cover

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Ruth Rendell

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Copyright

About the Book

‘We knew that she must have been dead,’ said Chief Inspector Wexford quietly. ‘I hope she wasn’t too frightened, that’s all.’

On a stormy February afternoon, little Stella Rivers disappeared – and was never seen again. There were no clues, no demands and no traces. And there was nowhere else for Wexford and his team to look. All that remained was the cold fear and awful dread that touched everyone in Kingsmarkham.

Just months later, another child vanishes – five-year-old John Lawrence. Wexford and Inspector Burden are launched into another investigation and, all too quickly, chilling similarities to the Stella Rivers case emerge.

Then the letters begin. Horrifying, evil, threatening letters of a madman. And suddenly Wexford is fighting against time to find the missing boy, before he meets the same fate as poor Stella…

A WEXFORD CASE

Chief Inspector Wexford is one of the most memorable detectives ever created.

Ruth Rendell’s timeless Wexford novels continue to intrigue, enthral and surprise readers time and time again.

About the Author

Ruth Rendell was an exceptional crime writer, and will be remembered as a legend in her own lifetime. Her ground-breaking debut novel, From Doon With Death, was first published in 1964 and introduced readers to her enduring and popular detective, Inspector Reginald Wexford.

With worldwide sales of approximately 20 million copies, Rendell was a regular Sunday Times bestseller. Her sixty bestselling novels include police procedurals, some of which have been successfully adapted for TV, stand-alone psychological mysteries, and a third strand of crime novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine.

Rendell won numerous awards, including the Sunday Times Literary Award in 1990. In 2013 she was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in crime writing. In 1996 she was awarded the CBE, and in 1997 became a Life Peer.

Ruth Rendell died in May 2015.

Also by Ruth Rendell

OMNIBUSES:

COLLECTED SHORT STORIES

COLLECTED STORIES 2

WEXFORD: AN OMNIBUS

THE SECOND WEXFORD OMNIBUS

THE THIRD WEXFORD OMNIBUS

THE FOURTH WEXFORD OMNIBUS

THE FIFTH WEXFORD OMNIBUS

THREE CASES FOR CHIEF INSPECTOR WEXFORD

THE RUTH RENDELL OMNIBUS

THE SECOND RUTH RENDELL OMNIBUS

THE THIRD RUTH RENDELL OMNIBUS

CHIEF INSPECTOR WEXFORD NOVELS:

FROM DOON WITH DEATH

A NEW LEASE OF DEATH

WOLF TO THE SLAUGHTER

THE BEST MAN TO DIE

A GUILTY THING SURPRISED

NO MORE DYING THEN

MURDER BEING ONCE DONE

SOME LIE AND SOME DIE

SHAKE HANDS FOR EVER

A SLEEPING LIFE

PUT ON BY CUNNING

THE SPEAKER OF MANDARIN

AN UNKINDNESS OF RAVENS

THE VEILED ONE

KISSING THE GUNNER’S DAUGHTER

SIMISOLA

ROAD RAGE

HARM DONE

THE BABES IN THE WOOD

END IN TEARS

NOT IN THE FLESH

THE MONSTER IN THE BOX

SHORT STORIES:

THE FALLEN CURTAIN

MEANS OF EVIL

THE FEVER TREE

THE NEW GIRLFRIEND

THE COPPER PEACOCK

BLOOD LINES

PIRANHA TO SCURFY

NOVELLAS:

HEARTSTONES

THE THIEF

NON-FICTION:

RUTH RENDELL’S SUFFOLK

RUTH RENDELL’S ANTHOLOGY OF THE MURDEROUS MIND

NOVELS:

