When Gaby’s plane is delayed, she’s forced to share a hotel room with a stranger: Lauren, who is terrified of her. But why is she scared of Gaby in particular? Lauren won’t explain. Instead, she blurts out something about an innocent man going to prison for murder. Gaby soon suspects that Lauren’s presence on her flight isn’t a coincidence, because the murder victim is Francine Breary, the wife of the only man Gaby has ever truly loved.
Tim Breary has confessed. He’s even provided the police with evidence. The only thing he hasn’t given them is a motive. He claims to have no idea why he murdered his wife…
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POLICE EXHIBIT 1431B/SK—
TRANSCRIPT OF HANDWRITTEN LETTER FROM KERRY JOSE TO FRANCINE BREARY DATED 14 DECEMBER 2010
Why are you still here, Francine?
I’ve always believed that people can will their own deaths. If our minds can make us wake up exactly a minute before our alarm clocks are due to go off, they must be capable of stopping our breath. Think about it: brain and breath are more powerfully linked than brain and bedside table. A heart begged to stop by a mind that won’t take no for an answer—what chance does it stand? That’s what I’ve always thought, anyway.
And I can’t believe you want to stick around. Even if you do, it won’t be up to you for much longer. Someone will kill you. Soon. Every day I change my mind about who it will be. I don’t feel the need to try and stop them, only to tell you. By giving you the chance to take yourself away, out of reach, I am being fair to everybody.
Let me admit it: I am trying to talk you into dying because I’m scared you’ll recover. How can the impossible feel possible? It must mean I’m still afraid of you.
Tim isn’t. Do you know what he asked me once, years ago? He and I were in your kitchen at Heron Close. Those white napkin rings that always reminded me of neck braces were on the table. You’d got them out of the drawer, and the brown napkins with ducks around the border, and slammed them down without saying anything; Tim was supposed to do the rest, whether or not he deemed it important for napkins to be inserted into rings only to be taken out again fifteen minutes later. Dan had gone out to collect the Chinese takeaway and you’d marched off to the bottom of the garden to sulk. Tim had ordered something healthy and bean-sprouty that we all knew he’d hate, and you’d accused him of choosing it for the wrong reason: to please you. I remember blinking back tears as I laid the table, after I’d clumsily grabbed the bundle of cutlery from his hands. There was nothing I could do to rescue him from you, but I could spare him the effort of putting the forks and knives out, and I was determined to. Little things were all Tim would let us do for him in those days, so Dan and I did them, as many of them as possible, putting all the effort and care into them that we could. Even so, I couldn’t touch those wretched napkin rings.
When I was sure I wasn’t going to cry, I turned and saw a familiar look on Tim’s face, the one that means “There’s something I’d like you to know, but I’m not prepared to say it, so I’m going to mess with your head instead.” You won’t be able to imagine this expression unless you’ve seen it, and I’m certain you never have. Tim gave up trying to communicate with you within a week of marrying you. “What?” I asked him.
“I wonder about you, Kerry,” he said. He meant for me to hear the pantomime suspicion in his voice. I knew he suspected me of nothing, and guessed that he was trying to find a camouflaged way to talk about himself, as he often did. I asked him what he wondered, and he said loudly, as if to an audience stretching back several rows in a large hall, “Imagine Francine dead.” Three words that planted an instant ache of longing in my chest. I so much wanted you not to be there anymore, Francine, but we were stuck with you. Before your stroke, I thought you’d probably live till you were a hundred and twenty.
“Would you still be scared of her?” Tim asked. Anyone listening who didn’t know him well would have thought he was teasing me and enjoying it. “I think you would. Even if you knew she was dead and never coming back.”
“You say it as if there’s an alternative,” I pointed out. “Dead and coming back.”
“Would you still hear her voice in your head, saying all the things she’d say if she were alive? Would you be any freer of her than you are now? If you couldn’t see her, would you imagine she must be somewhere else, watching you?”
“Tim, don’t be daft,” I said. “You’re the least superstitious person I know.”
“But we’re talking about you,” he said in a tone of polished innocence, again drawing attention to his act.
“No. I wouldn’t be scared of anyone who was dead.”
“If you’d be equally afraid of her dead, then killing her would achieve nothing,” Tim went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “Apart from probably a prison sentence.” He took four wineglasses with chunky opaque green glass stems out of a cupboard. I’d always hated them too, for their slime-at-the-bottom-of-your-drink effect.
“I’ve never understood why anyone thinks it’s interesting to speculate about the difference between murderers and the rest of us.” Tim pulled a bottle of white wine out of the fridge. “Who cares what makes one person willing and able to kill and another not? The answer’s obvious: degrees of suffering, and where you are on the bravery–cowardice spectrum. There’s nothing more to it. The only distinction worth investigating is the one between those of us whose presence in the world, however lackluster and chaotic, doesn’t crush the spirit in others to extinction, and those about whom that can’t be said, however kind we might want to be. Every murder victim is someone who has inspired at least one person to wish them out of existence. And we’re supposed to sympathize when they meet a bad end.” He made a dismissive noise.
I laughed at his outrageousness, then felt guilty for falling for it. Tim is never better at cheering me up than when he sees no hope of consolation for himself; I’m supposed to feel happier, and imagine that he’s following the same emotional trajectory. “You’re saying all murder victims are asking for it?” I willingly rose to the bait. If he wants to discuss something, however ridiculous, even now, I debate with him until he decides he’s had enough. Dan does too. It’s one of the many millions of odd forms love can take. I doubt you’d understand.
“You’re assuming, wrongly, that the victim of a murder is always the person who’s been killed and not the killer.” Tim poured himself a glass of wine. He didn’t offer me one. “To cause someone so much inconvenience that they’re willing to risk their liberty and sacrifice what’s left of their humanity to remove you from the face of the earth ought to be regarded as a more serious crime than taking a gun or a blunt instrument and ending a life, all other things being equal.”
By inconvenience, he meant pain. “You’re biased,” I said. I knew Dan might be back any second with the food, and I wanted to say something more direct than I’d normally have risked. I decided that, in starting this extraordinary conversation, Tim had given me his tacit permission. “If you think of Francine as a spirit-crusher, if the only reason you haven’t killed her is that you’d be more scared of her dead than alive . . .” I said.
“I don’t know where you’ve got all that from.” Tim grinned. “Hearing things again?” We both understood why he was smiling: I had received his message and would not forget it. He knew it was safe with me. It took me years of knowing Tim to work out that change is never what he’s after; all he wants is to stow the important information with someone he can trust.
“You can leave her more easily than you think,” I told him, craving change—the enormous, irreversible kind—more than enough for both of us. “There doesn’t have to be a confrontation. You don’t need to tell her you’re going, or have any contact with her after you’ve left. Dan and I can help you. Let Francine keep this house. Come and live with us.”
“You can’t help,” Tim said firmly. He paused, long enough for me to understand—or misunderstand, as I knew he’d insist if I made an issue of it—before adding, “Because I don’t need help. I’m fine.”
I overheard him talking to you yesterday, Francine. He wasn’t weighing his every word, planning several conversational moves ahead. He was just talking, telling you another Gaby story. It involved an airport, of course. Gaby seems to live in airports, when she’s not in midair. I don’t know how she can stand it—it would drive me insane. This particular story was about the time the scanning machine at Madrid-Barajas ate one of her shoes, and Tim was enjoying telling it. It sounded as if he was saying whatever came to mind without censoring himself at all. Nothing contrived, no element of performance. Very un-Tim. As I eavesdropped, I realized that any fear he once had is long gone. What I can’t work out is: does that mean he’s likely to kill you, or that he needs you to live forever?
THURSDAY, 10 MARCH 2011
The young woman next to me is more upset than I am. Not only me; she is more upset than everyone else in the airport put together, and she wants us all to know it. Behind me, people are grumbling and saying, “Oh, no,” but no one else is weeping apart from this girl, or shaking with fury. She is able to harangue the Fly4You official and cry copiously at the same time. I’m impressed that she seems not to need to interrupt her diatribe, ever, to gulp incoherently in the way that sobbing people normally do. Also, unlike regular folk, she appears not to know the difference between a travel delay and bereavement.
I don’t feel sorry for her. I might if her reaction were less extreme. I feel sorriest for people who insist they are absolutely fine, even while their organs are being consumed at great speed by a flesh-eating bug. This probably says something bad about me.
I am not upset at all. If I don’t get home tonight, I’ll get there tomorrow. That will be soon enough.
