now, how's that agin, Joe?'
For what had to be the third time Joe explained the importance of obtaining detailed witness statements from those who could support their case.
'Right down to the project managers?'
'Definitely. Yes.' With Al Ritch, Joe had long since taken to expressing himself in absolutes.
'But let's jus' get this straight, Joe – you're proposin' to go see these guys yourselves? Hell, they're spread all around the globe. Five o' them – nah, what is it, Larry?' He turned to his right-hand man. 'Six.'
Anna gave a snort of exasperation and cleared her throat to hide it.
Joe said, 'This case is going to be decided on the facts, Mr — er, Al. It could turn on the smallest details. We need to obtain the most comprehensive witness statements possible. We —'
'Joe, perhaps you'd be kind enough to explain this one thing fer me,' Ritch interrupted in his slow drawl. 'Jus' exactly what is it you think they can tell you that I myself have not already told you? Is my word not good enough?'
Joe knew it would be a mistake to take Al Ritch for a fool – the man had built up a mineral exploration business worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He also knew that Ritch had never been involved in litigation before and must be allowed a degree of uncertainty, yet if Ritch was trying to screw up his chances of success he was going about it precisely the right way. He said carefully, 'Your word is good, Al, of course it is, but one person's word is never going to be enough in an English court of law, I'm afraid. They like corroborative evidence, the more the better.'
Ritch tipped his head towards one of his colleagues and said in a whisper that couldn't fail to be picked up by the microphones, 'Yer think these guys jus' tryin' ter jack up their fees, Larry?'
Joe saw Anna's hands splay out in silent fury, while Ed hissed softly between his teeth. For the moment Joe could think of nothing useful to say. Until then he'd always taken the view that the easy clients more than made up for the demanding ones, but in that instant, as he stared at the unlovely image of Mr. Al Ritch, he longed to be free of them all. This realisation had an unnerving clarity to it, like a jog of recognition: subconsciously or otherwise, he had been here before.
He said, 'Perhaps I could put it this way, Al – if we obtain this corroborative evidence, we have a reasonable chance of winning. If we don't, our chances are going to be severely reduced.'
'But jus' how many o' these statements we talkin' about here, Joe? How many round-the-world air tickets for you and your guys, huh? Two? Four? Six?'
'You'll have to trust to our judgement on that, Al.'
But Ritch had not made his fortune by leaving too much to trust. 'Okay, Joe,' he conceded suspiciously. 'But, listen here —' He stabbed a warning finger at the camera. 'Let's start with the minimum, like you go and talk to jus' two o' these guys, and we take it on from there. You hear?'
'Sure, Al. We can start from there.'
Ritch leant back in his chair with the satisfaction of an old hand who has trounced an ill-advised attempt to hoodwink him, until his attention was taken by a fast-food carton which appeared camera-left and was pushed across the table towards him. Dipping into it, he pulled out a multi-tiered hamburger and, swivelling his chair away to face his colleagues, began to eat. The microphone was still on, the transmission faultless, and in London they were treated to the glutinous churnings of the hamburger as it progressed around Ritch's mouth.
For a second no one stirred, then Ed murmured, 'Well, thank you for sharing this with us.'
Anna growled, 'I think I'm going to be sick.'
Joe made a small quieting gesture and leant into the microphone. 'Al? Perhaps this might be a good time for us to take a break?'
But Ritch was too busy agreeing on the excellence of the fried onions to hear.
Joe lowered his forehead slowly onto his fingertips.
Anna touched his arm. 'Joe – for God's sake, we've been at this for ever. Let's call it a day.'
Joe pushed the microphone slowly out of range. 'Not an option.'
Watching her face fall, he asked, 'Did you have something special lined up for tonight?'
She gave an ironic laugh. 'Only my life, Joe. Only my life.'
Anna had been in the firm for less than a year, but already she had the slightly haunted look that Joe recognised from his own reflection in the mirror each morning. He saw in her, as he saw in Ed, the kind of lawyer he had been not so long ago, exultant at landing a job with Merrow, confident in his abilities, but worn down by the long hours which ate so regularly into his free time.
'And you, Ed?'
Ed's expression suggested he had plenty of things to do that night but would stay and man the barricades as necessary.
Coming to an abrupt decision, Joe said, 'Off you go, both of you. Go on – scoot.'
The two of them went through the motions of arguing, but he waved them rapidly away.
Anna hovered loyally. 'But what about you, Joe? What are you meant to be doing tonight?'
Joe put on a fierce look. 'None of your damned business. Salsa dancing, lying down with a large drink – I don't know. Quick, before I change my mind.'
'Not the new girlfriend?'
'Someone called Sarah?'
