cover missing

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also By Ruth Rendell

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Acknowledgement

Copyright

Acknowledgement

The author is grateful to Bridget Anderson for permission to quote in this novel passages from her book Britain’s Secret Slaves published by Anti-Slavery International and Kalayaan.

Chapter One

THERE WERE FOUR people besides himself in the waiting room and none of them looked ill. The olive-skinned blonde in the designer tracksuit bloomed with health, her body all muscles, her hands all golden tendons, apart from the geranium nails and the nicotine stains on the right forefinger. She had changed her seat when a child of two arrived with its mother and homed to the chair next to hers. Now the blonde woman in the tracksuit was as far away as she could get, two seats from himself and three from the very old man who sat with his knees together, his hands clutching his checked cap in his lap and his eyes on the board where the doctors’ names were printed.

Each of the GPs had a light above his or her name and a hook underneath it on which coloured rings hung: a red light and rings for Dr Moss, green for Dr Akande, blue for Dr Wolf. The old man had been given a red ring, Wexford noticed, the child’s mother a blue one, which was exactly what he would have expected, the preference for the senior man in one case, the woman in the other. The woman in the tracksuit hadn’t got a ring at all. She either didn’t know you were supposed to announce yourself at reception or couldn’t be bothered. Wexford wondered why she wasn’t a private patient with an appointment later in the morning and therefore not obliged to wait here fidgeting and impatient.

The child, tired of marching back and forth on the seats of the row of chairs, had turned her attention to the magazines on the table and begun tearing off their covers. Who was ill, this little girl or her overweight pallid mother? Nobody said a word to hinder the tearing, though the old man glared and the woman in the tracksuit did the unforgivable, the outrageous, thing. She thrust a hand into her crocodile-skin handbag, took out a flat gold case, the function of which would have been a mystery to most people under thirty, removed a cigarette and lit it with a gold lighter.

Wexford, who had been successfully distracted from his own anxiety, now became positively fascinated. No fewer than three notices on the walls, among the exhortations to use a condom, have children immunized and watch your weight, forbade smoking. What would happen? Was there some system whereby smoke in the waiting room could be detected in reception or the dispensary?

The child’s mother reacted, not with a word to the woman in the tracksuit but by sniffing, giving the little girl a vicious yank with one hand and administering a slap with the other. Screams ensued. The old man began a sorrowful head-shaking. To Wexford’s surprise the smoker turned to him and said, without preamble, ‘I called the doctor but he refused to come. Isn’t that amazing? I was forced to come here myself.’

Wexford said something about GPs no longer making house calls except in cases of serious illness.

‘How would he know it wasn’t serious if he didn’t come?’ She must have correctly interpreted Wexford’s disbelieving look. ‘Oh, it’s not me,’ she said and, incredibly, ‘it’s one of the servants.’

He longed to know more but the chance was lost. Two things happened simultaneously. The blue light for Dr Wolf came on and the door opened to admit the practice nurse. She said crisply, ‘Please put that cigarette out. Didn’t you see the notice?’

The woman in the tracksuit had compounded her offence by dropping ash on the floor. No doubt she would have ground her fag end out there too but for the nurse taking it from her with a little convulsive grunt and carrying it off into hitherto unpolluted regions. She was unembarrassed by what had happened, lifting her shoulders a little, giving Wexford a radiant smile. Mother and child left the waiting room in quest of Dr Wolf just as two more patients came in and Dr Akande’s light came on. This is it, thought Wexford, his fear returning, now I shall know. He hung up the green ring and went out without a backward glance. Instantly it was as if those people had never been, as if none of those things had happened.

Suppose he fell over as he walked the short corridor to Dr Akande’s room? Already twice that morning he had fallen. I’d be in the best place, he told himself, the doctors’ surgery – no, he corrected himself, must move with the times, the medical centre. The best place to be taken ill. If it’s something in my brain, a growth, a bloodclot. . . . He knocked on the door, though most people didn’t.

Raymond Akande called, ‘Come in.’

This was only the second time Wexford had been to him since Akande joined the practice on Dr Crocker’s retirement, and the first visit had been for an anti-tetanus injection when he cut himself in the garden. He liked to believe there had been some sort of rapport between them, that they had taken to each other. And then he castigated himself for thinking this way, for caring, because he knew damned well he wouldn’t have involved himself with likings or dislikings if Akande had been other than he was.

This morning, though, these reflections were nowhere. He was concerned only with himself, the fear, the horrid symptoms. Keeping calm, trying to be detached, he described them, the way he fell over when he got out of bed in the morning, the loss of balance, the floor coming up to meet him.

‘Any headache?’ said Dr Akande. ‘Any nausea?’

No, there was none of that, Wexford said, hope creeping in at the door Akande was opening. And, yes, he had had a bit of a cold. But, you see, a few years ago he’d had this thrombosis in the eye and ever since then he’d. . . . Well, he’d been on the alert for something like it, a stroke maybe, God forbid.

‘I thought maybe Ménière’s syndrome,’ he said unwisely.

‘I’m no believer in banning books,’ said the doctor, ‘but I’d personally burn all medical dictionaries.’

‘OK, I did look at one,’ Wexford admitted. ‘And I didn’t seem to have the right symptoms, apart from the falling bit.’