“Answer my question!” the girl yells at the poor mild-mannered German man who has the misfortune to be posted at boarding gate B56. “Where’s the plane now? Is it still here? Is it down there?” She points to the concertina-walled temporary air-bridge that opens behind him, the one that, five minutes ago, we were all hoping to walk along and find our plane at the end of. “It’s down there, isn’t it?” she demands. Her face is unlined, blemish-free and weirdly flat; that of a vicious rag doll. She looks about eighteen, if that. “Listen, mate, there’s hundreds of us and only one of you. We could push past you and all get on the plane, a load of angry Brits, and refuse to get off till someone flies us home! I wouldn’t mess with a load of angry Brits if I were you!” She pulls off her black leather jacket as if preparing for a physical fight. The word “FATHER” is tattooed on her right upper arm, in large capital letters, blue ink. She’s wearing tight black jeans, a bullet belt, and lots of straps on her shoulders from a white bra, a pink camisole and a red sleeveless top.
“The plane is being rerouted to Cologne,” the German Fly4You man tells her patiently, for the third time. A name badge is pinned to his maroon uniform: Bodo Neudorf. I would find it hard to speak harshly to anyone named Bodo, though I wouldn’t expect others to share this particular scruple. “The weather is too dangerous,” he says. “There is nothing that I can do. I am sorry.” A reason-based appeal. In his shoes, I’d probably try the same tactic—not because it will work, but because if you possess rationality and are in the habit of using it regularly, you’re probably something of a fan and likely to overvalue its potential usefulness, even when dealing with somebody who finds it more helpful to accuse innocent people of hiding airplanes from her.
“You keep saying it’s being rerouted! That means you haven’t sent it anywhere yet, right?” She wipes her wet cheeks—an action violent enough to be mistaken for hitting herself in the face—and whirls round to face the crowd behind us. “He hasn’t sent it away at all,” she announces, the vibration of her outraged voice winning the sound war at boarding gate B56, drowning out the constant electronic pinging noises that announce the imminent announcement of the opening of gates for other flights, ones more fortunate than ours. “How can he have sent it away? Five minutes ago we were all sitting here ready to board. You can’t send a plane off to anywhere that quickly! I say we don’t let him send it away. We’re here, the plane must be here, and we all want to go home. We don’t care about the sodding weather! Who’s up for it?”
I’d like to turn round and see if everybody’s finding her one-woman show as embarrassingly compulsive as I am, but I don’t want our fellow non-passengers to imagine she and I are together simply because we’re standing side by side. Better to make it obvious that she’s nothing to do with me. I smile encouragingly at Bodo Neudorf. He replies with a curtailed smile of his own, as if to say, “I appreciate the gesture of support, but you would be foolish to imagine that anything you might do could compensate for the presence of the monstrosity beside you.”
Fortunately, Bodo doesn’t seem unduly alarmed by her threats. He has probably noticed that many of the people booked onto Flight 1221 are extremely well-behaved choirgirls between the approximate ages of eight and twelve, still wearing their choir robes after their concert in Dortmund earlier today. I know this because their choirmaster and the five or six parent chaperones were reminiscing proudly, while we waited to board, about how well the girls sang something called “Angeli, Archangeli.” They didn’t sound like the sort of people who would be quick to knock a German airport employee to the ground in a mass stampede, or insist on exposing their talented offspring to dangerous storm conditions for the sake of getting home when they expected to.
Bodo picks up a small black device that is attached to the departure gate desk by a length of coiled black wire, and speaks into it, having first pressed the button that makes the pinging noise that must precede all airport speech. “This is an announcement for all passengers for Flight 1221 to Combingham, England. That is Fly4You Flight 1221 to Combingham, England. Your plane is being rerouted to Cologne Airport and will depart from there. Please proceed to the Baggage Reclaim area to collect your bags, and then go to wait outside the airport, immediately outside the Departures Hall. We are trying to make the arrangement that coaches will collect you and take you to Cologne Airport. Please make your way to the collection point outside the Departures Hall as soon as possible.”
To my right, a smartly dressed woman with postbox-red hair and an American accent says, “We don’t need to hurry, people. These are hypothetical coaches: the slowest kind.”
“How long on the coach from here to Cologne?” a man calls out.
“I have no details yet about the timetable of the coaches,” Bodo Neudorf announces. His voice is lost in the spreading ripple of groans.
I’m glad I can miss out on the visit to Baggage Reclaim. The thought of everyone else traipsing down there to pick up the luggage they waited in a shuffling, zigzagging, rope-corralled queue to check in not much more than an hour ago makes me feel exhausted. It’s eight p.m. I was supposed to be landing in Combingham at eight-thirty English time, and going home for a long soak in a hot bubble bath with a chilled glass of Muscat. I woke up at five this morning to catch the seven o’clock from Combingham to Düsseldorf. I’m not a morning person, and resent any day that requires me to wake up earlier than seven a.m.; this one has already gone on too long.
“Oh, this is a fucking joke!” Psycho Rag Doll pipes up. “You have got to be shitting me!” If Bodo imagined that by amplifying his voice and projecting it electronically he could intimidate his nemesis into silent obedience, he was mistaken. “I’m not going to collect any suitcases!”
A thin bald man in a gray suit steps forward and says, “In that case, you’re likely to arrive home without your bag. And everything in it.” Inwardly, I cheer; Flight 1221 has its first quiet hero. He has a newspaper tucked under his arm. He grips its corner with his other hand, expecting retaliation.
“Keep out of it, you!” Rag Doll yells in his face. “Look at you: thinking you’re better than me! I haven’t even got a suitcase—that’s how much you know!” She turns her attention back to Bodo. “What, so you’re going to unload everyone’s cases off the plane? How does that make sense? You tell me how that makes sense. That’s just . . . I’m sorry for swearing, but that’s just fucking plain stupid!”
“Or,” I find myself saying to her, because I can’t let the bald hero stand alone and no one else seems to be rushing to his aid, “you’re the one who’s stupid. If you haven’t checked in a bag, then of course you’re not going to collect any suitcases. Why would you?”
She stares at me. Tears are still pouring down her face.
“Also, if the plane was here now and could safely fly to Cologne Airport, we could fly there on it, couldn’t we?” I say. “Or even fly home, which is what we’d all ideally like to do.” Shit. Why did I open my mouth? It’s not my job, or even Bodo Neudorf’s, to correct her flawed thinking. The bald man has wandered away with his newspaper and left me to it. Ungrateful git. “Because of the weather, our plane can’t fly into Düsseldorf,” I continue with my mission to spread peace and understanding. “It’s never been here, it isn’t here now, and your suitcase, if you had one, wouldn’t be on it, and wouldn’t need to be taken off it. The plane is somewhere in the sky.” I point upward. “It was heading for Düsseldorf, and now it’s changed course and is heading for Cologne.”
“No-o,” she says unsteadily, looking me up and down with a kind of shocked disgust, as if she’s horrified to find herself having to address me. “That’s not right. We were all sitting there.” She waves an arm toward the curved orange plastic seats on their rows of black metal stalks. “It said to go to the gate. It only says that when the plane’s there ready for boarding.”
“Normally that’s true, but not tonight,” I tell her briskly. I can almost see the cogs going round behind her eyes as her mental machinery struggles to connect one thought to another. “When they told us to go to the gate, they still hoped the plane would be able to make it to Düsseldorf. Shortly after we all pitched up here, they realized that wouldn’t be possible.” I glance at Bodo Neudorf, who half nods, half shrugs. Is he deferring to me? That’s insane. He’s supposed to know more about Fly4You’s behind-the-scenes operations than I do.
Angry Weeping Girl averts her eyes and shakes her head. I can hear her silent scorn: Believe that if you want to. Bodo is speaking into a walkie-talkie in German. Choirgirls nearby start to ask if they’ll get home tonight. Their parents tell them they don’t know. Three men in football shirts are discussing how much beer they might be able to drink between now and whenever we fly, speculating about whether Fly4You will settle the bar tab.
A worried gray-haired woman in her late fifties or early sixties tells her husband that she only has ten euros left. “What? Why?” he says impatiently. “That’s not enough.”
“Well, I didn’t think we’d need any more.” She flaps around him, accepting responsibility, hoping for mercy.
“You didn’t think?” he demands angrily. “What about emergencies?”
I’ve used up all my interventional capacity, otherwise I might ask him if he’s ever heard of a cash machine, and what he was planning to do if his wife spontaneously combusted and all the currency in her handbag went up in smoke. What about that emergency, bully-breath? Is your wife actually thirty-five, and does she only look sixty because she’s wasted the best years of her life on you?
