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Girl drifter on street back to wall

Off the street

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He parked his car in a bay just before the railway arch, closing the door gently, so as not to alert listening ears; with a firm push to click the latch home. He didn’t lock it. That would have blinked amber the length of the street.

Walking slowly under the railway, the clack-clack, clack-clack of a long freight train masking his already soft footsteps, he looked across at the short row of shops, all closed for the night.

‘Not much meat on that,’ he first thought, as he spied the small face half hidden by the jumble of tattered sleeping bag, cardboard and newspaper, tucked into the doorway of the butcher’s shop. It was extremely cold and the first white of frost was beginning to sparkle under the streetlights as he crossed over to take a closer look at the shadowed figure and stopping a couple of paces away.

A teenager, or barely more, he realised. A slight movement of her head, the only sign of life, as she turned her eyes towards him and shrivelled even deeper within herself, willing her body to shrink further into the doorway.

She knew the type. He would offer her a warm comfortable room to sleep in. No favours asked, until it was too late. She would refuse and with luck he would go away. She would fight, if he tried to haul her up, though she had little resistance left in her frail body. Just images that would drag out the last vestiges of adrenalin, to lash out and scratch and squirm, long enough for him to think better and move on. Or so she hoped.

His voice was soft. Not like the harsh tongues of previous encounters. ‘You’ve nowhere to go better than this?’ still the usual opening, she thought, but he continued. ‘I take it you’ve tried the hostels and decided this is better for you. But it is dangerous as well as freezing. Then, you’ll have discovered that already, I’m sure. I’ve an old rug in the car you can have. I never use it.’

She shrugged her shoulders, then turned to see him better. His voice was educated, he was clean shaven, he wore a black three-quarter length overcoat. Snug and warm came to her mind. He slowly put his hand into a slightly bulging pocket. She move her hand down to grab the stolen steel fork she kept handy, her back tight to the wall, muscles tensing. This was when they produced the knife. This was when force took over. But not this time. The man produced a small Thermos flask and, still keeping his distance, removed the cup and stopper and poured the steaming liquid into the cup. She was suspicious it might be drugged.

‘It’s just Minestrone, nothing else,’ as if he’d read her mind, ‘and will give you a little nourishment.’ He took a pace forward and put the cup and flask at her side. ‘I’ll fetch that rug while you have some of that,’ he said, as he turned and walked back across the road and disappeared through the railway arch. Hesitating, the aroma of the soup hit her senses and she struggle with temptation. And lost. If it was drugged, at least she would be out of it, whatever happened next. Just one sip. The warmth floated across her frozen face, trickled down inside her and she took another.

When he came back with a well-worn travel rug, the cup was empty. He refilled it with what remained in the flask. She felt no effects from the first cup, apart from the warm glow in her belly, so she willingly sipped it until it was gone, lingering out the good taste that might be the last real nourishment for days. She handed back the cup, speaking for the first time.

‘Thank you. But why so kind?’ her accent sounded Eastern European. Illegally here, he thought. Probably no relatives to help her. But he said nothing. He took her fingerless gloved hand, noted her change of expression and quickly withdrew it, leaving her grasping a five-pound note. ‘Get yourself a proper breakfast in the morning and try and sort your self out. Somewhere better to sleep the night. Perhaps look for work? But if you do come back here, I’ll bring some more soup. Though it would be better if I don’t find you and you are safe somewhere out of this cold.’

She gave him a wan smile, still unsure of his motives, still suspicious, yet so different from the others. She’d arrived here with the promise of work; of sending money back to her widowed mother and little brother and making a future with hope, away from the conflicts of a war-torn state. The reality had been harsh. Locked in a small room with a filthy mattress and a foul-smelling bucket, for most of the day. Thrown on a bed every night to the thrust, thrust, thrust of heavy man after heavy man, for most of the night, torn and sore and no escape, threatened with knives, if she ever attempted to run. Until one night the drunken oaf assaulting her spewed up, clutching his stomach and collapsed on the floor. Spark out. This was her chance.

She rifled through his clothes found a fistful of money and a knife and rushed back to her room. Grabbing the few personal items she possessed, stuffed in a 10p plastic bag-for-life, she went to the window. The bottom sash was nailed shut, but the top just warped tight. She used the knife to rip away wood and cut the exposed sash cord, then forced it down from the top, with the knife, until the blade snapped. There was just enough gap to insert her fingers and she used adrenalin powered force and the weight of her body to inch it further, until it suddenly dropped, sending her sprawling on the floor. No time to waste, she clambered over the bottom sash, hoping the partying crowd downstairs had not heard the crash, and lowered herself onto the flat roof of the bathroom extension, added to the rented, Edwardian, terraced property. From there, hanging from her fingers she dropped to the ground, risking a broken ankle or worse, but desperate to make a run for freedom. She felt the jar through her body, as she hit the paving stones and collapsed in heap.

A few deep breaths and she was up and out of the back gate, down the gunnel and out into the street. Left, or right? It didn’t matter. Distance was what mattered and she chose the way, by chance, that lead away from the city and down to the canal, which she traipsed along for mile after mile until she fell exhausted into a hedge, wedging herself into the shrubby branches at the side of the towpath.

That was two weeks before the man with the soup. His story was far different. Well educated, working as a commercial manager in the comfort of a large office, going home to the warmth of a modern detached at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. A house that was really too big for him, alone. A large back garden that backed on to farmland, with a long, brick utility building at the end, left from the previous, early Victorian gentleman’s residence, which, with its sweeping gardens and paddocks, had been flattened for this small estate. New living, now, running off the quiet lane that was once the main road, before the by-pass was built. Very private, too, being the furthest property away from the main thoroughfare. Then he was a very private person. A little lonely, at times, seeming socially insecure away from his work environment, but not without his desires. His salvation was his cooking, encouraged by his mother in her latter days; an amateur chef’s pride in his culinary accomplishments, occasionally shared with the neighbours, an elderly, retired couple on one side and two university lecturers on the other. The only ones with whom he shared any social discourse. And that quite limited.

There were times when he braced himself to visit the town, meet colleagues from work and try to fit in with their forays to restaurants and clubs, even tag along with those males whose simple purpose was to pull a night’s favours from some usually well oiled, if not well heeled (a bonus), female. They had no respect. He always left early, before he became embroiled in their seedy game. Raw meat was not his choosing.

His mother had bought the house when she became so infirm he had to look after her. She knew he would inherit it, but said if he was giving up his time for her, it was something she could do for him. All he paid was the small mortgage that made up the price difference, after the sale of her much in need of repair, pre-war bungalow, on a large plot. For which a developer offered her a good price, before demolishing it and building a mews of five terraced starter homes. Her last years were to be few, terminal cancer held over with brief stages of temporary regression. They might as well enjoy a little luxury and have the peace of a quiet neighbourhood and a view over farmland, as compensation. He was her only child; a lonely child, even in adulthood. She left her life and his in less than two years. Left him completely on his own, unknown outside his workplace, to all but his closest neighbours.

The girl in the butcher’s doorway was not the first he’d encountered. Those nights he went out with the office crowd, leaving them early when they became more attached to others and more detached from his moral norms, he would walk around town, noting the rough sleepers, despising most, but occasionally picking out someone he stopped and befriended. Someone who looked insecure, but more recently homeless. Someone who might have the will to improve their lot. He’d give them a little money to get a good breakfast, hoping it wouldn’t be used, instead, for a liquid lunch and passed by the next night to see if they still chose the same spot. He took soup in a flask and listened to their story, asking straight out about drink and drugs; asking about their families. If he found them a third time, and if they had no family ties, he offered them some garden work, promising them a good meal and a decent rate for a few hours digging and trimming. The few who turned up where led straight down to the large garden building, where he said all his tools were kept.

