“She wouldn’t just go—she isn’t like that!”
“But you said you had a row and told you she was leaving you.”
“I know that, but. . .”
The trouble with being a senior police officer is that while you have masses of experience to draw on, you also grow a strange instinct for when things don’t smell right.
That was the case with Michael. He was convinced that his girlfriend had disappeared against her will, and no one would believe him, including me. But something told me there was more.
On the face of it, Helen Bailey had done everything you would expect someone to do if they wanted to take a solo trip around the world, as she’d told everyone she was going to do. She’d left her job at the bookshop, having given notice, she’d arranged to leave her rented flat, and she’d withdrawn a large sum of money from her bank account. All her belongings, including her passport, had gone with her on the appointed day of leaving her erstwhile home. She had no immediate family, but she’d told her boyfriend, Michael Hastings, that she wanted to break up with him and get away from her old life, ‘once and for all’ and discover new things and a whole new life that didn’t include him. And so she had apparently done so.
No amount of explaining that anyone over the age of eighteen (Helen was twenty-six) was free to do anything, go anywhere, live as they wanted, would dissuade Michael from believing that she had either come to a bad end or was currently in some kind of danger.
“I’m very sorry,” I told him firmly. “I wish there was something I could do. But if Helen didn’t want to keep in touch with you, then it’s her decision.”
Indeed, Michal struck me as a ‘clingy’ kind of individual, with his unblinking stare, stutter, frown of concern and obsessive obstinacy. Small wonder that Helen had wanted to get away from him. Anyway, since she had evidently gone abroad, as she’d told him she’d planned to do, I had no way of contacting foreign police forces to check up on her whereabouts, for a start, I didn’t even knew which country to contact.
The day’s drama, which had me escorting poor Michael out of the police station, and him begging, in tears, for me to do something, had upset me a lot. Okay, the man was very odd, and also unreasonable, but I felt sorry for him. The loss of his girlfriend Helen, had reminded me of my own loss. After forty years of happy marriage, Jean had died last year, and now all our plans for my imminent retirement made no sense anymore.
We had bought a little cottage on the coast, about an hour’s drive away, and Jean had spent her last few years decorating the place, choosing curtains, and planning our idyllic retirement. Now the place just reminded me of Jean’s hopes and aspirations for the time when we could be together all day, that now could never be. I was planning to sell it, for my few friends were here, in the city, so what was the point in moving away?
That evening I got a phone call from one of the neighbouring cottages.
“Bob? I thought I should tell you, the lights have been coming on and off in your house. I thought it was odd, because your car wasn’t outside, so I knocked on the door, but there was no one at home. Is anyone staying there?”
“Oh hell,” I answered friendly Janet, the lady next door, whom Jean had struck up a firm friendship with. “Well I certainly haven’t been there, no one has. Hope there hasn’t been a break-in. Otherwise it has to be some kind of electrical fault. I’d better come down and take a look.”
But on the drive down, I couldn’t fathom what kind of electrical fault could cause such a phenomenon. And it was odd, since before buying the place it had passed an electrical safety survey.
Sleepy Hollow, the cottage’s nameplate beside the front door, stood out in the pitch dark in my car headlights as I pulled into the drive, parked and went in.
Just for an instant I thought I could smell Jean’s perfume. I switched on the hall light.
And then it went off again. Then on. Three times it happened.
What on earth was happening?
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