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Mud Pie

 

MUD PIE

 

A Tale of Rugby, Puddings and Murder

 

 

Emma Lee Bole

 

 

Smashwords Edition

 

Copyright 2015 Emma Lee Bole

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 The Silk Road

Chapter 2 Tissett

Chapter 3 Piccadilly

Chapter 4 White Van

Chapter 5 Nan’s House

Chapter 6 Clubhouse

Chapter 7 Brasso

Chapter 8 Brocklow

Chapter 9 Ute

Chapter 10 Party

Chapter 11 Grimshaw

Chapter 12 Sock Drawer

Chapter 13 Cole

Chapter 14 Spare Room

Chapter 15 Himself

Chapter 16 KK

Chapter 17 Hugh

Chapter 18 Karl’s 18th

Chapter 19 Funeral

Chapter 20 Incident Room

Chapter 21 Michelle

Chapter 22 Foxes

Chapter 23 Cat and Fiddle

Chapter 24 Moonlight

Chapter 25 Fun

Chapter 26 Flush

Chapter 27 Charlotte

Chapter 28 Roofless

Chapter 29 Frank

Chapter 30 The Last Tea

Chapter 31 Hospital

Chapter 32 The Silk Road

About the author

 

 

MUD PIE

 

hapter One

The Silk Road

 

I was dead meat.

Everything still worked, bodywise. My heart still pumped at 72 bpm. My lungs inflated too rapidly, if anything, as I sat hunched in the passenger seat, fingers clenched around my knees. My eyes admitted the rain-streaked images of the Silk Road that fled past the window, transferring them efficiently to my brain.

Even my brain was still working. It suggested a suitable compliment to pay to Charlotte’s zippy little Renault, and my mouth dutifully translated this into the right noises.

“It’s a good little runner,” said Charlotte with affection. She was nothing like her car, being large and horsey rather than small and chic. She was my best friend – possibly my only friend right now – and I knew I loved her, although, being dead, I couldn’t quite remember how that felt.

You’re dead meat, Herron, sneered the voice in my head. My brain was shocked into another convulsive attempt at normality.

“It’s raining very hard,” I said.

“Isn’t it just? Hope you brought your welly-boots, Lannie my girl, because according to Hugh it’s mud, mud, mud from now on,” said Charlotte cheerfully. Although I had warned her I was dead meat, she didn’t really believe me. She didn’t understand what my pursuers were like. And I hadn’t quite told her the full story.

I had no welly-boots. I had no raincoat or umbrella. I had a large hold-all, a small tent and a mildewed sleeping-bag crammed into Charlotte’s boot. Tucked between the clothes in the holdall were the only things of value I possessed: my knives. For a moment I cradled the thought of them, strong and gleaming in their soft black cloth. Stronger than I was, since they had no feelings. Ruthless. Invincible.

“Hugh says it’s a nice little pub,” said Charlotte, “nothing flash, but the landlord’s a good sort.”

“Hugh says that about everyone.” Hugh was Charlotte’s brother: like her, tall, posh and amiable, with a benign view of the world.

“Can you read out the directions?” Charlotte flipped a piece of paper at me. “I don’t know this neck of the woods.”

“I think it’s another left in about a mile.” I peered out at the rain, looking for road signs. The dual carriageway had become a dwindling single that meandered as if it had lost its memory. I checked my watch. We were still barely an hour out of Manchester. When I glanced surreptitiously in the mirror, the sleek black car that crawled behind me made my heart pound for a moment, until it overtook us in a whoosh of impatience and hurtled out of sight.

My stomach balled up unhappily. This wasn’t far enough. My first idea of fleeing to Scotland had been better, except that I’d find no work there until Christmas: and I needed work.

“It’s not really all that far,” commented Charlotte with pleased surprise. “You can easily come back and see me. I’d give you a job in the bread shop if I could, you know that, Lannie.”

“I know you would.” But I guessed that Charlotte’s hot bread shop, on the fringes of Didsbury, wasn’t breaking even yet, and Charlotte’s Daddy, who had bankrolled it, would not approve unnecessary employees. Anyway, it was too close.

“And you can always move back to Manchester once things have calmed down.”

“Yes.” I couldn’t. Things wouldn’t calm down. “Next left, I think.”

There was no sign to Tissett. That was good. I’d checked Tissett out in a road atlas at the newsagents’, and had been a little reassured when the index hadn’t heard of it. So I’d hunted it down on an O.S. map in Central Library: a tiny place, barely there, just the letters PH and two little grey squares. It was a mile from Brocklow – distinguished only by a crossroads and a phone box – which I had never heard of either, and which was two miles from Fylington, which I was fairly sure I’d heard of, which was in turn four miles from Macclesfield, which I had definitely heard of but never visited, nor knew anyone, apart from Hugh, who had.

It rained harder as we drove through Fylington – too big for a village, too small for a town, a stony rampart of grey squashed shops and weavers’ cottages.

“Hugh says house prices through the roof round here,” said Charlotte wistfully. We chugged past an inordinate number of pubs, an antique primary school, and a set of rugby posts in a deserted field of mud. Then we were out, and winding up a hill into real countryside, with cows and sheep and stone walls charcoaled by the wet.

“What’s the matter?” Charlotte asked.

I must have sighed. I’d felt stagnation dribble over me like the rain. The road crawled along wrinkles in the weather-beaten face of the land. There was nothing here.

But of course that was the point. I could hide in those wrinkles. I hadn’t been able to tell from the map if I would be living in Derbyshire or Cheshire: it might even have been Staffordshire. I was pretty damn sure that none of my pursuers would have ever heard of Brocklow, or Tissett, or the Woolpack Inn.

The thought gave me faint hope, in so far as the dead can have hope. My last week, spent cowering in Charlotte’s tiny Didsbury flat, had been almost entirely hope-free.

“Here we are!” announced Charlotte, as if we were just out for Sunday lunch.

“Pretty,” I said as we pulled into the Woolpack’s tiny car park. I lied, of course.

 

Chapter Two

Tissett

 

It was a squat, stone pub with window boxes full of drowned pansies. On a patch of grassy mud beside the car park, four blackly sodden picnic benches sprawled with their legs in the air, like cows with rigor mortis.

At three o’clock on a wet autumn Sunday the pub, though open, was almost devoid of life, apart from the pinch-faced middle-aged barmaid, and a lone drinker moodily watching football on the TV in the corner.

The barmaid took an affronted, hissing breath. “You’ll be the chef,” she accused us. “Brendan! They’re here!”

A barrel-shaped man burst through from the kitchen with a smell of gravy and damp tea-towels.

“Brendan.” The landlord shook my hand vigorously. In his late thirties, he had fading curly blond hair, developing jowls and small, sunken eyes. He was nervous: not a usual state for him, I guessed, watching him rub his hands down the tea-towel tucked into the belt below his belly. Not as big as landlord’s bellies often are. Or it could have just been that the rest of him was broad to match.

“You’re Charlotte,” he said confidently to her, pumping her hand, “can tell Hugh’s sister,” and to me, more doubtfully, “Elanor?” I saw his eyes were drawn to my nose. People’s eyes always were.

“Lannie.”

“Lannie? Not heard that one before.”

I smiled and said nothing.

“You’re from Salford, right?”

“Originally.” Elanor wasn’t a Salford name. Too saintly and sensible. My mother had ideas above her station, once upon a time when she was still capable of having ideas at all. My little brother Karl re-christened me Lannie when he was two and I was six. Only my mother had called me Elanor, maybe in an attempt to keep some sort of ownership over me. She had little enough else, God knows, when I was running the household, doing her shopping and cooking and cleaning. I’d been forced, against my will, to be both saintly and sensible. I hadn’t enjoyed it.

“Lannie. Let me show you round.” He began to bustle, slowly. There wasn’t a huge amount to show: one largish room and one tiny one, with tobacco-yellow walls and unforgiving bench seats. A photo of the pub in 1912 suggested not much had changed since then.

Brendan wheezed faintly as he talked. “Bar. Lounge, toilets, that’s the snug. Lads only. By tradition, not law, but they get narked if… That’s the dart-board. This is Frank. Jesus, Frank, what are you watching?”

“One of your old tapes,” said the man in the corner, gazing at the TV with resigned intensity. The score was 49 nil. Probably not football, then, though there was a lot of running and falling over. I guessed some species of rugby.

“Jesus, Frank,” said Brendan with exasperation, “the tour from hell? Why?”

Frank, distant and blunt-featured, took his time. “Because it happened.”

“It shouldn’t have.”

“But it did.”

Brendan plunged at the control and paused the video. “Frank! There’s a perfectly good grand slam in that cupboard. Ireland 2003. Or what about the ninety-seven lions? Do you a world of good. Or the Sydney world cup final–”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“Well, all right. But what about the semi? Uruguay, for Christ’s sake!”

Frank shook his head, cradled the remote, and fast-forwarded. The score went up to 56.

“Jesus,” muttered Brendan. He motioned us on. “Come and see the kitchen. Mind how you… Frank’s a bit, um,” he added once we were through the door. “Well, you’ll get to know him. Good lad. He’s a regular.”

“This is nice,” said Charlotte to the kitchen. “Isn’t it nice, Lannie?”

I was still looking. At least it was clean: a big plus there. But after Tzabo, with its acres of top-of-the-range brushed steel, huge grills like the snarling mouths of Hell and stations all separate, all equipped, two yards of white Formica and a trio of domestic gas cookers didn’t qualify as nice, even if one of them was a pretend range. There were two microwaves and a chip pan on a shelf.

“You don’t use that?” I said. Chip pans give me the heebie-jeebies. The old memory came whoomphing back like a punch bag heading for my stomach. The stink of burning fat, the clinging pall of oily smoke.

The stench had woken me in the night and dragged me downstairs to find the chip pan on fire in the kitchen, and my mother snoring on the living-room floor. The kitchen was full of smoke. Oil had bubbled down the sides of the pan and was burning all over the stove. I switched the electric off at the wall, doused tea-towels in the sink and smothered the flames as I’d learnt in Food Tech. There was a stain like a huge black petal on the wall behind the cooker. I heaved my mother into the recovery position, as taught in Health Ed, crept back to bed, and lay there shivering with fear and anger. I was twelve.

“That’s just for ourselves,” said Brendan. “Makes better chips than that thing.” I saw, with relief, a catering-standard deep fat fryer in the corner.

“I presume you don’t object to chips?” said the stroppy barmaid.

“Of course she doesn’t, Rhoda.”

“The cookers have been serviced,” she told me indignantly. “We passed our inspection in May.”

I realised that she was Brendan’s wife, and that she didn’t want us here. She was younger than I had at first supposed, with a taut, angry face and thin hair starched into paralysis. Her nose was as sharp as her manner: she looked down it fiercely and made curt corrections as Brendan introduced the fridges and freezers in the draughty lean-to, the veteran dishwasher, the pans (not bad) and the knives (not good, but that didn’t matter since I had my own.)

“What do you think?” asked Brendan. He sounded anxious, though I couldn’t see why. He was doing me a favour. I was the one needing sanctuary.

“It’s all quite brilliant!” said Charlotte as loudly and enthusiastically as if it were Jamie Oliver’s kitchen complete with TV crew.

I said, “Can I see your menus?”

Brendan hovered nervously while I studied Steak and Ale Pie, Breaded Haddock and Cajun Chicken. The highlights were Lamb Shank with Autumn Berries and Scotch Salmon with Baby New Potatoes. Tedium leached from the paper.

“It all sounds lovely,” said Charlotte valiantly.

“The salmon’s very popular,” said Brendan.

“Baby New?” I queried. “In November?”

“Most of our clientele are happy with chips. The main meals are in the big freezer. The other’s starters and puddings.”

“What sort of puddings?”

“Sticky toffee’s favourite at the moment, and chocolate fudge. You’re a pudding person, right?”

“I’m a pastry-chef.” I didn’t say patissier, since Rhoda disapproved enough as it was.

“But you think you can do the job?” persisted Brendan. “Hugh said you could turn your hand to pretty well anything.”

“Pretty well. I’ve done it all at Tzabo’s,” I said, not strictly correctly, for I’d never been allowed on the grill except once in time of flu. Not woman’s work. But I’d run the grill, and everything else, at the White Duck before I reached the scary, exhilarating heights of Tzabo for those few short months until events kicked me out.

“He made out you were Wonderwoman,” said Rhoda sardonically.

“Not quite.” Hugh must have laid it on a bit thick. I suppose he felt he owed me for that time I helped to rescue him, five years ago: now he was doing his good-natured best to rescue me in turn.

“So you can make sticky toffee pudding?” asked Brendan.

“Yes.” I could make croquembouche, bourdaloue, pithivier and gaufrettes. I knew a fleuron from a friandise and a ruifard from a rigodon. Sticky toffee pudding, no problem. My problems were stickier by far…

The ghostly image stamped upon my retina reappeared as it had so often in the last two weeks: the boy in the white T-shirt leaning on the chippie counter, while I waited in the queue. I never learnt his name, though I’d seen him hustling on street corners. Now he slumped against the tiles, his white top slowly blossoming to carnation red, his chips all over the floor. The three men in balaclavas stared round at us, daring us to move. None of us did. “Last time you’ll rip us off,” hissed one, before they all slammed out. He was only a bag-man who’d tried to cheat the dealers. That was nothing compared to what I’d done.

My hands were sweating, but the rest of me felt as cold as clay. I took a long breath and tried to drag my attention back to Brendan.

“Me and Rhoda will help, of course,” he was saying. I heard a noise like a snort from Rhoda. “And there’s a girl comes in at weekends. Rhoda used to run the kitchen but the bar’s taking all her time now, isn’t it, Rhoda?” There was an appeal in his voice.

“If you say so.” Rhoda turned on her heel and marched back into the lounge. Brendan looked after her helplessly.

“She’s,” he said, “she’s. Um. This is her spot. Was. Her domain, you know? It’s not easy.”

“I see.” I wondered if Brendan had invented this job for me in order to please Hugh. Surely not.

Brendan said, “Hugh told me Tzabo wasn’t doing so well?”

I shrugged. “Manchester rents. They had to cut staff.” Tzabo had been doing fine. If I hadn’t been dead meat, Klaus would have happily kept me on. It was small consolation.

“You might find it dull here.”

“Oh, no, it’s lovely and peaceful,” said Charlotte. “Isn’t it, Lannie?”

It was dull. But dull was good. “I’ll start tomorrow if you like,” I said.

“Ah, no, no food on Mondays. That’s your day off. Not much on Tuesdays either. Start Wednesday. Give you time to settle in somewhere. Got a place to stay?”

“I’ve got a tent,” I said. “Is there a campsite handy?” I assumed that being in the Peak District, the place would be littered with campsites.

“I don’t think so. Arthur across the way might lend you a field,” said Brendan doubtfully. “Not the weather for it though, is it? You’d be better indoors. We’d put you up here, if, er–”

I could almost hear Rhoda’s hissed, No, we wouldn’t, through the kitchen wall.

“Haven’t got room,” said Brendan apologetically. “The two lasses sharing as it is. We would otherwise.”

“That’s all right. Did you say Arthur?”

“Madderlow Farm. I’ll give him a bell.”

He led us back into the lounge and used the bar phone with Rhoda glaring at him. Charlotte and I listened, raising eyebrows at each other meaningfully – though what their meaning was, I for one, didn’t know – while Brendan negotiated with the offer of a couple of free pints and a free dinner, yes, for the wife as well, no, not the dogs, you cheeky bugger, for me to camp in the paddock in front of Arthur’s farmhouse.

“You can use our facilities,” he told me as he replaced the phone. “For now. Have to see about getting you somewhere else. Frank!”

“He won’t,” said Rhoda.

“He might. Frank?”

On the TV, one of the teams was cheering. The score was 76-0. Frank switched it off.

“I’m done,” he said.

“You still in your Nan’s house, Frank? Aren’t you moving in with your young lady?”

Rhoda snorted. A definite snort, this time, that I could see Frank hearing and phlegmatically ignoring.

“Not quite,” he said, returning his glass to the bar.

“Well. Just a thought,” said Brendan. His eyes followed Frank’s stocky figure to the door with a wistful, worried expression.

“You know he won’t,” said Rhoda. “It’s that bloody motorbike.”

“Now, Rhoda. Girls, you’d like, um? Coffee?” asked Brendan unhappily. Rhoda gazed at us stonily, willing us to refuse.

“I’ll go over and pitch my tent while the light’s good,” I told him. “Then I’ll come back this evening and help out. Stack the dishwasher and that. Work out where things are.” I remembered, belatedly, what I ought to say. “Thank you for all this. Thank you.”

I dived out into the drizzle with Charlotte behind me.

“You’re not going to camp now, are you? Lannie, come back to my place till Wednesday!”

“No, I can’t.” I began to haul my stuff out of her boot, and she helped me lug it over the road and up the drive of Madderlow Farm to a slurried yard that echoed with the yelps of unseen dogs. I knocked at the front door, causing a furious peal of barking, until a wizened head in a woolly hat poked out of a barn door and yelled, “Camp where yer like. And shut up, yer daft buggers.”

So I did. Since everywhere was squelchy, I picked a spot at random and we pitched the tent, with some difficulty despite my practice session the previous day on Fletcher Moss playing fields.

“This doesn’t seem fair,” said Charlotte as we crouched, shivering, on the smelly groundsheet inside the green cocoon. “You shouldn’t end up here just for simply doing what’s right.”

I winced. What I had done had seemed right at the time. But maybe I had been wrong. “Better here than the mortuary.”

“Don’t say that, Lannie! Do you want me to stay? I’ll stay a bit.”

“You go. You’ve bread to make,” I told her. “You’ll be up at five tomorrow morning.”

“I know. You don’t mind, Lannie? I’ll ring,” she promised, and crawled out backwards. I waved her off, then crept back into my new home to unroll my musty sleeping bag and sort out my things. It didn’t take long. The tent smelt of rubber. I felt an unexpected surge of longing for that holiday with Dave, my almost-father, so far away and long ago, now so completely unattainable.

I could do with an airbed. The ground was cold and pitted. So what? I was dead anyway. Why should a little extra cold bother me? I shouldn’t even need the groundsheet between myself and the muddy earth.

Rolling over on the sleeping bag, I reached into the holdall and picked up my knives, lifting them gently from their cloth one by one, contemplating their weight and sharpness. They were a small, pure comfort: perfect, familiar things.

I lay back, crossing my arms against my chest, a knife in each hand, and stared up at the tent’s bowed roof. I wondered how long I would survive being dead.

 

Chapter Three

Piccadilly

 

When was it I began to die? I think I felt myself slowly sinking into the sombre underworld all the way through the trial. I slipped deeper and deeper into fear and guilt and grief, the shadows rising all around me. The shouts outside the court. The pellets of spit on my best jacket. The daubings on my door. The icy malice that turned the courtroom chill to permafrost: I was always cold in there.

But I didn’t expect it to last. I thought, back then, naively, that everything would soon get back to normal, that I was immune from reprisal – a prim little girl protected by her shiny halo. I thought that nothing really bad could happen to me just for doing the right thing.

Daft of me. I should have known better. I did know better. My chaotic childhood had already taught me that bad things happen all the time, especially to the innocent. Babies fell off balconies. Toddlers got their faces bitten off by pit bulls. Kids got belted by jealous stepfathers and fed class A drugs by spaced-out mothers. They were visited by endless tormenting plagues of lice and fleas and scabies, and jeering gangs in the playground.

A couple of years later they got pressed into the real gangs. They tooled up and practised mugging skills on everyone smaller, any remaining softness turned to tough, unyielding scar tissue.

I knew all that because I’d been through some of it myself. I knew what those gangs were like. So that encounter in Piccadilly the week after the verdict shouldn’t have come as a shock at all.

In one way I was lucky. Our paths crossed by chance, not design, so that when our eyes met across the platform of the Piccadilly tram-stop they looked as taken aback as I was.

I only knew one of the three men, the one with the narrow hungry rat-face: Peel his name was – a mate of my brother Karl’s whom I’d not spoken to for years and who had lately spoken just four words to me. The whisper in the courtroom lobby, very quiet and distinct. We’ll get you, Herron. It echoed round my head for days.

And there he was. Like looking in a mirror, our mouths both hanging open. I just stared at him and he at me, and it wasn’t until he opened his mouth wider to shout that I came to my senses and ran.

But I ran the wrong way. I should have tried to cut across to Market Street, where the crush of lunchtime crowds would have made it hard for them to follow me. From there I could have dived into the warren of the Arndale Centre and its many bolt-holes.

Instead, since I had no certainty of out-running them, and since the tram was there waiting, I leapt on to it just before the doors hissed closed. Peel and the two others were stranded, as with a doleful hoot it pulled away.

Unfortunately a tram is not a great getaway vehicle. We glided sedately round the end of Piccadilly in agonising slow motion while my pursuers jogged after us. They didn’t even have to run. By the time the tram sighed to a stop three hundred yards away, they were ready and waiting.

I couldn’t get off. I had to watch them get on and pretend I wasn’t watching, that I was just one of the tired shoppers or a distracted office worker. I gazed out of the window with my heart leaping around in my chest like a fish on a line. The three of them stood and swayed by the doors while the tram dragged itself down ponderously to St Peter’s Square where it stopped again, exhausted, and everyone wanted to get out.

So I had to get out too. As I stepped onto the platform they grabbed my sleeves and I felt something sharp jab through my coat into my back. Peel strutted round in front of me, very close, showing me his teeth and his knife. It was a crappy plastic pound-shop craft knife with snap-off blades, a throwaway bit of terror that you could stamp to bits or even melt with a lighter to destroy the evidence.

I think I said “Oh no” and put my hands up to shield my face. Then I screamed.

I’d never screamed before in my life; it wasn’t easy, and it came out startlingly loud.

No good Samaritans leapt in to rescue me. A few heads turned, but that was all. We were just a bunch of scallies having an argument; nobody was going to interfere.

“Shut up,” snarled Peel. As the knife came for my face I grabbed it. I felt it slice my fingers, but I was past caring. I held on to it while I kicked Peel and then tried to head-butt him, unsuccessfully but enough to make him stumble backwards. At that I let go, and as I felt a slash across my back, I wriggled wildly and twisted my arms right out of my coat sleeves. The two of them were left grasping the empty coat with wadding erupting from it like whipped cream.

One of them grabbed me by the hair, but I yanked free. Then I turned and launched myself down off the platform, right in front of the departing tram.

This time it was just as well it moved so slowly. It missed me by half a yard, hooting reproaches. I glimpsed the driver furiously gesticulating as I leapt out of the way, and then the tram was between me and them. I had several precious seconds to race across the square to the grand pillars of the Central Library, where I barged through clusters of students to the smooth glass doors and plunged inside.

I ran up the stairs – all glass, curse them – and bolted into the reading room. Heads looked up from laptops in disapproval as I clattered through the silence and out the other side. There was a shout behind me as I raced round the music library to the sound of keyboards and arrived back at the lift.

Its door was just closing. I threw myself in. More glass, dammit, it was like a goldfish tank, and they were waiting in the lobby: but the lift glided past them, down to the basement and the City Library with its unrarified shelves of thrillers. Hyperventilating and clutching my bleeding hand under my arm, I darted past the bookshelves.

I knew the library, but I guessed they didn’t. More stairs – not glass, thank God – brought me up into the Town Hall. Hand clutched in my armpit, I walked briskly down a ornate, curved corridor half-full of sadly waiting claimants and emerged outside at the back.

There I hid behind a convenient stone pillar, sweating and shivering and pressing my hand with my handkerchief, wondering what the hell to do next. Until now I’d been running on pure instinct. But now I remembered where I was – a mere step away from Bootle Street, and the Manchester Police Headquarters.

So I took a few deep breaths and stuck my head round the pillar, only to spot Peel lurking at the back of the Library, waiting for me to pop out of a hole.

I couldn’t pluck up the courage to go. At last he looked down to check his mobile, and I shot out. I got half way across the road before he noticed.

I tore down Bootle Street and stood panting outside the big stern head-teacher of a police station, daring him. “Come on, then!” I taunted under my breath. “Come on, then!” Come any closer, I’ll tell my Dad, I’ll tell the teacher. I’ll set my brother on you.

Hah. Some joke. But the building acted as a huge repelling magnet, pushing Peel away. Two or three times he started towards me and then backed off again. The third time, I scampered up to the entrance, half in, half out, but he didn’t back off properly until I had a foot inside the door.

“Can I help you?”

So then I had to go in properly and say something. “Er, I just wondered… is Inspector Higson here?”

“I’ll check.” She looked at my tightly folded arms. “Your name is..?”

“Williams,” I said. I didn’t want to be there. I’d already had too many interviews in small over-bright rooms. DI Higson hadn’t been bad, as policemen went, but I didn’t want any more. Bootle Street had the same repellent effect on me as on Peel. Arrest you as soon as look at you, said my mother, who should know. It had been hard enough for me to step through those forbidding doors the first time round.

So I was relieved when the woman eventually reported back that Inspector Higson was out, and assuring her that it didn’t matter, it wasn’t urgent, no message, I edged my way carefully out of the door again.

I suppose I should have asked for someone else, for anyone. I should have told them about Peel. But what was the point? What would they do? I could look after myself.

Anyway, Peel had gone. I scooted down the end of Bootle Street to Deansgate and through the sooty canyons of back streets until I lurched in a clatter of bins into the furnace of Tzabo’s kitchen.

“You’re late,” snapped Klaus. Then he shouted at me for bleeding all over the langoustines as I rinsed my hand in the big sink. The cuts weren’t that bad; I’d had worse filleting a fish in too great a hurry. Cuts, like burns, were just marks of the trade.

But I’d never had one make me feel so sick and shivery before. All the strength seemed to have been squeezed out of me, so that I had to sit down on the kitchen floor against the fridge, to Klaus’s disgust.

“What the hell, Lannie?” He threw the big tub of plasters at my feet. “Get up and get your whites on.”

I stood up and stumbled around, pretending to work. Everyone swore at me. I didn’t mind. At least I was safe in the busy clatter of Tzabo’s kitchen, fierce and fast and well-armoured as a steam engine.

That was what I still thought back then.

And I still thought I was safe at home. I thought they didn’t know where I lived. After the paint got thrown at the door of my precious studio flat, I’d moved out, swapping it for a mouldy bedsit in a Longsight terrace. Why did I not think they’d find me there? That stupid, shiny halo again. I expect somebody just followed me home.

They came hammering on the front door at two in the morning, yelling my name. There was a crash of breaking glass. But I lived upstairs, so the breaking glass wasn’t mine. It belonged to the tenant below me, a big guy with dreadlocks and a skunk habit and, crucially, a shotgun.

“It don’t work,” he told me once he’d seen them off. I suspected he was lying. “It’s just to encourage good manners, you know? Now who’s going to clear all that mess up?” He nodded meaningfully at the fan of broken glass across his floor.

“I’ll do it now,” I said, good manners seeming a wise option. I swept up the glass, returned to my room, then packed a bag and sat on my bed the rest of the night. At six o’clock I got out, and never went back. I went to Charlotte’s flat instead, in the leafy sheltered cradle of Didsbury, and begged a piece of floor to sleep on.

Not that I slept much. By then, I’d lost the knack. I would wake hourly, my heart knocking and bouncing wildly around my chest, as I strained to make sense of any furtive creak in the dark.

My first night in the tent was no better. Every bark and snuffle, every murmur of the wind and rustle of the canvas, had me staring wild-eyed into blackness. When at last I slept, I dreamt that hordes of rats were crammed in Arthur’s barns, just waiting their moment to stream out and get me.

I woke up with the sharp stink of rat under my nose until I realised it was Arthur’s blankets. He had hallooed at my tent the previous night while I was donning all my spare clothes ready for bed, after a long evening spent loading dishes under Rhoda’s suspicious eye.

“It’s cold. You’ll want these.” Arthur had thrust two hairy blankets into my torchlight. They smelt of animal: not dog, but something ranker. But he was right, and despite the smell, I was grateful.

I didn’t meet him properly till next morning, when I peered out of the tent to see a herd of disconsolate cows trooping through his yard towards the shippen.

Arthur gave me a wave. He had holes in his woolly hat and parcel twine belting his buttonless raincoat. Arthur tied all his gates on with string and kept a fleet of redundant tractors in his farmyard. One of the old school of farmers, according to Brendan.

The new school, as personified by the near-identical Killick brothers, wore green boiler suits and drove pick-up trucks or racing tractors, which roared into the Woolpack’s car-park at one o’clock sharp. They didn’t drink: they bought pints of orange squash, which they downed on the spot, and pasties to take away. Brendan instructed me to charge them forty pence for the orange and cost price for the pasties.

“They don’t earn owt,” he said, though the smart new tractors indicated otherwise. He and the Killicks were terse through familiarity. I soon learnt to distinguish between Brendan’s mates and the casual customers. Abrupt with his friends, he gushed uncomfortably over strangers, who were usually elderly ramblers. There weren’t many of them, as this was only just the Peak District; and they frequently entered the Woolpack with an air of aggrieved surprise as if not sure why they were there. Most of them carried the same book of walks and complained about the amount of mud on the right of way across Arthur’s farm. They ate a lot of sticky toffee pudding.

To me, none of them seemed real. I felt dislocated. They were just characters parading in a travelogue, while reality bided its time in shadow. Phantoms grinned at me across the bar. I was living in the land of the dead – a spiteful, vengeful dead with pockets full of blades and bullets, who turned into squeaking rats by night. I expect the customers thought I was a bit thick, the number of times I had to ask them to repeat their orders. Rhoda certainly did.

I made the effort. I tried to ease myself into the cooking, but Rhoda wasn’t giving way. I ended up serving instead: lamb shank to the ramblers, salmon to the yuppie couples from Fylington, who compared the Woolpack audibly and unfavourably with the many pubs there: and steak and ale pie to the farmers, who had their own table and brought their dogs, a pack of twitchy, restless border collies who all seemed to know and not much like each other.

The fourth category of pub users, which included Frank, was Brendan’s mates. They did not eat. They drank. Some of them had such beetling brows and wayward noses that I looked at them askance until I realised from their conversation that they weren’t bouncers but rugby players. I learnt that Brendan still played, at Fylington Rugby Club, and looked at him with disbelieving eyes.

“I just can’t imagine him running,” I told Rhoda.

“The bloody idiot,” said Rhoda. “His back’ll give way properly one of these days.”

“You don’t like him playing?”

“He does as he chooses,” said Rhoda sourly.

It seemed to me that Brendan did as Rhoda chose. She constantly laid down the law about the state of the bar, the positions of tables and the cleanliness of the carpet. Brendan and Stu, the part-time barman, got it in the neck daily.

Yet no matter how pernickety her demands (no bent beermats! Drip-trays washed and dried!) Brendan side-stepped argument and meekly did as she desired. A boy on a bike turned up every day after school to hoover for an hour, and when he’d gone Rhoda went round again with the hoover like a demented housemaid until Brendan seized it from her and did it instead.

Upstairs, the place was spotless despite the presence of the children, Alice and Katy, whom I frequently heard squawking and whining but thankfully seldom saw. When I crept into the bathroom to use the shower, I felt obliged to wipe everything down afterwards and pick my hairs out of the plughole.

There were an awful lot of them. Stress. Though maybe some of them were Rhoda’s; for in the misted mirror my hair looked as thick as ever, sticking out in an obstinate black wodge even when wet. Untidy eyebrows. And the nose, which didn’t look so bad from the front. It was more obviously broken from the side: dished.

I thought my face would have grown old and gaunt from fear. You’re dead, Herron! We know where you live! The shouts outside the courtroom rang in my ears. There was a girl in our old street with rusty scars from brow to chin. Fifty-seven stitches they said, her face turned to patchwork for dissing her dealer. Her eyes were lifeless, looking at nothing and nobody.

But my face bore no scars; nothing to show for all those sleepless nights. It still wore its familiar look of startled belligerence, younger than its twenty-seven years. My face refused to look dead.

I had lost weight, though. Not surprising, as I’d been unable to eat at Charlotte’s and since arriving at the Woolpack was living entirely on leftovers: stale rolls for breakfast, limp garnish and cold chips for lunch, and anything going at tea. There was plenty to choose from. The Woolpack portions were big, but not especially tasty. I missed acutely the quality of Tzabo’s leftovers.

I would have to tackle the meals. I wanted to do this job right. It was partly pride, partly the desire to brick up my fears with work. But Rhoda guarded her menus and her freezers with the resolution of an aggrieved bulldog. I would have to slide into the kitchen unnoticed, smoothly, like a newly sharpened knife.

Because Rhoda, I decided, was as mad as a Stockport hatter. She couldn’t cope; that was why Brendan had employed me. I wondered if she was on anything, and tried the bathroom cabinet, but it was locked.

“It’s going great,” I assured Charlotte on the pub phone on Thursday evening, in earshot of the farmers, who weren’t listening, and their dogs, who were. “Not haute cuisine, but there’s plenty to get to grips with.” Mainly the big oven, whose thermostat was all to cock. “Brendan’s very nice and helpful, and the tent’s dry, so far.” Although everything in it was clammily damp. Even with Arthur’s blankets, I shivered helplessly at night.

“That’s good,” said Charlotte. “I’m glad it’s working out so well.” Her voice sounded hollow.

“Charlotte? Everything okay?”

“Yes… Well, no.” She sighed. “Somebody tried to break into the flat yesterday. They made a real mess of the door. I’ve got to get it replaced and new locks.”

The fear wasn’t bricked up at all; it leapt out and choked me. For a moment I was back in my bedsit hearing the almighty percussion on the door and the huge cymbal clash of breaking glass.

“Charlotte? Are you all right? Did they get in?”

“It was the middle of the morning. I wasn’t there. And they didn’t get in: it’s a good strong door, thank heavens. They set the alarm off and must have scarpered.”

“Were any of the other flats…?”

“No. Just me.” She paused, and the unspoken words beat between us until I said them.

“Charlotte? Who knew I was staying with you?”

“Hugh, Daddy and Jane. That’s all. The neighbours might have seen you, but they wouldn’t know who you were.”

“And I didn’t tell anyone.” But my brother Karl might well have guessed, and perhaps my sister Nicole, and possibly even my mother if she’d bothered to think about it. Charlotte had been my best friend since we met on a catering course, years ago. Where else would I seek refuge but with her?

“It was just burglars,” said Charlotte unhappily.

“Is that what the police say?”

“Opportunists most likely, trying their luck.”

“But they don’t know,” I said. “That’s bad.”

“It’s not so bad. It’s just one of those things.”

“Oh, Charlotte, I’m so sorry.”

“Why? It’s only a door. It’s insured. It is a mess, though. And I lost a day’s business while I sorted it out. I’ve got two dozen stale Chelsea buns, and the rest.”

“Freeze them, and I’ll buy them,” I offered. “I’ll turn them into bun and butter pudding.”

Charlotte tried to make herself laugh. “All right. Don’t worry about me, Lannie. You’ve got enough to worry about.”

I rang off, knowing I had betrayed Charlotte. I had brought her bad luck, or something worse. “Flying bloody Dutchman. Jonah,” I muttered as I returned to the kitchen.

Rhoda squinted at me as if I were a cockroach just crawled out from under the fridge. “We’ve finished the strawberry cheesecake. I thought you’d pulled another one out to defrost?”

I was too knotted up inside to be diplomatic. “No. It tastes of soap. People keep leaving half of it. We’ll say it’s off. It is off.”

“Nobody’s complained!”

“They’re too polite,” I said. “We’d better cancel the order. The Black Forest’s dodgy too.”

“The Black Forest is fine!”

“It’s whipped lard and sugar. Coats the tongue like machine oil. I’ll change the supplier.” I didn’t know any local suppliers. But puddings seemed a good place to start establishing my authority. I was an expert on puddings.

Rhoda’s jaw was jutting as I took pity on her craziness and added, “The mains are good value, though. They just need tweaking for the lemongrass set. You know, shaved Parmesan and crossed chives on everything.”

She sniffed. “That lot! When I went to the Coleridge in Fylington I thought a toddler had been messing with my food. Built everything into a tower and dribbled on it. I hope you’re not going to introduce those stupid little towers here,” she said fiercely.

“No, they’re passé.”

“I suppose after your flash Zara or whatever it was called–”

“Tzabo.”

“Well, what sort of food was that, anyway?”

“Mediterranean-Malay fusion. Whatever took the chef’s fancy.” Klaus had been a twisted genius with ingredients. He was busy building himself a reputation.

“Oh, very trendy, I’m sure. Well, I can tell you, that won’t go down well here.” Rhoda had gone very pale. She tightened her mouth and gripped the edge of the table. Then, diving into the lean-to, she pulled a strawberry cheesecake from the freezer and slammed it down on the draining board.

“You’ll have to microwave it. Don’t cook it.” She looked as if she was about to throw up. “Children their bath,” she added shrilly, and clattered out.

I looked at the cheesecake for a moment. I knew what was right and what was wrong, and I wasn’t going to start backing down now, not after all I’d been through.

I was damned if I would let my customers eat soap. So I picked up the cheesecake and dropped it in the bin.

 

Chapter Four

White Van

 

That night, a fox tried to get into the tent. I was woken by a demented chorus of barking from the yard and heard something snuffling at the zip. When I fumbled for the torch I saw a sharp snout poking under the canvas. It pulled away from the light, but not in a hurry.

I lay awake till dawn, worrying about things worse than foxes coming to get me. I wanted walls. I didn’t like lying exposed in the cold palm of the night with the bent hills sneering down at me. All the good memories of Dave’s tent had dissolved into mud.

I huddled under my hairy blankets until I heard Arthur shouting at his dogs and the whunk of his Landrover door. Soon the hum of the milking shed would declare morning.

I thought of Charlotte. Was she all right? I needed a mobile. I’d left mine in my bedsit in my hurry to get out. When Hugh went back to collect the rest of my stuff, the place had been turned over; maybe by druggies, maybe not. Hugh’s handsome face had been solemn.

“It’s quite a mess, Lannie,” he said gently. “They’ve smashed things up a bit. You don’t want to go back there.” He’d fetched out everything he could, which wasn’t much. The clothes I’d left behind weren’t really wearable, Hugh said with a grimace, so I assumed they’d been slashed or burnt or pissed on, or all three.

“You’re much better away from it all,” Hugh said. “Make a clean start.”

I knew he was remembering the mess Charlotte and I had rescued him from a few years back, when he was a bright-eyed bushy-tailed young financier. He’d fallen in with a bunch of hotshot brokers who fancied themselves the equal of anyone in the City, and had the cocaine-and-champagne habits to prove it. Always genial and anxious to please, Hugh had found it easy to get into the same habits, but much harder to get out.

But he had got out, with our help. And, apart from having to change jobs, he’d felt no repercussions. No slashed clothes or smashed-up flat. But then he hadn’t done what I had done.

I had no mobile, no money. When would Brendan pay me? What would Brendan pay me? Would Brendan pay me? He hadn’t yet. I needed clothes, something warm, for Christ’s sake.

I struggled up, stiff and sore, and blagged a lift on Rhoda’s school run into Fylington. Rhoda, lemon-mouthed, wasn’t speaking to me. The girls gibbered about someone called Jade who picked her nose and couldn’t spell “was” and had no-one who wanted to sit next to her. I felt for Jade. When Rhoda dropped me off, the girls blew raspberries at me, and Rhoda said nothing.

I felt conspicuous and alien in the tight stone streets. I was used to being made invisible by numbers. Here, my lonely footsteps were too loud and all the windows stared at me.

I bought a local paper, hunting for a bedsit – a room – anything. But bedsits didn’t exist in Fylington. There were a few studio flats in Macclesfield, too far away without a car, and too expensive.

When the library opened I went to search online. Still nothing. I sloped out again to buy biscuits and bananas as a change from leftovers. Spotting an Oxfam shop, I bought a man’s fleece, a crackly, stiff black waterproof and a huge umbrella advertising lager. I really needed wellies, my suede boots being already ruined, but could find nowhere that sold them. Not even green ones. Nor an airbed, which I needed even more.

I put all my purchases on, or up, and waited for the bus back to Brocklow. Brendan had assured me it came hourly. After standing twenty minutes in the drizzle I was about to start walking when a grimy white Transit came thundering up the road towards me.

As it squealed to a halt at the bus stop I was already panicking. It was the screeching tyres that did it; they’d been such a familiar sound back home, usually followed by a crunch or a police siren. I was so twitchy and short of sleep that I had the giant umbrella all ready to spear someone, when the Transit’s rainy window jerked down in starts and Frank’s rumpled face and untidy hair poked out.

Of course, I realised stupidly, if they came for me, it wouldn’t be here. This wasn’t the Manchester tram stop. There was no chance of bumping into them in the cosy streets of Fylington.

I rearranged my face into a smile, because Frank was saying something. His shirt-sleeves were rolled up to show an intricate tattoo. A can of Vimto teetered on the dashboard on top of a tabloid paper.

“Need a lift? I’m going past the Woolpack.”

“That would be great.” I climbed into the cab and peered into the back, looking for his job. I guessed plumber, but a stained-glass door lay on a sheet of bubble-wrap.

“Nice door,” I said.

“Edwardian. Taking it down to Leek.” Frank clashed gears and the van juddered away. His blunt features were intense in concentration as he tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the van in chauffeur mode over the winding bumpy lane.

“You sell doors?”

“I sell anything. Got a reclamation yard over by the canal, behind the railway line.” He pointed vaguely left, while the van veered and choked.

“Is business good?”

“So-so. Everybody’s short of money. I could do with another TV series on doing up old houses vintage-style. That always brings ’em in.”

“Fashion,” I said. “It’s the same in cheffery.” The cab was clean. On the floor was a tiny clutter of one plastic cup, one pen, one receipt.

Frank said, “Has Brendan asked you about the club?”

“What club?”

“The rugby club.” Frank gestured at the chopstick posts swinging past the window. “He hasn’t asked you then.”

“Asked me what?”

“Don’t worry, I expect he will.”

“What will he ask me?”

“About doing the teas on a Saturday. Rhoda and Mrs Bob used to do them, but Mrs Bob’s had enough and Rhoda – well, she’d still do it if she could. Got enough on her plate, though.”

“What does it involve?”

“Pie and peas, mostly.”

“But what about the Woolpack?” I asked.

“No food till eight on Saturdays. Long-standing arrangement,” said Frank. “Till Brendan stops playing. A year or two yet. He’s a prop, he only has to lumber round a bit. Loosehead.”

“Loosehead,” I repeated with pleasure, imagining Brendan’s blond curly head lolling from side to side on his trundling barrel of a body. “Do you play?”

Frank shook his head. “Not any more. Can’t afford the time off.”

“Just pie and peas?”

“Chilli now and then.”

“A boyfriend took me to see Wigan once.” I remembered the stunningly raucous passion of the crowd, but nothing at all about the game.

“League,” said Frank without reproach.

“Hugh plays,” I said, light dawning. “That’s how he knows Brendan.”

“That’s right. Winger. He doubles as full-back, but he’s better on the wing. Known as Road-Runner: he’s bloody fast.”

A thought struck me. “The rugby club doesn’t have accommodation, does it?”

“You still camping? There’s a flat over the clubhouse annexe, but KK’s living there. Bit of nepotism. Niall and Martin built it. His brothers,” Frank explained. “Martin’s the builder. Niall’s the roofer.” He talked in bursts, with pauses for checking the road in between, never looking at me.

I didn’t care who’d built the flat, if it wasn’t available. My bruised hips were aching.

“You could use the portakabin in my yard,” said Frank, making my hopes rise, “only Jake’s in it.” They sank again. “Stand-off from South Africa.”

“Is that rugby again?”

“Fly-half. Niall brought him over. We had to give him a job and a place to live, though I don’t think he was expecting a portakabin. Niall made promises. You’ll meet Niall. He’s the chairman. He’ll want to talk to you about the teas. And everything else.”

“What’s in it for me?” I asked.

Frank thought about this. “Fun,” he said doubtfully.

“I’ll see. What’s up with Rhoda?”

Frank thought for even longer about this one. “Couldn’t tell you,” he decided finally. More discretion than I’d have expected from White Van Man.

“She’s not keen on me doing anything new,” I said.

“Early days,” said Frank. “What were you thinking of doing?”

“Better puddings. More seasonal stuff. Less salmon.”

“Duck with crisped roots, broad beans and orange confiture,” recited Frank. “Had that at the King’s Head when the girlfriend dragged me down there.” I thought he was a bit old for a girlfriend. Thirty-fiveish? He should have a missus.

“What was it like?”

“All right. A bit marmaladey.”

“Which King’s Head?”

“Fylington. And you want to try the Pheasant, the Blue Bull, and the Coleridge.”

“I don’t know any of them.”

“I’ll take you,” said Frank confidently, veering around a parked truck. I was thrown against him, and taken aback.

“Just seeing the menus would do. Do you like strawberry cheesecake?”

“Not in the Woolpack,” said Frank.

“Good. What should I make instead? Apart from sticky toffee pudding. What would go down well with the punters round here?”

“Anything chocolate. Can’t go wrong with chocolate.”

“Do they do puddings at the rugby club?”

Frank gave me a look. “Mars Bars,” he said.

*

Since the Woolpack kitchen was warm, I stayed there all afternoon making replacement gateaux for the freezer. Although Rhoda didn’t mention the binned cheesecake, her spikiness told me it was not forgiven. Brendan, perplexed, kept trying to urge her to go and have a rest. Rhoda did not take this well. She eventually huffed off to shop in Macclesfield and I was left in the peaceful, familiar company of flour and eggs and cocoa. For the first time since leaving Manchester, the snake of anxiety coiled tightly in my stomach began to unwind.

Brendan stuck his head around the door. “Pop out here for a minute, would you, Lannie?”

I wiped myself down, assuming he needed a hand at the bar.

“There’s someone here wants to talk to you,” said Brendan.

Someone stood up. He was well over six foot in a flashy leather jacket and a baseball cap and stared at me with pale blue eyes whose cold gaze hit me like a jackhammer. The snake in my stomach wound itself up again into a rigid ball. This was it, then. The hitman, not out in the street, but here. I was paralysed.

“That’s her,” said Brendan, nodding at me affably.

“Lannie Herron,” said Someone, his voice as soft as flour.

Even if I could have run, there was no point. There might be more of them outside. At least I was on the opposite side of the bar to him and close to the kitchen with its array of knives and rolling pins and large, heavy pans: and I had Brendan beside me, though much use he would be, all unwary as he was.

“I’ve got something for you,” Someone purred. As he reached inside his jacket, I grabbed the nearest bottle of Scotch and had it ready to smash against the beer tap.

“Whoa, Lannie,” said Brendan, startled, “careful with that! That’s the best Macallan!”

The big guy didn’t even seem to notice. From inside his jacket, he was pulling a cylinder of paper which he unrolled carefully on the bar. “Now then,” he said. “These are the menus for the Saturday teas. Good plain cooking, nothing fancy. It’s a four-week rota.”

“Menus?” I stared at the paper blankly.

“Meat pie and peas,” he read with a soft Irish lilt. “Sausage, mash and beans, meat and potato pie and peas, and chilli. Think you can cope with that?”

“This is Niall,” put in Brendan helplessly. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about the teas at the rugby club.”

“But we’re open to innovation,” Niall said. “Any suggestions?” He pulled off the baseball cap to reveal a sun-bleached thatch of red-gold hair that matched his big red hands. He was too bloody old for that stupid bloody baseball cap, I thought confusedly, putting down the bottle and letting out a long breath. I felt weak from the adrenalin rush.

The trouble was, it could have been him. It could be anybody. They would just walk in and Brendan would have no idea. There would be nothing he could do.

Every loud voice, every sudden movement, had me hyperventilating. I would have to get a grip of myself or people here would think I was an idiot.

Niall was gazing at me with his eyebrows cocked as if he already did. Feeling like a fool, I nodded wisely at the menu and tried to get my head round rugby teas. “How about lamb hotpot?”

“Lamb? We have a budget.”

“Spag bol, then? Lasagne?”

Niall frowned. “Not sure how that’d go down at all. They like their spuds.” The Irish burr didn’t sound quite genuine.

“Shepherd’s pie?”

“Is that lamb again? What’s wrong with beef?”

“You need a vegetarian option?”

“Never been asked for it yet,” said Niall complacently.

“Cumberland sausage, mustard mash, and braised cabbage?”

“Hold the mustard,” said Niall. “And no cabbage. Otherwise, spot on. It can replace the chilli. You’ll do it, then.” It wasn’t a question. “You can start on Saturday.”

“How many do you cater for?”

“Seventy or eighty, when there are two teams at home. We’re hoping to get a regular fourth team out next season, if I can only get the other members to pull their weight and bring a few more people down.”

I was a bit staggered. “Eighty? On my own?”

“The wives help on a rota. Our kitchen,” said Niall proudly, “is the finest in the league. Thanks to lottery money and several words in ears.” He tapped his own ear significantly. “I’ve pulled a good few strings for that club, building it up, sorting it out. Not that it’s appreciated, mind.”

“Now then, Niall,” said Brendan placatingly, “it’s all appreciated. The place wouldn’t run properly without you.”

“That’s God’s truth, and I’m glad you understand it, Brendan, though there’s plenty who don’t! All they care about is their beer. Honest to God, I sometimes feel like I’m all on my own trying to keep the place afloat.” Niall fixed me with his pale blue stare. “Well? What do you say?”

“Will I get paid?”

Niall frowned. “It’s a social club. I don’t pay myself for all the hours I put in and God knows they’re enough.”

“We’ll pay you the same as here, don’t worry,” Brendan reassured me. “Bloody hell, I haven’t paid you yet, have I?” I watched him pull a bundle of tenners out of the till and count through them. It was waitress wages. Still, it was money. “Will you do it, then?”

He sounded anxious. I knew why. This was for Rhoda, who couldn’t cope any more.

“I’ll be in charge of the kitchen?” I said.

“All yours,” said Niall, throwing up his hands expansively. “I don’t intrude in there, that’s women’s territory. You’ll have the run of it.”

Being dead, I should not be able to feel desire. But I felt its silky handcuffs clasp around my wrists and ankles. Boss of my own empire for half a day a week. I wouldn’t have Rhoda on my back; I would see Hugh on a regular basis.

And the rugby club would be a place of safety, where I could escape my grinning phantoms and cook in peace. Dead or not, I wanted that kitchen and those eighty covers. Even if they were all pies.

 

Chapter Five

Nan’s House

 

I was growing to hate the tent. I loathed that skimpy flapping cloth between me and the pitch-black night. It seemed to amplify every fox’s bark, sheep’s stumble and rat’s rustle, to say nothing of the raucous shouts that jerked me frantically out of sleep, only to hear the Killick brothers hallooing their way home after a lock-in. My bed felt colder and harder than ever; and everything I owned now smelt of cowpat.

I knocked on Arthur’s door to ask about renting a room, but his tiny, dignified wife Doreen clearly did not want a lodger, especially me. Maybe she distrusted Arthur even though he must be well over sixty.

Perhaps that was also why Rhoda was so hostile. When I suggested camping in the cellar, she dismissed the idea so vehemently that I got the impression it wasn’t the barrels she was worried about, it was Brendan. God knows why. He looked too much like a barrel himself for me to imagine him straying.

I decided Rhoda was paranoid. Despite her resentment of me, she would scarcely let me out of her sight. Whether I was grilling (seldom) or just chopping and stirring (usually), she would sigh impatiently at my shoulder like an examiner who couldn’t wait to fail me. It got worse with every meal.

So, neither listening nor talking to Rhoda more than absolutely necessary, I chopped and stirred in grim silence. The part-time girl, Fay, was as dumb and scared as a rabbit. I rang Charlotte from the bar and felt her voice grow fainter, the connection thinning as it stretched, like Blutack.

I was an urban ghost in exile, wisping around inside the Woolpack’s thick stone walls which were clammy to the touch. The lounge was morgue-cold when no fire burned in the hearth. And it was always gloomy. A dribble of enfeebled daylight seeped past the china drayhorses champing on the windowsills, beneath a grove of pallid spider plants. At least the kitchen was bright, despite the draughts and a leak where the lean-to had been tacked on.

Unfortunately, the pub was the only place I could get a wash, a toilet, anything warm to eat or anywhere comfortable to sit; so I was there pretty well all day, trying not to tread mud all over Rhoda’s precious carpet, and doing my best to be invisible.

Despite my ghostiness, I didn’t succeed. The longer I tiptoed around, the nervier and snappier Rhoda got. I was wondering if I should just bugger off to Scotland, when Frank clumped into the bar one empty afternoon and thudded a large white garden urn down on a table.

“Got a place for you to live, Lannie,” he announced.

I looked at the urn. “Bit small, isn’t it?”

“That’s for Rhoda. Present for you, Rhoda. For your azalea.”

Rhoda gazed at it expressionlessly. Then, to my horror, I saw her eyes fill up with tears.

“If I ever see it,” she said. “Thank you, Frank. But you shouldn’t.”

“Don’t be daft, Rhoda. You said you wanted one.” He put a brotherly arm around her shoulder. Rhoda shook it off, and blew her nose.

“Get it off that table before it marks,” she ordered, and disappeared rapidly upstairs. I tried to lift the urn: it was immovable. Frank hoicked it up again and took it out the back.

“Brendan around?” he asked on his return.

“He’s in the cellar. Frank, what’s up with Rhoda?”

He looked vague. “This and that. So do you want to see this place?”

“Where is it? Is it a flat or what?”

“House,” said Frank. He called down the cellar steps. “Brendan? Think you’re needed.”

I was shocked. “A whole house? I can’t afford that! Whose is it?”

“Mine,” said Frank. “Previously my Nan’s. She left it to me, four years ago. It’s over at Brocklow, walkable. Little terrace, two-bed.”

“You’re moving into Sue’s flat at last, then, are you?” asked Brendan, emerging from the cellar. “About time too. She making an honest man of you?”

“She’s doing her best,” said Frank.

“By heck, she’s got her work cut out,” said Brendan.

I said, “Frank, I can’t afford to rent a house.”

“It’s not much.” He named a figure that was way too low.

“You could let it out for three times that!”

“He couldn’t,” said Brendan. “You haven’t seen it.”

“Take you now,” said Frank. “Um, Rhoda’s a bit. You know? She’s gone upstairs.”

“Oh! Right. Thanks.” Brendan, looking alarmed, bustled upstairs after her.

I followed Frank out to his van. This time, the back held a neat stack of old bricks in a canvas sling. The van smelt of earth and concrete.

“The house won’t be what you’re used to,” warned Frank.

“I’m used to not much,” I said, and braced myself for the inevitable questions about my past; but Frank asked none. He drove carefully and wordlessly, gliding to a slow crawl at each bend, until he had to brake for an old man on a bike at the Brocklow crossroads and all the bricks slithered gratingly out of the sling across the floor. Frank sighed resignedly, accepting his lot.

Nan’s house was a two-up, two-down terrace in the middle of a short row facing directly onto the pavement in Brocklow’s second street. It only had the two. Behind the row of houses, the hillside lurched straight up at the sulky clouds, brackened and criss-crossed with broken drystone walls.

“Weaver’s cottage?”

Frank shook his head. “Not big enough. Mine-workers, more like. Or quarry-men.”

“Still worth a bit.”

“It will be, when I do it up. Not had much time yet.”

In four years? I wanted to ask. But when Frank opened the door it was obvious that it hadn’t been done up for forty years, never mind four.

He was right: it wasn’t what I was used to, but it wasn’t so far off either. The familiar smell of damp neglect nearly made me heave. It swept me right back to my childhood, to the times my mother locked us in the small back bedroom with the stinking mattress and the monstrous rotting wardrobe while she went out on the razzle. Just me and Karl: Mikey was caged in his cot, while Nicole, at thirteen, was out on a razzle of her own.

I’d forgotten it till now, how the grey stench of mould and mildew clawed at our throats. The wardrobe terrified Karl. She’d shut him in it once too often. He screamed and wet himself, and it took me hours of songs and games each time to calm him down.

I had to pause on the doorstep to compose myself. Frank was looking at me expectantly, so I made myself walk in.

Inside, it was better. Everything was different, apart from the smell. The hall was brown. The bathroom was a chilly extension out the back. The kitchen had red, original lino, a White Rose gas cooker circa 1965, and a wooden draining board by a stained enamel sink. Leaning against the rusty fridge were half a motorbike and a terracotta chimney-pot. I wanted to ask about the motorbike, but didn’t. After all, Frank hadn’t asked.

I peered through the kitchen window. No garden: just a small flag-stoned yard, and behind it, the hunched back of the hillside turned on me.

“What’s the hill called?”

“Brocklow, same as the village. There’s no central heating. Back boiler for hot water, gas fire in the front room.”

We went into the front room. I’d seen a display a bit like it in the Museum of Science and Industry: a working-class parlour of the sixties. Note the brown and orange nylon slipcovers on the chairs.

And the brass. Nan had liked brass. There was more brass around her green tiled fireplace than in the whole Woolpack: tarnished candlesticks, fire-irons, spoons and a trumpet, and two dimpling rows of horse-brasses reflecting the unlikely golden trees in the lakeside scene over the fireplace.

Nan’s hearth was guarded by a pair of smug china dogs with coats like porridge. Nan had traditional bad taste. And though I didn’t believe in ghosts, I could just see Nan in there, feet in sensible shoes planted well apart on the blocky crimson carpet, fixing me with a stern eye through her thick glasses.

“Was she a bit of a formidable lady, your Nan?” I asked.

“Could be. Eighty-six when she racked her clogs.”

I didn’t ask if he felt her watchful presence. It didn’t seem surprising that I could: after all, I was dead too. Nan wore loose fawn slacks and a turquoise cardigan. She had rigid, tubular curls and twitched her head to one side sharply, like a bird.

“You’d better see upstairs,” said Frank.

The main bedroom was small and cold, but it held a newish bed, unlinened, and so extraordinarily inviting to my weary eyes and sore hips that I could have flopped straight down on it there and then if I hadn’t cared about Frank taking it the wrong way. Instead I distracted myself by inspecting the sole picture on the wall: a photo of a mountain of mud with staring eyes.

“Who’s Swamp Thing?”

“That’s Fran Cotton.” Frank wiped the dust from the frame with a stubby, reverent finger. “Sue’s not keen on him. Won’t have him in the flat. I can move him if you like.”

“No, that’s all right,” I said, since Swamp Thing’s wild eyes were staring not at me, but at something over my shoulder. Nan, maybe. Except that Nan wasn’t up here.

Neither was she in the smaller bedroom, which held no bed but was instead crammed full of window-frames, fireplaces, tiles, cardboard boxes, motorcycle helmets, a television, a cricket bat, piles of greyed sports kit and a large pair of wellies which I ear-marked for my own use. Without comment we went back down to the kitchen, where Frank said, “The TV doesn’t work. I’ll take the motorbike up there too, out the way.”

“It doesn’t matter. Don’t move it! It’ll be heavy.” But he was insistent. While I listened to him clumping the wheel-less motorbike upstairs, I fingered the knobs on the old oven. It was similar to the one in my mother’s flat, on which I learned to cook.

We’d got a name for ourselves by then. We were on police records, social service files, court lists. Much of that was due to my father, an intermittent and violent visitor who disappeared for good when I was nine, to my relief: but by then, the baton had been taken up by my big sister Nicole (shoplifting, causing an affray) and my little brother Karl (criminal damage, biting, nicking crayons) but was chiefly carried on by my mother. Drunk and disorderly, most of the time. Polish vodka, Chilean wine, Spanish brandy, whatever. She wasn’t choosy, my mother, in any respect.

So I taught myself to cook. Specifically, I baked. The oven became the heart of my home. Cakes, buns and biscuits, with careful timing, to coincide with the social worker’s appointments. She’d arrive to find me and my mother in the kitchen, sprayed with flour and greased with Stork, toddler Mikey at our feet with a packet of chocolate buttons to keep him quiet.

The social worker looked, she sniffed, she approved. How could she not approve, with that burnt-gold scent in the air, the evidence before her, the careful cherry on each bun? How could a home that smelt of baking be slovenly or neglectful?

“Mother coping,” I imagined her writing back in the office. “Family not 100% clean but well-fed and cheerful.” My mother was especially cheerful since I had found for her the vodka I had hidden behind the fridge and would have to hide again that evening, if any remained in the bottle; but for now, her flushed cheeks and rumpled hair could be attributed to the excitement of the oven, her smiles to the comfort of her happy home. I shoved the mixing bowl beneath her unresisting hands, and offered the social worker a bun.

When Frank came back downstairs, I asked him what his Nan had liked to cook.

He frowned reflectively. “Sandwiches mostly, the last few years. Eggs. Not a cook, my Nan.”

It didn’t matter. I would cook, and Nan would watch. It would be nice to have the company.

In the shadow of the stove, reality shook its shaven head and growled at me. What was I doing in this fossilised house with this strange man, it demanded, why was I loitering in the inadequate folds between small, grumpy hills, while men in blacked-out cars prowled in my pursuit? Why wasn’t I on a train two hundred miles away?

I didn’t know the answer. I should be in Scotland, Cumbria, Cornwall; anywhere but here. Frank was watching me intently. A shiver trickled down my back.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

 

Chapter Six

Clubhouse

 

“The thing is,” said Hugh, “Charlotte had a letter.” He leaned forward confidentially over the rugby club’s Formica table, his long, amiable face unusually serious. His slender fingers clasped each other as if in prayer. I liked talking to Hugh, but I didn’t want to hear this.

“What sort of letter?” I said, although I could already guess.

That sort of letter.” He pulled a face. “You know. Threatening. Not nice. Addressed to the bakery.”

“Oh. They can write, then?”

“On a computer,” said Hugh. He sat back and shrugged his eyebrows. Charlotte’s horsy face, on him, was lugubrious and charming. “It looked very official, apart from the language. Not pleasant. They’re not nice, these people, are they? I never realised, back then when I… well, you know. I’m glad I got out of that. It’s a nasty business.”

“What did it say?”

“No, I’d rather not, Lannie. All a bit obscene, really.”

He didn’t need to tell me. I knew exactly what it said. I could hear the words: they were the ones that had been shouted at me, and which were so indelibly recorded in my head that they kept playing themselves back no matter how I tried to erase them. Oddly, I’d managed to erase the trial itself entirely. I couldn’t recall a word of it apart from the verdict and the sentence.

“I mean, Charlie laughed it off,” said Hugh, “but I made her go to the police.”

“Did they laugh it off?”

“No, they didn’t. They kept the letter, and sent a constable round to the shop once or twice.”

I bit my nail. The attempted break-in might conceivably have been coincidence, but this wasn’t. This was my fault. Poor Charlotte, reading those revolting insults that were meant for me, trying to laugh off the curses that should be aimed at my head, not hers. “Is she worried?”

Hugh looked doubtful. “She doesn’t seem so. She says they’ll clear off once it’s obvious you’re not around any more. They’ll have better things to do, surely. It’ll all be old hat soon, won’t it?” He didn’t understand. Settling grudges mattered. It was a question of saving face. They wouldn’t give up so easily.

The courtroom was still clear in my mind, small, beige and claustrophobic. Karl looked very blank and pale. He was the only one I could focus on: the others were just so much fuzz and blur. When the verdict came in, I saw a strange expression, one I didn’t recognise, pass across his face.

Afterwards, in the lobby, Peel walked swiftly past me. We’ll get you, Herron, the voice as thin and cold as a knife. And as I stepped outside, another voice, not so quiet, called from behind a car. Then the whole jungle of shouts and curses started up as all the faces around me pulled back into sharp, unforgiving focus, snarling with hatred and contempt.

I knew then what I’d witnessed on Karl’s face. In the past I’d seen him angry, resentful, bored, frustrated – but I’d never seen him scared, not for years, not since the age of five when he screamed and sobbed against me in that mouldy, suffocating bedroom. Back then, his sobs ripped me apart. Yet it was sweet to be the one he clung to, the one who could comfort him.

All those years later, in the courtroom, I saw Karl terrified again. There was no clinging or comfort for him that time. I didn’t even recognise his fear: not until I was made to feel it for myself.

And now it was not just for myself.

“Hugh? Has anybody contacted you?”

“Lord, no. Even if it is – you know – what would they want with me? Don’t worry about me. But Charlotte insisted that I tell you. She said, be careful, Lannie.” He smiled wryly. He had a lovely smile. “I’m not sure what more you can do in practical terms, though. You’re living in Frank’s old house, right?”

