Here is another chapter from my novel Secret Shame for you to try for size. As a matter of fact, this one is number 11: an earlier one than chapter 15 which I showed you last time for the purpose of illustrating how the Patrick character appears in both my new novel The Flautist and Secret Shame. If I let you see any chapters of Secret Shame later than number 15 it will give too much of the plot away.
In this chapter, after the upheaval and upset of Julie’s teenage daughter Stacey giving birth to her own daughter, Amber (she’s red-haired, taking after her Irish granny) life with policeman husband Derek has resettled to something like a reasonable equilibrium. But then an unwelcome ghost from the hapless Julie’s troubled past makes an unwelcome appearance . . .
Derek came home looking really pleased with himself. Clearly, it had been a good day at the office. Julie knew better than to ask him in front of the children of course. She knew his current case with its gory details (not all of which her husband had discussed even with her) would be unsuitable for young ears and that she’d have to wait until later for Derek’s edited version of things.
At nine-thirty Stacey gave Amber what she hoped would be a bottle to last her for at least the greater part of the night, offered her to her grandparents for a parting kiss and took the baby and herself off to bed. Derek’s eyes followed their departure, a fond expression softening his face. He looked at his grandchild with affection these days. Now, he was often to be found cuddling her, making her toothlessly grin and conducting silly baby-word, one-way conversations when he thought nobody was looking.
Julie watched Derek, amused. It was obvious he couldn’t wait to tell her his news. She gave him his lead-in. ‘You look like the cat that got the cream. Been a good day, has it?’
He reached for the remote and lowered the volume on the television. ‘Yes, pretty good, really!’
‘Tell me then; you know you’re dying to!’
‘Well, I couldn’t say too much yesterday because we weren’t certain of our grounds, but it looks as though your clever husband might have closed that unsolved murder case we had last year. The one with the asylum seeker. Do you remember?’
Julie racked her memory. Such a lot of water had flowed under the bridge in the last eleven months, what with the shock of Stacey’s out-of-the-blue pregnancy, then the birth, and the three months of happy grand-motherhood since then.
She remembered. ‘Oh, yes. That horrible one. Well, they’re all horrible of course. You know what I mean though. That was the one that was going on when Stace first got pregnant, wasn’t it? The one you got stuck on? Yes, that poor woman!’
‘That’s the one. It ground completely to a halt. Well, guess what? We’ve linked it to this domestic we’ve been dealing with, the last few days.’
‘Oh, that woman who was badly beaten? Yes, that was terrible!’ Julie shuddered. ‘How is she now? Is she out of danger?’
‘Yes, so the hospital says. They say she should make a good recovery, although she’ll be scarred for the rest of her life and they had to remove her spleen.’ Derek was impatient to tell his story. He hated being side-tracked.
‘So they were connected, are you saying?’
‘Yup. It was easy to find the bugger who did the domestic GBH because he was the boyfriend, and the victim managed to tell us who’d done it and we nabbed him before he’d got too far away.’
‘Oh, thank goodness for that. He was trying to do a runner, was he?’
‘Yeah, trying to. It looked as if he was making his way to the Smoke. I suppose he thought he’d be able to lose himself there. But the Bedfordshire police picked him up for us. That’s the great thing about having an integrated national computer system now; it’s so much easier to find wanted-for-questionings.’
‘Well it all sounds very clever to me, how you find people, computers or not.’ Julie said.
Derek grinned. He was enjoying himself, enthusiastically talking shop. He continued. ‘It’s still a matter of careful procedural work, but computers do certainly help a hell of a lot, because you can call on resources nation-wide. We knew he’d disappeared, which was very suggestive of guilt in itself, and we knew his car, so it was a simple matter to put out the details as an alert to other forces, and one of the Bedfordshire patrol cars spotted him and picked him up on the M1.’
‘So how did you tie him to that murder?’
