Vanished, p.22

Vanished, page 22

 

Vanished
 



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  ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

  ‘Bollocks.’

  I shrugged. ‘I don’t know what you want me to say.’

  ‘You’re full of shit, Raker.’

  ‘Do you want me to say that you’re better than me, is that it? You’re not better than me. You’re half a cop. You don’t use the badge as a way to understand people, you use it as a way to intimidate and bully. That’s why you could never find the guy who was taking those women last year – and that’s why you’ll never find the Snatcher.’

  Davidson erupted. ‘Who the fuck do you think you’re talk–’

  ‘How do you know that?’ Craw interrupted, her voice even and calm, looking at me. Davidson glanced at her, aghast, cheeks flushed, beads of sweat dotted across his face.

  ‘What?’

  ‘That Davidson’s working the Snatcher?’

  ‘I must have read it in the papers.’

  ‘He heard it from Healy,’ Davidson said, almost trembling with rage.

  ‘Last time I saw Healy, he was burying his girl in the ground,’ I said to Davidson. ‘Do you think he’s calling me up to relive old times? We hardly even talked when we were working together, so a catch-up is pretty low on my list of priorities.’

  ‘Have you got anything you want to tell us?’ Craw asked.

  I frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘You say you read the papers, so I guess you know who I am, you know who Davidson is and apparently what case he’s working, and you know we’re here about Sam Wren. So I’m going to credit you with enough intelligence to put two and two together.’

  ‘You think Wren is involved in the Snatcher case.’

  A gentle nod of the head.

  ‘No, I haven’t got anything to tell you,’ I said.

  But her eyes lingered on me. Maybe she believed me, maybe she didn’t, but she was smart and switched on – and I knew instantly that this was a different sort of cop from Davidson and Healy. She was in control of her emotions, able to sit back and analyse.

  And that made her dangerous.

  I was going to have to watch Melanie Craw.

  47

  I called Julia and listened to her tearfully describe how the police wouldn’t tell her what was going on. I told her they’d been to see me too, had asked me to step back from the case, and that I’d agreed. It would have been easier to tell her the truth – that I was still going after Sam, but now through Duncan Pell – but then she’d have that burden to carry, that lie to tell, and the police would eventually pick up the scent. I needed to stay ahead of them.

  As I waited on Spike to call me back with an address for Pell, I thought of something Liz had said to me once. You don’t have that mechanism that tells you when enough is enough. You don’t know when to stop. I didn’t know how to respond to that at the time and I didn’t know how to respond to it now. But without Pell, without using him to try and find Sam, without getting Julia the answers she needed, I had nothing. No missing person to bring back into the light, no hole to fill. Nothing to define my life.

  Duncan Pell lived about a quarter of a mile from Highgate Tube station, in a tiny house on the edge of Queen’s Wood. The road was nice but Pell’s house wasn’t. It looked like a late addition to the street; out of place among the big, red-brick fronts and gleaming bay windows that surrounded it. It was tucked away, half hidden behind a copse of trees, and the driveway slanted downwards, so you were forced to approach at a jog. It was just a box – completely square with no external features and nothing to distinguish it – and, as I approached it, passing the manicured lawns and spotless fascia boards of the other houses, I wondered what Pell’s neighbours made of him. I also wondered how he could afford to live in an area like this. Either London Underground were paying more than I’d imagined, or he’d been left the house by a relative.

  The lawn hadn’t been mowed in weeks. Big, overgrown trees cast shadows across the house, and there were weeds everywhere: the grass was infested with them, but they were crawling through the driveway as well, fingering their way out of the cracks and up the side of the house. There was a red ceramic pot in the corner, with nothing growing in it, and a tap with a hose attached.

  The front of the house had two windows, the curtains drawn both sides. I rang the doorbell and waited, watching for any sign of movement behind a small glass panel, high up on the door – but none came. I pressed my finger to the buzzer a second time, leaving it there, listening to the sound reverberate around inside the house but, ten seconds later, I got the same lack of response.