“Moved in last week.” It had taken five minutes.

“Well, that’s more secure than the tent, anyway. Just keep a big stick handy by the door!” He added hastily, “No, no, only joking. Sorry, Lannie. I mean, it’s not nice right now, but it’ll all blow over, won’t it? It’ll be yesterday’s news. That lot won’t have long memories. They’ll have other things to get irate about about. There’ll be no problem.”

“Of course not.” Sweet Hugh, he had no idea.

“You mustn’t worry, nobody knows where you are.”

“Nobody?”

“Apart from me and Charlotte.”

“You haven’t told anybody here about – about Karl’s friends being after me?”

“Of course not! You asked me not to, so my lips are sealed. It’ll all blow over, Lannie.” He stood up, stretching tall in his rugby kit, making me yearn ever so slightly. “Well, I’d better get out there and do my bit. Good luck with the pies.”

“Thanks.” Lovely Hugh, so gallant, so naïve. He was clever enough – now steadily climbing the ladder in insurance, Charlotte told me proudly – but streetwise, not. It was naivety that got him into trouble years ago. I was glad he was well clear of it. Hugh was too good-natured to understand the mentality of those who wanted my blood. Too gentle, surely, to be a rugby player.

At least Karl’s friends should stand out a mile if they ever managed to follow him here. Which they wouldn’t: I was worrying needlessly. Hugh was safe. And he was wearing shorts, which was rather nice. It occurred to me that the number of young men wandering loudly around the clubhouse in shorts was an unforeseen perk of this job.

Becki, the barmaid, evidently thought so. It was almost the first thing she said to me as she swaggered into the kitchen where I was investigating industrial-size tins of marrowfat peas. The kitchen was good. Stainless steel, proper catering standard, spacious and spotlessly clean, which was probably Rhoda’s doing.

Becki leaned casually on the gleaming worktop. “Hi! I’m Becki. Becki with an i,” she announced. There was a bellicose edge to her chumminess. “What happened to your nose?”

“An accident.”

“Shit, bad luck… Never mind, you’ll fit in well, plenty of noses like that here! Are you a girlfriend of one of them?” She’d already eyed my fingers for a ring. I felt her weighing me up.

“No. I’m the new cook.”

“Oh, that’s it! You got a boyfriend, then?”

“Not at present,” I said, amused. The last boyfriend had been Shane at the White Duck; we’d dumped each other when I moved to Tzabo. Chefs shouldn’t go out with chefs, I reckon.

“Well, I tell you, if you’re looking for a bit of action it’s a good move getting a job here.” Becki had evidently decided that the nose meant I wasn’t competition. Her manner grew friendlier.

“Oh?”

“Totally full of well fit guys, and most of their girlfriends can’t even bother turning up! Can you believe it? They don’t know what they’re missing! You should see some of them in their kit! Or out of it.” She winked at me inexpertly. “Plenty to go around. Fix you up no trouble.”

“Thanks,” I said, eyeing the passing players doubtfully. Even if I wasn’t dead, I had no intention of being fixed up with any of this lot. They weren’t all as athletic as Hugh. Brendan wasn’t the oldest, or even the stoutest, by any means. The fittest guys were mostly too young, while the older ones generally bore noses even more wrecked than mine, along with generous waists – which didn’t necessarily matter – and wedding rings, which did.

Maybe Becki didn’t mind. Twenty-two or three, chatty and self-assured, she wore tight jeans and a tighter T-shirt over a balcony bra that had them just about jumping off. “Up for it,” said the T-shirt, so I assumed she was. On seeing me hugger-mugger with Hugh, she came ambling over in case I got ideas above my station.

“Hallo, gorgeous,” she said, putting her arm around his waist and twanging his shorts. Hugh didn’t seem to mind. Great thing about Hugh: he never minded anything. “Introduced yourself already, have you?”

“Old friends,” said Hugh cheerfully. “Lannie went to college with my sister,” and then changed the subject by teasing Becki about her hairstyle. Her dark hair was pulled high in a girlish ponytail. Becki, eyes flashing, enjoyed being teased. Though not quite pretty, she was lively enough to make up for it. The T-shirt helped too. I felt deader than ever.

I left them and went to tackle my breeze-blocks of frozen pastry and tins of peas the size of oilcans. Slabs of chuck steak with the colour and sheen of walnut veneer lay sourly waiting to be chopped. To Niall’s indignation, I had insisted on ordering real meat for the meat pie.

I took out my chef’s knife. A chef’s knife is the only knife you need at all really, but I was a collector. I had three chef’s knives, all different, a paring knife, a flexible boning knife, a Sashimi, a Santoku and an offset serrated, which I never used: but the Global was the biggest and the best, the main man. Its blade glided through the tough brown slabs as if they were fillet. What a friend. An ally. It always calmed me to have my knife in my hand.

When they came for me at Tzabo, my knife wasn’t in my hand. Nobody thought to stop them until they were right inside the kitchen, the doors swinging in their wake. Maybe it was because the black guy wore a bow tie with his suit, like a headwaiter, and spoke in a low rumble that was barely audible over the hissing, clanking kitchen racket.

“Miss Herron?”

Klaus jerked his head. “Over there,” he shouted. “You not moonlighting on me, are you, Lannie?”

“What?” I looked up, no alarm bells ringing until the second one slunk in behind him, wearing a dirty hoodie and a smirk of anticipation. A rat in the kitchen. It was one of my pursuers from the tram.

The clock stopped. Everything went small and distant and very quiet except the first man’s voice, as heavy as a stone falling into deep water.

“Lannie Herron,” he said. “You’re dead meat.” As he spoke his hand slid inside his jacket. I was armed with a bowl of sugar and a spoon.

I dropped the bowl and groped wildly for my knife, which I kept at my station as a talisman, since it wasn’t often needed for puddings. At the same time I was glancing frantically round for a tray – a lid – anything to use as a shield, because the gun was out in plain view now and there was nothing for me to duck behind. No escape route. No shelter.

Scheiss!” yelled Klaus in alarm. “Not in here! Not in here!”

At that all the chefs looked up, and there was a chorus of multilingual bellows. Olivier started shouting in French, waving his cleaver in one hand and a rack of lamb in the other. Klaus flourished his twelve-inch like a cutlass, and then Kyle and Stef and Glasgow Jock all brandished their knives likewise. Jock grabbed the lobster-pliers for good measure, wearing a smirk of anticipation like a playful torturer.

By this time I had the Global in my hand ready to throw although I didn’t want to as it might ruin the blade; and was trying to calculate the annoyance of a ruined blade against the inconvenience of having my head blown off.

I didn’t really believe he’d shoot, you see. Not in this impregnable steel engine room. But he did. He tried, at least, and it was probably only Klaus’s indignant roar and the shock of so much flashing steel that made him miss.

The first bullet ricocheted around the kitchen with a deafening clatter like a saucepan accident, dimpling oven doors, and the second ended up in the ceiling because by that time Klaus had the black guy’s wrist in his big scarred grip and his twelve-incher very close to his throat.

“Come on then, you bastard,” said Klaus. “Drop it.” His glistening face was alight.

“Shit,” said the hoodie. I guess he had never met chefs before. He gazed open-mouthed at the bunch of sweating madmen with their handfuls of gleaming weaponry, before the dragon’s mouth of roaring grills. I suspect the lobster pliers decided it, or else the sigh of desire in Glasgow Jock’s whisper: “I’d love to see what these can do to your testicles.”

The black guy blinked, and dropped his gun. Klaus put his foot on it.

“You needn’t think you’ve won, Herron,” rasped the hoodie.

“I think I’ve won, Scheisskerl.” Klaus’s knife was nudging the bow-tie.

The black guy didn’t move. His eyes, half-closed, rested on me as cold and languid as a lizard’s. “We’ll be back,” he murmured. “We’ll find you when you haven’t got your friends around.”

“Oh, yeah?” My voice came out high and unconvincing. “I can’t wait.”

“Don’t worry,” he said softly. “You won’t wait long.”

“You’ll get yours, Herron,” snarled the hoodie. “We know where you live.”

“Not any more,” I said, but felt my throat suddenly closing up with fear.

“You want to leave with both your ears or just one?” enquired Olivier. Klaus stroked his knife along the guy’s neck, then gave him a contemptuous push. They both got out, fast.

There was a lot of cheering and clapping on backs, even on mine. Three steaks got burned, but Klaus just swore good-humouredly, shouting, “Use them for well-done,” instead of grabbing the offender by the hair and the balls as he normally would. He threw the gun disdainfully in the bin, but later retrieved it to hand over to Tzabo’s owners, a pair of creepy Russian brothers who I think kept it for their own purposes rather than get involved with the police.

“Don’t you worry, Lannie,” Klaus told me, “they can’t touch you in here. Nobody touches nobody in my kitchen.” Actually, they’d all spent the last seven months since I arrived at Tzabo touching me, tweaking, pinching and the rest, but that was just part of the job.

For the first time, I felt I fully belonged. But that was the last time too, because after that I knew I had to go.

And ended up here. Chopping stringy beef and knobbly spuds amidst the smells of beer and liniment and mud. And a trio of hairy youths who leaned over the counter to snicker and nudge each other until one asked,

“You the new flanker, are you?”

“What?”

“The nose. It’s a dead giveaway. That’s a flanker’s nose. Why don’t you get it fixed?”

“What for?” I wasn’t feeling amiable. I stood my knife on its point and balanced my hand on it.

“Give you a better chance of pulling.” But he wasn’t looking quite so cocksure now.

“Pulling who? You?”

“Yeah, if you like.”

I nodded, once. “That’s why,” I said.

“Grow some manners, lads,” announced a balding guy in a forceful schoolmaster’s voice. To my surprise they slunk guiltily away muttering sorry, yeah no offence? “They’re just students up from Stoke,” the schoolmaster explained. “Thoughtless lads, don’t mean any harm.”

I shrugged. This was going to be a doddle after Tzabo, in all respects.

The beef was simmering in a vat of onions by the time my helpers turned up: two stone-washed denim wives who sat at the bar gabbing since it was clear I had everything under control. No-one else was left in the clubhouse apart from the bar staff and a grumble of old codgers on the leatherette benches by the telly. I went for a walk.

Outside, the matches had started. There was a lot of running up and down and grunting and shouting, watched by five or six spectators who did their best to supply in noise what they lacked in numbers. Brendan was playing, his legs pumping hard and fast without seeming to carry him very far. He was grey with mud, apart from his face, which was bright pink. I wondered why he enjoyed this.

Over on another field, Hugh and the other fitter, more interesting legs were hurtling up and down a good deal faster. Niall was one of them, with an 8 on his back, doing a lot of bellowing. This was the first team, evidently, and therefore got the better pitch, though it was still water-logged. The rest of the field was occupied by grazing geese, some black-necked and some dirty grey ones. They ignored the players’ shouts, only waddling indignantly away when the ball rolled too close. One flapped and hissed at me like a cup of water thrown in a wok. The grass was spattered with green droppings.

I watched Hugh’s legs for a few minutes, but even their allure wasn’t enough to overcome the boredom of a game I didn’t understand. So I returned to the clubhouse and, avoiding the wives, went to see what the codgers were watching on TV. Rugby, of course.

I studied the walls: read the gilded lists of freemen and club captains, inspected the photograph of the first fifteen of 1976, with poodle haircuts and a pointy-eared trophy; and pondered the large striped rugby shirt that was spatch-cocked in a flat glass case on the wall.

“That’s Wade Dooley’s shirt,” said a codger, seeing me looking.

“Really.” I had no idea who Wade Dooley was.

“Yep. Preston Grasshoppers, Pennine Plate, ’91 that must have been.”

“’92,” said another codger. “They beat us 27-3.”

“And Mr Dooley donated his shirt? That was kind of him.”

“Oh, he insisted. Tommo had just thrown up all over him in a ruck. Too many jars the night before.” Codger One swivelled in his chair and offered me a hand that resembled one of my slabs of beef. He wasn’t really old, only forty-something, although his granite boulder of a head bristled with grey. He had alarming ears.

“I’ve seen you at the Woolpack,” he said with menacing geniality, “though I don’t think you noticed me. New cook here, aren’t you? As well as Brendan’s. I believe you might be cooking for Dimmock now, too.”

“Who?”

“Dimmock, Charlie Dimmock, Frank.”

“Um, no.” News travelled fast.

“No, he’s moved in with his lass,” said Codger Two.

“Of course he has. Poor sod. I’m Bob. Propped with Brendan for years.” He released my hand at last.

“Lannie,” I said. Bob’s watchful eyes took in the name and the nose, but he merely asked,

“So how did you like Himself?”

“Who, Brendan?”

“No, Niall. Our gracious chairman.”

“Oh, yes. Fine.”

“Yes, he would be,” said Bob, “pretty girl like you. How about KK?”

“Which?”

“He’s looking very thunderous today,” said Codger Two to Bob.

“Due for another ding-dong in the line-out?”

“Himself’s not much better, though.”

“Wins and Flipper’ll keep the lid on it.”

“Hah! Ever see Flipper talk KK out of a ding-dong?”

“Drop-Goal’s done his knee again,” said Bob. “Got trevored against Buxton last week.”

“Having a crap season, Drop-Goal.”

They were doing it on purpose. I turned on my heel, aware of a chuckle behind me, and returned to the bar. Frank came in, said merely,

“Hi, Lannie,” and without any further attempt at conversation dumped his coat, collected a beer and went to join the codgers. I wondered what I was doing here.

“Do you understand rugby?” I asked Becki and the other barmaid, Samantha.

“Not a clue,” said Becki cheerfully. “Don’t need to, do I? It’s the laughs I come for. Me and some of the guys usually go down a club afterwards.”

“A club? Round here?”

“Nah, over in Cheshire.”

“I play,” said Samantha. She was shy, blonde and muscular.

“She plays,” said Becki, rolling her eyes. “Crazy.”

“You’re not playing today, though?” I asked.

“Tomorrow, Leek Ladies. I’m earning money today.”

“We should be getting danger money today,” said Becki, “the mood KK’s in. Have you seen him? Got a right cob on.”

“KK’s the barman?”

“Niall’s brother. Mad as a snake.”

“He is today,” said Samantha.

“He even had a go at Hugh. Lannie knows Hugh.”

“Hugh’s lovely,” said Samantha wistfully.

“Yeah, hands off!” Becki was amiable, but firm.

“Hugh’s got a girlfriend,” said Samantha. “He told me.”

“He hasn’t told me,” said Becki, less amiable. I was surprised, because Hugh hadn’t told me either. But then, why should he? Maybe she was someone very new. Very temporary.

“She’s called Tamara,” said Samantha.

Becki snorted. “You know what I reckon? I reckon AnneMarie fancies KK. Seen the way she looks at him?” She demonstrated a sidelong leer.

“No,” said Samantha determinedly.

Becki turned to me. “You’re living with Frank, aren’t you?”

“In his house,” I said. “He’s living somewhere else.”

“So is he gay?”

“What?”

“I think Frank’s gay. What you reckon?”

“I doubt it,” I said. “He’s moved in with his girlfriend. Who’s AnneMarie?”

“She’s Niall’s wife. Now, she really is crazy. Drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney, always on my bloody back, always moaning.” None of this sounded particularly crazy to me.

“She’s all right,” said Samantha, mollifying.

“She’s right up her own arse,” declared Becki, her eyes flashing. Before she could start on anyone else, I excused myself and went back to the kitchen. I wondered if I would face every Saturday dealing with crazy women and men who talked in code, even if they were in shorts.

Rolling out an acre of pastry, I slapped it on the pies. Becki came over to borrow my knife to slice lemons with and didn’t return it. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to annoy me or just prove who was boss. After ten minutes I went to retrieve it. The Global was better suited to steak than lemons. I watched Becki slice her thumb open and said, “I’d like to keep that in the kitchen, thanks,” as mildly as I could manage.

“I won’t be a minute. Nice knife, this,” said Becki admiringly, while her thumb dripped on the bar.

“Yes. And valuable. I don’t want to lose it.”

“I only said it’s nice! I’m not trying to steal the freaking thing!” She glared at me for a moment before deciding to grin, carelessly wiping my knife on someone’s discarded jacket. “We all help each other out here. Share and share alike! You’ll help at the bar, and I’ll come and help you with the teas.”

“Not without a plaster on that thumb.” I didn’t expect her to live up to her words, but later, duly plastered, she helped serve up the teas with a good grace. Every player got a loud helping of banter with their pie. She coveted my knife; kept using it to serve. Showing it off, flashing it like a street kid with a new tool. She wouldn’t have lasted two minutes back home. Here it was harmless enough, though.

The ovens were good. When the damp and sweetly shampoo-scented players came to eat, I got several compliments that made me wonder what the teas had been like before.

“That actually looks quite nice!” said one of the denim wives, astonished. “Oh, no thanks, I’m dieting.” She raised a well-plucked eyebrow as I began to eat my own work. I always eat on the job, on principle. At Tzabo it was the only way I’d had time to eat at all.

I hung around the tables, listening to the fragrant players, who were surprisingly relaxed and cheerful considering both home teams had lost. Niall lounged with his huge tan boots up on a table, tossing back his mane of sandy hair as he held forth about their many errors. King of the club, a lion in repose. I would have knocked those big feet right off the table, but it wasn’t my place.

The seconds filtered back from Glossop and hoovered up the leftovers. They included the Killick brothers who greeted me with far more animation than they’d ever shown in the pub. Frank, too, was doing more talking than I’d ever seen him do before, though not to me.

The balding school-master introduced himself as Flipper the scrum-half, and told me to let him know if those daft young lads gave me any stick and he’d have a word, though he didn’t doubt I could look after myself. I didn’t doubt it either.

Niall complimented me repeatedly on the food. The Irish accent strengthened as he introduced me with proprietary lordliness to everyone within reach, including AnneMarie and their young sons, Tige and Cormac.

“Tige? Like Tiger Woods?”

“Taidhgh,” said AnneMarie. “And our daughter is Aoife.” She spelt the names out in a high, accentless voice. Her face was pretty and languid, her hair sleek. She looked smart, and talked posh. No sign of craziness that I could see. The children sat and ate industriously, the boys glancing gleefully at each other when the swearing got particularly loud.

“Language,” said Niall over his shoulder.

“Bollocks,” said the addressee.

“Children,” said Niall ominously.

“Ah, right. Sorry, kids. Where’s KK?”

“Gone to casualty,” said Bob. “Clashed heads.”

“Fuck me. Again?”

“Language!” repeated Niall, exasperated. “Ladies present.”

“Ah, right. Sorry, ladies.”

“I don’t mind,” I said.

“But I do!” snapped Niall. “Someone has to uphold the standards in this place.”

“So that’ll be you, then, will it?” enquired Bob.

“If nobody else can be bothered. Like everything else important, it seems to get left up to me.”

“Now actually I don’t think that’s altogether strictly true, Niall,” said Brendan.

“Depends on your idea of what’s important,” said Frank thoughtfully.

“Oh, I know what’s important in your eyes,” cried Niall, “a drink and a joke and a laugh–”

“Well, that’s the general idea,” said Bob, but Niall was still going.

“–with no thought for the running of the place, no thought for the fundamentals! The standard of language just proves my point. As Chairman I have to set an example.”

“Don’t set it on my account,” growled Bob. “I’ll uphold my own fucking standards, thank you very much.”

“Not everyone can live up to your standards, Niall,” said AnneMarie, her voice cool and flat.

“Not everyone can talk out of their fundamentals like you can,” added Bob into his beer. Either Niall didn’t hear him or he didn’t get it, because he just nodded as if that was all settled.

Brendan had warned me about the language, needlessly. It wasn’t that bad. He’d never worked in a kitchen, where the swearing was constant, loud, repetitive and murderous. The swearing at the rugby club was constant, loud, inventive and benign. I preferred the club.

“Does Niall often get on his high horse?” I asked Brendan later, as we piled empty plates.

“Ah, well, he does a lot for the club. Always going on about the finances and hunting out freebies and sponsors, is Niall. He built the roof on the clubhouse extension for us. We couldn’t have afforded it else. I suppose we rely on him.” Brendan paused with the plates clutched to his chest. “So what do you think? Will you do this again?”

I hesitated. I was knackered. I longed for the peace of Nan’s parlour. All this racket didn’t suit me, being dead. I wanted to lie down on Nan’s crimson carpet and think of nothing; no past, no future. But the dead don’t make decisions. They just take whatever’s offered.

“Yes,” I said. Nothing would ever happen here but eating, talking, and the trampling of mud. That was why I was here. It was a place of safety, after all.

 

Chapter Seven

Brasso

 

I sat cross-legged on Nan’s carpet, polishing her brass as if I was trying to rub my life out.

Charlotte had just left. I was angry, not with Charlotte – how could anyone be angry with Charlotte? – but with myself. Because of what she had said. Even though it wasn’t true.

“Pie and peas?” Her voice was derisive. It grated. Charlotte didn’t do derisive. “I thought you were meant to be a new broom at the Woolpack, a brilliant young innovative chef, and you’re serving up pie and peas?”

“Only at the rugby club.”

“And at the pub it’s bog-standard dinners, straight out of the freezer and into the oven! You’re not using your skills, Lannie! And you’re living in a hobbit-hole.”

“It’s way better than the tent,” I said. No need to mention the dodgy wiring or the mice. “You wanted me to move out of the tent.”

“Lannie!” Charlotte banged her hand down on the sofa, which exhaled a pale breath of dust. “Don’t be so bloody passive! You’re just taking whatever’s handed to you! You’ve got a big opportunity here, you should be making the most of it.”

I didn’t understand what had got her so annoyed. “Why?”

“Because you’re not a passive person!”

There was no point explaining to her about being dead. No point explaining that I didn’t deserve freedom, and choices, not when I’d made sure that Karl had none. I couldn’t forget the unfamiliar fear on his face… My little brother, so terrified of going to jail, terrified of loneliness and humiliation and long years lost. I pulled threads off Nan’s armchair and let Charlotte rage on.

“For Christ’s sake, Lannie! When Hugh’s gone to all this trouble to find you somewhere – a proper job, a chef’s job – the least you can do is make an effort!”

“I am.”

“Are you? Are you, Lannie? I don’t see it. Remember Hugh after that awful cocaine business? He put it right behind him. He didn’t sit around moping. He got a new job and got on with his life.”

“It’s not the same thing,” I said, but she wasn’t listening.

“And if I’ve got to put up with – oh, hell, damn it, never mind. But you might at least try. You should be creating, not churning out endless bloody lamb shank.”

“What did I ever create at Tzabo?” I demanded. “Apart from the blueberry torte?”

“And the others.”

“Derivative.”

“They were yours. You mustn’t stop creating, Lannie.”

“I am still creating,” I said.

“What, exactly?”

I looked out of the window for inspiration. “Mud pie.”

“Mud Pie.”

“The king of mud pies. Macclesfield Mud Pie. Is the shop okay?”

“It’s doing fine,” she said flatly. “They like the walnut bread and I’m selling more muffins than I can make.”

Muffins? Creative? “Have you had any more letters?”

“Nothing much. Anyway, the police will sort it out.”

My antennae went up. “What do you mean? What’s nothing much?”

“It’s nothing.”

“Charlotte? Have you had another letter?”

“No, it was nothing. It was only a note.”

“What did it say? Was it about me?”

“It was rubbish. It was junk. Just leave it, Lannie.”

“But, Charlotte–”

“Shut up, Lannie! Shut up! It’s you we’re talking about! It’s you I’m worried about!”

Charlotte had never said Shut up before. Charlotte never shouted. Although she soon calmed down, and needlessly apologised, I was left feeling guilty and uneasy. The rats were creeping closer: they were fouling Charlotte’s doorstep, and it was all my fault.

Once she’d gone, I hunted down Nan’s ancient tin of Brasso under the sink. Brasso wasn’t passive.

“She doesn’t get it,” I told Nan, tipping the bottle against the blackened cloth with a pungent stink of ammonia. “This is only a stop-gap. I’m not staying. And what does she expect of me in any case? I’m dead.”

Nan positively did not agree.

“Well, all right, not dead like you, but I might as well be. I feel like I’m dead. I’m dead to Karl, all right. I’m dead inside, Nan, that’s the trouble. I’m just going through the motions. Okay, I’m doing a bit more than that. But you want clean brass or not?”

She did.

“Always trying to do the right thing, that’s my problem. And it just ends up causing trouble.” I sighed. “I’ve never seen Charlotte lose her rag before. She’s always been so calm.”

She’s worried, said Nan.

“I know. At least it’s nothing worse than letters.”

I daresay it could get a whole lot worse, said Nan. But Charlotte wasn’t worried about herself. Charlotte wasn’t as selfish as me.

“Selfish? Selfish? What can I do? I’m stuck here. Anyway, I’m not making the bloody rugby teas out of selfishness, am I? I’m doing them for Brendan and bloody Rhoda.”

Nothing to do with that nice new kitchen, of course. And Frank; he seems happy that you’re there.

“Happy? Frank? Hah! He didn’t even talk to me! Of course the guys at the rugby club are much older friends than I am. They mean much more.”

Rugby rescued him, said Nan, after the motorbike.

That flummoxed me. How had Nan come out with that? I didn’t know about rescue and motorbikes, and I didn’t want to either, not from Nan.

Hanging up the horse-brasses, I started on the fire-irons. I tried to switch my thoughts off. Dead people didn’t need to worry about thinking.

Don’t you believe it, said Nan.

“Bugger off, Nan,” I said, and felt the old lady bridle. So I polished the rest of the brass with extra care, until my fingers felt like fine-grade sandpaper and the parlour, smelling of warm pennies and over-ripe Brie, gleamed like a hundred little glowing suns.

*

“Macclesfield Mud Pie,” I suggested. “What do you think?”

But Brendan got agitated. “Macclesfield? I’m not calling anything on my menu after bloody Macclesfield! Not after the last time we played them.” He spread his podgy hands on the counter, trying to be reasonable. “Make a mud pie by all means. But you’ll have to call it something else.”

“Woolpack Mud Pie. Tissett Mud Pie?” No ring to it. “Anywhere round here begin with an M?”

Brendan sucked his teeth. “Madderlow. As in Arthur’s farm. Have to square it with Arthur. Madderlow Mud Pie.” He nodded. “Okay, we’ll put it on the menu next week. Will it freeze?”

“It’ll chill,” I said, and went off to ponder ingredients whilst clearing out the big freezer.

In contrast to some dishes – Linzertorte, for instance – mud pie can be anything you want it to be. I don’t know if there ever was an original Mississippi formula. The many recipes contain, amongst other weird ingredients, coffee, toffee, pistachios, almonds, coconut, marshmallows and several kinds of Instant Whip. I wasn’t going to use any of those.

Biscuit base doesn’t serve neatly, so I decided on a cocoa pastry. A separate fudge topping wasn’t necessary, but the customers would like it, and it was easy enough. What about the middle? Mousse? I couldn’t use raw eggs, since Brendan had a ban on them, unlike Tzabo, which would have fed its customers raw worm entrails if they were fashionable enough.

“Oh buggeration,” I said. At the bottom of the freezer were two dozen portions of duck in orange a month after their best-by date, and a large carton of plaice fillets eight months beyond theirs, with a bad case of freezer burn. I hauled out the fish and began to load it into a black bin bag.

“What the hell?” said Rhoda, lugging in the potatoes. “You’re not throwing all that out, are you? You can’t throw all that out!”

“I can,” I said, and showed her the date.

“That doesn’t mean anything. It won’t have gone off.”

“It’s fish,” I said. “Two years in a freezer doesn’t do a lot for fish.”

“That’s good money you’re throwing away! It’s perfectly safe to eat!”

I wasn’t going to be passive about this. “It may be safe, but it won’t be nice. Look; it’s desiccated. And the duck won’t be much better.”

“You’re not throwing that duck away!” yelped Rhoda, as shrill and edgy as one of Arthur’s dogs.

“I might have to.”

“That’s our profit! That’s our business you’re throwing down the drain!”

“Into the bin,” I corrected her. Rhoda snatched up a saucepan from the stove and hurled the contents at me.

It was gravy, still luke-warm from lunchtime. It went over my face and hair and T-shirt and splattered the freezer. We both stood there and looked at each other, gasping. Then Rhoda covered her mouth with her hand and ran out into the yard.

After a moment I washed my face at the sink and dabbed my hair with a tea-towel. My T-shirt was splodged brown. I went through to the bar.

“Borrow your bathroom, Brendan?”

“Jesus!”

“Yeah, I leant on the handle of the gravy pan. It up-ended.”

“It wasn’t hot, was it?” said Brendan, concerned. “Rhoda’ll lend you a clean T-shirt. I think she’s upstairs somewhere.”

“Thanks.” I ran up the narrow stairs. Alice, the eight year-old, was in the girls’ bedroom, playing on the computer with the door open.

“What’s that all over you?” she asked with derision. “It’s a right mess.”

“It’s gravy. Do you think your Mum would lend me a T-shirt?”

“She keeps her old T-shirts in her bottom drawer,” said Alice pointedly. An old one was obviously all I merited. “I use them for painting.”

“Could you get one for me?”

“They’re in the bottom drawer,” repeated Alice, turning back to the computer, which was giggling crazily. So I pushed open the door to Rhoda and Brendan’s room and tiptoed in, feeling uncomfortable.

There were two chests of drawers. One had nothing on it but a manky hairbrush and a bottle of aftershave. The other held make-up, moisturiser, and a collection of small brown bottles and white boxes with prescription labels stuck on them.

I picked one up, read the label. Not one I’d heard of. I thought I was acquainted with all the tranx and uppers and downers that hit the street. These were different. There was a plastic pill-holder with several compartments for each day. It rattled. Rhoda was on serious medication.

I studied them a little longer, trying to memorise names. Granisetron. Treosulfan. Zolpidem. Then I opened the bottom drawer and found a baggy blue T-shirt, slightly paint-stained, which I carried to the bathroom. Washed and changed, I went in hunt of Rhoda.

She was scrubbing something furiously in the kitchen sink. The bin bag was still full of fish.

I said, “Alice found me one of your old T-shirts. Hope it’s okay.”

She nodded without looking.

“About the fish,” I said. “I’ve been thinking. You’re right, it’s a waste if it’s still edible. I’ll cook a couple of fillets up tonight and check if they’ve gone off. If they’re just a bit dried out, I could cook the whole lot up with white sauce and use them for fisherman’s pie. What do you think?”

Rhoda still didn’t look at me. “You’ll do whatever you like,” she said. Her voice was high and cracking. “That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”

 

Chapter Eight

Brocklow

 

“You’d think they’d be the smoothest, cleanest men in Christendom.”

Becki and I stood side by side outside the clubhouse in the late December dusk, gripping mugs of cooling coffee as we watched the end of the match. It was my fourth Saturday here, and winter was closing in, sheathing the world in gloom. The floodlights cast an alien glare across the field, freezing every blade of grass into an icicle.

“So why’s that, then?” Becki asked.

“Full body mud packs, every week.” I watched the scrum lurch back across the twenty-two yard line, wallowing like a buffalo, steaming under the lights. An extraordinary beast: I felt like David Attenborough, privileged to see it foraging in its natural habitat.

Becki gave a dirty laugh. “Some of them are pretty smooth,” she said. “I wouldn’t call them clean.” She meant the young ones, whom Brendan labelled the yoof, the collectors of legless nights out and filthy jokes. They’d stopped trying to chat me up a couple of weeks back. I preferred the company of Brendan, Frank and Bob; lanky, beaky Stevo with his Oldham accent, and Flipper, not a schoolteacher after all, I had discovered, but a physio.

The players weren’t as posh as I’d expected: Hugh was the most upper-crust. Accountant, brickie, butcher, computer-prodder, they genuflected before Wade Dooley’s shirt and traded endless favours, jokes and banter. Although the banter made me cringe, it acted as a sticking plaster for my woes. It couldn’t cure the worry and the pain, but it wrapped them in a comfortable bandage of nonsense that muffled the voices in my head for a few hours every Saturday.

The kitchen helped as well. I hankered after that kitchen all week while I was falling over myself in the Woolpack’s cluttered lean-to. Even so, I felt bad about leaving Rhoda behind to cope, and guilty about judging her crazy, now that I had some inkling of what was wrong.

It was only an inkling still: I couldn’t ask, and Rhoda, stiff and prickly, wasn’t telling. When I went to Fylington library to check out my theory, the books I wanted were on loan and the computers were down because someone had nicked the monitors for the third month in a row. Fylington wasn’t immune from crime, then. But it was hardly a hotbed of gangsters either. In the rugby club’s shining kitchen I could put my worries aside and begin to feel like a proper chef again, brisk and purposeful.

Becki greeted me every week with an affable punch and a query as to which one I fancied? I never chose. Becki couldn’t work me out. For my part, I couldn’t see her sitting meekly behind a desk at the NorthWestern Building Society, twittering small-talk at old ladies. They’d have to tie her to the chair. She could hardly keep still for a minute without bouncing up for a joke or a drink or a tweak of a player’s biceps.

“What about Gary Killick, then?” she said, eyes dancing. “Or Tom? Go on, ask Tom out! I dare you.”

“Not my type. Anyway, those two do everything together.”

“Make it a threesome, then! Double the fun!”

“I’ll give it a miss this week, thanks.”

“You ought to come down to Total with Brad and Harvey and the lads some time. They’re a right laugh, that lot.”

“I’ll leave them to you,” I said. “They’re too young for me.”

“Come on, you’re not old, Lannie! You’re in your prime! Women don’t reach their sexual peak till whatsit, thirty five or something.”

“Maybe I’ll give it a miss for the next eight years, then.”

“Aah! We’ll have to fix you up with one of the older guys. Shame about Hugh being taken,” said Becki with a regretful toss of her ponytail. “But maybe this Tamara thing isn’t serious.”

“Maybe.” It was serious, according to Charlotte, who seemingly didn’t like it. I didn’t know why not. Hugh, after all, was on the verge of thirty, would be celebrating his birthday next month at the club, God help him. I’d already agreed to do the catering.

“What about Brendan?” said Becki, upending her coffee dregs onto the ground. “Brendan’s nice.”

“Brendan?” I repeated in surprise.

“Sure. Why not?”

“Well, he’s married, for a start.”

“Yeah, but all he gets off Rhoda is a load of grief.”

That made me uncomfortable. “Rhoda’s not well.”

“Huh! She looks fine to me,” said Becki dismissively.

“I wouldn’t have thought Brendan was your type.”

She giggled. “You never know. He’s cute. Chunky. Or what about Niall? Niall’s not bad.”

Niall?” I looked at Niall, staggering out of the scrum which had just fallen over in a heap of legs and curses. He was good-looking enough in a ruddy-faced sort of way, but he was also, in Bob’s words, a bit of a plonker.

“Niall’s married too,” I reminded Becki.

“Hmph! To that snooty bitch! A right bundle of laughs, she is.”

“Ssh,” I said, for AnneMarie was walking past.

Becki’s chin lifted pugnaciously. “Orright?” she called out.

“Fine,” said AnneMarie expressionlessly. She didn’t even look at me. “How are you, Becki? Been down the clubs lately?”

Becki shrugged. “Might have been.”

“Brad told me you were down at Total last weekend.”

“If you know, why bother asking?”

“Good night out?”

“Yeah, mad. There was a load of talent there.”

“So did you score?” AnneMarie made a pale attempt at a smile. Becki gave her a big, tooth-baring grin in return.

“Don’t I always?”

“Usually,” said AnneMarie. “I’ll see you later, then.” She went on her way to the bar.

“Well, all right, she’s not a great conversationalist. But at least she’s trying to be friendly,” I said.

“No she bloody isn’t. She can’t stand me. Thinks I’m so immoral. Hah!” Becki laughed shortly. “She’s stuck with it. See that cross round her scrawny neck? That’s a laugh, that is. Thinks she’s a bloody nun! I bet Niall doesn’t get much, poor guy.” She looked at me sidelong. “You don’t fancy Niall, then?”

“Not really. No point chasing married men. What about…” I dithered. Frank was effectively married too. “What about KK?”

Thirtyish and unattached, KK was less of a plonker than his older brother Niall, though more morose; and, as steward, was a stickler for proper protocol at the bar. Serve customers in order, always lock the till before collecting glasses, that sort of thing. He was even bigger than his brother, with an unkempt mane of black hair: a wolf to Niall’s fox. He played sometimes in the back row but usually at lock, for which the main qualifications were apparently being six foot four and mad as a tankful of adders. (I was learning, you see. I’d even kept a straight face when told that Frank used to be a hooker.) KK and Becki were at permanent loggerheads.

“Jesus!” said Becki. “You don’t fancy KK, do you? He’s an animal.”

KK’s shaggy head appeared in the doorway. A yellow bruise told of his concussion the week before, the reason he wasn’t playing. According to Frank, who often ferried him down there, he spent one Saturday in three in casualty. He said sharply to Becki, “You’re meant to be serving.”

“What about Sammie?”

“She’s washing glasses.”

“What about you?”

“I need to change a barrel. Get your arse back in here.”

Becki sniffed, but showed no inclination to shift her arse. “Wish the other guy had hit him harder,” she said when he had gone. “Bloody pain in the neck. And you know what?” She lowered her voice. “I reckon he’s fiddling the till.”

“KK? No, surely not. He’s far too strict about how the bar runs to go fiddling it.”

“That’s just cover, I reckon,” said Becki. She touched her finger to the side of her nose in the sort of old-fashioned gesture Nan might make.

“But Niall would go spare,” I said.

“Hah! Niall wouldn’t notice.”

“You should tell him.”

“He wouldn’t believe me. KK’s his darling ickle baby brother, isn’t he?”

“So why do you think he’s fiddling the till?”

Someone is,” said Becki darkly, and strutted inside. I wasn’t surprised. I’ve never worked in a place yet where all the staff were clean. I couldn’t see why it had to be KK, though, unless Becki resented the fact that he made no effort to flirt with her.

Becki wasn’t exactly scrupulous: she had a habit of pouring herself lagers and writing IOUs for the till. At the end of an evening there could be half a dozen of them in there, signed with a big circle over the i in her bold, childish handwriting. It drove KK round the bend.

She drove me round the bend, too, by feeding the geese with bits of pie crust, so that whenever they saw me coming out to the bins they would waddle greedily over and push at my legs, then hiss when I shooed them away. I couldn’t stand those geese. And she kept borrowing things from the kitchen: my big knife and the milk-jug, which she didn’t return until I asked, and a red Zippo lighter, which she never returned at all.

Draining my cold coffee, I went back in to check the shepherds’ pies browning in the ovens. The club’s ceiling bristled with ferocious green and scarlet garlands that scraped the forwards’ heads. It was five days to Christmas, and I was already sick of pie.

Meat pie for the players, fish pie for the freezer, and Madderlow Mud Pie for the ramblers. I’d enjoyed making that one, at least. Arthur had a free sample and gave it his highest accolade – “That were all right, that.” I think he was angling for more dishes to be named after him. I’d promised Brendan that a full range of new puddings would be up and running after New Year. That would make Charlotte happy.

But I was still looking over my shoulder. Although I felt safe enough in the rugby club, the Woolpack worried me. A public house was just that, open to all comers. I couldn’t shake off the knowledge of the rats scuttling beyond its walls, the greedy, baleful pack of Karl’s friends casting round for my scent.

Karl’s friends. A wave of laughter from the players washed towards me. How did my little brother end up with friends like that? What did I do wrong? What could they supply that I couldn’t? Apart from the drugs, I mean.

I suppose they were all small, bright-eyed boys once. They weren’t born rats: they changed. But that’s what happens if you live on a rubbish tip with bait laid down everywhere. Enticing, addictive, lethal: bait designed to turn people into animals that would steal and fight and lie and kill and pay and pay and pay again for another poisonous dose.

I shook my head to repel them. Leaving the kitchen, I went in search of KK, who was shifting barrels round the back. KK had a secret, which I knew and Becki didn’t. I checked there was no-one in earshot, and kept my voice low.

“I read your recipes,” I said. “Interesting. I tried one or two. Didn’t have time to try them all. The prune cake was, er, okay.”

He brightened up. “You liked it?”

“Sure. Very moist.”

“Could I sell that recipe? Women’s magazines buy them, right?”

“I’ve come across cakes very similar,” I warned. “It’d need to be more original to stand a chance.” And a lot less pruney.

“You try the pumpkin muffins?”

“Not yet.” I hate pumpkin.

“That’s original, though, isn’t it?”

“Up to a point. Australian cookbooks are very big on pumpkin.”

“Courgette,” said KK confidently. “I’m developing this new recipe. Courgette, lime zest, demerara sugar, white of egg.”

“I’ve come across a few recipes for zucchini cake.”

“Zucchini cake?”

“Same thing.”

“With lime?”

“No, not with lime.”

“Grapefruit as an alternative,” said KK. “I’ll give you a copy next week. You in over Christmas?”

“No, I’m away.”

“What about New Year? Big do in the club. Has Niall asked you about the catering yet?”

“No. Is he likely to? I’ll be working at the Woolpack New Year’s Eve.”

“You won’t. Brendan closes it.” No wonder it wasn’t making any money. “Niall’s been telling everyone you’ll put a hotpot on.”

“Well, he’d better untell them.”

“Do you not do parties, then?”

“It’s not that. I’ll be doing Hugh’s birthday bash. I’m just not into New Year, that’s all.” Anybody could turn up at a New Year party. Saturday afternoons in the club were nice and enclosed, and I didn’t mind Hugh’s party, since that would be limited to his friends: but a big open-door free-for-all made me a touch nervous.

“That’s a shame,” said KK. “Not just because of the hotpot, I mean.” He sounded like he meant it.

“I could always make some and leave it for Becki to heat up on the night.” But KK pulled a face. “What’s wrong with that?” I asked.

You’re telling Becki, then. She won’t take it from me, she’s up in arms whenever I try to tell her what to do. She’ll make a right song and dance.”

“Okay, I’ll tell her.”

“And I’ll tell Niall you’re not coming, if you like, save you the grief.”

“What grief?”

KK sighed. “He’s liable to take it personally, put it that way.”

“Maybe AnneMarie could do the hotpot,” I said with a flicker of mischief, for AnneMarie had never yet come near the kitchen. I couldn’t see her dirtying her elegant hands.

“Maybe. She’ll do whatever Niall wants,” said KK wryly.

That surprised me. “She doesn’t strike me as the doormat type.”

“Oh, she likes him to be in charge. And he likes everyone to be at his beck and call. Unfortunately they don’t often oblige.”

“Do you?”

He gave me a rare, wolfish smile. “Only when I can’t avoid it. If you don’t fancy New Year, don’t let him persuade you. You mustn’t give in to everything Niall wants, or he’ll have you down for all sorts else.”

“Will he?”

“Believe me,” said KK soberly, the smile gone, “he’ll think he owns you. You’ll never hear the end of it.” He shouldered a keg as if it were made of polystyrene, and ambled inside.

*

I had hoped to pretend that Christmas wasn’t there, since I had no use for it. I told everyone I was going to stay with friends in Manchester. Then I holed up in Nan’s house with a generous pile of leftovers and library books, and did my best to keep warm. Tricky, since the only warm patch in Nan’s house was a small oasis around the gas fire: cold crept in like spiders from the skirting boards.

On Christmas Day, I opened Charlotte’s present (head to toe lily of the valley, bless) and ate a variety of rejected puddings. Not Christmas pudding, though, which I found wearisome and heavy, like Christmas itself. In my childhood, Christmas had simply been an excuse for my mother to drink more openly. She fobbed us off with selection boxes and cheap, fuzzy videos off the market. Karl and I quietly agreed that we hated Christmas and couldn’t wait to leave home. We spent hours planning the heaps of presents we’d buy ourselves, the games we’d play, the feasts we’d cook. In the end, though, I had left and Karl had stayed.

I curled up as best as I could in Nan’s bony armchair with a slab of caramel slice, and studied my library book: A Companion To Prescription Drugs. I hadn’t got far into it when there was a noise at the front door. Someone was pushing against it. There was a rattle and a faint, muffled clunk.

Putting the book down, I went quietly into the hall and picked up the cricket bat I kept there, just in case. I took a couple of deep breaths and then, at arm’s length, unsnipped the lock. The door flew open and Frank pitched inside, key in one hand, toolbox in the other.

“Didn’t expect you to be here,” he said, surprised. “Weren’t you up in town?”

“Change of plan.” As he looked down at the cricket bat, I added, “I thought you were a burglar.”

“They’d have to be daft. Nowt here worth nicking. Even that bat’s cracked.” I waited for his query. What was the bat doing down here instead of up in the junk room? But Frank didn’t ask.

“Did you come to fetch something?” I said, imagining a bag of presents forgotten in a cupboard. He shook his head.

“No. I’m just escaping for a bit. Sue’s gone to see her parents. She wanted me to go too, but I’ve never met them. Christmas Day didn’t seem the right time.”

“A bit too meaningful?”

He didn’t answer that. “So I thought I’d come and do some work on the house. There’s nowt but bloody crap on the telly. Thought I’d strip the front room. Been meaning to for ages.”

“Feel free,” I said.

“No, you won’t want the mess.”

“Do it,” I said. “I’ll give you a hand. I’m glad of the company.” I was slightly twitchy, having just been reminded of how alone I was in this dark house, in this quiet village. I liked solitude. Being lonely didn’t bother me. But feeling vulnerable did.

We pulled the furniture away from the wall and began to prise at Nan’s wallpaper, its lumpy leaves the colour of lichen, surely unfashionable even in the seventies. Nan didn’t approve.

“It’s got to be done,” I explained to her. “It needs it.”

“It does,” said Frank, a touch gloomily.

“Are you going to live here once it’s done up, Frank?”

He shook his head. “Don’t know. Probably sell it.”

“But you’re in a flat now, aren’t you? Mightn’t Sue prefer a house?”

“Sue prefers modern. Not keen on this place. She fancies Tytherington. She has plans.”

“Oh.” I decided, with unreasonable haste, that I didn’t care for Sue or her plans.

The scrapers ripped and rasped for an hour or so, until we were ankle-deep in wallpaper peelings. Then we stopped for tea and tiramisu. In the kitchen, Frank eyed my pile of leftovers with approval.

“I see nowt’s going to waste.” He switched his gaze to the window. Out the back the flagstones were wet-black and shiny, the hillside beyond them threatening and grey. “Rain’s stopped,” he said. “Fancy a walk?”

I didn’t, not really, not under those polished marble clouds. But that didn’t seem a good reason to refuse, so I put on my crackling raincoat and the size ten wellies. We stomped across the back yard, over the wall and straight up the hill. It was barely raining: just letting us know. The ground oozed and clung around my feet. As I squelched up the slope after Frank I nearly lost a boot with every stride.

I was thankful when eventually he halted at a stone outcrop halfway up the hill. I tried not to pant as I stood beside him. He wasn’t panting.

We gazed down at the grey cross of Brocklow’s two streets. Further along, feeling their way around the corner of the hills, were the ragged fingers of Fylington. Otherwise, just farms. Proper farms, fortified against the yuppies with tin-roofed barns and plastic ranks of silage, rows of little black puddings on a muddy tablecloth.

Frank set off again suddenly towards the top, which to my dismay turned out not to be the top at all, but merely the first swell in a rising sea of moorland.

“That’s Shutlingsloe over there,” he said, pointing to a cone on the horizon. “Mam Tor’s over that way. Take you up it some time.”

“I think I’ve been to Mam Tor,” I said, dredging up memories of a school trip to Castleton. “Shivering mountain, is that right?”

“More like a bloody motorway these days,” said Frank. “That over there’s Wincle Minn. Nice pub near there, show you one day when you’re free. For professional interest like. And that way’s Wildboarclough, and Bottom o’ the Oven.” He grinned at me unexpectedly, his eyes creasing. Frank had never smiled at me properly before.

I was delighted. “There’s really a place called Bottom of the Oven?”

“Sure. Right up your street. There’s a pub there too. And you could try the Crag and the Smithy and the Highwayman.”

“What about the Cat and Fiddle?” I was proud of knowing of the Cat and Fiddle Inn, second highest in England according to Brendan, perched alone on its bleak road over the moor.

“Not much there,” said Frank, his smile abruptly gone and then so was he, leaping from tussock to tussock to avoid the worst of the mud. I wondered what I’d said.

“Watch out, it’s boggy,” he called. We stopped at a crumbling cliff face nearly a yard high: black peat crowned with brown heather. Ahead of us lay a stretch of bog splintered with black cracks. “Want to go on?”

I shook my head. “No thanks. It’s going to rain. But it’s nice here.” It wasn’t nice at all. It was grim and hostile and kept flinging panfuls of cold wind at me. I felt like the clouds were only a hand’s breadth above us: I could have reached up with a paintbrush to add more grey.

But it was a world away from Manchester; more like three thousand miles than thirty. No-one was ever going to follow me up here. Standing on the sullen brow of the moor, leaning on the wind, I felt more alive than I had for weeks. For the first time, I believed that a new life was truly possible. I had a future as well as a past; and the past would slide back into its place and gather dust. I could even glimpse a time when the trial wouldn’t matter any more.

I had a sudden, wild urge to confide in Frank. “It’s a far cry from where I used to live,” I said.

“It’s a far cry from everywhere. Shout as loud as you like, no one would hear you up here.”

“True.” I buttoned down my urge again. What was I thinking? It wasn’t a nice story, and it wouldn’t make Frank think better of me. Safer to tell no-one.

But Frank wasn’t nosy; that was what I liked about him. He had no hidden agenda, no expectations. He wasn’t about to ask me to cook a hundred and sixty sausages or demand to know who I fancied; and he was at home here on top of the hill. I glanced at the lines of hopeful resignation drawn on his face. Dark and vaguely Celtic.

“Frank? Why do they call you Charlie Dimmock?”

“Ah,” said Frank, staring across the surly moors, “that’s to do with a water feature I delivered to the club for Tommo once. He made me plumb it in at the bar and KK put a beer line through it.”

“And why is KK KK?”

“King Kong.” I should have guessed that one. “Niall’s Himself. And Flipper scored a try on a wet day and aquaplaned onto the next pitch.”

“But Bob is Bob,” I said.

He gave me a surprised look. “No, he’s a builder.”

“Oh. He didn’t build the club’s extension, though?”

“He only does big stuff,” said Frank.

“Does Brendan have a nickname?”

“Timothy Taylor.”

“Frank? I went into their room to get something and Rhoda’s got a load of drugs on her dressing table. I mean prescription drugs. Anti-nausea and some other stuff. Serious stuff.”

“Mm-hm.”

I had to spell it out. “Cancer drugs.”

He gave me a sharp look. “Oh, aye? You been researching? What did you find out?”

“Ovarian cancer?”

“Aye, that’s the one.”

“She never told me.”

“She didn’t tell anyone for a while,” said Frank. “She didn’t tell Brendan for weeks, not until she had to. Didn’t want to worry him. Of course he was worried sick anyway, he knew summat was up.”

“Jesus. Imagine trying to cope with that on your own.”

“Rhoda doesn’t like being dependent. She’s not told many people about the cancer. Can’t stand the fuss.”

“It’s not a nice one to get,” I said.

“None of them are. But no.”

“And there are the girls.” I didn’t like them much myself, but I recognised Rhoda’s fierceness over their welfare. I had seen it even in my mother when the health visitor tried to tell her there was something wrong with Mikey, who was unusually slow to walk, talk and everything else. “What’s the outlook?”

“Not sure. Brendan’ll tell me if he needs to.” He glanced up. “There’s rain coming over, we’d better get down.”

We began to scramble back across the bog and heather; it was harder going down than up. The hill wanted to throw me off. Below us, the infrequent cars had their lights on. Christmas visitors, doing their duties. A motorbike buzzed through Brocklow like a hornet, making Frank’s head jerk up.

Without giving myself time to think, I asked, “What’s with the motorbike, Frank?” He didn’t answer for several strides.

“I used to keep it at the yard,” he said eventually, “till some bugger broke in and nicked the wheels and a pair of leaded windows. So then I moved it into the house.”

“You’re going to fix it up, are you?”

“Nah.” I thought that was it, but a few paces on he continued, “It belonged to a mate of mine. Dean.”

Another five or six steps further, he added, “Dean got killed. Came off at a bend on the Cat and Fiddle.”

“Sorry,” I said, uselessly.

“Aye. He were a good lad. Dean liked that road, with all the hairpins. I was never keen. My bike wasn’t as powerful as theirs. I always ended up trailing behind. The fourth motorcyclist.”

“I know,” I said. I’d seen them: the groups of motorcycles hurtling past the Woolpack of a weekend, three or four of them in a tight, snarling bunch, and one lonely weakling whining away a hundred yards behind. I waited for Frank to go on with the story, but he just said,

“I kept the bike because Dean’s mum never wanted to see it again, but I couldn’t bring myself to get rid. She’s dead now, and his dad’s gone doolally, and his sister doesn’t want to be reminded. So it’s up to me.”

“How long ago did it happen?”

“Fifteen years,” said Frank, without needing to work it out. “Dean was nineteen.”

That staggered me a bit. “That’s, um… must have been terrible,” I said, inanely.

“Was.” He slithered down a muddy bit of slope, and regained his balance. “Cut me up for a fair while,” he said to the mud. “Brendan had to take me in hand. Him and Bob dragged me down the club, got me playing, kept me going.”

“Rugby rescued you?”

“Aye, if you like. One way of putting it.” It began to rain hard: huge thunderous drops that knocked back the heather and ran down my head like cold groping fingers. When we reached the back wall we vaulted over into the yard and ran inside, shedding pools of water onto the lino.

“I’m hungry,” I said. “Will you stay to eat?”

“As long as it’s not turkey.”

I did a stir-fry of leftover roast beef, green beans and carrots in plum sauce. It wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t turkey. We talked not about Dean but about Nan: how she pretended to despise all things foreign, how Frank found hoards of travel brochures in the cupboard after her death, which set him wondering. Then we scraped the parlour for a while longer, until half the room was blotchy plaster, before stopping to clear away the shreds.

“I’ll be going,” said Frank. “Sue’ll be back shortly.” He thanked me gravely for his tea, and left.

I picked up the scraper again, but Nan was against it. Just look at the state of her good carpet, she said.

I didn’t answer. For the first time, I was made uncomfortable by Nan’s mutterings. I wasn’t dead: not yet, not quite. I shouldn’t be listening. I took my library books and half a pound of Stilton up to bed.

 

Chapter Nine

Ute

 

When I declined New Year’s Eve at the club, Niall shook his head at me like a sadly disappointed vicar. I told him I’d already offered to babysit for Brendan and Rhoda.

They’d cautiously accepted. However, any hope I had of earning Brownie points from Rhoda was dashed when they came home at ten to midnight, Rhoda being tired, and found the girls still up and trampolining on the sofa, since I hadn’t been able to bribe them to go to bed.

Rhoda was silently angry. Her mouth compressed and her eyes glittered as if with tears. The children, seeing this, meekly disappeared. Brendan poured me a brandy and drove me home.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “as long as they’re happy.”

“Rhoda’s not happy.”

“No, she didn’t have a very good evening. But at least the girls should sleep in tomorrow, which will be a blessing.”

We said nothing else about Rhoda. Instead we talked about Hugh’s forthcoming birthday bash.

“Hugh wasn’t there tonight,” said Brendan. “Somewhere smarter to go, I expect. But KK was asking after you. Wanted me to give you this.” He handed me a small piece of paper, tightly folded. I opened it. It was a recipe for beetroot cake.

“For KK, that’s pretty well a lovenote,” advised Brendan. “Not a great communicator. Not sure you’d want to get too involved there.”

“With KK?”

“Never really got over his divorce. All a bit messy. Ex-wife lives in St Helens. Got a nine year old son he doesn’t see enough. Angry with life.”

“Hence all the head-buttings in the line-out?”

“Playing rugby calms him down,” said Brendan.

“Not so you’d notice.”

“He was in fine form tonight. He flattened Niall. Bob sorted it, but it put a bit of a dampener on the evening.”

“He flattened Niall?” That would take some doing. “What was that about?”

“Not sure. Becki was having a bit of a smooch with Niall at the time, slow dance I mean, but wrapping herself around him somewhat. KK barged in, peeled Becki off and thumped Himself. He broke a loudspeaker when he fell over, so that’s more expense.”

“Weird.”

“Bit of a love-hate relationship there, if you ask me,” said Brendan.

“Who, KK and Niall? KK and Becki is just hate-hate as far as I can see.”

“Nothing romantic going on there, then?”

“You’ve got to be joking.”

“It’s just that Becki can be quite…” His voice tailed off.

“What?”

“Ah, nothing. Maybe KK was just being gallant on AnneMarie’s behalf.”

“Can’t AnneMarie do her own thumping?” I asked.

“She’s not the sort. KK could get banned for that, if he wasn’t the steward,” said Brendan. “We don’t like violence in the club. Here’s your hovel. Frank finished stripping that front room yet?” I hadn’t told him, so Frank must have.

“No, not yet. I’m doing it myself.”

Brendan sighed. “Don’t wear yourself out. You’re working hard.”

“I’m fine.”

“I know it’s not easy, covering for Rhoda.”

We both said nothing. Brendan’s round face was lined with strain. He said eventually, “Take tomorrow evening off. In lieu of tonight. New Year’s Day it’s always pretty quiet after lunch. Go and see your friends, that Charlotte lass, have a night out. Will you?”

“Thanks, Brendan. I will.”

So next morning I rang Charlotte, though with some apprehension. I feared to hear of more poisonous notes: but her answering voice was heartily cheerful.

“God, I’ve missed you, Lannie! It’s been deadly since Christmas, no business to speak of, everyone’s laid in food for a month and they’re not coming out of their burrows till February.” She made me smile down the phone. I realised I missed her too: I wanted the security blanket of her company.

“So everything’s all right?” I asked.

“Yes, no probs. Apart from a brick through the shop window, but that’s all cleaned up now, new glass and everything.”

“A brick?”

“Don’t worry, nobody was hurt. It was the middle of the night. Just drunks,” said Charlotte briskly.

“Shit!” A hundred notes would be better than this. “Did it do much damage?”

“Just made a bit of a mess, not too much.”

“Oh, Charlotte…I feel terrible.”

“Come on, Lannie! It was drunks. Two days before Christmas, everyone’s popped up, silly things happen. Even in Didsbury.”

“Before Christmas? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it’s no big deal.” I could hear her shrugging, but didn’t believe it. I felt broken glass showering around me, buns sent flying.

“What did the police say?”

“Vandals. Senseless. One of those things. Change the subject, Lannie.” Her voice was firm. “Where did you see in the New Year? Did you have fun?”

I tried to shake off the shattered glass. “I was babysitting the terrible two, incompetently. What about you?”

“I went to Skins with Hugh and Tamara and some of their friends, but I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. Too loud and too expensive. It would have been better if you’d been there.”

“What’s Tamara like?”

Short pause. “She seems very charming.”

“You mean you don’t like her, but you’re too nice to say so.”

“Actually, I don’t like that set very much,” confessed Charlotte, “they’re a bit full of themselves. They remind me of the crowd he used to hang out with.”

“Do you think…”

“No, no, I’m sure Tamara’s fine. She comes across as a little bit affected, but I expect she might just be shy,” said Charlotte. “I don’t think she’s good enough for Hugh, though.”

“Nobody is,” I said. There was another slightly awkward pause during which she failed to say, “Oh, but you are, Lannie,” before I added, “So what’s happening tonight? Are you up to another night out, with me?”

“Lannie, are you off? That’s brilliant! Get the train into Stockport, and I’ll pick you up. Daddy and Jane are taking me to Alison’s new restaurant in Manchester, the Aussie one, you come along too, it’ll be a hoot! Then you can stay over. Daddy’ll be delighted.”

“In Manchester? Charlotte, I don’t want to go into Manchester. Somebody might see me.”

“Nobody’ll see you,” said Charlotte. “Wear a headscarf if you’re worried. But nobody’ll see you. Who’s going to see you?”

“Anyone who knows me. I don’t want to get you into any more trouble.”

“You haven’t got me into any trouble. No drug dealers are going to be in Alison’s restaurant,” said Charlotte positively. “You’re coming, Lannie. That’s that.”

So I went. Although I didn’t think Daddy and Charlotte’s stepmother Jane were quite delighted to see me, they seemed mildly pleased. They would have preferred Hugh’s company, but since he was out with Tamara again, Daddy was happy enough to tolerate me as a fourth.

I wore my only smart top, and carried the chimney pot from Frank’s kitchen. It had scrubbed up nicely in the sink. Jane exclaimed over it.

“Ooh, how lovely and oldy worldy!”

“That’ll be all right with a few petunias on the patio,” said Daddy graciously. “It looks Victorian. Where did you get it?”

“The friend whose house I’m renting owns a reclamation yard.” I hadn’t told Frank I was taking his chimney pot. I hoped he wouldn’t mind: I had no other present to give, and no money to buy one until Brendan paid me again.

“House, eh?” said Daddy jealously.

“He’s renting it because it’s unsaleable,” I assured him. “Damp, no central heating, needs rewiring. I daren’t plug anything in upstairs. Not a patch on Charlotte’s flat.” This information was a more welcome present for Daddy. He liked me as long as I wasn’t doing as well as Charlotte. Her little working class friend.

Greyingly handsome, he was confident and formidable, used to being the boss. He had a Mercedes like a hunting dog; a perfect dealer’s car if it had been ten years older. It was new. It swept us soundlessly into Manchester and nosed along the streets for Alison’s new place, Ute.

Ute was only a few hundred yards from Tzabo. It made me uneasy to be taking the familiar trail down Deansgate towards the Northern Quarter. From every other doorway a hotch-potch of shouting and music was flung out as if from an emptied chamberpot. Flocks of girls with flimsy tops and bleary eyes teetered uncertainly off the pavement like dizzy cranes, looking as if they’d been continually on the razz since the night before. This was home all right. It fell instantly into place. I didn’t like it as much as I used to.

Ute was the formica side of spartan. Terracotta floor, huge red murals of giant termite mounds, a droopy gum tree in a tub, didgeridoo droning on the speakers. The menu featured lots of steak, barramundi and the occasional kangaroo burger. No wichety grubs, thank God.

Alison hurried over. “G’day! Good to see you!” She’d been to Australia for six months, frying her way around the edges and across the centre, and had decided there was a niche in the market.

“So how was Oz?” I asked. I hadn’t seen her since her return. Events had intervened.

“Great,” she said enthusiastically. “They know how to cook, all right. Barbies a-go-go. Great meat, especially the steak, dirt cheap, but the veggies are a bit rumty-tum. And anything processed–” She drew a line across her throat.

“How so?”

“Sugar in the Marmite, would you believe? And I have to say their teabags are totally inadequate.” She was becoming more English by the second. “And they’re all obsessed with rain.”

“The teabags?”

“Brilliant place,” said Alison. She dropped her voice. “But haunted.”

“What is?”

“Australia. It’s haunted. Not so much the cities, except after dark. But the bush is haunted. I tell you, the whole damn continent is haunted. I can recommend the yabbies.”

Since Daddy was paying, I ordered yabbies and steak. We swapped stories with Alison while waiting for it to arrive. The yabbies were tiny crayfish, fiddly but fun. I had just decided to relax and enjoy myself when I recognised a waiter.

“Damn,” I muttered. “Sorry, Charlotte. But he used to work at Tzabo. No, don’t turn round! I don’t want him to see me!”

“Does it matter?” Charlotte sounded weary.

“It might. I don’t know.” He was slight and stooping. He hadn’t stayed long at Tzabo, only a few weeks: one of those who couldn’t settle but flitted. I wasn’t even sure of his name. The kitchen crew had just called him Clueless.

“I think we’re all right,” I said. “He’s sticking to his patch.” I shook my hair over my face; Clueless had never seen me with my hair down.

“It’s weeks ago now. It doesn’t matter any more,” said Charlotte.

“No, of course not.” But the steak had turned to dogfood in my mouth.

“He wasn’t another witness at that trial, was he?” enquired Jane.

“Oh, no. He’s just a waiter.”

“Nasty business, that,” said Daddy. “It must have been a terrible shock for you, being called on to give evidence. Were you tempted to refuse?”

“I didn’t see how I could.”