‘Why don’t you stick to the judges’ rules and leave diagnosis to me?’

He was quite willing. Akande examined his head and his chest and a few reflexes. ‘Did you drive yourself here?’

His heart in his mouth, Wexford nodded.

‘Well, don’t drive. Not for a few days. Of course you can drive home. Half the population of Kingsmarkham’s got this virus. I’ve had it myself.’

‘Virus?’

‘That’s what I said. It’s a funny one, it seems to affect the semi-circular canals in the ears and they control the balance.’

‘It’s really just that, a virus? A virus can make you fall down like that, out of the blue? I measured my length in the front garden yesterday.’

‘It’s quite a length to measure,’ said Akande. ‘Didn’t have any illuminating visions, I suppose? No one to tell you to stop kicking against the pricks?’

‘You mean visions are another symptom? Oh, no, I see. Like on the road to Damascus. You’re not going to tell me that was all Paul had, a virus?’

Akande laughed. ‘The received view is that he was an epileptic. No, don’t look like that. This is a virus, I promise you, not a case of spontaneous epilepsy. I’m not going to give you anything for it. It’ll get right in a day or two on its own. In fact, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t get right immediately now you know you haven’t got a brain tumour.’

‘How did you . . . ? Oh, well, I suppose you’re used to patients with irrational fears.’

‘It’s understandable. If it’s not medical books, it’s the newspapers never letting them forget about their health for five minutes.’

Akande got up and held out his hand. Wexford thought it a pleasant custom, that of shaking hands with patients, the way doctors must have done years ago when they made house calls and sent bills.

‘Funny creatures, people,’ the doctor said. ‘For instance, I’m expecting someone this morning who’s coming on behalf of her cook. Send the cook, I said, but that apparently wouldn’t do. I’ve a feeling – without foundation, I must tell you, mere intuition – that she’s not going to be too overjoyed when she finds I’m what my father-in-law’s boss used to call “a man of colour”.’

For once, Wexford was speechless.

‘Have I embarrassed you? I’m sorry. These things are always just under the surface and sometimes they bubble up.’

‘You haven’t embarrassed me,’ Wexford said. ‘It was only that I couldn’t think of anything to say that would be . . . well, a refutation or a consolation. I just agreed and I didn’t care to say that.’

Akande gave him a pat on the shoulder, or one that was aimed at the shoulder but landed on his upper arm. ‘Take a couple of days off. You should be fine by Thursday.’

Halfway down the corridor Wexford met the blonde woman heading towards Akande’s room. ‘I know I’m going to lose my cook, I can just see it coming,’ she said as she passed him. A miasma that was a mix of Paloma Picasso and Rothman Kingsize hung in her wake. Surely she hadn’t meant the cook was going to die?

He went jauntily out, pushing open both of the double doors. Only one of the cars in the car park could possibly be hers, the Lotus Elan with the personalized number, AK 3. She must have paid a lot for that, it was one of the earliest. Annabel King, he speculated. Anne Knight? Alison Kendall? Not all that number of English surnames begin with K, but then she certainly wasn’t of English origin. Anna Karenina, he thought, being silly.

Akande had said he could drive home. In fact, Wexford would have enjoyed walking home, he loved the idea of walking now he had stopped falling over or being afraid of falling over. The mind was a funny thing, what it could make the body do. If he left the car here he’d only have to come back for it later.

The young woman waddled and the child skipped down the medical centre’s shallow steps. Full of good cheer, Wexford wound down his window and asked them if they’d like a lift. Somewhere, anywhere, he was in the mood to drive miles out of his way if need be.

‘We don’t take lifts from strangers.’ To the child she said very loudly, ‘Do we, Kelly?’

Snubbed, Wexford withdrew his head. She was quite right. She had behaved wisely and he had not. He might be a combined rapist and child molester cunningly disguising his nefarious motives by a visit to the doctor. Leaving, he passed a car he recognized coming in, an old Ford Escort that had been resprayed bright pink. You hardly ever saw a pink car. But whose was it? He often had a brilliant eidetic memory, faces and townscapes recorded in full colour, but the names got lost.

He drove out into South Queen Street. It was going to be nice telling the news to Dora and he indulged himself by thinking what might have been, the horror, the communicated dread, the putting of two brave faces on it, if he’d had to tell her he’d an appointment at the hospital for a brain scan. None of that was going to happen. Would he have been brave if it had? Would he have lied to her?

In that case he’d have had to lie to three people. Turning into his own garage drive, he saw Neil’s car already there, thoughtfully parked on the far left to allow his own passage. Neil and Sylvia’s car, he had better learn to say, for they had just the one between them now, since hers had been given up when her job went. They might not even be able to afford this one, the way things were now.

I ought to be gratified, he thought, I ought to be flattered. Not everybody’s children come flying to the bosom of Mum and Dad when misfortune strikes. His always did. He ought not to have this reaction, this immediate response to the sight of the Fairfax car which was to ask: what now?

Adversity is good for some marriages. The warring couple put aside their strife and stand united against the world. Sometimes. And the marriage has to be in a pretty bad way before this happens. Wexford’s elder daughter’s marriage had been bad for a long time and it was different from other people’s bad marriages chiefly in that she and Neil stayed doggedly together, ever seeking new remedies, for the sake of their two sons.

