THERE WERE GHOSTS at the table. Jack Deacon could see them as clear as day: two little girls and a young man. Nor was it entirely his imagination. He knew from their expressions, from the way their eyes slid away from his and they kept the conversation so politely inconsequential there was no danger of saying anything meaningful, that two of his companions could see them too. Even the third, who - sharing no history with the disappeared - should have been immune to their claim, was obscurely aware that there were more people round the table than there were places set, and felt the tension they generated even if she wasn't sure where it was coming from.
Detective Superintendent Deacon felt himself getting more and more testy at how the absentees had hijacked his party. He'd been juggling his workload all week to leave himself free - a task complicated by the fact that he wanted the sergeant who would normally have covered for him to be here too. He'd booked a nice restaurant, and a taxi for afterwards so anyone who felt like getting drunk could do so with a clear conscience. He'd even ordered champagne, though he could have named half a dozen wines that would have done the job better, less pretentiously, for less money. He'd done everything he could think of to make the night a success.
In spite of which the four of them were sitting round the table like the shortlist for a promotion board, avoiding one another's gaze and making talk that was not so much small as microscopic.
And it wasn't like them. At least, he didn't know Helen Choi well enough to judge, he'd only met her a couple oftimes since Detective Sergeant Voss came into work with a glazed expression one morning and confessed he'd fallen in love at an exhibition of T'ang Dynasty art. But Charlie Voss and Brodie Farrell were the two people he knew best in the world and stilted conversation wasn't natural to either of them. Voss was subtle - at least for a policeman - with a quiet manner hiding an intellect Deacon occasionally suspected of being sharper than his own, but he never had difficulty expressing himself, even with officers twenty years and several ranks his senior. He didn't normally seek refuge in cliches or part with opinions as if they were teeth.
And the first thing Jack Deacon learned about Brodie, long before he became interested in her personally, was that she was incapable of being intimidated. His attempts to bully her had rebounded like a steel-tipped boomerang, making him dive for cover. She was a strikingly handsome woman, tall and lithe with a cloud of dark hair and eyes like gemstones; but even plain to the point of homely she would still have been a strong, determined, humorous, passionate woman who left her initials carved on men's souls. She wasn't the sort of woman to withdraw to the powder room when masculine subjects like politics and the stock market came up. She was the sort of woman who knew her own portfolio inside out and never put her gains down to luck. She was the most interesting woman Deacon had ever known. When he learned that her husband had left her for someone else, his first instinct was to send the poor chap for a CAT-scan.
So what was she doing, sitting here with her eyes downcast, smiling politely at Helen's valiant attempts to inject some life into the proceedings, pretending an interest in girly things like fashion and holidays and - God help us all, thought Deacon despairingly - origami?
When he could bear it no longer he thumped his hands down on the table-top - flattening a paper napkin swan in the process - and rocked his big body back in its chair. Voss watched nervously. He did this at the office too, but now they bought him chairs sturdy enough to cope.
"Right," said Deacon grimly. "This is supposed to be a celebration. There may be police forces elsewhere in England, perhaps even elsewhere on the south coast, which can confidently expect to see their efforts rewarded with success on a regular basis. But here in dear, damp, dingy Dimmock it's always a matter of blood, sweat, toil and tears, so when we get a result we like to mark it. Right, Charlie Voss?"
"Right," agreed Voss obediently. He had ginger hair and freckles, and didn't usually wear a tie.
"Nine months we've been hacking away at this," Deacon continued. "Tonight I am happy to announce that we've got four crates of crack under lock and key, we've got five men in custody and we've shut down a pipeline that's been making a lot of weak people very ill and a lot of bad people very rich. On top of that we've got Joe Loomis checking under his bed every night for bogies. Well - actually, for me. He knows I've got a rock-solid case against his most trusted lieutenants. He knows that with the prospect of ten years in Parkhurst one of them will want to cut a deal. He's on the ropes and sweating, and one day soon he's going down too. And if that isn't worth celebrating I don't know what is.
"So why all the gloom? Why the absence of cheery faces and chortling, and what passes for humour after two glasses of fizzy plonk? I brought you here to enjoy yourselves - will you at least bloody well try?"