‘Ah, well,’ Derek tapped his forehead theatrically, ‘it was a case of memory and old-fashioned hunch.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, when the lads brought him back from Bedford, a little bell rang. It was odd; he looked the spitting image of Bryan Ferry – you know: tall, dark, that same sort of narrow face, long nose. It seemed familiar, from somewhere. Then I remembered: one of the neighbours had described someone just like that – like Bryan Ferry – visiting that other woman.’
‘But that wouldn’t be enough, a similarity, would it?’
Derek sighed, exasperatingly. ‘No, of course not, Jules! But we grilled him first about the other thing, the GBH, which he denied of course, but Forensics found blood under his fingernails that was hers, so that plus her account pretty much clinched it. And then, thinking about that murder, I took a DNA sample from him and got it cross-checked against a sample from semen found on the murder victim and it matched!’
‘Oh, right. And is that enough for you then?’
‘Well, it’s not a matter of it being good enough for us. We have to build a case strong enough for the Crown Prosecution Service to think there’s a good prospect of a guilty verdict.’
‘Okay, don’t split hairs. Would that give you enough for a case then?’
‘Well, as near as dammit. Getting DNA similarity is often enough, because the chances of two people, both victim and perpetrator, having exactly the same profile are virtually non-existent. Millions to one, it is. But I wanted more, to make sure.’
‘Right; and did you get it?’
‘Yes!’ Derek was triumphant.
‘And can you tell me what it was?’
Derek dropped his voice, as if the walls might have ears. ‘Well, then we looked at his car, which we’d brought back from Bedford as well. I checked with DVLA, and fortunately he’d had the car since before the murder happened. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, fortunately for us. Anyone with any nous would have got rid of it, or torched it, or something.’
‘So did you find anything incriminating?’
‘Yes!’ Derek repeated. ‘On the indicator stalk there was a tiny, really tiny spot of blood that the bugger had missed when he no doubt thoroughly cleaned the car, and again it perfectly matched the victim’s, for type and also for DNA.’
‘Wonderful! So you think you’ve got him?’
‘Oh yes, certainly! There’s a revealing fluid that Forensics use, that shows the presence of tiny blood residues no matter how well someone tries to clean up. It showed quite a lot, and as I say, there was the match of the visible stain. This is one villain who’ll spend most of the rest of his life banged up, that’s for sure. And if it were down to me, it would be all of it.’
Julie grinned across the room at him. ‘Clever clogs, aren’t you?’
Derek preened. ‘Yeah, well it can’t do me any harm when it comes to promotion for inspector!’
Luke always came inside on Friday evenings and stayed for an hour or so when he brought his maintenance money now. Well, it was only fair, Julie thought. He was taking a genuine interest in Amber, and after all, he was her dad. He had a perfect right to access to her. Julie liked to watch him, the way his eyes lit up and a broad grin brightened his face when Stacey gave her to him to hold. Julie almost wished, but chased the fanciful thought away, that the young man and her daughter were an item.
But that was out of the question really. She knew that. Luke was simply the father of Amber. End of. Stacey had quite enough to be thinking about, so she did, what with looking after the baby and her education. She helped Stacey a lot with the baby care though, having given up her part-time job so that she could return to school (having stopped breastfeeding, obviously) to resume studying for her GCEs, which hopefully would lead to doing A-levels. But the surrogate-mothering only obtained during school hours; she’d made that abundantly clear. For the rest of the day Amber was Stacey’s responsibility. So there would be no time for gallivanting around with boyfriends; if she really wanted to become a vet, or something, she didn’t need any other distractions in her life.
Yes, the current arrangement, whilst not ideal (obviously), was the best that could be hoped for, in the circumstances. Possibly, just possibly, in about three years’ time, if Luke were still on the scene then, and if they’d grown very close, genuinely, without feeling constrained to form a relationship (but not necessarily a married one) just because they’d had a child together, it might be a different kettle of fish. So long as they didn’t feel they had to, as so often used to happen in the past. Back then it was the time-honoured story: get pregnant and then have to get married, either for economic reasons of support, or to maintain the required level of respectability, or both. Those sorts of situations so often used to lead to dismal, unhappy, resentment-filled marriages in the old days though, and she didn’t want Stacey to suffer that.