“You did the right thing,” said Daddy gravely. “No matter what other people might think of it, you did the right thing.” Which was generous of him considering the brick through Charlotte’s window. I wondered if he would have thought the same had he known the full story, which he didn’t, since not even Charlotte knew that my part in the trial had involved more than just being called as a witness. Daddy loved his children dearly. I thought of Dave – closest thing to a Daddy I’d ever owned – and ached a bit, as always.

I rewarded Daddy for the steak as best I could. I made it obvious I wasn’t doing as well as Charlotte. Pub pies and muddy fields as opposed to a spiffing hot bread shop almost in Didsbury? No contest. Daddy relaxed into pride.

We finished our pavlovas. Clueless hadn’t noticed me – hadn’t shown any sign of it, anyway. I decided I’d been silly to worry. Charlotte was right: I was old news. Forgotten already, as boring as cold pasta. Nobody cared. Every shop got bricks through windows now and then. I was just being paranoid. As the black Mercedes glided home down Princess Parkway, I breathed easier.

“That was lovely, Daddy,” said Charlotte.

“It was certainly different. I think I prefer your cooking, sweetheart.” He smiled over his shoulder at her. “And I think your shop’s a wee bit classier than Ute. What do you say, Lannie?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “It’s much classier than my workplace as well.”

“It must be quite awful for you working in a rugby club,” said Jane with earnest sympathy.

“Good honest toil,” said Daddy complacently. “Nothing wrong with that.” He turned on to Palatine Road without deigning to indicate. Daddy expected other cars to back off and touch their caps. Self-assurance born of money. “We’ll go past Charlotte’s shop in a minute,” he said. “It’s looking pretty spruce again.”

A hundred yards away, we saw the fire engine on the corner. Later on, we learned it had already been there for an hour. When Daddy parked with a grinding jolt, half on, half off the pavement, and we jumped out of the car, there were no flames any more and barely any smoke. There was just a terrible smell of burnt toast, drifting from the blackened crust of what had once been Charlotte’s shop.

 

Chapter Ten

Party

 

I had a dream. Robed and self-righteous as a priest, I held a wide, silver knife with a thin black handle.

“I can stab you with this,” I told Karl, “and it won’t hurt. It can’t hurt anyone.” So I stabbed him in the shoulders and the back, repeatedly, until he bled all through his yellow shirt and escaped on to the windowsill ready to fly away.

“Karl!” I cried. “Don’t leave me, Karl!” but he wouldn’t listen or couldn’t hear. He was already climbing the vertical mosaic wall towards the sky, shrinking upwards.

I woke up sobbing. My brain wasn’t clever enough for such ideas when it was awake: why must it inflict them on me in my sleep?

Anyway, it was Charlotte I should be crying for. Both of them, both my fault. Karl and Charlotte. I sobbed into a clutch of hankies until the ordinariness of the night, and Swamp Thing’s angry presence on the wall, calmed me down.

Charlotte, a few days later, tried to absolve me from blame. She said the police had prevaricated, had questioned her about business rivals, love rats and protection rackets. Although she’d mentioned my name, they hadn’t really been interested. They hadn’t asked to talk to me. They said there were plenty of other daft bastards around apart from Karl’s mates. Which was undeniable.

And it wasn’t as bad at it looked, she assured me on the phone. It looked bad because it was so black, and the windows had gone, again. But the brickwork was fine. So were the ovens and the working spaces in the back, though they needed scrubbing down. I offered my services, desperate to make amends, but she refused.

“There’s no need, Lannie. The insurance will pay.” I wondered if they would, and how Daddy would feel about the whopping premiums that would certainly follow. I wondered how long Charlotte could afford to stay in business even if she still had the heart for it.

But I also knew I shouldn’t go there; I shouldn’t be seen near her shop or her flat, in case it made things even worse. No matter what she told me, I was to blame. My heart ached for the loss of Charlotte.

“Hell’s teeth, Lannie,” her far-off voice said on the phone, “these things just happen. No reason. Kids getting kicks. Nothing to do with Karl.” Charlotte, so entirely without malice herself, determinedly refused to believe in anybody’s evil intent. “Anyway, you did the right thing there, like Daddy says.”

“I didn’t have to,” I reminded her. “I chose to.”

“If you’re called to give evidence, how can you refuse? That’s perjury or something, isn’t it? And then you’d be in jail as well as Karl. Forget it, Lannie. Now, I want to talk to you about Hugh’s thirtieth. What puddings have you got planned? Are you bringing your mud pie?”

She was so collected, so practical. I’d forgotten all about Hugh’s party. I tried to gather my thoughts.

“Yes, I’ll bring the mud pie, and I thought apple caramel, coffee roulade, and fruit flan. Flan’s boring but it’s easy and it always looks good.” I forced cheer into my voice. “How’s the Cake? Did it survive?”

“It wasn’t in the shop,” said Charlotte. “I kept it in the flat, so it’s okay. But it’s not iced yet. The rugby pitch idea is a bit flat – literally. I need to liven it up. Goalposts aren’t enough. Have you got any ideas?”

“Marzipan naked women,” I suggested, since she wanted me to.

“Hah! Then you’re making them, Lannie.”

“Sure. I’ll bring them on the day. Nice and voluptuous.”

In the event, though, I didn’t. My marzipan ladies looked like incredible hulks so I painted rugby kit on them with food colouring and turned them into a front row.

On the day of Hugh’s party, I carried them into the club on top of the tray of Madderlow Mud Pie, which, to my relief, was almost equalling sticky toffee pudding in popularity at the Woolpack. Some good news for a change to tell Charlotte.

I was in the club all afternoon, making rice and pasta salads along with the teas, and cooking up a vat of rogan josh while the late players left and early guests arrived. Often they were the same people, with a quick change of clothing. Niall, in a tomato-red shirt, sniffed at the vat in suspicion.

“That’s not our tea, is it?”

“It’s Hugh’s curry.”

“That smells all right,” said Brendan. “Could you do that for the Woolpack?”

“If you like.” I’d already suggested it, and Rhoda had turned me down. Too exotic. She’d turned down the broccoli and stilton soup as well, and even the Derbyshire oatcakes with black pudding and red onion jam that were all the rage in the Fylington pubs. But I was getting fed up of defrosting dinners. I wasn’t going to play dead any more. Once this party was out of the way, it would be monkfish plaki, goats’ cheese tart and pomegranate semifreddo, whether Rhoda liked it or not. All in those daft little towers. That’d show her.

The club was no longer weighed down with its fearsome Christmas garlands but more buoyantly decorated with clumps of silver helium balloons doing their best to uplift every table. Bob arrived in a startlingly bad Hawaiian shirt with a crate of fizzy wine. Niall’s kids skidded in their socks across the dance floor, the boys in fancy waistcoats and little dicky-bows although children weren’t supposed to be invited. AnneMarie watched them absently, cigarette in hand, as if they weren’t hers, even when Cormac bowled over the loudspeaker which was already only held together with parcel tape.

“Give me a hand with the tables?” I suggested to her. AnneMarie raised her eyebrows and then reluctantly followed me out the back to where the trestle tables were stacked.

“This is man’s work,” she said. “We shouldn’t be doing it.” I couldn’t tell if she was joking. I hadn’t really got to know AnneMarie, although she turned up every Saturday except when her name was on the tea rota. She hardly ever spoke to me.

We carried one table in and she let her end go just inside the door. I waited while she calmly picked a cobweb off her silky trousers. She looked very classy in a distant, Nordic way: her skin was pale against a fitted silk blouse of midnight blue, a silver cross like a shard of moonlight dangling from the thinnest of chains. I thought it was more a statement of style than religion. As for me, I’d decided against my smart top in favour of jeans and the rugby club T-shirt, the same as Becki’s outfit, only not so tight. I might have been Becki’s thinner, quieter twin.

“I’ll be doing this till I’m fifty,” said AnneMarie wryly. I was struggling to unlatch the table legs, but she didn’t try to help.

“Doing what?”

“Shifting the bloody furniture around here. Doing teas.”

“I didn’t know you did teas,” I said, sarky.

“Not any more, thank God. That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it? Where was it you worked before?”

“Manchester.”

“And you like cooking for dozens of sweaty men?” She pulled elegantly on her cigarette, although theoretically smoking was banned inside the club.

I shrugged and wrestled the table into place. “I’m don’t care who I’m cooking for.”

“You could do better than this, though, surely?”

“Than what?”

“Than being a cook. All that bloody drudgery. Don’t you get sick of it?” She sounded weary and incredulous.

“Ah, but I’m not a cook, I’m a chef,” I said. “Cooks just slap things on plates. Chefs are artists, doing their customers a favour by bestowing their talents upon them.”

“Michelangelo rather than a painter and decorator?”

“Got it in one. So what do you do?”

“I was in HR,” said AnneMarie shortly. “Before the kids. Now I’m just a dogsbody. Taxi service. Swimming, football, piano, gym. And rugby.”

“You don’t have to come down here every Saturday.”

She pulled a face. “Niall likes me to. And now Taidhgh’s playing for the under-tens, and Cormac wants to start next year, so that’s Sundays out the window, what with Mass as well. Be thankful you’re not a mother.”

I didn’t bother pointing out that, mother or not, I worked Saturdays and Sundays too. “Get Niall to bring them down.”

“I couldn’t do that,” she said flatly. I didn’t see the problem. Wives and girlfriends weren’t obliged to come. Quite a few had turned up this evening that I’d never seen before: Bob’s wife, who introduced herself as Mrs Bob, and told me, more warmly than AnneMarie, how thankful she was to be rid of teas; and Flipper’s wife, a large and cheerful girl called Molly whom I took to immediately. She and Becki helped me set out the rest of the tables, while AnneMarie drifted away.

“She’s a lazy cow,” said Becki.

“She’ll hear you.”

“Do I care?” Becki hoisted a table round though ninety degrees and whisked a paper tablecloth over it with a practised flourish. “So who you going to dance with tonight?”

“Anyone who’ll ask me,” I said. I like dancing.

“Why wait to be asked?”

“True. Are you going to dance with Niall again?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

“And risk getting KK all upset like on New Year’s Eve? Could start a riot.”

Becki snorted. “KK enjoys getting upset. It’s his idea of a good time. He didn’t need to get so wound up, it was only a bit of fun. Anyway, it was AnneMarie I was trying to wind up, not KK.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s such a bloody killjoy is why. I’ve done her loads of favours and she still treats me like shit.”

“What sort of favours?”

“Not so much as a thank you,” said Becki. “Don’t think I’ll bother next time. I’ll dance with Brendan instead. That’ll wind Rhoda up good and proper. Stupid cow. She cut me dead on New Year’s Eve, you know.”

“What for?”

“How would I know? I was only trying to be nice. But she leads poor old Brendan a dog’s life. He’d leave her if he had any sense.”

“I told you, Rhoda’s not well,” I said.

“She’s putting it on. She just wants Brendan to feel bad.”

“No, really, Becki. She’s really not well.”

Becki stared at me, then shrugged. “Whatever. You gonna dance with Frank? They say gay men make the best dancers.”

“Becki, I don’t think he’s gay.”

“All that funny business, though, about that friend of his who died,” she persevered. “What’s that all about? It’s a bit weird, isn’t it? And Frank’s never come on to me.”

“So what does that prove?”

“I’m just saying it’s unusual,” said Becki. “Most of them do, some time or other.” She said it with pride. Becki was sexy, her elasticated bulges transformed by her spirit. She was a lot sexier than AnneMarie. Elegant though AnneMarie was, she didn’t look like she felt inclined to give anyone a good time.

“Frank’s got a girlfriend,” I said.

Becki snorted again. “She doesn’t count. Have you met her? Like a bloody nursemaid, with padlocks. I bet she wears a fucking chastity belt. Christ, here she is. I’m going.”

Becki dived off to the bar. I set out paper plates and napkins and pretended not to notice the woman approaching me until she said,

“Hallo. I’m Sue. Frank’s Sue. I gather you’re Lannie.”

I looked up. “That’s right.” She was neat: neat brown dress, neatly waved brown hair, neat smile that drew her mouth up while her unsmiling hazel eyes looked me up and down.

“How is the house suiting you?” she asked. She spoke out of one side of her mouth.

“Fine.”

“I’m afraid it is very basic and rather old-fashioned.”

“It’s fine,” I repeated. “I’m very grateful to Frank for the use of it.”

“You haven’t thrown anything away, have you? I left some Laura Ashley china in a box upstairs.”

“I haven’t thrown anything away.”

“I gather Frank’s started on the living room. At last! I’ve been on at him for ages.”

“Yes, but he hasn’t got very far yet.”

She raised her eyes heavenwards and shook her head. “Trust Frank. I expect it’s a terrible mess. I shall have to come round and supervise. I keep telling him, the house needs to go on the market by the summer.”

“You’re definitely going to sell it?”

“Or possibly rent out, at market prices.” It took me a few seconds to realise that this was a dig at my peppercorn rent. “My flat’s handier for work, and much better equipped.”

“New flat, is it?”

“It’s a Georgian style terrace in Macclesfield. Cheltenham Mews. It’s got a Carlucci kitchen, a walk-in wardrobe, and underfloor heating.”

“Lovely.”

“Well, compared to that old back boiler!” The mouth smiled neatly. “I did try staying there, but it was so uncomfortable. I’m sure there are mice.” She lowered her voice. “And Frank’s grandmother still lingers.”

“Really?” I said, annoyed. “You think so?”

“Oh, yes. The smell. The whole place is just so old lady.”

“You knew Nan?”

“Oh, no. She died before I met Frank.”

“How did you meet him?”

“He dropped a paving stone on his foot. I was a staff nurse in A and E.” She smiled again, on one side only, and raised her eyebrows in a way that said, Men!

“Men,” I said. “Excuse me, I need to put these out.” I picked up the salad bowls.

“Can I help?” She was already rearranging the plastic cutlery.

“No, they’re fine, thanks.” Oh, Frank, why?

“Just tell me if there’s anything I can do.”

“There’s nothing at the moment.” I picked up my big knife and waved it vaguely at her, but since Charlotte hadn’t yet arrived with the quiches and I couldn’t cut up the salad, I had to put it away again. Anyway, I was being unfair. She seemed perfectly nice and efficient. I went to the bar to get away from her.

“Bloody patronising cow,” said Becki.

KK beckoned me over. He leaned on the bar and looked into my eyes. His were deep brown, like a begging dog’s. “Cake?” he said.

“Charlotte’s bringing it.”

“No, the beetroot cake.”

“Ah. Sorry, KK. It didn’t work. Beautiful colour, quite amazing actually. Good moist texture. It’s just…”

“Yes?”

“It’s beetroot,” I said. “There’s no disguising it.”

“You didn’t bring any?”

“No.”

KK sighed, and I felt bad. Luckily he was distracted by a crowd demanding drinks. Charlotte teetered in with a pile of platters and cake tins. I hurried over to help her.

“Charlotte? Are you okay?”

“Never better,” she said breezily.

“Look, I wish I could–”

“Honestly, Lannie, I’m fine. I’m going to have a good time tonight, and so are you. Forget everything else. Now, what do you think of the Cake? It turned out very green.”

“It should be brown,” I said, “if it’s anything like the pitch outside.” I set about arranging my front row on it, marzipan arms around each others’ shoulders.

Charlotte gave a cry of pleasure, but not at me. “Here he is! The birthday boy!” She ran over to hug Hugh who was strolling in with a cluster of unknown friends, to shouts of “Road-Runner!” from the players. He looked very smart and sixties in a black polo-neck jumper, James Bond-style, and good-humouredly ran the gauntlet of handshakes, hugs, and presents that piled up rapidly in his arms like a runaway game of Tetris. Most of the presents were either rude or alcoholic.

His friends nestled themselves into the prime corner seats despite Bob’s glass already being on the table. They were Cheshire Set: slick young men and identikit blonde girls with strappy dresses and highly processed hair. One of them sniffed the air, which had its usual reek of mud and liniment, said something and laughed.

“Bloody snooty cow,” said Becki, in not quite enough of an undertone.

“That’s Hugh’s girlfriend,” said Charlotte evenly. “That’s Tamara.”

“Tamara and Tamara and Tamara, creeps in this petty place,” recited Flipper.

“Tamara never comes,” added Bob. “Whoops.”

“Bloody stick insect,” huffed Becki. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” She thrust forward to give Hugh a lavish, busty hug and insisted on him unwrapping her gift of suggestive boxer shorts. I gave him a more discreet kiss on the cheek and a bottle of Californian wine, bought from Brendan (“no bugger drinks it anyway,”) and then went back to my kitchen to put things in ovens. The lanky DJ turned the music up and the lights down until Bob went over for a quiet word and suggested he put both in reverse, right now, because people wanted to talk and not in the bloody dark.

I checked the baked potatoes, stirred the rogan josh and listened to Niall holding court to a group of younger players. He was having an Oirish day.

“–I’ll race that any day, says Greavesy, and he gets hold of the greyhound–”

“Straining at the leash,” said AnneMarie flatly.

“–straining at the leash, and lets it go. And it goes tearing off across the pitch–”

“Like a bat out of hell,” said AnneMarie.

“–like the hounds of hell were on its heels, instead of just old Greavesy thudding after it in his size twelve boots.”

“He soon gave up,” said AnneMarie.

“He didn’t last long, but the dog just streaks across the pitch and makes straight for the opposition fly-half and starts nipping at his ankles. Well, you’ve never seen anyone run so fast–”

“Started dancing up and down,” said AnneMarie.

“He started dancing up and down like a demented monkey and then he takes to his heels and tears off to the touchline with the bloody dog snapping at his heels all the way. And when he got there, Greavesy turns and says to Will–”

“Will said to Greavesy.”

“He said, well, somebody can run faster than a greyhound but it sure as hell ain’t you,” said Niall triumphantly. Everyone laughed except AnneMarie. She leaned against a table and stared at her cigarette smoke.

Sue was talking earnestly to Frank and Drop-goal. Brendan, Bob and Flipper were getting stuck in at the bar while their wives had formed a comfortable posse in the second-best corner. Bob occasionally glowered at the Cheshire Set, who were all buying Hugh lurid cocktails of oily blue and green bedecked with paper parasols and cherries. KK served them up with a scowl. Becki snook over to the kitchen, pretending to get ice.

“KK’s in a stinking mood,” she said. “I can’t do anything right.”

“What’s up with him?” I hoped it wasn’t the beetroot cake.

“God knows. I reckon he’s feeling his age. He had his thirtieth here last year.”

“Any good?”

“Yeah, bazzing do. Everyone got rat-arsed and Danny threw up on the dance-floor.”

“Bazzing,” I said.

“Yeah.” Becki slid away to greet the Killick brothers, who were looking disconcertingly suave and handsome in jackets. I glanced over at Frank. Scruffy jumper, no jacket. I was surprised Sue hadn’t forced him into one. They just didn’t match, that pair; they were as incongruous as a bad menu. Frank was solid yet somehow incomplete, a Yorkshire pudding without a filling; whereas Sue was baked cod – boringly wholesome and totally wrong as an accompaniment.

I looked over at Brendan propping up the bar. Roast ham, obviously. Rhoda, laughing at something with Mrs Bob, was mustard, so those two matched all right. As for Hugh – well, he was fresh bread and cheese, like Charlotte. Didn’t know what Tamara was. Probably a stick of celery. Damn. That went with bread and cheese too well.

My gaze drifted over to KK. He was a large steak, rare, but Niall was a banana. And AnneMarie? I didn’t know. She was as sharp and shielded as a crayfish. A yabbie, only much less fun.

The crayfish leant over the counter to offer me a glass.

“Top this up with water for me?”

“You driving?” I said sympathetically.

“I’m on medication. It doesn’t mix with alcohol.” AnneMarie dabbled the ladle into the curry. “Smells good,” she said drearily.

“I hope so. You all right?”

“Headache. I didn’t want to come.”

“Then go home again,” I said.

“No point. What’s there to do at home?” She let the ladle sink, before lifting it to dredge the curry again. Then she said suddenly, with unexpected vehemence, “For Christ’s sake, Lannie, don’t you get stuck here. Don’t get bogged down in the mud like I have. You’re young. You can go anywhere you like. Christ. See the world.”

“I will, eventually.”

“It’s too late for me.”

“That’s rubbish, AnneMarie.”

“It’s bloody motherhood, it sucks you in, it’s like wading through an endless bog and you just keep sinking,” she said viciously.

“You don’t have to sink.”

“Oh, you do, if you’re trying to be a good bloody Catholic wife and mother. It’s a bloody stranglehold. There’s no escape until you die.” She took her water and turned away abruptly. I was glad her kids were out of earshot. If it was Prozac she was on, it wasn’t working.

Charlotte came bounding over, wanting to serve up. “No-one’ll dance until they’ve eaten. And you can relax once it’s served. You shouldn’t be stuck back here.”

“I’m happy back here.” The kitchen was familiar territory. Out there was still another country. I was happy doling out the curry and juggling potatoes, happy rearranging sausage rolls and salads into ever shrinking piles on fewer and fewer plates: unhappy when all was eaten, and until Charlotte declared puddings and Cake, there was nothing left to do.

But Charlotte wanted everyone up dancing first.

“I wish that lot would stop buying Hugh drinks,” she confided in me. “He’s too nice to refuse, and he’s going to end up absolutely blotto. I know the signs. He’s drunk already, and he’s terrible with hangovers. I want to get him up and dancing.”

So I grumpily stuck the mud pie back in the fridge until some unforeseen hour when everyone would be too drunk to appreciate it. The DJ turned the sound back up and the lights down and soon the dance floor was vibrating and no conversation was possible, only shouting. Bob was bounding dangerously up and down yelling “Pogo!” while Mrs Bob, next to him, covered her face. I could see Sue trying to persuade Frank to dance, and Frank refusing.

Niall pestered me repeatedly for a dance, and when I declined, went to pester Molly instead, despite AnneMarie’s cool presence only yards away. Maybe AnneMarie didn’t dance. Tamara pulled Hugh up, to Charlotte’s relief, and began to teeter around with him.

“Look at her! She dances like a bloody Barbie doll,” said Becki loudly. Flushed and angrily excitable, she was jiggling up and down, but when she tried to drag me onto the dance-floor I shook my head.

“Not to this.”

She harried a couple of yoof onto the floor instead. I went down to the side door for some relief for my eardrums, and joined a clump of people standing outside under the car-park lights to drink and talk. A steady trickle of men walked past us, round to the wheelie-bins at the back.

“They’re not, are they?” I said. “What’s wrong with the toilets?”

“Traditional,” said Frank. “Especially for forwards.”

“Uncouth lot,” said Flipper. “Need keeping in check.”

“I suppose you think that’s your job,” growled KK.

“Naturally.”

“Typical bloody scrum-half.”

“Scrum-halves are like babies,” Frank informed me. “Small, bald, loud, think the world of themselves and love to be the centre of attention.”

“And irresistible to women,” added Flipper with a grin. “Ain’t that so, Lannie?”

“I’m sure you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right! The scrum-half is always right! The hub of the game and the brains of the team,” declared Flipper.

KK picked him up and saying, “Excuse us,” carried him away into the dark in the direction of the bins. There was a yelp and a clatter before KK returned, brushing his hands. “Has to be done sometimes,” he said apologetically.

“I suppose all the backs are poncing around on the dance-floor through there?” growled Brendan.

“Mostly. Bob’s pogoing.”

“Oh, Christ. Safer out here.”

But I heard the music switch to Marvin Gaye, and went back in, pulled irresistibly by the grapevine. Northern Soul used to be my thing. So when Becki yelled “Come and dance!” I pulled my hair free of its bobble and headed for the dance floor. With that sort of music, you can belong anywhere.

Hugh was jogging around in a state of drunken contentment with Tamara, who was doing a lot of self-satisfied hip-wiggling. Becki, eyes dark and wild, pulled a face at her and shouted in my ear.

“I’m going to ask for Road Runner. You up for it?”

I nodded, because I guessed what she meant. When Road Runner started up, Becki and I with one accord moved over to Hugh and started slinking around him. Becki wasn’t very subtle. She was doing her best to outslink Tamara, brushing her chest against Hugh’s and sliding her legs up and down his.

I was busy listening to the music, but I probably wasn’t very subtle either, since I learnt my dancing technique off Shanice and Kayla, the coolest girls in year 10, for whom dancing was a blood sport. They shook their stuff every lunchtime on the sports hall steps, majestically ignoring the whoops of the watching boys. They were tolerant of me, despite my skin being too white – although Mrs Long next door disapprovingly muttered that I had a touch of the tar-brush, a term she must have inherited from her delightful parents. I longed for that touch of the tar-brush. It would have proved my father wasn’t really my father. I pretended I was Shanice’s little half-sister, and copied her every sinuous move.

This time I was Becki’s sister. She grinned at me and winked as she ground her hips against Hugh’s. By the time Road Runner segued on to Beyonce, Hugh was sweating, Tamara was steely-eyed and tight-lipped, and the crowd was cheering. Becki loved it. When I walked off the dance-floor after three minutes of being Crazy In Love with Hugh I was immediately accosted by four of the yoof who wanted to dance with me. Obviously not too subtle, then. I turned them down.

“By heck,” said Brendan, looking startled.

“Just a bit,” said Frank. I gave them a big grin.

“Bloody hell,” said Bob, “the sun just came out.”

I felt good. I felt like I was coming back into my own skin after a long absence. This was what I used to be like, cheerful and carefree. I felt the past slide off my shoulders onto the sticky floor.

I wanted to dance again. When KK came over and asked me, I accepted, though also because of guilt over the beetroot cake. KK was a good mover despite his size. Becki had captured Niall and was twining herself around him. I moved diplomatically so that KK was facing the other way and we jigged and laughed through a selection of ancient disco together until Charlotte rushed over mouthing, “Cake! Pudding! Cake!” and I followed her back to the kitchen.

We pulled a table on to the dance floor. Charlotte fenced the Cake with candles and Becki produced my red Zippo lighter to set it aflame.

I leant on the bar and listened to the speeches by Niall (too long,) Hugh (just about coherent,) and Jamesy, the first-team captain (very funny). Tamara applauded them all, clapping her hands prettily as Hugh used my big knife to cut the Cake. She was rather lovely in a holiday brochure sort of way: delicate little features and a good even tan for the middle of January.

“I’ll bet that dress cost three hundred quid,” muttered Becki behind me. “At least. And I’ll bet it’s not her money.”

“You don’t know that.”

“She’s just a gold-digger.” We watched Tamara trit-trot over to the bar, where she ordered two Number Nines and a Hayley’s Comet.

“What the fuck are those?” demanded Becki.

“Stop swearing at the customers and look in the book,” said KK. He asked Tamara, “You sure? They’ll cost you.”

Tamara shrugged. “It’s only money.”

“Which one’s for you?” asked Becki.

“The Hayley’s Comet.”

“Fattening, that one,” said KK.

“I think I can take it,” said Tamara. Her glance flickered over Becki’s bulges. Becki drew herself up, eyes flashing, but before she could come out with a retort Tamara was trit-trotting away again.

Becki slammed the book of 101 Cocktails down on the bar and began flipping through the pages so roughly they tore.

“Bloody bleached twiglet,” she muttered. “So she thinks she can take it, does she? Anorexic little weasel. Jesus, butterscotch liqueur? Where does she think she is, the fucking Ritz?”

“Use Tia Maria,” growled KK. “And stop abusing the customers.”

“I can say what I like,” said Becki.

“Not at my bar you can’t. And you can’t do as you like either.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what I’m on about.”

“You mean Niall?” She put her hands on her hips.

“And the rest,” said KK. “Just have a bit of discretion, for Christ’s sake.”

“Who do you think you are, my Dad?”

“Thank God I’m not,” said KK.

Becki drew herself up, but her reply was drowned out by Charlotte’s cry of “Puddings! Pudding, everybody!” I went to slice them up as she tried to chivvy the dancers into a queue. They kept escaping, like sheep.

Becki appeared at my shoulder. “Borrow some cream?”

“What’s that? It looks like something you’ve scraped off the pitch.”

“That’s Madam’s drink. Tia Maria, Bailey’s, Crème de Cacao, and some extra ingredients.” She scraped a large spoonful of fudge sauce off my mud pie and added it to the glass together with a generous gloop of cream.

“Jesus. You trying to give Tamara a heart attack?”

“If only,” said Becki, stirring it all up with a plastic knife.

Charlotte was having trouble persuading people they wanted pudding. I went round the tables offering samples.

“Oh, it’s too late to eat now,” said Sue.

“Too full,” said Bob.

“Ooh no, we’ve got to watch our weight,” chanted the Cheshire starlets, patting their flat stomachs complacently.

“There’s Tia Maria in this,” complained Tamara. Hugh took the glass off her and swigged. “S’fine,” he said.

“Well, what kind of a barmaid hasn’t heard of a Hayley’s Comet?” argued Tamara.

“A rugby one,” I said. “We’re geared for beer.”

I was annoyed. Most of my mud pie was going to be wasted. I was annoyed with Charlotte for delaying the puddings, annoyed with Frank for dancing with horrible Sue, annoyed with Niall who was holding forth and stopping his audience eating my pie, annoyed with AnneMarie for letting her whining kids stay up so late and foul the carpet with stray sausages, annoyed with Hugh for blithely knocking back the rest of the Hayley’s Comet and everything else in sight, annoyed with Tamara for being thin and pretty, and annoyed with myself for being so annoyed.

I spotted Charlotte weeping softly over the demolished Cake, and went to give her a guilty hug.

“It was a lovely Cake. Everything’s been brilliant, Charlie.” But it turned out she was weeping because her mother, who lived in Spain and played golf, wasn’t seeing Hugh for his birthday and although Hugh didn’t care, Charlotte did.

I hugged her tighter. Poor Charlotte, wanting everything to be perfect. As the DJ started up the smoochy music, I went over to persuade Stevo to ask Charlotte to dance, which he did willingly. The entire group around Niall, deciding that even Lady in Red was preferable to listening to Himself banging on, dived as one onto the dance floor which was soon overflowing with unsteadily clinging couples.

Brendan and Rhoda waltzed. She was a good mover. When she twirled and smiled saucily at him I saw a sparkle in her that had been invisible to me before. Tonight she looked years younger, and Brendan looked happy. Bob was asleep on a bench. Niall, grumpy at being ignored, stormed off to shout at the DJ.

KK wriggled through the crowd and asked me to dance. A close dance with KK was unexpectedly pleasant; so stirring, in fact, that I had to remind myself of Brendan’s warning against getting involved there. KK was complicated. Though I was beginning to feel alive again, I didn’t need complications yet. So I politely shook him off, tied my hair back and went to clean up in the kitchen. Becki was helping herself to mud pie with my knife. Nice that somebody was.

When I began to clear plates I found that two-thirds of my puddings were not only uneaten, but also unusable for the pub dinners tomorrow as they’d been messed around and scattered with crumbs. Someone had sat on the remains of the fruit flan, and the coffee roulade was on the floor, being trodden in by the yoof who were leaving en masse in a minibus for a more exciting twenty-first in Macc. The Cheshire set, apart from Tamara, drifted away with expressions of relief to their pads in Wilmslow and Prestbury.

“Want a lift home in ten minutes?” asked Brendan, his arm around Rhoda whose sparkle had mellowed to a happy glow.

I shook my head reluctantly. “I’ll stay and clear up. I can always share a taxi with Becki.”

The crowd continued to thin. AnneMarie eventually carted out her sleeping children to the car. Only a few determined stragglers remained on the dance floor, as I piled plates and scraped things into bin bags. Straightening up with the remains of the coffee roulade, I glimpsed KK throwing a punch at Niall. There were shrieks and curses; Bob woke up and shouted “Ninety nine!”

“Bloody hell,” said Stevo, holding them apart, “Behave yourselves, the pair of you! This is Hugh’s night. Don’t spoil it for him.”

“Too late,” said Frank. He propped up a limp and sodden Hugh whose arm was draped around his shoulder. “I’ve just prised him off the car park. Someone needs to take him home. Whose car shall I put him in?”

“Get house,” said Hugh indistinctly, before his eyes closed. His James Bond jumper was splashed with vomit, as were Frank’s sleeves. Tamara took proprietorial hold of Hugh’s arm, and his eyes opened again.

“Chicken bitch,” he said. Tamara recoiled.

“Oh, Hugh,” sighed Charlotte. “Don’t worry, Tamara, I’ll take him home and sort him out. Come on, Hugh, we’ll get your clothes in the washer and you into bed.” Hugh collapsed onto the floor, and Frank picked him up in a fireman’s lift and carried him out despite Hugh being no lightweight. Sue strode efficiently and Tamara pattered helplessly after them.

That seemed to be the impetus for the last dregs to leave: five minutes later the only people remaining were Bob and Mrs Bob, Niall and KK, who weren’t speaking to each other, and the DJ.

I began to clear up, again. I seemed to have done the rounds sixteen times with the bin-bags, and the only person helping was Mrs Bob. To cap it all, I’d lost my big knife which I was sure I’d left by the Cake. My heart sank. That knife had cost a lot of money. I’d been a fool to leave it out.

Hunting under the tables, I found only a detritus of pastry, napkins and empty bottles. I had four more full black bin-bags by the time I’d finished, and was silently cursing Becki, AnneMarie and all the other ingrates who’d buggered off and left me and Mrs Bob to it.

I lugged two of the bags out into the cold and round the back to the wheelie bins, treading carefully because there was a splattery feel underfoot and a stench of vomit and fresh urine. As I came round the side of the club I saw stretched out a dead, pale bird, a swan I thought at first, then realised it was a goose, poor thing, maybe caught by a fox foraging round the bins. Its feathers were covered in a stain that I realised must be blood.

“What a bugger,” I said. I stepped over its body and saw Becki, sitting up against the far side of the bin, her head dropped forward.

“Becki? What are you doing?”

I bent down to shake her shoulder and her head rolled frighteningly. Her mouth was open, her eyes closed. She looked tired and sad. By the uncertain glow of the car park lights I saw the darker stains all over her dark, torn T-shirt, and her neck, painted with black trickles down the right side. I pulled my hand away abruptly. It was wet.

“Oh, Jesus, Becki,” I said. “Oh, Becki, Jesus.”

A familiar knife lay on the ground beside her. I didn’t pick it up. Instead I gently touched her sticky neck, feeling for a pulse. It took me a while to be certain. But I was certain anyway. I laid my finger on her cheek, smearing it with blood where before it had been pristine.

“Jesus, Becki,” I whispered, but I was talking to myself.

 

Chapter Eleven

Grimshaw

 

“What about the goose?”

Detective Sergeant Grimshaw sat casually cross-legged opposite me, looking unnaturally dapper for three o’clock in the morning. We each held a mug of instant coffee that he’d made in the club kitchen. I couldn’t drink mine.

Outside, the scene of crime people were still busy bagging and photographing. Their lights flashed whitely through the far window. I didn’t know if they had yet taken away Becki’s body, and I didn’t want to ask.

The DJ was gloomily packing his equipment up at last. Bob and Mrs Bob had been allowed to go home, and KK had just departed for his flat upstairs. Through the double doors at the far end of the club Niall was silhouetted, still talking to Detective Inspector Cole in the small bar. DI Cole, a large, brisk lady with expressive eyebrows, had already asked me all the expected questions: times, knives, movements. She had been very courteous, almost gentle. I hoped I had given the expected answers.

But I wasn’t allowed home yet. DI Grimshaw had offered me a lift in an indefinite while. Just a little informal interrogation first.

“What about the goose?” I said. “They graze on the playing fields.”

“Its throat was cut. Do you ever cook goose?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“No demand, except at Christmas. You wouldn’t cook a wild goose, anyway. Could have parasites or something.” Poultry weren’t my thing.

“Why would someone kill a wild goose, do you think?”

I shook my head. I didn’t care about the goose. I kept seeing Becki’s sad face, mouth open, eyes closed, propped against the bin. I’d never seen Becki sad before. The goose wasn’t in the picture.

I made an effort, staring down at my cold coffee. “Becki used to feed the geese. They would come over to her looking for scraps,” I said. “Maybe the goose gave the alarm, and the murderer had to shut it up. Geese can make a terrible noise.”

“Yes, the Romans used them as guard dogs, didn’t they?” said DS Grimshaw conversationally. “A good point. Possibly it got in the murderer’s way. Or maybe someone trying to catch the goose was disturbed by Becki.”

I looked up. “You mean, a poacher?”

“How much would a goose be worth?”

I made a random guess. “Maybe sixty quid before Christmas. But nothing now.”

“Forensics should tell us the order of events,” he said smoothly. He was slick, well-dressed, good-looking and gallingly alert. “You didn’t hear a goose?”

“No chance, with the music and everything.”

“Was it loud?”

“Loud enough.”

“So what about the goose?”

“Christ, how should I know?” I was fed up with this goose. “Maybe the goose tried to save Becki. Maybe Becki killed the goose. Maybe someone got into an argument with the goose and Becki got in the way.”

DI Grimshaw raised his eyebrows. “That’s rather facetious,” he said coolly. “Did you not care for Becki very much?”

“I liked Becki. She was good fun. She was a good laugh.” I bit my lip.

“Not a good friend?”

“I didn’t know her well beyond the laughing bit,” I said. “I haven’t been here long enough. I got on with her fine.”

“Who didn’t?”

“I don’t know.” This was as irrelevant as the goose. I knew who Becki’s killer was. Although I hadn’t yet told either DI Cole or the Sergeant, I knew I would, eventually. It was just the matter of getting it out which was proving hard. I wished they would ask the right question, so that I could tell them the answer.

“Niall Egan?”

“He liked her fine too.”

“But apparently Joseph Egan didn’t.”

“Joseph… You mean KK? He can be a bit snappy. Nothing personal with Becki, though. Look, I think the goose just got in the way.”

His face was impassive. “Who did Becki dance with this evening?”

“Oh – well, Hugh, of course. Niall. Jamesy, Wayne, Gary Killick, Bob, Winston, Harvey – just about anybody really.” I realised I was doing Becki no service when DS Grimshaw asked,

“Just about anybody? Was that her general way of thinking?”

“I’m talking about dancing,” I said.

“But did she go out with the rugby players?”

“She went clubbing with some of them. I believe she went out briefly with Brad. And Lee. And maybe Winston.” They all belonged to the group who had left early in the minibus. “I don’t know about any others. You’d have to ask around.”

“We will. Was there anyone she didn’t dance with?” It was disconcerting, having all his attention focussed so tightly on me. I think he knew it: one of those people who makes calculated use of their good looks. He expected his handsome stare to disconcert me.

But that wasn’t what threw me off-balance. It was wondering when he’d get around to asking the real question, the only one that mattered; the one I was both waiting for and dreading.

“I’m going to get some water,” I said. “Sorry, I can’t drink this coffee.” My mouth had dried up like a mud puddle in summer. His gaze followed me into the kitchen and out again. Then he repeated his query.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I wasn’t watching. She didn’t dance with loads of people, I expect.”

He said patiently. “But did you notice anyone offended by a refusal to dance?”

“No.” Only now was it slowly dawning on me that, as far as the police were concerned, I must be a prime suspect. Wasn’t that right? Wasn’t the one to find the body always first on the list? And it was my knife, too, though probably covered in the fingerprints of anyone who had helped themselves to a piece of pie or cake. I sipped my water and decided to ask to see DI Cole again as soon as she had finished with Niall.

She had finished now. He bounded out of the small bar, flushed and furious.

“The cheek of it!” he said to me. “The disrespect!” he said to DI Grimshaw. I couldn’t tell if he was referring to the police, or the murderer, until he added, “You can stick your bloody questions up your arse!” and stamped off to get his coat.

I couldn’t imagine how polite and gentle DI Cole had wound him up so. Grimshaw didn’t look much surprised. “Horses for courses,” he said enigmatically. “You all done now, Ben?”

He was addressing a SOCO in a plastic suit, who nodded as he unpeeled a rubber glove.

“For now. The rest’ll wait till daylight.” They both went to talk to DI Cole, and then we were all being ushered out, and I didn’t have a chance to say anything to her after all because Niall was ranting about rights and property as he locked up and flung the spare keys at her.

I found myself in DS Grimshaw’s car with a silent young WPC in the back. When I glanced backwards, I saw a mile of fluorescent tape stretched around the clubhouse, trussing it up like a joint of beef.

“Brocklow?” said DS Grimshaw.

“Yes.” I sat in silence for a moment, then panicked as we drove out of the car park. The longer I left it, the odder it would sound.

“I know who killed Becki.”

“Yes?” He turned the corner carefully.

“Not their name, but I know why. I think they killed her by mistake. I think they were trying to kill me.”

“Why would they want to do that?” His voice was quiet, mildly interested.

“Because I gave evidence in a drugs case.” I took a deep breath. “Salford, a few months back. There were three convictions: Wilton, Nevis and Herron. They got between seven and twelve years each.”

“Uh-huh.” He pulled the car in smoothly by the kerb, switched on the interior light, and took out his notebook. He seemed quite unfazed by my sudden confession. “And you’ve reason to think someone was after you because of this?”

“I know they were. Last November they came to the restaurant where I worked, Tzabo, in Manchester, and threatened me with a gun. The staff drove them away.”

“Did you report this at the time?”

“Er, not as such. There didn’t seem any point.”

He let out a faint sigh of exasperation. “But the staff witnessed it?”

“Yes. That’s why I moved down here, to be safer. Hugh arranged the job for me.”

He drummed his fingers on the notebook.

“How many people knew you worked here?”

“None of my family. None of my friends, except Charlotte. That’s Hugh’s sister. I went to stay with her for a bit, and Karl must have known. Or guessed.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because soon after I left her flat, she got threatening letters and her flat and shop got vandalised. And then the shop got fire-bombed on New Year’s Day. It’s the Fountain Hot Bread Shop in West Didsbury. And earlier that same evening a waiter I used to know saw us all together on Deansgate. Somebody must have followed us. And somebody’s been following Hugh in order to find me here.” My voice was crackling like a badly-tuned radio. Turning my face away, I stared out of the window at nothing. No lights, no stars, just the blackness of hillside in shadow.

“Charlotte was at the party this evening?”

I nodded. “She took Hugh home.”

“We’ll be speaking to her. But why should they have killed Becki instead of you?”

“They mistook her for me.” I saw Becki grinning at me, my twin for an evening. Her last evening. My voice was hoarse as I explained. “We’re both about the same age, same height, we both have dark hair tied back and we were both wearing jeans and the same club T-shirt.” He glanced across at my polo shirt with the club crest on the pocket.

“We’ll need that T-shirt, by the way,” he said. “And the jeans. Sarah will go in with you while you change. Any other reasons?”

“We both took out the rubbish.” And I’d cursed Becki over it.

The WPC, leaning forward, asked, “Why didn’t you tell DI Cole this earlier?”

“She didn’t ask the right questions. I would have, only.”

They waited.

“I was intimidated,” I said. “Not by her, by the whole business. And, I was ashamed.”

He’d already caught on. “Herron. A relative?”

“Karl Herron is my brother.”

“You were ashamed of having a drug dealer for a brother?”

“No. I’m ashamed of what I did. I wasn’t just a witness. I was the principal witness. I was the one who set the whole case off. I was the only reason they got caught and charged and convicted.” I stared out at the darkness, remembering the samples I’d stolen to show to the police, the lists I’d compiled of places, dates, times, names: the photos I’d taken, sneaking round the streets after Karl with my camera. Family snapshots. Outside, the blackness yawned like the mouth of a monster.

“I shopped my brother,” I said.

 

Chapter Twelve

Sock Drawer

 

It was gone four o’clock by the time I crept into Frank’s cold bed, under the glaring eyes of Swamp Thing. An innocent warrior, from another age. I wished I lived back then, in a mythical wholesome black and white past. Restless images revolved in my head: the dead goose, my knife sticking out of the Cake, Niall and KK trading blows, my ravaged mud pie, Tamara’s tight-lipped scowl.

And always back to the big one. Becki with blood all down her neck. I wanted to tell her to wake up and wipe it off. I wanted to rewind twenty-four hours to safety. I wanted a sleeping tablet. Back at Tzabo’s I could have borrowed one off Stef. The crew used dexies to keep flying through the long shifts, and Temazepam to get themselves back down. I tried dexies myself, but I didn’t like the way they made my heart pound, and I stopped after I began to feel spiders crawling underneath my skin on little, scratchy feet. A mazzie would be useful now, though. At home I could have gone and stolen one of my mother’s.

Or I could have bought one off Karl.

It was eighteen months ago that I went home to see my mother, after a long gap away. It was a fairly pointless visit: she didn’t expect or want to see me, but I ended up going out for a drink with some neighbours and slept on the sofa overnight. In the morning, I wandered into Karl’s room looking for clean socks. I always used to borrow his when I lived at home, years ago: it drove him up the wall.

Karl was fast asleep, curled up with his thumb by his mouth as if it had just slipped out. He was twenty-two and looked about thirteen. I opened his sock drawer and there it all was. Temazepam, diazepam, dexies, a lump of hash, some wraps of what I guessed was speed, a plastic bag of white powder. I closed the drawer, went out quietly and put my dirty socks back on.

Two hours later I took him up a cup of tea and sat on his bed to do the sisterly bit. I’m worried about something I found in your drawer, Karl. He told me to fuck off.

“Karl, it’s not clever,” I said.

“Well, I’m not clever, am I?” said Karl, stretching in the bed and closing his bloodshot eyes. “Two GCSE’s? That’s going to get me a long way.”

“Come on, Karl. You can do better than this.”

“Like that job down the warehouse, five quid a week? Give us a break.”

“What’s the white stuff, Karl? Is it heroin?”

He gave me a look of contempt. “I may be stupid, but I’m not that stupid. I don’t do smack and I don’t deal smack. It’s for losers. That stuff’s ketamine.”

I winced. “You’re taking ketamine? It’ll do your head in, Karl!”

“Bollocks. It’s good stuff.”

“It turns people crazy! Don’t you remember that guy in Rakeshaw Street who went schizo and cut up his girlfriend with a machete and put her head in the fridge? Blood all over the place, they said.”

“That wasn’t K. That was angel dust.”

“It’s all the same stuff!” I said desperately. “It’s all horse medicine, it’s designed for animals, not humans!”

“Well, I’m just an animal, aren’t I?” he said with a scowl.

“You will be if you keep on like this! You’ll be pissing yourself, with a head full of monsters!”

“Got plenty of monsters in my head already,” said Karl, glaring at me. “A few more won’t hurt. There’s nowt wrong with special K, and I told you, I don’t do angel dust. I’m not as stupid as you think. I don’t do class A.”

“Yeah, sure. So you don’t do smack or angel dust.” I was getting heated. “Just speed, shit, tranx, dexies and special K? Oh well, that’s all right then.”

“Fuck off,” said Karl.

“Jesus, Karl, haven’t you learnt anything from her downstairs? From seeing her out of her head in a pool of sick and us living off jam sandwiches?”

“Listen.” He sat up in bed. “Listen, Mrs Holier than thou Goody Two Shoes, who never had a smoke or a tab or a drink in her life, eh? – I bet, compared to what our old lady puts away this stuff is nothing. It’s harmless. Mostly I sell speed. What’s wrong with that? It’s just a pick-me-up for the housewives. It won’t make them fall over and puke on their shoes. And there’s nowt wrong with mazzies, or the docs wouldn’t shell ’em out to the little old ladies like fucking smarties. And shit’s good for you, everyone knows that.”

“What about Mikey? What if Mikey finds this lot? Jesus, Karl!”

“Mikey’s got his own gear.”

What?”

“Gas. You didn’t even know that, did you? Wonderful fucking sister you are.”

“He’s sniffing? Christ, he’s copying you, Karl!”

Karl bounded out of bed – his hair all sticking on end, his shoulders broadened now, not tin-ribs any more, though his faded pyjama trousers were ones I remembered from years back – and shouted at me.

“At least I tried to fucking stop Mikey! I took it off him. He’d be better off on hash than that rubbish. Much you care, you’re not even here!”

“I’m cooking fourteen hours a day, split shifts,” I said.

“Yeah, cooking your stupid arse off for chicken shit! Look at this, Miss Clever Clogs!” Karl flung open his wardrobe. It was full. I looked.

“Labels,” I said.

“Too fucking right! Labels you can’t afford! Jam sandwiches my arse!”

“I don’t want labels.”

“And you don’t want a car either, or nice hair, or a new nose? Yeah, right. Or your own restaurant?”

“You don’t drive much of a car.” He had a beat-up old Fiat.

“I’m not stupid,” said Karl angrily. “Not going to flash it around, am I?”

“Is there a lot of money in it, then, buying mazzies off the old ladies and selling them on?”

“Bugger off,” said Karl. “I do all right.”

“Somebody does all right. I bet it’s not you, and it’s not the ones buying gear off you.”

“They do all right.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“All right, look at this then!” Karl leapt furiously at the chest of drawers. Third drawer down, under a T-shirt layer. There were my old measuring spoons, a good set, stainless steel, and another plastic bag of whitish powder. Karl unravelled the top of the bag, licked a finger and poked it in, and held it out to me. “Taste.”

“No, thanks.”

He licked it himself. “It’s glucose. Taste.” I dipped a finger in and licked it. Sugar. I felt like a conspirator in a sweet shop.

“Aren’t I good?” demanded Karl. “Aren’t I nice? I don’t cut with chalk or rat poison, me. I look after my customers. I’m a good guy!”

“You’re an idiot,” I said, and he punched me in the chest.

We hadn’t fought since I was fifteen and he was eleven and still smaller than me. He was only an inch taller than me now, but lean and strong. He can’t have been really trying, because after a minute of wrestling I got him in an armlock on the ragged bit of carpet and sat there for a while, panting, remembering his baby limbs in the bath, his toddler limbs clinging to my back, his boyhood limbs kicking footballs to me. My Karl, the thin little boy with the big eyes, the person I had loved most in all the world – the only person I had ever loved at all, apart from Dave and Charlotte.

I loosened my grip and he twisted round and hit me again, a flat slap to the head. It didn’t hurt much. I stood up.

“I’m going now,” I said. “And I’m taking the spoons.”

“Yeah, fuck off,” said Karl, “back to your little job and your little life.”

“At least I’m not hurting anybody. You can do better than this, Karl. I should turn you in.”

“You grass on me,” he said from the mat, “and you’re dead. I’ve got friends. They’ll see to it. You crawl back to your little cockroach infested kitchen where you belong, go on, little cockroach, leave me alone.”

“I will,” I said.

I told Nicole first. My big sister had her own hairdressing chair by now, in a salon in Carrington, and a flat and a steady partner. She’d detached herself. Her flat had fleas and Jimmy spent his dole money on fags and the dogs, but in her opinion it was way better than home.

“Karl wants to screw his life up, you let him,” she said. “Nowt to do with us. They’re all users or pushers back there. You got out. Stay out of it, Lannie.”

“What about Karl?”

“What about Karl? He’s a grown-up. It’s none of your business any more.”

But it was. Karl was my business. I had made him my business when I was five and he nearly drowned in the bath while my mother was prone on the bed. I had decided there and then that I needed to look after him. He was mine. My Karl, until the age of eleven or so, when he started skipping school and twoccing with his mates and wouldn’t allow anybody near him.

“Well, what about Mikey?” I said hopelessly.

Nicole shook her head. “Mikey’s eighteen. He’s grown up too. He’ll learn. He’ll have to learn. Lannie, just leave it.”

Nicole didn’t like Mikey. He hadn’t been an endearing child. Not easy to love. Easy to pity; but not to love. Not with those little blank eyes and the dribble of snot perpetually running from his snub nose down the long, glum space to his down-turned mouth. The local kids called him Monkey-boy. The teachers called him Special Needs and later on, ADHD, but I don’t think he got any special help at school apart from his daily dose of Ritalin.

But it wasn’t Mikey that decided me. And it wasn’t entirely Karl. I think it was my mother. It was those bottles laid like mines around the house. The devastation they caused. The shrapnel.

And now Karl had a sock drawer full of his own little mines in white wraps and plastic bags. He had turned into an urban guerrilla, going out to bomb people’s homes with them just as ours had been bombed. I wanted to scream at my mother for her dependence and stupidity and carelessness. I wanted to show her what she’d done.

So I shopped Karl.

And now Becki was dead meat.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Cole

 

When I jogged up to the Woolpack, eight hours later, snow was starting to fall. The sky was a close, damp, grey ceiling shedding flakes of plaster. Wet snow stung my cheeks and made the sheep clump together grouchily, turning their backs on me.

Manchester had occasional snow and grey skies and wind (plenty of that, and multi-directional), but seemed better able to keep them under control. Here, the weather was in charge, and the earth. I felt the tarmac was only a fragile skin that might suddenly explode in an apocalyptic volcano of mud, bones and sheep.

Rhoda did not reprove my lateness, simply touched me on the shoulder and got on with carving the roast beef for the Sunday lunches.

“Terrible news,” said Brendan sombrely. “Dreadful to think that… Bastard. Poor Becki. Some wicked people…” He heaved deep sighs as he moved around the near-empty bar, picking glasses up and putting them down again absently. We served only four dinners, to a group of damp hikers who kept glancing disconsolately through the window at the path they must soon continue on.

As they trudged out, the detectives walked in: Cole and Grimshaw. I introduced them to Brendan, who at once turned into Mine Host and began to gush jovially.

“Can I interest you in lunch? We have a very fine beef roast, Yorkshire pudding, all the trimmings.”

“No, thank you,” said DI Cole. “Though coffee would be nice. And a quiet place to sit. We’d like to speak to both you and your wife in a little while. But right now, Miss Herron?”

“I’ll clear the snug for you,” said Brendan. A moment later, Arthur was ejected, his disgruntlement mollified by Brendan mouthing “Police” at him.

“I’ll want the low-down later,” he told Brendan in a stage whisper. The police pretended not to hear.

Settling herself in Arthur’s seat, DI Cole took a swig of coffee and said “Mm” to it doubtfully. Our coffee machine leaked grounds. She sat back in the chair, Auntie come out for Sunday lunch in her best jacket and warm woollen trousers. Her heels were a little high for Auntie, though: DI Cole was really quite fashionable for her age and size, which were both around forty.

More fashionable than me, that was for sure. I sat opposite with my hands on my apron which I kept on as a proof of my chefness, and tried to ignore DI Grimshaw who was pinning me to the stool with his elegant gimlet of a stare.

“You didn’t tell me,” said DI Cole, without accusation.

“No. That’s why I told him.”

“I’ve had a word with Manchester CID.” She shuffled pages in a folder. “John Higson, drugs squad. He remembered you directly, Miss Elanor Herron. ‘Commendable,’ he said. ‘Very public spirited, very brave.’”

I stared at her boots, feeling like I’d been summoned to see the headmistress.

“He spoke to you about the witness protection scheme.”

“Yes.” I’d been blasé at the time. “I didn’t think I needed protection. They weren’t such big fish after all, not really. They weren’t major players.” I should have realised that that didn’t mean that they weren’t deadly.

“Did you encounter any intimidation at the time of the trial?”

I shrugged. The shouts across the courtroom lobby. The whispers, the looks, the stones thrown, the paint daubed on the door. “Nothing major. Nothing actually physical, not until afterwards. Some of them chased me across Piccadilly. And they found my flat and broke a window.”

“And then they arrived at Tzabo’s.”

“Yes. And Charlotte’s shop got fire-bombed.”

“Manchester CID aren’t convinced that’s a connection,” said DI Cole. “Why waste effort attacking your friend’s shop, weeks after the trial? And why would they wait all this time before coming down to the rugby club to find you?”

“Maybe they didn’t know where I was before.”

“Who might have told them?”

“I don’t know. Anyone Charlotte or Hugh might have mentioned me to. I saw a waiter in Manchester last week who knew me.” I related the trip to Ute. Clueless was weighing heavily on my mind. Or perhaps even Alison…

“Mm-hm.” I couldn’t tell if she was impressed by my reasoning or not.

She looked down at her notes, then glanced at DS Grimshaw. At once he slid off his barstool and went out into the main bar. I heard him, indistinctly, talking to Brendan.

“It’s just one line of enquiry,” DI Cole said to me, “and one we will continue to pursue, but not the sole one, obviously. What can you tell me about your employer?”

“Which one? Brendan?”

“Mr Egan, at the rugby club.”

“Niall? He’s… He’s OK.” But I had to say more than that; she was waiting. “He’s a traditionalist,” I said. “A pie and peas man, nothing fancy. Does a lot for the club, apparently. Likes to be involved. His kids play mini-rugby. He’s got a wife.”

“So I should imagine,” said DI Cole, faintly amused.

“I mean, you should ask her.”

“Hardly.”

“Well, I hardly know him.”

“Exactly. That’s why I’m asking you.”

I raised an eyebrow, not following her logic. “He’s a great talker,” I said.

“What was his relationship like with Becki?”

“It was good. She seemed to like him. He seemed to like her.”

“So much so,” said DI Cole, consulting her notes, “that on New Year’s Eve they were seen to be – ah – ‘practically shagging on the dance floor.’”

“Who told you that?”

“That’s irrelevant. Is it true?”

“I wasn’t there,” I said.

“How did Mrs Egan like Becki?”

“I don’t know.”

It was her turn to raise an eyebrow. “You’ve helped out, I gather, on several Saturdays at the club. You’ve been working in close proximity to Becki. Mrs Egan is a regular on Saturdays. You must have seen how the two got on.”

“They got on fine, as far as I could tell.” I didn’t see any reason to repeat Becki’s comments about AnneMarie. “Anyway, AnneMarie doesn’t help behind the bar. She doesn’t help with the teas either.” I couldn’t resist that. DI Cole must have heard something in my voice, because she gave me a long look.

“I mean, I like her fine,” I said hastily, “but she’s, um.”

DI Cole raised the eyebrow again, but failed to supply a suggestion.

After a while she said, “And what about Joseph Egan?”

“Everyone except Niall calls him KK.”

“He doesn’t get on with his brother,” she said.

“Doesn’t he?”

“I gather there was a small fracas last night.”

I wondered who had been talking so freely. “I didn’t see it.”

“And on New Year’s Eve.”

“Well, I didn’t see that either.”

“Of course not. Let’s stick to last night. Apparently the bar till was short of cash. Niall Egan asked Joseph, rather publicly, if he had borrowed any money from the till, and Joseph took exception. Had there been a problem with the till at any other time?”

“Why ask me? You’d better ask–” I bit my lip. The only regular barmaid was Becki. “You could ask Samantha,” I said. “The other barmaid. She wasn’t there last night.”

“Becki mentioned a problem to you.”

“How did you know that?” Too late, I realised that DI Cole probably didn’t, until now. She’d just phrased her question as a statement. “Becki mentioned it once,” I said reluctantly. “She said she thought KK was robbing the till. I don’t think he would, he’s dead straight. Becki tended to make snap judgements about people.”

“About you?”

“What?”

“What was her judgement of you?” Her voice never altered: she always sounded pleasantly interested. Her voice was very soothing. Musical. I wondered if she had children, imagined them climbing into her lap. She wore a wedding ring, but on the wrong finger.

“I suppose Becki thought I was OK,” I said. “I think she quite liked me. I wasn’t.” I stopped, realising I’d started to say something I didn’t want to.

“You weren’t?”

I shrugged. “I wasn’t a problem.” I’d been about to say, I wasn’t glamorous enough, or interested enough in the younger players to pose a threat to Becki. And of course, there was the nose. But I could see that leading me into questions about Becki’s love-life that I wouldn’t know how to answer.

She frowned. “What sort of problem might you be?”

“Um, well, I wasn’t going to take over her job or anything.”

“I see. Thank you. And your employer here?”

“Brendan is a good man,” I said, surprising myself with my vehemence. “And his wife has cancer. They don’t need this sort of hassle.”

“Does she,” said DI Cole, writing in tiny letters.

“Oh, bloody hell.”

“Don’t worry. I realise you told me that in confidence. But it’s useful to know.”

I sat glumly determined to keep my mouth shut from then on.

“Did you notice anyone leave the clubhouse by the side door between one and one-thirty last night?”

“Mm,” I said.

“Pardon?”

“Not especially.”

She studied me for a moment. I kept my mouth resolutely closed.

“Meaning?” she said at last, with the patience of a good teacher.

“I didn’t notice especially. I wasn’t watching. People went in and out the side door all the time, to get a breath of fresh air or to get away from the noise. Or to pee round the back. That seemed to be obligatory. For the men.”

“Did you notice anyone take a particularly long time about it?”

“I wasn’t timing them.”

“Why would Becki go round the back?”

“Taking rubbish out to the bins,” I said. “There was enough of it.”

“Was there any reason why she might take your knife with her?”

“I told you where–”

“Yes, I know you left it beside one of the desserts on the table near the door. Please answer the question.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “unless she just happened to pick it up along with some of the empty plates and stuff.”

“Did you see anyone else holding your knife at any time?”

“Lots of people must have. It’ll be covered with fingerprints.”

She nodded, a touch resignedly. “It is. Mostly smeared. The texture of the handle doesn’t help. We’ll need to take your prints, and unfortunately, a lot of other people’s.” She sighed and pushed back her hair. For the first time, she looked tired. “We will also need to interview a great many people. Did you have a guest list?”

“Hugh did, I expect.”

“I daresay, but he’s in no condition to talk to us at present.”

“Oh God, poor Hugh. What an end to his party. Some people might have turned up who weren’t invited. Somebody did,” I said. “You know, you’re wasting your time interviewing everybody. The only person there that anyone would want to murder was me. This was an outside job.”

“Does anyone here know about your past?”

I shook my head. “Only Hugh and Charlotte. I haven’t told anyone else.”

“Then please don’t mention it to them.”

“But it might make them feel better,” I said, “to know it wasn’t a member of the club.”

“We can’t be sure it wasn’t.”

“We can.” I knew it. And I knew I’d invited him, whoever he was, the bad fairy at the birthday party, wishing horror on Hugh, and on Becki not just a hundred years’ sleep, but a full eternity’s. I turned my face away because I could feel it pulling out of shape.

“Thank you,” said DI Cole gently. “That will do for now.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

Spare Room

 

Becki’s death had odd side-effects. It infected some of the pub’s regulars with garrulous excitement, while others were turned mute and slow.

Rhoda was one of the latter. Next morning she was unusually quiet, softly saying, “Thank you, Lannie,” when I handed her the post, as if I were the bereaved; or maybe as if she was – though I didn’t think she and Becki had been particularly friendly. I certainly hadn’t seen them talking at the party.

I suppose I was creeping around in the same subdued way. While I was trying to unload the dishwasher in deferential silence, there was an abrupt ear-mangling clatter and I turned to see a whole tray-full of clean plates colliding with the floor. Rhoda was leaning heavily on the table where the plates had just been. A piece of paper fluttered in front of her.

“Rhoda! Are you okay?” She was looking taut and yellowish, as if she might faint. I put an arm around her and guided her onto a chair. “What is it? Shall I fetch Brendan?”

She shook her head. “Get me a drink, Lannie,” she said huskily, so I gave her a glass of water and picked up pieces of smashed plate while she drank and closed her eyes. I glanced across at the sheet of paper. It was a letter, short, printed, and official-looking.

“Is it bad news?” I asked tentatively.

“Read it,” said Rhoda in a croak, so I did.

To the bitch at the woolpack, it began.

You ugly heartless self-righteous cow, you were supposed to love him and look after him, not make him suffer. You deserve everything that’s coming to you. I hope it hurts.

That was it.

I turned to Rhoda, whose hands were gripped tightly together. “Rhoda, it’s not for you.” Her obvious shock made me feel quite calm.

“But I do,” whimpered Rhoda, staring, anguished, at the paper.

“You do what? No, you don’t deserve anything, Rhoda – I mean you don’t deserve anything bad. This isn’t meant for you. It’s meant for me.” I almost took her white, clenched hand, but I didn’t think she’d like that, so I just added, “I’m sorry you had the shock of opening it.”

“There was no name on it,” she murmured.

“Where’s the envelope?” I fished the envelopes out of the bin and found the right one amongst the junk mail.

No name. Barely any address, just THE WOOLPACK, FYLINGTON hand-written in angry black capitals. I looked at the postmark. It had taken nearly a week to get here, and no wonder.

I showed Rhoda. “Look. It’s a Manchester postmark. It’s meant for me. I’m sorry, Rhoda. It’s a – it’s from somebody I fell out with before I moved here. It’s not the first letter they’ve written. Sorry.”

“Manchester?” She dragged her gaze towards me. “Boy trouble, was it?” she said, sounding more like herself.

