Detective Chief Inspector Grant Foster emitted a weary sigh as he crouched over the woman’s corpse, arc lights in the garden bathing them both in bright light, anticipating the first light of dawn. During his convalescence, human nature had not taken a turn for the better. He rose to standing, wincing slightly at the bolt of pain searing up his leg from the metal plate holding his right shin together, then shuddered as he felt a cold cough of wind on the back of his neck. He’d not worn a coat, assuming when he was called and told of a woman’s murder at her house she would be found inside, and not outside on a small, slightly overgrown lawn.
The throat had been cut. The body was framed by a wide slick of blood. He looked around the garden. The fences at all three sides were high, giving a degree of privacy, though the upstairs windows of the properties on both sides would have had a partial view. Young professional couples lived either side and got home after dark. Neither of them had seen the body. Still, to Foster it seemed the killer had taken a strange risk.
He returned to the house. The sitting room was neat and ordered, no signs of a struggle. Foster rubbed his face with his right hand. It was his first week back, early November. He’d insisted on being on call. The call had come that Tuesday morning at 4 a.m., four hours after the body had been discovered. He climbed into his old suit, realizing only then that he could fit his thumbs into the gap between his gut and the waistband, forcing him to dig out a belt and pull it to the tightest notch. It had been just over six months since he’d been tortured and beaten and saved only seconds from death. The thought of getting back on the job had kept him going during some long dark nights of the soul. During some nights, when the dreams were at their worst, Karl Hogg’s hot breath still in his nostrils, the excruciating pain as both tibia and fibula snapped under the weight of Hogg’s mallet, he’d thought this moment might never arrive.
But here he was; his first case back.
He had anticipated a gang killing, probably some hapless kid stabbed in the street in Shepherd’s Bush or Kensal Rise. Instead he’d got this – a woman lying dead in a garden, in a lavishly furnished Victorian terrace, on a quiet affluent street in Queen’s Park, a middle-class ghetto between Kensal Green and Kilburn.
Detective Inspector Heather Jenkins walked into the sitting room with a scene of crime photographer at her shoulder. ‘Mind if I …’ he said, motioning towards the garden nervously.
‘Fill your boots,’ Foster said.
He turned to Heather. Her hair was scraped and tied back off her face and she looked pale and worn. Bad news, he thought.
‘The victim’s name is Katie Drake,’ she said. ‘Thirtyseven years old. An actress. The neighbours two doors down found her. They had a set of keys. They were alerted by a friend of Katie’s after she and her daughter failed to turn up at an ice-skating rink to celebrate the daughter’s fourteenth birthday.’
Foster felt a shudder of apprehension. ‘And where’s the daughter?’
‘We don’t know. She’s missing.’
Everything and everyone was gathered. The Met’s murder squad and all its resources out en masse. Dogs, helicopters, hundreds of officers preparing to knock on doors, ready to shake down every paedophile and pervert in West London and beyond. All waiting for the onset of daylight before they got started. A cursory check of Katie Drake’s body estimated she had been dead since the previous afternoon, perhaps as early as 2 p.m. Her daughter, Naomi, was last seen leaving school at 3.15 p.m. Her schoolbag was downstairs. She’d made it home. But then what? The signs weren’t good. Find them in the first six hours or you’re looking for a dead body. That was the mantra when it came to a missing child. Unless …
They could not discount the idea she had done this. Killed her own mother and run.
Foster stood in the victim’s sitting room, holding and staring at a school photograph of her daughter as if it would yield him a secret. He replaced it on the mantelpiece, her face etched on his mind. The long, straight blonde hair; the pale blue eyes; the hopeful, uncertain smile of a girl on the edge of womanhood. He wondered with a sense of dread about what state she would be in when they eventually found her.
He glanced around the room. It was immaculate, barely a spot of dust anywhere, books and magazines straightened into neat piles on the coffee table, cushions plumped and cornered neatly at each end of the sofa. Perhaps Katie Drake was one of those people who couldn’t abide mess. He wandered through to the kitchen, situated at the back of the sitting room, off what was presumably once a dining room until it was knocked through.
Again, nothing out of place. Two glasses sat on the draining board. They had been washed. The kettle was unplugged and the coffee-maker pristine. Foster pressed the lid of the metal bin with his foot and it swung open. Nothing much to report in there. The fridge was well stocked. Looked like Katie and her daughter liked to eat healthily going by the amount of soups and salad materials.