His answering frown didn't entirely hide his surprise; he hadn't thought anyone knew. 'Your wild imagination again,' he protested too weakly and too late. 'Completely out of control.'
Anna made a face of mock contrition. 'Okay, but give yourself a break, Joe. You can't go on like this.'
'You're sounding like a stress therapist. Go on – bugger off.'
Anna touched his shoulder. 'Thanks for this, Joe. You're a total star.'
'What I am,' he grunted, 'is a total idiot.'
After they'd gone, Joe tried to work out how Anna had got to hear about Sarah and decided it must have come from the ex-Merrow lawyer who'd introduced them. It certainly hadn't come from his own mouth. Life at the firm was quite hard enough without providing fodder for the office gossips. There was a price to pay for non-participation of course – he'd got a reputation as a dark horse – but better that than the jokes and the need to explain the bewildering fact that, until Sarah, there had been no one special in his life for some time.
Fishing out his mobile, he went to the window to call her. It was half-past eight; he tried to guess where she'd be. Not at the office anyway. She worked for the West London division of the Crown Prosecution Service, and, frantic though the job was, they all knocked off at five. Shopping then, though peering out between the slats of the blind at the streaming rain he thought not. He decided she was most likely to be at home in a hot bath. He hadn't seen her flat yet – they always went to his place – but he imagined it to be neatly kept and cleverly furnished, because that was Sarah's style. He pictured her now in a white bath, pale hair tied up on top of her head, long legs stretched out in scented water, breasts just breaking the surface. Purely from wishful thinking, he liked to imagine she was thinking of him.
Her mobile didn't answer, nor, it seemed, would her house line. Then, just as he was leaving a message, she picked up.
The quiet solemnity of her voice still took him by surprise.
'I've got caught up,' he said, and explained about the video conference. 'Dinner could be late.'
But she never minded waiting, just as she never complained when he had to cancel at the last minute. 'That's okay,' she said. 'Whenever.'
'I'll call when I'm on my way. Nine thirty, with a bit of luck.'
'Shall I warn the restaurant?' It was typical of her to cover such practicalities.
'That'd be great.' Before ringing off, he had to ask, 'What are you doing?'
'Now? Oh, just Friday night stuff. You know. Sorting myself out. Talking to Fiona.' Her flatmate was also in the CPS, at another branch.
'Not in the bath?'
'Half an hour ago. Why?'
He didn't admit to his vision of her. They hadn't reached the stage of trading body talk, and with Sarah he wasn't sure they ever would; but then her reserve had been one of the attractions.
'Just jealous,' he replied, which was true.
When he rang off, his phone was showing voicemail, but he didn't retrieve it until he'd dropped back into his seat and checked on Al Ritch, now in side view. Watching Ritch root around his mouth for stray morsels, poking first his tongue then his finger deep into every crevice, Joe felt something like envy. Not to give a damn for other people's opinions, not to know the meaning of embarrassment, was surely to travel through life unscathed.
Joe dialled up his messages: a friend asking him to lunch; a sometime girlfriend organising a party. The automated voice was just timing the next message at 7.52 p.m. when Al Ritch dragged a paper napkin across his mouth and swivelled round to face the camera again. Joe met his gaze as the message began to run.
'Joe? It's Alan here.' At the sound of the familiar voice, Joe's chest tightened, he felt a sharp beat of alarm, and in an instinctive move twisted round in his chair and turned his back to Ritch.
The message was brief; Alan wanted Joe to phone when he had a moment. There was no hint of urgency in his voice, yet Joe's mind raced all the same. Alan hardly ever used the phone for social reasons; he spent too much of his life chasing up unobtainable hospital appointments for his patients. Joe could only think that his father must be ill. Or forgetting to pay his bills again – Alan had alerted Joe before. Or – his first thought, if he was entirely honest, always his first thought where Alan was concerned – that there was news of Jenna.
Ritch's voice sounded from the monitor. 'You with us, Mr. McGrath?'
'Won't be a moment, Mr. Ritch.' Joe flung a brief placatory smile over his shoulder as he switched off the microphone.
He dialled Alan's home number and heard Helena answer in her distinctive throaty voice. 'He's not here, Joe. He's on a home visit.'
'He left a message, Helena. Do you know what it's about?'
'Best to ask him, Joe.'
'It's not Dad?'
'No. Your father's all right, Joe. You know.'
He knew. 'Nothing urgent then?'
'Not urgent, no.'
But there was something in her tone, a hesitation, a note of disapproval, that made Joe ask, 'It's not Jenna?'
The mention of her daughter produced a heavy pause. Finally she said, 'Speak to Alan, Joe. He'll be back around ten.'
'But Helena —'
'Better make it ten thirty to be on the safe side.'