“Um, yes.” It seemed a good enough excuse. I was glad the letter wasn’t more specific, and surprised it wasn’t nastier. Hugh was right; they were quite literate. As I read it through again, I felt its contempt blast over me like the heat of a bread oven. It struck me as the sort of letter a woman might write. Maybe Karl had a girlfriend who couldn’t resist a dig at me. But of course when this was written they were already planning to come and kill me. I hope it hurts. I winced.

“Can I keep this?” I asked, thinking it might be matched to the notes that Charlotte had received. But Rhoda, roused to sudden life, jumped up, whisked the sheet off me and tore it into long shreds which she dropped into the bin. She poked them down deep amongst the teabags and bacon rinds, and piled the broken plates on top.

“There,” she said, breathless. “Best place for that sort of thing. Good riddance. Forget about it, Lannie, case closed. Now then, what are you doing here anyway? It’s your day off.”

“I thought you might want some help.”

“I don’t want any help. There’s not much needs doing. You get out for some fresh air: go for a walk. You’re looking pale.” Her own colour was much better now, and her briskness was returning, so I thought I would obey.

She was right: I needed the fresh air. Outside I drank cold mouthfuls of it. You deserve everything that’s coming to you. The trouble was, it hadn’t come to me.

I needed to be doing something. So I walked to the bus stop and caught the next bus down to Fylington. Two police cars were parked outside the parish hall: I skirted them to get to the library, where I flinchingly scanned the national papers. These had some brief references to Becki’s death, but no names or pictures, and few details. Even those weren’t accurate: Becki’s throat hadn’t been slashed but rather, I thought, stabbed. And so had her chest and shoulders, several times. Blood everywhere. One paper called it a frenzied attack. That was accurate, at least.

I read the report again, more carefully. If the killer was reading it too, he might well think he’d got me and not bother coming back. The letter-writer would be satisfied. The rats would run back to their sewers. My hopes rose, until it hit me with a thud that I was finding a reason to be glad about Becki’s death. Feeling sick, I refolded the paper and went out.

I took more deep gulps of air. I hope it hurts. Well, it did, even if not in the way the writer intended. My head hurt, my throat hurt, my chest hurt so that I could hardly breathe. The air was icy and smelt of damp earth. The smell of the grave. I began to shake. I needed to talk to someone calming, someone unexcitable. I went to seek out Frank.

His yard, I knew, was on the other side of town, and eventually I tracked it down, wedged between the canal and the disused railway line. The canal here was not picturesque. The railway line was even less so despite its thin sprinkling of snow. An attempt to weedkill it had been only partially successful and petrified clumps of brown nettles were interspersed with scrawny saplings. Frank’s yard was vandal heaven, a maze of snow-pocked piles of bricks and lumps of wood and wonky corrugated sheds.

As I walked in, a large dog, half Alsatian, half kangaroo, bounded over to me, yelping in excited panic. Otherwise the place seemed deserted until I spotted somebody moving around in a carport. I clambered over a heap of paving stones to reach him and recognised a brawny member of the first team to whom I’d never spoken as he never stayed on for a drink. He hadn’t been at Hugh’s party. When I asked where Frank was, he replied in a South African accent. “You’ll find him in the office over there.”

The office was a portakabin. It was stuffy and warm with a strong smell of paraffin. Frank was hunched over a yellowing computer that made a strange whirring noise.

“Sounds like the fan,” I said.

“Lannie.” He rested his hands on the keyboard and stared at me. “You all right?”

“Fine.” I felt very far from all right.

“Sit down. I won’t be a minute.” But there was nowhere to sit, so I went back outside and perched on a heap of bricks with my head on my hands until Frank came out.

“Lannie, you look like shit.”

“Thanks, Frank. Can we go for a walk?”

“Where to?” he asked, unsurprised.

“Anywhere. You said you’d take me to Mam Tor some time.”

“Sure,” he said with a glance at the sky: clear, hard blue with a few grey patches, stone-cold and implacable. “Jake can hold the fort for a couple of hours. We’ll take Dottie.” The dog looked at him enquiringly and had to be encouraged into the van. Not the brightest of guard dogs.

It was a perilous drive on icy roads; further than I’d thought. I wasn’t sure if Frank’s van would cope, but it skidded at last into the car park above slopes streaked with sledge marks. When we climbed up to the top of Mam Tor the wind was fierce, trying to knock us off as if we had no right to be there. This was the real Peak District, with a tiny train rattling far below and bare hills bowling away into the distance.

We began to walk along the paved ridge. It was freezing under the angry wind. Dottie loped ahead, recoiling occasionally from her own footprints in the snow. I didn’t know how to start.

“How is Sue?” I asked eventually, although I hardly cared.

“Pretty shaken. Though of course she’s seen all sorts in casualty.”

I felt ashamed. Sue saved lives. Me, I made puddings. No contest. “She seems very nice,” I said, and in a rush of atonement added, “She said she left some china at your house. I’ll have a tidy up and find it for you.”

“She told me off about that parlour wall. I’ll try and come down and finish it some time. Other things keep taking over.”

“Like murders.” I couldn’t help myself.

“So what do the cops think?” said Frank. Although he wasn’t tall, he had a swift stride, as if he was heading for somewhere that might slip out of reach. But he showed no impatience when he had to stop for me to catch up.

“They’re not saying much. Have they interviewed you yet?”

“They came round yesterday morning, asked one or two questions and took away some clothes. But they’re not interviewing me properly till tomorrow. I suppose there are a lot of us to get through.” He looked at me directly. “What do you think happened?”

I still didn’t know what to say. I wanted to find a way of letting him know that it was all my fault and not the club’s, that it was nothing to do with any of his mates. I wanted to tell him about the trial and the tram and the letter I’d just received as proof – if proof were needed – that the gangsters had worked out where I was.

But I found I couldn’t spill out my story. It wasn’t just that I was bound by my promise to the police. I feared Frank’s thoughtful judgement. I was a grass, there was no getting round it. A snitch. A nark. A traitor.

So I said, “Brendan thinks it was someone outside the club who did it. That seems to make sense.”

“Not much sense,” said Frank doubtfully. “Possible, I suppose.” We walked another twenty yards or so before he added, “She could get people’s backs up.”

“Not enough to make them murder her!”

“No. But just say, what if she had the knife, and if she got annoyed with someone – even had a go, you know what she was like – and say they wrestled–”

“Frank,” I said, “she was stabbed several times. That’s not something you do by accident.” I was snappy. I’d come to Frank looking for comfort, and I was finding none.

“I didn’t know that.”

“No. But it wasn’t accidental. That’s why I’m convinced an outsider did it. It was nobody from the club.”

“I don’t want to think it of anyone,” said Frank. “But what I want has nothing to do with what is. KK had a downer on Becki. He said she was too careless, whatever that means. And he thought she was nicking from the till.”

“Did he?” That was the wrong way round, surely. “Frank, you can’t believe KK killed her.”

“I’d hate to think so. But he’s got a temper. And he’s the one the police’ll pull in first, when they see his record.”

“He has a record?”

“GBH. A few years back, but still.”

“What happened?”

“Somebody annoyed him in a pub.”

I thought about this. The rapid walk was slowly warming me: the cold wind didn’t rip quite so hard through my Oxfam coat.

“Niall ever get done for GBH?” I asked.

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Capable of violence, though?”

“Possibly.” We trudged past the battered ribcage of a long-dead sheep, inadequately blanketed by snow. Dottie disdained it.

“It might have been you,” I said, annoyed at him for pointing out possibilities.

“It might. Though it wasn’t.”

“How many of the club members do you reckon are capable of violence?”

“They’re rugby players,” said Frank.

“So all of you?”

“All of us, on the pitch. Maybe not Drop-goal or Henry. But all the forwards, certainly, and most of the backs to a degree.”

“Jesus. The police are going to be busy.”

“On the pitch, I said. That’s non-violent violence. It’s controlled. If you asked me who’s capable of killing a girl with a knife, I’d say none of them. But I’d be wrong. Obviously someone is.” He fell silent for a moment. “Or it could be a woman.”

“The police probably think it’s me,” I said bitterly.

“I’d say it’s unlikely.”

“Oh, thanks!”

“I’d say it’s unlikely a woman did it,” said Frank.

I felt faintly aggrieved. “Not capable of enough violence? Or just not strong enough?”

“Both,” he said. “Though I suppose it could be you. You found the body. Your knife. And knowledge of butchering techniques, after all.”

“Jesus. Can we stop now?”

“Stop walking, or talking?”

The paving stones had given way to mud. It was frozen hard as concrete, ridged aggressively underfoot. “Stop walking,” I said. “Let’s turn around.”

“She wound you up though, didn’t she? Trying to be boss. Wound a lot of people up.”

“It didn’t bother me.”

“Of course, it could be Tamara,” said Frank matter-of-factly.

“What, jealous?” Becki had wound her up all right, that was for sure.

“It’s possible, that’s all, not likely. I can’t see Tamara killing someone she’d only just met. More likely to be someone who’d known Becki for a while.”

“Or who didn’t know her at all. Frank, I’m sure it was an outsider. Tamara couldn’t stab a sausage. It was someone from outside the club.”

“We do get druggies wandering around,” said Frank thoughtfully. “They’ve broken into the yard before; that’s why I keep Dottie.” We both watched the dog cringe as a thin flurry of snowflakes hit her nose. She ran to hide behind Frank’s legs, and he stroked her ears.

“The ultimate deterrent,” I said. “Well, that’s the answer. It’s a drugs crime.” I couldn’t spell it out any more clearly. “Becki was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“No,” said Frank, his brows tight. “She was in the right place, at the right time. Someone else was in the wrong place. It makes me very angry. Let’s stop talking.”

We stopped talking. The only sound was the bluster of the wind. High above us sailed a single paraglider, a small, bright patch of colour stitched to the enormous, unforgiving sky.

The acute slippiness of the path back down to the car park made Dottie slide and yelp. I felt like sliding and yelping too. I wanted busy pavements and warm doorways that smelt of cooking fat. I wanted the shelter of tall buildings and the doleful hoot of the tram and the unintelligible rasp of a news-vendor advertising humdrum murders that had nothing to do with me.

Frank said suddenly, “But how did they get round the back of the club? They didn’t come through the building.”

“They came through the car park,” I said.

“Somebody would have seen them.”

“They came round the other side of the club, then.”

Frank shook his head. “It’s a mess of undergrowth behind that fence, and barbed wire along the top.”

“That wouldn’t stop them,” I said. “It would take more than that.”

He gave me a look. “You sound as if you know who it is.”

“I do. Frank, believe me, it’s nobody in the club. It’s outsiders, I’m sure of it.”

He raised his eyebrows but made no comment. We both fell quiet on the slippery drive home. After he had dropped me off at Nan’s house I felt worse than ever. How was I going to convince anyone that the killer wasn’t from the club?

Then I realised, with a lurch of the soul, that I might just have convinced Frank that it was me. I’d been too vehement about it being an outsider despite the murder weapon being my knife. And oh, God, my knowledge of butchering.

Of course Frank suspected me. They probably all did: new cook arrives in the kitchen, next thing you know her knife’s the chief exhibit in a murder…

My knife. Why the hell had I left it lying there? Why hadn’t I kept it by me? I’d let myself get too relaxed, too carefree, and now Becki’s blood was on my hands.

I couldn’t stand this. I had to be doing something. I jumped up and filled a bucket with soapy water and attacked Nan’s parlour walls like Lady Macbeth, soaking and scraping furiously until the whole house smelt of soggy paper and the walls were as blotchily bare as cold, scrubbed skin.

“What do you think, Nan?” I said. “What do I do now?” Nan did not deign to answer.

I thumped my head with my fists. “Oh bloody hell, Nan, I didn’t do it.”

You did enough, said Nan. They followed you. It’s all your fault. Becki got what you deserved.

“Belt up,” I said. “I know.”

I stomped out of Nan’s domain and went up to Frank’s, the spare room. I would hunt for china, well out of Nan’s earshot. I needed to get away from her. I was fed up of Nan. I shouldn’t be talking to her. It was Becki who was dead, not me.

The spare room smelt of mud. That was the old rugby boots, which were dry and cracked. In a frenzy of tidying I tipped them into a box along with the collection of ripped rugby shirts, shin-pads and a vintage bottle of witch hazel. I stacked window-frames under the window, fire-surrounds against the wall and tiles in a neat tower in the corner, checked the TV, which still didn’t work, and inspected the other bent and broken cartons.

One: inferior fossils, bits of shell embedded in limestone. Two: books – old motorbike manuals, Building Regulations 1998, Cheshire Brick, The Victorian House, Birds of Britain, pages spotted with mildew.

Three: china dinner set, spriggy flowers, nothing special, not worth all the fuss. I set it aside for non-washing before handing over to Sue. Four: ancient cassette tapes, labels hand-written. Muddy Waters. Paul Rodgers. Van Morrison. Beneath them was an antique radio cassette player. I inserted Van Morrison and plugged it in with trepidation. Nothing blew up, though the music sounded metallic and imprisoned. I left Moondance on to play hollowly while I opened the last cardboard box.

A dusty leather jacket. A T-shirt announcing Bradford RFC. A single motorcycling glove, seam split. A bottle of beer, unopened, with a drink-by date of fifteen years ago. A pint pot wrapped in a football scarf. A green school exercise book, inscribed Dean Haddon, 10F. Haddon rocks! R.U.M.B.L.E. I flipped through. Geography. Glaciers, exports, benefits of tourism, laid down in a firm, rather spiky hand. Someone had played dots on the last two pages and drawn an eagle on the back inside cover. A proper eagle, in flight. Not bad. I closed the book.

So this was Dean’s room, his ghost nurtured by Frank all these years. Frank had loved Dean. I repacked the things carefully, opening the T-shirt to refold it. A handkerchief fell out, white but for the stiff brown stains of ancient blood. I saw a motorbike sliding sideways, a man spread-eagled on the crash barrier, soft hills cushioning his head.

More blood. Would I never be free of it? Would Becki’s blood follow me for years to come, haunting me the way Dean’s death haunted Frank?

I couldn’t bear that. I knelt there holding Dean’s blood in my hands, while the silence sang around me.

Time moved on, and left Dean, and Becki, a little further behind. I put the handkerchief and T-shirt back in the box and pushed the lot against the wall, beside That Bloody Motorbike.

 

Chapter Fifteen

Himself

 

“Phone for you, Lannie,” said Rhoda. “I’ll mind the grill.”

“They’re rare,” I said emphatically, knowing it was pointless. Rhoda didn’t believe in rare steak.

But I was anxious to get to the phone, for I thought it would be Charlotte, whom I had spoken to only once since the murder, and then too briefly. Like Rhoda, she had been shocked almost into muteness. We had hardly known what to say to each other. Hugh, I gathered, was even more shocked than Charlotte: dazed, she said, with disbelief. And still hungover, poor Hugh.

But the voice on the phone was neither Hugh’s nor Charlotte’s but Niall’s, speaking in a grating whisper as if he was trying not to be overheard.

“Lannie. I need a big favour.”

“What is it, Niall?”

“Lannie, I need you to get into Joseph’s flat.”

“Whose?” I knew perfectly well.

“KK,” said Niall heavily.

“What for? And why can’t you get into his flat?”

“Ssh! You’re not at the bar, are you? Who’s listening?”

I looked at Brendan, pulling a pint a full two yards away. “Everybody,” I said.

“Well, don’t go repeating everything I say. I need you to get into his flat to check if something’s there. I can’t do it, I don’t have a key any more, and if I call round he’ll suspect I’ve got ulterior motives, what with us not really being on the best of terms right now. But you can invite yourself in.”

“Can I? How?”

“He said he’d been asking you about his baking. Now I don’t understand that at all, that’s woman’s territory and I think Joseph’s making a fool of himself over it, but it gives you a perfect in. Will you do it? Nod if you will. I mean, say yes.”

“No,” I said.

“Lannie, this is important. Remember, I got you the job at the club. I’m calling in the favour now. It’s to do with Becki. What time do you finish tonight?”

“11.30.”

“That’s too late, I can’t meet you then, AnneMarie will be asking questions. I’ll be in touch, I’ll call round, that’s it, at Frank’s house in the morning. You are still living there, aren’t you, or have you moved out yet? That is one strange fella, but I suppose you know your own business. Half-past nine suit?”

“I’ll be out.”

“Ssh! Nine o’clock, then. Why can’t you get a fecking mobile?”

“So I don’t get bothered by calls I don’t want,” I said, chilly.

“Look, I’ve got to go. Don’t tell Brendan. And–” His voice altered. “So I’ll call round tomorrow morning, about nine o’clock, and give you an estimate. That suit you all right, Mrs Smith? Thank you very much.” The phone clunked down.

“Bugger,” I said.

Without looking up from his pint, Brendan enquired, “Niall got a bee in his bonnet, has he?”

“What?”

He shook his head. “Don’t do anything you don’t want to, Lannie. He’s a great one for calling in favours, is Himself.”

“Bugger,” I said, again.

*

Next morning I caught the 8.50 bus into Fylington. It coughed its way past heavy rococo sculptures made of frost: trees and bushes over-iced by a pastry-chef gone mad.

First I bought a mobile phone, cheapest model in the shop, a little white pay and go dumbphone that made the spotty shop assistant gaze at me with incredulous pity. Next stop was Oxfam where I bought a mud-brown jumper apparently knitted out of rope, since Nan’s house wasn’t feeling quite so luxurious as it had at first, and a pair of warm black trousers because it occurred to me that I might need to go to a funeral. I wondered where and when.

My thoughts touched lightly on Becki’s parents and took off again like a fly off a hotplate. I had some notion of how they felt, from that time Karl crashed in a stolen car nearly ten years ago. I came home from college to find the road stunned by flashing blue lights and the car parked inside a wall, surrounded by police and paramedics and a fire engine – the whole works. A neighbour told me it was Karl in the passenger seat. They wouldn’t let me near. I thought he was dead. My world stopped.

It took half an hour to cut them out: Karl had whiplash and concussion, but he’d been wearing his seatbelt, and was otherwise okay. His mate, who hadn’t, wasn’t.

Karl with his seatbelt on. So careful. Karl with his big bag full of glucose. My little brother. Blowing raspberries on his tummy. Feeding him yoghurt. Playing pirates together.

As I came out of the Oxfam shop, a police car trundled past. A second car was parked outside the Parish Hall, where the incident room had been set up. I thought of going in to ask Grimshaw what progress, but decided against it in case he arrested me. Instead I walked on up the road towards the club.

From here I couldn’t see the fence. The car park was deserted. The yellow tape flapped threateningly as I approached. I couldn’t get any further without stepping over it, so I walked around the other side of the clubhouse and looked at the tangle of brambled undergrowth through which they would have had to struggle before climbing over the fence that came right up to the wall below KK’s flat. It wouldn’t have been easy. There was no sign of trampling.

So they must have come the other way after all, around the car park if not across it. I walked a little closer before realising that I would be visible from KK’s balcony window. I stole away before KK, if he was in, could spot me, caught the bus back and arrived at the Woolpack just after 11.

“He’s waiting for you,” said Brendan with a nod at the snug.

“Who is?”

“Himself.”

“Oh, bugger.” There was no escaping now. I slipped into the snug still clutching my Oxfam bags, and perched on the edge of the chair like a social security claimant. “Niall, I’ve got a ton of veg to peel.”

He bent his head down towards mine, a ruddy giant descending on me. The skin on his cheeks was dry and flaking; a winter spent outside up ladders and strung to rooftops.

“It’s really necessary,” said Niall in a rasping rumble. “It’s very important.”

“Why? You can’t think that KK…”

“He’s done things he’s regretted. I need to be sure.”

“Niall, I’m sure. I can assure you that KK had nothing to do with Becki’s death.”

“How do you know?”

I hesitated. “He wouldn’t do it, that’s all. How could you think it of him? Your own brother?”

Niall’s eyes were as hard as slate. “You thought it of your brother, though, didn’t you?”

“Who told you that?” I caught up with my tongue, aghast, my brain in a whirl. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Hugh told me, Lannie.” His voice dropped to a stage whisper. “About how you were menaced for bearing witness against your brother.”

“Hugh told you? Shit! It was meant to be a secret,” I said bitterly. It was impossible to feel angry with Hugh, though. He was so good-natured that he assumed that all his friends were equally so.

“It would ease my mind to know that Joseph was innocent of Becki’s death,” said Niall primly.

“Well you can be eased, then, can’t you?” I snapped. “Since it was me they were after.”

His mouth turned to a red O of surprise. “What?”

“What?”

“They were trying to kill you?”

“Isn’t that what Hugh told you?”

“He said you’d been menaced, that’s all. Do you mean you actually had an attempt made on your life?”

“Twice,” I said, resigned. “First a knife and then a gun. And they fire-bombed Charlotte’s shop.”

“Jesus! That’s the best news I’ve heard all week!”

“Ssh.” I glanced at the bar, but Brendan wasn’t in sight.

“Do the police know this?” demanded Niall.

“Yes, and they want it kept secret. You mustn’t spread it around! I wouldn’t have told you unless I thought you already knew.”

“I’ll be as silent as the grave,” promised Niall. “Well! What a turn-up. Death threats. My word.” He drummed his fingers on the smooth wood of the table, his smile receding. “Any hard evidence they killed Becki, though?”

“Not as such.”

He whistled through his teeth. “There’s no proof, then.”

“Well, who else would want to murder Becki?”

“That is the question.” He lowered his tawny head again, beckoning me closer. “This thing is, what I want you to investigate is, Becki made a complaint about Joseph to me.” He sighed heavily. “Stealing from the bar. I don’t think it’s true for a minute, he denied it vehemently, but I need to be sure. If he did – well, it’s disloyalty, isn’t it? Not murder. But if he did, and Becki knew…”

“Sounds a bit far-fetched.”

“Joseph has a temper,” Niall said. “A wee bit impulsive. There have been incidents in the past.”

I looked at my watch. I didn’t want to listen to Niall slagging off his brother. “Look, this is all very interesting, but I really do have a load of–”

“What I want you to do,” Niall said, putting a hand on my knee, “is to go in there and search for the evidence.”

I looked down at his hand. It was warm, huge and heavy. “What I want to do is go and peel my spuds.”

“They can wait. Listen.” The grip tightened. “Three hundred pounds went missing from the till.”

“People don’t murder each other over three hundred pounds. Not round here, Niall.” That only happened back home on the streets, when people were desperate for a fix or a hit. Not here.

“There’s a safe behind his bed,” said Niall in a hoarse, over-intimate whisper. I tried to lean away from him. “The combination’s 4242.”

“Supposing I did find some money, it wouldn’t prove anything.”

“Three litres of Famous Grouse went missing too.”

“In a safe?”

“In the flat, to sell on,” Niall murmured.

“If he’s sold them on they won’t be there.”

“You’ll check,” said Niall. He was telling, not pleading. “And anything else you find, anything at all, letters or whatever, just bring them to me.”

“No,” I said, “no, and no.”

“Yes,” said Niall, “for me. You owe me. You didn’t do New Year for me, after all.” His grip on my leg was now quite painful.

“I don’t need the job at the club. I’m doing you the favour there.”

“If you do this for me,” said Niall, “I won’t let on about your death threat.”

“That’s a police matter, Niall! You mustn’t tell anyone!”

“Absolutely. My lips are sealed.” He laid a blunt finger across them. “As long as you do this little thing for me. No harm in it. Just call on Joseph. Have a look around.”

“He’s innocent.”

“Yes. But make sure for me.” He tapped his finger on his lips. “All secret, eh?”

“You mustn’t tell anyone, Niall.”

“Absolutely. Don’t you tell anyone, Lannie.”

 

Chapter Sixteen

KK

 

KK worked at a DIY superstore outside Macc, and I knew Wednesday was his afternoon off. As I approached the clubhouse I saw him running round the rugby pitch. I waited for him to run back to me, panting in an old tracksuit, his hair wilder than ever. Either he hadn’t shaved for a few days, or he was growing a beard. It suited him.

“I just came into Fylington to do some shopping,” I said, all bright and innocent. “I thought I’d call round. I brought you some cake. And some recipes, just in case you’re interested.”

KK looked surprised and suspicious, as well he might. I’d never offered him cake or even much encouragement before. I hoped he wouldn’t think I was coming on to him, but our close dance at Hugh’s party seemed to be forgotten.

“Wouldn’t it wait till Saturday?” he said grumpily. “You’ll be here then anyway for the teas.”

“Will I? Is the match still on, then?”

“Bloody hell, it better had be! We owe Marple a thrashing.”

“But there’s still police tape all over the place.”

“Oh aye, we’ve had CSI Macclesfield poking round all week. They’ve interviewed me twice. Talk about a fine toothcomb. The coppers tried to set themselves up in the clubhouse until they realised the electrics weren’t up to it, thank God. Too many computers. But they’ve okayed the match on Saturday.”

“Well, I’m here now,” I said, and waited until he sighed and let me in.

We clattered up uncarpeted stairs into a blocky living-room: beige carpet, a saggy brown armchair and a depressed sofa, no room for anything else because of the red kitchenette and ugly breakfast bar that took up more than half the space. An attempt at a corridor was cut short by two doors.

It was a crap flat. You couldn’t even sit out on the little balcony, since there was no exit onto it, just an ordinary casement window with a draughty transom that didn’t close properly. The room was remarkably gloomy considering it was upstairs facing an open field.

KK thumped down on the sofa, which creaked and sighed, and looked at me like he’d found an oyster in his soup and didn’t know what to do with it. He nodded at the Dralon armchair, and I sat down cautiously. It sucked me in like a swamp.

I offered him the beetroot cake on its polystyrene tray. “I brought you this. I had another go at baking it. Go on, try a piece.”

He picked out a deep pink sliver and munched it thoughtfully while I nibbled at mine. It tasted no better than before.

“Mm, hmm.” The noises he made were questioning rather than appreciative, so when we had both swallowed I said,

“I followed your recipe to the letter. It’s a very good recipe, if you just leave out the beetroot.”

“Do you not like it?” He looked down sadly at the cake. “It looks bloody superb.”

It looked bloody, certainly. “Why are you so keen on sticking veg in cakes, KK?”

“It’s healthy,” said KK. “Kids don’t eat enough veg these days. But they’ll always eat cake. So they might eat cake with veg in it.”

I couldn’t see the hungriest kid eating this. “Do you mind if I get myself a glass of water?” I said. “I need something to wash it down with.”

“I’ll make a brew,” said KK, but I unsquelched myself from the armchair and moved swiftly ahead of him to the kitchenette.

“It’s OK, I’ll put the kettle on.”

“Get us an orange squash, then,” said KK. “Bottle’s under the sink.” While he gloomily poked at his cake, I filled the kettle and made a play of looking for mugs and glasses and squash. He had a good armoury of bakeware, but no Famous Grouses lurked in the kitchen cupboards. There wasn’t room for them to lurk.

I handed him his drink and let the armchair suck me in again.

“KK. There’s something I need to tell you.”

“Yes? What about?” His hands tensed around his glass.

“I think you should steer clear of the vegetables. Try fruit instead. Orange is fine. Lemon is fine. Apple, plum, date, blueberry, whatever. Fruit is fine. Vegetables aren’t.”

“What, none of them?”

“They don’t work. I know they sound healthy, but they’re just an indigestible fad.”

There was a moment’s silence as KK stared at his glass.

“How many of your recipes do you actually make, KK?”

“As many as I can. Depends if I have the time and can get hold of the ingredients. Kumara isn’t big in Fylington.”

“Kumara?”

“It’s a sweet potato.”

“I know what it is. You cannot make a cake with it.”

“They do in New Zealand.”

“I daresay. They’ll stick anything in a cake over there.”

KK gazed at the rain-splattered window. You couldn’t see a view through it, not even the playing-field: nothing but grey sky. “I always wanted to go to New Zealand,” he said. “Got an invite ten years ago to go out there and play rugby for six months. Little town in the north island that ran an exchange scheme.”

“Why didn’t you go?”

“Michelle got pregnant. My then girlfriend. My current ex-wife. That put the kibosh on it.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Boy,” said KK quietly. “Ashley. He’s nine.”

“Do you see him much?”

“Now and then.” KK spread his broad hands on his knees and glanced around. “He doesn’t much like staying here, that’s the trouble. Don’t blame him. Don’t like it much myself.”

“Why not move, then?”

“Where to? I can’t afford owt else, not on my wages. I’m lucky to have this place.” He sounded more resentful than grateful.

“Do you not get paid for working at the club?”

“I get paid with this grace and favour apartment, and two thirds of bugger all else. Don’t get me wrong, I like the job. Just be nice to have a decent wage.” He glowered around the flat.

“Does Ashley eat veg?” I asked, a certain amount of light dawning.

“Baked beans. He’d live on them if he was allowed. It can’t be good for him.”

“Just feed him broccoli and let him take it or leave it. That’s what I’d do.”

“He’d leave it,” said KK gloomily, “and he’d leave me as well. I don’t want to put him right off staying. Anyway, what about carrots?”

“Do you know anyone who actually likes carrot cake?”

“It’s all right.”

“It’s tolerable. Just. Stick to fruit, KK. Except melon.”

KK shook his head, then narrowed his eyes at me. “You all right, Lannie?”

“Why shouldn’t I be?”

“You seem a bit twitchy, that’s all.”

“Is that any surprise?” I retorted. “I’ve not slept so well since last Saturday.”

“I don’t suppose any of us have. Police interviewed you?”

“Yeah. How did yours go?”

He shrugged a broad shoulder. “Fair enough, considering. Don’t know if they’re getting anywhere.”

“No. I suppose they wouldn’t say.”

“They should have crossed a few people off the suspect list already,” said KK. “One o’clock seems to be the cut-off point. At least, it was between one and one-thirty they were interested in. The minibus mob and the Cheshire toffs had all left by then.”

“Except Tamara.”

He gave me a sharp look but didn’t comment. “And quite a few had gone home for babysitters, and some will have alibis.”

“Like who?”

“Well, the Killicks are usually joined at the hip,” said KK. “I reckon they must have been Siamese twins. And Stevo and Jamesy and that lot were mostly in the quiet room once the kids had gone. All alibis for each other.”

“But they’d still go out to the bar or the bog.”

“What, go out and stab Becki and sit down with their mates again, cool as you please?” He shook his head. “I don’t see it.”

“And do you have an alibi?”

“No idea.”

“I suppose the DJ has,” I said. “He was on show all night.”

“Aye. And Bob and his Missus and Brendan and Rhoda, they’d all vouch for each other…”

“Except when Bob and Brendan went out for a piss.”

He gave me another clear, thoughtful look. “You think it had to be a man, then?”

“Well, yeah, most likely.”

“However,” said KK deliberately, “you were the one to find the body, and she was killed with your knife.”

“Thanks very much! I’ve already had that from Frank.”

“Only joking.” I couldn’t tell. “But why does it have to be a man?” he asked, as if he really wanted to know.

“I don’t think it had to be anyone from the club,” I said. “I think it was someone else entirely. A gatecrasher. A druggie. A tramp.”

“A wandering maniac?”

“Something like that.”

KK shook his head. “I’ve never seen any maniacs wandering round here. Don’t look so sceptical, Lannie! It’s not the big city. We get the odd weirdo, right enough, but in a small town like this they get noticed. If any wandering maniacs had been lingering round the club, I would have seen ’em. And I didn’t.”

“So who’s your murderer?”

“I don’t have one,” said KK.

“That’s because it’s an outsider,” I said firmly. “All right if I use your bathroom?”

There was no whisky hidden in the bathroom. The cabinet held steri-strips, plasters, Savlon and athlete’s foot powder. No drugs, not so much as a paracetamol. Good old KK.

Coming out of the bathroom I managed to nudge open the door opposite sufficiently to see a neatly-made bed inside, and behind it, a horizontal cleft in the wall that must be the top of the safe. But I could hardly ask to go in and search. This was embarrassing enough. What on earth did Niall expect, that I was going to seduce KK in order to get into his bedroom?

Maybe he did. I sat down again, wondering what to do next.

“I need a shower,” said KK.

“I’ll be going in a minute.” I drained my tea. KK in the shower was a distracting thought.

Abruptly he put his hands behind his head, then down again. “Everything all right at the Woolpack?”

“Unusually busy. Full of gossip,” I said.

“How’s Brendan, is he all right? Has he said much about it?”

“About Becki? Not really. What’s to say?”

“I just wondered if he’d said anything.”

“What sort of thing?”

“I don’t know. They were close at one time.”

“Close?” I felt as if I were suddenly back on the top of Mam Tor and hunted by the bitter wind which was trying to push me over the edge. “How close?”

“Close enough,” said KK. “You know.”

“You mean they had an affair?” My voice was croaky and incredulous.

“I believe so,” said KK. “According to Becki. Therefore not one hundred per cent reliable. But I think there was something had gone on, you know, from the odd look, the way they spoke to each other. And on New Year’s Eve she tried to kiss Brendan under the mistletoe, and Rhoda got very frosty.”

“It does sound like Becki was putting it about that evening,” I admitted. “But a kiss needn’t mean anything.”

“It needn’t. But I think it did. So I wondered if Brendan was all right.” He looked at me directly. “You could talk to him, maybe.”

“Me? Why?”

“Female touch. It’d be easier for you. Women are better at that sort of thing.”

Uncomfortable, I got up and put my mug on the breakfast bar. “Not necessarily. Look, I’d better go. Thanks for the tea. Keep the cake.”

“But talk to Brendan,” said KK.

“That’s for Rhoda to do, surely?”

“Yes, but.” He hesitated. “He can’t talk about her with Rhoda, can he? And he doesn’t know I know. It was just Becki shooting her mouth off as usual. But knowing Becki, there might be something in it.”

I moved to the door. “I don’t know, KK. I’ll see.”

“No melon?” said KK.

“No.”

“Brendan’s a good lad,” he said wistfully.

To that, I had no answer.

 

Chapter Seventeen

Hugh

 

The club felt different: naked, awkward and embarrassed. The week’s events had stripped it bare of bonhomie. Now it was just a ramshackle, mud-smelling brick box, almost empty, swallowing up the few hushed voices. Even the furniture seemed to turn its back. Not me, said the chairs and tables, not me, said the bar. You, said the kitchen, you with your bloody knives.

I threw an armful of spuds in the rumbler and set it off just to have the company of the noise. I was determinedly counting plates when a voice spoke behind me.

“So what’s on the menu today?”

It was DS Grimshaw, elbows resting on the serving hatch.

“What are you doing here?”

He made an act of looking surprised. “Thought I’d come on down and see how things are.”

“Are you on duty?” I said suspiciously.

He shook his head. I didn’t believe him, despite his casual clothes. He looked good. Faded jeans, waxed leather boots, big brown jumper not unlike my Oxfam one, only not so ropy. Off duty, my foot. He was in camouflage. Come to pick us over, see what flesh remained on the bones of the club’s social life. Check who returned to the scene of the crime.

“Do you play?” I challenged him.

“I’ve played at centre for the police a few times. You’re thin on the ground today,” he remarked, looking round. A straggle of players was drifting through the clubhouse.

“Third team have cried off. Not enough people turned up.”

“I thought it might have been the other way around,” said Grimshaw.

“How do you mean?”

“I thought you might have attracted a few ghouls. Well, it happens. That was one of the reasons I came down. Since I’m here, can I help?”

I felt a little warmer towards him. “Any good at peeling spuds? Only AnneMarie’s not turned up again.”

“Mrs Egan? The one you don’t like?”

“I never said I didn’t like her.”

“Didn’t you?” Lifting the hatch, he came and sat on the edge of my table, rather close. I didn’t actually need any spuds peeling – that was what the rumbler was for – but I wanted to see how Grimshaw would react. And put him in his place a little.

He had a deft way with a Lancashire peeler, but I was still faster with a knife. After a while I became aware that his sharp grey eyes were watching my fingers in turn. Checking for butchery skills.

“So when will I get my other knife back?” I asked.

“Do you want it back?” He sounded surprised.

“Of course I do! It cost me ninety quid, that knife.”

“What?”

“Good knives don’t come cheap. I hope you’re looking after it,” I said.

His eyes narrowed. “Would you really use it again? Not many people could.”

“The knife didn’t kill Becki. The person holding it did.” This sounded a dubious argument even to my ears, but my knife was precious to me, and not just in terms of money. It had been the first good knife I bought, my ticket out of the streets and into freedom. My friend. “That knife’s my livelihood,” I said.

“I would have thought it’s what you can do with it that’s your livelihood.”

“Whatever. But it’s easier to do it with a good knife.”

We peeled together.

“Have you heard from your friend Charlotte?” he asked after a while. Picking over the bones, like I thought. But I saw no harm in answering this query.

“Yes, her shop’s been cleaned and repaired. She’s back in business.”

“No other trouble, then.”

“No. But the people who came after me probably think I’m dead. At least, I hope they do. I saw Becki’s name didn’t appear in the papers. Was that your doing?”

“Her parents. They wanted minimum publicity.”

“Do you know when they’re likely to hold the funeral?”

“I expect forensics will release her soon.”

We both fell back into silence. Release. I pictured Becki imprisoned on a metal shelf in some police morgue one degree above freezing. But of course that wasn’t Becki: that was just her body. I wondered how her parents bore it, and then slid that brief thought back into its own refrigerated drawer. Karl was imprisoned too. I hoped Strangeways was warm.

“Your brother has settled well at Strangeways, according to the governor,” said Grimshaw, making me jump.

“Settled? What does that mean? He hasn’t started a riot? He’s doing basket-work?” I took a deep breath. “Has Karl heard of my supposed death?”

“No, because you’re not dead.”

“Has anybody asked him if he thinks I am?”

No answer.

“Well, haven’t you questioned him? Or the others?”

Still no answer. Just that ironic, non-committal glance. Grimshaw was getting my back up.

“So who did it?” I demanded.

He concentrated on his peeling. “We’re still working on it. We’ve been able to eliminate a few people from our enquiries. Unfortunately that still leaves us with a large number of possible suspects, none of them with an obvious motive.”

“You know the motive. It was meant to be me.”

“You’re still totally convinced of that, are you?”

“Of course I am,” I said heatedly. “Have you checked the side fence? We’ve had kids climbing over that before.”

“Not on that evening.”

“How do you know?”

Grimshaw put down his potato. “There’s no sign of damage to the vegetation there. And it had rained the previous day: near the fence, it was a mud-slick. There were a few washed-out footprints close by, but nothing fresh.” That needling glance again. “I’m afraid your theory doesn’t work.”

I was silent for a moment. “They must have come round the car-park.”

He raised a cool eyebrow. “Past the open side door, with everyone standing around and watching?”

“There weren’t people standing there all the time. Anyway, they could have skirted the far edge of the car park in the dark.”

“They could indeed.” Grimshaw’s voice was equable. “Or they could have walked right round the perimeter of the field, if they had the time and inclination. But even if they did, there’s another thing that bothers me. Why would your presumed drug dealers stab Becki with her own knife?”

“My knife,” I said automatically.

“Your knife, which we have to assume in your scenario she was holding, for some reason unknown to us. Why not use whatever weapon they must have brought for the purpose?”

“Guns are noisy. If there’s a big sharp knife to hand…” I shrugged.

“But why was it to hand? What had she taken it out for?”

I shrugged again, uneasily. Becki had coveted my knife. She tended to borrow things she liked. But to put this to Grimshaw would sound both feeble and vindictive. “She probably just picked it up without thinking.”

“And the goose?” he demanded.

“Got in the way.” I wasn’t happy. I stared at the vat of potatoes, judging quantities. I was good at that. I wasn’t good at judging motives for murder.

£300 wasn’t a motive for murder, in my opinion, not here. I didn’t think jealousy over a dance was a motive for murder either. But then what did I know? I just knew I didn’t want to start worrying about motives for murder when I already had a perfectly good one to hand.

Slightly shame-faced, I said to Grimshaw, “I told Niall about my theory. I couldn’t help it. I thought he knew my history already, about Karl. He did know some of it, just not as much as I thought.”

Grimshaw seemed unalarmed. “How did he react?”

“It cheered him up.” Disconsolately I began to unpack the sausages. Locally made Lincolnshire, nicely brown and speckled with herbs. The local Cumberland were rubbish. From the corner of my eye I noticed Tamara drift past with a resigned air.

Tamara meant Hugh. Jumping up, I abandoned Grimshaw to the spuds and left the kitchen to give Hugh a sausagey hug. Tamara immediately drew close and linked arms with him.

“You’re looking tired,” I said. Hugh’s face was drawn, with blue shadows round his eyes. I hadn’t seen him look so miserable for years, not since the end of the cocaine days, and it wrung my heart.

“A bit.” His voice was hoarse. “I’m not sleeping so well since last week. Bad dreams.”

“Oh, poor darling,” said Tamara, reaching up to push back his hair, and filling me first with exasperation, then with pleasure that she didn’t appear to know how Hugh slept. She stroked his cheek with a manicured hand which Hugh caught and held on to.

“All right, sweetheart,” he said.

Grimshaw approached to greet Hugh formally. They made a striking pair, of much the same age, though Hugh was the taller and less conscious of his looks. Tamara fluttered her eye-lashes at Grimshaw and then said with pretend sternness,

“I hope you’re not going to do that interview thing all over again. Poor Hugh, his birthday will never be the same.”

“You’re not playing today?” I asked him.

“I thought I’d just come and watch,” said Hugh. “It didn’t seem right to play.”

“You will play again in future, though, won’t you?” I wasn’t just anxious for my Saturdays, but for his: I didn’t like seeing Hugh so weighed down.

“There are so many things to do at the weekend,” put in Tamara. “Hugh might not feel like it, poor love, might you? Not after all that dreadful business. He might need a change of scene.”

I would have preferred to hear Hugh’s own views, only Grimshaw stepped in.

“Let me get you a drink,” he suggested solicitously. He was looking at Tamara and turning on the charm, a cool, appreciative brand quite unlike Hugh’s affable good manners.

“Just a Coke, thanks,” said Hugh.

“I don’t know,” said Tamara, head on one side. “I shouldn’t. Do they do breezers here?”

“Let’s go and see.” She did not demur as Grimshaw guided her over to the bar, which was manned by Sammie in a black jumper and red-rimmed eyes. Poor Sammie; she said every step she took behind the bar was treading in Becki’s footprints. She burst into tears when she found one of Becki’s IOU’s in the till, and refused to throw it away.

“Hugh.” I would have taken his hand if mine hadn’t been so greasy. “Nightmares about Becki?”

He shook his head. “All sorts. Nightmares about nightmares.” His drawn eyes stared across the clubhouse at something I couldn’t see. “The inspector kept asking me what I remembered. But I had the mother and father of a hangover the next day, and I couldn’t tell her anything much at all after the buffet. I remember Becki and Bob pogo-ing. Did I dance with Becki?”

“You did. And with me.”

He sighed. “I feel responsible. If it hadn’t been my birthday, it would never have happened, and now the whole thing’s just a blank and I can’t even remember Becki’s last evening. Nothing left but nightmares.” He grimaced. “Bloody hell.”

My heart ached for my cheerful, carefree Hugh. This wasn’t fair. I’d let the rats in to destroy his sleep and gnaw at his happiness, when he should be free of all those drug-ridden demons. It wasn’t his fault.

So, since he already knew about my death-threats, I said,

“Hugh, I think the killers were after me. I think Karl sent them, or Karl’s friends. It had nothing to do with your party.”

“What? You think so?”

I nodded. It would give Hugh something to hold on to.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive. I know they’d tracked me as far as Fylington, because a letter came to the pub. You know, like the letter they sent Charlotte. They must have followed me to the club and then got the wrong girl.”

“Do you know, that never occurred to me.” His face seemed to lighten a little. “I suppose I should have thought of it myself, after all that nastiness with Charlotte’s shop.”

“Have you seen Charlotte lately?” I asked. She would help him more than Tamara would, I was sure.

“She’s been busy. Got a lot on her plate at the moment.”

“She’s never in when I ring.”

“No, she’s moving out,” said Hugh absently. “She’s going to live with Father and Jane for a while.”

“Why?”

“She lost two weeks turnover,” he said with mild reproof, “to say nothing of the repair costs. The insurers haven’t paid up yet.”

“Oh, God! Poor Charlotte.” I felt guilty at not knowing, at being so wrapped up in my own concerns I had all but forgotten hers. Then I looked at the clock and forgot hers again. “Shit! Oranges. It’s nearly half-time!”

I fetched the bag of oranges and began to chop frantically. Hugh went to join Tamara and Grimshaw at the bar. Niall slouched gloomily over to me, waiting for the orange wedges, which were a pointless but apparently traditional half-time feast.

“I see that bloody garda’s here again,” he said.

“He’s just being sociable. What’s the score?” I passed him the tray.

“3-6. Terrible game. Did you go to see KK?”

“Yes, I did. And no, I didn’t find anything.”

He lowered his voice. “But did you look everywhere?”

“No, I didn’t have the chance.”

“Then maybe later on you could–”

I cut him off. “No way. I’m not going through that again. Do it yourself.” Niall was about to retort, but as a bunch of spectators trooped past he shut his mouth and scuffed out with his oranges like an overgrown sulky schoolboy. I set the sausages on low and went to watch the second half.

It was weirdly subdued. KK was the only one going in hard for the tackles. There was scarcely any shoving in the line-out, and the scrums were positively genteel. All very restrained.

So was the audience. Instead of bellowing like maddened bulls, they murmured their suggestions at the ref discreetly. Brendan was looking grave, hands behind his back like a politician at a funeral. Bob let out one “Hand in the ruck!” at full blast and then winced in shame. Becki would have thought it hilarious; but of course Becki wasn’t there. That was the whole trouble.

Hardly anyone stayed on after the teas. The players picked at their plates as if hunger would have been impolite, and then drifted away. I saw Hugh leaving with Tamara, and managed to catch him in the doorway.

“Come back,” I begged. “Don’t give up the rugby. What will they do without you? You’re the Road Runner.”

“Well,” said Hugh. He looked lost. I gave him a hug, and my new mobile number, while Tamara glared.

“Anytime you want to talk,” I said, ignoring her. “Or come round, even. Any time at all.”

Hugh nodded, and Tamara dragged him away. Grimshaw also departed, having nobody left to charm or interrogate. Niall, inspecting the contents of the till, said,

“Jesus, takings are way down! Things had better pick up next week. The club’d go down the drain if every Saturday was like this.”

“If only,” said AnneMarie quietly beside me. She’d arrived, as usual, too late for the teas.

“I’m surprised you bothered coming,” I said. I was even more surprised she’d bothered to come and join me in the kitchen.

“It’s worse home alone with the kids. Drives me out of my head.”

Ah, that was why. She wanted someone to moan at. Her kids didn’t seem that bad to me, apart from leaving a confetti of crisps wherever they sat.

“So what’s the difference here?”

“The effect’s diluted,” said AnneMarie. “At home there’s no let up. Honest to God, they don’t give you a minute. Sometimes I can’t stand it.” She offered me a cigarette, although she knew I didn’t smoke.

I felt reluctantly sorry for her. The hand holding the cigarette packet was shaking slightly, as if she was in a bad way. Maybe she really did find motherhood hell, although I wasn’t a good person to advise her there, my own mother not exactly being a brilliant role model.

“You could have brought the kids down earlier,” I said, “and sat them in front of the telly while you gave me a hand with the teas.”

There was a few seconds’ delay before she reacted. Then she snatched a hand to her mouth. “Oh my God, was it my turn again already? Sorry, Lannie.” She wasn’t.

“Shall I give you another copy of the rota?”

“God, no! I’ve got one up at home. I just didn’t think to check it. My memory.” She shook her head. “It’s the medication.”

“Medication?”

She lit another cigarette before answering. “Post-natal depression. I got it when Aoife was born.”

I was a bit staggered. “But Aoife’s, what? Four, five? What are you on?”

“Nearly five. Diazepam.”

“For that long? And your doctor lets you?”

“God, no!” said AnneMarie. “He stopped prescribing years ago. Thinks I’m weaned off it. But I can’t manage without. So I had to find an alternative supply.” She took a long, hungry pull at the cigarette and looked at me sidelong.

“Where from?”

She glanced around before she answered. “Becki.”

“What? Becki sold you Diazepam?”

“Don’t shout it around!” she hissed.

I lowered my voice. “But what was Becki doing with Diazepam?”

“What do you think?”

“No, come on! Becki never…” I stopped. I was going to say, Becki never did drugs, but how did I know? I only knew she didn’t do them in front of me.

“She wasn’t a dealer,” I said helplessly.

“No, of course she wasn’t. Did I say she was a dealer? She just sold a few on,” said AnneMarie. “She offered me something called Whizz first off, as if I’d be interested.”

“Becki sold speed?” I said blankly. I felt like AnneMarie had just pulled back the carpet and uncovered a trapdoor. But I should have known it was there all the time. Of course Becki was on speed. I remembered how excitable and restless she used to get; how huge and black her eyes were at the party.

And those favours she said she’d done Anne-Marie, that she never got thanked for… And AnneMarie asking her if she’d scored. Don’t I always, said Becki. Bloody hell. My heart sank.

Anne-Marie took another drag on her cigarette. “But I’ll have to look somewhere else now. Find another supplier. You couldn’t help me out, could you, Lannie?” The urgency was unmistakable.

“Me?”

“You don’t know anyone…? The thing is, Niall happened to mention that your brother was, what shall I say, involved with drugs.”

“He was. I’m not,” I said curtly, inwardly damning Niall.

She stared at her cigarette, her voice tight. “And you can’t get hold of anything for me? You must know some other people…”

My hand clenched around my tea-towel. “No. Absolutely not. I don’t have dealers for friends, and I’ve never been one myself.”

“All right, all right, don’t get so bloody uptight! I’m not talking heroin. It’s not exactly earth-shattering stuff, is it, a few tranx? It didn’t matter to Becki.”

“Well, it matters to me. Did she deal a lot?”

“She wasn’t a dealer,” said AnneMarie angrily. “I don’t go to dealers. She was a friend doing me a favour. Helping me out. She was the salt of the earth, Becki, she would have done anything for anybody, not like some, she was a lovely girl. It’s terrible what happened to her. Simply terrible.”

I wondered how much of this was sincere and how much was just dutiful bollocks. Mostly the latter, I guessed.

“I can’t help you,” I said curtly. “Go back to your doctor.”

“He won’t give me anything, he’ll just tell me off.”

“Go back to your doctor,” I repeated. The old rage was rising in me, so that I had to turn my back.

“It’s only tranquillisers, for fuck’s sake! It’s only keeping me from slashing my wrists! Bloody hell! Sorry I asked.” AnneMarie got up and stalked away.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Karl’s 18th

 

My mobile didn’t work in Nan’s house. No reception. I suspected Nan, but it was more likely just the huge dense lump of Brocklow hill. However, when I went a hundred yards down the road in the rain to the call box, with its smell of wet dog and its single card advertising Agricultural Parts, my mobile blinked into life. I rang the number I’d been given, expecting an answerphone, but instead got put through to DI Cole.

“I’ve found out something about Becki. I think she was dealing drugs.”

“Okay, Elanor. Can you tell me your reasons for thinking that?” Her brisk, motherly voice made me want to gulp and spill out everything from my missed childhood onwards. I resisted and kept it brief.

“Somebody told me they used to buy tranquillisers off her. Diazapam.”

“Yes, we were aware she sold drugs at times.”

“You knew?”

“It doesn’t seem to be especially secret. A couple of the younger club members have told us that Becki offered them Ecstasy in a nightclub on more than one occasion. At cost price. She sounded like an enthusiastic user rather than a professional dealer.”

Ecstasy? As well as whizz and diazepam? Enthusiastic, all right.

“Well, this was on a regular basis,” I said.

“Who was she selling it to?”

“Somebody’s wife.” It was only class C, but still.

“That would be Mrs Egan, I expect.”

“Oh, shit.”

“It was she who suggested Becki’s involvement in drugs to us in the first place,” the motherly voice said. “Do you think her husband is aware of her dependence?”

“I don’t know. I wouldn’t have thought so.” AnneMarie’s furtiveness suggested not. What would Niall have thought of Becki feeding his wife drugs?

“One other thing, Elanor, while you’re there. Do you recall if Becki had a bag or purse with her on the evening of her death?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t notice. I suppose she would have left it behind the bar. She sometimes had a shoulder-bag, but I don’t think she carried much money.” I thought of all those carelessly scrawled IOUs.

“Did you see her with a bag or a purse that night?” she repeated.

“Not that I remember. But I might remember wrong.”

“Thank you.” She sounded faintly resigned. “We have in fact found a shoulder-bag that has been identified as hers, but no purse.”

“Do you think she was robbed?”

“I can’t say. If you remember or learn of any further information, I’ll be very grateful to hear from you.”

“Have you found anything else out? I mean, about my brother’s friends…”

“We’re not ready to make an arrest just yet,” she said. “Elanor, this case is not necessarily drugs-related.”

“It is. I got an anonymous letter, postmarked Manchester.”

Her voice sharpened. “A letter? Can you bring it in?”

“I don’t have it any more. But I’m sure it was from one of them.”

She said with weary patience, “We have, as a matter of fact, interviewed a number of your brother’s associates. We are not as idle as you seem to think.”

“And?”

“Two of the likeliest suspects were in a police van at the time of the murder. Several more were drinking together in a Manchester club. They have alibis.”

“There’ll be others,” I said. “He’ll have associates you haven’t even heard of.” And that I hadn’t heard of either.

“Unless you can give us names or addresses, Elanor, I’m afraid that part of our investigation has reached a dead end.”

“It’s Lannie,” I said, and closed the call with a jab of my finger.

I had no names – apart from Peel, which I didn’t think was even his real name – and no addresses either. I felt useless and frustrated. Needing comfort, I tried to ring Charlotte, but she was out, again.

Anyway, she would be needing comfort even more than me. She was the one who’d been harassed, hers was the shop that had been laid waste; hers the brother whose birthday had been blighted.

I stared unseeing out of the phone-box’s grimy window, remembering how efficiently Charlotte had coped when Hugh got himself involved with drugs. Far better than I had coped with Karl.

She’d rung me one afternoon, desperately anxious because Hugh had suffered a panic attack at work and had to be brought home by a colleague. When I went round he was jumpy and paranoid, accusing us to trying to lock him in a non-existent cellar and refusing to sit down in case we tied him to the chair. He flung away the coffee I made him, shouting that it was poisoned: he was convinced we’d put the evil eye on him and filled the kitchen with cameras. He smashed the lights over the sink and threw the telephone out of the window. We had to talk to him all night, following him as he raved and stumbled round his flat, until we worked out what had been going on.

Charlotte was brilliant. She treated Hugh with the patient, loving firmness I never managed with Karl. She persuaded him into rehab and paid for most of it herself – I chipped in too, Hugh’s savings having been snorted – and then she fixed it with his workplace and even somehow persuaded them to devise a fictional business trip as cover, because Daddy must never know.

By comparison, I had failed with Karl. Failed dismally. I had no excuses, I reflected grimly, stamping back through the puddles to Nan’s house. When Karl was thirteen and I found that first stash of cannabis in his pocket, I did nothing, because at the time he was neither talking nor listening to me, and although I’d been suspecting for a while, it could have been a lot worse. At least Karl was still going to school, most of the time: if I confronted him he might just kick school, and me, into touch altogether. So I let it be.

When I found the first E, a year later, I tried to talk to him. He raged out of the house and didn’t come back for three panic-stricken days. So I let it be, again. A few months after that I moved out into my first tiny flat-share and only called back home once a week or so. Even that felt like too often.

To tell the truth, I wanted to be free of Karl, and Mikey, and my mother. I was so weary of all the endless hassle and worry. I told myself Karl would be all right in the end. He finished school – even did a couple of exams – and signed up for sixth-form college, where he studied vehicle repair for a few weeks. Then he got kicked out.

I don’t know why. He never told me. I expect he just got bored and disruptive: by then he’d already been arrested and cautioned a few times for defacing property, anti-social behaviour. It was never his fault, according to Karl, and I was past caring. I didn’t have time to care. I had enough on my plate with Mikey, who wasn’t coping with High School. The High School had rapidly learned to refer all problems to me rather than to our mother, and I was getting phone calls every week. Mikey had thrown a wobbler, he’d been in a fight, he’d hidden in the science cupboard and refused to come out. I was fed up of it all. I wanted to escape, and I found my sanctuary at the Huntly Hotel.

I was chef de partie there, my first big job in a decent place. I felt myself becoming a real person in the real world under the severe eye of Pascal, the head chef, neat, precise and strict. Never mind that his French accent was bogus – I’d stood behind him at the post office and heard him mail a parcel in pure Brummie – he was a good master, and I was happy.

Until one evening, late on, when the head waiter entered the kitchen for a huddled consultation with Pascal, who came over to me, frowning.

“The party at table nine,” he said in his unlikely accent, “are causing a small disturbance. I gather they know you, Miss Herron. They are reluctant to leave until you grace them with your presence.”

I delegated my sauce and went out into the dining room. At this hour, it was only a quarter full: there were a few over-dressed couples who’d been to the theatre, a brace of tired businessmen, and at table nine, like a pack of foxes in a dog show, lounged half a dozen low-life, amongst them my brother Karl.

It was his eighteenth birthday. I’d posted him some money, then thought no more about it.

“Happy birthday, Karl,” I said. He nodded and smiled. It was nice to see him looking happy. They’d all had the steak: the French beans were pushed around their plates. Now they were on lager.

“Give him a kiss, then,” said the only other guy I knew – though not well – as Jez, a big, flashy loudmouth who drove a different second-hand car each month and wore more gold than a dowager duchess. Clunky chain, bracelet, watch, heavy signet rings on the hand which groped me under my chef’s whites as I obediently bent to kiss Karl. I parked myself on a chair out of his reach.

“Yay, sis,” said Karl, slurring slightly. He was blissful. His eyes were each looking in different directions. Karl didn’t call me Sis. For the last two years he hadn’t called me anything at all.

“Had a good birthday?”

“Yay.”

“We’ve been treating him,” said Jez.

“That’s nice. What with?”

“Tequila and coke.”

“What sort of coke?”

“Tut tut! Suspicious minds,” said Jez, shaking his head. “Not very grateful, is she, Peel?”

“No,” said Peel. He had a narrow, pale, unsmiling face and narrow, pale eyes that darted continually around at the diners, the waiters, and the doorman Luther who was impassive in the corner but who I knew was watching for my signal. Usually, however, Luther only had the odd pair of drunks to deal with; I didn’t think he could cope with six of them.

“What sort of coke?” I said again, pleasantly.

“Freebase,” said the guy on Karl’s other side.

“Shut it,” snapped Peel.

I was horrified, but tried to stay as impassive as Luther.

“He’s still pretty high,” I said, watching Karl gaze dreamily at nothing. “When was that?”

“Oh, he came down a bit hard,” said Jez casually, “so we topped him up with summat else.”

“What was that, then?” Karl was off the dials. I hoped it was nothing worse than speed.

“Can it,” snarled Peel, his eyes flickering to the waiter, Serg, hovering behind me.

“Don’t worry, he’s just one of them thicko refugees,” said Jez dismissively, “doesn’t understand a word we say. Do you, Dickhead?” All the others, except Peel, laughed. “Hey there, Miguel, whatever, bottle of brandy, comprendo?”

“Brandy?” repeated Serg, who had a degree in engineering but little English. He looked wary.

“Cognac, dumbo! Your best stuff. What’s the matter, think we can’t pay?” Jez pulled a wodge of banknotes from his pocket and riffled his thumb through them ostentatiously before selecting a few twenties. There might have been a thousand quid there, maybe two. He glanced at me, no doubt hoping to see my eyes out on stalks. But it was Peel’s hungry, calculating eyes that were watching him.

“Put it away,” he ordered coldly, and Jez shrugged and did so.

“It’s good to see you, Karl,” I said. “I’m surprised you came in here, though. I thought a curry down in Rusholme would be more your scene.” Karl used to love curry.

“Yeah, sure,” said Karl, though I don’t think he knew what he was agreeing to.

“What, spend his eighteenth in some shite-hole where you don’t even know what you’re eating? We thought we’d bring him somewhere classy,” said Jez.

“It’s not that smart,” said Peel, his contemptuous gaze roving over the Huntly’s understated décor. “Thought this was supposed to be a top joint, the way your kid goes on about it.”

“Does he?”

“My fucking sister this, my fucking sister that,” said Peel.

I wanted to hear more, and to know if the fuckings originated with Karl, but he went on: “This is it, then, this craphole? You just cook all day for these fucking herberts?”

“Sure,” I said lightly. “What do you do?”

“Gentlemen of leisure, us,” said Jez, sprawling. The brandy arrived and he pulled the bottle off Serg to slosh into the glasses.

“Do any of you work, then?” I asked the group.

“I’m a delivery driver,” volunteered one.

“He’s a wanker,” said Jez. All the others snickered, apart from Peel.

“Are you still job-hunting, Karl?” I had to repeat the question before he could answer, not quite coherently.

“Airport, arn I.”

“Baggage handling. He starts tomorrow,” Peel confirmed.

“Well, good for you, Karl,” I said.

“Might as well be a fucking pit pony,” said Jez, shaking his head.

“Nah, it’s all right there,” corrected Peel. “Opportunities there, know what I mean?”

I checked my watch. “It’s nearly tomorrow now. What time are you getting him home?”

“Ah, she’s worried about him,” said Jez. “The diddums.” Laughter, except from Peel, who said,

“So she should be. She’s his fucking sister.”

“I’ve got to get back to the kitchen now.” I’d had enough. “I’ll see you, Karl.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Karl, from somewhere up in the clouds. Jez waved me away, but Peel, as I passed him, caught my wrist and pulled me down to whisper in my ear. His grip was tight and bony.

“I don’t think you’re so hot,” he hissed, while Jez was joking with the others.

“Neither do I,” I said, surprised.

“No? Then why do you treat him like a tit-head?”

“I don’t.”

“Don’t you?” His cold eyes accused me. “According to you he’s a fucking numpty.”

“I’ve never called Karl that. Did he say that?”

“Screwed up, he is,” said Peel. “You screw him up any more, I’ll do you.” His grip tightened painfully, then let me go at last.

I hesitated, wanting to deny it, to speak to Karl, who couldn’t hear; to prove Peel wrong. But I knew there would be no point trying to prove anything to Peel.

As I backed away, he was reaching over to shake Karl gently and offer a brandy to his lips. I wished then, too late, that I’d taken the day off, so Karl could have spent his birthday with me instead of this lot: but of course he would most likely have refused.

So I still let it be. Karl was an adult. He didn’t want my advice or my interference. The next time I saw him, he couldn’t even remember that evening in the Huntly and we were back on non-speaking terms again.

I’d failed him, I thought, as I let myself back into Nan’s house. I’d known what was going on, and I’d turned a blind eye. Part of me had been terrified of what could happen: my little brother smoking his way into oblivion, popping his way into paranoia, choking on his own vomit, laying about him with a machete…

But I brushed my fears under the carpet, told myself that wouldn’t happen. Karl had too much sense. I couldn’t keep harrying him. It wouldn’t help anyway.

The truth is, I didn’t want to know. So I hadn’t done all the things I should have done. Moved back home. Kept an eye on him. Bribed him to go to college. Got him up every morning for that airport job, so that he would have lasted there more than a month.

Or maybe I should have dobbed him in years ago for possession. Grass. Snitch. Traitor.

I paused in Nan’s brown hall to lean against the door and close my eyes. When had Becki started? Why in God’s name hadn’t her family done anything? Maybe they had tried, like me; or maybe they had never known. Blinded by innocence. They’d been spared the dreadful necessity of grassing on her.

So I’d gone and grassed her up instead, now that it was too late. But I distrusted my own motives. Was it really AnneMarie that I was telling on, because I didn’t approve of her drugs habit? Was I trying to force her to get the help that was denied Becki – or did I just think she was a tit-head, a numpty, who needed teaching a lesson?

I trudged heavily into the kitchen, sat down and rubbed my eyes.

Something was worrying me. Becki had despised AnneMarie. And though I had grassed on Becki, AnneMarie had got there first, and spilt her secrets, according to DI Cole.

Yet AnneMarie called Becki the salt of the earth. Praise the dead, I thought. Speak no evil. Especially if you might end up a murder suspect…

But I knew that sometimes addicts loved their dealers as much as their fix; and hated them with equal passion when they couldn’t get it. Chained by need and contempt, like a bad marriage. I’d seen desperate users begging their dealers, promising double, triple the money tomorrow, cringing and reckless and vengeful: sometimes violent.

