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My phone rings as I’m walking through the glass-walled foyer of Harry’s impressive offices on London Wall. I turn and check the time on the digital display above the receptionist’s desk; it’s only four thirty, but I’m impatient to get home. It’s taken months of perseverance to get Grant James, the famous business magnate, to invest fifty million pounds in Harry’s new fund and I’m ready for a celebration. As a thank-you, Harry has booked dinner for me and Ellen tonight at The Hideout, the best restaurant in Cheltenham, and I know she’s going to love it.
I glance impatiently at my phone, hoping it’s a call I don’t have to take. The caller name comes up as Tony Heddon, a police detective based in Exeter. We first met twelve years ago when I was arrested on suspicion of Layla’s murder, and we’ve become good friends since. There’s a curved steel bench to the left of the reception area so I walk over and put my briefcase down on its metallic seat.
“Tony,” I say, taking the call. “Good to hear from you.”
“I’m not disturbing you, am I?”
“Not at all,” I say, noting that he sounds serious, the way he always does when he calls to tell me that an unidentified woman’s body has been found by the French authorities. Guessing how awkward he must feel, I decide to plow straight in. “Has another body been found?”
“No, nothing like that,” he says reassuringly in his soft Devonshire accent. “Thomas Winter—you know, your ex-neighbor from St. Mary’s—came into the station yesterday.”
“Thomas?” I say, surprised. “I didn’t think he’d still be alive after all these years. How’s he doing?”
“Physically he’s pretty good, but he’s quite elderly now. Which is why we don’t want to give too much importance to what he said,” he adds, pausing. I wait for him to carry on and while I wait, my mind analyzes what Thomas could have told them. But then I remember that before Layla and I left for our holiday in France, before she disappeared, Thomas only knew us as the happiest of couples.
“Why, what has he said?” I ask.
“That yesterday, he saw Layla.”
My heart misses a beat. I lean my free hand on the cold metal back of the bench, trying to process what he’s just told me. I know he’s waiting for me to say something, but I can’t, so I leave him to fill the silence.
“He said he saw her standing outside the cottage and that when he went to speak to her, she ran off,” he goes on.
“Because it wasn’t her,” I say, my voice neutral.
“That’s what I suggested. I reminded him that twelve years have passed since he last saw her but he said he’d know her after fifty. She was wearing a hood thing over her head but he was adamant it was Layla. Something about the way she was standing, apparently.”
“But he didn’t speak to her.”
“No. He said, and I quote, “I called her name and she turned her head, but when she saw me, she ran off.” He said she went toward the station but the ticket office was closed at that time and we can’t find anyone who saw a woman waiting for a train. There’s no CCTV so we’re none the wiser.”
I search for the right response. “You don’t really think it was Layla, do you? Not after all these years.”
Tony sighs heavily. “I’m inclined to put it down to Mr. Winter’s overactive imagination. I thought you should know, that’s all.”
“Well, thanks, Tony.” I want to hang up but it seems too soon. “When are you retiring? September, isn’t it?”
“Yes, just another couple of months to go. Not too sure what I’ll do with myself, though.”
I grab onto this. “You can start by coming down to see us. I know Ellen would love to see you.”
“I will, definitely.”
Maybe he understands that I’m not up to speaking because he tells me that he has another call to make. I stand for a moment, trying to get things in perspective, wondering why Thomas thought he saw Layla. I make a quick calculation; we had celebrated his eightieth birthday just before leaving for that fateful holiday in France in 2006, which means Thomas is ninety-two now, an age at which people get easily confused, an age where it’s easy to dismiss what they say, or what they think they saw. It can only be the ramblings of an old man. Confident, I take my keys from my pocket and carry on to the car park.
* * *
The journey home is unbelievably slow, which isn’t unusual for a Friday afternoon. As I drive past the “Welcome to Simonsbridge. Please drive slowly” sign at the entrance to the village, my earlier excitement over the new deal starts to come back. It was good of Harry to book The Hideout; he said I should go for the venison steak, and I probably will.
A minute later I’m pulling up in front of the house, nothing much to look at from the outside maybe, but once inside it’s my haven, and the garden, my sanctuary. In a normal world Ellen would be standing on the doorstep, as impatient to see me as I am to see her. More often than not, roused from whatever illustration she’s working on by the sound of the tires scrunching on the gravel, she opens the door before I’m out of the car. But not now. And today, it seems ominous.
I tell myself not to be stupid, that she doesn’t always open the door, that if I’d phoned ahead to tell her the good news, of course she’d be waiting. But I’d wanted to tell her face-to-face, I want to see her telling me how clever I am rather than just hearing it. I know how it sounds but it isn’t that I have a huge ego, more that pulling off this deal is a career highlight. A result like Grant James is such an adrenaline rush. It even beats the high I get from outsmarting the markets.
The sound of my key in the lock doesn’t bring her to the door. It doesn’t bring Peggy, our red setter, either, which is even more unusual. Instead of calling out, I go in search of Ellen, a flicker of worry making itself felt. As I push open the door to the sitting room, I see her curled up in one of the armchairs, wearing my blue denim shirt, which she continually pinches from my wardrobe. I don’t mind, I love to see her in it. She has her knees pulled up to her chest and the shirt pulled down over them, like a tent.
Copyright © 2018 by Bernadette MacDougall.