Find Her Alive
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Is Karen Hart’s latest investigation a routine missing persons case—or part of a dark conspiracy?
Detective Karen Hart is finally getting her life back on track—enjoying her new relationship and dealing with the grief in her past. Then someone from her counselling group asks for help locating a missing friend, Phoebe Woodrow, who went out partying and never came home.
Karen wonders if Phoebe’s disappearance might be related to a recent spate of women having their drinks spiked. As she digs deeper, she finds out that Phoebe’s work in medical research involved a shifty alliance with Quentin Chapman, a menacing local gangster—but it was also about to make her a fortune. Did Phoebe know too much? Or was it professional jealousy that put her life at risk?
Chapman makes it very clear that he doesn’t appreciate the police looking over his shoulder. As his threats start to hit close to home, Karen will need to face her worst fears—but can she really do that when her job has already cost her so much?
Release date: February 7, 2023
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
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Find Her Alive
Will Horsley stood shoulder to shoulder with his new workmates, clutching a bottle of beer, and feeling thoroughly miserable. It was Friday night, and they were all crammed into Imporium, a new club in Lincoln.
He looked around, noticing the other customers and couldn’t help feeling out of place. Most of them were probably still in their teens. The lads wore jeans in various shades, slim-fit shirts, and dark shoes. Trainers weren’t allowed. There was slightly more variation in the young women’s outfits. Though most of them involved plunging necklines and incredibly short skirts. Not that Will was complaining about that. The eye candy was the one thing making the evening tolerable.
Will had been pressured into coming out by the rest of the lads in his new department. Most of them hadn’t seemed that bad at work, especially the other fitters. They were down-to-earth, friendly. Although now that they’d had a few drinks, their personalities had changed considerably. On the way to the bar, they’d whistled and called out to a couple of women walking ahead of them. And one of the lads had already been sick in a gutter outside a dress shop.
Will appreciated a laugh as much as the next bloke. He just didn’t find this sort of evening fun. Especially not now that he was nearly thirty. He hadn’t been out on a lads-only night for years. Now, he remembered why.
“All right, William?" Todd asked with a massive grin on his face. His face was flushed, eyes glassy. Another one who couldn't hold his drink. Will had no idea why Todd insisted on calling him William. He’d corrected him multiple times until he’d realised it wasn’t a mistake. Todd was doing it on purpose to wind him up.
Though Will had only known him for a week, he’d quickly worked out that Todd had a mean streak. He enjoyed lording it over the fitters. Todd had a desk job at the council and seemed to think this made him superior to the others. Will guessed it was because Todd had a white-collar job, even though it was common knowledge that a fitter’s base salary was more than Todd got paid for his admin role.
People like Todd were best ignored. But since Todd was currently staring at him, swaying slightly, and pointing his beer bottle in Will’s direction, ignoring him wasn't an option.
“Yeah, grand,” Will said, forcing a smile.
“Told you this place was banging on a Friday night, didn't I?” Todd had to shout to be heard over the noise.
“You did,” Will agreed, wondering how much longer he had to stay until he could sneak off without causing offence.
He looked around the room, keeping a smile plastered on his face, attempting to look like he was enjoying himself, and taking in the surroundings.
Will’s discomfort wasn’t helped by the huge number of imp illustrations that plastered the walls. Two of the beer taps were modelled in the shapes of imps as well. The place had got its name, Imporium, rather than Emporium due to the Lincoln Imp. Apparently, it was a big deal here.
He stared at one of the pictures now as though it was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen. The imp seemed to be looking directly at him, grimacing, showing its oddly shaped teeth, and taking delight in Will’s discomfort. It had one leg crossed over the other, in a position that looked extremely uncomfortable. In his peripheral vision Will could sense Todd waving, trying to get his attention. But he studiously ignored the other man.
The music was loud and the chatter around the bar even louder. Will lifted the beer bottle to his lips, and swallowed. After a moment or two, he dared to glance back and saw, to his relief, Todd had turned his attention to one of the other fitters, prodding the chap firmly in the chest and shouting in his ear.
Will really wanted to go home, sprawl on his new sofa and watch mindless TV. But he didn’t want to appear like an anti-social loner to his new workmates. This was only his first week and first impressions were important. In his old job, nicknames had been doled out after just a few days. Will had been christened Mouse by his last team in a matter of days. It wasn’t the worst nickname in the world. One of the other men was known as ‘Bubbalicious’, because he like to chew bubble gum. It was a ridiculous nickname for a fifty-year-old man, but no one had asked for Will’s input.
