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Paint It Black
The Eleventh Nick Sharman Thriller
By Mark Timlin
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 1994 Mark Timlin
All rights reserved.
Dawn and I were living the straight life when it started. As straight as we could, anyway. With our history.
We'd been married just over a year, and after Dawn had helped me on a case involving a dead rock star who wasn't. Dead, I mean. We were just kicking back and letting the dust settle.
There was nothing stronger in the house than a bottle or two of German beer and some vodka. We had plenty of money and we spent it on eating out, going to the movies and generally having a good time. Don't knock it till you've tried it.
Then one Sunday evening my ex-wife called me up.
There were no preliminaries. 'Are they there?' she demanded.
'Who?' I recognise Laura's voice straight away and I didn't expect any endearments. But I thought a 'hello' would have been nice.
'Judith and her little friend. Who else?'
'Why should Judith be here?' I asked. Bit slow on the uptake there, I give in. 'And what friend? I don't know who you're talking about.'
'Because they're gone. Both of them.'
'What? What do you mean?'
'Aren't I making myself clear? Judith has decided to take a little trip. God knows where. She left me a note. And I'm phoning you to find out if you've heard from her.'
'No, I haven't,' I said.
Dawn looked up from the book she was reading. I told you we were living the straight life. We'd already finished the Sunday papers and completed the Observer crossword. She gave me a quizzical look.
I covered the mouthpiece of the receiver with one hand and said, 'Judith's done a runner. Laura's checking to see if she's ended up here.'
'I thought she was just punishing me. I thought she'd be back by now,' Laura went on, and her voice broke. I hadn't heard that in a long time.
'Slow down, Laura,' I said. 'Just tell me what's happened.'
So she told me.
'Judith's got a new best friend,' she said. 'I don't like her. I told Judith not to see her any more. She disobeyed me as she does constantly. Judith told me she had a rehearsal for the school play. She lied. She was off with her friend. Now they've both gone.'
'If I knew that I wouldn't be telephoning you.'
'Friday!' I exploded. 'Two days ago. And you're only phoning me now.'
'Don't take that attitude, Nick,' said Laura. 'Don't come on all aggrieved like some kind of perfect father. It won't wash.'
'OK, Laura,' I said tiredly. 'Have you informed the police?'
'And you told them about me?'
'They haven't been here.'
'I only told them this afternoon.'
'I told you, Nick. Don't start all that. You don't know what Judith's been like lately.'
'What has she been like lately?'
'A little bitch. Fourteen going on forty-five.' She paused. 'You should hear the way she speaks to Louis and me.'
Louis is Laura's husband.
Laura paused again. 'She's rude. Aggressive. Sarcastic. Just awful.'
A bit like me, I thought.
'A bit like you, in fact,' Laura went on, as if reading my mind. 'Mixing with the wrong people.'
Again, a bit like me.
'What kind of people?' I asked.
'Girls from the council estate. That's who she's gone missing with. One of them.'
'A girl called Paula. Paula McGann. A little cow. Older than Judith. A foul-mouthed little slut.'
'I can see you welcomed her into your house with open arms.'
'I did, too. Then she went into my purse and stole ten pounds.'
'Don't make fun of me, Nick. It wasn't amusing.'
'Sorry. You're right. Have you checked the local hospitals?'
'Of course. They're not in hospital. They've run away. I told you she left me a note. They've probably gone to London. I imagined they'd call in on you while they were there.'
'Because Judith loves her daddy.' Her voice rose. Then dropped again. 'That's why. You can do no wrong. And I can do no right.'
'Don't get bitter, Laura,' I said.
'Bitter ... me bitter.' She laughed with no amusement. 'What do you know?'
I didn't reply. Exactly. What did I know? 'Have you got the note there?' I asked.
'Read it to me, will you?'
'It doesn't say much.'
'That doesn't matter. I'd still like to hear it.'
There was a pause, and I heard the rustle of paper being unfolded.
'"Mum,"' read Laura. '"I'm going away for a bit. With Paula. Down south probably. I've got some money. Don't worry. I'll be in touch. Judith."'
'What about the other girl? Paula. Did she leave a note too?'
'I don't think they're very big on leaving notes where she lives. I doubt whether many of her family can read.'
'I'm sorry. I'm just so worried. I phoned her mother. She didn't seem very concerned. Probably glad to see the back of her. And you're sure Judith hasn't been in touch with you?'
'Of course I'm sure. It's hardly something I'd forget,' I said.
There was a long pause. Laura had a strange note of sadness in her voice when she spoke again. 'You're not lying to me are you, Nick? I can imagine what they'd say about me. The Wicked Witch of the West's got nothing on me, according to Judith. If they are there and they've convinced you not to tell me ...' She paused. 'Just tell me. I'm so worried.'
'I'm not lying, Laura,' I said. 'I wouldn't do that.'
Of course that brought it all back. All the bad things. All the things that split us up. 'Who the hell do you think I am, Laura?' I demanded. 'If Judith was here I'd tell you. I'd've phoned the minute she showed up. I'm not into scoring points. I'm as worried as you are.'