TO FEAR A PAINTED DEVIL

VANITY DIES HARD

THE SECRET HOUSE OF DEATH

ONE ACROSS, TWO DOWN

THE FACE OF TRESPASS

A DEMON IN MY VIEW

A JUDGEMENT IN STONE

MAKE DEATH LOVE ME

THE LAKE OF DARKNESS

MASTER OF THE MOOR

THE KILLING DOLL

THE TREE OF HANDS

LIVE FLESH

TALKING TO STRANGE MEN

THE BRIDESMAID

GOING WRONG

THE CROCODILE BIRD

THE KEYS TO THE STREET

A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES

ADAM AND EVE AND PINCH ME

THE ROTTWEILER

THIRTEEN STEPS DOWN

THE WATER’S LOVELY

PORTOBELLO

images

For Gerald Austin

So shalt thou feed on death that feeds on men,

And death, once dead,

there’s no more dying then

Shakespeare, Sonnet 146

1

THE SPELL OF fine weather which so often occurs in the middle of October is known as St Luke’s Little Summer. The ‘little summer’ part needs no explanation; the St Luke bit derives from its coincidence with the eighteenth, which is that saint’s day. Basking in the warm autumn sunlight, Station Sergeant Camb delivered this piece of interesting but useless information to Harry Wild and smiled sententiously.

‘Is that so? Maybe I’ll do a diary note on it.’ Wild sucked at his smelly old pipe and rested leather-patched elbows on the counter top. He yawned. ‘Haven’t you got anything more exciting for me?’

Camb caught the yawn and yawned himself. He remarked for the third time on the closeness of the weather and then he opened his book.

‘Two vehicles in collision at the junction of Kingsmarkham High Street and Queen Street,’ he read. ‘Nobody hurt. That was Sunday. Nothing in that for the Courier, is there? Girl of seventeen missing, but we know where she is all right. Oh, and there’s a baboon got lost from the pet shop …’ Wild looked up, lazily enquiring. ‘… Only they found it up on their balcony, tucking in to the waste bin.’

‘What a dump,’ said Wild. He put away his notebook. ‘Still, I opted for the quiet life. I could be up in Fleet Street tomorrow if I fancied it. Only got to say the word and I’d be up there where it’s all happening.’

‘Sure you would.’ Camb knew very well that Wild remained as chief reporter of the Kingsmarkham Courier because idleness and general ineptitude, as well now as his advancing years, made him unfit for any more illustrious newspaper. Wild had been coming into the police station for more years than Camb cared to remember and every time he came he talked about Fleet Street as if he had rejected it and not it him. But they sustained the fiction for the sake of peace and pleasantness. ‘Much the same for me,’ he said. ‘Many a time in the old days Mr Wexford begged me to consider the CID but I wouldn’t. I’m not ambitious. I don’t say I wouldn’t have had the ability, mind.’

‘Of course you would’ve.’ Playing fair, Wild returned praise for praise. ‘Where does it get you, though, ambition? Look at Inspector Burden, just to take an example. Worn out, and not forty yet, I daresay.’

‘Well, he’s had a lot of trouble, hasn’t he? Losing his wife like that and two kids to bring up.’

Wild gave a heavy lugubrious sigh. ‘That,’ he said, ‘was a tragic business. Cancer, wasn’t it?’

‘That’s right. Fit as a fiddle this time last year and dead by Christmas. Only thirty-five. It makes you think.’

‘In the midst of life. Looks to me as if he’s taken it hard. I suppose they were a devoted couple?’

‘More like sweethearts than man and wife.’ Camb cleared his throat and stood up straighter as the lift opened and Chief Inspector Wexford marched out.

‘Gossiping again, Sergeant? Good afternoon, Harry.’ Wexford just glanced at the two empty teacups on the counter. ‘This place,’ he said, ‘gets more like a Mothers’ Union bun fight every week.’

‘I was just telling Mr Wild,’ said Camb with dignity, ‘about our escaped baboon.’

‘My God, that’s hot news. There’s a story in that, Harry. Terrorizing the populace, mothers afraid to let their kids out of their sight. Is any woman safe while this wild beast roams our meadows?’

‘It’s been found, sir. In a dustbin.’

‘Sergeant, if I didn’t know you to be incapable of it, I should say you were mocking me.’ Wexford quivered with silent laughter. ‘When Inspector Burden comes in, tell him I’ve gone, will you? I want a few hours to enjoy our Indian Summer.’

‘St Luke’s Little Summer, sir.’

‘Indeed? I stand corrected. I wish I had the time to devote to digging up these fascinating pieces of meteorological lore. I’ll give you a lift, Harry, if you’ve finished your monkey business.’

Camb sniggered. ‘Thanks very much,’ said Wild.