Each one was surprised to find a small kitchen inside and a breakfast style bar, laid ready for a meal – and even more surprised when invited to sit down while he prepared a simple one, before starting on the garden work. He told them they needed to build up some energy before setting about the tasks he had lined up. However nervous they had been before arriving, they began to relax, as he talked to them, showing sympathy for their homeless status and an empathy with their particular problems. Without pretending to offer any great help, other than the odd job with a little cash compensation. He would say they might like a good night’s sleep before starting their toils and showed them the room off the kitchen. A couple declined, suspicious of his motives, and he let them go. Others stayed, welcoming the chance to sleep in a bed.

Tucking herself back into the doorway for another night, the girl in the butcher’s doorway looked across to the railway arch, but never expected the quiet spoken man to return. No one she knew kept their promises. She’d had a better day than usual, spent his money on proper food and even saved a small chocolate bar for the long night. Tomorrow it would be back to begging a little change for a hot drink, stealing a piece of fruit, or two, from the pavement display outside the mini-market, sitting in the library, trying to improve her understanding of English and avoiding other down-and-outs, in case her whereabouts filtered back to her erstwhile captors. She was on her own, lonely, afraid and unsure how to step away from her disadvantaged state. She needed a job, but for that she needed a passport and a visa, the former still in the clutches of the man who entrapped her. The visa non-existent.

She had learnt to be strong, but as the night grew colder, tears wet the lashes of her closed eyes and, her mind travelled back to her home, so many miles away, with no means of contacting her mother. Then she felt the presence of him, crouching down beside her.

The soup this time was a vegetable broth, warming and nourishing. He said his name was Charles. It was time he knew hers. ‘Katya,’ she said. ‘Just Katya. It’s better you not no more, then you can’t tell.’

Charles asked her again if she had any relative who could help her, any friend. How she had arrived in England. Reluctantly, she said a man had brought her. An uncle, but not a real uncle. A bad man. He mustn’t find her. He would beat her. She had no one, but she would work. She was learning English better. She looked down at her hands, held palm up, side by side. ‘I go to library and find books and learn words and how to say them, but it is slow and sometimes they not come out right when I speak.’ It was the longest sentence she had spoken and he sensed a softening towards him that might end up in trust. ‘Why you come back to me?’ For the first time she looked him fully in the face, searching for the motives, behind the soft smile he gave her.

‘I’ve known despair,’ Charles replied. ‘I’ve known the world to be against me. I know how hard it is to pick yourself up. Fight back. And I’m I my own country and had a good upbringing. I can barely imagine how hard it is for you. What do you want to do, given half a chance?’

‘I am good cook, I would like to work in restaurant, but any small job will do. Once I can feed myself and earn enough for my own room, I will study. I work hard. I need to send money to my family at home. That’s why I came here. But I was tricked. I say no more. I learn more English and look for job, perhaps picking crops. They are not so fussy for such jobs, I was told.’

‘I don’t know how I can help there. But I can give you the name of a hostel you should try. I know the warden. At least you would have a dry place to sleep for a few nights. And hot food.’

‘No hostel. They find me there. They take me away. But can you get me notebook and pen so I can practise my English. I can’t take books from library. I have no ticket. I have no address. And lady, she is kind, but only give me one piece of paper and borrowed me pen, when she saw I looking at English book. She wrote address for class at top, but I dare not go.’ There was a pause. ‘No. I ask too much. I cannot pay. It is best you leave me alone. Go. Go. I say too much.’ With that she turned way and hid her head under the rug he had given her the night before.

Charles knew it was best to leave, though tempted to stay and ask more, but after a brief hesitation, he turned and went back to the warmth and comfort of his own home. Katya was in his thoughts. Alone. No family to reach out to. No one looking for her, apart from the so-called uncle who would do her harm. She needed to be spared that. Taken away from such paucity of life. As he had helped Ben, the first one, Michael, Julie, Seb and Rachel. They were no longer suffering the loneliness, the harshness, of life in the shadows.

Katya felt uncomfortable. Not just from the hard paving in the doorway and the seeping cold that froze her bones, that kept her from mere snatches of sleep. She’d nearly said too much, warmed to the interest and generosity of a stranger. He seemed trustworthy. He had a trustworthy name, Charles – not Charlie of Chas – and he had a soft, educated voice that engendered trust. She had been befriended before and offered help, by a worker from one of the fast food outlets, but he had asked for payment first, in the usual way. He was strong, he was determined, but when she asked him to make sure he didn’t split his condom – not that he showed signs of having one – because she had HIV, he quickly backed off and left her lying, partially unclothed, on the cold concrete floor of a lock-up garage. As far as she knew, she hadn’t contracted HIV, despite her recent pleasure takers, but the ploy worked.

Perhaps it was time to move on. Why would a well-educated man, probably more than ten years her senior, take an interest in a scruffy down-and-out, apart from the usual reason. Yet he’d shown no sign of wanting any reward. The other guy had made that obvious, pretty quickly. And the questions Charles asked were about her, but not overly intrusive. He was encouraging. His last words as he left, which she heard, slightly muffled, through the double fold of the travel rug over her head, were ‘I’m sure you can get yourself back on your feet. You’re bright. I don’t want to see you sleeping rough here every night.’ Well he wouldn’t. Tomorrow night she’d be gone.

Charles wasn’t completely surprised to see the empty doorway to the butcher’s shop, the following night. He knew rough sleepers moved on. But he also knew they had their favourite spots. If Katya couldn’t find anywhere where she could feel safe, yet be alone and away from potentially spying eyes, she might return. So, he tucked the plastic carrier with the flask, the notebook and the three pens into the shadowed corner, hoping that good use would be made of them. If someone else came across them, they were welcome. He left no money, though. Someone else might use it for alcohol or drugs, whereas there had been no hint of either abuse by Katya.

He drove around the streets for a short while before returning home, saw a number of homeless huddlers, but no Katya, nor any that held particular interest for him. And on his way back he contemplated his own luck of a comfortable home and hot, meaty casserole, simmering in the slow cooker.

Katya had watched him, from above. She’d climbed the fence onto the railway tracks and walked to where the bush line grew above the parapet. This was where she hid her sleeping bag and rug, during the day. From there she was hidden to his view, but could see the butchers shop clearly. A full half hour after he’d gone, she watchfully approached her sleeping spot. She opened the bag and saw the flask of soup and notepad. Felt the pens at the bottom. She noticed a loose sheet tucked in the notebook. She pulled it out and read “Every way is up, Katya. Put these to good use.” Tears flowed down her cheeks. Someone had listened to her. Given her something she needed to start moving forward, instead of retreating further, in fear, into the raggedness of rough living. And she couldn’t thank him. He wouldn’t come back.

But he did. Not the next night, but three days later. Three days of struggle to find food and warmth, except in the library, where she studied her English books and used the few coins she begged, in the drink dispenser. Two cups of hot coffee a day were her basic daily ration, cold chips left in a thrown away carton, a luxury, an occasional, small chocolate bar, heaven. Her sorry balance of hope and despair was still tipping the wrong way.

The librarian, seeing her struggling to learn the language, spared a few moments to help her with pronunciation, found a badly damaged book about to be thrown out that was written simply and gave it to her. Katya thanked her. She was the only other person she let know her name – but just her first name. She felt she had to: the librarian, Sally, had told her her name and given her some leaflets on local help for the destitute and homeless. And the name of the local “Big Issue” organiser.

During those three days he kept away, Charles had become fixated on taking Katya away from her poverty and loneliness. Society was against people like her and, no matter how hard she tried, she was more likely to spiral into criminality, to survive, than obtain employment; with depravation into drugs and alcohol as her only solace. For now, she was clean. Physically untarnished, but needing good honest nurture to make her bloom, to give her substance, and that was something he wanted to see. Soon.

He decided to look for her: starting at the butcher’s doorway, in case she had returned. She had. He saw her huddled even tighter into the corner of the doorway. No sleeping bag. No travel rug, her knees clasped up to her chest, the top of some newspaper pressed up to her neck and the flimsy carrier bag, notebook and empty flask at her side. Her deep brown eyes opened wide when she saw him, in supplication or fear he couldn’t be sure, but they glinted a tear from the faint light that reached the doorway from streetlamps on the far side of the road.

