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‘None taken,’ Charlie said, and the wrinkle of the prosecutor’s nose told him that Donia was right, that the mints weren’t working. ‘Amelia brings the work in that I can’t. Most of my punters don’t win, know that they have no chance against the system, and so they might as well look at someone nice before they lose.’
‘And how do you find it? Distracting?’
‘Not my type,’ he said, lying. He didn’t fall for Amelia’s tease, but he had looked at her body for too long and too often when she didn’t realise he was staring. Or maybe she did but didn’t mind. Someone told him once that women always notice men looking. That hadn’t stopped him looking. It just made him stop apologising. ‘Are you sure it’s Billy Privett?’
‘No, but that’s just what I’ve heard.’
Charlie sighed. ‘Murder cases are hassle anyway. If you foul it up, your name is dragged through the Court of Appeal. I don’t want that. Let someone else have it.’ And then he stepped away, knowing that there was no need to spend time in the police station. He would be back at the office in an hour, with just Amelia’s disapproving glances to get him through the day.
John emerged from the bedroom and made his way downstairs to the kitchen. He had slept better for sharing a mattress with Gemma, rather than the bunks in the other rooms.
The stairs descended into the hallway by the front door, with the living room in the middle of the house. The floor was still strewn with spilled ashtrays and empty vodka bottles from the night before. There was a large capital A in a circle spray-painted onto the wall, the universal symbol for anarchy, along with photographs from demonstrations and camps the group had been on just pinned around the room. In all of the photographs, there was the same image, a group dressed in black but made distinctive by the now infamous plain white masks they wore, their faces expressionless.
He went through the living room and into the kitchen. There was a long wooden table alongside an old porcelain sink that was cracked and veined with age. He was surprised that there were so few people there. They cooked and ate as a group. Thirteen people lived at the house, including Henry, but there were only five others in the room, and Gemma just behind him. They were standing at the window, looking into a small courtyard.
John looked to the table, scattered in crumbs, left over from an earlier sitting, with chipped white plates and glasses of water in front of them. There were loaves of bread piled up at one end, with blunt-looking knives next to them. Everyone turned towards him, and then Gemma.
He blushed and then he looked to the end of the table. Henry’s seat. He wasn’t there.
‘What’s going on?’ John said.
‘There are people here,’ someone said. It was Dawn, a woman in her early twenties, dressed like the rest of the women in a long black skirt and T-shirt, with round glasses and eyes that flitted around the room nervously.
‘Who is it?’
‘They’re from another group. They used to come and drink with us, but not anymore. They just speak to Arni or Henry and then go.’
John looked towards the window. Arni was outside, a large Danish man, with broad shoulders and muscled arms that bulged with veins. His hair was long and light, pulled into a ponytail, his goatee board twisted to a point, beads on the end. Large black rings made holes out of his earlobes and silver hoops cut through his eyebrows. Arni was speaking to someone in a white van, the window wound down, parked in a small courtyard with farm outbuildings on the other side, just low stone barns accessed by large sliding wooden doors.
‘So what are they doing here?’
‘I don’t know, but they have been coming for a few weeks now.’
John watched as Arni lifted down a barrel from the back of the van and started to roll it towards one of the barns. He spoke to the other people in the van, and then the engine started again, spluttering and belching smoke.
Arni turned to look at him, and so John stepped back quickly from the window. He looked round at everyone and smiled nervously. He sat down and was conscious of the silence. He looked at the plate of bread in front of him. It was dry and unappetising. Gemma sat opposite. As she reached forward for some bread, her T-shirt gaped open, too big for her, showing her bony cleavage. She smiled at him.
The group was mostly made up of young people, teenagers, but they had a look of maturity that he didn’t see in many people of their age, as if they had found what they wanted from their lives and so had no reason to kick back against it anymore. The people left at the table were the quieter ones. There was Dawn, along with a couple in their forties, the Elams, Jennifer and Peter, ageing hippies whose communal living lifestyle had drawn them to Henry. Jennifer was the curious one, with wide, bird-like eyes and grey roots showing through the dry ponytail of jet-black hair. Peter was quiet, with a paunch and lost hair.
It was to Dawn that John’s eyes were drawn. She seemed unhappy compared to the rest, and he couldn’t work it out. No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t unhappiness. It was reluctance. Always the last to join in with cooking or cleaning, and she said little when Henry was there.
