- Published: 2 April 2018
- ISBN: 9780241283097
- Imprint: Penguin General UK
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $19.99
Close to Home
The 'impossible to put down' Richard & Judy Book Club thriller pick 2018
It’s getting dark, and the little girl is cold. It had been such a nice day – the lights and the costumes and the fireworks like a shower of stars. It was magical, just like a fairy tale, but now, everything’s been ruined, everything’s gone wrong. She looks up through the trees and the branches seem to be closing in over her head. But not like Snow White, not like Sleeping Beauty. There’s no prince here, no rescuer on a beautiful white horse. Only a dark sky and monsters in the shadows. She can hear noises in the undergrowth, the rustling of small animals and a heavier movement coming steadily closer, step by step. She wipes her cheek, where tears still linger, and she wishes with all her heart she was like the princess in Brave. She wouldn’t be frightened being in the forest all alone. But Daisy is.
Daisy is very frightened indeed.
‘Daisy?’ says a voice. ‘Where are you?’
More steps, closer now, and the voice is angry. ‘You can’t hide from me. I’m going to find you. You know that, don’t you, Daisy. I’m going to find you.’
I’m going to say this now, before we get started. You won’t like it, but trust me, I’ve done this more times than I care to punish myself remembering. In a case like this – a kid – nine times out of ten it’s someone close to home. Family, friend, neighbour, someone in the community. Don’t forget that. However distraught they look, however unlikely it seems, they know who did it. Perhaps not consciously, and perhaps not yet. But they know.
* * *
20 July 2016, 2.05 a.m.
Canal Manor estate, Oxford
They say homebuyers make up their mind about a house within thirty seconds of going inside. Well, take it from me, the average police officer takes less than ten. In fact, most of us have come to judgement long before we’re through the door. Only it’s the people we’re judging, not the property. So when we pull up outside 5 Barge Close, I have a pretty good idea what to expect. It’s what used to be called an ‘Executive Home’. Perhaps still is, for all I know. They have money, these people, but not as much as they’d like, or else they’d have bought a genuine Victorian house and not this reproduction version on a raw new estate the wrong side of the canal. It’s the same red brick, the same bay windows, but the gardens are small and the garages huge – not so much fake as downright forgery.
The uniform posted at the front door tells me the family have already done the obligatory search of the house and garden. You’d be amazed how many times we find kids under beds or in wardrobes. They’re not lost, they’re just hiding. And most of those stories don’t have happy endings either. But it seems that’s not what we’re dealing with here. As the Duty Inspector told me an hour ago when he woke me up, ‘I know we wouldn’t normally call you in this early, but this late at night, a kid that young, it feels all wrong. And the family were having a party so people had started looking for her long before they called us. I decided pissing you off was the least of our worries.’ I’m not, actually. Pissed off, that is. And to be honest, I’d have done the same.
‘Out the back’s a bombsite, I’m afraid, sir,’ says the PC at the door. ‘People must’ve been traipsing up and down all night. Bits of dead firework everywhere. Kids.
Can’t see forensics getting sod all out there, sir.’
Great, I think. Effing fantastic.
Gislingham rings the bell and we stand at the door, waiting. He’s shifting nervously from one foot to the other. Doesn’t matter how many times you do it, you never get used to it. And when you do, it’s time to quit. I take a few last gasps of fag and look back round the close. Despite the fact that it’s two in the morning, almost every house is glaring with light, and there are people at several of the upstairs windows. Two patrol cars are parked on the scrubby bike-tracked grass opposite, their lights throbbing, and a couple of tired PCs are trying to keep the rubberneckers at a decent distance. There are half a dozen other officers on doorsteps, talking to the neighbours. Then the front door opens and I swing round.
She’s heavier than I’d expected. Jowls already forming and she can’t be more than, what, mid-thirties? She has a cardigan on over a party dress – a halter-neck leopard-print job in a dull orangey colour that doesn’t go with her hair. She glances down the street and then wraps the cardy tighter about herself. But it’s hardly cold. It touched ninety today.
‘DI Adam Fawley, Mrs Mason. May we come in?’
‘Can you take your shoes off? The carpet’s only just been cleaned.’
I’ve never understood why people buy cream carpet, especially if they have children, but it hardly seems the moment to argue. So we bend over like a couple of schoolkids, undoing our laces. Gislingham flashes me a look: there are hooks by the door labelled with the family’s names, and their shoes are lined up by the mat. By size. And colour. Jesus.
Odd, though, what exposing your feet does to your brain. Padding about in socks makes me feel like an amateur. It’s not a good start.
The sitting room has an archway through to a kitchen with a breakfast bar. There are some women in there, whispering, fussing about the kettle, their party make‑up bleak in the unflinching neon light. The family are perched on the edge of a sofa far too big for the space. Barry Mason, Sharon and the boy, Leo. The kid stares at the floor, Sharon stares at me, Barry’s all over the place. He’s got up like the identikit hipster Dad – cargo pants, slightly too spiky hair, slightly too garish floral shirt not tucked in – but if the look is landlocked at thirty-five, the dark hair is dyed and I suspect he’s a good ten years older than his wife. Who evidently buys the trousers in this house.
