The finale of the DI Robyn Carter series, ENDGAME is now available as bonus content at the end of the fifth book, THE CHOSEN ONES. If you’ve been unable to access it, you can read it below. Or, if you would prefer to listen to me read it to you, chapter by chapter, please click on the YouTube clips above each chapter…
Detective Robyn Carter Series
SATURDAY, 17 JUNE, NIGHT
Sweat glued Brandon Shearer’s T-shirt to his chest as he forced open the back door with the flat of his hand and staggered outside into the alleyway, pursued by booming dance music. He sucked greedily at the stale air, insufficient to refresh or cool him. The door shut behind him, muffling all but the bass notes, which pulsed through his veins and vibrated his weakened muscles as he drained the water bottle and chucked it away into the darkness. What had felt like hours of manic dancing caused pain to claw at his stomach. The last meal had been when? With his brain woolly from lack of food and the Molly – pure MDMA powder capsules that had kept him buzzing for hours – he couldn’t remember. It was all a blur.
The door opened again, releasing the electro sounds of Marshmello’s ‘Alone’.
‘Fucking mental in there, isn’t it? I love these spontaneous raves.’ The girl wore no shoes, and her black dress looked like it had been sprayed onto her skinny, pale body. Brandon recognised her, one of a group of girls necking bottles of WKD Blue and flinging themselves around the dance floor like crazed lunatics. She’d beckoned him over and he’d joined them, high on the atmosphere, music and drugs.
With the air of a magician, she produced two cigarettes, passed one to him and waved a plastic throwaway lighter at him. He mumbled thanks and took it from her, marvelling at how cool her fingers felt against his sweaty ones. He flicked the lighter several times before it caught.
‘Bastard thing’s running out,’ she said. ‘I’ll have to nick another one from my mates.’ She leant towards him, cigarette between her lips, and let him light it for her before inhaling and sighing contentedly.
‘You look shagged,’ she said.
He laughed. ‘You’re not wrong. This is my third all-nighter in as many days.’ He drew in a lungful of nicotine and wondered if she was coming on to him. She wasn’t his usual type but she had a nice smile.
‘End-of-term madness before we all go back home to our mummies and daddies and behave like good little boys and girls for the rest of summer.’
Her comment hit its mark. Brandon was doing exactly that. He took in the four rings in her left earlobe, the stud in her tongue and the small dark-blue tattoo of some bird – a swallow – on her neck, and he grinned. ‘Somehow, I don’t think you do good little girl,’ he said.
‘Fucking right, I don’t. Besides, I’m pissing off abroad with some mates. Going to wing it and see where we end up. Don’t much care where as long as there’s some sunshine. I heard it’s dead easy to pick up work in some of those party resorts – Ayia Napa and the like. It’ll be a laugh, and of course, there’ll be loads of par-tays,’ she said, grinning as she dragged out the last syllable.
Brandon was impressed. It’d be great to be free for a while longer. He wasn’t looking forward to the next few months back home in Stafford. His mother’s new husband had offered him work experience helping out at his logistics company.
‘You?’ The girl was looking at him, her eyes limpid and sexy. ‘You got any plans?’
He shrugged. ‘Working. Well, more like slave labour. Mum got hitched to a new bloke this year. He wants to prove how fantastic he is, so he’s offered me a job. Don’t fancy it, but can’t see how to get out of it. Besides, I could do with the cash for next year – final year and all that. Got to pay for the fun times somehow.’
‘Tell him to poke it,’ she said with a shrug.
‘I would but that wouldn’t be fair on my mum. She’ll get all upset about it.’
‘Be subtle then. Tell her you’ve got an invite to go abroad and how you need a break from all your studies, cos you’re so exhausted from cramming for exams. That’s what I told my oldies. You could come with us. We could do with some muscle to protect us.’ She gave his bicep a quick squeeze and gave a look of approval. ‘You’ll do.’
He took another long inhalation, allowing the smoke to creep out of the side of his mouth as he spoke. ‘I’d like that. Trouble is, she’d tell my old man and he’s a copper – nothing gets past him. He’ll come up with a thousand reasons why I can’t go.’
She rolled her eyes at him. ‘Bad luck.’ She flicked her cigarette onto the ground, where it lay, its tip glowing orange. He resisted the urge to stub it out for her. He’d probably blown it by mentioning his dad. Bad mistake. He tossed his fag into the distance with a casual flick of his fingers.
‘You going back inside?’ she said.
‘Not sure. I ought to score first. I’m coming down from the Molly.’
She shook her head like a dog trying to dry itself and rubbed a palm against the nape of her neck. ‘I’m fucking soaking. I need to cool down. Fancy a walk? I think there’s an all-night supermarket near here. I could do with some more fags.’
‘Sure. Why not?’ He followed her as she walked in bare feet down the alley towards the main street.
‘Don’t you want your shoes?’
She gave him a smile. ‘I’m okay. Had so much booze, can’t feel a thing.’
They walked side by side a few metres until they reached some skips that stank of rotten garbage.
‘Fuck me. That’s ripe,’ she said, holding her nose, the soles of her bare feet visible as she raced away. He followed close behind her, surprised at how fast she could move, especially in no shoes. She eased ahead of him, reached the end of the alleyway and turned left.
‘Wait up!’ he shouted. As he emerged he was impressed by the sight of her standing under a street light, bathed in its ethereal glow. She beckoned him with a finger and he went towards her. As soon as he reached her, she grabbed his T-shirt, still drenched with perspiration, pulled him towards her and kissed him deeply.
The kiss lasted a while and then, just as suddenly, she shoved him away from her and laughed. He threw her a confused look.
‘Come on!’ she yelled. ‘Catch me and I’m all yours.’ She darted off again.
‘So, it’s like that, is it?’ he called and loped after her.
She reached the end of the street and slowed down, stopping at a bridge that crossed a dark canal. She rested against the metal railings that separated the road from the water. Within seconds he’d joined her and was eager to pick up where they’d left off.
She held up a hand to prevent him touching her. ‘Listen,’ she said.
‘To what? I can’t hear anything: no traffic, no people, nothing.’
‘Exactly,’ she said. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes. He noticed her demeanour had completely changed, and for a moment he was concerned she intended doing herself harm by jumping from the bridge. He didn’t know what to say to her. He didn’t even know her name.
‘I don’t know your name,’ he said.
‘No. You don’t, do you? But I know yours, Brandon Shearer.’
A frown appeared between Brandon’s eyebrows. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked.
He would have said more except for the sudden sharp pain under his right shoulder blade. He was instantly winded, struggling for breath. He held out his hands to the girl in the sprayed-on dress, but she sidestepped away, all the while watching his face. He couldn’t talk. It was as if the air had been sucked out of his lungs. He collapsed onto the ground; the only sound he could hear was screaming.
SUNDAY, 18 JUNE, MORNING
Sunlight dazzled the road surface and melted the contestants as they struggled through the second stage of Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire, bent through fatigue, accentuated by the extraordinarily warm temperatures. The spectators, dressed in light summer clothing, huddled in patches of shade provided by the trees lining the route, to hide from the relentless, scorching sunrays.
Robyn had already depleted her reserves and was struggling more than usual. The first stage, the 1.2-mile swim across Chasewater reservoir, had taken it out of her. She was well behind her best time, like many others, thanks to the unprecedented temperatures, and was now battling to get ahead in the cycling.
She’d completed Ironman events before but this year was like no other. She couldn’t find her rhythm, and her normally well-focused mind was refusing to cooperate. She should never have agreed to the challenge. She wasn’t in a good place emotionally and had been working too hard. Lactic acid was already forming in her muscles, making each push of the pedals almost impossible.
She was also distracted because of recent events surrounding the death of her fiancé, Davies, an intelligence officer. She’d believed he’d been killed in an ambush in Morocco in March 2015, but it had recently come to light that she’d been fed a pack of lies and that Davies had not died in Morocco – although whether he was still alive was unknown.
She settled her bike a short distance behind another, ridden by a lean man in green leggings, and hurtled down the straight road in the direction of Blithfield Reservoir. There was no need to use up her flagging energy. It was far too hot for that. If she remained tucked in this position for three miles and then waited until they’d climbed the steep hill from the reservoir, she might conserve sufficient energy to overtake the contestant in front of her. She knew this route by heart and there were no difficult corners to navigate.
Her thoughts returned to the conversation two days earlier when Davies’ friend and colleague, Hassan, had broken the news they’d all been duped…
* * * * *
‘So, where is Davies?’
‘Honestly, I don’t know. He might be in captivity somewhere or he might have been murdered, or maybe he’s still in hiding until he can find out what he needs to about Peter Cross. He wasn’t safe while Cross was still in charge.’
‘Who’s hunting you? Why are you on the run?’
‘I’ve killed Peter Cross. I have my own methods of establishing the truth. Cross sent an assassin after us. He wanted us both dead. Of course, I have no proof of his corruption. Without Davies’ information, I can’t prove anything, and so, I’m on the run from agents who believe I am nothing more than a murderer – an agent gone rogue. I must leave now. I’ve stayed here too long and they’ll be on to me. I’m truly sorry, Robyn. I know Davies would be too.’
