Cover of Deception Deception

1

Dan Murphy watched Bill Taylor stagger across the road and walked on a few steps before also crossing. However much Taylor had drunk that night, it was enough to sufficiently lower his defences. He hadn’t once looked back over his shoulder. But then, maybe he didn’t realise he had a reason to worry. These people always knew they were in trouble but didn’t always know how serious the threat could be. In Taylor’s case, the threat was deadly. That was why Murphy was there.

Murphy followed Taylor onto a quiet residential street, pulled out his baseball bat from under his cheap market-bought jacket, and quickened his pace. The road was quiet. There was no one around. As Taylor approached a darkened alleyway, Murphy shoved him away from the street and took his first swing at the back of Taylor’s head. The complete movement from his shoulder, through to his elbow and wrist felt good.

Taylor was down. His hand clasped the back of his head and a low moaning sound came from his mouth. Careful to avoid the deafening sound of wood splintering on the pavement, Murphy hit him a second time. And a third. With each swing of the bat, cold professionalism got swept away. A welcome return of the thrill settled in. Murphy pummelled Taylor again and again, adrenaline and excitement surging through his body, and escalating with each accurate hit.

Taylor lay still, probably already dead, but Murphy didn’t stop, couldn’t stop. The bat hit the body each time with a dull thud. He loved the sound. It couldn't be replicated in any other way. Nor could the feeling. A manic rush coursed through his veins. For the first time in months, he felt good, really good. The frustration of the past year was released on Taylor’s body with every violent swing. And it felt incredible.

He didn’t stop until his anger was spent. He was sweating and breathing hard. His heart was racing. He could feel himself shaking. This had been his first kill in a year. It gave him a high like no other. He couldn’t afford to hang around any longer though.

With a last look at the battered remains, he took a moment to calm himself before ducking his head down and leaving. If anyone happened to be looking out of their window, Murphy wasn’t going to give them a view of his face.

Three streets away, he was back at the multi-storey car park. His car was hidden at the back, away from the streetlights, on one of the top floors. The place was deserted.

In case they had any blood on them, he stripped off his clothes and shoes, stuffed them into a large bin liner in the boot, and tossed in the bat as well. Then he dressed. The clothes he’d thrown onto the back seat earlier that evening were cold. His heart had slowed, his sweat had evaporated, and he was feeling the chill of November weather, but he couldn’t risk getting any of Taylor’s blood on the inside of his car.

Once behind the wheel, he turned the ignition and took a few deep breaths to calm himself. The air he sucked into his lungs was cold and fresh. His tension eased and his muscles relaxed for the first time in months. It had been a long time since he’d found such a release. He turned the heating on and slowly, with deliberate calm, pulled away from his parking spot.

He broke into a local hospital furnace and dumped the bin liner, staying long enough to watch the fire catch and begin to burn his clothes and the bat. Murphy got back in his car and lit a cigarette. He’d done well.

Another half an hour passed before Murphy returned to Alan Brice’s house and leapt up the creaky wooden stairs two at a time. The house was in a state of disrepair with cheap linoleum flooring, non-matching furniture, a heating system that never seemed to work, and a distinct gurgling sound which Murphy heard whenever a tap was turned on anywhere in the building. Brice’s office was different. The carpets were plush, the matching filing cabinets worked without being kicked, and Brice kept a little electric heater on his side of the desk.

The house’s best features were that it was in the middle of nowhere and had a soundproofed cellar. It suited Brice’s business needs perfectly.

Murphy knocked on the office door before letting himself in. The satisfaction of a job well done combined with the high from earlier had left him in a very good mood, and it was time to pick up his pay.

Brice was sitting behind his desk. Steve Aspinall stood next to him, self-importance and arrogance oozing from every pore of his body, but not even Aspinall’s presence could spoil Murphy’s mood tonight.

“Is it done?” Brice asked.

Murphy nodded.

“Give me the money.”

Shit. Murphy had forgotten to empty Taylor’s wallet and leave it next to the body. It was supposed to look like a mugging.

“You forgot the wallet, didn’t you.” Brice said it as a statement.

Murphy had been caught up in the moment.

Aspinall, the cocky bastard, actually grinned as Brice rested his head in his hands.

“You fucking idiot. I gave you one simple job to do, Danny.”

Murphy scowled. He preferred to be called Murphy or Dan. He was in his late twenties, only about fifteen years younger than Brice, but being called Danny always made him feel like he was twelve. When they’d worked together, Stanton had called him that. It was designed to be a put down, a way of making him feel small. It irritated the hell out of him, and Brice knew it.

“Look, the man’s dead,” Murphy defended, his high gone with that one short exchange. “So, it’ll look like a racial attack instead of a mugging, what does it matter?”

“It will look like a racial attack? Did someone see you?”

Murphy’s jaw clenched, anger tensing every muscle in his body. “No, no one saw me,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’ll go back and see if I can lift the wallet now.” It had been over an hour since he’d left Taylor lying in that alley. There was an excellent chance the body had been discovered already and returning would be risky, but it was a chance Murphy would have to take.

“Where’s the body?”

“Temple Street, in the alley about half way up.”