Once Neil had said to his father-in-law, ‘I do love her. I really love her,’ but that was a long time ago. A lot of tears had fallen since then and a lot of cruel things been said. Many times Sylvia had brought the boys home to Dora and just as often Neil had taken himself to a motel room on the Eastbourne road. Her educating herself and working for the social services had solved no problems, and nor had their lavish foreign holidays or moves to bigger and better houses. At least, money or the lack of it had never been an issue. There was enough, more than enough.

Until now. Until Neil’s father’s firm of architects (two partners, father and son) felt the recession, then its bite, then was punched and undermined by it into collapse. Neil had been without work for five weeks now, Sylvia for nearly six months.

Wexford let himself into his house and stood for a moment, listening to their voices: Dora’s measured and calm, Neil’s indignant, still incredulous, Sylvia’s hectoring. He was in no doubt they were waiting for him, had come expecting to find him there, ready to be diverted from his brain tumour or embolism by their catalogue of troubles: joblessness, no prospects, increasing mortgage debt.

He opened the living room door and Sylvia fell upon him, throwing her arms round his neck. She was a big tall woman, well able to embrace him without finding herself clutching his middle. For a moment he thought her affection occasioned by anxiety for his health, his very life.

‘Dad,’ she said, she wailed, ‘Dad, what d’you think we’ve come to? I mean, us. It’s unbelievable but it’s happening. You won’t believe it. Neil’s going on the dole.’

‘It won’t exactly be dole, darling,’ said Neil, using an endearment Wexford hadn’t heard on his lips for many a year. ‘Not the dole. Benefit.’

‘Well, it amounts to the same thing. Welfare, social security, unemployment pay, it comes to the same. It’s all unbelievably ghastly, happening to us.’

It was interesting how Dora’s quite soft voice could penetrate this stridency. It cut through it like a fine wire splitting a chunk of extra strong cheddar. ‘What did Dr Akande say, Reg?’

‘A virus. Apparently, there’s a lot of it about. I’m to take a couple of days off, that’s all.’

‘What a relief,’ Dora said lightly. ‘A virus.’

Sylvia made a snorting sound. ‘I could have told you that. I had it myself last week, I could hardly keep on my feet.’

‘Then it’s a pity you didn’t tell me, Sylvia.’

‘I’ve got more things to think about, haven’t I? I’d be laughing if feeling a bit giddy was all I had to contend with. Now you’re back, Dad, perhaps you can stop Neil doing this. I can’t, he never takes any notice of what I say. Anybody’s got more influence with him than his own wife.’

‘Stop him doing what?’ said Wexford.

‘I’ve told you. Going to the – what’s it called? – the ESJ. I don’t know what that stands for but I know what it is, the combined dole place and labour exchange – no, they don’t call it that any more, do they?’

‘They haven’t called it that for years,’ said Neil. ‘The Job Centre.’

‘Why should I stop him?’ Wexford said.

‘Because it’s hateful, it’s degrading, it isn’t the kind of place people like us go to.’

‘And what do people like us do?’ Wexford asked in the voice that should have warned her.

‘Find something in the appointments section of The Times.’

Neil began to laugh and Wexford, his anger swiftly changed to pity, smiled sadly. Neil had been studying the situations vacant daily for weeks now, had written, he had told his father-in-law, over three hundred letters of application, all in vain.

The Times don’t give you any money,’ said Neil, and Wexford could hear the bitterness in his voice, if Sylvia couldn’t. ‘Besides, I have to know where I stand on our mortgage. Maybe they can do something to stop the building society repossessing the house. I can’t. Perhaps they can advise me what to do about the kids’ schools, if it’s only to tell us to send them to Kingsmarkham Comprehensive. Anyway, I’ll get money – don’t they call it a giro that they send you? One thing, I shall soon know. And I’d better, Reg, I’d better. We’ve got just two hundred and seventy pounds left in our joint account and that’s the only account we’ve got. Just as well, I expect, since they ask you what savings you’ve got before they pay out.’

Wexford said quietly, ‘Do you want a loan? We could let you have a bit.’ He thought, swallowed. ‘Say a thousand?’

‘Thanks, Reg, thanks very much, but it had better be no. It’ll only postpone the evil day. I’m very grateful for the offer. A loan ought to be paid back and I can’t see how I’d ever repay you, not for years.’ Neil looked at his watch. ‘I must go,’ he said. ‘My appointment with the new claims adviser is for ten-thirty.’

Dora must have spoken without thinking, ‘Oh, do they give you an appointment?’

It was odd to see how a smile could sadden a face. Neil hadn’t quite winced. ‘You see how being unemployed demotes you? I no longer belong among those who can expect social grace. I’m one of the queuers now, the waiters-in-line who are lucky to be seen at all, who get sent home with nothing and told to come back tomorrow. I’ve probably lost my style and my surname too. Someone’ll come out and call, “Neil, Mr Stanton will see you now”. At ten to one, though I’m due there at ten-thirty.’

‘I’m sorry, Neil, I didn’t mean . . .’

‘No, of course you didn’t. It’s unconscious. Or, rather, it’s a shift the consciousness makes, an adjustment in the way you think about a prosperous architect with more commissions than he can handle and someone who’s out of work. I have to go now.’

He didn’t take their car. Sylvia needed it. He would walk the half mile to the ESJ, and later on . . .

