Julia is quick to report to DCI Neil Paget the girl’s failure to return after leaving the house for Sunday service at the local church where she worshipped regularly.
Paget and his team try to piece together her movements; but they encounter little hard evidence, and very little in the way of witnesses, so each day that passes without a sighting of the devout and solitary Justine leads to increased fears for her safety.
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A DCI Neil Paget Mystery
By Frank Smith
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Frank Smith
All rights reserved.
Wednesday, 28 March
The train was well past Oxford before Stephen Lorrimer began to relax. The weather outside was blustery, some of the gusts so strong that he could feel the carriage sway from time to time. Unusual weather even for March, but then 'unusual' was fast becoming the norm these days, with exceptionally high tides along the east coast and torrential rains and flash floods at Christmas. Nothing was predictable any more.
It felt good to be going home for the Easter break; good to get away from the rancour and turmoil of the House. The past few months had been rough, and things weren't going to get any better. The economy was better than it had been this time last year, but the average wage earner couldn't see it. What he or she saw was a steady erosion of their pay packet and rising personal debt. And, despite the best efforts of government, and the billions of pounds poured into the bottomless pit known as the NHS, waiting times for surgical procedures remained stubbornly high, and emergency rooms were ...
Lorrimer exhaled noisily and shook his head, annoyed with himself for allowing his mind to dwell on such things. Leave it! Let it go, for God's sake, he told himself savagely. What's the point of a break if you're going to bring the work home with you? Forget it, at least for the next few weeks.
Which was all very well, but there was one thought he couldn't dismiss so easily. Nor did he want to, because he would have to do some serious thinking between now and when the House returned in April. Not that there was really any doubt about his answer.
He had worked hard; he'd been a good and faithful servant for fourteen years now, much of it in opposition, of course, but he'd served on God knows how many committees and studies in that time. He had friends on all sides of the House, and he'd been told by the prime minister himself that he was a 'good man'. Yet, good man or not, in all that time there had never been so much as a sniff at a cabinet post, shadow or otherwise. Until last Thursday, when he was asked, quite casually, about his thoughts on agricultural reform. That in itself was nothing to get excited about, except it wasn't every day that someone from the PM's office invited you for a quiet drink and a chat outside the listening walls of Westminster, then began by asking questions about your thoughts on some of the recently proposed policy changes regarding farm subsidies. And how did he think they would be perceived, not just by British farmers, but by Brussels and the EU generally ... and France in particular? Then, suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch, they were talking about the environment and the effects of climate change and declining fish stocks, and he'd found himself choosing his words very carefully. Oh, he'd had similar conversations on all those subjects with colleagues many times before; it was part of the daily fabric of life in the hallowed halls of Westminster. But never with Jason Cutter, sometimes referred to – behind his back, of course – as the PM's personal pit bull. Lorrimer recalled how the hairs on the back of his neck had started to prickle as it slowly dawned on him that this was no idle conversation. This was an interview, and every answer mattered. Just thinking about it now was enough to start the adrenalin flowing.
He leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. Nothing had been promised, nor even hinted at, but it all made sense. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had been ailing now for months. A pity, really, because he was a good man, relatively young and efficient at his job, but cancer was no respecter of age or ability, and the whisper was that it was terminal. A shame, yes, but – being a practical man – Lorrimer consoled himself with the thought that it was an ill wind and so on, so why not sit back and enjoy the moment? God knows he'd earned it.
He could hardly wait to tell Julia. She'd be so pleased.
The carriage swayed, buffeted by the wind. He opened his eyes. Rain streaked the window, blurring the images of the passing countryside, while half a mile away a shaft of sunlight pierced the clouds to illuminate a farmhouse and the surrounding fields. A flock of birds rose to battle against the wind, wheeling and diving in unison, and Lorrimer wondered idly what had prompted them to leave the shelter of the trees.
On the other hand, perhaps he should wait to tell Julia. After all, nothing had been promised. But Cutter didn't waste time on idle chatter. In fact, in all those fourteen years, Lorrimer could count on one hand the number of one-on-one conversations he'd had with Jason Cutter, none of which had lasted more than a couple of minutes. So, a half-hour chat over drinks had to mean something. Besides, he felt he would burst if he didn't tell someone.
Lorrimer stretched and settled himself more comfortably in his seat. 'Sorry, Terry,' he said when his foot caught those of the man seated opposite him.
'My fault,' the young man mumbled, pulling in his own long legs. His head remained bent in concentration, and his thumbs continued to fly across the tiny keyboard of his latest technological acquisition. Terry Baxter was the newest and youngest intern in the office. The boy – Baxter was twenty-six years old and a graduate of the LSE, but Lorrimer still thought of him as a boy – had barely lifted his eyes from the device since they'd boarded the train at Paddington.
