“Excuse me, I’m looking for Charlie Hunter.”
The spanner flew out of my hand and clattered into the bilge. “Shit!”
“Hello there, is Mr. Hunter on board? I was told to ask on this pontoon.”
I swore again. The female voice responsible for breaking my concentration clearly wasn’t going anywhere. Bare-chested and bloody-minded, I hoisted myself out of the engine room of my motor cruiser and slowly wiped the oil from my hands on the rag protruding from the pocket of my jeans. I took a moment to shake the hair out of my eyes and rotate my shoulders to smooth out the kinks before turning to the woman, ready to let rip. One look in her direction and the words stalled on my tongue.
The policeman in me took stock of the evidence. Midtwenties was my guess. Tall, slim, curly red hair tumbling down her back, big green eyes, a dusting of freckles across her nose, curves in all the right places, no wedding ring. The man in me couldn’t help approving. She was just my type, or would be if I hadn’t sworn off all women as being more trouble than they were worth. Still, there was nothing to say I couldn’t indulge in a spot of window-shopping.
“I’m Hunter,” I said tersely. “Something I can do for you?”
If the woman was discouraged by my churlishness, she gave no sign. “My name’s Kara Webb, Mr. Hunter.” She introduced herself as though it ought to mean something to me.
“You don’t remember me?”
“Can’t say that I do.” The name rang a vague bell but I was willing to swear I’d never had the pleasure. Kara Webb wasn’t the sort of woman a man was likely to forget.
“Is there somewhere we could go to talk? I could buy you a coffee, or something.” She nodded towards the café on the landside of the approach to the marina.
“Can’t see that we have anything to talk about.”
She broke off as Gil bounded out of the boat’s salon, a growl rumbling in his throat, long tail wagging like crazy. Talk about mixed messages. I made a mental note to have a chat with my dog a bit later on about his duties. It would be useful if he could get into the habit of warning me of imminent intruders before they caused me to drop spanners in bilges.
“Gil!” Too late. He’d already leapt onto the pontoon and was jumping all over my lovely visitor. He’s a huge beast in an interesting variety of colours, and although I wasn’t about to admit that he’s a big softie, a lot of people were intimidated by his size. “Careful, he’s a bit edgy ’round strangers.”
“So I see.”
And then she smiled. I found myself silently repeating the words I’d said aloud when I’d dropped that spanner. Miss Webb, when she smiled, could put the sun itself to shame. It changed the whole tenor of her face and dispelled the air of despondency I’d sensed when first checking her out. Uh-uh, Charlie boy, I told myself severely. This looks like trouble. Don’t let that bloody smile influence you into buying whatever it is she’s come to sell.
Kara reached out a hand to tickle the dog’s ears. Gil, sensing a soft touch, had already rolled onto his back, ready to lap up any attention on offer.
“Gil,” she said, “that’s a strange name for such a handsome beast. Something to do with fishing?” She nodded towards the fishing rods attached to the roof of the cockpit.
“It’s short for Guilty.”
“Oh, I see.” That usually stopped people in their tracks but Miss Webb didn’t miss a beat. “Well, look, Mr. Hunter, I can see you’re busy so I won’t take up much of your time. If we could just—”
“As you said, I’m busy.” Pointedly, I turned towards the engine room hatch.
“Mr. Hunter, please, don’t you remember me? It’s been fifteen years and I expect you’ve seen thousands of distressed families since then, but surely you remember my sister, Jasmine—”
“Jasmine Webb. Of course.” Now the penny dropped. It had been one of my first cases after being made up to detective and I remembered it well. “But surely you’re not the little sister—”
“The scrawny runt of the litter, you mean. The kid who got in everyone’s way and kept asking awkward questions. Yes,” she said with another brief smile, “that would be me. I was only twelve at the time and ignored by everyone. No one listened to what I had to say about Jasmine’s disappearance, except you, Mr. Hunter. I’ve never forgotten that.”
“Yeah, okay.” I was still trying to get over the fact that the awkward, gangling, tongue-tied kid I remembered had turned out like this. Just goes to show that you never can tell. “But your sister turned up alive and well.”
“We heard from her, certainly, and you were satisfied that the call and subsequent letter we received from her weren’t coerced, but we never saw her again.”
“I don’t see what you expect me to do about it. I don’t mean to be rude but—”
“Please! What I have to say is important and it’ll only take five minutes.”
As soon as I saw the tears welling, I knew I was in trouble. I’m a pushover when women turned on the waterworks.
I sighed. “All right, come aboard.”
She was already bending to take her trainers off. Obviously knew something about boats, then. It’s the height of bad manners to step on anyone’s craft wearing dark-soled shoes.
