Here’s the link: http://smarturl.it/inspectorkirby1
Inspector Kirby glanced at the Journal newspaper that someone had left on his desk while he’d been in the loo. They had even, needlessly, ringed the headline in red pen, “GOSFORTH GODDESS GRABBED, Lilly ‘Medussa’ Johnson was taken into custody at her home in Regent Avenue along with thirty-seven snakes stolen from pet shops and private collections”. There was a picture of him leading Lilly towards a police car. He had his head down. Someone had drawn a speech balloon coming out of his head with the words, “Oh hell, why me?” inside. Lilly was dressed in a long white gown, blonde wig and tiara. She was smiling for the cameras.
Kirby frowned, the Super wasn’t going to like that. His frown deepened as he glanced at the clock, then turned back to the screen and the accusing blink of the cursor. It was nine o’clock, he’d been in for two hours and achieved two-fifths of sod all. Sometimes he felt that writing the report was harder than solving the crime, especially with the crimes that came his way.
He pushed back his sleeves and readied his right index finger for another go at stabbing the keyboard. He glanced around the office and wondered about a cup of coffee. He dismissed the thought as just another way of putting off the onerous task. Back to the screen. He swore. The last sentence he’d written was all in caps. Why the hell did they have to put the caps key so close to the ‘A’? There were a few sniggers as he cursed at the screen. He swivelled his chair to the left. ‘Tell you what, Sergeant, I’ll dictate and you type.’
Sergeant Vendatelli glanced around at his fellow officers who were now all very intent on their own screens.
Kirby shook his head. ‘Don’t worry, Sergeant, you might struggle with some of the longer words.’
‘Er, thank you, sir.’
Kirby knew that the younger members of the force liked to call him “Old School Kirby” or just “Old School” for short. And yes, when it was an option he did prefer to use pen and paper. Also, he called a phone a phone rather than a mobile. What’s more, his “rang” rather than play the theme from his favourite song. If it had have done, his choice would no doubt have provoked even more comments. Anyway, Louis Armstrong singing “What a Beautiful World” didn’t seem appropriate for a copper.
He wasn’t a complete techno Luddite. He did admit that computer age policing had its uses; just that you couldn’t solve crimes by googling and tweeting. He still believed coppering was ninety percent slog, ten percent inspiration and ten percent perspiration. And yes, he did know that was one hundred and ten percent.
He also knew that those same youngsters considered him a bit of a loner. He didn’t meet the others down the pub after work. He didn’t do the social club and avoided, if at all possible, any activity that included the words “team building” in the title. To his way of thinking, if you couldn’t feel part of a team as a copper with half the world against you then plodging around, in January, in Kielder Forest, knee-deep in a freezing cold stream, trying to build a bridge with a few sticks and bits of rope was not going do it for you either.
Kirby saw himself as an ordinary police inspector trying to do his job in the way that he knew worked best for him. That’s not to imply that he thought a police inspector’s job was in any way ordinary. By most people’s standards it was anything but ordinary. He’d seen some extraordinary things, and often things that most sane people wouldn’t want to see.
However, the downside of being viewed by some of both the junior and senior ranks as somewhat eccentric was that he ended up with the cases that leaned towards the stranger end of the spectrum of police work. The cases that other officers avoided. Which meant, as with this case, he was presented with the problem of reporting the facts while not getting himself hauled up in front of the Super for “sensationalism”. The Super took a dim view of “sensationalism” as it tended to find its way into newspapers, and newspapers being newspapers the result was rarely complimentary. He glanced back at the Journal, even United’s latest, miserable performance was preferable to the headline.
The Lilly “Medusa” Johnson case had already had its share of press coverage. Over a period of three months there had been fifteen reports of snakes being stolen from pet shops and private collections in the area. Rumours were rife that it was Animal Liberation or even some strange – foreign, of course – cult. The papers loved it. They, lacking much imagination in Kirby’s opinion, had referred to them as the Snake Men, as in: ‘Slippery Snake Men Strike Again’ or the ‘Snake Men Crimes are Addering Up’ and ‘Snake Men Bring Hissteria to the Snake Community’.
