A Cunning Foretold
McKenzie puts the interference down to the heat. It’s been a constant 30 degrees three days running, after all, leaving but a thin thread of drowsy logic to suture together a world of loose shimmering impressions. Unsurprisingly, then, when all he hears phoning his daughter is a hum, undercut with a scraping noise, he’s ready with an excuse or two: a firewall in the press office, a cheap phone, the cut of fierce coastal air. He settles, though, for interference; a fact on which he can hang everything else.
“Interference.” He mutters the word – the granite fact - under his breath, masked by his change of gear, surprised by how dry his throat feels. At the same time endeavouring to ignore the look his wife is giving him as he pockets the phone, but he’s ready for her question, anyway. He always is.
“She’s still not there then – your girl?”
Thinks: Not our girl, but your girl, when his wife deems things are not as expected. “A bad line,” he says, speaking up – as far as he's willing to push it - squinting up to the sky through smeared spectacles, and praying for rain. A quick release, he hopes. That’s all anyone can ask for. “It’s nothing really. I’ll phone from the cottage.”
McKenzie only senses his wife’s glare - a mind's eye view while he watches the empty road – his hyperactive mind visualising the look behind her reproach, which, with some irony, is germinated in a raw vulnerability he knows he brings out in her: lips pursed, thin eyebrows a jagged ridge, hair dragged back with a few strands framing sallow cheeks. Knows what people mean when they half-joke about their resemblance to “that nice Gothic couple in the famous painting.” Bar the pitchfork.
They’re about a mile out. The first dip is the clue, and it jolts him into remembering the place; other reminders tumbling forth after that: the patchwork of scorched countryside and estate, where his career took off but his integrity flat-lined; a red-crested kite overhead; the swatch of long grasses: tempestuous hot gusts wandering the mile like lost orphans...
The Keep: wasn’t that the name the residents gave the place? Ah, and the residents themselves, he thinks. Renowned for vanishing en masse behind secluded bluff-backed farmhouses and ivy draped mansions. Some doing so for good; others for a wound-licking duration, waiting for the media to reposition, to re-target. "Keep for Keep’s Sake," that other phrase they use to prove their actions: half a call for secrecy, half the warding off of bad luck. Either way, suited to their solipsistic turn - honouring the sense of battles fought, of trench warfare. What does it mean, then, he wonders, that their own daughter should decide to make a home no more than a stone’s throw from its reach? What battles did she have in mind? And which term ought he to have ready for her?
“The lack of signs is unbelievable ,” Elaine complains, interrupting his thoughts. She shakes her head looking around her, the slivering noise of her jacket briefly recalling his call. “They’re afraid of something. Afraid of what, though, that’s the real question wants answering...”
McKenzie shrugs, understanding it’s a view - the reason for The Chronicle's continued survival. And, as a result, why Sarah felt obliged to up sticks and move two hundred miles south, her and Simon both…
He recalls protesting at the time: “I never felt the need being within spitting distance of the place.” Miscalculating, as per...
“I don’t exactly have that luxury, though, do I?” Sarah had told him, told them both actually, seated out on the veranda of their Chester home. A good impression of her mother's glower, ably assisted by storm clouds overhead. Clouds that had promised much, but evaporated almost as soon as you noticed them. And it mattered, McKenzie thinks, recalling muddled thoughts and a mopped brow: too humid to offer his daughter a decent response, to convince her to do otherwise. “Chris criticises my hours and now there’s his new woman. What if he demands more than visiting rights this time?”
A question for which neither he nor Elaine having had an effective answer because, after all, it would be a nightmare he had forged himself. His fault The Chronicle had taken Sarah on in the first place, his fault her workload related to his own spurious legacy at the newspaper. His fault that one day they might find themselves deprived of their only grandson.
His fault: all of it.