‘Get the bus, I suppose,’ said Sylvia. ‘Why not? Half the time I have to. If there are only four a day that’s too bad. We have to watch our petrol consumption. I expect he can walk five miles. You used to tell us your grandfather walked five miles to school and five miles back when he was only ten.’

There was a settled despair in her voice Wexford didn’t like to hear, much as he deplored her self-pity and her petulance. He heard Dora offering to have the boys for the weekend so that Sylvia and Neil could get away, if only to London where Neil’s sister lived, and he seconded that rather too heartily.

‘When I think,’ said Sylvia, who was given to doleful reminiscence, ‘how I slaved to get to be a social worker.’ She nodded to her husband as he left, resumed while he was still in earshot, ‘Neil didn’t exactly adapt his lifestyle to help. I had to arrange to get the boys looked after. I’d still be working at midnight sometimes. And what has it all come to?’

‘Things must get better eventually, dear,’ said Dora.

‘I’ll never get another job with the social services, I feel it. Do you remember those children in Stowerton, Dad? The “home alone” kids?’

Wexford thought. Two of his officers had met the parents at Gatwick coming off a plane from Tenerife. He said, ‘Epson, weren’t they called? He was black and she was white . . .’

‘What’s that got to do with it? Why bring racism into it? That was my last job as a child care officer before the cuts. Little did I dream I’d be a housewife again before those kids went back to their parents. Will you really have the boys for the weekend, Mother?’

That was the woman he had seen driving the pink car. Fiona Epson. Not that it was important. Wexford debated whether to go upstairs and lie down or defy the doctor and return to work. Work won. As he left the house he could hear Sylvia lecturing her mother on what she called acceptable forms of political correctness.

Chapter Two

WHEN THE AKANDE family had moved to Kingsmarkham a year or so before, the owner-occupiers on either side of number twenty-seven Ollerton Avenue put their houses up for sale. Insulting as this was to Raymond and Laurette Akande and their children, from a practical point of view it was to their advantage. The recession was at its height and the houses took a long time to sell, their asking prices regularly falling, but when the newcomers arrived they turned out to be nice people, as friendly and as liberal-minded as the rest of the Ollerton Avenue neighbours.

‘Note my choice of words,’ said Wexford. ‘I said “friendly”, I said “liberal”, I didn’t say “non-racist”. We’re all racist in this country.’

‘Oh, come on,’ said Detective Inspector Michael Burden. ‘I’m not. You’re not.’

They were in Wexford’s dining room, having coffee, while the Fairfax boys, Robin and Ben, and Burden’s son Mark watched Wimbledon on television in the room next door with Dora. It was Wexford who had begun this topic of conversation, he hardly knew why. Perhaps it had arisen out of Sylvia’s accusation when they discussed the Epsons. He had certainly been thinking about it.

‘My wife’s not and nor is yours,’ Burden said, ‘nor our children.’

‘We’re all racists,’ said Wexford as if he hadn’t spoken. ‘Without exception. People over forty are worse and that’s about all you can say. You were brought up and I was brought up to think ourselves superior to black people. Oh, it may not have been explicit but it was there all right. We were conditioned that way and it’s in us still, it’s ineradicable. My wife had a black doll called a gollywog and a white one called Pamela. Black people were known as negroes. When did you ever hear anyone but a sociologist like my daughter Sylvia refer to white people as Caucasians?’

‘As a matter of fact, my mother referred to black people as “darkies” and she thought she was being polite. “Nigger” was rude but “darky” was OK. But that was a long time ago. Things have changed.’

‘No, they haven’t. Not much. There are just more black people about. My son-in-law said to me the other day that he no longer noticed the difference between a black person and a white one. I said, you don’t notice the difference between fair and dark, then? You don’t notice if one person’s fat and another’s thin? What possible help to overcoming racism is that? We’ll be getting somewhere when one person says to another of someone black, “Which one is he?” and the other one says, “That chap in the red tie.”

Burden smiled. The boys came in, banging the door behind them, to announce that Martina had won her first set and Steffi hers. Surnames scarcely existed as far as they and their contemporaries were concerned.

‘Can we have the chocolate biscuits?’

‘Ask your grandmother.’

‘She’s gone to sleep,’ said Ben. ‘But she said we could have them after lunch and it’s after lunch now. It’s the ones that are chocolate with chocolate chips and we know where they are.’

‘Anything for a quiet life,’ said Wexford, and he added gravely, with a hint of scolding in his voice, ‘but if you start on them you must finish the whole packet. Is that understood?’

Kein Problem,’ said Robin.

After the Burdens and Mark had gone Wexford picked up the booklet his son-in-law had left him to look at, the ES 461. Or rather, the Xerox of the booklet. The original had gone back with Neil to his interview with the Employment Service. Neil, whose method of handling his misfortunes was to wallow in them, with the maximum self-created humiliation, had gone to the trouble of photocopying all nineteen pages of what the Employment Service chose to call a ‘form’. He had taken the collection of turquoise blue, green, yellow and orange papers to Kingsmarkham Instant Print where they had a colour copier so that Wexford could see an ES 461 in all its glory (his words) and read the demands a beneficent government made of its unemployed citizens.