There’s nothing like an airport for making you lose faith in humanity. I walk away from the crowd, past a row of unmanned boarding gates, in no particular direction. I am sick of the sight of every single one of my fellow travelers, even the ones whose faces I haven’t noticed. Yes, even the nice choirgirls. I’m not looking forward to seeing any of them again—in the helpless, hopeful gaggle we will form outside the Departures Hall, where we will stand for hours in the rain and wind; across the aisle of the coach; slumped half asleep at various bars around Cologne Airport.
On the other hand, it’s a delayed plane, not a bereavement. I fly a lot. This sort of thing happens all the time. I’ve heard the words “We are sorry to announce . . .” as often as I’ve seen the flecked gray heavy-duty linoleum flooring at Combingham Airport, with its flecked blue border at every edge, for contrast. I’ve stood beneath information screens and watched minor delays metastasize into cancellations as often as I’ve seen the small parallel lines that form the borderless squares that in turn make up the pattern on a million sets of silver airplane steps; once I dreamed that the walls and ceiling of my bedroom were covered with textured aluminum tread.
The worst thing about a delay, always, is ringing Sean and telling him that, yet again, I’m not going to be back when I said I would be. It’s a call I can’t face making. Although . . . in this instance, it might not be so bad. I might be able to make it not so bad.
I smile to myself as the idea blooms in my mind. Then I reach into my handbag with my right hand—not looking, still walking—and rummage until I find the rectangular plastic-wrapped box I’m looking for: the pregnancy test I’ve been carrying around with me for the past ten days and never quite finding the right moment to do.
I’ve been worrying quite a lot recently about my need to procrastinate, though I’m obviously putting off tackling the problem. I’ve never been like this about anything work-related, and I’m still not, but if it’s something personal and important, I’ll do my best to postpone it indefinitely. This could be why I don’t weep in airports when my flights don’t depart on time; delay is my natural rhythm.
Part of me is still not ready to face the test, though with every day that passes, the whole rigmarole of weeing on a plastic wand and awaiting its verdict starts to seem more and more pointless. I am so obviously pregnant. There’s a weirdly sensitive patch of skin on the top of my head that never used to be there, and I’m more tired than I’ve ever been.
I glance at my watch, wondering if I’ve got time to do this, then tut at my own gullibility. The American woman was right. There are no physical real-life coaches on their way to rescue us. God knows when there will be. Bodo didn’t have a clue what was going on; he fooled us all into assuming he was on top of the arrangements by being German. Which means I’ve got at least fifteen minutes to do the test and phone Sean while the rest of them are retrieving their luggage. Luckily, Sean is easily distracted, like a kid. When I tell him I won’t be back tonight, he’ll gear up to start complaining. When I tell him the pregnancy test was positive, he’ll be so delighted that he won’t care when I get back.
I stop at the nearest ladies’ toilet and force myself to go in, repeating silent reassurances in my head: This isn’t scary. You already know the result. Seeing a small blue cross will change nothing.
I unwrap the box, take out the test, drop the instruction leaflet back in my bag. I’ve done this before—once, last year, when I knew I wasn’t pregnant and took the test only because Sean wouldn’t accept my gut instinct as good enough.
It’s not a cross, it’s a plus sign. Let’s not call it a cross: bad for morale.
It doesn’t take long before there’s something to see. Already, a flash of blue. Oh, God. I can’t do this. I only slightly want to have a baby. I think. I actually don’t know at all. More blue: two lines, spreading out horizontally. No plus sign yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
Sean will be pleased. That’s what I should focus on. I’m the sort of person who doubts everything and can never be uncomplicatedly happy. Sean’s reaction is more reliable than mine, and I know he’ll be thrilled. Having a baby will be fine. If I didn’t want to be pregnant, I’d have been secretly gulping down Mercilon for the past year, and I haven’t.
There is no blue cross in the wand’s larger window. And nothing is getting any bluer. It’s been more than five minutes since I did the test. I’m not an expert, but I have a strong sense that all the blueness that’s going to happen has happened already.
I am not pregnant. I can’t be.
An image flits through my mind: a tiny human figure, gold and featureless, punching the air in triumph. It’s gone before I can examine it in detail.
Now I really don’t want to speak to Sean. I have two disappointing pieces of news to deliver instead of one. The prospect of making the call is panicking me. If I have to do it at all, I need to get it over with. It seems hugely unfair that I can’t deal with this problem by pretending I don’t know anyone by the name of Sean Hamer and disappearing into a new life. That would be so much easier.
I leave the ladies’ toilet and start to retrace my steps to the Departures Hall, pulling my BlackBerry out of my jacket pocket. Sean answers after one ring. “Hi, babes,” he says. “What time are you back?” When I’m away, he sits and watches TV in the evening with his phone next to him, so that he doesn’t miss any of my calls or texts. I don’t know if this is normal loving partner behavior. I’d feel disloyal if I asked any of my friends, as if I was inviting them to slag Sean off.
“Sean, I’m not pregnant.”
Silence. Then, “But you said you were. You said you didn’t need to do a test—you knew.”
“You know what that means, don’t you?”
“What?” He sounds hopeful.
“I’m an arrogant fool who can’t be trusted. I really, really thought I was up the duff, but . . . obviously I was wrong. I must be feeling hormonal for some other reason.”
“Don’t take the word of one test,” Sean says. “Check. Buy another one. Can you buy one at the airport?”
“I don’t need to.” Of course you can buy a pregnancy test at an airport. I tell myself Sean doesn’t know this because he’s a man, not because he has no desire to venture beyond our living room, and spends every evening on the sofa watching sports on TV.
“If you’re not pregnant, why are you so late?” he asks.
I’d like to blame the weather conditions at Düsseldorf Airport, but I know that’s not what he means. “No idea.” I sigh. “Speaking of late, my flight is too. The plane’s been rerouted to Cologne—we’re about to set off there on a coach. Allegedly. Hopefully I’ll be back at some point tomorrow. Maybe very late tonight if we’re lucky.”
“Right,” Sean says tightly. “So, once again, my evening goes up in smoke.”
Be sympathetic. Don’t argue with him. “Shouldn’t that be, once again, my evening goes up in smoke? I’m the one who’s probably going to spend tonight sleeping upright in the passport control booth at Cologne Airport.” I hate myself when I use sentences that begin, “I’m the one who . . . ,” but I have a strong urge to point out that it is not Sean who is trapped in a large building full of electronic bleeping noises and strangers’ echoing voices, about to be shunted off to another similar bleeping gray-and-white neon-lit building. Sean is not the one struggling with the sense that he is being slowly disassembled on a molecular level, that his whole being has become pixelated and won’t attain proper personhood again until he next walks through his front door. If he were ever to find himself in that situation, and if I happened simultaneously to be sitting on the couch drinking beers and watching my favorite kind of TV, I like to think I’d show some sympathy.
And, pregnancy test notwithstanding, I’m still an arrogant fool who thinks she’s right about everything. I’ve tried to be humbler, but, frankly, remembering you might be wrong is not easy when the person you’re arguing with is Sean.
“Hopefully you’ll be back tomorrow?” he says. In the few seconds since he last spoke, he has been shoveling Carlsberg-flavored fuel into the furnace of his indignation. “What, you mean it might be the day after?”
“This may come as news to you, Sean, but I’m not exactly a big cheese at Cologne Airport. They don’t have to run all their flight schedules past me. I’m a powerless passenger, just as I am at Düsseldorf Airport. I’ve no idea when I’ll be back.”
“Great,” he snaps. “Will you bother to ring me when you do know?”
I resist the urge to crush my BlackBerry against the wall and reduce it to fine black powder. “I suspect what’ll happen is they’ll tell us one thing, then another, then something different altogether,” I say patiently. “Anything to keep us at bay while they desperately cobble together a plan for getting us home, and we stand outside the closed duty-free shop, shaking its metal grille and begging to be allowed in before we die of boredom.” I haven’t given up hope that Sean might notice I’m not enjoying myself this evening. “You don’t really want me to ring you every hour with an update, do you? Why don’t you look on Flight Tracker?”
“So you don’t care enough to keep me updated, but I’m supposed to sit by the laptop, looking—”
“No, you’re not supposed to do that. You can accept that I’ll be back soon, but that neither of us knows exactly when, and just deal with it like a grown-up.”
Sean mutters something under his breath.
“What was that?” I say, reluctant to let an infuriating statement go unheard and uncontested.
“I said, who’s the carrier?”
I stop walking.
It’s a shock to hear the words spoken so casually. I don’t want them in my head, but there’s nothing I can do. They are there. They will always be there, even if no one ever again speaks them aloud to me.
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)
I clear my throat. “Sorry, what did you say?”
“For fuck’s sake, Gaby! Who. Is. The. Carrier?”
