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Peter Robinson

Strange Affair

Book 15 in the Inspector Banks series, 2005

For Sheila

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.

ADAM SMITH, THE THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS

A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

PROVERBS 17:17

CHAPTER ONE

Was she being followed? It was hard to tell at that time of night on the motorway. There was plenty of traffic, lorries for the most part, and people driving home from the pub just a little too carefully, red BMWs coasting up the fast lane, doing a hundred or more, businessmen in a hurry to get home from late meetings. She was beyond Newport Pagnell now, and the muggy night air blurred the red taillights of the cars ahead and the oncoming headlights across the road. She began to feel nervous as she checked her rearview mirror and saw that the car was still behind her.

She pulled over to the outside lane and slowed down. The car, a dark Mondeo, overtook her. It was too dark to glimpse faces, but she thought there was just one person in the front and another in the back. It didn’t have a taxi light on top, so she guessed it was probably a chauffeured car and stopped worrying.

Some rich git being ferried to a nightclub in Leeds, most likely.

She overtook the Mondeo a little farther up the motorway and didn’t give it a second glance. The late-night radio was playing Old Blue Eyes singing “Summer Wind.” Her kind of music, no matter how old-fashioned people told her it was. Talent and good music never went out of style as far as she was concerned.

When she got to Watford Gap services, she realized she felt tired and hungry, and she still had a long way to go, so she decided to stop for a short break. She didn’t even notice the Mondeo pull in two cars behind her. A few seedy-looking people hung around the entrance; a couple of kids who didn’t look old enough to drive stood smoking and playing the machines, giving her the eye as she walked past, staring at her breasts.

She went first to the ladies’, then to the cafe, where she bought a ham-and-tomato sandwich and sat alone to eat, washing it down with a Diet Coke. At the table opposite, a man with a long face and dandruff on the collar of his dark suit jacket gave her the eye over the top of his glasses, pretending to read his newspaper and eat a sausage roll.

Was he just a garden-variety pervert, or was there something more sinister in his interest? she wondered. In the end, she decided he was just a perv. Sometimes it seemed as if the world was full of them, that she could hardly walk down the street or go for a drink on her own without some sad pillock who thought he was God’s gift eyeing her up, like the kids hanging around the entrance, or coming over and laying a line of chat on her. Still, she told herself, what else could you expect at this time of the night in a motorway service station? A couple of other men came in and went to the counter for coffee-to-go, but they didn’t give her a second glance.

She finished half the sandwich, dumped the rest and got her travel mug filled with coffee. When she walked back to her car she made sure that there were people around – a family with two young kids up way past their bedtime, noisy and hyperactive – and that no one was following her.

The tank was only a quarter full, so she filled it up at the petrol station, using her credit card right there, at the pump. The perv from the cafe pulled up at the pump opposite and stared at her as he put the nozzle in the tank. She ignored him. She could see the night manager in his office, watching through the window, and that made her feel more secure.

Tank full, she turned down the slip road and eased in between two juggernauts. It was hot in the car, so she opened both windows and enjoyed the play of breeze they created. It helped keep her awake, along with the hot black coffee. The clock on the dashboard read 12.35 A.M. Only about two or three hours to go, then she would be safe.

Penny Cartwright was singing Richard Thompson’s “Strange Affair” when Banks walked into the Dog and Gun, her low, husky voice milking the song’s stark melancholy for all it was worth. Banks stood by the door, transfixed. Penny Cartwright. He hadn’t seen her in over ten years, though he had thought of her often, even seen her name in Mojo and Uncut from time to time. The years had been kind. Her figure still looked good in blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt tucked in at the waist. The long raven’s-wing hair he remembered looked just as glossy as ever in the stage lights, and the few threads of gray here and there made her look even more attractive. She seemed a little more gaunt than before, a little more sad around the eyes, perhaps, but it suited her, and Banks liked the contrast between her pale skin and dark hair.

When the song ended, Banks took advantage of the applause to walk over to the bar, order a pint and light a cigarette. He wasn’t happy with himself for having started smoking again after six months or more on the wagon, but there it was. He tried to avoid smoking in the flat, and he would stop again as soon as he’d got himself back together. For the moment, it was a crutch, an old friend come back to visit during a time of need.

There wasn’t a seat left in the entire lounge. Banks could feel the sweat prickling on his temples and at the back of his neck. He leaned against the bar and let Penny’s voice transport him as she launched into “Blackwater Side.” She had two accompanists, one on guitar and the other on stand-up bass, and they wove a dense tapestry of sound against which her lyric lines soared.

The next round of applause marked the end of the set, and Penny walked through the crowd, which parted like the Red Sea for her, smiling and nodding hello as she went, and stood next to Banks at the bar. She lit a cigarette, inhaled, made a circle of her mouth and blew out a smoke ring toward the optics.

“That was an excellent set,” Banks said.

“Thanks.” She didn’t turn to face him. “Gin and tonic, please, Kath,” she said to the barmaid. “Make it a large one.”

Banks could tell by her clipped tone that she thought he was just another fan, maybe even a weirdo, or a stalker, and she’d move away as soon as she got her drink. “You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked.

She sighed and turned to look at him, ready to deliver the final put-down. Then he saw recognition slowly dawn on her. She seemed flustered, embarrassed and unsure what to say. “Oh… Yes. It’s Detective Chief Inspector

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