A new word had been coined for the first page: ‘jobsearch’. There were three pages of notes to be read before completing the ‘form’ and then forty-five questions, many of them multiple enquiries, which made Wexford’s head spin to read. Some were innocuous, some desperately sad, some sinister: Does your health limit the work you can do? asked number thirty, following twenty-nine’s, What is the lowest wage you are willing to work for? Sights were set humbly for the enquiry, Do you have any academic qualifications (for example, O Levels, GCSEs, City and Guilds)? Do you have your own transport? asked number nine. Four wanted to know: If you have not worked for the last twelve months, how have you spent your time?

This last made his anger rise. What business was that of these Client Advisers, these small-time civil servants, this government department? He asked himself what answers they expected apart from ‘looking for work’. Having a fortnight on Grand Bahama? Dining at Les Quat’ Saisons? Collecting Chinese porcelain? He pushed the coloured pages aside and went into the living room where Navratilova was still battling it out on Centre Court.

‘Move up,’ he said to Robin on the sofa.

‘Pas de problème.’

Doctors used to tell you to come back and see them next week or ‘when the symptoms have cleared up’. These days they are mostly too busy to do that. They don’t want to see patients without symptoms, not if they can help it. There are too many of the other kind, the ones that really ought to be in bed and visited at home, but who are obliged to stagger down to the medical centre and spread their viruses round the waiting room.

Wexford’s virus had apparently flown away at the moment Dr Akande spoke his magic words. He had no intention of going back for a mere check-up and even disobeyed the doctor in taking no days off. From time to time he thought about that question, the one that asked how the victim of ‘jobsearch’ had spent his or her time, and he wondered how he would answer. When he wasn’t at work, for instance, when he was on leave but hadn’t gone away. Reading, talking to grandchildren, thinking, drying the dishes, having a quick one in the Olive with a friend, reading. Would that satisfy them? Or was it something quite other they wanted to hear?

But when Dr Akande phoned him a week later, he was first guilty, then apprehensive. Dora took the call. It was getting on for nine in the evening, a Wednesday in early July, and the sun not yet set. The french windows were open and Wexford was sitting just inside them, reading Camus’ The Outsider, thirty years after he had first read it, and swiping at mosquitos with the Kingsmarkham Courier.

‘What does he want?’

‘He didn’t say, Reg.’

It was just remotely possible that Akande was so thorough and painstaking a general practitioner that he troubled to check up on patients who had been no more than marginally unwell. Or else – and Wexford’s heart gave a little hop and a thud – that ‘falling sickness’ he had had wasn’t the minor matter Akande had diagnosed, wasn’t the result of a generalized but petty plague, was in fact much more serious, its symptoms the forerunner of . . .

‘I’m coming.’

He took the receiver. From Akande’s first words he knew he wasn’t to be told anything but asked something; the doctor wasn’t dispensing wisdom but coming cap in hand; this time it was he, the policeman, who must make the diagnosis.

‘I’m sorry to trouble you with this, Mr Wexford, but I hoped you might help me.’

Wexford waited.

‘It’s probably nothing.’

Those words, no matter how often he heard them, always caused a small shiver. In his experience, it was nearly always something and, if brought to his attention, something bad.

‘If I was really worried I’d get in touch with the police station but it isn’t on that scale. My wife and I don’t know many people in Kingsmarkham – of course, we’re relatively new here. You being my patient . . .’

‘What has happened, doctor?’

A small deprecating laugh, a hesitation, and Akande said, using a curious phrase, ‘I’m trying in vain to locate my daughter.’ He paused. He made another attempt. ‘I suppose what I mean is, I don’t know how to find out where she is. Of course, she’s twenty-two years old. She’s a grown woman. If she wasn’t living at home with us, if she was somewhere on her own, I wouldn’t even know she hadn’t come home, I wouldn’t . . .’

Wexford cut in, ‘Do you mean your daughter is missing?’

‘No, no, that’s putting it too strongly. She hasn’t come home and she wasn’t where we expected her to be last night, that’s all. But as I say, she’s grown up. If she changed her mind and went somewhere else . . . well, she has that right.’

‘But you would have expected her to let you know?’

‘I suppose so. She’s not very reliable about that kind of thing, young people aren’t, as you may know, but we’ve never known her to . . . well, it looks as if she’s deceiving us. Telling us one thing and doing another. That’s the way I personally see it. My wife, on the other hand, is worried. That’s an understatement, she’s very anxious.’

It was always their wives, Wexford thought. They projected their emotions on to their wives. My wife is rather anxious about it. It’s bothering my wife. I’m taking this step because, frankly, the whole thing is affecting my wife’s health. As strong men themselves, macho men, they would like you to believe they were prey to no fears, no anxieties, and to no desires either, no longings, no passions, no needs.

‘What’s her name?’ he asked.

‘Melanie.’

‘When did you last see Melanie, Dr Akande?’

‘Yesterday afternoon. She had an appointment in Kingsmarkham and then she was going over to Myringham on the bus to her friend’s house. The friend was having a twenty-first birthday party last evening and Melanie was going to it and afterwards to stay the night. They have their majority at eighteen, so what they do is have two parties, one for eighteen and one for twenty-one.’

Wexford had noticed. He was more interested in the suppressed terror he could detect in Akande’s voice, a terror the doctor overlaid with a pathetic optimism. ‘We didn’t expect her home till this afternoon. If they don’t have to they don’t get up before noon. My wife was working and so was I. We expected to find her at home when we got in.’