* * * * *
Peter Cross, who worked for the Intelligence Service and was both Davies’ and Hassan’s superior, had kept a great deal from her, including the truth about her fiancé. Davies hadn’t been killed in an ambush while on a mission in Morocco as she’d believed. The upset, stress and subsequent loss of her unborn child, brought about by the whole business, had been completely unwarranted.
The last two days had been torturous. Not as dreadful as the days following his apparent death, but bad enough. She’d wanted closure and yet all she had were more unanswered questions. Alive or dead? Did she hope he was dead? If he was alive, he wouldn’t be the same man she’d fallen for. How could he be, given what he’d been through since Morocco? The nausea that had been present since Friday night rose again, a violent wave that threatened to destabilise her. She fought it down, determined to beat it. She’d use the mounting anger and frustration of the last forty-eight hours to her advantage – to make her more determined to plough on and finish the event.
Finding a rhythm, her mind bounced back once more to Friday night and the explosion that had rocked her quiet street. A few minutes after Hassan had left to escape his hunters, an Audi stationed down the road had burst into flames. The fire brigade had arrived almost immediately, along with the counterterrorism squad…
* * * * *
She sees nothing from her window other than flashing blue lights and fire engines. They’ve arrived on the scene quickly – too quickly. She spots the anxious faces of her neighbours, pressed to windows on the opposite side of the street. Counterterrorism police with megaphones walk the road, telling everyone to remain calm and stay inside. She draws her curtains. Robyn alone knows this is no terrorist attack. She sits back in a chair, her cat on her knee, and watches a film on television, trying hard to concentrate on what is playing out on the screen rather than outside, but it’s no use.
Some half an hour later there’s rapping at her door and a kind-faced officer tells her that there’s nothing to worry about.
‘The vehicle that exploded had a defective ignition switch or some other electrical fault. The driver noticed the engine was on fire and pulled over. He got out and called the fire brigade before it exploded. Just wanted to reassure you that there’s no cause for concern.’
He speaks the words with sincerity, having undoubtedly been told that is what happened, but Robyn doubts him. The car was Hassan’s. Her guess is that Hassan has finally been hunted down; he has been silenced.
* * * * *
Robyn rounded the bend towards the reservoir at high speed, passing cheering crowds gathered to watch the spectacle. The rider in green was still ahead of her but flagging, his head bobbing with the effort of pedalling in such high temperatures, the distance between their bikes reducing by the minute. Robyn, hunkered down in her seat, arms resting on the handlebars, now focused on the shimmering water ahead of her as they raced down the hill, past hedgerows and trees.
She couldn’t afford to think about Davies, or Hassan. She was done with thinking about her lost fiancé. What mattered was the here and now – her friends, her colleagues and those she loved the most: her cousin, Ross, his wife, Jeanette, and Davies’ daughter, Amélie. She had her future to consider – a life without deceit and confusion. Davies’ face flashed in front of her. How could he have allowed her to get involved? He should never have invited her to join him in Morocco. If he hadn’t, she might have been a different person. She might have found some happiness even after his death instead of playing the blame game over and over again; and most importantly, she might not have miscarried their baby.
Sweat pooled in the nape of her neck. She’d been working non-stop for two weeks on a murder case and it had taken its toll on her fitness levels. Ordinarily, she’d breeze this stretch of the race, but today, with the fiery sun burning down on her neck and shoulders, the heavy weight of her heart and the sickness that rose again from the pit of her stomach, Robyn’s vision began to swim. Before she could react, she’d collided with the bike in front of her. The rider regained control but Robyn, lost in an ever-enclosing darkness, fell to one side in a dead faint. The bike careered into the verge and toppled, throwing Robyn into the air; she landed on the ground, where she lay motionless.
SUNDAY, 18 JUNE, LATE MORNING
‘No broken bones,’ said Ross, repeating Robyn’s words. His heavy brows sat low on his forehead. ‘Well, that’s something, I suppose.’
‘I’m fine,’ Robyn said, wincing as she attempted to sit up in the hospital bed. ‘I need a hot bath and a day at home in front of the telly. That’s all.’
‘Whoa! You’re not going anywhere.’ He put a warm hand on Robyn’s shoulder. ‘Rest and relaxation. And knowing you, you won’t get any if you return home. Besides, the doctor said you’re suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. You’ve overdone it, Robyn. Listen to your body. It’s screaming for you to rest up.’
‘Ross, I hate hospitals. I can’t stay here. Where are my clothes?’
Ross tutted loudly. ‘The outfit you were wearing is ripped, so unless you intend sprinting naked to the hospital exit, I suggest you stay put. I’ll bring clean clothes in tomorrow when you get discharged. For the rest of today and all of tonight you’re to stay here to be checked out for concussion.’
She threw him a look. ‘I don’t have concussion. I have a shitty headache and a few cuts and bruises, and I’m majorly pissed I fell from my bike during a race event, but concussed I am not.’
‘That tough-guy approach doesn’t work on me.’
Robyn snorted. ‘Ross, you know I have to go home. Schrödinger will miss me.’
‘Cat’s fine. Jeanette will feed him. If you must, use your phone app to check up on him. I’ll drop by later and make sure he gets his daily exercise. I’ll let Duke chase him around the garden a few times.’ He grinned at the sour expression on his cousin’s face.
Robyn attempted once more to push up from the bed and winced at the pain emanating from her hip. ‘Fuck!’
‘Fuck, indeed. However, it might be a blessing you’re laid up for a while. The way you’ve been going, you were in danger of self-combusting.’ Ross fixed his eyes on her. ‘Seriously, Robyn, this whole Hassan and Davies business has almost tipped you over the edge. Again.’
Robyn acknowledged his words as much as they stung. She couldn’t return to that dark, hopeless place where she’d resided for over a year. Without Ross and Jeanette’s support, she’d never have come through it. She heaved a sigh. ‘Hassan’s to blame. I wish he hadn’t tracked me down. I’d just about put it all behind me and he reopened the wounds. Oh, Ross. I don’t want Davies to be alive. I know I should, but I really don’t want to wake up one day to a knock at my door and for him to be outside. Not now. Not after this length of time.’
Her cousin’s gruff voice was comforting. ‘I know. For what it’s worth, I don’t think he can be alive. If Hassan is to be believed, Davies would have got a message to you before now to let you know the situation. He might have been alive on the fifteenth of March two years ago, but I doubt he lived for long – not if he was after Peter Cross.’
Robyn released a disappointed exhalation and studied her cousin’s face. ‘I want it all to go away.’
Ross patted her arm. ‘It will if you take a break. Do some fun stuff.’
‘How about you, me and Jeanette take off together for a few days – to the seaside? We’ll behave like the kids we once were and run along the beach and make sandcastles, or eat ice cream – yes, definitely eat ice cream.’ He smacked his lips together at the thought.
In spite of the pain in her head, she felt her lips tug into a smile. Ross was all the medicine she needed.
‘You’re on. We’ll go away, but no running along the beach until I’m feeling better and can beat you in a race,’ she replied.
‘That’s my cousin. Turns everything into a competition.’ He dropped a light kiss on her forehead. ‘I’d better shove off. You have a visitor outside.’
‘You didn’t say.’
‘He told me to take my time.’
‘Shearer. He went along to the reservoir to cheer you on and saw you come a cropper. Want me to send him in? He looked fairly uncomfortable sitting in the waiting room – it’s about a hundred degrees in there. Thought I’d leave him there for a while.’ Ross grinned suddenly, his craggy features lifting and taking ten years off him.
‘You left Shearer in a boiling-hot room for over half an hour?’
‘Of course I did.’
‘It won’t harm him. Might even make him more amenable. I’ll tell him you’re conscious and can see him now.’ He wagged a finger at her. ‘And remember, you’ll be no good to any of us if you’re ill. Take… some… time… off!’
The door shut before she could protest. This was a sodding nightmare – hospital, an overnight stay and now a gloating Shearer to handle.
MONDAY, 19 JUNE, MORNING
The fact she’d enjoyed DI Tom Shearer’s company the day before was testament to her being more beaten up than she’d admitted. Ordinarily, she’d never have entertained him sitting by her bedside, a bag of grapes in one hand. This was the man who’d stomp over her in the rush to get promotion, or would hang her out to dry rather than lose face with DCI Flint. He was ambitious, his heart little more than a cold pebble in his chest, yet his quiet manner and the obvious concern flickering in his blue eyes warmed him to her – or more likely she’d felt weakened by the bad tumble…
* * * * *
‘Look, we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I want you to know I think you’re a bloody good detective,’ he says as he leaves to go. His piercing eyes hold her own for a fraction too long, and she has a bizarre feeling he is trying to beam some sort of message across with them. Her head thumps too much to give her clarity and she decides she is imagining things.
‘Thanks for coming by,’ she replies.
He gives a small smile and squeezes one of her hands, flooding her body with unexpected warmth. His fingers uncoil slowly and he departs before she can establish what is happening to her and act on it, then the moment passes, leaving her further discombobulated.