‘What’s happened?’ His opening word expressed his surprise at her having only her ragged old puffer jacket for warmth. ‘Where’s what you usually have to sleep under?’

‘Somebody take them. I hide them in day. Up there.’ Katya points to the top of the railway bridge, her voice dull and resigned. ‘Some one find. Someone take. Perhaps they sleep on street, too.’ She had had nothing to eat that day, just one carry out coffee and no luck begging. People had begun to recognise her and shout abuse about getting work and not loafing around all day. Then one loutish lad said he’d been down on the streets, too, but worked, now. He said if she showed him how much she’d got, he’d double it. She reached in her pocket, pulled out eighty-five pence and held it out in her palm. He snatched it and ran off.

Katya was at an all time low. She was coming on well with her English words, but had no chance of using them. The temperature had plummeted and a white frost was already settling on the roofs and windscreens of parked cars and would soon be shimmering across the paving. She was pleased to see Charles, but also wary of him. Any man was a risk to her, the way she had been treated. But he seemed different. Not just caring, but undemanding. She was at her most vulnerable and Charles realised it. It was time.

The butcher’s was only ten minutes’ walk from the police station. Not that either Katya or Charles had any intention going anywhere near it. But inside, upstairs, a young detective constable, Gary Purbeck, was putting in overtime, trying to make up for spoiling one of his superior’s cases, by issuing the wrong paperwork. He was playing catch-up on the minor reports that needed to be filed and came across one that just sparked a memory at the back of his brain. And he was desperate to prove he had one. It was a missing person. A young lad by the name of Sebastian James Caldwell who had recently been reported as missing, by an aunt who had moved abroad, but had returned on a family visit.

The aunt arrived at his parents, in Scotland, to find that there had been huge arguments over several weeks and young Seb had decided he was old enough to look after himself, way down the other side of Hadrian’s Wall. The remaining members of his dysfunctional family had let him go and not bothered to keep in touch. His mum had only heard from him once, when he asked for some money to be sent to a hostel in a town three hundred or more miles away. None was sent. However, the aunt had a conscience and a sweet spot for the boy, who was the only one who replied to her letters and thanked her for the money she sent each birthday and Christmas. She found the address (stuffed inside a cracked kitchen jar, with a load of unpaid bills) and travelled down to the hostel. He wasn’t there.

Now detectives are supposed to remember things, make links, work out timelines and come up with evidence. Here was a chance. The DC had been out with a uniformed officer, with whom he’d previously worked on the beat, when they came across a minor affray been a pub doorman and a certain Sebastian Caldwell, who had been restrained, his details taken and then, because it was obvious no real harm had been done, just given a good ticking off and sent on his way. Recorded by the uniformed constable, in case of repercussions, the incident was otherwise dismissed: that was the last of it, they both thought. DC Purbeck made the connection. His colleague would still have an address in his policy book, but nothing seemed to have been registered in the mispers’ report. He’d have a word, next day.

Seb was on Charles’s mind, too. He nearly made a bad mistake, there. He thought Scotland was far enough away for no one to notice Seb’s ultimate disappearance. Certainly, from what Seb told him, his family were not looking for him and he had no particular friends in the area. In fact, he was lying low after a brief brush with the law, sleeping rough and had moved away from his usual town centre haunt and the hostel where he first stayed. Like a lamb to the slaughter, he came, and welcomed the chance of a solid roof over his head and a little money in his pocket. Though he never got to see the money. So, when Chatrles saw a small piece in the local paper appeared about an aunt looking for her estranged nephew, it came as a shock and he almost panicked – which might have been his undoing, if he had – but realised there was really no reason to link Seb to his name.

Seb had been a loner on the street and, like Katya, he had his chosen his own patch, but further down the railway line, huddled in the shadows, by the bridge over the canal. They would never have met, had not Charles left his work colleagues early, after a bout of many beers, to take a fresh air, sobering up stroll, before finding a taxi home. However, in his desperation to relieve his painfully over-full bladder, against the canal bridge wall, he literally stumbled across the half-asleep drifter.

No mistakes this time. Katya had nobody and the only man who might still look for her would certainly not use any official channels. Nevertheless, he would be careful. As he gave her another flask of warming soup, he asked if she was sure that there was nobody she could contact or might look for her. ‘Only the man,’ she said. ‘My parents daren’t, even if they worry. Bad things could happen to them if they say how I came here.’

‘I wish I could help more, but I’m not sure how.’ Charles looked convincingly thoughtful. ‘I don’t like leaving you like this. It’ll drop well below zero, tonight. Hmm. Perhaps. I don’t know. Well, perhaps I do. I have a converted outbuilding that is fit to stay in for a short time. I live on my own in my house, so I won’t invite you there. Not that that’s anything to do with you sleeping rough, but you might feel uncomfortable. I live on my own. I’m sure you’d feel better with your own space, so you can come and go without bothering about me. It’s not much, but you might like to try it. There is some heating. It’s up to you. Just for a couple of nights, maybe?’

Katya studied Charles face, thought of how he had been up to now, thought of a night in the warmth, a solid roof over her head. And if he did want some physical payment, she would make sure it was only once. After what she had been through before escaping, she could deaden herself to that. But somehow, she didn’t think that was this man’s priority. She looked at the spreading whiteness, beginning to sparkle on the far pavement. She looked up at the sky; to the thin crescent of a moon and the few stars that penetrated the lights and haze of the town’s night sky. She felt the cold air reaching its icy fingers into her sheltered corner, nipping at her cheeks. And she was aware of the soft clouds of their condensing breath mingling, as he crouched down and spoke to her. She knew what she would say, but hesitated, taking another sip of the warming soup, eyes slightly hooded in thought.

Charles awaited an answer, knowing she must have her suspicions of his motive, but hoping he’d been casual and kind enough to persuade her he was genuinely concerned for her welfare; genuinely there to help her move out of her desperate state. And he was. In his own, individual way.

During the days he had refrained from visiting the butcher’s doorway, he had gone about his normal office routine, joined his colleagues for an after-work drink and gone home to an empty house. He’d then wondered down to the building at the end of the garden, converted into a virtual bed-sit, with plumbed in amenities. It had been an idea of his mother’s, while she was alive, that the generously sized out building could be made into a holiday apartment, to supplement her pension. He encouraged her, even knowing that it would be left to him to do all the cleaning and bed stripping, between lets. It was all in progress when his mother’s health took a sudden downturn and everything other than her care was put on hold. It was a time when he cooked and cleaned for her in the house and developed his culinary interests beyond the simple meals his mother used to cook for him. After her death this became a taste for the exotic and he scoured the internet and bookshops for the most bizarre and extravagant ingredients that could be the basis of outrageous recipes.

One ingredient, not obtainable from any local supermarket, intrigued him. But it was not out of reach and he completed the conversion of the outbuilding, installing a large freezer, a small, gastronomically equipped kitchen, and a windowless living space. His neighbours, who occasionally popped around to check he was OK on his own, might not appreciate his culinary style (although they later enjoyed a few samples of well spiced and seasoned dishes), so it was prudent to carry out his experimental cooking at a garden’s length, so to speak.

Without knowing what had transpired the previous night, in a butcher’s shop doorway, just a short distance from where he was standing know, DC Purbeck called over to his uniformed colleague as he came up the steps of the police station. A few minutes later he had confirmed what came to mind when reading the misper report on Seb Caldwell. He checked further and no one had interviewed the pub doorman to see if he had any information about Seb, beyond the doorway altercation. That was something he could fit into his day, once he got the reluctant approval of his immediate superior. And the doorman proved useful.

Apparently, Seb had been to that pub a few times, had talked to the doorman and a couple of the bar staff, who had watched as Seb sank lower into his drifting state, virtually penniless and homeless. They had seen the small news article, but not offered anything at the time, because none of them knew where he lived, or where else he hung out. They thought he was very much a loner and just moved about the town to wherever he could beg a little, or find somewhere sheltered to sleep. As long as he could pay for his drink, none of them were particularly bothered. But one girl part-timer did remember him saying he was getting some help. From a man called Charles, who had offered him some gardening work. A house on the New Estate, he said. A posh speaking guy, who was going to pick him up later that afternoon. Thought he might be quids in for a day or two. That had been four or five weeks ago. She couldn’t be sure, though it would have been a Tuesday, the only time she did a lunchtime shift.