‘Could she have been in and gone out again?’

‘I suppose she could. Of course she has her own key. But she was never at Laurel’s – that’s the friend. My wife phoned them. Melanie hadn’t turned up. And yet I can’t see that that’s too much to worry about. She and Laurel had had a row . . . well, a disagreement. I heard Melanie say on the phone to her, I can remember her very words: “I’m going to ring off now and don’t count on seeing me on Wednesday.”’

‘Has Melanie a boyfriend, doctor?’

‘Not any longer. They broke up about two months ago.’

‘But there might have been a . . . a reconciliation?’

‘I suppose there might.’ He sounded grudging. When he said it again he sounded hopeful. ‘I suppose there might. You mean, she met him yesterday and they’ve gone off somewhere together? My wife wouldn’t like that. She has rather strict ideas on these matters.’

Presumably, she’d prefer fornication to rape or murder, thought Wexford rather sourly but he didn’t, of course, say this aloud. ‘Dr Akande, you’re probably right when you say this is nothing. Melanie is somewhere where she has no access to a phone. Will you give me a ring in the morning, please? As early as you like.’ He hesitated. ‘Well, after six. Whatever happens, whether she appears or phones or doesn’t appear or phone?’

‘I’ve got a feeling she’s trying to get through to us now.’

‘In that case let’s not occupy the line any longer.’

His phone rang at five past six.

He wasn’t asleep. He had just woken up. Perhaps he awoke because he was subconsciously troubled about the Akande girl. As he picked up the receiver, before Akande spoke, he was thinking, I shouldn’t have waited, I should have done something last night.

‘She hasn’t come back and she hasn’t phoned. My wife is very anxious.’

I expect you are too, Wexford thought. I would be. ‘I’ll come and see you. In half an hour.’

Sylvia had married almost as soon as she left school. There had been no time to worry about where she was or what was happening to her. But his younger daughter Sheila had caused him sleepless nights, nights of terror. Home in the holidays from drama school, she had made a speciality of disappearing with boyfriends, not phoning, giving no clue to her whereabouts until, three or four days later, she’d phone from Glasgow or Bristol or Amsterdam. And he had never got used to it. He would tell reassuring stories of his own experiences to the Akandes, he thought, as he showered and put his clothes on, but he would also report Melanie as a missing person. She was female, she was young, therefore they would mount a search for her.

Some days he walked to work, for his health’s sake, but it was usually two hours later than this that he started off. This morning was hazy, everything was still, the sun a brighter whiteness in a white sky. Dew lay on the roadside turf high summer had burnt straw colour. He didn’t see a soul in the first two streets, then as he turned out of Mansfield Road, he met an old woman walking a minuscule Yorkshire terrier. No one else. Two cars passed him. A cat carrying a mouse in its mouth crossed the road from thirty-two Ollerton Avenue to twenty-five and dived through a flap in the front door.

Wexford didn’t have to knock at twenty-seven. Dr Akande was already waiting for him on the step.

‘It’s very good of you.’

Resisting the temptation to say ‘no problem’ in one of Robin’s polyglot versions, Wexford stepped ahead of him into the house. A nice, dull, ordinary sort of place to live in. He couldn’t recall having been into any of the detached four-bedroomed houses of Ollerton Avenue before. The street itself was tree-lined, heavily tree-shaded at this time of the year. It would rob the interior of the Akande house of light until the sun came round and for a moment, until he was inside the room, he failed to see the woman who stood at the window, looking out.

The classic stance, the time-honoured position, of the parent or spouse or lover who waits and waits. Sister Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming? I see only the green grass and the yellow sand. . . . She turned round and came towards him, a tall slender woman of about forty-five dressed in the uniform of a ward sister at Stowerton Royal Infirmary – short-sleeved navy blue dress, navy belt with a rather ornate silver buckle, two or three badges pinned at the left breast. Wexford hadn’t expected someone so handsome, so striking to look at, such an elegant figure. Why hadn’t he?

‘Laurette Akande.’

She held out her hand. It was a long slender hand, the palm corn-coloured, the back deep coffee. She managed to smile. He thought, they always have these wonderful teeth, and then the blood rushed up into his face the way it hadn’t done since he was a teenager. He was a racist. Why, from the instant he’d walked into this room he’d been thinking, how odd, it’s just the same in here as in anyone else’s house, same sort of furniture, same sweet peas in the same sort of vase. . . . He cleared his throat, spoke firmly.

‘You’re worried about your daughter, Mrs Akande?

‘We both are. I think we’ve cause for worry, don’t you? It’s two days now.’

He noted she didn’t say it was nothing, she wasn’t saying it was just the way young people behaved.

‘Sit down, please.’

Her manner was peremptory, a little offhand. She lacked her husband’s Englishness, perhaps his bedside manner. This was no time, he thought, for tales of the adolescent Sheila’s truancy. Laurette Akande spoke briskly, ‘It’s time we did this officially, I think. I mean, we have to report her missing. Aren’t you too high up to take care of it?’

‘I’ll do for now,’ Wexford said. ‘Perhaps you’ll give me some details. We’ll start with the name and address of these people she was supposed to spend the night with. I’ll have the boyfriend’s name too. Oh, and what was this appointment she had in Kingsmarkham before she was due to leave for Myringham?’