“Aspinall, you go.”

“No, this was my job.” Murphy stood to block Aspinall’s path and laid a hand on his chest. Aspinall removed it swiftly and pushed him away. Murphy stepped closer, his fists clenched and ready to take a swing.

“Touch me again and I’ll fucking deck you,” Murphy warned.

“Try it, Danny,” Aspinall laughed him off. “I could kill you with my thumb.”

“Aspinall, go!” Brice ordered, effectively ending the confrontation.

Murphy felt cheated out of the opportunity to carry out his threat. He knew Aspinall would never back down from a challenge like that, but so did Brice. They had yet to see which of them would win should they ever actually fight. Aspinall was just over five years his junior and less experienced. But he was similar in size and build, keen, and brutal enough to work for Brice with a smile on his face. Still, Murphy was confident he could take him.

“What about my money?” Murphy said.

“We’ll see what Aspinall says when he gets back.”

Murphy scowled and turned to leave. He didn’t want to have to split his money with Aspinall, but he wasn’t in a strong enough position to be disrespectful to Brice tonight.

“I’ve got something else for you, Danny.” Brice tossed an orange piece of paper across the desk. It fell on the floor and Murphy had to bend down to pick it up. He interpreted it as another slight, intentional or not.

The paper was a missing persons flier from a private detective called Stuart Finlay. Murphy instantly recognised the girl in the photo and felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. He’d thought she was dead. He looked up at Brice.

“Go to Swindon and pick up Finlay,” Brice said, without looking up. He made it sound like an insignificant errand, but they both knew how important this could be. “I want to know who hired him, and whether or not he’s found the girl.”

“She’s dead. She’s got to be.” She couldn't have survived.

Murphy shouldn’t have any personal stake in this, but he did. He’d even looked for her on his own time after the fire. In the end, he’d convinced himself she had to be dead. Someone clearly thought otherwise. Other than Brice, who would the hell would be looking for her? Unless they knew what Murphy knew, it didn’t make sense. And there was no way anyone knew what Murphy knew.

“If you screw this one up, Danny, it’ll be the last job you do for me, ever.”

This was going to be Murphy’s opportunity to redeem himself for the mistake he’d made a year ago. He was being given another chance. Murphy knew how important this was to Brice, but he also knew he could never allow Brice to speak to the girl.

“It might take a while.”

“Don’t even think about coming back without him. I don’t care how long it takes. We’ll manage without you, I’m sure.”

Murphy clenched his jaw. He’d seen that orange piece of paper face down on Brice’s desk for a few days now. Killing Taylor hadn’t been his chance to get back in Brice’s favour as he’d thought. It had been a test. Aspinall may have wormed his way into Brice’s trust over the past six months, but he wouldn’t be able to take someone off the street without being noticed the way Murphy could. Brice needed him. He knew what this was about, knew the history, and knew the girl. He would also know the right questions to ask. His position suddenly seemed a lot stronger.

“Once I get him here, I want to talk to him alone,” he demanded.

Brice looked up.

“And the girl, if he’s found her.” That was the important part. If Brice ever found out what she knew, he’d have Murphy killed. “This is my job and I get to see it through to the end. Alone.”

“Well, I suppose that’s up to you, Danny.” Brice leaned back in his chair. “Get it done and you’ll get the money. Screw it up, and Aspinall will take over.”

Murphy would need to get answers from Finlay quickly. Interrogations would need to be brutal and swift. If he found her, the same would go for the girl.

2

Stuart Finlay shouldered open the door to the pub as he flicked through the slim folder he was holding. Slim wasn’t the word. The file was pathetic, and it was all he had to offer his client.

He took a stool at the far end of the bar and lit up a cigarette.

“Fin, nice tae see ye again. How's the wee wumin?” George, the pub’s landlord, was referring to Gail. He meant it in an affectionate way and Gail normally found it endearing – when she was able to understand him. George’s Scottish brogue was thick, and he spoke quickly. Gail struggled with that and mostly just smiled politely in response to almost anything he said. Fin was sure George had noticed, but he didn’t seem offended by it.

“She’s good, thanks.”

“No’ seen her bonnie eyes in here for a bit,” George said, placing Fin’s usual coke on the bar in front of him.

“She’s been working a lot lately.”

George raised his eyebrows in disapproval. “It’s nae guid for the soul, nair it is.”

“I agree.”

“And that’s nae guid for anythin’ else,” George said, indicating the lit cigarette in Fin’s hand and pushing an ashtray in his direction. “I thought ye’d ga’in up.”

“I have.”

“That’s jist keepin’ yer fingers warm, is it no’?”

Fin smiled. He’d been determined to give up and he had. He considered the odd relapse to be his reward. Although George normally turned a blind eye to the occasional lit cigarette when no one else was around, as one of his closest friends, George had taken it upon himself to help keep Fin on the straight and narrow.

“Whit ur ye da’in here anyway? Ur ye meetin’ somebody?”

Fin nodded. He didn’t say more, and George knew better than to ask. His flat was private, and he never gave out his address. Instead, he met his clients in their offices, at their homes, or in the pub, wherever suited them best.