'If it's about Jenna, tell me now,' he pleaded gently.
Helena was silent for so long that Joe thought he'd lost the connection. He was calling 'Hello?' for the second time when she replied in a flat voice, 'He wants you to find Jenna. That's what he wants.'
Joe felt a mixture of surprise, confusion and disappointment, but mainly confusion. 'Any particular reason, Helena? Has something happened?'
'Not happened exactly.'
'There's no news of Jenna?'
'No. Alan got excited about something the other day, but no, there's no news.'
'But something's happened?'
'It's a legal thing, Joe. A property. That's all I know.'
He tried to remember all the things he'd been planning to do over the weekend, and to work out whether he could put them off. 'I'd better come down, Helena. Is tomorrow morning okay?'
'For heaven's sake don't come specially, Joe.'
'I was going to see Dad anyway,' he lied.
'Well, surgery finishes at ten.' She added under her breath, 'In theory.'
Ringing off, Joe kept his back to the camera a little longer. To find Jenna: if only. How many times had he imagined it? How many times had he looked for ways of tracking her down? Helena spoke as if it was a matter of decision, almost of will, but it was four years since there'd been any sign of her and barely a week that Joe hadn't imagined the worst, the best, and almost everything in between. Why Alan should think he'd be able to do something after all this time, he had no idea. There was no magic wand, and there never would be. For Joe, there was only the certainty of his own guilt, like a shadow at his shoulder.
A full belly seemed to have done little for Al Ritch's mood. His sandy eyes had taken on a beady look. When Joe explained that Anna and Ed had been called away to another meeting, he put on his favourite expression of exaggerated puzzlement. 'Mr. McGrath, I was given to understand there were to be four of your people working full-time on my case, and all I see is one. I am not – repeat not – gettin' a message of total one hundred per cent commitment here.'
'We are committed to winning, Al. Absolutely committed to winning.' The words rang mockingly in Joe's ears.
'Yeah? Well, where in hell's your senior guy then? Where's Galbraith? Glad enough to show his face when he wanted the business, but where's he now, that's what I'd like to know —'
'He's fully briefed —'
'– Cos the way I see it, I'm not convinced of just how much weight you bring to my case, Mr. Joe McGrath.' He jabbed a belligerent finger at the camera. 'Are you the man? That's what I'd like to know. I need to be one hundred per cent sure I'm talking to the man.'
Joe wasn't sure what went through his head just then, whether the tangle of anxiety that always attached itself to thoughts of Jenna tipped his judgement, whether he had simply reached his limits at the end of a long week, but he felt a sudden heat, a leap of impatience.
'I assure you that this man here has been doing his best for you, Mr. Ritch, but since you're obviously having a problem about that I suggest we call it a day.'
Ritch cocked an ear. 'How's that?'
'You will not be charged for this meeting, Mr. Ritch.'
'Now, hang on there —'
'We will contact you on Monday morning with four entire people in place. In the meantime —'
'You end this meetin', Mr. McGrath, and that's the end —'
'I wish you a good evening, Mr. Ritch. And a fine weekend.'
Moving rapidly, Joe went to the monitor and threw the switch.
The relief was transitory, the nasty feeling in the pit of his stomach longer lasting. He needed no reminding that, only a couple of months before, a colleague in Litigation had been fired for losing an important client, nor that the guy had been senior to Joe by three years, with the dubious protection of a partnership. Someone with a stronger sense of self-preservation might have called Ritch back right away, but, in the absence of a gun to his head, Joe was damned if he was going to grovel.
This didn't stop the cold jittery feeling from flitting around his stomach as he set off in the pouring rain for the restaurant. It wasn't until he came out of the Underground that he remembered he'd forgotten to tell Sarah he was on his way. She would still be at her flat, waiting for his call. He would have phoned there and then from the shelter of a doorway, but the restaurant was less than fifty yards away. It was one of those places with floor-length windows along the whole of one side which provides an unrestricted view of the diners, like something on reality TV. Crossing the road towards it, Joe almost bumped into the traffic island as he spotted a familiar head of ash-blonde hair, a half profile, a pair of long slim legs, and realised Sarah was already there, sitting at the bar. He felt confused again, pleasantly this time. Perhaps he'd got the arrangements wrong, perhaps they'd fixed a time after all; perhaps – and remembering her scrupulous practicality it seemed likely – she'd decided to come on ahead to be sure of arriving in good time. If so, he was touched and a little flattered, and a flattery never did anyone any harm at the end of a long week.
By some sixth sense – or a mirror he couldn't see – she lifted her head from her newspaper and looked round as he came up behind her.
Excerpted from A Death Divided by Clare Francis. Copyright © 2001 Clare Francis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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