Unfortunately Scott hit the roads during rush-hour. He had picked up his car from the car park in the centre of town, and got caught up in the worst of the traffic as everyone fought to get home for supper. It was well after six o’clock when he reached the Royal Oak. Debbie’s car was already in the car park – he hoped she had not been waiting very long, but suspected she had. He left his car in a space near to Debbie’s and went into the pub.
He looked round, not expecting her to be sat at the bar. She was sitting near the back of the pub, by a window that overlooked the pub garden. She got up as he approached, came to meet him, gave him a friendly, not intimate, but welcome hug. He actually felt a little better, for the first time in over 24 hours. His tummy was crying out for food, and he was also very thirsty, but being greeted by Debbie in such a pleasant way made him feel warm and comfortable.
“I need a drink. Are you ready for another?”
“Diet cola, please.”
So, he went up to the bar and ordered the cola for her and a bitter shandy for himself, not wanting to consume too much alcohol in his current state. He also ordered a steak pie and chips for himself, waved the menu to Debbie to let her know he was ordering food. She came over and had a quick look, said she’d have a chicken sandwich with salad, and returned to their table. He settled up and then carried the drinks over. He’d been given a bottle with the number “6” protruding from the top, so the waitress would know where to bring their order.
They sat at the table facing each-other, and both took a sip of their drinks before anything else.
“How are you?” She placed the emphasis on ‘YOU’. She had not wanted to leap straight in with her story.
“Been better.” He admitted. She was waiting for him to lead the conversation, but he was thinking what to say, while contemplating the dark polished wood table, which had a bronze plate with the number “15” screwed onto one corner, contradicting the number protruding from the top of the bottle. He wanted to hear what she had to say, but eventually he continued.
“Toni’s still very ill, she’s not said much, but the police are there waiting, for her to come round.”
“I’m sorry, this probably could have waited, YOU should be there too.”
He nodded in response, and let the conversation drop for a minute while he took another sip from his glass. He looked at Debbie and realised he had not paid much attention to her when he’d walked in. Her face and hair were as beautiful as ever. He also noticed she had discarded her jacket before coming into the pub, and had pulled a tight-knit sweater over her blouse. She looked a lot less business-like, less smart, and the sweater helped to emphasise her natural curves far more than the jacked would have done. She was watching his face, he smiled, returning his gaze to meet hers, and she smiled back, maintaining eye contact. He could see nothing but beauty in her eyes.
“What’s the important news?”
“I asked H.R. at head office if they had any more details they could give us regarding Francoise.” She was looking at him, reading his eyes as she was telling the story. “They came back with a lot more information, including an address in Germany for a flat that she used to rent before she came to work in England. They think she may still be renting it, as she was originally only supposed to be in the UK for six months, and we’re paying for her accommodation over here.” She paused for a moment, still watching Scott, before continuing. Both hands were now on the table, she was looking eager, building to something more important.
“They also gave me an address in France, for her parents, who are listed as her next of kin. I gave both addresses to the police. But, there’s something else, something much more important!” Her face was now full of excitement, radiating her youth and energy.
She picked up her hand-bag, which she opened and held on her lap. Her smile was now beaming, she was holding back in order to create as much impact as possible. “Have a look at this.” She pulled a piece of paper out of her handbag. It was on A4, folded twice, so that the contents were hidden.
He took the piece of paper and unfolded it onto the table. It contained a picture of a rather beautiful young lady with blonde hair, who looked to be a similar age to Debbie. He held the piece of paper and studied the face, there was nothing else on the paper apart from the picture. He didn’t recognise the face, but it was starting to dawn on him who this was. “Francoise?” was all he said, looking up at Debbie.
“Yes!” She exclaimed. “That’s a photo, from Germany, from Francoise’s file. They take photos of all employees for their security passes.”
“So, where does the chicken come from?” He asked. She frowned briefly at his use of the word ‘chicken’.
“Whoever has been masquerading as Francoise, no idea! But, whoever it is, they probably know what’s happened to the real Francoise.”