* * * * *
She reasoned the drugs, the accident, the confusion over the last few days had all played their part and her mind wasn’t to be trusted, so she turned her attention back to Hassan. The whole car explosion business was troubling her. She’d picked over the theory that his body had been removed by those who had killed him, and overnight she had pondered a fresh possibility: that it had been a ploy, and Hassan had deliberately set the charge to deter those chasing after him. They’d need time to establish if he was dead, time that would allow him to escape. This whole espionage business was well out of her remit. She was a detective, not a spy, and as far as she could gather, nobody who’d worked with Davies was to be trusted. The only person 14
who could potentially help her establish if Hassan was still alive was on his way to collect her: her cousin, Ross.
Her phone rang. It was one of her team – PC Anna Shamash.
‘Hi. We just got word you’re in hospital. DI Shearer dropped into the office to ask if we’d heard you’d had an accident during the Ironman event. Said he thought we might be a man down for a while.’
‘Oh, did he, indeed?’
This explained Tom’s visit to her. He wasn’t interested in her well-being. His visit had been little more than a spying mission to check how badly injured she was. He was probably already talking to DCI Flint and suggesting she take some leave, giving him an ideal opportunity to toady to the higher ranks in order to procure the DCI promotion in Nottingham. DCI Flint had offered to put her forward for it, and after celebrating Anna and Mitz’s engagement, before she’d found Hassan in her home, she’d rung him and accepted. She and Tom would be up against each other for the position, and if he was going to play dirty, he’d find himself with a fight on his hands.
Anna’s voice interrupted her angry thoughts. ‘So, are you okay?’
‘I’m fine. Bit bruised and got a headache, but I’ll be discharged in a short while.’
‘That’s a relief.’
‘Can you manage without me today? I’ll be back in tomorrow though.’
‘Sure. We’re investigating that series of burglaries in Stoke, so everyone, apart from me, is out.’
‘Give me a ring if anything crops up.’ She looked up to find Ross at the door, a holdall in his hand. ‘My ride is here now. I’ll be at home in the next hour.’ She threw off the bedcover and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
‘Easy there,’ said Ross, hastening towards her. ‘I’m not sure you should be getting up without being checked over by a nurse or doctor.’
‘Give over. I can’t stay lounging about in bed; besides, I have to talk something over with you and I don’t want to do it here.’ She got to her feet, stood for a moment to ensure she wasn’t going to become dizzy, then reached for the bag and peered inside. He’d chosen a loose-fitting tracksuit and trainers. She gave a nod of approval.
‘Jeanette sorted them, said you’d probably want comfy clothes, and besides she didn’t want me pawing through your underwear drawer. Don’t know why. Maybe she was worried I’d take a shine to one of your thongs and try it on.’
She took one look at his deadpan face and couldn’t help but laugh, which in turn made her wince as pain radiated through her ribs. ‘You realise I can’t unsee that image now. You’ve scarred me for life.’
‘Do you think I need a C- or D-cup bra for my man boobs?’ he replied, looking down at his chest. She left to change before he could say any more.
* * * * *
The furry, purring machine that was Schrödinger rested contentedly on her lap, his soft vibrations a constant comfort, along with the sweet tea made by Jeanette. She’d shared her thoughts about Hassan with Ross on the trip from the hospital but now was crunch time. Both Ross and Jeanette eyed her cautiously and, as if able to mind-read each other’s thoughts, shook their heads in unison.
‘It’s out of my league,’ said Ross.
Jeanette’s voice was kind. ‘If Davies survived in Morocco, he would have contacted you. He’s gone, Robyn. You need to accept it.’
‘I want to.’ She meant it. Yet the explosion was too convenient. The fact that a man who’d killed his superior, Peter Cross, and dodged the might of the secret service had been caught out by an incendiary device placed on his car while he was visiting her didn’t equate. It was too fantastical, a spook drama that made little sense to her. No body had been recovered. There was no way anyone could have removed it in the time it had taken for the car explosion to be reported and first responders to arrive. She’d been by her window then, seen the flames and… maybe a figure in the darkness. That was, if her mind hadn’t played tricks on her.
‘Ross, I need this to end, and the only way is to find out if Hassan survived that blast and if he was alone.’
Jeanette cast her husband a wary glance and released a sigh. Petite but fiery, she was the only person who could order Robyn’s gruff yet lovable cousin about. ‘Ross?’
‘Not you as well!’
‘You know what she’s been through. At least see if you can find any witnesses or whoever the police are saying the car belonged to.’
Furrows etched into the topography of his forehead, then he clattered his mug onto the table and stood up. ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake! What chance do I have against the pair of you?’
Jeanette beamed him a smile.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I need to examine your nanny cam app footage from a few days ago. I want to see Hassan for myself and work out if I can track his exact movements that night. There’s a camera over the front door. From it, I might be able to fathom out which direction he went in, unless you saw him leave?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘I’ll access the app from the office computer and trawl through the footage.’ Ross gave a tight smile. ‘Make sure you bloody well rest while I’m gone.’
Jeanette got to her feet as well. ‘I’ll leave you too. Email me if you need anything. I’ll put it on alert so I’ll hear if there are any incoming messages.’
They departed together, a united force, leaving Robyn with a sense of loss. The last couple of years, they’d been with her every step of the way, and without them, she’d never have regained her sanity or will to continue. Now, all the good they’d achieved was in danger of unravelling if she didn’t get a grip. ‘Off you get, little chap.’ The cat landed lightly on the carpet, where he studied her, and she rose from the settee, gripping the arm tightly as the room swam in front of her eyes. The headache was still plaguing her. For once, she’d take Ross’s advice, have a bath and rest up for a couple of hours. Tomorrow, she was going into work regardless of how bloody sore she felt. Tom was not getting any opportunity to outperform her. She was going to go flat out to win the Nottingham promotion.
No sooner had she stretched out on her bed than her front doorbell rang. She ignored it and the second time, but when it pealed for a third, followed by a rat-a-tat-tat of the letter box and a voice she recognised, calling her name, she headed downstairs and opened the door. She hadn’t expected to see him again so soon, but spotting the anxious look on his face, quickly realised it wasn’t a social call. Tom raked a hand through his hair, streaked with silver. ‘Sorry, Robyn. I didn’t know what to do, who else I could ask for help.’
‘Come in, what’s up?’
‘I… I…’ It was unlike him to stumble or be lost for words. She’d never seen him so flummoxed, standing in the hallway, hands loosely by his sides, shoulders slumped, face long and drawn.
‘My son. Brandon.’
‘What happened to him?’
‘We don’t know. Term’s over at university and he was supposed to spend the holidays with Ellie and Mark. He was due home last night, but he didn’t show and he isn’t answering his phone. His gear is still in place at his university digs – no attempt to pack them – and his mates don’t know where he is. He hasn’t been seen since Saturday afternoon.’
She fell into a practised mode, one she’d used numerous times when dealing with shocked relatives of victims. ‘Come and tell me all about it.’
She shepherded him into the sitting room and, shooing Schrödinger from his favourite chair, encouraged Tom to sit down.
‘One of the other students he shares with says he was around Saturday afternoon, they heard him showering, but after that is a complete blank. MisPers don’t seem too concerned – after all, he’s a twenty-year-old student who could simply have turned off his phone because he doesn’t want to be contacted, is with a girlfriend or has taken off with friends. You know what students can be like.’
‘Well, maybe he has—’
‘No. Not Brandon.’ He edged forward on the chair, palms on his knees as if about to spring up any moment. ‘He wouldn’t do that to Ellie. He’d ring her to explain he wasn’t going home. He wouldn’t leave her worried. Me… that’s a different story, but not his mum.’
‘What are MisPers doing about it?’
‘The usual. They don’t think he’s high-risk. It seems he’d been out for three nights, attending various parties, and they think he’ll turn up soon. It’s not been twenty-four hours since Ellie rang me and I alerted them.’
‘It’s possible he crashed somewhere and needs a day or two to sort himself out,’ she reasoned.
‘Unlikely. He never turns off his mobile, and he’d message Ellie, even if he didn’t ring her.’
‘It could be out of charge.’
‘They suggested the same thing… but, Robyn, I don’t think that’s the case. He had a job lined up for today, working at Mark’s logistics company, and although Brandon may be difficult at times, he isn’t irresponsible.’
‘Tom, this isn’t really something my team will be able to take on. We don’t search for missing persons.’
The hiatus that followed swelled like an overfilled balloon, and he speared her with an earnest look. ‘I know. I wondered… if you’re off work… could you help me look into it? I don’t know which way to turn. All I know is MisPers are working far too slowly for my liking. If he’s been kidnapped or injured himself—’
‘Slow down, Tom. If he’d been abducted, you’d have heard from kidnappers by now.’
His shoulders lifted and dropped in one motion, accompanied by a pain-filled sigh. He lifted his hands to his temples and pressed until the skin turned white around his fingertips. ‘I don’t know what else I can do. Call it intuition, but I’m certain something bad has happened to him.’
‘It’s normal for any parent to worry—’
He cut her off with a shake of his head. ‘I’m not like normal fathers. I’m fully aware that I fall short in the parental responsibility stakes. I let Ellie deal with all that growing-up shit and teenage angst. I take the back seat or the easy option, as Ellie calls it, and let Brandon live his life as he sees fit. He gets enough grief from Ellie and her other half. He doesn’t need it from his old man as well. But this feels wrong. I’m worried something awful has happened to him, and I’m worried I’ll fail him yet again. For crying out loud, I’m a police officer. I ought to be able to find my son.’