You get all sorts of emotions when a kid goes missing. Anger, panic, denial, guilt. I’ve seen them all, alone and in combination. But there’s a look on Barry Mason’s face I’ve not seen before. A look I can’t define. As for Sharon, her fists are clenched so rigid her knuckles are white.
I sit down. Gislingham doesn’t. I think he’s worried the furniture might not take his weight. He eases his shirt collar away from his neck, hoping no one notices.
‘Mrs Mason, Mr Mason,’ I begin. ‘I understand this must be a difficult time, but it’s vital we gather as much information as we can. I’m sure you know this already, but the first few hours really are crucial – the more we know, the more likely it’ll be that we find Daisy safe and well.’
Sharon Mason pulls at a loose thread on her cardigan. ‘I’m not sure what else we can tell you – we already spoke to that other officer –’
‘I know, but perhaps you can just talk me through it again. You said Daisy was at school today as usual and after that she was here in the house until the party started – she didn’t go out to play?’
‘No. She was in her bedroom upstairs.’
‘And the party – can you tell me who came?’
Sharon glances at her husband, then at me. ‘People from the close. The children’s classmates. Their parents.’
Her kids’ friends then. Not hers. Or theirs.
‘So, what – forty people? Would that be fair?’
She frowns. ‘Not so many. I have a list.’
‘That would be very helpful – if you could give it to DC Gislingham.’
Gislingham looks up briefly from his notebook.
‘And you last saw Daisy when exactly?’
Barry Mason still hasn’t said anything. I’m not even sure if he heard me. I turn to him. He’s got a toy dog in his hands and keeps twisting it. It’s distress, I know, but it looks unnervingly like he’s wringing its neck.
He blinks. ‘I dunno,’ he says dully. ‘Elevenish maybe? It was all a bit confused. Busy. You know, lots of people.’
‘But it was midnight when you realized she was missing.’
‘We decided it was time the kids went to bed. People were starting to leave. But we couldn’t find her. We looked everywhere. We called everyone we could think of. My little girl – my beautiful little girl –’
He starts to cry. I still find that hard to handle, even now. When men weep.
I turn to Sharon. ‘Mrs Mason? What about you? When did you last see your daughter? Was it before or after the fireworks?’
Sharon shivers suddenly. ‘Before, I think.’
‘And the fireworks started when?’
‘Ten. As soon as it got dark. We didn’t want them going on too late. You can get in trouble. They can report you to the council.’
‘So you last saw Daisy before that. Was it in the garden or in the house?’
She hesitates, frowning. ‘In the garden. She was running about all night. Quite the belle of the ball.’
I wonder, in passing, how long it is since I’ve heard anyone use that phrase. ‘So Daisy was in good spirits – nothing worrying her, as far as you knew?’
‘No, nothing. She was having a lovely time. Laughing. Dancing to the music. What girls do.’
I glance at the brother, interested in his reaction. But there is none. He is sitting remarkably still. Considering.
‘When did you last see Daisy, Leo?’
He shrugs. He doesn’t know. ‘I was watching the fireworks.’
I smile at him. ‘Do you like fireworks?’
He nods, not quite meeting my eye.
‘You know what? So do I.’
He glances up and there’s a little flutter of connection, but then his head drops again and he starts pushing one foot across the rug, making circles in the shagpile. Sharon reaches out and taps him on the leg. He stops.
I turn to Barry again. ‘And the side gate to the garden was open, I believe.’
Barry Mason sits back, suddenly defensive. He sniffs loudly and wipes his hand across his nose. ‘Well, you can’t be up and down opening the door every five minutes, can you? It was easier to have people come in that way. Less mess in the house.’ He glances at his wife.
I nod. ‘Of course. I see the garden backs on to the canal. Do you have a gate on to the towpath?’
Barry Mason shakes his head. ‘Fat chance – council won’t let you. There’s no way he got in that way.’
He looks away again. ‘Whoever it was. The bastard who took her. The bastard who took my Daisy.’
I write ‘my’ on my notepad and put a question mark next to it. ‘But you didn’t actually see a man?’
He takes a deep breath that breaks into a sob, and he looks away, tears starting again. ‘No. I didn’t see anyone.’
I shuffle through my papers. ‘I have the photo of Daisy you gave Sergeant Davis. Can you tell me what she was wearing?’
There’s a pause.
‘It was fancy dress,’ says Sharon eventually. ‘For the children. We thought that would be nice. Daisy was dressed as her name.’
‘I’m sorry, I’m not with you –’
‘A daisy. She was dressed as a daisy.’
I sense Gislingham’s reaction, but don’t allow myself to look at him. ‘I see. So that was –’
‘A green skirt, green tights and shoes. And a headdress with white petals and a yellow centre. We got it from that shop on Fontover Street. It cost a fortune, even just to hire it. And we had to leave a deposit.’
Her voice falters. She gasps, then clenches her hand into a fist and pushes it against her mouth, her shoulders shaking. Barry Mason reaches across and puts an arm round his wife. She’s whimpering, rocking backwards and forwards, telling him it’s not her fault, that she didn’t know, and he starts to stroke her hair.