He rubbed his eyes. He was average looking, with an average height and build, and no accent, which made him hard to describe and hard to remember. That worked in his favour for his job, but he was tired and knew he was looking rough enough to stand out in a crowd at the moment. He’d spent the last two days mostly in his old Ford, watching a woman whose husband had suspected was sleeping around. His suspicions had been confirmed. Of course, they almost always were. Lawyers needed writs served, and companies wanted possible insurance frauds investigated, but the average private person rarely hired a private investigator unless they already had good reason to be suspicious. It was often little more than a question of obtaining the proof for the divorce lawyer and, in this case, Fin had been able to gather plenty of evidence. This woman had slept with three men in the last two days alone.

Fin wanted to report to the husband and then get a few things sorted before his 11am appointment. But the man had reacted badly, so Fin stayed with him until the wife returned to the house. Despite his client’s assurances, Fin wanted to be sure the man wouldn’t get violent when the wife got home. At least there weren’t any kids in the relationship. Fin hated it when kids were involved.

So, he hadn’t made it back to the flat, although, if he were honest, he didn’t have much that was clean and freshly ironed, anyway. His laundry situation was out of control. He had long since given up on trying to balance anything more on top of the laundry basket. Proximity, he had recently decided, was good enough, and proximity, at this point, was anywhere on the bathroom floor. It was a small bathroom. It was also a small flat.

In the end, he’d decided to take some time off to catch up on a few things, and then take a proper holiday somewhere. First, he needed to see this one particular client. Having never liked taking a break with work pending, he’d had nothing more than a long weekend off in the past two years. Aware of this, Fin had been deliberately winding down the number of jobs he took on. He was still doing quick things he could fit in in-between other work, but turning down more and more opportunities. He needed to get away, and all he had left on his plate at the moment were two jobs. Both of them were missing girls, and one of them he hoped to end here and now – and perhaps should never have gotten involved with in the first place.

Geoff Todd had picked up a hitchhiker and, taking pity on her, had offered her dinner and a bed for the night in his home. Todd had woken in the morning to find various items missing and the girl gone. That was his story and he’d stuck to it.

“I have to be honest,” Fin had told him, “the chances of finding her are very slim. You don’t know enough about the girl. There’s little point in hiring me when you’re not likely to get a result.”

“She took things which were valuable, Mr Finlay. Things which belonged to my wife’s family and can’t be replaced.”

“I understand, but she’s probably already sold them on for drugs, booze, or a place to sleep. If you want to give me a list of the missing items, I can try a few pawn shops—”

“Just find her!” A pause and a deliberate attempt made to calm himself followed. “I want you to find her.”

Fin had watched Todd keenly from that point on. Something wasn’t right about this.

“I’m sorry, Mr Todd, but I’d feel as though I’d be taking your money and giving you false hopes.”

“Look, Mr Finlay, you’ve made me aware of the risks and I accept them, but it’s my choice and my money.”

“Take some time. Once you’ve thought it through, I’m sure you’ll see I’m doing the right thing for you.” Fin couldn’t have put it any kinder than that.

“If you don’t take this job, I’ll go somewhere else, hire someone who isn’t as honest, who’ll take my money, and probably won’t even try. You have a good reputation, Mr Finlay. I want you.”

Fin didn’t know how to continue saying the same thing.

“Look, I took this photo of her while she was cuddling Bruno, our dog.” It was a nice photo of a pretty brunette with her arms draped around the family Labrador and a big smile on her face. “Just show it around, see if you can find her.”

So, he’d reluctantly taken the job. Like the man had said, he was aware of the risks, but it was his choice.

With little more than a photo, a physical description, and the name ‘Louise’ – which probably wasn’t her real name anyway – Fin had done all he could. Of course, he hadn’t found the girl.

He needed to know her full name, see her room, talk to her friends, a boyfriend, ex-boyfriends, see where she lived, look through her diary, address book, anything she might have left behind. But he had no chance to do any of that. On top of that, the girl was probably destitute, and few people noticed the homeless. Those who did, weren’t likely to call him. Sure, he’d asked around, canvassed the area faithfully clutching her picture, and followed every useless lead he’d received. But she could well have moved on the very next morning and, having hitchhiked her way into town the night before in Todd’s car, Fin wasn’t surprised to have drawn a blank.

He took another sip of coke as Todd walked in the door and nodded a greeting. Fin nodded back and stubbed out the remains of his cigarette feeling positively angelic for not finishing it.

“Shall we go outside, Mr Finlay?” Todd asked quietly. Fin always introduced himself to clients with his full name and then took their lead on how they should address each other. Most clients preferred to use first names. Todd had always kept it formal.

“Sure.” Fin smiled at George and passed his half-full glass back to him. George raised his bushy eyebrows in response. He didn’t tend to approve of people who didn’t want to stay in his pub.

Todd led them down Drove Road and then turned the corner into Queen’s Park. Todd had insisted they sit outside when they’d first met as well. Fin had accepted this, but he didn’t like it. The first meeting with a client was an important one for him. He used it to see what they drank, how much they drank and how fast. If they met at the client’s house, he could see how comfortable they were in their surroundings, including their own home, and the state of their house. It didn’t make much difference to the job he was given, but it told him a lot about their state of mind. By meeting outside, Todd had robbed him of this.