The look he gave her tugged a strip from her heart. Guilt mixed with concern turned him into an Edvard Munch figure of screaming despair, lengthening his features to the point where it seemed as if his skin might drip from his skull.
‘Okay. I’ll get us a cup of tea and we’ll go through everything, create a picture of your boy’s movements, obtain a list of friends and see what we can do.’
He nodded weakly and seemed to fold in on himself. She hastened to the kitchen, her head still throbbing dully, a pain infinitesimally smaller than the one Tom was currently experiencing.
MONDAY, 19 JUNE, AFTERNOON
Robyn patted Tom’s hand, a friendly gesture he barely acknowledged. They’d pieced together very little, and without the expertise of her team, they’d continue to stab in the dark. Tom agreed with her assessment of the situation and she made the call to the station.
‘Anna, we’ve got a situation. DI Shearer’s son, Brandon, has disappeared without trace. MisPers are onto it; however, time might be of the essence, and if you’re able, I’d like you to lend some support to tracking the lad down.’
‘Yes, sure. The others aren’t back yet. What do you need me to do?’
‘Firstly, keep quiet about it, apart from telling the team when they get back. I don’t want the whole station knowing what’s going on regarding DI Shearer’s personal life, which means say nothing to DCI Flint or to anyone not on our team. I’m emailing you a list of Brandon’s social media sites. Could you get into the accounts and report any strange activity or anything that might indicate where he went Saturday evening? I’ve no doubt his friends have already been contacted, but I’ll send you a list and want you to ring them again. From what we’ve gathered, he was partying most of last week, but we don’t know where he went Saturday evening. He didn’t go out with anyone from his shared house.’ Anna was a tech wiz and the best person for this.
‘On it. Is DI Shearer at the station?’
‘He’s taken the day off.’ She glanced at Tom, who nodded an affirmation. ‘Ring me as soon as you get any information.’ She hung up. ‘We should go to Brandon’s digs and see what we can ascertain.’
‘Thanks.’ He rubbed a hand across his chin. ‘I’ve no idea what could have happened to him and this has made me realise something else… I hardly know my own son. What an utterly shit father I’ve been.’
‘Now’s not the time for self-flagellation.’ She hunted in her bag for the pills the hospital had given her for the pain and palmed a couple, taking them with the remnants of the now-cold mug of tea. ‘Come on, you’ll have to drive.’
* * * * *
She didn’t ring Ross until they’d almost reached Stoke-on-Trent. Rather than give him a chance to speak first and blurt out any discoveries he might have made about Hassan, she brought him promptly up to speed.
‘You’re ignoring doctor’s instructions, then?’
‘Listen, this is important. Tom’s really concerned and Brandon’s been missing since Saturday night. I’ll rest when we’ve located him.’
He lowered his voice. ‘You must think something serious has happened to the boy if you’re helping Shearer find his son. Unless that fall you had did something to your brain. This is Shearer, remember. The man most likely to stab you in the back.’
She checked to make sure Shearer hadn’t heard the jibe. His eyes were fixed on the road, his jaw set. ‘Ross, something doesn’t add up and we have to find Brandon.’
There was a sigh. ‘Okay. I was on my way back to you, anyway. I’ll give you a hand. What can I do?’
She turned to Tom. ‘Ross wants to help out.’
A flicker of appreciation lit his blue eyes. ‘Could he talk to Ellie and Mark?’
‘Ross, that’d be great. Can you speak to Tom’s ex, Ellie, and her husband, Mark? Find out if everything was rosy at home or if there were issues.’ She ignored the dismayed look Tom threw her. ‘Make sure we know as much as possible about him. Children of all ages can be notoriously secretive.’
‘I’ve done this before, Robyn. Many, many times. I know what to ask and what to look for. What’s the address?’
Robyn relayed it to him. ‘We’re just pulling up outside his rented accommodation. I’ll catch you later.’
The house stood in a street of identical, nondescript, brown-brick houses, opposite its mirror image with brown-framed windows and blinds – the only difference a V4TheA sticker in the window, promoting compassionate vegan living. Tom squared his shoulders.
‘You were right. Kids keep things from parents.’ He was out of the car before she could respond, and she hastened to join him, grimacing as she swung her legs out.
A clean-shaven young man – with wavy blond hair that appeared to be glued to the very top of his head – answered the door. In a crisp, white T-shirt and green-and-blue checked trousers, he resembled a male model rather than any student Robyn had come across. She lifted up her ID.
‘Hi. We’d like to talk to you about Brandon. We were hoping you’d be able to give us an idea of what he was up to the night he went missing.’
He shuffled backwards, a smooth movement that made Robyn reconsider her first impression. He was more like a dancer. ‘Come in.’
They found themselves in a hallway, empty apart from two bicycles propped against the banister.
‘What’s your name?’ asked Tom.
‘Richie Hunter. I told the other officer who came around everything I know.’
‘I’m Brandon’s dad. I’d appreciate it if you could tell me too.’
Nonplussed, the young man halted, his mouth opening then closing again. He led them into a tidy kitchen, where a well-used table and four assorted chairs filled the functional space. Richie dropped onto a blue wooden chair, pushed away a plate bearing a half-eaten sandwich and rubbed a hand over his face.
‘I don’t know where Brandon went on Saturday. He’d been on a bender for three or four days and was out most of the week. The others who live here left last Wednesday, but Brandon and I stayed on for a few extra days. Our rent is paid up until the end of June so there was little point in heading off too soon. On Friday, we both hit the town, got completely hammered and ended up at a house party in Hanley. I left around four in the morning but Brandon didn’t return until late Saturday afternoon. I heard him showering. The bathroom’s next to my room. He was hammering out Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back”. Badly. He’s tone deaf.’
‘Did you not see him at all?’
‘No. I was with a friend, Stu. We stayed in my room until about eight and then we went out for something to eat.’
‘Have you any idea where he might have gone?’
He shook his head. ‘Last I saw of him was at the party on Friday. He was hanging out with a girl. I’ve seen her about on campus.’
‘Could you describe her?’
His face screwed up in concentration. ‘Not too well. Shorter than me. Pretty face and she had pink hair.’
‘Can’t recall anything else?’
He shook his head.
‘Where was this party?’
Robyn took down the address.
‘How has Brandon been?’ asked Tom. ‘Has he been depressed at all?’
‘Only about term coming to an end. He wasn’t looking forward to working all summer for his stepdad.’
‘I’m going to ask you something and I need a completely honest answer,’ said Tom. ‘Did Brandon do drugs?’
Richie lowered his gaze. It was answer enough.
‘I’m not judging him, Richie, or even mad at him. I need to know so I can try and work out what’s happened to him. Maybe he’s simply out of it somewhere.’ The sincerity in his tone made the boy look up.
‘Brandon’s a party animal. Yes, he takes stuff.’
‘Mostly Es, some coke. Nothing heavy.’
Tom gave him a small smile. ‘Thank you. Listen, would your friend Stu be able to give us any more information? The one who stayed over?’
‘I doubt it. We met at the party. He was down to help his sister move her stuff back home to Edinburgh. They left this morning. He doesn’t know Brandon.’
‘Okay. Thanks for your help.’
‘Mr Shearer, I hope you find him. I feel really bad for not checking on him.’
Tom gave a sharp nod and stood up. ‘Is his room unlocked?’
‘Sure. Want to take a look? It’s the first one on the left.’
Tom bounded lightly upstairs, Robyn following more slowly, painfully aware of fresh throbbing in her joints. The curtains were still closed and the room stuffy. Filtered light fell across a jumble of clothes scattered on an unmade bed, and as her eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness, she spotted folders and books stacked on the floor next to a large rucksack. She checked the empty shelves, the washbag on the bedside table. Brandon had been preparing to pack up for the summer.
Tom tugged at the desk drawers, flicked through the contents before shaking his head.
Robyn made for the wardrobe, felt coat pockets and pulled out an empty cigarette packet.
‘I didn’t know he smoked,’ said Tom with another sad shake of his head. ‘Fags, drugs, booze. What else was he into?’
He was beginning to lose focus. She had to take the lead. ‘There’s nothing here to help us find him. We ought to try the house in Hanley. Come on.’
On the short drive to Hanley, she looked up the song Brandon had been singing. Listening to the upbeat track, it sounded as if Brandon had been looking forward to going out that night and therefore unlikely to have taken his own life. She shared her thoughts with Tom, who rewarded her with a small smile. ‘Thanks. I needed to hear that. My mind is all over the place.’
* * * * *
The party house was solely occupied by two students who, like Richie, were yet to return home for the summer: an athletic-looking young man who introduced himself as Callum and a girl, Georgina, with porcelain features, large aquamarine eyes and pink hair. Recalling Richie’s description of the girl he’d seen with Brandon, Robyn was immediately on alert, watching carefully for any signs the girl might be lying.
‘Sure, I remember Brandon. We got on really well. He was fun,’ Georgina said, her soft West Country dialect causing her to drop her ‘H’s and roll her ‘R’s.
‘We’re trying to account for his movements on Saturday night. Did you see him then?’
‘Yes. We went to a pop-up rave.’
‘Where did it take place?’
‘At an empty warehouse. It used to be a toy factory. It’s on Ivy House Road, close to the cricket club.’