They drank some more and contemplated what may have happened to the girl in the picture. They dared to imagine that she could be dead, but did the bird that they knew as Francoise have something to do with that, or was she just an opportunist. They also wondered if Francoise could be alive somewhere, held captive whilst they carried out their plot. They were now using the word ‘they’. It seemed unlikely that one small bird could have arranged all this by herself. Also, Toni had said there were ‘too many chickens’ when she had talked deliriously earlier in the day, so there were probably other birds just like Francoise – or whatever her real name was, if she had one.
Their food arrived, and they were silent for a couple of minutes while they tasted their meals, he put salt on his chips, and Debbie added some dressing to her salad. He soon realised how badly he needed the food. The last thing he’d eaten were the biscuits provided by Grace.
“Grace is OK.” He said, musing over his last meeting with her.
“Yes, she’s a lovely person.”
“You know, I completely misjudged her on my fist day. But then, I had a pretty bad day all-round.”
“Seems you may have been right about Francoise, though!”
“That’s the problem, I guess it’s difficult to know how to strike the right balance between giving people the benefit of the doubt, and judging them on appearances.”
Debbie put down her fork, still chewing her last mouthful, but reaching for her handbag again.
“I nearly forgot. I prepared this letter before I left work. I don’t know if you want to, but thought you might like to check out the flat where Francoise was staying. I know I would.” She was daring him, but he was waiting to be convinced.
She handed him a letter written on Gladwell headed paper, and signed by Debbie – ‘Miss D. Little.’ The letter was an instruction to the landlord to provide access to the bearer. “Since we pay for the rent, I thought we’d be entitled to look round, what do you think?”
“That’s a bit clever, who knows what else we might find.”
“If you’re up for it, I thought we could go straight from here. It’s not far, that’s why I chose this place.”
“I suppose there’s a better chance that the landlord will be in if we go this evening.” Scott added. “And, as it’s not too far, OK, let’s do it.”
They finished their food, left a small tip for the waitress and left the pub. They agreed to go in his car, Debbie knew the way and would direct. She was right, it wasn’t far, and they arrived in less than five minutes, parked and walked up to the flats.
They rang the bell for the landlords flat, Debbie spoke to him through the intercom when he answered, and he buzzed them in. He came down the stairs to meet them because the flat was on the ground floor. He was holding a key, and used it to point to the appropriate door.
“It’s that one. The police were round earlier, what are you looking for?”
“We don’t know, one of our employees has gone missing and we are hoping there might be some clues.” Debbie replied to the landlord. “I have a letter from Gladwell, if you’d like to see it.”
“No ta. Is it OK if I look round too, police wouldn’t let me earlier.”
“You mean, you have a key, but you have not sneaked a look by yourself?” Scott asked.
“Who’s your friend?” The landlord replied, giving Scott a long look from head to toe. Scott remembered he was still in a somewhat dishevelled state.
“This is my partner, Scott.” Debbie introduced him, returning the letter to her handbag.
“Each to his own.” The landlord turned the key in the lock and pushed the door inwards, holding it open with his arm as he motioned for them to enter. Scott allowed Debbie to go in first, and then followed.
There was a lot of dust on the carpets, and on most other surfaces. The door to the main living area was open and invited them to go through. A track led from the front door to the kitchen area where the dust had been disturbed on a regular basis. The kitchen had less dust, but had coffee rings on the work surface where the contents of mugs had slopped over. A couple of dirty mugs sat in the kitchen sink, and a jar of half-used coffee sat beside a kettle and an empty carton of milk. Some bills lay on the side next to the coffee stains, and empty envelopes and junk mail was stacked nearby.
The living room had not been disturbed in months, the furniture and the television had an even layer of dust. There was nothing here to suggest that anyone was using this place for anything other than a mailing address. Two further doors led off from the hallway, the bedroom and bathroom yet to be checked.
“I’ll check out the bedroom.” Scott said as he ventured back into the hallway, and was brought to a halt by a noise from inside one of the rooms. They all looked at each-other, as much to make sure that they weren’t imagining it. The fact that they all stood motionless suggested that they were all thinking the same thing.
“Wait!” said Debbie. “Perhaps we should call the police?”