It was gone five but still very warm. The sergeant stretched and wished Constable Peach would appear so that he could send him to the canteen for another cup of tea. Half an hour and he would knock off.

Presently the phone rang.

A woman’s voice, low and rich. Actressy, Camb thought. ‘I’m sorry to trouble you, but my little boy… He’s – well, he was out playing and he’s – he’s disappeared. I don’t… Am I making a fuss over nothing?’

‘Not at all, madam,’ said Camb soothingly. ‘That’s what we’re here for, to be troubled. What name is it?’

‘Lawrence. I live at 61 Fontaine Road, Stowerton.’

Camb hesitated for a second. Then he remembered Wexford had told him all cases of missing children must be reported to CID. They didn’t want another Stella Rivers…

‘Don’t worry, Mrs Lawrence. I’m going to put you through to someone who will help you.’ He got the switchboard and heard Sergeant Martin’s voice, put down the receiver.

Sergeant Camb sighed. It was a pity Harry had gone like that, just when the only piece of news had come in for weeks. He could give poor old Harry a ring… Tomorrow would do. The kid would be found, come to that, like that monkey had been. Missing people and things usually were found in Kingsmarkham and in more or less good order. Camb turned his head in the sunlight like someone turning a piece of toast in the red light of a fire. It was twenty past five. By six he’d be sitting down to his dinner in Severn Court, Station Road; then a little jaunt out with the wife to the Dragon, then telly…

‘Having a nice little kip, Sergeant?’ said a cold voice with an edge to it like a freshly unwrapped razor blade. Camb nearly jumped out of his skin.

‘Sorry, Mr Burden. It’s the heat, makes you sleepy. St Luke’s Little Summer, they call it, on account of…’

‘Are you off your bloody head?’ Burden had never sworn in the old days. It had been quite a joke in the police station the way he never took the name of the Lord in vain or said bloody or any of the things everyone else said. Camb liked the old days better. He felt his face reddening and it wasn’t the sun. ‘Any messages for me?’ Burden snapped.

Camb looked at him sadly. He was terribly sorry for Inspector Burden, his heart ached for his bereaved colleague, and that was why he forgave Burden for humiliating him and showing him up in front of Martin and Gates and even Peach. Camb couldn’t imagine what it must be like to lose one’s wife, the mother of one’s children, and be alone and desolate. Burden was so thin. The sharp high cheekbones jutted out of his taut skin and his eyes glittered nastily when you glanced at them but they were unbearable when you looked deeper. Once he had been rather a handsome man, English-looking, blond and ruddy, but now all the colour and life had gone out of him and he was a sort of grey. He still wore a black tie, pulled so tight you thought it would choke him.

Once, when it had first happened, the sergeant had expressed his sympathy along with everyone else, and that was all right, that was expected. And then, later, he had tried to say something more sincere and more personal, and Burden had swung on him like a man drawing a sword. He had said terrible things. It was more terrible to hear them coming from those mild cool lips than from the mouths of the Kingsmarkham roughs who used them habitually. It was like opening a nice book written by someone whose books you liked and asked the library to keep for you, opening it and reading a word that used to be printed with an f and a dash.

So, although Camb wanted at this moment to say something kind – wasn’t he old enough to be this man’s father? – he only sighed and replied in a blank official voice, ‘Mr Wexford went home, sir. He said he…’

‘That’s all?’

‘No, sir. There’s a child missing and…’

‘Why the hell didn’t you say so before?’

‘It’s all taken care of,’ Camb stammered. ‘Martin knows and he’s bound to have phoned Mr Wexford. Look, sir, it’s not for me to interfere, but – well, why don’t you just go home, sir?’

‘When I require your instructions, Sergeant, I’ll ask for them. The last child that went missing here was never found. I am not going home.’ I have nothing to go home for. He didn’t say it, but the words were there and the sergeant heard them. ‘Get me an outside line, will you?’

Camb did so and Burden said, ‘My home.’ When Grace Woodville answered, Camb gave the phone to her brother-in-law. ‘Grace? Mike. Don’t wait dinner for me. There’s a child missing. I should be in by ten.’

Burden crashed down the receiver and made for the lift. Camb watched the doors blankly for ten minutes and then Sergeant Mathers came down to take over the desk.