Todd’s nickname was The Toddster, which was unimaginative. The first time Will had heard someone say it, he’d misheard and assumed he called Todd the Toaster. At least that was a nickname that sounded like it might have an interesting story behind it.
It was probably too much to hope that Will didn’t get lumbered with a nickname from the Lincoln team, but he hoped it was something a little more interesting than Mouse.
He needed to fit in here in Lincoln, make new friends, build a new life. He’d moved all his stuff to Lincoln and said his goodbyes to family and friends. He didn’t want to go back now with his tail between his legs, particularly as his ex-girlfriend had already moved in with her new fella.
Will sighed and stepped out of the way for a huge group of people who’d just entered the bar. He needed a fresh start. Besides, the Lincoln lads weren’t too bad. Sure, they were a bit rowdy, but who wasn’t on a Friday evening after a few drinks? He just needed to relax and get to know them and then everything would be fine. At least the money was good, and his new flat was nice enough. He had a studio place near the Brayford Wharf with a great view of the water.
He heard a burst of laughter from the blokes around him and saw that the group had turned to gawp at something or someone. Will shuffled to the side to get a look. Todd was leering at a young woman with long, dark hair, who was wearing a tight skirt and the sort of shoes that looked expensive. She was unsteady on her feet and staggered as she approached them.
Todd took the opportunity to grab her elbow, pretending to be concerned. “Watch out, love,” he said. “I think you’ve had a few too many.”
All the lads laughed, Todd the loudest of all. He then smirked at the woman when she tried to wrench her arm free.
“I’m fine,” she said. But the effort of trying to remove her arm from Todd’s grasp made her stagger again, and Will thought she was going to fall. She knocked into a neighbouring table, jolting the drinks, before righting herself.
Will glanced around the bar wondering who the woman was with. Where were her friends? Her boyfriend? But there didn’t seem to be anyone with her.
“All right, love,” Todd said, “Calm down.”
She managed to take a step back from Todd, and then staggered forward before wobbling again and grabbing onto Will’s shoulder.
“Sorry,” she muttered, brushing her hair back from her face. Her eyes were half-closed as she looked up at Will.
She put her hand to her throat and swallowed. Her skin was clammy, and Will wondered if she was about to throw up.
“Where are your friends?” Will asked. “Do you want me to get someone for you?”
She shook her head and looked around the bar as if surprised to see all the other people around them. “I don’t know. I think they went home,” she said. “I think I’ve been…” The final words of her sentence were too quiet for Will to hear over the noise.
Did she say she thought she’d been drugged?
“Do you want me to call you a taxi?” Will asked. “Or I can ask the bar staff to do it.” He nodded towards the bar and then realised that would be a tall ask. It would take ages to make it through the crush of people surrounding the bar trying to order drinks.
She hadn’t replied, so Will lowered his head, making eye contact, and gave her a smile, which he hoped was reassuring.
Suddenly her expression turned hard. She dropped her hand from his shoulder. “Do I know you?” she snapped, her voice cold.
Will was suddenly aware that the group of lads around him were watching this encounter closely with smirks on their faces. And then Todd let out a whoop, “Will’s found himself a girlfriend,” he shouted in a childish, singsong voice.
To his annoyance, Will could feel his cheeks burning.
“I’m just trying to help,” he said gruffly.
“Do I know you?” the girl repeated.
“Then why are you talking to me?”
Will took a step back, smarting at the unfairness of the situation. He had been trying to help, and hadn’t she put her hand on his shoulder? He studiously ignored the group of men he was with, turning his back on them.
“You don’t know me. I’m just offering to call you a taxi. You seem really… drunk. I wanted to make sure you got home safely. That’s all.”
She pulled a face, screwed up her nose, tilting her head back so she could look down at him. “I’m not drunk. I’ve only had a couple of drinks, and I don’t need your help.”
She took another couple of wobbly steps, heading to the exit.
Will watched her for a few moments and then glanced back towards the bar. What should he do? The lads were all laughing at him now.
“Oh, did she turn you down, Will?” one of them squealed, which earned a fresh burst of laughter from the rest of them.
“I was worried about her,” Will shouted back. “You hear about bad stuff happening to women all the time. I just wanted to make sure she got home okay.” He shrugged, took a long swig from his bottle of beer, and pretended not to care.