  No approaching footsteps.

  No sound inside at all.

  I moved back up the driveway and headed down to the end of the road. From right on the corner, between a couple of monolithic fir trees, the gardens of the houses in Pell’s row were visible. Beyond was Queen’s Wood, its trees housed inside metal fencing, its endless canopy a patchwork of leaves. Pell’s back garden was pretty much a mirror image of the front, all grass and weeds and neglect, but it was built on two levels: a stone staircase connected them, the bottom one leading down to a rear gate. It was the easiest and quickest way to get onto the property, because there was no padlock – just a slide bolt – but it was far too exposed: all the neighbours’ windows looked down across it, and it backed right on to the edge of the woods and one of the approaches to Highgate Tube station. It was too risky.

  I headed back up the road and returned to the front door, trying the bell for a third time. ‘Duncan?’ I said, keeping my voice low so the neighbours wouldn’t hear. But still I got no response. I turned and looked back at the street. The house was hidden so well behind all the natural growth, it was like a homing beacon for burglars. I took out my wallet, flipped it open and slid out a couple of thin hairpins.

  Now I was the burglar.

  I’d learned to pick locks in South Africa during my second spell there, from an ex-member of the National Intelligence Service. He was an arrogant, pig-headed racist who I’d interviewed on six separate occasions as part of a feature I was writing on the country, post-apartheid. His views were abhorrent, and his refusal to apologize for the things he’d done even worse, but he seemed to believe we shared some kind of kinship, however misguided, perhaps because I was the only person who’d ever spent any sort of time listening to him. I’d rarely picked locks as a journalist. As an investigator, outside of the rule of law, I did it often.

  I hated it.

  The difficulty. The precision. The frustration.

  Working the kinks out of the hairpins, I took a look back out at the street and dropped down at the door. It was a cylinder lock – the same kind I’d learned with – so I had a small advantage. But the one true thing the South African had said in all the time I spent interviewing him was that lock-picking wasn’t like the films. The next ten minutes of failure proved him right – until, finally, the door popped gently away from its frame.

  I paused, waiting for an alarm to start beeping and, when nothing came, entered the house and pushed the door shut behind me. Straight away it was clear Pell must have inherited the house. It was like stepping into a 1970s sitcom: an awful beige carpet, worn thin by traffic and scattered with stains, and wallpaper, thick and dirty, bleached yellow with smoke. In the kitchen, dishes were piled up in the sink; burger cartons and chip paper; food dried to a hard crust on the plates and worktops. The house was hot and stuffy from having been closed up, but there was a musty, decrepit smell as well, as if every inch of the house – even the foundations it had been built on – had reached the end of its life.

  I headed upstairs. At the top were two bedrooms and a bathroom. The first bedroom was where he slept: a bed had been pushed in among built-in wardrobes and a mattress dumped on top. No sheets. No duvet. Just a sleeping bag. A side table was next to that with an ashtray on it. The room smelled strongly of smoke. To my left was a separate stand-alone wardrobe. I opened it up. There was hardly anything inside: two or three suits, three London Underg
round uniforms, a pair of jeans and a couple of shirts. At the bottom, lined up, were his boots: all steel-toecapped, all black with red stitching – the same as he’d had on the day I’d first met him at the station – and all polished until they shone.

  I headed for the second bedroom. It was the hottest room in the house, sun beating down through the window, forming a square on the carpet. Dust was caught in the light, drifting from one side of the room to the other, and there was a strange smell. Sweet, like air freshener. In the far corner was a wardrobe. It looked old: dark wood, ornate design around its edges, chips dotted along its side and base. I opened it up. There were more clothes inside – more suits – and some cheap rip-off Magic Trees that smelt vaguely of aftershave, which I guessed he was using to combat the musty smell of the old wood.

  At the bottom was a bag.