They didn’t talk until they were sitting on the same bench they’d sat on a month ago, with a full view of the grassy area which constituted the local park. Fin remembered being told about a woman who had been gang raped on one of these benches. Apparently, they’d banged her so hard her spine had broken. She would never walk again. The men responsible had got a measly seven years in jail. The story was possibly an exaggeration, perhaps even a complete fabrication, but if it had been true, Fin could have believed it. What did that say about him?

“How’s it going?” Todd meant the investigation. He always meant the investigation. Fin dealt with his clients through some of the tougher moments of their lives, and some people found it difficult to accept that without trying to make him into a friend. It was an understandable reaction, and Fin handled it as professionally as he could without being unfriendly. But it was a balancing act, and one he wasn’t fond of. It wasn’t a problem he’d had with Todd.

Fin handed over the thin manila folder. “This report details how I’ve spent the last month.”

Todd took the file but didn’t open it.

“I followed the leads I got, but to be honest, there weren’t many. It’s now been a month and the posters I sent out are almost certainly covered by more recent notices. I’m sorry, but the girl is gone.”

Fin could see two teenage boys playing piggy-in-the-middle – ‘Piggy’ apparently appearing in the unwelcome form of a younger, perhaps six-year-old boy. ‘Piggy’ ran giggling between the two boys, reaching for a ball that was being thrown higher, harder, and faster than he could possibly cope with.

“So, what will you do now?” Todd asked.

“There’s nothing left for me to do. As far as I can tell, she’s not in the Swindon area. From here, she could have gone anywhere.”

“But the job isn’t finished until you find her.”

That hadn’t been the deal. “I agreed to take on this job for a month only. I have absolutely no reason to think I’d be any more successful given additional time. Believe me when I tell you that time isn’t the issue. I need more information.”

“Well, there might be something more I can tell you.”

“Go on.” Fin leant forward so that his elbows rested on his knees and his hands dangled between his legs.

“It’s possible she was either going to see, or perhaps had already seen, a Laura Thomas in something-wood, near Bournemouth.”

“Something-wood?” Fin didn’t bother hiding his scepticism. In the last month, Todd had given him nothing, and now he suddenly remembered a name and a town? Something was wrong with that.

Todd nodded and fished around for something in his pocket. He pulled out a scrap of torn paper and handed it to Fin. On it was written: ‘Laura Thomas’ and ‘Bournemouth’. Another word had been written in front of Bournemouth and was separated from it with a comma. It could have been the name of a village or district, but it was along the tear, and all that was readable was the second part of the word, ‘wood.’

“Where did this come from?”

“My wife was hoovering behind the bed Louise had slept in that night, and she found it on the floor.”

Fin had asked to take a look at the room when he was first hired, but Todd had denied his request, worried the intrusion would upset his wife. Fin didn’t think Todd had told his wife he’d hired a private investigator. That was probably why he’d only been given the number to an answering service, rather than a home phone or mobile number. Who used an answering service?

“Might it belong to anyone else in the family? Or perhaps a friend of your daughter’s who slept over one night?”

“No.”

“Mr Todd, it would be better for you to contact a detective in the Bournemouth area.”

“I want you to do it.”

“It’s not something I could do from Swindon. I would need to go down there.”

“Fine.”

Todd wasn’t getting the point. “It would be cheaper for you if you—”

“I don’t want anyone else.”

“Mr Todd—”

“I need to find this girl, Mr Finlay!”

Fin rubbed his eyes and put the scrap of paper in his pocket. For admittedly purely personal reasons, he’d wanted to end this job, not dig himself in deeper.

“I can pay you more money, enough to cover another month.”

Fin thought about the offer. If he gave Todd a figure and Todd agreed, then he’d be committed to the job for at least another week or so, perhaps longer. But then, he’d have the possibility of finishing it, which was admittedly more satisfying than leaving it as it was. This lead was at least promising. Besides, he found Todd’s desperation intriguing. Over the past month, he’d become convinced there was more to this than Todd had disclosed, but he was no closer to determining what the truth was. Todd hadn’t once let anything slip, and his story had never changed. If he was lying about something, he was good at it.

Fin rested his hands on his hips and looked back towards the park. ‘Piggy’ had now realised he was being deliberately excluded from the game. He stood almost still, his chin down and his stomach sticking out, occasionally glancing up to see the ball fly over his head, ever hopeful it would eventually drop low enough for him to catch it. He was sobbing quietly, one hand occasionally reaching his eye and wiping his tears away in that awkward, uncoordinated way children had. As Fin watched, the sobbing gave way to crying and, with one last hopeful glance at the ball as it soared above him, ‘Piggy’ ran to the nearest tree some ten feet away. He sat down with his knees drawn up to his chest and his forehead resting on his forearms. He’d been made to feel small, unimportant, and utterly inadequate. It was a perfect example of how shitty people could be to one another.

