It was a flat white with an extra shot kind of a day.
That’s what Ellie had thought when she woke with a start, forty minutes after her alarm was meant to have gone off, and thirty minutes before she needed to be on a train heading for the city.
She should have seen the failure of her alarm for what it was; an omen. A sign that her day was only going to get worse and that she should have just called in sick. But damn her parents and their highly moralistic home as they had instilled in her too great a work ethic to ever give more than a fleeting consideration to pulling a sicky. She didn’t have it in her to tell a lie and she had never willingly missed a day of work in the seven years she had been at Carstairs, Caruthers and Jones. She hadn’t been about to start just because of a silly alarm and maybe a few too many drinks the night before.
If only, just the once, she had listened to the devil on her right shoulder instead of Jiminy Cricket on her left, she might not be in this mess now, sat in a police interview room for the second time in less than a month. She had never been in a police station before in her entire life. Never had so much as a parking ticket always staying within the law. She had never given anyone any cause to make a complaint about her, never played her music too loud or disagreed with a neighbour. And yet now, at the age of twenty-five, she found herself staring across a dull grey table at two very serious looking Detectives, one of her possibly former bosses to her left, and a whole pile of metaphorically steaming shit laid out in front of her.
She hadn’t quite dared to enquire about her employment status with Mr Carstairs in the short time they had to confer before the Detectives arrived. After all she had missed a lot of work, far more that if she had just taken that silly day off. She wouldn’t blame him if her did want to fire her. She would if she were him. She also didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry but one look at the stern expression on the Detective’s faces, she knew that laughing wouldn’t help her one little bit.
She glanced over at Mr Carstairs who was too busy looking down at some documents to notice her at that moment. She had told him everything. Well, nearly everything. But not about him, about the part he played in it all. Not the whole truth at least. Mr Carstairs was certain, from what she had said, that they would deem everything as self-defence and that it was highly unlikely that there would be any charges against her. When he had raised his focus from her chest just long enough to look her in the eye, she could see that he was telling her the truth and that was good enough for Ellie. She didn’t need to bring him into it. Not fully. She’d have to mention him, she couldn’t avoid it, but they didn’t need to know what he had done. What they had both done. She owed him that at least.
Ellie took a deep breath, swallowing hard and clasping her hands in her lap as she turned to face the Detectives, answering all of their introductory questions, her name, confirming that she had been read her rights, that at this stage she was there voluntarily as a witness, all the usual kind of things she had seen on the TV. As she glanced at Mr Carstairs again she could see his right brow arch high, his mouth set in a long thin line as he let out a harsh breath, his posture so telling. He was bored already.
‘Shall we move this along, Chief Inspector? My client understands her rights. Miss Fairchild has been through a very traumatic experience and I don’t believe it fair that she is held any longer than necessary. While she is no doubt suffering from delayed shock and the Doctor’s have advised that she shouldn’t even be here, she is fully willing to cooperate with you and eager to sort this matter as quickly as possible. So please, just ask your questions so that I may take Miss Fairchild home to rest.’
The two Detectives looked at each other, the younger man nodding to the other before looking back at Ellie. She swallowed hard again, slowly raising her arm until it wrapped around her middle, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear with her free hand.
‘Miss Fairchild,’ the older man said, flashing her a warm and sympathetic smile. Detective Chief Inspector Nesbitt had been the one who took her first statement after the incident at the station. His younger colleague was new though, Detective Sergeant Chase. ‘Thank you for your co-operation today. I know that what you have been through must be quite distressing for you but the sooner we can take your statement, the sooner we can file charges against Niall Malone for your abduction and assault.’
Ellie blinked rapidly, her eyes dropping to the table between them and her brow creasing. Without realising her free hand fell to the hole in her shirt, resting it lightly against the bandage which covered the cut just above her right breast. As the memories flooded back, she closed her eyes briefly, waiting as a tide of nausea washed over her before opening them and looking up at Nesbitt again.
‘Miss Fairchild?’ He looked down at her, the concern clear on his face. ‘Ellie? Are you okay? Would you like a drink of water?’ He glanced quickly to his left, DS Chase poised ready to fetch her something if she said yes, but Ellie shook her head.
‘No. Thank you. I’m fine. I’d just like to get this over with if you don’t mind. Go home. Heath will be missing me.’
‘Heathcliff. My cat. My neighbour Mara was keeping an eye on him for me but after the break in he’ll be so upset and after last week and then this… I’ve barely been home for two weeks and he’s a very nervous cat. I don’t know how long it will take me to calm him down and I need to get home to make sure he’s okay. I’m sure she never feeds him properly. Mara that is. She says she does but when I went home to visit my Aunt in Blackpool for a couple of days he was so much thinner than when I left. That was only two days. I couldn’t take him with me you see because Cousin Janet is allergic to cats and I…’
Ellie felt a hand resting gently against her arm and she paused, looking over to Carstairs. He sat watching her, a patient smile upon his face. As she looked from him back to the Detectives they too were smiling of sorts.