  I dragged it out and dumped it on the floor, then unzipped it. On top was a coat, big and puffy and covered with dirt. It looked like he’d been gardening in it. I pulled it out. The sleeves were ripped and chewed at the ends, stained all the way up to the elbows in grease, and the back was filthy: black and torn, like it had been rubbed down with coal. I checked the pockets. One side was empty but the other had a folded piece of paper in it: a flyer. At the top was a black-and-white photocopied picture of a doorway, with a man standing outside it, smiling. He was holding a cup of something. Underneath, all the print had been smudged, as if the flyer had been inside the pocket for a long time. I looked at the coat again and a memory stirred in me. Had I seen it before somewhere? It had a strange smell. Not just dirt and grease and body odour, but something else. A dusty, oily kind of scent. Like the smell of the Tube. Pell had been wearing the standard uniform when I’d talked to him at Gloucester Road, but I started to wonder whether I’d seen the jacket in the booth behind him at some point. Glimpsed it and not even realized. I turned it on to its front and flipped it open. Inside, the insulation was coming through in a couple of places and then I spotted something else. Another stain.

  Blood.

  Not much, but enough: soaked into the collar of the coat.

  I set the coat aside and returned to the bag. It had three other things inside: some cardboard packaging, a leather pouch, and a series of printouts rolled up into a tube and secured with an elastic band. I took out the card first and saw it wasn’t packaging at all – or, at least, not any more – but one side of a brown cardboard box, messily cut out with a blunt pair of scissors. There was nothing on one side but more dirt.

  I flipped it over.

  More grime. More dirt. And more blood. But the blood wasn’t what caught my attention this time. It was what was written across the middle of the board in black.

  Homeless. Please help.

  I glanced at the flyer – realizing it was for a shelter – and then at the coat next to it. Now I knew why I recognized it.

  It had been Leon Spane’s.

  Reaching down into the bag, I took out the leather pouch and then the roll of printed pages. The pouch was soft leather, closed at either end and bound in its centre with a tie. I pulled at the tie and the pouch fell open, like a bird spreading its wings.

  Knives, one after the other.

  Different lengths, different blades, different edges, different grips. But all of them had one thing in common: blood on them, congealed and dried, sticking to the leather and to each other. I placed them down on the floor next to the coat, next to the flyer, next to the cardboard sign – and I opened up the printouts.

  They were maps.

  I laid them side by side, but quickly realized it was the same map, reprinted over and over again, just at different magnifications. I brought the one with the closest view of the area towards me. It was Highgate. I could make out Pell’s house. I could see Queen’s Wood, and Highgate Cemetery to the south. And then a trail, running parallel to the Northern line and branching off right. Some kind of footpath. It cut between housing estates as it carved east, and halfway along, as nature became more dense, Pell had marked it with red pen.

  And then I realized it wasn’t a footpath.

  It was a disused railway line.

  48

  They called it Fell Wood. I found it about half a mile south of Highgate Tube station, on the other side of a row of trees shielding the path from the road. I entered through a metal gate that squeaked on its hinges, and passed under a thick covering of oak trees, expecting woodland to unravel around me. Instead, after thirty yards, the trees thinned out and the railway line emerged, gravelled in patches but mostly just overrun by grass.

  The tracks and the sleepers had long since been ripped up, but there was still a raised station house ahead of me, its legs straddling the old platforms on the left and right of the path, its old ticket office perched directly above the line. It was derelict. The ground-floor entrance, the windows and the doors were all bricked up; the windows on the second floor were all broken. Either side of me, trees and grass reached up into the clear blue sky. But when the breeze came, foliage shifted and grass swayed, and I saw modern houses beyond the treeline, kids running around in the gardens, dads standing over barbecues. I passed under the station house, its old bones creaking and moaning in the sun, and carried on.

  Pell had circled a spot about a mile from the station I’d just passed. As I walked, the trees got thicker on both sides, and after about ten minutes a railway tunnel emerged from behind a weave of oak and ash trees. All around the entrance was graffiti, up to about the eight-foot mark, but mostly it was vines, seas of the stuff, the crumbling facade clawed at by twisted branches and covered in a layer of green moss.