Not much use, it seemed at first, but the it did mean that Seb was still around after the newspaper plea was first published and that he had been back to the pub, when the doorman was off duty. Without any misconduct. The name Charles was quite common, but a search of the Electoral Roll showed only four adults with that name, in the houses on the locally called New Estate, actually built some fifteen years ago. Unfortunately, other duties called and it would be another day before he could follow up with a little door knocking. A filed away missing person was not a priority, after all. Except to a young Gary Purbeck wanting to prove his detecting abilities.

Charles’s freezer was running low. He had enough for a few more exotic meals plus several choice cuts of beef and pork tucked away, but little left of his prime taste. He needed more of that and he reckoned two weeks or so of careful husbandry would bring him a new supply to readiness. Katya’s decision was vital to that, for he enjoyed having company for his meals and he would welcome a chance to show off his culinary skills while he put some flesh on her cold bones. She said she could cook. She could teach him some local recipes from her home country. Knowing she was from Eastern Europe, he already had a lamb peka slowly baking away, certain she would come. And he was right.

Katya was quiet in the car, driving back. He sensed her weighing a balance between the risk of going back with a virtual stranger and the benefit of leaving the streets for a night and perhaps finding some chance of advancement; some way to find work: some way of becoming legal; or perhaps some way of returning home. He also sensed the need for her to have a long shower, to rid herself of the aromas of the street and an infrequently washed body.

It was late in the evening as he turned into the cul-de-sac, a few lights still on in neighbours’ houses, curtains mostly shut and nobody out on the street. He drove to the end, dabbing the button on his roller door remote, to open the garage and driving straight in. Another dab and the garage door rolled gently shut behind him, with a metallic rattle of slats and a buzz of the motor.

‘But this is your house,’ queried Katya. ‘You said it was an outbuilding you were bringing me?’

‘That’s right. It’s at the far end of the garden,’ Charles got out and beckoned Katya to follow him, as he opened a door that led from the garage onto a paved path. ‘This way; you’ll soon see.’ The path led down the side of the plot, with a high fence on the outside and a tall hedge on the other, screening it from the main house and garden. Something that had been part of the original plan to give private access for a holiday let. Now it acted as a useful screen, shielding the view from neighbouring properties.

It was dark. Charles had switched off the security light that normally blazed across the back at night, mostly triggered by prowling cats and foxes. The oblong shape of the Katya’s temporary home to be was little more than a shadow against the farmland beyond. Reaching it, Charles opened a porch-way door, set into the far end, leant in to flick on a light switch and strode to the beeping alarm, to disarm it. Katya stared in amazement, as he opened the next door, which led from a small area for coats and boots into a bright, breakfast kitchen, revealed at the flick of another switch. The aroma of slow baked lamb peka brought tears welling to her eyes. A dish from her region she hadn’t savoured for a long time. She saw the breakfast bar set for two and almost panicked. What was this man up to? Was she as safe as she thought she would be? Was this even for her or was he expecting someone else? She half-turned to run, before his voice reassured her. ‘Don’t expect this every night, but I thought you could do with a good hot meal. Is peka OK?’

Katya was feeling a little dizzy, her stomach clenched in anticipation, the embracing warmth after so many nights in an icy doorway, the overwhelming surge of emotion that half told her to surrender to tears and half to be ready to escape. It was too much, after weeks of street sleeping, her legs began to lose strength, the small space slowly started to spin, and the voice that said ‘Come, sit down a moment,’ was distant to her hearing. An arm placed loosely around her shoulders guided her to a bar stool and a hand offered her a glass of water. She sipped, then drank a few mouthfuls and clarity returned. She knew, when Charles opened the next door there would be a bed. Is that what he wanted all along?

It was more than a bed. It was a self-contained studio with a comfortable sofa, wall mounted TV, fitted wardrobe, small desk-cum-dressing table, a fitness machine and at the far end, as she was soon shown, a small wet room with shower, basin and WC. What she didn’t know was that the whole building was thickly insulated and completely soundproofed to the outside world. And when she later drew back the curtained window frame, there was no view out. Just a polished sheet of stainless steel that acted as a mirror.

‘Why all this?’ Katya had expected something much more rough and ready. This is like a little house. Does nobody live here?’

Charles smiled and said, truthfully, that is was originally planned as holiday let. He told her he hadn’t decided if it was really what he wanted to do with it. She was welcome to it for a few days.

‘But I cannot pay rent. How can I stay?’

‘I don’t want paying. Not just for a few days. If we can get you into a job or something and you want to stay on, then we can work something out. Let’s worry about that later. Get yourself freshened up. Use whatever you find in the shower and come out to the front only when you’re ready. The peka will keep warm awhile yet. And don’t get the wrong idea about me. I’ll be going back to the house, tonight, but I have been a little presumptuous and if you look in the wardrobe you’ll find a few clothes that might fit you. Not new, just from a charity shop, but clean. There’s a washer/drier in the kitchen area if you want to launder you own stuff.’ With that, Charles hastened back to the front, shutting the door on a bemused Katya.

Forty minutes later, a refreshed Katya was sitting at the breakfast bar, staring at a plate of tender lamb, vegetables and well-seasoned juices, served from a lidded, cast iron pot. Not quite the genuine peka, encased for hours in the hot embers of an open fire, but more than she’d even dreamt of tasting again, since leaving her homeland. There was no alcohol to accompany it, Charles thought that unwise, although he had used some in the dish itself. Instead he serve an elderflower cordial. There was no desert, either. A sudden explosion of food, for someone who lived on very little, could bring explosions in other directions.

Once they’d finished, he told her to make herself comfortable in the room and get a good night’s sleep. She was half expecting some sexual advance, but relieved he gave no signs in that direction. Nevertheless, she turned the lock on the door to the inner room. She needn’t have bothered, for as Charles left, he quietly slid home two bolts on the outside of the kitchen entrance.

Katya didn’t wake until late the next morning, stared at her surroundings, thought, at first, she was still in a dream and slowly recalled the events of the previous evening. Why was this man being so kind to her? Whatever, he had said, he must want something off her. Men always did. She enjoyed the respite from her drifting, her bleak days and freezing nights, but she was thinking more clearly now. She must move away from here; to another town; add even more distance from her incarceration of weeks before. All was quiet, so she took another shower, dressed and unlocked her door. In the kitchen area she could see croissants and pain-au-chocolat, cling film covered. On the breakfast bar, a bowl of fresh fruit and two boxes of cereal, granola and wheat flakes. A cafetière and jar of coffee stood on a worktop next to a kettle; six slices of bread next to a toaster. He must have come in while she was still asleep. Another half-hour wouldn’t hurt. She could have coffee and something to eat, stuff her pockets with extra – it wasn’t really stealing if he put all this out for her – and go, just leaving him a short note of thanks.

Feeling prepared to disappear into endless nights, again, she propped the note, written on a page from a small memo pad kept on the worktop by the fridge, up against the kettle and made her way to the door. Locked, bolted or both; she could not open it. She should have known there would be a payback time. I might be more comfortable, but locked up, is locked up and she had already worked out there was only one way in and out. Not even a window anywhere, so no one outside would see any lights, hear what went on, easy game for whoever entered next. But one thing puzzled her. She was in a kitchen full of sharp knives and other equipment. Surely, she wouldn’t be left with an array of potential weapons? Nevertheless, she took a cook’s knife and tucked it under the pillow on the bed. And waited out the day, watching the TV, reading some magazines that had been left in the room and having another meal from some sliced ham and cheese she had found in the fridge, when she took milk out, earlier, for her several cups of coffee.