Watching him now, Lorrimer was reminded of the latest message on his own dated but trusty BlackBerry. He slid it from his pocket and cupped it in his hand as if he thought someone might be watching as he read the message for perhaps the tenth time that day. There were only two short lines of text, but they were enough to cast a shadow over his earlier thoughts. He stared out of the window, but the scenes inside his head were far from those of the passing countryside.
Julia Lorrimer was waiting with the car outside Foregate Street station when he and Baxter left the train in Worcester. Baxter had spoken to her on the telephone, but he'd never met her until now. She was taller, slimmer and far better-looking than he'd imagined, and she knew how to dress to take advantage of her figure. Lorrimer himself was a solid, well-set-up man, but he was pushing fifty, and Terry had imagined that his wife would be ... well, pretty ordinary. But there was nothing ordinary about Julia Lorrimer. For a woman in her early forties, as he knew she must be, Lorrimer's wife looked quite a bit younger and sexier than he'd imagined. Lucky old Lorrimer, he thought, as Julia gave her husband a perfunctory kiss before turning to him.
'And you must be Terry,' she said, thrusting out a hand in greeting. 'Delighted to meet you in person at last. Stephen told me you would be coming down to meet us and see for yourself the sort of things we have to deal with in a constituency office. How long can you stay, Terry?'
'Till the weekend, if that's all right, Mrs Lorrimer?' Baxter said. 'I'm going on to see friends in Penzance on Sunday. They have a cottage there, and they've invited me to join them for a week.'
'How very nice for you,' Julia said perfunctorily, 'and of course it's all right. I'll be more than happy to show you round. I may even put you to work. And please call me Julia.' She turned to her husband, who was putting the cases in the car. 'And speaking of work, Stephen, Sebastian came down from Leeds the other day. He's taking time out from his studies, so I've put him to work in the office. Sebastian is my son,' she explained for Baxter's benefit. 'He's taking politics and parliamentary studies at Leeds University, much the same as I imagine you did at the LSE, from what Stephen tells me, but he needs a break from his studies every now and again.'
Lorrimer had never spoken of a son old enough to attend university, and Terry knew that his boss had only been married to Julia for some six or seven years, so Sebastian had to be Julia's son from a previous marriage. 'Uni can be rough,' he agreed. 'Is this his first year?'
Julia looked surprised by the question. 'Didn't Stephen tell you?' she asked, flicking a glance at her husband. 'It's Sebastian's third year.'
Then what was he doing in Leeds? Baxter wondered, but wisely refrained from putting the question into words. The third year was usually spent in placement in positions similar to his own to gain experience.
Julia smiled as if sensing the unspoken question. 'He was at Bristol for two years,' she elaborated, 'but he wasn't happy there. He said the pace was far too rushed, too intense. He was doing his best, but I could see he was pushing himself too hard, so I suggested he take time out to see some of the world before starting in again. Which he did, and now he's at Leeds and doing very well.
'Traffic's getting pretty thick out there,' Lorrimer observed as he closed the rear door of the Range Rover, 'so perhaps we should get going. Would you like me to drive, Julia?'
She shook her head, 'Thank you, Stephen, but I'm sure you're tired. I'll drive.'
Perhaps it was his imagination, Terry thought as he climbed into the back seat, but it seemed to him that the temperature had dropped noticeably at the mention of Sebastian. Stephen Lorrimer had never mentioned that his wife had an older son, and he wondered why. He made a mental note to be careful about what he said until he could get a better picture of the way things were on Lorrimer's home ground.
Lorrimer settled into his seat and buckled up. He very much wanted to tell Julia about his chat with Cutter, but, with Terry sitting behind them, he decided it would be better to wait until he and Julia were alone. No need to set off another round of rumours and speculation, although, considering the speed with which rumours and gossip flew around the halls of Westminster, it was quite possible that Terry had known about his meeting with Cutter before he did. Still, best to stick to safer topics. 'So how are things at home?' he asked neutrally.
Julia shrugged, concentrating on her driving as she threaded her way through the late-afternoon traffic. 'Nothing's changed since I spoke to you yesterday,' she said. 'It's been fairly quiet so far this week. But I imagine you know as much as I do if Sylvia has been keeping you up to date.'
'Oh, yes.' Lorrimer smiled. 'Sylvia keeps us well informed, doesn't she, Terry? She must send us three or four emails each day.'
'More like six or seven,' Terry corrected from the back seat, 'and we hit eleven emails from her one day last week.'
'Good God!' Julia's brow wrinkled into a puzzled frown. 'I had no idea she was sending that many. Whatever does she say?'
'I think Terry can answer that better than I can,' Lorrimer said. 'It's Terry's job to deal with them and filter the wheat from the chaff before he passes them on to me.'