“How did you get into the marina, by the way?”
“Oh, that was easy. I simply waited for someone to leave, smiled at the guy and he held the gate open for me.”
“Wonderful!” I rolled my eyes. The fancy electronic gate system was obviously about as effective as Gil’s efforts to protect my new home. “Okay, one more question and then it’s your turn. How did you find me?”
“I went to the police station and asked for you by name. It was a long shot after all this time but I thought you might still work there. It didn’t occur to me that you would have retired. You seem a little young, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“They wouldn’t have told you where to find me at the nick,” I said, ignoring the implied compliment.
“No.” A hint of mischief lit her eyes as she followed me into the salon. “They were most unreasonable and wouldn’t tell me a thing. And so, oh—”
“It’s being refitted.” Her gaze travelled ’round the spacious cabin, which was devoid of all furniture except Gil’s bed and a folding canvas chair. The light oak walls were complete, but the cabinets were still halfway through construction, and wires hung from the ceiling. “We’ll be more comfortable in the cockpit. And it’s instant coffee or nothing. I wasn’t expecting visitors.”
I expected her to ask if I had any tea, probably something fancy like camomile—she looked like the type to drink that sort of muck—but to her credit she said instant coffee would be fine.
I removed a carton of milk from the fridge, sniffed it and poured the contents down my new sink. “Hope you don’t take milk.”
“No, just as it comes.”
We stepped into the cockpit and she sat on the cushioned bench. It would be a seriously bad idea to get too cosy with her, so I took the teak lounger on the other side of the table, putting a physical barrier between us. She elevated her brows, obviously not used to men making excuses to keep their distance from her, even if my one-man dog felt no such compunction. He ignored me, made a beeline for Kara and gazed up at her adoringly through liquid brown eyes, tongue lolling stupidly from the side of his mouth. His tail thumped against the deck as she smiled and stretched forward to tickle his ears.
I added loyalty to the list of subjects I needed to discuss with my dog.
“You were going to tell me how you tracked me down.”
“Oh yes. Well, after I failed to get anything out of the miserable desk sergeant at the station, I took myself off to the Royal Oak—”
I groaned. The hostelry of choice for Brighton’s finest. It told me all I needed to know, and more. One look at those big sorrowful eyes of hers and half my ex-colleagues would sell their souls in order to get on her good side, always supposing they still had souls to sell, which was questionable.
“Who spilled the beans?”
“Someone called Jimmy Taylor.”
“Look, I’m sorry to come barging in on you like this. I can see you value your privacy but this is important to me.” She looked directly at me, fastened those magnetic eyes on my face, and I knew I was in danger of going the same way as Jimmy Taylor et al.
“Yeah, okay. You’re here now and have my attention, so you might as well tell me what’s on your mind.”
“What do you remember about my sister?”
I threw my head back and closed my eyes, dredging up the details from the recesses of my brain. “Jasmine Eleanor Webb, just seventeen, in her first year at sixth-form college. Red hair, green eyes, good-looking, same height as you are now, which would be about five foot seven. Good student, popular and hardworking, no known boyfriends, no known problems, reported missing by her father when she failed to return home after college. Assumed abducted because nothing was missing from her room to suggest she’d left home of her own free will.” I opened my eyes again and looked directly at her. “Assumed abducted by everyone except you, that is.”
“You have a good memory,” she said. I shrugged off the compliment. “I knew she hadn’t been abducted but no one would listen to me. It was like I didn’t exist.”
“Because her teddy bear was missing? The one she’d had since she was a kid.”
“Yes, and her diaries, as well. Why would she take the things that really mattered to her to college on that particular day? It wasn’t something she usually did.”
“It seemed odd that your father insisted she had no reason to run away and nothing was worrying her.” I felt myself being sucked into Kara’s problems in spite of my determination to remain detached from them. “All teenagers have worries that seem insurmountable.”
“My father’s always right.” Kara’s voice dripped sarcasm. “If he’d decided Jas didn’t have any problems then that’s the way it was going to stay.”
“But two days later she phoned from London and followed up with a letter. We knew she was alive, the investigation was wound down, and she became just another runaway.”
“Yes, and we never saw her again.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, Kara, but why are you dragging this up again after all this time? And more to the point, why have you taken so much trouble to find me?”
“Because I still don’t know where she is or why she left. I’ve never stopped thinking about it and I can’t get on with my life until I have some answers.”
“Yes, but even so—”
“And,” she added sombrely, “because my brother was killed in an accident last month.”
“Ah, I’m sorry.” That would account for the despondency then. Her family seemed to be dogged by bad luck. “I remember your brother. Brian?”