No; Stacey should find herself a nice boy (or preferably man) when she was good and ready, ideally after playing the field a little, and not before. There was plenty of time for all that. Although, presumably, if she and Luke did become close and wanted to live together, there’d be the small matter of Stacey possibly having to live away from home if she wanted to go to university. She wouldn’t necessarily be able to get into Liverpool, assuming that they did a training-to-be-a-vet course there anyway. She’d have to check on that, just as a matter of interest.
And assuming, of course, that Luke would want to get into a close relationship with Stacey, anyway. He might not want to. Just because he was acting fairly responsibly about Amber (not that he had any choice as far as the financial arrangements went) and seemed to have bonded well with her, it didn’t necessarily follow that he wanted the same thing with her mother. And no doubt he had plenty of opportunities to find himself a girlfriend, and really there was no reason why he shouldn’t, after all. As long as he discharged his responsibilities as far as Amber was concerned, he shouldn’t feel trapped. Julie wondered if he did feel that. Poor lad; she almost felt sorry for him.
Julie pondered all these things now, on this Friday evening in early October, as the door bell chimed. She got up from watching Coronation Street to answer it, opening the door wide to let Luke enter.
‘Hello Luke, how are you?’
‘Hi, Mrs Hawkins. Good, thanks. And you?’
Luke looked rather smarter than usual. He was sporting a brown leather jacket; new by the look of it, and a proper shirt, white, the top two buttons slightly sexily undone. And his hair had had a makeover; the spiky, oiled look had gone, replaced by a dry, short conventional style. He looked really quite presentable. He grinned down at her. For all her reservations about Stacey getting involved with him, Julie had to confess that she did increasingly like the lad. It was an odd sort of situation of course, but in a strange sort of way he was beginning to seem a part of the family.
He was holding two paper bags, one of them containing something rectangular and flat; the other, larger one seemed to wrap something softer. He followed her back into the lounge and Julie resumed her seat. Derek, who had been dozing in the other armchair, opened his eyes.
‘Hi, Mr Hawkins,’ Luke said, dutifully.
Derek returned the greeting. If he felt any animosity towards Luke now, he didn’t show it. It was a cool evening and Julie had turned the heating on, to Derek’s slight irritation. She always felt the cold more than him though, and besides, there was the baby to consider. Luke looked as if he were too hot already. He dropped his parcels on the sofa and removed his jacket, draping it across the back. He sat down, at the opposite end from Stacey, who was holding Amber. As if suddenly remembering to complete the greetings, he glanced at her cautiously, slightly inhibited as usual because Derek was present, and said, ‘What’s happenin’, Stacey.’
Stacey, equally uncomfortable, although this routine had been going for over three months now, replied, ‘Hi, Luke.’
‘You’re looking very smart, Luke,’ Julie said, without quite meaning to. ‘Is that a new jacket you’ve got yourself?’
Luke grinned. ‘Well new, yeah, but I didn’t buy it. Me mam and dad got it for us. It was my birthday yesterday. Although it’s for Christmas too, like, ‘cos it were quite expensive.’
‘Oh, really?’ Julie exclaimed, ‘many happy returns of yesterday!’
‘Many happy returns,’ Stacey and Derek chorused.
‘So you’re, what, twenty now, is it?’ Julie found herself wishing, ridiculously, that she’d known and got the lad a card.
‘Yeah; not a teenager anymore!’
‘Lucky you,’ Stacey put in. ‘Wish I wasn’t!’
‘Ah, come on now, Stace,’ Julie admonished, ‘don’t wish your, er, youth away.’ She’d almost said ‘childhood,’ which would have sounded absurd; Stacey’s childhood had evaporated anyway, over the past number of weeks.
Luke reached into his jacket for money and got up to hand it to Derek, who took it with a ‘Thank you’ and then did a double-take. There were two ten pound notes and also a fiver. He looked at Luke sharply. ‘What’s this?’