'Most of it is the day-to-day stuff that goes on down here,' the young man said. 'Letters to the editor in the local papers that might be of interest, along with her own editorial comments.' He chuckled. 'She has some pretty interesting views, does Sylvia. I'm quite looking forward to meeting her.'
'You may be surprised when you do,' Julia cautioned. 'She's very young – seventeen – and fascinated by politics, but I'm not sure she thinks some of these things through before offering an opinion.'
Stephen Lorrimer yawned. 'I think that's enough about work,' he said firmly. 'How is Michael? Sylvia said he found his way around the office without any trouble at all the other day. She thinks he sees more than we thought he could. She said he even helped her stack some files.'
Belatedly, he realized that he shouldn't have mentioned Michael being in the office, so he wasn't exactly surprised when Julia said, 'I don't know how many times I've told that girl he's not allowed in the office! It's no place for a small child.' She tried to keep her voice low and controlled, but it was clear she was angry.
'I think she was just trying to let me know in her own way that Michael is improving,' he said soothingly, 'and it didn't sound as if he had done any harm.'
'Even so ...' Julia began, then stopped to flick a glance at the reflected image of Terry Baxter in the rear-view mirror. He had his eyes closed, but she was sure he was listening. 'It's a distraction for people coming in,' she continued in a milder tone, 'and it's not as if he doesn't have plenty of places to play in the rest of the house.'
'Five-year-olds like to explore,' Lorrimer said, with perhaps more emphasis than he'd intended, but he felt the need to come to Sylvia's defence. 'Don't be too hard on the girl.'
'It's not ...' Julia began sharply, then softened her tone and began again. 'It's just that when people come to our office with grievances or problems, I want them to see they have our full attention. All I'm saying, Stephen, is that children running around the office can be distracting, and it's unprofessional.' She reached over and patted his knee. 'Don't worry,' she said soothingly. 'I know Sylvia didn't mean any harm by it, so I won't go on at the girl.'
But it wasn't about Sylvia, was it, thought Lorrimer. It was about Michael and the fact that he was blind and made unintelligible, guttural sounds when he tried to form words. Those sounds irritated Julia. Unconsciously, he made a face. Irritated was hardly the word. Julia couldn't stand them, any more than she could stand the tap-tap-tapping of Michael's cane as he made his way around the house.
Julia was thirty-seven years old when she became pregnant. It wasn't planned; it wasn't supposed to happen, but when it did, Lorrimer was over the moon. Forty-two, and he was finally going to be a father. So excited was he at the prospect of having a child of his own that he'd been oblivious to Julia's muted reaction to the news. He knew it must have come as a bit of a shock to her, but once she'd had time to think about it, he told himself, she would be just as happy about it as he was.
So he was stunned when Julia began to talk of having an abortion. She said she'd spent the best part of twenty years of her life raising her son, Sebastian, on her own, and now that she was free to pursue her own goals, she had no desire to start over again.
Sebastian was the result of a youthful roll in the hay while she was still in her teens. Shut out by her family, she had worked hard and long to bring the boy up on her own, determined to give him a better start in life than she'd had herself. Now, she said, it was her turn.
But he'd persisted, arguing that this time it would be different for her: she wouldn't be on her own as she had been when Sebastian was born, nor would she have to worry about money – they'd hire a nanny, and Julia could continue on as office manager.
He'd finally won her over, but it had turned out to be a hollow victory.
Things might have worked out if Michael had been a 'normal' child. But the boy was blind. And, as if that were not enough, they were told by the surgeon that Michael had no vocal cords to speak of. 'They're completely malformed,' the man explained, 'so while the boy will be able to make sounds, they could range anywhere from a harsh whisper to something like a growl, he will never be able to form words or speak properly.'
After suffering through a long and debilitating pregnancy, the shock had been too much for Julia, and she'd spent a month in the psychiatric ward before she'd even seen her son ... and she'd rejected him out of hand.
Lorrimer stared out of the window. The road ahead was dry, but every so often a few drops of rain would spatter the windscreen, and the sky looked dark and threatening ahead.
Michael had been a good baby, sleeping through most of the night and taking his food easily. Bottle-fed, of course; Julia was incapable of nursing him.
They'd engaged a nanny – in fact, they'd engaged a series of nannies, none of whom seemed to be able to get close to Michael, until last year when the agency in Birmingham sent them Justine Delgado. 'She's twenty-eight years old,' the woman at the agency told Lorrimer. 'She is a registered nurse, trained to deal with children with special needs, including those who are visually impaired. The salary she is asking is higher than that of the nannies you have had before, but I think you will find she is worth it. She comes highly recommended, and she has excellent references.'
Excerpted from Dead Weight by Frank Smith. Copyright © 2016 Frank Smith. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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