Early evening came and she heard someone unbolt the kitchen door. She moved from the chair to sit on the edge of her bed, within reach of the knife. There was a knock on the room door and it opened slowly. Charles looked slightly cross, a he said, ‘Good choice. The cook’s knife is easier to wield than a carving knife. But there’s no need for it, so you can put it back when you’re ready. I’ve brought in a curry. Homemade, in my house kitchen, I just need to put on the rice. I’m afraid the poppadums are bought ones, though; I’ve been a bit busy today. Bring the knife out with you, please.’

She was taken aback by his casual acceptance of her arming herself, deciding she must question his motives over the meal. She retrieved the knife – she could always get one again, if needs be – and followed him to the breakfast bar.
‘Why you lock me in?’ Katya looked quizzically at Charles, head slightly cocked to one side, short, soft, dark hair giving a gentle swing as she did so.

He gave a gentle smile. ‘Purely for safety. You need rest and there are a few nosey neighbours around who might not take to you wandering about the place. Might think you an intruder.’

‘But you say I can stay here so I can come and go as I please?’

‘Sorry. That was a half-truth. I don’t think you would have come if I’d said I’d be locking you in. You will need to know the safest time to go out though, and for a short time it’s best to stay here and put some flesh on those deprived bones of yours. And you can study in here, make yourself more presentable for getting a job.’

Katya gave Charles a long, dark stare. ‘I think I have to pay some way. You bring men here?’

‘No way, Katya.’ He looked shocked at the suggestion. ‘That’s the last thing that will happen. You are safe from other men, here. Quite safe,’

‘But you. What do you want? You want my body to yourself?’

‘Katya. Put such thoughts out of your mind. You are here to make yourself fitter for your next destination.’ He pointed to the end of the breakfast bar. ‘Look, I’ve brought some study books and a DVD to help with English pronunciation, plus a couple of short story books that might give you a taste for reading in English. You told me you liked to read, before you left home.’

At the word home, Katya’s eyes began to fill again. She had no more questions and, offered a packet of poppadums, she tore of the film lid and placed them on a plate.

Charles continued to look benignly at the trim young body before him, imagining the softness that would spread over the next two weeks of intensive nutrition. But first, he had to manage her mind to accept her stay without stress, to believe his intention was only to relieve her of the recent bitterness of drifting around town, begging and sleeping rough. Which it was. He just wasn’t going to tell her how.

DC Gary Purbeck had been knocking on doors, spoken to three men named Charles, without any success, and was now standing outside a large detached property at the far end of a cul-de-sac. It seemed that this Charles was out. He rang the bell on a neighbour’s door. No response. It was not Gary’s day. Perhaps the two neighbours were out together? Who knows? He went to the neighbour on the other side. An elderly man opened the door a crack. It was restrained by a chain. Gary waved his warrant card up close, but the elderly gent said he’d have to get his reading glasses – and shut the door. It took several minutes and Gary was about to leave it, when the man returned, an elderly woman standing close behind holding an umbrella with a lethal looking metal tip, and once again he held the warrant card up to the slit of light coming from the hallway. A few whispered words from the elderly couple and the door shut again, and he heard the chain being detached.

‘Glad to see you’re so careful,’ Gary said. ‘I don’t need to come in.’ He’d met the type before. Tea and biscuits and try to keep you chatting, because there’s nothing good on the TV tonight. He quickly asked if the person next door was named Charles, if he’d had any gardening done lately, by a young lad, and if they knew if he went to a regular pub or anywhere, because he seemed to be out.

Yes, it was Charles next door, they confirmed. Nice chap. Likes cooking. Sometimes brings them a meal to try. Always gives it some fancy name: often a pork dish, of late, the man said. The woman said she thought it was veal, but a bit too spicy. He added, with a little chuckle, she called the last one vile, rather than veal, though, but don’t tell him. No, they hadn’t seen a young gardener and yes, he goes down The Lantern, but not tonight. He never goes on quiz night. All of which left the frustrated DC with no more information of real use than the night before. He decided to pop back in a day or two, if his boss would let him. The case was officially on the back burner, as nothing had turned up from the original enquiries. But as his boss told him, no case is ever closed until it’s closed. Just shoved down the cellar to gather dust.

Katya was eager to get something from the study books and for three days she put up with having to stay closeted in one room. She still took a knife to bed with her each night and replaced it in the block each morning. She couldn’t believe that Charles’s kindness came free and her worries about being locked in had returned. The problem was, if he was genuine, she didn’t want to force the issue in a way that would hurt him, yet she craved some fresh air and freedom. She had felt strength returning to her body, but she was too slight to overpower him. Perhaps guile was the answer. On the fourth night she offered him her body. He was horrified that she thought of him that way and all hope of slipping out, while he slept in her bed, dissolved.

Once again, she resolved herself to another meal, which she had to admit was restaurant class, and another lock-in. If she gave it the full week, perhaps he’d let her go. How was she to find work if he didn’t? With the television and the study books she could put the time to good use; bring her verbal skills and general knowledge of the country and its current affairs to a level that might impress an employer. Though there was still a problem over paperwork. And no passport. Each high was still dashed by a seemingly unsurmountable low. If only she could phone home, but she had no phone. No way of communicating with the outside world. And the world had no way of communicating with her, apart from the electronic window of the TV. She might know what’s going on outside, but she remained isolated from it all. And what she gleaned of her Eastern Europe roots proved depressing viewing. She must stay in the UK.

For Charles it was business as usual, during the day, though his colleagues noticed that he no longer joined them any evenings. This hadn’t been unusual in recent times, as they had noticed four or five spells when he socialised less. ‘Getting old. Need to de-tox for a couple of weeks,’ he used to jest. Then he would be back with a sparkle in his eyes and down at The Lantern after work, some nights until closing time. Though never on quiz night, despite the fact he had the best general knowledge of them all, especially for any culinary questions.

He noticed that Katya had settled better than any of the others. Ben had been sullen at first and then a shouter, but it got him nowhere. Michael was physically violent after a couple of days captivity and he had had to introduce sedatives into the meals, not that any of his temporary tenants were fit or strong enough to completely overpower him. Julie just sobbed for two weeks solid. Seb and Rachel were both tricky ones. Perhaps he was beginning to get overconfident with them. Rachel was feisty, always trying to get by him, attacked him by hurling books, kitchenware and anything not fixed. He lost several plates and had to remove the knife block from the kitchen and use plastic picnic cutlery for the second week.

Seb was trouble in a different way. He was calm, took everything in his stride, somewhat lazy – so that he quite enjoyed his first week of relative luxury – the he dropped his bombshell. No one would ever look for him, he’d told Charles. But when he realised what date it was, he calmly said, ‘My aunt will be coming over this month. She’s bound to want to see me and she’ll take the family to task if she can’t. I think I should phone and see if she’s arrived yet.’ When Charles explained it wasn’t a wise for him to do that, as it would open old wounds with his parents, he just shrugged and said, ‘I couldn’t care less about them, but I’d never let my aunt down when she’s flown over to see me. She’s special to me. Can I use your phone?’

Charles explained he only had his work phone on him (not true) and it was not appropriate to use it for personal calls (true) and he’d bring his own phone over, later (not true). Which Seb accepted calmly and went back to an X-Box game Charles had installed for him. Charles wasn’t so calm.

Charles came back from giving Seb a healthy evening meal and didn’t go back down again. He would conveniently forget to take his phone with him, next time he ventured to the end of the garden, which would be after work the next day. But by then he’d had another shock. The article in the weekly paper, which was slipped through his letterbox while he was out, about a missing youth – Sebastian Caldwell. It was almost as if something in the air had triggered Seb’s remembering his aunt’s due visit and, although he knew that wasn’t possible, the coincidence unnerved him. He would have to act fast. He’d kept Seb off the streets for ten days; now it would be permanently.