Robyn had an idea where the girl meant. There were various business premises in that area.
‘And when did you last see him?’
A frown pulled her thin eyebrows together ‘Not certain. About midnight? Things happened fast. One minute we were both having a great time, then the next… he changed.’ She held up her hands. ‘I don’t know what happened. He got his hands on some free drugs, some candy or Molly or some shit… took too many and became… well, I didn’t want to hang with him any more. We argued and he stormed off to the dance floor with a group of girls and I left him to it.’
‘In what ways did he change?’ asked Robyn, aware of Tom next to her, rigid with anxiety.
‘He was off his head. Not at all like he was Friday night. I thought we had a thing going on, but I was wrong.’
‘I’m sorry to ask, but did you and Brandon have sex?’ asked Robyn.
The girl shook her head. ‘No way. A few people stayed over. We were drinking and playing games on the PlayStation. The party spilled over into the next day and a few people hung around until mid-afternoon. They left before we buzzed off to the rave. I left the rave before him. After he pissed off and left me, there was no point staying on my own, and besides, I was pretty tired by then.’
‘Can you describe any of the girls he was dancing with?’
‘Only Tia. She came to our party.’ She screwed up her face in concentration. ‘Shorter than me, skinny, with a bird tattoo on her neck. And a stud in her tongue.’
‘Who invited her?’ asked Robyn.
‘Not me,’ said Georgina. ‘Callum?’
The boy, who’d been sitting quietly, turned velvet eyes to her. ‘Never seen her before. I thought she was one of your friends.’
‘No. She thrust a bottle of vodka at me and said thanks for the invite. I figured she was one of yours.’
Robyn interrupted the exchange. ‘Callum, do you remember her?’
‘Yeah. She chatted to me for a while about going to Ayia Napa to party the summer away. I didn’t keep tabs on her though. Didn’t see her after that.’
Georgina cocked her head before saying, ‘I spoke to her outside the toilet. She told me about the rave. I gave her my number to text me the address.’
A prickling began at the base of Robyn’s neck. They were on to something.
‘I suppose Brandon could be with her,’ Georgina continued. ‘She asked me his name and said he was cute. I jokingly told her to keep her hands off and she laughed it off. Said he was too young for her. Maybe she changed her mind.’
‘Callum, did you go?’
‘No. I work at a bar Saturday evenings. I gave it a swerve.’
Tom found his voice. ‘Georgina, you invited Brandon to the pop-up, right?’
‘Actually, Tia suggested it. She WhatsApped me the address about four in the afternoon, saying it would start at nine and that we should both go. I think she assumed we were an item. I told Brandon and he was definitely up for it. He nipped back to his place to shower and change and then came back here and we went together.’
Tom cleared his throat. ‘Have you still got her message?’
‘Erm, yes. I think so.’ She flicked through her phone and found it.
Robyn took down the phone number the message had come from and the address where the rave had been held, then headed outside to ring Anna.
‘Okay, we’ve got a number for you to locate, and a name – Tia, but no surname. We urgently need an address for her and any information you can find on her. Also, can you grab hold of CCTV around the vicinity of Ivy House Road? There are several warehouses there. I’m interested in only one – the old toy factory. I’ll send details across to you now.’
Tom had appeared and ran a hand across his chin, his stubble bristling against his strong fingers. ‘What now?’
‘A coffee break. There’s a café a couple of streets away. We can’t do much more at the moment, until we find out more about Tia, so we may as well get a sandwich to help us through the rest of the day.’ Pain shot through her back, forcing her to double over and making her gasp in surprise.
‘You okay? Shit, I’ve been so wrapped up in Brandon, I forgot you took a nasty tumble. I shouldn’t have put this on you.’
She put a hand on his arm, felt the steely biceps beneath his shirt sleeve. ‘I’m fine. I’m not leaving you to do this alone.’
His eyes locked onto hers, mesmerising her with their intensity, then her phone rang and the moment passed.
‘Where are you?’
‘About to go to Henry’s Café on Albert Road.’
‘I’ll meet you there in ten minutes.’
The phone went dead and she stared at the blank screen for a moment. Ross had been strangely curt. ‘He’s going to meet up with us.’
‘He didn’t say anything else?’
She shook her head.
‘Then it must be serious if he didn’t say anything over the phone.’
‘Don’t jump to conclusions.’ Even as she said it, she knew he was right. She just hoped it wasn’t going to be very bad news.
MONDAY, 19 JUNE, LATE AFTERNOON
Even though the coffee house was quiet, they took a table downstairs, where they were completely alone and out of earshot of any customers or any baristas clearing tables. Tom chewed at a cheese sandwich as if it were made of rubber, his jaw working each mouthful for the longest time, his gaze landing somewhere beyond the framed photographs of skeletal trees, their dark branches like bony arms held up to cloudy skies. The dreary images weren’t causing Tom’s mouth to droop. Robyn understood the culprit was anxiety. The more time went by with no word from Brandon, the greater the chance something serious had happened to him, and Tom was surely having those very concerns. They ate in silence, him staring ahead, Robyn trying to work out a plan.
Tia’s message to Georgina had been clear. She’d wanted Brandon to go along too. It was a mystery whether that was because, as Georgina had surmised, she’d believed they were boyfriend and girlfriend or because she’d fancied Brandon and hoped to get the chance to get off with him. Either way, Tia might have been the last person to see him. Robyn’s mobile lit up, displaying the office number, and she hurriedly swallowed her food to respond.
‘Hi, Anna. I’m going to put you on speakerphone so Tom can hear as well.’ She pressed the loudspeaker icon and placed the phone between them on the table.
‘Okay. Name is Tia Sharpe and she’s unemployed,’ said Anna. ‘She’s had a string of jobs but never held any down for more than two or three months.’
Robyn put down her sandwich and leant closer to the phone. ‘She isn’t a student?’
‘No. Never been to college. She’s twenty-four and lives with her father, Graham Sharpe, in Pitts Hill. According to her mobile provider, her phone hasn’t left her house all morning.’
Anna gave out the address, which was duly jotted down in Tom’s notebook. Robyn looked up in time to see her cousin approaching. ‘Cheers, Anna. We’ll talk to her.’
‘Mitz and I are combing CCTV footage as you asked and we’ll be in touch the second we find anything.’
Ross didn’t bother with niceties. He dropped onto a seat next to Tom and concentrated a serious look in Robyn’s direction, one she felt sure was due to the camera app footage rather than what he’d discovered from Tom’s ex-wife.
‘Did you find what you were looking for?’ she asked.
Ross gave an almost imperceptible nod. This wasn’t something they could discuss here in front of Tom. He turned to Tom. ‘Your lad’s been a bit of a handful recently – since your ex-missus remarried in fact – and apparently been a bit wild: drugs, porn, drinking, generally being uncooperative. Ellie decided not to bother you with it and thought she and Mark could handle it. In fact, Mark even suggested it was perfectly normal behaviour and natural, and Brandon only needed to blow off some steam.’
A muscle flexed in Tom’s jaw. ‘She should have told me.’
‘Not for me to comment,’ said Ross.
‘Is he in any financial difficulties?’ asked Tom.
‘No. His account is in the black – under a hundred quid, but as far as I know, there’s nobody breathing down his neck for any money. He pays up front for the drugs.’
‘How could he afford them? He’s only a student. Are you sure he didn’t owe anybody?’
‘I’ve been in touch with some of my seedier contacts. Your lad pays on time and is considered a valued customer. It appears Mark’s been very generous and has been bolstering his finances.’
The muscle twitched again and Robyn felt an urge to comfort Tom. The new husband had usurped him on many levels.
‘I’ve done as much checking as I can and uncovered no signs he was depressed or in real trouble, and as far as I can make out, he had every intention of returning home to Ellie’s for the holidays.’ His voice lowered, adding gravitas to his words. ‘Which leads me to a question: have you pissed off somebody enough for them to have taken your son?’
Tom let out a noisy sigh. ‘Plenty of people. Too many to count. You think this is my fault?’
Ross leant his elbows on the table. ‘Not your fault – no. Have you considered the possibility somebody wants to hurt you? If so, what better way than by taking your son?’
‘But there’s been no ransom demand… which means…’
‘Which means nothing at this stage,’ said Robyn, throwing Ross a cross look. Tom didn’t need to add to the guilt trip he was already on. ‘It’s only supposition. We’ll talk to Tia and see what she knows.’
Ross’s thick eyebrows lifted on his craggy forehead. ‘Tia?’
‘Might be the last person to have seen him at one of those pop-up raves.’
‘Talking of which, let’s go,’ said Tom as he stood up.
Ross jumped up. ‘I’ll join you. Actually, Robyn, would you ride with me?’ 28
She didn’t question it. Ross had a reason for meeting them other than giving Tom information about his son, and it had to be to do with her phone and Davies. ‘Sure. We’ll follow you, Tom.’
No sooner were they inside Ross’s car than he began talking. ‘I know you’ve got a stack of stuff on your plate, but your nanny cams yielded something important – Hassan wasn’t killed in that blast. We know he headed in the opposite direction before the car blew up. Also, Robyn… he met somebody.’
She held her breath. She knew what he was going to say.
‘I can’t be completely certain, but it sure as hell looks like him.’