Scott felt brave, so he gingerly pushed the nearest door open. There was suddenly a lot more clattering, so he paused again, trying to peer into the room before venturing any further. Debbie was staring at him, fear in her eyes, backing away, towards the lounge.
“Look!” The landlord exclaimed, pointing out through the lounge window. A man was dragging a large suitcase, trying to run towards the road. He was making good pace despite his heavy load.
Assuming that the man had been the cause of the noise, Scott went straight into the bedroom, the window was open. With no time to think he started to give chase. The man had not looked dangerous despite his apparent criminal intent, and the quickest way out was to follow the man through the bedroom window, rather than fighting past the landlord and the outer doors. He climbed through and headed towards the road. The man was already pushing the suitcase into the back of a small van, so Scott ran shouting “STOP! STOP!”.
Before he could get there the man climbed into the front and revved the engine. The van lurched forward and away up the road. Scott managed to read the first two letters and two numbers of the registration before it was out of range. He repeated them over and over in his head as he made his way back to the flat.
The landlord had come to the front door to follow the action, so Scott re-entered the flat by the more conventional route. He found Debbie in the kitchen, she was holding one of the empty envelopes, and had written three letters on it with a pen she had pulled from her handbag. “Thanks” said Scott and grabbed both items from her and quickly wrote down the four digits he had remembered.
“You got the number!” She exclaimed. Between them they had managed to get the whole number plate.
He opened his phone and rang the police station. Neither Hargreaves nor Jones were available, probably at home watching the TV by now, he thought. Scott explained what had happened at the flat to the sergeant on duty, and gave him the number plate of the van. The sergeant wanted to know who was present and if anyone was hurt, but Scott explained they were all safe, and that there was no sign of a break-in. They thought it was likely that the man had used Francoise’s keys, more of a break-out than a break-in.
They checked the bedroom, closed the window, but there was nothing else of any interest. Anything that may have been of any use had probably been taken with the suitcase. They thanked the landlord, and waited while he locked the flat.
Debbie and Scott went back to his car, got in and he waited before starting the engine. Debbie was quiet, looking out the opposite window. He leaned over, put his hand to her face and gently turned her head so that he could look into her eyes. She looked back at him, tears forming. She had been very frightened for a brief spell, and the tears were tears of relief now that they were both safe.
“Will you be OK?” He asked, worried about leaving her by herself. “If I’d thought there’d be anyone in the flat I’d never have let you go in first.”
She gripped his hand and held it against her face and started to cry openly, her head sagging into his hand, her hair falling across his wrist. Her tears were warm as they trickled down her face and over his fingers. Her vulnerability stirred something inside him, he wanted to hold her and caress her to ease her outpouring of emotion, but he waited while she cried, allowing time for her to recover, until the sobbing subsided and she raised her eyes to meet his. She managed a weak smile as she released his hand so he moved it and gently swept her tears away with his thumb and one finger. Her smile broadened slightly, she grabbed his hand again and briefly kissed it in the middle of his palm.
“You’ll be OK.” He laughed, and she let his hand go, managing a small laugh herself.
They drove back to the Royal Oak. She said she was fine and insisted he should go back to the hospital. “I’ll give you a call in the morning.”
“One other thing?”
“You told the landlord I was your partner.”
Her smile broadened even more. “Well, I couldn’t have him thinking I actually work with someone who looks like a tramp, could I?”
He made sure she got safely into her car and drove away before he started up and followed her out of the car park. He was worried because she had clearly been shaken, however, he had someone more important lying in a hospital near home. By the time he got to the hospital it was nearly nine-thirty, so he used the half-empty hospital car park.
He still had not been home, but was not looking forward to going there, especially without Toni. He would need to get home soon, but wanted to check on Toni once more, hoping she was starting to look better.
He reached the main entrance and once more went straight through towards the main block. En-route, he passed a small restaurant that he had noticed several times previously, during the day it was normally quite busy, with food and drink being served from a counter. However, late in the evening the counter was closed and it was virtually deserted, which is why he noticed the three people sat round a table drinking coffees from the vending machine. Toni’s two sons and her ex husband were sat there, they hadn’t noticed him passing, so he debated slipping past and going to the ward by himself. However, he felt duty bound to stop, so went over and said hello. The boys got up to greet him, their good upbringing showing through. He greeted each of them with a hug, and then shook hands with Mr Barnaby, he stood briefly as Scott had extended his hand, and sat down immediately afterwards. He invited Scott to take a seat.