The bungalow in Tabard Road looked exactly as it had done in Jean Burden’s lifetime. The floors gleamed, the windows shone and there were flowers – chrysanthemums at this season – in the Poole pottery vases. Plain English food was served at regular times and the children had the cared-for look of children who have a loving mother. The beds were made by eight-thirty, the washing was on the line by nine and a pleasant cheerful voice sounded a greeting to those who came home.

Grace Woodville had seen to all this. It had seemed to her the only way, to keep the house as her sister had done, to act with the children as her sister had done. She already looked as much like her sister as is possible for two women who are not twins. And it had worked. Sometimes she thought John and Pat almost forgot. They came to her when they were hurt or in trouble or had something interesting to tell just as they had gone to Jean. They seemed happy, recovered from the wound of Christmas. It had worked for them and the house and the practical business of running things, but it hadn’t worked for Mike. Of course it hadn’t. Had she really thought it would?

She put down the phone and looked into the glass where she saw Jean’s face looking back at her. Her own face had never seemed like Jean’s while Jean was alive, but quite different, squarer and stronger and more fulfilled and – well, why not say it? – more intelligent. It was like Jean’s now. The liveliness had gone out of it, the sharp wit and that wasn’t surprising when she thought how she spent her days, cooking and cleaning and comforting and waiting at home for a man who took it all for granted.

She called out, ‘John? That was your father. He won’t be home till ten. I think we’ll eat, shall we?’ His sister was in the garden, gathering caterpillars for the collection she kept in the garage. Grace was more afraid of caterpillars then most women are of mice or spiders, but she had to pretend to like them, even to gloat over them, because she was all Pat had for a mother. ‘Pat! Food, darling. Don’t be long.’

The little girl was eleven. She came in and opened the matchbox she was holding. Grace’s heart squeezed and chilled at the sight of the fat green thing inside. ‘Lovely,’ she said faintly. ‘A lime hawk? She had done her homework, and Pat, like all children, valued adults who bothered.

‘Look at his sweet face.’

‘Yes, I am. I hope he’ll grow into a chrysalis before the leaves die off. Daddy won’t be home for dinner.’

Pat gave an indifferent shrug. She didn’t love her father much at present. He had loved her mother more than her, she knew that now, and she also knew that he ought to love her to make up for what she had lost. One of the teachers at school had told her that he would, that all fathers did that. She had waited and he hadn’t. He had always stayed out late working but now he stayed out nearly all the time. She transferred her simple animal-like love to her Aunt Grace. Privately she thought it would be nice if John and her father went away and left her with her aunt and then the two of them would have a lovely time collecting better and rarer caterpillars and reading books on natural history and science and the Bolshoi Ballet.

She sat down at the table next to her aunt and then began to eat the chicken-and-ham pie which was just like the ones Jean used to make.

Her brother said, ‘We had a debate at school today on the equality of the sexes.’

‘That was interesting,’ said Grace. ‘What did you have to say?’

‘I left most of the talking to the others. One thing I did say, women’s brains don’t weigh as much as men’s.

‘They do,’ said Pat.

‘No, they don’t. They don’t, do they, Auntie Grace?’

‘I’m afraid they don’t, said Grace, who had been a nurse. ‘But that doesn’t mean they aren’t as good.’

‘I bet,’ said Pat with a vindictive look at her brother, ‘I bet mine weighs more than yours. My head’s bigger. Anyway, it’s all boring, discussions and stuff. A lot of talk.’

‘Come along, darling, eat your pie.’

‘When I am grown up, said Pat, beginning on a perennial theme, ‘I’m not going to talk and argue and do boring things. I’m going to get my degree – no, maybe I’ll wait till I’ve got my doctorate – and then I’m going to go to Scotland and make a big investigation of the lochs, all the very deep lochs, and discover the monsters that live in them, and then I’m…’

‘There aren’t any monsters. They looked and they never found one.’

Pat ignored her brother. ‘I’ll have divers and a special boat and a whole staff and Auntie Grace will be at the station looking after us and cooking for us.’

They began to argue fiercely. It could happen, Grace thought. That was the horrible thing, it could just happen. Sometimes she could see herself staying here until they were grown up and she was old and then tagging along after Pat, being her housekeeper. What else would she be fit for then? And what did it matter whether her brain weighed less than a man’s or more or the same when it was stuck in a little house in the depths of Sussex, atrophying away?