He passed her his mobile and she stared at the grainy picture, snapped by the outside hidden camera, only minutes after Hassan had left her house. The figure beside him was tall and slim, and although he was only lit by a thin strip of light falling from a bathroom window, she was sure it was Davies. The sudden ache in her chest expanded like foam, filling the cavity and transporting rage into her vessels. Why? Why had Hassan told her such lies? Why had Davies not contacted her, or his own daughter, Amélie? She thumped the glovebox. ‘Bastard!’
Ross flicked her a dismayed look. ‘This probably isn’t the right time—’
‘I’d have had the same reaction whenever you told me.’ Fuck Hassan and fuck Davies! Her face felt hot, boiled by the blood racing throughout her body, and with every heartbeat, the rage increased. How dare they do this to her. In the same instance, she decided they wouldn’t invade her life or thoughts any more. She refocused her energies on Tom and Brandon. The here and now was what mattered and a boy was missing, his father distraught.
Her phone pinged and she opened her inbox to find a CCTV capture of Brandon in a T-shirt and jeans next to a bare-footed girl in a black dress. She zoomed in on the girl’s face, her sharp features and the swallow tattoo on her neck. Both appeared to be heading towards an alleyway. The timestamp showed it to be one thirty on Sunday morning, and the message read:
Footage taken from a warehouse surveillance camera near the old toy factory. Not found anything else.
Hope it helps.
Tom’s BMW turned into a terraced street, where it crawled along until it reached a light-brown rendered house with a wooden door that bore scuffmarks and dents from footwear that, over the years, had kicked it open. Tom was out in a flash and at the door before they’d fully drawn up behind him.
‘Stay there. I’ll go,’ said Ross, unclipping his seatbelt with ease and jumping out of the car. Robyn was about to join him. There was no way she was going to abandon Tom at his time of need, but the ringing of her phone stopped her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a pixie-faced girl speaking to Tom, who was showing her his ID. The girl gave a light shrug at his words, a feigned nonchalance that irritated Robyn. Her phone rang yet again – it was Anna.
‘Matt’s back and managed to get the call history for Tia’s phone. She received a text message at one twenty-five on Sunday morning from a pay-as-you-go mobile. Three words: “Do it now.” We’re trying to work out who sent it to her. Might be a burner phone, in which case, we’re stuffed. We think it’s relevant given the time Brandon and Tia left the warehouse party. Robyn, we think Brandon’s disappearance was planned.’
Robyn stared at Tia, who was smiling and shaking her head. ‘Thanks, Anna.’ She snapped off the phone and threw open the car door, swinging her legs out and marching across to the trio, ignoring the pain. A shadow crossed the girl’s face. ‘I don’t know—’
Robyn pushed in front of Ross, head and shoulders above the girl. ‘I’m not in the mood for any bullshit so you can stop all the play-acting. Tell us what happened or I’ll drag you down to the station and charge you with perverting the course of justice for starters, and if anything has happened to Brandon Shearer, I’ll make sure you get charged as an accomplice.’ She edged closer, forcing the girl to step back. ‘Tia,’ she growled.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know any Brandon.’ The voice sounded less confident, her face less cocksure.
Robyn reached into her pocket. ‘This says otherwise.’
The girl looked from the phone to Robyn and began stammering. ‘I… I…’
‘Stop it!’ Robyn slammed the doorframe with the palm of her hand. ‘Stop lying and tell us what the hell happened to Brandon.’
‘I don’t know. We met up at the rave. It was really hot in there. We went outside, took a walk to cool down, then returned. He disappeared into the crowds. I didn’t see him again.’
Robyn tutted. ‘Looks like we’ll have to do this the hard way.’
‘I’m not lying.’
‘Who sent you the text message?’
‘The one you received shortly before you and Brandon went outside and disappeared down an alleyway,’ Robyn said through gritted teeth. ‘You may as well tell me because I have a crack team on it who will find out who it was, and once they do, you’ll be in even greater trouble than you already are.’
The girl looked at Ross for confirmation. He shook his head. ‘She means it. If I were you, I’d come clean and make it easier for yourself.’
Whether it was his fatherly nature or the fact that she was intimidated by Robyn, she saw sense at last. Her shoulders sagged. ‘It’s not worth it. Not for five hundred quid.’
‘Somebody paid you to lure Brandon outside?’ Robyn asked. She could feel Tom tensing beside her, his arm brushing against hers.
‘Yeah. A punter.’
‘I don’t do it often. Only when I need extra cash. I haven’t been able to get another job since I got fired from the last one. I only offer blow jobs.’ She folded her arms defiantly.
‘Who was this client?’
‘I don’t know his name. He asked me if I’d like to earn some real money. Offered me five hundred in cash to help him catch Brandon. He set the whole thing up, found out about the rave and asked me to make sure Brandon turned up to it. He plied Brandon with pills to get him high, and then all I had to do was get him outside alone.’
There was something that rang untrue about the whole story for Robyn. The plot was too elaborate to have been staged. This unknown person would have needed to know first about the house party and then about the rave. It was too complicated and messy. If he’d wanted to get his hands on Brandon, why not simply kidnap the boy when he was on his way home from the house party?
‘I don’t buy it,’ said Robyn. ‘Tom, take her to the station.’
‘No! It’s true!’ Her voice rose in indignation.
Tom spoke quietly. ‘Robyn, we don’t have a lot of time. We need answers now.’
‘She’s covering something up. I know she is,’ hissed Robyn. ‘And we’re wasting time here, listening to her garbage.’
Ross tried again. ‘Tia, you’re not helping yourself—’
The girl spat in his face, and as Tom reached for her arm, she retreated inside and slammed the door shut. 31
Robyn was in immediate control. ‘Ross, make sure she can’t escape out back. Tom, wait here.’ She headed to the car, looking back towards the upstairs window. There was no sign of life. She rang Anna and explained the situation. ‘Anna, I need more on Tia Sharpe. Tell me about her parents. Ross said something that got me thinking. Maybe this is about Tom Shearer. Has either of her parents got a record?’
There was an eternity of taps and clicks and an intake of breath. ‘Father’s clean but get this: her brother, Craig, was put away for drug-dealing a year ago. A few months ago, he got into a fight with an inmate and died of internal injuries. Tom Shearer was lead officer on that case.’
Robyn suppressed a groan. This had to be a vendetta, and if Craig’s father and sister wanted to hurt Tom, what better way than to kill his only son? She wiped clammy hands on her trouser legs. If she told Tom what she knew, he’d kick the door down and storm the place. It might not help Brandon, but it would most certainly harm his career, and given he was up for promotion, she couldn’t let him ruin the one thing he loved… the one other thing he loved. She had to play this cool.
Ross reappeared and made for her, his face red from exertion. ‘No exit points to the rear. Place backs onto another house. No garden.’
‘We’ve got a problem.’ She spoke quietly, told him what she’d discovered and waited. Her cousin, ex-police and a top private investigator, had years of experience and was the one person she knew who would be able to come up with a solution.
‘Shit, Robyn. They might even have the lad in there, and if we go in, they will kill him.’
‘He might already be dead,’ she said, the words stinging as she said them. Tom was still out of earshot, pacing up and down the road near the house, a man close to breaking point.
‘We don’t have many options. Can you get us in?’
‘What choice do we have? We’ll claim we heard calls for help and were concerned about individuals inside.’
Tom had stopped pacing and was chewing at a thumbnail. ‘Robyn, she’s the key to Brandon’s whereabouts—’
‘I know. We’re going to break in. The quiet way. Ross?’
Ross pulled out a selection of keys from his pocket. Tom began to protest, but Robyn held up a hand. ‘Not now, Tom.’
He grunted a response.
Ross’s movements were deft and within a minute the door lock clicked. Robyn slid in first, taking in the gloomy hallway and flight of stairs directly in front of her. She turned around, signalled for Ross to check the rooms downstairs with Tom, and made her way up, one step at a time. The door to the first room was shut, the second ajar, and peering around it, she established it was most likely the father’s bedroom: a double bed made up hurriedly, clothes hanging in an open wardrobe and pyjamas thrown on the back of a chair. Her eyes were drawn to a photograph on the bedside table of two young teens, fresh-faced and strikingly similar, arms around each other and grins on their faces – one was Tia; the other had to be her brother, Craig.
A soft whisper of movement sent her spinning around. Ross had a finger to his lips. There was only one room where Tia could be – the one with the closed door. He crept towards it, Robyn directly behind him. He placed his fingers on the handle and pushed. The door swung open onto an empty room. Catching sight of an open window, he rushed forward and peered outside.
‘She’s done a runner.’
‘But where? There’s nowhere for her to go. You said the house backs onto another house.’
Ross leant out of the window. ‘I can’t see where she’s gone.’
Tom burst into the room. ‘What’s happened?’
He thumped the chest of drawers. ‘No!’
Tom’s cry was loud, yet not so loud as to disguise a small noise – a whimper. Robyn took a step forward to the closet, yanked on the door and opened it to reveal the girl, curled up inside. Robyn hauled her out.
‘No. Don’t!’ squeaked Tia, all bravado now vanished.
‘I won’t warn you again. Your dad is involved in this, isn’t he? There was no punter.’