Dawn got up from where she was sitting in one graceful move and took the phone out of my hand like a relay runner taking the baton. 'Laura,' she said. 'It's Dawn. He's telling the truth. Judith isn't here. And she hasn't been in touch.'
She paused and listened.
'I'll get him on to it right away.' She gave me a sideways look. 'If we hear anything I'll make sure he phones you.'
'All right, Laura. Goodbye.' And she put down the phone. 'Come on then, Nick,' she said. 'You know everyone who's worth knowing. Get on it. Your ex is climbing the walls.'CHAPTER 2
Before I could reply, the flat doorbell rang.
'Cops,' I said. 'Pound to a peanut.'
'Or maybe your wayward daughter and her friend.'
I looked through the window. Outside was a police panda. 'Cops,' I said, and went to answer the front door.
Standing inside the porch were two uniformed constables, a male and a female. They were both young and earnest looking.
'Mr Sharman?' said the male officer.
'I wonder if we could come inside. It's about your daughter.'
'Sure,' I replied. 'I just had my ex on the phone. Have you heard anything yet?'
'No. We wondered if you had.'
'No,' I said. 'Come on up.'
They followed me up the stairs, and I introduced them to Dawn, and the male officer told us that his name was Blair and the female officer was PC Hawkins.
'Sandra,' she said after I'd got them sat somewhere and Dawn had got the kettle on.
'So,' I said, lighting a cigarette and noticing a slight tremble in my fingers as I did so. 'What's the state of play?'
'The usual,' said Blair. 'We've put Judith and Paula McGann on the computer. We've notified the officers who cover the railway stations and coach stations to look out for them. Your wife–'
'Ex-wife,' I corrected him.
He reddened. 'Sorry. Your ex-wife, Mrs ...' He consulted his notebook. 'Rudnick. Has supplied us with an up-to-date photograph of your daughter. We have photos of the other girl too. Copies are being made. We're checking hospitals, hostels, shelters. Anywhere where two girls who've run away might end up. But there's a lot of places between Aberdeen and here that they might go. If indeed they have come to London. The note she left mentioned "down south", I believe.'
'Like I say. That covers a lot of ground.'
I nodded again.
'But your ex-wife thought they might turn up here.'
'They might. But they haven't yet.'
'If they do, you'll be sure to inform us?'
'You'll be the first to hear.'
'I hope that we are.'
At that, I knew that he knew who I was and wasn't very happy about it. Tough shit. I wasn't best pleased myself, but I had to live with it.
There was a moment's strained silence as the copper and I looked at each other.
'Jack Robber sends his regards,' said Sandra Hawkins to relieve the tension.
I looked at her. 'Inspector Robber?' I said. 'You must be from Gipsy Hill.'
Inspector Jack Robber was the closest thing I had left to a friend on the force. Christ knows why. We'd been webbed up in a couple of cases together. I hadn't heard from him for a while, and the last time we'd spoken he'd told me he was jacking the job in and going to live by the sea with his sister.
'I thought he'd retired,' I said.
'He decided to spend a few more months in harness,' said Sandra.
'Couldn't face moving to the seaside,' I said. 'Under his sister's thumb.'
The policewoman smiled. 'Something like that,' she said.
'Send him my best back.'
'He said that he'd do anything he could to help,' she went on.
'Tell him thanks. I need someone like him on my side.' And I blimped her colleague again. 'I just hope the pair of them will turn up soon.' And for the first time since Laura had phoned I felt the full significance of what was happening and what the consequences could be for two young girls on their own, out there somewhere, unprotected from the loonies who stalked this once benign country of ours. 'What the hell does Judith think she's doing?' I said.
Neither of the uniformed police answered. It was an impossible question.
Dawn brought the tea. When she gave me mine, she put her hand on my shoulder for comfort. It wasn't much help, but it was something. We all drank in silence.
'You're a private detective,' said Blair, after a moment.
'You've been in some trouble.'
'I attract it.'
'I hope you'll keep out of this.'
'No chance. If there's been no news by tomorrow, first thing, I intend to get very involved.'
'We're the professionals, Mr Sharman.'
'And she's my daughter.'
There wasn't much they could say to that, and the two police officers finished their tea and left. I sat on the sofa, picked up the phone and made a few calls.CHAPTER 3
First of all I called Laura back. She picked up the phone before I heard a ringing tone my end. 'Any news?' I asked.
'I just had the boys and girls in blue here. They seemed to think I had Judith and her mate hidden away somewhere.'
'I think I overreacted when I spoke to the inspector here.'
'You must have. Did you really think I'd have them here for more than a minute without letting you know?'
'I didn't know what to think. I'm sorry, Nick. I was frantic.'
'It's OK. I don't blame you. I know how you feel.' I lit another cigarette. 'Anything could happen to them ...' I didn't finish the sentence. She didn't need it and nor did I.
'They'll be all right, won't they?' Her voice was little more than a whisper.
'Christ, I hope so, Laura.'
'Can you do anything?'
Things had to be bad if she was asking for my help.