I didn’t like the way my thoughts were going. AnneMarie couldn’t have attacked Becki. Nobody could have attacked Becki apart from Peel and his malignant pack of rats.

All the same. I had to look at all the possibilities, to be clear about them in my head, if only so I could dismiss them. I pulled an ancient calendar off its hook, turned it over and wrote the heading SUSPECTS at the top. Soon I had a list:

 

SUSPECTS

Name Motive

Sue I don’t like her.

KK Big and crazy.

Niall Ditto.

AnneMarie Small and crazy. Drugs.

Tamara Jealousy.

Frank A bit strange. Hoards bloodstains

Brendan ?? Not sure yet.

 

I hadn’t yet been bold enough to ask Brendan if he was all right. I didn’t want to hear what he might tell me.

But if something had gone on with him and Becki, I had to have him on the list. I had to have them all on the list. Becki had riled KK and quite possibly Niall, despite their close dances; she might well have riled Frank too, by insisting on his being gay. She’d given both Tamara and AnneMarie cause to feel aggrieved by leching over their men, though hardly enough to incite them to murder. But AnneMarie might have been crazed by her need for drugs. Only Sue, as far as I could tell, had no reason to dislike Becki at all.

It was a bloody useless list. All it told me was that I considered an unreasonable number of people to be crazy. And it was too short by about a dozen people, from Hugh and Charlotte right down to Niall’s kids, all of whom had even less motive for murder than the ones I’d written down.

“It’s rubbish,” I told Nan. “None of them did it. It was meant to be me.”

There was a huge thump from the hall. For a heady moment I thought Nan had found a way to reply. Then I went to the front door and found Arthur banging on it with a stick, from his perch on the rusty tractor which was pulled up on the pavement. He bellowed over the engine’s irregular clatter.

“You’re needed at the Woolpack!”

“What’s up?”

“All a to-do. Rhoda’s off her head. The old bother coming up again, if you ask me.”

“Okay, won’t be a minute.” I thought Arthur was offering me a lift, but by the time I returned to the door with my coat he was chugging away up the road, the perky dog beside him pricking up its ears like two fingers.

So I splashed through the puddles to the Woolpack and went in through the back. The kitchen was deserted, and flooding. There was a good half-inch of water swilling around on the floor, and a thin stream pouring through a crack in the lean-to roof. The ovens were cold.

I assumed this was the crisis, but there was nobody around to deal with it. The bar was unmanned. Fay and Stu didn’t do Sundays, but Rhoda was usually fussing around the kitchen long before I came in. She saw the roasts as her personal responsibility.

Fetching the broom, I began to swoosh water out through the door. There must have been gallons of it. I put a bucket under the leak, then stood on a chair outside to slide a couple of baking trays over the crack and weigh them down with stones. The stream hesitated before turning into spaghetti-like drips that grew gradually shorter and shorter. I emptied the bucket and swooshed a few more pints of water off the floor.

With the flood more or less under control, I went back into the bar, which was still empty. Upstairs I heard voices arguing. It was gone eleven, so I unlocked the front door and took off the bar towels.

Then, since no-one came either in or down, I returned to the kitchen and mopped the wet floor, this time with detergent, until it was clean enough to please even Rhoda. When I had finished, I found Brendan standing behind the bar with one hand motionless on the pump, like a man lost and frozen in a strange landscape.

“Brendan?”

He came to life. “Lannie! Thanks for coming over. Rhoda’s not too good.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“She’s been chucking up,” said Brendan, “wanted to come down, but I wouldn’t let her. Luckily the girls are at her Mum’s.” He stared at the pump as if he couldn’t remember what it was for.

“I’ve mopped up the kitchen, and put a tray over the leak.”

He nodded vigorously. “Good, good. That’s fine. Excellent. That’ll keep it.”

“Under control.”

“Absolutely. What leak is that?”

“In the kitchen. Water coming through the roof. I’ve mopped it up.”

“Oh, right.”

“Do you need to go back to Rhoda?”

Brendan looked at me for a long moment as if he didn’t know what I was for, either.

“Yes, I will,” he said at last. “You can hold the fort, can’t you, Lannie? Shout if you need me. What day is it, Sunday?”

“All day.”

“Fine,” he said, and took himself off. I heard no more argument, just the faintest echo of quiet voices. Rhoda would never shout once she knew I was in the pub.

I stood at the bar and shifted glasses for a bit, then retreated into the kitchen – the floor now being mostly dry – and concocted a recipe: lemon and ginger mousse. I didn’t bother with the roast. If anyone demanded Sunday lunch, they could have ham.

In fact I served only five people that lunchtime. There was a trio of disconsolate hikers with the usual walking guide and the usual complaints about the mire they had to negotiate crossing Arthur’s land.

“It’s a right of way,” they grumbled. “It shouldn’t be in that state.”

“It’s a right of way for the cows as well,” I pointed out, although I knew exactly why Arthur drove his cows along that route. Then the Killick brothers came in for their pasties.

“Two pints of coffee, two hot Cornish please Lannie,” said Gary. “On your own today?”

“Brendan’s around. Rhoda’s not too good.”

“Ah. Shame, that.” He thoughtfully spooned four sugars into his coffee.

“Heard the latest from Himself?” asked Tom.

“Niall? I saw him yesterday. He didn’t seem too happy.”

“Oh aye, he’s got his outsize knickers in a twist all right. Worried about the club losing money.”

“Is it?”

Tom shrugged. “The latest is he’s planning a memorial match in honour of Becki. A fund-raising day. He rang up this morning to tell us all about it.”

“Bloody cheek,” said Gary in a spray of crumbs. “Making money out of Becki’s death.”

“A bit soon, isn’t it?” I said. “What will her parents think?”

“God knows. I doubt if he’ll consult them.”

“Doubt if it’ll make much difference if he does,” added Tom. The two of them downed their coffees faster than I would have thought safe, and disappeared. Once the glum hikers had left, I returned to the kitchen to go through the week’s menus and list the orders. After a while I heard Brendan locking up, though it wasn’t yet two o’clock.

He was slumped in a chair watching a video with the sound turned right down. Rugby, naturally. White versus blue, amid a whisper of cheers.

“I just need you to check the orders,” I said.

He barely glanced at them. “They’re fine. I’ll trust you to sort them out, Lannie. That’s your job now.”

“How’s Rhoda?”

“She’s having a kip.”

“I made her a lemon and ginger mousse. It’s good for upset stomachs, if you can keep it down.”

“Good of you,” said Brendan sombrely.

“In the fridge.”

“Aye.”

I sat down next to him and stared at the video. Grim determination in the rain. Hair plastered, faces shouting wordlessly.

“What’s this?”

“World Cup semi in Sydney.” The players clawed for a line-out.

“Why not the final?”

“Winds me up too much.” With a deep sigh, Brendan closed his eyes. “Lannie, something I should tell you.”

I knew at once. “You don’t need me here any more.”

“What? No, nothing like that! I just said, didn’t I? You’re in charge. You’ve been, what’s the word, invaluable.” I knew this wasn’t true. “Better than the useless doombrain the brewery sent us when Rhoda had her op.” That was more like it.

“No, it’s about me and Rhoda,” Brendan continued heavily. “I’m telling you because it came up with the police and they might ask you.”

I felt a certain dread. “It concerns Becki, then.”

“I had an affair with her.” He stared at the screen, his small eyes unseeing.

“Uh huh.” I hoped it sounded surprised enough with being condemnatory. But I felt a bit sick.

“I’m not proud of it.” He shifted in his seat. “I don’t mean that against Becki, cracking lass, but it wasn’t right of me. It was when Rhoda first fell ill, but I didn’t know. She hadn’t told me. Didn’t tell anyone a thing. She went to see the doctor without saying owt and tried to deal with it all herself. I don’t understand why.”

“So you wouldn’t worry, probably.” Or so Rhoda herself wouldn’t worry, so she could shut it away. So she wouldn’t appear weak. So she wouldn’t lose control. Rhoda was proud.

“Maybe,” said Brendan heavily. “I should have guessed there was something wrong, though. But all I saw was Rhoda getting short and snappy and always tired, shouting at the kids, getting the orders wrong, and I got pissed off. I thought she was fed up with the place. I thought she wanted out.”

He paused the video. The players were caught on their toes, dangling from unseen strings.

“So I went down the club,” said Brendan, “and there was Becki, always cheerful, always full of life, ready to lend an ear. A good-time girl, wasn’t she, Becki?”

“She was.”

“The truth is, she reminded me of Rhoda at that age, when we first met. Lively, playful. She had that same twinkle in her eye. You never saw Rhoda when she was well.”

“But I know,” I said, remembering the glow on Rhoda’s face, the night before the murder.

“And I was flattered,” went on Brendan, “young lass like that, could have had the pick of the club. And, anyway. But I’m not proud of it.”

“It takes two,” I said, wondering if Becki had been proud of it. I thought she probably was. Give the guy a good time, she would have argued; get one over the snappy sour-faced wife, never mind about the kids. She barely knew them anyway. They didn’t matter.

“It takes two. Neither of us said no.” Brendan wearily released the frozen screen and buzzed it into fast-forward.

“Did Rhoda know?”

“Oh, aye. She found out. Somebody must have spilled the beans.”

“Who?”

He shook his head. “I didn’t tell anyone. I suppose I just wasn’t careful or clever enough. Never had an affair before – no practice. Rhoda waited till we were all locked up one night, and then she had it out with me. Told me about her illness, shouted it out like. Threw a few glasses and stuff. I sat there like a stunned sheep. And then I picked up all the bits of glass and made a cup of tea and lots of promises.”

“When was all this?”

“Finished it with Becki eight months ago. Been trying to make it right with Rhoda ever since. Pull things back together.”

“Brendan, how is Rhoda?”

“You know it’s cancer, don’t you? Frank said you knew. So nothing’s certain. The doctors seem fairly hopeful. They would, though, wouldn’t they, whatever? And the chemo’s hard. I wish I could do it for her. That’s what set her off just now. When she feels bad.”

He halted the video again: the end of the match, ecstasy and wretchedness.

“Should have been filmed in sepia,” said Brendan, “it faded so fast. All the good times go, eh, Lannie?”

“They come back again,” I said, although without conviction. I had to say it for Brendan’s sake; but as for my own good times, they’d slipped out of sight. If I hadn’t been quite on top of the world at Tzabo, at least it had felt as if I was climbing, before I shopped Karl and started on the long slide down, past Charlotte’s shop and all the way into the mud behind the wheelie bins.

And to cap it all, now I would have to go back to Nan’s freezing flat and add Rhoda’s name to my list.

 

Chapter Nineteen

Funeral

 

Becki’s funeral was packed. The address by her father, his voice breaking up, did not describe any Becki that I recognised. His Becki was innocent, studious, wholesome, untouched by drink, drugs or lust; pure sugar, not salt. In the crematorium, I had to turn away from her mother’s weeping face because it was unbearably Becki’s, grown old as Becki would not grow old. Two elder sisters were missed chances on display: Becki could have been this, or maybe that. I saw DI Cole and Grimshaw sitting respectfully at the back, no doubt making mental notes on all the mourners.

There were lots of them. Young girl-friends trying to cry, middle-aged colleagues deciding not to. Brendan, beside me, looked solemn and uncomfortable in his black suit. Rhoda had stayed at home. Frank arrived late and harassed, trailing in behind Sue in his creased dark jacket, tie askew, then spent the service gazing at Becki’s forlorn, moustachioed father. Sammie wept and hugged whoever was closest. KK prayed visibly, reflective and calm. Stevo stared at the ceiling. Hugh stared at the floor. Charlotte couldn’t make it.

Bob closed his eyes until Mrs Bob elbowed him repeatedly; then, when he opened them, wiped them with his thumb. AnneMarie was expressionless, and Niall grim, throughout.

Myself, I hated it. It was only my third funeral: the first had been a school-friend with leukaemia, the second a neighbour who accidentally ended up in the middle of a police chase. They’d been aged sixteen and ten respectively. This was worse than either, because I was the reason for it.

“She should have been an old lady,” sniffed one of Becki’s colleagues to me as we stood around outside afterwards. “It’s not fair.”

“No.”

“And I never said goodbye. She was away on a course at Manchester head office all that last week. I never even got to say goodbye.”

I didn’t have the heart to debate the logic of this.

“Oh God,” murmured Sammie on my other side. “Can’t we stop him?” I saw that Niall was arguing with Becki’s father.

“It’s an open invitation,” Niall declared, his face reddening, “made in good faith. Drinks at the club by way of a wake.”

“I couldn’t hear of it,” said Becki’s father with dignity. “I never approved of her job at the rugby club. I did not consider it a good influence upon a young girl. The culture is not one with which I wished her to be associated.”

“And what culture might that be?” said Niall. AnneMarie put a hand on his arm, then looked away as if she was really somewhere else.

“The drinking, the language.”

“There’s none of that.”

“Seeing that the club was only a small part of my daughter’s life,” said Becki’s father with stern outrage, “insignificant apart from the fact she died there, why on earth would we wish to revisit it now, today, of all days? I thank you, no.”

“Pompous eejit,” said Niall, too loudly, once the family had left.

“He’s got a point,” said AnneMarie. She lit a cigarette with relief. The rest of us stood not knowing what to do with our hands. The day was bright, cold and meaningless.

“Come back to the club anyway,” said Niall.

“I could do with a drink,” said Frank, his face tight.

“Frank didn’t want to come,” Sue told me in a stage whisper. “Because of a friend of his who died young. He’s never achieved closure.”

“I could do with a drink too,” said AnneMarie.

“You’ve got to collect the kids from school,” said Niall.

“You can do that. You’ve got the afternoon off. KK can open up the club for us.”

“I didn’t take the afternoon off to pick the kids up from school! It’s not my job, it’s their mother’s job.”

“Everything’s their mother’s bloody job,” muttered AnneMarie.

“What was that?”

“Take the truck,” she said more loudly. “They’ll love it. You know it gives them huge street cred with their friends to be picked up by their Dad in the truck. Cormac says all the other kids are dead jealous.”

Niall capitulated. The rest of us left, in various cars, for the club. I got a lift with Hugh. Big flash car, lots of leather, just like Daddy’s. Hugh looked the business too, handsome and expensive in his well-cut suit: but there were still those shadows under his eyes, and lines around his mouth that I could not recall seeing before. His thirtieth birthday had aged him in more ways than one.

“I’m glad that’s over,” I said.

“I wish it had never happened. I wish I could wipe out the last two weeks and start again.”

I wanted to put a hand on his arm, but he was driving. Then I wanted to ask him if he was sleeping better; but that seemed equally out of place.

“How’s Tamara?” I asked eventually.

“She’s okay. There didn’t seem much point in her coming, since she only met Becki the once.” He drove for a while in silence, then cleared his throat and said, “I won’t be going down the club in the future. I’m giving it up.”

“What! Why? Everyone says you’re the best wing the club’s got.”

“I’m not that good,” said Hugh forlornly. “I’m dispensable.”

“I thought you enjoyed it?”

“Not any more. Everything’s changed. I just don’t feel I can play any more.”

“How does Tamara feel about that?” I asked cautiously.

“She agrees with me. She’s very supportive.”

“Hah! I bet she is,” growled KK when I told him this in the clubhouse between helping him pull pints. “She’s talked Hugh out of it. Wants him to spend his Saturdays taking her shopping. Waste of a bloody good player.” He thumped a glass onto the bar.

“It’s because Becki died here on his birthday. Hugh blames himself.”

“Aye, but that’s bollocks. Life goes on.” KK clashed the drinks on to a tray. “Becki wouldn’t want him to give up. She loved bloody rugby.”

“She loved the social life.”

“Aye, she loved the crack.”

I looked at him sideways, wondering how much he knew. “The craic, or the illegal substance?”

“Both, knowing Becki,” said KK. “Up for anything, like the T-shirt said. Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, whatever was going. Nothing by halves.”

“Yeah? Did she ever…”

“What?”

“She ever offer you drugs?” It wasn’t what I had been going to ask.

“Might have done. Why?” He looked wary.

“You ever take them?”

“No,” said KK with a growl. “Tried them once, years ago. Never again. Bloody mug’s game. I tried to have a word with Becki about it, but she wouldn’t listen. Told me I wasn’t her bloody father. I’m just glad her parents never found out.” He carried one full tray over to the table: I followed with the other.

“To Becki,” said AnneMarie, raising her vodka and tonic. “To Becki, bless her, wherever she is.”

There was an embarrassed mumble of agreement. But AnneMarie, in Niall’s absence, seemed to have taken on his mantle.

“She won’t be forgotten, not as long as rugby’s played here.”

“Aye, well,” said Bob, burying his face in his glass.

“Maybe we could name something after her,” continued AnneMarie. “The small room or something.” I assumed it was the effect of the funeral that was making her so sentimental.

“Not sure about that,” said Brendan. Hugh stared at the table.

“Why not?” demanded AnneMarie.

“Well, it’s down to the committee. And Becki wasn’t actually a member. She didn’t play.”

“Of course she didn’t! She was a girl!”

“I play,” said Sammie, her voice small. AnneMarie turned on her.

“And wouldn’t you like the small room named after you, if you got murdered?”

“No,” said Sammie. “A bench might be nice. For the spectators.”

“We don’t bloody sit down to watch,” said Bob.

“You might if there was a bench.”

“Have to put it on castors,” said Frank.

“Becki was not a bench,” said AnneMarie vehemently. She had already finished her drink. “And she was more important than bloody rugby.”

“Of course she was,” said Sue, who had never known Becki.

“You’re not members either,” objected Bob.

“Did you know,” announced Frank to his beer, “that down in the south of France there’s a chapel dedicated to rugby?”

“Is there, by God?” said KK.

“Notre Dame de Rugby or summat. Saw it online, a picture of the church window, baby Jesus with a ball. Everyone prays to the God of rugby.”

“Quite right too.” Bob belched. “I’ll have to emigrate.”

“I think that’s disgusting!” cried AnneMarie. “Rugby’s not a religion.”

“Yes, it is,” said KK and Stevo together.

“No, it isn’t,” said Frank, shaking his head firmly. “It’s a battlefield. That what’s rugby is: a battle, but without the blood. The violence is just symbolic.”

“Has anyone told De La Salle?”

“Some battle!” AnneMarie was heated. “An excuse to drink too much beer and tell filthy jokes!”

“They’re not as bad as chef’s jokes,” I said. Kitchen humour is bloodcurdling and seldom funny. Nevertheless, Tzabo had been a battlefield too, with the chefs hurling out meals at the enemy lines. The end of every evening was a victory.

“All right,” said AnneMarie belligerently, “if rugby’s a battle, then who’s the bloody war against?” Her words slurred slightly, although there had hardly been time for her vodka to take effect.

“Empty glasses.” Bob plonked his down and looked around expectantly.

“Death,” said Frank. “Rugby is a war on death.”

“Well, thanks for that, Frank,” said Bob. “Your shout.”

“Make mine a double.” AnneMarie pushed her glass forward.

Frank stood up and went to the bar, and I followed to help ferry the drinks. “How many do you think AnneMarie’s going to have?” I asked him.

“As many as she can. She’s been shaken up by Becki’s murder.”

“You think so?” She hadn’t seemed much shaken up to my eyes. By a shortage of Diazepam, yes: by Becki’s killing, no. “I think she’s a tough cookie,” I said.

He was doubtful. “Always seemed a bit fragile to me.”

“She looks fragile,” I said, but he was heading back to the table and Sue, who was drinking tomato juice. Its colour looked indecent in the circumstances. I wondered why she had come.

While I was rinsing glasses, Hugh came over. “I’m going now,” he said sadly. “Got to get back to the office.”

I put my arms around him. He hugged me back, in a half-hearted, brotherly way.

“Remember what I said,” I told him. “Any time, you know where to come.”

“Thanks, Lannie. I appreciate it.” He smiled faintly. “You know what Charlotte said when I started going out with Tamara?”

“What?”

“She said she once used to hope I would get it together with you.”

“Oh.”

“She likes things nice and tidy, does my sister.” Hugh squeezed my shoulder. “You’re a brick, Lannie.”

“Hugh, did you ever go out with Becki?”

“Becki? Lord, no. She liked to flirt with me a bit, but we never actually dated.”

“She fancied you,” I said, then wished I hadn’t, because I could see it caused him pain.

“Did she? I didn’t know. I mean, she flirted with everybody, didn’t she? It was just her bit of fun. But maybe that explains…”

“What?”

“She asked me out once,” said Hugh wistfully. “I made my excuses. She wasn’t my type, and she was a bit young. I could see she was upset, though she tried to make a big joke of it. She told me she’d put a spell on me, hubble bubble and so on, meant to be a love potion I suppose, she even started cackling like a witch. All rather Harry Potter, really.”

“She could be quite predatory, Becki.”

“No, no, she was trying to cover her feelings. She was only young, wasn’t she? I must have hurt her more than I realised. She was already feeling rejected, because Frank had given her the brush off as well the week before. Only time I’ve ever seen him get shirty. I wish I’d been kinder to her. She was a smashing girl, really, just insecure.” He sighed, the shadows returning. “I’m going now. I’ll see you again, Lannie.”

“Any time, Hugh.” I refrained from hugging him again, for I knew now that he had never wanted me, not before Charlotte had suggested it, and not after, either. He was Tamara’s.

“You are being very offensive,” said AnneMarie, arriving at the bar in Hugh’s place. She staggered slightly as she helped herself to a vodka from the optic.

“Who’s being very offensive?” I held out my hand for the money. She flapped a fiver at me and said,

“KK. He doesn’t like me, din’t you know?”

“Oh, I’m sure he does really,” I said. “He’s just a bit brusque.”

“No no no. Doesn’t like me at all.” She shook her head at her glass. I didn’t like her too much either at the moment. I preferred her sober.

“And Frank is just total, totally.” She shook her head extravagantly. “Mental.”

Look who’s talking, I thought. “AnneMarie? Did you manage to get those, um, supplies you wanted?”

“No,” she said. “Making do with vodka.” She sluiced it down. “You’re not drinking,” she said accusingly.

“I’ll be cooking when we get back.”

“So will I. Day in, day out. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, ironing bloody ironing bloody ironing. No end.”

“Well, that’s life.” I have no patience with people who moan about a job they’ve taken on voluntarily. “You didn’t have to marry Niall.”

“Oh, I did. Taidhgh,” she said darkly. “I was expecting.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Pregnancy’s voluntary too.”

“Not if you’re a good good Catholic.”

I had to stop myself from snapping at her. If you make your choice, then you do your best to live with it. God knows, I was trying to live with mine. “There are worse things in life than cooking and cleaning for your family.”

“There are way better things. Becki. She knew. Having fun.”

“Becki knew how to have fun,” I supplied, putting the sentence together for her as if she was a toddler. “Well, I’m sure you can too, AnneMarie.”

She shook her head. “When I think. Could have been. Anyway, you’re very close and cuddly with Hugh.”

“We’re old friends,” I said. “He’s giving up rugby.”

“Well, good.” She leaned towards me conspiratorially. “KK does not like me at all. He disapproves of me.”

“AnneMarie, I think you’ve had enough to drink.”

“Search his room?”

“What are you on about?” I said.

“Niall said. What you find?” Her eyes were wide, hungry, tense.

“Shut up, AnneMarie.”

She put her face close to mine. “So what you find? Tell Niall?”

I backed away a step or two. “Not a dicky-bird,” I said, “in answer to both questions.”

I saw her relax. “Bloody stupid idea,” she said. “Don’t tell him, anyway.”

“Don’t tell who what?”

“You find anything.”

“I didn’t find anything.”

“Weren’t signed anyway. Good thing. None of his goddam business. Don’t. Prove a.” Her eyes closed and she swayed against the bar. I thought she must be putting it on. She’d only had two large vodkas.

Her eyes reopened. “Din’t like Becki either.”

“Who didn’t?”

“KK. He is a great, big, animal,” she said with emphasis.

“On the pitch.”

“And. Don’t you think. You talk tis wife. Ask why she left him.” Her words were melting together, but opening her eyes wide she gathered herself to add, with clear articulation, “KK poisoned her.”

“He what?”

“He did. He poisoned Michelle. His poor little lovely – lovey – dovey – wife.” She had to slow right down to say it.

I didn’t believe her. She was play-acting. “AnneMarie, are you really drunk?”

“You bet.”

“You’ve got kids to look after.”

“So? Niall.” She shrugged theatrically and drained her already empty glass.

“AnneMarie, have you got a secret supply?”

“Betch have.” She tried to pat the handbag that swung on her hip, missed, lost her balance and slid down the edge of the bar. I stooped to help her up. Before anyone else could get there, I spoke quietly into her ear.

“You stupid, fucking, selfish, drunken bitch,” I said.

Then Bob and Stevo arrived to prop her up and dust her down. Her eyes kept closing. I handed her over to them and didn’t look her way again.

 

Chapter Twenty

Incident Room

 

My mother got drunk at the drop of a hat-pin. She drank to pep herself up and she drank to help her sleep. When she was working, sporadically, she drank to wind up enough energy for the pickle factory or the cleaning or the tills: when she got home she drank some more to unwind again. None of the jobs lasted long. Drinking was the only occupation she never tired of, and at which she never failed.

I stopped expecting anything else. I tried to stop caring, and nearly succeeded. Other people’s drinking didn’t bother me – except when they had charge of children: then, by unforgettable instinct, the huge, impotent rage would surge up in me again.

When I realised AnneMarie had a vodka bottle in her handbag, the fury that swelled in my lungs had made it difficult to breathe. The following morning, walking into the bar to find Brendan slumped on the bench seat with a glass in his hand and the Macallan open on the table, it was all I could do not to scream at him and hurl the bottle into the fireplace.

I laced my hands behind my back. The girls were safe at school, I told myself. No problem. Brendan was allowed a drink. So instead of screaming, I gently asked, “Are you all right, Brendan?”

“Aye.” He stared at the smoking fire. His eyes were pink-rimmed, sleep-starved. “It’s just the funeral. You know.”

“I know.”

“She should have…” His voice tailed away into a sigh. Rhoda came in and tutted sharply at the sight of the bottle.

“If you want a Scotch, what’s wrong with the blended?” she said severely.

Then she looked more closely at Brendan. Sitting down beside him on the bench seat, she took the glass out of his limp grasp and replaced it with her hand. “Brendan, I know it’s hard. But drinking won’t help. It can’t bring anyone back.”

“It’s like a big black hole,” said Brendan almost to himself. “Like a great empty pit’s opened up underneath the rugby club.”

“Well, there’d be no surprises there, seeing who built it,” said Rhoda tartly. “But life goes on. It has to, Brendan.”

“I know. It’s just… I don’t want things to change.” He looked up at her.

“Oh, Brendan,” she said, more softly. “Don’t you worry. Nothing’s going to change. The club will be fine.”

“It’s not the club I’m worried about.” I could hardly hear his voice, and Rhoda chose not to.

“Just because they’ve cancelled the matches this weekend, there’s no need for anyone to panic,” she said matter-of-factly.

“No.”

“After all, there’s a lot of flu about.”

“Niall says they’re cancelling because of Becki,” said Brendan dolefully.

“Oh, well, he’d know, of course! Trust him to make a crisis out of a hiccup.”

“No, but Stevo says the same.”

Rhoda shook her head disbelievingly. “What a load of big girls’ blouses! Mind you, some of those mothers at the school gate are no better. They’re pulling their lads out of the mini-rugby, and sending them down to Macc.”

“What for?” I asked.

“Safety concerns,” snorted Rhoda. “Not coming back until the killer’s caught. I’d say superstition, myself. Or squeamishness. I’ve got no patience with them.” She put a hand on Brendan’s shoulder. “It’ll all pass by, Brendan. People have short memories. They’ll come back.”

“Not once they’ve defected to Macc or Congleton, they won’t.” Brendan stared gloomily at the whisky bottle. “Niall’s panicking. Says we’ll be way into the red if this goes on. He’s called an EGM next week.”

“What’s an EGM?” I said.

“Extraordinary General Meeting.”

“Oh, well, that’ll solve everything,” said Rhoda acidly.

“He is chairman, after all. Says if we don’t do something we might have to close down and sell up. The club might die along with Becki.”

“Niall just likes to fuss,” Rhoda told him. “Everything will be fine.”

“Will it, Rhoda? Really?” He gazed at her, mournfully appealing. Rhoda did not quite meet his gaze, but patted his cheek. When Brendan enveloped her in a hug, she only succumbed for a second before pulling away.

“As long as you don’t empty that bottle,” she said warningly. “It’s time to open the doors now, Brendan. You can have a drink later. The bar towels need changing and I want all those tables wiping down.” The tables were fine, but it got Brendan onto his feet, if not quite steadily.

Rhoda surveyed him for a moment, her mouth set, then put the cap firmly back on the Macallan. Turning to me, she said briskly, “Now then, Lannie, is that redcurrant sauce made?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Don’t be cheeky. Any of the caramel parfait left?”

“About half. And I did an apple and cinnamon sponge, only we’d better call it something else.”

“Delight,” said Rhoda. “Charlotte.”

“Okay.” That reminded me. I felt for my phone.

“I’ll go and chalk it up on the specials board.” Rhoda had been nicer about my cooking lately. I didn’t know why. But she seemed a little happier all round, less pale and pinched, and went so far as to smile at me occasionally. She even told me how much she’d enjoyed the lemon and ginger mousse, although I knew Brendan had eaten it.

Whatever had gone on between her and Brendan on the day of the flood seemed to have been smoothly plastered over, but what cracks remained beneath, I couldn’t tell. I felt awkward with Brendan, kept seeing him with Becki in my mind. Becki sliding her arm round him, caressing him, while Rhoda waited in hospital corridors alone….

It wasn’t like Becki even wanted him particularly. Could have been Hugh, or Frank, or maybe Niall, or any number of them. Good old Becki. Poor old Becki. Bloody hell, Becki… I tried to push the images out of my head, but Becki kept sneaking back behind the bar to cuddle Brendan when Rhoda wasn’t looking.

Lunchtime was busy. It was a while before I could escape out to the car park to ring Charlotte. I retreated to the furthest corner, the only place with a decent signal, and perched on the stone wall.

“Charlotte. How you doing?”

“Lannie. I’m fine. I’m good.”

She wasn’t. I knew at once from her voice.

“What’s up, Charlotte? Is the shop okay?”

“Yes. Well, yes and no. To be honest,” she said, “business is pretty dreadful since the fire, but that’s business for you. It’ll pick up.”

“Of course it will.”

“You can’t force people to buy buns, after all.”

“I can,” I said. “I’ll come and wave a shotgun outside your shop.” Not good taste. I tried again. “Get a sandwich board and I’ll march it up and down Wilmslow Road for you.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” Her voice was still flat. “And I’m worried about Hugh. He’s pretty down. Actually I even suggested he should go to his doctor, and get something to make him feel better, but he refuses point-black. He says he won’t touch any drugs these days, not even anti-depressants, although I think they might help him more than Tamara does. To be honest, I don’t think Tamara’s helping much.”

“Why not?”

“Well, he needs a good strong shoulder, someone practical and steady.” I wondered if she meant me. “All she can do is bill and coo and flutter uselessly. And, Lannie, I…”

“What is it, Charlie?”

She sighed. “Oh, hell, I don’t know, just nothing seems to be working out.”

“You’re not enjoying being back at home?”

“I shouldn’t moan. I’m very grateful to Daddy and Jane for putting me up. It’s just hard when you’re used to having your own place. I don’t like being dependent again, and Jane is just so incredibly fluffy. I mean – she’s a lovely person, but my God. And Lannie, something you should know. I was going to ring you tonight.”

“Why, what is it?”

“Do you remember a Mark Jones from college?”

“Jones, Jones. I can remember a few Marks but not Joneses. Why?”

“A Mark Jones who used to know you in college rang asking if we knew your address. And Jane, who answered the phone, bless her little cotton socks, gaily said, oh yes, we know Lannie, she’s living down near Fylington now, in a house that belongs to someone who owns a reclamation yard. And she’s working at the rugby club.”

“What? How does she know all that?”

“You told her, Lannie, the night we went to Ute,” said Charlotte wearily.

“Oh, shit. When was this call?”

“Jane can’t remember. She just came out with it this morning. ‘Oh yes, that reminds me’ sort of thing. She thought maybe a week, maybe two weeks ago.”

“Oh, Christ. Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m not sure!” snapped Charlotte. “She hasn’t got a clue. She’s got the memory of a hamster. If I’d found out sooner I would have told you, wouldn’t I? And anyway it might mean nothing at all.”

“Of course it might. Sorry, Charlotte.”

“It’s probably pure coincidence,” said Charlotte. “There’s nobody chasing you any more.”

“No. Anyway, since they’ve got Becki, they’ll be assuming I’m dead.”

There was a brief pause. Then Charlotte said cautiously, “Well, yes. As long as they didn’t see that thing in the paper.”

“What thing?” I said.

“In the Evening News. They’ve opened the inquest and adjourned it. There was a picture of Becki and quotes from her old boss: sorely missed and so on.”

“Was there? We don’t get the Evening News down here,” I said, my mouth dry. “That means – oh, Christ, oh bloody hell.”

“That means nothing at all,” said Charlotte sharply, “until the police find out who murdered Becki in the first place. Calm down, Lannie! There’s nothing for you to worry about.”

“There’s everything to worry about.”

“Well, at least nobody’s firebombed your pub!”

There was a couple of seconds’ silence before I said, “Sorry, Charlotte.”

“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. How is the police investigation going?”

“They’re getting nowhere fast, I think. How long are you planning to stay at home?”

“God knows. I’ll find another flat when things pick up, in a few months maybe. It won’t be Didsbury though. Might have to be Withington or Northenden. Look, Lannie, I’ve got to go.”

“Can we get together soon?” We arranged to meet in a couple of weeks. I rang off, depressed that Charlotte sounded so depressed, and that I was the cause of it. I was responsible for all of them: Brendan, Charlotte, and Hugh too, all blighted by the deed done with my knife.

Mark Jones. Had I known a Mark Jones? I quickly frisked my memory. There were too many faces. People had flitted in and out of college courses, but I didn’t remember a Mark Jones. Maybe I had come across him, but not remembered. In which case, why would he remember me? Was it worth telling Grimshaw? I didn’t really want to; I could just visualise his sceptical sneer.

Nonetheless, once the lunches were over I made my excuses to Rhoda and caught the bus down to Fylington.

I didn’t go straight to the incident room. First I pretended to look in shop windows, trying to fool myself that my real purpose was just an afterthought. But I couldn’t keep it up for long, and eventually sidled past the police cars into the parish hall.

It was chilly and echoey, with a huddle of folding chairs and trestle tables under the high steel-beamed roof. Cables trailed across the floor. Charts and photos were pinned upon partitions. I glanced briefly: Becki’s face looked back, grinning. My stomach tightened. I had that old police station feeling of anxious dread, like exam time in the school hall.

A fresh-faced young constable bade me sit and after an echo of murmurs Grimshaw appeared. He sat down on the folding chair opposite me, crossed his legs carefully, and leaned back to listen. Which meant I had to do all the talking. And Mark Jones sounded entirely stupid, like an excuse to make myself important.

Though Grimshaw’s eyebrows were sceptical, his manner was smoothly pleasant.

“If it was less than two weeks ago that he contacted Charlotte’s stepmother, the phone call can have no bearing on the murder. However, it’s easy enough to check if Mark Jones exists,” he said. “Just tell me the years you were at the college and we’ll get on to the admissions office.”

“It’s a common name,” I said. “And she can’t remember when the phone call was.”

“We’ll check with the phone company if we think it necessary.” His tone told me he thought it would be totally unnecessary.

“I had a threatening letter as well,” I said, stung. “I told DI Cole. It was addressed to the Woolpack at Fylington, and posted in Manchester the Wednesday before Becki’s murder.”

That caught his attention more. He leaned forward and looked at my hands expectantly. “A letter? Where is it?”

“Well, Rhoda threw it away.”

“Ah. Did she.” His voice went flat. “How useful.”

I felt uncomfortable. “But she can vouch for the contents.”

“Which were?” he said with exaggerated patience.

I recited them as well as I could remember. “Rhoda read it too, because at first she thought it was for her.”

“Now why would she think that?”

“There was no name on it. No other reason.” Then I took a sharp breath and stared dumbly at Grimshaw while he sighed and leafed through a brown file on his desk, because it had just occurred to me that in fact there was a perfectly good reason why Rhoda thought the letter was for her.

The reason was Becki. Brendan had an affair with Becki, which they weren’t too successful at keeping secret. How many people had known? How many of Brendan’s mates had seen him getting hell off Rhoda because of it, and had thought she was being too hard on him, refusing forgiveness? You were supposed to love him and look after him, not make him suffer…

That letter could just as easily have been for Rhoda as for me. Any of Brendan’s friends might have written it. But I had no way of knowing for sure, and it filled me with irrational panic.

“Oh Christ,” I said. “What?”

Grimshaw raised his eyes briefly to the ceiling and repeated his question. “Have you heard from your brother at all?”

“Karl? No, how would I? Why do you ask?”

Grimshaw leaned back in his chair, studying the file on his desk. “According to the governor of Strangeways, he’s been writing a lot of letters lately. To family, various prison charities, solicitors. I thought you might have heard from your solicitor.”

“I don’t have a solicitor. What’s he so busy about, anyway?”

He looked at me from heavy-lidded eyes. “He’s considering an appeal.”

“Is he? Shit.”

“Wilford Nevis is already appealing. His hearing comes up soon.”

“They won’t let him out, will they? Will I have to give evidence all over again?” I didn’t think I could stand that.

“The appeal is against the length of sentence rather than the verdict. I don’t think you’ll be required.”

“Good.” Another thought occurred to me. “But if he wins his appeal, how soon could they release him?”

“I couldn’t say.”

Great. “How is the murder investigation going?”

“Slowly. There’s still a small mountain of possible evidence to sift through.”

“Still? You’ve had ages.”

“Do you know how many interviews we’ve done?” he demanded in a flare of irritation. “And how many items of clothing and shoes we’ve had to check? And fingerprints and footprints?”

“I gather you’re not getting very far.”

He closed down again. “We are making good progress. Not many murder inquiries are solved on the spot, you know.”

“But the longer it takes, the less likely it is.”

“Well, thank you for that insight, Miss Herron.”

“It’s true, though, isn’t it? And you still suspect it’s somebody from the club?”

“We’ve been able to rule a number of people out.”

“Who?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Well, I hope you’ve managed to rule me out,” I said, trying to be facetious. Mistake. Grimshaw leant forward, put his arms on the desk, and said,

“You like being the centre of attention, don’t you, Miss Herron?”

“No, not much.”

He gazed at me coolly. “Did you enjoy standing up in court last year and giving evidence about your brother and his friends?”

“No, of course not.”

“The judge praised your courage and integrity. That must have made you feel good.”

“Not particularly. It was my brother who was being put away.”

The hardness of his stare was discomfiting. It made me feel that I must be guilty of something. “And you were the heroine,” he said.

“Not in many people’s eyes.”

“Oh, but you were. You didn’t have to go through all that. It was entirely your choice.”

“So what are you getting at? Are you saying I murdered Becki so I could stand up in court and be the centre of attention again?”

“Stranger things happen,” said Grimshaw. “Some people commit major crimes for very small and selfish reasons.”

“Not me. I had no reason to murder Becki. I liked Becki.”

“Did you?”

“Sure.”

“But Becki could be abrasive,” said Grimshaw reflectively. “Becki dealt in drugs, which you don’t approve of. You’re prepared to take very strong action against drug dealers. And in addition, Becki had her eye on several of the players, including your good friend Hugh and at least one of the married members, Niall Egan. Did you approve of that?”

“No, not really, but–”

“Becki liked to flaunt herself. You don’t.”

“I might.”

He surveyed me with cold crocodile eyes. “I think you took a very dim view of Becki’s lifestyle.”

I felt uncomfortable. He was too close to a truth that I was slowly discovering for myself. I had liked Becki fine, but I was liking her less as I found out more about her. If I’d known about the drugs a month ago, what would I have done?

“Her lifestyle was none of my business.”

“Just like Karl’s lifestyle was none of your business?”

“That was entirely different!” I was getting hot and bothered. “All right! If I disapproved of Becki so much that I followed her outside and stabbed her, why wasn’t I covered in blood? And what about the goose?”

“You used a binliner to protect your clothes. There wasn’t a wide blood spatter in any case. You then stabbed her repeatedly to make it look like the attack of a madman.”

“She would have fought back,” I said.

“You were a friend: she wasn’t expecting you to attack her. That explains why there was no sign of a struggle. And as for the goose – well, it just came scavenging round the bins and got in the way, didn’t it? And then got it in the neck. You don’t like the geese.”

“Who says?”

“But it provided a nice distraction, a bright red herring for the police.”

“None of this happened. You know it wasn’t me.”

“You have no alibi. Nobody was watching your movements. You could go out to the bins unnoticed. You did, when you found her body. Why not earlier, when the murder was committed?”

“Because I’m not a murderer!”

He was unmoved. “You know how to use a knife.”

“Not on people! For Christ’s sake! I didn’t kill Becki,” I said. “I didn’t use a binliner or anything else. Have you found a binliner with blood on it?”

“We have a number of pieces of evidence,” said Grimshaw tightly.

“But none that count, am I right? No binliner, no blood on people’s clothes? If you’d found any on mine, you would have arrested me by now!”

“If we’re short of evidence,” he retorted, glaring, “that’s not entirely our fault, is it, Miss Herron? What about that letter that you say you got? A pity you didn’t think to keep it safe – if it actually existed!”

“Of course it existed!”

“Well, of course. I beg your pardon.” His voice was sarcastic.

“Would it make any difference?” I stared at him in indignation. “I don’t believe you’ve found a thing. You’re really desperate, aren’t you? You haven’t got a clue what happened, so you’re taking it out on me!”

Grimshaw sat back and recrossed his legs. Calm and deliberate. “We’re looking at all the possibilities.”

“Well, you’re a bit bloody late looking at this one, aren’t you? You should have arrested me right at the start. Do you want to do it now, or can I go?”

Grimshaw’s eyes snapped. He started to say something sharp, then stopped and made an elegant gesture of release. I marched out smouldering like an over-heated chip pan. I could feel my face burning. Funnily enough, it wasn’t the suspicion of murder that hurt so much as the accusation of attention seeking. He’d decided I was addicted to showing off.

The trouble was, maybe it wasn’t so far from the truth. I had a sneaky subterranean feeling that I might be addicted to being right. Jumping in with both big feet to prove my point. Not caring to think too hard about that one, I muttered, “As if I’d want your attention, you sardonic self-satisfied git.”

And I was doubly annoyed because Grimshaw obviously still didn’t believe me. He had no faith in my mythical assassin from gangland.

I stopped dead on the narrow pavement as Fylington’s rush hour meandered past: a post van, a bicycle, a pair of shopping trolleys dragged along by bent old ladies. I had just made an unwelcome discovery.

Why the hell had I written my useless list? Why had I thought Becki’s drug habits worth reporting? Why was I afraid that the hate-filled letter might be meant for Rhoda? Why was I trying to pick apart the knotted relationships of the rugby club?

Because Grimshaw wasn’t the only one who didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe myself.

Grimshaw thought that Becki was friends with her attacker. No sign of a struggle, he had said. I had a sickening, skulking fear that the murderer was somebody Becki had known well, somebody I knew too: someone I didn’t want it to be.

Well, there was only one answer for that. Keep picking.

 

Chapter Twenty-one

Michelle

 

I blagged a half-day off Brendan, who agreed with a guilty alacrity that made me realise I should be asking more often. I’d lost the knack of having days off while working at Tzabo. Refusing overtime there would have meant I wasn’t up to the job, couldn’t take the pace. Brendan was content to let me set the pace. He wasn’t a great manager, in truth. Rhoda was the one who kept the business on track.

My day off wasn’t a holiday: it was business of a different sort. I caught the bus to Macc, and then the slow train into Manchester, feeling taut and edgy until I was safely on a second train heading out towards St Helens. A couple of hours after I set out, a bus finally deposited me at my target.

A hunt through phone books in the library had assured me that this was where KK’s ex-wife lived. Michelle Egan: she hadn’t remarried, although the librarian who rang St Helen’s library told me that their voter’s list showed a man with a different surname also living at the address. The house was a small red brick semi with a tidy, colourless garden, possibly ex-council, but spruced up.

I didn’t expect her to be in. I’d come prepared to hang around all day if need be, so her appearance at the door was something of a shock.

In more ways than one. I gawped. I’d imagined her as big and blowsy, a female version of KK, loud and broad and possibly hairy. I did them both an injustice. Michelle was willowy, frail and beautiful. She had fair fine skin that would show wrinkles early, but didn’t yet, and a trusting gaze, even for me.

“Mrs Egan? I’m a friend of KK,” I said awkwardly. “I mean Joseph. I’ve come about Joseph. But he doesn’t know I’m here.”

“Are you a girlfriend?” She was wary, but not chilly.

“No, I’m a colleague of his. I cook for the rugby club, and help behind the bar sometimes.”

“Oh, God, it’s about that murder, isn’t it?” She pushed back her hair wearily. “I’ve had the police round already. Not that I could tell them anything.”

“DS Grimshaw?” She looked blank. “Good-looking guy, smooth, a sharp dresser, very self-possessed?”

“That’s the one.” As if Grimshaw’s name had been a passport, she opened the door wider to let me in.

We sat down in the living room. Michelle curled up self-protectively on the grey plush sofa. She looked like an advert for air-freshener: pretty housewife surrounded by pastel blandness. Newly hoovered carpet, computer in the corner, pictures of a boy and a younger girl dotted around the room. I presumed the boy was Ashley. He had KK’s unruly hair, but not his fierceness of gaze. I wasn’t offered tea.

“I never met the girl who died,” she said. “I’ve haven’t been to the club for years. I’m sorry about her death, but, you know, I really don’t have anything to do with it at all.”

“I know KK has a criminal record. GBH.”

She sighed, then gazed at me steadily. “It wasn’t that bad. Only a stupid brawl in a pub. He didn’t hit the other guy that hard; it was just bad luck his jaw broke. And Joe didn’t get convicted of GBH in the end, only assault.”

“Did he go to prison?”

“He got a fine and community service.”

“That’s what brought the police along, though, is it?”

“Why are you asking?”

“Do you think Joseph could have stabbed somebody?”

“No,” said Michelle, without hesitation. She shook her head emphatically. Her hair swung, soft and pale as corn-silk. “He just wouldn’t. Hitting somebody, yes, stabbing, no. And he definitely wouldn’t touch a woman. You don’t think he did?”

“No, I don’t.”

“What do you want, then?”

“I want to prove him innocent. Actually, I want to prove them all innocent,” I confessed.

A glimmer of a smile shadowed her face. “That’s a tall order.”

“Yes. The thing is, the police aren’t getting anywhere. They seem convinced it was someone from the club. But I don’t agree. I’ve got my own reason for thinking it was a drugs murder, but the police aren’t interested in listening to me because they reckon I’ve just got a bee in my bonnet and they’ve got all these other suspects lined up. Including KK.”

“And who else do they suspect?”

“Half the club, I should think. Niall. Brendan. Bob.” I realised with a shock of annoyance that I had left Bob off my useless list, and should really add him on.

Michelle tucked her bare feet up under her. The pose made her look even younger, about twenty. Resigned, she said, “What did you want to know?”

“About KK’s conviction. What caused the brawl in the pub?”

“It was nothing. He got accosted by a drunk, and he hit him a bit too hard. He put him in hospital.” Was there a glimmer of pride?

“Were you there?”

“Not that time, no.”

“What time were you there?”

“What do you mean?” she said defensively.

“When he’s been violent.”

“I haven’t been there when he’s been violent.”

“But the way you said it.”

“No I didn’t.”

“But he’s got a temper,” I said. “Look, I’m just trying to work out what he might be capable of. Was he ever violent towards you?”

“I told the police no.”

“He’s had a go at Niall in the club at least twice,” I persisted. “I get the impression it’s a regular event.”

That caught her attention. She bent forward a fraction. “Is it? Why?”

“I thought you might know.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“You told the police no,” I said. “Does that mean there was something you didn’t tell them? I need you to help me out here.” I didn’t want to mention poisoning, not unless she did first. That could just be a drunken flight of AnneMarie’s imagination.

“Well…” Michelle looked away, pulling at a strand of hair with a small, unhappy gesture. “He just shook me once. I don’t think once really counts. Everyone does something once, and shaking isn’t anything, is it? And he was wound up; we’d had an argument.”

“What about?”

“Something and nothing. I mean, this was years ago. I can’t even remember properly. It was about whether we ought to visit someone in hospital or go for a drink. It was nothing.” She shook her hair across her face.

“But?”

“But nothing, really. He shook me and we had a shout at each other and threw the odd set of keys and then I stormed off to Niall and AnneMarie’s house and that was it. We’re talking ten years ago. It was nothing.”

She was right. It was nothing. It wouldn’t have even rated on the scale of my mother’s alcoholic knockabouts with my so-called father. Wouldn’t have merited an hour’s worth of memory, let alone ten years’ worth.

So why was it important to her? Why had she needed to tell me?

“Nice place you’ve got here,” I said, to give myself a moment to think. “I like your suite. It’s very classy, looks like a show home.”

I didn’t think this was actually complimentary, but Michelle said, “Thank you,” as if she meant it. Her smile was a flower opening. She was beautiful. I stared. My God, in the club she’d have the players buzzing round her like bees…

“Did you ever make teas at the rugby club?” I asked.

She laughed. Christ, spell-binding. “Not very well,” she said. “I was hopeless at it. Niall always complained about my mash.”

“He does about mine too,” I said, untruthfully. If Niall had ever complained about my mash I’d have pinned his big ears back with a pair of skewers. “Why did you go to Niall’s house, after that argument?”

“Niall could always sort Joe out. He calmed him down. Big brother effect, I suppose. He’s very…”

“Masterful,” I supplied.

She smiled. “Yes.”

“He doesn’t calm Joe down nowadays,” I said. “Maybe the effect’s worn off. Did Joe follow you there?”

“Oh, yes. He pulled a clock off the wall and then stormed out.” I felt I was catching glimpses of an event through small, netted windows. “Niall was very kind. He always tried to look after me, whenever.” She twirled her hair.

“Whenever what?”

“Well, you know, anything.”

“Who did you know first,” I asked, “Niall or KK, I mean Joe?”

“Niall. I met Niall at a party, my cousin’s twenty-first. He was a friend of Niall’s. Niall introduced me to Joe later on.”

There was something in the way she said Niall’s name. She liked to say his name.

“Was he match-making?” I said. She smiled, and shrugged.

“How long were you married to Joe for?”

“Less than two years.”

“What happened?”

She looked away again, through her hair. “I suppose Ashley happened. That’s why we got married, but Joe wasn’t ready to be a father. He loves Ashley, don’t get me wrong, but he wasn’t happy about it. He didn’t want to be tied down.”

“But he didn’t go to New Zealand.”

“That was his choice.” She shifted restlessly. “Look, I didn’t make him marry me. I wasn’t bothered. I mean, who cares these days? It was Joe who insisted. He likes everything – you know.”

“Done properly and in order.”

She nodded. “Exactly.”

I took a deep breath and said, “Michelle, this sounds stupid, but somebody told me a weird story about Joe trying to poison you. I don’t believe it, but–”

“Who said that?” Her voice sharpened.

“Then did it happen?”

“It was a total accident. Somebody had put carpet cleaner in a drinks bottle, that was all, and it got mixed up behind the bar.”

“Who did that?”

“Well, nobody wanted to own up to doing anything so stupid! It was soon after they refurbished the bar, could have been anybody really.”

“So what happened?”

“I threw up a lot,” said Michelle.

“What kind of bottle was it?”

“Advocaat. Look, this isn’t important.”

“Who gave you the drink?”

“Joe. But it was sheer accident. He was the one who took me to A and E. He was devastated. Out of his mind with worry.”

“How long were you in A and E for?” I asked.

“They kept me in overnight. I felt sick for a week.”

“When was this?”

“It was… oh… Ashley was just a baby.”

“Early on in your marriage, then. How much longer did it last?”

She sighed, wearily. “Not that much longer, I suppose. We spilt up before Ashley was two. But that had nothing to do with me getting sick.”

“What was it, then?”

“I just realised that we’d made a mistake. I didn’t love him enough. We argued. We shouldn’t have married. Then I met Lester, and we had Leanne.” A whole opera in five sentences. “This is Lester.”

She reached behind her to pick up a photo from the dresser. It gave me a shock. Lester was big and raw-boned, tousled-haired, sun-bleached, masterful. He looked a lot like Niall.

“When you argued with Joe, was he ever violent then?” I was remembering AnneMarie’s slurred words. But Michelle slowly shook her head.

“You don’t seem entirely sure,” I said.

“Well, he shouted a lot. He threw things a few times. Broke a bookshelf. But he didn’t throw them at me. He didn’t actually hit me or anything.”

“So being shaken was the worst that ever happened?”

“Yes.”

“Just going back to that incident for a minute.” I didn’t know myself why I was going back to it – except that she had brought it up, and there was something there that I hadn’t caught. “When you argued and went to Niall’s house. Why couldn’t Niall calm Joe down that time?”

“I don’t know,” she said dreamily. “I suppose Niall just got it wrong that time.”

“How?”

“Well. He got quite stern. He told Joe to stop behaving like a three-year old or he could leave the house.”

“So Joe left the house?”

“Yeah.” Michelle twiddled her hair, stroked the arm of her chair. Her eyes were distant, remembering.

“So Niall looked after you.”

“Yes.”

“Like a big brother.”

“Mm.”

“Was he good at that?”

“He was very concerned.” Her fingers kept stroking the arm of the chair. “He was very protective,” she said.

“Was AnneMarie there?” I asked.

Her hand stopped stroking. “She was in hospital. She had pre-eclampsia before Taidhgh was born. That was what the argument was all about. Joe thought Niall should be there with her.”

“Did you sleep with Niall?”

She caught her breath, and looked at me, lips slightly parted, before she started breathing again. And then she looked away, and didn’t answer for a moment before she said “Don’t be silly.”

It wasn’t a no. So I said again, “Look, I’m not going to tell anyone. Did you sleep with Niall?”

“That’s none of your business,” said Michelle, starting to get affronted.

That wasn’t just not a no. That was a yes. Michelle didn’t like lying.

“I want you to go now,” she said with dignity. She uncurled her legs and stood up. “There’s nothing else I can tell you.”

I stood too and gathered my bag, glancing around the room for any final clues hidden in the neat displays of a blameless family life. Seeing the photos, another possibility hit me like a punch. “Michelle,” I said. “Who is Ashley’s father?”

She gasped. And there was a gap of at least two seconds before she said, “Joe is Ashley’s father. How dare you?”

“Are you sure? What would a DNA test say?”

“It wouldn’t know the difference,” said Michelle. Then she blinked. “He’s Joe’s son. Joe’s,” she said, her voice suddenly gone husky, as if she had only just realised what she had let slip.

“Does anyone else know?”

“Of course not. Know what? He’s Joe’s. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“He’s Joe’s,” I said. “I accept that. It’s nothing to do with me, anyway. It’s irrelevant. I just needed to know about Joe. He’s not really likely to have committed murder, is he?”

“No,” said Michelle. “He’s Ashley’s father. He sees Ashley every fortnight. He sent him a hundred pounds for his birthday. He’s a good dad.”

“Exactly. Look, thanks for all your help. I’ll see myself out.”

She came to the door anyway, looking worried. “Joe didn’t do it, did he? It would be terrible for Ashley.”

“No,” I said. “He didn’t. Thank you.” I walked off down the drive, wondering why KK had let Michelle go when she was so beautiful, and nice, and averse to lying, even if she had fallen headlong for his brother.

Michelle didn’t think KK had poisoned her, and neither did I. It sounded more like an accidental poisoning to me, as she’d suggested. And he’d never hit her. I was ready to strike KK off my list. She hadn’t really said anything incriminating about him at all.

What she had told me was something far more important.

That Niall was a bastard, and capable of anything.

 

Chapter Twenty-two

Foxes

 

KK swung a table round in a dangerous arc like a circus act, and set it with a bang against the clubhouse wall. He really was wasted here, I thought, watching him sidelong. He should have been in New Zealand chopping down sixty-foot trees and marmalising the opposition every weekend. Living here must drive him crazy.

He looked up from his table-swinging. “Well, well,” he said, “here’s Sergeant Grimshaw come to arrest you, Lannie.”

“Or you,” I said, tartly, although I felt myself tense up as always in the presence of police. I had no doubt that Grimshaw noticed, and took it as a natural result of his manly allure.

But I had half a notion that he really had come to arrest me: the package under his arm was small reassurance. He wore his natty camouflage and an unreadable smile.

“All right, Plod?” KK greeted him, to my irritation. What had Grimshaw done to merit a nickname? Even an off-the-peg one like Plod.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded.

“I’ve come to watch the game,” said Grimshaw blandly. I didn’t believe him. Grimshaw was a man for ulterior motives if ever I saw one. He’d come to watch people, not rugby. “I brought you back your T-shirt,” he added, and handed it over in a clear plastic bag. Nicely ironed.

“That’s been a while. No blood, then?”

“Only beer.”

“What a shame.”

“Yes.” He took a resigned breath, and added, “I got a little narked the other day. I apologise.”

“You what?” I was taken aback until I reflected that there was undoubtedly an ulterior motive for his apology too. A policeman would never apologise for anything without one. “Well, all right,” I said cautiously. “I suppose I was a bit hasty as well.”

“Can I buy you a drink, Lannie? What would you like?” he asked: turning on the charm. I wasn’t about to be taken in.

“Nothing, thanks. But you could always help with the chilli. My wife hasn’t turned up.” Neither had half the team.

He shook his head. “Uh-uh. I only do spuds.”

KK gave a guffaw. “You must have been in the army,” he remarked.

“SPS,” I said. “Special potato squadron. You can see it in his eyes. Did you go to the EGM, KK?”

“I did.” He straightened another table with a thump. “I had to. Niall had only reminded me about sixteen times.”

“Good turn-out?”

“Mostly the young lads. He bribed them with free ale.” KK obviously disapproved.

“And what happened?”

“You’ll find out,” he said shortly, hefting a chair in each large hand.

“I’m allergic to chilli peppers,” said Grimshaw rather plaintively. The little boy lost tone didn’t suit him.

“Well, you can still chop an onion, can’t you?”

KK dropped his chairs with a clatter, making us both jump.

“Bloody hellfire! Bloody hell!” KK was staring at the wall, eyes bulging and incredulous. I couldn’t see a problem.

“What is it, KK?”

“Someone’s only been and nicked Wade Dooley’s shirt!”

“No, that’s impossible,” I protested, for the glass case was still on the wall, with the shirt inside it. But when I went up for a closer look, I saw that it was one of the club’s own, with green hoops, a size or three smaller than Wade Dooley’s.

“Bloody hellfire,” I said.

“The bastards! They’ve taken our shirt. How the hell did they get it out?”

“Might it have gone for cleaning?” suggested Grimshaw.

“That’s Wade Dooley’s shirt! It doesn’t get bloody cleaned. Anyway, Niall would have told me. Bloody hellfire!” KK stared at the bogus shirt with furious loathing, and then accosted Drop-goal who was just arriving with his kit-bag. “You know anything about this?”

Drop-goal let his bag fall to the floor. “Christ almighty. Where’s it gone?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” said KK grimly. He disappeared to the changing room. Seconds later, a dozen half-naked players emerged to swarm around the display case and swear in furious bewilderment. Stevo was only wearing a jock-strap.

“Good grief,” said Brendan. “It’s turned green.”

“Some bugger’s nicked it,” roared Bob. “Go and get Niall!”

Grimshaw leaned against the bar, arms and elegant ankles crossed, watching. He appeared to be enjoying himself.

“You didn’t nick it, did you?” I said to him suspiciously.

“What would I do that for?”

“A misplaced sense of fun.”

He shook his head. “My sense of fun is perfectly in place.”

“Well, why don’t you do something?”

“They haven’t asked me yet,” said Grimshaw.

“At least you could fingerprint the case!”

“I could. It’s unlikely to prove anything. Everyone’s fingerprints are all over the place in here, as I’ve already discovered to my cost.”

“Not on that glass case, surely,” I insisted.

He looked at me sidelong. “No? I saw someone kiss it last time I was here.”

“Well, I expect they were drunk.”

“Oh, they were. Very. But the fact remains.”

Niall came in at a gallop.

“Over here, Niall!” bellowed Bob. “Just look what some bugger’s gone and done!”

Niall loped over, and peered. He was holding a large brown envelope. “Ah,” he said.

“What does that mean,” said Stevo, “Ah?”

“All in good time,” said Niall.

Bob’s eyes were narrowing. “And what does that mean, all in good fucking time?”

“Shit,” said KK, looking even wilder than usual. Niall jumped onto a chair.

“Announcement, everybody!” he said loudly. “I’ve got something to show you. This seems an ideal time since you’re all here. Have the good grace to shut it, please, Bob. For all those who COULDN’T BE BOTHERED to turn up to the Extraordinary General Meeting, here’s what we decided.”

He made a great show of rustling in his envelope, pulled out a piece of A3 card and held it over his head, rotating to give everyone a good look.

FYLINGTON FOXES, it said, in a spiky red font. There was a cartoon of a perky orange fox winking in the corner.

“Dear God,” said Bob. “What the fuck’s that?”

“If you’d been there, you’d know. This is our new name. And that is our new symbol.”

“You never got anyone to vote for that,” said Bob disbelievingly.

“We got a majority vote for a trial period till the end of the season,” retorted Niall.

“All them bloody students,” muttered Gary Killick.

“You can’t change our name just like that!” cried Stevo.

“If we don’t pull in the punters,” retorted Niall, “we’re going to slide down the drain. Millers have already cried off, we’ve had to arrange a scratch fixture with Hesketh. The under tens and under twelves never showed last Sunday. We’ve got to do something to get people in, and that means the kiddies too, or this place’ll just roll over and die.”

“Why Foxes? What’s wrong with Falcons?” objected Stevo.

“Fucking Ferrets,” snarled Bob.

“Now, now!” Niall wagged his finger. “This is a family club. That’s why we’re having a Family Fun Day next month for Becki’s memorial game. I’ve ordered a mascot costume that should arrive in time.”

“Have her parents agreed to this?”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Niall.

“No-one’ll come,” growled Bob, “they’ll think it’s a fucking funeral.”

“It’s everybody’s job to make sure people come. The first team will play the president’s fifteen.”

“We haven’t got a president.”

“Figure of speech,” said Niall. “Call it chairman’s fifteen if you like.”

“So you’ll be captaining it, will you?” said Bob.

“Thought we’d have a ladies’ match too,” said Niall. “You can organise that, Sammie. See if you can pull in some really fit lasses. Next on the agenda: we’re switching to Old Hayseed Premium Bitter.”

Noooo!” roared KK in anguish.

“We’ve got an excellent deal from the brewery. There’s a trial barrel behind the bar now.”

“Why didn’t you consult me? You don’t know bugger all about ale!” shouted KK.

“It’s real ale,” said Niall defensively.

“In name only. It’s brewed by marketing managers from cow dung and treacle,” said Flipper. “Isn’t that right, Brendan?”

“It’s not the best beer around,” said Brendan doubtfully.

“Tell the truth, Brendan!” exhorted Bob.

“It’d have to be a very good deal,” said Brendan.

“Oh, it is, it is,” said Niall confidently. “I can assure you of that.” He slid the poster back into its envelope.

KK took a deep, noisy breath. “You’ve got Wade bloody Dooley’s shirt and all, haven’t you, you sly bugger?”

“I was coming to that.”

“That wasn’t on the sodding agenda!”

“I’ve had a good offer for it,” said Niall. “On E-bay. Four hundred quid.”

“That shirt does not belong to you!” roared KK.

“It belongs to the club. It’s for the good of the club. Fox mascot costumes don’t come cheap, you know.”

KK strode forward and swung a wild fist up at Niall. Avoiding it easily, Niall jumped nimbly off the chair and swung a better-aimed fist that caught the side of KK’s head. KK lurched sideways, then recovered to thump Niall on the chest. With a roar, Niall shook off Flipper who was trying to hold him back, and began to rain blows at KK’s head and shoulders, bellowing, “You ungrateful bastard! Who do you think I’m doing this for?”