It turned out, to the disappointment of the local press, that the culprit wasn’t a fanatical group or exotic cult. It was one Lilly Johnson, who lived in a two-bedroom terraced house in Fawdon. They did cheer up however when they found out that she liked to call herself Medusa, insisted her house was a temple and had erected two, two-storey, polystyrene Doric columns on the front of it. A fact that didn’t seem to register as strange enough to report by those who lived nearby. The headline was just the start. Inside there was a two-page spread with interviews from neighbours and an artist’s impression of Lil appearing down the shops in a long, white gown with a gold, snake-shaped tiara on her blonde and curled locks. As for the neighbours, if anything those of a certain age had seen her originality and level of eccentricity as something to aspire to.
When interviewed, Lil’s defence was that she was above the laws of men and refused to accept the validity of anything from mere mortals. Although Kirby noted that didn’t seem to extend to the tea and chocolate Hobnobs they kept supplying her with, which she insisted on calling her ‘ambrosia’.
On digging, Lilly had ‘history’, as the police liked to put it, having been responsible for a series of more than thirty burglaries in the 1980s. The papers had then dubbed her Diamond Lil on account of her only taking jewellery, most of which was found stuffed into drawers and cupboards in her then small flat off Gosforth high street.
He was just wondering about how to describe Lil without being “sensationalist” when the phone rang. ‘Kirby.’
‘Ah, sir. Would you happen to have an hour to spare?’
‘It’s just that something’s come up and none of the other officers can be spared at the moment.’ Kirby knew that was Desk Sergeant Caruthers speak for, ‘It’s a bit weird and I don’t think anyone else will want to take it’.
He was about to say, ‘Neither can I’, when he glanced at the screen. So instead he said, ‘Fine, give me the details.’
It was mid-August and the air was already warming up as Kirby made his way out to the quiet and largely middle-class suburb of Jesmond with its red-brick Victorian streets. Seeing a patrol car he turned down the next side street, parked and made his way back onto Osbourne Road. ‘So what have we here then, Constable?’
Kirby peered at the ground. ‘Well done, Constable, eight out of ten for observation.’
The Constable raised a questioning eyebrow.
‘You omitted the colour,’ Kirby said as he looked down at the pair of flat pink ladies shoes. Canvas by the look of them. What in his younger days might have been called “sandshoes” or “pumps” by his dad. ‘Anything else?’ he added. The shoes had been left but not abandoned, sitting as they were neatly side by side.
‘Er, we thought we’d wait for you, sir.’
‘I bet you did,’ Kirby mumbled. ‘OK, do we know whose they are?’
‘They’re Sarah’s,’ a girl behind him answered. The constable looked relieved. ‘Sarah Cooper’s, I know because they’re brand new. She only bought them yesterday. It was the pattern that attracted her. Said she’d never seen anything quite like them before.’
Kirby hunkered down to give the shoes a closer inspection. The girl was right, stitched into the canvas was an intricate pattern in varying shades of pink and purple that seemed to swirl in front of his eyes, to the point where he had to look away.
‘And you are?’ Kirby said as he stood up.
‘Susie, Susie Summer.’
‘And how do you know Sarah, Susie?’
‘I’m her friend and flatmate.’
Susie was about the same age as his own daughter, Anna. She had reddish hair and was dressed in jeans and a plain white T-shirt. She had a bag slung over one shoulder. A student, he presumed, although it wasn’t term time. But then again his daughter had gone back to York early to help with a dig. Although he suspected it might also have something to do with being bored at home. He smiled at Susie and picked one of his preferred open, opening questions. ‘So tell me what you know, Susie.’ He didn’t like to guide people too much to begin with. It could be quite surprising and revealing where a story wandered and he could always drag them back if he had to. He glanced down at the shoes, which were still lined up at the edge of the pavement, as if waiting for their owner to return. Or, it occurred to him, ready to cross the road to the bus stop on the other side.
‘Sarah left the flat at about 8.20 to catch the 8.32 bus to uni. She poked her head round my door as she left, said she wanted to get to the library early so she could have the afternoon to herself. I slept in a bit and was walking to the bus stop when I spotted the shoes. I called Sarah’s mobile but it went to voicemail. I then phoned the library. They looked around but she wasn’t there. Hadn’t been seen.’