“Fine, leave it with me but – and I can’t stress this enough – don’t get your hopes up. It’s been over a month and even if she was once there, there’s a good chance she’ll have moved on and no one will remember her.”

“I’ll leave the money for you at the pub, like before.” Todd handed the manila folder back to Fin.

“That one’s your copy.”

Todd didn’t take it back. He seemed anxious to get away before Fin could change his mind.

“And when you find her, you won’t contact her directly, will you?”

Fin nodded in agreement. Todd had been insistent on that from the beginning. Fin wasn’t to risk scaring her off.

“And you have my number.” He meant the number to his answer service.

Fin nodded again. The holiday would have to wait.

He could be in Bournemouth inside of two hours if he left now. The sooner he got there, the sooner he got it done, and could be off on a plane somewhere hot.

*

Todd left Finlay sitting on the bench and walked quickly away. Thrusting his hands deeply into his pockets, he found the scrap of paper he’d written earlier with Laura Thomas’ name on it and swore quietly to himself. He should have thrown that practise scrap away immediately. He’d decided it didn’t look convincing enough and had written it out again, this time carefully tearing the paper after he’d written the words. What if he’d handed over the wrong piece? Finlay already seemed suspicious about something.

Todd didn’t look back or slow down until he was out of sight of the park. Louise had to be found and quickly, and Todd couldn’t afford to involve anyone else in this. He was taking enough of a risk having hired Finlay, but trying to do it alone hadn’t worked. A year had already passed, and she could have told anyone what she knew in that time. What had she seen that night? Had she seen Annie? He had to find her, find out who she’d told, and silence her. His dick was getting hard just thinking about it. He closed his eyes and willed it away. He’d enjoy himself when he finally got his hands on her, but for now he had to be patient. Patience had never been something he was good at though. Finlay was taking far too long over this.

Todd took a deep breath and tried to calm himself but felt his anger continue to grow. He turned the corner and headed back to the flat he’d rented.

Finlay would find Louise and then he’d die.

There could be no loose ends.

3

Back at his flat, Fin ignored his laptop and started pulling books off his shelves. He didn’t have Internet access at home. George had persuaded him to set up a website, which he’d reluctantly done, but he didn’t have email. Some would call it paranoia. Fin preferred the label ‘cautious.’ He only used his laptop for typing up reports for his clients.

Fin’s road atlas told him there were three something-woods around Bournemouth – Bearwood, Ringwood and Verwood. His collection of telephone directories covered the whole country. The one for Bournemouth gave him a list of eight Laura or L Thomas’s in Ringwood, and another in nearby Verwood. There were none in Bearwood. If she was ex-directory, Fin had no chance in hell of finding her.

He called the East Dorset council offices and found that the electoral register for Verwood was held in their offices in Furze Hill. The New Forest council electoral register covering Ringwood was in Lyndhurst. Both offices closed at a quarter past five.

Stopping at a petrol station on the way, he grabbed a couple of sandwiches and a street map of the area and, despite the traffic, reached Furze Hill just before half past two. The electoral register included all occupants of each house but listed them by street name only, which was why Fin had taken their addresses from the phone book. He looked up L Thomas to find that she was indeed a Laura and she lived with another woman called Katherine Morley. The rolling register, which listed any changes to the electoral register in-between publications, didn’t provide him with any further information on that household.

Next, he headed across to Lyndhurst. He spent an hour flicking through the New Forest council register and found that only two of the eight L Thomas’s in Ringwood were also Laura’s. One Laura lived with Michael, Sean, and Susan Thomas. The other Laura lived alone. No changes for either had been recorded in the rolling register.

Fin walked out of the council offices minutes before it was due to close and decided to visit the Laura who lived alone first. He wanted to talk to everyone in the family of four and didn’t want to have to return later if some of them were out. His best chance was to call by around seven, when they would most likely either be eating their dinner or sitting down to watch prime time TV.

By the time he pulled up outside the living-alone Laura, it was pitch black. The building was actually a small block of six flats, and Laura lived on the ground floor. Fin rang the bell to find no one home. He returned to his car and called the local police station to let them know he would be parked outside the building for a while. It was a courtesy call and served to pre-empt any concerned neighbour who might call in about a suspicious man parked outside a block of flats.

Next, he called George who confirmed that Todd had dropped off the money as promised. Finally, he called Gail and got her machine. She had strict rules about her mobile phone being used purely for work and he respected that. Fin had his own strict rules about not giving out his mobile number except for emergencies. Consequently, only Gail and George had it, and they both knew not to use it. He didn’t want the thing going off if he was with a client or on surveillance.

He left a message letting Gail know where he was and when he hoped to be back in Swindon. He’d invited her over for dinner earlier, but that would have to be postponed. Gail would understand. Besides, if he got this job finished, he could suggest they go away for a while. He pushed his hands back through his hair and wondered if she would be willing to go with him. As it was, it was a compromise. He actually wanted to ask her to move in with him. Technically, as she had a house and he only had his little flat, he was expecting the arrangement would be for him to move in with her. But she hadn’t asked. So, he wasn’t all that confident she would give him a positive response – hence the compromise. They’d been together for two years and they were happy, but something was holding her back. She wouldn’t or couldn’t tell him what.