“For yourself,” roared KK, and hit him again, hard. Niall’s head was flung back. His eyes rolled. Then he charged furiously, capsizing a table and driving KK against the wall. All the time he was shouting.

“For the good of this club! For you, for your job, you ungrateful fecking eejit!”

“Break it up!” begged Brendan, pulling ineffectually at KK’s arm.

“Now then,” said Grimshaw, but KK fiercely elbowed them both off and got Niall in an armlock. I winced. I didn’t like fights: I’d seen too many end badly. A chair went flying. It was getting scary.

By now the brothers had locked heads and shoulders to lurch against each other like a pair of bulls. Bob stopped yelling encouragement at KK, announced, “All right, that’s enough now,” and got KK in a hug, deftly pinning his arms behind him. Niall leapt forward and punched KK in the face before Stevo grabbed him too.

“Easy, tiger,” muttered Bob to KK who was trying to struggle free. “Leave it. We’ll get that shirt back, don’t you worry.”

KK shook his head. Blood began to trickle from his nose down his chin.

“More than the shirt,” he said thickly.

“For the good of this fecking ungrateful club!” cried Niall, straining in Stevo’s grasp like an impatient boxer. “Because nobody else can be bothered!”

“Of course we’re bothered,” said Flipper.

“Not about trying to run the place! The hours I put in! The things I do!”

“That’s the whole bloody trouble,” said Stevo.

“You playing today or what?” enquired a voice loudly. “Or is the match going on here in the bar?” The speaker was short, stout and balding, and carried a kit-bag.

Niall shook Stevo off and ran his hands through his hair. “Hesketh RFC, I presume?” he said with breathless dignity. “Changing rooms are that way.”

Hesketh RFC was eyeing Stevo in his jockstrap. “Glad to hear you’ve got them,” he said, “had me worried for a minute.” His gaze moved to KK’s bloodied face. “In training for another murder, are you?”

KK took a step before Grimshaw got in front of him. “Off you go, now, lads,” he said.

“Come on, boys,” said Hesketh RFC. More squat Heskeths trooped through the clubhouse, inspecting the place with wary interest.

“Fuck me,” said Bob, not very sotto voce, “it’s the seven dwarves. Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Dopey, Dopey, Dopey…”

Hesketh RFC set down his bag. He turned and put his face close to Bob’s. They were very much of a size and breadth.

“Why shouldn’t you toss a stupid dwarf?” he said.

“Because it’s not big and it’s not clever.”

“Takes one to know one,” said Hesketh RFC, picking up his bag and departing.

“Don’t be dismannerly to the visitors, Bob,” warned Niall, “we should be glad they’ve come at all, considering the circumstances.”

“So your fucking fun day is going to cure everything, is it? Come and see the bloodstains, a fiver a look?”

“Don’t be disrespectful to the dead,” said Niall.

“It’s not me who wants to set up a fairground on her grave,” said Bob.

Niall ignored him. “Listen up, everybody! Pay attention! I’m going to put details of the Family Fun Day on the board. I want everyone bringing their families and friends, and signing up for that memorial match, or else.” He turned to me. “Lannie, we’ll want food. See me later, we’ll draw up a menu. No bloody quiche or that damn frilly lettuce.”

“I can draw up my own menus, thanks.”

“Check it with me.”

I bit my tongue and turned to Grimshaw, who was watching with hungry pleasure, a pike in a carp pond.

“Worse than Mussolini,” I said. “I’m not surprised people want to hit him.”

“At least he’s trying to sort the place out.”

“All right, he’s trying, but it gets everybody’s back up. He acts like he owns people. So bloody self-important.”

“He certainly doesn’t get on with his brother. That was quite a punch.”

“Yeah.” Although I didn’t blame KK, I thought it a pity he had lost his rag in front of Grimshaw. At least Grimshaw seemed fairly relaxed about it. Maybe he took a more tolerant view of a fight in a rugby club than he would on the street.

I wondered what Frank would think. No violence off the pitch? So they kept it all under control, did they? I shook my head.

“How did Niall get on with Becki?” Grimshaw saw my wary face and gave me a twisted smile. “I’m not trying to get you to say anything incriminating. I just want to fill in background. After all, Becki annoyed people too.”

“Oh, she liked Niall all right.” That was all Grimshaw was going to get out of me. I wasn’t admitting anything. I remembered Becki twining herself round Niall: she hadn’t just been doing it to annoy AnneMarie.

Yes, Becki had liked Niall all right, and he liked her back. They both took what they wanted, assumed ownership. Both were selfish, but surely no more than that?

But there was more than that, I thought grimly. Becki blithely selling drugs. Niall seducing Michelle while his wife was pregnant. Both had betrayed AnneMarie in different ways. Where was the line between selfishness and evil? Was there a line to cross, or did the one just glide imperceptibly into the other?

This was leading me back to Karl, as so many thoughts did. Why had he crossed the line from using to dealing? For easier supplies, a bit of pocket money, or a higher rung on the ladder of respect?

By the age of twelve, respect was everything to Karl. Maybe I never gave him enough: maybe I was too hard on him, constantly nagging about bedtimes and homework. Well, someone had to. But mine wasn’t the respect Karl wanted. He was already pulling away from me, and the more I tried to pull him back, the surlier he got. He would have punched me, all right, on a few occasions, if I’d let him.

I wondered what would have happened if I’d tried to pull Becki back. I wondered if anybody ever had. But I couldn’t discuss that with Grimshaw. Instead I commented, “This memorial match is going to go down a bundle.”

“I think I’ll come,” he said.

“You’re joking. Why?”

“I’ll put my name down to play, if they’ll have me.”

I glanced briefly at his legs. Couldn’t help it.

“You could play too,” he said. “Sign up on the ladies’ team.”

“Now you are joking.”

“I’m not. You look like a rugby type.”

“Oh, thanks!”

“It was a compliment,” he said. “Not just the nose.” And he reached out to stroke it, as if I was a puppy. I was so surprised I didn’t do anything other than blink at him, and then became aware that Frank and Sue had arrived and that Sue was nudging Frank.

“Hallo, Lannie,” she called. “Good afternoon! We thought we should come and support the club in its time of need.”

I smiled at them fixedly. “Bugger off, Grimshaw,” I said.

“Is that any way to speak to your friendly neighbourhood copper?”

“When he takes liberties, yes. Go and watch the match. That’s what you came for.”

“My goodness,” said Sue, as the half-clad players trooped past her, “whatever has been going on?” She averted her eyes ostentatiously. I didn’t see why a nurse needed to be squeamish.

“Pre-match orgy,” I said. It was a bad joke, and Sue didn’t like it. The smile chilled on her face.

“Hardly, given the lack of women,” she replied frostily.

“One of Becki’s jokes, that,” said Frank. Sue gave him a harpoon of a look.

Grimshaw smiled sympathetically at her. “Can I buy you a drink?” he asked, head on one side. My, he was a smooth one with the ladies. It worked on Sue. Her smile unfroze again.

“A tomato juice would be lovely,” she said. I wondered if he would put it down to expenses.

Frank, watching Grimshaw chatting her up at the bar, said, “I shouldn’t have mentioned Becki. Sue doesn’t like it.”

“Why not?”

But Frank, without answering, went over to accept Grimshaw’s offered pint. They wandered outside in a threesome, a convivial picture only spoilt by Frank’s face when he took his first sip of Old Hayseed.

I followed at a distance and watched the game. It was lack-lustre. Jamesy and KK played all right, but the rest were bobbins. No pace: they missed Hugh. Hesketh RFC duly won 22-12, and rejecting the club’s hospitality, announced they were going off to the Prince of Wales to watch the international on the telly there.

“Which is exactly the sort of thing I mean,” said Niall. “That is exactly the sort of thing that is going to sink this club.”

“Who fancies coming back to the Woolpack, then?” asked Bob.

“Good idea,” said Frank.

“Et tu, Brute?” cried Niall.

“It’s warmer,” said Bob. “And it doesn’t serve fucking ferret piss.”

“Woolpack it is, then,” said Brendan. Ignoring Niall’s squawkings, KK locked the till and I slung the uneaten chilli in the freezer.

“Deserters!” cried Niall. “Quislings! Abandoning the club in its hour of need!”

“I’ll come back when I can drink decent beer and see Wade Dooley’s shirt back in its rightful place.” And seizing Niall’s poster from the table, Bob rolled it up, stuffed it into his untouched pint of Old Hayseed, and stomped out of the club.

*

The Woolpack was full. Grimshaw had made his excuses and left, but everyone else crowded around the TV and grumbled half-heartedly at the game, saving their main expenditure of emotion for England v. Ireland the next day. I watched with one eye as I helped at the bar, where Brendan and Bob were diagnosing the faults of the England team with earnest care and deciding where surgery was needed.

Sue was restless. “Are you really interested in this, Frank? I’m going to sit in the snug where it’s quieter,” she said, getting up.

Frank, being a gentleman, retreated to the snug with her. She called out, “Come and talk to us, Lannie.” I went down to the snug end of the bar and leaned on it. She was cuddling up to Frank, holding his hand.

“We thought we’d better warn you that we’ll be coming round to have a clear-out,” said Sue. “Prior to putting the house in order.”

“Oh, right.”

“I’ll come and paper the parlour soon,” said Frank. “Not fair to leave you living in that state.”

“I don’t mind it.”

Sue raised her eyebrows. “Yes, you’ve been very good about it, but the thing is, we do need to sell the house at some point. Preferably sooner rather than later.”

“Upstairs needs rewiring,” I said.

“Yes, we are aware of that.”

“And there’s some mould on the north wall of the spare room.”

“Is there? Bugger,” said Frank.

“There wasn’t a problem there previously,” said Sue sharply.

“It’s been a wet winter,” I said.

“Well, we’ll have to sort that out as well, won’t you, Frank? We’re hoping to get it onto the market soon after Easter, May or thereabouts.”

“Are we?” said Frank.

“That’s what we agreed, Frank.” She patted his hand and I had to look away.

“That’s fine,” I said. “I may well be gone by then anyway.”

“Will you?” said Frank.

“I thought of going up to the Scottish Highlands. Seasonal work will start about then.”

“That would all fit in nicely,” said Sue. “That would be convenient all round, wouldn’t it?” She snuggled some more, while I hurled darts of silent exasperation at Frank. She’s all wrong for you, Frank. You don’t want to sell the damn house! Assert yourself! Tell her how upset Nan will be!

I cleared my throat and asked, “What did your Nan want you to do with the house, Frank?”

“She wanted me to live in it,” said Frank.

“So why not live in it?”

“We can’t always take the deceased’s wishes into account, much as we’d like to,” Sue pointed out.

“We could try, though.”

“I’m not keen on a memorial match, but Becki would have liked it,” said Frank.

“Frank!” said Sue.

“Do you reckon?” I asked.

Frank considered. “She would have liked all the fuss. And any excuse for a party.”

Sue elbowed him gently. “I don’t think you ought to talk about Becki in that way, Frank.”

“In what way?” said Frank.

“Quite so bluntly.”

“Why? Who’s going to be offended?”

“Me,” said Sue. There was iron in her voice. “I hope you don’t speak ill of Becki in front of the police, Frank. I was on tenterhooks when you were talking to that nice sergeant.”

“I say what I think, that’s all,” said Frank.

“But you don’t want to give them the idea you had anything against Becki.”

“Why not?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Frank! Don’t be so obtuse! The police are so desperate they’ll pick on anyone who gives them an excuse to. I’d just die if they arrested you.”

“They won’t arrest me,” said Frank. “And if they did, I don’t see why you should die. Anyway, who says they’re desperate?”

“Well, the way they keep on coming round to re-interview people. Do you know, they’ve interviewed Frank three times? And all that clothing they took away and we’ve not seen since. When are we going to get that back?”

“Grimshaw gave me mine back today,” I said.

She looked disgruntled. “And how many times have they interviewed you?”

“About two and a half, I think.”

“Well, you must be in favour, then,” said Sue. “But then Sergeant Grimshaw likes you, doesn’t he. Doesn’t he, Frank?”

“No reason why he shouldn’t,” said Frank.

“No, but I mean he likes her.” Sue was smiling at me coyly. This was more than I could stand. Luckily Bob was calling for more beer, so I could escape. I didn’t know why Sue had bothered to come back here with Frank, unless it was to stop him enjoying the rugby.

“I see she’s establishing ownership,” said Bob when I reached him.

“You what?”

“Sue. She’s just making sure you know.”

“Know what?”

“That’s Frank’s hers. That’s what she does. Especially if she thinks Frank’s got his eye on someone.”

“Well, he hasn’t.”

“Whatever you say, Lannie. And three packets of cheese and onion.”

I fetched them, and said, “Bob, you’re seeing things. Frank has definitely not got his eye on me.”

“Not while Sue’s there, no. He wouldn’t dare. Under her thumb.”

“He chooses to be,” said Brendan unexpectedly. “He thinks it’s the right place for him.”

“But he’s wrong,” said Bob.

“He thinks he’s getting old,” said Brendan, “that’s the trouble. Time to stop hankering, time to start settling down. That’s what she’s telling him.”

“Thirty-four.”

“And still hankering.”

“Well, it’s nothing to do with me,” I said. “Excuse me, Brendan, I’m going to sort out the veg.” I went into the kitchen, where Rhoda and Fay were making sandwiches, and began to scrape carrots with an abandon that raised Rhoda’s eyebrows.

“You’re getting peelings all over the floor,” she pointed out.

“So I am.” More peelings flew across the table. Fay retreated into the lean-to and pretended to hunt in a freezer. Rhoda opened and closed her mouth, said nothing, and buttered some more bread.

“I’m going home as soon as I’ve done these,” I snapped. “I’ll be back at seven-thirty.” Home! Hah!

“There’s no rush. Make it eight. We can cope.” Rhoda moved her plate out of my way as I attacked a cauliflower.

KK came in to beg a pasty, which she microwaved for him and which he ate sitting on the table and being bombarded with flying florets.

“?” said KK, his mouth full.

“Don’t ask me,” said Rhoda, “something’s het her up.” She piled sandwiches on a plate and carried it through for the players.

“That copper,” said KK.

“No.” Though Grimshaw didn’t help.

“Just tell him to bugger off.”

“Like you did to Niall?”

KK shrugged. “Can’t help it sometimes.”

“Well, I just take it out on vegetables.” I tipped them into pans of cold water with rewarding plunks. “I’m going home now.”

“Give you a lift,” said KK, swallowing the rest of his pasty.

“Don’t you want to see the end of the match?”

“It’s only Scotland.”

“All right, then.” I wanted to get out of there. Frank had his eye on me, did he? It was bollocks. Frank was a nice guy, a good friend, and if he chose to fetter himself to an arse-mouthed iron-drawers that was entirely his own business.

KK drove an old estate with a strangulated exhaust. As we pulled up outside Nan’s house and listened to it choking, I said on impulse, “Come in and I’ll cook you something better than pasty.”

“Like what?”

“I’ve got a fridge full of leftovers. Shank of lamb?”

“Be my third tea today,” said KK, with a grin. “Why not?”

He filled Nan’s kitchen. I fried up the shank of lamb for five minutes with tomato and black olives, did some saffron rice, and set the little drop-leaf kitchen table. It was nice to sit down and eat with company for a change. Even nicer to have someone wolfing down the food so appreciatively.

KK twirled an olive on a fork in contemplation. “D’you think…”

“Only in bread, KK.”

“Soda bread?”

“Possibly. Are your family Irish or what?”

“Were,” he said. “We came over when Niall was six and I was four.”

“Hence the part-time accent?”

“Aye, that’s right. Martin and Kath, they’ve got the real thing. They remember Ireland. Niall doesn’t. That’s why he puts the accent on.”

“I had an Irish grandfather,” I said.

“Who hasn’t?” But talking about Niall had put a frown on his face. I tried to wipe it off again by offering pudding: mud pie or sticky toffee. KK accepted both.

“That’s bloody good,” he said. “Had no lunch. Went to the club straight from work. I was hungry.”

“Me too.” I hadn’t eaten mud pie since Becki got killed. It tasted better than I remembered. But watching KK scrape his plate, I was still hungry. And when he looked up at me and saw me watching him, I knew he knew what I was going to say.

“Want anything else, KK?”

He thought for a moment. “That depends what you’re offering.”

“Anything you like.”

“Well.” He was still thinking. When the time had passed for him to say No, I leaned over and kissed him. He kissed me back, so that was all right. He put his hands on my shoulders, and I knew he was hungry too. He pushed back his chair and we went upstairs, not talking.

It was all all right. KK was a stickler for protocol. Ladies first and all that. He didn’t hurry, and he had tremendous legs. The only problem was it was so bloody cold in that bedroom that once we had stopped thrashing around we lay shivering under the duvet, running our hands up and down each other just to get them warm. KK was hairy. He felt good. I breathed in his alien sweat, and said,

“Do you still wish you’d gone to New Zealand? I mean in general, not right now?” I didn’t want him to think I was getting personal.

“Sometimes,” said KK. “But it’s past. No point dwelling on it. It was hard at the time, though.”

I waited.

“It was a hell of a shock, Michelle getting pregnant,” he said. His voice, so close, was just a low rumble. “We weren’t planning anything, we were always careful.” He gave a half-nod at the condom packet on the bedside table. A leftover from Salford time, a world and an age away.

“It took me a while to get my head round it,” said KK. “Niall told me it was my duty to stay, straight off, but it wasn’t that simple. Ticket booked and everything. Michelle told me to go, but she kept bursting into tears.”

“That can’t have made it easy.”

“Well, it wasn’t. Brendan and Frank sat me down and made me think it through. Brendan said the kiddie would be more important than I could ever imagine, I should stay and make a go of it. Frank said I should leave and grab my chances while I could, because those six months might never come again.” He sighed. “They were both right.”

“But you stayed and made a go of it.”

“Aye. For a couple of years, before she got fed up of me.” His voice was wistful.

“Did Michelle come down the club?”

“For a while.”

“What did she drink?”

“Snowballs.” He rolled over and looked at me. “Somebody’s told you that daft bloody story, haven’t they?”

“Er, yes.”

He rolled back again and put his hands behind his head. “I thought that was all forgotten.” After a moment he added, “I bought a bottle of advocaat for her specially. No-one else drank the damn stuff. And then some stupid bugger went and put carpet cleaner in it.”

“A workman?”

“I have absolutely no bloody idea,” said KK. “More likely some prat having a laugh.”

“A laugh? Not an accident, then?”

“No. Why would you keep carpet cleaner in an advocaat bottle? It was a stupid bloody joke gone wrong.”

“How do you work that out?”

“There was a running joke at the club about snowballs being bad for you. Well, they’re hardly a rugby players’ drink, are they?”

Or anybody else’s, over the age of seventeen. Not even my mother had stooped to snowballs.

“So someone put carpet shampoo in the bottle to prove the joke true? That was a bit daft.”

“Imbecilic,” KK said. “Michelle was probably supposed to spit it straight out again, but she didn’t. Then AnneMarie got the idea it was me, because I was the barman I suppose, I was in charge of the drinks. She convinced Niall.”

“How could Niall think that of his brother?” The words died in my throat, but KK didn’t notice. He continued,

“Anyway, it set up a barrier between me and Michelle. Never the same after that. I don’t think it was ever me she wanted anyway.” He sighed. “I tried to keep it going, but it just wasn’t working, I had to watch her getting more and more distant. Drifting away from me.”

But she didn’t drift away because of the poisoning. So had that been deliberate? Had Michelle been wrong? Now I was confused. What sort of person would put poison in a drink for a joke? Some joke, I thought, played by a very nasty joker. If it hadn’t been a joke, however, that made it even nastier…

I shook my head. I’d think about it later. And I wouldn’t mention my visit to Michelle. “You could still go to New Zealand,” I said.

“I’m too old. It’s not thirty year olds they want,” said KK, “not from the junior leagues. No, it’s way too late for that. I might have never made it anyway. Might have made semi-pro.” He paused, pondering.

“Was Ashley worth it?”

“Ashley is worth everything.”

“So that’s all right then?”

“Yes and no,” said KK.

We lay silent for a while. “You still love Michelle,” I said, my arm across his chest.

“Aye. I suppose. Pointless really, I try not to, but she’s… imprinted. And you? Got anybody back in Manchester?”

“Nobody.”

It was gone seven, and gone dark. A full moon slid into the room past the curtains that we hadn’t bothered to draw, dipping the quilt in luminous paint. I felt Becki’s ghost slip between the sheets, giggling. Told you they were well fit guys, didn’t I? I shoved her out again.

“You have a bit of a feud going with Niall?”

“Don’t talk about Niall,” he said. So I didn’t. I kissed him instead, which was pleasant, though languorous, and when it became obvious neither of us was going to push for a repeat session KK flung himself out of bed and began pulling clothes on.

“You could stay,” I said, unwilling to forgo another session altogether now I could see his legs again properly.

“I couldn’t. Left Niall in charge of the club. He’ll moan.”

“Let him moan.” But KK shook his head mutely. He halted to stroke my head and run a thumb along my cheek.

“That was good,” he said. The kiss he gave me was different to the first: affectionate, not passionate. Then he left.

 

Chapter Twenty-three

Cat and Fiddle

 

Frank’s arms were full of wallpaper. He stood on my doorstep with the rolls sticking out on every side like clumsy, homemade armour.

“Sue sent me,” he said.

“Of course she did.” I made him a mug of tea, complimented Sue’s good taste in off-white parchment, and blithely left him to it. Sue’s plans were nothing to me. It was a new day. Jogging up to the Woolpack in the bright, icy sunshine, I whistled as I got down to work. I didn’t swear when a trout dived wetly onto my foot; just tut-tutted mildly as I rinsed it under the tap. The local trout were an innovation that Rhoda had grudgingly allowed. She looked up suspiciously as I hummed over the pans.

“You’re very cheerful.”

“It’s spring coming,” I said, although the blue sky was the legacy of a hard frost.

“Spring was coming yesterday.”

“I’ve moved on since then,” I said.

Rhoda sounded cautious. “Lannie? Do you mean you’re thinking of moving on?”

“I expect so,” I said easily. “I might go up to Scotland. Fort William way. Sue wants to sell the house as soon as possible. Frank’s round there now papering the living-room.” I didn’t care.

“So,” said Rhoda thoughtfully. “Has he got rid of that bloody motorbike yet?”

“Not yet.”

“You should see to it. Be firm with him. Make sure he throws it out.”

“It’s none of my business.”

“No?” She studied me. “Did Frank ever tell you the story about Dean?”

“Briefly.”

“It’s a terrible road, that Cat and Fiddle. A motorcyclists’ graveyard,” said Rhoda, shaking her head.

“M-hm,” I said, busy with trout. I didn’t want to hear the story again: Frank’s past had nothing to do with me, but she was determined to tell me with or without encouragement.

“Frank wouldn’t talk about it,” she said. “I had the full story from one of the other lads, Chris. There were four of them out on the Bank Holiday Monday, coming back from Buxton. They’d just come over the top past the pub, when they got cut up on one of those dreadful hairpin bends by a car coming the other way.”

She sighed heavily and stirred the risotto. “Chris said it all happened so fast he couldn’t think. He was kept busy just trying to get the bike under control. When he finally managed it and looked back, there was Dean draped along the crash barrier, with his bike about fifty yards further down the road. Helmet off. His arms flung out, like he was appealing for something.” She demonstrated with the wooden spoon.

Drawn in despite myself, I stared at her, appalled. “Dead?”

“Oh, aye. Chris said he knew straight away. Him and Brett were in a right panic, screaming at the car driver. Frank didn’t scream. He gave Dean mouth to mouth until the ambulance arrived, but it was no use. He was officially dead on arrival at hospital. Frank went with him. Holding hands with a dead man. Imagine.”

Rhoda began to ladle sticky dollops of risotto on to plates. “They were only young lads, probably going too fast for that road. The driver never got charged. And Frank retreated into himself. He stopped talking.” She paused, mid-ladle. “No, he still talked, he just didn’t say anything. Only his lips moving, nothing behind them. I suppose he’d get bloody counselling these days. Fat lot of use that is.” It sounded like she spoke from experience.

“Rhoda, why are you telling me all this?”

“I thought you might be interested.”

“What, so I’ll make him get rid of the motorbike?”

“It’s symptomatic,” she said. “Dean’s dad was all for taking it down the tip. He couldn’t bear to touch it. Well, you can understand that, can’t you?” She shook her head forebodingly. “If you ask me, Frank’ll still have it when he’s an old man. But you could help him. You’ve been through the same thing with Becki, after all.”

“Been through what?”

“Well, seeing a friend die. You know.”

“I didn’t see Becki die.” I was beginning to tense up, and I didn’t want to, not in my new carefree mood. “And she was his friend too. It’s not the same thing at all.”

“It’s not that different. You should talk to Frank.” She waved the ladle at me. “Get him to talk to you. Sort him out.”

“Why does he need sorting out? He seems okay to me,” I said, “mostly. Anyway, it’s not my job. It’s Sue’s.”

“Is it now?” said Rhoda tartly. “And what do you think of Sue?”

“Well…” I floundered, unprepared. “She’s very…sensible. I’m sure she’s very good for Frank.”

“Oh, yes. That’s what she says.”

“Frank’s a free agent. It’s none of my business,” I said determinedly, and turned to the salad. Rhoda started to speak, then compressed her lips and carried the plates out to the bar.

I pushed away Frank and his motorbike. I didn’t want them spoiling my good humour. I wanted to shrug off all the blood and death and walk away light-hearted. Frank had Sue. He didn’t need me, and I certainly didn’t need him: I’d just proved that, with KK’s help. But KK was just a temporary, very pleasant fling. I was free to stay, free to go, free to brush off the mud and head out of here whenever I chose.

So when Alice and Katy ran into the kitchen in their nighties demanding supper, I didn’t give them my mad chef’s glare but benignly fetched the broken meringue out of the fridge and watched them gorge themselves, every slice of the spoon scatter-gunning the kitchen with white pellets. Katy ran to pick them off the floor and pop them in her mouth.

“Mum’ll get mad,” said Alice reprovingly.

“The floor’s quite clean,” I said. It was clean enough for those two, anyway.

“She shouted when I ate the toffee pudding off the floor,” said Katy.

“She was shouting at that lady, not at you,” said Alice with contempt. “You know, the one who stuck her tongue out.”

“How very rude,” I said.

“It’s only rude for grown-ups,” said Katy. She stuck her tongue out at me to prove it.

“Anyway, Dad told her off,” said Alice.

“Told who off?” I asked.

“That stupid lady with the ponytail. Dad said never to come back here or he’d make sure she never worked again.”

“Waked up again,” corrected Katy.

“It’s not waked, it’s woke up. Anyway, you don’t remember, stupid, you were only five.”

“How long ago was this?” I asked.

“Ages ago. Just after Bonfire Night.”

“I do remember!” cried Katy. “Arthur’s dog tried to bite me.”

“It was trying to bite Dad,” said Alice wearily. “Mum had to pull it off and the lady was screaming.”

“Why was she screaming?” I asked.

“Because of the dog, stupid.”

“Arthur called me a mucky pup,” remembered Katy.

“You are a mucky pup,” said Alice with contempt.

“I’m not. I’ll tell Mum you’re being mean,” said Katy. Alice threw a piece of meringue at her, and Katy screamed like a train whistle. The joy of their company palling, I threw them both out of the kitchen and went outside to the car park.

So Becki had come round to taunt Rhoda. Or scream at Brendan. Or something. I didn’t care. It was nothing to do with me. I was free, and the moon was up. Moonrise over Manchester meant a glimpse of a dirty plate on a dull brown cloth. Moonrise over Brocklow was a white blaze, ghostly and intense, that made the hills luminesce and the ground glitter extravagantly. Everything was fine. I perched on a wall sugared with frost to ring Charlotte.

“Howdy-doody. What’s new?”

“Same old stuff,” said Charlotte.

“Business picking up?”

“A bit.”

“Spring will help,” I said. “Hot cross buns.”

“They’re cheaper from Tesco.”

“Yours are better,” I said confidently. “Give out free samples. I’ll wear a hot cross bun board for you.”

“I might hold you to that.”

“Don’t worry, Charlie, it’ll get better.”

“It’ll have to!”

“It will. Nothing lasts for ever. How’s Hugh?”

“Doldrumy,” said Charlotte. “He’s still not himself. Even Daddy’s noticed. I think Hugh’s depressed.” She didn’t sound too great herself.

In my new-found chirpiness, I had no patience for depression. “It’s hard. But he’s just got to try and put it behind him.”

“I know that, Lannie. He knows that. It’s easier said than done. Though you seem to have managed it all right, haven’t you?”

Her voice was acerbic, for Charlotte. So after I’d rung off, I phoned Hugh and dispensed sympathy and goodwill onto his answerphone, promising him undying affection and a free pudding if he should ever bring Tamara into the Woolpack. I even described, rather flamboyantly, the full moon sailing over the pub roof, as if that would induce him to immediately leap in his car and drive down.

But the milky purity of the moonlight made me happy. So did the yellow warmth of the pub kitchen, and the number of orders for trout that evening, which impressed Rhoda and relieved Brendan.

“We’re doing well on the food lately,” he told me as he drove me home after closing time. “Meals are up by almost half on this time last year. That’s your doing, Lannie. Word’s getting around.”

“Maybe,” I said modestly, although I knew damn well it was my doing. When I left, I would leave the pub in good order. Charlotte would be proud of me.

As Brendan drove away, I paused, key in the door, to admire the moonlight which had transfigured the street with a gleaming Gothic makeover. White greasepaint was plastered on the black houses. The hills were wound in sequinned veils of net, which here and there had caught the clustered ghosts of sheep. Moondance began to play inside my head. I did a skip to it across the pavement, accompanied by my black moonshadow, a midnight imp that mimicked every step and twirled around the lamp-post, Gene Kelly-style. Dancing in the moonlight.

And then, as I scampered with my shadow back to Nan’s door, a piece of night nosed round the corner of the houses, a black shark disguised as a car cruising slowly down the silvered road; long, and smooth, and almost silent.

I didn’t wait. I knew. I let myself slickly into the house as if I’d noticed nothing. I locked and bolted the door behind me with fumbling fingers. I switched on the parlour light – rolls of paper still on the floor, a smell of paste – and closed the curtains with two big, hasty strokes. Then I went quietly into the kitchen and straight out the back door, pulling it gently to behind me.

Accompanied by my moonshadow, I silently crossed the yard. There was a loud bang on the front door. A whole barrage of bangs, shaking the house. But I was already over the back wall and scrambling up the tussocky slope.

At first I was glad I was wearing my black Oxfam coat and funeral trousers. I stopped being glad when I realised the frosty grass wasn’t nearly as black as I was. I would have been better in grey. I was a huge inky splotch on the landscape, the negative of the baffled sheep.

At a clatter down behind me, I threw myself onto the grass. Brittle and crusted, it crunched beneath me. Three doors down from Nan, I saw a piece of malignant shadow separate itself from the harmless shade of the ginnel and became a man, climbing over the wall into Nan’s yard. A tall man, and agile.

I watched him bang on the back door. He paused a moment, put his shoulder to it, and was in. Either I hadn’t closed it properly, or the dodgy catch had given way.

Jumping up again, I began to leap and scramble up the hillside, feeling as exposed as a trout on a grill, burnt black under the searing moon. When I paused, crouching, to glance over my shoulder I saw an upstairs light go on; then off. In a minute he would be after me.

He? Or they? Was he alone? Another pursuer could be after me right now. I whirled around and galloped clumsily on, terrified by the deafening crunch of my feet and rustling coat and too-loud breathing. I hit a dark clump of gorse and scratched my way behind it before I dared look down again. To my horror, I saw that my footprints laid a clear black trail across the frost.

And there he was again, the long shadow sneaking out of Nan’s house into the muddy shade of the yard, heading for the back wall with my beautifully laid trail shouting at him to come and get me, here I was.

I set off scrambling further up the receding slope until it took me out of sight of the house. Remembering a long stone outcrop over to my right, I made for it in the hope that it might disguise my footprints at least.

It did; but my moonshadow leapt up at me from the rock, even blacker than before, until I jumped off into the heather, aching all over, throat rasping but too terrified to stop running. I didn’t think I could keep up the pace much longer.

I was sure I heard him behind me now. As the ground levelled out on the top of Brocklow I galumphed over the tussocks, tripping and stumbling, arms out as if I were trying to fly.

Now I cursed the moon. It made the landscape into a giant, nightmarish, monochrome, still photo, with me as a moving flaw right in its middle. A photo with sound effects: small, close scufflings suddenly conjured rocks into sheep that jumped up, baaing protests as they bobbed away.

Alison’s Australia. I knew now what she meant. This place was haunted too, not by sheep or rocks or even moonlight, but by itself. The moor held me like a fly in a silvered web, and the more I floundered, the more I felt myself winding in its trap. My feet slipped suddenly off a tussock and sent me sprawling on the ground. As I fell, I glimpsed him again, a silhouette on my horizon, bowed and running.

Now I was flat on the earth I couldn’t see him any more. Therefore he couldn’t see me: yet. So I crawled. I slithered between clumps of heather like an out-of-season adder, only noisier, until I found myself abruptly, helplessly sliding face down into a trough of soggy peat.

I let myself slide. Not much choice. I rolled into the trough, two feet deep, and then pushed myself back into its overhang, hugging the earth’s curved, sweaty sides. I pressed my face passionately against the peat so that I would not see him coming. I begged the moon’s forgiveness for my curses and the earth’s for my clumsiness, and prayed for them to hold me tight and hidden.

I tried to hold my breath. Above the banging of my heart I heard a single shout. I couldn’t tell what it was. “Lannie”? Or was it “Herron”? Or even “Hell”? It sounded crazed, inhuman.

Immobile in my bed, I lay nose to nose and toe to toe with mud. The peat vibrated as something tore through the heather directly above me. Judders rocked my head and sent trickles of earth down my back. As the thuds moved away across the trench, I guessed that I had just been jumped over.

“Lannie Herron!” I couldn’t tell if it was the same voice. It was harsh and cracking, rough with effort. Someone hacked and spat, and then went quiet.

I lay listening. Nothing. Was he standing right above me, waiting for me to pop out of my hole like an unwary rabbit? Well, he could wait. No matter that he knew my name. I didn’t know who he was, except that he was big, and fit, and wanted to kill me.

So I stayed where I was. The earth wasn’t frozen enough for comfort: water leached gently from it, sending cold inquisitive fingers through my clothing. I felt the wetness creep up my cuffs and down my collar and straight through my trousers. It seeped into my hair. At last it infiltrated my coat, and I began to shiver. I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t lie still.

I made myself count. Ten minutes. Five more. Moondance had been replaced inside my head by Muddy Water Blues, on a long, dismal loop. At last I couldn’t stand it any longer. I would have to move or die of exposure where I lay.

So I relaxed and let myself roll backwards into a slough of mud. Sitting up, I swore without thinking, then ducked and cursed my stupidity, silently this time. I poked my head up over the grassy parapet half inch by half inch, to make sure no one was visible.

Then, seeing no-one, I unstuck myself from the trough and sat on its edge, head dangling, shivering and spent. I couldn’t go home to Nan’s house: that was clear.

I fumbled in my pocket with numb fingers. Apart from my key, I had £3.50, a safety pin, the well-worn end of a packet of Polos and my phone. I wondered who to ring. It was quarter to one. I had not many numbers to choose from: the Woolpack, Charlotte, Hugh and Grimshaw.

Grimshaw was the obvious one. I wondered what to say to him. I’m half way up a mountain, come and fetch me down? And how would I prove anyone had been after me? Attention-seeking again, dragging the police out in the middle of the night, when I wasn’t even hurt, or lost.

Just a bit cold and wet. And bloody terrified.

I switched the phone on anyway. There was no signal.

“Come on Lannie,” I told myself, “Best get moving. Lovely night for a walk.”

No way was I going back down to Brocklow or even to the pub, not with that black shark of a car waiting for me. I imagined it slowly cruising the road below, looping and back-tracking. So I stood up in the fierce pale floodlight, and began to walk away from Brocklow, across the barren, moon-bleached moors.

 

Chapter Twenty-four

Moonlight

 

I would have got nowhere without that moon. It laid my path out for me like a map engraved in silver. If I was made conspicuous by its blaze, so would my pursuer be; a villain picked out by the spotlight the moment he crept on stage. At first I kept on ducking down into the heather while I gazed around, but no villain appeared. The land was silent.

Ashamed of my curses now, I told the moon she really was a goddess, no doubt about it, a pure, strong mother holding up her lantern. A brilliant, shining mother who never threw her shoes out of the window or fed her children nothing but tinned soup for a week. Having the earth as a mother, I thought, would not be so clean or satisfactory. Not so predictable. A lot more like the real thing.

The heather gave way underfoot with the sticky sharpness of frost, pulling at my feet. Home to mother! If only. Maybe when I was four or five she was still someone to go home to. Memories nudged me as I plodded across the moorland: my mother dressing me, something hand-knitted though probably not by her, too small and itchy but I didn’t tell her so, and a trip on the bus to see the giant Father Christmas that climbed up Manchester Town Hall, me sitting on her knee.

I heard a gurgle of water and stopped to drink from a stream. The water was icy and lip-numbing. Where was my mother now? Did she walk the Salford streets by moonlight on her way back from a lock-in at the Anvil? What would she say if she saw me?

Stupid. She wouldn’t say a thing. Perhaps What trouble have you got yourself into now? with the offhand, dismissive, faintly aggressive air she had long since established with me. Do your own thing. As long as you don’t come begging for money. Don’t think I’ll help you there. You’ve cost me enough.

She begrudged me all her lost drinks. So many thousand of them she’d had to forgo; she could have bought oblivion so much sooner if she hadn’t had to pay the milk bill. And she looked askance at my nose: it was a reproof to her. She’d hit me with a bottle of Baileys that I tried to wrestle off her. Luckily only the nose had broken, not the bottle.

I never tried to get a drink off her again. Told my classmates I’d fallen over on borrowed roller-blades. Told the same to a concerned teacher and the school nurse. Assured them I’d been to the doctor with it, which I hadn’t, and they checked up because the surgery rang my home asking me to make an appointment. I went eventually, when it was healing and already too late.

They did try, I suppose, but I closed up like a book. I didn’t want the questions or the social workers. I could sort myself out, look after Karl and Mikey, no problem. Easy.

You think it’s easy? You kids, you bloody kids, you drive me up the wall, said Mum. I paused in mid stride, my shoe crushing the frost.

We must have been screeching. We did a lot of that, me and Karl, with our fights and hunts and races up and down the communal stairs. We played pirates and the banisters got broken. We played robbers and next-door’s window got smashed. I suppose we were trouble. Did she drive us to trouble, or did we drive her to drink?

Like AnneMarie, unable to cope, propped up with giant columns of pills. Bottles with Mum. Ashamed to know what to do with them all. Crept down the recycling tubs early in the morning. I started walking again.

We were hard work, us kids. And Mikey. He was a mistake, in all respects. Maybe it was easier to just blame him, poor unlovable snivelling Mikey whom nobody wanted. It didn’t matter anyway. All done with. Buried.

And now I was off the moors and back onto tamed, cropped pasture, frost burnishing it like a steel sink right down to the flat ridges of the draining board. Remnants of old walls maybe. Over the top, to the start of downhill. The antique etching of the landscape spread before me, cold and sharp, thin-lipped fields in grey skirts laced with filigree trees. A church spire caught my eye: a pair of lights shone down in the hollow a mile or two away. The moon went out.

A finger of cloud had switched it off. As my eyes adjusted, though, I could still see my surroundings, grey lumps against the black. And I knew where I was. Those lights were Grindal, four miles from Brocklow over the tops but a good ten round by the road. Grindal was where I must go, then decide where I must go next.

I followed the lights and found myself glugging across pasture too waterlogged to have frozen. My feet were squishing in their shoes: the smell told me whenever I hit the landmine of an unseen cowpat. Climbing over a wall, I tangled myself in barbed wire and had to switch my dumbphone on to use its light. At last I was over the final wall and standing in the graveyard.

I draped myself over a convenient gravestone, feeling very tired and sorry for myself. I could ring someone from here. They’d come and fetch me now I had an address. At three in the morning? With misgivings, I dialled the Woolpack’s number. It dropped the call: still no signal. Bloody countryside.

I tried to get into the church, but when I twisted the huge iron torc of a handle, it was locked. Thought they weren’t meant to lock churches. I sat down heavily on the stone seat in the porch. Maybe I could spend the night here. I leant back and tried to doze, almost succeeding for a while until I came to with a shiver. The stone was as cold as death, already pulling the remaining life from my legs: if I slept here I would drift into hypothermia.

Keep moving. I dismissed the thought of a friendly vicarage. Apart from the church, Grindal only possessed two farms – one of whom owned the lights – and a clutch of empty holiday cottages. No pub, no petrol station, no jolly vicar. I walked into the road and saw a sign that told me Macclesfield was eight miles to my right.

So I set off. The road was a mere glimmer in the dark until the clouds around the moon relented, and the land leapt forward at me again, cloaked in grey and silver, more haunted than ever with dark ranks of trees along the road and the urgent fretting of an owl somewhere above me.

I wished I might stay in that grey world forever. Be swallowed up in the hillside, disappear down a tunnel into the muddy depths and be never seen by mortal man again. Especially mortal men in lean black cars that sniffed me out at midnight.

The road unwound before me, mile after wandering mile. There was a diversion when I took a wrong turn up a farm track and set all the dogs barking, and another when I had to negotiate my way through an unknown village – the Macc road being unmarked until I was out the other side. But no black cars drove past me. At last I rounded a corner and saw Macclesfield lying below. It was just before six.

An early train was rattling away towards Manchester. I trudged down the hill, past the station and up again into town, a bedraggled worker on the early shift, or maybe finishing a late. There were a few other people around. But I got odd looks from them, and peering at myself in a shop window realised that of course I had mud all over my face and clothes.

I tried to unsmear myself with my handkerchief before going into a surprised newsagents to buy a Coke and a Mars bar. While he loaded up the paper boys, I sneaked a look through the Cheshire Street Plan on the shelves. Outside, I drank the Coke too fast and burped my way through the Mars bar as I tramped the last mile, counting roads until I found the place that I’d been looking for: Cheltenham Mews.

It was a set of flats disguised as a Georgian house. Maybe really was a Georgian house, buffed and polished. Very clean. The grimy white van looked out of place in front of it. I leaned on the bell nearest the van until Frank came to the door.

He had just got dressed. Jeans, bare feet, sweatshirt, crumpled hair.

“Sorry, Frank,” I said.

“That’s all right. I was getting up.” He showed no particular surprise as he let me in. The hall was clean and crisp, with a hospital feel, and warm. Warm! I could have curled up on its beige carpet there and then, limp with relief.

Instead I followed Frank into a neat kitchen. It had urban black and red surfaces and frilly gingham curtains, a boxer in a pinny.

“I’ll get the kettle on,” said Frank. “Sit down, Lannie. What’s up? Christ! You’re a bit mucky. What you been doing? Swimming across Arthur’s yard?”

“Somebody came to get me,” I said. “I’ve been walking all night.” I sank onto a chair. The minute I sat down, my legs turned to concrete.

“Came to get you?”

“Came to the house at midnight. Banged on the door. Chased me over the hill.”

“Christ! Who was it?”

“I don’t know. Yes, I do know. It’s a long story. It starts in Salford.” I rested my elbows on my knees, closed my eyes and told the briefest version I could manage to the laminate floor.

It didn’t get any better. Grassing on my brother. I could hardly say it. The gun at Tzabo; Charlotte’s shop. Then, trying to keep the whimper out of my voice, the moonlit chase. It came out like an old fairy tale, hardly believable: the car gliding out of nightmare, the juddering earth that wrapped itself around me.

Frank listened, silently, until I finished. Then saying, “Drink that,” he pushed a cup of tea into my hands. He’d put about five sugars in it.

“I can’t go back to live in Nan’s house,” I said, grieved.

“Are you sure it was who you think it was? Salford gangsters, all the way down here?” He sounded dubious.

“Who else would it be?”

“How could they have known where you were?”

“Charlotte’s stepmother told them.” Oddly, now that I was warming up, I started to shiver again. My teeth rattled and clashed against the lip of the mug.

Sue came in, wrapped in a sensible dressing gown and slippers. I heard cogs turn in her mind. “My goodness me. Whatever’s happened?”

Frank told her a truncated version. No grassing. More emphasis on man breaking into house, less moonlight. Sue was indignant.

“Prowlers and perverts! I’d lock them up,” she said. “You must have been scared stiff! And are you hurt? No, but I can see you’re frozen through. You need to go and have a nice warm bath. And I’ll heat you up some, what, soup?”

“Nothing to eat,” I said.

“Have you rung the police yet?”

I shook my head. “Couldn’t get a signal up there.” But I got my phone out now and found Grimshaw’s number. My fingers were cold and clumsy.

“I’ll talk to him,” said Frank, taking the phone gently from me. I heard my story told for the third time, though not, apparently, to Grimshaw.

“They’ll ring back,” said Frank. He poured himself a bowl of pattering cereal. Rice Crispies. I could have cried.

“Honestly, nowhere’s safe these days,” said Sue. “You’d think Brocklow, of all places.”

“Did she tell them Brocklow?” asked Frank.

“He must have followed me from the pub,” I said.

Sue raised her eyes to heaven and hustled me into the bathroom. Pale grey and white, everything new, and wonderfully warm after Nan’s pitted enamel bath that sucked the heat from the water even as it filled.

Sue put on a professional nurse’s manner. Although she can’t have liked me being there, she hid it well.

“I’ll put your clothes in the dryer,” she said. “But we’ll have to lend you some trousers. Your jeans are just covered. And your shoes…! Don’t have the water too hot, now, and don’t lock the door. Shout if you need me.”

I sank into the bath and let the night drain away from me. I’d never known anything feel so good as that hot water. It lifted the weight of knowledge from me and let me drowse, for a while.

Eventually I got out of the bath with crab-red skin and eyes, put on the baggy tracksuit bottoms Sue had left for me and trailed back into the kitchen.

“I’ve got to go to work,” said Sue. She was brisk and dismissive in her nurse’s uniform. I realised I must have taken all her bathroom time. “Frank will sort you out. The police rang: they want to meet you back at Brocklow at nine o’clock. Frank will take you. But you must have something to eat first. Get her something to eat, Frank.” She kissed Frank on the cheek and gave him a meaningful look before she left.

“I’m sorry, Frank,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it. Breakfast?”

“Rice Crispies, please,” I said meekly. They work for a hangover, after all. Frank watched me thoughtfully as I crunched my way through them.

“These people,” he said, “would they really come all this way out here to find you?”

“Yes. It’s not the first time. They came for me before and found Becki.”

Frank took a deep breath like man about to go underwater.

“You think they killed Becki.”

I nodded. “Mistaken identity. But the police don’t agree.”

“Why did you come here instead of straight to the police?”

“You were closer,” I said between crunches, although that wasn’t the whole reason. Frank was solid, that was the reason: I could trust him with my fears and secrets. Grimshaw would dissect them with his scalpel stare. As I prised on my soggy shoes and climbed into Frank’s white van, I wondered apprehensively if Grimshaw would think I’d made the whole thing up, attention-seeking again.

The police car was already parked outside Nan’s house. Grimshaw was standing by it, drumming his fingers on the roof. He was accompanied by a monosyllabic fingerprint man called Ed.

“I’ll leave you here,” said Frank. “Be okay, now, won’t you? I’ve got a man to see about a shed.” Before he left, I took them all round the back and made sure he witnessed the splintered lock on the door. Ed got busily to work with little brushes and tape, while Grimshaw squinted up the fell behind us.

“You went all the way up there?”

“And over the top.” We walked to the wall and looked over it for footprints. I saw several that matched my shoes, and thankfully, some larger, broader ones, though a sheep had been over them since. Nevertheless, Ed was happy.

“He was tall?” said Grimshaw. “How tall?”

“Over six foot. But it was dark, and I was scared…I suppose he could have seemed taller than he really was.”

“But you have no idea who it was?”

“I know who it was,” I said. “One of Karl’s friends.”

“Did he introduce himself, then?”

“All he said was my name.”

“Nothing familiar about his voice?”

“It was hoarse. From running, I suppose.”

“What sort of car was it?”

“Long,” I said. “Black. Well, dark, anyway.”

“Dark?”

“It looked black. I suppose it could have been dark blue. Or even dark red. I couldn’t tell in that light.”

“Make? Number plate?” He was starting to sound resigned.

“I didn’t stop to look,” I said. Seeing Grimshaw’s expression, I added, “I don’t know car badges. I don’t drive. I’m not a car person.”

“Evidently. All right, let’s take a look inside.”

He led me into the house and had me retrace my steps of the previous night, whilst not touching anything. At least he was taking this seriously.

“He went upstairs?”

“I saw the light go on in the back bedroom. I suppose he might have gone into the front one too. I couldn’t tell.”

“Wait down here.” Grimshaw went upstairs. I sat in the parlour and listened to his feet moving around. Time to go to Scotland, see the Highlands, maybe the Western Isles. That should be far enough. It had been a terrible mistake to think this was.

Grimshaw was taking his time. He called Ed upstairs. More footsteps, things being moved about, while I looked around the parlour. The paper would look good when it was all done. With a new kitchen and bathroom, and central heating put in, this place would fetch a fair bit. What would Nan think? I listened, but there was no sign from her. I realised that Nan had been silent for a long time now. Maybe Nan had already moved out.

Grimshaw reappeared at last, wearing plastic gloves and carrying plastic bags.

“Whose is all the stuff in the back room?”

“Frank’s. Can I go up and pack my bags now?”

“You’re moving out?”

“I’ll have to. In case they come back.”

“Have you got somewhere to go?”

“I’ve got a tent. Or maybe I can bed down in the Woolpack.”

He nodded. “That’s probably not a bad idea. How long will it take you to pack?”

It took me hardly any longer than the first time, less than four months ago. A lifetime ago. I’d not acquired much. A couple more Oxfam jumpers to squeeze into the holdall, and that was it. I collected my knives from the kitchen.

“Is this yours?” said Grimshaw, plucking a jacket off the back of the kitchen door.

“No, that’s Frank’s. Will I ever get my big knife back?”

“Eventually,” said Grimshaw. “I’ll drive you down to the Woolpack now. We’ll drop the keys off with Frank when we’ve finished.”

“Serves me right, I suppose,” I said.

“What does?” He put his patient, non-judgmental face on.

“Being pursued for justice. Like Karl was when I shopped him.”

He could have told me to stop moaning and get a grip. Instead, he considered it, and then said seriously, “Revenge is not the same as justice. There are no good motives for revenge.”

“What about good motives for shopping your brother?”

“That depends on the balance between the suffering your brother was likely to cause, and the suffering you were likely to cause him. No question, I’d say.”

“Someone will have just stepped into the breach,” I said. “Taken Karl’s place. Someone who cuts their speed with strychnine instead of glucose.”

“Does that make a difference?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

 

Chapter Twenty-five

Fun

 

The club looked grimly festive. Its blunt brick and concrete were draped with swooping strands of bunting, as if a bony crown roast had been dressed up in paper ruffles. Better than police tape, anyway.

FYLINGTON FAMILY FUN DAY, shouted a banner over the entrance. No mention of a memorial. Presumably that would spoil the family fun. There was a bouncy castle, a tombola stall, a noxious barbecue and any number of balloons floating about and getting in the way. The grass was spattered with silver paper from the Easter egg hunt being held prematurely. At least it was free of goose shit, the geese having presumably all flown away north. As I should be.

I was wearing Sammie’s spare shorts and a Fylington shirt that was too big for me and smelt of Vick. I rolled the sleeves over several times and bounced up and down, hoping this would make me look fit. I felt anything but. I was still stiff and sore from my midnight trek across the freezing moors. More than that, I was stiff and frozen inside too, because now I knew they were still after me.

The rats hadn’t scuttled back to their sewers at all. They’d learnt I wasn’t dead, and the hunt was on again. I should never have let my guard slip. I’d got too happy and careless, and nearly paid the price.

In order to beg a place to sleep, I had had to tell Brendan and Rhoda about Karl and his avengers. I gave them the shortened version, to which Brendan listened with such a poor attempt at surprise that I suspected Niall had already been dropping hints around the place like dollops of horse-shit.

Rhoda tutted sympathetically, although her sympathy didn’t extend to chucking either kid out of their bed for me. I slept on the unfriendly domed padding of the Woolpack’s bench seats, rats rustling in my dreams, until I woke up in a threshing panic and landed on the floor.

Now I was knackered and edgy, and in no mood for family fun or any other type. The only reason I turned up at all was that the rugby club felt less dangerous than anywhere else. Safety in numbers.

Not that there were huge numbers here. The ladies’ match only had an audience of about thirty, mostly children, whose cheers kept threatening to turn to jeers. I wondered what Karl would think of it. Laugh his socks off, probably, the way he had when he’d first seen me trying on my chef’s whites. Those had been a twelve year old’s giggles, with just an edge of mockery: a year or two later they’d turned to full-on derision. I thought the rugby might have impressed him, though: he’d been a mean footballer once.

When Sammie kicked off I came to my senses. Why was I thinking of Karl playing football? Karl was trying to kill me. I slammed him out of my mind and concentrated on the game.

As it turned out, I was fitter than I expected. I think I played on the wing. Nobody told me. Sammie just instructed me to hang on to the ball whenever it got thrown my way – which wasn’t often – and then run as far as I could before I got knocked over. I used to play basketball for school, so I didn’t drop the ball, though I was strongly tempted to bounce it a few times. I even made a couple of tackles, the first entirely by accident when I didn’t get out of the way fast enough.

We won the match, although it had nothing to do with me. I got thumped on the back, which was nice, and realised belatedly that I’d almost enjoyed myself. For a brief while, everything had been forgotten but the game: I’d had no chance to worry about black cars or gangsters.

And, thankfully, I hadn’t disgraced myself in front of the swelling audience and the men’s teams who were waiting to spring or lumber on to the pitch. I saw Hugh on the touchline with Tamara attached to his arm like a graceful parasite. He looked wan and lost. Tamara said something in his ear and stroked his arm possessively. Trying to console him for the loss of rugby. He wasn’t wearing kit.

KK, in the first team strip, gave me a wink and a grin. “Good tackle,” he said, so I didn’t disillusion him. KK’s manner with me hadn’t changed; he’d just stopped scowling so much. I was glad he was casual. That suited me fine. Good bloke, great legs, but I didn’t need a relationship with someone who was still in love with his ex-wife. Whom somebody might just have tried to poison with a toxic snowball…

My mind began to race away again like a train on a bumpy track. Could carpet cleaner kill you? Could someone in the club have been a poisoner? Would a poisoner also be capable of stabbing Becki?

“No, no, no,” I muttered aloud. This was taking me in the wrong direction altogether. The killer was no-one here: I knew that now for sure.

Grimshaw wandered over, also wearing kit. Nice legs, though his calves were a little thin. “You weren’t bad,” he said, sounding surprised. “Where did you learn to tackle?”

“I didn’t.” But I’d learnt to wrestle, years ago, with Karl. “Which side are you playing on?”

“President’s 15. The first team wouldn’t have me.”

The president’s team held a variety of old lags who usually propped up the bar. Niall had been forced to promise the removal of the Old Hayseed to get them to play at all. Brendan’s jumper was looking more stretched than ever over his midriff and Frank had one sock up, one down, shin-pad falling off and tape already detaching itself from his ears.

“You all right?” he said, his gaze disconcertingly direct, as if he was looking straight through my muddy shirt to the aching, jumping heart and everything else concealed inside. It was quite unlike Grimshaw’s piercing stare, which I always felt was testing me for flaws.

“I’m fine,” I said. “You look like Just William.”

He smiled. “That must make him Violet Elizabeth Bott,” he said, nodding at Bob who was swinging his arms and eyeing the opposition with a mad, bulging stare.

“Is he all right?”

“Just doing his usual. Sits in the changing room muttering and slowly turning into the creature from the Black Lagoon.”

“Doesn’t take much,” said Brendan. “Where’s Niall? He’s our number eight.”

“Is he? Bugger,” said Frank. “I thought he wasn’t playing.”

“For his own fifteen? Didn’t do us any favours, did he?” said Brendan. “We’re just a glorified vets’ team. Why isn’t Road-runner playing?”

“His bird’s put the mockers on it,” said Frank.

“Poor bastard. Christ, he looks wretched.”

“Where the fuck is Niall?” snarled Bob.

“He’s here now.”

“Jesus fucking wept,” said Bob. “What the fuck is that behind him? Fucking Basil Brush?”

Niall loped out of the clubhouse, followed by a pot-bellied bushy-tailed six-foot fox. Apart from its white stomach, it was as orange as a tangerine. Its beady eyes stared in opposite directions. It galumphed on to the pitch, waving wildly at the gob-smacked crowd, and collided with Brendan.

“Sorry,” said a muffled mumble. “Can’t see too well.”

Niall raised his voice. “Let’s give a warm welcome to our new mascot. It’s Fylington Freddy! Give him a big hand, everybody!”

“Wahey!” cried Taidhgh and Cormac dutifully from the touchline.

“That’s not a fox!” yelled another boy beside them. “That’s a squirrel!”

“Belt up, Ashley,” roared Niall.

“Don’t you shout at him,” said KK warningly.

“Go and get a shirt on,” Niall told the fox. It turned and lumbered back into the clubhouse. It had a limp.

“Let’s get this show on the road!” shouted Niall. “Give us a cheer, boys!” They cheered. The ref whistled. The game was on.

I went to have my shower and check the food. When I came back, the veterans were winning, to general amazement. Grimshaw looked pretty fast, although he didn’t get the ball much. None of the backs did: it spent most of the time being dived on and grabbed at by grunting forwards, like a particularly vicious game of pass the parcel.

I’d never seen Bob or Frank play before, but together with Brendan they made a fairly scary front row. Especially Bob, at tight-head, whose ferocious glare and willingness to knock over anything that moved made me wonder about him. He was taking the match very seriously indeed.

In the first half the vets didn’t lose a single line-out or a scrum. With every roar of HOO! it was the firsts who got pushed backwards. When I produced the half-time oranges, the vets looked puffed but happy.

“Showing the youngsters how it’s done,” panted Bob. He was bright red and dripping.

“We’re just biding our time,” warned Jamesy.

Freddy the fox was hobbling up and down the sidelines in an XXXL shirt. When I offered him an orange he took his head off. “Thanks, Lannie.”

“Hi, Drop-goal. How come you aren’t playing?”

“Hamstring,” said Drop-Goal despondently.

“Should you be running round inside that thing?”

“No. But Niall insisted.”

“You don’t have to do everything Niall insists on,” I said with some irritation.

Drop-goal shrugged mildly. “I owe Niall. He got me my first job.”

“Oh, yes? Where was that?”

“A logistics company. It was where AnneMarie worked. She was his girlfriend then and she interviewed me, sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“No sane person would have employed me. I was a spotty eighteen year who couldn’t tie his own shoelaces. All I could do was kick goals.”

I grinned. I liked Drop-goal. “Not much change there, then.”

“I can’t do either now,” he said, straight-faced, “not with this hamstring. Totally useless.”

“What was she like at work?” I asked curiously.

“Anne-Marie? Almost as useless as I was,” he said, stroking the fox’s polyester fur. “I think she couldn’t wait to get out.”

“Get that head back on!” yelled Niall, and Drop-goal obediently replaced it and began to shuffle up and down the pitch, diffidently cheer-leading the sceptical crowd before the game restarted.

In the second half it all fell apart. The vets showed an increasing tendency to lie on the ground for longer and longer periods of time, and the first team scored four tries. Bob was steaming, both literally and figuratively. Niall spent more time bellowing insults at his team than running, which set Rhoda off bellowing insults at Niall from the sidelines. She looked like the only one who was enjoying herself.

I retired to the shelter of the kitchen, sorted the pies and laid out rows of bread and salad. No frilly lettuce, as instructed. Brendan plodded in, wet and ripe as a warm Stilton, to down a pint of orange squash and tell me the final score: 32-11 to the first team.

“Young Morse scored our try,” he said. “Not a bad one either.”

“Good for him. I thought he was Plod, though?”

“Plod didn’t work.”

“But he’s a bit young to be Morse, isn’t he?”

“No first name,” explained Brendan. “Not that he’ll admit to.” He wafted pungently away to the changing-room, while I began to dole out food to the slowly-growing queue. There was a choice of chilli or hotpot, in honour of the occasion. The barbecue supplied burnt sausages. Gateaux and cheesecakes were defrosting in the back of the kitchen. I hadn’t done anything special, since I hadn’t felt up to the effort, and Niall wouldn’t know the difference anyway.

“Good hotpot,” commented Grimshaw.

“Thanks. I hear you scored a try.”

“Of course.”

“And got a new name.”

“Quite flattering, really,” said Grimshaw.

“So what is your first name?”

“Not in current use, except by my mother.”

“Why? It’s not Salvation or Fortitude, is it?”

He lowered his voice to a whisper. “It’s Giles.”

“Giles? You’re not a Giles.”

“I should damn well hope not. The main reason I joined the police was so I could nick anyone who said Giles was a poofter’s name.”

“And do you nick them?”

“Nah. I’m too nice.” I doubted that. Not only did I distrust good-looking men on principle (Hugh excepted, of course,) but Grimshaw’s job and infiltration of the rugby club were only reasons to distrust him more.

A bell clanged. Niall leapt on stage, announcing a raffle to be drawn shortly by Fylington Freddy. As Grimshaw went off to do his duty and buy a ticket, AnneMarie came sidling up.

“Hotpot?” I offered.

She shook her head. She looked a bit dazed.

“It’s going well,” I said. “The place is packed. Niall should be pleased.”

“Yes.” Monotone. Her voice was dead.

“You all right, AnneMarie? What’s up? The kids are enjoying themselves.” I hoped she wasn’t going to ask me for drugs again. She had that pale, tight-stretched look. But she said,

“That copper. You know what he’s here for, don’t you?”

“To play rugby. Show support. Remember Becki.” It seemed to me that there wasn’t a whole lot of that last one going on.

But AnneMarie said, “Don’t be stupid! To play rugby? He’s a detective. He’s got a warrant. He’s here to arrest someone.”

I wondered if she was drunk again. “You don’t know that, AnneMarie.”

“I do!” she hissed. “I overheard him on his phone. You know how thin the door of the ladies is? Well, I was just about to come out of there when I heard him in the corridor. Muttering about a search warrant – and an arrest. Lannie, he’s come to arrest someone!”

“Well, he hasn’t done it yet,” I said. “He’d have done it by now.”

“He said See you later, then. Somebody else is bringing the search warrant.”

I looked across the room at Grimshaw, who was glumly studying his raffle ticket and realising that all the prizes were various quantities of Old Hayseed (first prize a pint, Bob had commented acidly. Second prize a gallon. Third prize a year’s supply.)

“Well, as long as it’s not me,” I said flippantly, although a ball of apprehension was forming in my throat. I’d been right not to trust Grimshaw.

“Christ, Lannie, I’m in deep shit.”

I turned to study AnneMarie. She looked even more miserable than usual. “Why? You don’t think he’s come to arrest you?”

She shook her head, swallowing visibly. “KK,” she said. Her voice was barely audible, the haunted creak of a door.

I stared at her. “KK? How do you know? Is that what he said?”

“He didn’t say a name. But why else would they bring a search warrant here, to the club? Nobody else lives here. Except KK.” She gestured upwards with her elegantly manicured finger. Her hand was shaking.

I pulled her round the counter into the kitchen and ushered her behind the fridge, where no-one could see. She let herself be ushered. I put a hand against the wall on either side of her.

“AnneMarie, are you on something?”

She shook her head continually. “Oh Christ, oh Christ, I’m in deep shit,” she moaned.

“Sounds like it’s KK who’s in the shit, not you.”

“Me too. Me too. Once they search his room – once they find–” She broke off abruptly, her glance sliding sideways across last year’s Real Milk calendar.

“Find what?”

Another head shake, small and uncertain.

“AnneMarie, what are they going to find in KK’s room?” I decided that she was drunk or popped-up and fabricating this from some remark she’d overheard. “They’ve got no reason to arrest KK. Where are you getting your supplies from now? Because whatever you’re on, it’s turning you paranoid.”