Not much reward for trying to be a good Samaritan, he thought. But despite her dismissal, he felt a niggle of guilt. It wasn’t right to let her walk away. It really did sound like she said she’d been drugged…What if something bad happened to her? And he’d let her walk off in that state…
He turned abruptly. “Wait a minute!” he called after her and weaved through the small crowd of people separating them. “You’ve got a lift home arranged, haven’t you? You’re not just going to walk around the city centre? You said you’ve only had a couple of drinks, but you’re clearly wrecked. What if someone put something in your drink?”
She turned around and stared at him. Then shouted, “Leave me alone!”
He drew back as though she’d slapped him.
The people all around them turned to look, staring at him like he’d done something wrong. As though he was harassing her.
Embarrassed, he lifted his hands, pointed the bottle of beer at her. “I was trying to help.”
“You were following me, you weirdo!” she spat.
“Have we got a problem here?” a bloke to Will’s right asked.
Will turned and took him in. He was a well-built kid, had to be at least ten years Will’s junior. Acne lined his jaw.
“No. There’s no problem,” Will said, shaking his head and walking back to his group.
“You’ve really got to learn to take no for an answer, Will,” Todd said with a cackle as he joined the group of lads.
Will put his beer bottle down on the nearest table. “I was trying to make sure she was all right,” he said again.
“Yeah, yeah,” Todd said smirking. “You were just trying to see if you could get lucky more like. Think we’ll start calling you Desperado!”
The others snorted and laughed in agreement. Will fumed as their comments washed over him. “Yeah, good one, Toddster. Will Desperado Horsley!”; “It suits him!”; “Desperado, it’s perfect.”
Will felt the tension build between his shoulders. He’d had enough. There was no point trying to bond with this crowd. He didn’t need the hassle. It was too loud in the bar. People were drunk. And now he had a nickname far worse than Mouse. He’d been humiliated when he’d been trying to do the right thing.
He stared at the floor angrily. He could still feel eyes on him, judging him. They all believed he was the type of bloke to hassle a woman in a bar.
He took a deep breath. He needed to forget about her. She’d likely be fine. He didn’t know why he was so bothered.
He bit down on the inside of his cheek.
There’d been a lot in the news recently about women being drugged, assaulted… murdered.
He turned back towards the exit and noticed that she’d gone. An uneasy feeling crept into his stomach.
All right, so she’d knocked him back, made him feel like a bit of an idiot, but maybe that was because she was scared. He should have at least told someone at the bar, tried to get her some help, but he’d been angry at her reaction, so he’d shrugged her off.
Later, he’d regret that. Later, he’d see her picture in the news. Her face bright, young, hopeful, and vulnerable, and he’d realise he should have done something.
He should have persisted.
He should have helped.
Karen stretched her arms over her head and sighed. For the past hour, she’d been comfortably sprawled on the sofa, after eating a huge Sunday roast that she and Mike had cooked together that afternoon.
Mike was currently elbow deep in suds in the kitchen. They’d put the plates and cutlery in the dishwasher, but Mike was scrubbing the pans. He told her he liked it. He said he found it relaxing. Karen had never heard anything so shocking. Imagine liking washing up! She’d teased him, told him she had an ironing pile if he needed to do any more relaxing later.
Karen reached for her wine glass and smiled at Sandy, Mike’s spaniel, an ex-police dog, who was curled up in the middle of the rug in front of the fireplace. It was her favourite spot, even when the fire wasn’t on, and it certainly didn’t need to be on that evening. It was late May, and after a few days of hot sunshine, the house had held onto the heat.
Karen felt her eyelids droop. All that food, plus a liberal helping of wine, had made her sleepy and content. Well, almost content. If she could just put work completely out of her mind, she’d be happy. The day would have been perfect if it hadn’t been for those dark worries intruding. Even now, half asleep, a belly full of food and slightly tipsy, she couldn’t get her latest case out of her head.
It had been a tough week. They’d finally got together enough evidence to make an arrest on a case they’d been working on for months. A highly organised group of criminals had been targeting the elderly population in the villages surrounding Lincoln. After casing properties, they identified vulnerable individuals and broke into their houses late at night, often seriously injuring their victims if they resisted or tried to stop the burglary.
The CPS had agreed they had enough to go forward with a prosecution, and Karen had been there when they’d brought in the ringleader. She’d had the satisfaction of reading him his rights.