A sharp sense of regret for not getting out sooner is punctuated by the vertiginous queasiness of having reached the summit . And yet, as they enter into a controlled descent, he reminds himself that early retirement had never been a serious option. The unexpected bills and prolonged recession turning the logic of deferment into a kind of torture. Only finally when it had all begun to feel like home, when the celebs and politicos had joked he was “one of them now,” had he bid a hasty retreat - ran, to coin a phrase, a country mile.
“It’s the next left, according to this...” Elaine nods to an intersection half a mile off, as they bank.
The road east runs toward Battle, then Crowhurst; west into impenetrable woodland - a series of woods, in fact - Hurst Woods, Rock Woods, Coghurst Woods, to name but a few. Some properties among the oak and sycamore, a few roads trailing off into nowhere. He returns the nod. “Half remember,” he admits. “Besides, she explained the turning off well enough,” hoping this simple statement of their daughter's known pedantry will soften his wife’s anticipation and calm her nerves. He smiles. “And that grandson of ours…screaming his head off with all the excitement, I shouldn’t wonder.”
A quarter of a mile along the leafy enclosure, he takes a right - the cottage looming into view, its ramshackle white brick walls softened by late afternoon, early evening: a curious mix of mauve and green daubs setting it apart from an overgrowth of ferns, trees and mulch. Starved of energy and habitation, with different pitches to the roof and a small warped atrium, the property appears as though it might be struggling out of the abyss of its own shadow – listing slightly from the uneven wheel-rutted track to its left, before coiling back up to the road.
Drawing to a halt and applying the hand brake, McKenzie rests in the silence, waiting for Elaine to make the first move. His wife in no rush, however; folding the map with slow deliberation as she peers along the windows for signs of life.
While he waits, McKenzie counts the repairs needed over the long weekend ahead; things Sarah hasn’t gotten round to: the loose tiles on the roof, the broken drain pipe, weeds clinging to the side-door of the mould-covered conservatory. Things Chris and his solicitor will point out as being somehow illustrative of Sarah’s neglectful behaviour. How might she look after Simon when she can’t even keep house?
“She might have said she’d be late,” Elaine complains. Something holding her back, he considers - some unease within her.
“It’ll be open,” McKenzie reasons, hoping to goad her on, but she remains where she is. Gently, he reaches over, unbuckling their belts, and then opening the door. The air sour and cool, clotted with damp and vegetation.
No SUV, he notes, climbing out of the Skoda, and walking up the track. Occasionally, his daughter parks at the rear of the cottage - video-cam footage tells him that - two of Simon’s birthdays since she’d moved in. Now, though, he discovers nothing but ruts of mud thrown up to the stucco - signs of a life grown hectic and uncertain, of deadlines on a knife-edge.
He knows the shop she’s probably run an errand to, having more than once stopped off on the way himself. Some snack required to get him through the spate of interviews, the small local a beacon of parochial hope on the furthest edge of the wood. A point of convenience for the real workforce of the area. A ten minute drive at most, McKenzie reckons, dodging the day-time joggers: familiar TV favourites, faces turned puce with effort, otherwise botoxed into an identical expression of open enquiry. Easy to be cynical, but the work had been more straightforward then: those interviewed game in return for a decent spread, politicians asking for him personally…
Sarah faces two obstacles he hadn’t: Leveson - albeit snaggletoothed at best - and Chris.
“Loose drainpipe, broken lock on the bunker…” He speaks into his personal recorder; the one piece of technology he was never without. Meant for the memoir – his journalistic career, so-called – but, as his memory fades with the years, indispensable generally. “Consider paintwork for the window frames,” he adds, peeling at some dried emulsion.
A click of the door tells him Elaine had entered with her own key, the wan, diffused light penetrating through the mottled glass of the conservatory. It’s all he can see – that and the dull milky presence of a rising moon in the corner of an upper pane, even before the blood-orange sun had set in the west. No knock. Elaine wouldn’t listen to reason. Her arms full of soft toys, anyway.