‘It’s okay, Ellie,’ Carstairs said, squeezing her arm a little. ‘If this is too much for you -’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said quickly, interrupting him. ‘I’m rambling. Sorry.’
‘It’s okay,’ Nesbitt said, his brown eyes sparkling a little as he watched her. ‘You’ve had quite the couple of weeks. You’re bound to be scared. But you don’t need to be, Ellie. You’re safe now.’
Ellie nodded, watching him closely. He was quite a good looking man for his age. Probably early forties if she had to guess, his dark hair just starting to pepper with the slightest hint of grey. Not that forties was old really. Not old like Carstairs who sat next to her, his hand still on her arm, his thumb gently rubbing up and down it to comfort her, every so often straying from it’s path and glancing against her breast. She was sure that it was an accident but still, it made her shudder, something that Nesbitt picked up on immediately, his eyes moving quickly between Ellie and Cartairs before dropping to where Carstairs’ hand sat upon her arm. As he moved his thumb again, this time slowly, deliberately, brushing against her as he stared calmly and impassively at her face, she saw Nesbitt flinch, his eyes narrowing and the muscle in his cheek twitching a little.
‘Mr Carstairs,’ Nesbitt said, drawing the older man’s attention to him. With his focus now on the men in front of him, Carstairs cheeks coloured and he coughed, clearing his throat as if realising for the first time where he was and who his audience were. ‘Perhaps we should let Ellie tell us her story.’ He turned his gaze back to Ellie who flashed him a thank you by way of a weak smile and he nodded his understanding. ‘Ellie,’ he said. ‘I’d like you to take us through what happened. From the beginning. From the day that you met, James Barton.’
Ellie swallowed again, glancing down before looking up at Nesbitt and holding his gaze. His eyes were soft. Kind. They calmed her, just like his eyes had done. Reassured her that if she was honest with him, everything would be okay. She just needed to tell the truth.
‘It was all Beth’s fault,’ Ellie began. ‘That I was late for work. If she hadn’t insisted on coming over on the Sunday I never would have forgotten to set the alarm and I never would have met James Barton.’ She paused, frowning. ‘No. That’s not fair. It’s not Beth’s fault. I could have told her no. But I never do. She’s my best friend, you see? She’ll be devastated that all of this has happened because she split up with Jeremy again. She doesn’t even like him. Not really. But she was so upset that they broke up and because of that I agreed to have a few drinks with her. I never do that,’ she added, turning her head to look at Mr Carstairs, her expression one of wide eyed innocence. ‘Not on a Sunday at least.’ She turned her gaze back to Nesbitt. ‘ But you see, if we hadn’t had those drinks, I wouldn’t have missed setting the alarm and I wouldn’t have been late. I would have caught my usual train and then none of us would be here. Well, you would, obviously, because you’re the police and you work here but I just mean that I wouldn’t be.’
‘Ellie?’ As she stared at Nesbitt he smiled again, the sparkle of amusement in his eyes
‘Sorry,’ she said, smiling a little sheepishly, colour starting to flood her cheeks. ‘Rambling again. But you need to understand. I didn’t plan this. Stuff like this shouldn’t happen to someone like me. I’m just a receptionist. I’m not important.’
‘You were important to someone Ellie. People like Niall Malone don’t just abduct women off the streets. He’s far more subtle than that. If he took you, it was for a reason. But we’ll get to that in time. Tell us how you met Barton.’
‘Well that’s what I’m trying to do,’ Ellie said, her brow creasing. ‘You see, I met him on the train, the eight fifty from Richmond to Waterloo. I’d normally get a much earlier train but I’d been drinking -’
‘And you overslept,’ Nesbitt said, smiling as Ellie nodded, shrugging and smiling back.
‘Do you ever get the feeling,’ she asked, her hands falling back to her lap as she looked from Nesbitt to Chase and back again, ‘that it’s just going to be one of those days? You now? Those really crappy ones where you just wished you called in sick and stayed in bed? Not that I’d ever,’ she added hastily, not even glancing across at Carstairs this time, ‘but you know? You just feel like you should. That was one of those days. All I wanted was a coffee. Just one lousy coffee to wake me up. So I went to Richmond instead of getting on the train in St Margaret’s like I usually do. I mean, it was just a coffee. I’d already overslept. What else could possibly go wrong?’