The next time he went to the converted utility building, he did not go the porch entrance, but slipped behind a bushy shrub to a door at the opposite end. Entering, he checked that everything was in order. Lining up his butchery tools on the large marble top, next to the heavy wooden butcher’s block, he switched on the air vent and hung a butcher’s hook, in readiness, from the secure metal eye in the ceiling. The whole room was tiled. There was a central floor drain and a stainless-steel sink attached to one side of the wall opposite the door, making use of the same plumbing that served the shower room on the other side. In the middle of the wall was a square hatch panel, just above floor level. Hinged on one side, nine turnbuckles held this tightly in place and had any of his captives looked carefully at the wall in the wet room they might have just seen the very fine line between the tiling in there that marked the hatch’s position. On top of the other feature in this space, a large chest freezer, was a roll of plastic sheeting and a ball-peen hammer.

Walking around to the porch entrance, he entered and locked the outer door, in his usual manner, before slowly opening the door into the kitchen area. He was always ready to ward off an attack from inside, should the occupant be trying to escape. So far this had only happened twice and he read the mood of each individual, in advance, and had already removed the knife block from the kitchen. He didn’t see Seb as a potential threat in this way, but he never took chances, keeping an illegal pepper spray in his pocket, on all his mealtime visits; which so far, he had never used.

Tonight’s meal was a Hungarian goulash, which he he’d prepared in the house kitchen, well spiced to hide the added sedative in one portion of the two generous helpings he would serve, for Seb and himself.

Seb was in a morose mood, disappointed that Charles hadn’t brought him a phone he could use. He toyed with the food on his plate, exasperatingly, for several minutes, looking like he wasn’t going to eat it, but the flavour and aroma won him over and after a while he was scraping his plate.

‘I’ll clear up, Seb. You go and watch the TV, or whatever you do, and then I’ll pop back to the house for my phone. Shouldn’t be too long, but I just want to check my post while I’m up there. I haven’t had time yet.’ Charles spent a few moments clearing away and tidying the kitchen area before slipping out, locking and bolting the door, as usual. He didn’t go back to the house. He walked with measured gait around to the far end of the converted building and into the mini slaughterhouse he had constructed. He opened the turnbuckles, but left the hatch panel in place, picked up the ball-peen hammer and the plastic sheeting and walked slowly back.

Seb was dozing off in front the TV. He didn’t even look up when Charles re-entered. Charles stood quietly by for another ten minutes and watched Seb slump down on the sofa. He moved over slowly and rolled out the plastic sheeting, before easing Seb to the floor on top of it, Then, he raised his arm and with a flick of the wrist to add speed, brought the hammer down on the front of Seb’s skull. His aim was practised and it’s unlikely that Seb suffered more than a brief moment’s pain.

Picking up the corners of the sheeting, Charles dragged the inert body through to the wet room and kicked open the hatch. Doping down on to his hands and knees, he reversed through the aperture, watching Seb, all the time, for any signs of life, then drew the whole body through, totally unseen, of course, by any neighbour who might look out of their window into his garden. He stood up and reached for his long butcher’s apron, which he tied tightly at his back, and a length of cord, with which he secured Seb’s ankles. Then came the hard bit, using a step stool, he lifted Seb’s dead weight by the legs and with a struggle and using the butcher’s hook he suspended him upside down from the ceiling. Now that he was not worried about blood, which he could sluice away down the drain, he picked a long knife, sliced Seb’s throat and prepared himself for butchering the cuts of meat he would use for his culinary pleasure, once he’d disposed of the bloodstained clothes and human offal, many miles away.

Gary Purbeck’s boss had kept him busy on local crime for over a week, before he could follow up on Charles. This time his door knocking was more successful. The two university lecturers, Hubert and Hilary, were in. No, they hadn’t seen a young gardener: but Hilary had seen him arrive back one night, some weeks back, as he was just entering his own front door, with a scruffy looking young lad in his car. ‘They drove straight into his garage,’ he said. ‘Looked like something he dragged off the street. Didn’t think he was one of us, either, so perhaps he’s got a nephew or even a bastard son. Looked too scruffy for a decent rent boy. Makes me shudder. You think you know your neighbours, but you don’t really know what goes on behind closed doors. Speaks like such a gentleman, too. Not that ever says much, even when he sometimes brings around one of his dishes. I’ll give you this, he’s a brilliant cook. Put’s both of us to shame, doesn’t he Hubie?’

‘Well, you perhaps, Hilary, but then all your dishes are as rare as the times you actually cook.’ Apart from that, Hugh had nothing to add. Shown a photo of Seb, both shook their head.

New as he was to the CID, Gary had already developed a copper’s nose, on the beat, where he had been brought into frequent interface with the town’s drifters. He still picked up a few observations from those he still saw, maybe had even nicked in the past, and who would pass on titbits of information for the price of a packet of cigarettes (often out of his own pocket) or a couple of pints down one of the seedier pubs, where they could shuffle into a dark corner.

From his last door knock, he’d got a sniff of something odd. He decided to have a word with a couple of long-time street folk and that aroused more suspicion. There had been one or two young rough sleepers who had come into the town, still quite healthy, if cold and desperate, and moved on quite quickly. Apparently, after some posh guy had taken an interest in them. Shown a picture of Seb, one of them recognised him, said he seemed a bright lad, quite laid back, and couldn’t understand why he was drifting. A bit of a loner, who didn’t mix much and wasn’t around that long. Good luck to him if he’d got a job and was back on his feet.

Gary Purbeck hoped that was true. But if so, why hadn’t anyone come forward with a sighting. He may have moved out of town, but if a local man had taken pity on him, you’d expect him to stay around. And why didn’t that man come forward? He must have realised that Seb’s family were worried, and in a fairly tight community he would very likely expect that Seb was on a missing persons list. Despite being a low priority case, Gary thought there might be some meat in it. Something more serious than first appeared.

Asking another of his street contacts if any other young ones had gone out of circulation recently, she said, not that she noticed. ‘Except, perhaps that foreign girl; Eastern European, I think; seemed to avoid everyone, except the folk she begged from; shunned any help from other drifters and, if I remember right, used to sleep up at the butcher’s shop by the railway. Not much shelter there, but that was her choice. Barely room to get off the road on that narrow doorstep. Name? Kathy something? Hannah? Oh, yes, Katya. And she used to go to the library a lot. Though she never came out with a book. Probably couldn’t read. Just went for a warm. Would’ve been chucked out, after a few visits.’

People spending all day and night on the streets see plenty, say little. Mine them and you might just find what your looking for, amongst an equal amount of rubbish. Could this last little gem lead somewhere? Gary paid a visit to the library. One of the librarians remembered Katya well, thought she had a real chance of making something of herself. She had given the girl some encouragement and seen a marked improvement in her confidence and command of English. Came in two or three times a week, but then suddenly stopped. She hadn’t been in at all over the last two weeks. Alarm bells rang in Gary’s head.

‘A bit tenuous,’ said Gary’s Detective Sergeant and the Detective Inspector above him. ‘Don’t waste your time, lad. I doubt if they’re coming to harm on our patch or we’d know by now.’

Katya didn’t like being locked in. She had been told why and accepted it for the first three days and complained each day since. She made good use of her time, willing to stay the week in what was luxury, compared to her first incarceration on arrival in the UK, but now she wanted to move on. She felt ready to meet the world head on. She had regained strength and her body was filling slowly to her homeland figure of becoming roundness over an athletically fit frame. She had made good use of the room’s fitness machine to build her muscle tone. Just as Charles hoped she would. Another week and that would be fine – for him.

It had been eight days. He had to let her go, Katya thought. He had been helping her: he’d not asked for the reward other men would have demanded; he was kind and thoughtful, if a little firm with her at times. Surely, he would understand that she must prove herself, find a job of some sorts and pay her own way. He said a short stay; he hadn’t enslaved her; just asked her to keep the place clean and tidy, encouraged her to study and keep fit; brought in books and magazines; but now it was becoming a bit unnatural. As if she was just a doll in a picture frame. Able to glimpse the outside world, mainly through the TV, but with a glass barrier preventing her from joining in. There for the pleasure of his viewing only.

Katya resolved to escape, hopefully with his consent. Otherwise without.