“Drain full of leaves…”
A snap of a branch leads him to glance over his shoulder, startled when, looking back, he catches sight of his grandson peering down from the window above him. Wearing the green striped ‘jams Elaine gave him on his last visit north, sucking at his thumb. McKenzie smiles broadly, lifting a hand in greeting, but Simon has already disappeared, like a ghost, back into the dark recess of the room…
“Karl,” his wife calls out to him. He stiffens with unease, without knowing why, trudging back around the house to find her in the kitchen. Her fingers pressed to the door of the range. “It’s cold,” she protests, tension racking her voice. “It’s cold, and it’s eight.”
He purses his lips, sinking his hands into the back pockets of his jeans, giving a shrug. “So the babysitter left early,” he reasons, looking around.
“Which means Sarah would have called and called us, too. You know what she's like.” Elaine shakes her head, jaw slack. The old anxiety returning to her. Always three of us in this marriage, he thinks, looking at her. “The babysitter had her meal...” Lifting a hand, she takes a look behind her, as though thinking she might have missed someone. "Then she left.”
“Deadlines," McKenzie mutters, with a jut of his jaw. "Fake news. What the hell...” He sighs, removing his pebble-framed glasses and a handkerchief, rubbing at each lens in turn. “Maybe she prefers it that way, now,” he adds, his brow furrowed. “We don’t know how she lives here, Ebee.” He tosses his head. “Anyway, I just saw Simon at the window. Why not go and say hello?”
Elaine walks past him, back into the living room, dropping off a monkey and a frog – suited to the amorphous green fold of a sofa they’d once owned themselves. How old must it be now? He smiles, remembering a heavily pregnant Sarah at its centre, fretting for having missed out on a scoop. Elaine castigating them both for squabbling over how an article ought to be written. His daughter, endlessly critical of the work he’d done in his day...No less so than the last article he'd written: his focus on Dorson, less the dark money angle… His smile fades, and he shakes the memory off, only to note an old edition of The Chronicle edging out from the sofa’s skirting, the pages yellow and stained - the one featuring that very interview - the one with John Flint MP. The Right Hon, no less. The second Frost/Nixon, The Chronicle had billed it as. The thing he’d never known: who was meant to be Frost, who Nixon?
I don’t know what you mean by this Leaden Foundation. Northern Irish, aren't they? As for Keith Dorson, strange how his name always pops up during the full flow of Remoaner baddiage. Something the liberal press just love picking over when the other complaints take a nosedive - never mind the real concerns the majority have voiced over the health of our country, and who should inform its policies. I try not to take it all so seriously, so personally, these vicious attacks. Devilishly difficult, though, Karl, I must say...
McKenzie gives a slight involuntary shake of the head. Over a year now, he thinks; dark money fallen back below the parapet...time enough to forget, surely, to forgive even, even if…
But, no. He won't go there.
“Can you call her?” Elaine calls out, peering down between banisters. “Find out where she is, your girl, for God’s sake."
He nods, taking out his mobile. Thinks to record his daughter’s voice, too - to offer reassurance to his wife. She doesn’t seem to listen when he speaks these days. Pressing simultaneously the speed dial, speaker and recorder, the line picking up after ten seconds... surprised by the timorousness in his own voice, as though the dread of his wife had finally rubbed off on him.
“Hello, Sarah?” he asks.
At first, he thinks he’s through, but it’s only interference once again, along with a sort of breeze and crackle, like a camp fire. An irregular base note cuts in, takes over. He speaks again, a little louder, just not enough to alert Elaine. “Sarah?” Then pauses. A few seconds, or many, pass, he isn’t sure which, but enough of a duration to become attuned to the individual sounds: the breaking of twigs underfoot, the wind through branches...
And breathing...he's sure...a man’s ragged breath as he struggles under some weight.
“Hello?” McKenzie's throat is burning, his voice having risen in both tone and octave. Burning like Hell. Has he misdialled?
The breathing continues, but no voice answers his enquiry. Breathing that sounds intimate, familiar somehow. Conjuring up the tension of prying questions...