“I’ll pop in and see Toni first,” he said, “and then perhaps I can buy you all some more coffee.”
“Might as well take a seat, they’re checking her dressings, sent us away for half an hour.”
He realised he’d have to stop with them for a spell.
“Would you like another now?”
“We’re OK thanks.” Mr Barnaby motioned to the coffees on the table
Scott went over to the machine and brought back a coffee, pulled up an extra chair, and joined them at their table. He learnt that they’d had a busy day. After the police had called, Toni’s ex had contacted both boys, who were at different universities. Both were in lectures at the time, so they did not get the message until lunchtime. Their father had jumped in the car to go down to Brighton to collect one, while the other caught a train from Bristol, it being a more direct route. Once reunited, they had bought flowers from a garden centre, and then made their way to the hospital. They’d reached the hospital about six o’clock, and had spent more time in the cafeteria than in the ward. The nurses were concerned about having so many people in the room at one time, so they’d taken it in turns to keep vigil by Toni’s bed.
The boys were both healthy looking lads, their father a tall strong man, and they had inherited his build.
“How have you been coping?” Daniel, the eldest asked.
“Not very well.” Admitted Scott.
“You look terrible.” Thomas informed him.
“With the police, visits to the hospital and trying to square things at work, I haven’t been home since yesterday morning.” He started to explain, but said nothing of his investigations over the previous couple of days. They did not need to know about that for the moment, and he felt guilty because he may have brought about the attack. He gave them a full breakdown from the moment he’d returned home to find the police and ambulance parked outside the house, covering his time at the police station and his visits to the hospital. He implied that the police had some other leads to follow up, but did not say where they had come from.
After sitting and chatting for about 20 minutes he took Daniel with him up to the ward. The nurses had finished checking Toni’s dressings and were taking more readings. WPC Hamilton was back in the room too. They said polite hellos but Scott wanted a quiet word with the nurse away from Toni’s son, so he let Daniel take the other seat. Toni was showing no obvious sign of improvement from the time he had left earlier in the day.
When the nurse left, he followed her out of the room.
“What is it?” He asked her, halting her progress towards the nurse’s station.
“The infection is spreading.” She explained. “The consultant has seen her, and increased her medication.”
“Will that work?”
“It’s too early to say. If we can’t control the infection through drugs, then the doctors may choose to operate.”
“How do you mean?” He remembered the scars she had on both arms and legs, and on one side of her face, so he had visions of them removing limbs to stop the infection from spreading.
“As I say, it’s still early days. The doctors want to see how she responds to the treatment. We will know more by the morning.”
“But if they operate what will they do, what’s going to happen?” Scott wasn’t letting go of the awful idea of Toni being cut to pieces.
She took his arm to reassure him. “The surgeons are very good, they’ll make an assessment before doing anything. I don’t know what that will mean, but we must give the drugs a chance to work.” Then she gestured towards the brightly lit room he had seen on his first visit. “Why don’t you wait in the visitor’s room, and we’ll let you know if there’s any change.”
This seemed a good idea. However, he wanted to update the boys’ father before doing anything else. He would let him tell the boys separately, in his own time, as he knew them best. He said thank you to the nurse, but left the ward heading back to the cafe. He managed to get the boys’ father by his self for a couple of minutes, and explained to him what the nurse had said. He realised how difficult this was, giving bad news, and without fully understanding the situation himself. And now, somehow, the father would have to give the same news to his sons.
Scott decided to go home and get himself tidied up. He felt foul, and needed to change. If it weren’t for her two sons being at the hospital he would have stayed, but he knew now that someone would be with her for when she came round. He told Toni’s ex that he’d be back as soon as he could, and to call his mobile if there were any changes – he wasn’t going to rely totally on the hospital staff to contact him.