Foster called a member of the forensic team over to remind them to examine the two glasses beside the sink. He checked the windows and doors all over the house. No sign of forced entry. The killer had been allowed in. The girl? He glanced one more time at the photograph on the mantelpiece. Slit her mother’s throat? He doubted it. But he could be wrong.
Foster returned to the garden where Katie Drake’s body still lay, housed in a tent. Edward Carlisle, the pathologist, was going about his duty with grim efficiency. The body might not be moved for a while, until the whole scene was processed.
Carlisle spotted Foster enter, the serious frown he adopted for his work lifting briefly
‘Good to see you again, Grant,’ he said, his usually rich public school voice ravaged by the effects of a cold. ‘On the mend?’
‘Never better,’ Foster replied breezily, not wanting to dwell on it. what have you found?’
He turned his face up. ‘I’ll need to have a closer look in a post mortem. The throat was slit out here, though.’
Heather slipped into the tent beside him. He could tell from her face she had more news.
‘We’ve found Naomi’s father,’ she said. ‘Stephen Buckingham. ’
‘Let’s pay him a visit.’
Stephen Buckingham looked like a man standing on the edge of a precipice from which he would soon be pitched. He sat in the blue-upholstered armchair in the living room of his house in Esher, eyes wide. Foster sat across from him, nursing a cup of tea provided by Buckingham’s second wife, a shy, conservatively dressed woman, who padded around them softly, casting nervous, anxious glances at her husband. It was shortly after nine o’clock and the couple’s two children had left for school.
Foster had broken the news about his ex-wife’s death and his daughter’s disappearance. He’d asked whether Buckingham had had any contact with either of them the day before.
‘I was in Leeds on business,’ he said softly, looking down at his fingers, which picked and played with each other. ‘It was Naomi’s birthday so I called her mobile at lunchtime. The call was very quick because she was out getting something to eat with friends and it was difficult to hear over the traffic, the sirens …’
Foster nodded, he knew the feeling. The sound of the city.
‘She seemed pretty excited about going skating with her mum and her friends and then a meal. I said I’d see her Saturday …’
His voice tailed away. Foster didn’t interrupt.
‘We were going shopping in town. My treat. Her mother wasn’t fond of it, thought I was spoiling her. But there was little I did with Naomi that her mother approved of.’
Foster asked when he had arrived back from Leeds.
‘I flew back. My plane arrived at Heathrow just before ten o‘clock at night. I was tired so I got a cab back here. It was shortly after eleven when I got here, isn’t that right, Sheila?’
Sheila bit her lip and nodded. ‘About that time, yes,’ she agreed softly
‘Sorry, can you excuse me?’ Heather said, standing by the door. ‘I just need to make a call.’ She slipped out.
‘When did you and your first wife separate?’ Foster asked.
‘Eleven years ago, when Naomi was three. It just wasn’t working. It was pretty volatile for a while afterwards, but while Katie was hot-headed, she also loved Naomi with everything she had, and knew she couldn’t keep me away. We soon fell into a routine. My work takes me away, but I always make time to see her and spend time with her. I’ve remarried since, had two more kids, but it never affected my relationship with Naomi.’
Had Katie remarried?
Buckingham shook his head. ‘No. There had been other men, that much I know from Naomi. But she wasn’t a tittle-tattle and, to be honest, I wasn’t really that interested. I don’t think she was seeing anyone at the moment. In fact, from what I’d gleaned from Naomi, I sensed Katie had been having a hard time of it.
‘In what way?’
‘Not entirely sure. She was an actress. When I first met her, she was a real beauty. She got lots of work, some TV, adverts, mainly stage work, which was her real love. In recent years it had all gone a bit quiet. I think that got her down. Naomi made a few oblique references to her mother drinking. She never touched a drop when we first met, which was why it jarred with me a bit. She liked to smoke reefers back then.’
‘What about Naomi? Did she have any boyfriends?’ Buckingham smiled for the first time. ‘You’ve seen her picture. What do you reckon? From what she said, she seemed to be beating them off with a stick at school.’
The smile vanished. The vacant stare returned.
Had she mentioned anyone in particular?
Buckingham looked up at Foster, as if noticing him for the first time. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered. ‘Miles away.’
‘Did Naomi mention any boy in particular, one that might have been pursuing her perhaps?’
‘No. She did mention one boy she fancied who was a bit older. He was in a band. The name escapes me. The reason I remember is that he was quite a bit older, seventeen or something, and I thought that was a bit too old and said so. She said she was at the back of the queue anyway.