An image of Tim storms my mind: at the top of a ladder at the Proscenium, looking down at me, holding a book in his right hand, clutching the ladder with his left. He has just read me a poem. Not i carry your heart; a different poem. By a poet who died young and tragically, whose name I don’t remember, about . . .
My skin starts to tingle with the weirdness of coincidence. The poem was about a delayed train. I don’t remember any of it but the last two lines: “Our time, in the hands of others, and too brief for words.” Tim approved of it. “See?” he shouted down at me. “If a poet has something important to say, he says it as simply as he can.” “Or she,” I said petulantly. “Or she,” Tim agreed. “But, rather like a poet, if an accountant has something important to say, he says it as simply as he can.” Who but Tim would have thought of that response so quickly?
Tim Breary is the carrier. But Sean can’t possibly mean that.
“Are you asking which airline I’m flying with? Fly4You.” Who’s the carrier? Why would he choose to put it like that? There’s no way he can know. If he did, he’d come straight out with it. Wouldn’t he?
You’re being paranoid.
“Flight number?” Sean asks.
“Got it. So . . . I guess I’ll see you when I see you.”
“Uh-huh,” I say lightly, and press the end-call button. Thank God that’s over.
I’ve sometimes wondered if the moving walkways in airports are there to fool us into believing the rest of the floor isn’t moving backward. I am still not where I need to be, and feel as if I’ve been walking for years, following the many signs directing me to Departures. Very soon, seeing the word won’t be enough to keep my spirits up. I might start to cackle like a deranged witch-monster and crab-walk sideways in the opposite direction, for the sheer hell of it.
I turn a corner and walk into an arm with “FATHER” tattooed on it. Its red-eyed owner has stopped crying. She’s tearing into a box of cigarettes the size of a small suitcase.
“Sorry,” I mumble.
She backs away from me as if afraid I might hit her, stuffs the half-unwrapped Lambert & Butlers back into her shoulder bag and starts to move in the direction of the signs that point the way to further signs. The reassuring sensation of a cigarette between her fingers is less of a priority, it seems, than getting away from me.
Is it possible that my self-righteous dressing-down scared her? I decide to put it to the test by picking up my pace. It’s not long before I’m level with her. She glances at me, speeds up. She’s panting. This is ridiculous. “You’re running away from me?” I say, hoping it will help me to believe the unbelievable. “What do you think I’m going to do to you?”
She stops, hunches her shoulders: a terrified animal caught in the headlights of a car. She doesn’t look at me, doesn’t say anything.
I help her out. “You can relax. I’m relatively harmless. I only had a go at you to stop you laying into Bodo.”
Her lips are moving. Whatever’s emerging from them could be meant for me. This is how a member of an alien species would look if it were trying to communicate with a human being. I lean in closer to hear her.
“I have to get home tonight. I have to. I’ve never been out of the country on my own before. I just want to be home.” She looks up at me, her face white with fear and confusion. “I think I’m having a panic attack,” she says.
You bloody fool, Gaby. You chased this girl. You initiated conversation. All she wanted was to avoid you—an arrangement that could have benefited you both—and you blew it.
“You wouldn’t be able to speak if you were having a panic attack,” I tell her. “You’d be hyperventilating.”
“I am! Listen to my breathing!” She grips my wrist, locking her fingers and thumb around it like a handcuff, pulling me toward her. I try to shake her off but she doesn’t let go.
“You’re out of breath from running,” I say, trying to keep my cool. How dare she grab hold of me as if I’m an object? I object. Strongly. “You’re also a heavy smoker. If you want to improve your lung capacity, you should jack it in.”
Anger flares in her eyes. “Don’t tell me what to do! You don’t know how much I smoke. You don’t know anything about me.”
She’s still clutching my wrist. I laugh at her. What else can I do? Prise her fingers off one by one? If it comes to it, I might have to.
“Could you let go of me, please? The profits from the sale of the cigarettes in your bag alone will see Lambert & Butler comfortably through the next twelve global recessions.”
She screws up her forehead in an effort to work out what I mean.
“Too complicated for you? How about: your fingertips are yellow? Of course you’re a heavy smoker.”
Finally, she releases me. “You think you’re so much better than me, don’t you?” she sneers—the same thing she said to the bald man with the newspaper. I wonder if it’s an accusation she levels at everyone she meets. It’s hard to imagine the person who might encounter her and be beset by agonies of inferiority.
“Um . . . yes, probably,” I say, in answer to her question. “Look, I was trying to help—bitchily, I suppose—but, actually, you’re right: I really couldn’t give a toss whether you continue to breathe or not. I’m sorry if I offended you by making a joke you’re too thick to understand. . . .”
“That’s right, you’re so much better than I am! Little Miss Stuck-Up Bitch, you are!” She advances on me with her finger pointing, as if she plans to drill through my nose with it. “I saw you this morning,” she says accusingly. “Too up yourself to smile back when I smiled at you.”
Little Miss? I’m thirty-eight, for Christ’s sake. She can’t be more than eighteen. Also, what’s she talking about? “This morning?” I manage to say. Was she on my crack-of-dawn flight from Combingham?
“So much better than me,” she repeats bitterly. “Course you are! I bet you’d never let an innocent man go to jail for murder!” Before I’ve had a chance to absorb her words, she bursts into tears and flings her body against mine. “I can’t handle much more of this,” she sobs, wetting the front of my shirt. “I’m falling apart here.”
Before my brain produces all the reasons why I shouldn’t, I’ve put my arms round her.
What the hell happens now?
“So,” Detective Constable Simon Waterhouse said slowly. He was watching his wife, Sergeant Charlie Zailer, who wasn’t watching him back. She was staring at, but not really seeing, a program on TV, and trying to act naturally. Like someone who wasn’t keeping anything secret. The program was one in which celebrities experienced life in an African slum before hurrying home to Hampstead and the Cotswolds the minute the cameras were switched off.
“So, what?” she asked. She hated keeping things from Simon; he’d successfully indoctrinated her over the years they had been together, instilled in her the conviction that it was his God-given right to know everything, always—even now that she had been transferred to a different team and no longer worked with him on murder investigations. To distract him, she pointed to the screen. “Look—are those living conditions any worse than ours? I mean, I know they are, but . . . we should go and buy some wallpaper next time we’ve both got a day off—or one of those roller thingies, at least, and a tub of white paint.” She was sick of the lounge walls being a hotchpotch of faded colors no one had wanted for years: a jagged crest of 1970s wallpaper here, a peek of old plaster there. The clashing, unevenly stripped collage effect looked like a psychedelic mountain range, and sometimes felt like a form of visual torture. The trouble, Charlie self-diagnosed, was that she put all her energy, on the home front, into keeping her and Simon together emotionally; she had none to spare for interior design sprees.
“You’re staring at me,” she told Simon.
He looked pointedly at his watch. “I’m wondering what time we’re expecting your sister.”
“Liv?” Could Charlie be bothered to deny it? “How did you know?”
“You’re on edge, and you keep picking up your phone.” He stood up. Great, thought Charlie. Another nice, relaxing conversation. “You’re obviously expecting something to happen. I know Liv’s in Spilling today, I know you met her for lunch . . .”
“She’s late,” Charlie said, frowning. “She was supposed to be here between eight-thirty and nine.”
Simon pulled open the curtains and leaned his back against the window. Drummed his fingers against the sill.
If he wanted to look out for Liv, he was facing the wrong way. Charlie waited, certain that her sister was the last thing on his mind, grateful to be spared a rant about unexpected visitors. Simon saw no moral difference between a family member turning up unannounced to say a quick hello and grab a cup of tea, and an invading horde holding aloft burning torches as they battered down your front door, intent on razing your home to the ground.
“Why’d you forgive her?” he asked.
“I didn’t exactly forgive her. Well, I never told her I did. I just . . . slid back into seeing her.” Charlie hid her face in the neck of her favorite slobbing-around sweater. She’d stretched it so much over the years, it was probably now capable of being slipped over the heads of three or four people at once, if they stood close enough together. The roll neck, in particular, was badly prolapsed. Through its wool, Charlie said, “No formal absolution was ever granted.”
“One minute you hate her because she’s started seeing Gibbs, the next minute you’re back to talking to her most days like nothing ever happened. And she’s still seeing Gibbs. Even planning her imminent wedding to another man hasn’t stopped her.”
Charlie could feel her chest and shoulders stiffening. “Do we have to talk about this?” she said.
“Gibbs is still married. We still work with him. I do, anyway—and you’re still in the same building. Liv’s still invading your territory—that’s how you saw it when they first got together, anyway. They still got it on at our wedding, she still hijacked a day that should have been about us and made it about her.”
“Thanks for the reminder. When she turns up, I’ll spit in her face. Satisfied?”
“I’m asking what changed.”