  Inside the tunnel, sound faded, like a dial being turned down, and as I stood there, facing into a circle of light at the end of fifty yards of complete darkness, I suddenly felt a strange sensation, as if someone was standing right on my shoulder.

  I swivelled. Behind me, the station house was just a blur in the distance, distorted by heat haze and half disguised by trees. Its second-floor windows were like black holes carved into the bricks, and some of the rear of the building had fallen away: about three-quarters of the way up, the roof had caved in and part of the wall was destroyed. In the roof space, I thought I could see movement, a flash of white – like a face – but after a while a bird emerged, flapping its wings, and took flight up and across the treeline.

  I turned back and headed into the tunnel.

  Halfway along, all noise died. No birds. No wind. No cars. I was struck again by the strange acoustics of the old line, the way volume ebbed and flowed, and when I got to the end, it changed again: gravel and grass became just grass, the distant sounds of the city returned – and two hundred yards ahead of me was the mark on Pell’s map.

  Another station.

  It was smaller than the first one but perched on a raised island of concrete, which bisected the line. Either side were where the westbound and eastbound tracks had once run, both now reclaimed by nature. Further down, on the left-hand side of the station, was another building, this one in behind the treeline. It was bigger, more modern, a small chimney-like structure rising out of its roof, its walls mostly hidden behind thick foliage. As I moved up on to the island, I got a better view and could see a series of ventilation shafts adjacent to the chimney.

  I turned my attention back to the station. Every window and door was bricked up, but a blanket of glass, gravel and debris still crunched under my shoes as I passed along the eastbound platform. Once I was halfway along, I dropped down on to the line and crossed towards the second building. The closer I got, the more of it I could make out beyond the trees. Seconds later, I spotted a space on its wall where a sign had once hung, age and weather rinsing the colour off and on to the brickwork.

  It was the red and blue symbol of the Tube.

  Suddenly it made sense: this was a two-part station. The island platform and station house fed the overground line, a track that had once run between Highgate and Finsbury Park. Below ground had been a deep-level station
accessed via the second building – cleaving its way through the belly of the city, now disconnected from the network. A ghost station, shut down, bricked up and forgotten.

  But not by Duncan Pell.

  The Tube station was surrounded – almost swamped – by trees and foliage, but a path still remained, cutting through the overgrowth to the entrance. I headed in. It was uneven, the concrete broken, but it led all the way through to a narrow passageway and a staircase down. At the bottom, a rusting metal grille should have been pulled shut and padlocked to stop people from entering.

  Except the grille wasn’t all the way across.

  And the padlock was on the floor.

  49

  Fifteen feet away, in the gnarled bark of an old ash, I found a fallen branch. I picked it up, broke it in two and gripped it like a baseball bat, the thicker end facing up.

  Then I headed down.

  When I got to the grille, I stopped. Shapes formed in the dark on the other side and, as I manoeuvred myself into the gap, my eyes adjusted to the light and I could make out an old ticket office. Off to the right, barely visible in the darkness, was a lift: its doors were open, but another grille was pulled across. This one was still padlocked.

  I got out my mobile, and used a light app to illuminate the area beyond the lift. It was a corridor, about thirty feet long, old-fashioned wooden phone booths on the left and then a door at the far end. Another sign, more difficult to read, was screwed to the wall above. STAIRS. They must have led down to the platform. Except there was no way to get down there now: the lift was padlocked and the door was bricked over.

  A noise behind me.

  I turned quickly and looked back across the ticket hall. My phone only reached so far into the darkness. Six feet. Maybe less. Something shifted in the shadows above my eyeline, right up in the corner of the room. I lifted the mobile higher. At the very limit of its glow, grey-blue in the light, I could see what it was. Bats. There were eight of them, hanging from a support beam in the roof. One of them was moving, its wings twitching.

 

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