There was another silence as Buckingham scratched at his wrist and Foster wondered whether, if his own life had taken a different turn, or his personality had, he might have been playing an active part in a fourteen-year-old’s life. And, not for the first time, given the pain and suffering this man was experiencing, whether it was all worth it. Was living your life with only one person to worry about the easiest option?
‘What do you think has happened to her, detective?’ Buckingham’s weary voice betrayed his hopeful expression.
Foster shrugged. ‘I hope we find out soon,’ he said. ‘Rest assured we’re putting every resource we can muster into finding Naomi.’
He paused before his next question.
‘Are you a wealthy man, Mr Buckingham?’
The man’s eyes narrowed. Then he realized what Foster was alluding to. ‘I’m comfortably off, no more. I publish three magazines, none of them that successful. You think I’ll get a ransom demand?’
Foster could see a glint of hope in his manner and expression. That would at least mean Naomi was still alive. He also knew Buckingham was downplaying his wealth. This house, Foster estimated, was worth at least a million. A black Mercedes convertible was parked on the drive. He had spoken about the money he liked to spend on his daughter. They could not rule out a financial motive.
‘Keep your phone switched on,’ he said. He cleared his throat. ‘If we don’t find Naomi, you might want to consider making a public appeal.’
‘Whatever it takes.’
Heather slipped back into the room, smiled apologetically at Buckingham. She caught Foster’s eye and nodded. She’d made a few calls. Buckingham’s story stood up. He’d been on that plane.
‘Did you know much about your ex-wife’s daily life, her routine?’
Buckingham shook his head. ‘Next to nothing. She was quite often at home during the day, I know that. We really had very minimal contact outside the odd conversation about Naomi.’
‘Did she have friends?’
‘I’m sure she did. Her best friend was always Sally Darlinghurst, another actress. They met in repertory shortly before she met me. They were inseparable back then. I think they were still in touch, but don’t quote me on it.’
Foster scribbled the name down. ‘One last question, Mr Buckingham. What was the relationship like between your daughter and Katie?’
He gave it some thought. ‘OK. I think they were very close. Too close, perhaps.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, her mother was very possessive of her. I got the feeling that as she moved away – grew up, met boys – her mother would feel left out. Naomi was Katie’s entire world in many respects. I actually feared for Katie when the time came to cut the apron strings. Naomi was already feeling a bit smothered by her, so she said.’
‘Did they fight?’
‘I think so. You know how it can be, mothers and daughters.’ His face dropped. ‘You don’t think …’
Foster shrugged. ‘We need to look at all eventualities. You mentioned to me that your ex-wife was a goodlooking woman. Given the fact she’d been in the public eye, did she ever receive the attentions of any unwanted admirers?’
‘What? Like a stalker?’
‘Yes, like a stalker.’
He shook his head slowly. ‘Not that I’m aware of. She did get a few letters when I knew her, blokes who’d seen her in a play or on television. She once did a nude scene in a TV play that attracted a slew of cards and letters, some rather ribald in nature. The odd photo, too. I wasn’t particularly enamoured with all that but she brushed it off, made me feel a bit of a prude. But no one physically followed her or pursued her – not that I knew of, anyway. ’
Foster nodded. They were already in touch with her agent. She might know more.
‘How about family? Before we take steps like making a television appeal and using the media, we need to track down her next of kin. Make sure they’re all aware of her death. Can you tell us where to start?’
Buckingham rubbed his chin ruefully. ‘I’m afraid I can’t.’
‘I knew Katie for more than five years, intimately. She never once mentioned any family, and never spoke about it.’
‘Never. I asked. I probed. But she closed down any discussion about it. She acted like she had no family. She went to school, came to London and went to drama school, and supported herself by waitressing in her spare time, which is how I met her. That’s all she ever told me.’ He must have noted Foster’s incredulity; he sniffed derisively, as if sharing the detective’s disbelief. ‘I know – madness, isn’t it? But I just grew to accept that it was a closed book. I did find out that Drake was a stage name. You’ll understand why she changed it when I tell you that her real surname was Pratt.’
‘But surely Naomi must have asked, wanted to know who her grandparents were?’
‘She did. But her mother always changed the subject. She told me that one day she would do a bit of research into the family history, find out more, but she wouldn’t do that behind her mother’s back.’
Foster found himself looking at Jenkins.
Her eyes told him she was thinking the same.
BLOOD ATONEMENT. Copyright © 2009 by Dan Waddell. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.