“Well, let’s see. Gibbs is now the father of premature twin girls, as cute as they are fragile.”
Simon looked impatient. “You know what I mean. Gibbs is a dad since last month. You forgave Liv last year.”
“No. I didn’t.” Charlie walked over to the window, pushed him out of the way and pulled the curtains closed. “If she turns up now, tough. She’s missed her chance. What you call forgiving, I call burying my head in the sand and trying to pretend the past never happened. And let’s throw in the present for good measure. Pathetic, isn’t it—the lengths a person will go to in order to hang on to a sister?”
Simon picked up the remote control. He flicked through the channels for a few seconds before pressing the off button. “You’re dodging the question,” he said. “Suddenly you’re prepared to bury your head and make the best of Liv in spite of her transgressions when you weren’t before. How come?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t, but maybe I do.” He sounded pleased, as if he’d been seeking her uncertainty all along. “Was it because . . .” He broke off and started to turn in a small circle beside her, like a mechanical toy that was running out of battery power. His states of emergency always began in the same way: twitchy, erratic movements that dwindled to stillness as more and more energy was diverted to the racing brain.
“Are you trying to guess why I started talking to Liv again?”
“No. The opposite.”
“What does that—?”
Charlie had had enough. “Your pawn is going to the kitchen to consume alcohol while loading the dishwasher,” she said. “If you want to carry on playing, you’ll have to bring the game in there.”
Simon beat her to the lounge door and slammed it shut, trapping her in the room. “The dishwasher can wait,” he said. “Did you forgive her because you realized your parents aren’t getting any younger, and when they die, Liv’ll be the only family you’ll have left?”
“No. But, again, thanks for the cheery reminder. Maybe Gibbs’ and Liv’s relationships will both break up, they’ll marry each other, and I’ll get to be beloved auntie to the premature twins. Or at least tolerated sister of home-wrecking slapper stepmum.”
“Stop dicking about. No? You’re saying that’s not the reason you forgave her? So what was?”
“Oh, God, Simon, I don’t know.”
“Was it because she had cancer when she was younger? You were worried it’d come back if you were too hard on her?”
“No! Absolutely not.”
“Two nos. Okay, so: why did you forgive her?”
One, two, three, four . . . The trouble was, you could count to ten and still find yourself married to Simon Waterhouse at the end of it. “Is there a history of dementia in your family?” Charlie asked.
“I know I keep asking, but please, can you try to think? Don’t let yourself off the hook so easily.”
“If I don’t, who will? Not you. I could waste my whole life dangling from your hook. That wasn’t an innuendo, by the way.”
“Think really hard. There must be a reason, and deep down, you must know what it is, or else . . .” He stopped. Bit his lip. He’d said more than he’d intended to.
“Or else . . .” Charlie concentrated on trying to guess the end of his sentence instead of tackling his question, since she was almost certain he wasn’t really interested in her feelings toward Olivia. To ransack her brain for the right answer only to have him ignore its emotional content entirely would be too frustrating. “Ah, I get it,” she said. “This isn’t about me and Liv. It’s about one of your cases. Let me guess: someone’s been murdered. And . . . somebody’s confessed. But they’re saying they don’t know why they did it. You thought you’d worked out motive, but when you suggested it to them, they denied it—said no, that wasn’t why. You think if this killer knows why he didn’t do it, that must mean he knows why he did do it. You’re wrong.”
“Is that what your sister told you?” Simon asked angrily. “What Gibbs told her?”
“No. All my own work,” said Charlie. “I’ve banned Liv from talking about your and Gibbs’ cases since she stuck her oar in last year. She’s been pretty good about it.”
“Because I’m tied to you by invisible chains. Because I’ve ditched all parts of my own brain that aren’t immediately necessary, in order to make space to carry around in my head a gold, glowing replica of your brain, so vastly superior.”
Simon frowned. “What crap are you talking now?”
Charlie shoved him out of the way, opened the door and headed for the kitchen, which, this evening, felt less like a room in its own right and more like unnecessarily elaborate packaging for a bottle of vodka. “I know how your mind works, Simon. I don’t know why that surprises you. Once the guinea pig knows it’s a guinea pig—much harder to surprise the aforementioned pig. What? What are you thinking?”
“You really want to know?” He followed her into the kitchen: a new space to confine her in if she said the wrong thing. “I’m thinking, no one who isn’t a woman should ever have to talk to a woman.”
Charlie grinned. She took a glug of Smirnoff straight from the bottle. “That’s funny,” she said. “You have no idea how most women talk, so you assume I’m representative. I don’t talk anything like a woman. More like a”—she cast about for an appropriate metaphor—“really badly treated disciple of an unhinged messiah.” She giggled at the horror on Simon’s face. “And whenever I can I talk like you, in the hope that you’ll hear me. Like now. You’re wrong: it’s perfectly possible not to know why you did something, but to know for sure that it wasn’t for reason X.”
“I don’t believe it is,” said Simon. “Not unless you’ve got an inkling, deep down.” He knocked his closed fist against his chest. “Somewhere in here, you know why you forgave Liv. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to say that it wasn’t for either of the reasons I suggested, not for sure.”
“Yes, I would.” Charlie put down the vodka bottle, pulled open the dishwasher. “Think of something you’ve done and not known why.” After a long silence she added, “And then tell me.”
“I’ve tried it on me and proved myself right. If I don’t know why, then I don’t know why not.”
“Really? What example did you use?”
Simon hesitated. Obviously nothing that might exempt him from answering sprang to mind. “Proust,” he said eventually. “Why do I let him get away with it? Why do I never go to HR, tell them what goes on behind closed CID doors? I should. No idea why I don’t.”
“Perfect.” Charlie rubbed the palms of her hands together. “Is it because there’s a Persian cat in the Human Resources office, and you’re allergic to cats?”
Even in conversation with his wife, in the safety of his own kitchen, Simon hated the unexpected. His mouth set in a grim line. “You’re being deliberately unhelpful.”
“Like you were, with the cancer idea? I’m supposed to believe my disapproval could provoke new cancer in my sister?”
She watched Simon’s controlled exhalation with satisfaction. His turn to practice counting to ten. And when he got there, he would find himself still married to Charlie. “There’s no cat in the HR office,” he said. “And I know I’m not allergic to cats. You can’t claim that a known falsehood—”
“I’ve just proved that it’s possible, in some circumstances, to know what your motivation isn’t without knowing what it is. I rest my case. Put these away.” She handed Simon two clean pasta bowls, steaming from the dishwasher. “There are some reasons we have that we know about, some we have that we don’t know about, and some we don’t have, which, when we hear them, we recognize as reasons we would never have because they’re not the sort of thing that would ever cross our minds.”
“Let’s say you’ve killed someone, all right?”
“Can you put those bowls away before you get distracted and drop them?”
“You admit it.”
“I admit it,” said Charlie. “It was me.”
“I ask you why. You say you can’t tell me—there is no reason. You don’t know why. You just did it.”
“Did I plan to do it?”
“You say not. It was spur-of-the-moment. Imagine I suggest to you a reason why you might have done it, and it’s a reason that, if you confirm it, might get you a lighter sentence or even keep you out of prison if you’re lucky.”
Charlie raised her eyebrows. “What, you mean that perfectly acceptable motive for committing murder that judges and juries are so lenient about?”
“A motive that’d make it not murder, but a less serious crime. Maybe.”
“But . . . it wasn’t my real motive?”
Simon considered her question. “Either it was, and you’re pretending it wasn’t, or it wasn’t and you’re not willing to pretend it was to avoid jail time. In either case, why?”
Charlie smiled. “Or . . .” she said. Simon stared at her expectantly. “You’re not going to like it,” she warned him. “It’s as devious as it is unlikely.”
“Tell me. You know how I feel about Occam’s razor. The simplest answer isn’t usually the right one. Devious and unlikely is everywhere.”
“You ought to launch your own theory: Occam’s beard, you could call it. Okay, let’s say your killer could halve the time he spends behind bars by confessing his true motive, the one you suggested to him. If he’s desperate or a pessimist he might go for that. But if he’s confident and a good liar, he might deny his real motive and insist as unconvincingly as he can that the crime he committed was full-on murder. Part of that implausibility might include pretending he has no idea why he did it.”
Simon was nodding. “If he keeps saying he doesn’t know why, and I suspect him of lying, I start to think he’s not the killer, he’s covering for someone. Exactly what I’ve been thinking. If I find someone else to pin it on, then he doesn’t go to jail at all: he gets to be innocent of the greater crime rather than guilty of the lesser one.”