She had been a sister in a big London teaching hospital when Jean died and she had taken the six weeks’ leave that was owing to her to come here and care for Mike and Mike’s children. Just six weeks she was going to stay. You didn’t spend years of your life studying, taking cuts in salary, to study for more qualifications, going to the States for two years to learn the latest obstetric methods at a Boston clinic, and then just give it all up. The hospital board had told her not to and she had laughed at the very idea. But the six weeks had lengthened into six months, into nine, ten, and now her post at the hospital had been filled by someone else.

She looked thoughtfully at the children. How could she leave them now? How could she even think of leaving them for five years? And then Pat would be only sixteen.

It was all Mike’s fault. A hard thing to think, but true. Other men lost their wives. Other men adjusted. On Mike’s salary and with his allowances he could afford a housekeeper. And it wasn’t only that. A man as intelligent as Mike ought to realize what he was doing to her and the children. She had come at his invitation, his passionate plea, thinking that she would have his support in her task, certain that he would make an effort to be home in the evenings, take the children out at weekends, compensate them in some measure for the loss of their mother. He had done none of this. How long was it now since he’d spent one evening at home? Three weeks? Four? And he wasn’t always working. One night when she could no longer stand the sight of John’s bitter rebellious face she had phoned Wexford and the chief inspector had told her Mike went off duty at five. A neighbour had told her later where Mike went. She had seen him sitting in his car on one of the paths in Cheriton Forest, just sitting still and staring at the straight, parallel, endless trees.

‘Shall we have some television?’ she said, trying to keep the weariness out of her voice. ‘There’s quite a good film on, I believe.’

‘Too much homework,’ John said, ‘and I can’t do the maths till my father comes. Did you say he’d be back at ten?’

‘He said about ten.’

‘I think I’ll go into my room, then.’

Grace and Pat sat on the sofa and watched the film. It was all about the domestic lives of policemen and bore little relation to reality.

Burden drove to Stowerton, through the new part and into the Old High Street. Fontaine Road was parallel with Wincanton Road, and there, years and years ago when they were first married, he and Jean had for six months rented a flat. Wherever he went in Kingsmarkham and its environs he kept coming on places that he and Jean had been to or visited on some special occasion. He couldn’t avoid them, but the sight of them brought fresh hurt every time and the pain did not diminish. Since her death he had avoided Wincanton Road for there they had been especially happy, young lovers learning what love was. Today had been a bad day, bad in that for some reason he was ultra-sensitive and prickly, and he felt that the sight of the house where their flat had been would be the last straw. Control might go utterly and he would stand at the gate and weep.

He didn’t even look at the street name as he passed it but kept his eyes fixed straight ahead. He turned left into Fontaine Road and stopped outside number 61.

It was a very ugly house, built about eighty years ago, and surrounded by a wild untended garden full of old fruit trees whose leaves lay in drifts on the grass. The house itself was built of khaki-coloured bricks with a shallow, almost flat, slate roof. Its windows were the sash kind and very small, but the front door was enormous, quite out of proportion, a great heavy thing with inset panels of red and blue stained glass. It was slightly ajar.

Burden didn’t go into the house at once. Wexford’s car, among other police cars, was parked against the fence which divided the end of the street from the field Stowerton Council had turned into a children’s playground. Beyond this came more fields, woods, the rolling countryside.

Wexford was sitting in his car, studying an ordnance survey map. He looked up as Burden approached and said:

‘Good of you to get here so fast. I’ve only just arrived myself. Will you talk to the mother or shall I?’

‘I will,’ said Burden.

There was a heavy knocker on the front door of number 61, shaped like a lion’s head with a ring in its mouth. Burden touched it lightly and then he pushed open the door.

2

A YOUNG WOMAN was standing in the hall, holding her hands clasped in front of her. The first thing Burden noticed about her was her hair which was the same colour as the dead apple leaves that had blown in on to the tiled passage floor. It was fiery copper hair, neither straight nor curly but massy and glittering like fine wire or thread spun on a distaff, and it stood out from her small white face and fell to the middle of her back.

‘Mrs Lawrence?’

She nodded.