‘She wouldn’t have taken another pair of shoes with her?’
Susie shrugged. ‘Then why leave these new ones here?’
‘Sorry, I was worried. Sarah and I are very close and this is going to sound silly, but it just doesn’t feel right. So I called the police. I hope that was OK?’
Kirby was never one to dismiss someone on the grounds they felt things “didn’t feel right”. In his experience things not feeling right often led to things not being right. It didn’t feel right to him either.
‘Yes, of course,’ Kirby said. Normally the station wouldn’t bother until someone had been missing for over twenty-four hours unless there were suspicious circumstances. Did shoes count? However, together the shoe thing, a single girl and Susie’s insistence, he presumed had persuaded the experienced Desk Sergeant that an exception should be made. ‘Quite right,’ thought Kirby. He smiled at Susie again. ‘She may well just turn up or call. We hope she does. Better to be safe though.’
He stared down at the shoes as if willing them to tell him something. It looked as if Sarah had just stepped out of them and continued her journey. But that wasn’t right. The shoes were both laced up good and tight. Another puzzle. Why couldn’t life be simple? People always assumed that as a detective you lived for puzzles. Well he didn’t. Solving crime should be straightforward. The burglar caught with a bag marked “swag” in his hands, “You got me bang to rights there, guv, and no mistake.” Case solved.
Kirby shook his head. Why would someone unlace their shoes, remove them, lace them up again and then line them up at the side of the road? Or, for that matter, why would anyone attack someone, then carefully take off their shoes, lace them up again and place them at the side of the road? He put the last theory in his mental wastebin. Even half-braindead commuters would have noticed a young girl being attacked or forcibly abducted at the side of the road in broad daylight. Although they might not have reported it, of course. However, someone would have filmed it, put it up on Twitter or Facebook or whatever was trendy this month in social media. He poked the shoes with his pen. They didn’t get up and run off. He frowned. What now?
‘Do you have a recent picture of Sarah?’
Susie took out her mobile and flicked through her photos. ‘Will this do?’
Kirby took the phone. In the picture were two young girls who appeared to be having a good time – a “selfie” he presumed. On the left was Susie, on the right was a girl not unlike her. She was holding up a glass of what looked like white wine and smiling.
‘Sorry, it’s all I’ve got with me. I upgraded recently. I’ll have a better one on my laptop.’
‘No, that’s fine for now. Er, Constable.’
‘Do whatever you do to get a copy of this picture and then get on to the bus company. Find the driver. See if he noticed her getting on his bus in just her, er, socks.’ He glanced at Susie, who shook her head. ‘Bare feet.’
‘Bluetooth?’ Susie asked the Constable, who got his own phone out.
Kirby watched the two perform what to him might as well have been magic. ‘Does Sarah often take this bus?’
‘Sometimes,’ Susie answered. ‘Says she likes to see where she’s going, rather than stare at nothing on the Metro.’
Kirby nodded then turned back to the constable. ‘Maybe the driver’ll recognise her.’
‘Oh and while you’re on, find out where it stops and what businesses are nearby so we can check if anyone else saw a girl with no shoes get off.’
‘Sir. No shoes, sir. Right away.’
Kirby didn’t look at the constable as he was giving the orders. He didn’t want to see the barely-hidden smile that suggested they were wasting their time. But he’d been a detective long enough and no, it definitely didn’t feel right.
‘Hmm,’ he mused to himself. ‘Tell you what, Susie, let’s go to the college just in case she’s turned up or someone’s seen her.’
Kirby turned to the patrol officer. ‘Constable, before you go on your merry way, call the station and have a WPC, preferably WPC Barker, meet me there.’
Yes, sir. Er, whereabouts?’
Kirby looked at Susie.
‘The Robinson Library?’
‘Got that, Constable?’