“Yes, Brett. What happened?”
“A boating accident. He was helping to deliver a boat from France to Weymouth.” That figured. Her father was a marine engineer and keen sailor, and all the kids had the sea in their blood. “They got the yacht there, went ashore and let off some steam. The other two went back to the boat but Brett stayed in the bar for one more.” She wrinkled her brow. “That’s the part I don’t really understand because he wasn’t a great drinker. Still, they’d had a force six with them all the way so I imagine he needed to unwind.” She shrugged. “That’s all we know for sure. He was pretty drunk and it looks as though he slipped into the water on his way back to the boat. The other two were out cold and didn’t notice Brett hadn’t come back. They raised the alarm the next morning, a search was made and his body was washed up with the afternoon tide.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I assume there was an inquest.”
“Yes, and it was declared an accidental death. He had a high alcohol content in his stomach and water in his lungs that implied…well, that implied—”
“That implied he’d been alive when he hit the sea,” I finished for her, giving her time to recover her composure.
“Yes, and there were no marks on him to indicate that it was anything other than an accident.”
“So what do you want me—”
“I was going through Brett’s things the other day and found this.” She rummaged in her bag and handed me a photograph. “That’s Brett,” she said.
“Okay, but who’s the woman with him?”
I shot her a look. “But you said none of you had seen her since she disappeared.”
“I didn’t think we had.”
“It doesn’t look like Jasmine as she was described to me.” She was a looker all right but Jasmine had been described as a redhead and this woman was blond. Still, women are always messing with the colour of their hair so I supposed it didn’t mean much. “How can you be sure it’s Jasmine?”
“Apart from the fact that she looks just like me? Turn the photograph over, Detective Inspector.”
Feeling dense for the second time in as many minutes, I followed her advice. The names Brett and Jasmine, Weymouth and a date a few months prior was printed on the back. In spite of my best efforts to remain disinterested, I felt the familiar tingling in my spine that I used to get in the job when an interesting or unusual case came along. I didn’t like coincidences and here were several all at once. A long-lost sister found alive and well and living in Weymouth but Brett hadn’t bothered to inform the rest of his family. Brett then jumps at the chance to deliver a yacht to Weymouth, presumably because he hoped to see his sister once he got rid of the rest of the crew. Then the young man turns up dead in circumstances that could be accidental but might well not be.
“Okay, but I still don’t see—”
“My sister’s defection, as my father still refers to it, tore our family apart, Mr. Hunter.”
“Call me Charlie.”
“Okay, Charlie. Dad was a bit of a tyrant, a control freak if you like, before it happened but afterwards…well, let’s just say I bore the brunt of his caution. I wasn’t allowed out. Wasn’t allowed boyfriends unless he gave them the third degree first. Makeup was out of the question, as was the sort of clothing all my friends wore.” She spread her hands. “I’m sure you get the picture.”
“Yeah, that must have been tough for you but I suppose you can see his point of view.”
She shook her head. “I’m not looking for the sympathy vote. That’s not why I’m telling you all this.”
“To try and make you understand how I feel about my sister. Jasmine and I were never close, there were five years between us, and five years is more like an eternity when you’re that age. But I looked up to her and wanted to be like her. And then she just upped and ran away for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom.” She fondled Gil’s ears almost aggressively. “Brett found her but didn’t tell us, and now I need to try and figure out why.”
“It’s probably better left alone. Look what happened to your brother.”
“I can’t leave it. Especially not since Brett. That’s why I went to the trouble of tracking you down. I was hoping you might still be a serving policeman with access to the necessary resources to find Jasmine. Still, you know how these things are done, and I want to hire you to help me find my sister.”
“I’m not for hire.”
“Please! It won’t take long and then I’ll leave you in peace.”
“Have you tried putting a notice in the local rag, asking for information?”
“If she’s intent upon staying hidden I doubt she’s using her real name.” She narrowed her eyes. “I thought you were a detective.”
A man walking along the pontoon called to me. “I’ve got the impeller for the generator, Charlie. I’ll fit it this afternoon and should be able to finish tweaking the engine on Monday, then you’ll be able to give her a nice long sea trial and put her through her paces. I know that’s what you’ve been dying to do.”
“Thanks, Ben.” Thanks for nothing, I added beneath my breath when Kara’s face lit up.
“There you are then. Weymouth is far enough away to put the boat—” she stood and leaned over the transom, reading the name upside-down, “—the No Comment through her paces. Unusual name,” she added with a lilting smile that immediately put me on my guard.
“Kara, just so we’re clear. I am not going to take you to Weymouth.”