By six, a man and two women had walked into the block of flats, and the lights had finally come on in the downstairs flat Fin suspected was Laura’s. Cold had long since seeped into the Ford’s interior, and Fin was happy to get out of the car and move his body.

This time, when he tried the bell, a woman’s voice from behind the door asked who he was.

“My name’s Stuart Finlay, I would like to ask you a couple of questions.”

The door opened a crack and an elderly woman peered out at him. The safety chain was on. Fin smiled. It was good she was being cautious, and he wanted to let her know he wasn’t a threat.

“I was wondering if you recognise this woman.” Fin held up the photo in front of him.

She sighed heavily. “Just a minute.”

The door closed. Fin waited. A minute or two later, the woman reappeared wearing some glasses. Fin held up the photo for her to see, but the way she was squinting at it, he wasn’t convinced the glasses were really helping her.

She grumbled to herself and shut the door again. Fin heard the chain come off and this time the door opened wide. She was a short round woman whose rather large breasts seemed to have drooped down to her waist. The flat was sparsely furnished but, on every wall and every surface, were photos lovingly framed of various people at various ages who Fin guessed were her family.

She took the photo from him into the flat, holding it under a nearby lamp. She didn’t invite Fin in, and he didn’t want to intrude.

“I’m meant to use the chain,” she grumbled as she looked at the photo. “My son worries about me.” She peered through the glasses, removed them and then put them back on again.

“It’s good advice,” Fin said.

“It doesn’t help me see a tiny photo a strange man wants me to look at though, does it.” She abandoned the glasses and then hunted out another pair.

The photo was a normal 4x6 size, but Fin decided not to mention that. She took the second set of glasses off and handed the photo back to him.

“Nope, never seen her before.”

Fin thanked her for her help. He waited to hear her re-attach the chain before returning to his car and calling the local police again to let them know he was leaving the neighbourhood.

It was coming up to seven by the time he found his way to the family of Thomas’s on the other side of Ringwood, and it was raining.

A man in his late-teens answered the door. He carried a slightly soiled piece of kitchen towel in his hand and was still chewing a mouthful of food. The young man didn’t recognise the photo. One by one the family came out to have a look only to retreat back into the lounge where Fin could hear a recognisable theme tune coming from the TV. Meanwhile, Fin stayed on the front step, his coat now soaked through, and his hair dripping wet. The family either didn’t care or didn’t notice. Either way, he didn’t get invited in.

By the time he left them to their dinner, he was confident none of them had recognised the girl. The mother, Laura, asked who she was, but it was clearly a question borne of idle curiosity and nothing more.

Now in Verwood, Fin parked outside the last Laura’s house. The curtains were drawn in the downstairs front room, but he could see a sliver of light shine through where the drapes didn’t quite meet. A large jolly-looking woman answered the door. Her hair had been wrapped in a bun on her head but was gradually falling down around her shoulders, and she was holding a rather large tabby cat that was squirming madly. Fin guessed the animal was in no small part responsible for her disarray.

“I’m looking for Laura Thomas.”

“Well, you’ve found her.”

The cat struggled madly.

“I was wondering—”

“Would you like to come in? It’s just that I can’t let the cat out at the moment.” The cat seemed to know its window of opportunity for escape was about to close and struggled more furiously.

Fin closed the door behind him as she released the cat who miaowed crossly before running off into one of the rooms that led from the hallway. Laura let out a big sigh, pushed one of the many errant strands of hair from her face, and led the way into the lounge.

Fin’s clothes were still wet, and he was reluctant to sit in the overstuffed chair she offered. He’d even bothered to sit on newspaper in his old Ford in order to protect the seats. He took off his coat and folded it inside out, before easing himself down onto the edge of the chair. He hoped he wouldn’t pick up too many cat hairs. He pulled the photo of Todd’s missing girl out of his pocket.

“I’m trying to find this girl,” he said, as she took the seat opposite.

Fin handed over the photo and studied her for any subtle changes as he had with all the others. Her smile faltered slightly, and her entire body went rigid. She leaned forward stiffly to accept the photo. Her smile was now fixed in place. She was the right Laura Thomas.

“No, I… I’m sorry, I’ve not seen her before,” she said, trying to pass the picture back. Fin didn’t take it and didn’t attempt to hide his disbelief either. He could tell when someone was lying, it was a talent he had. Besides which, Laura was terrible at it.

“Please look again.” It almost seemed as though she’d been dreading the day someone might confront her like this.

Laura looked at the photo long and hard. Fin couldn’t quite keep track of the mixture of emotions he saw cross her features. Sadness and regret were certainly amongst them.

“No, I’m sorry.” The words got stuck in her throat. She eased the picture back onto the table carefully, as though it might break. This woman should never play poker. “What was your name again?” she asked but Fin just smiled at her. He wasn’t about to give her his name.

Fin left the photo where it lay and stood up to move deeper into the room, striding around as if he owned the place, flicking through books, and fingering items on the roll top desk near the back. He was out to intimidate. He wasn’t sure if he could shake the truth out of her, but he wanted to rattle her a bit.