Stepping back to the kerb some smartarse had put a square of crime scene tape around the shoes. The two patrol officers avoided his gaze. He was about harangue them about wasting precious police resources when something on the other side of the tape to the shoes caught his eye. It was just a stone, well not just a stone, it was smooth, more what he thought of as a pebble than a stone. Bending down he picked it up. It fitted into the palm of his hand. It looked and felt like an innocuous pebble, but to Kirby’s mind it didn’t belong there. He tossed it into the air once, then stood still and put it into his pocket.
‘Shall we?’ he said to Susie.
‘Sorry, Susie, take me through it again,’ Kirby said, as he pulled out onto Osbourne Road, more for the sake of avoiding the ‘police car silence’ than a belief he was going to gain any new insight. ‘She hadn’t done anything like this before?’ he asked when she’d finished.
Susie shook her head. ‘No.’
‘And she seemed alright to you when she left?’
‘Guess so. I only saw her for a second.’
‘And you say they’re new shoes, bought yesterday?’
‘Yes. She got them from a little shop on Clayton Road. Mystique, I think it’s called. It’s become a favourite of hers recently. They sell lots of quirky stuff. Not my sort of thing but Sarah seems to like it. D’you think that’s important?’
Inspector Kirby nodded slowly while tapping on the steering wheel. He hadn’t a clue whether it was important or not. It was just his detective brain working on its own, then connecting to his mouth without his conscious mind having any say in it. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘Nowhere else she might be? What about parents, grandparents?’
Susie shook her head. ‘Her mum’s not around. Her dad works in town. He’s something big in Bertrands. You know, that construction company. Always jetting off all over the place. I’ve a number for him if you want it?’
‘Thanks, remind me when we get to the library.’
Pulling into the university car park, Kirby watched with some amusement as a uniformed man in the security kiosk glanced towards them, knocked something over, then jumped up, jamming a cap on his head. You didn’t need to be a lip-reader to understand what he was saying. Kirby pressed down for his window.
The shouted words, ‘you can’t come in here without a permit!’ preceded the man as he emerged from the kiosk, red faced and wiping at his trousers with a handkerchief.
Kirby held out his warrant card. ‘I think you’ll find I can.’
The man squinted at the card as if trying to come up with a reason why it didn’t count. He gave up and stomped his way back inside the kiosk. The barrier rose.
‘Thank you ever so much,’ Kirby called in an over-cheery voice as they drove through. He glanced across at Susie who was grinning. ‘One of the few perks of being a copper.’
Outside the library, the WPC was waiting.
‘Susie, this is the excellent Constable Shirley Barker. Constable this is Susie Summer.’ The two women shook hands. ‘Did the boys tell you what’s going on?’
‘Yes, sir.’ She glanced across at Susie who was studying her feet. ‘Bit early though isn’t it, sir? I mean…’
‘Yes, I know what you mean, Constable. But the girl left her shoes.’
‘Shoes, sir, yes. Er, perhaps she didn’t like them? Or she had some others with her.’
‘Susie?’ Kirby said.
Susie looked up from the floor. ‘She loved them, they were new. And no, I don’t believe she had any others with her. Why would she?’
‘Indeed,’ Kirby said. ‘Why would she. Constable?’
Constable Barker shrugged.
‘And they weren’t just abandoned. They were laced-up and placed neatly side by side. That strike you as a bit odd?’
Constable Barker raised a finger as if about to argue. Seeing Kirby’s eyes focused on her, she lowered the finger. ‘Yes, sir. Odd.’
Kirby smiled. ‘Good, I’m glad we agree.’
Constable Barker gave him a “well, you’re the boss” look. ‘So why are we here, sir? I thought, Miss Summer had already phoned.’
Kirby nodded. ‘Crossing ‘i’s and dotting ‘t’s. Detail Constable. What am I always telling you?’
‘The Devil’s in the detail, sir.’
‘And speaking of the Devil, what would the super say if by some remote chance she was here?’
‘Ah, I’m with you, sir.’
The door swished open and the three of them entered the reception area.
‘Constable, why don’t you and Susie have a look around for yourselves? Ask anyone if they’ve seen Sarah? I’ll try reception.’
As the two women wandered off, Kirby approached the desk. The receptionist looked up as he produced his warrant card. She blinked but didn’t smile. Whatever irresistible atmosphere it was that libraries possessed kicked in and Kirby dropped his voice to a whisper. He took his phone out. ‘We were wondering if you’ve seen this girl this morning?’