Gary Purbeck was off duty when he next went to the house at the end of the cul-de-sac. He’d looked on Google Earth and had seen that there was a substantial building in the back garden and some sort of track running behind the plot. So, this time, instead of driving up the road, he parked his car a short way away and took an old, abandoned farm track that ran between the fields and the estate. It was a little bit of rough, untidy, no-man’s land that was now used mostly by dog walkers and local folk out for a short fresh air stroll. It was closed to any vehicular traffic, with only a narrow gap by the padlocked, rusty metal farm gate for access.

Nearing the back of the property he saw a woman who looked about fiftyish, struggling with her pampered pooch. A fancily clipped poodle. She looked at him with a smile. ‘Always have trouble getting Antoinette along this bit. I don’t know what the owner keeps in his shed in that garden, but she obviously scents something she likes. Goes mad when I pull her away, poor darling.’

Although off duty, Gary took out his warrant card and lied there’d been some complaints of rough looking people around and asked her if she had seen any young vagrant types down there. Or anything suspicious. Anyone dumping rubbish, in the hedgerow, perhaps. She said no, only a few local people ever came down the track. It was getting overgrown and less popular, now, anyway. Unless you lived around there, or were a Google Earth addict, you probably wouldn’t know it still existed.

Thanking her, though her information was sparse, he carried on down the track a short way, gave the woman time to disappear around the bend that led down to the road and came back to take a closer look at the outbuilding. Solid brick, windows blocked out, as far as he could see through the thick hedgerow and yet in good condition around the roofline, with several air vents and a short metal chimney, probably a boiler flue. This was no ordinary man shed, that was for sure. Peering further along he spotted a small wooden gate, obviously unused in recent times, entangled with ivy and creepers. Decision time. He was off duty. He would be in serious trouble if caught out. But his copper’s nose still twitched and he looked both ways along the track. Nobody. So, he shouldered his way through the hedge to take a closer look. There was no lock on the gate, which was starting to rot, and a little work with the Swiss Army knife, he always carried, released the hold of ivy and creeper, so he could push it open just far enough to sidle through.

From his earlier enquiries with the neighbours, he knew Charles should be at work. If he was quick, he could be in and out before any of the neighbours spotted him. Bending low, to keep below the hedge and fence tops as best he could, he made a hurried survey of the building, noting doors at each end, with strong locks, clean and obviously frequently used, that the original windows were blocked by solid board, security lights at both ends and on the one side and a pathway that led up the garden, screened on both sides. It was largely hidden from the neighbour’s gardens, with just a glimpse or two of upstairs windows. Whatever was inside was well protected. There must be something worth keeping, in there, or something the owner wanted to hide.

Emerging from the hedgerow back on to the track he spotted another dog walker, luckily with his back to him, so he quickly turned the other way down the track, walked a few yards, then stopped and brushed off the stray greenery that had stuck to him. He wanted to get back to his car, preferably unnoticed, but the dog walker, who was in his way, had stopped, his German Sheppard having decided to do its business in the middle of the path. And it was taking its time to dump a steaming pile the owner didn’t bother to clean up. When all was clear, Gary was very careful where he trod, as he walked back. But it was too late, he had already trodden in something nasty going through the hedgerow, which he only noticed from the ripe aroma when he was back in his car.

Charles had been very discriminatory in who he had chosen to save from an endless life on the street. A life with little meaning and painful suffering, if they fell into the traps of drugs and alcohol. An early release was a good thing. Preventative of what destiny, otherwise, would eventually bring, through a harrowing culmination of woes. So far, all his subjects had passed on their way smiling, having enjoyed a comfortable two weeks or so, well fed and cared for, before salvation.

The odd little spat had been natural and, until now, all had succumbed to his relaxing words; his promise to find them a solution that meant they would never suffer a bitter night on the pavements again. But Katya was by far the most intelligent of them all. He’d only picked those recently homeless, those who had not slid too far downhill, who were not the ragged, skin and bone wrecks of already lost souls. In Katya, he recognised someone thrown into rough living by circumstance, not choice, who had looked after her body and mind as best she could. Perhaps too well. She wanted to leave long before he planned her departure and was not convinced by his calm assurances. She wanted to make her own way, felt she was ready, became angry when told she had to stay at least another day, grew morose over her evening meal, after she’d been locked in all day, within four windowless walls.

Katya had all that she needed in her living space. Access to the kitchen area meant she could find food and drink whenever she wanted, she could cook her own light meals from the contents of the fridge and she’d even prepared a simple dish for him, during the first few days. As she had said, she was a natural cook. But the threat was there. She was forceful in her wish to move on. How forceful might that become. Charles removed the knife block from the kitchen, removed the sharp paring knife from the kitchen drawer and the trust between them dropped to zero. The next evening meal they sat in silence like two jungle beasts psyching each other out. He may have considered himself the lion, but she was no pussycat.

In all detective work, a little luck can go a long way. Except that most of the luck DC Gary Purbeck attracted was of the wrong kind. But this time fortune changed. He was following up a burglary enquiry and, making his way back from the burgled household, he was driving down the road from which the old farm track started. The gate was open and he could see activity of some sort a short way down the track. He parked up and wandered towards it, curious about what it could be. Was the track being cleaned up, after all the years of neglect? Then, as he got close to where the bend takes the track round the back of the cul-de-sac, he saw the water authority vans. Two of them. He recognised the crew from his days on the beat, when he often come across them standing around holes in the road, scratching their heads and supping mugs of thermos tea.

‘What’s got you puzzled, this time, Pete?’ he asked one of the older men he knew quite well, who was standing to one side.

‘Ask her,’ he replied, pointing to a young girl in blue overalls. ‘She’s the one with the gizmo. All I know is some old biddy got a drain backing up and slow to trickle away, but it’s not where her plumber can get at it.’

It was then the girl called back, ‘Got it.’ She was looking at a small monitor attached to a cable fed video camera that had been snaked down a sewer pipe. ‘Some roots have broken through from a tree in the hedgerow and formed a dam of garbage. Looks a bit fatty, something congealed looking and a few bits of what could be splinters of chicken bones down there. All caught up on the roots. Something a bit finger-like, too, and a few remnants of those disposable cleaning tissues that never quite dissolve. All about forty feet down. You’ll have to replace a short section, no point in flushing it, it will just build up again.’

At the word ‘finger-like’, Gary’s ears pricked up. He went across, showing his warrant card. ‘I’m DC Gary Purbeck. Do you mind if I have a quick look? It might just tie in with an investigation I’m on, though I can’t tell you quite why.’ Mainly because he didn’t know and there was no official investigation. ‘Where do this sewer pipe come from? Which houses?’

Pete called out, chuckling to himself, ‘Let him have a gawp. I know him. Then he can see some real filth; pardon my language.’

‘OK. This section is off the cul-de-sac houses. Take a look if you want to see the rubbish some folk throw down their drains. If they had to clear it out, they might think twice.’

‘I wish,’ chimed in Pete.

Gary took a close look. It turned his stomach. ‘Which is the finger-like bit?’ the girl pointed out a pinkish curved object, on the monitor. And though he didn’t say so, he thought it looked very like a little finger.

The girl smiled. ‘I don’t think you’ve got a murder enquiry here, sir. It’s probably some kid who’s thrown a doll’s broken hand down the loo. Found a complete leg, the other day.’ Seeing the quizzical frown on Gary’s face, she added, ‘Off one of those big dolls. Don’t know how it got around the bend.’

Gary gave her his card and asked her to let him know if there was anything untoward in the gunge when they dug it out. And three hours later, he received a call.

Charles met a flurry of abuse, when he opened the door into Katya’s prison, the next day. For that is what she called it. Prison. She’d taken stock of the last few days and seen that the knife block had been removed. He wasn’t going to give her a chance of escape, he was just keeping her like a caged animal, he must be getting some sort of thrill from it, but he never touched her, never made amorous advances, never showed anything but kindness and generosity in the way he had fed her, housed her and encouraged her to learn. What was she to him? A plaything; a pet? Did she replace someone he’d lost? He wasn’t really old enough to be a father to someone of her age: perhaps a young sister, though or a close cousin? It was baffling, but looking around at all the comforts he provided, it was something well planned. So, she took him to task, shouted and screamed to be released, said he had no right to keep her, he was a dirty pervert, a sham, not the benefactor he made out, just a cold hearted prison warder, Then she lunged at him, beating with her fists, trying to push by him and reach the door. But he stood rock solid in the way.