Suddenly, Sandy barked, and Karen, on the verge of dozing off, jerked upright, causing the small amount of wine left in her glass to slosh around. Sandy stood, tense, quivering.
Karen placed her glass on the coffee table. She stood, glancing through the living room window, to look out onto the drive, but she couldn’t see what had caused Sandy to bark. She glanced at her watch. It was nine thirty already.
She expected to hear the doorbell at any moment. Sandy was a very reliable early warning for people walking down the drive. They rarely got to ring the doorbell before Sandy heard them. But the bell didn’t ring, and Karen’s phone didn’t make its usual shrill beep to inform her the video doorbell had detected movement.
She followed Sandy, who padded out to the hall and barked again.
Mike appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, frowning. “What’s all the noise?” he said, looking at the dog.
“Probably nothing,” Karen said. “I didn’t get an alert on my phone.” She peered through the window by the front door but only saw her own car parked next to Mike’s.
“No, Sandy doesn’t get it wrong. There’ll be something out there,” Mike said.
Karen turned to look at him, concerned.
Mike gave a bemused smile. “I just meant she’ll be reacting to something. Probably wildlife. There’s nothing to worry about. I’ll go and check if you like,” he said, drying his hands with a tea towel and looking around for his shoes.
“No, it’s fine. I’ll go,” Karen said. “You’re in the middle of washing up.” She slipped on her shoes, which were by the front door, and stepped outside.
Despite the warm evening, Karen shivered.
She could smell the Honesty blooming close to the front door, mixed with the green scent of cut grass. She took a deep breath of soft evening air and pulled the door shut behind her. She didn’t want Sandy getting out and deciding to chase the wildlife. Not that that was typical Sandy behaviour. Karen had never known such an obedient animal. Mike had trained her himself. He had once worked with police dogs, where it was essential the dog’s obeyed commands, and were under control at all times.
Stepping off the driveway onto the small lawn in her front garden, she peered around. There were plenty of shrubs and small trees casting shadows, making good hiding places, but she didn’t see anything unexpected. Would she be this concerned if they hadn’t just arrested the head of a vicious gang of criminals?
She made a slow loop of the front garden. On the road, a bat swooped manically around the streetlight, chasing moths drawn to the brightness. After Sandy’s reaction, Karen had expected to see something, maybe a fox snuffling by the bins. She rubbed her arms and shivered again as she walked towards the beech hedge, trying and failing to stop thinking about work. The recent arrest had been a big success, a real coup for the team. DCI Churchill was on cloud nine and couldn’t stop smiling. And the superintendent had even come downstairs to congratulate them and thank them all for their hard work.
But the case had shaken Karen. When the top man had been in cuffs, being led towards a marked police car, when he’d stopped, leaned in close and said, “You don’t know who you’re messing with.” He’d growled the words, his breath sour against her face. “I have friends in high places.”
Karen had stood her ground as DC Rick Cooper yanked him back. “Is that a threat? Bigger men than you have tried that,” she’d said coolly.
“Keep your mouth shut,” Rick had said, pulling him along.
“No, keep him talking. We might get him on a few more charges if we’re lucky.” Karen smiled.
“You little—” he snarled, but Rick had pushed him against the side of the car, winding him, stealing the rest of his words.
But after he’d been deposited into the back seat of the marked car and driven away, Karen hadn’t been able to stop her hands trembling. She might have played it cool, but she didn’t feel calm, at all. Her mind kept returning to what had happened to Josh and Tilly. Her husband and daughter were killed after being run off the road by a criminal, who’d been intending to target Karen. Her job was the reason they’d died.
She wasn’t afraid that the gang would exert revenge on her personally. She was constantly on her guard. She would recognise a bad situation quickly and be able to call backup, but she did worry about her family. And now that Mike was practically living with her, she worried about him too. Was she putting him at risk?
Their relationship had developed into something she cherished. They’d met during one of Karen’s cases and hadn’t clicked immediately. But now, she loved spending time with him, and they had a closeness she hadn’t shared with anyone since Josh had died. She was, without a doubt, happier than she’d been for years, and yet… Could she ever forgive herself if something happened to him?
There was a movement beside the hedge. Karen held her breath as the leaves rustled.
From the darkness a cat— pale orange, slim and elegant— emerged. It didn’t run but moved slowly, staring at Karen with a haughty expression.
She smiled. “Oh, so you’re the cause of the ruckus tonight, are you? Good job I didn’t bring Sandy out here. If I had, I don’t think you’d be moving so slowly.” The cat meowed, moving closer to Karen and winding around her legs.