After a couple of seconds, a few keys are pressed, as though the person down the line is unfamiliar with the phone.
Then the line goes dead.
McKenzie tries again, then again, and again, but all dialling has ceased to connect.
Taking the narrow country route into St Helens, a mile outside his destination, DS Mark Rucker had begun thinking over Dean Wright’s poker evening, and - bar one brief interlude, exchanging one CD for another - had thought of little else. Wright, he reminded himself, who, having braved the trials and light-shows of the A21 at Tonbridge, whilst nursing the synaptic tailback of a five am hang-over, had still arrived at his desk on time that morning, wanting answers: his first foray into one of Kay Hooper’s infamous after-hours sessions at The Gateway, and already £100 up. "Just what have I been missing out on all these months?"
DC Don Livermore, never having been one for the rhetorical phrase, had perched himself on the edge of Wright's desk and peered down at him through spectacles balanced on the end of a beak-like nose. With only the back set of overheads switched on, and most of the light glaring up from Wright's PC and the kitchen unit behind it, where Rucker had settled himself, Livermore's eyes had seemed as bright as an evangelist who might still recall his own salvation. “There are the exotic fusion meals prepared by Kay’s husband, a semi-celebrity chef,” he’d intoned wistfully, “exotic and possibly endangered species, which bring in all sorts..." Had the weight he'd given to this phrase accompanied a glance over Wright's faded saltire tattoo, the red hair stubble? Rucker couldn't swear to it, but it wouldn't have been the first time if it had. "The dark cabaret, of course: a motorway pile-up would give you fewer nightmares... followed by the games you’d know about...”
There’d been more: Livermore nothing if not a custodian of useless and superfluous information. Rucker had known about half of it - it wasn’t really his kind of thing - but listening in, he'd become interested in how much he’d absorbed about his colleagues during the twelve months he’d been there; how many alterations he'd still needed to make even so. Wondering if it was the usual routine for someone new to his environment, or if trust issues would remain his constant companion going forward.
Now, as the two vehicles - one black Corsa, one silver Pajero - entered St Helens Park, he'd found himself going over the same list of details, with noted revisions. Livermore hadn’t known, or wanted to know, about the archived hoard of surveillance tapes, for instance: that particular nugget of information courtesy of Simon Dent, the desk inspector. “From the Stone Age of the '90s: who the hell’s going to care now?” Dent had asked him the week before, stuffing his mouth full of fried white bread, as he’d leant back from the canteen table. Rucker, the friendly ear to professional misconduct these days – tapes and session activities alike - but offering nothing in return, as he’d cast a wary glance across the room. He'd immediately downgraded the alleged Fright Fest Livermore mentioned: a more reliable source suggesting Suspense Fest just about covered it ("the audience might have taken the fear-factor up a notch or two, mind," DI Stone had added candidly, having approached him and DC Hall in The Rose - a police pub with habitual phone-focus and very little eye-contact. "Though I'll mention no names.") Finally, adding the alternative comedian: alternative in that the act in question was lawsuit-traditional, bluer than the Virginian mountains and “ugly in the good/bad scenario: best overlooked." Rucker’s interest: who had laughed at which jokes? Not that he’d think of asking.
The “definitive of the definitive,” then; the idea of the session changing subtly in his mind. His idea of colleagues, too, for that matter, which was the point, really. Only he’d thought the same a while back, armed with less information, and different views...about other colleagues, other episodes, placing its consideration on the back-burner in favour of other lists, other concerns. None of which had proven as satisfactory as he might have wished in clearing his head of the same niggling doubts.
The same marque of car, after all, the same colour...
As he slowed to enter the field, he glimpsed the coroner shaking her head at him, however, reading his mind: Pamela Salmon's untidy bunched blonde hair catching the early break of dawn. Rucker felt the bite of disappointment, yes, but also a vile relief, despite himself. It was the journalist, then: the headliner. Sarah Holland. Leading something in his mind to shift gears...