It was a measure of Brodie's mood that, rather than snapping back at him, she started to apologise. "Sorry,Jack. Of course I'm glad you've cracked your case. It's just--"
Deacon took the sentence half-formed from her lips. But if he used words she would not have chosen, what he said was an accurate reflection of her thoughts. "It's just that you're still too hung up on past failure to want to celebrate new success. Well, clearly I've been wasting my time these last few weeks. I thought the best way to make up for a disaster I couldn't salvage was to turn around one I could. To fight a winnable battle. If I'd realised there was no point, that life as we knew it ended with the deaths of two mad girls, I wouldn't have bothered. I'd have spent nights in with my cat instead of hammering away at Joe Loomis and his Drugs R Us emporium. Silly old me, thinking there was still vital work to be done even if the Daws sisters are dead and you aren't talking to Daniel because of it."
A quiver like a little earthquake shook the table. There it was: what everyone had been carefully skirting round all night. But tact was never Deacon's strong point. He liked his enemies out in plain view where he could take a swing at them. Everyone here knew that Brodie Farrell and Daniel Hood had been good friends, close friends, important to one another, until Daniel found himself with a terrible choice to make. Lives depended on it: the lives of a pair of lethal children or that of their aunt who had never hurt anyone. Cut off from all help, Daniel chose the woman.
As a matter of fact Deacon thought he was right, but Brodie thought he was wrong and it was her opinion that mattered to the young man. On the whole Deacon hadn't much time for Daniel and his delicate sensibilities that were so often at odds with the detective's own, but for once he had a certain amount of sympathy for him.Maybe he did rely too much on Brodie's support, but if you knew their history - and Deacon had been there from the start, before it was clear if Daniel would even survive what Brodie, all unknowing, had brought him to -- even that made a kind of sense.
He did survive, with Brodie's help; and with Daniel's help she'd come to terms with what her mistake had cost; and since then they'd helped one another through a number of difficulties. But not this one. Deacon would understand if Daniel's devotion was finally starting to irritate Brodie, but this was a bad time to push him away.
Brodie looked up, an angry spark kindling in her eye. "Don't talk about things you don't understand."
"Jesus," exclaimed Deacon disgustedly, "what does that leave? I have never understood this thing between you and Daniel: not where it came from and not what either of you gets out of it. But I know it matters to you. That's the only reason I give a damn about Daniel. I wouldn' t worry if he left Dimmock and moved to Brighton or Buenos Aires, except that he and you seem to be joined by some kind of invisible thread, and you care about him and I care about you. I care that this falling-out is making you miserable. I don't understand why you don't fix it."
Brodie stared at him in astonishment. He was a big, tough, hard-working, unsentimental man, craggy of face and mien, who made enemies easier than he made friends mainly because he understood the mechanism better. His usual response to a friendship that troubled him was either to ignore it or to make pointed, sometimes nasty, little jokes. It was typical of him to finally acknowledge its importance to her only after it had ended.
She raised her chin pugnaciously. "Two children died because of Daniel. Am I the only one who thinks that matters?"
"No, I think it matters too," said Deacon. "It matters that he saved the life of Peris Daws. The girls were beyond salvation, they'd done too much already, but Peris wasn't. I'm just glad that the one man in a position to help her had the guts to do what was right rather than watch her die and wring his hands about it afterwards."
Brodie wasn't good at taking criticism. She leaned across the table, her retort already in her mouth. But Deacon wasn't finished yet, and stopping him in mid-flow would have been like damming Niagara. Halfway up.
"Now, that's just my opinion, and you may think that twenty years as a detective doesn't qualify me to judge right from wrong. But then, I'm not sure the mere act of procreation makes you infallible, and that seems to be your argument: that no mother would have sacrificed two children - whatever they'd done, even to save innocent lives--so what he did was unforgivable.
"Well, Daniel's not a mother. As far as I know he's not a father. As far as I know, I'm not one either. I don't think that invalidates my opinion. In fact, I think you've let your hormones distort your judgement. You're comparing the Daws girls to Paddy. But they were nothing like your child. They were two deeply disturbed, dangerous young people. They'd killed and they were about to kill again. Daniel stopped them. It was the right thing to do, and it took real courage, and he didn't need his best friend snubbing him in a fit of sentimentality!"
Brodie's mouth was still open but for a moment no sound came. The vehemence of his attack silenced her. Not because his view was a surprise but because he never raised his voice to her. The man known as The Grizzly at Battle Alley Police Station - and worse than that in the Woodgreen Estate - couldn't believe his good fortune in landing a catch like Brodie Farrell and had been willing tobridle his most basic nature to avoid blowing this relationship the way he'd blown every previous one.