Karen reached down to stroke it. “You know, you should be careful this close to the main road. Where do you live?” she asked softly as it rubbed its cheek against her hand.
The cat soon got tired of being fussed over and stretched before walking back through the hedge.
She turned back to the house and saw Mike standing in the living room window, his face etched with concern as he watched her. The light around him was bright and warm, and for a moment, she thought her life really would be perfect if she didn’t have all this worry. Was it worth it? Maybe she should get a job away from all the stress and danger.
She could have a fresh start with Mike. Though he still had a flat in the city centre, he spent most of his free time with Karen now, living in her house. They’d fallen into a routine that suited them both, although Karen’s job rudely interrupted their domestic bliss at times.
Maybe it was time to move on. But she loved her job and her team. A team didn’t work together for so long without forming a tight bond. They were like a second family to her. But could she really cope with the constant worry that something might happen to the people she loved for a second time?
She smiled at Mike, lifted a hand in acknowledgement and then headed back inside.
“Everything okay?” Mike asked as she closed the door. “I was just about to come out.”
“Just a cat,” Karen said. “Quite a sweet little thing.”
“Don’t let Sandy here you say that,” Mike said. “She gets jealous.”
Karen glanced at Sandy who was sniffing her legs with suspicion. The spaniel looked up with such a comical expression, Karen couldn’t help laughing. “It’s all right. I still love you best.”
She felt her tension melt away as she ruffled the dog’s fur.
Karen had spent Monday morning going through the paperwork with a fine-tooth comb. They couldn’t afford to let anything slip through the net. Not if they wanted convictions.
At lunchtime, Karen’s stomach was grumbling, protesting the fact she’d skipped breakfast. She pushed back from her desk, intending to go to the canteen and grab a sandwich, when her mobile rang. She glanced at the screen. It was Erica Bright.
She hesitated before answering. Erica was a woman Karen had met at her counselling group. They’d visited a local coffee shop together a few times after the sessions. Although coffee was provided in the counselling room, it was weak and flavourless, and rather than satisfy, it seemed to only intensify Karen’s craving for good, strong coffee. They’d exchanged numbers a couple of weeks ago, but this was the first time Erica had called.
She answered. “Hello, Erica. How are you?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Karen. I know you’re probably at work.”
“Yes, I am, but I was just about to take a break for lunch. I’m fine to talk.”
“Right.” Erica paused, then continued. “If you’re about to have lunch, why don’t you come to mine and have lunch here? I really wanted to talk to you about something.” Erica sounded nervous and that was unlike her.
Although the counselling group were an eclectic bunch, Erica seemed as though she didn’t quite fit in with the rest of them. She was always impeccably groomed, stylish, confident. She looked like the last person who’d need counselling. But Erica was the perfect example of why you couldn’t always rely on first impressions.
Her mother had died six months ago, and shortly after that, her husband had, rather heartlessly in Karen’s opinion, announced he was having an affair with his secretary and demanded a divorce. The combination of the two traumatic events had sent Erica on a spiral, and she’d fallen into a deep depression, unable to leave her apartment for weeks. She was making excellent progress, working through her problems and was now back at work. She had an important job— a registrar at the local hospital. Her voice was normally calm, soft and slow, but today she was talking quickly, her voice brittle and nervous.
Something was definitely wrong.
Karen thought through her options. A sandwich at her desk or lunch at Erica’s? She couldn’t afford much time away from her desk today, but it didn’t sound like Erica wanted to chat about whatever was bothering her over the phone.
She stood up, grabbing her bag. “I’ll head over to you now. Can you text me your address?”
“Oh, thank you. Yes, of course, I’ll send it,” she said in a rush of relief.
“What did you need to talk about?” Karen asked.
“Oh, I’d prefer to discuss it in person if that’s all right?”
“Of course, no problem. I’ll see you soon.” Karen hung up and then headed over to Sophie’s desk.
Sophie was engrossed in a replay of CCTV footage. Over the past two weeks, they’d had increased reports of women having their drinks spiked in bars. Sadly, it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, and Karen suspected it was vastly underreported. The sudden jump in reports was extremely concerning, especially as the women targeted told very similar stories about how they’d been assaulted.
Sophie was on CCTV surveillance. assisting DCI Simpson, who was heading up the investigation known as Operation Starling. Various teams were pooling resources, and undercover officers had been deployed to bars around the city centre, but so far, the investigation hadn’t yielded results.
