Something clicked in the house and he froze, looking towards the closed door, his heart racing. Had it been the front door? Had someone come in?
Aidan turned his head, straining to hear more. A footstep. Rustling sounds of movement.
But there was nothing. It was just the sound of something contracting somewhere, the normal ticking of the house.
He tried to breathe out some of the tension. He’d been looking forward to this evening all week. He was, for once, free and unhampered, and had imagined a whole evening with Zoe. But, of course, that wasn’t how it had panned out. He might be free, but Zoe still had her own schedule. He was back to waiting for eleven o’clock. A standard, frustrating Thursday.
Instead of settling into a film on the sofa, he’d ended up hunkered over the desktop PC, checking Zoe’s Skype icon for the moment she turned her machine on. But it had stayed resolutely red, and he’d wasted hours scrolling through newsfeeds and reading articles.
He’d spent so many nights like this, waiting for Zoe to come online. Half the time she was late. He’d been sulky about it at first, until he’d learned that sulking made her rebellious. She needed to feel free.
He’d had to learn to accept that he would see her when he saw her. That he wasn’t the only one who had a busy life to work around.
At ten fifty-two Zoe’s icon turned green. It took him no more than a second to click on it and connect.
The pick-up was instant, and he was already smiling in anticipation before the image appeared. But then he saw that Zoe’s chair was empty. She was off-camera, with only a moving shadow thrown on the wall as evidence that she was there at all. What was she doing?
He turned up the volume on his speaker, and realized he could hear running water. Was she about to take a bath? Now?
He felt instinctively that this must be some sort of game. Like the times when she undressed for him, her gaze distant and her lips very slightly apart. It drove him wild.
But what was the point if he couldn’t see her? Frustrated, he adjusted his own screen. But of course it did nothing to the angle of the camera in her room. He could still see only the empty chair, and beyond it the wall, with a slice of curtain on one side and the hinges of her front door on the other.
The sound of the running water tapered and then ceased, and there were other sounds of movement, and the squeak of wet skin against the acrylic of the bath.
Aidan sighed. She really was going to have a bath while he sat here and waited.
He thought about hanging up in protest. But if she was only going to be quick, he might miss seeing her naked body dripping with water. Or her breasts barely held in by a towel as she leaned towards the camera and clicked on the mouse.
There was another sound within his own house, and although it came from somewhere upstairs he still paused to listen, his eyes fixed on the wall. He knew it was nothing and after a moment he relaxed again. He was strangely jittery tonight.
And then there was a clicking sound. He saw motion on the screen and realized that it was the door to Zoe’s flat. It was moving, the hinged edge that was within his view swinging inwards.
It was pure fear that hit him then. Had she asked another man over? Was she letting someone in to watch her bathe, perhaps to touch her, while he was forced to watch?
He expected to hear the newcomer call out, but the door closed almost soundlessly, and there was no greeting. No other sound. He reached out and turned the speaker up still further, almost in spite of himself. There was a slight buzzing, and over the top of it the sound of water as Zoe moved in the bath. It was only by straining to hear that he caught soft footsteps. Whoever had come in was moving across the room.
A moment later, there was the sound of sudden movement from the bath, and Zoe’s voice raised in surprise.
‘What – Jesus. What are you doing in here?’ And then what almost sounded like a laugh, but the kind of laugh that comes out of fear. ‘Look, I’m . . . I’m really sorry . . .’
The water sounds dropped away with a pair of clicks in quick succession. Whoever had come in had closed the bathroom door. Locked it.
His heart rate was back up again. Who had gone in there? Who the hell was shutting themselves into the bathroom with her?
And then there were other sounds. Sounds that were, unmistakably, of a struggle. Zoe’s muffled voice sounded hoarse and desperate.
Then, abruptly, there was silence. Absolute silence.
The fear was different now. Something was very, very wrong.
He had to do something. He had to help her. Oh, god, what if he was too late?
He scrabbled around on the desk until he found his phone. He’d started to dial three nines when the realization of what this meant hit him. He stalled. He could see it all: the phone call, the follow- up, being asked in to see the police. Everything finally coming out, and his life collapsing.
And then he heard the bathroom door click twice again as it opened. There were those same quiet, even steps, and then a pause. Scuffling sounds, which he couldn’t make sense of. He willed whoever it was to come into the frame. To show their face. But the steps continued after a while, and the door to the flat moved again. The figure he had never seen left the flat and the door clicked shut.
Jonah had almost let it go. The call. The report. He’d almost let it go.
He asked himself, later, what difference it would have made if he had. This was what you did when you were tying up a case. You looked for mistakes, and for their opposite. For the good things you’d done. You asked yourself how they had affected the investigation, and in this case, the biggest question mark was over the report of a murder that he almost let slide. He questioned whether things would have gone differently if he’d acted earlier, and how different they would have been if he had never acted at all.