“Is there anyone else in the house I could ask?”

She stood up and watched him. She looked as though she wanted to stop him, but also wanted to keep her distance. Was she scared of him, or of what his visit might mean?

“No, I live alone.”

Not according to the Electoral Register she didn’t.

He picked up a little statue of a woman.

“Please, put that back.”

“There isn’t a Katherine Morley staying at this address?” he asked, holding on to the statue a little longer. He noticed there was a photo on the table next to where she stood. He wanted a closer look at it.

“Who are you? How do you know that?” The smile was completely gone now.

“I’m a private investigator, and I know you know who the girl in the photo is, Mrs Thomas.” He put the statue back down – deliberately in the wrong place. He didn’t know if it would bother her. “She certainly knows who you are.”

“What?” Her hand went up to her mouth and she paled visibly.

The shelves were filled with a mixture of factual books and paperback novels. The room looked as though it hadn’t been dusted recently, but it was a nice place – feminine, warm, and inviting, with long heavy drapes and a large fireplace.

“I’m sorry, you’re mistaken. I don’t know her.” She walked towards the door as if he should follow her. He didn’t. Instead he moved across the room to where she’d been standing, nearer the photo he wanted to get a proper look at.

“Perhaps I could speak to Miss Morley?” he asked, his hand now resting gently on the picture frame.

“How do you know—?”

“Is she here?” He watched as her eyes anxiously lowered to the photo and then back up to his face.

“She moved to America.” Laura was wringing her hands, still standing near the doorway which led to the hall and, of course, the front door.

“She’s still listed on the Electoral register. But then, you would know that seeing as how you fill in the form each year.”

Laura looked as though she was struggling to come up with a believable reason. Fin didn’t wait to hear it.

“There’s a large fine for giving incorrect information on those forms.”

“I… I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, but I need you to leave now.”

Fin looked at her quizzically.

“I have someone coming over in a few minutes.” It was another lie.

“Who’s this?” Fin picked up the photo. She stepped forward as if to prevent him and then stopped herself. It was too late. He already had the picture in his hand.

“That’s my niece, please—”

“Miss Morley?” he asked. “Where is she again?”

“America, please put that back.”

He picked up the photo of Louise and blatantly compared them. Laura’s hand went to her throat. For some reason, he was making her very nervous.

“Wow! The likeness between these two girls is amazing, don’t you think?” In fact, it was positively striking, but Miss Morley’s pose was different to Louise’s, and it was always hard to be sure with a photograph. He wished he could ask to see more pictures of her but knew that request would be denied.

“Please—”

“They could even be related. Cousins perhaps? Sisters?”

“Please leave.” Her voice was breaking.

“Could I take this?”

“No!” She looked horrified. Fin watched her for a while before putting the frame down, laying it on its back rather than standing it up properly.

“America, you say.”

She nodded, looking terribly sad.

“It’s a big country, could you be more specific?”

Again, she faltered. She was probably desperately trying to think of any American city other than the one Katherine Morley was in.

“Miami.”

“Miami?” He didn’t bother hiding his disbelief.

Laura swallowed hard.

“I’d quite like to show her this photo. Do you have her address?”

“I really don’t want her bothered by all this.”

“Bothered? It’s just a photo, Mrs Thomas.”

“I… I’ve asked you to leave. If you don’t go now, I’ll have to call the police.”

She didn’t take a step towards the phone, however, and Fin thought that odd. Considering how he was behaving, she should have called the police within minutes of him entering the house. What was holding her back?

Fin stood there smiling, almost daring her to do it. She didn’t. Interesting. Deciding not to push it any further, he pocketed Louise’s picture and picked up his coat. He took a last look around as Laura patiently waited for him to leave. As he approached, she moved to the side to let him pass – out of arm’s reach.

The address wouldn’t have been real anyway, and Fin had no intention of going to the States. If he found nothing else, he’d return and see if perseverance would make her open up a little. She seemed like a nice person and he’d been a bit of a bastard to her. But his questions had made her nervous, and he’d needed to push the advantage that gave him. There had to be a reason why she would lie. How did she know Louise?

Fin stroked the stubble on his chin and looked back at the house. He finally had a lead. He waited outside until Laura’s curtains twitched. She was bound to want to watch him leave. Instead, he let her watch him walk to the neighbour’s house. She wasn’t going to like that.

A small elderly woman answered. “Ooh, look May, we’ve got a visitor.”

May came to the door smiling like a little girl. Fin guessed they were both in their eighties, perhaps nineties.

“Hello, what can we do for you, young man?”

“I’m searching for this woman. I was wondering if you know her.”

May took a look through her pale pink glasses while the other woman rushed back in the house to get her own specs.

“Elsie, I think it’s Katie.”

Elsie took the photo into the house so she could get the light on it. “That looks like Katie, May.”

“That’s what I said, I think it’s Katie.”

Elsie handed the photo back. “We think it’s Katie, young man.”

“Katie?” Fin queried. They were lovely women, full of life and energy, but considering the volume at which they both spoke, one or both of them couldn’t hear particularly well.