John felt something on his leg, and as he looked, he saw Gemma’s half-smile, her foot running slowly up his calf.
Arni came back into the house. Gemma’s foot dropped and she looked downwards. Arni looked at John, his eyes narrowed.
John pushed the bread away. He knew what that look was for. Sex was allowed, but they weren’t supposed to form bonds.
‘Where’s Henry?’ John said.
‘He’s gone out, with some of the others. There are things that have to be done.’
‘What like?’ John said. The rest of the group looked at one another.
It was Gemma who spoke. ‘Don’t question, you know that,’ she said, her tone light, but John spotted the hint that he had already said too much.
There was a moan from a room along the hallway, on the other side of the living room. Everyone ignored it, except for Dawn, who shuffled uncomfortably.
John looked at Gemma, who shook her head, almost invisibly, but John caught the warning. Don’t go in there.
The moans were from the farmer who owned the house. A man in his seventies, he spent his time bedridden, looked after by whoever could face going into his room, provided that Henry agreed.
More moans, except that they were more pleading this time.
Dawn went to the table quickly and grabbed some bread, filled a cup with water, and started walking towards the door.
There was a crash. Plates banged. People jumped. Arni held out his stick, a gnarled cane made from polished oak, a brass gargoyle for a handle.
‘Don’t go in there,’ he shouted at her.
Dawn stopped. People looked at Arni, and then back at Dawn.
‘He’s hungry, and thirsty,’ Dawn said, her voice trembling.
Arni pointed the stick at a chair and shook his head. ‘Sit.’
Dawn looked back towards the doorway and then at the stick. She bowed her head and then sat down. As John looked, he saw that tears were running down Dawn’s cheeks. She pulled at some bread, but didn’t look like she was going to eat again.
Arni put the stick under her chin, the cold metal of the gargoyle against her skin. ‘We need more food. Worry about the old man later. Understand?’
Dawn nodded slowly.
Arni didn’t move the stick.
‘Take John with you.’
John was surprised. He had been with the group for three weeks now, and he hadn’t been allowed out of the compound. It had been that way ever since they had turned up at his house.
His mind went back to that night, when it had seemed like just another talk. They had spoken to him a few times, but on that night they wanted him to go with them and leave everything behind.
They had made him wear a blindfold at first, made from a torn-up hessian sack that scratched at his eyelids and made him itch. Except that he couldn’t scratch it, because his hands were tied behind him, sitting against the side of the van, his head up, trying to work out where everyone was as they prodded him, just for a bit of fun. There had been giggles all the way from the young women, and he had tried to laugh along with them, making out like it was a game, but had been worried that perhaps he had misread them.
It had been stop and start as they made their way out of town, but then the curves and tight bends of the countryside had taken over, throwing him around the van, making everyone laugh louder. The jolts and bumps as they drove along a rutted farm track were the final part of the journey, and then he felt the rush of cool air as the van doors flew open. Gentle hands guided him out of the van, and then he was taken inside, pushed along a short corridor into what he now called home.
The smell of cannabis had hit him straight away, sweet and strong, and he was put into a wooden chair. There were voices around him, whispers, giggles, murmurs of conversation, but all he had been able to see was the inside of the blindfold. The bindings around his wrists were loosened and then tied to the chair, so that he was exposed, vulnerable, unsure as to how many people were there.
It was Gemma, bringing him back to the present.
‘So are you coming with us?’ she said.
He smiled and nodded. ‘Yes, I will.’
John stepped out from behind the table and went towards some hooks on the wall. When he found his jacket, a plain black zip-up, he waited by the door as Gemma and Dawn got up to follow him.
Sheldon’s hands gripped the wheel as he drove towards Billy Privett’s house. The tight streets of the town centre turned into winding lanes that headed towards the moors. Drystone walls lined the way ahead, although they were down to untidy piles of rock in places, so that the roads opened straight onto open moorland, bleak and wild, with sheep grazing up to the tarmac, the grey dots of stone farmhouses peppering the views.
He had left Jim Kelly, the reporter, at the station, giving a statement about how Billy Privett’s face was delivered to him, although it was really to keep him out of the way.
Sheldon turned into a narrow lane and felt his tyres slide on some mud thrown up by a tractor. The road bumped and dropped towards a small cluster of houses hidden deep in a valley. Except that one of the houses stood out from the rest.
‘Is that Billy’s house ahead?’ Tracey said.
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