‘Sorry?’ the woman said leaning forward.
‘We were wondering…’ The woman leaned forward again. Sod it, he thought to himself. He raised his voice. ‘We were wondering if you’ve seen this girl this morning?’
‘Shhh, please, this is a library.’
Kirby glanced around and concluded that the only thing he might be disturbing was the sleep of two students at the nearest table, who had their heads down resting on their arms.
Kirby leant down and forward with the phone in front of him. He kept his voice at the same level. ‘Well?’
The woman moved back as if the power of his voice was too much for her. She glanced at the two sleeping students who hadn’t even twitched. ‘Er, no. Sorry, Inspector. I do recognise her. She’s a regular visitor and a nice girl from what I can tell. I’ve been here since just after eight, with the exception of a couple of short breaks. She turned to the woman at a desk behind her. ‘Joan?’ The woman looked up. ‘Joan, did this girl the inspector’s looking for come in while you were on reception?’ Joan joined them and studied the picture on Kirby’s phone. She shook her head. ‘No.’
‘Thank you, ladies,’ A few minutes later Constable Barker and Susie returned. ‘Anything?’
‘No,’ they said at the same time.
Kirby glanced around the room, his gaze ending up back on the two sleeping students, one of who was now snoring softly. ‘So, Sarah hasn’t been in the library this morning, with or without shoes?’ As they left the library, Kirby loosened his tie and undid his top button. A small concession to the warm day to come. ‘So where now?’
‘The department?’ Susie suggested.
‘Sorry, Susie, I never asked what you and Sarah are studying.’
‘We’re both doing archaeology.’
‘Really? My daughter’s doing archaeology at York.’
Susie nodded. ‘I thought about York. But I wanted to stay local as Mum’s on her own.’
‘Hmm,’ Kirby said. ‘So where’s archaeology these days?’
Susie pointed to her right. ‘It’s over in the Armfield building.’
Kirby set off in the direction she indicated. ‘Well, well, still in the good old Armfield.’
‘You know it?’
‘Yes. I did zoology there, over twenty-five years ago.’
Barker came alongside him. ‘Really, sir?’
Kirby glanced at her. ‘Yes I know, Constable, amazing, isn’t it, a copper my age with an education?’
‘Sorry, sir, didn’t mean it like that.’
Outside the Armfield, Kirby paused and looked up at the imposing facade and the main tower with its turrets.
‘We going in, sir?’ Barker asked.
‘Yes, sorry, Constable,’ Kirby said as they approached the doors. ‘Takes me back, that’s all.’ His echoing footsteps brought back more memories as they walked across the stone floor of the entrance foyer towards the rather grand main staircase. Even the vague musty smell with just a hint of polish and formalin was as he remembered.
Constable Barker looked around. ‘Very nice. A bit wasted on students thought isn’t it, sir?’
‘I think, Constable, that the Victorians believed learning was worth celebrating.’
‘If you say so, sir.’
In the archaeology department there was no sign of Sarah, nor had anyone seen her since the previous afternoon.
‘That it then, sir?’ Barker asked when they were back outside, this time in the quadrangle at the back of the building.
Kirby took in the scene that had changed little since his day. ‘We’ll call in at the Union while we’re here.’
Susie shook her head. ‘She wouldn’t have gone in there at this time of day. Too many possible distractions.’
Kirby smiled. ‘We’ll try anyway. Met my wife Jeanie there at the end of our first year.’
As Kirby strode ahead, Constable Barker fell in alongside Susie. ‘Just so you know, the inspector lost his wife a few years back.’
Walking down the “Quad”, retracing familiar steps towards the students union, memories came tumbling back into Kirby’s mind. The faces of friends he’d lost touch with long ago. His palm tingled as he relived the thrill of holding hands with Jeanie in those first few weeks together. That was the trouble with memories, they hid themselves away, and then when triggered, they would emerge to snag you in nostalgia. Things you didn’t even remember remembering would pop into your head from so long ago. They walked through one of the two arches, then over the road to stand in front of the red brick union building. Kirby stopped below the steps leading up to the main entrance. He hadn’t stood here since his student days. He remembered the first time he’d bumped into Jeanie, literally. It was June, the end of the summer term. He was walking up the steps with a group of friends when one of them pushed him. He’d stumbled into her, making her spill the half pint of lager she had in her hand.
