Vanished, page 14
He glanced at me and then away. ‘He did due diligence on me and that was fine. I’d put everything into place in the months before I went to him, so I sailed through that. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I know what to hide, and what to keep on show.’ He pursed his lips. Dispassionate. Detached. ‘But Wren was a clever boy. He had this natural suspicion. I could see that from the start.’
‘He found out about you?’
‘He found a hole in my story. A payment I’d made. He traced it forward to the recipient, and then he found out who the recipient was. And then it all fell apart.’
‘Who was the recipient?’
‘One of the guys that brings people in for me.’
‘How did Sam know who he was?’
‘He used a CRB check, I imagine.’
‘The guy had a record?’
A noise outside.
I got down off the desk and walked to the doors of the warehouse. At the far end, a homeless man was trying to get to his feet inside one of the tunnels. An oil drum had tipped over, spilling dirt and ash all over the floor. When I got back, Wellis hadn’t moved, but Gaishe was looking over his shoulder towards us. I told him to turn around, then seated myself on the desk again.
‘What are you gonna do with us, Ben?’ Wellis said.
‘You gonna kill us? You don’t seem the murdering type to me.’
I looked down at him, his eyes like mirrors, reflecting back all the pain and suffering he’d caused during his life. ‘You don’t know what I am.’
He smirked. ‘You’re not a killer.’
‘I guess we’ll see.’
The expression fell from his face.
‘So what happened after he found out about you?’
‘I told him I’d gut him if he ever breathed a word to anyone, and I’d slice up his wife while I was at it.’ He shrugged. ‘Looking back now, maybe I should have done that. But at the time, Wren was useful to me. He legitimized my cashflow.’
‘So he just carried on?’
‘How often did you speak?’
‘Three or four times a week.’
But there had only been one, eight-second call on Sam’s phone in the entire time he’d been dealing with Wellis. ‘You used pre-paid mobiles.’
That was why the calls never appeared on the phone records. All except one. ‘So why did you call him that one time?’
‘There’s a single entry on his phone records for your number.’
He looked nonplussed. ‘It was a mistake. I had his real number, in case I needed him in an emergency and I couldn’t get hold of him on the pre-paids. That day, he was pissing me off: he wasn’t answering his phone, I needed to speak to him, and the longer he was AWOL, the angrier I got. I did it without thinking.’
One tiny mistake – but enough to lead me to him.
‘Did you meet in person?’
‘Once a week in a hotel close to his work. I always liked to look him in the eyes and make sure he wasn’t screwing me.’
The hotel was the Hilton on the South Quay that Ursula had described. He just sat there in the bar by himself. Like he was deep in thought.
‘So how did he disappear?’
‘How the fuck should I know?’
‘You didn’t have anything to do with it?’
Wellis grinned. ‘What do you think? The guy was making me a shitload of cash – why would I vanish him into thin air then, when I could have done it months before when he first found out about me? If I wanted him dead, he would have been dead already.’
‘Did he take any of your money with him?’
‘You’ve no idea where he went?’
I studied him. There was nothing in his face. No hint of a lie. I looked across the room at Gaishe. He was no liar – or at least not one who could lie with any competence. ‘What about you?’ I asked, and he turned in his chair, eyes wide. ‘Do you know where he went?’
He shook his head.
I looked at my watch: 8 a.m. It was time to close this down. ‘What was the name of the girl?’
He frowned. ‘What girl?’
‘What girl do you think? The girl in your loft.’
‘What do you care?’
‘I want to find out what happened to her.’
‘What are you, her guardian angel?’
‘Just tell me her name.’
Wellis stared at me. ‘Don’t know,’ he said finally, his tone flat and even. ‘Don’t know what her real name is. Don’t know what any of the men and women we get in are called. They’re not here so I can get to know them. They’re here to make me money. They’re here for people like you and people like your boy.’
‘What about him?’
He studied me for a moment, seeing if I was playing him. Then he broke out into a smile. He glanced towards Gaishe. ‘He doesn’t know!’ he shouted across the room.
‘Don’t know what?’
He shook his head. ‘What kind of a detective are you?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Wren. He used our service once. Must have been a month before he left. Asked me if I could set him up with someone. As long as he paid the going rate, I couldn’t have given less of a shit. A customer’s a customer, after all.’
‘Who did you set him up with?’
‘What was her name?’
‘Her?’ Wellis smiled. ‘It wasn’t a her, dickhead. It was a him.’
Finally it made sense: Wellis was the reason Sam lost all the weight. He’d come into Sam’s life, ruined it, turned it upside down and Sam was dragged under with him. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep. I knew as well why Sam never wanted to talk about his work to Julia, and why – even after the affair with Ursula Gray ended – he was working so late. Wellis was turning the screw, demanding more and more. And if Sam refused, he’d put his wife in danger.