Tom edged forward. ‘Tia, Brandon is my son. Please help me find him.’
She averted her gaze, steeled herself and resumed the frosty stance that had temporarily deserted her. Tom’s appeal had produced the opposite effect. He tried again. ‘I’ve failed him as a father, many times over. This is the one chance I have to make it right between us. Help me do that, Tia.’
Robyn threw him a look she hoped would silence him. Ross spotted it and drew Tom away. ‘Leave her. She isn’t going to talk. We’ll find her father. We’ve got teams out already searching for him. It won’t be long before they find him and charge him.’
The words were deliberately chosen and Tia’s eyebrows knitted together.
‘It’s true,’ Robyn said. Ross and Tom disappeared from view, their voices fading as they made their way back downstairs. ‘Tia, you can’t protect your father any more. I’m sure this wasn’t your idea. He wanted payback for what happened to Craig. He blames DI Shearer, doesn’t he?’
The girl sniffed. ‘It was his fault. He forced Craig to confess. He got him banged up, and because of that, he was killed.’
Robyn placed her hands on the girl’s shoulders. ‘No, Tia. Craig was given a prison sentence because he did wrong. It was entirely his fault, nobody else’s. What happened to him was dreadful, but it wasn’t DI Shearer’s fault.’
The girl stiffened under her gaze. Robyn sighed. ‘Listen, you’re not stupid. Think about it this way: why blame one man? Why take out the hurt and anger on him when there were judges, solicitors and a whole team of officers who were party to Craig’s arrest and sentence? Why punish the person who was put in charge of the investigation and not the superiors who assigned him the case, or the prison guards who didn’t protect your brother, or the inmates who were all in part responsible for his death? Your dad is angry and understandably so, but he has no right to dole out punishments to one man simply because he can’t reach everyone. Surely you can see that? I understand you love him and you want justice for your brother, but, Tia, this isn’t the way to do it. You’ll end up in jail too, and so will your father.’
The girl swallowed hard, her eyes turning glassy. ‘He said we wouldn’t get caught. I was the honey trap, he called it. I was supposed to flirt with Brandon at the house party and get him alone outside, but he got off with Georgina and wouldn’t even look at me. I overheard one of the other students talking about the pop-up party, so I invited her to it, asked her to bring Brandon. It was another chance to get Brandon alone and it worked that time. Dad paid one of Craig’s old mates to ply Brandon with free drugs, and he got so spaced out, he fell out with Georgina. I’d been watching him and told him to come and dance with us. He was well out of it, had no idea what he was doing, and eventually I suggested we went outside for some air. That was the plan, you see? I was to get him to the canal and Dad was going to jump him there, kidnap him and keep him out of sight for a few days so his dad would get really worked up about him. He was going to let him go then. It was to teach him a lesson. That’s all it should have been. A stupid, fucking lesson so DI Shearer would understand the consequences of his actions.’
She stopped talking and dropped her gaze. Hairs on the back of Robyn’s neck lifted as if suddenly chilled.
‘But that’s not what happened, was it, Tia?’
When she next spoke, her voice was little above a whisper. ‘He was only going to scare him, not kill him. The gun went off by accident. It really was an accident. Dad told me to run… to get away from the bridge and go home and wait until he contacted me. I was so shit-scared, that’s exactly what I did. He’s lying low. I’ve no idea where he is – honest.’
‘How did you allow yourself to get mixed up in this?’ asked Robyn.
‘He’s my dad,’ was the response. ‘And I love him.’
MONDAY, 19 JUNE, LATE EVENING
Her whole team had arrived at the Sharpes’ address, and Robyn watched from beside Tom’s car as PC David Marker and DS Matt Higham escorted a subdued Tia into a police car. She released a sigh then issued fresh instructions to PC Anna Shamash and DS Mitz Patel.
‘DCI Flint has been informed and a manhunt for Graham Sharpe is underway. I want you to remain here in case he shows up. Tia’s had no contact from her father since she ran away from the scene of the crime, and the pay-as-you-go phone he used to contact her has been switched off since he sent the text in the early hours of Sunday morning. Ross has gone to the bridge where Brandon was shot, and divers are being sent to search the canal.’ At this, she cast a look in Tom’s direction. He covered his head with both hands, eyes glazed as he tried to maintain his sangfroid. He’d insisted he was going to accompany her to the canal to watch over the divers. There was every chance Brandon’s body would be discovered there, and now she could only be a good friend and offer her moral support. ‘Let us know the second he makes an appearance. We can’t let him escape. Tom, you ready to leave?’ she asked softly. A nod was her answer.
* * * * *
Although his car was parked up, there was no sign of Ross. With her attention on the divers who were slipping into the waters like slick black seals, and aware of Tom’s anguish, she had little chance to dwell on his whereabouts.
Tom shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans and stared ahead. Robyn edged closer, put an arm around him and gave a friendly squeeze. Silver bubbles, oxygen released by the divers, trailed across the inky surface, and all the while, Tom kept his chin lifted.
The silence stretched for an eternity, broken only by Robyn’s phone. The brief message from Ross contained directions. He wanted her to meet him at the toy factory – alone. She decided not to tell Tom and made up an excuse to leave him, then followed the instructions.
Ross was leaning against the back door. ‘It takes under five minutes to get here,’ he said.
‘I know. I just walked it.’
‘There are no cameras along this route either, unless you count the one on the corner of the logistics warehouse, but I dodged that by hugging the wall.’
‘What’s your point, Ross?’
‘You didn’t see them, then?’
‘Blood droplets. There were some on the bridge, presumably where Brandon was shot, and along the road. They stop here.’
He shone his Maglite onto a rusty stain by the back door. ‘I think Graham brought Brandon back here.’
Robyn’s breath caught in her chest. ‘Why?’
‘I can’t answer that. The man was in shock. He’d just accidentally shot a police officer’s son. He was in big trouble.’
‘Why not call an ambulance and get the boy taken to hospital?’
‘Like I said, he was in shock, not thinking logically. I don’t have all the answers, Robyn. I followed the clues and they led here. Brandon wasn’t killed. Maybe he wasn’t even badly injured at all, so Graham decided to keep him hidden, as planned. Whatever the reason, he waited until this place had emptied and brought him back here.’
‘It’s a heck of a distance to carry somebody.’
‘Who says he was carried? Brandon might have been able to walk.’
She had to admit it was possible. ‘Can you get in?’
‘Does a monkey like peanuts? Hold this.’ Ross passed the torch to Robyn and extracted a pouch, removing a device which he worked into the lock. Time paused as he fiddled with it until, finally, he whispered, ‘Eureka.’
The door opened onto a vast space, littered with empty cans and bottles, remnants of the rave. Ross took the lead, lighting the way, treading cat-like across the filthy floor. They crossed the room, reaching a wide door which opened silently onto a corridor with a further series of doors off it, to the left. They paused by the first, listened for any noises inside, and Ross, seizing the handle firmly, opened it. The room was empty. Robyn strained her ears and was sure she could hear a soft creaking elsewhere. They progressed to the next room, repeated the act and, again, found nobody.
The torchlight fell over empty packaging and created eerie shadows on the corridor walls that moved in time with their footsteps, as if they were being stalked by shape-shifting monsters. The third door was slightly ajar and Ross pushed it wide open in one swift movement. The beam fell across the walls and a whiteboard – bearing smeary traces of a red marker pen – and over a dust-covered table bearing footprints, then stopped. Above it, Graham Sharpe dangled from a length of rope. His eyes were bloodshot, his tongue protruding like a fat, grey slug from blue lips. A plastic chair lay upturned on the floor.
Ross took stock of the situation. ‘It looks like he placed the chair on the table, climbed on it, looped the rope around the metal beam and then kicked the chair away. Couldn’t face the music.’ His eyebrows drew together. ‘Oh, crap! This might mean the boy wasn’t in as good a state as I assumed. Brandon!’ Ross fled from the room and began jogging up the corridor, booting doors open, yelling the boy’s name. Robyn was on his heels, ignoring the screaming pain in her hips and back, the cold fear that clenched her heart driving her onwards.
‘He might not be here,’ she said, peering into the gloom of another abandoned office.
The light shone onto spots of blood in a circular pattern outside the final door. ‘He is here.’ Ross inhaled deeply and kicked at the door, which flew wide open. The room was rank, the strong scent of urine and something else… Fear, thought Robyn. Her eyes, now accustomed to the poor light, made out a heaped pile of rags, material once used to fabricate soft toys. Brandon was curled up among the dusty folds, his eyes closed, mouth agape. Robyn rushed towards him, searched for a pulse, aware her own heart was thudding loud enough to drown out any sign of one. She pressed trembling fingers lightly against his neck and after another attempt, detected a faint beat. Ross was on the phone in a flash, barking instructions and stressing the urgency of the situation.
Robyn dropped to her knees and stroked his matted hair, calling his name. ‘Brandon, you’re safe now. We’re going to get you to hospital.’
Ross, meanwhile, rang Tom, gave him the news then pocketed the phone.
‘You’re the best,’ said Robyn.
‘Yeah, I know. Maybe you could tell Jeanette that sometime,’ he replied with a lopsided grin.
