Today's Reading

He couldn't quite say it but half closed his eyes against the vision. 'I called out. And then I worried I'd startle her and she'd— But it was as though she hadn't heard me. It was as though she was on autopilot or in a trance or something. It was weird, Inspector. In the end I scrambled up the Chimney and reached her before...'

He closed his eyes. His colour had leached out again. He was about to faint. 'Put your head down between your knees.'

He did that. There was a muffled, gulping noise. 'Please', Joanna thought, 'don't throw up all over the floor. Thanks to little Jakob I've had enough sick to last me a lifetime.'

She waited for him to recover.

Eventually he lifted his head and continued where he'd left off. 'I shouted at her but it was as if she didn't hear me. She didn't respond. She didn't look around  or anything.' He was still struggling with what he had seen.

Alderley came back in then, a small child, swathed in a thick blue anorak and denim dungarees, in his arms. Joanna raised her eyebrows and waited for an explanation. The toddler was watching her with big, round, blue eyes.

'The lady has stayed in the car,' Alderley said. 'Did she say anything?'

He shook his head. 'Couldn't get any response out of her. Sorry.'

'OK. Right.'

Joanna glanced back at Mr Western. 'We'd like you to stay here and make a statement. Is there anyone you want us to call?'

'My wife.' His voice was muffled as he spoke because he'd put his head back down. He handed her his phone. 'Celia,' he said.

The desk sergeant looked helplessly at the child in his arms and then back to Joanna. 'What shall I do with...?'

That was when Joanna focussed her attention on the child who seemed content to stay in the desk sergeant's arms. George was a grandfather. He had plenty of form dealing with wriggling, lively, noisy toddlers. Except this one wasn't wriggling or screaming. He was quiet, observing all that was going on around him  or her.

She detailed PC Paul Ruthin who was watching from the sidelines. 'You stay here with Mr Western and take a statement. You can ring his wife and suggest she come and pick him up. He can leave his car here. I'll be outside. I'm going to talk to the woman.'

A bitter wind nipped her as she stepped outside and the rain spat in her face. Not exactly the weather she would have chosen to climb The Roaches, she thought. Bleak and cool except in the very warmest weather, they were slippery and dangerous in the wet. She glanced back at the station and wondered.

It was not difficult to see which was Western's car. A dirty red Ford Fiesta was slewed across two parking spaces, side lights left on. Joanna could see the woman in the passenger seat, staring through the windscreen. The wipers gave a feeble swipe and she saw the woman clearer. A pale face stared ahead, face expressionless, apparently taking no notice of anything around her. Maybe she too was in shock. Joanna walked around to the passenger side and opened the door, a friendly smile pasted on her face as she squatted.

She breathed in deeply: damp, humid, heathery, the scent of the moors clinging to the interior, the air captured. 'Hello there, I'm Detective Inspector Joanna Piercy. Do you want to come inside and get warm?'

The young woman didn't give any sign that she'd heard, not even turning her head. Her only movement was a shiver. She was thin, somewhere in her twenties, hair straggling down her back, still dripping. She was dressed in a dark red dress that reached over scrawny thighs, ending in pale bare legs and wellingtons, a long brown cardigan soggy and misshapen completing the ensemble. Joanna put her hand on the woman's arm which felt as cold as a frozen chicken wing. 'You're wet,' she said, smiling. 'You need to dry out. Get warm.' She borrowed one of her grandmother's useful phrases. Said with another smile. 'You'll catch your death.'

There was still no response from the girl who, apart from the occasional shudder, sat as still as a robot. Joanna tugged at her arm now. 'Come inside,' she urged, and the young woman allowed herself to be pulled out and led, stumbling as though in a daze. Joanna searched for an explanation and appropriate response. Drugs? Would a doctor be more appropriate? A social worker? They'd need one for the child anyway, temporarily, until they found out what the situation was. And then she noticed a small stain on the skirt of the girl's dress and a larger stain on the soggy cardigan. As she'd stood up the rain that dripped down her bare legs from both dress and cardigan was pink and watery. Blood?

While it was possible that either the woman or the child had suffered a minor injury or the girl was having a period, combining the story Jeremy Western had brought in with this finding, Joanna shuddered at the other alternative.


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