'I can try. I'm going to make some calls. Get a few things rolling this end. Call me any time tonight if you hear anything at all. I'll do the same to you.'
'I don't want to wake you —'
'I'm not going to get much sleep, Laura. If I had any idea where they were I'd be out now looking. But we mustn't panic. We need to conserve all the energy we've got ...' I hesitated. Once again I knew she didn't need it, but it had to be said. 'I dealt with a few of these sorts of cases when I was in the job ...' I hesitated again. 'It could take time.'
I heard Laura sob at the other end of the line and for the first time in years I wanted to hold her.
'Laura. I didn't mean to upset you. We've just got to take it an hour at a time.' Jesus. Me and my big mouth. 'Is Louis there?' I asked after a moment.
'Can I have a word?'
'Hold on,' she said.
I heard the phone go down with a bang and voices in the background. Then the receiver was picked up again and a male voice said, 'Hello.'
'How are you?' As if he could give a shit.
'Could be better,' I said. 'This is a bad do.'
'You don't need to tell me that.'
I knew that I didn't. But I still felt a tinge of resentment towards old Louis. He was the one who ended up with my wife and daughter, and now one had vanished and the other sounded like she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
'Yeah. I know,' I said.
There was a long pause.
'I'm sorry,' he said finally.
'You don't have to be. These things happen. I just wish I'd known that things had got so bad.'
'What would you have done?'
'Probably nothing. I'm not pointing fingers, Louis. I'm not apportioning blame. I don't have that right. I'm as much to blame as anyone. Probably more so. All that matters is that we find Judith and her friend safe and well. We can do any sorting out that needs to be done after that. I'm only sorry that Laura thought that I might know where they were and not tell her.'
'She was upset.'
'I know. Listen. If you hear anything overnight, let me know, it doesn't matter what time it is. I probably won't get much sleep anyway. If I don't hear from you by morning, I'll call again. And naturally if I hear anything I'll get right on to you.'
'OK, Nick,' said Louis. 'I'll put you back to Laura.'
There was another pause, then Laura spoke again. 'Nick,' she said. 'She will be all right, won't she?'
'Course she will,' I said reassuringly, or at least I hoped it was reassuringly.
Laura wasn't convinced. 'You just read such dreadful things ...'
'Don't worry. She'll be fine. She's probably hanging out at a mate's.' But even as I said them, I knew how empty those words were.
'No,' said Laura. 'She's gone.'
'Then we'll get her back.'
'I hope so.'
'Count on it. Call me if you hear anything and I'll do the same.'
'All right, Nick.'
'And don't worry.'
More empty words.
'Goodbye,' said Laura, and she put down the phone.
I stood holding the receiver until Dawn took it out of my hand and put it back on the cradle.
She gave me a drink and I got back on the dog. Next I called Gipsy Hill police station. Jack Robber was in, as he always seemed to be. I don't think he's got a home to go to. He answered the phone on the first ring.
'Robber,' he said.
'Nick Sharman,' I said back.
'Sharman. I've been expecting a call from you. I'm sorry to hear about your trouble.'
'Thanks. I've just had a pair of your officers here.'
'It's usual in cases like this.'
'I don't think PC Blair was too enamoured with me.'
'Did you expect him to be?'
'It's not me I care about. It's Judith. And her friend. And their safety.'
'Meaning, I hope that the way you lot feel about me won't affect the way you look for them.'
'Don't be stupid. It's not your girl's fault who she's got for a father. We'll look for her the same way we'd look for any missing kid.'
'Jesus, I'm sorry,' I said. 'This is starting to get to me. There's no news, I suppose.'
'Not so far. And I'm keeping an eye out for anything that comes in.'
'I appreciate it. Will you call me if you hear anything? Anything at all, and any time.'
'Thanks, Mr Robber.'
'Don't bother ... and Sharman ...'
'Don't go going off half cocked. Keep out of this. Leave it to us.'
'That's what Blair said.'
'And what did you say?'
'That if I don't hear anything by tomorrow, I'm going to start looking for her myself.'
'You'll be wasting your time. If we can't find her ...' He didn't finish the sentence.
'I can't just sit here doing nothing.'
'I know, son,' he said. He'd certainly never called me that before.
'I thought you were up for retirement.' I changed the subject.
'Still am. I'm just hanging on as long as possible.'
'Frightened of your sister?'
'You've never met her. If you had you'd be frightened of her too.'
'And you a big strong copper.'
'She'd frighten the Marine Corps.'
'Listen,' I said, 'I'd better get off now. Just in case ...'
'Sure. And try not to worry.'
I knew he meant well but they were just more empty words.
'I'll try,' I said, and put down the phone.
Finally, I called my old mate Chas, a journalist who now works for a big Sunday tabloid out of Wapping and who was best man at Dawn's and my wedding. He's helped me out on a couple of cases in the past and is about as close to a real friend as I've got. He was at home. I explained what had happened.
'Sorry, mate. That's a bastard,' he said. 'What can I do?'
'I'll see if I can get something into the daily paper about it.'
Excerpted from Paint It Black by Mark Timlin. Copyright © 1994 Mark Timlin. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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