Luke looked embarrassed. ‘Well I’ve just had a rise at work. Twenty quid a week. I’ve given me mam some more for my keep and she reckoned I should give Amber some more too. And so do I,’ he added quickly.
He looked anxious. ‘Erm, is it enough?’
Julie leaped in before Derek could say anything to the contrary. ‘Well that’s a very kind thought, Luke. Thank you! Yes, that’s fine!’
Luke relaxed visibly.
Stacey was wondering about the parcels. ‘What are these?’
Luke’s embarrassment returned. ‘Well, I just fancied buying Amber a little somethin’, like. And I thought I’d get you somethin too, just so’s you didn’t feel left out. It’s nothing very much.’ He cast a nervous look at Derek, who frowned.
‘Ah, that’s nice!’ Julie felt like hugging him.
Stacey handed Amber to Luke. ‘Ooh! Whose is whose?’
He nodded at the soft parcel, before turning his attention to the baby. ‘That’s Amber’s.’
Stacey picked it up; took out the contents. It was a fluffy pale blue soft toy: a floppy-eared donkey. She thrust it at the interested Amber. ‘Look at this, Amber! Look what Daddy’s brought you!’ The baby grinned toothlessly and held out chubby arms, grasping. It went straight to her mouth.
‘Erm, she hasn’t already got one of those, has she?’ Luke looked anxious for the third time.
‘No, you’re alright,’ Stacey laughed. ‘Thank you!’
She reached for the other package and opened it. It was a large box of chocolates.
‘Ooh, fine!’ She enthused, and repeated, ‘Thank you!’
But she looked slightly worried, slightly wary. ‘So what are the prezzies for then?
‘Oh, nothin’ special,’ Luke assured. ‘It’s just that I had some birthday money as well, so I thought I’d spend some of it on Amber. If that’s alright?’ Yet again, the anxiety came back.
‘Yes, of course it is, Luke!’ Julie put in. ‘It’s a lovely thought!’
Luke relaxed. Stacey was already tearing the cellophane from the chocolate box. She offered it around. Everyone took one, after consulting the contents menu. Stacey said, ‘Could I try Amber with one, do you think, Mum?’
Julie smiled, uncertain. ‘Well, just a little piece, perhaps, Stace. A soft centred one, mind!’
Stacey moved the chocolate already in her mouth into a cheek and chose another one after checking the list again. She put it between her teeth and bit off most of it, then posted the remnant between the surprised baby’s lips; her toy instantly forgotten. Amber didn’t know what to do with it. Puzzled, she held it in her open mouth as chocolate-coloured saliva began to ooze from the corners, down her jaw and onto her sleeping suit.
Julie sighed. Not a good idea! And you’re not long since out of your bath, young lady! She got up to find a tissue; took it to the sofa, wet it with spit and wiped the rosebud mouth and chin. ‘Come on now, sweetie, you’re supposed to chew! Well, gum, anyway!’
The baby seemed almost to understand, unless it was the sudden hit of sweetness that triggered the masticating response. She languidly moved her lower jaw a few times, extruding more goo, swallowed and then gifted the company a beatific smile.
Julie did more wiping. ‘I think that’s probably quite enough now, sure. What a clever girl!’
She grinned at Luke. ‘Wasn’t that clever, Daddy?’
‘Yeah,’ Luke beamed. ‘Pure fine!’
The evening wore pleasantly on. Derek returned to watching television when an evening FA Cup second-round match, Liverpool against Huddersfield, came on. Luke settled deeper into the sofa cushions, dividing his time between Amber, chatting to Julie, sneaking sideways glances at Stacey and watching the football. He seemed to be settled in for the evening, showing no inclination to leave. Amber fell asleep in his arms.