Until now. Which told Brodie something, in the calm inner core of herself where she was prepared to listen. Jack Deacon wasn't threatening what they had together because of his fondness for Daniel Hood: he was doing it because of hers. Because he knew the split was hurting her and thought it worth almost any gamble to try to heal it. Even her anger did not blind her to the generosity of that.
She caught the surge of invective halfway up her throat and bit it back, breathing heavily while her resentment subsided like a snarling dog brought to heel. Then she said tartly, "You're entitled to your opinion, Jack. I'm sure a lot of people share it. But I don't believe ends justify means. I think there are some things you don't do, regardless of the consequences. It's nothing to do with hormones, it's about conscience. I realise that's a concept that might give you problems but I'd have expected Daniel to understand."
"And the funny thing about that," said Deacon with devastating accuracy, "is that he feels much the same way."
They stared at one another over the remains of the meal, Deacon's gaze unyielding, Brodie's flickering between anger and uncertainty. For the first time in the seven weeks since these events occurred she found herself wondering if she'd over-reacted. In a low voice she said, "Have you talked to him?"
Deacon rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Brodie, I know him, I know you, I know what happened. Of course I know how he's feeling. So do you."
Finally she let go the bitterness in a long, ragged sigh. "Yes."
"So?" demanded Deacon.
Brodie shook her head. "I don't know what to do about it. I never wanted to hurt him. I could have settled for disagreeing about the thing, I told him that. It wasn't enough. We couldn't talk about it, and we couldn't seem to talk about anything else. He moved back to his house as soon as it was weatherproof, five weeks ago. I haven't seen him since."
Helen Choi had known Charlie Voss for two months. For one of them she'd known what he'd known in the first half hour: that they were never going to do much better than one another. They belonged together, felt right together. They were able to talk to one another, about anything and everything. In consequence, Staff Nurse Helen Choi of Dimmock General Hospital knew more about Battle Alley and in particular the activities of CID than many people who worked there.
So an argument that might have left her bemused in fact made perfect sense to her. She knew about the Daws sisters; she knew who Daniel Hood was; she knew he'd lodged with Brodie's upstairs neighbour while his home - a netting-shed on the beach - was rebuilt after an arson attack. She said quietly, "I expect he's there now." She had a delicately inflected, musical voice and deeply perceptive brown eyes.
Brodie shrugged. "Probably. As long as I've known him Daniel's idea of a night out has been sitting on his steps with his telescope."
Helen picked up her bag. "Come on then. Let's go bum some coffee off him."
All three of them stared at her - Voss with admiration, Deacon with respect, Brodie with horror. "We can't!"
"Why not? If he's busy he'll send us packing. But it's as obvious as sin that you two need to sit down and talk, that Mr Deacon won't be happy till you do, and that while Mr Deacon's unhappy Charlie's going to be miserable. If he comes home glum and monosyllabic every night I may very well dump him and try out the talent in the doctors' common room. At least when I go to parties with medics we talk about people I've met!"
Voss knew it wasn't him she was getting at. He stood up. "That's it, then. If you don't want to blight my life you'll do as Helen says." He extended his hand: Brodie took it warily.
Deacon nodded approval and went to settle the bill.
Behind his back Brodie gave resistance one last shot. "The taxi won't be here for another hour ..."
"We'll walk," said Voss. "It's a nice October evening, we'll enjoy the stroll. Then Daniel can make us some coffee and we'll have the taxi collect us there. This is something you need to do, Mrs Farrell. The longer you avoid talking to him, the harder it'll be."
That at least was true. In fact, most of what had been said in the last half hour had been true, and if a part of Brodie rebelled at having her affairs publicly debated another part was touched that there were people who cared enough to want to help. She shrugged and went with them. "Oh, all right ..."
They walked along the esplanade with the Firestone Cliffs behind them. And if the winos who hung out in the decayed public rooms of the old Maritime Hotel thought it funny to see Detective Superintendent Deacon stroll hand-in-hand with a woman almost young enough, but much too pretty, to be his daughter, they had just enough sense to get back inside before laughing.
In the dark the three netting-sheds were black fingerspoking out of the shingle shore. There were no lights to show that the one nearest to the pier was someone's home, and when the walkers reached the iron steps they saw why. The house was shut up, and there was a For Sale board wired to the railing.
THE DEPTHS OF SOLITUDE. Copyright @ 2004 by Jo Bannister. All rights reserved. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.