Without waiting for DC Hall to arrive - the silver Pajero having fallen out of sight around the chicane of dense oaks - he allowed the locus officer to guide him through the open gate, onto a strip of rugged farm land, parking between the white VW and Salmon's green Honda.
"I would say it was probably her,” the coroner said, coming over to greet him, dressed in white, carrying coveralls and a small black shoulder bag. "There's a driver's licence. That might mean a ton of press, by the way."
Rucker nodded, signing his attendance and stepping away from the car. "Already seen," he said, eyes slipping beyond the coroner’s tall, lean figure to the maroon Explorer parked at the foot of the trees; a coat sleeve flapping from its open rear door thanks to the slightest of breezes, a blue-tinged come-hither under the rising light. "But that's why they pay Hodges the big bucks. Pre-breakfast, I don't have the stomach for it."
He took the paper boot wraps and gloves offered to him.
"Be'ave," the coroner remarked with a smile, as he dressed. A fellow northerner, who’d moved down from Bradford fifteen years previously, Salmon’s accent only occasionally reared, usually in humour, unlike his own, as strong as it had been months before when he’d moved from Stretford. "Inspector's getting his money's worth, any road. More circus than Billy Smart's."
"Quite a few clowns, too, I noticed."
"Speaking of which,” Salmon added, looking around her, “where is the lovely Livermore?"
He returned a smile of his own, feeling the weight in heavy jowls, envying Salmon who, if anything, had lost weight during her holiday. A stride ahead of him, too, turning and leading the way, but the sound of rooks both in the oaks and scraping over the SUV’s roof distracting him.
"Welcome back, by the way. Côte d'Azur, wasn't it?"
"Felt like a busman's holiday," Salmon remarked, "the amount of tourists dropping from heat stroke. People kept saying "out of my comfort zone," meaning away from the guest house's air con."
"Guest house?" Rucker raised his eyebrows at her. "I might have expected a pension or villa somewhere."
"The price we pay for our impulses, wouldn't you say, Detective Inspector?”
The sun, having risen a little left of the faint outline of the Castle twenty minutes before, had only just made the sloping common in the last five; the deep greens of ancient woodland translucent blue beneath a patina of honeycombed mist.
It was possible, Rucker knew, to climb to the highest point and see across the rooftops out to the sea. He’d done so himself, thinking what leaping over the ridge must be like; the effect of gravity on his large frame, picturing it with an objectivity only the pills seemed to give him. Knew more than a few who'd cheer him on, then complain he hadn't quite made it to Beachyhead. Only there'd have been little point today - the view north limited to the search party below, the few who’d delayed a return to their homes, awaiting the outcome of their find. Driving past the fray, he’d also seen John Flint at the roadside, surrounded by vans and lights; truth to tell, the reporters looking for something a little more substantive from the ex-MP than they'd got from the press release. The one time politician, having helped to coordinate the search, happy to deliver.
“Where’s your other colleague, by the way?” Salmon asked him, annoyingly not a puff on her. “I would hate having to repeat all my best material.”
“Involved in some gossip on the phone this morning,” he explained. “You know how southerners are...”
“Funny. I would have said gossip was one of our top traits.”
“Anyway, she paid the price with DC Livermore in hock.”
A raised eyebrow. “Punishment indeed.”
As the ground levelled, they moved in unison - forensics now in plain view among the trees: measuring, collecting, recording, and murmuring all the while - paper-cuts, as someone had once described them, referring both to the overalls and to the passing of barbed acerbic comments made to reduce the sense of unease as well as the boredom. A few having to negotiate a more Byzantine path among the piles of horse shit as they encroached upon the meadow - the animals removed from the scene by the estate manager sometime before.
Rucker waved his hand as they reached the vehicle, sending off a protesting rook from the length of transparent tarp covering the roof space, watching thoughtfully as it soared into a big yellowing sky. Briefly, he wondered if one of its kin might have been the same as witnessed two weeks before, pecking at the hand of Harry Strachan...
End of sequence