Sophie was working strategically. She was concentrating on two areas: a club where the two prior incidents had occurred, and a bar in the city centre, called Imporium. There had been recent talk on social media, implicating Imporium, but the staff denied any incidents, and no one had officially reported women being targeted there. Sophie was hoping she might spot something on the CCTV that would give them more to go on.
Sophie paused the playback and rubbed her eyes. “Are you going to the canteen? I think I’ll come, too. I’m getting square eyes.”
“Actually, I need to go out for lunch today. I’ll be back in about an hour. If anybody needs me, you can reach me on my mobile.”
“Meeting Mike?” She grinned.
“No, just a friend. She’s making me lunch.”
“Oh, lucky you,” Sophie said. “The highlight of my day is going to be choosing between a ham or cheese filling for my sandwich.”
Erica’s flat was not far from the Cathedral Quarter. It was a wide block set in lush, green, well-maintained grounds and every flat had a large balcony. The building was only four stories tall, and Karen guessed the flats must have been built in the sixties when land wasn’t at so much of a premium. The new, modern flats springing up around Lincoln were tiny.
Erica buzzed her in, and when Karen walked into the flat, she was greeted by a delicious smell and the sizzling sound of something frying in a pan.
Erica walked ahead of her into the open plan space. She gestured to the kitchen. “It’s just chicken and salad. I hope that’s okay.”
“Sounds great,” Karen said.
“You can put your stuff there,” Erica said, pointing at a bright turquoise armchair.
Karen put her bag down and looked around. Erica’s home was just as Karen had expected — stylish and modern. It was the sort of interior that would be photographed for a magazine. The walls were white, the floor pale wood, but the splashes of colour from the wall art, house plants and furniture made it feel unique and fresh.
Huge windows flooded the room with light. It was elegant and beautiful, and suited Erica perfectly.
“You have a gorgeous home,” Karen said.
“Thank you.” Erica said as she removed the pan from the heat.
Even wearing an apron, Erica looked stylish. She wore dark jeans, an ivory jumper, and gold earrings. She had her black hair cut short, which suited her. Karen caught a glance of her own reflection and frowned at her hair, which she thought could do with a trim.
Erica scooped out the chicken out of the pan and handed the plates to Karen. “Can you take them over to the table?”
The table was next to a window with a view over the grounds. Karen put the plates on the blue placemats. A large wooden bowl filled with salad sat in the centre of the table. Even the forks looked expensive. Karen thought of her own mismatched cutlery drawer at home.
Erica came in carrying a jug of orange juice and a basket of bread rolls.
“Thanks for coming,” she said, taking a seat and reaching for a bread roll.
Karen did the same, and after breaking the roll in half, she realised they were fresh from the oven and smelled delicious. “Thanks for making me lunch. This certainly beats a sandwich from the canteen.” As she spoke, a tabby cat appeared in the hallway. “I didn’t know you had a cat.”
“Well, actually that’s part of what I wanted to talk to you about,” Erica said.
But rather than launch into what was bothering her, Erica purposely changed the subject. “So, how have things been with you?”
“Oh, not too bad. Work is keeping me busy.”
“Yeah, he’s great.”
“And how are you finding the anxiety?”
Karen stopped chewing and swallowed a mouthful of bread that now felt like a stone as it travelled down to her stomach.
“Not good?” Erica said, reading Karen’s expression with a sympathetic smile.
It felt odd talking like this outside the counselling room. That room was a safe space, somewhere Karen could open up. But here, in Erica’s fresh, stylish apartment, far away from the smell of stale coffee, the sound of creaking pipes and the baking hot radiators that always seemed to be on in the counselling room, even in the middle of summer, it was harder to confide in Erica.
“I’m struggling a bit, to be honest,” Karen said, stabbing a piece of chicken with her fork. “Sometimes my cases remind me how vulnerable my family are because of my job.”
“Yes, because he practically lives with me now, so that makes him a target. But also my parents, my sister, and her little girl.” Karen stared down at her plate. “I’ve been thinking about giving it all up.”
She glanced at Erica, who looked almost as surprised as Karen felt. She hadn’t intended to admit that. She’d just blurted it out.
“You’re thinking of leaving the police?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes, I think a life without stress would be nice.”
“I know what it’s like to have a stressful career. But my job doesn’t tend to put me in the line of fire, unless you count A&E on a Friday night.” Erica smiled. “So, have you thought what you might like to do instead?”