‘It was at the Job Centre,’ said Dr Akande.

His wife corrected him with precision. ‘The Employment Service Job Centre. The ESJ, as it’s now called. Melanie was looking for a job.’

‘She was trying to find work long before she finished her course,’ said Laurette Akande. ‘That was at Myringham. She graduated this summer.’

‘The University of the South?’ Wexford asked.

Her husband answered. ‘No, Myringham University, the old Polytechnic that was. They’re all universities now. She was studying music and dance, “Performance Arts”, it’s called. I never wanted her to do that. She got a good history A Level – why couldn’t she have read history?’

Wexford thought he knew what the objection was to music and dance. ‘They make such wonderful dancers’, ‘They have these great singing voices. . . .’ How often had he heard those seemingly generous remarks?

Laurette said, ‘You may or may not know that black Africans are the most highly educated members of British society. Statistics show that. In view of this, we have high expectations of our children, she should have been preparing herself for a profession.’ She seemed suddenly to recollect that it wasn’t Melanie’s education or the lack of it that this crisis was about. ‘Well, it doesn’t matter now. There were no openings for her in what she wanted to do. Her father had told her there wouldn’t be but they never listen. You’ll have to retrain in business management or something, I said to her. She went to the ESJ and picked up a form and got an appointment to see a New Claims Adviser there at two-thirty on Tuesday.’

‘So when did she leave here?’

‘My husband had his afternoon surgery. It was my day off. Melanie took an overnight bag with her. She said she expected to get to Laurel’s by five and I remember I said, don’t count on it, having that appointment at two-thirty doesn’t mean she’ll see you then, you could easily wait an hour. She left here at ten past two to give herself plenty of time. I know that because it’s a fifteen-minute walk to the High Street from here.’

What an admirable witness Laurette Akande would make! Wexford found himself hoping she would never be called upon to be one. Her voice was cool and controlled. She wasted no words. Somewhere, under the accent of South East England, was a hint of the African country she had come from perhaps as a student.

‘You had the impression she was going straight from the ESJ to this place in Myringham?’

‘I know she was. By bus. She hoped to catch the four-fifteen, which was why I said that about having to wait to see the New Claims Adviser. She wanted to take my car but I had to say no. I needed it in the morning. I was due at the hospital by eight when the day shift starts.’ She looked at her watch. ‘I am today. The traffic at this hour makes a ten-minute journey into half an hour.’

So she was going to work? Wexford had waited for a sign of that anxiety Dr Akande had been so insistent his wife was prey to. There was none. Either she wasn’t worried or she was under an iron control.

‘Where do you think Melanie is, Mrs Akande?’

She gave a small light laugh, a rather chilling laugh. ‘I very much hope she isn’t where I think it most likely she is. In Euan’s flat – room, rather – with him.’

‘Melanie wouldn’t do that to us, Letty.’

‘She wouldn’t see it as doing anything to us. She has never appreciated our concern for her security and her future. I said to her: Do you want to be one of those girls these boys get pregnant on purpose and are proud of it? Euan’s already got two children with two different girls and he’s not twenty-two yet. You know that, you remember when she told us about those children.’

They had forgotten Wexford was there. He coughed. Dr Akande said miserably.

‘That’s why she split up with him. She was just as shocked and upset as we were. She hasn’t gone back to him, I’m sure of that.’

‘Dr Akande,’ said Wexford, ‘I’d like you to come down to the police station with me and report Melanie missing. I think this is a serious matter. We have to search for your daughter and keep on searching till we find her.’

Alive or dead, but he didn’t say that.

There was nothing Caucasian about the face in the photograph. Melanie Elizabeth Akande had a low forehead, a broad, rather flat nose, and full, thick, protuberant lips. Nothing of her mother’s classical cast of feature showed in that face. Her father was an African from Nigeria, Wexford now discovered, her mother from Freetown in Sierra Leone. The eyes were huge, her thick black hair a mass of tight curls. Wexford, looking at the photograph, made a strange discovery. Though she was not beautiful to him, he could see that by the standards of others, of millions of African people, Afro-Caribbean people and African Americans, she might be considered very lovely. Why was it always the white people who set the standard?

The missing persons form, filled in by her father, described her as being five feet seven, hair black, eyes dark brown, and gave her age as twenty-two. He had to phone his wife at the hospital to be reminded that Melanie weighed nine stone two (or 128 pounds) and had been wearing blue denims, a white shirt and a long embroidered waistcoat when last seen.

‘You also have a son, I think.’

‘Yes, he’s a medical student at Edinburgh.’

‘He can’t be there now. Not in July.’

‘No, he’s in South East Asia. So far as I know. He went off in a car about three weeks ago with two friends. They were making for Vietnam, but of course they can’t be there yet . . .’

‘At any rate, his sister couldn’t have gone to him,’ said Wexford. ‘I have to ask you this, doctor. What sort of terms were you and your wife on with Melanie? Were there disagreements?’

‘We were on good terms,’ the doctor said quickly. He hesitated and then qualified that statement. ‘My wife has strict ideas. No harm in that, of course, and there’s no doubt we had high expectations for Melanie, which perhaps she couldn’t fulfil.’

‘Does she like living at home?’