When he opened his front door he wasn’t really sure what to expect, so he did so carefully, peering in before stepping over the threshold. There had been no police car on the drive, or out the front of the house, no tape over the front door, or any external signs that anything was wrong, or ever had been. However, inside was a different story. The first thing he noticed were the blood stains on the carpet in the hall-way. The hall table was broken, one leg was off and it was propped against the wall, the hall telephone was lying on the floor. He went into the lounge, and found more blood. Here there were papers and magazines ripped and strewn over the floor and the sofa. The coffee table had also been damaged, the glass top was missing. He assumed that it had been broken in the struggle, and the police had taken away the pieces for forensic evidence, or maybe they’d just tidied up the pieces and put them in the bin. He didn’t bother to look.
He checked through the rest of the house. All the other rooms in the house seemed to be un-disturbed, apart from the study. Here, papers and the contents of the desk drawers were thrown all over the floor. Nothing of value seemed to be taken, Toni’s jewellery was where it should be, as were the TV and other electrical goods, everything apart from her computer. His own p.c. was still on the desk in the study. Whatever had happened, it did not look as though the intruder had been there to steal anything. There was no sign of break-in, so he assumed that Toni had opened the door to whoever it was. Had she been attacked in the hall-way and then struggled with her intruder though to the lounge, or had the initial attack taken place in the lounge and the blood in the hall-way was left there when Toni had gone for help?
He had no way of knowing, so pledged to speak to the police again in the morning. He didn’t bother with trying to tidy up any of the mess, but concentrated on freshening up, so that he could get back to the hospital. He shaved and showered, brushed his teeth with his own toothbrush and put on some clean clothes. He plumped for jeans and sweatshirt, because he wanted to be comfortable if he was going to sit in a hospital chair for hours. He grabbed a warm coat in case he found himself out in the cold again, and left the house.
He arrived back at the hospital and went looking for the others in the cafe. Sure enough, Toni’s ex and Daniel were slouching round their table, He assumed Thomas was with Toni. Having said polite ‘hellos’ he asked if there was any more news. They both said ‘No’ at the same time, so he told them he was going up to the ward to check with the nurses.
This time, on arrival in the ward he went straight into Toni’s room. Another P.C. was sitting in Hamilton’s chair, so he quickly introduced himself. The only other occupant, apart from Toni, was Thomas, so a quick “Hi” was sufficient before he leaned closer to Toni to see how she was. He could see no difference, so he checked with the substitute P.C. if Toni had managed to say anything, but the P.C shook his head, looking at his pad. There were times listed down the page, and he surmised that these were the frequent visits of the nurses, checking on the patient, or the visits of Daniel, Thomas and their dad.
He left the room and went looking for one of the nurses, pausing to clean his hands with the gel on his way out. There were no nurses at the nurses’ station, so he went into the visitors room, and found two nurses (one senior, he assumed a staff nurse or sister, and the other a more junior nurse), sitting down eating cake. They were very relaxed about his arrival, the junior nurse got up slowly and un-creased her uniform, putting her piece of cake down on a small white dish, that he assumed she’d borrowed from the medical supplies cupboard. She apologised, saying they’d been left some cake by a grateful relative, and how could she help?
He asked if there was any more news about Toni, and the junior nurse quickly deferred to her senior colleague, who went through a similar ritual to the one performed by the first nurse. She took only a few seconds to explain that there was no more news, Toni seemed to be stabilising, and they’d let him know if anything changed.
Relieved, he took a seat in a chair opposite the nurses. They were less comfortable in his presence, so as soon as they had finished their cake, they collected their dishes and went back out to the ward. He studied the rather odd mix of formality and informality in the room. A few comfortable chairs were interspersed with less comfortable, hard plastic chairs with metal legs. Some pictures on the wall, a mix of modern art and copies of more traditional works shared the space with notices to patients and relatives explaining about hygiene and other rules for visitors. A few books, magazines and some battered toys shared table space with hospital literature and various pamphlets about health. Most prominent was the guide on giving up smoking, and the various ways that a smoker could get help.
The walls of the room were painted a fairly un-inspiring pale blue, but odd chunks of paint had been removed when various temporary notices had been pulled down, revealing a pale pink underneath. He mused how this mirrors life, the young take over from the old, gradually replacing that which no longer fits in with their way of life, times change and everybody moves on.