‘My name is Burden, Inspector Burden, CID. Before we talk about this I’d like a photograph of your son and some article of clothing he’s recently worn.’

She looked at him, wide-eyed, as if he were a clairvoyant who could sense the missing boy’s whereabouts from handling his garments.

‘For the dogs,’ he said gently.

She went upstairs and he heard her banging about feverishly, opening drawers. Yes, he thought, it would be an untidy house with nothing in its place, nothing to hand. She came back, running, with a dark green school blazer and an enlarged snapshot. Burden looked at the photograph as he hurried up the road. It was of a big sturdy child, neither very clean nor very tidy, but undeniably beautiful, with thick light hair and large dark eyes.

The men who had come to search for him stood about in groups, some in the swings field, some clustered around the police cars. There were sixty or seventy of them, neighbours, friends and relatives of neighbours, and others who had arrived on bicycles from further afield. The speed with which news of this kind travels always amazed Burden. It was scarcely six o’clock. The police themselves had only been alerted half an hour before.

He approached Sergeant Martin, who seemed to be involved in some kind of altercation with one of the men, and handed him the photograph.

‘What was all that about?’ said Wexford.

‘Chap told me to mind my own business because I advised him he’d need thicker shoes. That’s the trouble with getting the public in, sir. They always think they know best.’

‘We can’t do without them, Sergeant,’ Wexford snapped. ‘We need every available man at a time like this, police and public.’

The two most efficient and experienced searchers belonged, properly speaking, in neither category. They sat a little apart from the men and viewed them with wary scorn. The labrador bitch’s coat gleamed like satin in the last of the sun, but the alsatian’s thick pelt was dull and rough and wolf-like. With a quick word to the man Sergeant Martin had admonished not to go near the dogs – he appeared to be about to caress the alsatian – Wexford passed the blazer over to the labrador’s handler.

While the dogs explored the blazer with expert noses, Martin formed the men into parties, a dozen or so in each and each with its leader. There were too few torches to go round and Wexford cursed the season with its deceptive daytime heat and its cold nights that rushed in early. Already dark fingers of cloud were creeping across the redness of the sky and a sharp bite of frost threatened. It would be dark before the search parties reached the wood that crouched like a black and furry bear over the edges of the fields.

Burden watched the small armies enter the wide swings field and begin the long hunt that would take them to Forby and beyond. A frosty oval moon, just beginning to wane from the full, showed above the woods. If only it would shine bright, unobscured by that blue-black floating cloud, it would be a greater asset than all their torches.

The women of Fontaine Road who had hung over their gates to see the men go now strayed lingeringly back into their houses. Each one of them would have to be questioned. Had she seen anything? Anyone? Had anything at all out of the way happened that day? On Wexford’s orders, Loring and Gates were beginning a house-to-house investigation. Burden went back to Mrs Lawrence and followed her into the front room, a big room full of ugly Victorian furniture to match the house. Toys and books and magazines were scattered everywhere and there were clothes about, shawls and scarves draped over the furniture. A long patchwork dress on a hanger hung from a picture rail.

The place looked even dirtier and frowstier when she switched on the standard lamp, and she looked stranger. She wore jeans, a satin shirt and strings of tarnished chains around her neck. He didn’t need to admire her, but he would have liked to be able to feel sympathy. This woman with her wild hair and her strange clothes made him immediately feel that she was no fit person to be in charge of a child and even that her appearance and all he associated with it had perhaps contributed to that child’s disappearance. He told himself not to jump to conclusions, not yet.

‘Now, what is the boy’s name and how old is he?’

‘John. He’s five.’

‘Not at school today?’

‘It’s half-term for the primary schools,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you about this afternoon, shall I?’

‘Please.’

‘Well, we had our lunch, John and I, and after lunch at about two his friend from next door came to call for him. He’s called Gary Dean and he’s five too.’ She was very composed, but now she swallowed and cleared her throat. ‘They were going to play in the street on their tricycles. It’s quite safe. They know they have to stay on the pavement.

‘When John goes out to play I look out of the window every half-hour or so to see he’s all right and I did that today. You can see all the street and the field where the swings are from my landing window. Well, for a bit they played on the pavement with the other boys, all boys from around here, but when I looked out at half past three they’d gone into the swings field.’