There’s another silence, then suddenly Leo edges forward and slips off the sofa. All his clothes seem slightly too big for him; you can barely see his hands for his sleeves. He comes over to me and gives me his phone. It’s showing a still from a video. A still of Daisy in her green skirt. She’s a beautiful child, no doubt about that. I press Play and watch for about fifteen seconds as she dances for the camera. She’s brimming with confidence and exuberance – it radiates off her even on a two-inch screen. When the video stops, I check the tag – it’s only three days old. Our first piece of luck. We don’t always get something as up to date as this.
‘Thank you, Leo.’ I look up at Sharon Mason, who’s now blowing her nose. ‘Mrs Mason, if I give you my mobile number can you send this to me?’
She waves her hands helplessly. ‘Oh, I’m hopeless with those things. Leo can do it.’
I glance at him and he nods. His fringe is a bit too long, but he doesn’t seem to mind it in his eyes. They’re dark, his eyes. Like his hair.
‘Thanks, Leo. You must be good with phones for someone your age. How old are you?’
He blushes, just a little. ‘Ten.’
I turn to Barry Mason. ‘Did Daisy have her own computer?’
‘No way. The things you hear about with kids online these days. I let her use my PC sometimes as long as I’m in the room with her.’
‘So no email?’
‘What about a mobile?’
This time it’s Sharon who answers. ‘We thought she was too young. I said she could have one for Christmas. She’ll be nine by then.’
So that’s one less chance of tracking her down. But this I do not say. ‘Did you see anyone with Daisy last night, Leo?'
He starts, then shakes his head.
‘Or before that – was there anyone hanging around? Anyone you saw going to or from school?’
‘I drive them to school,’ says Sharon sharply. As if that settles it.
And then the doorbell rings. Gislingham flips his notebook shut. ‘That’ll be SOCO. Or whatever we’re supposed to call them now.’
Sharon looks at her husband, bewildered. ‘He means forensics,’ says Barry.
Sharon turns to me. ‘What are they here for? We haven’t done anything.’
‘I know that, Mrs Mason. Please don’t be alarmed. It’s standard procedure in a – when a child goes missing.’
Gislingham opens the front door and lets them in. I recognize Alan Challow straight away. He started on the job a few months after I did. Hasn’t aged that well. Too little on top, too much round the waist. But he’s good. He’s good.
He nods to me. We don’t need the pleasantries. ‘Holroyd’s just getting the kit from the car,’ he says briskly. His paper suit is creaking. It’s going to be hell in that thing when the sun comes up.
‘We’ll go upstairs first,’ he says, pulling on his gloves. ‘Then start outside as soon as it’s light. No press yet, I see. Praise be for small mercies.’
Sharon Mason has got unsteadily to her feet. ‘I don’t want you poking about in her room – touching her things – treating us like criminals –’
‘It’s not a full forensic search, Mrs Mason – we won’t be making any mess. We don’t even need to go into her room. We just need to take her toothbrush.’
Because it’s the best source for DNA. Because we might need that to match to her body. But this, again, I do not say.
‘We will be making a more extensive search in the garden, in case her abductor has left any physical evidence that might help us identify him. I trust we have your agreement to do that?’
Barry Mason nods, then reaches up and touches his wife’s elbow. ‘Best we just let them do their job, eh?’
‘And we’ll be arranging for a Family Liaison Officer to attend as soon as possible.’
Sharon turns to me. ‘What do you mean, attend ?’
‘They’ll be here to make sure you’re kept informed as soon as we get any news, and to be on hand in case you need anything.’
Sharon frowns. ‘What here? In the house ?’
‘Yes, if that’s OK with you. They’re fully trained – there’s nothing to worry about, they won’t be at all intrusive –’
But she’s already shaking her head. ‘No. I don’t want anyone here. I don’t want you people spying on us. Is that clear?’
I glance at Gislingham, who gives a minute shrug.
I take a deep breath. ‘That is, of course, your right.
We will designate a member of our team to be your point of contact, and if you change your mind –’
‘No,’ she says quickly. ‘We won’t.’
* * *
Oxford’s News @OxfordNewsOnline 02.45
BREAKING Reports coming in of considerable police presence on the Canal Manor development – no further details as yet . . .
Julie Hill @JulieHillinOxford 02.49
@OxfordNewsOnline I live on Canal Manor – there was a party last night and the police are here now questioning the neighbours
Julie Hill @JulieHillinOxford 02.49
@OxfordNewsOnline No one seems to know what’s happening – there are about 15 police cars
Angela Betterton @AngelaGBetterton 02.52
@JulieHillinOxford @OxfordNewsOnline I was at the party – it’s their daughter – apparently she’s gone missing – she’s in my son’s class
Julie Hill @JulieHillinOxford 02.53
@AngelaGBetterton Oh that’s awful, I thought it must be drugs or something @OxfordNewsOnline
Oxford’s News @OxfordNewsOnline 02.54
@AngelaGBetterton What’s the little girl’s name and age?
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