She pouted, suddenly looking very young and vulnerable, but I pretended not to notice. “So you won’t help me then?”
“Can’t would be a more accurate answer. It’s a wild-goose chase after all this time. Do you know how many people go missing every single day?”
“Yes, actually, I did some research.”
“Well, there you are then.” I couldn’t quite meet her eye. “It’s a wild-goose chase.”
“Not necessarily. A lot of those people are eventually located and we have somewhere to start.”
“People gone for a long time are only found if they want to be, and your sister clearly doesn’t. Otherwise, why would Brett not have told you that he’d seen her?”
She scowled. “I know. That’s what’s been bothering me.”
The fact that she’d given up trying to coerce me softened my stance. “Tell you what, I’ll have a word with my old partner and see if he remembers anything about the case that I don’t, but that’s the best I can do.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose.” She didn’t sound especially grateful and I was already regretting my impulsive offer. “Will you do it now?”
“Nope. What I’m gonna do now is take my son fishing.”
I’ve never been a great one for smiling. Personally I think it’s a grossly overrated gesture and seldom means what it says. But the one thing guaranteed to make my face break out in a great big goofy grin is the sight of my son barrelling towards me, all enthusiasm and gangly limbs, and the prospect of having him all to myself for two whole days. Kara’s eyes were trained upon me as my smile broadened. I returned Harry’s wave but didn’t look at her. Presumably even she wasn’t insensitive enough to hang around now.
“Okay, then.” She gathered up her bag and gave Gil’s ears one final scratch. “I’ll leave you to the mackerel. Call me as soon as you can.”
I didn’t respond. Instead I caught my son up and twirled him above my head as he hurled himself on board.
“By the way, it’s a magnet you need,” Kara said as she bent to put her shoes on.
“A magnet, Charlie. It’s the best way to get tools out of the bilges. Surely you know that.”
Nadia lay in her husband’s arms, post-coital contentment for once failing to soothe her. Afternoon sunshine filtered through curtains that weren’t fully closed, hurting her eyes.
Igor’s hands ran the length of her body, soft yet possessive. They came to rest on her waist and pulled her closer until she was spooned against him.
“What is it, my darling?”
She thought she’d hidden her tears, but he caught one on his finger as it trickled down her cheek.
He leaned over her, his brow furrowed. “Why are you so sad? Did I not give you pleasure?”
She met his gaze. “You always give me pleasure, Igor, you know that. You’re my life.”
“Then what? Are you thinking about your brother still?”
“I can’t seem to help it.” She made the confession in a tiny voice, afraid he might be angry with her. “I feel responsible for what happened.”
“Because he was in Weymouth? How could that be your fault?”
“I—I don’t know.”
Nadia usually told Igor absolutely everything but didn’t dare admit that Brett had known where she was. Igor would be angry with her for not telling him, and she couldn’t handle that right now. He almost never lost his temper with her but when he did…well, she shuddered at the mere prospect. Being married to a man who looked upon violence as one of life’s givens sometimes worked against her. Brett’s death had been a freak accident, no more than that, and she should stop dwelling upon it. The past couldn’t be undone, and Igor was right when he said they should concentrate on what lay ahead. But somehow she couldn’t get it out of her head that Brett had delivered a boat to Weymouth simply to try and see her again, even though she’d told him it would be impossible for them to meet.
“You shouldn’t have seen the report in the paper about his death. I gave most specific instructions.” Igor’s voice had taken on a hard edge. The one he often employed when speaking to his underlings but never used with her. “Whoever left it hanging about will answer to me for his carelessness.”
“They weren’t to know.”
“Then what do I pay them for?” His voice lightened again as his fingers slowly traced the outline of one of her breasts. “You get more beautiful every day.” He bent his head and slowly, expertly, kissed her. She felt some of the tension leaving her as he gently agitated her passions. “If another man were to lay so much as a finger on you, I’d kill him with my bare hands. And then I’d kill you.” He smiled but there was a chill behind his words and Nadia knew he was in deadly earnest. “That’s how much I love you.” His hands left her body and he levered himself from the bed with a heavy sigh. “I have some things I must do but you stay here and rest, my love. Take your pill, and when you wake everything will seem better.”
“But the children. I must get them from school.”
“Anton will do that.”
Nadia didn’t have the strength to argue. She, who’d once been so full of vitality, was permanently tired nowadays. Resigned to never seeing her family again, she was surprised how much it still hurt when she thought of her baby brother, dead because of her. And so she tried not to think about it. Igor would look after her, just like he always did. She washed down the pill he handed her with a swig of water and waited for blessed oblivion to claim her.