‘Oi, watch it, you big oaf,’ had been her first romantic words to him. He’d apologised and, being a well-brought-up young man, he’d offered to buy her another drink. He smiled to himself, the fact that she had the biggest blue eyes he’d ever seen, and was wearing a low-cut T-shirt, had nothing to do with it of course. She’d followed him in. ‘In that case I’ll have a pint.’ He’d grinned at her, she had smiled back and that was it, smitten. Well at least he was. She had taken a bit more convincing.
‘Sorry, Constable. I was miles away. Or rather twenty-five years or so.’
Inside, they put out an announcement over the Tannoy for Sarah or anyone who had seen her that day. Neither Sarah nor anyone else came forward. However, Kirby insisted on looking around. The men’s bar was still called the men’s bar, which surprised him in this more PC age. The decor had changed but the smell of stale beer took him back. He stared across at what had been their favourite corner, for no good reason other than he and Jeanie had always sat there. He could see her now on their first date. As he went to the bar, she was giggling with her friends while they studied him.
On what had been “level six” in his day he remembered the late nights, getting drunk and what had passed for dancing.
‘That it then, sir?’ Barker asked when they were in the lobby again.
‘Yes, Constable, I think so.’
With a last look around and a nod to the ghosts in his head, Kirby walked out of the front doors and back down the steps. He glanced back, half expecting a twenty-year-old Jeanie to come running after him as she had done so often, usually with something he’d left behind. He took a deep breath and returned to the present.
‘You OK, sir?’
Kirby cleared his throat. ‘Er, yes, Constable. You take Susie home will you?’ He turned to Susie. ‘I never asked, where do you and Sarah live?’
‘We share a flat – 35 Eslington Terrace, near the Metro station.’
‘I know it. Sorry but it’s a bit upmarket around there for a student flat, isn’t it?’
Susie smiled. ‘It’s her dad’s. He owns a few, I think. I give Sarah the rent. She calls it our good-times fund.’
Kirby nodded. ‘I’ll go and see her father if he’s around,’ he said to Constable Barker
‘Perhaps you’d come down to the station and give a full statement?’
‘Thank you. Tell you what, before that, why don’t you take Constable Barker here back to your place? Let her have a look at Sarah’s room.’
Sarah glanced at the constable, who smiled back. ‘Of course.’
‘Oh and Sarah’s dad’s number?’
Kirby wrote the number on the back of one of his cards. He then let the girls wander off before drifting back to his own car, the memories still rolling through his mind. That’s the trouble when you’re young, he thought, you don’t know just how lucky you are sometimes. Then he thought about some of the kids he came across in the course of his job and revised that to – most don’t know how lucky they are.
The thoughts of young people returned him to Sarah. So she hadn’t been where she’d said she’d be. Nothing unusual in that. A girl was allowed to change her mind, or so his wife had always told him. But without her shoes? And as he put a hand in his pocket, his finger closed around the pebble. A second thing that didn’t feel right and Kirby didn’t believe in coincidence.
As he drove through the barrier, he waved a cheery hand out of the window to the man in the kiosk. ‘Many thanks again!’
Kirby parked his car then walked back on to Grey Street with its imposing stone buildings, built by people who, it seemed to Kirby, must have been rather certain of their place in the world. To his right, was old man Grey himself keeping an eye on the city from the top of his monument. Kirby sometimes wondered how much of an honour it really was to have a statue of yourself erected so that pigeons could then crap on your head. It occurred to him that it might be a bit of a metaphor for life.