‘You could make out your son from this distance?’

‘He’s wearing a dark blue sweater and he’s got fair hair.’

‘Go on, Mrs Lawrence.’

She took a deep breath and clasped the fingers of one hand tightly in the other.

‘They’d left their tricycles in a sort of huddle on the pavement. The next time I looked they were all on the swings and I could pick out John by his hair and his sweater. Or – or I thought I could. There were six boys there, you see. Anyway, when I looked out again they’d all gone and I went down to open the front door for John. I thought he must be coming in for his tea.’

‘But he wasn’t?’

‘No, his tricycle was on the pavement by itself.’ She bit her lip, her face very white now. ‘There weren’t any children in the street. I thought John must have gone into someone else’s house – he does that sometimes although he’s not supposed to without telling me so I waited – oh, five minutes, not more – and then I went into the Deans to see if he was there. It gave me a shock,’ she said, half-whispering. ‘That was when I first started getting frightened. Gary was there, having his tea, and there was a boy with him in a blue sweater and with fair hair, but it wasn’t John. It was his cousin who’d come over for the afternoon. You see, I realized then that the boy I’d been thinking was John ever since half past three was this cousin.’

‘What did you do next?’

‘I asked Gary where John was and he said he didn’t know. He’d gone some hours ago, he said – that was how he put it, hours ago – and they thought he was with me. Well, I went to another boy’s house then, a boy called Julian Crantock at 59, and Mrs Crantock and I, we got it out of Julian. He said Gary and the cousin had started on John, just silly children’s teasing, but you know what they’re like, how they hurt each other and get hurt. They picked on John about his sweater, said it was a girl’s because of the way the buttons do up at the neck, and John – well, Julian said he sat on the roundabout by himself for a bit and then he just walked off towards the road.’

‘This road? Fontaine Road?’

‘No. The lane that runs between the swings field and the farm fields. It goes from Stowerton to Forby.’

‘I know it,’ Burden said, ‘Mill Lane. There’s a drop into it from those fields, down a bank, and there are trees all along the top of the bank.’

She nodded. ‘But why would he go there? Why? He’s been told again and again he’s never to leave the street or the swings field.’

‘Little boys don’t always do as they are told, Mrs Lawrence. Was it after this that you phoned us?’

‘Not at once,’ she said. She lifted her eyes and met Burden’s. They were greenish-grey eyes and they held a terrified bewilderment, but she kept her voice low and even. ‘I went to the houses of all the boys. Mrs Crantock came with me and when they all said the same, about the quarrel and John going off, Mrs Crantock got out her car and we drove along Mill Lane all the way to Forby and back, looking for John. We met a man with cows and we asked him, and a postman and someone delivering vegetables, but nobody had seen him. And then I phoned you.’

‘So John has been missing since about three-thirty?’

She nodded. ‘Nearly three hours. It’s getting dark. He’s afraid of the dark.’

Her composure remained and yet Burden felt that the wrong word or gesture from him, perhaps even a sudden sound, would puncture it and release a scream of terror. He didn’t quite know what to make of her. She looked peculiar, the kind of woman who belonged to a world he knew of only through newspapers. He had seen pictures of her, or of women who closely resembled her, leaving London courts after being found guilty of possessing cannabis. Such as she were found dead in furnished rooms after an overdose of barbiturates and drink. Such as she? The face was the same, pinched and pale, and the wild hair and repellent clothes. It was her control which puzzled him and the sweet soft voice which didn’t fit the image he had made for her of eccentric conduct and an unsound life.

‘Mrs Lawrence,’ he began, ‘we get dozens of cases of missing children in the course of our work and more than ninety per cent of them are found safe and sound.’ He wasn’t going to mention the girl who hadn’t been found at all. Someone else probably would, some interfering neighbour, but perhaps by then the boy would be back with his mother. ‘Do you know what happens to most of them? They wander away out of pique or bravado and get lost and exhausted, so they lie down in some warm hole and – sleep.’

Her eyes dismayed him. They were so large and staring and she hardly seemed to blink at all. Now he saw in them a faint gleam of hope. ‘You are very kind to me,’ she said gravely. ‘I trust you.’