She flared up. “I’m having to buy Dexies off a crappy spotty teenager in Macc, and he’s charging me three times what Becki did and he’s a nasty little prick and I don’t feel right, I don’t think it’s the real stuff, but the hell do you expect me to do? You won’t help me.” She burst into tears, covering her face, shoulders shaking. Acting it.

“I can’t help you,” I said.

“And KK wouldn’t bloody help me. All that stuff of Becki’s he’s got stashed upstairs in his flat.”

Now I wasn’t sure I was hearing her right. I took hold of her wrists and pulled her hands away from her contorted face. No tears. “What stuff?”

“The stuff he took out of her bag. I saw him.”

“When?”

“After you found her dead. Before the police came.” She was getting hysterical.

“Why? What would he do that for?”

“Because drugs is money,” cried AnneMarie.

“Not to KK it isn’t.”

“Because he’s stupid then, I don’t know, what the hell! He wouldn’t give any to me, that’s all I know. Bloody selfish pompous git.”

“You should go back to your doctor.”

“Oh, fuck off.” She pushed me aside with such vicious force that I let her go. “You don’t care,” she said, in tears again, and ran out of the kitchen.

I stared at the desserts defrosting on the table, checking for ice crystals and wondering what the hell was going on. Then I took up a bin bag and went round on a hunt for dirty plates and guilty faces.

Grimshaw was eating hotpot jovially with a large group that included Brendan, KK and Frank. Joviality didn’t sit well on Grimshaw’s sharp features. His laughter was fake. While I watched, it seemed to me that he, in his turn, was watching KK. The ball of apprehension in my throat began to hurt again.

“I’ll lend a hand,” said Rhoda. “No need for you to do it all.” She began to bustle round with her own binbag, chatting amiably to the diners.

“Nice to see you back to yourself, Rhoda,” said Bob. “Everything going well, is it?”

“Everything’s good,” answered Rhoda, a smile spreading across her face like a crescent of pie. “For now. It could all change, of course, but for now they’re very pleased.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Mrs Bob warmly. She got up and embraced Rhoda. There were real tears in both their eyes. I stood by with my black bin liner in one hand, grinning as if I already knew all this, which I didn’t. But I should have. AnneMarie was right. I didn’t care.

“You’re feeling better?” said Mrs Bob. “Your colour’s good.”

“Much better. I had a bad patch with the last chemo session, but I’m feeling much better now. Only thing is, my hair’s started to go! Disappearing down the plughole in handfuls!” She laughed. Mrs Bob laughed. Bob looked aghast.

“Have to look out for a nice wig,” said Mrs Bob.

“Red and curly,” said Rhoda. “Think I’ll turn into Nicole Kidman.”

I whisked all their paper plates off the table into my bag and went to serve up puddings. Grimshaw was still watching KK. AnneMarie sat huddled in a corner, head down, smoking like an advert for nicotine patches.

Poor AnneMarie, I thought, in pity and exasperation. Lost in a maze of discontent. Never happy, not at work, not at home. No wonder she’d got herself addicted.

But what else had she got herself into? If by any remote chance she was right and Grimshaw did search KK’s room, what would he find? If by any remoter chance he found drugs – maybe even Becki’s drugs – what was the problem for AnneMarie?

I stood stock-still, clutching a cheesecake. Suppose that AnneMarie was right. Suppose KK had taken something from Becki’s bag after her death. Perfectly innocently. Even though I couldn’t think of a good reason for that right now, I knew KK wasn’t guilty of murder, because the real murderer had just chased me across the moors.

Still – KK hadn’t approved of Becki taking drugs any more than I had. He’d told her so, and she’d got angry with him. He didn’t like Becki twining herself around Niall, either. And Becki had resented him, called him an animal. It was fair to say that they had not got on.

But KK wasn’t violent, I told myself, not really. All right, so he hit players in the line-out now and then, but that was rugby. He hit Niall on several occasions, but that was Niall.

Re-visualising that fight, though, I was worried. I remembered the alarming force of his last punch, how Niall’s head had been thrown back. How Grimshaw had watched it with that devouring shark’s stare of his. But that was under provocation; it didn’t mean that KK would ever hit a woman, or stab one, or poison one, especially his wife, even if she had been carrying on with his brother. Even if she had borne his brother’s baby and pretended it was his.

“Oh, dear God,” I breathed, watching KK tip back his head and laugh at something Frank had said. No, it was all rubbish. KK was a good man. He had to be: I’d slept with him.

You like ’em rough and tough, though, don’t you? mocked Becki. You like that edge. Must be the upbringing. I shut her out: too late. The sneaking thought had crept in that she was right. And KK was a big, fit man who could run up a hill with ease…

No. I couldn’t have slept with a murderer. It wasn’t possible. I would have known, and I knew KK was innocent.

They all were. None of this lot were guilty of anything, because the murderer, as I kept trying to drum into Grimshaw, was definitely someone else.

But Grimshaw didn’t believe me. Grimshaw needed an arrest. And maybe any old evidence would do.

 

Chapter Twenty-six

Flush

 

 

Viciously I sliced half-frozen gateau with a plastic knife that ripped the sponge and planted black crumbs all over the cream. I felt Becki at my shoulder, saying You’ve made a right mess of that one, who’ll want to eat that?

I breathed out, hard. Becki was not Nan. She was not here, or anywhere, except in memory. Gone.

But not at KK’s hands. I paused with the knife plunged halfway through the cake. What if KK really had taken drugs from Becki’s handbag? Would he have had the sense to flush them down the toilet? Such a stickler for protocol. Police evidence. The daft bugger might have kept them.

I couldn’t ask him. He was telling Grimshaw a joke, and Grimshaw was heartily laughing. I went over to them with a tray of puddings. Grimshaw couldn’t arrest anyone while he was eating pudding.

“Black forest or strawberry cheesecake?” I offered. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

Grimshaw drew away from the group a little. “Sure. No mud pie? I’ve heard about your mud pie.”

“I didn’t have time for it.” And I hadn’t felt like making replicas of Hugh’s birthday dishes. It would have seemed all wrong.

Think I’d care? said Becki. Shut up, Becki.

“You’ll have to come to the Woolpack to sample it,” I said. Go for it, girl, said Becki.

“Would you join me if I ate there? Or are you always cooking?”

“I’m always cooking. You’d have to bring your girlfriend.”

Get you, Herron, said Becki.

Grimshaw shook his head. “Situation currently vacant.” That surprised me. And Becki. Watch it, she said, what’s he after?

“Well, I’m sure you won’t go short of offers,” I said amiably, and moved away to offer crumbly gateau to the others.

“Great food, Lannie,” said KK, taking the largest portion of Black Forest. “Reminds me, I’ve got one upstairs for you to try.”

“I’ll look forward to that.” I slid away as if from danger. Hugh came up and requested a slice of cheesecake.

“And one for Tamara?” I asked.

“Er, no, she doesn’t do puddings.” Or anything else that was fun, from the look of him. Hugh was haggard. I wanted to smooth away the lines with my finger, but Tamara was watching, so I just handed him a spoon. “You’re busy,” he said.

“For once. It should make Niall happy.”

“Things have been bad here, then?”

“Not so bad. It’s not your fault, Hugh, remember? You mustn’t feel responsible for any of this. You should be having a good time.”

“Can you stop for a chat, Lannie?”

“Yeah, sure. I’d like that, soon as I’ve handed these out.” I noticed AnneMarie had returned to the bar and was knocking back a large red wine. With any luck she’d soon be incoherent. But that didn’t solve my dilemma.

The family fun was due to go on all evening. The kids, installed in the side room with DVDs and a carton of crisps, had dragged Fylington Freddy in with them and were busy trying to pull his ears off. I distracted them with cake, then went back to the kitchen and collected the rubbish. I stuck a palette knife in my pocket and a ladle in the bin bag.

No-one took any notice as I carried the bag out. I went round the back of the clubhouse, removed the ladle and threw the bag in a wheelie bin, ignoring Becki’s presence. She watched me in her bloodstained T-shirt, waiting to see what I would do.

I walked to the fence, the one Becki’s killers might have climbed over. Or might not. It was fiercely overgrown with brambles and overlooked only by the balcony of KK’s flat. There was still enough light for me to see what I was doing.

I pushed at KK’s door, then inserted the palette knife against the lock and wiggled it. No go. So I tucked the ladle into my belt, clambered onto the fence and stood with my hands against the wall, wobbling precariously. I reckoned it was only the bramble stems that were holding the fence up. But from here I could just reach the corner of the flat roof over the ladies’ toilets, and pull myself up on the guttering.

My heart was thumping with the effort of being quiet about it. I hoped any ladies in the toilet would think I was a cat on the roof. Luckily there was enough music and clatter coming from inside the club to cover any noise I made outside.

I leaned back towards KK’s balcony: it was a stretch, but not impossible. I hoped the railings were stronger than the fence as I grabbed two of them, and then with a Hoo worthy of the front row swung my legs across and up and hooked them between the rails.

“Bugger,” I said, dangling like an out-of-condition monkey. My left foot was stuck. I managed to work it loose and through so that I could get my knee round the rail. Then I got my right elbow through, and was able to rest for a moment before I went for the big push over the top.

“Hoo!” Pure relief that time. Lying on my back on the balcony, I listened to the muffled applause below that probably meant speeches. After a moment I stood up. In KK’s flat all was dark behind closed curtains.

The transom, as I’d thought, didn’t take much persuading to open: a mere nudge with the palette knife. I climbed up on the windowsill and stuck my chin through it, peering down. A ladle wasn’t my tool of choice for this job. Back home with Karl, we’d used a wire coat-hanger. Holding the bowl of the ladle, I groped clumsily for the window handle with the hooked end. Easy. But I couldn’t reach the bottom lever until I jumped down onto the balcony again, took off my belt and tied it round the ladle, then fished with it till I could lift the lever: push: and I was in.

I slithered down under the curtains, landing on the sofa which had a duvet on it. I didn’t dare put on the light. Instead I switched on the tiny torch on my phone. As I trod softly over the floor, a rumbling of voices came up to me. Speech over, back to drinking.

There was a full cake tin, open, on the counter of the kitchenette. I sniffed: peach. At least it was a step up from parsnip. I moved stealthily over to the bedroom door, eased it open, and was hit so hard on the side of the head that I staggered and fell over.

Nest minute I was up, adrenaline pumping, and grappling in the dark with my attacker, until I realised that my attacker was much smaller than me and yelping like a puppy.

“Jesus!” I said, and reached for the light switch. “Ashley?”

Poor little lad. He looked stricken: terrified, and no wonder. As I opened my mouth to reassure him, he head-butted me. Fortunately he was too small to do it properly. He caught me under the chin, and I sat down heavily on the bed.

“Stop it, Ashley,” I said. “Let me explain.”

“I’m going down to get me Dad!”

I put an arm across the doorway. “Hang on. Your Dad’s talking to a policeman.”

He kicked my legs. “Good! I’ll get the policeman too!”

“Not good,” I said. “Ashley, I’m not a burglar. Well, I am, but I’m trying to do your Dad a favour.”

“Fuck off,” said Ashley. He was doing all right, for a nine year old.

“I will, in a minute. Listen. I think the policeman downstairs has a search warrant for this flat. I don’t know for sure, but that’s what I’ve been told. And I’ve also been told that in this flat there may be some drugs.”

Ashley fired up. “My Dad doesn’t have any drugs. He thinks drugs are sad.”

“I know. I think he took these ones off a friend, because he didn’t think the friend should have them. But if the policeman finds them, he’ll arrest your dad for possessing drugs. You got me? So I’ve come to get rid of them first. Couldn’t ask your dad for the keys, now could I? Not when he’s talking to a copper.”

“Are they your drugs?” He was quick.

“No.”

He rubbed his mouth. “I don’t want my Dad to get arrested.”

“Neither do I. I just want to have look in the safe behind the bed. If you see me steal anything, then you can run down and fetch the policeman.”

“You’ll be gone by then.” But he let me pull the bed away and sure enough, there was the safe like Niall had told me. Electronic lock. I put in the number: 4242.

Ashley knelt on the bed at my shoulder. There was nothing in there but a plastic wallet. I removed it and tipped out its contents: passport, car insurance, building society card. No money, and no drugs.

“Put them all back now,” commanded Ashley, and I obeyed. My head was aching.

“What did you hit me with?”

“My gamepad.”

“What are you doing up here anyway?” I opened the wardrobe and began to rustle through its contents.

“I was bored. I’ve seen that film before. And I don’t get on with – some of the other kids.”

“Your cousins?”

“Yeah.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t.”

“Why, are they mean to you?” I turned to the chest of drawers and rummaged amongst KK’s underwear. He went in for red.

“They’re snide. They gang up on me. Those are my things in the bottom drawer.” Miniature jeans and sweatshirts. “They go on at me cos I don’t play rugby.”

“That is mean,” I said, slipping my hand between KK’s folded t-shirts. Nothing.

“They think they’re so cool. But I’m gonna play league,” said Ashley. “I’m gonna play for Saints. You haven’t found anything, have you?”

“No.” I peered under the bed. “Got any ideas?”

“I know where Dad keeps things.” Ashley stared at me, weighing me up.

“Go on, then.” I reckoned he wouldn’t have said that if he wasn’t prepared for me to know.

“Are you his girlfriend?” It was a challenge.

“Just a friend. I’m the cook for the rugby club.”

“You’re the one he made the cakes for!” Ashley giggled, and then pulled a puking face. “The tomato one was disgusting.”

“Yes, I imagine it would be.”

He scrambled off the bed and pattered into the lounge. He turned on the light, took the left hand speaker of the hi-fi down from its shelf, and shook it. It rattled.

“Careful,” I said.

“It doesn’t work.” Ashley was trying to prise the hardboard back away with his thumbnail. I took it off him and used the palette knife.

“Eureka,” I said.

“What’s that? Is that drugs?”

As I opened the pink plastic purse that had fallen out into my hand, I recalled seeing it in Becki’s. “Yup.” There were some papers inside the speaker too. Unfolding them, I recognised the circle over the i and wondered why Becki was writing letters to KK. I read a few of the loopy, whorly words – “if you want to, just give me a vodka on the house. I’ll know what it means. We could have a good time, no–”

I read no further before replacing the letters. Maybe they explained why Becki resented KK: he’d never responded to her advances. Or perhaps he’d responded once, and once wasn’t enough for Becki…

No. Stop speculation in its tracks. If she’d had written a come-on note to KK, and he’d kept it, that was nothing to do with me. A one-evening stand with KK, enjoyable though it was, did not give me the right to comment on his love-life.

So I put the speaker with the letters back on its shelf, and inspected the contents of Becki’s purse.

A few pound coins, which I handed to Ashley. No wraps: half a dozen Es twisted into silver paper, a few Diazepam still in their blister pack, a tiny plastic envelope of dirty powder, and a book of stamps, first class. I opened it. Tucked in above the postage stamps were some others, scraps of printed blotting paper. Jesus, Becki, what was all this lot, this lethal pick and mix stuffed into the purse like so much loose change? It was Karl’s sock drawer in miniature: all those little time bombs just waiting to detonate.

Somewhere I felt Becki shrug. Nah, it’s good stuff. Harmless.

“What’s that with the stamps?” whispered Ashley.

“Possibly LSD.”

“What you going to do with it?”

“Flush it down the toilet,” I said.

“No, I want to.” So we went to the bathroom and I gave him the tabs and pills to drop into the toilet bowl. On the point of emptying the bag of powder down too, I hesitated. I didn’t know what it was, but I was ready to bet it was class A, like the rest. What the hell had Becki been playing at?

Playing at dealers, like a little kid. Playing silly buggers. Christ, Becki, you addled your brain with all that crap. You had no idea how the drugs would gnaw at you, how they could erupt explosively in your face and blow your life away.

As for KK, he had no sense either, keeping this stuff in his flat – where Ashley could find it, too. Nonetheless, it was evidence. I just didn’t know what of, apart from stupidity. Remembering Grimshaw’s contemptuous comment about destroying the letter, I stuck the little bag of powder in my back pocket, along with the purse and the pill wrappers.

Ashley flushed, twice.

“Now wash your hands,” I said.

“They’re snide about my Mum as well,” said Ashley, drying.

“Just ignore them.”

“They say she’s a two-timing slag.”

“They say that?” I was startled.

“They say Auntie AnneMarie says that. I hate her too.”

“They’re liars,” I told him. “I’ve met your Mum and she was very nice.”

“You have?”

“Briefly. What about your Uncle Niall? Do you like him?”

“He’s all right, I suppose,” said Ashley drearily. As the cistern filled up I flushed a third time. Didn’t want any E’s lurking in the S-bend.

“Right,” I said. “That’s it. You staying up here, or coming back downstairs?”

“I don’t want to come down.” He looked worried. “What do I do if the police come in?”

“They won’t come in without telling your Dad, and he’ll tell them you’re here. They might not come at all. This is just a precaution. Better safe than sorry.”

“I see,” he said, although I doubted if he did. He had Niall’s eyes, Michelle’s delicate nose, and KK’s tousled hair.

“Go back to your game,” I said. “If anyone asks, you’ve just been playing it all evening. Okay?”

He nodded, dubiously. I went downstairs and let myself quietly out. After throwing the empty purse and drug wrappings in the wheelie bin I grabbed a couple of empty beer crates from the pile beside it. Nobody looked at me as I carried them into the club, went behind the bar and carelessly clanked sticky bottles into them.

Then I poured myself a half and went to join Grimshaw’s group. Grimshaw was drinking Coke, which worried me, while Niall was expounding to him about American football.

“They’re not as soft as they look,” he told Grimshaw earnestly. “Those cages aren’t just for show. That’s twenty stone of prime American beef thudding into you.” He’d gone Irish again.

“Mm,” said Grimshaw absently. He checked his watch. I took a long breath, and wondered how I could warn KK.

“More like a Big Mac, with fries,” growled Bob. “Served very slowly. One fry, then time out.”

“KK?” I put in. “Could I have a quick word with you in the back?” At once, I realised he might think I was angling for a canoodle in the kitchen. Well, that was too bad.

“Whereas football’s fish and chips,” said Frank thoughtfully. “Find it everywhere, gets boring after a while.”

“Premiership likes to think it’s bloody caviar,” Bob grunted.

“City does,” said Stevo. “United’s just a dodgy fishcake.”

“Bugger off,” said KK. “You don’t know owt about it. Does he, Morse?”

“Uh huh,” said Grimshaw, his eyes flickering to the door. I began to feel sick.

“KK?” I repeated urgently. “It’s about the barrels.”

“Why, what’s up with them?”

“Could you come and check them?”

“But rugby’s bangers and mash,” said Stevo.

“No no no no,” said KK, turning away from me indignantly, as the door opened. DI Cole was pushing through the crowd towards us. “Rugby is best beef fillet, medium rare, this thick, with pepper sauce, wild mushrooms on the side.” Inspector Cole was whispering in Grimshaw’s ear.

“KK!” I said in desperation. “Please!”

“And vintage port and stilton,” said KK.

Bob said, “No, that’s snooker.”

DI Cole cleared her throat. “Sorry to interrupt the menus, but I’d like a quick word with you, Mr Taylor.”

“Sure,” said Frank.

“Outside, I think.” Frank raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and followed her and Grimshaw over to the door. Grimshaw returned a moment later to pluck Frank’s jumper from the back of a chair.

“You going?”

“Back to the station,” he said.

“With Frank?” said KK. “Bloody hell. You’re not arresting Frank, are you?”

“An arrest has been made,” said Grimshaw formally. He looked at me. “Apart from the last few minutes, it’s been a delightful day.” He pressed his raffle tickets into my hand, and walked out of the club.

 

Chapter Twenty-seven

Charlotte

 

 

When I was ten, I adopted Mr Turner as my family. Mr Turner taught year 6. He was round, bearded and bespectacled, jolly and firm in equal measure. I played him up and tried to win his heart. Luckily he was a sensible man, with three children of his own.

I had realised by then that my family wasn’t normal; not through lack of a father, for that was common enough, but because other people’s mothers, though they might shout and slap, did not lie all night at the bottom of the stairs or try to walk through mirrors or cut the legs off their children’s too-small pyjamas with a pair of garden shears, to turn them into shorts.

There was no Mr Turner for me at High School. Gradually, however, the whole school became my surrogate family – a big, noisy, ever-moving crowd in which I could hide and be normal. I went early and stayed late, doing basketball, gym, book club, art club, choir, jazz dance, any excuse. I won community merits like Tesco points.

It was a run of the mill school, with a few good teachers, many adequate ones, and modest targets. The head of year gave us weekly pep talks on the importance of eating breakfast and tucking shirts in. I delighted in these mundane scoldings, as comforting as an auntie’s hug.

For much of High School, I had Dave as a surrogate father, which helped too. He seemed to take it for granted that I would work for my exams, and think about careers, so I did. The day I sat my last GCSE, I went to the park with my mates and some lager. They were celebrating. I was lost. Now I had nowhere to go.

But arriving at college to do my NVQs, I found it served much the same function, if more impersonally. So did my first job in a big hotel kitchen. Work gave me a home. I was able to pull further and further away from my blighted childhood, and at last – to my huge relief – to pull out altogether and into my tiny flat with Charlotte. I’d made it. I was safe.

And now I wasn’t.

“I don’t know what they’ve got on him,” I told Charlotte. I was using her, once again, as my place of refuge. It was the day after the sobering end of the Family Fun, and I was kneading sweet dough in the back of her shop. “If he was guilty, I would have spotted something. Jesus, I lived in the man’s house for weeks, after all!”

“But he lives somewhere else,” pointed out Charlotte.

“Well, I’ve been to Sue’s flat too, and believe me, she would have turned Frank in at the first sign of anything incriminating.” I recalled the powder in Becki’s purse. I hadn’t done anything about it. I hadn’t turned KK in. I hadn’t even told him about my finding of the drugs, though I’d left an addled message on his answerphone, distraught at Frank’s arrest. The police hadn’t searched KK’s flat at all. But they must have searched Frank’s house. By last night he had not been released.

“I didn’t know Frank well. He wasn’t easy to get to know, was he?” said Charlotte. She sounded dismissive, but I was too wound up to pay much attention.

“He’s just himself. He’s Frank.” I knew Grimshaw had got it wrong. I just didn’t know how he could have made such a mistake.

Charlotte shrugged. “They must have had a good reason to arrest him, though, mustn’t they? And Frank seemed – hidden. He kept a lot back.”

I wished she wouldn’t talk about him in the past tense. “Surely you don’t think he did it, Charlotte?”

She rested her hands on the floured table. “To be honest, Lannie, I’d be relieved if he did.”

“What?”

“So would Hugh. You can see it’s like a black cloud lifting for him, this arrest. I mean he’s horribly shocked and saddened, but at least it’s the end of all the worry. Not knowing what happened. You don’t know what it’s been like for him. It should be a load off your mind, too, just to know who it was.”

“But,” I said, helpless.

“But nothing. Leave it to the police, Lannie. Let them sort it out. They know what they’re doing. It’s out of our hands.” Charlotte slapped her dough around, and then began to stretch and loop it expertly.

Out of our hands. For a while I watched her deftly plaiting strips of dough. Her hands were strong and assured. Bread was all that mattered.

“You’re getting good at that,” I said unhappily.

“Yeah, quite a production line these days.”

“Business is good, then? You seem happier.”

“It’s not bad. It’s improving.” She pushed the plait aside and started another. “Lannie. I’ve got a proposal to make. Do you fancy coming to work with me? Bridget’s lovely, but all she can do is shove things in and out of ovens. I really need someone else who knows the technical side. I’ve been making hot cross buns 24-7 for the last fortnight.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll have to think.” At once my thoughts hurtled back into their hamster wheel of torment. It wasn’t Frank. It couldn’t be. Why would Frank kill Becki? Frank was safe. That was why I’d gone to his flat after being chased over Brocklow – because I knew he was safe. For a start, he wasn’t tall enough to be the man who’d chased me.

I stared at the ovens. Bloody hell. What did that mean? Did that mean that subconsciously I felt it was someone from the club who’d been chasing after me? Not a Salford gangster after all?

“I can’t make you a partner,” continued Charlotte, “because Daddy wants me to keep sole ownership, and I can’t pay you a great deal. But I can equal what you’re getting at the moment.”

“Uh-huh.” Hellfire. The club was full of big, fit, agile men. KK. Niall. The Killicks. Stevo. I had KK’s drugs in my holdall. What about those? Were they what Niall had sent me to find?

“You can make a new start,” said Charlotte. “I know someone who’s got a room in a house in Chorlton. That’s not too far. And it’d be better than sleeping on a bench in the pub, wouldn’t it?”

“Anything’s better than that.” I was getting terribly confused. The person who chased me over the moors must be the same person who killed Becki. Mustn’t it? Therefore could not be Frank. Why would anyone from the club want to chase me? Had I been getting too close to somebody? Had I asked too many questions? Michelle flickered into my mind, curling her hair around her finger.

“And now they’ve caught him – I mean Frank – you might not want to stay there. It’ll all be a bit awful, Lannie. You’ll want to get away.”

“Will I?” What had Grimshaw got on Frank? Had Sue said something to him? Jesus, that woman.

“Lannie! You can come home now,” Charlotte urged. “Becki’s death was nothing to do with you. Nobody’s chasing you any more. I know it’s not the answer you expected, but you can stop worrying.”

“I don’t know what the hell’s going on,” I said. I don’t think Charlotte heard me.

“We could go out and see old friends. Hugh would like it too. I think it would do him good, Lannie. He was asking after you. He said he missed you.”

“Did he?”

“Yes, he’s been trying to phone you but he said he can never get through.”

“No signal.”

“And when he came round to see you, you’d gone out for a walk.” Her tone was faintly accusing.

“Sorry.” Frank wasn’t a killer. He wasn’t angry enough. Except about Dean: he kept so much closeted away, all the ancient grief… Christ, that handkerchief!

Grimshaw had taken some stuff from Frank’s house. I remembered Ed’s plastic bags. What if they’d found the handkerchief? What if they thought the blood was Becki’s? My hands clenched on the dough.

“Then it was too busy at the fun day for him to talk to you, and then Frank got arrested and everyone went home and you’d gone too before he realised.”

“Yes.” They would have tested the handkerchief. The DNA wouldn’t fit. But they must have had a good reason to arrest Frank. And Frank must have a reason for the reason.

“Lannie? I wish you’d ring Hugh.”

“Hugh?” Saying his name, I saw Frank’s face, his intense, absent-minded gaze. The way he had gazed at Becki’s father at the funeral, fascinated… “Hugh’s got Tamara,” I said automatically.

“Yes, but. You know, I’m not sure about Tamara. I don’t think she’s good for him. I think she’s been winding him up.”

“Winding him up how?” Fifteen years ago, what had Becki’s dad been doing? Driving his car over the Cat and Fiddle Pass…? My thoughts began to snake and twist like the road, heading off towards unlikely destinations. Impossible dead ends.

“I don’t know. Hugh wanted to talk to you about something Tamara said. What do you think she could be saying? He wouldn’t tell me.”

“God knows,” I said. Tamara didn’t matter. Hugh hardly mattered. I didn’t know what was happening to me.

My hands had stopped moving and were clutching the pastry as if it was a soggy handkerchief. It was an effort to release it. My fingers were as cold and numb as stones.

“Oh, Lannie.” Charlotte wiped her own hands on her apron and gave me a floury hug. I succumbed, sniffing, rubbed my face and blew my nose.

“Are you keen on Frank?” she said, looking at me intently.

“Of course not. He’s got a girlfriend. That Sue, you know.”

“I never spoke to her. What’s she like?”

“Sue? Very down to earth. Upright. Practical. Gets things done.”

“Very like you, then,” Charlotte said.

“Damn. No wonder I can’t stand her.”

Charlotte gave me a little shake. “Lannie! Leave Frank to the police. It’s over. You don’t need to stay there any more. Leave all that hassle. Leave the pie and chips and come back home.”

“Maybe.” I blew my nose again, shook my head and got a grip. I went to wash my hands before returning to the dough. “Maybe you’re right.”

“I am right.”

On autopilot, I cut and sugared buns, laid them out, and then started a new batch. “What’s the house in Chorlton like?” Not that I wanted to know; but I had to say something.

“It’s okay. The room’s not huge, but the house has central heating and a nice kitchen.”

“Who’s the owner?”

“He’s called Duncan,” said Charlotte. “He’s a web designer, but he’s quite normal. Actually, he’s really nice.” Her voice was smiling.

“Charlotte? Are you sure it isn’t you who should be moving in with him?”

“Oh, no,” said Charlotte seriously. “Far too early days. Daddy wouldn’t like it. They haven’t even met each other yet. You’d like him, though. You’d like it there. You’d like working here with me.” Dear Charlotte, so trusting, so optimistic. She believed in fairy-tale endings. She gave me hope.

Charlotte drove me to Stockport station and waited on the platform with me, with the wind slapping and tweaking our clothes like a hyperactive little brother who didn’t know when to stop. Eventually a train arrived to take me to Macc, a slow bus trundled me up into the chilly hills and my reluctant feet carried me along the narrowing lanes back to the Woolpack.

I had thought the country tediously safe. Now it had turned into the heart of darkness. Trudging through Brocklow, I averted my eyes from Nan’s house and gazed up the hill. Had I really walked up there with a killer all those weeks ago? But the killer had chased me over there last week: and that hadn’t been Frank, but a taller man. There couldn’t be two killers around. Could there?

Back at the empty Woolpack, Brendan was glum and bewildered.

“Not Frank.” He repeated it under his breath. “Not Frank.” The two little girls scooted around, giggly and over-excited, playing dodge under the tables until Rhoda bundled them upstairs. The arrest would be something to boast about in the playground. My daddy knows a murderer.

“The thing is,” said Brendan mournfully, “We thought it must be your Manchester drugs gang. Well, everybody did. That’s what Niall was saying, and for once I thought he was talking sense. It made everyone a lot happier, so to speak.”

“They all knew about that?” I was a bit staggered, and then touched by their discretion. Nobody had said a thing to me. Not a word of accusation. Until now; when Frank’s arrest, thanks to my big mouth, came with all the shock of a trusty gas stove blowing up in their faces. Not Frank…

I stayed in the back making huge batches of pastry for the freezer, to keep myself occupied. Charlotte was right: I needed to find another place to live. Anywhere away from here. I couldn’t stand still. I couldn’t sit. When Rhoda asked me to pop over to Arthur’s for some eggs, I jumped at the chance to get out.

I trudged through the twilit mud to the accompaniment of wailing dogs. In the dark, the wind felt as savage as a hungry wolf come rampaging off the moors.

“By heck,” said Arthur as he opened the door, “It’s wild out. We’ll be losing a few chimney pots in this.”

“Not ours, though,” said his wife Doreen complacently. She sat bolt upright in her chair by the fire, knitting something salmon-pink. Their kitchen was huge, low-ceilinged, dark and weather-tight as a ship’s hold. The fire, more generous than the Woolpack’s, filled the room with a smoky warmth that I wanted to grab and pull round me like a blanket.

“How’s Rhoda?” asked Doreen.

“She’s fine. She says can we buy a dozen eggs please, if you’ve got them.”

Doreen laid down her knitting on the long dark table and disappeared out the back.

“Bad news about Frank,” Arthur said with satisfaction.

“Yes.” I looked around, wondering how to phrase the question in my mind. The ceiling had vast oak beams with a drying-horse dangling from them. There was a heavy black dresser straight out of the Antiques Roadshow, probably seventeenth century oak or something, rag rugs on the flagstones, socks drying on the rail along the front of the stove, and a tiny, snowing TV sitting on a peeling melamine cupboard. Arthur settled himself into an old green easy chair which would have met with Nan’s approval.

“Rhoda’s on the mend, then?”

“I think so. Um.” I hesitated, and then came out with it. I wanted things clear, even if it couldn’t help Frank. “That bother you talked about,” I said, “the other week when you knocked on my door. Was that Rhoda’s illness you meant?”

“What else would it be?” said Arthur tartly.

“It might be the bother when Becki came round to the Woolpack and had words with Rhoda, back in November.”

“Oh, aye? Who told you about that?”

“The girls. Katy hasn’t forgiven you for calling her a mucky pup.”

“Oh aye. She is, an’ all.” He was silent for a moment, rubbing the arm of his chair absently as if it were his dog’s head. “Bad business,” he said.

“Sounds like your dog broke it up.”

“Aye, well, I gave him the order. He were a bit surprised, like, seeing as they weren’t sheep, but he did the job well enough. Madam screamed like a stuck pig, and left in a huff and a puff, any road.”

“Becki?”

“Aye. Don’t know what these young lasses are coming to.”

“Mm. Becki was a bit…” I left it open-ended.

Arthur answered with a huff and a puff of his own. “And the language!”

“She swore at you?”

“Like a trooper, though it were nowt to do wi’ me. I only called round to borrow some gaffer tape, like, so it were a bit of a shock to see them having a go at each other hammer and tongs in the kitchen. Just as well I had Laddie by me or Madam might have ended up wi’ a knife in her throat right there and then and not three months later.”

“You’re kidding! That bad?”

Arthur gave a snort.

“What was it all about?”

He gave me a sidelong look. “You don’t know? If you don’t know, I’m saying nowt.”

“I do know,” I said. “Becki and Brendan.”

“Aye, well.” He shifted in his chair, restless as one of his dogs. “God knows what Madam thought she were doing there, stirring it up again. Getting Rhoda all het up. Shaking with anger she were.”

“Did she attack Becki?”

“Rhoda? Don’t be so bloody silly.”

“What, then Brendan attacked Becki?”

Arthur sat straighter in his chair and stared at me accusingly. “I thought you said them lasses had told you all about it?”

“They’ve got Frank for the murder now,” I said. “Do you think they’ve got the wrong man?”

He shook his head as if the suggestion was a fly. “I’m saying nowt for you to carry off to the police. It’s all nonsense.”

Doreen came back in with a carton. “Ten’s all I could find,” she said cheerfully. “Will that do?”

“I’m sure it will. Thanks, Doreen.” As I headed for the door, Arthur got briskly out of his chair and took his ragged overcoat off its peg.

“I’ll just check them bullocks in the barn,” he told Doreen. “They’ll be panicking a bit, this weather.” He followed me out into the yard. He had to raise his voice into the wind.

“You leave it be. Madam were looking for trouble. I don’t say she deserved to be murdered, but I can’t say I were surprised. The way she carried on. All sorts, according to Rhoda. Now she’s dead, you leave it be.”

“I’m only trying–”

“You leave it be,” he repeated angrily. “Rhoda’s had enough.” He turned on his heel and walked off into the gale. I had learned nothing, and solved nothing. All I had gained was a vague, unlikely thought that maybe Frank was covering up for someone else. I didn’t even know whether it was something to hope or fear. So instead I grabbed on to the more acceptable hope that the police would have to release Frank soon, when their thirty-six hours were up.

They didn’t. That meant it was serious enough to get a magistrate’s consent: I knew that much from all the times Karl had got himself arrested. He’d never got convicted, though, until I took a hand in it. I felt dreadful.

Overnight, the wind grew stronger, howling like a werewolf. By morning it was a bullying monster that blustered at the windows and barged at the doors. Brendan went out shopping with his face wrapped in a scarf. I turned the ovens on full blast and began to bang around in the kitchen.

“What’s that you’re making?” asked Rhoda.

“Yorkshire pudding. The walkers will want a good stodgy meal. We can fill the Yorkshires with the cold beef.” The truth was I wanted the ovens burning like furnaces. I wanted the heat to purify me.

Rhoda looked doubtful. “If we get any walkers today. Who’d go out in this?” Then she sighed. “Well, it’s up to you. You’re the chef.”

That was a first. Rhoda was almost tiptoeing around me as I clattered bowls and broke Doreen’s eggs in spectacular, careless, one-handed fashion, tossing the shells right across the room into the sink.

“You feeling all right, Lannie?”

“Time of the month.” As good a reason as any.

“Shall I get you some painkillers?”

“No, thanks,” I said. What I really wanted was a large brandy, but that never solved anything. So I whisked and battered myself into a frenzy, ready for the customers who didn’t come.

“Nobody’s out walking this weather,” said Rhoda at last. “Come and sit in the lounge, Lannie. Have a drink.”

I had a grapefruit juice. Rhoda poured herself a quarter-pint of beer and joined me by the fire, where a solitary log was burning feebly.

“No point building it up until someone comes in,” said Rhoda. We listened to the wind whining peevishly at the windows. The curtains flared. “Well, maybe I will,” said Rhoda. She put on another log, which sat there blackly, and topped up her glass. “I shouldn’t be drinking, but what the hell.”

“With the drug regime?”

“They say I can drink in moderation. Now and again.”

“How’s it going?”

“It’s going all right,” said Rhoda, “they think. As far as they can tell. Everything’s provisional with them. There’s nothing definite until you die. Then you’re definitely dead.”

“I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“Thank you. You’ve helped.” She didn’t say I had helped a great deal. But then I probably hadn’t.

“I’ve enjoyed working here.” It was true, apart from the chips, the cheesecake, and the Becki business. Rhoda looked wary.

“But are you definitely thinking of leaving?” I couldn’t tell if she wanted me to or not.

“Yes. Scotland.”

“Have you got a job to go to? We could probably find you one through the brewery,” said Rhoda, “if you’re happy working in a pub.”

“I don’t mind where I work.”

“But you don’t want to stay on here?”

“It was only ever temporary.”

“Until I got better, was that it?” She sat forward and said briskly, “You’re very welcome to stay, Lannie. You’ve been useful. I know I was a bit sharp with you when you arrived, but I wasn’t feeling too good.”

“I understand that.”

“It’s been a help for me to have the free time. I have to admit the new menu’s gone down well, and your puddings are very popular.” She coughed. “We could even give you a raise. Not a huge one, mind.”

“It’s not the money.” It’s the murder, I wanted to say, it’s Frank, it’s this feeling that I’ve been turned upside down.

“We’ll miss you,” she said, as the door crashed open and Brendan launched through it with armfuls of shopping bags. The wind rampaged gleefully around the bar, tossing beermats into the air.

“Shut that door, Brendan!” ordered Rhoda. “What took you so long?”

“Had to stop in Fylington,” announced Brendan. His face was glowing pink with excitement. “Going straight back there. Emergency. The bloody roof’s blown off the club!”

 

Chapter Twenty-eight

Roofless

 

“It’s that idjit Martin’s fault,” said AnneMarie with satisfaction. “He’s a crap builder. You should see our porch.” She pulled her fur-trimmed coat tighter around her and lit a cigarette.

“Why did you let him build it, then?”

“He’s Niall’s brother, isn’t he? Now it’s all cracks, and the window panes are loose.”

I stared at the ravaged clubhouse. I wasn’t going to argue with her, despite the fact that it was Niall’s roof that had flown off the annexe and that Martin’s walls, however crap, were still firmly in place. Most of the roofing felt was on the far side of the pitch, skewered and dying on the fence. Other shreds were strewn around the grass. I watched a lad pick one up and kick it into touch.

“What about KK?” asked Rhoda anxiously.

“Homeless,” said AnneMarie with a hint of gloat. No, more than a hint. “Niall’s managed to get a few of the boys round to help. They’re putting a tarpaulin up.”

The tarpaulin was a large plastic sheet, which was trying to take off from KK’s flat. I could see a pair of hands inside grasping vainly as it escaped and swooped across the pitch like a great flapping bird to join the felt impaled on the fence. It began to rain.

“Bloody hell,” said Brendan, and he and Rhoda hurried off to help Drop-goal retrieve the plastic sheet. AnneMarie mooched away to smoke in the main clubhouse, which still had a roof. I went up the stairs to KK’s flat to see what needed doing.

Half-way up I met Niall galloping down, roaring, “Boxes! We need boxes!” Inside the flat, a section of plasterboard ceiling had fallen in and was lying on the sofa. Rain spattered through the gap. KK was emptying a kitchen cupboard into a drawer.

“Christ, what a mess,” I said. “Where are you going to go?”

“Stevo’s, for now.”

“Not Niall’s?”

“It’s his bloody roof,” rasped KK. “Not that he’ll admit it. Never admits to bloody anything.” He dropped a bag of flour which split open in a soft explosion. When I moved to scoop it up, he ordered, “Leave it. Doesn’t matter.”

“It’ll turn to dough when it gets rained on.”

“So will everything.” KK straightened up and looked at me. His beard was getting longer and wilder. “Breaking and entering?” he said. “I couldn’t make head nor tail of that message, but Ashley filled me in.”

“You shouldn’t keep drugs in the house, KK, even if they’re not for your own use. The courts don’t discriminate. What on earth did you take her purse for?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t it obvious? So her parents wouldn’t know about it. Christ, they had enough to cope with.”

“Do you know what all that stuff was in Becki’s purse?”

He shook his head. “Don’t want to know. I wasn’t aware that Ashley had cottoned on to that hiding place, or I’d never have kept it there. Lucky he’s got more sense than Becki.”

“You were withholding evidence.”

“I didn’t destroy it, though.”

“Maybe you should have.” I thought of that little bag of powder, tucked deep into my holdall back at the pub. Rhoda would throw a fit. “You’re too honest.”

“No, I’m not. I nick drill bits from work,” said KK.

“And you admit to it! That’s daft. Is Ashley all right?”

“He was excited about Frank getting arrested. Relieved too, I suppose. He doesn’t know Frank.”

“Frank didn’t do it,” I said hopelessly.

“I hope not,” said KK, his dark eyes serious.

“What did they get him for? Do you know?”

“Niall spoke to his lawyer. Blood on his clothes or something.”

“Christ, they took their time finding that.”

“It was Becki’s blood.”

I wanted to cry. KK put his hands on my shoulders, smoothed my hair and said, “Nothing we can do about it, Lannie. If they’ve got it wrong it’ll be sorted out.”

“They’ve got it wrong.” My voice cracked.

“Aye, but you can’t climb into jail and rescue Frank.”

We heard Niall and Stevo bounding back upstairs with cardboard boxes, and KK drew away. Stevo began filling his box with CDs while Niall took one into the bedroom. KK carried drawers out.

I shovelled the contents of a kitchen cupboard into a third box, then went to ask Niall, “Where are we taking it all?”

“Down to the drinks store.” Niall was bundling up bedclothes.

“We’ll never fit the furniture in there!”

“We’ll just cover it up, once Drop-goal’s managed to catch that fecking tarpaulin.”

“It’ll all go rotten.”

“It’s only temporary.” Niall had pulled the bed away from the wall and now keyed the combination into the exposed safe. He tossed the plastic wallet carelessly on to the bed and frowned at the empty cavity.

“Did you take anything out of here, now?”

“No,” I said. “I told you, there’s no money here.” Pointedly I retrieved KK’s documents, then opened the wardrobe and began to pull out clothes. “You’re not still hunting for it, are you? We need to clear this place before any more of the ceiling falls in on us.”

“That was a freak gust.” But Niall rolled up the bedclothes and carried them untidily out, trailing sheets. I carted my box, prickly with coat-hangers, down the stairs to dump it on the bar. Stevo stumbled in with the microwave.

“We need to get all the electrical stuff out of there,” he said anxiously. “It’s getting soaked.” It was now raining hard. While we relayed the rest of KK’s possessions out of his flat, the plastic sheet was being slowly dragged across the pitch, flouncing petulantly in protest and trying to drag its captors back in turn. Eventually they pulled it upstairs and Niall instructed them to drape it round the flat.

“That won’t keep the rain off,” objected Brendan.

“We’ll stick the thing back on properly in a bit,” said Niall.

“What, the roof or the plastic?” said KK. “No bloody difference as far as I can see. One’s about as much use as the other.”

“It was a freak gust,” said Niall angrily.

“It was a bloody shit roof,” said KK.

Niall’s mouth opened wide in deliberate indignation. “How can you say that when you’ve had the benefit of that flat for six good years?”

“Six crap years. It’s still a bloody shit roof.”

“Well, that’s marvellous to be sure!” cried Niall, all Irish again. “That’s gratitude for you! Don’t you think you owe me a little gratitude at least?”

“No,” said KK.

“Well! As if I’d never got you the job here and got you all sorted out after Michelle left you. Which I can’t say I blame her for just at the moment!”

“Leave Michelle out of this, you pompous bastard,” rumbled KK.

“Now then,” said Brendan, stepping forward purposefully, and then not sure what to do.

“Did you hear that, Lannie?” cried Niall. “Isn’t that a fine brotherly thing to say?”

“Depends if it’s true,” I said. “Are we shifting this stuff or not?”

Everyone except Niall began shifting. After a moment of indignant harrumphing he began to shift as well.

I lugged the contents of KK’s fridge downstairs and into the club kitchen where AnneMarie was, amazingly, making cups of tea.

“It’s quite nice, isn’t it?” she said. “Everyone pulling together. Like in wartime.”

“Try telling that to KK,” I said. There was a small, damp explosion as the bottom fell out of Stevo’s rain-soaked carton. DVDs clattered to the floor, while the bits of hi-fi balanced on top of them went splat.

“Oh, damn,” said Stevo. The CD drawer was sticking out and twisted like an impudent tongue, and one of the speakers had collapsed into bits, spilling a small pile of papers onto the carpet. Niall pounced on them with a triumphant exclamation.

“There,” he said. “Letters. So, my saintly Brother Joseph, who’s been writing to you?”

“Give those here!” said KK.

“Well, well. Looks like Becki’s writing. That’s her i.” He unfolded one and began to read. “Well, my word!”

“They’re private. Leave them be.” KK put his box on a table with a thump.

“But it’s from Becki!” said Niall, his eyes wide. “And it’s a love letter! Do you know, I think I saw one of these on the bar not that long ago. Not long before she died. I did wonder what it was all about. Let’s have a dekko, shall we?”

“Let’s not,” said Brendan.

But Niall was unfolding, peeping. “Ooh, she wants your body. My word, Joseph, she’s promising to do things here that aren’t quite legal.”

“Stop winding him up,” I said. “Letters are private.”

“What Becki wrote was nobody’s business but her own,” said Rhoda sharply.

“Oh, but my!” Niall was scanning the letters, surely too fast to read. “Just as well they’ve already got Frank for it! If he hadn’t been arrested, I would have been quite anxious about these. Very interesting reading. Ooh, my virtuous brother! Just listen to–”

KK made a grab at the letters. Niall held them behind his back and jumped nimbly into the kitchen, slamming the hatch down after him.

“Stand back there, Joseph! I think these should be made public! Couldn’t be any possible harm in them, you being such a righteous and high-minded man.”

“Hang on there,” said Stevo, at a loss.

“Not aloud,” growled KK. Or was it “Not allowed?” Either way, nothing was going to stop Niall, who looked as smug as a squirrel on a bird-feeder. AnneMarie, by contrast, was frozen. My heart sank.

“Oh, but this is ripe stuff,” said Niall, his eyes flashing. “And did she bring a jar of honey, Joseph, and lick it off as promised? A touch of Winnie the Pooh there, I think. And lead you up the back passage? Actually, Joseph, this is quite disgusting.” He handed one of the letters over to Stevo who turned it over, not knowing what to do with it.

“But it’s not signed,” he said.

“Oh, neither of them are,” said Niall. “I mean, would you sign your name to something like that? Putting her fingers where?”

“I said, not aloud,” said KK quietly. Next to me, AnneMarie picked up a mug of tea, tried to drink from it too quickly, slopped it, and said to Niall,

“For Christ’s sake, can’t we leave it alone? They’re private letters and Becki’s dead, for Christ’s sake.”

“Yes, and I’d like to know why my pure and honourable brother was carrying on with her and keeping quiet about it. That’s immoral behaviour, Joseph.”

“Why?” I asked.

“She was the immoral one,” said Rhoda. “But she’s dead and buried, so let’s leave it, Niall.”

“Those were never lying on the bar,” said KK, still very quiet and distant. “You’ve been in my safe. I thought someone had. That’s why I moved them and changed the lock to my flat. Don’t you talk to me about immoral behaviour.”

Niall flared up. “It’s not your flat, and it’s not your safe! It’s my safe! It’s the club’s safe, you bloody hypocritical ingrate! I thought I knew my own brother better! Honest to God, Joseph, I tried to find these before to protect you. Christ knows what the police would have made of them! They would have locked you up before you could say knife. Did you tell them about Becki’s little thing for you? And you always pushed her away – I bet you did, Joseph! Just as well they’ve got Frank for it now!”

KK lunged explosively across the hatch at Niall. Brendan grabbed him round the middle in a bear hug, and the pair of them swayed together, panting.

“Cool it,” advised Brendan. “There’s no need to go on, Niall.”

“You were quite unpleasant to her, weren’t you, Joseph? In public. I daresay in private it was a very different matter.”

“You bugger off!” roared KK.

“Niall, I think you should stop this now,” said Rhoda.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Niall!” cried AnneMarie. “Just leave it, can’t you!”

But Niall put his hands on his hips. “Oh, so you never acted on these suggestions, Joseph? Just kept them for private, ah, contemplation. Was that it?”

“Actually,” said Stevo, frowning at the letter in his hand, “I don’t think it is Becki’s writing. She used to send me birthday cards. Doesn’t look like hers. What do you think?” He held the letter out to me.

“Not Becki’s writing?” Niall was dumbfounded for a few seconds. “Well, of course it’s Becki’s writing! Who else do you know who dots their i’s like that?”

Stevo shrugged. “Lots of girls, I expect.”

“There’s still an IOU of hers behind the till,” I said. “Sammie kept it.” I reached for it and handed it to Stevo.

“Hey,” said Brendan, peering over his shoulder. “You’re right. The letters don’t match.”

“For Christ’s sake,” said AnneMarie through gritted teeth, “why the hell didn’t you throw them away?”

KK just looked at her.

“Jesus, you really would have, wouldn’t you?” spat AnneMarie. “Just like you said.”

“What would he really have done?” asked Niall eagerly. “What was it he said?”

AnneMarie turned on him. “You want to know who wrote those letters, Niall? I did, you great ignorant daft pillock. They were a joke. They weren’t real. They’re not from Becki, they were from me. I wrote them because I was so annoyed. Because I was so bloody angry.”

Niall was staring, trying to work it out. Then he had to work out how to react.

“Joseph annoyed you? How did he annoy you? Did my brother try it on with you?”

AnneMarie raised her eyes to heaven. KK was silent. Niall had opened his mouth to roar some more, when I decided I’d had enough of this. So I said,

“AnneMarie wanted to buy drugs off KK.”

“Belt up,” hissed AnneMarie, trying to kick me on the ankle. I dodged her.

“She’d bought drugs off Becki previously and she knew KK had taken Becki’s stash so that her parents wouldn’t find out.”

“What the hell?” said Niall, staring.

AnneMarie gave me a furious shove, knocking a mug of tea all over the counter. I escaped through the hatch and held it closed behind me just as Niall had, but on the other side, while I gabbled,

“And AnneMarie wrote those letters to KK to try and bribe him into giving her some of those drugs, because she’s been hooked on tranquillisers ever since Aoife was born.”

“No, she hasn’t,” said Niall.

“Oh, my lord,” breathed Rhoda.

AnneMarie spat at me, “You know nothing about it! It was nothing to do with the drugs!”

“What drugs?” said Niall. She turned on him.

“I wrote those letters because of you! Because I’m sick of seeing you – you – carrying on with other women when you think it’s behind my back, as if I didn’t know, as if I was too blind to even notice, you and that bloody receptionist and what about that Polish au-pair, and I’ve done my best all these years, God knows I’ve tried to turn a blind eye, but there’s a limit and why the hell shouldn’t the mice play while the cat’s away, and get their fucking own back?”

“Oh, bugger,” I said.

KK took the letters from Stevo. “AnneMarie, you didn’t mean what you wrote,” he told her quietly. “You weren’t yourself. That was the drugs talking.”

“You don’t take drugs,” said Niall. He looked dazed.

“If you took any bloody notice of anything that goes on,” cried AnneMarie, “you might have noticed that I’ve been depressed.” Her lip began to tremble.

“Oh, you poor girl,” said Rhoda, pushing past me to get to AnneMarie. “Hell, isn’t it? Niall, people don’t act rationally when they’re depressed.” She put her arms around AnneMarie who began to sob onto her shoulder.

“My wife did not write those letters!” roared Niall. “My wife does not take drugs! My wife is completely faithful!”

“Yes, of course she is,” said Rhoda.

AnneMarie lifted her head. “Which is more than you bloody are,” she shouted.

“Now then,” said Rhoda. “We’ve done all that.”

“I have never been unfaithful!” shouted Niall.

“Don’t give me that! All over Becki you were, you lecherous great ape, and she was no better, like a bloody baboon on heat, didn’t give a damn about my marriage or anyone else’s. And she wasn’t the first. I know why Katya left, I saw you together, and the worst, the bloody worst,” she was shouting again now, “was when I was in hospital and you were shagging that bloody slut Mi–”

KK pushed his box off the table with a crash. Saucepan lids bounced out of it and wheeled around the floor.

“None of this happened!” bellowed Niall. “It’s all in your imagination!”

AnneMarie pulled free of Rhoda and yelled at Niall. “I saw you giving Becki a grope behind the bar! Is it any wonder I’m depressed? When I’ve spent the last month thinking I’m living with a murderer!”

“What the hell are you going on about now?” roared Niall.

“Because she came on too strong for you, didn’t she? And you couldn’t cope. You don’t like it when they get too clingy, do you?”

“It was Frank! They’ve got Frank!” said Niall, waving his arms in the air in exasperation.

“Yes, and lucky for you,” cried AnneMarie, “you great thick dollop of shite!”

“That’s enough,” interrupted Rhoda firmly. “Stop it! That’s quite enough. Calm down and don’t start saying things you might regret.” I thought it was already too late. My fault. I’d set her off. I’d grassed her up.

“Well, he is,” whimpered AnneMarie.

“Be quiet. You too, Niall! Brendan, go and pour AnneMarie a small brandy,” commanded Rhoda. “Then take her into the side room. Niall, you’d better go upstairs and check that tarpaulin. Don’t say a word! Just do it!” She glared at him until he shambled away. “KK, are you going to leave all your stuff on the floor? Pick those up, Stevo. And Lannie, I think you’d better clean up that mess.”

She nodded curtly at the pool of tea on the counter. I pulled a cloth out of the nearest box and began to mop it up. Brendan, looking a bit sick, led AnneMarie into the next room.

“Jesus,” muttered Stevo, “where the hell did all that come from?”

“It’s been coming for a while,” said KK. He sounded knackered.

“Sorry,” I said. “I should have kept my big mouth shut. I feel like I just stepped on a mine.”

“Well, that whole marriage is a minefield,” said KK wearily. “Lannie, you’re using my best shirt to mop up.” I looked at the cloth in my hand, and saw that it had sleeves.

Oh, use it anyway, said Becki, doesn’t matter. I stood still with the shirt in my hand.

Becki would have used it anyway. When did she? When had she?

Becki slicing up a lemon with my knife, that first time she borrowed it. Blood pouring down her thumb.

“Lannie? I’d like my shirt back,” said KK.

Becki seizing up the nearest cloth that came to hand. Careless, like she was about everything. Something dark, big, woven. What the hell was it?

“Jesus,” I said. “That bloody jacket.”

KK took the shirt off me, folded it carefully and laid it back in its box.

“I’ll get a tea-towel,” he said. I barely heard. Charcoal grey, flecked with rusty bits. That jacket. I’d last seen it slung over Nan’s banister, and Grimshaw had asked whose it was.

“Oh no,” I said. “Oh no, no no.”

“Too right,” said KK wearily. “I should never have kept those damn letters. I warned her I’d show them to Niall if she didn’t go and see a doctor. Now I wish I’d bloody done it… Lannie? What’s the matter, Lannie?”

“I’ve got to go,” I said urgently. “I’ve got to ring someone. Where’s my phone?” I felt my pockets. “Bloody hell, I haven’t got my phone!”

“Use mine,” said Stevo. I pushed it away impatiently. It was no use without the number. I made for the door.

“Where you going?”

“What’s up? Lannie?”

I left their voices behind in the wreckage, unanswered. I ran.

 

Chapter Twenty-nine

Frank

 

Sprinting out of the club grounds, I pounded down the road to Fylington main street, half a mile and more to the parish hall. I was terrified that the incident room might have been dismantled. Now that they’d got Frank, they might have packed up and gone…

But the police car was still there. And when I arrived at the front desk, gasping my errand, so was Grimshaw, standing up and leafing through a pile of beige folders. He dropped them on the desk and looked at me.

“Frank’s innocent,” I said, chest heaving. “That blood on his jacket. The one you found in his house. That’s what you arrested him for, isn’t it? I know how it got there.”

“Oh, shit,” said Grimshaw, unprofessionally.

I had to stop and pant before I took a deep breath and tried to get it out in one burst. “The first Saturday I helped out at the rugby club, Becki borrowed my knife to cut up a lemon and cut her thumb instead and it bled all over the place so she picked up the nearest cloth to wipe it with, which was Frank’s jacket which he’d left lying on the bar. I’m sure, I think.”

“What jacket?” said Grimshaw sharply.

“Dark sort of charcoal tweed, a bit scruffy, with little flecks. The one you asked me whose was it, after I got chased, when you came to the house with Ed.”

Grimshaw closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again.

“Interview room,” he said brusquely, and together with a thin, nervous WPC we trooped into a small office labelled Finance Section and sat down amidst the filing cabinets, where I said it all again to a recorder, only slightly more coherently.

There was a brief silence, during which Grimshaw looked totally fed up. “When exactly was this?”

“Early December.” Sighing, he gave me a calendar and I worked out the date, the time, who else I remembered being there.

“I don’t know if any of them saw Becki cut herself,” I said, “but they would have heard her go on about it afterwards. And they would have seen the plaster on her thumb when she served up the food. She put a dinosaur plaster on it.”

“A what?”

“A kid’s one. With little dinosaurs printed on it.” The memory made me want to choke. Becki like a big kid proud of her plaster. And a purse full of illegal drugs.

“I remember Drop-goal commenting on it,” I said, and named a couple of other players whom I recalled being around that afternoon.

“Frank didn’t tell us any of this,” pointed out Grimshaw.

“He didn’t know. He dumped his coat and went off to watch TV. He wouldn’t have picked it up again until he left.”

“Wouldn’t he have got it cleaned since then?”

“The blood wouldn’t show on that fabric,” I said.

“But still.”

I looked at him. Sharp trousers, expensive for a copper, polished shoes, crease free cotton shirt, none of your cheap stuff. “I bet you go to the dry-cleaners every week,” I said. “High maintenance man. I doubt if Frank even knows where a dry-cleaners is.”

“We’ll ask him.”

“So you see,” I insisted, “if the jacket is the evidence you’re going on, it’s worthless.”

“If you’re right,” said Grimshaw tersely. “Which part of the coat did Becki wipe the knife on? And was the sharp or the blunt edge against the fabric?”

I thought hard, trying to visualise that long-ago day. Becki all affable aggression. “Not sure. She wasn’t careful about it. I think she wiped it down one of the front panels, and dabbed her thumb there too. She could well have cut the cloth. Is that what you found?”

He looked tired and annoyed. “Leave the jacket for a moment. Go back to the house in Brocklow. In the back bedroom we also found a handkerchief covered in blood. What can you tell me about that?”

“That’s not Becki’s blood. That’s Dean’s. Frank must have told you about Dean.”

“What did he tell you?”

“That Dean came off his motorbike on the Cat and Fiddle fifteen years ago. He didn’t tell me the details, but Rhoda did. She says Frank’s been mourning him ever since.”

Grimshaw nodded, reluctantly. “Forensics confirmed the blood was old, and not Becki’s. The point is, don’t you think it an odd character trait to keep a blood-stained handkerchief for fifteen years?”

“Not if it’s all you’ve got to remember your friend by.”

“Is that how Frank explained it to you?”

“He didn’t explain it at all. I found the handkerchief.”

“Along with more meaningful mementoes. Why keep the handkerchief?”

“Sentiment,” I said. “He couldn’t bear to throw it away.” Like poor Sammie and that IOU.

Grimshaw leaned forward. “I was struck by the fact that Frank did not appear surprised to be arrested.”

“That’s just his manner. He’s phlegmatic. You don’t have to be indignant to be innocent.”

“Most innocent people are, however.”

“Frank isn’t most people. And he didn’t kill Becki.”

Grimshaw folded his arms and tipped his chair back. I sensed exasperation. “How do you know?”

“I just do.”

“And you’re still equally sure about all other members of the rugby club, are you?”

I was silent.

“Any other revelations you want to tell me while you’re here?”

I shook my head.

“This interview is concluded,” said Grimshaw. He switched off the recorder, scraped back his chair with a squeal, and marched me to the door. Not a happy bunny.

Come to that, neither was I. Although I’d set Frank free, I was slowly realising that I was out of the frying pan and into the fire. Only there were so many smoking fires I didn’t know which was the big one, the real one, the one that had done all the damage.

“Will you let Frank go now?” I asked.

“We will be interviewing a number of people,” he said grimly and emphatically, “yet again. Thank you for your invaluable assistance.” His eyes were stony as he showed me out.

*

“Frank!” exclaimed Rhoda. She hurried to the door to give him a hug. I was learning that Rhoda was a great one for hugging; she just never did it to me.

“They let me out,” said Frank. He looked over at me. I felt like I’d been hit with a brick.

I laid down my rack of lamb. “You will get that damn coat cleaned now, won’t you?”

He scratched his head. “I don’t know. How can I? Maybe I should just not wear it again.”

“For Christ’s sake.” I held up my hands, red with slaughtered lamb. “It’s only blood. It’s not Becki. And you ought to throw away that bloody handkerchief while you’re at it.”

“I only called in to say thank you,” said Frank, startled.

“We knew they’d got the wrong man,” said Rhoda.

“I’m still on bail. No, not bail, but I’m not charged. What’s the word? They want to keep track of where I am. Don’t leave the country sort of thing.”

“And did they treat you all right?”

“Fine, apart from the tea. Dishwater,” said Frank, “and far too much of it. Every half hour, like a Chinese tea torture.”

“I’ll make you a proper cup now,” said Rhoda, beginning to bustle.

“I’d rather have a beer. And I’ll buy Lannie one too, if you can do without her for a bit.”

“Of course we can!” said Rhoda. “In fact, I’ll do better than that. We’ll give you both a meal, on the house. There’s plenty of spare lasagne. Go on, Lannie, we’re not busy and not likely to be! You need to fill Frank in on all the latest hoo-hah at the club. Take the table by the fire. You can come back and wash up later.” She winked at me.

“So what’s the latest hoo-hah?” asked Frank as we sat down.

“Himself and AnneMarie.” I filled him in while Rhoda set our places and brought our lasagne with a flurry of napkins. Brendan was beaming at us as he pulled Frank’s pint. I felt awkward and on display.

Frank looked sombre at my story. “I knew Niall liked to chat up the lasses. I didn’t know it went any further than that. Do you think AnneMarie was telling the truth about other women?”

“In at least one case I’m sure she was. Niall was in shock – well, we all were – but it still took him a long time to get around to denying it.”

“But Niall and Becki,” said Frank thoughtfully. “Do you think they really did?”

“God knows. I know Becki fancied him. And she was all over him at the party – though AnneMarie didn’t seem to mind back then.” Of course, she had to keep Becki sweet if she wanted to get her supplies. And maybe she blamed Niall rather than Becki. “I suppose she might have been making more of it than there really was, to incriminate Niall. She was crazy enough to say anything.”

“She’s fragile,” corrected Frank. I disagreed. Crazy seemed to me to fit the bill. Crazy enough to stick with her self-inflicted martyrdom. Crazy enough to think her husband was a killer.

Maybe I was being unfair. I’d crazy, too, if I were married to Niall – especially if I were a devout Catholic wife with three young kids, who couldn’t contemplate divorce. Maybe she had liked being a martyr at first, but now she was trapped by it. Poor AnneMarie. It had sounded like she’d really thought that Niall might have murdered Becki…

But then Niall had sounded like he’d really thought KK might have done it. Waving those letters. Nothing about the missing money, I realised: that had disappeared into thin air.

“Becki even made a play for me once,” said Frank, investigating his lasagne. “God knows why. She certainly picked her time. I’d just started going out with Sue, and she knew it.”

“What happened?”