It was possible that neither scenario would have changed anything. That events would have gone on implacably to their conclusion. But it was also possible that everything would have changed.
The report made itself known during the tail end of a tortuous Friday morning caseload meeting, made decidedly worse by Detective Chief Superintendent Wilkinson being away. Without him to push everything through, the meeting had descended into rambling discussions on every detail. It was soul-destroyingly boring.
But then they had finally limped through to new case allocation, and Jonah had watched his intense counterpart in the uniformed police, Yvonne Heerden, take on three thefts and a road traffic accident.
‘We’ve had an unauthenticated murder claim passed on by the crime desk,’ Heerden said, next. ‘I’ve given you a transcript,’ she added to Jonah, ‘but I think it’s unlikely to come to anything so we’re happy to take it. The caller claims that his girlfriend was murdered while he was talking to her on Skype, but that he didn’t see the killer. He hung up when asked for his name and details. Crime desk tried to look her up, and found no trace of a woman with that name anywhere online.’
Jonah skimmed over the transcript, noting that the girl’s name was Zoe Swardedeen.
I need to – My girlfriend’s been murdered . . . he read.
Heerden was probably right. This would, in all likelihood, involve admin of a simple kind. Cross-checking with missing persons. Trying a few variations of the spelling.
‘OK?’ Heerden asked, as he read on.
There was something in the phrasing used in the call that made Jonah hesitate. Something that unsettled him.
He was aware that Heerden was waiting for an answer, however, and he trusted her and her team to do this right. His own team was neck-deep in a complex blackmailing case and had little time for unnecessary extras.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Keep me posted if it comes to anything.’
The meeting moved on to cover another multi-casualty road traffic accident that had probably been caused by an HGV driver using his phone. Jonah was glad he didn’t have to be involved. Those were the kinds of cases that scarred you. The kind that made you impulsively check up on all your loved ones. The kind that made life seem flimsy and the world a random, uncaring place.
With those thoughts foremost in his mind, his uneasiness about a strange, anonymous murder report was pushed aside.
There was so much Aidan should have been doing. Three of his students had sent essays over, and he had a whole raft of faculty admin, but he hadn’t managed to read a line. He’d opened email after email but failed to understand them past the pounding of his heart and the ringing in his ears. He wasn’t seeing words; he was seeing the slow opening and closing of a door, played over and over.
The not knowing was the worst. He would loop through a conviction that it had all been some strange misunderstanding, or a dream, and then he would remember that Zoe had never reappeared from the bathroom. Not while he’d been watching. He knew in his soul that she had been in desperate need of help, and that she might never have received it.
He’d searched news and social media sites the moment he was up, looking for any mention of an incident. He’d rechecked at regular intervals since, too, but there was no mention of any murder or violence in Southampton. Nothing about a young woman being attacked. A total void of anything relevant.
There was a way to find out, if he felt he could take it, of course. He could call the police again. This time, when they asked him for a name and address, he could give it to them.
He’d come close last night. The police call handler he’d been put through to had been female. He’d heard her typing everything he’d said, turning it into data. She’d typed away when he’d admitted he didn’t know the number of the pay-as-you-go phone he was calling from, because it was a spare he’d dug out from his desk. And she’d typed up his attempt to tell her that he thought his girlfriend had been murdered. Right at the end of the call, she’d asked for his name. There had been a long, tense silence as he’d teetered on the edge of telling her. And then he’d heard a car door slam outside.
He’d ended the call, and listened, tense and sick, for more sounds. He tried telling himself that there was nothing to be afraid of, but he knew it wasn’t true. There was a lot to be afraid of. There was Zoe being killed in front of him. There was the truth all pouring out.
He couldn’t let it happen. He had everything to lose. Everything.
He’d thought about closing the Skype window, to shut out the scene. But it was the only way he had of checking on Zoe. Of waiting to see if the police arrived at her flat.
Midnight had come and gone, punctuated only by his eyes flicking over to the clock at the bottom right of the screen. Where were the bloody police?
There had still been nothing by two forty, when he had finally closed the program in a rush of despair and gone to bed.
It was now eleven hours since he’d seen the door to Zoe’s flat swing open. Eleven hours, and no sign, no message, no news report.
He could still call the police back. He could still go through it all again, and tell them who he was.
But every time he thought about that, chilled sweat would bloom on his skin. Knowing that he couldn’t risk it created a frustration that was visceral. He could feel it in his stomach and in his loins, and it made sitting still unbearable.
Zoe, he thought, willing her to call him. Zoe, please. Fucking call.