“Simon, it’s so unlikely—that it’d occur to him, that he’d have the nerve to carry it through. He’d have to know there was someone else who could have done it, someone with motive and opportunity. Even then, he’d assume you wouldn’t be able to prove it, wouldn’t he? Any proof there is will point to him, the real killer.”
The doorbell rang, then rang again straightaway, more insistently. “Granted, it’s a top idea,” Charlie called over her shoulder as she went to answer it. “Sadly, it’s my idea, not your suspect’s.”
“Don’t let her in!” Simon bellowed.
“Shout a bit louder and you might drive her away before I get there.”
More ringing of the bell. Charlie swore under her breath as she opened the door. “Sorry, you’ve missed your slot. You’ll have to make another . . .” Appointment. The last word didn’t make it.
The woman standing on the doorstep in the driving horizontal rain wasn’t Liv. Charlie didn’t know who she was, though there was something familiar about her. Yet this was a face she had never seen before, Charlie would have sworn to it.
“Are you Sergeant Charlie Zailer?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
“My name’s Regan Murray.”
Don’t know the name, don’t know the face. And yet . . .
“I’m looking for DC Simon Waterhouse. I know he lives here.”
As if Charlie was about to deny it. “Simon,” she called, without taking her eyes off their visitor. “Regan Murray’s here to see you.” At least she didn’t need to worry about what she normally worried about. Regan Murray wasn’t attractive; no one could think she was. She had a severe face, especially for a woman. Her eyes were too small, her forehead too dome-like.
She was bound to be something to do with the Don’t Know Why Killer. Charlie realized she’d been assuming this hypothetical person was a man. Could Regan Murray be the Don’t Know Why Killer? If she hadn’t yet been arrested or charged . . .
“Who?” said Simon.
Not wreckage washed up on the doorstep by the latest case, then. Come to think of it, how did Ms. Murray know Charlie’s name too, and that she and Simon lived together? There was also the coincidence of the timing: Liv, who’d said she was coming, hadn’t turned up, and this stranger had. “Has my sister sent you?” Charlie asked. Was that why she looked familiar? One of Liv’s old school friends?
Simon appeared by her side. “I don’t know any Regan Murrays,” he said to the one in front of him.
“This is a little bit awkward. Can I come in?”
“Not unless you give us a good reason,” Charlie told her.
“Not unless anything,” said Simon. “I don’t know you.”
Listen to us, Charlie thought. Host and hostess of the year. This was what happened when you dealt with dangerous, untrustworthy people every day of your working life.
“You do know me,” Regan Murray protested, pushing the door open as Simon tried to close it. “Or, rather, you’d know my name—what my name used to be. Murray’s my husband’s name, which I took when we got married, and Regan . . . it wasn’t the name I was born with. If you’ll let me in, I’ll explain.”
“It might have to work the other way round,” said Charlie. “You’ve got about ten seconds.”
The woman shielded her eyes from the rain with her hand, so that she could get a better look at Simon as she spoke to him. “Fair enough,” she said. “I’m Amanda Proust. Your boss’ daughter.”
THURSDAY, 10 MARCH 2011
“Lisa? It’s me. You’re not going to fucking believe this. Guess where I am now? On another fucking coach. Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. All of us, on coaches taking us away from Cologne Airport, when we’ve just spent two fucking hours getting there. They’ve said the crew that’s supposed to be flying us home have gone past their limit, or something. What? Dunno.
“Everyone’s saying we’re off to a hotel, but no one really knows anything. No, I dunno. I’ll ask Gaby. Lisa says, is there anyone on here from the airline who might know what’s going on?”
“No one,” I say. “Just us and the driver. Who speaks no English.” No point in shielding Lisa from the awful truth. When we boarded this coach for the first time, outside Düsseldorf Airport, I assumed Bodo Neudorf would be coming with us. He seemed to be very much one of the gang at that point: helping elderly passengers and children up the steps, leaning in and counting us all every so often, as if the trip to Cologne Airport was his own personal project. I assumed he would wish to oversee it from start to finish, but apparently not. When the door finally slid shut he was on the wrong side of it, having delegated the job of being our reassuring Fly4You liaison guy to nobody.
I turned and watched his lean, straight-backed figure shrink into the distance as we drove away, and was struck by the deceptiveness of appearances. It looked as if we had abandoned him, but he would be fine; we, on the other hand, were alone, all two hundred of us—alone in a hollow, uncontoured way that felt endless, a way that someone like Sean wouldn’t be able to imagine and has certainly never experienced. No one has, unless they’re a regular air traveler. Or perhaps severely depressed, or terminally ill and on the brink of death. There is nothing more isolating than hurtling through a stormy German night with a random collection of anxious strangers, all chasing the rumor of a plane.
“Lisa says, how can the crew have gone past their flying limit when they’ve been sitting on their arses necking cups of tea and waiting for us all night? She says it’s not like they’ve been flying anyone else around to kill time, is it? Someone’s fucking been lying to us!”
Lisa: thirty-three-year-old nail technician with two toddlers from a previous relationship, now married to Wayne Cuffley and stepmother to twenty-three-year-old Lauren Cookson, who looks much younger than she is, and whom I am currently sitting next to. I’m on her “JASON” side, not her “FATHER” side. The “JASON” tattoo is even bigger, with red hearts on green stalks inside the holes of the “A” and the “O.” Jason is Lauren’s caretaker-cum-gardener-cum-handyman husband. He has done the Ironman challenge three times.
It would be hard to overstate how much I have learned about Lauren and her family in the past two hours—more than I would have thought possible. All she knows about me is the one detail I have volunteered: that my name is Gaby.
“The time they spend hanging around Cologne Airport waiting for us counts as time on duty,” I tell her. “Do you really want someone who’s been awake too long to fly you home?”
“I don’t care who flies me home, long as someone does,” Lauren says shakily into her phone. “Lisa, I swear, I’m going crazy here. I’m panicking. I need to get home. What? Yeah, course I will.” She clutches my arm. “Lisa says I have to stick with you.”
“What? No, I can’t. Oh, Lisa, don’t ask me that—if I told you, it’d do your head in. It’s doing my fucking head in. Jason thinks I’m at Mum’s. No, he doesn’t know I’m in Germany. Don’t tell Dad, will you? He’d only worry—he’s as bad as Jason, Dad is. What? No, I told Jason I’d be back by half eleven, quarter to twelve. He’s going to go mad when I’m not back by then. What am I going to do? I’m on a coach being carted off somewhere, I don’t even know where. . . .” She starts to cry again. “What? Yeah, all right. Yeah, I will. Just . . . don’t say anything to Dad, will you? Cheers, Lisa.”
No! No! Don’t go, Lisa!
“I have to try to keep calm,” Lauren tells me, wiping her eyes. “Easy for her to say. I’m not good at being calm. Especially when I don’t know where I’m going, or how I’ll ever get home, if I ever will. It’s lucky you’re looking after me. If I was on my own, I’d go apeshit.”
Tell her. Tell her, now, that you’re not looking after her, that you never agreed to do anything of the sort.
“I’m stressed, that’s what it is,” she says. “This is what I get like. Jason’s not frightened of anything, he never panics, but me? I lose it when I get stressed, big-time.”
I push away a barrage of self-pitying thoughts along the lines of When do I get to cry and physically assault strangers? and Why can’t I be looked after? Ten more minutes of Jason-this-but-I-that might actually make my head explode. I’ve already heard that Jason doesn’t mind rain and snow, but Lauren hates both; Jason can sleep brilliantly on coaches, but Lauren can’t; Jason’s good at planning whereas Lauren can’t think more than two minutes ahead; Jason knows what to do in a crisis and Lauren doesn’t.
And I’ve missed another opportunity: failed for the third time to ask her to leave me alone, to make it clear that I’m not responsible for her. I should have done it when she fell into my arms sobbing, but I didn’t. I should have done it when she rang Lisa the first time, as the coach set off from Düsseldorf Airport, and told her she’d made a new friend: a nice middle-aged lady called Gaby who was looking after her. I didn’t.
Is Jason intelligent enough to realize that if you describe a thirty-eight-year-old woman as “middle-aged,” she’s more likely to want to kill you than help you? Because Lauren isn’t.
“What am I going to do?” she asks me.
There’s a book in my bag that has magic powers: at least three hundred pages I haven’t yet read, and the ability to make this all-night coach ordeal bearable. What’s stopping me from getting it out and opening it? Is it my reluctance to discover what “apeshit” means to somebody whose idea of normal involves wailing in public? If I make the decision to disappoint Lauren, I’ll have to suffer the consequences for God knows how long. There can be no getting away from her until we land in Combingham.