‘No, seriously. I ought to have been on it, hunting on the bridge for clues and investigating those bloodstains, just like you did. You’ve probably saved his life. A few more hours and we could have been too late.’
‘We all played our part and, at the risk of being a doom-monger, we don’t know if he’ll pull through.’
She thought of Tom, his need to make amends. Brandon had to make it. He’d survived up until now, probably made of the same dogged determination as his father.
Ross spoke again. ‘Robyn, what do you want to do about Davies? Do you want me to track him down? If he’s still alive—’
‘Davies isn’t alive. At least not for me. Not any more.’
‘I’m positive. It’s time for me to move on with my life.’ She looked down at the boy. He’d inherited Tom’s looks and she wondered if he’d also got the same piercing eyes.
‘This decision hasn’t anything to do with a bad-tempered detective who manages to ruffle feathers wherever he goes, does it? Only, I sensed an ease in tensions between you and even a little spark of something else.’
‘I like him.’
‘Then I’d better put on my pally face, especially if he’s going to be a part of your life.’
‘I think finding his son puts you firmly in the “pally quarter”.’
At that moment, heavy footsteps thundered down the corridor and Tom appeared. He rushed towards Robyn, crouched down and took his son’s face in his hands.
The boy’s eyes flickered at the sound of his father’s voice and Tom exchanged places with Robyn, talking all the while, cajoling him back to consciousness. A soft groan escaped Brandon’s lips.
‘Brandon, it’s Dad. I’m here. Don’t give up on me. Can you hear? The paramedics are on their way. We’re going to fix you.’
In the background, approaching sirens wailed and Robyn joined Ross outside in the corridor. Brandon was going to be okay. She could sense it. Everything was going to be fine.
FRIDAY, 30 JUNE, EVENING
Tom finally released Robyn from the long embrace and gave her an earnest smile. ‘I’ll see you Monday morning.’
‘Have a great time with Brandon.’
‘You sure you don’t want to come with us to Anglesey?’
‘No. You need some father and son bonding time. Next time, for certain.’
‘I’ll hold you to that.’ He gave her a wink.
She stood in the doorway and watched him saunter to the car, his lithe body folding into it with ease. He beeped the car horn and the BMW roared away.
‘So now it’s you and me again, Schrödinger,’ she said, scooping up the cat, who was winding a constant figure of eight around her feet. ‘Hungry, eh?’
She carried the furry bundle into the kitchen, placing him on the floor and hunting for the cat food in the cupboard. Things were progressing quickly and well with Tom. Being with him was a well-needed tonic, and he surprised her in so many ways. He was a multilayered man whose prickly attitude at work was clearly a cover-up for the gentle, caring person underneath. Against the odds, they were actually good for each other. She emptied the contents into the bowl and rinsed the tin under the tap. Turning to drop it into the bin, she caught her breath. A man was in her kitchen, one she recognised so well, his appearance paralysed her.
‘Davies.’ His name caught in her throat. ‘What the—?’ A surge of fury overtook her and she launched at him, arms raised, ready to rain blows on him. He seized her wrists, held them gently and pacified her until she shook him off with a low growl and backed away. ‘Why are you here?’
‘It’s too late for that. I found out you were alive, you know? Hassan’s bullshit story fooled me for a while, but Ross uncovered the truth.’
‘I know. That was sheer carelessness on my part. I shouldn’t have underestimated you both. I thought all the cameras were inside. Disguising one in a camouflage sleeve and hiding it in the foliage near the door was clever, Robyn. Neither Hassan nor I spotted it. Ross certainly foxed us.’ Davies gave a wide smile that didn’t crinkle his eyes. ‘We only found out about it shortly after the explosion, by which time it was too late. We assumed one of you would examine the footage, so we placed a watch on you both.’ The frostiness in his voice caused an involuntary shiver down her spine. The fact both she and Ross had been under surveillance was disquieting; however, her concern was usurped by the realisation Davies was only here, in front of her, because he’d been found out. If there’d been no photos of him, he’d have stayed in hiding, allowing everyone to assume he was dead. He hadn’t intended returning. She’d always been nothing more than a pawn in his grand plan.
‘And because you got caught out, you’ve finally decided to show up. I know you’re alive now so you can piss off again, back to whatever rock you’ve been hiding under.’
‘I get it. I fully comprehend why you’re furious… but, Robyn, hear me out.’
She bared her teeth. ‘I don’t want to listen to a single word you have to say.’
‘Well, you’re going to have to, like it or not.’ The tone was angry, but a flicker of affection flashed in his eyes, capturing and silencing her. ‘Believe me, Robyn, when I say I didn’t want any of this. I was merely doing my job, one that was complicated and dangerous and spanned a length of time far longer than anyone could have imagined. I was forced into hiding, not only for my own safety, but for yours, Brigitte’s and Amélie’s. Had Peter Cross discovered I was alive, you would all have been killed.’
She released a derisory snort, resulting in a more earnest response. ‘Trust me when I say my mission was extremely high-risk, complicated by the fact Peter Cross was deceiving us all. Robyn, when Hassan and I signed up to this, we had no idea of the fallout. Do you honestly believe I wanted to be separated from you or from my daughter, allowing you both to believe I was dead?’ His words were urgent, etching deep grooves into his already lined forehead. His sigh was long and painful. She wavered for a split second then visions of Amélie weeping at a fake funeral sprang to the forefront, and Robyn was enraged again, for herself, for the baby she’d lost through stress, for Amélie and for everyone who had loved Davies.
‘You duped us all. You tortured us and now you saunter back and expect us to understand and forgive? You lied to me. Hassan lied to me.’
‘I don’t expect anything. I understand your anger—’
She dropped her tone, hissed the words, ‘No. You… do… not!’
‘I had no option. It was the only way.’
Curbing the rage that was twisting and turning inside her belly, she continued in the same voice. ‘There must have been alternatives, yet you chose this way. There is nothing you can say to make this better. Get out of my house. Get out of my life and never contact me again. I don’t ever want to see you or Hassan as long as I live. That’s final.’
He moved towards her, placed his hand against her cheek, a gentle, cool caress. ‘Robyn, you knew all along that I was alive. You surely worked out I was somewhere, still thinking about you. Still loving you. The anemones, the other clues, designed to ease your—’
She knocked his fingers away. ‘Clues? What is wrong with you? I don’t care about your reasons for all this subterfuge or why you didn’t have the gumption to actually contact me rather than leave mysterious pointers. Even now, I can’t believe a word you say. Why did you hide outside that Friday evening and have Hassan make up some story about you? Why not tell me straight you were alive and didn’t want to see me?’
‘None of it was fabricated. Hassan told you the truth. He had no idea I was outside. He hadn’t seen me for months. I was… testing his loyalty. It was risky because, in spite of our efforts, we’re still being hunted. I shouldn’t even be here now, but the footage on your secret camera placed us in further danger.’
‘So, why are you here? To ensure I’ll keep my mouth shut about you?’ His silence was answer enough. ‘Okay. You can trust me to deny seeing you, and don’t think it’s because I still have feelings for you, because I don’t. They evaporated after I found out you’d used me as part of your plan in Morocco, and they vanished forever when I discovered you were willing to let everyone who loved you believe you were dead.’
Davies stuck out his chin and opened his mouth to speak.
She pointed a finger at him. ‘Don’t say another word. I won’t ask you again. Get out, and if I clap eyes on either of you, I’ll blab to the service, to newspapers, to everyone so they all learn what a piece of shit you really are.’
‘Robyn, this isn’t like you—’
‘I’ve changed. You have no idea what you put me through and you never will because I’ve consigned everything, including you, to the past.’ She took a step closer to him and prodded him in the chest. ‘And if you ever loved me, or your daughter, you’ll leave us alone.’
Brigitte had not confided in her. The treachery hurt deeply, but Robyn used the fresh anger to turn on Davies again. He’d let slip vital information. ‘You’d planned on leaving. If Ross hadn’t uncovered that footage of you, you wouldn’t have come here at all, would you? You were caught out by Brigitte and then by us. Out. Now.’ She marched to the back door, opened it and waited.
‘If I leave, I won’t return. Not when this is finally over, and it will be,’ he said. ‘Is that what you really want?’
She searched for a reminder of the old Davies and found no familiar warmth or empathy. This man was harder, more calculating, cold. Her Davies was dead. ‘Yes. It is.’
As he passed her, she inhaled the familiar scent of the cologne he always wore. It didn’t evoke any happy memories, only brought a sour taste to her mouth. She slammed the door shut, drawing the bolts firmly across it, then held her breath and waited for the sound of a car engine or a knock at the door. When there was nothing, she exhaled until her lungs were empty. There were no tears, no pain and no regret at her decision to throw him out.
Schrödinger, who’d finished his food, had set about cleaning himself, unperturbed by the events that had taken place. She scratched behind his ear and along his back. He arched in pleasure. She smiled, relaxed her shoulders. She felt fine. In fact, she felt the best she had in a very long time. The ghosts had finally been put to rest.
‘Just you and me… until Monday,’ she said.
I hope you enjoyed reading the final chapter in the DI Robyn Carter series. It is with a heavy heart I wave her and her team goodbye, but I hope you will consider reading my other crime series.
Thank you for being Robyn fans. Your support and messages and reviews have kept me going until the wee hours as I pen book after book.