Eyes full of tears, anger in her heart, she felt like spitting in his face, but instead brought her knee up to his groin and only his swift step back, as he pushed her backwards, with outstretched, arms avoided a painful connection. It was Katya that landed in a heap on the floor, now ready to bite, if his hand came anywhere near her. But he just dropped to his haunches, looked softly into her hard-staring eyes and said, quietly, ‘You can go tomorrow, if you like. I had hoped you would stay a few more days, but having you stressed and anxious is not what I want.’

‘You’re just saying that to placate me,’ Katya spat out. ‘Why can’t I go tonight?’

‘Back to your filthy, freezing butcher’s doorway? After you’ve made so much progress? I’m not letting you do that.’ Charles’s voice became firmer. ‘I’ve been making a few discreet enquiries and there are some places that will take you in, without too many questions. Not like that place you really were imprisoned, I assure you. Properly managed hostels were you will be safe. It will give you an address, if you try to get a job. Just let me find one that will take you, tomorrow.’

Katya was silent. Suspicious still. Sullen faced. But half believing it might be her chance to get away. And once in a hostel, she could always do another runner, if what he said wasn’t true.

‘One more night and you’ll be free of me, free of your old street life.’ Charles stood up. Smiled. ‘Come on, Katya. Supper’s going cold.’ And tomorrow, he thought, so will you be. If no further away than the freezer.

This time, Gary’s boss had to take him seriously. The finger was a plastic one, but the videocam girl found something else in the wedge of slime. An eyeball. A pathologist had confirmed it was human. The iris had a coloboma. The description of Sebastian Caldwell included a “distinct black mark in the iris of the right eye”. Some of the bone splinters had been sent for analysis, too.

The water authority supplied a map showing every property that discharged soil water into the sewer, upstream of the blockage. There were six in total. The lady who first noticed the blockage was closest, four more houses, including the one at the top of the cul-de-sac and an old outhouse marked on the plan as “estate manager’s utility store”, which is what it had been before the houses were built. Once again it was door knocking time. But now with the blessing of Gary’s DI – and several ranks above.

Low key, at first, Gary and his DI boss went to each of the five houses with a photo of Sebastian Caldwell, asking if he, a missing person, had been seen. If he had, perhaps, come knocking at their door, looking for garden or handyman work. Each, in turn, said no, including Charles, until they spoke with Hubert and Hilary. It turned out, that despite the care Charles took to bring in his young drifters discreetly, the two H’s were regular curtain twitchers, because of the nature of their relationship. They had had some disquieting experiences of homophobia, when the lived further into town, and now like to check the street before retiring for the night.

It turned out, in addition to the lad Hilary had seen being driven straight into Charles’s garage, a couple of weeks ago they had both observed him doing the same with what looked like a young girl. ‘Quite a shame, really,’ said Hilary. ‘From the other time, I thought we might have a complementary neighbour. But each to their own, I suppose.’

‘She must have gone in the early hours, though. I was re-varnishing the front door most of the next morning and tidying up the front garden in the afternoon,’ added Hubert. ‘Charles went off on his own, as usual, and there were no signs of anyone left in the house.’

Gary, the DC, looked at his DI boss imploringly, with an I knew there was something expression. The DI studiously ignored him. ‘If they’re not underage, there’s not much we can do, if they’ve gone in with him willingly,’ he said.

As they left the house, Gary reminded his DI about the building at he end of Charles’s garden. The response was negative. ‘If it’s got no windows, it’s hardly likely to be lived in, Gary. Its facts we need in this game, not weird ideas. This is the real world, not some detective story fantasy. So, we first have to get the drains up to see what else we can find and trace back to where that eye came from, that way. And we don’t know of anyone else missing, other than this Caldwell fellow. I doubt we’ll discover much, this late on, but if Caldwell’s a gonner, we will find who did it, if we stick to proper procedures. If anything, my money would be on the pair we just left. Some gay game gone wrong, perhaps.’

It all meant nothing would happen with speed. The eye discovery had so far been kept from the media, but that would break before long. The water authority team had agreed to keep their silence for a couple of days, but someone was bound to let it slip out. And Seb’s aunt had gone back home, so it was going to take time to get a familial DNA match to his Scottish parents, to prove he was the person whose body they sought. The rest of which could be anywhere.

Charles, usually the picture of calm was jumpy. He didn’t know why the police were so interested in him and his neighbours concerning the missing Seb. He was sure no one could trace him there. It was weeks since he released Seb from his deprived life. The inedible body parts had been disposed of fifteen miles away and there was nothing left in the freezer that couldn’t be bought at Iceland. Admittedly, he had somehow found one remaining eye that, despite his usual care, had not been packaged for disposal and he’d flushed that down the loo. It must be well down the town’s sewers and in the filtration works by now. No way of tracing that back. So, everything was cleaned of evidence, as if Seb never existed.

Nevertheless, the added problem of an official visit at a time when he was being hassled by Katya was disturbing. And another reason to free her that night. The goulash was already in preparation. The butcher’s tools sharpened. But he needed to dispose of the offal and bones that same night. Just in case there was another knock on the door. That meant leaving work at his lunch break (thank goodness he was on flexitime) and an early supper, to give him time. And the following day off work to complete a serious amount of cookery, so that only prepared meals ended up in the freezer.

Charles checked his stocks of vegetables, sauces and herbs, decided he would need more and popped down to the supermarket, while the goulash simmered. He would be well prepared against another police visit and, unless they brought a search warrant – unlikely in his view – he could give a couple of detective plods a tour of his property without anything showing to arouse the suspicion of him being an anthropophagite. He might even offer them a sample of his culinary prowess. The taste would fool them as pork, or possibly veal. And that would amuse him, in the same way he delighted in the odd dish or two he’d shared with his nearest neighbours.

Three days on, the cul-de-sac was alive with unformed officers, detectives, flashing blue lights and white suited CSI officers. Search warrants had been issued for all the properties upstream of the original sewer blockage, after a long stretch had been dug up and traces of human blood and wedged bone splinters identified by a CSI team and pathologist. While his neighbours nervously waited in a perplexed state of anxiety, Charles kept calm. He had nothing to worry him. He told police about the aborted idea to have a holiday let and explained away his mini-slaughter house, which had been constructed so he could save money by buying the occasional whole carcasses of pork and lamb and sides of beef, for freezing. It was the portions from a side of beef in the freezer, now, plus a turkey he was saving for Christmas.

The blanked-out windows, he said, were to stop intruders looking in and thinking they could encamp there. He’d had one a week or so ago. He knew because he’d spotted some footprints of dog mess leading in from the hedgerow at the end of the garden and noticed his overgrown back gate had been used by someone. He didn’t notice a young DC turn away, his face reddening.

The police retired with no conclusive result. Just circumstantial evidence that could not be pinpointed to any one source. Well, nothing that would convince the CPS, although DC Gary Purbeck still had his theories.

A couple of weeks later, Charles went to a bar with his office colleagues. He spotted Katya serving at tables. She saw him, came over and thanked him for all the help he had given her and, though seemingly imprisoned for over a week, she’d realise it had worked out right for her. She was fit and healthy, had improved her education and confidence and found this casual job.

Charles had thought hard while he was at the supermarket on Katya’s last night. He’d realised it was more important to cleanse the outbuilding of all signs of his butchery and release her while she knew nothing of his real motive in saving her from the street.
Anyway, the butcher’s doorway had a new night-time tenant, obviously fresh to surviving on the street, young and still a little on the plump side, too. And he’d picked up another old travelling rug, at one of the charity shops.
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Just a couple or so short stories for now, but there will be more to follow soon.
You'll find stories like these in two of my books, available as Paperback or a Kindle read from Amazon.
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The Schooling Chair

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