“No, not yet. I’ve been thinking about it, but I’d find it hard to leave. I love my job and the people I work with.” She shrugged. “I keep hoping I’ll find a way to deal with it, a way to keep everyone safe and keep my job as well. The best of both worlds.”
“Couldn’t you make a sideways move? Perhaps carry on working for the police in a less public facing-role?”
“Sitting behind a desk, you mean?” Karen asked.
Erica shrugged. “It might give you everything you need.”
“It’s worth thinking about,” Karen admitted, although the thought of being buried under mounds of paperwork while her colleagues went out and did the real police work didn’t sound particularly appealing.
The tabby cat, seemingly annoyed at being ignored, jumped onto a chair beside Erica. With a tut, she shooed him off. “You’re not allowed up here when we’re eating. You know that,” she scolded.
“So, when did you get the cat?” Karen asked.
Erica sighed as the cat completely ignored her, jumped back onto the chair, and began scratching at its collar.
When Erica didn’t answer, Karen added. “It doesn’t seem to like it’s collar much.”
It was bright red with a silver bell.
Erica frowned. “No, he doesn’t. Because he’s a serial killer and doesn’t like to forewarn his victims.” Erica chuckled. “He’s an accomplished hunter. This way he can stalk birds, but they can hear him coming.”
“What’s his name?”
“Tommy,” Erica said.
“And he’s not yours?”
Erica put her knife and fork together and shook her head. “No, he belongs to my friend. Phoebe. Phoebe Woodrow. We were at university together and both moved to Lincoln after we graduated. We haven’t seen that much of each other recently, but on Friday she called me, asking me to look after her cat overnight. She was going out and wouldn’t be back until late, and as Tommy had recently had an operation, she didn’t want to leave him alone.” Erica shrugged. “She gave me some of his special food. But she didn’t come on Saturday to pick him up. I’ve tried to call, but I can’t get hold of her. It’s like she’s disappeared off the face of the earth.”
“Disappeared?” Karen repeated.
“Yes, I’m really worried.”
Karen leaned back in her chair. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Erica, but if you’re worried why didn’t you tell me over the phone? Why wait until we’d finished lunch?”
She rested her elbows on the table and put her face in her hands. “Because I sound neurotic.”
“It’s not neurotic to worry about a friend who’s missing.”
Erica looked up. “But that’s just it. According to everyone else, she isn’t missing.”
“Everyone else?” Karen frowned. “You’ve lost me.”
“I reported her missing. Called the police and they took me seriously, or at least they did until they spoke to her family. Her family told the officer Phoebe wasn’t missing. They made it sound like I was making the whole thing up for attention. I really didn’t want to get you involved but…I really am worried about her, Karen.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“Friday morning when she dropped Tommy off. She said she’d be back on Saturday morning to pick him up.”
“And you haven’t heard from her since Friday?”
“Have you spoken to her family and friends?”
“No, I don’t have contact details for them.”
“What can you tell me about Phoebe? Does she have a partner? Has she been upset about anything recently?”
“I don’t think she has a boyfriend now. She split up with her long term partner a few months ago.”
“Was it a bad break up?”
“I think it was mostly amicable. They just grew apart.”
Karen nodded. “Okay. What else can you tell me about her?”
“She’s doing well career-wise. She’s always been a highflyer, very ambitious. In fact, that was why she was going out on Friday night - to celebrate a new business deal she’d landed.”
Erica poured a glass of orange juice, and Karen noticed her hands were shaking. “I know this probably sounds awful, but I need to be honest. Phoebe isn’t the most considerate person on the planet. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Phoebe had asked me to keep the cat for a bit longer so she could keep partying. She’s always been a bit like that.
“She doesn’t always take the time to think through how other people will feel. When we stayed in halls in our first year at uni, she met a man in a bar, and I didn’t hear from her for a week. She’s always been that way, but the thing is, this time feels different. She’s not even answering her mobile, and that is not normal. She’s never without her phone. She’s not updated her social media, and she’s always on Instagram. There’s something about this situation that worries me.”
“What happened when you reported her missing? Who did you speak to?”
“PC Naylor. I called on Saturday evening, and he called back. He said he would file a report. At first, I thought he was taking me seriously. But later, he called back to say he’d spoken with Phoebe’s family, and according to them, she was absolutely fine, and they’d seen her that very day.” She shrugged. “Then I started to think I was overreacting. Maybe I was thinking the worst, when she’s just been having a good time and stayed away, expecting me to take care of Tommy. I’d just feel terrible if something had happened to her and I hadn’t tried to report it.”