Nine-thirty arrived. Stacey showed no signs of wanting to take Amber or herself off to bed. At ten o’ clock the football ended and Derek sighed happily. Liverpool had won, decisively. Julie cast meaningful, isn’t-it-time-you-went-to-bed? glances at Stacey, who had inched closer to Luke on the sofa. So did Derek. Stacey breathed a different sort of sigh and got up to make the baby a bottle. Derek shifted his still-meaningful gaze to Luke. Julie rose and relieved him of Amber, who woke and began screaming. Her feed was late.
Luke finally took the hint and got up too, reached for and donned his jacket, agreed with Derek that City had been all over Huddersfield, cast a last, slightly-too-long look at Stacey, who was now feeding the baby, bade everyone goodnight and took his reluctant leave.
Julie was watching the early evening local news. Derek was doing a late shift so there were a couple of hours to go yet before she need start thinking about dinner. Stacey was up in her room (well, her and Emma’s room) poring over homework. Emma and Darren, on the sofa, were playing some sort of baby-tickling game with Amber, who was chortling, loving it.
Her mind was drifting. Most of the news items were pretty dull, to be honest. A factory closing with the loss of three hundred jobs (which was anything but a dull story if you were an affected worker, of course), with a company director and then an outraged union official giving their polar-opposite views; a report on education in Liverpool schools with some sort of academic, a young dark-haired woman, from the university talking earnestly towards some point to the right of the camera lens, followed by a burly male with grey stubble on his fleshy jowls defending the city council’s policy, looking in the other direction.
But then an item came up that was far from pedestrian: someone up before magistrates charged with grievous bodily harm and murder. Bells rang. She remembered. Ah, isn’t this the case Derek’s been going on about? The one he solved almost single-handedly, apparently, the clever-clogs?
Julie’s concentration snapped into focus. The presenter, now sombre-faced, was going through her introduction:
‘A man has appeared before Liverpool magistrates charged with the grievous bodily harm of twenty-five year old Natalie Edwards. He’s also been charged with the murder of an asylum-seeker, Kaltrina Mehmeti, who was killed in two thousand and one. Our crime correspondent Ian Simpson has more.’
The picture changed to the reporter, a young man toting a clipboard, artfully framed with the magistrates’ court behind him. He nodded almost imperceptibly and began:
‘Yes, it was in September two thousand and one that twenty-eight year old Kaltrina Mehmeti went missing. An asylum seeker from Albania, she had lived for five months in the Mossley Hill area of the city.’
Video pictures came up, of a young dark-haired woman of Balkan appearance and showing baseball-capped police combing through undergrowth. Simpson continued:
‘Her disappearance prompted a huge police search, and nine days later her body was discovered by a member of the public partially buried outside Widnes, on waste ground near the ship canal. At the time of the murder, Chief Inspector Bill Roberts of Liverpool CID confessed that the investigation was a difficult one, with few leads. Now fast-forward to nine days ago. In a seemingly unrelated incident, police investigated a brutal assault on Natalie Edwards, a sex worker, from Empire Terrace, Edge Hill, which left her seriously injured. Their enquires have led them to arrest and charge Paul Barlow, thirty-seven, from Liverpool, with both offences.’
More pictures appeared: of a young blonde woman with heavy mascara and a bright-lipsticked mouth; of a prison van arriving at court; of a tall dark man being led inside, handcuffed to a burly prison officer. Simpson carried on:
‘Barlow, who was dressed in a dark blue sweater and jeans, spoke only to confirm his name and address. He was remanded in custody to appear at Liverpool Crown Court on the second of January two thousand and three.’
Yet more video followed of the defendant being returned to the van and it leaving, photographers running alongside holding their cameras aloft to its windows to capture a shot. With a signing-off of ‘Ian Simpson, BBC North West Tonight,’ the outside broadcast ended, leaving the presenter to relax her expression and move smoothly on.
Emma and Darren, engrossed with Amber, didn’t see the colour leave their mother’s face; didn’t notice her stricken expression or her hand clasp her mouth. Weren’t aware of her blood instantly running cold.
Didn’t hear her inaudible, incredulous, ‘Oh my sweet Jesus! Not you!