A hundred yards or so in the opposite direction he came to a large brass plaque which announced that these were the offices of Bertrands Construction, Est. 1927. Through a gleaming brass-and-glass revolving door, the reception area was all polished wood with marble tiled floors and a smell of beeswax, something his mum had always been fond of using. Kirby glanced up at three large portraits of Charles Bertrand and his two sons, Edward and Joseph, all looking every bit the well-to-do entrepreneurs. On a low dark-wood table were copies of a glossy brochure titled, The History of Bertrands Construction. Very impressive, he thought. What they didn’t tell you of course was that in the late Sixties Joseph had run off with the nanny to become an ageing hippy in California, and that Edward had narrowly escaped jail after being linked with T Dan Smith in the Seventies.
A well-made-up and manicured receptionist behind yet more polished wood smiled at him. ‘Can I help you?’
He showed his warrant card. ‘I’m here to see Mr Cooper.’
‘I’ll see if he’s in and able to see you,’ she said, reaching for the phone.
‘He is and he can,’ Kirby said as he headed to the lift. ‘Which floor?’
As the doors closed, he heard. ‘There’s a police inspector on his way up. I tried…’
When the doors slid open, a man was standing there. He was wearing suit trousers, but no jacket or tie. His top button was undone and his sleeves were rolled up. He held out his hand. ‘John Cooper.’
Kirby shook it. ‘Inspector Kirby.’ Several pairs of eyes poked above waist-level, grey dividing screens.
John Cooper smiled. ‘You haven’t told me what all this is about, Inspector.’
‘No,’ Kirby smiled back. ‘In your office, perhaps?’
Mr Cooper glanced around. ‘Of course, this way.’ The eyes followed them. As they approached the office a woman looked up from her desk and smiled.
‘Can we get you a coffee?’ Mr Cooper asked.
‘Thank you. White no sugar.’
‘Julie, would you mind?’
‘Of course not. And you John?’
Kirby decided he liked the man. The company may appear traditional and stuffy but John Cooper wasn’t. The plaque on the door read “Finance Director”. The office itself was in the corner of the building with views down Grey Street and High Bridge. ‘Very nice,’ Kirby said, looking out back up towards the theatre which stood there doing its best, he always thought, to look like a Greek temple with its impressive columns and portico.
‘Thank you. Seat?’ Cooper said pointing to a leather sofa and chair on either side of a low table rather than the formidable-looking desk. They sat, Kirby in the chair, and the door opened.
‘Thanks, Julie,’ Mr Cooper said as he took the coffees from her. ‘And can you make sure we’re not disturbed?’
Kirby smiled. ‘I would tell you not to worry. But then I’m here so you will. It’s about Sarah, she’s…’
‘Is she in trouble? Hurt? What’s happened?’
Kirby held up both hands. ‘Please.’
Mr Cooper sat back and then forward again.
‘It appears she’s gone missing.’ Again he held up a hand. ‘Just this morning. It may well be nothing.’
‘But you’re here, so you don’t think it’s nothing.’
‘We’re just being cautious. We were contacted by her flatmate, Susie.’ Kirby relayed a succinct account of the facts, what Susie had told him and the visit to the university. ‘So I wanted to ask if there is anywhere you think she might have gone or anyone she might have gone to?’
‘Without her shoes?’
‘Her mother perhaps?’
Mr Cooper sat up straighter before lowering his gaze and shaking his head. ‘Her mother? No. We don’t know where she is, even if she’s alive.’ The clenching of a fist told Kirby all he needed to know about what Mr Cooper thought of Sarah’s mother. ‘So, no, Sarah has no interest in her mother.’
‘Sorry, I have to ask. Are you sure? It might be natural for Sarah to wonder about her. Do you think she might have tried to contact her?’
Mr Cooper’s fist clenched again and his face reddened as he looked away from Kirby. ‘No, definitely not. She wouldn’t.’
‘You seem very sure about that. Her mother might have tried to contact her.’
Cooper glanced out of the window again, and took a breath in an obvious effort to control his emotions. He turned back to Kirby. ‘Sarah would have told me. We… we have an understanding. That woman is… is…’
‘I’m sorry, Mr Cooper. Please…’
Mr Cooper gave a small apologetic smile as he let his head sag. He nodded and whistled a breath through his teeth before looking up. ‘I understand what you’re saying, Inspector. You see, Sarah’s mum left when Sarah was two. We’ve never seen her or heard from her since. She’s never contacted us or shown any interest.’