Or do I want her to carry on burdening me with her problems so that she’ll owe me—so that I won’t feel rude when I ask again about the innocent man who’s going to prison for murder? I’ve already asked about him once, at Düsseldorf Airport. I asked as soon as I humanely could, after I’d disentangled myself from our awkward embrace and she’d pulled herself together a bit. She clammed up. “Nothing. Forget it,” she said. So far, I haven’t been able to. Perhaps she’ll let her guard down and bring it up again if I encourage her to talk.
“Jason doesn’t know you’re in Germany?”
“No. I’ve never lied to him before. Four years we’ve been together. This is the first lie I’ve told him. I couldn’t tell him the truth.”
“Because I couldn’t. Keep your nose out, all right?”
I can’t force her to tell me. Although her mouth is at least as much to blame as my nose is. She shouldn’t have mentioned her about-to-be-wrongly-convicted acquaintance if she wasn’t prepared to share the full story.
I look at my watch. “It’s midnight, German time. Eleven o’clock in the UK. You’re not going to be back by quarter to twelve.”
“I know! That’s what I’m saying: Jason’s going to go mental.”
“What will he do?”
“He thinks I’m at my mum’s. He’s going to ring her, isn’t he? Obviously. And she’s going to tell him I’m not there. They’ll both go off their heads. Believe me, you do not want to see Jason angry. Or my mum, for that matter.”
“Which one are you more scared of?” I ask.
She looks at me, puzzled, as if I’ve introduced a topic that’s unrelated to what we were talking about. “Jason. I’m not normally scared of Mum, not unless I’ve been taking the piss and she’s going to find out.”
Impatience buzzes in my veins. I’m going to have to skip a stage. “Ring your mum,” I say. “You haven’t lied to her yet, so you’re still in credibility credit. You’ve told her nothing, right? As far as she knows, you’re at home with Jason this evening? Ring her now, tell her the truth. Get her to ring Jason and say you’re at her house, you’ve got food poisoning, you can’t come to the phone . . . et cetera.”
“What do you mean, I haven’t lied to Mum?” No one else on the coach is speaking at all. Everybody is listening to Lauren’s shrill voice; it’s far better at traveling than she is. “Course I’ve lied! I’ve said I’m at her house—how can I tell her that without letting on that I’ve lied?”
“You haven’t lied to her. You haven’t told her you’re at her house, have you?”
Lauren inspects me disdainfully. “Well, I couldn’t do that, could I?” she says. “Mum’s at her house. She knows I’m not there. She can see with her own eyes.”
Deep breath. “I know that, Lauren. My point is: if you tell her the truth now, confide in her about how you’ve had to lie to Jason . . .”
“No.” She shakes her head vigorously. “She’d ask me why.”
Aha. Progress. “And you don’t want to tell her?”
“Maybe I could tell her, but not with you right in my face, not with all these people earwigging. Thinking they’re better than me.”
“Oh, give it a rest,” I snap, before I can stop myself.
“Your favorite refrain: ‘Everyone thinks they’re better than me.’ Does the innocent man you’re sending to prison think he’s better than you?”
“I told you: I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Oh, sorry,” I say casually. “I must have forgotten.”
“No,” Lauren mutters after a few minutes. “He’s one of the few people who doesn’t think it.”
And you’re rewarding him by letting him go down for murder. Interesting. In the silence that follows, I wonder if I will try to do anything for this unidentified innocent man once I get back to England. Probably not. What could I do: go to the police and tell them what I know? Yes. I could do that. Whether I will or not is another matter. In situations of severe abnormality, I find it hard to imagine what I might do once restored to my normal setting. Sean doesn’t understand this. Many times he’s berated me over the phone, when I’ve been in an airport or a train station or a car hire office, for not knowing if I will or won’t want dinner when I get home.
“It’s not me sending him to prison,” Lauren says sulkily, doing a convincing impression of someone who does, in fact, want to talk about it. “Do I look like the police?”
“Letting him go to prison, sending him there—is there a difference?”
“Yes, there is. There’s a fucking big difference.” She passes her phone from one hand to the other and back again.
“Can you stop swearing? Give me that fag packet from your bag—I’ll write down twenty new describing words for you to learn.”
“I’ll do what I fucking well want, Little Miss Stuck-Up Bossy Bitch.” She shakes her head. “Sending him to prison’d be . . . it would be . . . not the same as . . .”
“Here’s what you’re trying to say,” I chip in helpfully. “Actively doing harm to someone is more morally culpable than failing to step in and prevent harm done by others. Right? The difference between positive and negative responsibility, sins of commission versus sins of omission. Yes?”
“Are you always like this?” she sneers at me. “I feel sorry for whichever poor sod’s married to you.”
The coach slows down. Its engine makes a noise that’s halfway between a rumble and a belch. If the driver were sitting closer to us and spoke English, I might wonder if he was waiting to hear my response to Lauren’s insult.
“I’m not married,” I tell her. “And what you feel is embarrassment because you didn’t understand what I said, even though it’s so simple, an egg sandwich could understand it. And before you ask me again: yes, I do think I’m better than you. I wouldn’t take it too personally, though. Secretly, I think I’m better than a lot of people. You might too if you were me. Eight years ago I cofounded a technological innovation company. We invented a part for a surgical robot: a tactile feedback glove, it’s called.”
The coach picks up speed. Thank Christ. Now I can admit to myself that I was worried by the belching noise; it sounded ominously breakdownesque. Mercifully, the engine now sounds as if it’s in tip-top shape and we are racing into the night once again. Soon we’ll arrive at a hotel and I’ll be able to crawl into a minibar and a nice clean bed.
I carry on telling Lauren about myself and my achievements. “Our company was bought by a bigger one for a staggering amount of money,” I tell her, lowering my voice so that no one else hears. “Close to fifty million dollars. I didn’t get that money personally—well, I got a decent chunk, but my investors got most of it—but it did leave me wondering why so many people don’t ever really try and achieve anything big, creatively. Anything world-changing. I’m not talking about you—I wouldn’t expect you to be scientifically innovative, because you’re obviously not clever enough, but other people I know, people I was at university with. Potentially brilliant people. Why don’t they try to do more?”
Lauren is gawping at me, her mouth open. “Fifty million dollars?” she says.
I ignore her. I was enjoying my uninhibited monologue, and I hadn’t finished. “I think I’m better than those people because they seem to want to go through life expending minimum effort, and I think I’m better than you not because you’re thick, which isn’t your fault, but because you were mean to Bodo Neudorf. And to the bald man.”
“Bodo what? Who?” Lauren looks around as if expecting to see somebody she hasn’t previously noticed. “What bald man? What are you on about?”
“Cast your mind back and work it out, or remain ignorant,” I say, happy to demonstrate that what goes around comes around. Tell me about Mr. Innocent-of-Murder and I’ll remind you of the man you savaged earlier this evening, the one who had his name clearly printed on his lapel badge.
“I don’t think tonight’s a one-off for you, is it?” I say. “I know our current situation is far from ideal, but I bet you’re mean and sweary even during the good times.” No reaction at all. “The reason I don’t mind saying all this to you is that you’re so stupid,” I go on, “it’s like talking to a piece of cardboard. No ramifications whatsoever. You’re not going to ramificate; you don’t know what it means. You don’t know which of the words I use are real words and which I’m making up. I bet you’ve got the memory of a bottom-set-for-remembering-how-to-swim goldfish. Soon you’ll be telling me I’m looking after you again, having forgotten everything I’ve just said.” I smile at her, feeling quite forgiving now that I’ve unburdened myself.
“You’re a fucking cheeky cow, that’s what you are,” Lauren announces after a short silence.
“That’s what I am,” I agree. “Well done. See? You have no trouble defining me without reference to Jason. Perhaps you could try doing the same with yourself.”
She stares down at her phone, holding it with both hands. “Don’t speak to me, all right?”
Jason. Now, there’s a strange thing. “I don’t get it,” I say. “You’ve never been abroad on your own before, you’re talking about panic attacks, you’ve lied to your husband, taking a significant risk that he’ll find out, since planes are delayed all the time . . . Why? What did you have to do in Germany that took less than a day and justified the risk?”
“Why don’t you mind your own business? How do you know it took less than a day?”
I close my eyes. You mentioned seeing me this morning, but you might not remember having said it, so let’s not overcomplicate things. “No suitcase,” I say.
“So? You’ve not got one either!”
I open my eyes, and the nightmare is still real. My whole world is still a coach. The moronic Lauren Cookson is still my significant other. “That’s because I too have been in Germany just for the day,” I say patiently. “And I’ll happily tell you why.”
“Don’t bother,” Lauren snaps.
“All right. I won’t.”