I imagined that was also part of the reason for ending the affair. He couldn’t carry on with Ursula while he knew Julia was in the firing line. Sam was many things – a liar, a cheat, an accomplice – but he wasn’t cruel. He was never apathetic. He was conflicted, unable to articulate his feelings or admit to the world what he really was, but he loved his wife deeply. Maybe not as a wife – maybe only as a friend – but he loved her all the same.
Ursula was just an experiment; a bridge for him to go halfway. He’d spent an evening asking her for every detail of her previous relationships: the men she’d seen, who they were, what they did together. It seemed likely Sam was building up to something with Ursula; using her as a vessel, trying to pluck up the courage to invite another man into their bed. It was everything he could never ask Julia to do, and the reason Sam and Julia didn’t have a sex life. He married her because he was still trying to deny what he felt. Maybe he thought he could push it down and bury it somewhere. But as the marriage went on, it became more difficult to control. Ursula was a route that got him some of the way. Wellis, despite the misery he wrought in Sam’s life, could get him to the other side.
‘I set him up with a nice little Albanian kid,’ Wellis said, enjoying the moment. He pushed his tongue in against his cheek in a blowjob gesture. ‘Fresh out of the fridge, this kid was. Nineteen, skinny, cute little tattoo on the back of his neck. Spoke pretty decent English, and was willing to suck cock for pennies. That’s how you want them: young and willing and ready to bend over.’
‘What was the kid’s name?’
‘I told you: I don’t know their fucking names.’
‘Where does he live?’
‘Why, you gonna go round there and try to find him?’
‘Where does he live?’
A pause. ‘The kid’s dead.’
‘You killed him?’ I asked.
Wellis didn’t reply.
He shrugged. ‘I suppose, in a way, I did.’
‘What does that even mean?’
When I looked down at him, a gentle movement passed across his eyes, like he was on the verge of telling me something. But then he stopped himself.
‘The kid was in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ he said quietly.
I stepped away from them both, trying to clear my head.
And then my phone went off.
Central London number, one I didn’t recognize.
‘It’s Rob Wren – Sam’s brother.’
Wellis was watching me, looking up from under his brow. Suddenly, there was something I didn’t like in his face. I kept my eyes on him as I talked.
‘Thanks for calling me back.’
‘No problem. Sorry it’s taken me a couple of days. I’ve been out in San Francisco since the weekend and have only just checked my messages.’
‘I’d like to talk to you.’
‘Are you at home?’
‘No, in the office.’
‘Where are you based?’
I got the address from him and told him I’d be there in thirty minutes, then I hung up. Wellis was still looking at me. ‘What the hell are you staring at?’ I said to him.
A smirk, but no reply.
And then a flash of a memory: back to when I’d heard a noise outside earlier. I’d been out to investigate. It had turned out to be nothing.
But I’d left him alone.
Suddenly, Wellis was moving: wrists and ankles not bound to the chair any more, sliver of glass in his hand. He jabbed it towards my face, and as I stepped back to avoid it, he charged me. It was like being hit by a bullet. He put everything into it, forcing us both across the office and into the far wall. The whole room shook: glass breaking in the window frames, dust and debris raining from the ceiling. And then he disappeared past me and out through the main door.
I rocked forward, onto the front foot, and went after him – but those precious seconds had cost me. As I hit sunlight, he was already heading out towards Kennington Road. A second after that, he was gone from view. I stopped. Once people saw him, saw what he looked like, they’d be calling the police.
Which meant I had to leave.
I slammed the flat of my hand down onto the front of the car and glanced in at Gaishe, who was looking over his shoulder at me. In his face, it was obvious he finally saw the reality of his situation: that Wellis didn’t care about him and never had – and no one was coming back for him. I grabbed the duct tape and the crowbar, then used the tape to cover the car’s registration plates, back and front.
At the wheel, I went over the next hour in my head: when the police turned up, Gaishe would be able to give them a pretty decent description of me – but he didn’t have my real name. Witnesses out on Kennington Road would be able to identify the car that left minutes after Wellis – but they wouldn’t have my plates. Wellis wouldn’t be turning up at his local station any time soon, so I didn’t have to worry about him for now. He’d be lying low. Keeping out of sight. But he’d come back for me eventually. He’d want revenge. He’d see me like I saw him: a loose end that, sooner or later, needed tying up.
But, for now, that didn’t matter.
What mattered was Sam Wren.
And the lie that was his life.
Robert Wren worked for a PR agency on the banks of the Thames, with views out to Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast. The offices weren’t hard to find: they were in a cube-shaped glass and steel building, with a massive digital clock set about halfway up and a replica of the Wright Brothers’ Flyer hanging in the foyer. Inside, the foyer was huge and airy, and – about fifty feet above me – a mezzanine café looked out over the Thames. I walked up to reception and asked for Wren.