“Do you have her address?” Karen asked.
“I don’t. I think she might have moved recently. Things are going so well for her at work, she’s bought a property.”
Karen nodded, thinking things through. She understood why Erica was feeling uneasy.
It could be that Phoebe was a little self-centred and had not bothered to tell Erica about her change of plans. But the fact that she hadn’t been answering the phone was odd. Her family telling PC Naylor that Phoebe wasn’t missing also struck Karen as unusual. Why would she ignore Erica in particular? Had Phoebe’s family really seen her, or were they covering up her disappearance?
If it was a cover-up, what were they hiding? Had something happened to Phoebe? Were the family trying to protect someone?
“How old is Phoebe?” Karen asked.
“Same age as me, twenty-eight,” Erica said.
“Still quite young. Perhaps she decided you could be relied on to look after Tommy while she enjoyed herself?”
Erica took a deep breath. “I hope that’s all it is.”
“What else can you tell me about her?”
“She studied biochemistry at Nottingham when I was doing medicine. We took some classes together and used to hang out a lot. She was fun, always lively, always up for a good time. But as I said, she’s also very ambitious. She works hard. After we graduated, she did a masters at Lincoln. I’m not sure what subject, but after that she set up her own company with a fellow graduate, a guy called Cary. The company has something to do with medical diagnostics. She was always vague on the details, but they’d designed a type of scanner that could operate on a minimal budget. Pretty much the Holy Grail of medicine. Now, a major company is interesting in buying them out.”
“So, Phoebe’s about to come into a lot of money?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Have you met Cary? Have you got his contact details? As it’s Monday, perhaps she’s called into work.”
“I haven’t met him. I don’t even know his last name. And I can’t remember the name of their company.” Erica shook her head. “I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to remember it.”
The cat tiptoed onto Erica’s lap and curled up, purring contentedly. “Do you think I’m being paranoid, Karen?”
“No, I don’t. I think you’re being a good friend. From what you’ve said, it sounds possible that she’s just carried on celebrating for a couple of days and figured that you’d continue looking after the cat. If her family have seen her, that’s reassuring.”
Erica nodded slowly. “Yes, I suppose.” She looked down at the tabby cat. “On Friday, she texted me three times to check how Tommy was doing, checking he was eating and was settled. But since then, I’ve heard nothing. Phoebe may not be the most considerate person, but she absolutely adores this cat. It used to belong to her grandmother, who had to move into a care home a year ago. I don’t think she would dump him like this. I’ve just got a feeling something bad has happened.”
Karen nodded. As a police officer, she was used to dealing in facts and ruling out the most obvious explanations first. But she couldn’t deny that on occasions a feeling had given her a lead she wouldn’t have achieved with logic and facts. Call it intuition, a police officer’s gut, whatever you wanted, but Karen had learned only a fool would ignore it.
After waving Erica goodbye, Karen headed back to Nettleham. She turned on the radio as a presenter reeled through the news and weather, but she wasn’t listening. She was trying to work out a way to investigate Phoebe Woodrow while keeping DCI Churchill on side.
She’d be able to take a quick look at the report as soon as she got back to the station and could try to gauge if there was anything suspicious going on.
She decided not to mention it to DCI Churchill immediately, not until she knew more. He wouldn’t be happy about her taking time away from her other cases. He was results oriented and liked the superintendent to see those results. He didn’t like his officers finding extra work, especially if they wouldn’t get credit for it.
No, he certainly wouldn’t be keen on Karen interfering, especially if the missing person’s report had already been dismissed by another officer.
She’d keep it to herself for now, and quietly investigate it for Erica. She’d need to tread carefully. It was a delicate situation. No police officer liked a colleague wading through their work. It implied they couldn’t be trusted to do their job properly. So, she’d need to be diplomatic.
There was a good chance it would only take a few minutes of her time. All Karen needed to do was check PC Naylor had seen Phoebe Woodrow and spoken to her. If he had, she’d be able to reassure Erica nothing nefarious was going on.
As she pulled into Nettleham station, she made up her mind. It really wouldn’t take that long to glance through the report, and it would set Erica’s mind at rest. She could work late tonight to make up for her long lunch. What Churchill didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt him.
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