‘She really doesn’t have much choice. I’m not in a position to provide accommodation for my children and I don’t think Laurette would much care for . . . I mean Laurette expects Melanie to live at home until she . . .’

‘Until what, doctor?’

‘Well, take this idea of retraining. Laurette expects Melanie to live at home while she does that and perhaps not move away until she’s earning enough and responsible enough to buy somewhere for herself.’

‘I see.’

She was with the boyfriend, Wexford thought. She had met him, according to her father, when they both found themselves in their first term at what was then Myringham Polytechnic, before such institutions were elevated to university status. Euan Sinclair came from the East End of London, had graduated at the same time as Melanie, though by then the quarrel with its anger and insults had divided them. One of Euan’s children, now nearly two, had been born when he and Melanie had been going out together for over a year.

Akande knew his present address. He spoke as if it was written in bitterness on his heart. ‘We’ve tried to phone him but the number is unobtainable. That means it’s been cut off for non-payment of his bill, doesn’t it?’

‘Probably.’

‘That young man is a West Indian.’ Snobbery raised its head in these areas as well, did it? ‘An Afro-Caribbean, as we’re supposed to call them. Her mother sees him as someone who could potentially wreck Melanie’s life.’

It was Detective Sergeant Vine who went to London to seek Euan Sinclair in his rented room in a Stepney street. Akande had told him he wouldn’t be surprised if Euan was living there with one of the mothers of his children and perhaps the child as well. This would make it very unlikely that Melanie was there too but Vine didn’t say so. Myringham Police had undertaken to send an officer round to the home of Laurel Tucker.

‘I shall look in at the ESJ myself,’ Wexford said to Burden.

‘The what?’

‘The Employment Service and Jobcentre.’

‘Then why isn’t it the ESAJC?’

‘Maybe it’s really Employment-Service-Job-Centre, all one word. I’m afraid that those civil servants who remodel our language have made Jobcentre into one word as they have “jobsearch”.’

For a moment Burden said nothing. He was trying to read, with increasing incredulity, a PR handout from a company guaranteeing to make private cars thief-proof.

‘It shuts them up in a metal cage. After two minutes it stops and nothing will start it. Then it makes these blood-curdling howls. Imagine that on the M2 at five-thirty, the obstruction, the safety hazard . . .’ Burden looked up. ‘Why you?’ he said. ‘Archbold could do that or Pemberton.’

‘I daresay they could,’ said Wexford. ‘They go there often enough when someone’s assaulted an admin officer or started taking the place apart. I’m going because I want to see what it’s like.’

Chapter Three

IT WAS GOING to be a fine day, if you could stand the humidity. The air was still, not so much misty as with a thick feel to it. You wanted to fill your lungs with fresh air but this was fresh air, all you were going to get. A hot sun was filtered through meshes of cloud behind which the sky must be a rich dark blue but which looked like a pale opal and was covered with an unmoving thready network of cirrus.

Fumes from traffic were trapped under the cloud ceiling and by the still air. Along the pavement Wexford found himself passing through areas where someone had stopped to talk while smoking. The smell that still hung there was of cigarettes, in one spot a French cigarette, in another a cigar. Though it was still early, not quite ten, a reek of stale seafood swung out from the fishmonger’s. To pass a woman from whose skin came light floral scent or musky perfume was a pleasant relief. He paused to read the menu inside the window of the new Indian restaurant, the Nawab: Chicken Korma, Lamb Tikka, Chicken Tandoori, Prawn Biryani, Murghe Raja – all the usual stuff, but you might say that about roast beef and fish and chips. It all depended on the cooking. He and Burden could try it for lunch, when they had a moment. Otherwise, it would be takeaway from the Moonflower Instant Cantonese Cuisine.

The Employment Service Jobcentre was this side of the Kingsbrook Bridge, a little way down Brook Road between the Marks and Spencers foodstore and the Nationwide Building Society. Not a particularly sensitive location, Wexford thought, considering this for the first time. The people who came to sign on would be made to wince at anything which reminded them of burdensome mortgages and repossessed houses and hardly cheered by the sight of shoppers coming out of the doors on the other side with carrier bags full of food specialities they could no longer afford. Still, nobody who had a say in it had thought of that and perhaps the ESJ came there first. He couldn’t remember.

A car park at the side – ‘Strictly ESJ Staff Only’ – had access into the High Street. Steps with chipped stone balustrades led up to double doors of aluminium and glass. Inside, the atmosphere smelt stale. It was hard to say what it smelt of, for Wexford could see two notices that forbade smoking (‘Strictly Prohibited’) and no one was disobeying. Nor was it the smell of bodies. If he were to be fanciful, and he decided he had better not be, he would have said it was the odour of hopelessness, of defeat.

The large room was divided into two sections; one area, the larger, was the Benefit Office, where you went to give proof of life, proximity and continuing unemployed status by signing on; the other offered jobs. On the face of it, an abundance of jobs. One free standing notice board advertised receptionists, another housekeepers and catering, a third shops, managerial, drivers, bar staff and miscellaneous. A closer look showed him that in all cases only the experienced need apply – references were required, CVs, qualifications, skills – yet it was obvious that only the young were wanted. None of the cards actually said, ‘Up to age 30’, but energy was stressed as a requirement, or a vigorous and youthful outlook.