I’d promised him I’d be thirty minutes, but that was before Wellis screwed up my plans. I’d screwed up too, and that was what rubbed at me. Cases ate away at me the whole time I was on them – but rarely like this. The way Sam had vanished, his journey on the Tube that day, the way his life was just a hollow shell built on lies and half-truths, it all added up – and as it added up, the pressure built.
Robert Wren emerged from one of the elevators on the far side of the foyer. He was older than Sam – at a guess, thirty-five – and, with blue eyes and fair hair, he looked like an overweight version of his brother. He was dressed in an open-neck white shirt, a pair of dark blue denims and tan shoes so shiny they reflected back half the sunlight in the building. He was every inch the PR man.
We shook hands. ‘How long have you been doing this?’ he asked as we headed to an elevator and rode it up to the café. I was struck by how softly spoken he was. Julia said he was a partner at the firm and I could tell he’d got to the top through self-control and reliability, rather than by being some kind of maverick, coming up with unworkable plans and screaming at his staff until he backed them into a corner.
‘Finding missing people or finding Sam?’
‘Almost four years.’
‘What did you do before?’
‘I was a journalist – but don’t hold that against me.’
He laughed, but it all felt a little fake. I’d dealt with thousands of PRs during my years on the paper and very few were genuinely interested in you. Most were able to put on a pretty convincing show, though, and Robert Wren was definitely doing that. He got a couple of coffees and then brought them over to a table in the café, along with a selection of pastries.
‘I didn’t know if you were hungry, so I just grabbed everything,’ he said, and he broke out into that same laugh again. This time it sounded different; less like one from the PR manual, and more cautious somehow. After that, he started talking about his brother, initially in quiet, sombre tones, and then – as he tracked back through their childhood and the period after their parents passed on – in a much warmer, more expansive way.
‘Were you two close?’ I asked.
‘Yes. I mean, we fought – fought all the time growing up, and even when we were adults and supposed to know better – but, yeah, we were brothers. We always made time for each other. We used to meet up for lunch, and after work for a drink, because, as I’m sure Julia told you, I commute in from Reading, and I’ve got a couple of kids, so it was much harder for me to meet up with Sam on weekends without military-grade planning.’
I got out my pad and set it down on the table. ‘What was your impression of Sam during the year before he went missing?’
‘Do you think he changed during that time?’
He frowned. ‘Not really.’
‘You never got that from him?’
He paused for a moment and looked off to the marina. ‘I remember when he came in here one lunchtime, spitting bullets because they’d cut his bonuses. He vented big time that day. I’m sure he did the same at Julia when he got home.’ He stopped for a second time and then started shaking his head. ‘After that, he became a bit disillusioned with the whole thing. I remember he talked a couple of times about finding another job, but what job are you going to find in the middle of a recession?’
‘Julia said he was worried about the mortgage.’
‘Yes,’ Wren said, nodding. ‘It gave him some sleepless nights, particularly when Julia was made redundant. I told him not to stress about it. I told him, if it came to it, we’d help them out. But Sam …’ He sighed and leaned back in his chair. ‘Sam was very independent. He was hard on himself; put pressure on himself. He was defini
So Sam definitely hadn’t left that day because he was worried about paying the mortgage. An offer was on the table from his brother, one Sam had been too proud to communicate to Julia. Or maybe too preoccupied. She was still under the impression the bailiffs would be kicking down the door any second.
Wren looked at me, and for the first time there was a sadness in his face. A shimmer flashed in one of his eyes, then he flattened his lips, as if this was some kind of a defeat. ‘I wouldn’t have put Sam down as the kind of guy to walk away. Not someone who abandons his family. But we all have a tipping point, I guess.’
‘So what was Sam’s tipping point, do you think?’
Another flash of sadness, but something else too: the same thing I’d noticed when he’d laughed earlier. Nerves.
He shook his head. ‘Nothing he ever spoke about. Nothing that would make him up and leave like he did.’
‘But something did make him leave.’
Wren looked at me. ‘Right.’
‘So something was bothering him.’
‘Like I said, I think the financial side of things really got to him.’
‘But you’d offered to help him.’
A moment of hesitation. ‘He felt boxed in by the fact that he couldn’t earn what he was capable of earning. And he felt pressure to provide for Julia, especially after she was made redundant. I’m certain that’s why he left.’
‘Did Sam tell you something?’
His eyes narrowed. ‘What do you mean?’
I leaned forward, into his space, and he reacted exactly how I wanted him to: he moved back, seeing confidence and certainty in me. ‘I think we both know that Sam left because something was eating at him,’ I said. ‘What I want to know is what you know.’
He was frowning. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Here are the theories, Robert. Sam left because he couldn’t face up to his financial responsibilities. I don’t believe that, especially now. Sam left because Julia and he were fighting, and that drove him away. I don’t believe that either, even if she does. What husband disappears at the first sign of a fight?’ I paused, let him take it in. He was still frowning, but I could see a shift in his expression. Something giving. ‘Do you want to find him?’
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