“Well, I turned her down as nicely as I could but she tossed her drink over me and told me I was a fucking poofter. Her words, not mine. I got a bit sharper with her than I should have. I had to walk out in the end. She had a downer on me after that.”

“She was over-confident,” I said. “She thought she could have anybody.” Or maybe it was purely habit, another addiction.

“Even Brendan,” said Frank. “He said he’d told you about that.”

“Yes, he did.” I must have sounded severe, because Frank said gently,

“Don’t think the worse of him, Lannie. He was going through hell at the time; he had no idea Rhoda was so sick. He thought she was getting ready to leave. That’s why I let Rhoda know about Becki, so that she’d have to tell Brendan she was ill.”

I stared at him. “What? You shopped Brendan?”

He pulled a wry face. “Yes. That’s fair enough. I didn’t enjoy it, but it seemed the lesser of two evils.”

I could identify with that. “But how did you know Rhoda was sick?”

“I saw her at the doctor’s after I broke my foot. She was crying, so I knew it wasn’t flu. I took her for a coffee and it all came spilling out. But she wouldn’t let me tell Brendan, so I forced her.” Frank sighed. “Becki was breaking them up. I didn’t know what else to do.”

I wanted to take his hand and reassure him. Instead I just said lamely, “You did right.”

“Did I? I could have broken them up properly. It was a hell of a risk. But Brendan managed to patch it up. Don’t think too badly of him.”

“I don’t.” I did of Becki, though. All in a day’s fun for her. I want, I want, grabbing like a greedy child at whatever took her fancy: Frank, Hugh, Brendan. Cackling at Hugh that she’d bewitch him, telling everyone Frank was gay. She was vindictive when she was thwarted. What might she have threatened Brendan with? “Frank?” I said hesitantly. “I think Becki came to the Woolpack, early in November. Alice told me. It sounded as if there was an argument, and Rhoda got upset.”

“Hardly surprising.”

I bit my lip. “The children said Becki was screaming.”

“Aye, well, she had a bit of a temper.”

“Frank? Could Brendan make sure Becki never worked again?”

He frowned at me. “I suppose he could have stopped her job at the club if he felt inclined. He’s got the clout. But why would he? Anyway, what was Becki doing at the Woolpack?”

I shrugged. “Gloating?”

Frank shook his head. “That’s harsh. She wasn’t that ill-natured.”

“Maybe she wanted to pick up the threads of the affair again,” I said. “Maybe she went to meet Brendan, and ran into Rhoda.” Becki would have enjoyed the hold she had over Brendan, I thought. Dealers were like that too. They relished the power to withhold, to torment, to draw their struggling catch after them like a fish on a line until they decided to release it for a few hours. I imagined fierce words flying around the kitchen, Becki taunting, Rhoda shouting, a horrified Brendan saying things he didn’t mean and would immediately regret…

Because Brendan was a kindly man. Nevertheless, a shiver ran down me. I glanced over at him, drying glasses behind the bar, careful and industrious. Rhoda put a hand on his shoulder as she passed him, glanced my way and said something with a smile.

I looked away again quickly and turned back to Frank. “How did you get wind of Brendan’s affair?”

“I guessed. It wasn’t hard, from the way he was acting, all furtive and guilty. Becki would fondle him and whisper in his ear, and Brendan would blush like an apple.”

Poor Brendan. No practice at affairs. Unlike Becki, who had plenty; surely enough to be discreet? But maybe she liked people to notice. Look at me. Look what I can do.

“KK guessed as well,” I said without thinking, and then wished I hadn’t, because I didn’t want to discuss KK with Frank.

But Frank was surprised. “Did he? He never said. Mind you, he wouldn’t, he’s a very private man, KK. But he wouldn’t be happy about Brendan and Becki. He’s got strong morals.” I began to blush like an apple myself at the thought of KK’s morals.

“You’d think Becki could have stuck to single men,” I said to cover my embarrassment. “There was no shortage at the club, after all.”

Frank shook his head. “It was almost like she was preparing for rejection, picking people who had a good reason to turn her down. It meant it wasn’t her fault if they didn’t love her. I think she needed reassurance that she was lovable.”

“Reassurance? Why?”

“I don’t know. You might have to ask her family that.”

“I saw you staring at her father in the funeral.”

“Did I? I was wondering how the good little girl in his speech squared with the real Becki. What he really thought of her.”

“It sounded like he idolised her.”

“It sounded like he didn’t know her,” said Frank. “He didn’t approve of her job at the club. Probably didn’t fit his image of what his daughter ought to be.”

“He certainly ladled it on at the funeral.”

“Aye. Couldn’t just accept her as she was. Maybe that was Becki’s problem: she couldn’t fill her family’s expectations and be a good little girl, so she veered off wildly the other way like a stolen car, and went smash.”

I thought about this, about the two sisters at the funeral, beautiful and dutiful beside their father wrapped tight in his dignity. Becki as an angry, unsuccessful Cinderella who never made it to princess, but was murdered at the ball, sacrificed behind the wheelie bins.

I didn’t know if Frank was right. I didn’t know how she might have felt. I was in no position to judge, having no experience of family expectations. No-one had had any of me, except Karl. He’d expected me to look after him; fight for him; bail him out. Which I had, up to a point. Until I made a point of not doing it. “It’s all speculation. We don’t know any of this for sure,” I said.

“Never will, now.”

“No.” We fell into silence as we ate.

I was remembering Manchester, shopping with Karl. I was seventeen, and we were off to spend my first earnings. Karl only came along so I could buy him new trainers, but I didn’t mind. It felt good to do the brother and sister thing again, after a long interval when he hadn’t wanted to know me. Maybe he hoped people would think I was his girlfriend.

We snook into the posh shops down King Street together, giggling and whispering and being eyed by security guards, until Karl said loudly,

“Come on, Lannie, this is all cheap tat. Let’s go somewhere really classy,” and we fell out of Monsoon together, laughing. Went off to Top Shop instead, where I fell in love with a blouse as blue-grey as the sea which I had never yet seen except at Blackpool in the dark, with a beaded fringe around the hem and sleeves. I lingered and fingered but there was no way I could make my money stretch that far.

So I settled for a T-shirt and was happy until half way down Cross Street Karl said, “Happy Birthday, Lannie.” And he pulled out the beaded blouse from under his jacket. I don’t know how he’d done it. I’d not seen a thing. He held it out to me with a grin as big as the Town Hall.

“Jesus, Karl, you nicked that!”

“So?”

“So I can’t take it!”

His face froze. “Why the fuck not?”

“Because you can’t go nicking things!”

“I can,” said Karl. “I just did. I’m good, aren’t I? Admit it, you never saw me! Anyway, you used to nick stuff too.”

“Not for years now. Bloody hell, Karl, you’d better take it back!”

The grin had switched right off. “I can’t. Don’t be an arsehole. You want it or not?” Without waiting for an answer, he dropped it in the bin at the bus stop and stalked off.

I hesitated, in two minds whether to fish it out again. In the end, I didn’t. By that time, Karl was running down to St Peter’s Square like a kicked whippet. He jumped on a tram and was gone.

He didn’t talk to me for a month afterwards. I wished I’d taken the blouse. It was a gift, for Christ’s sake. I’d not even thanked him. I’d not lived up to expectations.

“Lasagne’s good,” said Frank.

“Is it?” I’d been eating without tasting. I wondered what Karl ate in Strangeways; then made myself bury him again. Like a body in a shallow grave, Karl was always too close to the surface, too easily uncovered: all it took was a word, a scent, and there he was.

I forced myself to focus on lasagne. “It’s not bad. A touch herby, not enough salt. Do you know, I’ve never eaten a proper meal in the Woolpack before. Especially not sitting on my bed. It’s a nice interlude from cooking.”

He put his fork down and looked at me. “You’re not still sleeping on these seats?”

“No, I’m mostly falling off them.”

“You’re still welcome to stay at Nan’s house.”

I shook my head. “I wouldn’t feel safe. Anyway, you and Sue need to get on with doing that up and selling it.”

“Well, that’s but,” said Frank. He cleared his throat and stopped. “How about the Portakabin at the yard? Jake’s gone back to South Africa. We couldn’t persuade him to stay another season.”

“You amaze me.”

“I’m amazed he stuck it out this long,” said Frank, “but the Portakabin’s free.”

“How much is the rent?”

“I told you, it’s free. I owe you for getting me out of jail.”

“You would have got out anyway,” I argued. “You were innocent. You knew that, that’s why you were so calm when they arrested you. You didn’t even look surprised.”

“I was only surprised that it took so long.”

“Well, Grimshaw had only just got hold of your jacket.”

“No. I mean it took fifteen years.”

All the flavour drained out of the lasagne, leaving me with a mouth full of wet flannel. I swallowed.

“What are you saying, Frank? That you should have been arrested for Dean’s death?”

“It always felt like it.”

“But that’s crazy! You couldn’t have stopped it happening! You were behind him when he came off his bike.”

“True,” said Frank, “but I always felt guilty.” His voice was very quiet, matter-of-fact. He took another gulp of beer, put down his glass and twirled it carefully on the beermat.

“The thing is,” he said, “it was the day before it happened.”

“What was?”

Frank took a deep breath. “I went to the pub with him. To several pubs in Bollington, actually. Quite a crawl. Just the two of us. No particular reason, just chatting about this and that.”

“And he got drunk?” Now I thought I understood. Dean had still been under the influence the next day.

“No,” said Frank. “Hang on.” I waited, and after a while he continued, “We were in the Meridian when Dean asked me out of the blue if I’d ever thought what it was like to be gay. Not the sort of conversation we usually had. So I was a bit taken aback and said, no, but I was glad I wasn’t. He asked why, and I made some crack about shirtlifters and don’t turn your back to tie your bootlaces. You know.”

He didn’t look at me. I said “mm” and waited for the rest.

“Well, I didn’t know anyone who was gay,” said Frank. “Not then. I don’t know many now, but it was zero then. And Dean asked me, what if he said he was gay? So I said I’d start watching my back, you know, making a bad joke of it because I was scared of where he was heading.”

“Dean was gay?”

“That’s what he said next. I said, no, you can’t be. I mean, he’d had a girlfriend. They’d only split up three weeks earlier. And she hadn’t been the first.” Frank looked up in appeal. “He had a Kawasaki 900 and he supported Bradford Bulls. So I said bloody hell, Dean, you can’t be gay.”

He picked up his glass and put it down again without drinking. “I didn’t want to hear it. Scared shitless in case he was coming on to me. He wasn’t, of course – he just wanted to tell a mate and he thought I’d be the most approachable. Which I wasn’t. I just kept telling him it was impossible, that he’d got himself confused after his break-up, that he’d think differently when he met someone else. In the end he got up and walked out. Next day he rode straight into the crash barriers on the Cat and Fiddle.”

“He couldn’t have done that on purpose.”

“Couldn’t he? Just like he couldn’t be gay?” Frank shook his head, then ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t know.” He was silent for a moment. “I let him down.”

“You don’t know why he crashed.”

“He was going too fast. He was being reckless. He wasn’t a reckless lad, Dean, not normally. If I couldn’t accept it, who could? He didn’t stand a chance with the rest of his mates. That’s what he must have thought.”

“Not necessarily.”

Frank looked tired. “Whatever.” He began to pick at his food again.

“So you’ve been feeling guilty ever since?”

“I am guilty,” said Frank.

“Did you tell Grimshaw all this?”

“Of course not. He’d have thought I was nuts.”

“You are nuts,” I said.

“Going nuts,” said Frank. “It’s irrevocable, that’s the thing. Makes no difference what I do now, I can’t mend it.”

I said the obvious, soothing thing. “You have to forgive yourself sometime, Frank.”

“Why?”

I thought about this, but couldn’t find an answer. “You just have to live with it, then.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing.”

“Does Sue know all this?”

He took another forkful of lasagne, shook his head. “Not the gay bit.”

“Don’t you think you should tell her?”

“No. She thinks I’m off my head about Dean as it is.”

“But you’ve told me.”

He gave me a sharp look. “Thought you might understand. Because of your brother.”

“Because I betrayed my brother?”

“And how does that make you feel?”

I didn’t need to even think about that one. “Like crap. Guilty. Furious. Sick. Tied up in knots inside.”

He nodded.

“But Dean’s fifteen years in the past,” I said.

“You think you’ll feel any better in fifteen years?”

“Christ, I hope so. It should be all forgotten by then.” But even as I spoke, I felt the weight of knowledge, a cold, hard, heavy burden laid across my back, that I knew I would carry all my life.

Frank looked wistful. “The thing is, I don’t want to forget. That would mean losing Dean altogether. I suppose you’ve had plenty of practice at forgetting, though. You’d need to, with a background like yours,” a remark that made me wonder in a sudden panic how much of my background had leaked through from the garbled story I’d poured out to him in Sue’s neat kitchen. It was all a bit of an exhausted blur. I’d not let slip my mother’s drinking, surely? God, I hoped not… Or my lousy pig of a supposed father trying to climb into my bed, or all the other things I was so ashamed of and usually kept hidden, pushed down deep?

“There’s a load I’d like to forget,” I answered bitterly. “But it lurks round corners and jumps out when I’m not looking.”

He rested his chin on his hand, studying me. “Maybe you shouldn’t try to shut the past away. The good memories are there too, along with the rough stuff.”

“Are they?” I didn’t believe him.

“Caravanning in Wales,” said Frank, “just after me Dad got made redundant. Pootling around rock-pools in a stiff breeze all day, hunting dead crabs and invisible shrimps. Black Rock Sands it was. We bought chips every night, furnace-hot and too much salt. Mum fried eggs to go with them because we couldn’t afford fish. Sand in the bed. Sand everywhere. Went to sleep every night with the radio on low and my head full of shrimps. Woke up every morning listening for the sea. Pure bloody magic.”

I understood then what he meant. “Camping near Hawkshead,” I said. “It rained all week, but I don’t remember the misery, just ice-creams in the café every lunchtime and endless games of cards. The best holiday I ever had.” It was pretty well the only holiday I’d ever had.

“When was that?”

“I was about ten. There was me, Karl, my sister Nicole, and Dave who was Nicole’s father.” Not mine, sadly, but Dave had come round regularly, assuming the mantle of father to us all regardless. “He taught us to play crib for Maltesers. Karl couldn’t add up to 31, so Dave helped him out, and slipped him extra Maltesers while we pretended not to see. We played all week until the tent flooded and we had to pack up and go home. He even got us singing in the car.” I’d felt more like crying.

“Your mother didn’t go?”

“No. Dave took us away to give her a break.” Or to give us a break from her. She was drunk when we got back. I remember that. After one look, Dave took us all down the laundrette and we tried to play crib again while our muddy clothes went round. But it was no fun any more, and we had to go home eventually. “He was a good man, was Dave.”

Quick-speaking, hard-smoking, wiry, canny, rough-fingered and honest; he moved up to Glasgow a year later. He hung on in Manchester as long as he could, until Nicole had left home and was safe. But he couldn’t wait for all of us.

“It only takes one person,” I said, half to myself. “One person makes or breaks you.” For me, Dave had been the one.

And who had been the one for Karl? Who had he looked to? Who had been the one he needed? Had it been me?

“One person,” said Frank quietly, studying his beer, so that I guessed he was thinking about Dean again.

“But you might be starting your own family soon,” I said. “You’ll be getting married. Moving house, all that. Starting a new life.”

“Don’t know about getting married,” said Frank.

Privately, I thought Sue would be down that registry office quicker than a cat in a pantry. Then I was ashamed. So I said, “Sue was very good to me the other day. I never thanked her properly, but she was very kind and helpful.”

“She is,” said Frank. He pushed his knife and fork together and said nothing more. The meal was over.

 

Chapter Thirty

The Last Tea

 

I was cooking up twenty pounds of sausages to go with the mash, for the last time.

I kept telling myself I wouldn’t miss it. There was no need for my insides to ache so. The hotel season was about to start, as the rugby one ended: soon I could head for the Highlands and leave my cares behind. Manchester gangsters wouldn’t follow me up there.

I’d be glad to be gone. I might never learn who Becki’s murderer was; and no matter what Frank said, I would do my best to forget.

Fylington Freddy came trudging in. “Got a spare tea there, petal?” he asked, muffled. He was taller than last time.

“You’re too early.”

“I mean a cup of tea,” said Freddy, struggling to pull his head off with his paws. It was Niall. “Mother of Jesus, it’s hot inside there. Forget the tea, I’ll have a pint.” He seemed more subdued than usual. There was no sign of AnneMarie and the kids. Maybe she’d finally done it, refused to bring them down. Or maybe she’d walked out on Niall at last.

I braced myself to ask. “How’s AnneMarie?”

But Niall said blithely, “Ah, she’ll be down later on. She’s taken the kids shopping. That was hormones the other day, Lannie, I’m sure you understand.” He gave me a hard look that was at odds with his carefree manner.

Making no comment, I went over to the deserted bar and began to pull him a pint. “Score?”

“Losing five-ten. Hugh got a try.”

“Good for him,” I said. “I’m glad he’s back.”

“The girlfriend must have let him off the leash for the last match. He’s having a good game. Nobody else is, the bunch of useless donkeys. And that’s another thing! I told everyone to come down to watch and bring two mates, so where are they all? You tell me! I’ve done my bit.” Niall unpawed his hands and drained half his ale in one go.

“I see Wade Dooley’s shirt is back.”

“The buyer reneged. Won’t buy it without authentication,” said Niall sourly. “He said he thought it was signed, the tight bastard.”

“Could you get it signed?”

“Not by Wade Dooley.” But Niall looked suddenly thoughtful, making me wish I’d kept my mouth shut. When I locked the till and went outside to get away from him, he followed me like a giant eager dog.

“Now how do you think we could get a look at his signature, Lannie? Would they have it on the internet?”

“No,” I said firmly. “And if that shirt disappears again, so will half your team.”

“Ungrateful lot.”

I pretended I hadn’t heard. “Hadn’t you better put your head back on? You don’t want to disappoint the kiddies.”

“Ah, I suppose so.” He ambled away and I joined Bob and Flipper on the touchline.

“Five-fifteen,” said Flipper despondently. “Not with a bang but a whimper.”

“Hugh’s the only one with any bang left in him,” added Bob. Hugh was running and shouting like a demon, while the rest of the team ambled up and down the pitch as if the season had already ended. I guessed Hugh had missed his rugby. Just like he’d missed me, according to Charlotte. Poor Hugh. Granted a last glimpse of freedom by Tamara the Twiglet.

“How’s the portakabin?” asked Flipper.

“Better than the Woolpack,” I said, although it was marginal. I had to share the portakabin with Dottie who didn’t care for being a guard dog but whined at the door every night until I let her in. Then she slept happily through all the noises that kept me awake – car alarms, strange crashes, rattles at the gate – and woke up in the silence, barking at things that weren’t there.

“And how’s Frank?”

“You probably see more of him than I do,” I said. “I leave in the morning when he arrives.”

“But he’s all right, is he?” asked Flipper.

“Frank is unchanged,” I said.

“That won’t please that lass of his. In from the side!” bellowed Bob, making me reel away. “Their bloody number six is all over the ruck. Christ, the fucker’s given them the penalty. Get your glasses on, ref!” he muttered. Bob never swore at the referees, only about them. I watched the opposition fly-half take up a careful straddling stance. A couple of minutes later, when the Fylington forwards had all begun to shout and complain, he kicked the penalty. KK threw his scrum-cap on the ground in disgust.

“Christ, this is dire. And to cap it all, here comes Squirrel Fucking Nutkin,” muttered Bob, as Niall loped towards us, his head tucked under his arm. I had to escape back to the clubhouse again.

Inside I found AnneMarie’s kids, who were watching cartoons and eating crisps, both at maximum volume. The ching of the till told me that AnneMarie had just been helping herself at the bar.

She turned round with a full glass in her hand and a startled expression.

“I put the money in the till,” she said, defiant and guilty.

“Okay, that’s fine. I didn’t really expect to see you here this afternoon.”

“Why not?” She stared at me aggressively. “Just because I said one stupid thing? I wasn’t myself. Come on, I know Niall isn’t a murderer. You know he isn’t. I was just wound up. It was the drugs talking, like Rhoda said.”

“Not hormones, then?”

“What?”

“You still on the drugs?”

“I’m off them. I’m on this.” She held up her double vodka.

“Does Niall know?”

“I don’t need Niall’s permission,” said AnneMarie frostily. “About anything. The great selfish lump.” She took a reckless swig of her vodka. “Anyway, I only said one stupid thing. The rest was all true.”

“Oh, right.” This was getting beyond me. “Which bit was true?”

“All those bitches. I didn’t lie about that. I have children.”

“Sure.”

“He’s an idiot,” said AnneMarie. “He’ll take anyone that looks at him twice. No bloody self-control.”

“Mm.” I felt the urge to escape again, but my job was here. So I got behind the bar and pretended to tidy up.

“They don’t care that he’s a married man. Sluts.”

“Tut,” I said vaguely, rearranging glasses.

“Would you believe,” spat AnneMarie, “that one of those bitches shagged my husband when I was pregnant with Taidhgh. When I was actually in hospital, really ill, I could have died, would you believe?”

“How did you know about her? Did somebody tell you?”

“Nobody needed to tell me,” she hissed. “She used my bloody hairbrush, the bitch. Covered in her hairs. Tissues in the bedroom bin. Her stink all over Niall. She’d always been after him, you should have seen the cow’s eyes she used to make. And that didn’t stop after Taidhgh was born.” She knocked back most of the vodka. My heart sank. I hoped she wasn’t going to collapse on the floor again, not with her kids here. I could refuse to serve her, but she was bound to kick up a fuss.

Something occurred to me. “Hang on,” I said, “the till’s locked. How did you get into it? I’ve got the key in my pocket.”

“What? Oh… I know where KK keeps the spare.” That was more than I did. A dull flush began to suffuse AnneMarie’s face.

“You’d better show me,” I said. “I ought to know too.”

“He hides it under a bottle,” said AnneMarie reluctantly.

“Which one?”

She was slow to answer. “The advocaat. Nobody ever drinks it.”

I turned round and picked up the dusty advocaat bottle. “Surprised it hasn’t scrambled,” I said. “Can I have the key back?”

She handed it over, ill at ease. Leaning my elbows on the bar, I read the yellowed label on the bottle. “Michelle used to drink advocaat,” I said conversationally.

“Who?”

“KK’s wife.”

“I don’t remember what she drank.”

“Until somebody put carpet cleaner in it,” I said.

“That was KK. I told you about that.”

“You did. How sick was she?” I asked.

“Very.” The satisfaction was unmistakable. “He shouldn’t have done it, though,” she added as an afterthought. “It was really nasty of him. Mind you, she deserved it.”

“Yes. It wasn’t KK, though,” I said. “I know who it was.”

She didn’t say anything, just stared at me wide-eyed, until I took a bit of a flier.

“It was you.”

“How dare you! I’ve never heard such a vile thing!” She went all indignant and spluttery. I sat out the splutters, chin propped on my hands, pretending to be unmoved.

“I’m not bothered. It doesn’t matter now,” I told her. “It was years ago, and after all it didn’t do Michelle any harm long term. I expect you just wanted to give her a bit of a fright.”

“She needed teaching a lesson,” said AnneMarie sulkily. “They all did.”

She was off her trolley. I picked up the key and twirled it round in my fingers.

“Well, that’s in the past,” I said. “But AnneMarie, why did you take that money out of the till?”

“What money? What are you talking about?”

“The three hundred pounds that went missing after New Year.”

“That was KK.”

“Niall likes to blame everything on his brother, doesn’t he?”

“KK owes him,” she said defiantly. “For the flat and everything else Niall’s done for him.”

“But it wasn’t KK took the money,” I said. “KK thought it was Becki. Becki thought it was him. You know what? I think it was you. Wasn’t it? Because you knew where the key to the till was. And you needed cash to buy your drugs. After all, you couldn’t ask Niall for money.”

“Shut up!” hissed AnneMarie, glancing fiercely at her children. They were oblivious.

“They can’t hear us over the telly. I’m right, though, aren’t I?”

“I never touched that money!”

“Well, who else knows about the spare key?”

“I have no idea,” said AnneMarie stiffly.

“Who told you where to find it?”

“KK.”

“I doubt that,” I said. “KK’s very jealous of his bar. He didn’t even tell me, and I work here. Shall I ask him?”

“No. It might have been Becki. I forget.”

“You know, AnneMarie, somehow I can’t see Becki giving you free access to the till. After all, you and Becki didn’t get on, did you?”

She gasped. Then she went ape-shit. “What the hell do you mean? Are you accusing me? How dare you? You can just go screw yourself, you – you flat-nosed freak!” Nice one.

“Keep your voice down,” I said. “Thought you didn’t want the kids to hear you. Anyway, what exactly am I accusing you of?”

“Of Becki!”

I spread my hands. “All I asked was who showed you the spare key.”

“It was Niall,” snarled AnneMarie. “And I never took any cash out of the till.”

The emphasis was on the wrong word. It should have been on the any, not on the I.

“Niall,” I repeated. “Of course: he’s the chairman, he’s got access to everything.”

“So he should! He does everything for this club! This club owes Niall a load of money! The time he’s spent, the work he’s put in for next to nothing, building the annexe roof–”

“What, the one that blew off?”

“He never even got paid properly for that! He’s a fool, the hours he puts into this place for no thanks and no reward!”

I drummed my hands on the counter. “So you made sure he got what he was owed?”

“I didn’t take anything,” said AnneMarie. Emphasis on the I again.

“But Niall did?”

“If he had, it would have been no more than he was owed!” Christ, this was a weird relationship. She was ready to shop him and defend him all in one go. Her despised meal-ticket.

“What about the missing whisky?”

“What whisky? Oh, those.” She dismissed them with a flick of her hand. “Christmas presents for Niall’s suppliers. It was only a couple of bottles. Things go missing in pubs and clubs all the time. Don’t tell me you’ve never poured yourself a free drink down the Woolpack!”

“That’s not the same as litres of whisky.”

“It’s nothing compared to what he’s given this bloody money pit of a sodding place. It would have fallen apart without him.” AnneMarie got out a cigarette and lit it, her hands trembling slightly. “You’re not going to tell anyone about this, Lannie.”

“I think maybe the members should know.”

“They don’t need to know anything.”

“Maybe I ought to tell them.”

“Yeah, go ahead. Right up your street, that. Grassing,” said AnneMarie, as though the word tasted bad. “You’re good at that, aren’t you? You’re not telling anyone.”

“Or else?”

AnneMarie leaned towards me. “Or else, you bloody arse-licking snitch,” she said in a low, fast, furious whisper, her face inches from mine, “I’ll write to Strangeways. That’s where your beloved brother is, isn’t it? Or I could just plaster notices down Deansgate saying your little squealer’s living in Fylington, at Taylor’s yard, come and get her one dark night why don’t you?”

“Nobody cares any more,” I said. “It’s old news.”

“No it isn’t. It was on the telly the other day,” said AnneMarie, flashing her teeth in triumph.

“What was?”

“One of them’s just lost his appeal. Wilford Nevis. And they had a picture of your brother. Karl Herron, twenty-two. That’s him, isn’t it?”

“He’s twenty-three now,” I said, but my throat had tightened.

“So they won’t be feeling too happy,” said AnneMarie. “I think you should stay very quiet and get your ugly nose and your fat arse out of here. Out of this club. Right out of this town. Don’t you?”

I couldn’t reply. Doors were banging as the disgruntled spectators marched back in demanding sausages and beer. AnneMarie stubbed out her unsmoked cigarette on the counter next to my thumb, and stalked away to defend her sons’ cartoons against the sports results. I replaced the key under the advocaat bottle, pretending indifference.

But the fear came seething back up, like a saucepan of milk forgotten on the hob and about to boil over. I’d had enough of it: I was going to leave it all behind, escape to Scotland just as soon as I could. My hands were clammy as I went to serve the food.

I’d forgotten to heat up any peas, and Bob grumbled at me.

“Just as well Brendan’s not here to see the bloody third rate cook he’s loaned us! Thought you might have given us something flash for the last match of the season. Where’s our fucking Beouf Bourgignon?”

“I did mustard mash.”

“And cold fucking peas.”

“Sorry, Bob. Did we lose, then?”

“Total bloody dickhead of a ref,” said Bob. “Doesn’t know a scrum from a doughnut.”

“Have an extra sausage.”

Niall, still in his costume, examined the mash on his fork with narrowed eyes. He’d be over in a minute for a word. But then Frank arrived and was immediately surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers and the nosy congratulating him. Nobody thought of congratulating me, until Hugh came over, saying,

“I hear it was your doing, Frank getting off.”

“Yeah. Well, it was obvious he didn’t murder Becki. You never thought he could have, did you?”

“I don’t know,” said Hugh soberly. “I didn’t know what to think. You never really know anybody, do you? You don’t understand what they’re capable of. Everybody’s…” He shook his head. “Opaque. You don’t know what’s happening inside, how churned up they are, how confused and desperate.”

“You’d know if a friend was a murderer.”

“I hope so,” said Hugh. “Charlotte sends her best, and have you thought yet about her offer and moving back to Manchester?”

“I’m not sure if it’s a good idea. Do you think I should?”

“It would be nice,” said Hugh, though with a disappointing lack of effusiveness.

“It’d be better than the Portakabin.”

“The what?” He frowned.

“I’m staying in Frank’s Portakabin in his yard,” I explained. “Before that I was sleeping on the Woolpack’s benches, so it’s a step up.”

“What happened to the house? Frank didn’t kick you out, did he?”

“No, it wasn’t safe to stay. Charlotte never told you?”

“I haven’t really seen much of Charlotte,” he said. “Not to talk properly. Other things took over.” Thanks, Tamara, I thought. Hugh really did look knackered. He had lost weight.

“You didn’t hear about my midnight visitor?” I said. “Somebody followed me home and chased me over the moors. It wasn’t safe to go back to live in the house after that.”

“What? When was this?” asked Hugh, staring.

“About two weeks since. A Sunday night.”

“Christ,” said Hugh. “I think that was me.”

It was my turn to stare. “What do you mean, it was you?”

“I wanted to talk to you, but it was late and I missed you at the pub. They were all locked up. So I drove to the house to try and catch you, but you weren’t in. I even went into the house to try and find you.”

“What?”

“Well, I tried the back door and the lock just gave way. Then I saw you through the window setting off for a walk up the hill. Too fast for me: you were steaming away. I couldn’t catch up. I thought you were just out enjoying the moonlight.”

“Jesus! That was you?”

“Actually, I thought maybe you were trying to avoid me,” said Hugh unhappily. “I shouted. I thought you must have heard me, or at least recognised the car.”

“What colour’s your car?”

“British Racing Green. You’ve been in it, Lannie.” He didn’t sound exasperated, just weary.

“Christ, I didn’t know that was you!”

“But you rang me that evening and invited me over. That was why I called round so late.”

“I had no idea! I thought I was being chased by gangsters!” I was first bemused, then vexed to think that I had slept on the Woolpack bench and was now suffering the Portakabin’s draughts without cause.

And then it hit me, more happily, that I had nothing to worry about after all. Nobody was after me. No midnight gangsters, no murderous player out to get me. I could relax. I’d spent the last fortnight panicking for nothing. Bloody Hugh!

“You daft lummock! Why didn’t you just ring me?” I demanded, torn between annoyance and laughter. “No, don’t tell me. No signal. What did you want to see me for, anyway, Hugh?”

“I wanted to talk to you about something Tamara said.”

I stiffened. “Yes?”

“She’s… Oh, Lord. She said something that… worried me. Well, I was worried already. Then I stopped being worried, then I started worrying again. Christ, I wish I’d never had that bloody fucking party.”

I had never heard Hugh swear before. He was always so polite, with old-fashioned ideas about swearing in front of women. Maybe I didn’t count. Maybe he swore in front of Tamara. Maybe she had driven him to swear.

“So what did she say?”

“I’m not sure. It’s strange, I …I don’t really understand. That’s why I need your help. Not Charlotte, it has to be you. But I… look, Lannie, this is really hard.” He swallowed, rubbed his forehead.

“Have you broken up with Tamara?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know.” He looked like he needed a shoulder to cry on. That’s what I was to him, a shoulder. Damn, he must really love the Twiglet.

“Look,” said Hugh, “I think I need a drink. And somewhere quiet to talk.”

“I’m nearly finished here,” I said. “We’ll go in the side room when you’ve got your drink.” I glanced at the bar. “Could be a while: they’re all busy buying Frank a pint.”

“I suppose I better had too,” said Hugh despondently, and went to join the queue. KK was thumping Frank on the back. They’d be tossing him in a blanket next. All happy and jolly that he wasn’t a murderer.

All happy except AnneMarie. She was doing her best Gorgon impression over by the TV. As soon as Hugh was out of the way, she came back into the kitchen and tried to corner me against the fridge.

“What were you just talking to Hugh about?”

“Nothing to do with you.”

“It had better not be! I meant what I said,” she said vehemently. “You don’t tell anyone about that money, Lannie!”

“If I don’t tell anyone, Niall will keep on nicking,” I said. “That’s the way it works.”

“No, he won’t.”

“He will. Probably still is.” To get rid of her, I picked up the bucket of potato peelings and carried it outside.

AnneMarie wasn’t giving up that easily. She followed me out round the car park to the wheelie-bins.

“He’s not nicking,” she shouted. “He’s taking what’s his! And you’re not telling!”

I upended the bucket into the wheelie bin. Becki’s body was still there, in a drift of potato peelings, every time I took out the rubbish. What a place to leave a ghost.

“That’s up to me,” I said. A group of men was walking from the car park towards us. “Shut up now, there’s people coming. They’ll hear you.”

“It’s you who needs to shut up, Lannie!”

“Bloody hell,” I said. I felt like putting the bucket over her head. “Give it a rest.”

AnneMarie kicked the wheelie bin, an overgrown toddler in a tantrum. She yelled furiously, making the men stare.

“I’m not shutting up until you shut up! You bloody fucking busybody hypocrite, Lannie Herron, you’d better just shut your mouth!”

The men stopped and looked at us. “Don’t worry, love,” said one of them. He wore a beanie hat. Beneath it, his face was narrow and hungry as a rat’s. It was Peel. “We’ll do it for you.” And he pulled a knife.

AnneMarie turned and saw him. She opened her mouth again, but only a croak came out. I didn’t feel capable of making any noise at all.

“Lannie Herron,” he said. His pale eyes were alive with pleasure. “Got a message for you, from Karl, and Wilford and the rest, with all their love. In’t that nice?”

I jumped away from him behind the wheelie bins, and ran for the brambled fence under KK’s window. I wasn’t thinking clearly: even if I’d got over the fence, I’d never have forced a way through those brambles. As it was, they rasped at my clothes and ripped my skin before I felt hands on my shoulders hauling me back. My hair was nearly yanked out, and a pair of arms circled me like tree roots, hard and immovable, pinning both my own arms to my chest.

I kicked backwards as hard as I could. Missed entirely: kicked only air, and was spun round with one of the steely arms pressing now against my throat, so that I had to face Peel and his knife who were standing in front of me. I didn’t bother looking at Peel. His knife had all my attention. Not a plastic job this time: they’d come prepared. It was a hunting knife.

And I could see AnneMarie, her mouth stretched in fear and pain, arms held tight behind her back by a thin guy with a stupid little beard, who was laughing. She wriggled and kicked just as I had tried to do, but with more effect. As her high heel connected with the guy’s shin he gasped and loosened his grip. AnneMarie twisted round to knee him in the balls, and screamed like a banshee.

“Fuck,” said Peel. The knife came for me. So I threw myself on top of him, which neither he nor the man holding me was expecting, and we tumbled over together in a threesome, crashing into a wheelie bin in a jumbled sandwich of wildly threshing limbs and beanie hats. I managed to pull my arms free and punched and kicked and scrambled my way out. Then I tried to push the wheelie bin over on top of them before they could grab me again. The bin swayed but disobligingly refused to fall over and crush them.

Peel was up on his feet and launching himself at me a second time. I don’t quite remember shoving him as I tried to keep the knife away. What I do remember is the ground vibrating as the cavalry arrived.

There were a lot of confused shouts and flying fists. KK was at the head of the pack: he grabbed the man who had grabbed me and smartly head-butted him. He had to lift him up to do it. A second later, Bob had Peel in an armlock and was whispering sweet nothings into his ear – I didn’t see how he got the knife off him, but there it was on the ground, and Peel was shouting “oh shit oh shit” so I guessed his shoulder might be in danger of dislocation.

I sat down against the wheelie bin, since there didn’t seem to be any particular reason why I needed to stand up. I was aware of Flipper with his mouth open and fists bunched like a gentleman boxer, wondering who to hit, and Hugh looking very pale.

Stevo and George had rescued AnneMarie and Stevo was now sitting on one of her assailants. The other, with the nasty little beard, was trying to climb over the fence. He got hauled back by Frank. Clinging to the fence with one hand, he fumbled at his belt with the other, but as his knife came out, Frank hit him. The knife hurtled, spinning and glittering like a circus acrobat, over the barbed wire. Its owner trampolined against the fence and looked like he didn’t fancy getting up again.

Frank dragged him back to his feet nonetheless. “Who’s in charge here?” Just his normal voice. He might have been asking for a bag of chips.

Daft Beard looked across at Peel.

Bob let out a sigh of anticipation. “So what’s it all about, then?”

“Fucking grass,” spat his armful. “That Herron, she’s got what’s coming. Fucking bitch, she put her own brother in jail.”

“And?” said Frank.

“Come to sort her out.”

“Ah, brave boys,” said Stevo. “All this way from home.”

“Mummy’ll be missing you,” said KK. He was leafing through a wallet he’d pulled from his buttee’s pocket. “Barclaycard, James Patterson. Mastercard, Nigel Worth. My, what a lot of names you’ve got. And a student union card. What you studying then? GBH?” The only answer was a groan.

“So what shall we do with them?” asked Stevo.

“I know what I’d do with them.”

“Yeah, well, you’re not allowed, KK.”

“We’ll sue you for assault,” cried the man underneath Stevo.

“We’d better give you good reason, then,” growled Bob. Peel howled.

Niall came round the corner, still dressed as Fylington Freddy but without the head, and waving his phone. “Police are on their way,” he cried, “don’t panic.”

“What took you so bloody long?” screeched AnneMarie.

“I’ve been ringing the police! Someone had to! Just hold them here. Careful there, Stevo. Should we tie them up, do you think?”

“No, I’m fine,” said Stevo. He looked quite comfortable, although his seat was a bit small for him. It let out a moan.

“I’ll just go and find some rope,” said Niall nonetheless. AnneMarie burst into tears. Daft Beard tried to scramble to his feet and run for it until Wayne and Jamesy grabbed him and used him as a chair as well.

“Lannie,” said Bob, looking down at me, “You’re bleeding.”

“Am I? It doesn’t hurt.” I wasn’t aware of being cut. It was only when I put my hand to the shoulder of my polo shirt and brought it away wet and red that I began to feel a bit odd.

“Christ,” said Frank. “He’s stabbed you, the bastard. We’d better get you inside.”

“Just need a few steri-strips.”

“And the rest. Come on.” He and Flipper levered me up from my resting-place against the bin and began to steer me away from the crowd, across the car park.

“I’m fine,” I said. I felt a bit wobbly, that was all; nothing seemed to hurt much. “You’d better see to Hugh.” Hugh was throwing up by the door. “It’s all right, Hugh, I’m fine,” I called out to him. I noticed that my teeth were chattering.

Hugh straightened up, leaning his hands and his forehead against the wall.

“Chicken legs,” he said.

“What?” said Frank. “Christ, Lannie, you’re bleeding all over the place.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and held it to my shoulder.

“Did Niall call an ambulance?” asked Flipper.

“Hugh, are you all right? Flipper, go and get the first aid box out the changing room,” ordered Frank. “And a clean towel, if you can find one.”

Hugh closed his eyes. “Chicken legs,” he muttered. He opened his eyes and said more clearly, “There’s blood on the ground. It’s Baba Yaga.”

“Oh no,” said Frank.

Hugh stared round at me, blinking hard, and then began to talk very fast and low, as if he was afraid of being overheard. “She’s the witch. She’s coming to get me. I can’t see, Lannie, I can see everything, it’s the one with chicken legs, she wants to put me in a cage.”

“It’s all right, Hugh,” I said, bewildered.

“No but Lannie, I can see her. She’s right there! She’s there, Lannie, it’s the witch, she’s the one who puts children in cages, she’s going to cook them alive! You can hear the fire, it’s fizzing and hissing!”

He was shouting now.

“Christ, man, what are you on?” said Flipper.

“I can see her, Lannie!” cried Hugh. His face was contorted with panic. “She wants to kill you. She’s behind you! She’s coming to get us both!”

“She’s not real, Hugh,” I said. “You’re having a bad trip.” I tried to put my hands up on his shoulders and he flinched and knocked them away.

“Get off me! You’re in this too, aren’t you?”

Frank caught Hugh’s wrists. “Steady on,” he said. “Come and sit down, Hugh. Take it easy. The witch can’t hurt us inside.”

“But she wants to kill us! She took the knife!”

Frank merely said, “Then let’s go inside away from her, shall we?”

Hugh stumbled through the door and sank to his knees, elbows resting on the grimy red plush of a stool like a man at prayer. Only it wasn’t a prayer that he was gabbling under his breath.

“She, she, she, she wants to skin me. There’s a house on legs. Chicken legs. It was on fire. I had to. There was blood on the ground. She was a witch, Lannie, she was a witch! It was the one who eats the children! You’ve got to believe me!”

He looked like a man about to be devoured, staring at the jaws of some huge, nameless monster. I put an arm around his shoulders, ignoring the blood seeping through my clothes and the pain that was just starting to kick in. “What did you do, Hugh?”

“No,” said Frank. “Don’t ask him.”

“I don’t know,” said Hugh, his voice almost lost. “I don’t know what I did.”

“It’s just a bad trip,” I said, hugging Hugh. “It’s not real. It’ll go away again.”

“But she keeps coming back,” murmured Hugh. “She keeps coming back with that knife.” He began to cry.

“She’s not real, Hugh. It’s all over. It’s all right.”

I lied. As he sobbed I rocked him in my arms. So many times I’d yearned to do that and never had, till now. Away in the distance I heard the first of the sirens screaming out in pain.

 

Chapter Thirty-one

Hospital

 

In hospital I lost track of time. Lying on a trolley in an alcove of A and E, a halfway house between a corridor and a room, I was gazing at the complex arrangement of curtains around me and trying not to think about Hugh. Frank sat in a plastic chair nearby. We’d been having a flinching, staccato conversation, every observation going ouch as we tried to work things out.

“Fizzing and hissing,” I said. “That was the goose.”

“And chicken legs. The house of Baba Yaga.”

“I don’t know what Baba Yaga is.”

“Old Russian story,” said Frank soberly. “I read it as a child. It gave me nightmares, too. She was a witch who lived in a house on chicken legs. As I remember, children were her favourite food.”

“You had a more cultured childhood than me,” I said. After a while I added, “Becki once told him she was a witch. She said she was going to put a spell on him.”

“And she did.”

After that there seemed nothing more to say, until Grimshaw arrived.

“Not stitched up yet?” He pulled up another plastic chair.

“I’m all done,” I said. “Three cuts, twenty-one stitches. They put me through in record time.” The nurse on the desk had recognised Frank from the last time he’d brought KK in. Apparently she also knew Sue, now on orthopaedic, and had chatted gaily to Frank about soft furnishings as we waited for the doctor. I’d been grateful for the distraction. My shoulder was hurting like buggery by then, but my mouth and brain seemed to have gone numb.

The wounds were bloody but shallow; nothing to worry about, the doctor assured me while she put my shoulder to sleep and stitched me up. She expected to see far worse later on tonight, she added, sighing as she checked her watch. By the time Grimshaw arrived, the anaesthetic was just thinking about wearing off.

“Has the police surgeon been yet?” asked Grimshaw.

“No,” said Frank. “She’s to stay lying down, and not be agitated.” This was a warning.

“I don’t get agitated,” I said.

“Is it painful?” inquired Grimshaw.

“Not quite. They’re going to bring me some paracetamol.”

“Nice of them. Are you up to talking?”

“No,” said Frank.

“Briefly,” cajoled Grimshaw. “AnneMarie’s already made a statement about the men who attacked you. If you can just give us an outline, we can fill in the details later.”

I gave him the outline. It seemed hardly relevant: it wasn’t the struggle by the wheelie bins that set me shaking and my stomach churning, so that I had to reach for the kidney shaped bowl by the bed.

“Steady,” said Frank, and held the bowl for me. Luckily I didn’t need it. Bad enough being prone on a trolley with my big feet sticking up under the blanket, without vomiting in front of Grimshaw as well.

I didn’t want to talk about the next bit. But I knew he had to. So I steeled myself to ask, “What’s happening to Hugh?”

Grimshaw carefully smoothed out the creases in his trousers. He took his time.

“He’s effectively confessed to Becki’s murder; if you can call it a confession. They were waiting for the psychiatrist to arrive when I left.”

“He was having flashbacks,” I said, “from a bad trip.”

“Very bad.”

“Only Hugh doesn’t do drugs,” said Frank.

“He must have on at least one occasion,” said Grimshaw.

I took a deep breath. “In his youth,” I said. “He had a cocaine habit, years ago. He had a rough time, but Charlotte helped him clean up his act. He’d been clean for, oh, five years – until his birthday party.”

“But he says he wasn’t aware of taking anything at the party.”

“It was in Tamara’s drink,” I said. “I’m sure of it. Tamara ordered a Hayley’s comet and Becki made it for her. But Tamara had annoyed her so she spiked it with something.”

“How can you be sure of that?” demanded Grimshaw.

“Because she told me she was putting in some extra ingredients. I thought she just meant fudge sauce and double cream. It looked revolting. But I think Becki put in a tab of LSD, and maybe something else too. Tamara didn’t like it and Hugh drank it.”

Grimshaw looked thunderstruck. “LSD? How the hell do you know? Have you been withholding information from us?”

I shook my head. “I only know Becki had some LSD because I found her purse some time later. It had two tabs in it and some other stuff. Diazepam and E.”

“You should have told us about this! What did you do with it?”

“Yeah, sorry. I flushed the stuff down the toilet.”

“What the hell?”

“Yes, all right, I know.”

Frank stood up. “Don’t shout,” he said. “She’s not to be agitated. Just listen, will you?”

“That’s wilful destruction of evidence,” said Grimshaw, “and where the hell did you find her purse anyway? It wasn’t in the club.”

“Someone had borrowed it,” I said.

“You?”

I shrugged. I hadn’t been able to work out that part of my story while I lay on my trolley. A shrug would have to do, for now.

It infuriated Grimshaw, though. “And did the purse go down the toilet too?”

“I threw it in the wheelie-bin at the club. Might still be there, come to think of it.”

“We’ll have to check. Christ almighty!”

“I didn’t throw everything away, though,” I said. “There was a little packet of powder that I kept.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t know what it was. I thought it might be coke or ketamine, but I couldn’t tell. Whatever it was, Becki might have put it in Tamara’s drink as well. She was really pissed off with Tamara because Tamara had been snooty with her.”

“Snooty? Is that all? asked Grimshaw, incredulous.

“She wanted revenge. She didn’t like being put down,” I said. “And I think she was high herself that night. She wouldn’t have cared.”

“Tox tests found amphetamines in her bloodstream,” he said grimly.

“And Hugh drank Tamara’s drink? The whole lot?” asked Frank.

“Pretty much. You saw him that night. He drank everything he was given.” And Hugh was susceptible to bad trips, I thought. It wasn’t the first one he’d suffered.

“We’ll test your powder. And we’ll talk to Tamara,” said Grimshaw, through gritted teeth.

Frank shook his head disbelievingly. “Can you really murder somebody on a bad trip? Hugh couldn’t truly have done it, could he? I mean, he might imagine he did, but surely…?”

“Some drugs could make a raving maniac out of a judge,” said Grimshaw, “and they’d not remember a thing about it afterwards. I’ve seen someone who tried to cut his own arm off under the influence. He thought it was a snake. He nearly succeeded, as well.”

I swallowed, remembering how Hugh had once accused Charlotte and me of poisoning him, spying on him, giving him the evil eye. The smashed lights and broken glasses in the sleek designer kitchen: the telephone flung through the window. . I’d had the horrible feeling Hugh might have thrown himself out, too, if we hadn’t been there.

But Charlotte had saved him, pulled him back into the daylight. I thought he’d left the nightmares far behind. And now they’d crept back to pounce on him.

“But to not remember anything about it?” persisted Frank.

“Once all that alcohol kicked in, Hugh wouldn’t remember a thing,” I said. “Not until the fight and the blood triggered a major flashback. He already knew something was wrong, though. He looked so unhappy – tired and worried.”

“That’s true,” said Frank, “but then everyone was worried. I thought it was just hitting him harder because it was his party.”

“Me too. And because that’s the sort of guy he was. He cared. Charlotte thought he was depressed, but I should have realised it was more than that. He looked the way he used to look in the coke days: I remember thinking I hadn’t seen him so wretched in years. I wonder how long he’d been having flashbacks?” I felt dreadful. “Oh, hell, that’s what he wanted me for.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think Hugh knew he’d taken something, and he wanted to talk to me about it. It was him who followed me up Brocklow that night. Probably wanted my advice. After all, I’m an expert on bloody drugs, aren’t I?” I said bitterly.

Frank, still holding the kidney bowl, was looking stunned. So sheltered he was, I thought, until his steady gaze reminded me that he knew plenty about disaster if not drugs. “You’re an expert?”

“By proxy. Hugh must have been going out of his mind. Oh, God, has anyone told Charlotte?”

“An officer has gone round to the parents’ house.”

“He’ll need Charlotte.”

“We’ll find her,” said Grimshaw. He checked his watch. “I’ve got to go. We’ll take a full statement when you’re stronger. Where are you living at the moment?”

“The Portakabin at Frank’s yard,” I said.

“In your state? Is that wise?”

“Well, maybe back on the Woolpack’s floor then.”

Frank cleared his throat. “Uh, no, she’ll be at the house in Brocklow.”

Grimshaw looked from me to Frank and back again, and shook his head. “I suppose I’ll find you at one or the other,” he said sceptically, and left.

“Nan’s house?” I asked Frank. “Am I moving back, then?”

“Aren’t you? It was Hugh who scared you out. No reason not to move back in now. And you can’t sleep on a camp bed with those stitches.”

“Well, maybe for a bit.”

“Only one thing,” said Frank. He put the bowl down on the floor at last. He looked embarrassed. I’d never seen Frank embarrassed before. “Any problem if I move back in as well?” I must have gawped, because he quickly added, “Second bedroom. I’ll clear it out.”

“Well, it’s your house. Only won’t you and Sue want the big bedroom? The other’s not really a double.”

“Not Sue. Just me.”

“Just you?”

He sighed. “Sue wasn’t happy about me getting arrested.”

“But you didn’t do anything!”

“That was the trouble. I didn’t protest my innocence loudly enough. She thought that meant I was guilty. It sort of set off an argument,” said Frank, “that started with trust and ended up about Dean.”

“What about Dean?”

“She said Dean had to go.”

“Sue wants you to get rid of the motorbike?”

“She wants me to get rid of the whole lot. Shed the memories. Put Dean behind me and move on. Which I can’t, and wouldn’t choose to if I could. So I’m going instead.”

“Are you sure you’d want me sharing your house, though, Frank?”

“It’s either you or KK, and he’s a big smelly bugger. I’d rather have you. KK can have the Portakabin.”

“He’ll love that.”

“He will. KK’s been looking remarkably relaxed of late,” said Frank thoughtfully. I felt my chest tighten as I wondered what he knew. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share a house with Frank. It was too close. Frank would see right through me to my selfish, angry centre, if he didn’t already. I was scared he wouldn’t like what he saw.

I was rescued from answering by the arrival of the police surgeon, which meant Frank had to retreat. She was a small, furry, vole-like lady who hummed under her breath while she posed me for her camera, saying “Good, good, that’s lovely, just one more,” as if I was a wedding.

After that, Rhoda arrived to take us home. Home, for the moment, meant the Woolpack where she threw Arthur out of his snug and propped me up in it with cushions and a pint of Guinness.

“Medicinal,” said Rhoda. “And you lot can keep out,” she ordered the group of players who had gathered at the bar. They were obedient and muted. Hugh’s guilt had put their capture of four small-time thugs into the shade.

“I can’t believe it,” said Brendan heavily, “Of all people. Hugh wouldn’t hurt a fly. Didn’t even like tackling.”

“And then he’d apologise,” said Frank.

“I can’t believe he did it.”

“It wasn’t Hugh that did it,” corrected Rhoda. “It was the drugs that made him do it, wasn’t it, Lannie?”

“I guess,” I said. I felt very tired. My shoulder was hurting quite badly now, but I knew I shouldn’t take any more paracetamol. “Got any aspirin?”

“I’ll find some,” said Brendan, going off to hunt behind the bar.

“Poor Becki,” said Rhoda. “If she’d known what it would lead to. But it was all just a bit of fun with Becki.”

“Some fun,” I said.

“An escape,” said Frank. “A chance to be herself.”

“I don’t suppose she meant any harm,” said Rhoda, “she just never thought of consequences. Even that time with Brendan, she never thought of consequences. Not at the time. She came round to apologise, you know.”

“Did she? When?”

“Not long before you arrived.” Rhoda gazed at the wall, seeing the past. “She meant well, but she put it badly. She pointed out to me just what a bitch I’d been. She was right, too, but she needn’t have been so abusive about it.”

“Christ.”

“Yes, typical Becki. I lost my temper, Brendan tried to throw her out and it all went pear-shaped. Then Arthur’s dog bit her and she gave him an earful too. But she meant well.”

“A good-time girl,” I said bitterly. Just like Rhoda at that age… only totally different: reckless and profligate where Rhoda was shrewd and loyal.

“She was,” agreed Rhoda. “She just didn’t think. Like when she wrote me that letter. You remember that? It gave me a terrible shock, that, getting a letter from the dead. I know you tried to persuade me it was meant for you, Lannie, but when I thought about it I knew it must have been from Becki.”

“But it can’t have been! It was from…” I was about to protest about the Manchester postmark, when I remembered Becki’s airhead friend wittering on at the funeral. I never said goodbye because she was in Manchester office all that week

Oh, God, Becki, hot-tempered, impulsive Becki. I could just see her stabbing the brief message on a borrowed computer without stopping to think. Without understanding how ill Rhoda was: without admitting she’d done anything wrong in borrowing Rhoda’s husband.

Yet trying, somehow, to put back all the pieces in their right places, not realising the long, long endgame that would follow from one selfish, careless move. Never learning that some choices were irrevocable, that the games she played were not games at all.

“She thought she could do whatever she liked,” I said miserably.

“Never grew up,” said Frank. “Never allowed to.”

I knew he was thinking of her father. But the drugs do that. They don’t let you grow up. They keep you as heedless and demanding as a toddler, caught forever in the moment of the fix.

“It taught me a lesson, though, that letter,” said Rhoda thoughtfully. “She was right in a way. I was making Brendan suffer just to get my own back. There was no need. Life’s too short.”

Bob stuck his head around the door.

“All right, Lannie?”

“Out,” said Rhoda half-heartedly.

“Two minutes,” said Bob, sidling in, more subdued than I’d ever seen him. KK and Stevo followed to offer commiserations, confirm the number and likely longevity of my stitches, and shake their heads over Hugh.

“Poor bugger,” said Bob. “I can’t imagine how he must feel. I would have enjoyed the rumble if it hadn’t been for that.”

“What happened to the four guys?”

“Wheeled off in the wagon. The cops seemed to know a couple of them.”

“Apparently we’ve got a full round of interviews coming up again,” said Stevo. “Club’s out of bounds.”

“Poor old Niall,” I said.

“Aye,” said KK flatly, “he’s steaming. Reckons getting one of his players convicted of murder will finally sound the club’s death knell.”

“Nice to know he’s concerned,” said Frank.

KK grimaced. “Always put himself at the centre of the universe. Too old to grow out of it now.”

“Are you still living with Stevo?” I asked.

“We’re an item,” said Stevo, putting his arm around KK. “He’s a wonderful cook.”

“Frank’s portakabin,” said KK, “if the offer’s still open.” He looked at me.

“Um, yes,” I said.

“I’ll pay you a caretaking fee,” said Frank.

“Bugger off.”

“Time, gentlemen, please!” Rhoda was already shooing them away like a mother hen. As they trooped out, I caught at KK’s arm.

“KK? How’s AnneMarie?”

He paused. “Shaken. Not stirred. She’ll survive.”

“She saved my life,” I said. “You can tell her that. I owe her. I hope Niall’s being nice to her. She needs help.”

“A new husband would be a start,” said KK, “but she seems to have decided she’s stuck with the one she’s got. He’ll make sure she sees a doctor, if that’s what you mean.”

“Yeah… Partly.” This wasn’t the right time to start describing our confrontation in the club, but KK said quietly,

“I know. She’s had a hell of a time. He’s a great guy, my brother. Michelle thought so too. The daft thing is, he actually means well most of the time. He’s just so bloody self-centred he thinks whatever suits him must suit everyone.”

“Even having affairs?”

“Oh, he’d be devastated if AnneMarie left him. He’ll have a couple of weeks of guilty grovelling, but what happens next is up to her. I reckon she’ll stick with him regardless. But I’ll see she gets help.” KK hesitated, then put his hand on my head and bent down to give me a kiss. I saw Rhoda’s eyebrows shoot up as he went out.

“Aye aye,” she said.

“It’s not like that,” I said, though it plainly was, or had been. The trouble was, KK was very lustable after. Whereas Frank: well, I didn’t understand about Frank. I only knew that when he came in the room and looked at me, I felt like I’d just been tackled into touch.

“Now then, have you contacted your family?” Rhoda was back into bustling mode. “Do you want me to ring anyone? Surely your parents ought to know you’ve been hurt?”

“I expect Karl will hear about it. Nobody else needs to.”

“But what about your mother and father?”

I shook my head. “No. Not for twenty-one stitches.”

I could see Rhoda looking at me oddly. “Nobody?”

“The closest family I’ve got,” I said, “is Charlotte. Oh, Christ, poor Charlotte.” I felt my eyes fill up without warning. I’d not shed tears for Hugh, not yet, but the thought of Charlotte’s grief was unbearable. The brother she idolised. The apple of her father’s eye. I began to weep.

“It’s just the shock,” said Rhoda’s voice. “Don’t worry. It’s all over now.”

But it wasn’t. For Becki, it was all over. But for Hugh, and Charlotte, it was just beginning.

 

Chapter Thirty-two

The Silk Road

 

The rain-blurred carriageway was unreeling through the window of Charlotte’s dinky car. I stared at the beating wipers and surreptitiously nursed my arm in its sling, for my shoulder was aching again, and I didn’t want to tell Charlotte.

I was thankful for the burbling of Silk FM, because I could think of nothing to say. Once I’d inquired about Hugh (sectioned and under suicide watch), and her parents (Daddy wished he was dead), to ask further about her family would only be hurtful: to ask how she felt would be foolish; and to make small talk, plain tactless.

Nevertheless, I said again, “I’m sorry, Charlotte.”

“Stop it.” Her lips barely moved. Hands clenched on the wheel.

“What does the psychiatrist say?”

“He spouts jargon over the phone. I suppose we’ll find out more when we meet him.”

“Yes.” The ‘we’ was Charlotte and Daddy. Not me.

“DI Cole said they’d tested the powder you gave them.” Charlotte’s words were slow, reluctant. “It was something with lots of P’s in. PCP, I think. Not common, she said, even in London, very rare around here. Thank God, she said. Have you heard of it?”

“Angel dust,” I said, appalled. Ketamine’s older, nastier, more lethal brother. Angel dust, soft as baby powder, that could turn a man into a tormented machete-wielding monster. The girlfriend’s head in the fridge. My knife in the mud. Blood all over the place; all over Becki’s shirt.

“Apparently it can lead to hallucinations, extreme psychotic reaction and unpredictable violence,” recited Charlotte without expression.

“To say the least,” I said weakly.

“So you’ve heard of it, then?”

“Yes.” And I should have suspected something from Becki’s multiple wounds, the frenzy of violence, the absurdly slaughtered goose: her killing had the hallmarks of drug psychosis, and I’d never noticed. Even knowing Hugh’s history, I’d never made the connection.

“She said PCP is notorious for causing acts of paranoid aggression.”

“I suppose that’s good for his defence.”

“I’d rather there was nothing to defend.”

“No. Sorry.” LSD and angel dust… Christ, Becki, what were you thinking? What were you trying to do to poor Tamara? But maybe you didn’t know what was in that packet. Just a little extra from the dealer…

Becki, though, was silent, as she would always be.

“Tamara was worried,” said Charlotte. “She thought he’d taken drugs, from the erratic way he was behaving. Things he said in his sleep. She suggested he should see a doctor, but he got so distressed that… He wasn’t himself. I saw that too. I knew that. But I was distracted by the shop. And I thought…”

I waited. The sentence never came, but I heard it in my head. She had wondered, had worried, but said nothing; because it couldn’t possibly be Hugh, it couldn’t be her brother.

“Tamara’s been great,” said Charlotte.

We drove past the Bollington turnoff, heading for the dull orange glow that signified Manchester. It might as well have been on fire.

“How’s your shoulder?”

“It’s all right.”

“Will you see Karl?”

“No. I don’t know. I’ll talk to his lawyer. Apparently he knew nothing about the attack at the club. Somebody else arranged it. According to the lawyer.”

“Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” said Charlotte after a while.

“Yes.”

“Do you believe him?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“So you’ll see Karl.”

I swallowed. I did want to see Karl. My little brother, lost in the big prison. I wanted to see if he was all right, which of course he wouldn’t be.

“What about your mother?”

“Eventually,” I said. “I’m not going back there yet.” If I went back home, I would have to see Mikey, and feel guilty about him too.

“Mikey’s been caught shoplifting,” I added, “Karl’s lawyer says.” Mikey would be a hopeless shoplifter. He attracted stares. “He was lucky not to be charged. Only useful thing his statement of special needs has ever done.”

“You’ll see Mikey,” said Charlotte.

“Perhaps.”

“For Christ’s sake, he’s your brother! You’ll see Karl at least.”

“All right,” I said.

We were coming up to Poynton now.

“How will you get back?”

“Train,” I said. “Frank’ll pick me up at Macc.”

She didn’t mention the job in the shop. Or the flat in Chorlton. So I didn’t either. The corner of Staffordshire or Derbyshire, or wherever Brocklow was, would do me for now. It wasn’t Scotland, but it was enough.

“How’s Duncan?”

“Who? I haven’t seen him for a bit,” she said. “Daddy and Jane are going to need me with them for a while. And Mummy’s coming over from Spain.”

I almost said, At least they’ve still got you, and decided against it. I thought of Becki’s parents. Grief doesn’t deal in conditionals.

But if I hadn’t. If I hadn’t.

If I hadn’t asked Hugh to help me find a job. If I hadn’t weakly stayed instead of heading north. If I hadn’t been let myself be lured by the gleaming kitchen at the club. If I hadn’t been so careless with my knife. If I hadn’t left it lying by the mud pie, all unguarded.

If I hadn’t got myself stabbed and set Hugh off on his agonised flashback. If I hadn’t shopped Hugh.

But I hadn’t done that. It only felt as if I had.

I did not speak to Charlotte any more, since nothing I could say would comfort her. Instead I watched the window, and the raindrops that hurtled at the car like a horde of kamikaze flies, splatting on the glass, desperate to reach its cargo of dead meat.

About the Author

Emma Lee Bole is a pseudonym.

The author lived in Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Nottingham and Manchester before settling in the north-west of England, where she writes children’s books and magazine short stories under other names.

Despite being married for many years to a scrum-half, she has never once made the teas.

 


Mud Pie

A tale of rugby, puddings and murder. Ingredients: 1 handful of illegal drugs, 1 twelve-inch chef's knife, 1 blood-stained handkerchief, 6 rugby forwards and half a motorbike. When well stirred by Lannie Herron, a young chef on the run, these make a deadly mixture. One of the players at the rugby club where she's found refuge may be a killer - but which one? .

  • Author: Emma Lee Bole
  • Published: 2015-09-21 11:05:37
  • Words: 102218
Mud Pie Mud Pie