Burden said awkwardly, ‘That’s good. You trust us and let us do the worrying, eh? Now what time does your husband get home?’

‘I’m divorced. I live alone.’

He wasn’t surprised. She would be divorced. She couldn’t be more than twenty-eight and by the time she was thirty-eight she would probably have been married and divorced twice more. God knew what combination of circumstances had brought her to the depths of Sussex from London where she rightly belonged, to live in squalor and cause untold trouble to the police by her negligence.

Her quiet voice, grown rather shaky, broke into his harsh and perhaps unjust reverie. ‘John’s all I’ve got. I’ve no one in the world but John.’

And whose fault was that? ‘We’ll find him,’ said Burden firmly. ‘I’ll find a woman to be with you. Perhaps this Mrs Crantock?’

‘Would you? She’s very nice. Most of the people around here are nice, although they’re not…’ She paused and considered. ‘They’re not quite like any people I’ve known before.’

I’ll bet they’re not, thought Burden. He glanced at the patchwork dress. For what respectable social occasion would any woman choose to wear a thing like that?

She didn’t come to the door with him. He left her staring into space, playing with the long chain of beads that hung round her neck. But when he was outside he looked back and saw her white face at the window, a smeared dirty window that those thin hands had never polished. Their eyes met for a moment and convention forced him to grin uneasily. She gave no answering smile but only stared, her face as pale and wan as the moon between clouds of heavy hair.

Mrs Crantock was a neat and cheerful woman who wore her greying black hair in crisp curls and a string of cultured pearls against her pink twinset. At Burden’s request she left immediately to keep Mrs Lawrence company. Her husband had already gone off with the search parties and only Julian and his fourteen-year-old sister remained in the house.

‘Julian, when you saw John walk off towards Mill Lane did you see anything else? Did anyone speak to him?’

The boy shook his head. ‘He just went off.’

‘And then what did he do? Did he stand under the trees or go down the lane?’

‘Don’t know.’ Julian fidgeted and looked down. ‘I was on the swings.’

‘Did you look over towards the lane? Didn’t you look to see where he was?’

‘He’d gone,’ said Julian. ‘Gary said he’d gone and a jolly good thing because we didn’t want babies.’

‘I see.’

‘Honestly, he doesn’t know,’ said the sister. ‘We’ve been on and on at him but he really doesn’t know.’

Burden gave up and went to the Deans’ at 63.

‘I’m not having Gary hounded,’ said Mrs Dean, a hard-looking young woman with an aggressive manner. ‘Children quarrel all the time. Gary’s not to be blamed because John Lawrence is so sensitive that a bit of teasing makes him run off. The child’s disturbed. That’s what’s at the root of the trouble. He comes from a broken home, so what can you expect?’

These were Burden’s own sentiments. ‘I’m not blaming Gary,’ he said. ‘I just want to ask him some questions.’

‘I’m not having him bullied.’

These days the least bit of opposition was liable to set him off.

‘You’re at liberty,’ he said sharply, ‘to report me to the Chief Constable, madam, if I bully him.’

The boy was in bed but not asleep. He came down in his dressing-gown, his eyes sulky and his lip stuck out.

‘Now, Gary, I’m not angry with you. No one’s angry. We just want to find John. You understand that, don’t you?’

The boy didn’t answer.

‘He’s tired,’ said his mother. ‘He’s told you he didn’t see anyone and that ought to be enough.’

Burden ignored her. He leant towards the boy. ‘Look at me, Gary.’ The eyes which met his were full of tears. ‘Don’t cry. You could help us, Gary. Wouldn’t you like everyone to think of you as the boy who helped the police to find John? All I want you to tell me is if you saw anyone at all, any grown-up, by the lane when John went away.’

‘I didn’t see them today,’ said Gary. He screamed and threw himself on his mother. ‘I didn’t see them, I didn’t!’

‘I hope you’re satisfied,’ said Mrs Dean. ‘I’m warning you, I shall take this further.’

‘I didn’t see that person,’ Gary sobbed.

‘Well, Mike?’ said Wexford.

‘It looks as if a man’s been hanging about that playing field. I thought I might have a go at the people in the end houses overlooking the swings field.’

‘All right, and I’ll try the two end ones in Wincanton.’

Did Wexford remember that he and Jean had once lived