Mr Cooper shook his head. ‘Ran off, to be more precise. With a magician of all people.’
‘Yes, Mephisto he called himself. He became quite big in the States for a while. However, if you look him up, nothing’s been heard of him for ten years. Marianne neither.’
‘And you never tried to contact her?’
Again there was the clenching of the fist. ‘No, she’d made it quite clear she wanted nothing to do with me, us.’
Kirby nodded. ‘Please go on. You were saying about when she left.’
‘Well, I guess me becoming an accountant was all too normal, boring for her. When we met, I was a bit wild. My parents had died in a car crash when I was ten and my grandparents couldn’t control me. Didn’t do uni. Had a band, drugs, parties. All very rock and roll. Marianne fitted right in, she was wilder than any of us. A true free spirit. She had, I dunno, what you might call charisma. With her doing the talking, we even got a recording contract.’
‘Then you became an accountant?’
Mr Cooper laughed. ‘I know what you mean. We discovered our agent was ripping us off so someone had to look at the figures. I found I had a head for it and then Sarah came along and the rest, as they say, is history. I guess it wasn’t what Marianne was looking for.’ He shrugged. ‘But leaving your own daughter like that?’
Mr Cooper shook his head. ‘Don’t know. She never mentioned any. Our wedding was just a few friends. If I ever mentioned it she changed the subject. Didn’t seem important.’
‘Hmm, do you have a photo of her?’
Cooper shook his head. ‘Not here. At home somewhere, but that’s going to be nearly twenty years ago. As I said, if you go on the net you’ll find the odd one a bit more recent.’
Kirby nodded. ‘Well, I think that’s all for now.’ He stood and moved towards the door. Cooper followed. ‘We will, of course, keep you informed. And if you hear from Sarah, or anyone who calls about Sarah, you will let us know, won’t you?’
‘Of course,’ Cooper said, reaching for the door knob. He stopped. ‘Wait, you think someone might have taken her? Why?’
Kirby put a hand on Mr Cooper’s arm. ‘No, no, it’s just police speak. We have no reason to believe that.’ He opened the door himself. ‘I’ll show myself out.’
Outside the building, Kirby took out his phone. ‘Ah Constable, where are you?’
‘Still at the girls’ flat, sir.’
‘In the kitchen making me another cup of tea.’
‘Good for her. So?’
‘Nothing much, sir. Sarah’s room’s a bit untidy, a few clothes and stuff on the floor. Open text book on the desk with a few pages marked. Photos of her and friends on a pinboard, that sort of thing. One of a guy about your age, sir, somewhere hot. Her dad, I guess.’
‘Not one of anyone looking like they might be her mum?’
‘Er, just a second… no, sir, not that I can see.
‘And nothing out of the ordinary?’
‘No, sir. All very young girl, studenty, if you get what I mean. Nothing to indicate she was going to do a runner anyway.’
‘OK, you can fill me in back at the station. And Susie? You two getting on alright?’
‘I sat down and had a chat with her for bit when we arrived. Seems a nice kid. Loves her mum, who lives on her own up the coast. Concerned about her friend. I don’t think she’s hiding anything.’
‘Well done, Constable.’
‘Oh and sir. I did get her to call Sarah’s mobile again. It went straight through to the mail box. I told her to say to call her, say it was urgent but not why. Also, that she didn’t mention us at this point. Hope that was right?’
‘Yes, perfect. Thanks, Shirley.’
Kirby liked WPC Shirley Barker. She was good with people. They seemed to trust her and she knew how to ask the right questions. She also knew how to use her policing brain. Not a collection of attributes one always found in the average copper. He looked up. John Cooper was staring out of his sixth-floor window, no doubt wondering where his daughter was. Kirby wondered where she was too. He was happy that Cooper was genuine. But Sarah’s mother, Marianne, on the other hand was a loose end and he didn’t like loose ends. And despite what Cooper said, what girl wouldn’t be interested in her mother? Or, for that matter, what mother wouldn’t be interested in her daughter?
Thanks for reading the opening chapters to Inspector Kirby and Harold Longcoat – A Northumbrian Mystery. For more follow this Amazon link