Behind me, a young girl’s voice pipes up. “Daddy? Are you awake now?” One of the choirgirls, probably; I didn’t see any other children waiting to board apart from a tiny baby.
Her father clears his throat. “Yes, darling. What is it?”
I steel myself, half expecting her to say, “The two women in front of us are being hateful to each other and it’s scaring me.”
“You know how Silas wants to be a famous footballer when he grows up?”
I relax. Lauren is jabbing at her phone with her thumbnail. A few seconds later she says, “Mum? It’s me, Lauren.”
“He wants to play for Manchester United,” says the choirgirl.
“Well, I’m sure whatever team he plays for will be lucky to have him.” The father sounds worried. I imagine he has woken up, looked out of the coach window and seen the same blank blackness and absence of informative landmarks that we’re all seeing.
Or perhaps he’s wondering how significant a hindrance the name Silas might be for a boy whose ambition is to be a sports legend. Parents are such arrogant idiots. I’m delighted I’m not about to become one.
“Mum, I’ve got myself in a right mess here. I’m in Germany.” Lauren is crying again. “Yeah, Germany. No, I’m not in England.”
This is likely to be frustrating. She’s going to take half an hour to tell her mother what I could summarize in twenty seconds, but, as a self-confessed hostile stranger, I can hardly hold out my hand for her phone and say, “Here, let me.”
Should I ring Sean? Other women in my situation would want to phone their partners—for company, for comfort. Those would be the ones with partners who wouldn’t immediately launch into yet another accuse-athon.
“I can’t tell you now. I haven’t told Jason. No. Jason doesn’t know I’m in Germany, I’ve not told him. What? I can’t say. No. Not till I see you. I’m on a coach with loads of people earwigging everything I say. Our plane’s delayed, and now they’re taking us to a hotel. It’s horrible, Mum. I’ve been having a right panic attack. I’ve got a friend, though, that’s one good thing—an older lady. What? She’s called Gaby. Yeah. She’s looking after me. She’s being brilliant. You’d get on with her. She’s saying everything you’d say.”
What? Oh, for goodness’ sake.
“If Silas did play for Manchester United . . . Dad?”
“Hm? Sorry, darling, I was just trying to get a sense of where we are.”
“If Silas played for Manchester United, would you support them, or would you still support Stoke City?”
“Mum, listen, I need you to ring Jason for me. You’re going to have to make up some bullshit. I’ve told him I’m at yours. Yeah. You’ll have to tell him I’ve got sick and can’t talk. Tell him I’ll be back first thing in the morning.”
I tap her on the arm, shake my head.
“Hang on, Mum, Gaby’s saying no.”
“If you were sick you wouldn’t know when you’d be better,” I say. “Tell her to tell him you’ll ring him as soon as you’re well enough—hopefully tomorrow morning, but you can’t be sure. Keep it vague.”
Lauren nods. She passes on a less coherent version of my instructions to her mother. If she’s lucky, they’ll work.
I have just helped the willing facilitator of a serious miscarriage of justice to avoid getting bollocked for lying to her husband. If asked why I did it, I don’t think I’d be able to explain. Oh, well. Since I’m doomed to live out the rest of my days on a German coach, I don’t suppose it matters much.
“Ah, this must be the hotel!” the man behind me says to his daughter. Other people have spotted it too. Exclamations of relief erupt all over the coach. I wipe the condensation off the window, take one look at the building we’ve pulled up outside, and wonder what’s wrong with them all. All this inconvenience, and Fly4You couldn’t even put us up somewhere decent? We’re to spend the night in this squat, gray, featureless building with tiny windows, by the side of a dual carriageway?
“Lauren.” I jab her in the ribs with my elbow.
“I’ve got to go, Mum, we’re at the hotel. I’ll ring you in a bit. But you’ll tell Jason, yeah? Yeah, I’ll stay with Gaby.” She drops her phone into her bag. “Thank fuck for that,” she says. “Here at last. My mum says I have to make sure I stay with you.” She stretches her arms above her head, releasing a gust of sweat mixed with floral deodorant.
“We’re not staying here,” I decide aloud.
“What do you mean we’re not staying here? Why have they brought us here, then?”
“Everyone else is staying here, but you and I are going to find ourselves a different hotel. A better one. This one looks like condemned council flats.”
“What fucking planet are you on? It’s the middle of the night!”
“Trust me: this place will be bad in every way.” I pull my BlackBerry out of my bag. “We’ll find the nearest five-star hotel to Cologne Airport.”
“Five-star hotel?” Lauren does a whole-body twitch, as if I’ve given her an electric shock. “Are you shitting me, or what? I can’t afford to stay in a five-star hotel! I’m a care assistant. I don’t earn that kind of money!”
“I’ll pay for everything. I’ll pay for your room.” Which I’ll try to ensure is several floors away from mine. I’m starting to crave space—specifically, space that doesn’t contain Lauren. “My treat.”
“No!” She bursts into tears.
I’m so taken aback, all I can do is stare at her. “No?” Her reaction makes even less sense to me than my offer. Why aren’t I taking this opportunity to go my separate way? There’s nothing stopping me from finding a five-star hotel on my own.
Except that I’ve heard her tell two people that I’m looking after her. And her mother and stepmother both seem to think she needs to stay with me.
In my real life, I wouldn’t put up with it; in this alternative universe, my role seems to be to supervise Lauren with a view to improving her. I can think of lots of ways: first break down her resistance to good hotels, then boost her vocabulary, then tackle her willingness to see blameless men framed for murders they haven’t committed . . .
“No!” She shakes her head vigorously, sobbing. One of her tears lands in the corner of my eye. “No. I’m not the sort of person who stays in a five-star hotel.”
“All right, forget it.”
“I can’t do it. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“You’d do exactly the same—”
“No! I can’t!”
“Fine. It doesn’t matter. We’ll stay here. Lauren? I’m sorry, just . . . pretend I never said anything. This hotel will be fine.”
She wipes her eyes, mollified. “It looks all right to me,” she says, assessing it through the coach window. “I hope it’s got something I can eat. I’m starving. Haven’t eaten a thing since six o’clock last night.”
“You must have had something,” I say.
“No. Nothing. My stomach’s not been right all day. I’ve not been able to face the thought of food.”
“You were nervous,” I tell her. “About whatever you had to do today, about lying to Jason. Now you’re on your way home, you’re starting to feel better. And hungrier.”
She gives me an odd look, then nods. Barely.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Carrier:
“Hannah’s police procedurals…elevate the whydunit as well as the more standard whodunit to a high art. By delving deep into the most basic-yet-twisted psychological elements that drive apparently normal human beings to perform dastardly deeds such as homicide, Hannah creates truly chilling novels that strike a nimble balance between the joys of her detectives’ insights and humor and a true, intractable sense of all-too-real menace.” – The Boston Globe
“Hannah’s psychologically dense police procedurals probe at their characters to reveal their inner lives and intentions as few others do, and this—her eighth featuring Waterhouse and his wife, Charlie Zailer—shows her proficiency by taking interior examinations to new levels. Winner of the 2013 British National Book Awards' Crime Thriller of the Year, this is another example of Hannah’s mastery of psychological suspense.” – Booklist (starred review)
“Hannah bores down deep into her tiny cast’s secret lives, then still deeper…Fans will love the endlessly knotty complications.” – Kirkus Reviews
“The genius of Hannah's domestic thrillers - along with the twistiest plots known to woman - is that she creates ordinary people whose psychological quirks make them as monstrous as any serial killer.” – The Guardian
“Well executed twists and turns . . . Hannah is a gifted writer” – Scotland on Sunday
“Contemporary in its intent and setting, the novel is also a pleasingly old-fashioned 'locked room' mystery, with Hannah referencing Agatha Christie a number of times. All told, it's a very satisfying addition to Hannah's canon.” – Irish Times
“This complex plot demands and rewards attention, thanks to a fantastic cast and some superior, atmospheric prose . . . Thrilling.” – South China Morning Post
“The queen of the ingenious plot twist” – Good Housekeeping
“Brilliant” – The Bookseller
“[Hannah] confirms in this, her eighth novel, her fluent writing skills, taste for complicated layers and deft hand with character, not to mention a knack for producing compelling openings . . . [THE CARRIER] is the kind of puzzle Agatha Christie might have created. Delicate, with ever-increasing dread, it is a mature work - full of confidence and intrigue.” – Daily Mail
“Absorbing, intricate . . . Here the rewarding bonuses are poetry's role in the plot and a playful reworking of the Agatha Christie formula . . . THE CARRIER is a vicarage whodunit as well as a psychological thriller.” – The Sunday Times
“It is brilliantly constructed, and it had me, screaming, on the edge of my chair.” – Reader’s Digest