“That’s right, Laura’s niece. She’s lived next door to us since she was five years old.”

Fin hadn’t expected that. The girl in Todd’s photograph was Katherine Morley? He’d noticed a likeness, but not enough to be convinced that the two women were the same person.

“Does she still live there?” Fin asked.

“No, I’m afraid she moved away. But her aunt’s still there.”

“She moved a few months ago now,” May chimed in. “She was a lovely girl, wasn’t she.”

“A lovely girl,” Elsie agreed. “Of course, once she’d gone, we had to find someone new to walk Daisy.”

“Daisy’s our dog,” May said.

“Do you know where she’s gone?” Fin asked.

“Oh, she’s passed away now. She was getting on even back then, wasn’t she May?”

“Arthritis,” May said. “Riddled with it, she was. Putting her down was the only decent thing to do.”

Fin smiled. “What about Katie, do you know where she’s gone?”

“Oh.” Elsie giggled. “He was asking about Katie, not our Daisy.” She nudged May who giggled as well.

“Oh no, Katie’s fine. We thought you were asking about Daisy. Of course, why we thought you’d be asking about our dog is beyond me.”

“So, do you know where Katie went?” he asked again.

“Well, she went off to University. I remember when she took the exams. She was so proud, wasn’t she Elsie.”

“Oh, she was.”

“And then she met that nice American man.”

“We didn’t see much of her after that.” The women smiled knowingly at each other. It must have been love.

“But she still went off to University, didn’t she?”

“Hmm, we’re still quite sure she went off,” Elsie said uncertainly.

“I’m not sure she was as excited about it as before though.”

“Well, I rather think she liked that young man.”

“We don’t know what happened to him really, do we?”

“No. Poor Katie had quite a lot to deal with that summer.”

“Hmm, quite a lot,” May agreed. “Leaving home, splitting up with her nice young man—”

“It changed her.”

“I mean, she hardly ever went out anymore. Kept herself to herself. We hardly saw her at all really, and she used to be so outgoing, didn’t she.”

“Heartbroken, I think she was.”

“Lost a little weight too.”

“Not that she could spare it.”

“No, she couldn’t really spare it, could she?”

They both shook their heads and smiled sadly.

“Do you know which University?” Fin asked.

“Oh, I think it was Kent. Wasn’t it Kent, Elsie?”

“I think it was Kent. I couldn’t be sure, but I remember her mentioning the course she wanted to do. She showed us the prospectus. Beautiful campus it is, based in Canterbury. Do you remember, that afternoon she came over and we had lemonade?”

“No, it was orange juice.”

“Not that afternoon, the other one, the one when we had lemonade.”

So, Laura had lied about that as well. Of course, Elsie and May could be mistaken, but Fin didn’t think so. Apart from anything, he’d noticed a brochure for the University of Kent among Laura’s magazines.

“I wonder how she’s getting on,” the ladies continued.

“She doesn’t come back much, does she?”

“Well, it’s only her first year. She’s probably off enjoying herself,” May said with a smile and a wink.

“I would have thought she’d have come back more often though.”

“They were always so close. Laura’s her aunt, you know.”

Fin nodded.

“They get on so well.”

“She’s a good girl, isn’t she May?”

“Ever such a pleasant girl.”

Fin smiled and said his good-byes. He envisaged one of three possible scenarios. It was possible Louise was just someone Laura had met somehow and would rather forget. That would explain why seeing the photo had shaken her up. Perhaps Louise had stolen from her too. The only reason why she might lie about that depended on what was stolen.

Alternatively, the photo Fin had seen at Laura’s house was Louise and not Katherine. And Elsie and May were right in identifying Katherine from the photo Todd had given him. Honestly, Fin didn’t believe this option held much credibility. It was clear Laura hadn’t lied when she’d told him the photo was her niece. Also, the similarities between the two girl’s appearances would account for Elsie and May thinking the girl in Todd’s photo was actually Katherine Morley. Fin wasn’t so optimistic as to rely on their eyesight – particularly as they both had identical pairs of pink-framed glasses. Mixing them up wouldn’t be difficult.

The final option was that Katherine Morley was somehow related to Louise. The similarities between the two girls were indisputable.

Either way, he seriously doubted that Katherine Morley had moved to America. But that wasn’t all Laura had lied about.

The least he could do was go to Kent, hope to find Katherine, and see if she could tell him something more about the girl in Todd’s photo. He could canvass the campus or even try another poster campaign targeting Canterbury. At least he had a direction to go in.

As he reached his car, he turned back to Laura’s house and gave her a smile and a wave in case she was watching. He couldn’t see her, but he was willing to bet she would be watching out for him. She would want to see him leave – and he wanted her to know he was going home happy. He was rewarded with a nervous twitch of the living room curtains although the room, and in fact the rest of the house, was now dark. She seemed to be a genuinely nice person, but if he had to come back, she would be expecting it and would be more composed. Anything he could do to unnerve her now could only give him an advantage next time he came by. It didn’t mean he felt good about his behaviour towards her though. As a general rule, he tried not to be a complete and utter shit.

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© Jacqueline Chandler 2019
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